The weather took a turn for the worse over night. I got up early with hopes to see the sunrise, but found a cold misty sky accompanied by a fierce wind. In the distance, ahead of the boat, I saw a large set of rocks pushing through the grey veil of the low clouds. As if reading my mind, Stephen's morning announcement came over the air, mentioning we would soon be entering the Lemaire Channel - a beautiful narrow passage guarded by massive cliffs on either side. The channel was to lead to our morning's adventure of steaming through the famous "Iceberg Alley" - a shallow passage where many large tabular bergs have run aground and settled.
Many people found their way up to the top deck as we approached the rock formations. They rose, out of the water, imposing and dark - even a little ominous in the grey mist.
The opening to the channel lay dead ahead of us, between a towering formation on the right and a shorter, but still impressive collection of rock on the left. However, as the boat began to slow down, a closer look revealed the water leading into the gap to be filled with ice - not massive bergs, but a chunky, translucent white layer sitting on top of the water.
I couldn't see an unobstructed way through the field - if we were going through, we'd have to move some ice. I got pretty excited at this prospect. I remember hearing the ship wasn't an "ice breaker", but was "ice strengthened" - a fancy way of saying it was double hulled and basically built for situations like this.
The ship slowed to a crawl as we approached the thinnest, narrowest patch of ice the captain could find. We looked down to see it consisted of thousands of chunks of ice in all different shapes and sizes which had collected together in the narrow channel. Then, slowly and cautiously, like the edge of a great knife, our bow pushed its way into the floating white barrier. It was actually fairly uneventful - no massive cracks or shudders - the ice moved to either side of our hull without complaint. Once in a while we'd graze a large, flat chunk of ice, pushing it gently into other large chunks, which eventually moved the entire field. It was quite a scene - people out on deck peering over the railings at the sides of the ship as we passed through the white field. All around us, the dark menacing cliff faces rolled by silently. They reached straight up for over a hundred feet, edges dusted with powdery white snow. The gaps between the peaks were filled with the bluish white ice of glaciers which appeared to be ready to slide right out into the water. It was a lot of fun.
It took about 15 minutes to push our way through the ice of the Lemaire Channel. We left the rocky cliffs behind us, and move into an open stretch of water, steaming towards iceberg alley. However, as the announcement for breakfast came over the intercom, and the last of the protective land disappeared, the wind begin to howl again, and the water become a little more rough.
About an hour later, We found out the wind was simply too strong to attempt a cruise through iceberg alley. Apparently the winds were upwards of 50 knots. Bummer. Plan "B" was put into action, which was to attempt a landing on the Yalor Islands. About an hour later I felt the boat stop, and from my room heard the gangway descend to the water. The staff jumped into a Zodiac to prep a landing area. Unfortunately though, about 30 minutes later, we got an announcement over the intercom stating the staff had determined it was simply too rough, and the winds too strong to attempt a landing. Crap!
We ended up moving on to plan "C", which involved finding a more protected area to drop anchor. We were told our new plan was to attempt a visit to a Ukranian research station, called Vernadsky, and a the original site of the station, called Wordie House. The base was built by the British in 1954 and was called "Faraday Station" until 1996 when it was purchased by the Ukraine from England. Apparently if you build something in Antarctica, you're responsible for taking every piece of it home. Rather than spend the money to dismantle it, they sold it to the Ukranians for one British pound, and a bunch of stipulations, such as sharing research, and maintaining Wordie House.
I was really, really excited for this landing. I'd always wanted to see what these bases were like - did they have many of the comforts of home, or did it completely and utterly suck? What were the people like who worked at stations in Antarctica? I had all kinds of weird questions.
We reached calmer waters near the station, though the water was pretty rough, making even getting into the Zodiacs a bit tricky. This was a bit different though - we did the landing as completely separate groups this time - The first half of us getting to spend 1.5 or 2 hours at the base, then returning to allow the second group to go. I was in the second group, and while waiting went up to the lecture hall where we saw footage of Shackleton's Endurance. It was a silent movie, but amazingly preserved, and really moving.
Our turn came soon enough, and as the passengers from the first wave began to return, I waited up in the forward lounge. Every one coming up the gangway was pretty much soaked with sea water. It really was rough out there. This just got me more excited. I was right behind Derk, the elderly gentleman from Holland. As he was ready to set foot on the gangway, the staff started shaking their heads. The seas were choppy, and apparently the landing areas were really slick and rocky. Sonya came up the gangway and delicately told Derk in German that it was best if he didn't go. It was just going to be too risky for him. I was a little sad for him, but as I looked at the Zodiac bouncing up and down on the swells, I could see their point.
Anyway, down the gangway I went, and jumped into the awaiting black boat. After helping the other nine people in, I sat down on the right side, near the front, and waited for Sonya to start the engine. The way it was set up, the Zodiac you boarded was yours for the entire landing. I was actually pleased with my draw. Having a great experience with the Leopard seal the last time I rode with her, I thought our chances for adventure here were better than average. She didn't disappoint.
Sonya is the oldest member of the staff - and though not as prominent as the rest, perhaps the craziest. She's been with the Explorer for many years, and has made the trek to Antarctica many, many times. A landing at Vernadsky was nothing new to her - and accordingly, when we left the shadow of the ship, she told us we were to see Wordie House first, and that we were taking a short cut. We headed toward two large rock formations which offered a very narrow passageway into the bay of the islands.
However, as we drew closer, it was apparent the gap had been closed by two small (I say small - but they were both bigger than cars) blue-white icebergs. "Oh no!" she exclaimed disappointedly - "we just passed through here!" Apparently she'd taken the earlier groups through this pass just an hour ago. There was no way around these blocks. Unwilling to give in, and noticing as I did that the ice was still bobbing around to a degree, she told us we'd wait her for a few seconds to see if they'd move.
It became quickly apparent they weren't going anywhere. So, she decided to force the issue. "Maybe we'll just give them a little push," she said while staring at them with a smile. She coasted the Zodiac up to the smaller of the two bergs (Still 5 feet taller than our boat), until we made gently contact. I and another guy at the front of the boat pushed on the ice as Sonja started revving the engine. The ice was a translucent blue and was as hard as rock with sharp, jagged edges. It slowly, begrudgingly started to move. Pretty soon, all of us on the right side of the boat were pushing on the blue ice - it was a tremendous feeling. Not often you get the opportunity to use your hands to push an iceberg out of the way in the Antarctic. Soon, we had a hole just big enough for us to slip through. "Good job everyone, good job!" she stated, and then added with a smile, "Just don't tell Stephen!"
We buzzed through the passage, and made our way to the beach in front of Wordie House. We were greeted by our historian, Chris Gilbert, who told us where we could walk, and what we'd find inside the house.
It was interesting - and very, very tiny. The people who built this must have been no taller than 5'5". The doorways caused everyone to duck, not just me. The ceilings were extremely low, and the hallways ridiculously narrow. It opened up a bit in the main room, however. The house was equipped with bunks and a kitchen, a couple chairs and a few other assorted items. There was a radio room, and a workshop attached to the side. Interesting to say the least, but I'd not want to spend much time there. I got a little claustrophobic in the 15 minutes I was in there. I did manage to sign the guestbook though.
Once we'd all had our looks, we jumped on the Zodiac again, and headed into another portion of the narrow channel between the rocks. We zipped around the islands, seeing some Adelie penguins on the shore in one spot, and some red-tinted snow in another. Apparently the red color comes from a certain type of algae that can grow in the snow under certain conditions. It reminded me of War of the Worlds for some reason. We then rounded another little outcropping and saw a full-sized yajht, with the word "Australis" on its bow, anchored in a small cove. It seemed a strange sight here.
We motored around another corner, where we caught our first glimpse of the station. It was a little bigger than I expected. A large, two story building at its center and a good sized black storage tank with "Vernadsky" painted in white on the side, complete with palm trees. There were the requisite radio towers and other equipment surrounding the station, presumably to measure weather or seismic activity or what have you.
We were greeted at the "dock" by two gentlemen from the station. One, a tall, younger guy with a maroon snowsuit and tinted goggles. The other an older man with a large, nice-looking coat and a black stocking hat that didn't cover his protruding ears. The older guy greeted us and led our group up the concrete path, past the tall, black storage tank to a protected area between two buildings. He was apparently the administrator of the site, and would be our tour guide for the next couple of hours. To our left, he pointed out the generator room, housing three large, noisy engines. He then led us to the right, pointing out a tall sign post with arrows pointing to cities all over the world. I almost expected it to be there. We entered the main building, a grey, two story structure which was much bigger than it looked from the water.
It was, as you'd assume, a pretty simple interior. We took off our big coats and boots and proceeded to follow our guide through the building. We saw the dorm rooms where the 12 men of the station slept in bunks. We also walked by the bathrooms, both male and female - an interesting finding, since we were told all the workers here were male. "For our guests" he smiled. And you got the feeling that outside of the occasional tour, there weren't a lot of women going through these halls - ever.
We then proceeded down the long hallway of the main wing, checking out room after room of scientific equipment, computers and even snowshoes and skis. Interestingly enough - especially for my developer/web friends back home - I found evidence of them still using floppy disks. Not just the little 3.5 inch ones - the old, real "floppy" disks. They were stacked up on a table near a computer running Windows XP. I have no idea what they would use those for, or how they would even read them, but there they were.
This wing of the structure was obviously older than the entryway we came through. Our guide pointed out a ladder leading up into the attic. He said there was a whole set of equipment above us dedicated to studying the atmosphere. He went on to explain years ago when this was a British station, the hole in the Ozone layer was discovered right here.
We then went back to the main lobby and up two flights of stairs to the second level of the newer part of the building. All around the walls of the staircase were pictures of the crews that had worked here over the years, along with images of the structure itself in various phases. At the top, we passed through a set of doors and entered the cafeteria and kitchen area. It was a pretty good sized room - comfortable enough to fit all 12 of the crew and then some.
We passed through this room and through a set of double doors to the bar. "The most important room in the station," our guide said in his Russian accent. We were all of the sudden in a British pub. Another group from the Explorer was already there, and greeted us loudly as we entered. "Don't Stand so Close to Me" from the Police was playing loudly over the sound system. Two of our fellow travelers were engaged in a game of pool on the table in the middle of the room. A large, curved bar made of wood stood in the left corner, surrounded by flags and banners from all over the world. The near left corner was filled with plush seats and surrounded by more pictures from past inhabitants. There were Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling in various spots, blinking their approval to the goings on. It was quite a sight.
We headed in to take part in the festivities. It was a strange, yet very comfortable feeling sitting in a bar in the Antarctic. "The Southernmost Bar in the World" it said on a sign on the wall. I walked around, watching the game of pool for a second. Interestingly, the balls had no color, and no stripes. They were all white with simple black numbers on them. The cue ball was yellow. I moseyed over to the bar and looked over the selection. One of my fellow passengers leaned over and said, "You have to try the Vodka - it's made here and is only two bucks". How could you not have a shot of home-made vodka in a Ukranian research base in Antarctica? I looked at the bar tender, and asked him for one. It was actually surprisingly smooth, and extremely warm on the way down.
We spent the next half hour there, just hanging out with the crew and staff of the station. I played a game of pool with a couple people, checking out the various pictures on the wall between shots. I noticed a couple bras sitting up on a hook near the bar. I of course had to ask about this - apparently there's a tradition at the station that any female visiting the station can leave her bra behind and get a free shot of whatever she wants from the bar. Apparently there were a couple donations from some girls from the earlier Zodiacs.
Before long, it was time to go, and we headed back out to our boats. As we motored back around a couple large rocks, I saw the Explorer in the distance. I was struck suddenly by the thought of "Star Trek". I know, weird. But for those of you who watched the show - it was like we were in one of the shuttlecraft on an away mission. We were returning to the Enterprise after discovering some new land and some new people. As we approached the ship the geek inside me was pretty happy.
After dinner, the evening's entertainment was, appropriately enough, "March of the Penguins". I sat down and watched it again, feeling almost obligated to do so while here. Even though we had to change plans a few times, we had a very good day.