For various reasons I’ve been having trouble falling asleep lately, and as a result couldn’t drag myself out of bed until nearly an hour after sunrise. The weather has alternated from cloudy to rainy, but between getting pelted by rain I’ve managed to revisit the rockhopper colony and also explore a bit on the other side of the island, which has some brilliant sandy beaches with handfuls of elephant seals on them. There have again been caracaras and an orca sighting, although my favorite part of the day has been the little birds, including the tussoc birds which come so close that I often have to try to avoid stepping on them. I’ve not yet figured out if they’re curious, near-sighted, or just lonely, but it’s definitely neat to have a couple of small birds only inches away.
Both the plane service and Sea Lion Lodge lost my bookings, but through the heroic efforts of Ms. Kay McCallum (“Ah, you need to give ’em hell occasionally”) the airport manager was roused at home and all was soon put right. The FIGAS planes are awesome — we buzzed above the landscape at about two hundred feet, and it was more like a sightseeing trip than just a ride out of Stanley. We touched down on the dirt landing strip on Sea Lion Island, and the staff here is mostly Scottish so the beauracracy of the Falklands disappeared amidst some great accents.
Sea Lion Island itself is amazing enough that I’m a bit worried I may have booked the best first. I hiked a good bit of it today, had caracaras following me, saw an immensely busy colony of blue-eyed shags and rockhopper penguins, got lost in tussock grass taller than I was, and watched three killer whales swimming offshore. I’m planning on trying to be up for sunrise tomorrow, so with luck I’ll hopefully get a few pictures that show off the beauty of the place.
Beautiful weather today for a bit of roaming, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot in the immediate vicinity of Stanley that is of particular interest. Internet access is a huge pain, but I’ve still been trying to catch up a bit on the news:
- It sounds like the election will be ridiculously close, which is scary.
- The Sox broke the curse (wow!)
- The Browns have simultaneously discovered how to score and forgotten how to defend.
- The Onion reports that Cheney will attack America himself if Kerry wins.
- Ohio State football has collapsed completely and is now unranked.
- And otherwise life seems more-or-less unchanged.
Stage two of the trip starts tomorrow as I’ll be off to the outlying islands for twelve days.
There is a good chance that my internet access will disappear soon, so if the updates stop they should resume again by the second week of November. And yes, I know most of the South Georgia pictures are broken, but it’s just too expensive to upload them all right now so I’ll fix it in a couple of weeks from Chile.
Everyone else left for the airport about two hours ago, with Micky and Shane nearly missing the bus despite the fact that there’s only one flight a week — apparently they found a badmitton court and couldn’t be bothered to stop their game early. Seeing them stroll back to the boat as the bus was arriving was an act brazen enough to rate up there with Micky’s call for beers back at Trollhul. Afterwards I ate a quick lunch with Jerome, Kathy and Jerome’s son Dion before heading off to Kay McCallum’s bed and breakfast — after living on a boat for a month the luxury of a full-size bed, carpet and a good glass of tea makes this place feel like a palace.
Tonight was the last night together for the passengers and crew of the Golden Fleece, and no one wanted to go to bed. We all went out to dinner, waited an hour and a half for the food to come, then returned to the boat, drank a bit, and talked about everything from milking horses to smuggling Incan sword hilts to an Osama vs. Bush pay-per-view match. At one point Mike mixed Budweiser and milk together (I can’t recall what prompted it) and the resulting concoction was actually not all that bad. There was a lot of laughter, and I’m writing this now thinking that I’m going to miss this group greatly once everyone heads off to the airport tomorrow. I started out knowing the trip would have its lonely moments, but I didn’t suspect that parting with fellow passengers would be such a big one.
The Malvinas House Hotel has a sauna room with shower and jacuzzi that is rented out for four people at about twenty-five dollars an hour. After getting only two showers while on the boat, exiting the sauna room I was a god on Earth; whoever it was that built it should be given sainthood.
After the three days of hell on the seas the winds calmed yesterday afternoon, and we had comparatively smooth sailing until our arrival in Stanley at mid-morning. Upon landing Micky did a swan dive into the dock and held on firmly, and it’s safe to say that none of the rest of us will ever again take stable ground for granted.
My opinion of Stanley has changed somewhat now that I’ve had more time to visit — while it’s still a beautiful setting, there is beauracracy built into every facet of life here. One in three people (man, woman and child) works for the government, and even getting a table in an empty restaurant involved putting our name on a list, waiting five minutes for the bar to open, then waiting twenty minutes in the bar for the girl to come get us, and after all of that hassle the food still ended up being pretty horrid.
The day’s other big event was a quest for internet access. After an ungodly long search I was able to connect my laptop for twenty pence (thirty-eight cents) per minute, after which I had to wait forty-five minutes to download over six hundred spam messages and about thirty real emails. Pictures from the trip will be probably be broken until I reach Chile in two weeks since it would cost an amazing sum to get all of them uploaded.
We’re now off for dinner at a (hopefully) better restaurant, followed by an evening in the pubs — the only thing that isn’t expensive here is alcohol, and after five days without much merriment everyone seems ready to take full advantage.
With (hopefully) only one more day at sea everyone has acquired a morbid but resigned look — our options at this point are to keep enduring or to jump overboard, neither of which are particularly good. I haven’t seen Ted in three days, Micky has been prostrate on a couch for forty-eight hours, and Mike (who isn’t taking any motion-sickness drugs) has had the look of a deer in headlights every time I’ve seen him recently. Provided we do make land tomorrow there will be more than one person kissing the dock.
In the words of Shane, “What kind of shit have I gotten myself into now?” Winds are sustained at thirty-to-forty knots, waves are twelve-to-fifteen feet, and the boat is jumping like a Mexican bean. With the assistance of drugs my vision is horribly blurred but I’m not feeling ill, although several of the fellow passengers have been heaving forth with great gusto throughout the day. One thing they don’t tell you about rough seas is that while walking around is very, very tough, using the bathroom is practically a gymnastic event.
Today is not going to be anyone’s favorite day of the trip — the seas have gotten progressively choppier to the point where now the motion of the boat is extraordinarily sudden and in random directions, making for a sickening passage. I’m having to write this while lying down and with one leg braced against the wall to keep steady. The only notable events today were two groups of hourglass dolphins that did some bow-riding for a bit, and twice when the engines mysteriously died. Stanley can’t get here fast enough.
After a minor storm yesterday in which the boat was pitching at least forty degrees to port and thirty degrees to starboard the seas have calmed a bit today, but I think I actually prefer the larger swells to the choppiness we’re now going through. It will be none too soon when we arrive in Stanley. The day’s only real highlight occurred minutes after I first went up to the wheelhouse and a small whale popped up literally feet from our bow. Amazingly none of the three other people in the wheelhouse saw it despite the fact that the whale came half out of the water, although David saw his dorsal fin twice thereafter. Otherwise it’s been a long, slow day at sea.
We landed with terribly rough seas on Willis Island this morning, worked our way through a crowd of fur seals, climbed some rocky cliffs, and then paid an incredible visit to the black-browed, grey-headed, and light-mantled sooty albatross on the island. We’re now sailing across the open ocean on our return trip to the Falklands, but already I want to go back to South Georgia; the place is magical.
Sadly our last full day in South Georgia ended up being spent on the boat — we had a six hour drive from Fortuna to Elsehul, and along the way dropped Ted, Shane and Mike off to hike over to meet us. The weather wasn’t particularly nice when we dropped them off, and Jerome commented that “ils sont fous” shortly after leaving them. Pulling into Elsehul a couple of hours later we got a call on the satellite phone from Ted saying that the wind had dropped visibility to zero, so we made a U-turn and went back to pick them up. I had been joking with Jerome that he needed more sleep and should let me take the wheel, and he surprised me by taking me seriously, so for an hour I was doing my best not to get us all killed by scanning the waves for ice while being buffeted by sixty-mile per hour winds. In fairness the autopilot and GPS made the job a fairly easy one despite the weather, but it was still a hell of a way to learn to drive the boat.
It was a late night last night, with special cocktails from Jerome and a delicious fondu — definitely a good time. This morning we motored through relatively choppy seas to Fortuna Bay where the weather was amazing — sunny and warm, with occasional wind. Around the glacier at the head of the bay the wind was strong enough that you could lean into it at a forty-five degree angle, but elsewhere it wasn’t nearly as powerful. I spent the entire time roaming amongst the animals, including a lot of time in a gentoo penguin colony up on a hillside and at a precarious perch on a cliffside with a light-mantled sooty albatross. At midday one of the icebergs in the bay fell to pieces — it was a tall one, and the first half of it collapsed with a loud crash before the other side broke off, throwing up a cloud of ice and water that must have been at least ten stories high. Later, a few hours before sunset, the sun dipped behind the mountains and colored some of the high clouds into greens, purples and reds — it was something I’ve never seen before. All in all an excellent day.
A really wet, cold day today, so we’ve been in the boat for most of it. Mike has had an ear infection for two weeks and been having hearing difficulties, so we returned to Grytviken so that he could see their doctor, and the rest of us visited the Carrs and the museum. The yacht Northanger was in port, so we also pillaged their software library in order to repair Jerome’s Iridium email connection and thus give us access to weather reports. For the night we’re back at Leith Harbour whaling station, which is a bit like returning to Auschwitz — I’m glad to have seen it once, but would rather not have to be here again; however it’s a good anchorage and calm enough to allow Kathy to prepare a big dinner for Shane’s twenty-sixth birthday.
The trip is sadly winding down, so we’ve only got a few more days before starting the crossing back to the Falklands. Thinking back on the past few weeks, there have been a lot of memorable moments — wrestling with giant petrels, being chased by elephant seals, having a grey-headed albatross crash land practically on top of me, Micky radioing in for beers, Mike swimming with penguins in Gold Harbour, sitting on a mountainside amidst the vastness on top of the Phillipi Glacier, and tons of others. Slightly fewer cloudy days might have improved the trip, but it was still a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The skies were clear and the sunrise beautiful this morning, but apparently plans had changed so instead of spending a few hours at Gold Harbour everyone but David and I got out at Royal Bay to hike, and we then continued on to St. Andrews Bay. We had beautiful weather for enjoying the immensity of wildlife, and I spent nearly ten hours out roaming.
This is the first trip on which I’ve used a digital camera, and while I have absolutely no complaints about the Canon 10D, the one downside is that not having to worry about film or processing costs means I’m taking an immense number of photos, and must then spend a couple of hours each night deleting the chaff. Jerome has an uncanny ability to walk by just as I’m getting ready to delete a bad photo and then call attention to it, causing everyone in the boat to gather around the laptop, so there have been a number of rather embarrassing moments (“Yeah, that’s an underexposed shot of half of a fur seal’s head”); however, being able to see the day’s shots so immediately makes it worthwhile.
It’s very late, but the politics on this boat lean left and Jerome, Mike and I were venting over the current state of affairs in the world. Getting up at sunrise may be tough tomorrow… anyhow, today was a snowy day, although it made for interesting photos and was easier to walk around in than rain. The day started with temperatures in the boat hovering in the low thirties since the stove had died overnight. After getting underway the first stop was Iris Bay for king penguins in snow flurries, as well as the usual complement of elephant seals and others.
The second stop for the day was a return trip to Gold Harbour — we have started back up the coast, so we’re revisiting a few places. This time I hung out with the elephant seals, and while none of the fights were of the scale of what I saw at St. Andrews Bay they were nonetheless impressive. At one point an elephant seal I was photographing reared up, and turning around I found myself only two feet from another of the four ton bulls; needless to say I got out of the way fast. It’s a total chess game with these animals, as they position themselves around the harems and strategically try to find ways to sneak in on the dominant bull, who is constantly checking to make sure that no one has snuck in. Micky and I agreed that sports commentators are needed to keep track of all of the action.
Mike decided that today was a good day for a swim, and donned a dry suit and went for a dip with penguins and icebergs. He made it for nearly forty minutes, which is about thirty-nine minutes longer than my California constitution would have survived. He also shared a bag of bowhead whale jerky which he apparently got from some Native Alaskans; eating whale in the midst of such vast natural richness was a bit odd, but everyone nevertheless tried a piece and the taste actually wasn’t too bad. Combined with the krill we’ve been eating we’re not the greatest of eco-tourists, but the stuff is mighty tasty.
My skis were finally put to use today as the options were to hang out with twenty Weddell seals or to ski up the Phillipi Glacier. Amazingly, with a set of skins attached to the bottoms touring skis will travel up steep slopes; unfortunately our initial ascent was extraordinarily steep, and near the top I was slipping a bit. Since an out-of-control fall would have meant a trip over the edge of the glacier and then a fifty foot plunge into the ocean, after my second slip (which sent me sliding about fifty feet down the slope) I ditched the skis and walked uphill.
Once at the top the slope was much more gentle, and we skied about four miles over the icy snow to the head of the glacier — the snowfield there was vast and pure white, with small mountains and ridges enclosing either side. We spent the next four hours each going our separate directions to do a bit of exploring, and on Shane’s advice I brought my iPod — strangely listening to Pete Townsend while sitting on a snow-covered ridge added a very cool element to the experience.
Aside from reaffirming what a terrible skier I am the return trip was uneventful, and once back we briefly visited the seals. They were allowing us to approach within six feet or so, and the Weddells are the most affectionate of the seals that we’ve seen, with the mothers and pups cuddling together. We’re now anchored for the night, but wind gusts keep pushing the ship over to nearly ten degrees, so tomorrow may not have the nice weather that we had today.
Woke up at dawn in Gold Harbour, but the weather had turned so everyone went back to bed and Jerome pointed the boat towards the southern coast, which is normally stormier but today had good weather. We spent most of the afternoon at Trollhul with elephant seals, some fairly belligerent fur seals, gentoos, kings, albatross, and various other birds. The weather turned sunny while we were there, with dramatic clouds around the high mountains and a soft light that lit up the glaciers in incredible ways. While sitting on the beach and enjoying the sun Micky wrote himself into South Georgia legend by radioing the boat, not for a pickup, but for a delivery of beer if any was available. Amazingly Jerome showed up a few minutes later, and despite the heavy surf tossed a few Budweisers ashore. We made an early exit as droves of gentoos were returning from the sea, and we’re now harbored off of Drygalski Fjord in Larsen Harbour with a small colony of Weddell seals on the beach to keep us company.
We motored from St. Andrews Bay into Royal Bay this morning to see the enormous Ross Glacier, which was calving off pieces as we watched. As we were leaving the skies finally began to clear, and we arrived in Gold Harbour with near-perfect weather. I spent the afternoon hiking along the cliffs looking for light-mantled sooty albatross, and managed to find a few of them nesting on the rock faces, including one pair that allowed me to approach within a few feet. These are beautiful and peaceful birds that are probably the most graceful fliers that we’ve seen thus far.
After leaving the cliffs I spent time on the beach with the elephant seals, fur seals, king penguins, gentoo penguins, skuas, and assorted others. The skuas seemed willing to have me sit next to them at an arm’s length, and the king penguin chicks followed me around, always a few feet behind. Most impressive today were the elephant seals, which were piled so thickly that it was nearly impossible to safely walk along the beach. In order to avoid the elephant seals I walked along the edge of the beach, but the fur seals had taken up refuge in the tussocks, and twice one charged in within inches before I could chase him away.
Today’s weather was thirty-eight degrees with a cold rain, so for the majority of the day no one really felt like leaving the ship. At around four o’clock most of us headed ashore, and despite the wet and cold it ended up being well worthwhile. Another giant petrel (perhaps the same one as yesterday) came running up to me, and we played for a while — he would grab my glove while I attempted to ruffle his feathers with the other hand.
Despite having to ford a few small rivers I was able to walk the entire beach (two miles?), and on the return trip saw what has thus far been the bloodiest elephant seal fight of the trip — the two bulls fought for over ten minutes, and when it was done both had chests stained bright red with blood, the victor had a cut to the bone over his eye, and the right half of his nose had been literally torn to ribbons and was hanging on only by threads of skin. During the fight the beasts were like the titans of Greek mythology — they would rear up eight or nine feet in the air and then smash together, trying to bite each other. At intervals they got so tired that they would collapse on one another before recovering enough to continue the battle. Amazingly, after such a bloody battle a third elephant seal came in and chased off the two combatants without a fight, so in the end they had fought for nothing.