It's good to be back!
In March 2013 I bid a sad farewell to Antarctica, the Ocean Diamond and newfound friends amongst my fellow expedition staff, with whom I had sailed to the Seventh Continent and back during the course of four expeditions in my first ‘rookie' season as a Quark Expedition guide.
Accompanying us on those voyages were of course the passengers who had signed up for a trip of a lifetime to experience the wonders of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding Southern Ocean….the ice, the wildlife, the history and the awe-inspiring sea and landscapes.
And like many of them, I knew I had to return. In fact, my two months working on the Ocean Diamond as a guide in 2013 was already a return as I had previously travelled with Quark to the Peninsula in 2010, so when you hear talk of being bitten by the Antarctic bug or catching polar fever, believe me it's absolutely true.
Come and see and experience it yourself, but be warned, it might change your life – it did mine.
Let the adventure begin …
So with permission granted from ‘normal' work to take (another!) period of unpaid leave and of course clearance on the domestic front from a slightly bewildered but lovingly supportive wife, I found myself in late January once again on the quayside in Ushuaia watching the ever-so-familiar ritual of ‘happysad' - departing passengers coming down the Diamond's gangway, hugging and shaking hands with the line of expedition staff, identifying their luggage and waving from the coach back at the ship, the staff and presumably the horizon, over which lay the scene of their recently concluded adventure.
(Happysad - happy to have experienced the magic of Antarctica – or just happy to have made it back across the Drake Passage, perhaps – but sad to be leaving it all behind.)
Once the quayside was clear, it was up the gangway and time to meet my fellow expedition team – many familiar faces of old friends and some new, but all with that same Quark buzz of enthusiasm, passion and excitement. A team led by Woody, a veteran Expedition Leader, with, like all Quark ELs, his own unique style and approach but which, also in keeping with Quark's other ELs, the desire to ensure each passenger gets the utmost from their expedition and comes away as an ambassador for Antarctica, as passionate about preserving this magical, pristine and fragile environment as he.
So, cabin found and gear unpacked, it was time for a quick buzz around the Diamond to see what had changed. Physically, things looked better than two years ago – somehow tidier, more organized and with a few improvements such as Zodiac storage, which perhaps contributed to a tangible feeling of a ship settled into a familiar routine to which she is well suited.
Crossing the circle: Falklands and South Georgia
Passengers embarked, muster drill completed, and then Ushuaia began to slip away behind us, and the impressive coastline of the Argentinian and Chilean sides of the Beagle Channel began to slide past to port and starboard. This first trip is a 23-day corker, Epic Antarctica, taking in the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, including dipping below the Antarctic Circle. What a prospect!
As the Beagle Channel disappeared and the sun set, passengers settled down to their first four-course dinner (no dressing up for dinner on this ship – it is an expedition, not a cruise) and certainly those at the table I joined (the expedition team always eat with passengers; no crew mess for us!) were not disappointed. Quite the opposite, in fact, with more than one comment (said with anticipatory relish of more to come of the same) along the lines of “not quite what I expected on an Expedition ship!''
The Maître d', Glenn (with two ‘n's, as he repeatedly points out), has not changed. He still greets all passengers and staff with an infectious, slightly mischievous smile, presumably in anticipation of the fun he will have with passengers. He will get to know them (and all associated dietary and beverage requirements, of which there are many!) whilst they are in his domain, which he clearly delights in running with ruthless, but jovial efficiency.
Those passengers who ventured out on deck after dinner before retiring to their cabins were rewarded with a bright moon and clear skies, and with the Pilot disembarked, could look out into an empty expanse of ocean with our first destination, West Falkland, not yet visible but somewhere over the distant horizon. It was certainly good to be back on-board!
At sea and the Falklands
Did I say it was good to be back on board? Well I lied – it is great to be back on board!
I slept the deep and contented sleep of someone happily returned to a familiar bed, the Diamond's gentle motion ensuring I drifted off in seconds.
Early risers on our first day at sea had a spectacular vista of the high peaks of the receding continent of South America bathed in glorious light from the rising sun in the East. I was satisfyingly pleased with myself at being able to identify (most of!) the birds already flying around the ship – perhaps my guiding knowledge was not so rusty after all. Nevertheless, it was handy to be able to check things with resident ornithologist Fabrice, who, as usual, was on the bridge by 5am. By breakfast, he was already making friends with the keen birders on board, who had quickly found that the upper decks and bridge wings make excellent viewing platforms, with clear views forward and to both sides of the ship all the way to the stern.
The daily expedition staff meeting before breakfast dishes out tasks for the day and often for the voyage, so it was straight back in at the deep end. Amongst a range of behind-the-scenes jobs, I also found myself modelling (well, wearing at least) and demonstrating how to don, adjust and operate the lifejackets passengers would be wearing on the water during Annie's Zodiac briefing – fame at last! No time for it to go to my head though, as the unspoken tradition is for the returning rookie guide to ‘look after' the effective, if slightly primitive toilet set-up (barrels, bin-bags, string – you get the idea) during the overnight camping later in the trip. Setting the loo up is no problem, but as nothing can be left ashore in Antarctica, bringing the ‘contents' back presents a whole range of challenges. Even those with limited imagination can foresee multiple disastrous outcomes…
A packed day of briefings for passengers, interrupted by a buffet lunch with multiple options (too many for those predisposed to foodie indecision, resulting in early but obvious concerns regarding caloric intake given there is nearly three weeks of meals ahead) and interspersed with gear setup, first parkas then boots, kept the team busy. One hundred and eighty-five passengers of varying body and foot sizes requires a vast stock of both items of gear to ensure everyone can be fitted out correctly – that's a lot of boxes to be hauled out and then re-packed and put away!
An expedition ship's Captain's Welcome Cocktail party
Shortly after, both passengers and expedition staff were invited to the Captain's Welcome Cocktail Party (in reality, more like informal drinks with tasty snacks, although the expedition team do dust off a clean white shirt… down which said tasty snacks inevitably leave a tell-tale trail). Captain Oleg introduced everyone to the Ocean Diamond, the senior officers and ship's staff, and explained that everyone was welcome on the bridge at pretty much anytime, day or night, providing there was no button pressing, twiddling of dials or standing in front of the helmsman (for obvious reasons, given we would shortly be sharing the ocean with icebergs).
I was up early the following morning and joined Fabrice and a few keen birders on the bridge, watching a multitude of black-browed albatross gliding and swooping around the ship. For many of these magnificent birds, our destination of West Point Island, which lies off the most northwesterly point of West Falkland, is their home. And this wild and remote home was revealing itself in ever more detail as the Diamond edged closer.
Once anchored, the Zodiacs launched (so good to be back on water!) and staff landed ashore, followed shortly afterwards by a steady stream of excited and mildly relieved passengers. For many, this was their first Zodiac experience, putting the briefing theory into practice. Fortunately, the West Falklands weather had allowed a dry initiation!
Once the passengers had headed off on foot or by Land Rover (a shuttle service courtesy of the island's residents) to observe black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins at Devil's Nose and cliffs, I was into a Zodiac to reacquaint myself with driving and handling these versatile craft, the workhorses of Quark's expedition operations. It was great to be back in the saddle, so to speak. However, not having previously had to cope with the issues presented by kelp – thick, rope-like seaweed found in massive quantities in the Falklands and South Georgia, attached to rocks at tideline in huge hair-like wavy mats, or attached to the seabed and appearing on the surface in vast impenetrable rafts – a quick lesson was in order. Firstly, avoid getting stuck as a result of a kelp-wrapped propeller; essentially, ‘don't be dopey and drive into it', and secondly how to extricate oneself if unavoidably (and embarrassingly) caught - ‘got a knife, haven't you?' (Thankfully, yes).
Refresher session over, returning to shore across the bay we were joined by a school of commerson's dolphins, which began gallivanting around the Zodiac, playfully splashing us – intentionally for sure. They swam alongside at speed, their black and white bodies gleaming in clear Falklands water, heads turned up, a beady eye fixed on us and, I am convinced for sure, a dolphin-like grin from beak to blow-hole.
Time for a swift walk across the valley between Black Bog Hill and Michael's Mount to see black-browed albatross and rockhoppers, congenially co-habiting the same nesting area snugly tucked into the wind-swept tussock covered cliff-top. Last Zodiac time approaches, so with a 20-minute walk back to the settlement (tea and cakes available from our resident hosts, as well as a splendid rhubarb jam) it was time to assist in sweeping the site for passengers reluctant to leave this first landing site, gather up the marker flags and head back.
Historic and remote Saunders Island
The afternoon saw us arrive at Saunders Island. The weather and sea were kind as I loaded my first Zodiac – no wind or swell to contend with at the gangway, so all that's needed is the customary check of lifejackets on and backpacks off and then a short run into the southern side of The Neck, the landing site chosen by Woody, stopping just short for a brief on the route and required behavior ashore, along with last Zodiac time back to the ship before running the Zodiac in to the wide sandy beach, hopping out and helping unload my cargo of yellow-clad passengers. Then it's hop back in, return empty to the ship and pick up another load. With up to eight shuttles running, everyone is off the ship and ashore in a matter of minutes.
Magellanics, rockhoppers, gentoos and kings
The stunning weather only added to the majesty of this fantastic site as passengers disembarked and made their way carefully past the gentoo penguins and onwards and upwards past the small king penguin rookery, then the burrowing Magellanic penguins to the nesting site of a vast number of black-browed albatross high above the sweeping sand beach. Gazing out to the north, those taking the time to sit on the hillside and admire the albatross in flight and chuckle at their clumsiness on landing were also rewarded with numerous whale blows off-shore. Too far off to identify, but a reminder that ‘whale action' in these waters is always a possibility.
An overnight transit saw us arriving into Stanley early the following morning, Captain Oleg guiding us smoothly through the narrow inner harbor entrance, turning to starboard and anchoring a stone's throw from the jetty. The brisk 30-knot wind barreling down the harbor made for a spray-filled Zodiac trip ashore, but once on land outer clothing was left with harbor security and the delights of Stanley explored. Whilst the museum is excellent, for expedition staff, particularly those who had been on-board for some time, an equally essential stop was the supermarket with its array of exotic English goodies such as Dairy Milk chocolate and Branston Pickle! Postcards sent, a cup of tea and a scone scoffed and it was time to leave this astonishingly patriotic little piece of the U.K.
With all passengers safely back on-board, the Ocean Diamond slipped back through the narrows and set course for that expedition heaven, otherwise known as South Georgia, some 800 nautical miles to the east and two full days at sea.
Why wouldn't it be great to be back on-board?
Written by Quark Expedition Team Member Malcolm Ellis
About Malcom Ellis: Almost a true Manxman, having been brought up on a small island in the Irish Sea - the Isle of Man (but not quite achieving “3 legs” status), Malc has spent much of his time in, on and around the sea. A degree in Maritime Geography at UWIST in Cardiff fuelled Malc's interests across a broad range of marine disciplines. A volunteer rescue worker, Malc spent seven years as an inshore lifeboat Helmsman for the RNLI and was part of an Auxiliary Coastguard SAR team while instructing climbing, sailing, kayaking and other outdoor activities on the South Wales coast. Now Group Head of Health & Safety Compliance for TUI Travel (Quark's parent company), Malc's involvement with Quark Expeditions began in 2009. He was bitten fully by the Antarctica bug in early 2010. Malc is married with three children, lives on the south coast of the UK and is looking forward to sharing the wonders of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica with you.
All Photos by Dave Merron Photography