An update from the Indian Ocean (51°59.53 S 067°29.77 E)
I’ve been on-board the Marion Dufrense since January 2nd–yes, I am still on the ship; but alas, the end is nigh! We are scheduled to arrive in Kerguelen on Saturday afternoon (Jan 16th). For the people who’s final destination is Kerguelen, we’re getting excited to hit the ground and get our respective missions underway. The researchers not destined for Kerguelen will have the chance to disembark and explore around the island for two days while the ship heads out to do some oceanographic sampling around the island (CTD, plankton tows, hydrophone recovery, etc.). While it’s been a long two weeks, boat life has been pretty good and revolves around food.
Breakfast is self serve between 7-830—they start putting food away at 815-820 so don’t be late—and is standard juice, yogurt, bread, coffee, etc. (not filling enough to make it to lunch without a growl of the stomach). Lunch is announced at 12h15 and you’re expected to be there promptly for the sit down dinner service. You arrive to find a light appetizer (today was shrimp, yesterday grated carrot), bread basket, water, and table wine (rose and red). After the appy, the main is brought out and can range from ribs to couscous with assorted meats. After the main comes the cheese platter… ah the cheese platter (more to come on this later) and then dessert (today was creme brule). All throughout the meal the servers run around removing plates and replenishing bread, butter, and wine. Supper (19h15) is the same format as lunch, but the dessert is your choice of fruit.
Conversation at meals is always plentiful, although sometimes (often) it’s difficult to follow the French. Mingling at lunch and supper tables is encouraged, however, a group of us has bonded over our love of hot peppers (one of the guys brought his hot pepper condiments from Reunion Island) and typically sit together. The condiment in question is a fiery concoction of green chilies, minced onion, and lemon or ginger. Yum Yum Yum.
Lunchtime meal spills over to tea afterwards and suppertime meal spills over to the bar for drinks, stories, games (I’ve taken up the game Belote which, according to wikipedia is where Tarabish comes from), and if the mood is right, dancing.
Back to the cheese…
Cheese time at lunch/supper is really quite a spectacle as the man who serves it, Jacques, is a graceful 5’10” and 275-300lbs. I do mean graceful. He carries a tray approx. 2x3ft filled with cheese (blues, Bries, Camemberts, Boussin, and many others I cannot name) and uses two butter knives, almost like chop sticks, to cut and serve the cheese to each person at dinner (~50 people). When wave conditions are overturning chairs (sometimes with people in them) and throwing things around in the serving station, Jacques doesn’t miss a beat; he twirls around to avoid objects/unbalance and always hits his mark. Even when I am too full to enjoy cheese, I always enjoy the Jacques show.
Enough of the food, let’s talk about penguins.
On Sunday we arrived at Port Alfred in the Crozet Islands (46.4307 S, 051.85875 E) to drop off three researchers and pick up six who had been there for ~13-14 months. At this point, the rest of us were going to be allowed off to take in some of the wildlife. Well, we were set to disembark at 08h00, however, wave conditions didn’t allow for that. We waited with gear packed and ready to go (all things going to shore had to be cleaned for ‘bio-securitie’ reasons i.e. to prevent species introductions) until 13h15 when we were given the all clear.
In groups of four, we climbed down a ladder on the side of the ship to an awaiting zodiac. Now, I am not typically nervous getting onto boats or being on the water, but this was not your typical boat boarding. The swells were ~1.5m and the zodiac was being tossed against the side of the ship. Your instructions were to climb down the ladder and jump when the guy in the boat told you to (hopefully at the peak of the waves). Once in the zodiac, zipped off into the cove of Port Alfred. On the way in, there were albatrosses nesting on the hills of the cove and a few scattered penguins along the rocks. Passing through the kelp stands on the way into the cove the familiar smell of bird colony was immediately evident and the blur of grey, black, and white on shore quickly resolved itself into thousands of bodies. King Penguins.
We landed on a jetty at the head of the cove on a semicircular beach of black volcanic sand. Everywhere you looked on the beach and in your immediate surroundings were penguins.. 10,000+ King Penguins, keeping their eggs & chicks warm on their feet (recall march of the penguins), waddling around, swimming, fighting, and checking out the new visitors. The few small buildings at the port were surrounded by a concrete wall and gates to keep all of the penguins out. once you got to this area, you fully understood the scope of the colony. The penguins were densely packed everywhere and extended inland, along a river, 800m-1km. Those of us that had seen this for the first time could only describe the scene as “incroyable”. You’ll have to wait for the photos.
In addition to penguins there were skuas, giant petrels, a bizarre little white bird that would peck at anything you put down (jackets, packs, etc.), and elephant seals. Words can not describe the feeling of standing 2-3m away from an elephant seal (they reach sizes of >500kg). The sheer size and docility on land was remarkable. They also make the best belch and snorting sounds ever (I am sure you can check out on YouTube). Elephant seals would get in our way when we’re trying to load the boat/take a certain path so the people from Crozet (approx 1 m from seal) would point at them and tell them to back up and they would.
Up on base (Base de Alfred Foure) the windswept landscape made the place look like Mars. We did a quick tour and had to head back to the ship. On the tour we saw some nesting Albatrosses, native flora, and even dandelions (thus the importance of decontamination before entering these areas). The most notable thing at the base, from my perspective, was my extreme land sickness when I stood on a level floor. I felt nauseous, the floors were moving, and I had to grab onto a wall to keep from falling over.The return back to the boat was even harrier since the wind had shifted directions (1.5-2m swells), but all made it safely aboard.
The waves these past few days have been 3-8m and the boat has been rocking all over the place. When sitting at the supper table your chair sometimes starts to fall over and you must grab the table to right yourself. Anything not tied down or on friction pads will hit the floor. Surprisingly, ‘R’ on the computer hasn’t been too bad.
Anyways, that’s more than enough out of me. I hope this email finds you well wherever you maybe.