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Old 18-02-2011, 15:07   #1
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From South Georgia

A note from some friends of ours:

Written February 4th, 2011 Prince Olav Harbour

Recently – only half joking – I said to Thies “shall we stay another year?” We had just spent another day watching the courtship dances of the wandering albatross. But these were the juvenile dances, said to be as nothing compared to those performed by established couples re-meeting after months at sea.

We have given so many animals our full attention during their breeding seasons, but not yet the wanderers. After two years here we still haven’t seen enough and still feel we could easily reshuffle place and time to get yet another new, fascinating experience of South Georgia.

We did just that in September when we chose to be in Larsen Harbour for the Weddell seals. Larsen is the only place on Earth where Weddells pup on land. Larsen is also at the very SE tip of the island making it tricky for us to reach in winter. And we did get quite a hammering beating up Drygalski Fjord against 40 knot winds, dodging more ice than was strictly pleasant, while a leak was steadily soaking our bedding. But we got there in the end.

Within half an hour of going ashore we were repaid for our troubles by witnessing a birth. Amazing luck, for there would be only seven pups in the whole bay. For six weeks we followed the bonding of mother and pup Weddells, which is much closer than either elephant or fur seals. Weddell mums never leave their pup’s side and soon take them for swimming lessons in the shallows. It was funny to see that the little ones often panicked in water deeper than the reach of their flippers.

Meeting the Weddells toppled my personal seal hierarchy. Elephant seals, which used to hold uncontested first place, have slid to the bottom. That’s because I have grown to love the fur seals. Yes: not just tolerate, not just accept, certainly no longer fear, but actually love them.

It’s a timely conversion because this year has been a bumper krill year and we have never before seen so many large, feisty fur seal bulls presiding over such a density of females filling the beaches. I now quite happily take myself around a beach full of harems. Their sharp teeth and short tempers certainly deserve respect, but I can judge them better now.

Things aren’t subtle down here. Many things – birth, death, weather, rockslides, avalanches – are fairly much in-your-face. When there’s no krill the weak die, when there’s krill the island teems with life. So it is with the glaciers too. And they’re dying before our eyes. Many times when we have sailed across Cumberland Bay West we have been severely hampered by a dense carpet of growlers, bergy bits, and icebergs that have calved off the Neumeyer glacier and is pouring way out to sea.

In the last year the Neumeyer has receded by 365m – that’s a meter of glacier face per day.

Glaciers can’t grow if there’s not enough snow. And, although we had lovely weather all winter, we didn’t have a lot of snow. It was patchy and never built the way it had the first winter. We managed some skiing, but more often it made sense to sled or bum-slide down the mountains. And one time Thies even thought he could instantly master snow boarding down a mountain, paying for this folly with a twisted knee. My own hubris brought me two broken toes when I wanted to show off my high kick but the lip of the bar got in the way.

It didn’t much matter because at the time we were all deeply engrossed in midwinter present making. A lot of love, care, and joyful secrecy surround the weeks leading up to midwinter, which is treated like Christmas.

Two days after the traditional midwinter swim Thies and I hosted the 2010 Midwinter Olympics in Grytviken. Luckily with just enough snow for our events: slalom sledging, ice hockey golf, three-legged snow shoe race, and downhill buoy bashing. All accompanied by glög.

That was half a year ago. Today, as I write, our time in South Georgia is coming to a close. Within a day or two we will be back in Grytviken to prepare the boat for a passage to St Helena and on to Brazil.

Sailing and being in South Georgia was hardly ever straightforward and there’s been a fair amount of wear and tear not only on the gear but also on us. We’ve also had a constant eye on the weather for it can change dramatically within minutes. So, without forecasting, we needed to be ready of anything.

The worst winds Wanderer saw here was a sustained 12 hours of 80 knots. (An icebreaker in the next bay reported 150 knot winds that day.) The worst we subjected her to was ice: both the thin, hull-slicing kind that covers a bay after a clear, windless night, and the jostling bergy bits that suddenly surround her when tide or wind turn unfavourably, requiring an unpleasant game of bumper-cars to escape – usually at night!

We’ve also grown a bit weary of handling our ground tackle (anchors and shore-lines on a swivel). It takes about three hours to deploy and up to two to dismantle. That adds four to five hours of work to every sailing day. It’s what’s allowed us to roam far and wide overland without a worry for the boat. It’s what has allowed some sleep during the worst storms. It’s what’s made it possible for us to be here.

We continued to have wood, coal, and fuel for our heaters, apples for our breakfasts, and freshies for our daily salads. Boat, gear, body and mind are still in one piece!

Not so many days ago I was sitting quietly watching a wandering albatross contemplating lift-off. His head scanned the horizon, his wings tested the stiff breeze. But he hesitated.

Then he came down his knoll and over to mine, ten meters away. He bowed twice before walking right up to me to gently nibble my fingers and toes. Having satisfied his curiosity he stretched his immense wings, the tip of one brushing my head. In four powerful steps he was gone, airborne. I was in heaven.

love, Kicki and Thies

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