Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lemaire to Vernadsky

Tuesday 8 December, Lemaire Channel to Vernadsky Base
  • 04h00: 64°53.6 South / 062°54.3 West
  • 08h00: 64°58.4 South / 063°21.6 West
  • 12h00: 65°06.8 South / 064°00.7 West
  • Vernadsky Base: 65°14.8 South / 064°16.61 West
Europa departed while most of its crew were fast asleep, leaving behind Paradise Harbour and setting course for the Lemaire Channel and our most southerly destination – the Ukrainian research base, Vernadsky.

The Lemaire Channel is a breathtaking scene, an 11km long channel, surrounded by mountains and glaciers with at times a mere width of a 1km. Continuing our theme of Belgian influence, the Channel was named after a Belgian explorer in the Congo, again by that chap Gerlach.

The Channel lays along a southwest / northeast axis, linking Flandres Bay and Bismarck Strait to the north with French Passage to the southwest, with the Penola Strait sandwiched in between. Maintaining a British presence, the mountains to the east are suitably named after Shackleton, while the island to the west also sounds vaguely Anglo-Saxon = Booth! The passage through the Lemaire Channel was a sight to behold, the weather stunning with a clear view far down the channel and up to the peaks of the mountains. The Captain said it was only the second time in 10 visits that he had been able to see the peaks. We once again understood how lucky we had been with the weather!

And then we caught sight of our two humpback whales. Off to starboard they were elegantly making their meandering way up the Channel past us towards the northern side.

The Europa altered course and soon we were in hot pursuit, a clutch of whale papparizzi looking for the perfect shot. Mine, far from being perfect, caught some of the scene, while the whales seemingly played hide and seek with the boat. But better than taking the photos was to stand still and simply take in the atmosphere of being in the presence of such magnificent animals.

Continuing along the Channel, our path slowly broadened out as we entered the Penola Strait.

This stretch of watch was at times still as a lake, the numerous icebergs reflected beautifully in the deep blue waters.

From here the horizon opened up southwards, towards our final destination of Vernadsky, while aft we could see the mountains slowly close in around the entrance to the Lemaire Channel.

And then Vernadsky. Formerly known as Faraday, or Base F, under British control from the early 1940s until the early 1990s when the Brits sold it for a pound to the Ukrainians.

There was some debate as to the extent of scientific research being carried out in the station. Some speculated that the base was more of a flag carrying exercise than any serious scientific endeavour.

In Dan’s view – and the most authoritative we have – the base ranks well alongside comparable monitoring bases: no groundbreaking research, but solid data collection and monitoring. But certainly they are known for one thing: their bar and homemade vodka! Following a brief tour of the base, we all quickly headed upstairs for a drink – and in some cases (no, not mine) a few!

The bar was quite surreal, a mix of its British roots and recent Ukrainian infusion. “Local” Ukrainian music certainly added more flavour and parts of our crew danced with the locals while others downed the rather pleasant vodka.

Back on board it was an occasion to catch up with postcard writing, enjoy the lovely sunny weather on deck – it practically felt like spring! Later after dinner a group of hardy souls headed out on another landing, this time to the original British base. Or I should say hut. It was pretty basic stuff, people lived there for up to 3 years at a stretch. I found it surprising that the Brits were setting the place up in 1943. References were made to reconnaissance work, certainly there must have been a military angle to it all at that stage? Questions, questions... On a lighter note, I maintained – with Nic’s assistance – my record of inscribing Teo and Lilly in all destinations to date – this time with massive boulders in the snow! It was backbreaking stuff I can tell you!!

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