Notes from a cold water swimmer
I’ll slip out of the ice, into the dry air, and my skin will feel aglow. A rush of pleasure will tumble across my body. The pain of the cold will disappear. By Jessica J. Lee.
The ship rises again. A little more, a little more – it hovers for a moment that feels like eternity – then it crashes back down onto the water. A tremor runs through the hull. The sea spray reaches as high as the sun deck. There’s another wave – this time the MS Bremen just rattles. But the sea is already gathering itself once more…
We’re lucky. A heavy storm is raging across the Antarctic Ocean. The captain of the Bremen, Mark Behrend, explained the situation with the weather two days ago. There’s a major area of low pressure approaching, and we have two options: go east or go west. Just don’t go through it. The waves at the centre are apparently ten to fourteen metres high.
So nobody had any objections when the captain said he was going to skirt westwards round the storm, as the waves in that direction would only be up to six metres high.
And yet, as we’re being buffeted back and forth, up and down, day and night, we realise how relative luck is.
There are many things we have to relearn: sleeping at sea; brushing our teeth at sea; showering at sea; getting dressed at sea; and eating and drinking at sea while glasses are perpetually threatening to tip over and bread is constantly sliding off the plate. Still, there are some amusing moments: as you walk past someone else finding their sea legs, you tend to wobble into each other, a smile on your face. You don’t take yourself so seriously any more, at sea.
It suits our style of travel. Our five-month trip around the world has been a search for five experiences on five continents: enduring loneliness in Canada; sensing the breath of history in Portugal; learning humility in the Himalayas; encountering the animal kingdom in Australia; and – with the MS Bremen – travelling into the Antarctic.
Our once-in-a-lifetime journey into perpetual ice begins five days before the storm, on a grey November day in Montevideo. The ship is lying in an equally grey harbour, white and sparkling, with the words ‚Expedition Cruises‘ emblazoned in enormous letters on the hull. We’re greeted with champagne.
It’s a small ship, 111 metres long, with space for 164 passengers. There’s no entertainment programme, but it’s got the highest ice class a passenger ship can have.
As the ship departs from the greyish-brown Rio de la Plata into the South Atlantic, we get acquainted with our cabin. It’s sixteen square metres, with a narrow bath, a large double bed, a real window, a seating area with a table, chair, sofa and television, and a minibar. There’s more welcoming champagne. This is our home for the next twenty-three days. We get comfortable. But we’ve hardly had time to unpack before the emergency drill begins.
The first ritual is an evening one: eating. We’re in luck there, too. We’re sitting at a round, eight-person table with a doctor from the Allgäu, in southern Germany, an electrician from Vienna, a couple from Berlin – civil servants – and a hotelier couple from Switzerland. We’re going to have a lot of fun at table 42.
The next ritual is the information session in the ‚Club‘, later also referred to as the ‘precap’ or ‘recap’. The captain introduces his team: navigator, chef, hotel director and cruise director. It’s surprising how many of the employees at the floating Hotel Bremen are from Austria, that sea-faring nation in the Alps.
Our route will take us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, and finally through the Lemaire Channel. On the way back we’ll pass through Drake Passage, past Cape Horn and onwards to Ushuaia in southern Argentina, where our journey will end. So far, so good.
‘At least, that’s the plan,’ says the captain. The weather changes quickly, he tells us, so it’s best to see it more as an intention than as an itinerary. The catalogue adds the caveat, ‘subject to decisions made by the captain, based on weather and ice conditions,’ and the man with four golden stripes on his shoulders explains, ‘it’s my job to take unpopular decisions sometimes.’
During the first few days that’s hard to imagine. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the guests are snoozing on loungers on the helicopter deck. We explore the ship. There’s a gym, a hairdresser’s, a sauna and a small pool, as well as a lounge, two restaurants and a lido deck behind the ‘Club’, with tables beneath electric heaters. Mostly we’ll eat outside, swaddled in blankets, enjoying the world.
The Bremen is an open ship. If the doors aren’t locked, visitors are welcome on the bridge. We get to know Mark Behrend. The captain lives in Bergisches Land, in western Germany, but spends about eight months of the year on the ship. He’s a friendly man with a beard and laughing eyes, who always wears short-sleeved shirts and often strikes a thoughtful note. He shows us where he works, and the weather chart.
There’s a storm in the offing. Will it catch us?
The captain slowly shakes his head. Maybe.
The passengers are much preoccupied with the weather. If it’s too unpleasant we won’t be able to go ashore everywhere as planned. But that’s the special thing about expedition cruises like these – that you can cross over to small islands on black rubber dinghies called Zodiacs.
For these Zodiac excursions we’ve been kitted out with parkas and wellies, so that our feet will stay dry even if we have to make a ‘wet landing’, where you slide out of the dinghy and walk to shore. How many landings are wet and how many are dry? Every landing is a wet landing. Right.
Later we’re standing on deck. A gossamer strip of pink separates the steely blue evening sky from an ocean that stretches out before us like ink. It’s colder than it was; when we speak our breath condenses into thin, cotton-wool clouds in front of our faces. At a rate of fifteen knots, the Bremen approaches the Falkland Islands.
* * *
A pier is fastened to Deck 3. The crew let down the scouting boat, so the expedition leader can find the best place to land. Then dinghy after dinghy – the sailors already on board – are floated on the surface of the water. We’re separated into four groups: blue, green, red and white.
They explain how to operate a dinghy. As you get on, you grab the sailor’s forearm near the elbow, steadying yourself. Once in the boat you sit down at once, sliding into your assigned place. No standing! Hold onto something as you make the crossing! When you reach the landing spot you straddle the side – keep your eyes on the sea! – and swing one leg, then the other, over the edge. Head immediately to land! The expedition leader shows our departure time on a board. Each group has ninety minutes.
Then we’re off, hurtling towards New Island across water glittering in the sunlight. Yellow gorse glows against green hills. A wreck is lying in the bay. Landing and getting out we do everything correctly, then we follow a 1,000-metre-long path along a cliff edge, the sea beneath us, past thousands of birds brooding in numerous colonies.
Time passes quickly. Soon we’re perched once more on the edge of the Zodiac, the boat bounces across the shallow waves, our hair flies in the wind, and it’s clear from others’ expressions how satisfied they are with the experience of their first landing.
Back on board the Bremen, we try to find out what time our Zodiac group’s turn is the next day. We can hardly wait to go on another exploratory trip.
They call it the Zodiac virus.
Volunteer Beach is a sickle-shaped cove with turquoise water and a beach of fine sand. It would be a credit to any Caribbean island. Yet during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere it gets no warmer than five to ten degrees. Why is this beach still a dream destination? Because many thousands of king penguins nest here.
We observe the animals, how they stand on the beach in large groups, slowly waddling over to the water, waiting, then – as if at a secret command – storming into the sea. Pretty soon we’re starting to anthropomorphise the penguins. Look, that one looks like an old man on his Sunday walk. Four ‘hooligans’ are pushing and shoving each other. The ‘comedian’ has got himself tangled up in a clump of kelp and fallen flat on his beak. That baby penguin covered in brown fuzz is too slow for his mother – he pauses and yelps. It looks like he’s crying, ‘Mamaaa!’
Later, as we’re eating, we sit together and embroider our stories. We’re cheerful. No – we’re happy. Nature has given us moments of happiness.
* * *
‘Anybody who wants sun tomorrow, raise your hand,’ says Mark Behrend at the precap for the landing in South Georgia. Earlier the expedition leader familiarised us with ‘bio security’ precautions: to avoid bringing seeds onto the islands, bags, shoes, tripods and even the velcro fasteners on our jackets have to be cleaned, and anybody coming back on board should use the boot cleaning station.
Faced with a sea of raised hands, the captain threatens in a mock accusatory voice, ‘Then I’ll show you why you shouldn’t be wishing for good weather.’
An image is projected onto the screen. It shows the Bremen in a bay. The water is calm. Next image. The same bay. This time, however, the sea is whipped up. ‘There are only ten minutes between the two photos,’ says the captain, and he explains the phenomenon. The air above a glacier is not only cold, but also heavy. When the sun comes out, the warm air rises from above the sea. To equalise the balance of pressure, the air from the glacier rushes down incredibly quickly. These katabatic winds can reach speeds of more than 200 km/h. ‘In which case we’d have to cut short the landing immediately. So please join us in hoping that it’s not sunny.’
The captain’s plea is heard.
Grey clouds hang heavily above a landscape of black cliffs and fields of snow, the sea like a sheet of lead. Nature is a black-and-white photograph. The Zodiacs are lowered and disappear on a trial run. Then it’s our turn. We’re the first boat to reach Salisbury Plain. We take off our lifejackets, take out our cameras and head off on the hunt. The expedition leader has warned us not to get too close to the seals. If an animal snarls at us, we’re not supposed to run – ‘they’re faster than you’ – but to make ourselves look bigger. ‘If that doesn’t work, shout for help.’
On the way to the next landing spot, the Bremen encounters the first iceberg of our journey. It’s as large as a DIY superstore on an industrial estate in a medium-sized city. The current has brought the iceberg down from the Antarctic. The ship passes the blue-and-white colossus and heads for Grytviken.
On the flensing platform lies a whale, men posing in front of it with their flensing knives, ready to carve open the creature. They’re after blubber, the outermost layer of skin, which contains whale oil. It will be removed and cooked in enormous vats to produce the oil. It was a much sought-after commodity in early twentieth-century Europe, and because they didn’t know what to do with the rest of the animal, they dragged its carcass into the sea, where it rotted. There must have been a pungent smell in the air, as well as the shrieking of the skuas that picked at the bones.
Then the stations were shut. The largest living creature on earth – the blue whale – was almost wiped out. By then crude oil had replaced whale oil. Moreover, their numbers had been absolutely decimated. Around 1930 it was still possible to catch 30,000 blue whales, but in some later seasons whaling ships drew only twenty from the sea.
With this information in our heads, we leave the museum at Grytviken, finding the place even more inhospitable than it normally is in the fog at zero degrees. There’s a bay encircled by steep cliffs and a small headland with the rusty ruins of an industry that was once the stuff of heroic tales, and which today is despised by most people. The mythic struggle between man and beast is presented here as an industrialised massacre.
Today Grytviken is a ghost town. Two half-buried wrecks lie on the shore, seals sleeping in the shelter they offer from the wind. We walk through rows of rusty vats. On the way to the church we encounter a king penguin that’s evidently heading the same way. It’s good to see that this ghoulish place has now been taken over by animals. Birds, penguins, fur seals and elephant seals – they’re reconquering the land.
Only three people still live here – once it was 2,000. They run the museum and care for the cemetery, where Captain Behrend gives a talk at the grave of Ernest Shackleton. He may have been an unsuccessful explorer, but he was a great sailor. After his ship Endurance was crushed by Antarctic pack ice, in April 1916 he left his crew on Elephant Island and set off in a lifeboat to fetch help, accompanied by five sailors. They travelled 1,500 kilometres through the Antarctic Ocean, eventually reaching South Georgia. In August Shackleton was able to rescue his men with a Chilean tugboat. In January 1922, the polar researcher died of a heart attack in Grytviken. We drink schnapps and toast him.
* * *
Back on the Bremen the captain gathers us for a precap. ‘There’s a storm approaching. To avoid the highest waves, we’re going to take a detour. Even so, the ship’s going to be knocked about a bit.’ A guest asks how high the waves will be. ‘Five to six metres. There might be a few eight-metre breakers in there too.’
For weather enthusiasts the low pressure area must be a dream. The air pressure quickly falls from 1,017 hectopascals to 972. The bad weather moves towards South Georgia at a rate of around a hundred kilometres per day, with wind speeds of twelve and over on the Beaufort scale. On the weather chart the area is marked in violet, the worst colour on the bad weather scale.
What a magnificent storm!
Yet there’s precious little enthusiasm to be seen on the passengers’ faces. Captain Behrend assures us the Bremen’s in no danger.
During the evening the waves get higher, and the crew take further precautions: chains hold down sofas and chairs, the decks on the starboard side are closed, and bottles and glasses in the bars are carefully secured. The self-service restaurant in the ‘Club’ is shut, as is the pool. Bettina, the doctor at our table, says tersely, ‘this is what we signed up for.’
A two-class society has established itself on board: those with seasickness patches and those without. Susanne is wearing one, and copes quite well with the conditions. The waves don’t really bother me. It’s impossible to predict who’s going to be affected. The doctor from the Allgäu is suffering, the electrician from Vienna isn’t seen for two days, and some of the crew wouldn’t be fit for work without their patches.
It’s comforting to see the sun emerge now and again, so that the waves aren’t just raging in the darkness. At some point every storm will pass – even this one – and as we crowd on deck one morning after so many stormy nights, the wind has all but petered out. We get ready for a boat tour around Elephant Island.
Elephant Island is a rocky plateau populated by penguins. Shackleton’s men spent almost four months here in two caves. It’s scarcely imaginable what hardships they must have borne. Even in summer we’re wearing thick jackets, hats and gloves. Shackleton’s men spent the winter here. We enjoy just being visitors.
Most of the research stations are only occupied in the summer, when the continent is also visited by about 30,000 tourists. In winter the region becomes as inhospitable as an alien planet, with temperatures of minus thirty to minus sixty degrees and storms with winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour.
The Bremen passes more and more tabular icebergs, white giants that have detached themselves from the Antarctic ice shelf. Yet as bizarre as the scenery is, after a while you start to get used to it. Until suddenly somebody yells, ‘Whale! Whale!’, then immediately corrects themselves to,
‘Whales! Whales! Loads and loads of whales!’“
In fact there are only two humpback whales approaching, but then in the distance we see the spray blown upwards by two fin whales.
We can’t get enough of the sight. One person lets their binoculars fall from stiff, frozen fingers.
* * *
The Bremen steers towards a wall of rock, until an opening appears: Neptune’s Bellows, South Shetland Islands. The captain has invited us onto the bridge. The atmosphere is tense and focused.
The officers, who occasionally sail around an iceberg to entertain the guests or switch off the engine so as not to disturb the whales, are communicating in terse commands – distances, water depths, wind speeds. Soon the Bremen has navigated the narrow passage and drops anchor. A chain of almost eighty metres rattles behind it.
For a few hours we’re the only inhabitants of Deception Island. We pass rusting silos, decaying houses and an aeroplane hangar filled with snow – this used to be the starting point for the first exploratory flights across the Antarctic. We climb a hill. The view stretches across the caldera, still partly covered with ice.
How wonderful that we’re able to be here.
Before we board, we take off our clothes and run screaming into the ice-cold sea. You used to be able to dig tubs, and the water would warm up over the hot sand, as this area is still volcanically active. Today that’s no longer allowed, but the tradition of bathing on Deception Island lives on. We find warmth afterwards in the sauna, where we sit with five other freezing-cold people.
We feel like heroes.
Later we’re crowded together on the foredeck, watching the captain ram the ship against the ice covering the caldera. Until the Bremen gets stuck. There’s a V-shaped chip in the ice, a notch of futility. If they hadn’t before, each passenger now feels a sense of respect for the power of the ice and the might of this continent.
Once whale and seal hunters were the only inhabitants of the Antarctic. Today it’s scientists and their assistants. There are approximately eighty research stations, and around half of them are only occupied during the summer months. Many of them, according to critics, have nothing to do with research. During the Cold War the Americans and the Russians operated an icy arms race here. After India opened a station, Pakistan followed suit. The Chinese had barely got here before the South Koreans were raising their flag.
The most recent and currently the most sophisticated set-up is run by the German Alfred Wegener Institute. Research will be conducted at the station, opened in 2009 and resting on stilts, for twenty-five years. Neumayer III, as it’s called, can be dismantled without leaving any traces behind – this in itself is a statement, a eco-political one.
Base Brown, located in the picturesque Paradise Bay, is a former naval base and the scene of a tragic story: when a doctor working there discovered that he wouldn’t be relieved from duty until after another winter, the despairing man set the station on fire, so they would be forced to remove him.
We can’t understand the doctor. The view extends across a row of snow-topped hills. We’re standing on the Antarctic Peninsula. We break off an icicle. This piece of frozen water, probably several hundred years old, tastes no different from an ice cube straight from the freezer.
Florence, a scientist here, says that in the summer they get up to 15,000 guests. The four-person team is tasked with counting penguins, guiding visitors through the museum and selling postcards and souvenirs. Isn’t that a strange occupation for a scientist? Florence laughs – it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being here.
What information do the researchers at Lockroy generate? The team monitors penguins’ breeding success rate. There are two colonies: one lives by the museum, where visitors come every day in summer, and the other in an area that’s closed off. The penguins by the museum rear more young. Evidently the tourists do more than just stress them; they drive away predators.
Back on board there’s little time for dinner, as around nine o’clock we’ll reach the Lemaire Channel, a narrow strait approximately thirteen kilometres long, hemmed in by glaciers and steep, towering walls of rock. The entryway is marked by the characteristic double peaks of Cape Renard, dubbed ‘Una’s Tits’ by British sailors in the 1950s in unconventional recognition of Una Spivey, a member of the administrative staff.
* * *
The foredeck is open again. Guests and crew stand reverently next to one other, gaping in astonishment and taking photographs. By now it’s clear why the Lemaire Channel is nicknamed ‘Kodak Gap’ – you just can’t stop pressing the shutter.
It’s the turning point of our journey into the Antarctic. Shortly after two in the morning the Bremen changes direction. By now almost all the passengers are in bed, but we’re still standing on the gangway to the side of the bridge, looking into the bright night. The reddish golden light is in the midst of transforming into the pinky, pastel-blue glow of dawn.
We can’t tear ourselves away from the sight. It’s as if we were trying to cling to happiness.
We say goodbye to eternal ice on a hill in Neko Harbour. It was a difficult climb, but the view is sensational. A nearby glacier calves, and it sounds as if it’s tearing the world apart. It’s another unbelievably beautiful day: the sun is shining and the air is so clear that everything seems close enough to touch.
The reason for this misperception is the purity of the air. If you were to measure the quality of the air in a large German city, you would find up to 100,000 particles in a volume the size of a sugar cube. In Antarctica it’s ten particles. The mountains that seem so close are not only much further away, they’re much bigger. We ask ourselves what it would feel like to set off – on a day like today and a place like this – to explore the continent. The sun is blazing; we take off our parkas, then quickly put them back on again as a gust of wind sweeps the cold of the Antarctic over us.
The Bremen hoists anchor. The water glitters as penguins outpace the ship. We pass by glaciers, mountains so tall and snowy that you can no longer make out their shapes, and valleys filled with snow and islands of ice that suddenly turn out to be archipelagos. A little while back the crew actually ‘discovered’ an island. It may not change our image of the world, but we’re still proud of ‘Bremen Island’.
For several hours, as the ship leaves the final islands at the edge of Antarctica behind it, we can hear small chunks of ice bumping against the hull. Then there’s nothing but the waves and the sea spray as the Bremen sails through Drake Passage, the swell no greater than you’d find on the Baltic Sea during a ferry trip to Denmark.
It’s time to say farewell. The kitchen staff have once more given their all: we’re served course after course at table 42. We’re in debriefing mode. The civil servants from Berlin say it was a wonderful trip, though they could have done without the first day of the storm. The Viennese electrician asks, ‘Storm? Incredible, I’d completely forgotten.’ The Swiss hoteliers – genuine cruise experts – want to come back, and the doctor from the Allgäu seems sad.
Surely it can’t be over yet…
When it turns out we can’t land on Cape Horn as planned on the last morning, because the winds are too strong, we’re not that upset. The cliffs, where some 800 ships have been dashed to pieces and 10,000 seamen dragged down into the depths, are most moving to the sailors. After all the songs have been sung and the nautical charts auctioned off, Captain Behrend gives a stirring speech. Through the beauty of the journey shimmers the tragedy of seafaring.
We spend the last evening in Ushuaia, in a pub that refers to itself as ‘Irish’, but is so Argentinian that it’s just funny. Some crew members join us. We drink together, having become quite close by now, telling stories about travelling, about the past few weeks, and about our plans. We drink some more. The next day, fuzzy-headed, we stand on the gangway; it seems like we only just boarded.
Some of the crew members have gathered on the pier. This time, instead of a champagne welcome, we’ve got a farewell guard of honour. Even Captain Behrend is there, in a short-sleeved shirt as usual. We shake hands. He says, ‘I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but I haven’t seen that kind of light in the Lemaire Channel for a long time.’
We answer – completely spontaneously – at the same time. ‘It was a journey into happiness.’
Translation by Caroline Waight