2008/12/09

Part 4: Celebrating the Millennium in Antarctica

The eco-systems of the Antarctic region consist of a relatively limited number of wildlife species (at least the kind seen with the bare eye). As anywhere, this system relies on inter-dependence with one another.Not only was the “Ocean Explorer I” (OEI) the first-ever ship of that size to have entered the caldera at Deception Island (680 passengers, plus crew, see previous two posts), but at the same time we had a rendez-vous with two other, smaller vessels which were part of this special Millennium “expedition”. Altogether some 1,400 people (crew included) were gathered at one time, in one fragile place.Such an invasion would create big problems if it were a regular event. Looking back, this was far from setting a good eco-example. In general this vast white wilderness had few visitors. Now, 10 years later, tourism to Antarctica is very popular.But what is one to do? There will always be ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’ on life’s journey. Synchronicity? This week an Argentine passenger ship with 165 people aboard, “Ushuaia”, has grounded on the West Antarctic Peninsula, near Wilhelmina Bay. A naval vessel from Chile is on its way for the rescue operations.While a large variety of wildlife is not to be found, there are of course millions of all kinds of penguins. You also see albatross, petrels, snowy sheathbills, southern gulls, skuas (!), cormorants, terns and leopard seals. Whales are scarce now, none in the caldera. There are however several abandoned wrecks of old whaling stations in Antarctica.Turning to the Millennium festivities, here is the line-up of entertainers and guest speakers for this historic trip: The “Moffats”, for the youngsters and young-at-heart; fiddler Natalie MacMaster; Art Garfunkel; Diana Krall (from Vancouver Island where we reside); The Chieftains; actor Dan Acykroyd, and speakers Robert Kennedy Jr and F.W. deKlerck from South Africa (who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela).Let us open the curtains to the extraordinary spectacle and planned transport from the two smaller ships to OEI, via Zodiacs.Picture this: we’re in the Antarctic, inside the volcanic caldera of Deception Island, after three days on an ‘unruly moving platform’. Gathered together are one large vessel (OEI), and two smaller ships.All the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) passengers from the two smaller ships had to be transported to what was termed the ‘mothership’ by Zodiac. All of them were decked out in full New Year’s Eve gala attire. Yes, just like the Ritz! The ladies – high-heeled shoes, long ball gowns, wearing glittering jewelry, plus hats, gloves, fur or warm coats.The gents – formal, black tie, and shiny shoes. In the Zodiacs, my friends, in the Antarctic.And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, not one mishap, not one accident. How is that for competent and diligent skill by the team of Zodiac drivers?
Of course, credit also goes to the passengers themselves for keeping their balance with their high-heels while riding through the icy waters.Also the children were amazingly cooperative. After tearing about the ship the previous few days in the midst of the ship rolling and pitching its way through the Drake Passage (ignoring the demands by officers and crew to “hold onto the handrail”), they were orderly. It seemed almost as if some unseen hand or presence made all this function smoothly.We, Natasha and me, stood on deck and witnessed this (mad), extraordinary spectacle of transport in amazement. Coming up, fifth and final episode on the Millennium in Antarctica.