Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 4 Feb. 2009

Snow on the water, fire in the sky The last few days here in Antarctica have seen a myriad of changing conditions, weather, people and experiences. Xplore moved from the snug anchorage of Hovgaard / Plenneau island and made our way down to the Argentine islands in the southern end of Penola Straites. A short stop was made at Yalour islands where we were able to land to enjoy the "Daffy Ducks" of penguins - the Adelies - so comical and fun to watch; the team had a great afternoon watching their antics. With smiles on the faces of all, skipper Stephen set another one of his projects on the team ... 'Their Mission' -- if they decided to accept it -- was to take Xplore from the Yalour islands and enter the rocky low island archipelago of the Argentine islands, make passage through the narrow channels and complete the task with the yacht tied up in the inner mooring basin near the Ukranian station, known as Stella Creek. This was all to be done without Skipper Stephen onboard. First mate Audrey was a little stunned at first, once being given the brief, but with helping hands and a variety of knowledge she put the team together with a plan of action. Skipper Stephen headed off to Stella Creek to rig and prepare the shore lines and rock strops for their entry. Like all good team building exercises there is always going to be a bit of tension and friction, but this didn't faze Audrey and the crew. Skipper Stephen and one of the team in the zodiac returned back to the start of the inner channels to keep a close eye on progress from a distance. Seeing their yacht being tied up from off the boat is a bit like a mother watching her baby take their first steps without holding their hands: a little nervous, but with pleasure in the eyes as the team completed a smooth and uneventful passage. The Argentine islands have always been a special place for me to take clients as they have, if conditions are good, a wonderful labyrinth of ice caves within the islands. If snow and ice levels are good, dry and stable it is possible to enter the caves and follow the ice tunnels inside. Richard and Stephen made a first entry early in the morning to ascertain the conditions; being that we had had southerly winds from the previous two days, the caves were frozen and stable. We returned to the yacht and arranged for some extra ice crampons and picks from the Ukrainian station, who are always happy to help and assist. The sunlight during the day was magical and complete, a quiet stillness surrounded the entire Antarctic continent. Stephen took multiple groups through the caves during the day; being able to enter over 200 meters within the cave gave, to some, challenging climbing, for most of the team had never stepped on glacial ice, let alone gone under the ice in caves! Being inside glacial ice caves is a little like scuba diving without tanks: the ice filters the light to a soft blue, deep within the caves. The light can be dark, but as we traversed within, portal lights brought more light, to display cathedral ice columns and stalactites. Everyone was speechless, I have never seen the faces beaming like little sun rays so much. We finished ice climbing by 8pm; with an invitation to visit the Ukrainian station that evening, we decided it was necessary to delay dinner (bad mistake) until our return trip, as the stations work on strict times for visitors. What many don't realise is that the Ukrainians - apart from doing research and monitoring of climatology, ozone levels and ice conditions - they have also perfected the art of vodka making in their spare time !! As the base originally was an English base ( Faraday ) the previous tenants had constructed a perfect replica of an English bar. which just has to be seen to be believed: a pub with pull table, good music and a lot of vodka mixed with the crew and teams of two yachts made for one hell of a party ! Without too much detail, the party continued 'til midnight, when some very shaky legs needed to be guided back to the zodiac and then to Xplore. Boy it was lucky a few of the team were "Ship Shape" as we may have lost a couple in the drink ! Dinner happened late that night, but the effect of the vodka had taken its toll, many a sore head slipped off to bed for a very long sleep. More news to come as Xplore explores onwards. ~ Stephen

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