Written by guest blogger Jen Darling, a nurse who is accompanying a group of explorers on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica, led by Vancouver Aquarium’s president and CEO John Nightingale, Ph.D.
On the day we were scheduled to land on South Georgia Island, we ran into some pretty big delays – we were scheduled to land on the island that morning, but it was already late afternoon, with no development. By now, we were supposed to have been looking at a massive king penguin colony, cooing over the baby fur seals on the beach and anticipating a rare visit to Prion Island. But here we were, still steaming along in the fog. It had been foggy all day since we had crossed into the Antarctic Convergence, and that, added to previous bad weather conditions, mean we were now running 10 hours behind schedule.
Then, around 4:30 p.m., a PA announcement came on. We half-listened while we continued our conversations – until we heard “… and land should be visible any minute now.” Heads popped up. Coffee cups were left forgotten on tables as everyone scrambled to get their foul weather gear and cameras up to the bridge or outer decks. After three days at sea we were anxious to get off the ship and see more of the wildlife we’d come so far to experience. People spilled outside. There was wind and rain out there, but that’s no big deal if you’re from B.C. Apart from the penguins, this place so far reminded me a lot of winter on Canada’s northern coast.
Initially, I braved the bow deck, but was beaten back by wind-driven rain and sleet. I literally got blown off course by a gust as I headed forward. Within seconds, my camera was wet and I couldn’t see through the viewfinder. I gave up and headed for the relative shelter of the wing bridge a few decks higher up to towel off my lens.
Suddenly, someone next to me pointed and actually shouted, “land ho!” Out of the fog loomed an iceberg to the left of the ship, then one to the right. Behind them, rocks became visible, and soon it was apparent that we were seeing the mouth to the Bay of Isles. Wind was whipping out of the rocks as we advanced, and the fog began to thin. Huge glaciers could be seen spilling down between mountains towards the water. As the ship steamed around, skirting shallow water and a large iceberg, the katabatic winds continued to howl down off the glaciers and whip water spouts off the surface of the bay. The brave souls who stayed on the bow deck got soaked as a few waves washed over the side and rain blew vertically across the deck.
For safety reasons, we didn’t anchor here. The ship continued on to what would have been our second destination of the day, had we been on schedule – Stromness, an abandoned whaling station. Here too, the weather was uncooperative. The wind was blowing in the wrong direction, making anchorage impossible. Gradually, through the whistling and howling of the wind, another sound became audible – the barking and huffing of fur seals and elephant seals on shore.
Some clusters of penguins came into view. Someone called out that they could see the South Georgian reindeer on a slope, and binoculars and telephoto lenses swung around to the direction he was pointing at, in hopes of getting a glimpse of the animal. Over the PA system, more announcements; we learned that we wouldn’t land at all today. The disappointed passengers trudged to their cabins, packed up their cameras, hung up their foul weather gear and toweled off, resigned to waiting one more night for our chance to get to dry land and see animals other than the omnipresent wandering Albatross and the porpoising fur seals that had followed us for the last three days. Overnight, we would steam to Jason Harbour in hopes of more favourable weather for tomorrow.
The next morning dawned very early, around 4:30 a.m., thanks to the Austral summer. Pink and golden rays spilled out from behind some rocky hills lighting spectacular clouds, turquoise seas and some drifting ice burgs. Today will be a better day.