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Jo'Burg Days: Antarctic Seas

When you venture into Antarctic seas you need more than Google to help you on your way, as Barbara Durlacher’s short story reveals.

Seven days at sea, and small groups with mutual interests were forming. There was lots of friendly chatter. All were newcomers to the Antarctic and there were many questions. Some had done research and were happy to share their knowledge.

Dinner was plain and plentiful and animated talk filled the saloon. Chilled bodies relaxed in the warmth and the wine flowed freely. In a few days they would reach the glacier, and excitement ran high. When somebody suggested an early night everyone agreed. With another illustrated lecture tomorrow and lots to read, a quiet hour before sleep was welcomed.

The morning dawned windless and clear, although whitecaps indicated a change was coming. The ship, converted from a cargo vessel, had a reinforced hull to withstand ice conditions, and gave an impression of invulnerability. When the tannoy brought people to their feet and worried frowns replaced happy smiles, concentration and interest, the lecturer reassured them with a confident, “Don’t worry. That’s just the signal for boat-drill. Tremendously important in these waters, so no shirking or going down to your cabins. Attendance is compulsory – your life may depend on it”.

“Did you manage your safety gear alright?” Mary asked her neighbour later at lunch. “Oh yes, no problem, but I battled getting the trousers over my thick layers of clothing. Wouldn’t want to be pitched into the water without suitable protection, but heaven knows if even these thick waterproofs will help much if we really need them.”

During the night the wind got up and by early morning the ship was wallowing fatly through a lolloping sea. Faintly on the horizon a long low line of icebergs was advancing, blown towards the ship by the following wind.

“Attention, attention! This is the Captain speaking. As you realise, the weather is worsening. Unless we advance the timing for the visit to the glacier it will be necessary to cancel the event altogether. As the crew and I fully appreciate your interest in seeing one of the last of the wonders of the ice-age and the wildlife, this is something I’m reluctant to do. By morning the ship will be within an hour’s steaming of our disembarkation point. In order to make it possible for you to get as close to the glacier as possible, you’ll be using inflatables to cross the stretch of water between ship and shore. You’ve all attended your boat-drills and know the procedures necessary to ensure your safety. An early breakfast will be served at 0600 hours. Everybody on deck at 0730 hours. Further orders later. Thank you.”

By 0900 hours they were almost there, and the closer they got, the higher towered the extraordinary sparkling blue walls. Further along, on an open stretch of ice, they could see a huge flock of Emperor penguins circling restlessly, apparently considering a mass exodus in search of food. And somewhere in the glacier were the remains of a mastodon – the last survivor of a race of creatures who had roamed these Antarctic plains before the last great ice age.

“We must get closer,” Sally said urgently. “I’ve always been fascinated by them and their mating and breeding rituals, and look, so much ice is calving off the glacier we may see a mastodon.’’

“Of course!” the others agreed. “That’s what we’ve come for. This will be our only chance. We must get as close as we can. Everything will be OK,’’ and ignoring the boatswain’s reluctance to sail in amongst the floating chunks of blue-green ice, they kept urging the boat forward. But when an enormous chunk calved off the main glacier only a couple of hundred yards away, sending a huge wave advancing ominously towards the fragile inflatables, the mood turned ugly. “Get this damned boat away from the glacier, you fool,’’ said an angry American voice, while the women grabbed the rope handles and hung on, their faces whitening.

Huddled in their thermal clothing, covered from head to foot in hooded, bright scarlet wet-weather gear which made them as clumsy as walruses, the passengers sat tensely on the wooden thwarts. As they watched, more ice broke away from the glacier and as huge surges lifted the boats, they noticed they were being swept out of their tight formation. Gauging the drift, the boatswain kept the engines idling, quick to bring them back to their stations, never allowing them to move more than a few hundred yards from their position.

“What gives the ice that wonderful deep blue colour?” Mary asked as the seas quietened, and the question passed quickly round the small group, but nobody answered. “I’ll Google it when we get back to the ship,” she said confidently, knowing that the computer in the small ship’s library would tell her. Always curious, she needed to know.

Towards mid-morning the light started to fade as a dense sea fog moved in obscuring the ship, the glacier and the snow-covered landmass. “Right! Seen enough?” the group leader enquired. “Weather’s worsening rapidly, time to return,’’ and obeying his signal the boatswain revved the engines. Making a wide circle they, started back the way they had come.

“Glad I don’t have to navigate in this murk,’’ muttered the man next to Mary in an undertone, but the general feeling was that everything would be taken care of by these skilled seamen. “It’s OK – nothing to worry about”, said the leader with assumed confidence, “Soon be back on board!” Thoughts of food, warmth and a stiff drink occupied them and conversation died. People were tired from the early morning start and eager to get back and discuss their impressions, despite their disappointment that their abrupt departure had prevented them spotting a dinosaur. Dinner would be lively.

Time passed, it had been more than a hour since they left the glacier area and the worried expression on the group leader’s face was echoed by the concern on the boatswain’s features. Everyone was anxious. “How much longer, Boatswain?” somebody asked, but he did not reply. Born in Iceland, he’d served on the ship ‘Antarctic Explorer’ for 15 years, but seldom had contact with the passengers and spoke no English.

“Got a compass here somewhere in all these clothes,” the leader muttered. “See where we’re going. Think we’re sailing in circles,’’ It was impossible to tell. With no fixed point on which to focus, no horizon, sun or stars visible, it was useless. Cupping their hands, first one and than another shouted, “Hullooo, help…” Others blew their safety whistles. Surely they were close enough for the ship’s watch to hear them and raise the alarm?

“Why can’t we hear the foghorn?” somebody asked, as the awful realisation dawned. Then flotsam, driftwood, and a sodden book told their story. “Where’s the ship?” said one, as they stared wildly at the empty sea. “Oh my god, it’s gone,’’ screamed another. “Those pieces that broke off the glacier must have holed her, then she was swamped by that huge wave.’’

Sub-zero cold and the clammy fog wrapped around the tiny inflatable as they looked hopelessly at one another, not daring to face the truth. Everything had been swept away. They had no food, heat or communications.

They were adrift in the Antarctic.

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