June 29, 2012
I am about to board the Professor Multanovskiy – which is 70m long, around 13m abeam, and was built in St Petersburg in 1982 for polar and oceanographic research. Because she is a relatively small ship (only 48 passengers) I get to spend lots of time visiting seal and penguin colonies, inhabited and abandoned stations, zooming in and out of icebergs and staring up at massive glaciers from our zodiac crafts. A smaller ship can squeeze into narrow waterways, taking me where the bigger ships cannot reach. The map on the left (courtesy of British Antarctic Survey) shows Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina, The Drake Passage, and Antarctica.
I stare up at the Professor Multanovskiy. She is a white ship which surprises me, given we are soon to be surrounded by lots of white ice. She is not an ice breaker but has a reinforced hull and stabilizers. She reminds me of a battle-scarred great white shark with a nose bleed: the rusty anchor has left a stain down the paintwork. She may have 5 decks but the big cruise ship nearby dwarfs her. Somehow I feel much safer on the Multanovskiy – she’s a tough old girl, used to ice and rough seas – rather than the super luxurious cruise ship that looks like it should be touring the sun-kissed beaches of the Pacific Islands.
The Multanovskiy’s striking red lifeboats and the funnel – painted in the colours of the Russian flag: white, blue and red stripes, topped with black – catch the eye. I gaze at the Russian Cyrillic on the ship’s stern and notice a man in a blue boiler suit on the lower deck, in charge of the refueling. His neck is almost as wide as his shaved head and I hear him speaking to a ship mate in Russian. He sees me and nods, once in recognition. Could he become the foundations of a character in my next book? It is a sunny day, but still very cold, and I notice he doesn’t wear gloves or a hat. I am to discover that he seldom does. Behind him, black, rubber, inflatable zodiacs are secured to the deck and the crane used to lift them overboard is still.
My husband has joined me on this adventure, as has a stow-away concealed in my bag who goes by the name of Skippy. We climb the swaying gangway and find our cabin. To my relief, little has been changed since she was a Russian research vessel. She is comfortable and well-equipped but is a working ship, not an Antarctic massage parlour. Our cabin has a cosy bunk bed with curtains, a small desk and chair, slim-line wardrobe and a tiny curtain across the port hole. We have the luxury of our own shower-room/toilet, which is small but perfectly adequate, as long as you don’t have a problem using a pump to get water into the toilet.
I hear Russian over the intercom system : it is the captain directing his crew. I have brought a Russian/English translation book with me in the vain hope I might learn to communicate with the crew in their own language. I open my bag to release my stow-away, who little realises that he will be the first kangaroo ever seen in Antarctica. I blow up my inflatable Skippy (he insisted on the name) to his full size. He seems to fill the void between the desk and the bunk beds, making it difficult to leave the cabin. So I place him on the desk. Skippy is an adventurous kangaroo and has been with me on my many travels, so I had to bring him to one of the remotest and least visited place on Earth.
I hear more shouting on deck and the engines crank up several notches so I race out onto Deck 5 and watch as we depart Ushuaia.
Interesting info: the coldest temperature recorded anywhere in the world was at Vostok Station in 1983. A mind numbing −89.2 °C