Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 19/11/06 - Part 3

Penny and Jim were at my table for dinner once more, though there was no lengthy discussion today. After the meal, 'North by Northwest' was being shown in the Lecture Room. A strange choice, I thought, but a welcome one for me; it's one of Hitchcock's best regarded works. Of course, in this day and age, the laughter it evokes is not always intentional and more than one person thought it silly.

Well, yes, it is silly, but then so is a James Bond movie (I'm not rushing to 'Casino Royale'), but we forgive it because it's a James Bond movie. 'North by Northwest', as has been commented upon many times, has all the elements of a James Bond (the debonair hero, the sexy woman working for the other side, evil mastermind, double entendres, action set pieces, etc., etc.), but came well before 'Dr. No' (1962). I think it's a wonderfully written piece, with a great Hermann score and lovely cinematography.

Ernest Lehmann, the scriptwriter, consistently uses the aparatuses of our safety - the police, the intelligence agencies, even social convention - against our hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). A classic example is the auction scene where Thornhill must defy convention to avoid certain death (he is even asked by the auctioneer to 'play by the rules'). Consistently he must accept his criminal status (one thrust upon him) and break the rules in order to ultimately validate them. It is a tale of an adolescent's rebellion against authority in order to be accepted as an adult by that authority. Indeed, it could be argued that in his marriage to Eve at the end, he embraces commitment and maturity (in contrast to Bond who is the eternal boy, a kind of sexually promiscuous Peter Pan).

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 19/11/06 - Part 2

The kitchen
The Lounge
Penguin under attack!
Port Lockroy

In the afternoon we were to visit Port Lockroy (64 degrees 49' south) on Wiencke Island, in the Palmer Archipelago. Originally discovered and named by the French, this is now a kind of GPO for this region of the South Pole and run by the British. I suppose in the grand scheme of things it should also be regarded as Antarctica's megastore, selling souvenirs and stamps as well as taking our post. It also doubles as a small museum. All this activity is housed within Bransfield House, as big as the ground floor of a suburban semi. A colony of penguins live beneath the floorboards (and everywhere else) and a Union Jack flutters on a flagpole by the door. Walking the gangway into the house, you go over a penguin nest (so much for the 5 metre rule). Here the poor female was being subjected to a two-pronged attack, with a penguin on either side of the nest trying to steal her nest stones.

While the shop was full (a very easy thing to happen), I investigated the museum. This is a collection of rooms restored to (or let fall back into) their '40's state. I signed the visitors' book, perused the small library (readers' Digest and "The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham"), and noted the food stores (Bovril's Pemmican, Crosse and Blackwells' Fresh Herring, etc.). (You may note these activities encompassed ego, books and food, probably my three my concerns). A small room at the back served as the living quarters for the three inhabitants. It was small, messy and filled with Tesco marmalade, etc.. The outpost is maintained by one man and two women during the summer months. The women were asked by some of our women whether they felt lonely for men. They answered, "We have our husband." The man said something similar, and though it may have been a joke, the reality is that there's no room for a third person that we could see and precious little space in the room we saw. We left them with our postcards, some fresh food and a good portion of our money.

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 19/11/06 - Part 1

We had an early start with breakfast at 7.30 and ashore on Cuverville Island (64 degrees 41' south) by 9.30. From the point where the zodiac docked, we rounded a high hill to yet more stupendous scenery. It is very easy to take all this beauty for granted and certainly each place we reach seems more glorious than the last. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is unusual, that this is as Nature intended, not Man.

As usual, the place was crawling with penguins, Gentoo. Pinkish pathways (stained by krill-filled penguin pooh; green pooh is squid-filled or else the penguin is hungry) were perpetually traversed by the hyperactive Gentoo penguins, and it was at one of these pathways that we stopped our trekking. Beyond lay a stunning bay ringed by penguin colonies and huge, mist-enshrouded mountains. Every so often a penguin would emerge from a small mass of rocks terminating the path, and walk its length, usually with a stone in its beak, to another group of birds. The path offered a natural photo opportunity, so a few of our immature colleagues chose to cross the boundary line to catch some of the spotlight for themselves. I soon had my fill of this and headed up the hill where a few of our group were already enjoying an elevated view of the scene.

After the heavy trudge of the day before, this walk was relatively easy. Reaching our 'camp', I lay down in the snow and took in the wonderful vista. Icebergs studded the water all the way to the coast of clouded mountains in the far distance. Someone mentioned this was Paradise Harbour, if so it lived up to its name.

On the way back down, a wisp of green caught my eye. It was a little tangle of feather, lichen and Antarctic Grass, probably let fall by a skua (the large dark birds that steal penguin eggs). Anna had just told me that there was only one variety of grass and flower (Pearl Wort) in Antarctica and we had seen neither. Now I'd seen the grass, hardly a milestone say you, but interesting nonetheless. Completing this encounter with nature, I came across the broken shell of an egg, probably the result of another skua. In this land, all signs of life are treasured events.

More Antarctic Pictures

How many penguins do you want?
Ice, penguins and sea - the perfect holiday
A Gentoo penguin going about his business

Penguins, Penguins, Penguins
Penguins, Penguins

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 18/11/06 - Part 3

After our trip to Kinnes Cove, I was plagued a little by a sense of what I may have missed over the years, in the way of 'dangerous' activities. On reaching the top of a very high hill, I followed the suit of others, lay down and slid down part of the snowy hill face. I was left with a childish hunger to "do it again, do it again!". At that moment I wanted to snowboard, ski and rollercoaster, but no more sliding was allowed, what with penguins, rocks and stuff.

The Captain's Antarctic Welcome, was a glass of champagne and a few words from the Swedish captain. He is a broad, stuffed individual, with bright blue eyes, steely hair and a very red face. For someone whose first language is not English, he has a fine, dry wit. Having cradled my champagne without a sip in anticipation of a toast, I was surprised to find there was none. I ended up downing it fairly quickly.

A very pleasant dinner was spent with Penny and Jim, two American Democratic activists, and Robert, an old school Tory from Britain. Brian was also at the table, but left first. We discussed George Bush (obviously), the new Democratic hopefuls, etc., but Robert, who is a vet and has no real interest in politics, played dumb, but still came back at the last for more conversation. Jim's reading Ayn Rand's, "Atlas Shrugged", and he confirmed all the prejudices I had about that writer. A good night's chat.

There is something refreshing about Robert, who is in his sixties and has left his wife at home to mind their 4 dogs, few cats and 150 sheep. He was really the only other person to join me on the top deck in the midst of the storm and for the same reason I did; this was what it was all about! I was conscious of possibly offending him with some of my views (I'm no Tory!), so I kept as diplomatic as I could. We still agreed that Neil Kinnock wasn't a bad sort, despite his ill-judged victory conference.

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 18/11/06 - Part 2

The journey to the top
Adelie Penguin and boat
Adelie Penguin
Another Greater Spectacled Penguin
Looking down
Greater Spectacled Penguin, aka Niall O'LearyGreater Spectacled Penguin
Nesting penguins

I was exhausted at breakfast and had to go back to bed for 40 minutes. Then instead of a lecture and in keeping with the morning's adventure, we watched a screening of "March of the Penguins". I noted Anna came in at one point, went "Pooh!", and walked out again. Then we had a briefing on our next destination, Cape Kinnes on Joinville Island (63 degrees 22' south).

Kinnes Cove, where we landed, was a stunning location. Craggy ice cliffs tore out of the rock into the bay. It was also the snowiest venue yet and if we didn't keep to the pathways trodden by our guides (and even when we did), we stood a good chance of sinking up to our thighs. The main wildlife here of course was Adelie penguins and seals. Rather than struggle with walking some of us took the example of the penguins and slid down a small embankment. Anna was not too pleased. If you create too many footmarks, that is too many tracks, you can interfere with the penguins routes to the sea.

To see a nesting place at some height we followed Adam up to a high outcrop. That was stunning enough, but then it was suggested we go the full way and top a nearby summit. Well, I had to do that, didn't I! It was a climb to prove how unfit I am, though once you are walking a trail single file you cannot stop or you hold up those behind, and you cannot forge ahead due to the person in front. Just when we surmounted one crest, another one appeared and the climb continued. Eventually though I made it and it was a breathtaking vision.

Coming down is always remarkably easy compared with the initial climb, but Christian worked on Adam sufficiently to get his permission to slide some of the way down (there were no penguins up this high, wise animals). A pure snowbank provided the perfect slope, though as I was one of the first the slide I took was not sufficiently hollowed by people to allow me to get too much speed. I ended up kicking myself forward towards the bottom.

Down near the shoreline, a very unhealthy Weddell Seal treated us to a display of vomitting. Nice, as Marc might say.

When we returned we had two bits of news: the Captain's Antarctic Welcome would be at 7, and we would be visiting Port Lockroy, a British post office, the next day, if we wanted to post any postcards.

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 18/11/06 - Part 1

The penguin poses
A pair of Emperor Penguins
The Weddell Sea
The Weddell Sea
The Weddell Sea

I went to bed at around 12. Given the great weather, we had been heading south in the hope of visiting an Emperor colony (the stars of "March of the Penguins"). This was unusual for our trip as the Explorer rarely goes south far enough to see any Emperors (we went beyond 64 degrees 20' south). At around 3 in the morning the intercom went: Emperors had been spotted! I took my time though; it's not easy getting out of a warm bed to dress for a frozen deck, certainly not at 3 in the morning. Remember too that as far as I was concerned we were headed for a colony. When I did get up it was too late. The penguin was gone.

I asked Anna if we'd see any more, but she just laughed. The colony was too far away and we were blocked by ice. The Emperor that had been seen was a solitary specimen on an iceberg. was devastated. This was a rare sighting and I had missed it.

Within half an hour, however, while I was still on deck hoping, another passenger spotted two more. I had been using my video camera as binoculars, but it was now out of power. I begged a look through his binoculars and he was kind enough to oblige. There were indeed two emperors, although I was a little doubtful, and beyond them I could see a seal on the ice. The ship, which had been going past the berg, now began to circle back. I ran to charge my camera, if only for five minutes. When I got back, there were THREE emperors! That had been no seal! And they were definitely emperor penguins, big (the biggest there is, a metre tall) with yellow at the throat. The pair soon dropped to their bellies and slid into the sea, but the third stood his ground while the ship drifted nearer and nearer. Gently the ship nestled against the berg, but the penguin took no notice. I ran, got my camera and shot what I could. He deserved at least 10 minutes of tape. Eventually he too tobogined into the sea and was gone, but I felt privileged and gratefully went back to bed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 17/11/06

More penguins
And even more penguins

In the morning we were to make our first trip ashore at Brown Bluff (63 degrees 32' south). Trips ahore always begin with a briefing beforehand. The 90 odd passengers (some extremely odd) are split into two groups, each alternately going ahead of the other, although this usually only amounts to a delay of 10 minutes for the second group. The zodiacs take 8 to 10 people. Prior to getting in the boat there is a 15 minute ceremony of dressing up warmly, donning our lifejackets, melting in the reception as we await our turn, washing our boots (so we don't bring any contamination with us) and 3 at a time trudging down the gangway. There is a 5 metre rule towards the wildlife; we must give them 5 metres distance, though if they come towards us, that's our luck. Coming back we clean our boots again on shore, don our life jackets and clean our boots again on deck. This would become commonplace and automatic, and any inconvenience was washed away by the thrill of the visits.

Brown Bluff, a narrow stretch of beach hemmed in by red cliffs is on the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Rubber boots came in handy as we had to step into the water getting out of the zodiac. All along the sealine, strangely shaped ice formations made nice posing points for the penguins of which again there were thousands. This time, however, we were up close and personal and observing the 5 metre rule was a challenge. The penguins themselves were mainly Adelie, though there were some Gentoo, I believe. The nests were constructed of small pebbles and it was common to see a penguin waddle by with a stone in his beak, depositing it by its mate. It was also common to see thievery, prostitution and any other devious measure they could come up with to get each others' stones. The penguin on the nest (it can be a male) cannot move too much, however, as the 1 or 2 eggs they warm are very susceptible to the cold. The idea of the stones is to keep the eggs away from any ice or snow.

Adelie penguins

In the afternoon we landed at Paulet Island (63 degrees 35' south). The sun was out and snow carpeted the space between penguin nests. The ruins of a small shack once used by stranded Norwegians is now the home for penguins. Further inland a large frozen lake (the result of volcanic activity) serves as a skating (or taboggin) rink for penguins, while Weddell seals along the shoreline act as a distraction for penguins. All in all this is kind of a Disneyland for penguins. Here the Adelie were again dominant, but other wildlife such as Blue-eyed Shags, Weddell Seals, Skuas and Sheathbill (or Shitbill given their diet, penguin pooh) Terns were abundant. The penguins walk around the seals who regard them with apathy to gaze at the sea in groups. They will only jump in after someone takes the lead. Weddell Seals eat krill, squid etc., but Leopard Seals might be in the bay and they have a penchant for penguins (they can get the wrappers off too! One was later seen flinging a hapless gentoo around to get at its meat). I got carried away with it all and was the last one back to the zodiac.

Blue eyed shags
Adelie Penguins and Weddell Seal
Ice and sea

After all the rough and tumble of the previous days, the evening was calm and beautiful. Huge icebergs floated all around us while the ship placidly drove through the still water. The sun made a startling display of oranges, yellows and reds both in the sky and reflected on the sea, and, low though it was, it just kept shining. At 11.30, I could stand on the bow and enjoy the glorious spectacle.

Antarctic Sunset
Sunset at the South Pole
Antarctic Sunset

(For what it's worth the music that springs to mind these days are predictably Vaughan Williams's 7th Symphony - his Antarctic Symphony - and Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, though moreso the Mendelssohn piece).

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 16/11/06

The rocking continued throughout the night, though I slept well. The following morning, however, the swell had taken its toll. Many had been sick and were to get sicker. The lecture at 9.15 was on penguins and was not full. As it progressed, people began to hurry out, and in this classroom the teacher was helping them out. Whether the seasickness tablets were working (they didn't for others) or I sail well, I don't know, but I was immune to the general malaise. I found out later that there was a busy trade in the doctor's office, as he had some miracle injection that succeeded where the tablets failed.

Towards the end of the lecture, I began to get bored and started deleting photos from my camera to free up some memory. Anna suddenly burst into a demonstration (of penguin waddle, I think) and came down to check on what I was doing. I turned off the camera pronto. We can come or go as we please, but a classroom's a classroom.

Lance couldn't make his lecture (though he popped up later to deliver it, still queasy) and I think David came on early with a video on Shackleton. Afterwards, and for most of my free time, I was up on deck enjoying the ride. The top deck at the front was the best. As the boat lurched into trough after trough, there would be a huge explosion of water. Another huge swell would loom up and the ship perched at the crest of the last would suddenly dive forward. Depending on the timing the spray could be enormous. The wind too was terrific throwing little icy pellets into our already stung faces. I say 'our' because two English guys, young and old, Christian and Robert, occasionally joined in. I suppose we were always safe, but I found the whole thing fantastic.

Just a few notes on the ship, the M.S. Explorer. It has four decks, I think, the manin deck, the pool deck, the bridge deck and the top deck. We can go into the bridge room occassionally, but on either side of it is a relatively sheltered area used for bird-spotting etc.. The top deck is the coldest, the wind making it difficult to stare forward, even with my glasses. Occasionally if the Captain sees fit, the bow, which opens off the lounge on the main deck, might be opened to passengers. Otherwise it's a workplace.

The dining hall, reception and lounge are all on the main deck. An itinerary of the day's events will be posted the preceding night at reception and other specified areas. A list of the birds and mammals we might see is printed and posted too, and ticked off by day as creatures are sighted.

The day starts with a big breakfast from 8 until 9, with lectures following until around 12. Lectures are on ornithology, geology or history and may feature a film. Of course, lectures might be abandoned if we are to go onshore. Coffee and tea are always available. Lunch at 12.30 is a well-stocked buffet with three main courses, salads, dessert and cheese. Another lecture or film might fill the afternoon, unless there is a trip ashore, but really our time is our own until dinner at 7.30. This is a happy affair with tables of 8 and a 4 course meal.

By evening things had settled down somewhat and the many, many people who had taken to their cabins suddenly came out into the light. Unfortunately the weather had slowed us down and a landing on Elephant Island was now no longer possible. However, we could make a brief trip around them in the inflatable motorboats, the zodiacs. It was a good deal better than nothing.

What's left of the beach at Point Wild where Shackleton's men spent several months awaiting rescue, not knowing if Shackleton had made the barely possible trip to South Georgia, is hardly visible, a disjointed stretch of rocks just gasping above the waterline. Standing very incongruously on a pedestal on this outcrop is a bust in memory of the captain of the vessel that eventually did come to their aid. For us was an added bonus, our first sight (and smell) of penguins. The chinstrap penguin is a subantarctic maritime penguin, meaning it lives mainly outside the antarctic circle. Here there were thousands and thousands of the black and white fowl. A smell I recognised from the zoo was everywhere. Also on the huge cliffs above us, gulls were nesting and flying through the twilight, they presented an eerie sight. On shore too could be seen a huge cliff of ice. Should any of that wall collapse, I was pretty sure we'd be overturned in the wave created, but I for one didn't really care. This was wonderful.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Voyage of M.S. Explorer to Antarctica 15/11/06

Slept fine and awoke to a very discernible rolling, though the weather is fine. No problem showering, but getting to the dining room took a drunken stagger. This is how one develops sea legs. Worth it; breakfast was a fine buffet.

Aaron, the trip leader, had used the intercom to alert us to the presence of albatross at 7.30, so after brekkie I went out on deck. Fantastic! Sea all around and no sign of land, the Cape petrels and albatross swung through the sky behind us.

Looking at the petrels flying so far out at sea with no land nor prospect of it for long stretches, it struck me that save for nesting, they had no home except the sea. They flew over it, rested on it and ate in it. True nomads. Coincidentally so many of my fellow travellers were also nomads, with homes that were distant in space and memory. I cannot recall one who was looking forward to returning 'home'.

At 9.15 we had a lecture on seabirds by Anna the ornithologist. Lance followed with a talk on the makeup of the Antarctic. Later in the day, the resident historian, David, from Cornwall I believe, gave an account of the various expeditions to the South Pole up to Scott.

Dinner did not disappoint though we had a spillage or two (spilt milk). Nothing to dampen our appetites. Two tour operators from London on a round the world trip, Keith and Jen, and an Irish couple living in Boston, Brian and Louise, were at my table. We had a good chat and afterwards headed for the bar. Conveniently the coasters are plastic and made to keep the glass to the table. I had just poured my second glass when an unexpected swell hit us. Gripping coasters or not the whole thing went over and straight into the lap of Keith. That kind of dampened my enthusiasm and I headed for bed, as indeed did most people. Things were starting to get rough.

I don't want to ruin any day on this trip, so I do not intend to go crazy drinking. I certainly don't want to jeopardise tomorrow when we're to head to Elephant Island, a place of huge significance in Antarctic exploration. After Shackleton's ship, Endurance, was crushed in ice, he and his men made their way to this uninhabited island as the nearest piece of land. Later Shackleton would set off for South Georgia with four or five others in the James Laird, an adapted lifeboat. To say seeing this place is exciting is an understatement of antarctic proportions.

Antarctic Pictures

Just a few snaps of the first three days. Obviously there are many more, but uploading is slow and this monitor is too dark to see properly (I can't see too well what to post).

The Drake passage - Breaking the waves
Broken by the waves
Cape Petrels flying with the ship

Elephant Island

Zodiac travel
Point Wild, Elephant Island - The 'beach' where Shackleton's men were stranded (and the bust commemorating the man who commanded the ship that saved them, Luis Pardo).
Our first sight of penguins, and definitely not the last: Chinstraps!