Thursday 10 July 2014

How the spirit of Antarctica changed me

Irish woman Liz McCollum-Ryan recalls her amazing experience on the now-stricken vessel

Published 01/01/2014|02:30

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Liz McCollum-Ryan with the Akademik Shokalskiy behind her

'Liz, it's the Akademik Shokalskiy!" said a one-liner with a link. It was a BBC news report and a large photo of a small ship wedged in a mass of ice in Antarctica.

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There have been few moments of jealousy in my life but right now Antarctica on that ship is where I wanted to be.

I boarded the Akademik Shokalskiy in Ushuaia on February 7, 2008.

The sail through Drake's Passage was rough, and the ship's doctor was kept busy with seasick patients for a day and a night. The rest of us had our three meals a day and listened to talks and watched a documentary and got a vague idea of watching sea-birds, Antarctica's history, and 'Planet Earth from Pole to Pole'. The pre-dinner cocktails gave a foretaste of the week ahead, and once we were through Drake's Passage the whole complement of passengers joined us.

It seems the type of people who go to the Antarctica on a small ship without the big passenger liner frills tend to be up for anything and this lot were all up for a bit of fun.

There were three Irish on board -- myself, an Irish friend, Rose, resident in Chile, and the Irish wife of a South African man. The rest was made up of South Africans, English, Germans, Swedes, Americans, Dutch, Aussies, Belgian, Hungarian and more.

The crew were composed of workers and cooks and a geologist, marine biologist, ornithologist, and Antarctica historian. They were there to educate and inform -- and for the craic, we quickly realised.

One memorable day, a family of humpbacks honoured us with a short, close-up meeting while we sat in our boats. The humpbacks, parents and baby, swam between the zodiacs diving and surfacing, breaching with tail displays of magnificence and accuracy. The tail would raise vertically in the air, staying still for a moment, its shell-encrusted skin rough and seaworn, then it would crash back into the sea, missing the nearest zodiac, its yellow-jacketed passengers bent towards the spectacle in hushed silence, by inches.

That evening we returned to the Akademik Shokalskiy without a word spoken by anyone, and spent a while sitting silently in our cabin.

We learned later that most people on board had done the same. The geologist said later he had never been so emotionally affected by anything he had witnessed at sea, and heads nodded.

The crew and passengers are reportedly still in good form on the stranded ship. I would expect that. There is a spirit of Antarctica that sent me home a different person, because in that desolate and majestic place, a knowledge of what is vital, what is good, and what threatens life and peace of mind becomes clear.

Irish Independent

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