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Captain's Letter no. 6

Captain's Letter no. 6

January 2007

Dear Friends of SPRI,

Unbelievably it is already January 2007 and the Editor is (rightly) on the case asking for the next contribution to Polar Bytes. I don't know where the time has gone as it can only be a week or so since I last attacked the keyboard to draft a letter to the Friends of SPRI. That was in September 2006 as the ship was preparing for the 06/07 season. We've steamed many miles since leaving Portsmouth on 25 September for an inaugural nine month deployment which, as far as I know, is the longest period ENDURANCE has ever deployed for; the idea being to maximise our time in the ice during the Austral summer and to gain full value from the investment that is made in the ship's annual operations. So, instead of the normal three work periods, this year we will achieve five of about three weeks apiece. If all goes well with this trial (and so far all is going well) we hope to deploy the ship for even longer periods in the Southern Hemisphere.


Madeira, a most popular watering hole for the Royal Navy, came and went early on, followed by the long anticipated visit to Buenos Aires in Argentina in mid-October. This was a highly successful event during which we received an extremely warm reception from the Armada Argentina and the local people. Buenos Aires is a wonderful city, very cosmopolitan but also clearly Latin American; there is much to see and do there, the food is outstanding and the Malbec wine simply to die for. So, intertwined with our formal diplomatic duties, the Ship's Company was able to enjoy the city to the full... the last proper 'runashore' for the ship until Christmas. From there to the Falklands to collect stores, fuel ship and embark our BAS scientists for the first work period in the Peninsula; after which the excitement of arriving in Antarctic waters very early in the season.


Our first work period was focused in the South Shetlands, Deception Island and the Gerlache Strait as far south as Lemaire. Two Survey Motor Boat camps produced detailed inshore coverage of Yankee Harbour and Paradise Bay while the ship achieved some 3000 survey line miles using the Multi-beam Echo Sounder (MBES), including a complete survey of Port Foster inside Deception Island that revealed a couple of interesting volcanic vents. Our BAS scientists were inserted into many locations in the South Shetlands and the Peninsula, working on geological surveys and sedimentology projects whilst the ship's teams visited some of the bases in the area. A team from the British Schools Expedition Society (BSES) reconnoitred Deception Island and other locations in the Gerlache as options for future expeditions. The ship's helicopters were, as usual, very busy; shifting personnel and stores to and fro but also conducting a major vertical photography campaign which will hopefully provide data for updated charts of the South Shetlands. This data will be supported by geodetic information garnered by the surveyors along with magnetic observations. All this was achieved in spite of weather conditions that varied from absolutely foul to dramatically blue and still. Surveyors, marines and scientists working ashore endured everything from gale force winds and -25 degrees wind chill, to bright, sunny days that caused snow blindness, sun burn and excessive temperatures. Most importantly we proved ENDURANCE's ability to operate in the ice so early in the season when few other ships (bar a couple of cruise and resupply ships) were to be seen.

We returned to the Falklands towards the end of November to enjoy a friendly reception during a short visit to Port Stanley and a tour of West Falkland with the Governor, before fuelling and storing ship in Mare Harbour. Here we were reunited with the high definition Gyron camera used by the BBC's Planet Earth series and the producer, Vanessa Berlowitz. From there a fairly painless passage saw us arrive in South Georgia at the start of December ready for the second work period. Establishing a Survey Motor Boat camp in King Haakon Bay was the first task; a job that was soon accomplished in glorious weather conditions. The boats worked the sides of the Bay, whilst the ship surveyed the deeper waters, establishing two new routes between McNeish and McCarthy Islands in addition to the very narrow northerly route currently used by cruise ships. Meanwhile the Planet Earth team were capitalising on the weather capturing excellent footage of South Georgia's beauty and wildlife.


Innovative use of The Gyron camera also enabled a unique collaboration between the Navy, the BAS and the BBC in the conduct of a BAS sponsored comprehensive fur seal survey. Fur seals breed in the first weeks of December and about 95% of the world's fur seal population gathers in the rich waters of South Georgia for that purpose. Once hunted to near extinction, numbers have increased exponentially over recent decades to the point where there are believed to be around 4 million fur seals in South Georgia at that time of year. Fur seals live off krill, the key element of the Antarctic food web, and in such numbers that they clearly must affect the availability of food for other species, including whales which have yet to return to the waters of South Georgia in significant numbers. Despite persistent bad weather and occasionally difficult flying conditions, the Lynx helicopters surveyed 380 seal breeding beaches covering about 200 miles of very rugged coastline. The definition of the colour digital photographs is such that scientists can zoom in to identify male and female adults, pups and even afterbirth. The speed of collection was so rapid that work on counting can begin 6 months earlier than planned... I have to admit that I'm glad I'm not the scientist who has won that job! The census will provide information crucial to the management of southern ocean ecosystems and inform policy making by the South Georgia Government.


So our time in South Georgia was extremely busy; with a full range of geodetics, MBES, boat surveys, BSES recces and visits to cruise ships achieved, we also found time for 24 hours in Grytviken. Sadly, on 15 December, we headed north from South Georgia towards Rio de Janeiro and our Christmas stand off. Christmas dinner was enjoyed at sea in sub-tropical conditions before we arrived in Rio. Some people were joined by friends and family, others ranged as far afield as Iguazu Falls on the border with Argentina and Paraguay (the biggest falls in the world), others went diving or explored Sugarloaf Mountain. We all enjoyed ourselves and stayed safe despite the biggest outbreak of gang rivalry in recent years. As I type we're en route to Antarctica for the third work period during which we will embark HRH the Princess Royal in Rothera, enabling her to see at first hand the leading role that the UK plays in Antarctic politics and science. Don't forget to track us at:

Unfortunately for me, this is the last time that I will write to the Friends of SPRI as I will leave this wonderful ship on 6 February to take a new appointment in the Middle East. My greatest sadness is to be leaving the Antarctic scene which I have found to be so stimulating, relevant, forward looking and worthwhile... all sorts of schemes to stay involved run through my mind! That said, I know that Captain Bob Tarrant will keep in touch with you and I'm sure that a good prodding from Celene will generate further letters to Polar Bytes! It remains for me to thank you for your great support over the past couple of years and to wish you all a very prosperous 2007.

Yours sincerely

Nick Lambert
Captain, Royal Navy