One preliminary remark: As you cannot go to Antarctica in your own vehicle, we did not take Humphrey along. Unfortunately. Even worse, we needed to travel in a group. We therefore bit the bullet and while Humphrey sailed on the San Clemente through the Panama Canal towards the Pacific, we sailed with a group of ca. 250 people on the National Geographic Explorer towards Antarctica.
We have not really digested our experience yet and we never may as the experience was truly surreal. But we would like to share some impressions with you.
First there is the undescribable beauty of the place and the mysticsm as the key reason for the endeavour. This includes an incredibly helpful crew from all over the world, headed by a German captain with a slightly crude sense of humour as well as an expedition team, consisting of our expedition leader and several naturalists and photographers who all contributed their tremendous wealth of experience and knowledge. And then there were 148 other guests who were – well – part of the experience.
Therefore, I can’t tell you only about Antarctica itself although this is what I actually would love to do: I would like to revel in its inaccessibility, how the continent keeps surprising you with its diversity. How many different shapes of ice exist. How much life lies within. How many different forms of diatoms exist and that there is art made of diatoms. About the hard to grasp relevance of Antarctica and its surrounding climate for the oceans of our planet.
I would like to tell you about glaciers. About the sound of their calving, their majestic beauty, how huge they are and how unbelievably many glaciers exist down here. I would recommend watching the documentary Chasing Ice which tells the story of several glaciers in timelapse. We even saw one of the cameras down there which has been positioned in Antarctica as part of the Chasing Ice project.
I would like to tell you about the stories written by Antarctica: How five members of Nordenskjöld’s Swedish Antarctic expedition in 1901 spent two winters – one intended and one unintended – in Snow Hill. How the ship that was supposed to come for them was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea after crossing the Erebus and Terror Gulf. The crew saved themselves crossing the pack ice to Paulet Island and spent the winter in a simple shed before being rescued.
A similar fate befell Shackleton’s expedition team in 1914: Their ship was equally crushed by the ice in the Weddell Sea. We were at all these places, and despite being on a very modern ship with all conceivable creature comforts, by just being there, standing on the bow or going ashore, you did get a sense for the adventures these guys experienced as at first sight the elemental force of Antarctica has not changed.
I would like to tell you about waking in the middle of the night, where dusk no longer falls, and that I could not help getting out of bed to look out the window. And suddenly the ship passes enormous icebergs. There is no way you can go back to bed then.
I would like to tell you about spending hours and hours on the bow of the ship despite being literally frozen, with my tows aching because of the cold. The last time I remember having had this experience was as a kid when I did not want to go home as all I wanted to do is to stay/be out there. I would like to tell you that I could not get enough of the sight of the bow of the ship breaking through the ice, how large chunks of ice klonked against the hull of the ship with a deep metallic sound that could be heard across the entire ship. And I would like to tell you about how the captain parked the ship right in front of an ice floe or even grounded the bow of the ship to give us a stable landing.
You cannot imagine how cool it is when the ship moves into fast ice (ice that is thin enough for the ship to make its way in but thick enough for us to walk on). And we then rush into the mudroom and then out, even before the official call (more on that later), trying to escape the crowds and trying to get that first shot – and hence behaving in a way that is in the end driven by the crowd – not that cool.
I would like to tell you about thousands of penguins, who do not see human beings as enemies down here and therefore are not shy, the many different types of whales that we saw, killer whales chasing a penguin around and under our ship, sea leopards, seals and birds. It is just undescribable.
I also need to tell you about the Drake Passage – we experienced neither lake nor shake. Nonetheless it was hilarious to see the ship cutting through waves of four to five meters for more than 24 hours and the effect it naturally had on one or the other fellow traveler. Not to mention the captain with his experience of 30 odd years at sea making some humorous comments about the squeamish ailments of some guests and how it felt to leave the Drake passage behind and see land after one and a half days at sea.
I would like to tell you how incredible this experience has been for us, how fulfilling. And how difficult it is to digest all these impressions, to convert them into happiness and joy. How I find it impossible to find words for it and how there is no way of describing it in one or even several pictures.
I actually would like to tell you only about all this, however, to give you the full picture, I need to tell you about “life” on board. As I had mentioned, we were not alone aboard the ship. The crew including the expedition team counted ca. 100 people, and then there were 148 other guests. The crew aboard was fantastic, polite, friendly, always helpful. Visits to the open bridge were one of the highlights of our trip, in particular the lighthearted conversations with the officers Finn, another Northern German guy like the captain, as well as Magnus, a Swede who ran the night shift. The expedition team as well as the guest speaker were equally impressive. They provided such a wealth of knowledge and experience. Just to name a few: Eric Pohlman whom you just have to like for his goodheartedness, who has spent 20 odd years in Antarctica and headed research stations there. He surely knows about life in Antarctica like no other. Jared Berg, our diver aboard who documented the under water world in Antarctica for us and who could not stand still for a second. Jasper Doest, our National Geographic photographer, whom I felt sorry for even before we boarded the ship as he was loaded with cameras and lenses and had to carry the whole stuff around. Dr. Conor Ryan, who could tell you everything you would ever need to know in life about birds and whales in a nice rolling Irish accent. Sue Perin, our expedition leader, who had a yoga teacher sonorous voice, waking and calling the crowds to breakfast every morning.
National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions offer their guests aboard a phenomenal wealth of knowledge and experience aboard which surely is unique when it comes to expeditions to Antarctica for normal people. And then there were the other 148 guests and surreal “life” aboard the ship.
All of you who know us, know that we are not the kind to travel in a group. Traveling with Humphrey is the exact opposite: as independent, self-reliant, far off civilisation, in the midst of nature as possible considering the number of people on this planet Earth. Nothing has changed in this respect.
Imagine life aboard a bit like life in prison. Although this may appear exaggerated for some of you, after a couple of days it felt exactly like that. It starts with the fact that the second you set foot aboard you are no longer in control of your daily routine. Not only that, the number of decisions that you can take on your own is fairly limited. We were told right at the beginning what we were allowed and/or supposed to do (or not) and that we had to follow the instructions of the crew or the naturalists (i.e. the guards). We were also put in groups. We need to say in all fairness that we were allowed to choose our group. We chose group 4. A normal day aboard looked something like this: Wake up call at 7:30 am by our prison supervisor through the speaker system in our cell with precise information when breakfast would be served and what the first activity of the day would be. Shortly after breakfast, around 9:00 am, with a 15 minute warning call the exact schedule of the first activity of the day was announced via the speaker system. For the first group this started the countdown to show up in the mudroom within 15 minutes. The mudroom is the room where we left for and re-entered the ship after every activity ashore or in zodiacs. After the first group was dealt with, the second group was called and so on. Obviously groups were rotated for fairness, to avoid mutiny! When it was our turn, we went down to the mudroom, put on our boots – we had already put our life vests on in our cell – and then we queued for the transportation shuttle for one and half hours ashore. Once ashore, we were told how to get out of the zodiac. Not a step without handholding, one of us may break free! Ashore we were allowed to take off the life vests and move “freely” in a clearly defined area set out by orange cones. The so-called walk in the courtyard but obviously everyone needs to stick to the rules!
If you did not return voluntarily to prison before the time, after the outing period we were taken back to the ship. Back on board, the speaker system informed us about lunch. All get ready for lunch! While our stomachs were still dealing with parts of the buffet for further digestion, the speaker system informed us about the next agenda point: presentation in 15 minutes. So, make your way from your cell to the common area quickly to listen attentively to the presentation. We may miss something. And we want to be part of the group, right? Nobody wants to stand out in prison. After the presentation a bit of a break, teatime, we may starve without food. After teatime, a couple of minutes of break. But the speaker system is clicking again. Whales at starboard. All out to the bow! The inmates make their way to the bow to watch the whales.
The crowd has seen enough, and the speaker system is clicking again: Sea leopard portside! After seeing the sea leopard, the voice over the speaker is back: next presentation. Because of the sightings this afternoon the following short break is cancelled, the speaker system announces that recap starts in 15 minutes. The inmates are told what they have seen and experienced today. Every now and again the prison authorities try to be funny. The inmates are out of control at this stage, washing everything down with a cocktail, long drink or a glass of wine. The prison kitchen has prepared nibbles and every inmate who does not eat gets a sceptic look. And the best thing: After recap there is dinner! And this is where the announcements end for the day – unless something shows up at the bow of the ship… The inmates move back to their cells and are happy to be in there. To have some peace. If the inmates are not in the mood to go to bed yet, there is the option to go and see the prison director or one of his deputies on the bridge to have a chat about life as a prison director…
It took a while until we realised all this. It also helped us make sense of the provided orange prison uniforms – this was not only a method to identify escapees immediately but also to show the inmates as well as the outside world that this is a homogenous group. Not that any of the members of the group knew what they were getting into before getting on the ship!
And the other inmates? Just like in any other group, as in any class of school or club all stereotypes and roles are filled: There is the clown, there is the one who repeats everything, the one who always asks questions when everyone else wants to leave, the one whom nobody likes. The outsider, the crazy one, and the idiot. In this case the president of the flat earth society who genuinely stated at the dinner table on a Natural Geographic ship with a naturalist at the table that climate change had been decided on by vote rather than by facts. Idiots, not much else to say…
There is so much more to say but I’d just like to leave you with a couple more impressions.