Protector officer makes history by visiting ‘his’ islands in Antarctica
No man is an island – except perhaps Royal Navy officer Lieutenant Commander Dave Pitt – possibly the very first Pitt to set foot on the chain bearing the family name, 8,500 miles from the UK.
He – and shipmates – seized the opportunity to spend the night in the Pitt Islands, which lie 675 miles south of Cape Horn and 950 miles from the Falkland Islands as icebreaker and survey ship HMS Protector conducted her second patrol of Antarctic waters this year.
The islands, scattered across an area of Antarctic ocean about twice the size of Norwich, were discovered nearly 200 years ago by a British expedition.
Collectively, the chain take its name from late 18th/early 19th-Century Prime Minister William Pitt… but the individual islands are named after characters in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.
Barren, forbidding, cold – temperatures just about climb above freezing even at high summer like now when there’s still snow on the ground and the wind chill takes it down to well below zero – the craggy archipelago is uninhabited, except for the region’s wildlife.
On her second stint around the Antarctic peninsula this austral summer, Plymouth-based HMS Protector has paid a succession of goodwill visits to research stations, including Brown (Argentinian), Videla (Chilean) and Vernadsky (Ukrainian) – upholding the Antarctic Treaty which the nation signed on December 1 1959.
Under that international agreement, Britain is duty-bound to protect and conserve the region’s unique wildlife, preserve historic sites, manage tourism, work with scientists of all nationalities and gather data about the weather and climate.
The ship is also updating Admiralty charts – used by merchant seafarers as well as the Royal Navy – having surveyed more than 400 square kilometres of waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula (that’s an area the size of the Isle of Wight) in the past month alone.
“With the steady growth in cruise ship activity, we have collected data that will contribute directly to their safety,” explained Captain Michael Wood, HMS Protector’s Commanding Officer.
“Surveying alone provides many obstacles, but doing it in Antarctica when surrounded by ice is the Premier League of hydrographic operations.
“The challenges range from dangerous ice conditions, blizzards, freezing waters and the constant toll of sustaining people and equipment in this frozen environment.”
While the icebreaker and her survey motor boat James Caird IV surveyed the waters around Jingle Island on the northeastern fringe of the Pitts, a 12-strong party – three Royal Marines as cold weather survival specialists, Capt Wood, Lt Cdr Pitt and seven shipmates – landed to study its large population of Gentoo penguins.
The birds covered the shoreline of the main bay with a mass of particularly-pungent guano, but otherwise the mile-long outcrop was blanketed by fresh, undisturbed snow and ice.
After setting up camp, the team dined on Navy ration packs as the sun went down and temperatures plunged.
“Overnight the winds picked up and along with the sounds of the buffering tents, nesting penguins and half a dozen fur seals, the surrounding noises were drowned out by snoring sailors and marines resting from an amazing day prior to embarking back in Protector,” said Lt Cdr Pitt.
The 46-year-old from Dudley joined the Navy as a chef back in 1991 and spent much of his career in the Submarine Service – HMS Protector is his first surface ship in 25 years.
The ship’s five-year mission to the Southern Hemisphere – spending the summer around the Antarctic and winter off Africa or South America – offers unique opportunities to visit parts of the world which would prove impossible or, at best, extremely expensive as a simple tourist.
“I cannot believe how privileged I am to be able to camp overnight in the Antarctic, on a group of islands with which I share a name, named in honour of a former British Prime Minister,” Lt Cdr Pitt added.
“The whole 24 hour period was an amazing experience and one that I will remember for the rest of his life. I wonder if I am the only ‘Pitt’ to have stayed on a Pitt Island.”