Where exactly is South Georgia, and how do you get there? The remote island of South Georgia lies beneath the Antarctic polar front in the famously stormy "furious 50s" of the Southern Ocean.
Figure 1 - The Pharos at anchor in a South Georgia Fjord on Claire's last trip.
So, where exactly is South Georgia, and how do you get there? The remote island of South Georgia lies beneath the Antarctic polar front in the famously stormy "furious 50s" of the Southern Ocean. It is 1300 miles east of South America and about 900 miles northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. South Georgia was a major whaling station until 1965, but now only the rusting ruins of the old settlements decay silently on its shores. There are no permanent inhabitants, but there are two British Antarctic Survey scientific bases, a government office, and, surprisingly, a small museum staffed during the short summer season in which cruise ships frequently visit. Access to the remote island is possible only by sea during the southern summer. Even then, the weather is extremely unpredictable, with violent storm-force katabatic winds rushing down the massive glaciers.
For me, it will be a journey of over 20,000 km involving four flights and four days at sea. Plus, in these complicated Covid-19 time, lots of testing and masks.
Leg 1: Huntsman Marine Science Centre, St Andrews, to Saint John, to Montreal 701 km, 4 hours.
I bid a final farewell to my family at Saint John airport. Leaving my husband and nine-year-old twins behind is one of the hardest parts of going on expeditions like this. But, it's not like my trip twelve years ago when the only communication was via very brief text messages on a satellite phone. Nowadays, I should be able to keep in touch via email and texts for much of the trip. The kids are looking forward to hearing about the wildlife I will be seeing. Although my daughter is disappointed, I won't be able to smuggle her back a penguin! Heaving my baggage onto the scales, I breathe a sigh of relief when it is just under the weight allowance – that dive kit is heavy! I board my first flight to Montreal.
Leg 2: Montreal to London, UK 5,221 km, 6 ½ hours.
I have a six-hour layover in Montreal, not having wanted to cut things too tight – if I miss this one, it messes up my connections for the rest of the trip. The British Royal Air Force operates the only flights to the Falklands from RAF Brize Norton, UK. There is only one flight to the Falkland Islands per week that civilians can travel on – the other is a Covid-19 'clean' flight for military personnel only. Usually, I travel down through South America from Canada, but due to Covid-19, flights from South America are not currently operating. The international departures section of the airport is deserted. So at least I get my pick of seats! The plane is pretty quiet too, so I manage a few hours of sleep.
Leg 3: London to RAF Brize Norton 86 km; Brize Norton to Dakar, Senegal 4,360 km, 6 ½ hours.
An old school friend collects me from Heathrow, and I spend the day with her before a taxi takes me to RAF Brize Norton. I'm sharing the taxi with Karin Gerard, a researcher from the University of Magellan in Punta Arenas (Chile) who is also coming on the expedition. The driver struggles to fit all our luggage into the car, but we cram it in – just! The journey is a great chance to get to know Karin and learn about her research into the biogeographical connections between Southern Ocean animals. It turns out I have met her before at a 2006 sponge workshop in Marseille. We have several mutual acquaintances – marine biology certainly is a small world!
We are issued security passes as we arrive to allow us to go on the base. A military staff member checks my documentation and recent Covid-19 PCR test is all in order. The four-hour wait to board our flight (the military insists you check in very early!) gives me time to peruse our fellow travellers. Currently, entry into the Falklands is restricted to essential travel only. So, while normally there might be some tourists on this flight, this time it is all locals and people travelling for work. There is a big group from British Antarctic Survey heading down to work on the British bases in Antarctica. A ship will pick them up from the Falkland Islands. A BBC film crew arrive with even more baggage than Karin and me - the Falklands are famous for their wildlife, you're likely to have spotted penguin, albatross, and sealion footage from there on many nature documentaries. A few officers are heading down to the RAF base in the Falklands at Mount Pleasant. A group of Chilean mariners turns out to be the crew of our expedition vessel, the M.V. Pharos. Plus, some Falkland locals returning from visiting family or medical treatment visits. Eventually, we board our flight to Dakar.
Leg 4: Dakar, Senegal to the Falkland Islands 8,443 km, 10 ½ hours.
The distance to the Falkland Islands is too long for the plane to travel without refueling. These flights used to stop in Ascension Island, a speck of an island in the middle of the South Atlantic. But there are currently issues with Ascension's runway, so Dakar is now the refueling stop. I don't get to see any of the country though, as we must stay on the plane. After another 10 1/2 hours on the plane, we arrive at the Falkland Islands.
The Falkland Islands are in the south Atlantic, some 400 miles from Argentina and 850 miles north of the Antarctic Circle. There are two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller ones in the group. Most of the permanent population of around 2500 live in the capital, Stanley on East Falkland. The rest are scattered in small settlements over the rest of the archipelago, known locally as the 'camp.' Over 1000 military personnel are based at the military base of Mount Pleasant. As well as the human inhabitants, the Falklands are home to 490,000 sheep - that works out at an impressive 196 sheep per human! As many as a million penguins nest in the Falklands every summer, representing five of the world's seventeen species.
At Mount Pleasant, we don new medical face masks and blue surgical gloves and board a coach to take us to Stanley and our quarantine accommodation. All arrivals into the Falkland Islands must undergo quarantine. The islands only have a small 29-bed hospital so any Covid-19 outbreak could potentially be disastrous. As I am fully vaccinated, I should escape quarantine in five days, providing my day two and five tests come back negative and no one near me on the plane or coach tests positive. Wish me luck!
Then I'll be able to undertake some local SCUBA surveys, expedition prep, and training before I set off on leg 5: the four-day, 1,553 km sea voyage to South Georgia.
Figure 2- Claire's route to South Georgia
Figure 3- The last leg could be bumpy. The view from the bridge of the Pharos on Claire's last trip.