Bjorn on board the SA Agulhas in Antarctica

A young ocean scientist shares his cherished memories of experiences had while on board the final voyage of the SA Agulhas to Antarctica and the South Sandwich Islands,  December 2011 – March 2012

Antarctica is a far-off and frozen land where, for those fortunate enough to ever get there, many memories are made to be forever cherished. Between December 2011 and March 2012, I was one of those fortunate few South Africans who had the opportunity to realise this memory-making adventure. I had secured a berth on the boat as part of the oceanography team responsible for taking the hundreds of biological, physical and nutrient data measurements along the cruise track of the SA Agulhas’ ultimate Antarctic journey.

Unfortunately my lot as an oceanographer limited me to the confines of a 112m steel structure for the most part of these three months. We were fortunate enough to collect good data over this time although we were deeply disappointed by the fact that we did not actually step foot onto SANAE IV, the South African Antarctic base. This disappointment, however, only served to sweeten the experiences that we did enjoy and the two that stood out for me the most were the day that we spent playing on the bay ice just off of Antarctica and the day that we spent on South Georgia.

Taking samples of the southern ocean from the SA AgulhasAfter offloading most of the passengers and whilst waiting for important refuelling operations to complete, the Captain granted us the permission to be hoisted across onto to a massive 3km long and  3m thick sheet of bay ice. We were given leave to enjoy the splendid sunshiny weather and stretch our legs off the boat. People could be found sun-tanning in the sun while nursing their two day old hangover (this all happened on 2 Jan!), building ice-men, playing soccer and photographing wildlife, the highlight of which were the Adele and Emperor penguins. The Adele penguins were super inquisitive creatures and were quick to waddle across and check out the massive red alien vessel that had moored just off of their home. They also found the ensuing soccer game exciting and soon put together their own team responsible for wreaking havoc in the flow of the game between the passengers and crew. After a month of no legitimate exercise, the aftermath after a day running around on the ice was felt by all. Thus, not many emails were sent the next day as stiff muscles prevented most from graciously climbing the five flights of stairs to the Radio Officer’s haunt on the Bridge.

The second major highlight was experienced just under a month later. We had by then dropped off all of the remaining passengers and just the 11 oceanographers, 3 journalists, 2 weathermen and the captain and crew set sail for the South Sandwich Islands. The weather men had spent a morning dropping off and collecting weather buoys at South Thule, an ominous and uninhabited volcanic remnant littered with chin-strap penguins and elephant seals, and had apparently survived a close encounter with the ferocious leopard seal.

Church on South Georgia IslandSouth Georgia was reached two days later and as we sailed into the bay, many of us caught our first sight of a glacier scouring its way ever-forward and ever-slowly into the light blue sea. We were lucky in that the storm that we had just sailed through had given all the mountains in view a photogenic dusting of snow and our photos were characterized by a blue ocean, green grass (by this late stage we had forgotten what vegetation looked like), steep dark cliffs and brilliant snow-white peaks. The only eye-sore to the picture were the rusted iron carcasses of the old oil vats at Grytviken, an abandoned whaling and sealing station, although their lack of aesthetic appeal was off-set by the beauty of the nearby quaint church. The antithesis provided by the conflicting sights sparked debate amongst us oceanographers and we decided that the presence of the oil vats was still valid given their historical value. It was also good to know that despite the 61 year sof active whaling and sealing, the seal populations have already shown a significant comeback and we hope that with time, the Southern Ocean whale populations will also re-establish to their former levels.

Again, we were fortunate enough to be granted time on South Georgia and after a brief and welcoming introduction by the Governor (who used his endearing British accent to warn us of the dangers of contaminating the island with “wats”), we embarked from the boat to the island using rubber ducks. The day was spent touring the remnants of the old whaling station and taking in the well up-kept and well-documented history of the buildings. We also spent a while enhancing our education in the nicely-maintained museum where we had the opportunity to chat to some of the inhabitants. South Georgia is occupied by 15 people, mostly British, during the year and despite their remote location, they are still visited by between 1-2 cruise ships per week during peak season. Education and postcards (they have a post-office at Grytviken) aside, we were free to stretch our legs and enjoy the fresh air, nature and beauty of the island.

South Georgia Island elephant seals and penguinsI spent the afternoon with 6 of the other oceanographers and we went for a hike to a lake on the hill above Grytviken. We used the opportunity to have a very quick dip which satisfied our craving for swimming. One of the ironies about oceanography is that many of us do it because we really enjoy being in the ocean, yet when on cruise for three months, one doesn’t have the chance to even swim once! After thawing out and grabbing a bite to eat (in that order!) we set off to continue our hike. Unfortunately we could not reach our final destination (a colony of King Penguins where we hoped to see some penguin chicks) as some of the local birds where not happy with us in their territory and thus chased us away! Our return leg did however take us passed a crashed Argentinian helicopter, wreckage from the Falklands war, and this sight really drove home for us the futility of war. This poor Argentinian pilot had lost his life thousands of kilometres from his homeland in a meaningless war over a sparsely inhabited and economically unviable island. Sad really…

South Thule outcropsContinuing back to the ship, we were forced to take the meter-wide beach route back to avoid an area that had been cordoned off due to alien vegetation infestation. Unfortunately, this narrow beach turned out to be a mine-field of docile elephant seals and their diminutive and vicious fur seal cousins. Dynamite certainly comes in small packages and we were forced to hop, skip and jump our way between all of these nasty critters. Our final stop before heading back to the SA Agulhas was the final resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. His gravestone is the centrepiece of the island’s small graveyard and if anyone knows the history of his voyage, you’ll be quick to agree that, in contrast to now, back then the ships were made from wood and the men from steel.

These two days were certainly the best memories of the trip. This is not to say that the rest of the trip was memory-less (except one or two heavy nights in the bar where beer sold for R5.00) and I am grateful for the opportunity i had to experience the southern ocean and Antarcitca. The icebergs were especially cool and there were days when it felt as though I was trapped in a winter wonderland. I look forward to returning on the new SA Agulhas II later this year and as readers you can look forward to that report back coming in August.

Bjorn von der Heyden

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