The Journey South

Today was the beginning of the trip itself so we were very excited. After breakfast we had a short briefing about the arrangements for the transfer to the airport etc. We left the hotel at 10:00 and were taken to the International Antarctic Centre for a short visit and lunch prior to getting the plane to the Chatham Islands. The Antarctic Centre was rather interesting and we decided we would come back for a longer visit later after the cruise. We had a guided tour from a man who had spent a year working at the New Zealand Scott Research Base. There are a number of good exhibits including a little room for 'Children and Penguins only' where you can cuddle some large penguins. Jeff would have loved it all - especially the description our guide gave of the problems of going to the toilet in the extreme cold of Antarctica.

We rather hurried through the exhibits as we wanted to spend a little while checking out the gift store. The selection is excellent; on this visit we only bought an Adelie Penguin (called Adelie temporarily) and some knickers for Barbara. I also bought a gold pendant Emperor Penguin for Barbara's Christmas present. We reserved our major expenditure until we came back - we didn't see any good reason to load ourselves down with all the extra baggage.

The flight to the Chatham Islands was about 2½ hours long and passed smoothly. We were invited to the cockpit to see the Chatham Islands from the air. Since we were in the last group to get to the cockpit we had the best view - we only just returned to our seats in time for the landing! The airport in the Chatham Islands is a small affair and the baggage handling involves a fork lift and an open truck. Nevertheless all our luggage arrived safely on board the Academik Shokalski. We transferred to the Academik Shokalski by minibus from the airport to the harbour and thence by Zodiac. Zodiacs (or more strictly Naiads) are small rubber sided dinghys used to travel from ship to shore and for cruising around the islands where no landings are permitted. The Academik Shokalski was too large to berth in the harbour here so it anchored in the middle of the bay. It was an interesting experience and an instructive one to board the Zodiacs carrying all our hand luggage.

When we boarded the ship we were assigned to a different cabin from that on the information we had received from Southern Heritage. When we reached the cabin we found it was the suite. There was lots of room and a double bed! It seemed so much better than we were expecting, we thought it would make the trip even better. However we later discovered as well as the many advantages such as lots of cupboard and drawer space, there were real disadvantages. In heavy seas the large distance across the cabin means you have time to build up a lot of momentum before crashing into the opposite wall when the ship lurches unexpectedly! A double bed becomes oddly 'romantic' when your partner is constantly bumping into you and either crushing you against the wall, or in Barbara's case pushing you out of bed onto the floor!

We set sail at 23:30 for the South East Island. Neither of us slept well, Barbara was disturbed by her coughing and I was excited and found it difficult to get used to the motion of the boat. As a consequence we were not at our best getting up at 06:00 to go Zodiac cruising around the shore of S E Island. We were in the second group to go out for the Zodiac trips (there are three Zodiacs and they take six passengers at a time). Just before we got on our Zodiac we saw a couple of Little Blues in the water. Simon, our driver, took us out to where they were so we could get a better look, this was Barbara's first sight of these now non-mythical birds!

We then moved inshore to see the fur seals close up both on the rocks and in the water. Seeing the seals in the water at their own level was a new experience. We also saw one of the particularly rare New Zealand Shore Plovers; next we moved along the coast to look at some shags and then to see the rare Chatham Island Oystercatchers. As we were leaving we saw another pair of Little Blues, this time much closer and I was able to get one or two photographs.

On our return to the ship we had breakfast and moved off to Pyramid Rock where a large number of sea birds nest, in particular the Chatham Island Mollymawks, which are only found here. The rock is a hive of activity with birds coming and going all the time in the sky.

Around 10:00 we set off south toward the Bounty Islands, our next stop. Once the ship was under way, and Barbara had had some rest, we went up to the top deck to look at the various birds following the ship. These included two types of mollymawk and several albatrosses (including Wandering Albatrosses). Barbara and I were lucky enough to see a whale breaching in the distance, but we did not see it long enough to attempt any identification.

A clear routine soon developed on board the ship. Whenever there was anything to see, either in the sea (or later on the ice) or when we were hove to at one of the many islands we visited, then we were given plenty of time and opportunities to look around. When possible we went ashore, or cruised around the coast in the Zodiacs. At other times when interesting wildlife was spotted, impromptu discussions and lectures were given on the bridge or on the top deck. However, as on any long sea voyage, there were inevitably times when there was little to see. During these periods a series of lectures informing us about Antarctica and the sub Antarctic Islands were presented by the guides. The lectures were supported by a wealth of excellent wildlife videos. On this first afternoon at sea we were shown a video on the Chatham Island Black Robin and the work that was done to save it from extinction. The robin had been reduced to only five individuals including only one female. Now they have a safe habitat on Rangatira Island and numbers are up to about 120. The video was followed by a question and answer session with Brian Bell who led the Black Robin project.

We had informal dining arrangements. Breakfast which was normally about 08:00 to 09:00 was a self service buffet affair, when sea conditions permitted we had a cooked breakfast, but more usually we just made ourselves toast. The Academik Shokalski had dining rooms on both the port and starboard sides. For breakfast we used only the port side room and the crew used the starboard room. Lunch and dinner were proper sit down meals and we used both dining rooms, so that the passengers all could eat at the same time; the crew ate at different times. All the meals were cooked by Karen, an Australian chef, the food consisted of largely plain simple dishes. The choice of menu was often dictated by the weather; when the ship rolls too much you need to have something you can keep on the plate (and keep down after eating it!).

Getting to know the other passengers was a feature of the next few days as we continued south. We had already met some of the Japanese Penguin Club members and we were quickly introduced to the others. Stephen, the leader of the club, has done some research on penguins himself and proved to be an interesting character. Unlike most Japanese I have met he has a true and very serious concern for the natural environment. He does not believe that nature is there to be exploited by man but takes the more Western view that mankind should act as a steward and preserve what nature has given us. He is trying to foster these ideals in Japan, not an easy task. His job is with the Nature Conservancy Council of Japan. This is a voluntary organisation with only a few hundred like minded members; the Penguin Fund (with its 50 or so members) is one of several off shoots of the main council. It is through such small groups that Stephen hopes gradually to alter public opinion in Japan.

In all there were eight Japanese on the Academik Shokalski, five members of the penguin fund and a film crew of three. The film crew were collecting video footage as a part of a programme about a trans-Antarctic expedition. The expedition was starting from the other side of Antarctica (around the Peninsula to the south of South America), the film crew on our ship wanted to get some perspectives from visitors to Antarctica and to collect suitable stock shots for the final programme. I doubt that we will ever see the final programme, but I do wonder whether any of our many friends and colleagues in Japan will see me in the programme. Any number of Japanese polymer scientists and microbiologists have seen my lectures on bacterial polymers (biodegradable plastics) which are well illustrated with slides of penguins so it would come as no surprise to them.

The largest single group on the ship was not the Japanese, but the Dutch. There were 12 people from The Netherlands on board. They were not an organised group, but had all booked through the same agent who had arranged for them all to meet prior to the cruise so that they could get to know one another. A few deserve special mention. Gerrit is another Physicist, we managed to avoid talking shop throughout the trip, except to try to answer the questions of other passengers about scientific phenomena such as the Earth's magnetism, the Southern Lights etc. Petrus (also known as Piethein) at first appeared to be annoying. He spoke very loudly and asked trivial questions and insisted on having them answered twice. However, we later learned that he is in fact autistic and has a mental age of about 12. He lives in a sheltered community with some 15 or so other similar people but takes a long trip like this one every year. Some of the Dutch contingent had met him previously on trips to the Galapagos and Spitzbergen; one could not help but admire him. There were three couples among the Dutch party. Fred van Olphen and his wife own a string of outdoor clothing shops, while Josh and his partner run the Dutch company that distributes WordPerfect. The final Dutch couple were Fred and Hetty; they are both retired food scientists. She had worked for one of the large food manufacturers while he had been the chief government scientist responsible for food safety. All the Dutch couples regularly take 'eco - tourism' or exploration holidays; in fact we were among the few 'first timers' to this sort of holiday on board the ship. We certainly appeared very poorly travelled by comparison with many of our fellow passengers.

After the Dutch group the next largest contingent came from New Zealand. Several of them had travelled to the sub Antarctic Islands before so they already knew each other. Elsie is a retired GP, she was a real character and one simply could not help liking her, she was very active for her 79 years and was most interested in everything (in fact 'interesting' seemed to be her favourite word!). Tony was a retired surgeon who was a particularly keen bird watcher and had a list of the birds he especially wanted to see on the voyage; he never did get to see his Blue Petrel. Jim was an architect and photographer, some of the photos he had taken on a previous voyage had been made up into 'Southern Heritage' tee shirts which were on sale on board the ship. Jim and Tony and Hugh (another keen ornithologist) had all left their wives and families at home to come on the voyage. Cathy was the Department of Conservation (DOC) representative on the trip, she was a British ex-patriot and had to leave her husband and three children over Christmas and the New Year to come. Bob, an American now living in New Zealand, was a mountaineer; he is presently engaged in a project to climb, alone, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Val was a teacher who had long wanted to visit Antarctica and Helen was another elderly lady, somewhat less active than Elsie. The New Zealand contingent was completed with a younger woman, Denise, who spent most of her time chasing after the Russian crew! Among the remaining passengers was Heather from Australia; she had recently been widowed and was taking her first trip alone. She said she didn't want to go on an ordinary cruise but wanted to do something more exciting. She was probably the only passenger who didn't really know what to expect from the trip. Germany was represented by Albrecht who runs Masterbatch, the company that provides most of the colourants to the plastics industry. Finally, there was John from Scotland with whom we became great friends.

In addition to the passengers there were the tour guides, Rodney Russ, the expedition leader had brought along his family (his wife, Shirley and their two young sons - Aaron and Nathan). Rodney was trained as an historian but worked for several years in various conservation projects on the sub Antarctic Islands before setting up his own company to run these cruises. Brian Bell is one of the foremost ornithologists in New Zealand, what he does not know about the sea birds of the southern ocean is not worth knowing. Simon Hepplethwaite, the youngest of the guides, is a permanent employee of Southern Heritage who has trained as a botanist but has also worked at sea in a fishing boat and on land as a warden/guide on the Milford trail. Terry Reid is an Australian ranger, he has spent several seasons on Macquarie Island, his particular interest is in the history of Antarctic exploration. Chris Challies is by training a biologist, he specialised in marine mammals mostly the sub Antarctic seals; however recently he has been studying Little Blue and White Flippered Penguins around the Christchurch region. All the guides, except Chris, doubled up as Zodiac drivers.

The next day was spent mostly at sea on our way to the Bounty Islands, we took the opportunity to begin to get to know the other passengers and guides. During the afternoon, we saw a large pod of Pilot Whales, with a single Humpback in the midst. No one can explain what the two whale species were doing together. Not long after we saw penguins (presumably Erect Crested) heading towards the Bounty Islands. About the same time we were able to a make out the islands on the horizon. As we approached further, so we saw more rafts of porpoising penguins and the smell steadily grew stronger. We could have told we were close to islands even in thick fog from the stench of the guano. Perhaps this is how these remote and low lying islands were discovered by Captain Bligh in the first place.

On arriving at the islands the ship stood off to allow us to board Zodiacs and cruise around the shores. As we approached we saw large numbers of penguins in the water and on the rocks. At the bottom the rocky cliffs were occupied by the fur seals. Higher up shags could be seen and at the top the mollymawks dominated. But at all levels Erect Crested Penguins were nesting. The comings and goings (mostly comings while we were there in the early evening) were staccato in form. The penguins travelled in large groups and all tried to get ashore (or go to sea) in unison on a single wave. Of course they don't always make it and we often saw several waves of penguins coming ashore from a single raft in the sea. In the water there seem to be maybe 20 to 30 birds in a raft; but as they emerge from the surf and waddle and hop their way up the steep cliffs it becomes clear that there are easily twice as many.

At one point we had ventured up a narrow channel to see various birds etc. when suddenly there was a surge of the tide and at the same time a large seal appeared in the channel. We were blocking his exit and so we had to make a rather sudden and unexpected exit which took most of the passengers by surprise. We stayed watching (and photographing) the penguins - and other sea birds - for about an hour before it was time to return to the ship for dinner.

Overall by the end of the day we had seen many thousands of Erect Crested Penguins, more than we had ever seen of all species in the past. We set sail overnight to the Antipodes Islands, the sea started to get a bit rough; the boat rolled around a lot and we both had difficulty sleeping. By the morning we both felt fine. Breakfast was late and soon after we arrived at the Antipodes Islands. We were in the first group of Zodiacs to go cruising this time. We were out for about an hour and three quarters. We got close up to lots of Erect Crested Penguins on the rocks - we could almost have leaned out and touched them. They are very smart in the flesh, the pictures we had seen did not do them justice. The Rockhoppers are mixed in with the Erect Crested and are in a small minority. It is clear why they are called Erect Cresteds as once dry their crests really do stand up.

At one point another Zodiac (driven by Rodney) got its propeller tangled up in the kelp and Brian (who was driving us) went to the rescue. It turned out that this gave about the best opportunity to photograph the Erect Crested Penguins as there were a few right there watching the strange behaviour of we humans!

We also saw several fur seals including a sub Antarctic Fur Seal and a couple of Elephant Seals. There was plenty of bird life to observe, Barbara even started to think she could get to like the Skuas who fly beautifully. The particular highlight (for real birders) is supposed to be the Antipodes Parakeets - these are a bit far south for parakeets. I saw at least two pairs of these not very interesting green birds. As usual there were plenty of shags and mollymawks as well as a few albatrosses and the normal ration of prions (fairies this time) for us to see. It really does seem amazing to think of parakeets and penguins sharing the same island. We were already becoming quite blasé about seeing so many (flighted) sea birds; however, we never became complacent about penguins.

After the Zodiac cruise we returned to the ship and took advantage of the fact that it was hove to in comparatively calm water to take showers after lunch. Later in the voyage as we became accustomed to the motion of the ship, we learnt how to take a shower when the ship was rolling. The only problem, besides staying upright, is that the water only occasionally hits you, often it appears to be coming more nearly horizontally than vertically! In the afternoon we set off on the long journey south. We were then approaching the 'Bristol Antipodes'; while we were on the bridge looking up our position we commented to the Russians on the fact that home was straight down and this started a conversation about home, the weather etc. They seem a friendly and happy crew. It transpired that they had not been to the Antarctic before, only the Arctic. In fact this was the first trip for the ship to the Antarctic.

During the afternoon we watched the video 'Mysteries of the Ocean Wanderers' about Wandering Albatrosses and their movements when away from their home island. It was very interesting and included a lot of footage of King and Macaroni Penguins.

By this time everybody on the ship had got to know one another quite well and the atmosphere was all much more relaxed.

The next couple of days were fairly quiet en route to the Ross Sea, the weather had slowly deteriorated, mist was closing in, gradually getting thicker as we headed further south. At about 08:00 we were at 177° 57 E , 52° 38 S which we reckoned to be near enough the antipodes of Bristol. We spent some time up on deck, but there are fewer sea birds as we sailed farther from land, and it was becoming noticeably colder out there.

In the afternoon we watched the first two parts of 'Life in the Freezer'. This was then followed by a talk from Chris (Challies) on 'An Introduction to Penguins'. An interesting comment he made was that some research is currently in progress on determination of whether the Little Blue sub-species should really be separate species. He said results should be known fairly soon, but he expected a reclassification into separate species.

Dinner was fairly eventful, as the boat was beginning to rock rather a lot, and it was becoming a regular event for the entire contents of a table to go crashing to the floor! Eating in these conditions is definitely a challenge!

The next day it really got rough; the furniture in the cabin was literally flying from one side of the room to the other and back again. The swell was now so high that standing on the bridge, we could not see the horizon over the top of the waves in front. The captain estimated the swell at 12 - 14 metres (the bridge is 17m above the waterline and waves would quite often break over the bridge windows). The windows in our cabin below the bridge started to let in some of the water breaking on them. The ship has an inclinometer to measure the degree to which it rolls. The maximum on the scale is 55 and the furthest it listed in the storm was 53! Even the crew were finding the conditions difficult. In such seas attempting to do anything which involves moving is almost impossible. It is even difficult just to sit and read, as you get thrown out of your chair at regular intervals. Consequently, we were not very active. We could not go out on deck now.

Conditions remained very bad for the next day and it was not possible to do much else than stay in the cabin and read/sleep. Most people seemed to be trying to catch up on sleep since due to the rolling of the ship nobody got much sleep during the night.

When we went to the bar before dinner, first of all I threw my orange juice all over Ad, one of the Dutch party, then fell off the chair, taking Barbara's beer with me. As if that wasn't enough, I then threw another beer on the floor after dinner. On this occasion Terry gave me another 'on the house'. This is not untypical behaviour on the part of passengers.


Other Travel Tips: