The internet connection, which has required skilful monitoring in order for the user to avoid getting overly frustrated, has now been declared defunct, for as long as we are around the pole. That is due to the fact that the earth is round, says the company – for now. I knew we were all going to get a little bit smarter around Antarctica, but most certainly hope that we all can still improve on this one!
Upon leaving Buenos Aires, where some passengers left and new ones joined us, a few pawns were moved on the dining room chessboards. As one of our tablemates had departed, we had the pleasure of greeting a type of American that we had been able to avoid until now: a New Yorker. He was the in-your-face type, which is normal because there are no others among the “born and raised in NY” specimens, also if they were born more than eighty years ago. All told, and taking an hour or so to get used to the style, tabular peace overtook the reserved politeness that had clouded the early conversation: he is a nice and interesting “bloke”. And a teacher, who listens more than he talks, as well.
The sea days between the Plate estuary and the Falklands were very lookalikes. As the sun rose, a little earlier every day as we moved south relentlessly, it was cloudy, rainy, foggy, dreary for short. By midday though, the sun had found its way back to the decks and, as long as one had shelter against the wind, it was a meteorological dream world. The ocean was flat as a lake and the swell had, miraculously (?), disappeared, as the strong morning breeze had been turned into a subtle sigh. As the bow cut softly through the rolling wavelets, the splashy liquids provided the background rhythm for humming a dreamy melody. Actually, the melody was turned into a symphony, long enough to paint me red!
The sunburn would not pose any problem, because my skin would get a well-deserved rest. Indeed, the weather for the Falklands read: 11°C (54F) and mostly overcast. Not only was it cool, it was also pretty windy. According to the Cruise Director – the Entertainment Captain so to speak – there were no other skippers capable to get this ship in these waters under these conditions for anchor – outside of our very own Viking. We found ourselves about three miles out of Port Stanley, girded around a distant bay, looking colorless, thanks to the fog. The “tender operations” were announced as challenging and everyone would have to show understanding and patience. As time is not an issue on for the folks on this voyage, patience was available!
Why anyone had ever gone to war for these islands – no oil, no minerals, and no agriculture – is quite puzzling. With its five thousand miles and three thousand inhabitants, it is a rock formation that jots out above the Atlantic by sheer accident. That was also obvious to a substantial number of penguins, and they have made it their home in the summer to mate, to hatch and to molt, before going back to sea – to live! Obviously English and Argentines thought they knew things that the penguins did not, or did they?
We had come to see the penguins, and I had chosen to visit the Gentoo en the King species, two of the four visiting and summer-resident breeds (there are also Magellanics and Rockhoppers). The interior of Iceland is somewhat similar to the Falklands but much more “civilized”. Here there are no beaten tracks, only beaten bush and you need Indians to show you the way. After a boat transfer of fifteen minutes, we boarded two Land Rover Defenders that brought our party of twelve to Sparrow Cove, our destination. Along the way we passed minefields (not a tourist attraction), and pearl white beaches with clear, turquoise water, across slow hills and long valleys, covered with all kinds of grasses and weeds (with impressive names). After half an hour we arrived at a verdant atrium-like slope, between two rocky outcrops, perhaps five miles apart. They were slowly dipping into a silvery ocean. And there, at last, we discerned the colonial occupants that we were looking for, many thousands of them!
They had starting mating and hatching by the end of September. Most of the newborn were already trotting around; some were ready for their maiden dive, others had to lose a little bit more chick-y down. Ostensibly that was a task for the ubiquitous wind. Countless carcasses were littering the grounds too, varying between just deceased to bone-picked. Apparently penguins are conversant with Darwin: parents decide amongst themselves which from their two chicks will be most likely to survive, and they just let the weakest wither in the wind, literally and figuratively.
These sixty day old Gettoos are funny folks, and very curious. They walked up close to us quacking, gaggling and sniffing, not afraid at all. In the coming weeks the dad and mum would teach them how to swim and dive and then … they had to look after themselves, alone. They live in large communities but there is no small, cozy family. It obviously has nothing in common with the European perennial care and welfare society.
When I was returned to the port proper, two tenders were tied up at the pier. That was strange because these horses are supposed to shuttle. Upon inquiry I found out that the tender operation was suspended, until further notice. The wind had “picked up” to 55 knots, 62mph or 100km/h: gale force. Rather than wait around the terminal and join the chatter about the length of the suspension, I decided to meander through the city.
The walk took time and energy; that is due to the fact that the city is stretched over a couple of miles along the bay, about ten terraces high if you want to see the “Stanley circular road”. Everybody has a historic building in his neighborhood, as they are all spread across the hill. This capital village of 2000 souls, most Anglican and some catholic measured by the size of the churches, sports a hotel, a post office with a “philatelic branch”, two churches, a museum, one cemetery … in the end, there is nothing out of the ordinary, lest we also mention the British expeditionary legion numbering 1500 young soldiers.
After two hours, the wind had taken back some of its gas and they had decided to give the transfer operation another try. The biggest challenge, apparently, was docking with the mother ship. Eighty willing, able and impatient men and women had found a spot in those tin boxes, without a keel, which we call “tenders”. More experienced hands than I suggested that these boats might actually flip over, if the weather was not cooperative! I figured that the heavier the load, the lower would be the risk. Eighty was a good number!
My reputation as a jockey and as a sailor is a closely guarded secret. That is because nobody has ever been able to catch me on a horse, or on a sailboat. Leaving Port Stanley I can honestly claim that I have been on both. Although I don’t think that the three mile ride to the Prinsendam was dangerous, it was definitely as adventuresome as a bucking a colt. Add to it all that the water rushed into the boat with every gale that hit us, as we came perpendicular to the direction of the waves: fun for some, misery for others. In these moments you also realize that the tender sports a lot more gaps, slits and holes than you ever thought possible! We made it, safe and sound, of course. This is an expeditionary voyage after all.
The Antarctic, another extraordinary port of call, is next. We are ready for the adventure, but are we ready for the cold?
Prinsendam, Day 38 – Friday Feb 11th, 2011
Steaming towards Elephant Island