Royal Navy survey ship HMS Enterprise is conducting scientific research in South Georgia, one of the most southerly points in what was once the British Empire.
More than 7,000 miles from her home in Plymouth, the survey ship is enjoying the final weeks of the Austral summer to support British scientists and use her hi-tech array of sensors to update naval charts produced long before the computer and sonar age.
Even though it’s the equivalent of August on the other side of the globe, daily temperatures in South Georgia are still below 10˚C – well below the 30-plus Celsius Enterprise’s sailors have grown accustomed to.
The ship spent more than a year in the central Mediterranean as part of the international naval force dealing with the African migrant problem.
She handed over to her sister HMS Echo last autumn, then headed to the Falkland Islands to relieve regular patrol ship HMS Clyde which was undergoing her six-yearly refit in South Africa.
The rare visit to the Falklands has allowed Enterprise to update charts and survey the wrecks of RN ships in time for 35th anniversary commemorations of the 1982 conflict later this year.
And it’s also allowed her to strike out for South Georgia as well, with the senior officer in the Falklands, Commodore Darren Bone, aboard as well as British Antarctic Survey experts, troops from the Roulement Infantry Company and the island’s Rapier air defence battery.
They faced a choppy three-day journey across 800 miles of open sea with visibility fluctuating between ten miles and just 300ft, making it tricky for the scientists to record any whales or dolphins as planned.
Enterprise finally reached Gold Harbour –about 30 miles along South Georgia’s coast from the capital Grytviken. Despite its name, there’s no gold here – the name was given by sealers impressed by the yellow glow cast by the sun on the snow and ice at dawn and dusk.
Navigator Lieutenant Kyle O’Regan had to guide the ship safely into the bay using charts produced with lead lines.
The first day ended in Drygalski Fjord at the southern tip of South Georgia, where Enterprise – which enjoys a strengthened bow to operate in icy waters – dodged ‘bergy bits’ (sizeable chunks of icebergs or glaciers) to take a close look at the glacier spilling into the narrow waters.
Glacier-watching continued on the second day in South Georgia and a look at the stunning Nordenskjöld glacier – two miles wide, four long and over 400ft high – in Cumberland Bay, where you’ll also find Grytviken, an abandoned whaling station, derelict vessels, a museum and the grave of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The sailors spent two days in the capital, using their survey launch Spitfire to chart the shallowest waters, getting close to the wildlife – fur and elephant seals, albatross and yet more penguins – and enduring every possible weather event: snow, 50kt winds, rain, glorious sunshine.
The visit to the island chain concluded with a sail through the Bay of Isles on the north coast. Fog and mist prevented Enterprise launching her sea boat to land at Salisbury Plain, a flat stretch of shore which serves as a breeding ground for 25,000 pairs of penguins.
“It’s fair to say that no-one aboard Enterprise will forget this incredible patrol any time soon,” said Lt O’Regan. “As one of my shipmates put it: it’s the thing recruiting adverts, never mind dreams, are made of.”