2010 Annual Report: The Incident at Cooper Bay

January 17, 2010, South Georgia Island

Note: This is a rather long article. If you prefer to print it out, use this version.

The day began beautifully, a dingle day in Antarctic slang, and ended with a spectacular view of the Drygalski Fjord and the first Snow Petrel I’d ever seen, but in between, I regretted my unbelief, contemplated my own mortality, got hypothermia, and made a New Best Friend™.

Linda and Jim with King Penguins
Here’s how it happened.

The day before, we did what most visitors to South Georgia do. We landed at Salisbury Plain, site of a huge King Penguin colony, which held an estimated 250,000 pairs, not to mention the chicks, adding credibility to the idea that we saw “millions” of penguins on our cruise to the great Southern Ocean. We took some great photos, subsequently lost. That’s part of the story. Here’s a picture of the two of us with some of the penguins, taken with my wife Linda’s rugged and waterproof point-and-shoot camera.

You’d think that would be enough. Not for birders! We had yet to see the South Georgian Pipit, a species that, as the name implies, lives only on the Island. Thus, after a short cruise during the night, our ship anchored for our final trip ashore near Cooper Island, a rat-free enclave known to be a nesting site of the Pipit. Rats, specifically the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus), are a major problem on South Georgia Island, and have decimated the Pipit population.

We woke to an unusually clear blue sky and calm seas. After a short ride in a Zodiac, a shallow, allegedly unsinkable contraption that held 12 people, we arrived on the rocky shore of Cooper Bay. Cooper Island itself was off-limits to humans. We quickly located several of the Pipits. We also watched nesting Macaroni Penguins with their attendant Snowy Sheathbills, birds that eat Penguin shit if you can believe it. We saw many Antarctic Fur Seals, including some young pups, and managed to intimidate one that got aggressive. After about an hour of this, we returned to the Zodiac for a tour of some of the nearby coast.

During this excursion, some gravity-driven katabatic winds arrived. We had never heard of these winds before the trip. They arise when cold air over an ice sheet flows downhill, accelerating as it does so, before arriving suddenly with great force at the bottom, in our case, the bay. In minutes, the sea was full of 1-2 meter waves, and strong winds. Our bird guide, Steven, suggested to our Russian boatman that we return to the ship.

We tried.

During the trip back, waves poured over the bow and sides, drenching everyone. Some seawater a few degrees above freezing ran right down the neck of my jacket. I thought about my camera, stowed in what I hoped was a waterproof pack. The pack wasn’t as waterproof as I wished; the camera never worked again. The frigid water even wiped out the memory chip. I didn’t know you could do that.

We were the third Zodiac in line for a turn to scramble up the gangway and onto the ship. We circled in the bay watching as Andy, a birder in the first Zodiac, got back aboard our ship, Plancius. “Great,” I thought. “If he can do it, so can I.” That’s when the radio crackled out something I thought was Russian, but must have been English, as Linda understood it. Steve repeated the message, “We’re going to return to the shore.”

My first thought was, “There’s nothing on the shore to burn. How are we going to get warm?” I noticed a large waterproof box on the floor of the boat, which I trusted contained survival supplies. Prayer seemed appropriate, until I realized I had no one to pray to, and commented, “At times like this, I regret being an atheist.” That got a couple of laughs.

The Icelanders, who converted to Christianity in the Eleventh century, were pragmatic about prayer. One Viking admitted, “On land, I pray to Jesus, but on the ocean, I pray to Thor.” The latter was supposed to control storms. I didn’t think Thor would be much help, and in fact, he wasn’t, but I gave it a try anyway.

At that point, it occurred to me that I might die.

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