PLA32-15 & PLA33-15 Trip Log | Atlantic Odyssey, Ushuaia - Ascension - Cape Verde
01.07.2015 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, but it is also the beginning – the beginning of our once-in-a-lifetime adventure. During the summer this rapidly growing frontier town of 55,000 bustles with adventurous travellers.
The duty-free port flourishes with tourism but also thrives on a sizeable crab fishery and a burgeoning electronics industry. Ushuaia (lit. “bay that penetrates to the west” in the indigenous Yaghan tongue) clearly benefits from its magnificent, yet remote setting. The rugged spine of the South American Andes ends here, where two oceans meet.
We were greeted in the warm sunshine by members of our expedition staff who sorted our luggage and sent us on board to meet our Hotel and Restaurant Managers, Andre and Lilian. We were then shown to our cabins by members of our hard-working hotel crew. A little while after boarding we convened in the lounge on deck five to meet Expedition Leader Rinie, who welcomed us on board the ship. Andre, our Hotel Manager, then took over the microphone and gave us a general overview of the ship. Soon our Chief Officer led us through the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) safety and lifeboat drill, assisted by the crew and staff. On hearing the alarm we reconvened for the mandatory safety briefing and abandon ship drill, donning our huge orange life jackets for the first (and last we hoped!) time.
A short while later we were able to watch as the lines were thrown and Plancius made her way out into the Beagle Channel - our Atlantic Odyssey had begun! Later on we went to the lounge again to meet our Captain, Alexey Nazarov, our Expedition Leader, Rinie and the rest of the expedition team to toast our voyage to Antarctica and the Atlantic islands. This first evening on board was occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to her movements, and settling into our cabins, for in the early hours of the morning we would be out into the open waters of the notorious Drake Passage!
Our first night on Plancius had been a relatively quiet one up until around 2am when we finally cleared the shelter of Cape Horn and the ship began to move a little with the motion of the swell from a westerly direction. There was very little wind out on deck so many people took the opportunity to get outside and enjoy a much tamed Drake. Unusually, there was relatively little bird life with a very occasional Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses. Giant Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and Blue Petrels. A Royal Albatross turned up later in the day but none seemed too keen to come really close to the ship.
At 10.30, James kicked off the presentation programme with a general introduction to the geology of Antarctica in which his enthusiasm brought the subject of plate tectonics to life. This concept is to geology what the ‘theory’ of evolution is to biology, and elucidates the underlying structure of the continent of Antarctica. James also gave a potted history of our planet and how it has evolved through ‘snowball Earth’, through a steaming hot one perhaps 20 degrees C higher than to day, to the benign planet we now inhabit.
Antarctica was not always a glaciated continent but once hosted tropical swamps, and the fossilized remains of these are found not only in Antarctica, but also in Australia, Africa and South America – evidence that these great land masses were once joined.
After a relatively calm, sunny morning, we enjoyed a wholesome lunch. During the afternoon, the wind freshened to Force 6 from the west and the swell increased, causing Plancius to roll more. At 15.00 hrs we were invited to the lounge for Simon’s presentation about the different kinds of seabirds we were likely to see on our voyage. He gave us some great tips for identifying and photographing them and some yarns about his experiences with the birds we were hopefully about to see.
Just after 6pm Rinie invited everyone to the lounge for the daily re-cap which is a time for members of the expedition staff to talk about any interesting events of the day, and to give short presentations. Rinie started by briefing us on the following day’s plans. John demonstrated with a piece of cord the wingspan of a Wandering Albatross. It is often hard to get a sense of scale at sea with nothing to compare anything with but the length of string was a perfect prop for this. Finally Albert talked about the Antarctic Convergence, an area where the cold Antarctic waters from the south meet the relatively milder waters from the north and they mix and join the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which travels around Antarctica. Dinner was called and after another great meal on board most people retired to their cabins after what, for some had felt like a very long day at sea.
During the night we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, that magic line demarcating the Antarctic ecologically. South of this line, the water temperature suddenly drops, and we see a different selection of seabirds. Cape Petrels became a lot more common. During the day, the wind increased a little, but what was more annoying was a rising swell from the west, emanating from distant storms long gone. The swell hit us right on the beam, making the ship roll uncomfortably, causing chairs to topple over, and glasses with drinks ending up in peoples laps. Captain changed course a little, so the waves would hit us more diagonally, making it easier for the ship to ride them.
In the morning, Albert presented a lecture on ‘Who discovered Antarctica?’ A question never really resolved. According to the British it was Captain Bransfield, the Russians claim it was Bellinghausen, and the Americans insist it was Nathaniel Palmer. It all happened around 1820. The Greek philosopher Aristoteles already reasoned that there must be a southern land mass to keep the earth in equilibrium. The far north was already named Arktos by the Greek (after the Brown Bear Ursus arctos, the stellar constellation used to find the polar star), so Aristoteles named the hypothetical southern land mass Antarktos, the counter bear. For centuries, people tried to find the fabled Great South Land, allegedly a paradise. It finally was Captain Cook, who during his circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1774 proved that there is no such a thing as a nice paradise down there. Oh yes, there must be a land mass, because he saw icebergs with rocks and soil on top of them, but everywhere where he probed south (he actually crossed the Antarctic circle), he found bitter cold conditions, and ice blocking his way. Albert proposes that we forget about all the petty fights about who discovered Antarctica in 1820, but give the honour to Captain Cook, if we apply the rules from the astronomers, who can discover a new planet without ever seeing it, based on aberrations of movements of other planets. Using these rules (there is nothing wrong with astronomy as a science), the evidence Cook reported (rocks on ice) is strong enough as proof that Antarctica does exist.
Rinie briefed us on biosecurity in the Antarctic, and the requirement that we all hoover our outdoor equipment, to remove alien seeds and spores. The hoovers were brought out, and all day long, we heard that annoying humming sound coming from the lounge. We all had to sign a sheet, testifying that we actually did clean our stuff. In the afternoon, Rinie explained the rules of IAATO, we have to adhere to, and went through all the dos and don’ts.
For the birders the highlight of the day was no doubt a Mottled Petrel, which is rarely seen on an Atlantic Odyssey, and which only very rarely ventures into South American waters, coming all the way from New Zealand.
Today we awoke to find the ship had arrived at Deception Island. We were going back and forwards in front on Neptune’s Window and had a great view of the outside of the volcano. Deception Island is a caldera and the massive crater formed in the recent geological past when an eruption 26,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb destroyed the volcano. At that time 60 km3 of lava were erupted and huge pyroclastic flows would have made the island 7 km bigger in all directions. Debris from the eruption has even been found 3000km away at the South Pole.
As soon as breakfast was finished it was time for us to sail through the gap in the volcano wall known as Neptune’s Bellows into the heart of the caldera. This is always a tricky navigation because right in the centre of the channel is Raven Rock, which has in the past caused several vessels to run aground.
Once inside the caldera it was time for a short briefing from Rinie, then we boarded the zodiacs and went ashore. Once ashore we were free to roam around the remains of the Hector Whaling station and the British Antarctic Survey Base that was destroyed by the 1970 eruption. Some of us took a longer walk up to Neptune’s Window from where the Antarctic mainland was first sighted by the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer.
We were all back on board at lunch time and we started sailing north east towards Half Moon Island. While off the coast of Livingston Island we had an incredible whale encounter. There were Fin Whales being hunted by Killer Whales. At one moment it seemed that a mother whale was positioning her calf between the ship and the whales. Later in the whole drama there were Antarctic Fur Seals too and right below the bow we could see a mother Killer Whale and calf with fur seal right in front of their noses. The mother killer whale did not grab it, perhaps she was teaching her calf how to hunt? By the end of our time with the whales there seemed to be seven Fin Whales in total all grouping together for protection. We then continued and just as we were arriving near to Half Moon, we had another incredible encounter this time with a rare Southern Right Whale. It was amazing to see close up, and we could all see the Whale lice covering its head.
Finally we did get ashore on Half Moon Island, just before it was getting dark. There were still very many chinstrap penguins to be seen. There was also a Weddell and Elephant seal lying on the beach.
Daybreak found us making our approaches into Cierva Cove with low cloud and a bit of a breeze and swell – a rather dreary atmosphere. After breakfast and a quick briefing we all boarded 7 zodiacs and headed off to explore Cierva Cove. Most boats headed directly inshore and made a short landing below the temporarily uninhabited Primavera Station of Argentina. The boats needed to push through a bit of brash ice but the landing was straightforward and we all quickly scrambled ashore to set foot for a few minutes on the Antarctic Continent – a good box to tick and the seventh continent for a number of people.
Wilson’s Storm-petrels flew in and out of burrows and a few Gentoo Penguins wandered along the shore but we were all quickly back in the boats to head out and check out some Humpback Whales that had moved into the cove. At least two different cow/calf pairs were present and put on an unforgettable show, rolling and fluking alongside the zodiacs for as long as we wanted. Following a brief snow flurry, the clouds actually lifted and the sun came out revealing the majestic scenery of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Next up a Leopard Seal was discovered catching, thrashing, and eventually eating a hapless Chinstrap Penguin. During the rest of the prolonged zodiac cruise we enjoyed the beautiful conditions, lots of icebergs, more Humpbacks and a couple of Antarctic Minkes, one of which was incredibly inquisitive of the zodiac for this normally shy species. We stayed out longer than we had expected but this will go down as one of the best zodiac cruises ever for all involved!
Over the course of the afternoon we steamed up the Orleans Strait. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the full beauty of the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula could be enjoyed. Humpback Whales were almost constantly in sight and we saw more than 100 over the afternoon – admittedly most were rather distant but we did have several very near the vessel as well. 2 huge bull Killer Whales also travelled through although they were not interested in the vessel. Groups of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins were frequently seen porpoising through the water and we passed some nice feeding groups of Antarctic Terns and South Polar Skuas.
Eventually the sun made its way behind the mountains and we headed inside for a recap and dinner. What a day!
The sun broke the horizon a few minutes after 07.00 to reveal a flat calm, iceless sea, a clear blue sky and distant, ice-covered islands. The ship was heading more-or-less due south, from the Bransfield Strait into Antarctic Sound; the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula was off on our starboard side. Humpback Whales had already been seen when the first of many Killer Whales were spotted; in total there were perhaps 40 or more in two big groups. We got close to some of the whales and could see that they were more type B’s. Having slowed and turned the ship the captain got us in a good position to watch as they swam by. This was another prolonged encounter, which lasted from 08.30 – 09.17.
Our landing place was beckoning so it was not long before we approached it. On the way we could see a large, orange-coloured, Argentinian base (Esperanza) and one of their small, twin-engined planes circled us for a better look. It was no doubt on its way to/from their base on Seymour Island, in the northern part of the nearby Weddell Sea. Our aim was to make a second landing on the continent but there was much ice along the shore. Intrepid James went scouting and reported seeing a big, brown bluff, which confirmed that yes, we had arrived at Brown Bluff. Rinie met us at the beach and directed us up the slope to Simon, who had found a beautiful Snow Petrel in a crevice among some big rocks. Possibly a juvenile about to fledge, it showed no fear of the multitude of lenses that swung rapidly in its direction! This was one of our target birds but it was the only one seen on the trip. Although we were standing in the middle of the Adelie Penguin colony the whole place was deserted. However, there were numerous Gentoos close by, some still moulting their feathers.
On the way from/to the ship a fat Weddell Seal was seen. Before long the ship was entering nearby Fridtjof Sound, where there was lots of ice and numerous, huge tabular icebergs. Here there were more seals; only Antarctic Fur at first but then numerous Crabeaters on ice plus a single Leopard too. The captain skilfully took the ship through the brash ice to give us closer views. More Killer Whales were seen, heading south towards the Weddell Sea and there were Humpbacks around too. All too soon it was time to turn around but as we re-entered Antarctic Sound more Humpbacks and killers were seen; way off in the distance was a huge tabular iceberg. Shortly before recap the ship circled a small iceberg that had several hundred penguins on it. Others were jumping up onto it too but not all were successful! In amongst the chinstraps and gentoos was a long-awaited but solitary Adelie Penguin. Now it was time to head the 850 nautical miles to South Georgia!
After such a good day yesterday, many decided to have a short lie in and everyone was thankful that Plancius was riding comfortably smooth as she began to cross the Scotia Sea towards South Georgia.
John kicked off the day’s lecture programme with an illustrated talk intriguingly entitled, ‘Can’t run, fly even worse’ which was a quote from the description of penguins first seen by 15th century navigators who were puzzled by the appearance of these birds that swam like fish and yet had feathers. The talk was a full account of the ways penguins are adapted to fly in water and spend much of their lives diving for food, with adaptations for seeing underwater, conserving heat and excreting excess salt. A comparison with the auks was informative. Penguins have traded-in the power of aerial flight for the advantages of increased body size, becoming superb sub-aquatic ‘flyers’ in the evolutionary process.
Meanwhile, the birders were keeping a tally on the upper decks and noted large numbers of Antarctic Prions, pintados, Black-bellied Storm-petrels and occasional Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. Giant-Petrels and Southern Fulmars were also noted. On the whale front, Humpback, Fin and Southern Bottlenose whales were recorded.
After lunch, Adam gave a lecture on the ‘Cetaceans of the Southern Ocean’. With the help of illustrations, he ran through a mouth-watering selection of species that could potentially be observed on this voyage including strikingly beautiful Hourglass Dolphins and the sleek, smart, Right-whale Dolphins.
Already we have been fortunate in the number of Humpbacks seen on this trip and a good scattering of Fin Whales. The curious Strap-toothed Whale he mentioned has teeth on the lower jaw, which encircle the upper jaw, preventing the jaws from opening fully. As a consequence, the whale can only suck squid through its partially opened mouth. After our first day of the three day crossing to South Georgia, a hearty dinner was enjoyed by everyone.
A murky day in on our way to South Georgia. Low clouds, and decreasing visibility in the afternoon. We had a gentle breeze from the east, with slightly increasing seas against us in the afternoon, which slowed us down one or two knots, but nothing to worry about in terms of time schedules.
We had plenty of time to play with whales, and whales we saw! A group of at least fifteen, maybe twenty Fin Whales swam with us on both sides of the bow, the ones on the port side showing us their white lower mandible on their right side, when they surfaced to breathe. Earlier this morning, we saw four Hourglass Dolphins, but they gave us little time to watch them. Seabirds were plentiful; there were large numbers of prions, the first Soft-plumaged Petrel was seen, and the increasing number of Kerguelen Petrels shows us we are getting nearer to more northerly waters. Apart from the occasional Black-browed and Grey-Headed Albatross, there even was an all-dark Sooty Albatross, way out of his normal range around Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha.
In the morning, Albert confessed to us how he tortured poor penguins in the late 1980s. It was all in the name of science, by implanting transmitters in chicks to monitor their body temperature. In those days there was considerable pressure from the international conservation movement on the Dutch government. The aim was for the Netherlands to become a consultative member of the Antarctic Treaty in order to be able to vote against mineral exploitation in Antarctica. The treaty was expiring in 1993, and by that year the members were going to cast new votes on these issues. The Netherlands launched a scientific Antarctic programme, which enabled Albert to jump into penguin research, as an exotic side line of his ordinary work on the ecology of Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits in Dutch farmland.
Albert spent the summer of 1988/1989 on Elephant Island, with a group of Brazilian researchers, where he not only studied penguins, but also the psychology and choice of underwear of his female Brazilian colleagues. In the 1990/1991 season, he worked on penguins in King George Island, as a member of a larger Dutch Antarctic Expedition, hosted by the Polish at their base Arctowski Station. The Netherlands obtained their vote in the treaty, and in the meeting of 1993, the exploitation of Antarctica was again banned, under a new moratorium, until 2048. So, even if Albert’s penguin research was not very successful, and never led to a significant publication, he at least feels that he made a small contribution to the safeguarding of Antarctica. However, apart from his research, he made one stunning accidental discovery: he found that Chinstrap Penguins periodically shed their stomach linings, for unknown reasons. None of the famous penguin researchers of those days knew about this, and it has never been observed in any other penguin species. Albert managed to publish his find in a letter to the editor of Nature, good for ten full points on the quotation list.
It was vacuum cleaning day again. The South Georgian government is extremely wary about alien organisms being introduced to their precious island, so we all had to go over our stuff meticulously again, cleaning all seams and crevices. In the afternoon James gave a spectacular presentation on glaciers, ice fields, ice sheets, and ice caps, with beautiful pictures and impressive animations of collapsing ice caps, and ice shelves breaking up. Although Antarctica as a whole still gains ice mass, due to increasing snowfall in East Antarctica, the loss of ice in the Peninsula region goes on with an alarming rate. Climatic warming in the Peninsula is four times faster than in the rest of the world, and glaciers retreat very rapidly. At the end of the day, we enjoyed yet another of those fantastic meals, prepared by our able chef Ralph.
Today we awoke to another calm day in the Scotia Sea. After breakfast it was James’s turn to give another lecture. This time the lecture was on Ice in the Ocean, and was all about icebergs and sea ice. Soon after his lecture finished 7 Cattle Egrets and 1 Snowy Egret landed on the top of the ship for a ride to South Georgia. Also during the morning a Great Shearwater was seen.
Throughout the day there were many sightings of Fin Whales and Antarctic Fur Seals. In the afternoon Simon had a break from his bridge-watch spotting birds to give a lecture all about the bird that inhabit South Georgia.
In the Evening there was recap where Rinie told us all about the plans for our arrival in South Georgia.
We had arrived at South Georgia, one of the world’s great islands. Fog and drizzle obscured our views but as daybreak gave way the team headed ashore to scout out Salisbury Plain. Due to a heavy swell that was expected to increase the team decided not to land there, fortunately the ship was anchored near enough to the beach that we could make out the spectacle of one of the world’s largest King Penguin colonies
Over breakfast we sailed along the northern coast to Fortuna Bay – seabirding was exceptional along the way and in addition to all the South Georgia regulars we were somewhat puzzled to see large numbers of Kerguelen Petrels, small numbers of Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrel, a few Great Shearwater and even a Sooty Albatross. All of these species breed in the Gough/Tristan groups so what were they all doing here in the cold water?
As expected Fortuna Bay gave us ample protection from the weather for an easy zodiac operation and all were quickly ashore in the persisting foggy conditions and a heavy wet snow that was falling. Once ashore our senses were assaulted by the sight, smell and noise of many hundreds of Antarctic fur seals, mostly playful youngsters. Several of the young animals were still suckling from their mothers. A few stately King Penguins were to be seen along the beach but it was further inland that we could enjoy a colony replete with many half grown Oakum Boys and adults incubating eggs on their feet or guarding tiny chicks. With a 14-month breeding cycle a King Penguin colony is always a hive of activity and we had a few hours to enjoy. The clouds slowly began to lift to reveal a breathtaking backdrop of snow covered mountains.
Heading back into the open ocean we repositioned towards Prion Island over lunch although frustratingly conditions began to deteriorate as the afternoon wore on and by the time Prion Island was in sight it was howling 35 knots with a deep swell and any hopes of getting off the boat were dashed.
Instead we made a 180 turn and set a course for Jason Harbour to find a safe anchorage for the night. With the wind at our backs it was pleasant sailing and we were accompanied by countless seabirds while the waters teemed with penguins and fur seals. The brooding sea and dark clouds provided a stark contrast with the dramatic snow covered mountainous spine of South Georgia. A very cooperative Southern Right Whale provided one last highlight for the day. There is no place like South Georgia!!
What a morning! After anchoring overnight in nearby Jason Harbour the ship repositioned in the very early morning. There were still two egrets aboard at first light today but the others had apparently left. Breakfast was slightly earlier than usual as was our departure in the zodiacs for the fur seal-infested beach. The majority were young ones – playful and inquisitive. Nearby were the rusting remains of the whaling station that was made famous by Shackleton after his epic journey from the far-off Weddell Sea. Going near the buildings is banned due to so-called safety reasons but we were able to get right up to several old propellers and two masts, one of which had a barrel attached to it. This ‘crow’s nest’ is where a lookout would be posted when a whale-catcher was at sea and in search of whales.
The rain was lashing down in torrents as we explored the area but the conditions didn’t seem to bother the hundreds of seals on the flat area behind the beach. There was little other wildlife though - a couple of penguins (a Gentoo and a King), Kelp Gulls and a few skuas. Some people had seen a pipit from the ship as the anchorage was approached but there was no sign of any ashore. A solitary pintail flew past two lucky observers but it soon disappeared in the murk. The rain made most of us return to the ship sooner than expected so we were quickly on our way to Grytviken.
Our entrance to the cove was marked by a drop in the wind and the sight of a fishing vessel, a long-liner after the prized and highly valuable Patagonian toothfish. Passing the British Antarctic Survey base on King Edward Point, we were surprised to see the water covered with pancakes of slush ice, from snow earlier in the day. Ashore, the snow was down to sea level and made the mountains look very dramatic. Soon the ship was at anchor and Sarah Lurcock talked to us about the rat-eradication programme; two of their helicopters were nearby. It was encouraging to hear that every rat on the island has now had the chance to enjoy a tasty bait pellet. Afterwards we were put ashore by the whaler’s cemetery to toast Shackleton with a drop of fine Irish whisky. Two walks had been offered and they proved to be very popular – the Shackleton trail and a whaling station trail. There was also the option to explore on our own, perhaps in search of the elusive pipit. Many of us also went to the church (to ring the bells), the museum (to examine the artefacts), the boathouse (to wonder at Shackleton’s replica boat), the post office (to buy cards and stamps) and to the toilet (to do other stuff…..).
A gloomy scene greeted us at dawn. Plancius had moved to this sheltered bay to escape the heaving seas and wind to give us a peaceful night. Although the ship was riding steady at anchor, low cloud swathed the hills, blotting out the dramatic landscape and rain was bucketing down. Many must have been wondering whether the morning’s planned landing in Jason Harbour would result in another drenching like yesterday morning’s. After breakfast, Rinie reviewed the situation, called a meeting in the lounge, and said that the best course of action was to surrender to the weather and wait for a possible improvement.
After lunch, the wind had somewhat abated. The cloud had also slowly fragmented, the rain stopped, and the magnificent snow covered mountains which form the spine of South Georgia came partly into view. Expectations rose for a last landing on South Georgia before Plancius headed NE into the turbulent Southern Ocean for Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha. At 15.30hrs, Rinie decided that conditions were acceptable stable and Zodiacs were launched whereupon off shore gusts of 28 knots started to blow. The wind inevitably scuppered the landing and the zodiacs were recalled much to everyone’s disappointment.
At recap, Rinie went through the litany of the day’s dismal conditions. However, everyone understood that everything can be planned except the weather. If South Georgia proved a little disappointing, we had the outstandingly good visit to the Antarctic Peninsula to remember. As Plancius headed out to sea a rocky night was in prospect.
During the night, the ship rolled heavily, causing many of us an uncomfortable night. Rolling continued all morning, so to give people the opportunity to regain their sea legs, or to stay in their cabins for more comfort and safety, the geology lecture James was scheduled to give in the morning, was cancelled.
After lunch, conditions improved, the wind dropped, the swell abated, and even the sky started to clear. In the afternoon, Albert lectured on the history of Tristan da Cunha, the remotest of all inhabited islands in the world. It is a colourful history, marked by spectacular shipwrecks, disaster, and the influence of sometimes despotic reverends. The islands were discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese sailor Tristão da Cunha. The first to land were the Dutch in 1643, and the first inhabitant an American sealer, who spent 6 months in 1790. Permanent inhabitation started in 1810 when the American Jonathan Lambert styled himself King of the islands, reigning over two people, one of them surviving until William Glass founded the first family which is still present today.
The King himself drowned at sea a year after he climbed the throne. Corporal William Glass joined the British garrison that was posted on Tristan in 1815 to prevent the French using the island as a base to free Napoleon, after he got incarcerated on Saint Helena. Glass, a Scotchman, liked the Tristan rain and wind so much that he asked permission to stay with his family when the garrison was withdrawn after a year. Bachelor friends staying with him saw him produce a child every year, making them wanting to have a wife too. In 1826 five brides were imported from Saint Helena, and from then on, the population expanded.
In the course of the afternoon, the weather cleared, the sun came out, and wind and waves calmed down more and more. The bird watchers were happy to greet the first birds from the Tristan archipelago, like Great Shearwaters, Grey Petrels, and all dark Sooty Albatrosses. In de morning, a small group of Hourglass Dolphins was spotted briefly.
Today we awoke to much calmer conditions and it was warmer too. It is likely that we passed through the Antarctic Convergence during the night. Today was also Easter Day, and the hotel staff had beautifully made an Easter breakfast for us with coloured and chocolate eggs. During the morning James gave his lecture that had been postponed due to poor weather the day before.
The lecture was entitled the ‘Geology and Glaciology of South Georgia’. In it we learnt how South Georgia had been carried away from the continent of South America and how most of the rocks in South Georgia were made from sediments formed in submarine landslides. We also learnt that 95% of
South Georgia’s glaciers are in retreat and the average rate of retreat is 35m a year. Also during the morning there continued to be a large number of wildlife sightings such as Fin whale, a possible Sei Whale and lots of petrels and albatross.
After lunch it was Albert’s turn to educate us with the storey of the giant mutant mice of Gough Island. In recap John showed some fascinating old photos of the whaling stations in South Georgia. And for dinner we had an extra special Easter Dinner which was greatly enjoyed by all.
We awoke in the middle of the South Atlantic to a very gentle breeze and light swell. The greatest surprise of the morning was a large tabular iceberg. Surprisingly there would be a steady procession of tabular icebergs off our starboard side throughout the day, with the largest one being 2 miles in length.
The day was passed much like the previous ones with meals interspersed with talks and videos. In the morning John gave a presentation on the birds of the mid-Atlantic and a documentary of life on Tristan was aired. In the afternoon Albert continued his series of talks on Tristan regaling us with the mystery of the Tristan Moorhen, which as it turns is in fact the Gough Moorhen!
Birding on decks was superb throughout the day, arguably the most exciting day of the trip thus far for seabirds with a spectacular 22 species of tubenoses, an incredible tally for the Atlantic Ocean. Of greatest interest were our first sightings of the trip of the majestic but critically endangered Tristan Albatross and also the bizarre-looking Spectacled Petrel which steadily followed in the ship’s wake throughout the day. Marine mammals were rather few in number but did include a few fur seals, Hourglass Dolphins and a Sei Whale.
In the evening a charity auction was held in support the rat eradication program being carried out by the South Georgia Habitat Trust. In the event, presided over by Albert, we raised over £400 for the project.
In the dining room today there were more fantastic presentations. Our Great Expedition Leader told us about life in the sea, related to the mixing of the waters in the southern hemisphere. Great Albert then regaled us with more of his fascinating, first-hand stories from Tristan da Cunha. Unfortunately, photography hadn’t been invented in those far-off days otherwise we would have seen what it was like for ourselves.
Outside the ship there was much of interest too, until the fog enveloped us during lunchtime. The most obvious birds were the largest ones – Tristan Albatross. Throughout the morning they repeatedly flew along the sides of the ship, giving superb views as they swept by. Other special birds included the bizarre-looking Spectacled Petrel and the much smaller Broad-billed Prion. During the morning lecture those people out on deck were rewarded with a sighting of dolphins. Two species were porpoising together – Dusky Dolphin and the strange-looking Southern Right Whale Dolphin. The latter species has no dorsal fin at all and is black above and creamy white below but is not seen very often.
Something else was also seen today, as it has been throughout our voyage – “chimping”. This is a very strange behavioural phenomenon which mostly afflicts people with digital cameras. The word relates to the hunched, bent-armed, round-mouthed, shoulder-bobbing, chimpanzee-like posture adopted by these people during the excited reviewing of pictures on those funny little screens on the backs of cameras. Strange as it may seem, even Adam was seen chimping and he doesn’t even have a camera! Dr. John (also a sufferer) was consulted as to a cure but said that there was none…
After an increasingly uncomfortable night, we woke to find a foam-streaked sea with huge waves. Plancius was making 7.5 knots in the force 9 (strong) gale and regularly dug her bows into the advancing wave fronts, cascading spray to the level of the bridge.
The Captain ordered all doors leading the decks to be closed and access to the outside was confined to the bridge. Several hardy birders took advantage of this although even the birds had their heads down in this weather! After breakfast, Rinie announced that the morning’s talk would be cancelled due to the frequent violent movement of the ship. Many took advantage of this absence of planned events to catch up with their reading or processing their photographs.
After lunch, the conditions had slightly ameliorated and at 3.30 James gave a talk entitled ‘Those that Wander are not lost’. It was about Albatrosses and was well illustrated. He talked eloquently about all 24 species that are found in the Southern Ocean and Northern Pacific, detailing the interesting features of their life histories and migrations, and each was illustrated with photographs by a selection of photographers.
John, Albert and Simon contributed to the recap, John appropriately enough related the history of the Beaufort Scale of Wind Strengths, and the role that Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort had in being part of the Royal Geographical Committee which met to discuss ways and means of searching for the members of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. Rinie then briefed us for our arrival off Gough Island.
During the night, the wind has dropped dramatically, and the swell abated accordingly, allowing us a few hours of quiet sleep after the ship stopped rolling about. In the morning we approached Gough Island, still shrouded in clouds and mist, but soon the clouds lifted, allowing us to admire this magnificent island. In the sheltered Quest Bay we planned to launch the zodiacs for a coastal cruise, but there was still too much swell to allow safe gangway operations.
However, the forecast for the afternoon was very favourable, so the captain decided to do a full circumnavigation of the island, hoping that conditions would improve. And so they did! The island showed itself in full splendour, in bright sunlight. The sea was full of seabirds, and we ran into a huge pod of 200 splashing Dusky Dolphins.
In the second half of the afternoon, conditions were good enough to lower the zodiacs, and off we went, cruising towards the rugged coast. We first circumnavigated the offshore islet named Penguin Island, which indeed held a few small groups of penguins, clinging to impossibly steep places. They are
Northern Rockhoppers, with ridiculously long yellow plumes waving around their heads. The birdwatchers went eggstatic when a handful of small greenish birds fluttered around in the tussock: the endemic Gough Island Bunting! We explored the coast of the main island to find the elusive flightless Gough Moorhen. We were lucky to see a couple of those, scavenging in the penguin rookeries. The beaches were loaded with crying Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals, and we saw a few Elephant Seals.
Back on board we admired a beautiful sunset, bright enough to provide the first green flash seen on this voyage, that rare moment when the last visible tiny speck of the sinking sun suddenly turns green, just before disappearing behind the horizon. So far, so good, so far everybody happy… But… During recap Rinie came with the devastating news that we were not allowed to land at Edinburgh, on Tristan. The islanders are suffering from a bacterial lung infection, which has developed into an epidemic. Out of the 263 people present on the island, 116 already needed medical attention. The doctor on the island asked us if we could spare some medicines, as they were running out of theirs.
The request also reached headquarters in the Netherlands, which set off an avalanche of mails and phone calls, consulting medical committees, insurance companies, and all sorts of advisors. In the end, the company decided not to allow us to land on Tristan. If we would catch the bug and someone got seriously ill, there would be a great risk of being sued for negligence, and, even worse, we would risk not to be allowed to land on Saint Helena by the local health authorities. Worst case would be to be denied access to Cape Verde, where we all have to catch planes to get home.
This was not only a great disappointment for us, but also for the people on the island, especially for five people we were supposed to offer transport to Ascension Island, and who now may have to wait for a long time to find alternative transport. For our programme, we worked out a workable compromise with the local authorities, policeman Conrad Glass, and environmental officer Trevor Glass, who happened to be on Nightingale Island with a small party, including the administrator. We were given permission to land on the east coast of Tristan, near Sandy Point, and (weather permitting) on Inaccessible Island without local guides, which otherwise would never be allowed. And we can do a zodiac cruise at Nightingale, where we cannot land because of the people present. But first of all, we had to wait to see if the weather would allow us to do anything at all...
This morning we awoke in the knowledge that we were getting nearer and nearer to Tristan. After breakfast James gave his lecture on the ‘Geology of Tristan da Cunha’.
In this informative talk we learn that Tristan, a huge oceanic strato-volcano, exists due to a hotspot rather than the Mid Atlantic Ridge causing the islands. We also learnt how 30,000 years ago a portion of the island fell off into the sea, causing an eruption that creates the strip where the settlement and patches are located. We also learnt that Tristan has well prepared drills for future small eruptions like the 1961/62 eruption that led to the evacuation of the community, but a future caldera forming eruption such as occurred on Deception Island cannot be ruled out.
Soon after James’ talk ended we got our first glimpses of Tristan appearing out of the clouds, and by the afternoon we were right alongside the settlement. The conditions were too rough however for the local boat to be able to come out to us to collect the medical supplies or for us to be able to attempt a landing at Sandy Point. The views of Tristan none the less were magnificent and at 4pm we all had ice-cream on the top deck.
That night we went to bed in hope that the swells would reduce allowing possible activities the next day.
We awoke to discouraging weather – winds and swells had increased from the previous day. After consulting with Conrad on the radio the decision was made that the Tristanians would launch their rescue boat to rendezvous with us on the lee (east) side of the island.
There we had a successful swap of medicine for a stamp and we were able to continue on with our program. With the continuing weather conditions, a zodiac operation was clearly out of the question at the moment so we sailed over to Nightingale Island and circumnavigated this rarely seen island with the ship. Throngs of seabirds milled about the ship and included some surprises like White-headed and Cape Petrel amongst the more expected local breeders in huge numbers like Greater Shearwater, Yellow-nosed Albatross and Spectacled Petrel.
This morning found us heading away from Tristan, en route to Nightingale to see what the conditions there were like. The sea was choppy, the wind was fresh and the sun was shining through a cloudy sky.
Many birds accompanied us along the way; coming quite close at times. Soon after breakfast the island huts came into view but the sea was too rough to even consider leaving the ship. The captain waited for a while before setting off for difficult-to-reach Inaccessible Island. Sea conditions here were no better either but we cruised very close to the sheer, green cliffs – inaccessible by name and inaccessible by nature! The ship sailed around the island whilst we looked longingly at the beaches but we were soon heading off towards Tristan again, for one last look at a possible off-ship operation.
Once we reached the sheltered side of the island a boat came out to meet us with another package. Once it was retrieved a zodiac was dropped so that conditions at the gangway could be checked. However, it was not to be so reluctantly the boat was brought back aboard. In the meantime two Antarctic Terns had landed on the stern; an adult and an immature. However, by the time they flew away the ship’s nose had been turned towards distant St. Helena.
We awoke to a fine day with a retinue of Spectacled Petrels following and circling over the ship. They gave a terrific display of avian ‘airmanship’, tacking up our wake and swooping up on the up draught at Plancius’s stern, often to soar for half a minute or more over the top deck before peeling off and repeating the performance.
Photographers took this last chance to brandish their equipment and obtain some stunning shots in good light before we reach the ‘blue desert’ of the Southern Atlantic. Within a day or so, we will see little in the way of bird life before reaching St. Helena.
At 10.30, Albert gave a fascinating talk entitled Global Circulation, Winds and Currents. These form the important air conditioning system which keeps the climate of our planet equable. Cold air and sea from the poles keep the equatorial regions cooler than they could be and heat from this region keeps the polar regions less cold.
After lunch, we gathered in the dining room to hear our head Chef, Ralf Barthel give an account of how he provisions the ship’s larders and prepares menus for a long voyage like this. He gave some impressive figures of the amount of food that is consumed, and how certain items tend to disappear from the menu quite early on. He also displayed the certificate authenticating the way the delicious Patagonian Tooth Fish we had for dinner the night before was caught and bought in The Falkland Islands. Afterwards, an episode of the BBC NHU’s series Planet Earth was shown.
At recap, Adam gave a good account of the Spectacled Petrels that had been around the ship all day and informed us that, in a sense, we had been privileged to see them. They breed on Gough and Inaccessible Islands in the- perhaps 5000 pairs in all – and as relatively few people had been down to this part of the Atlantic, few would have experienced them.
It is always surprising how quickly the world changes when you get north, and away from Tristan. Within a day or so, you leave the roaring forties and enter the vast expanse of what is called the “blue desert”, the warm, central part of the South Atlantic, poor in life. We soon lose all the petrels and albatrosses. The only ones that faithfully stick to our wake are a handful of Spectacled Petrels. That rare endemic of Inaccessible Island, globally threatened, but here it is the only species we see all day. In addition, there was the odd migrating Wilson’s Petrel, and a Cory’s Shearwater far away from its North Atlantic home. The ornithological highlight of the day was the Trinidade Petrel, which nests on the island of Trinidade off the east coast of Brazil (not to be confused with the island of Trinidad in the Caribean). Trinidade Petrels have been seen on Atlantic Odysseys only twice before.
In the morning, Adam explained to us what kinds of tropical seabirds we might encounter. Adam is a great on seabirds worldwide, and on his global life list he is missing only a handful of the rarest species of Petrel, to be found in the remotest parts of the world’s oceans. The Trinidade Petrel is one of the very few species that he still needed to add to his list. Adam spends all his time on deck or on the bridge, scanning the waves and the horizon, except when he is sleeping, eating, or giving a lecture. Ironically, the message that a Trinidade Petrel was spotted, just came through while he was giving his lecture on tropical seabirds. What a bad piece of luck for him! Fortunately, shortly after the lecture a second one passed close by the ship, and a moment later a third one. Rarely have we seen Adam smiling so happily. Many birdwatchers smiled with him, even those who hardly ever smile.
In the afternoon, Simon gave a presentation on how to make the best of your pictures by playing with the light and its reflections. It is amazing how quickly the conditions get more tropical when travelling north in these waters. We see the temperature of air and sea rise almost by the hour, but certainly by the day, even though we creep across the globe’s surface only with the speed of a calm cyclist, proving that the globe is not so big after all.
Today we woke up and could feel it was definitely getting warmer and warmer. By now there were very few birds flying around, however a Bulwer’s Petrel was spotted which made the bird watchers very happy.
However the air was not completely devoid of life and there were many flying fish leaping out of the water as the ship passed. Speaking of flight, in the morning John gave an excellent lecture on how birds fly. After lunch it was Albert’s turn to give us a talk all about the History of St Helena. In this talk we learnt how the island passed first through Portuguese then Dutch hands before finally becoming a British Territory which it remains today. After Albert’s talk it was ice cream and jelly time on the top deck.
Another quiet day at sea with light winds and a very pleasant temperature. During the morning watch out on decks flying fish were frequently seen and claims of flying squid were met with suspicion, however they were confirmed with some lovely photographs taken by some on the front deck.
This was the Ommastrephidae a bizarre but real creature! Inside Albert gave a wonderful but depressing talk on the tragedy of a lost world – the story of the loss of most of St Helena’s spectacular endemic flora and fauna; a sad story that has been repeated on remote island after remote island around the world.
Afternoon continued to be pleasant with many catching a few rays on the top deck and others scanning the seas for more flying fish; the odd Bulwer’s Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird or migrating Arctic Tern breaking up the monotony. A last, big highlight came for some towards the late afternoon when the poorly know Dwarf Sperm Whale was seen logging on the surface. Other activities through the afternoon included a typically entertaining geology lecture by James, this time focussing on St Helena.
There was also a documentary on St Helena and of course the now traditional late afternoon ice cream on the top deck – the best-attended event of the day!
Another calm morning at sea! There was a lot more for us to look at today, in terms of wildlife. Of the several species of birds around the one that attracted the most attention was the diminutive Madeiran Storm-petrel. A number of them were seen and some came very close to the ship.
Shortly after breakfast the island could be made out in the distance and more and more birds came by – noddies, terns and boobies. After so long without anything to photograph, the photographers became ecstatic and were soon chimping away in delight. Even Simon joined in – he managed to identify the aerojetliner as coming from Angola! St. Helena was very dramatic, with sheer cliffs rising from the sea. Soon Jamestown came into view along the north coast and there was a surprise waiting for us – a huge iceberg had apparently drifted up from Antarctica. When we got closer we could see what it really was – a super-giant, floating pizza parlour all the way from Italy!
Our anchor was dropped and we were soon ashore, fighting our way through the masses of hungry-looking pizza-eaters in town. A popular excursion was up to Deadwood Plain, where many of the endemic and easily-seen St. Helena Plover were found. Something else that was popular was the hike up the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder. Our good doctor was on standby with the defibrilator but luckily it wasn’t required. With lots of time to do our own thing the day was rounded off with a meal ashore and many chose Anne’s Place, at the back of the gardens. By now the lights up the staircase made it look like a ‘stairway to heaven’.
The morning was devoted to the island tour. After breakfast, we were ferried across to the jetty where our dozen-seater vehicles were waiting, and after some initial confusion, we set off along the road which climbed out of Jamestown.
Having gained around 300 metres in height, we had our first photographic stop which offered a splendid view down the steep valley towards the sea. Continuing the tour, the next stop was at the head of Sane Valley, at the end of which was located Napoleon’s tomb. To reach it involved a gentle sloping grass path through attractively planted woodland – none of it of native species – to the glade where he had chosen to be his last resting place. He died in 1821. Even so, his body was removed to Paris 19 years later. Tree frogs were chirruping from the trees around the site of the tomb. After 40 minutes, our trip continued around narrow winding roads to Longwood House which was built to accommodate Napoleon and his entourage during his internment. Of course, the interior of the house with artefacts and furniture from the time when he lived there forms the basis of the museum is the major attraction. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves are attractively laid out with a wealth of flowering plants such as Strelitzias and various lilies. The French flag flies over the house because the site was given to France by the British Government.
Many took advantage of the stop the have their picnic lunches. Afterwards, our drivers took us to another lookout set high up on the side of a sisal covered valley to obtain views of some distant trachyte columns which are so distinctive that they are given names –Lot, Lot’s Wife and daughters. Our tour rounded off with a visit to the gardens of the Governor’s House to see the Seychelles Giant Tortoises, only one of which was in view. This venerable reptile is reputed to be well over a century and a half old. Then back to Jamestown via a stop at the top of Jacob’s ladder. Three energetic souls decided to walk down it and were caught in a torrential shower of rain which swept down the valley.
During the afternoon, a trip to Speery Island in a local boat called Gannet was planned for the English-speaking members of the voyage. The slightly inclement weather put off some people but the wind dropped and the swell was for most of the voyage not too bad. Great views were obtained of the spectacular coastline and, of course the seabirds around the lofty stack were spectacular. Apart from the noddies and boobies, large numbers of Madeiran Storm-petrels were flitting around the island. Also of particular note was a lone Ascension Frigatebird, which soared high over the island; it might be a new record for St Helena. Also, the appearance of a mighty Whale Shark which swam beneath the bows of our little boat caused great excitement. On the way back, close approaches to some guano covered rocks gave everyone a good view of Black and Brown Noddies.
Meanwhile, Ralph, Plancius’ excellent chef, had been bartering for Yellow-fin Tuna with local fishermen and bought, for the price of a bottle of vodka and 24 cans of beer, two magnificent fish. Some was served up at a Bar B-Q on the rear decks which concluded a fascinating day (apart from the party!).
At breakfast time, we saw two other ships approach the anchorage. The Ortelius, Oceanwide’s sister ship, was coming from the south, after an extremely adventurous journey in the stormy southern oceans.
RMS Saint Helena was coming around the corner of the island on the north side. It is going to be another busy day for the Saints.
In the morning, people did their own thing. Some lingered about in Jamestown, others found themselves a taxi, to bring them to various parts of the island, such as Diana Peak, where a few passengers enjoyed the cool, damp atmosphere of the three fern thickets and endemic cabbage trees, where the last little remains are to be found of the original vegetation of Saint Helena. Yet others took a cab to Deadwood Plain, to follow the path to Flagstaff Hill, and from there, following the precipitous cliffs of the north coast, westward to Sugarloaf, and through the hot desert landscape of the so-called Crown Waste all the way down to Rupert’s Bay.
A strenuous walk, resulting in blue toenails. Many of us enjoyed a dive and a swim at the pier head, playing with the ropes and the swell.
In the afternoon, the second group of passengers took the boat trip on the Gannet Three, enjoying playful dolphins, lots of seabirds, and again a giant Whale Shark. For dinner, Ralph surprised us with more fresh tuna from the island, deliciously prepared, a true feast!
So we were sailing north again after a fabulous three days in Saint Helena. Just as breakfast was finishing a very excited Simon exclaimed on the P.A. system: ‘Wildlife announcement, wildlife announcement, possible Sperm Whales!!’ It was Sperm Whales, a group of females and calves. The ship came in very close and we got to have some fabulous views of them. We were able to observe a large adult female guarding two claves, one was older than the other, at the surface while other females were on long feeding dives. Later in the morning it was time for Albert to address us again, this time with his lecture ‘Finding Longitude’.
After lunch James gave another vulcanology talk, this time on the ‘Geology of Ascension Island’. In this fascinating talk we learnt that Ascension like St Helena is the summit of an oceanic shield volcano, however it is much younger than St Helena. We also learnt that the island is covered by more than 50 scoria cones and how these were built by fire fountains. After James’s lecture was over we had a change to the programme and instead of watching the BBC Planet Earth documentary, we screened a documentary made by our very own John Sparks, former head of the BBC Natural History Unit. The film introduced by John was all about Sperm Whales, which put our morning encounter into perspective and gave us a chance to see what these incredible animals actually look like under the water.
We continued northwards with a following breeze. Wildlife spotting on decks was very slow today although large shoals of flying fish were seen from time to time as they fled the approaching ship. A White-bellied Storm-petrel was remarkably far north and we also recorded Madeiran and Leach’s Storm-petrel, the latter a visitor from breeding areas in Europe and North America.
Albert gave us another fine talk, this time on the ecology of Ascension Island, while John gave a very interesting presentation on his work with the BBC. Temperatures soared through the day well into the thirties, the hottest day yet! Later afternoon we crossed the Grattan Seamount and although hopes were high for some increased wildlife, we had to settle for a single Masked Booby and the mandatory late afternoon ice cream.
At first light this morning the ship was very close to dramatic Boatswainbird Island. It was a huge rock stack coloured white from the guano of thousands of seabirds. The most obvious were the Ascension Frigatebirds, which constantly came low over the ship to check us out. Some almost landed on the big radar arm whilst others pecked at the top of one of the larger whip aerials.
Many more frigates could be seen on top of the island, where they shared the sloping rock with thousands of black-and-white Masked Boobies. Two other species of booby were present – Brown and Red-footed, which comes in two colour schemes. One is black-and-white and the other is brown with a white tail; both have red legs and feet. Two species of noddy (Common and Black), both White and Sooty terns and White-tailed Tropicbird were also noted.
After an early lunch we disembarked by zodiac to either the sandy, swimming beach at Comfortless Cove or Georgetown. The delights of the town were few indeed – a basic shop, the post office, the Obsidian Hotel and a couple of bars. Neither the conservation office nor the museum were open for very long. As a result, many of us didn’t stay for long but went next for a swim nearby. Once we were all back on the ship there was a quick pre-dinner briefing from Rinie. Towards the end of the meal he announced (Bottlenose) dolphins at the gangway (in the ship’s lights) and we were amazed to see them chasing and sometimes catching flying fish.
The turtle spotters were soon ashore and were led to the long beach in search of egg-laying females. They were successful and even saw emerging hatchlings struggling towards the safety of the sea. Meanwhile, back on the ship, there were also plenty of baby turtles to be seen. In addition, there were different kinds of fish, two adult turtles, an octopus and a sea snake. The dolphins were still around and continued to catch large flying fish. The night sky was impressive too, with many stars, the Milky Way and an orange, setting moon. The day ended very late but it was extremely worthwhile!
Despite getting to bed in the early hours of the morning after our visit to the Green Turtle beach, breakfast was at 7.30 to prepare use for an island tour. Another lively landing was in store as the swell at the jetty was still significant.
However, everyone got ashore safely thanks to the skill of the expedition team. Our vehicles were waiting and at around 9.30, we set off through Jamestown, through the US military base and across Ascension Island’s long runway to the location of the great Sooty Tern ‘fair’. A ten minute walk from where the vehicles were parked brought is abeam the rock strewn hillside and plain where around 60,000 pairs of these smart black and white oceanic birds were nesting. It was an impressive sight. It seemed that the birds had almost completed their nesting cycle because there were quite large numbers of sooty brown immature birds on the wing and slightly younger one still on the ground. The photographers had a field day because the birds were so confiding and many were resting within a few yards of the path.
A few Frigate Birds were patrolling the colony in the hope of a snatching an unwary chick. With the birds often flying within a few inches over our heads, it was easy to understand why they were called ‘wide awakes’ because that describes the Sooty Tern’s call. A few pairs of Brown Noddies were also nesting close the path and one of them had a chick. These have returned to the site since the islands cats were exterminated. Alas, there are still Black Rats! Many of us could have stayed there all day – preferably under some sort of shade of which there was none – but we had to return to the vehicles to drive to Green Mountain.
Our drivers skillfully negotiated the steep and narrow road which zig-zagged the 2000ft climb to what used to be a farm built in 1867, once used to supply troops stationed on the island. It is now a rather lovely botanic garden where native plants are cultured in preparation for them being replanted on suitable sites throughout Ascension. At this altitude it was thankfully cooler – or rather less hot – and with so much lush vegetation present, it was a world away from the parched volcanic desert down below. A walk was scheduled along a narrow track called the Bishop’s Path and this wound its way around the edge of Green Mountain to ‘the watershed’. It was effectively a tropical cloud forest with huge trees (all introduced species) covered with moss and lichens.
There were ancient Fig Trees but the pollinating wasp was not introduced with them and therefore the fruit come to nothing. Some probably dated back to the 19th century when Joseph Hooker suggested certain species should be planted here following a suggestion by Charles Darwin who visited the island on The Beagle. On the way, the canopy opened up to reveal magnificent views of the island and the blue azure beyond. Of particular interest were the craters and cinder cones which James had waxed lyrically about in his last talk on the ship.
By the time we had completed the walk, it was 12.40 and our caravan of vehicles descended into the hotter lowlands to The Two Boats Club to enjoy refreshingly cool drinks and a splendid buffet of various meats and both tuna and wahoo stakes together with chips and salad. Afterwards, some of us returned to Plancius, braving another very lively embarkation on the zodiacs – all safely achieved, while others spent the time in the museum, last minute shopping and drink in the Obsidian Hotel. A few opted for another swim in Comfortless Cove.
After an outstanding day, 13 people were due to fly back to the UK from the island so they and their luggage were ferried ashore at the end of the afternoon. Good-byes said and with all of those staying for the voyage to Praia, Plancius headed NW with the sun setting on our port beam.
After leaving Ascension, we are heading into the tropical oceanic desert again, with very little bird life to be seen. There were e few Sooty Terns, a White-tailed (or Yellow-billed if you like) Tropicbird, and the occasional Cory’s Shearwater. For the rest, most of the things we saw fly, were fish.
In the morning, Albert gave a talk on waves and tides, using his magic pen, which enabled him to draw on the screen as if it were a school board. He talked about waves in all different sizes and shapes, ranging from ripples in the pond to huge storm waves, the occasional rare rogue waves, and devastating tsunamis. He explained the difference between wind driven waves and swells, which may originate from distant gales happening days ago, thousands of miles away, like the long swells we saw hitting Ascension on the NW side, while we had a strong wind from the SE. He also explained how waves are slowed down in shallower water, causing them to fold around islands, and causing the surf always to run op to the beach on every side. And then finally the biggest wave of all, the tidal wave, which is dragged around the world’s oceans by the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun, modified by shapes of seas and continents, giving rise to very complicated tidal patterns locally.
In the afternoon, we had an interesting guest lecture, presented by one of our passengers, dr. Pat Doody, who spent a life time on the conservation of coastal habitats around the British Isles, showing how not only coastal habitats change over time, but also our insights in how to manage, destroy, or restore them. Look at the rabbit, for example, an animal not native to the British Isles, probably brought here by the Romans who liked to eat them so much, cooked Italian style. Grazing and burrowing rabbits have a profound effect on natural vegetations. Rabbits being aliens, nature conservationists embarked on eradication programmes, helped by the horrible, blinding sickness of myxomatosis. But when the rabbits were gone, their precious vegetations were overgrown by thickets and forest, poor in biodiversity, so now the new ecologist are re-introducing rabbits to open up the vegetation and make the system more dynamic. They call this nature management, but, well, it looks more like gardening.
Crossed Equator: 15:10 GPS position: 00° 00’ 00, 017° 33’ W
Today we awoke knowing we were nearing the equator. The morning passed with the screening of the Planet Earth Series as the equator got nearer and nearer.
Soon after lunch, as we were relaxing the familiar voice of Simon came over the PA announcing: “Spinner Dolphins! A large pod of Spinner Dolphins are approaching on the port side”.
Most of us ran to the bow to see them, but they were no-where to be seen. What was going on? Suddenly King Neptune arrived, riding a zodiac. “What are you doing here?” he screamed. “Go back! Go back! I hate you all, you shouldn’t be here!” Of course it wasn’t the real King Neptune it was Albert driven by Igor. “Meet me on the back deck!” King Neptune demanded, so dutifully we all proceeded to the back deck. And what a sight we had: all the staff were dressed up as devils and Neptune’s helpers and to top it all James was dressed up as Teetes, King Neptune’ Queen.
Both King Neptune and Queen Teetes were on their thrones and we had to approach them to explain what we thought we were doing. We were made to kneel before King Neptune, and kiss a flying fish followed by kissing the Queen’s foot. Then the chef Ralph gunked us with chocolate goo while Rinie and Igor squeezed caramel over our heads. Finally we were stamped by Adam with the ship’s stamp before being sent to the shark pool (a zodiac filled with water) to wash off. What an ordeal, but we had made it we had crossed the line and entered the Northern Hemisphere!