Dawid Mocke’s Antarctic Adventure

Dawid Mocke’s Antarctic Adventure

  • 01 March 2017
  • |
  • First Ascent

I love maps.  I can spend hours just staring at a map, like a cow stares at a gate, just looking at it.  To me, a map on a wall is a “map-g-net”; I’m just drawn to it.  I look at all the different bays, islands, bits of coastline, towns and cities; and wonder what it must be like there, when would be the best time to go; and, what it’s like paddling there.  Even though I’ve spent the better part of 14 years as a professional paddler, one of the things I love most about paddling is ‘adventure’, and maps are ‘adventure incubators’.  Every spot is an opportunity for an adventure, and all I want to do is go paddling ‘There’…and there, and there and there.

When I’m staring at maps (as one does) there are spots I just always keep coming back to, and one spot in particular has consistently grabbed my attention: Cape Horn, the Drake Passage and Antarctic Peninsula.

It’s the most southern Cape of them all.  Set right at the bottom of the South American Continent and smack bang in the middle of “furious fifties” latitude, I doubt whether any sailor has ever said the words “Cape Horn” without trepidation.  And I would stare at that Cape imagining myself paddling around it; and scheming of any possible way I could get down there to paddle around it.  Then, a short hop over this seemingly non-descript “short” piece of ocean called the Drake Passage (just name makes you want to cross it) is Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula; it’s like its right there!

Then one day last October, I received a phone call from my friend Lewis Pugh:  “Would you like to be on my Antarctica2020 Expedition team? We will sail to the Antarctic Peninsula from Chile and stop at Cape Horn on the way?”   “Yes” was the answer of course, as I committed before knowing anything about what Antarctica 2020 entailed.

“Now, tell me:  What is Antarctica2020?”

My friend Lewis Pugh is the swimmer most famous for the picture of him diving into freezing cold polar water off an iceberg.  Lewis’ groundbreaking swim across the North Pole in an effort to raise awareness towards climate change, launched him into a life of what the media has labelled “speedo diplomacy”, using his swims to influence policy makers towards environmentally positive change.  He travels the world doing speeches and meeting with the world’s most influential leaders and policy makers, working towards protecting our environment.  The Antarctica 2020 campaign is the official campaign to get the seas around Antarctica protected by the year 2020.

He needed me to be a safety kayaker (or second) paddling next to him while he swam, in zero degree water, in some of the most inhospitable and remotest waters on earth.  When I was younger (so only a few years ago), I used paddle for my dad on his swims.  It’s a role I know well, and one which comes with a big responsibility.  What a safety paddler (or second) does is paddle next to the swimmer while they swim.  I am responsible for 3 things:  the swim route – picking the best, safest and shortest line;  the swimmer’s safety  - looking out for obstacles, animals and making sure the swimmer is doing physically well; and finally and most importantly, motivation – encouraging the swimmer and giving them regular updates of how they are doing.  Getting any of these wrong jeopardizes the entire swim, it’s a mission critical role, and besides the swimmer them self, the safety kayaker presents the swimmer the best possible chance of completing the swim successfully.

Before I knew Lewis, he knew my dad.  My dad, Godfrey, was one of a pioneering group of open water swimmers in South Africa, especially here in Cape Town, racking up many Robben Island swims and all along the coast.  Lewis was a young swimmer who got taken under their wing and was mentored by them.  Then, a few years ago, he asked me to coach him to paddle around the Cape of Good Hope and we ended up racing together as paddling partners. 

Where, what and why is:  ANTARCTICA

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent in the world, bigger than Australia and Europe. Set at the bottom of the planet it’s the most sparsely populated place in the world, probably because it’s also the coldest:  98% of it is covered in ice on average 1.9km thick… You should read that again yes…and AVERAGE of 1.9km thick layer of ice covers the continent!

Discovered by the Russians - Admiral von Bellinghausen -  just under 200 years ago, the first expedition there to check things out was by the Norwegians.  After claims to ownership was made first by the Russians followed closely by the Americans, it’s amazing to think that Antarctica is governed by a  treaty system of Joint Sovereignty or a Condominium.  The first signatories being 12 countries in 1959:  Argentinia, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, the UK, Russia and USA.  It sets Antarctica out as a continent of peace and co-operation.  There are now 50 signatories to the treaty.

Dawid's First Ascent kit - a variety of cold weather gear to keep him warm and dry.

To visit Antarctica, either as a scientist or tourist, you will have to adhere to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, which has an extremely strict protocol and code of conduct.  Small ships, limited numbers on land, only one ship per area.  Our expedition received a number of very special dispensations to be able to conduct swims and record them.

Antarctica is basically the planet’s engine room both for weather and for ocean life.  The circumpolar current feeds nutrients to the world’s oceans and drives surface currents around the planet.  Surface currents in turn affect atmospheric weather cells and global wind patterns.  It’s the planet’s krill warehouse too.  Krill is pretty much central to the entire marine eco-system being a food source for a wide variety of animals.  A collapse in krill will be catastrophic for the planet.

First the Ross Sea, next a swim in the Bellingshausen Sea

In October last year, Lewis was instrumental in getting the Ross Sea declared a Marine Protected Area, which was a staggering 17 years in the making. 

On the back of this monumental victory, the Lewis Pugh Foundation has launched Antarctica2020 to have a further 6 areas declared MPA’s by the year 2020, the 200 year anniversary of discovery of Antarctica by Russian Admiral Bellingshausen.The campaign was to be launched with a freezing cold, 1km swim in the Bellingshausen sea.

Test swims, exhibition swims and the campaign launching swim

To get to the Bellingshausen sea you have to sail from Punta Arenas, along the Chilean Fjords, to Cape Horn and then across the feared Drake Passage, 400 nautical miles of open uninterrupted water.  To begin building momentum to the campaign launching swim Lewis did a number of training swims.  One of them was in front of the Garibaldi glacier and the other 1km around Cape Horn.  Finally the campaign needed an all-encompassing image that symbolized it and for this we needed a spectacular iceberg to swim off of.

The training swims were very important on a number of levels.  Firstly to streamline and perfect the entire team dynamic.  There is so much preparation that needs to happen for one of these swims, from permissions, route selections, safety boats, timing and planning, videography, photography, contingency plans.  When you are about to send someone overboard into 0⁰C water, in a speedo, for 20minutes, you’d better have your plans streamlined!

Secondly the training swims were important to create optimism, confidence in our abilities and team spirit.  While getting the swims done was logistically and physically challenging, we had a enormously fulfilling time doing them, down in one of the most spectacular places on the planet.

Build up to Bellingshausen…and lots of paddling

During the Garibaldi Glacier Swim I learned a lot about my craft, its speed and maneuverability.  We also realized our plan for getting Lewis back on the zodiac needed work, which we practiced relentlessly.  At Cape Horn we had some miscommunication.  I assumed that the number 1 objective was to swim Cape Horn while Lewis’s intention was to swim 1km at Cape Horn.  In the world of open water swimming, a minimum of 1km is what constitutes an open water swim; I pulled him out of the water at 850m and we had to return later to re-do the swim for 1km.  At least I got to paddle some more.

By the time we reached Halfmoon Bay in the Bellingshausen Sea we were ready.  For these swims my job would pretty much run as follows:

Look at charts of the area to scout possible swim options (I’m somewhat a pro at this…)
Hit the water as the anchor hits the bottom, scout the area by kayak for suitable 1km stretches of water.  At Halfmoon I found 3 possible routes and selected one as my favourite.
Call a core team meeting, explain the options and my number one choice, discuss and decide as a team based around the number one choice and reasons to change should it be necessary
Set the muster times and time to swim
Get back on the water, re-scout the swim route, meet the swim team at the start
Paddle next to Lewis while he swims

The final mission was to capture the image of the trip and we actually got two.  Both these images required me to get up close and personal with some icebergs…and that’s a pretty scary thing to do.  These massive floating blocks are very temperamental and unstable.  The shot was going to happen at Neko Harbour and I had a scary experience there, paddling far away from the ship I was suddenly surrounded by brash ice flows and icebergs that have calved off glaciers.  The sounds are overwhelming, cracking glaciers in the background and popping ice next to you.  But I found the perfect iceberg, made it back to the ship and we managed to get the shot.

An unforgettable experience

Paddling the Chilean Fjord, around Cape Horn and the vastness around the Antarctic Peninsula was an experience not easily forgotten and one I struggle to put words to.  In the end this poem describes it best

The Poet
There is a place at the edge of earth,
It is far, far away, intriguing
So intriguing, it's beckoning

And at this place, at the edge of earth
It has a vast, vast way, intriguing
So intriguing, its beckoning

But this place, the edge of earth
You can't come close
Its vast way is only seen from far away

It has so many places
So many faces
Like a painting of vast proportion

But the colours, here at the edge of earth
With one sight from far away, only two
Black and white, in such a vast way

They beckon you, the colours at the edge of earth
To come close, see the many places, many faces
And only two colours, have never been so mesmerizing.

Millennia have passed
With man's words, numbering close to countless
To capture beauty far away, in a such a vast way

Many millennia may still pass
And man's words, close to countless 
To try and capture beauty

Yet The Poet, with colours few, only two
Has captured in one sight, millennia, here at the edge of earth
So far away, in such a vast way.

Dawid Mocke
~ 17 December 2016, returning from Antartica


Images copyright Kelvin Trautman Photography.