hurricanes in the Southern Ocean

I am sat in the sunshine in Port Stanley, which is an odd experience on a number of levels. I can hear my mate George muttering away in the background. His blog Mad Ratters Tea Party, is well worth reading. He is neglecting his blog today as he is still wobbly from the boat journey we have just completed and has spent the last hour drifting around the house trying to work out why the floor is still moving.

We departed King Edward Point, South Georgia on Saturday morning last week aboard the Pharos, the SGSSI fisheries patrol vessel. Lovely boat. Big, red, 20 or so crew. Good food. A stunning morning to leave, and as we pulled away from the wharf, the wintering team we left behind set off flares that shone out green and red against the shadow of Mount Deuce that rises 600m behind the little research station. A stunning place to spend any amount of time, and I have had a wonderful 3 months there - lucky boy.
From KEP we left the island to visit a couple of fishing boats that are currently fishing for Patagonian Toothfish, one of the 3 MSC certified fisheries that is managed by the SG Government. The Government here boards vessels regularly to inspect not only their fishing gear etc, but also the crew accommodation, checking standards are up to scratch. It is not a surprise that no one jumps ship in Antarctic waters, but plenty do here in Stanley, where the fisheries management is a little lighter, and where boats from more countries tend to visit. Squid jiggers tend to lose more crew to escapes than the others, so I am told. Despite the water being a lot warmer here than further south, I still would not chose to jump, but then I am not a Chinese worker desperate to escape an intolerable life at sea.

One of the most exciting things about watching a fisheries inspection is that the rib has to be lowered into the water with a crewman inside, swaying as the boat rocks on the swell, and once the fisheries inspector, Steve, has climbed, or jumped in, the rib motors over to the fishing boat, only for Steve to have to try and grab the pilots ladder, a rope affair, and climb up onto the ship as it tilts back and forth in what is often a very rough sea. We all watch with our hearts in our mouths each and every time. Thankfully, the crew is experienced, and Steve was able to board and inspect what was a very organised and good Kiwi boat on this occasion. All well and good.

The second point I should make about this activity is that as the boats fish, whales, seals, birds are drawn by the sound of the engines to the promise of food. Toothed whales (Ordontocetes) such as orca and sperm whales take the large tooth fish (up to 2m) direct from the hooks, whereas the birds generally get little if anything due to actions taken by the boats in recent years to mitigate a bycatch of albatrosses. In the past this has been a significant problem even in South Georgia waters, but now the boats prevent the birds getting caught on the hooks by using orange streamers to scare them off, and by fishing outside the main breeding season. Additionally, as fish are pulled out of the water, hoses spray the lines to prevent the birds grabbing not only toothfish, but also the live discards of skate that are commonly caught and released. (Skate, like all sharks, have no swim bladder so are invariably landed alive and kicking)

I recorded a documentary on Southern Ocean Fisheries management for the Radio Four series Costing the Earth last year, when I travelled on an icefish boat as one of the science crew, but I had never seen a boat engage in commercial fishery, and not been on the patrol boat before, so it was nice to complete my experience. The way the fishery is managed here is very serious, and all based heavily on science. The good news is that after many years of overfishing, a new regime under the management of the SGSSI government enforces quotas so tightly that the population of toothfish is gradually increasing both in number and size frequency. A good thing.

So, off we popped. Leaving South Georgia to a brilliant pink sunset with huge lenticular clouds topping the entire Allardyce range. Look it up - a beautiful, alpine I guess, range in the middle of the Southern Ocean. It grew dark as I watched the island disappear under cloud - a low pressure system had been forecast for days, so it was no surprise that we were due to head into bad weather. And did we head into bad weather.....

The first day out from the island was OK - we were largely still in the lee of South Georgia and its surrounding islands. Once we hit the open ocean, the swell increased noticeably until we were rocking and rolling, literally 40 degrees from the vertical, in 70-80 knot winds and on a 45 foot swell. It is exciting, watching things fly about the ship - people, cups, papers, shoes. More exciting though is watching spray reach all the way up to the bridge from 50 feet below and drench the ship in freezing, icy water. As the weather was across the beam of the ship, we lurched from side to side, dropping into huge troughs before being lifted onto the crest of the next swell before crashing down again into the next though. And so our journey continued, or rather it didn't as eventually the weather was so bad that we started to go backwards. So, wisely, the captain stopped and hove to into the weather, and there we stayed for around 12 hours until the wind abated enough to let us continue at a steady 3 knots....

Thankfully, after a couple of days of this sort of nonsense, the ship was able to go a little bit faster until we picked up to around 9 knots to get us back on schedule. A very interesting few days, and my routine of sleep, late breakfast/lunch, film, stretching, film, dinner, film, tea, film continued largely unchallenged by company as most of my companions were in bed with various degrees of mal de mer.

Earlier today we sneaked through a foggy outer harbour and through the narrows into Stanley harbour where we quickly offloaded and now here we are. All very odd to be in a real house with a view over grassy lawns, gardens with dogs, late summer flowers, able to hear traffic and twin otters flying overhead. Humidity is one noticeable difference that always reminds me I am no longer in the land of snow and ice, but back in the middle ground of the planet. The middle latitudes are more varied, sure, than the low and higher ones that I prefer, but more varied, interesting and of course in the next few days we will transit from autumn to spring, just like that - in the blink of an eye.

Already my trip, our trip, seems a world away, and that is how it will remain until I am reunited with my friends and fellow ratters in two or three weeks when they finally leave the island. It won't be long before we are all back in our respective homes when our friends will, as usual, ask how the trip was. As usual, we will all answer 'fine thanks' before changing the topic of conversation. I never really feel as though I can explain, without sounding both vague and boastful, of time spent south. So, it is not until two or more of us are gathered together that we can truly speak of our experiences, talk openly and honestly of what happens in the great white south. And, that is how I like it. Blogs apart, of course, which can only ever scratch the surface of the ice, but never break through.