Day 37: 6 February 2019

So much good stuff comes out of coffee shops and bars.  God knows how many books Hemingway conceived at Sloppy Joe’s on Key West.  J.K. Rowling  wrote most of the first Harry Potter series at the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh.  Gershwin composed ‘An American in Paris’ over crème de cassis and glazed figs at Harry’s Bar in Paris, while Sartre claimed that all his best ideas were conceived just up the road at ‘Les Deux Margots’ on Saint-Germain des Prés.  Whenever my wife and I are in New York we always eat our breakfast at the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue and try to sit at the same table where Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David sat when they came up with the idea for the Seinfeld TV series.  Go Down Town and just below Gramercy Park is Pete’s Tavern where O. Henry wrote many of his short stories, and yet further down in the Village at Café Wha is where Hendrix perpetrated his scorching, nerve-scraping, definitive version of ‘Hey Joe’.  I could go on.

I was watching everybody having a good time in the lounge last night.  The Kafkaesque nightmare of recent days at King George Island is now all behind us.  This caravan with all its dogs barking is truly once more back on the road.  We now all feel like Antarctic veterans and  can’t wait to get back into the white hell of the Weddell Sea, but – and here’s the thing - I wonder what they would think if they realized that all this began over an exchange of ideas in the original Caffe Nero coffee shop on the Old Brompton Road in South Kensington, the first of the chain to open.  I can even name the day, the hour, the minute.  It was 16 August, 2012, at 11.45 in the morning.

How can I be so certain?  The meeting was planned to discuss the possibility of finding a couple of important historic wrecks.  The foremost was Scott’s Terra Nova, for which we had a well-defined search box.   But, believe it or not, there, staring up at me from the inside pages of The Times, which was laying open on the counter, was a single paragraph of a mere dozen lines, announcing that the Terra Nova had been found.  In that instant our thoughts turned to the Endurance.

I know this is too soon for us to go around puffing ourselves up like Aesop’s frog, but, if we can beat through the ice to reach the area, and if the equipment performs, and if the Endurance is where they said it was,  and if we do indeed find her, and if you happen to read this Gerry Ford (the man who created the Caffe Nero chain), then I think you should turn your Old Brompton Road coffee shop (where both your dream and ours began) into a Shackleton-themed bar and we of the expedition will hold a celebratory party there.  Just a thought.

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Striding along at 16 knots.  We are near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where great waters conjoin and the continent dwindles to nothing.  In these parts no ship ever follows a line, it’s all warps and wefts, and right now we are performing a grand parabola as we move around the pack from west to east in order to get south.  The middle distance and horizon are dominated by great bergs; we are surrounded by the full range from the long flat-tops to thimbles, pinnacles, broken-teeth and, finally, the more curvy smaller ones, the so-to-speak bosomy foothills that have been softened by snow.  Rejects all , they have been slung from the Weddell basin by the gyre and are now working their way northwards into the more temperate regions where they will expire – water to water.  Overhead, during the morning, there were huge fleecy clouds which afterwards turned leaded and then smothered us in flakes so that by the evening our decks were bridal white.

After breakfast I ran into Ray who pointed with his chin towards the door that takes us on to the deck:  ‘Hey Bub, come and check out the Penguins.’  I did and he was right, they were on the floes everywhere. Mostly they were adélies, but one was like a little penguin ranch of just chinstraps.  Back in the lounge I mentioned this to one of the technicians who didn’t bat an eyelid when he said he had seen them at King George Island.  Was he joking?  I wasn’t sure.  He reminded me of my mother who grew up with penguins and simply wasn’t interested, ‘Seen one, seen them all’, she used to say.

The best news is that the latest satellite reconnaissance shows that the pack over the Endurance continues to open.   Satellite imagery proved itself highly useful to us in our navigation of the gap between the Larsen C Ice Shelf and the giant A-68 breakaway iceberg, and now will be of imperative importance to us as we force our way through the pack and into the Endurance search area.   The person in charge of satellite image-gathering and analyses is our glacial-geophysicist Frazer Christie, an affable, six-foot-six, brainy-looking, jet-black-haired, Aberdonian post-doc of 26 years from the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge.  During the evening he gave a word-perfect introduction to his world.   He explained that we were receiving satellite data from twelve different satellites on a nearly daily basis.  It was information that had been gathered by a range of national and international space agencies, such as NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).   Typically, the data we are receiving comes from spaceborne ‘optical’, ‘passive microwave’, and all-weather imaging sensors, which together have allowed us to build a truly unprecedented understanding of the sea-ice conditions in the area that we are seeking to penetrate.  Just to be clear, no other polar project has ever made such extensive use of satellite intelligence.

Noon position:   61  58.172  S,   050  48.745  W.