Off Bouvet Island, South Atlantic Ocean

S 54°24’30” E 003°18’24”

 More than a week at sea, and we now have our first sight of land. Bouvet Island hangs shrouded in mist to port, a dark mass streaked with glaciers running steeply into the sea; we see only the first hundred meters of her height before the cloud conceals the rest.  Sea temperature is 1°C, with the air varying between plus and minus one.  We feel isolated, small, insignificant, a toy boat bobbing on the waves, our warmth an intrusion soon to be sapped by the damp cold.  Bouvet stands resolute in its reputation – this is truly the most remote place on planet Earth.  For a thousand nautical miles in any direction, there is nothing but the cold sea.  Yet, as we emerge at dawn, we are greeted with the greatest richness of life we have seen since sailing from Table Bay.  Birds, numbering easily in the hundreds, continuously circle the ship.  Seals and penguins pass in vast groups, investigating this red-and-white intruder as they head out to sea to feed. There is a vibrancy, a richness, a fervour to the place than cannot be denied.  It is as if nature perceives desolation, chuckles, and in defiance births life abundant. 

Our voyage has continued without difficulty; the strong storms forecast for the Forties did not live up to the predictions, and the swells never exceeded 6m.  However, reports from further south are not as rosy.  The German Antarctic research ship Polarstern, having left the Cape some time ahead of us, has reached the pack-ice around Antarctica, and reported that the ice matches out satellite tomography.  Despite the lateness of the season, the ice extends in a solid sheet from the “coast” – the massive Ice Shelf – to the longitude of 60°S.  This is a distance of 600 nautical miles, or more than 1000 km.  Polarstern, despite being a powerful modern ice-breaker, has been unable to penetrate far into the pack, and currently stands firm in the ice.  The Agulhas, a strengthened ship but no icebreaker, stands little chance as yet.  It looks to be a waiting game. Amidst the concerns amongst the expedition leadership over the ice conditions, we have had some pleasant surprises. 

At 46°S, shouts echoed around the ship and the corridors were at once full of people hurriedly donning warm clothing: the first ice-berg had been sighted.  I was busy with the clinic at the time, but my patients rapidly vanished to find cameras, and so I did the same.  Temperatures had been dropping steadily as we made progress through the Forties, and it was commonplace then to go on deck with at least a thick jacket, as although the temperature was quite bearable in a shirt, the wind has fearsome teeth.  Coming as I did from the ship’s hospital, I was wearing nothing more than longs and a light fleece top. However, I had my camera, and that’s what is most important.  What excitement!  I’ve always read the stories of ships and bergs, journeys through icy waters, and epic escapades, and seen many documentaries featuring icebergs, but I was unprepared. 

There she lay, off the starboard bow, a low mass of blue-white with a pinnacle thrust proudly into the air. I could see the waves breaking on her flanks, trying to wear her into oblivion.  Here, I thought, is something of antiquity: made of years of snow falling softly to the ground, covered, concealed, compressed, wrought by forces of nature slower than human perception and more powerful than any of our creations.  She had journeyed over ages (aeons?) to reach the sea, calved, and swum the circumpolar current before escaping into the Southern Ocean, where we might happen upon her, glory fading but elegance enduring, as she inexorably sailed to oblivion.  The ship ploughed stoically on, and I realised the mass of the berg; she lay perhaps a kilometre from our path, and yet was easily studied with the naked eye, passing slowly abeam.  Before she fell astern, the next iceberg was visible on the horizon, and then the next.  No book or program could have prepared me; the scale was awesome.  I danced on the high deck like a little child, overjoyed and ebullient.  My first ‘berg. 

The Roaring Forties gave way to the Furious Fifties without a true  storm. Our barometer dropped to 980 millibar and winds peaked at 50 knots, but only one night did it feel daring to ascend to the monkey bridge and take a GPS reading.  Many nights I have settled in the ice-watch station to gaze at the stars and breathe the icy air.  Making new friendships has been a privilege of the voyage, and often I’m joined by an engineering professor, a doctor of physics or a young astrophysicist.  The subjects of discussion are seldom mundane. 

The stars are beautiful here on a clear night.  With no light pollution to interfere and the clean sea air, the Milky Way hangs at an arm’s length, and the nearby Magellanic galaxies are easily visible.  Each clear night I learn a new constellation, and hear about its stars; Taurus regards us quizzically, the nebula hidden in Orion is beatific; twins Castor and Pollux taunt me, born under Gemini.  I feel a deep undertone of conversion in my life, as if I’m passing through an invisible curtain en-route to Antarctica which opens my mind and frees thought.  Here amongst this isolation, I feel connected.

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