Dark dawn

Jan. 3rd, 2008 08:00 pm
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Ship's Position at 12:00:
  • 47°22.2' S 99°28.0' E
  • Course 39°; Speed 16.7 kts
  • Air temperature 6°C; Water 6°C; Wind 24 kts; Direction 250°
  • Weather: Cloudy; Visibility 8
  • Distance covered past 24 hours: 381.4 nautical miles

At this rate of travel, we might get to Perth early.

Last night after sending an email (radio room closes at 22:00, and I'm usually the last customer of the day) I went to the bar and talked with a few people for a while. We talked about our plans after arriving in Australia — one is taking the Indian-Pacific train, one is meeting up with someone who's dealing with the planning, one going straight home, one taking an organized tour — and about other travel.

Several people who work on the ship were in Iceland this fall, in the gap between the Arctic and Antarctic tour seasons. The bartender Debby is one of those, and I got out the map to settle another question about the Westfjords (seems like ALL of us who were in Iceland went to Holmavik and the museum there!) and we subsequently had Debby point out where she broke her foot. She was off in the Westfjords when she did it, had to stay that night with the foot as it was, drove herself the next day to a town with a hospital and had a walking cast put on, and continued doing what she recognized as dumb things like hiking 7 km up a volcanic crater. But how often do you get to Iceland? She wasn't letting it spoil the trip, and she could still drive, so she kept going. She said she had to have the cast replaced once after the heel wore through because she was walking so much, and on one day she kept having to scrape six or seven inches of mud off the bottom. (She's fine now; after the iceland vacation, she went to Ushuaia to meet the ship and rested the foot properly for a couple of weeks.)

We also talked about how we were looking forward to seeing stars again, as the night skies have been cloudy for most of the voyage. The previous night (the 2nd) I did see the moon rising through the clouds, very dramatic and beautiful, and glimpsed a few stars past the covering. After leaving the bar, I look again out the porthole before going to bed and see the stars quite clearly, and I run back to the bar to tell everyone there it's a starry night. On the way back to my cabin I meet M, who has her coat on already and has raced around the ship knocking on the doors of those she knows will welcome the intrusion (it's 23:30).

Outside I find not just stars, not just the Magellanic Clouds, the Milky Way, and the Southern Cross, but a shimmering green-yellow aurora at the southern horizon. It's not fully visible due to clouds, but I climb to the flying bridge over the bridge to watch for more than an hour as it waxes and wanes, sending its tentacles up to the zenith three or four times. The ship isn't rolling much, maybe five degrees, and the wind's not too cold. Fifteen or twenty people, some with cameras, watch the aurora. Professional photographer J's photos appear to be most successful; he uses a tripod and a lens with a huge aperture; there's not too much blurring from the ship's roll. When one of the expedition leaders comes up (having heard voices, I guess) and remarks that they'd been watching on the stern but hadn't made an announcement because it isn't "spectacular" I know there are going to be some very unhappy passengers in the morning! Anyone who'd complain about an aurora announcement on a tour to Antarctica is on the wrong vessel.

We watch even though the aurora becomes a tarnished gilt shimmer washing along the southern horizon, under and behind black clouds. In the east, the moon rises, at first only a reddish glimmering dot and then a gradually-complete curve riding higher and higher and finally breaking free of the darkness of the same clouds.

A Russian crewman is sent up from the bridge after the expedition leader leaves; in Russian, English, and Mime he explains that there have been sad incidents of passengers falling off the flying bridge. If I understand aright, one was a woman, distraught (fell or jumped?), and the other was a crazy windsurfer they picked up once, a guy windsurfing around all five continents. He offers to get us tea and lends a lady from Hong Kong his jacket. I learn a useful new word from him, "Zaftra!" when we all say goodnight and go down.

Today was the last of our erratic improvised Russian lessons, and zaftra's one of the words Kara gives us (sevodnya–today–and fchera–yesterday– are among the others, as well as "mozhna tebya kupitz napitok?"–"may I buy you a drink?"). Then the fifteen or so students all pass the final exam (her only goal was to get each to say zdrastvuitye–hello– correctly) and we have a shot of vodka and Akos, who grew up in Hungary, sings two silly songs in Russian and Katusha, the classic soldier song. It turns out that the Japanese interpreter, who has been attending the classes, knows Katusha in Japanese! So she sings that also.

Bob Headland delivers a lecture on sealing, well illustrated from his personal and the Scott Polar Research Institute's collections of maps, books, and images. Sealing and its history are well worth studying because the fur seals were reduced, across their entire range, to approximately 300 individuals. That's ~300 across their entire range, the whole of the circumglobal Southern Ocean — fur seals bred (before human commercial sealing) on every rock and spit of land available, however remote. They come ashore for about four months, to bear pups and breed; the sealers would arrive at the beaches, kill every seal they saw (thus, by killing the females, killing the next year's unweaned pups as well), and skin them, salt the skins, and discard the bodies. One slide shows an eroded bank revealing an entire layer — a geological deposit — of fur seal bones on one of the islands. Yet they have rebounded, an estimated three million of them now thriving to the point where they're degrading their environment. What to do? Cull? but they're protected, and we know from experience that advantage can be taken and an illegal trade opened as soon as there's any reason to reduce the population of a threatened or endangered species which is too numerous locally. Fur seals eat krill, and the removal of baleen whales from the ecosystem has certainly supported their expansion, as well as that of penguins — which implies, by the way, that the human krill fishery is not taking "surplus" krill uneaten by the nearly-extinct whales. Someone else is eating it. The only species in surplus on this planet is Homo sapiens.

The really grim lecture is the one on whaling, tomorrow.

At dinner I hear a rumor (later confirmed) that the roughest weather of the trip is coming; when I return to my cabin, my GPS has been taken inside and the porthole is bolted so tightly shut I can't get it open. My desk chair's securing strap has been tightened so that it's difficult to sit at the desk! And the ventilator, which brings fairly foul air into the room, has been turned on. I've tried shutting the heat off already (it's gotten very enthusiastic now that (a) we're out of the cold regions and (b) the engines are running harder), but seem to have failed. Need screwdriver or something to provide leverage to open porthole. GPS can be put outside (obviously its inside-connected leash was unacceptable) in a way that allows porthole to close properly. I'm "securing" (translation: stuffing into drawers or duffel bags) almost everything movable in my cabin, mainly so I don't have to get up and find some object wandering around in the middle of the night. During dinner, everyone blames D for the big hoolie, if there is one; he beams happily.


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