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Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Time Event
Gold Harbour
Thursday, January 12, 2012
I woke up at midnight last night and again a few times later in the morning. At midnight I heard what I thought was the anchor being hauled in and the engines started. I thought it odd at the time because we weren’t due to leave that anchorage until 3a or so. At 2 or 4a, I forget exactly when, I woke up to the ship rolling significantly – more than it had on the crossing from the Falklands. I thought briefly about my camera and lens but was secure remembering that I had put them in their padded cases and stashed them beneath the desk – a roll-proof location. I dozed for a bit further until 6:25a, just a few minutes before my alarm rang. The ship was still rolling.

Melinda and I showered and dressed getting ready for our 8a landing. Just before we headed to breakfast Ted announced that all landings were postponed until noon. Apparently, the midnight noises _were_ the anchor being brought in; we were blown by strong gusts of wind out of St. Andrew’s Bay, and other winds were buffeting us here at Gold Harbor. The seas don’t look that bad until you see the tops of the white caps being skimmed off by the winds, and watch that cloud of mist roll through and past the ship. It’s like a movie effect from Pirates of the Caribbean. Ironically, the sun was shining pretty nicely from over our shoulders (we’re getting pretty far south on the island so all the bays basically look out toward the east), and later in the morning the skies were blue.

I like spending time on the bridge; I think I’ve mentioned that here before. It’s a good view point; I like looking at the technical bits of the ship and pondering what the Russian labels mean. A few controls have English labels added later, and one control box is originally labeled in English – with Russian labels. I happen to notice that depth sounding readout uses Nixie tubes – cool! I remark on this to Melinda and Joan (Boothe, author of The Storied Ice), and I explain how Nixie tubes work and why they’re interesting. On an ecology safari I don’t get many chances to share knowledge, so I try to sound smart when appropriate.

Anyway, while on the bridge I overhear the staff’s concerns about the day. Apparently there’s a storm on the west side of South Georgia that’s blowing some wind over the mountains. Or, perhaps that’s just a conjecture? Someone brings out a satellite pressure map for the day for the southern ocean region; predicting weather is left to those down here, I guess. There’s a strong low pressure region to our south east, kind of in the direction we’re heading. The questions of the day are, will we make the landing at Gold Harbor (if the winds let up by lunch we can), and, should we attempt a landing at Cooper Bay. Cooper Bay would be neat – Macaroni penguins – but it’s a tricky landing and likely to fail. The risk of even trying Cooper Bay tomorrow is that whatever storm that’s brewing may build and block us from a landing further on (eg, it may delay our passage to the South Orkney Islands). Members of staff have opinions, mostly to skip Cooper Bay and head out tomorrow morning, but even now (nearly dinner) I haven’t heard the decision. Ted, who gets to make this decision, is back asleep. I can only presume that moving the ship and the attempted landing in the morning caused him, and most staff, to not get a lot of sleep last night. The staff is noticeably less energetic than usual this morning.

We have a lecture at 9:30 on whaling around the world, but it’s short on information. I learn (or rather, reminded – I’m sure I knew this already) that only the Inuit, the Norwegians, and the Japanese still catch whales. The numbers caught each year are well below the peak of whaling in the early 20th century but there’re still lots of question whether even these small numbers can be caught without impairing the whales’ recovery. At 11a Marco gives a talk on bird migration. Half the talk is on migration (summary: some birds migrate thousands of miles, including even some tiny birds), and half on the techniques for this research. Banding birds, done in the early and mid-20th century, had a poor recovery rate. Satellite tracking – gluing responders to birds’ feathers – is much more effective and much less costly per unit of data.

Just as Marco’s talk begins we get an update on today’s situation. The winds have calmed down very much from this morning so we’ll land in the afternoon. Lunch at 12:30 and landing immediately afterward. Hurray!

Lunch is sparsely attended, perhaps because folks are eager to hit the shore, but Melinda and I partake and sit at a fun table, with Victor, Vicky, Therese, and Marissa. And, I score an extra dessert (chocolate mousse) that Victor forewent. Even going to lunch I’ve already donned some of my landing clothes – I’m eager to go, too.

Gold Harbor offers much of what we’ve seen already at South Georgia. There’s a King penguin colony, some Gentoos, a few fur seals, and the largest concentration of elephant seals we’ve seen yet. On shore Melinda and I walk the shore for some photos and spot an Adelie penguin. This spotting is significant because it’s only the second time Doug has seen an Adelie appearing in South Georgia in the 20 years he’s been doing these visits. Adelies live on the Antarctic peninsula, but that’s still a thousand miles away. So Melinda gets to be a celebrity briefly because she’s taken pictures of the Adelie. It’s a cute penguin – a little smaller than the Gentoo penguins, and along the water line it was looking rather lost.

Because the weather at St. Andrew’s was so good (I learned later that it was the best weather in 17 years of landing there, according to Doug) Melinda and I’ve had enough penguin and we opt for a hike about an hour after landing. The hike takes us up to a ridge about 200m above sea level in about, let’s see, maybe a mile or a mile and a half? These hikes are kind of unreal (the one today and the one from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, along Shackleton’s route): we ascend and descend hillsides that are at the critical slope of the shale-like rocks they’re built from. It’s perhaps a 30 – 40 degree slope, and we go straight up. The rocks are interlocked well enough that one won’t slide down, nor is there any issue about erosion – there’s no dirt to erode. We might also ascend a hill covered in tussock grass in the same manner, but there at least the tussocks can act as steps in a way. The only issue with tussock grass is that it growls occasionally when there’s a fur seal dozing on the mount you’re about to step on.

The hike is sort of grueling, more so than the Shackleton hike because the ascent is steeper. I’m wearing cottonm so I get all sweaty, then chilled, but it’s not a big deal because the out and back ends up at just more than two hours. Half-way up, we are rewarded with chocolate – I rather like the Cadbury extreme dark chocolate, and it fills me with inspiration for the final crazy-ascent to the top of the ridge. The view is … well, it’s okay. The clouds are moving in, and we’re just at the cloud ceiling so everything is a little foggy. From the top, and along the way up, we see bits of a glacier near the penguin colony calve. The glacier was formerly a tide water glacier, but now the ice falls upon rocks below; it’s receded a lot in the past two decades, according to Gail and Doug. One calving event is pretty spectacular, and we can hear the thundering sound from the maybe two miles away we are. At the ridge Mandeep, one of the passengers, asks Hugh about why the glaciers are receding. Hugh gives some explanation around what causes a glacier to advance or recede, but Mandeep asks leading questions trying to get Hugh to say global warming is the cause of all the ails here. Hugh carefully answers questions to provide technically accurate replies and doesn’t fall for the politicized response. Melinda and I appreciated his handling of these questions – we’ve come to very much like Hugh as an expedition staffer.

Back at the landing site we convert to zodiac mode and head back to the ship. We’re kind of damp from sweat and exhausted so I’d like to clean up before dinner. No word yet on tomorrow’s plans, as I noted above, but I’m hearing now that maybe we’ll try Cooper Bay, and if it’s a bust we’ll depart immediately. Dunno. We’ll learn something at dinner, I’m certain.

Advice for taking this trip in the future (some of this is a repeat from earlier posts): Bring a backpack dry bag. Seal Line is a brand I’ve seen a lot. The dry bag material should be thick, like rubberized nylon, not thin like a kite (my bag is small and kite-like). Bring more long-sleeved shirts, and bring turtlenecks if you’re likely to be cold. I’ve been wearing cotton long-sleeved shirts in South Georgia, beneath my fleece, and it’s okay. I wore a long-sleeved cross-country shirt for a few days and it worked very well. In fact I’d probably get another one of those. The long-sleeved wool shirt isn’t outer wear, so it’s not easy to shed. I haven’t tried it yet, though. Melinda and I have taken 6,800 exposures so far and we’re 40% in to the trip. I would plan for 20,000 exposures and more if you already take a lot of high-quality photos. I’ve brought three 32GB SD cards, and I expect they’ll just barely fit all my DSLR photos. I would have been happier with four or five total cards. Because they’re each less than $100, it would have been a trivial investment. (FWIW I though bringing three cards was excessive. Fortunately, between my computer, Melinda’s computer, and my mobile phone(!) we can store another 60GB of images.) Knit hats should cover the ears, entirely. Melinda bought a better knit hat at Grytviken, and she’s very happy with the purchase (that it’s handmade in Nepal is a bonus). Bring one set of IS binoculars for each person traveling. When whales appear it’s better if both people can see than just one. Bring high-powered sunscreen and enough of it. We’re using a small tube of SPF 25 + daily moisturizer, and I have doubts that it’s a truly effective sunblock. The wind will take off protective hats, and the cold will want you to wear a knit cap so it’s important to have sun screen protection in some other manner.

Time passes and we eat dinner.

We have a plan for tomorrow now. We’ll ship cruise though Drygalski fjord between 6a and 7:30 then (attempt a) land(ing) at Cooper Bay at 8:30. Cooper Bay’s attraction is more Macaroni penguins, including land access to the colony (although it’s through some steep tussock – similar to what we hiked today). If the landing succeeds we’ll be out until noon, return for lunch, then depart for the South Orkneys in the afternoon. We’ll be at sea all day Saturday and have our first landing at the South Orkneys on Sunday.

Dessert at dinner tonight was great – strawberry and blueberry cobbler with very-vanilla ice cream.

I checked in with the bridge – nothing new upstairs. The barometer has been level for 6-8 hours and it’s a quiet evening. We’ll stay here until 3a tonight. Melinda and I caught a King swimming in the clear water near the ship. They really do use their wings underwater, and they look just like they’re flying.

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