By Russian Spy Ship to Antarctica
Feb 21, 2003
David Rich 2700 Words
B y R u s s i a n S p y S h i p t o A n t a r c t i c a
Finding myself in the southernmost city in the world, in Ushuaia, Argentina, I had to check and finally book a boat to Antarctica, and what a boat, a former Russian spy ship crammed with zany characters.
I was among forty-four passengers checking on board the M/V Grigoriy Mikheev when Jane, the lady in front of me, asked the purser, "Do these stairs go up or down?" I had a premonition it was going to be an entertaining two weeks from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, to Antarctica.
The week before I left my niece had e-mailed me, "Why are you going to a wasteland of ice and snow?" In the summer season 2000 to 2001 only 11,588 tourists trekked to Antarctica. In relatively deep conversation with Jane, I found this exclusivity was one reason she went. After all, how many Iowans toddle off to Antarctica for their annual vacation when Des Moines is so much closer? By our return from Antarctica I felt, among I suspect many others, one reward was Jane's unending string of colorful questions.
I went to Antarctica for three reasons: First, I happened to be in Ushuaia on the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego and was caught up in Antarctica fever. Most of the town's tourists go to Ushuaia solely to disembark for Antarctica and they were bubbling over with excitement. Second, Ushuaia provides an outstanding opportunity for last-minute fares from $2000 and up, depending on the number of days and the type of ship, whether a cruise ship or an expedition. The third reason I went was to visit my seventh and last continent, and what a trip it was.
At the end of the ship's orientation, expedition leader Peter was handed a note and immediately announced, "Whales at ten o'clock."
Jane raised her hand, "Is that at ten o'clock tonight or tomorrow morning?" Cute, prim, short, sunny Jane sat bewildered as folks rushed by with guffaws, chortles, and the occasional belly laugh.
I whispered to her, "Straight ahead is noon and straight behind the ship is six o'clock, so the whales are off to..." I almost said port as I pointed but instead said, "over thataway."
Jane smiled and I heard her say as she left, "I didn't know the ship was like a clock...."
A veteran Russian crew ran the ship like a clock, highly efficient and captained by a thirty-five-year-old blond gent who looked like he bit the ends off nails. He always muttered nicely at me, making sure the ship's engineer properly recharged my camera batteries.
The captain and crew welcomed us on the fifth floor command bridge, any hour of the night or day. Many of us took advantage of the "open bridge" policy to hunker out of the weather with a picture-window view of the Antarctic, whales often at ten o'clock and two o'clock simultaneously.
We were mesmerized by the friendly Russians, many of whom had sailed the ship since its 1990 launch in Finland, upon christening transferred a hundred miles to its homeport of St. Petersburg. There it was fitted with an unimaginable array of electronics and apparently looked far different from the Mikheev today. Two years later this penultimate Russian spy ship was rebuilt for tourists and leased to Ocean Expeditions, modifications among others requiring ninety percent of its electronics to be removed. According to the expedition's chief dive master, the Mikheev still sprouts far more antennas, revolving doohickeys, and strange wiry appurtenances than might be needed by an innocent icebreaker in the Antarctic.
Two of the three dive masters were Swedish, sometimes-TV-stars, who made underwater spectaculars for BBC and other worldwide networks. Three dive masters on board (the third recently recruited from Paris, sporting an accent, curly locks, looks, and manner that melted the hearts of every female passenger) meant our fellow voyagers included over one third divers, their wardrobes bristling with dry suits and fancy cameras, including a world adventurer photographer for National Geographic Magazine and a dozen famous other magazines.
As I strolled onto deck, I heard Jane ask, "Is that the same moon we have in Iowa?" followed without pause by, "Why did they announce whales when there's only a couple of fins?" It's true that unless you're a diver you seldom see a whole entire whale.
We'd left the great views in the Beagle Channel, which Jane thought was named after Snoopy of Peanuts fame, and forewarned, broached into the Atlantic Ocean. An hour before we'd lined up with our hands out for seasickness pills and scopolamine patches from the ship's German doctor, attempting a defense against the dreaded Drake Passage. Would it be Drake Lake as it is maybe thirty days a year, or the Furious Fifties and the stormiest patch of ocean on the planet, stretching from Cape Horn to the continent of Antarctica? We would cross it to and fro, through what the ship's crew referred to as relative calm, but we still rocked and rolled over heaving ocean swells, two days each way. Pass the pills, thank you very much. Jane was perky and pill-less.
Every berth was fitted with a lee cloth to prevent sleepers from pitching onto the floor. Jane reputedly asked the housekeeper, "Why isn't this sheet tucked in?" That was before the Drake Passage. In two short weeks Jane learned lots about lee cloths, whales, and stairs, as did many of us.
At sunrise on day three everyone was huddled on deck as we steamed toward a sheer rock wall, reputedly our first Antarctic landfall, at the last second turning into a narrow channel and the caldera of Deception Island. As we stood mesmerized, Jane asked, "Will the volcano erupt while we're here?"
Forty-three fingers crossed simultaneously. The last eruption had been in 1969, destroying local research stations. But we were relieved to finally be in Antarctica, icebergs floating by the portholes. How could that possibly be steam rising from the volcano's inland sea? I would wait for Jane to ask.
We watched the divers struggle into their dry suits for their first dive in Antarctic waters. They'd all qualified for the right to freeze their fingers and various other extremities. The dive masters had required each to try out their dry suits in water not warmer than four degrees centigrade. The stories of their efforts to meet this requirement had become a general topic of disbelief. A California attorney had dumped a hundred pounds of ice into his backyard pool, obviously missing the low temp mark by a mile before the ice melted and a smidge had been contributed to his gin and tonic. Most famous was Hawaiian Andy who with several friends had hand carried his tanks and gear up Hawaii's highest volcano to dive its frozen summit lake. Immediately before jumping in, Andy found out from a park ranger that the Hawaiians regard the lake as sacred; legend requires all Hawaiians to contribute their children's umbilical cord to its frigid waters within a week after birth. Every Sunday a hundred Hawaiians perform this sacred ritual, and Hawaiian Andy dove it. Andy completed the dive, and then became a legend in his own right. He admitted he didn't feel too well afterward, plus the visibility had been approximately zilch. Though most divers forsook one or more dives for shore excursions with us mere mortal passengers such as Jane and me, Hawaiian Andy was the only one who dove every possible dive, reasoning he'd earned the right to miss not a single opportunity for his fingers to turn neon blue like an iceberg.
The divers reminded me of bull walruses on a rampage, barking and wheezing as they tugged and yanked and pulled at their dry suits, expletives deleted, over three sets of thermal underwear. Zero degrees was chilly. They grunted, sprinkling talcum powder on their wrists and necks where the ultra-tight dry suits might chafe. The Russian derrick operator hooked a Zodiac full of tanks and dive gear, lowering it over the rail where a dive master climbed aboard for the ride down to the choppy, iceberged sea, and the dinghy splashed down between behemoths of neon blue ice. The dive master fired up the outboard and maneuvered the Zodiac to the gangway where alien apparitions in black rubber clunked down the ramp for the coldest dip on earth. Even for us borderline non-sadists, it was great fun watching them jump into the icy waters.
Meanwhile, we puny non-divers rode the Zodiac to shore at Whaler's Bay to inspect an abandoned British station covered by the 1969 eruption. This explosion had half submerged whale boilers and whaling vessels in obsidian sand. Fur seals and gentoo penguins cavorted on top of the fine black sand littered with whale vertebrae and bones. Wow. On the edge of the beach, steam not only wafted but also billowed. I could have asked about the steam without doing a "Jane." Deep into the black beach, the crew had dug a hefty hole, which had filled with hot water allowing the non-divers to take their first and last Antarctic dip.
The next stop was Astrolabe Island, crowded with Chinstrap penguins and a dozen Antarctic seabirds, where Jane asked, "Does that island go all the way to the bottom of the ocean?" I peered to see whether it was floating off somewhere, maybe really an iceberg, eh?
Jane looked pretty in a pink parka, fuzzy pink scarf, and hat. As we rode the dinghy toward shore she asked, "Why do penguins always stand on the dirty snow?"
Though the answer seemed obvious, it turned out the poor little tuxedoed penguins were scared near poopless by the dozens of Leopard Seals patrolling offshore of every Antarctic penguin colony. Two dozen penguins would line up on the ice sheet's edge, jumping nervously up and down, flapping their furry flippers, each waiting for the first heroic comrade to take a dive and brave the lurking Leopard Seals. You could almost hear them thinking, "Chomp, chompers, I'm goners." Finally a stouthearted fellow would dive like an apostrophe, and half a dozen tuxedoed others would follow. Suddenly, they'd execute an en masse abrupt about face and pop, literally, out of the water like cannon shots to mostly land back on the high cliff of the iceberg. Every fourth penguin would miss footing and tumble in an awkward back flip, often into the waiting jaws of a ferocious leopard seal. We furiously snapped pictures of nature's carnage.
Meanwhile, Jane implored the dinghy driver to dive into the iceberged waters to rescue that darling little penguin. Truth be told, there are penguins to spare. You can confirm that with any random leopard seal.
Our first day in the Antarctic barely scratched the surface of the adventure. In subsequent days and into lit-up nights we slid down glaciers, learning to tuck jackets under our butts so the snow, during rapid descents, wouldn't blow us up to gigantic white proportions. We spent one morning body-skiing a gazillion times. We attended studiously screwball lectures by staff, a studious German from the former east, earnest to a fault and face like a cherub; humorous lectures by the dive master TV star who, at trip's end, hawked a CD of his incredible underwater (and above) shots for twenty-five dollars.
At our fourth landing, Jane asked, "What happens if the water gets higher than my boots?" We were all kind of wondering about that and were always careful wading ashore. Then she asked, "Where do the seals go when it rains?" and "What happens to icebergs when they melt?"
But we landed without incident, surrounded by penguins, seals, and exotic birds, constantly reminded by expedition leader Peter to observe the five meter rule, to never go closer to a penguin than sixteen and a half feet. This simply doesn't work, because the little buggers have no sense of distance, toddling left, right, and crossways from wherever you go, waddling around like tipsy stars of the silent screen. We'd freeze like mimes as they lurched by, expending rolls of film with their every misstep. They probably thought we were under mass hypnosis, two dozen enthusiasts of "Simon Says."
Calling the babies "chicks" was a confusing misnomer, because most babies were larger than their parents, who'd stuffed them with food for months. The big, fat babies were actively molting, changing their flimsy birth feathers for something more substantial, a quilted suit with about a trillion interwoven feathers per square inch, a density to endure icy Antarctic waters. The weenie divers required a dry suit and three sets of underwear to handle the cold, just barely, while the penguins could blithely pretend icebergs were Styrofoam.
We sailed alongside one iceberg for what seemed like hours but the radar showed it was four and a half miles long. Tabular icebergs calving off the Weddell Sea shelf have exceeded forty miles in length, so our iceberg was a piker.
One of the more dangerous aspects of an Antarctic expedition is the food. I surely gained ten pounds. The Australian chef was phenomenal, turning out cuisine from ostrich and Argentinean beefsteaks to salmon and exquisite homemade deserts. Don't go with the expectation that you'll freeze off a few pounds, because you'll emerge instead looking more like a fatted baby penguin.
Antarctica proved it can be dangerous and unsociable, that it isn't just fun and games and gorging on haute cuisine. The more dangerous aspect was vividly illustrated minutes after we crossed the Antarctic Circle. With a lurch of the ship, a maneuver it was fond of executing unexpectedly, our world famous photographer took a dive down steel steps, fracturing his skull in two places. We sailed rapidly to the nearest airfield at a Chilean station, and he was air-evacuated to Punta Arenas, Chile and then back home to San Francisco. Last I heard, Amos Nachoum was well and thriving, raring to dive back into the hosting of divers in cages amidst the great white sharks off South Africa and much, much more, evidence of which you can confirm on his Web site at http://www.biganimals.com.
After Amos' mishap, we explored more iceberged seas, climbed pinnacles overlooking Antarctic sunsets, and stopped by Cape Horn on the way back, generally enjoying our money's worth. For example, as we Zodiaced by an iceberg crammed with hopping penguins, Jane shocked us into introspection when she asked, "Do penguins bury their dead?" Not hardly. Darwin's Survival of the Fittest was illustrated in Technicolor wherever we ventured, flippers and orange feet skeletoned together on the coldest of ice.
Upon disembarkation in Ushuaia, as I walked away, back toward civilization, I could faintly hear Jane's inquiry to long suffering expedition leader Peter and studious it was: "Do penguins have knees?" It'd been a great two weeks.
Beside the gargantuan, neon blue icebergs, leopard seals, minke and humpback whales (it's amazing how impressed people are by fins), diverse species of penguins and seals there are enormously interesting people you'll meet. The Mikheev, from February 16 to 28, 2003, hosted seven Dutch from Holland and Argentina celebrating a two-week family reunion; a hippie chick from Scotland; a couple from the Falkland Islands (Malvinas for those from Argentina), which is quite unique, because I'd always understood there were a gazillion sheep and thirty-two people on the Falklands that, if true, would have meant we'd enjoyed the company of over sixteen percent of the Falkland Islanders; Virgin Blue Airline's first female pilot in Australia and her pilot husband; a foundation guru setting up Argentina's first nano-tech lab; dive masters from all over the world, from the Dominican Republic to Hawaii and Israel; world class photographers and cinematographers; a dot com millionaire from Canada, and Jane, who asked our expedition leader as we docked, "I missed the ozone hole. Did everyone else see it?" The names have been changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent such as fictitious Jane, who represents an amalgam of Antarctic tourists whose questions were collected by Swedish dive master Adam Rheborg over a period of three Antarctic seasons.
The only decent travel agency for booking last minute fares in Ushuaia to Antarctica is Tourismo de Campo at 25 Mayo 76, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Say hi to Silvia, the consummate travel agent, who will get you the best fare available with no shilly-shallying around, quite dissimilar from the other travel agents in town.