South II: Broken glass and helicopters

Double Entendre of the Day:

Zodiac driver Di slips while climbing aboard and has to roll into the boat.
Bob:       “That was a nice entrance.
”Di:         “Yeah, you should see some of my entrances.”

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“It’s a living thing… dooby dooby doo… it’s a terrible thing to be eaten alive by.” This may not be exactly what ELO said, but it definitely applies to giant kelp. All around Prion Island, and all around the rocky islets that are littered along its coast, the sea has come to life. Masses of brown tentacles snake out in every direction. But it’s the tide that makes the picture complete. The swells lift and drop the kelp with every rise and fall. It seethes, it squelches, it slithers. It genuinely looks alive, some science-fiction monster of decades past, rubbing its tentacles together in anticipation of its next meal. In fact, for the geeks among us, it’s extremely reminiscent of a Zerg Subterranean Creep Colony. (For others, Wiki ‘Starcraft’.)  And then, as you watch more closely… more subtle movement. Eyes. Heads. Jesus Christ…

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Seals. Ah right. And suddenly it seems much less sinister. The seals play amongst it in their dozens, popping up and submerging like cute furry periscopes. They’re clambering up the rocks too, and as the Zodiac rounds a point to hit a slightly clearer patch of water, the scene unfolds. Along the shore, the water literally looks like it’s boiling with seals. They are everywhere. They zoom out of the water toward the Zodiac, their doglike faces alight with curiosity. They lollop alongside, and then away. They bark. They snuffle and whine. They chase each other, intertwine. Their eel bodies glisten in the dull light, slippery and sinuous. As with the sleek penguins porpoising in and out of the water, it’s amazing how something so cumbersome on land becomes so elegant with a simple change of element. They climb up onto the kelp mounds, fly out of the water to scrabble for purchase on the rock, bark their prowess at the sky, then plunge into the sea again. Everything they do seems built for fun, not pragmatism. They slip out of the water unnecessarily every five yards. They add tricks to their repertoires: full-body leaps above the surfarce; half-pikes; 360 rolls with a little fin-clap thrown in for flourish. A species almost wiped out by good old commercial harvesting, they’re back, and it’s glorious.

Prion Island is off the coast of South Georgia, a strange place if ever there was one. This long narrow island is essentially a mountain range poking up out of the sea, with a tiny strip of flatland around the coast. Described as sub-Antarctic, it’s cold, isolated, and mostly uninhabited, save a government official and a few hardy souls who look after a museum down here. The Brits have laid claim to it for many years, and it was named for King George (original, no?). This morning we were on the mainland, at a place called Salisbury Plains. The name is suffocatingly English, but it fits: the place is a huge expanse of green grass up to the hills, absolutely swarming with about a billion king penguins and a hundred thousand seals (I just made those numbers up).

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No headguin.

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Dear Penguin. If you are the size of a seal, it’s time to admit you have a problem.

It was two days dull sailing to get here from the Falklands. The ship and the crew are Russian (though the expedition staff are all Westerners), so the best entertainment is reading all the Russian signage. The only other interesting thing has been an on-board vendetta to stop me going around in bare feet. But apparently they can’t just ask me outright. They have to come up with reasons. The hospitality guy Andy says “I have to ask you to wear shoes in the dining room. The serving staff could break a dish, and you could walk on it.” I’m sure I could avoid broken crockery, but it sounds at least semi-plausible. So I start wearing shoes – in the dining room. Nowhere else. Then, “It’s best if you wear shoes,” says Rupert. “Having bare feet is… considered rude in Russian culture.”  My suspicion that he just made that up is compounded when his 2IC Annie comes up not five minutes later, before I’ve even had a chance to leave the room. “We need you to wear shoes on board,” she says. “There’s broken glass in every room on the ship.”

Let’s just think about that for a second. There’s broken glass in every room on the ship. “Well, that’s very efficient,” is all I can think of to say. You know when someone tells you something so patently ludicrous that you’re thrown too much off-balance to challenge it? I have one of those mouth-breather expressions on my face, and before I can pick up the thread she’s bustled off to do something else. Every room? It’s certainly thorough. I mean, it’s a big ship. There are a lot of rooms. And especially considering it’s vacuumed daily. They must have a squad who comes through after the vacuuming and sprinkles broken glass. But so many questions. Does that include hallways and deck areas, or just enclosed rooms? How much broken glass do they have to bring with them for the purpose? Is it pre-broken or do they break it onboard? And what’s the purpose? Is it solely to ensure that people wear footwear, perhaps? Or is there a grander plan behind it? A superstition? A religious form of self-flagellation? I can only hope that time will tell.

Today is Australia Day, so me and a few other Australians turn up to dinner in singlets and shorts and make a point of swearing a lot. This is as close as we can come to pinning down Australianness. It reminds me of a vox pop segement on A Current Affair or somethin a couple of years back on Australia Day: asking people to define Australian culture. And all that anyone could come up with was, “Weeelll…….we like a barbie. And we love a few beers.” Drunkenness and meat. I enjoy both those things: without them my university days would have been very empty. But…a barbeque and a beer is not a culture.  It’s lunch.

Tonight is macho enough to warrant the singlet. Somehow I end up in a conversation with Tim (the ship’s logistics manager and a sailor of some thirty years) and Paul (formerly a geologist with oil and gas companies) about all the dodgy situations they’ve encountered in helicopters. Inch-perfect landings on iced-up rock ledges above sheer drops, then bunny-hopping it off the edge to get it airborne. Arctic snowstorms with no visibility. Rope drops and rappelling down in the middle of the night. I contribute as modest an amount to this conversation as may be expected, but my nodding is first-rate.

Then Rupert gives a talk about ice diving, something he’s done a lot of as part of research programs. This pursuit is incredible – strapping up in a complex drysuit, drilling through a couple of metres of sea ice (including once when a Coastguard chopper made a hole for him with a .50 cal machine gun), then dropping down into water that would normally kill you in a couple of minutes, to swim around underneath the sea ice. With the lack of pollution and sediment, the visibility can be a couple of hundred metres. It sounds incredible. Scary too: in the Arctic you can look up to see polar bears swimming between the floes; in the Antarctic you can get checked out by massive leopard seals.

He mentions a story I first heard back in 2004, of a diver who was killed after being dragged down by a leopard seal. For some reason this story has stayed with me very vividly ever since. And it’s confusing – partly I feel guilty, like I’m getting a perverse enjoyment out of it a la True Crime Stories or something like that. But I can’t shake it off. It was notable because it was such a fluke – the only seal fatality on record. They’re big predators, but people are supposedly too big to be in their target range. As it was, the diver’s body was recovered intact, but drowned. The detail that strikes me the hardest is that her dive instruments recorded she was dragged down to 70 metres before the animal came back up. And something about that just hits me right in the heart. At 70 metres ambient light has already begun to disappear. 70 metres below the surface, in such cold dark water, and so far from anything like home, seems an incredibly lonely place to die.

Anyway, I’ve just depressed the hell out of myself writing that paragraph. So now I’m going to go and remind myself that leopard seals are generally harmless, and that leopard seals are pretty cool too. I’m going to achieve that by watching this video. You should too.

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2 Responses to South II: Broken glass and helicopters

  1. Simo says:

    Met a guy who was walking along sea-ice when a leopard seal broke through, threw itself up onto said ice, latched onto his leg and attempted to drag him into the water. Only thing that saved him was his mate pulling the other way…but he lost a calf muscle. Shame that.

    /story.

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