Wednesday, October 31, 2018

This blog is a TEENAGER

This blog has now entered its teenage years, being 13 years old.

In a TV comedy series by the BBC, teenagers were portrayed as slouching around yelling "that's so unfair" and "you don't understand" before rushing off to slam their bedroom doors. That seems rather harsh, as the teenagers I know are remarkably well informed and adjusted, a lot more than this little blog.

Looking back, the top ten posts by number of hits were:
  1. Empty sky, blue sky
  2. The northern lights over Greenland
  3. Fireworks night
  4. The northern lights from deck
  5. Three icebergs
  6. Writing like...
  7. Two years of Land Rover BAR
  8. Preparing for the Queen's Jubilee Regatta
  9. How to Watch a Tower Bridge Lift
  10. Fantastic Rio
Not sure if reading too much into this, but several of these are what I'd call photo posts, i.e. something that could work as well - if not better - on a platform like Instagram. Then again, Instagram wouldn't work for the longer text like posts such as book and exhibition reviews, such as the recent ones about Captain Cook.

But I am quite pleased with these photos, all from the third Greenland trip:

I have a note somewhere that I should write a post about "why I blog" but I can't for the life of me remember what that was to be about.

That is SO unfair.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

British Library Exhibition: The Voyages of Captain Cook

Earlier this year the British Library had an exhibition about the voyages of Captain James Cook but I've only just got round to blogging about it.

It's a big year for remembering Cook as its 250 years since the first of his three voyages set sail from Britain, heading to the Pacific. As well as the British Library exhibition there is also Oceania at the Royal Academy (as posted earlier) and the National Maritime Museum has just opened a gallery dedicated to Pacific Encounters (which have yet to visit).

It's become a rather hot political potato in some quarters, and these alternative voices were given hearing in the British Library's exhibition which examined some of the issues involved in his voyages.

Sometimes it felt like there was a need of further balance. For example, someone from Taiti said that Tupaia (who joined Resolution there and was to act as translator) was not named and yet clearly he was as the BL had Bank's Journal on display with Tupaia's name clearly written.

That might just have been lack of precision, but a chief of the one of tribes of the American North West said he wished Cook had just sailed by. But would they really have wished no contact (even now?) and do they really blame Cook for everything?

A key question is whether Cook is to blame for what occurred after his death, in particular the negative aspects of colonialism. But is that legally or morally valid?

There were alternative visions. Adam Smith, no less, writing at the same time as Cook's voyages, proposed that trade not conquest would be a better route. This would have been consistent with Cook's voyages as Cook himself traded with the locals he encountered. I was delighted to spot some of the paddles he acquired in New Zealand at the Oceania exhibition, which noted that trade not pillage was the source of most of the exhibits.

First contact was naturally a difficult time when two cultures met and signals could easily misread. But often the blame for this lack of reading is placed solely on Cook when a more nuanced view would note that (for example) grabbing an object of value from the guests, in particular if it is a weapon, might not be a sensible way to open communications. This occurred when Cook first landed on New Zealand and the culprit was shot. Maybe this was an over-reaction, but such meetings could be fatal in the other direction too (see Cook, death in Hawaii) so is it right to put all the blame only on Cook?

Having said that, it was clear that the Cook of the third voyage was different from the Cook of the first voyage (for whatever reason) and that played its part too. Maybe its something about the third circumnavigation, as William Dampier was also a shadow of his normal self third time round.

Anyhow, slight diversion from what - as you can tell from the thoughts it triggered above - was a really fascinating exhibition full of original documents and pictures.

David Attenborough chipped in with his concise summary: that Cook was the greatest sea going explorer of all time, and that seemed a good way of identifying strengths without heading into deep waters (politically that is).

In a way, Cook was the victim of cultural appropriation, for without his permission or authority his name and story were taken over by those that wanted to promote the British Empire. It is this image of him, rather than that of an explorer, that is the issue.

This exhibition was bold, challenging and fascinating, re-apprising one of the world's all time great sailors, flaws and all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Royal Academy Exhibition: Oceania

Lets just say it: the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy is amazing!

It was full of the art and culture of Polynesia from Australia to Hawaii where travel is by water, over horizons to islands far away. It started with their boats and tools, such a navigation (another stick map) and lots of paddles (including those brought back by Captain Cook himself!):

The art work on some of the paddles was extraordinary:

Then there were the figures, gods and ancestors:

Then there were domestic, carved wooden beams and carpets, and weapons, spears and shields:

Finally there's an amazing audio-visual installation. Now often these are bit gimmicky but this was a delight.

It was a long wall on which a scene slowly panned to the left (Updated: see an extract here). The scene had the look of a water colour, the type that artists on Captain Cook's voyages might have painted of scenes of the islands and the islanders they encountered.

But within the painting were actors playing out characters from the indigenous population and also the visitors in the tall ships from Britain. Scenes were played out, from pre-contact days, to contact up until a dramatic recreation of the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii.

Beautiful and moving, this gives a feel for what one scene showed, the mix of indigenous and European, arts and sciences:

If you get a chance, definitely add it to your to-do list for your next trip to London.

Its on until the 10th of December

Monday, October 22, 2018

Lates at the Royal Academy: Cosmic Ocean

Recently I've discovered the joys of Museum Lates. These are events which, as the name suggestions, museums and galleries across London have special late openings. But not all Lates are the same, and the Londonist web site has identified two categories:
  • Museums and art galleries that open late
  • Museums and art galleries that have events hosted in their spaces in the evening
I'd been to the National Gallery late before, and that had been an example of the first category, but the Royal Academy [of arts] was firmly in the second category, described by the Londonist to be grand affairs with "DJs, cocktails, bizarre performances and so much more" that sell out quickly.

I wanted to go to the Oceania exhibition anyhow so when the email for the "RA Lates: Cosmic Ocean" came round thought why not? and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Indeed, at one point I thought I might give the actual exhibition a miss and just do the event.

First up were some talks, including "A guide to ocean sailing" by Oliver Beardon of Sail Britain. He touched on navigation techniques including those used by the Polynesians such as this stick chart:

One of the focuses of Sail Britain is to highlight the danger of plastics to our ocean, and there were some slides on this include the famous ocean gyres:

I had a brief chat with him afterwards and mentioned my experience from Svalbard of finding plastic on every beach and suggested he read Tristan's book on water.

The Polynesian navigation theme continued with a pop-up (or rather blow up, given it was inflatable) planetarium that showed the southern skies and how they were used to navigate. For example, this shows how to find south:

Around the horizon you can see the 32 directions that the Polynesians used - which is just like the 32 points of the compass used in the west. As they say, great minds thing alike.

The event was described as Cosmic Ocean so as well as a inflatable planetarium there was a similar hemisphere for a video of life in the ocean:

This video was more artistic, though less informative. It had a weird 180 degree field of view and there was no sense of scale. Many of the creatures looked like they were from the deep, dark depths where here be monsters:

Some of the best bits were abstracts, like the bioluminescence creatures flickering across the globe:

It certainly made the sky => stars and sea => bioluminescence connection very vividly.

There was lots else to see, with bars selling cocktails all over the place, rooms full of plot plants like a tropical jungle, courtyard with food stands and music complete with Hawaii dancers, London Hula!!

The audience looked similar to the dancers as there'd been a strong dress-to-impress message: "cosmic constellations, stars and moons, or alternatively opt for a deep sea creature". So some came as mermaids, many had glitter on their face or fair lights in their hair. I was a bit more modest but had dug out an old space themed t-shirt.

Along with the luau in the RA Cafe there was also a talk elsewhere about its "secret" history and why it is both authentic but also not-authentic (I think; must admit only got the tail end of this talk as was waiting for the Sail Britain one).

I missed some bits, like there was what sounded like a fascinating video on Polynesian voyaging traditions called Star Travel - see the trailer for it here. Unfortunately it was 50 minutes long and I didn't have that much time. I also skipped the coral sketching class and a site-specific art-film called "Exotic Savage: The Decolonisation". I was tempted by the DJ who seemed rather good but suspect it was aimed at a younger audience - i.e. those who weren't thinking it might be time to head off home.

It was all a lot of fun, plus there was the exhibition...

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Back to Longyearbyen & Nordic dinning

So we did the circumnavigation of Spitsbergen and return to Longyearbyen. Some flew out straight away but I and others stayed two nights before returning to the south.

For our last meal in Svalbard we went to the Huset restaurant for a 10 course tasting menu of Nordic cuisine.

And boy was it good!

Foodie Instagram heaven!

Unfortunately I ate the main reindeer course straight away without taking a picture.... does that count as a good reason to return?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Barentsburg: Lenin on Svalbard

Svalbard has rich seams of coal and the treaty allows these resources to be mined by any of the signatories. While many of these mines have closed, the one at Barentsburg run by Russia remains and we paid a visit.

It was a bit of a shock after 10 days in the wilderness:

There is a complete Russian town around the mine built in the Soviet area with statue of Lenin and that unique USSR style of architecture (top photo).

There are also a few older buildings remaining, though a bit run down:

The town has bars, restaurants and a hotel, and it was the last of these that attracted us - or rather its sauna so we could scrub ourselves clean.

For we were about to return to civilisation....

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The ice of Svalbard

Couldn't resist a few more photo posts

Spot what this bird is carrying:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Fridtjovhana: The best day in Svalbard

I've been asked a few times "which was the best thing about Svalbard?"

In a way its a hard question to answer as I didn't go up there for just one reason and hence there wasn't just the one best thing.

So the answer I give is to describe the best day. It was the day we anchored in Fridtjovhana (above) and for once we were alone - there were no cruise ships or other yachts to be seen. Also I was feeling a bit better, so could participate in more activities (though alas not the swimming).

We went ashore, went for a hike (I was in the short walk group), saw some interesting flowers:

Then it was back to the beach where we collected driftwood for a fire. Here we had lunch, roasting hot dogs on a stick followed by marshmallows. A bottle of rum appeared and we toasted the day and group.

Some swam while I flew the drone (without crashing) and found a fossil.

Then back to Valiente and a chance to stand on an iceberg, which some then dived off into the icy water (again, not me). We lifted the hook & went up to inspect the face of the glacier:

By now we'd gelled as a group and comfortable relaxing and chatting.

Even the sun came out and the sky was blue:

It was a good day.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sailing the midnight sun

It really was extraordinary to be on-deck at midnight in conditions like this.

Many felt it was time for a glass of something, beer or rum depending upon taste.

But even when its as bright as this, come the early hours I felt tired and the call of the warm bunk, so went below.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Latitude 80N

Look at those numbers on the chart-plotter! Furthest north indeed.

And what does one do at 80 degrees North? Well go swimming (*), of course !

(*) ok, confession time, I didn't actually go swimming as wasn't feeling well. But would have!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Wildlife of Svalbard

The last post described two of the depressingly sights of Svalbard, namely the signs of global warming and widespread plastic on the beach, so to balance that here are some positive aspects.

As well as polar bears we saw walruses (above), seals (below), reindeer (as posted earlier), puffins, other birds (sorry bit vague on that) and interesting plants (again, alas, not my speciality).

Didn't see any whales... maybe they were too busy making their way to London?

There was this arctic fox, but rather a long way away:

The birds got a lot closer:

On land we spotted a couple of interesting plants like these ones:

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Nature's scary warnings in Svalbard

There were two very scary things about the Svalbard trip.

Firstly, the chart above. As you can see, its indicating that the ship is on land - but how can that be? We never touched bottom once.

Alas, the charts in this part of the world rapidly become out of date because of the effects of global warming. The glaciers are retreating so fast that chart updates can't keep up: each year they are further back, smaller. What we saw as two glaciers used to be one but has retreated further up a valley.

The second were the beaches: every single one we landed on we found plastic - for example, like this plastic fishing nets washed up on the beach (oh, and also a polar bear):

It was really sad & tragic how we have polluted our oceans so that even in the wilds of Svalbard at 80 degrees north there are plastics everywhere.

If you haven't seen it already, you really MUST watch the BBC's brilliant but scary documentary Drowning in Plastic. It even has a segment on Svalbard where I spotted places I'd been to and they didn't just find large chunks of plastic they found micro-plastics in the sand and gravel too.

We really have to cut out single-use plastics from our lifestyles.