Wednesday, 26 May 2010

And Finally...

I've been home for a few weeks now so I thought it was about time I posted something about my journey home from the frozen south.

It was snowing steadily as I stepped off the Biscoe Wharf for the very last time and boarded the RRS Ernest Shackleton, bound for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, calling at the Argentine base of Jubany, and the British bases of Signy, Bird Island and King Edward Point (aka KEP).

The winterers we were leaving behind were all at the wharf to wave goodbye. There were a few tearful eyes and some lumps in throats as we bade each other farewell.

Flares and smoke signals were set off in our honour as we departed. Exactly one year ago I myself was standing on that wharf performing the same ritual, bidding farewell to friends and excitedly looking forward to the forthcoming winter.

Now I was looking back with a heavy heart at leaving, but excitement at the anticipation of going home again

This was my last view of Rothera, my home for the previous 16 months.

The voyage on the Shack wasn't just a jolly - we would be working our passage, assisting with the relief of the island bases and helping out around the ship where required.

I settled in to my cabin for the 16 day voyage. This was the view out of my cabin window; er... porthole. The sound of the ice crashing against the hull would be constant and relentless for the first few days of the voyage!

The Shack was still frozen as we set sail on the first leg of the trip; first port of call...

... Dismal Island.

Dismal Island is a small, unpopulated island. The reason we called there was to service and repair an Automatic Weather Station (AWS). I didn't get to go ashore there, but I was told by the technicians who did that it certainly lived up to it's name.

From Dismal we headed north to pick up some German scientists who had been working at the Argentine base of Jubany. It was only a short stop; no-one got to go ashore, apart from the ship's crew who were ferrying the scientists from the shore to the ship.

As we left Jubany and continued our cruise up the Antarctic peninsula the weather got steadily worse; the wind was getting stronger and the seas were getting heavier.
The Southern Ocean is one of the most violent oceans on the planet and we were going to spend much of our 16 days in force 9 storm conditions!!!

The view from the stern of the Shack, below the heli-deck.

The next stop was Deception Island.

Deception Island is an active volcano that last erupted in 1969. We sailed right into the caldera, hoping to land and go bathing in the hot springs, but the weather wasn't calm enough for a safe landing. All we could do was sail around the rim, close to the shore and take photos of the evacuated bases.

After Deception we headed for Signy, the summer-only British base in the South Orkney Islands.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a working voyage and during this leg of the trip I was called upon to assist Stevie B, the ship's radio operator. He was intending to run a cable in for some technical equipment. Of course, me being an electrician, installing cables is second nature. Then I discovered the proposed cable route - from the bridge...

...up to the crow's nest!!!

This was going to be one of the most interesting and exciting cable-runs of my career!!

The view was spectacular and the wind made the work so exhilerating I didn't even notice the extreme cold!!!

Here are a few videos....

I was the only non crew-member to go up into the crow's nest during the trip, although some of my colleagues reckoned that with the ship pitching and rolling in the heavy swell as it was, I was welcome to the experience!!!

After the crazy crow's nest job it was onward to Signy, passing by Elephant Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew took refuge in 1916.

Signy Research Station.

Nowadays the research at Signy is only carried out during the Antarctic summer months.

It was our job to remove all the waste material, collect the scientific and technical staff and make sure the buildings were secured for the winter.

Signy is a beautiful island and the wildlife is spectacular. But can you imagine having this lot sleeping outside your bedroom window for five months!!

The view looking down on the base, with the Shack at anchor in the bay. Signy was a very significant landmark for me - it was the first time in 16 months that I had seen or walked on any kind of vegetation. It felt so good underfoot; I had forgotten how much these things are taken for granted after so long walking on snow, ice and rock.

As we headed back to the ship, with the relief completed, I noticed the damage to the paintwork on the Shackleton's hull, caused by plowing relentlessly through the pack ice.

We left Signy to the wildlife and set a course for Bird Island, South Georgia.

As we left the shelter of the natural harbour we were again battered by the Southern Ocean. I was fortunate enough to find my sea-legs very quickly into the voyage; others weren't so lucky and headed once again to the sanctuary of their bunks.

As we drew near to the island we were treated to an aerial escort...

...this is why Bird Island is so aptly named!

When you first catch sight of Bird Island it looks just like something out of the movie Jurassic Park.

Bird Island is a year-round base with a wintering staff of just four hardy people so, unlike Signy, we weren't closing the base down for winter. Our mission here was to re-supply the winterers with food and provisions, remove all the waste and take the non-wintering staff home.

Unfortunately the sea was much too rough to enable us to go ashore to relieve the base so the captain called the base commander that we would head to KEP, carry out the relief there, then return a few days later, hopeful that the weather would be calmer.

On the way to KEP the captain took us on a coastal tour so we could see the abandoned whaling stations of...



and Husvik.

We weren't allowed to go ashore because the stations are riddled with highly dangerous asbestos and all the buildings are now in a serious state of disrepair.

Then it was onwards to

King Edward Point.

As we rounded the headland we caught a glimpse of...

the memorial to Sir Ernest Shackleton, erected by his men...

and the small cemetery where Sir Ernest is buried.

At the far end of Cumberland bay lies the abandoned Norwegian whaling station, Grytviken.

Kep is also a year round base, like Bird Island, so the relief would follow the same format.

We spent three glorious days at KEP; here are a selection of photos I took during my stay:


I haven't forgotten the penguin shot.
This one is a King penguin.

The whaling museum, Grytviken.

From KEP it was back to Bird Island again. This time the weather was more favourable and we were able to complete the relief.

As well as a large and diverse bird population, Bird Island also has Fur seal and Leopard seal colonies. The beach outside the buildings is littered with the bones and carcasses of dead seals.

Here are some more photos from Bird Island:

Finally, we arrived at Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands - our journey was over.

We had three days in Stanley and then it was time to leave.

Finally, as our plane flew out of the Falkland Islands, we were given a jet fighter escort. 18 hours later I was standing on British soil once more.

These last few weeks have been spent quietly at home. It has been so good seeing my family and friends again and re-aquainting myself with my old surroundings. I am settling back into the British way of life - the good things, like draught beer and fresh milk, and the not-so-good things, like a mobile phone (!!!) and television.
And I am still endeavouring to get to see everyone so please be patient.