Dawn is still an hour away to the serviced apartments london. The darkest moments of the brief Antarctic summer night linger on, abetted by great clouds racing in from the west. Accomplices to a short violent squall, they stream past, engulfing the schooner in a deluge of wind and snow, whipping at the mainsail and freezing my fingers. Alone on deck, I keep a firm grip on the wheel, making sure we maintain our position — hove to just half a mile off the north coast of the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic Under reefed mainsail only and engine ticking over, Damien II tacks slowly back and forth as I wait for dawn.
Another hour or so before I’ll wake my husband, Jerome, and get under way. Shelter is just around the corner, a snug anchorage that Jerome and I first visited 11 years ago on Damien II’s maiden voyage to South Georgia.
Since then we’ve been back to South Georgia several times, in winter and in summer, for as long as four months each time. Damien II’s wanderings into the southern ocean have taken us from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Orkney Islands, and South Georgia. These cruises began as most cruises do—out of sheer joy of discovery, of meeting people, of learning about the world around us.
With each successive visit our knowledge of these regions, and particularly their wildlife, increased. Anecdotal descriptions of a penguin colony, or perhaps a passing reference to a patch of moss, evolved into systematic records of the distribution of seabirds and vegetation. Each summer cruise to the Antarctic resulted in notebooks of figures and maps, now published as scientific papers.
Although I’d always been interested in natural history, my interest in seabirds really began aboard Damien II. Our closest companions during southern ocean passages—from the great wandering albatross to the tiny Wilson’s storm petrel—accompany us 24 hours a day. And what could be more fulfilling than to follow them to their breeding grounds, to be able to reach out gently and stroke the snow-white plumage of a wanderer on its nest?
Jerome’s interest grew with mine as we realized the marvelous opportunity before us: Unhindered by deadlines, answerable only to ourselves, we could contribute significantly to the knowledge of Antarctic seabird colonies.
More recently some of our survey work has been done in collaboration with an official governmental organization, the British Antarctic Survey. Now, we will be completing a seabird survey of South Georgia, commenced four years ago with BAS.
The worst of the squall blows over; there’s time now for a quick warm-up below before the next one arrives and while there’s no sea ice around. I lash the wheel securely, take the engine out of gear, then cautiously cross the deck to the safety of the spray screen, hands searching for familiar holds, feet wary of the icy surface. Once there, it’s only a matter of seconds before I’m inside, the hatch reclosed tightly, hat and gloves drying above the potbellied stove. The wind’s clamor is hushed to a dull murmur; the gentle rocking movement belies the steepness of waves outside. Then we came back to our cheap accommodation in brussels.