The Ghosts of Antarctica
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Last night, we sailed 117.2 nautical miles north of our position yesterday at Danco Island, arriving early this morning off the barren shores of Telefon Bay. As the port side anchor of Hurtigruten’s FRAM clattered down into the sea below, another day for the 199 of us onboard this spectacular Voyage of the Penguins voyage began.
Volcanic in nature, Telefon Bay is named after a ship called the Telefon that ran aground and was repaired in this protected inlet in 1909. It is part of Deception Island, which is so-named because of the many unassuming but deadly navigational hazards that posed great risk to the early sealing vessels that came here.
On a map, Telefon Bay looks like a broken ring; a doughnut that someone has taken a small bite out of. But it is this ring shape that makes for such a safe and sheltered harbour; a standout among the numerous unprotected islands here in Antarctica. Located much farther north than you might expect from the Antarctic Peninsula, Deception Island is the place that makes me glad I brought along a small map and guidebook of Antarctica.
This isn’t like the other spots we’ve been to. The landscape at Telefon Bay is completely monochromatic; a world where blackened earth gives way to grey mountains that rise like a gradient into white snowcaps that blend seamlessly with the featureless sky.
It is a sad and infinitely lonely place. Whereas yesterday showcased Antarctica’s unbelievable natural beauty, our journey this morning revealed its desolate and unforgiving side. This is the side that reminds you of how many polar explorers have lost their lives here. Like a nightmare, it prods you with the thoughts of those who have struggled to merely stay alive in this harsh and unforgiving land. It is the split personality of a place that is at once alluring and welcoming, and viciously unfair.
Yet, even here, in this Ansell Adams-like landscape, there is a quiet stillness that can inspire. The longer I stood at the top of this Martian hill, the longer I became convinced that this might be one of the most soulful places on earth. Not a sound could be heard – not even penguins or birds. Just the howling of the wind that whipped at the back of my bright blue Hurtigruten jacket; the only instance of colour as far as the eye can see on Telefon Bay.
I love listening to movie scores – you know, the instrumental tracks that run in the background of a film. As I stood on the ashen earth that surrounded me, one track kept running through my head. That track was called, “It’s a Process”, by Mychael Danna from the movie Moneyball. I have hyperlinked to it so you can pull it up on YouTube; I think it’s appropriate for these bleak surroundings, particularly considering that standing there this morning felt like being part of a movie; one where all the external sounds have been turned down, leaving nothing but the score running underneath.
By the time we made our way back to the Polarcirkel boats, the wind had increased dramatically and snow had begun to fall in earnest. The snow, ironically, provided some of the only evidence of motion and life present on the entire island, save for those of us from the FRAM toddling around in our bright blue overcoats, the odd penguin, and an impossibly small sailing ship that looks like it would be better suited to cruising the Bahamas. How on earth did they cross the Drake and live to tell the tale?
This afternoon, we sailed the 5.3 nautical miles over to Whalers Bay, where the FRAM once again dropped her anchor. This time, though, they dropped a few other things: one of the ship’s fully-enclosed lifeboats and a rescue cutter, both lowered from the port side of the ship. If you’ve ever taken a cruise before, you’ll know that on one day per voyage – usually while in port – a handful of lifeboats are lowered from the ship and sailed around as part of the regular crew lifeboat drill. Here in Antarctica, this continues – though no doubt you’ve never seen anything quite like it before!
Beginning with those guests booked on the optional Geology Cruise and the small group of hikers that had assembled, general disembarkation for Whalers Bay began with Zodiac Boat Group 5 and continued through 6, 7, 1, 2, 3 and finally, Group 4. Once again, I really find myself liking this staggered disembarkation arrangement; it’s eminently fair and well-organized, and by this stage, all of FRAM’s guests have figured out how to put on their boots and life belts without any issues, so overall disembarkation continues to get faster with each passing day.
The first thing you notice about Whalers Bay is the steam coming off the water near the shoreline. It’s not particularly hot – in fact, it’s still icy cold – but it’s warmer than the air temperature outside thanks to volcanic activity that heats the water from below. Swimming here is technically possible, and a few hearty guests took to the ocean in their bathing suits to prove just how though they were!
Personally, I forewent the Polar Plunge in favor of wandering around the remains of a former whaling station that was in operation around the turn of the last century. Interestingly, the whaling station that was founded by Captain Adolfus Andresen was home to both Norwegian and Eastern Canadian whalers from Newfoundland.
Today, it lies in ruins. When the station was abandoned in 1931, anything too large to carry was left behind. At its operational height, more than 5,000 whales were processed here; their oil held within the enormous tanks and boilers that have now rusted into an earthy orange hue that serves as one of the few specs of colour on an otherwise monochromatic island.
The boilers in particular are objects of fascination, with their Edwardian-era appearance and gigantic flanges, bots and steel construction. Streams from melting snow and glacial runoff now carve deep channels in the earth, making it difficult to hop from one site to another, even in rubber boots. The current is surprisingly fast-moving, and one has to move quickly in order to not sink deeply into the saturated mud that exists at the bottom of these channels.
Whaler’s Bay almost defies description. Three grave cairns, adorned with crosses, could be seen in a clearing behind the whale oil tanks, next to what looks like to have been a church at some point. Apparently, around 45 people are buried here, but the graveyard was covered up many years ago by a landslide. It’s not clear who these three graves belong to; names – if there were any – have long been wiped off the wooden crosses by erosion and the harsh Antarctic winters.
The interesting thing to do in places like this, I find, is to play What If? What If I lived here? People lived here through the light of the Antarctic summer and the crushing darkness of the polar winter. They had, presumably, relationships, which were no doubt tricky and complicated in such a small and confined space. There might have even been families raised here; it’s hard to say.
So as we walked back to the FRAM, looking ever warm and inviting as daylight turned into prolonged twilight, I wondered how many people have made this trek before, one hundred years ago?
Tonight, guests were invited up to the Observation Lounge at 21:30 to taste something very special: Hurtigruten’s very own Scotch Whisky, carried around the world aboard FRAM in giant barrels encased in steel and affixed to her upper deck under the shadow of her radar mast. The Fram Whisky has been around the world aboard FRAM, and guests can purchase it either in the Observation Lounge by the glass, or in the gift shop by the bottle.
Tonight, guests were invited to sample the whisky’s 21-year old variety (one aged 25 years is also available), which was really good. I’m a huge fan of whisky, and FRAM’s went down nice and smooth. Did it taste better because it’s been at sea for so long? Perhaps. I’m a big fan of Linie Aquavit, the distilled Norwegian spirit that, so the story goes, has to cross the equator by ship twice before it can be sold. Marketing gimmick? Maybe. But it sure tastes nice.
For all its loneliness and desolation, I think Telefon Bay and Whalers Bay have had the most impact on me on this voyage. The feeling of being there is simply indescribable – but then, our entire journey aboard the sturdy and safe FRAM could be described as such.
Maybe it’s the after-dinner drinks or the wonderful new friends, but each evening I gaze out onto the beauty of the Antarctic Peninsula from the oversized windows in the Observation Lounge and feel nothing but gratitude for this other-worldly experience. Is it the ultimate cruise expedition? It may very well be. The best part is that it is here, each winter, just waiting to be explored.
Our full journey:
Hurtigruten's FRAM, Antarctica
|January 15, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|
|January 16||Buenos Aires - Ushuaia, Argentina|
|January 17||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 18||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 19||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 20||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 21||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 22||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 23||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 24||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 25||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 26||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 27||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 28||Ushuaia - Buenos Aires|
|January 29, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|