“The lady’s question is ‘Can we eat the penguin eggs?‘” said a giggling Rose, one of the translators, to a somewhat shocked George, the British ornithologist, who had just completed his first lecture about birds with a heavy focus on conservation. He was now taking questions and this was one of the very first from one of the Chinese passengers on board the Ocean Atlantic. Once he had got over his deep and very obvious surprise, his answer was actually quite neutral. “We could if we didn’t care about conservation but on this trip, no, we won’t be serving penguin eggs in the dining room“. The question however had obviously stayed with him though as he did some more research and subsequently confirmed that in fact in the Falkland Islands, people are still allowed to eat a certain number of penguin eggs and they still do so.
All our lectures were presented in English and were then translated into Mandarin although (without actually knowing any Chinese myself), it didn’t appear that everything was translated word for word as the laughs weren’t always in the same place. And sometimes the lengths of the translations seem to bear no resemblance to the original words so who knew exactly what was being said? Mind you, hats off to the translators who had to deal with some pretty specific biological and geological terminology as well as some rather dour poetry penned by one of the members of the expedition team. At first, having to wait for the translations was a tad annoying but after a short while, we became very used to it and it even gave us an opportunity to muse over the point that had just been made while the translation was in progress.
L: It was common for people to take photos of the presentations, sometimes to upload to their own accounts; R: not everyone was a model student in lectures!
Another rather odd comment (this time addressed to the Expedition Leader) came in the form of a concern raised by a Chinese lady about her boots getting wet during a beach landing. Given we were all kitted out by the boat with rubber wellingtons, specifically for the purpose of getting off the zodiacs into shallow waters on the edge of beaches, it was somewhat mystifying how anyone felt this was an issue which needed to be raised. Perhaps they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the initial landings in the Falkland Islands which were onto jetties and therefore dry. Either way it was made very clear that all landings in both South Georgia and Antarctica would be wet and in fact in Peter’s case, one landing in particular was very wet as unfortunately he was encouraged to leave the zodiac just as a large wave came in leaving him with a wellington boot full of icy water which wasn’t ideal.
It’s fair to say that the Chinese passengers were a pretty enthusiastic bunch. Any lecturer who started their talk with a resounding “ni hao” was treated to a round of applause and those who ended with “xie xie” (thank you) were adored. In fact, throughout the 3 week trip, there was a lot of spontaneous clapping, the kind you get sometimes on an aeroplane which has just landed (always a mystery to me that one). Mind you, this enthusiasm was pretty contagious and I found myself joining in with the clapping and cheering, even the whooping, from time to time.
And on two or three occasions in particular the excitement seemed to reach stratospheric levels. When we finally made it to our most southerly point of the trip (66 degrees 45 minutes) even beyond the Antarctic Circle which we crossed at 66 degrees and 33 minute, everyone suddenly started to act like crazed were-wolves at full moon, rushing around having their photos taken in front of a massive Chinese flag someone had conveniently produced and generally being terribly over excited.
L: Photo opportunities at the Antarctic Circle; M & R: China’s Great Wall research base
But the pinnacle of the excitement levels came when we visited China’s own Great Wall research base on King George Island in Antarctica despite the total absence of any wildlife on this landing. For the international passengers, this was therefore probably the least exciting landing and a bit of a shame that it was in fact our last one, but for the Chinese passengers, this was a big deal and a moment of deep national pride for them. We were told how difficult it was to be able to reserve a landing here and were given a whole list of rules to follow, the most important of which was the specific instruction about flags and banners: no flags whatsoever other than the Chinese flag were allowed onshore here and, critically, this was not the time to produce the “Free Tibet” banner you might have to hand in your rucsac or anything else concerning another potential political hot potato such as Hong Kong and/or Taiwan. After all, this was very clearly Chinese territory.
Once back on board following the Great Wall Station landing, the levels of excitement continued and at dinner, vast quantities of wine were drunk which was unusual. And when I say “drunk”, I’d never really seen anything like it: instead of sipping wine as is customary, the Chinese simply downed in one full 175ml glasses of wine in the same way as you might down a much smaller shot. And then they refilled their wine glasses and downed it again. And so it went on which was all pretty interesting as that night we began our second Drake Passage crossing and it wasn’t quite as smooth as the first one.
And let’s not forget the sudden and somewhat surprising appearance of ‘Miss Antarctica’. On our first morning in Antarctica, the weather was pretty kind and some people decided to get rid of their big jackets for a few selfies in slightly more flattering clothes. But then suddenly one Chinese female passenger took this idea a whole lot further by coming out onto deck in her dressing gown which she soon discarded to pose for photos wearing only a bikini paired with completely impracticable furry boots which she must have packed specifically for this moment. Unbelievable.
It’s fair to say that not really surprisingly our fellow passengers were a keen bunch of photographers. A lot of them spent the trip lugging around photographic equipment that was almost bigger than them – super large cameras (often more than one) with simply enormous lenses as well as large 1.5m high tripods. On our first landing in the Falkland Islands, I even saw one passenger trying to wheel a medium sized wheelie suitcase full of his camera equipment over very bumpy (tussock grass) terrain so it was hugely impracticable – and this was for a landing which lasted maximum 1 hour! Out on deck, everyone would charge from one side of the boat to the other if someone started pointing into the ocean, just to make sure they got the best vantage point and didn’t miss out on any potential whale sighting. Given this, it was very tempting to make some arbitrary gesticulations just to get people running around. And let’s not forget the machine gun noise of all the thousands of cameras, i.e. the sound of continuous photos being taken even of (non moving) landscape scenes.
And finally you could really tell you were on a Chinese cruise ship when it came to the evening entertainment. We had regular karaoke nights as well as quiz nights, talent shows and game shows, each taken extremely seriously. In fact when the quiz master tried to introduce a degree of leniency for some of the answers to the quiz (for example allowing an answer to a question about the length or tonnage of the ship to include a small range of figures instead of an exact one), he was challenged heavily and shot down: the answer was apparently right or wrong – end of! And when it came to the question about which Antarctic research station had pulled off the feat of drilling the longest continuous borehole through the Antarctic ice sheet, all hell almost seemed to break loose when it was clear that the correct answer was not the Chinese research station (although interestingly there is an ongoing attempt by the Chinese scientists in progress to set a new record in this regard).
On the final night, there was a charity auction raising funds for the worthy hookpod charity (www.hookpod.com). At this point, we realised that we were in the company of some very rich (and generous) people. Some of the prizes (art works made by members of the expedition team) went for as much as USD 9,000 which was more than we had paid for our passage. Although even here there was a little crazy twist: the lady who made the highest bid of the night made her payment conditional on having a 15 minute sunset bird-watching walk on deck with one of the male members of the expedition team (with translator in tow of course). Only on a Chinese chartered vessel!