Captain's Letter no. 3
Dear Friends of SPRI
It's ages since I last wrote for Polar Bytes and a great deal has happened during the intervening months. As I type the ship is in a dry dock in Puerto Belgrano (yes... Puerto Belgrano, the home of the Argentine Navy) where we have been undergoing repair work on a rudder problem; but more of that later.
My last letter was despatched as we approached the Falkland Islands for New Year and preparations for our first work period in the Antarctic Peninsula. We sailed in early January arriving in the Erebus and Terror Gulf amidst spectacular scenery and superb weather. Thanks to the long days (it doesn't really get dark at night at that time of the year) we got off to a great start, flying ashore various BAS scientific field camps to locations in the Trinity Peninsula and Seymour and James Ross Islands. The camps were to be left there for about six weeks so about five tons of stores and equipment had to be loadlifted ashore by our ever busy Lynx helicopters, making for demanding and exciting flying operations. The scientists were supporting the eight core BAS scientific programmes.
As in South Georgia our Multi Beam Echo Sounder (MBES) continued to prove its worth enabling us to survey considerable areas of previously uncharted waters notwithstanding the significant pack ice and bergs that confronted us. Much of the survey work was focused on James Ross Island and in the vicinity of Dundee and Paulet Islands but we also used the MBES to search for the wreck of Otto Nordenskoldt's Antarctic, the exploration ship lost in Erebus and Terror Gulf in 1903, under the auspices of an expedition headed by David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries. We found a couple of potential contacts which will hopefully be further investigated next season. The MBES is so effective that we also believe we may have found the first example of an active volcanic vent in about 500 metres of water, so we're delighted with its performance.
Meanwhile the helicopters were taking advantage of the amazingly fine weather to conduct vertical photography of many parts of Erebus and Terror Gulf; flying at 8000 feet in temperatures of -19 degrees centigrade they produced enough material to keep the UKHO busy for some time to come. Our surveyors were also ashore conducting geodetic measurements and recording tidal data in support of surveying operations. Several visits were made to scientific bases in the area, including the Argentine base at Esperanza near the Antarctic Strait. During their spare time members of the Ship's Company spent many hours on the Monkey Deck (the raised deck right in the bow of the ship) drinking in the spectacular views and capturing many hundreds of photographs thanks to the technological advances of digital photography.
From Erebus and Terror ENDURANCE headed north to Ushuaia in the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina for the first Royal Navy visit there since January 1982. We received a very friendly reception from the local people of what is regarded as the world's southernmost city and a logistics port for the increasing numbers of tourist ships that ply the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Argentine veterans of the South Atlantic Campaign invited us to participate in a joint commemoration of those who fell on both sides; a moving event which attracted much publicity and culminated with an Argentine veteran giving his medal to one of ENDURANCE's veterans during a particularly poignant moment.
Returning to the Antarctic Peninsula we transited the Drake Passage for a third time in totally benign conditions (in all we crossed the Passage four times in easy weather so what is all the fuss about?!) for our final work period in Antarctica. This time we hosted an FCO led international team of inspectors (from the UK, Argentina, Norway, Australia, the USA and IAATO) tasked with inspecting the most visited tourist sites to ensure that the Antarctic Treaty endorsed tourist guidelines are being observed by IAATO members. Ten inspections were achieved in places such as Penguin Island, Aitcho Island, Yankee Harbour, Neko Harbour and others. The findings will be submitted in time for approval at the ATCM in Edinburgh in June this year and will hopefully provide a template for future work.
Surveying was again a key feature of this final period as the ship worked in the popular cruise ship routes to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula using the MBES to gather data for new charts in places such as Ardley Cove, Nelson Strait, Deception Island, the Lemaire Channel and many others. As in the previous work periods we visited several national scientific bases and liaised with some of the many tourist ships to better understand their modus operandi and aspirations for safe navigation. Also with us during this busy time was the BBC Planet Earth team, filming with a state-of-the-art high definition camera fitted to one of the Lynx helicopters for the polar theme of the series. Despite overcast weather and a paucity of whales (which seemed to be a feature of wherever ENDURANCE went whilst the camera was with us) they achieved memorable footage which will be broadcast early next year. The well known wildlife photographer, Andy Rouse, achieved some stunning photography whilst coaching the ship's many enthusiastic amateur photographers.
Unfortunately a rudder defect emerged towards the end of our time in the Antarctic, manifested as a misalignment of a few degrees from the centreline. For safety reasons it was decided to curtail the deployment at that stage so that the ship could be dry docked in a suitable location. Hence we recovered our scientists from Erebus and Terror Gulf and made a northerly passage to warmer climes. Although sad to leave Antarctica early we still achieved a huge amount, with virtually all of our tasking completed and a considerable amount of extra surveying achieved thanks to the outstanding performance of the MBES.
So that is how we find ourselves in an Argentine dry dock. The Argentine Navy has been amazingly supportive, affording us every facility so that we are now ready to return to sea and commence our passage home to the UK. Unfortunately the repair work took longer than planned due to an unexpected strike by dockyard workers which forced us to modify our programme, postponing the visits to Tristan da Cunha, South Africa and St Helena until another deployment. That said, the revised plan allows us to return home a little earlier to prepare for what will be an inaugural nine month deployment during the 06/07 season. The idea of this is to increase our time in Antarctica during the austral summer so that we can better support the FCO, BAS and the UKHO in their important work in the region. We should be back in Portsmouth by early May and are looking forward to the Friends' Summer Lunch in June and then a return visit by the SPRI Friends on 22nd July. Until then we wish you all a very pleasant Easter break.
Captain, Royal Navy