The first surprise on this voyage of discovery to Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands was to be told on the eve of departure that the route had been changed. Instead of heading south west from Bluff to the Snares, Auckland and the Macquarie islands before doglegging southeast to the Ross Sea, we would be taking a more direct route to Antarctica proper. The reason was that despite it being the height of summer and the time when the sea ice was at its nadir, this year the ice had taken longer than normal to open up. But it had just opened so getting through maybe as far as Scott Base would be possible if we hurried, as it would not be long now before it started closing up again. The window of opportunity was only just ajar.
Indeed our ship had a few days earlier returned to Bluff with a complement of crestfallen customer, frustrated because the Icebreaker was unable to get further south than 160 kms from the Antarctic coastline. So there would be no dissent amongst our 48 passengers who’d descended dockside at Bluff to any plan that enhanced our chance of a sea approach right through to Antarctica. The Spirit of Enderby would head south east to Campbell Island, from where it would be a 7 day direct run to Ross Island in McMurdo Sound.
But first we had to complete loading the boat for this 30 day voyage and the cargo this time around would be a little unusual as the passenger complement would not be the conventional clutch of either German orthinologists, international scientists, British historic hut aficionados or Japanese landscape photographers. Into the hold were being loaded kayaks, scuba tanks, dry suits and weight belts, mountain- and motor bikes – these were the tools of exploration that this assembly of ordinary Kiwis would be using to get their own feel of the magic continent that lies close but tantalisingly beyond the reach of most of those who live closest to it. And 48 pairs of tramping boots were aboard to enable the sub-Antarctic islands to be explored.
This up close and personal exploration of the nether regions would all be conducted under the watchful of eye of an officer of DOC – just to be sure nothing was left behind but foot and tyre tracks and perhaps a hole in the ice through which a plucky diver or two from our troupe will have plunged. On the scale of intrusion by explorers, whalers, sealers, farmers, fishermen, scientists, roading and airport contractors not to mention the giant transporter aircraft that have indelibly left their mark on these parts, ours would be a soft brush stroke on the environment. But in this day and age of excitement over events environmental, what’s reasonable activity has been re-defined and become ever so selective. So we would take protection. When traversing the jungles of Africa having a gun-toting soldier along can provide a shroud of safety, from the sub-Antarctic south it’s the man from DOC that will protect us from the sea-lions and the inconsistency of the hand-wringing armchair critics.
Finally setting sail, the group is a little less excited and a quiet expectation descends – or is it just the knowledge that we’re sailing into a strong front coming up from the southwest? Not every passenger has their sealegs and there’s a plethora of Scopoderm patches affixed behind the ears of those determined to do all they can to stave off seasickness in the Roaring Forties, across the Furious Fifties and all the way south. As Bluff hill disappears over the horizon the last of the cellphone addicts come down from the foc’sle where they’ve squeezed the most from the last of the reception waves.
Dinner is served, night descends and then it’s alone in your bunk to contemplate your stomach and the swell. The Spirit of Enderby is an Icebreaker so has a rounded hull which is great when we get amongst the ice. Should it give us the squeeze we will pop upwards, rather than get caught in the vortex of two opposing ice flows and fall victim to a hull-splitting vice. But that benefit comes at a cost – in the open sea she’s the opposite of any deep V displacement hull – she rolls around in the slightest swell. And we were immediately heading beam-on to the swell coming up from the south west. This makes for a roly-poly ride and our troupe will spend their first night being flung from one side of their bunks to the other. Sleep will be elusive for most.