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East Base
Photo Credit: Brett Arenz
Built in 1940, East Base is the oldest extant U.S. station in Antarctica. Scientist Brett Arenz travled to the site to study the effects of mold on the historic wooden structures. 

Cheerio and all that

A U.S. scientist joins a British expedition and learns a few things about royalty and rank

“Cheerio.” Did I hear her right? I thought the English only used that word in Monty Python sketches. I was standing on the shores of Deception Island having just said goodbye to Princess Anne or, as she is also known, HRH (Her Royal Highness).

How did I get into this bizarre situation?

I had the good fortune of traveling with members of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) aboard the Her Majesty’s Service (HMS) Endurance at the end of the 2006-07 austral summer field season to visit historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula.

I study Antarctic fungi as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, and was in search of molds and wood decay fungi that inhabit historic wooden structures, artifacts and soils in the areas we visited. (See Scientists Tackle Antarctic Mold for more on the science.)

The HMS Endurance is a Royal Navy vessel used by BAS as a transport and logistics platform during the Antarctic field season. It is named after Sir Ernest Shackleton’s original Endurance, which was crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915. We required the use of the Endurance, as there are two Lynx helicopters on board, and the only way to visit some of these very remote historic sites is by air.

To meet the Endurance, I had to first fly to the Falkland Islands via Chile. Though the Falklands are fairly large (about 12,000 square kilometers), the population is very small, about 2,000 people, and mostly centered in the town of Stanley. Only one flight per week arrives from South America. It was crucial that I not miss mine.

Crossing the Drake

I had never traveled by ship to the Antarctic before and was looking forward to it, though I was a bit apprehensive about the Drake Passage, known for having some of the roughest seas in the world.

The first trip across was actually very smooth, and one of the officers remarked that it was the calmest trip he had ever been on. The return journey had a forecast of six- to 10-meter swells. While they didn’t reach that magnitude, many fellow passengers were not seen outside their cabins for that three-day period during the crossing.

The journey was quite smooth in the relative shelter of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands.

In the (British) Navy now

As I was neither a British citizen nor a member of the military, my experience on the ship was of two degrees of separation. I did struggle at times with the varying accents of the shipmates, particularly in the lower decks. And the relatively strict time scheduling of the Royal Navy threw me for a loop on the first couple days. 

The Royal Navy also has some traditions that, as an American, I found difficult to understand at first. The ship’s crew consists of four classes or “decks” — top is the captain, second the officers, third the senior-rate crewman, and lastly the junior-rate crewman.

HMS Endurance near island.
Photo Credit: Brett Arenz
The HMS Endurance near Deception Island, where it rendered aid to a Norwegian cruise ship.

All classes eat in separate mess halls, have separate socializing areas, and are only allowed in the respective areas if invited by one of the classes. Though this seemed discriminatory at first, I quickly came to realize that it is probably the lower decks that appreciate it most, as the setup allows them to relax outside the presence of officers and related formality expected.

As a visiting scientist, I found myself somewhere between these different worlds, and was assigned to share a cabin and eat with the junior rates, but then to use the officers’ lounge for work and socializing.

Her Royal Highness

Princess Anne was briefly on the ship as she is the official “patron” of the United Kingdom (U.K.) Antarctic Heritage Trust and was touring U.K. sites designated as historic monuments. (For those of you who don’t know, she is Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter and her official title is “Princess Royal.”)

Responding to an SOS

I certainly didn’t expect to be involved in any international headlines during my travels. However, near the end of my trip and having just left Deception Island a few days previously, we were soon recalled to render assistance to the Norwegian cruise ship, the M/S Nordkapp. The ship ran aground on rocks while attempting to leave the volcanic caldera of Deception Island.

I was just a spectator to this event, but the ship’s crew provided significant assistance to the damaged vessel. British divers inspected the hull (which had a many-meter-long gash under the water line), while other crew helped with temporary repairs. We transported many of the Nordkapp’s crew to King George Island, where they would be flown to Argentina.

It was a bit surreal to be watching Sky News images of the HMS Endurance while being aboard the actual ship.

Successful voyage

I found my journey aboard the HMS Endurance rewarding and enjoyable. I was able to collect research samples from nine, separate sites and spent three days at the historic U.S. East Base, where I assessed the deterioration taking place there. The ship’s crew was very accommodating and, along with the scientists from BAS, helped me immensely in accomplishing my objectives. 

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