Hello and Goodbye from Africa

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It is tuesday, February 22nd, and I am sitting in the Cape Town airport getting ready for my twenty-hour flight back to Boston.   It is hard to believe that a week ago the Melville was steaming at five knots, sixty miles west of Cape Town on a course to time our arrival in the wind shadow of Table Mountain at exactly 0700.  The Captain does not like to arrive late to port after being at sea for 37 days.

On Wednesday morning the entire ship was awake early in anticipation of our arrival.   Even before I got to the deck I knew we were near land.   Everything smelled differently.   The air had a smell of decomposing kelp and other things organic, a big change from the smell of sea spray mixed with a hint of diesel fuel.

Cape Town

At 0730, the pilot boat, Petrel, came alongside to drop off the Cape Town Pilot.  Her job was to guide the ship into the port and to our dock.   The Captain is still responsible for navigating the ship, but the pilot provides the local knowledge of the harbor.  Meeting us at the harbor entrance were two tugs in case we needed a little help maneuvering.   As you know from my previous post, the Melville has three rudder propellers that can move the ship forward, backward, or sideways.   After turning within a boat length as we neared Quay Four, the ship simply moved sideways the last 60 meters to the dock.  The crew told me that tugs tend to break things and the Melville navigates on its own power if at all possible.

Table Mountain

By 0830 we had arrived at the dock, the lines were pulled in place, the gangplank was installed, and our port agent had arrived.  Standing two meters from South Africa we all began to wait.  We needed to clear South African immigration before we could “officially” enter the country.   Ironically, to do this we all walked off the ship, loaded into passenger vans, and drove five miles to the port immigration office.   As we waited in the hall outside the immigration office, our passports were stamped, visas installed, and we had arrived in South Africa.  I don’t think they where worried about the passengers on the Melville sneaking into South Africa.  As an interesting aside, the reverse is not true.  Another Scripps ship, the Revelle, had a stowaway the last time they were in Cape Town.   Before the Melville leaves Cape Town on this trip, it will be searched from stem to stern by port security with trained dogs.

By noon we were free to explore Cape Town.   We had a lot of unpacking to do, but for the next few hours many of us explored the city to find the establishments with the best beer.  We were successful.

The video attached above shows our progress into the port and unloading.   All the gear that took so long to arrive in Punta Arenas had to be repacked for shipment back to the United States.  All of the WHOI, Bigelow, and Colby gear was packed into a 10×40 foot cargo container.  While we fly home, our instruments are going back to sea on a cargo ship for the trip to the port of New York.  From New York, the container will be trucked to Maine via WHOI.  If all goes smoothly, we should see our instruments some time in late March.

Quick work in the port meant that I had a few days to explore Cape Town before flying home.  After being confined to the ship for five weeks I took the opportunity to climb all the mountains around the port city.  The views were spectacular, but my cardiovascular conditioning was not.  It is going to take me a few weeks to get back into shape for squash and winter activities in Maine.  I also took the half-day tour of Robben Island, South Africa’s infamous prison island located 5 miles northeast of the docks in Cape Town.  Robben Island has over 300 years of history as a prison, leper colony, and military base.  The world knows about Robben Island because it was the apartheid-era prison of Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and over 1500 other political prisoners from 1961 to 1991.  A tour of the island should be on the top of the list of any visitor’s itinerary for Cape Town.

So now I am heading home 49 days after leaving Maine in early January.  I hope readers have enjoyed reading this blog and learning something about the research, the scientists, and life on the oceanographic ship the Melville.  It was a great trip, made successful by the capable Captain and Crew of the Melville, and a great group of scientists lead by Barney Balch from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

- Whitney

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