11th December: South Sandwich Islands

2005

Sailing through the night towards Zavadovski – an erupting volcano on the northern edge of the uninhabited South Sandwich Islands. All the lights are out on the bridge, the only illumination coming faintly from arrays of blinking buttons, radar screens, GPS monitors and the two powerful search lights beaming out through the fog. Trained on a small patch of ocean, like a ballerina’s follow spot, they create an expectant circle of immanent icebergs. All that appears, every now and then gliding through the beam, is one of the huge wandering albatross, shining impossibly white against the black rolling sea.

The air begins to lighten and the yellow blips on the radar screen show various huge bergs still passing unseen in the fog. A fin-whale blows a jet out of the swell and rolls lazily forward as it dives away from the ship. Finally a bigger lump picked out in the ghostly yellow radar takes shape as Zavodovski. Hidden behind the fog, we can smell its fumes blowing in the air. Nearer icebergs begin to be populated with the black dots of penguins – suburbs of the millions of ‘chinstraps’ inhabiting the geothermically ice-free island and adding to its smell. Finally, we can just make out the passing grey/black coast at Noxious Bluff – but the smoking mountain stays in its clouds.