In the beginning……
I had kept in touch with Don Shirley since exercise Jamaican Experience (otherwise known as operation sun-tan) back in June of 1994, Don had spoken about another adventure in the planning and I’d asked to be kept in mind, Don was as good as his word and I got a nod somewhere around February of 1995 to keep an eye on Part 1 orders. I made it a mission and in May or so of that year there was a notice for Corps divers interested in diving remote, unsupported areas on a self-sufficient basis, in inclement climates….. I was intrigued, must be dry-suit trained! OK that’s me, contact WO1 D. Shirley on………… and here we go, the application went in in somewhere around an hour later! I had no idea where we were going, I didn’t care, I knew Don was an adventurer and I knew he loved diving as much as I did, wherever it was Don was going, I wanted “in”. The joining notice would follow on acceptance, but I called Don to check up on my chances, Don said my application arrived in the first 5 and if I was cleared at unit level (another trip to see Major Bloody Andrews then…) then I was on board….it was the Falklands, a million miles away from Jamaica in terms of diving, a bloody site more remote and the plan was Ice diving off South Georgia…..bloody brilliant! Don was still working on permissions with the MoD and the governments of both the UK (It was only 13 years after the Falkland Islands war with Argentina, and still a “sensitive” area for military personnel to get to, unless on an official posting to the base at Stanley) and the Falkland Islands. Don had served in the Falklands war, if anyone could get permission then surely it would be a serving vet such as Don?
There was no objection to me going from Major Andrews, I think by then he had given up on me, I had already decided I was out of the Army at the 9 year point and this would pretty much get me out of his hair until I left….. I got joining instructions in good time, there were preparations too, weekends spent at the RAOC depot in Chillwell digging out climbing rope at, or beyond its rappelling or climbing date, great for anchor rope and lashing down our kit in the ISO containers we would send ahead of us to Port Stanley. There were inflatables and outboards to get, checks to make on their tubes, transoms and deck boards…… this wasn’t going to be somewhere we could rely on anyone but ourselves if we got into trouble! There were to be tents and all the cooking gear and banalities, toilet rolls, ration packs, flour, bread & eggs…all kinds of subsistence stuff we would need too, jerry cans, batteries, petrol generators and compressors for the cylinder fills….. This was a taste of real expedition planning and we would make it a success or failure with what we did here, in the UK, beforehand! Then there was the admin, passports, applications, flights to arrange…. all that ended up at Brize Norton early in the morning of 03rd January 1996 where we assembled for the Tri-Star flight to Ascension Islands, about 1/2 of the way to Stanley Airfield, East Falkland Islands, our first point of local departure on our way to Weddell Island and adventure!
Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as we would have liked, Ascension is a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, we landed at Wideawake, the island’s airfield simply to refuel, a Tri-Star is a hungry bird or so our RAF colleague who had joined the exped told me as we sat on the runway waiting for the needle to read “full”……..when it did the stink of paraffin had become quite a concern, normally the plane doesn’t reek of Avgas before take-off…. It turns out this didn’t surprise our RAF team member much, “Damien” (look up “The Omen”…) is a well-known problem child to the Brize Norton air crews and fitters. It turns out Damien had sprung a leak somewhere, I could see frantic activity below the Port wing from my seat, panels dropped and overall clad technicians wielding screwdrivers and spanners below it, for somewhere near an hour, before it was decided to disembark everyone and bus us to the local barracks to overnight on the island, and give the fitters a chance to cure the leak by morning
I was desperate to see if the local military dive club would open up for a quick shore dive, no matter how much cash we promised to put behind the bar, there was going to be none of it….”too much swell” and “conditions are too marginal”….bollocks, just too much trouble to get things done by the look of things….but, whatever, it was an interesting overnight we hadn’t expected and broke the travel up nicely, we’d been on the plane around 8 hours as it was when we landed! So it was with a certain level of frustration that we climbed back on Damien for the leg to Stanley, and another 8 hours or so before we would arrive, a full day late, let’s hope transport is still waiting for us when we get there or things will go seriously sideways! The trip in is pretty boring as 8 hours on any RAF flight is, the staff are courteous and efficient but there’s no snacks trolley….and no alcohol either….but you do get a bit of excitement on approach, the last hundred miles or so two GR7 Tornado’s escorted us in, taking it in turns to buzz the flight and doing lazy rotations around us so close you could see the pilot & navigator clearly….awesome flying and a fabulous sight
It got even more surreal as we dropped into Port Stanley and saw how tiny the airfield at Mount Pleasant was, it made you wonder if the Tri-Star, not a small plane, was going to be able to brake before the end of the runway! I had faith and that was rewarded with a sublime landing on that bleak little hill, fought so hard for by the British just a few brief years beforehand….and it was a brilliant end to the journey from Brize when, as we taxied to the arrivals lounge, passing the earth berm between runway and workshops, a line of mechanics stood on the top of the bund and raised score-cards, like dancing on ice or the Olympics…..bloody hilarious, I’d never seen the like, the pilot must have been proud, he’d got nearly clean 6’s across the piece……I was pissing myself laughing! It was with an air of anticipation we boarded our Bedford 4 tonner, provided by courtesy of the local REME LAD (Light Aid Detachment), to get to Port Stanley Harbour and our ISO container
So what was the mission? This wasn’t an ordinary expedition as Don had taken pains to point out to all joining the venture, we would split it into 3 phases and sadly, following an incident the previous year, we would not be diving on South Georgia, so, no under ice experiences nor glacier calving unfortunately, we were gutted, what the hell had happened, we were all excited at the prospect of real ice diving…. It turned out an expedition of military canoers and walkers had planned a split exped to South Georgia, where the walkers would “tab” the island and the canoers paddle the headlands carrying their supplies, the plan was to keep this up around the whole island or the majority of it at least. It turned out to be a bigger issue than expected, the walkers got a head start and made off, carrying very basic rations, they successfully got the 30 or so miles to their first destination and camped up waiting for the canoers, who had woken a day later to a South Atlantic storm, which meant they were never going to get to sea until it blew through, this changed the picture for those battened down against that same storm, but with little left to eat…..now it turns out Penguins are pretty timid birds…..and taste pretty much of salty chicken…..I will leave the remainder to your imagination, but suffice to say Penguins are a protected species, and that meant the military were persona non grata on South Georgia, despite having liberated the region from what would have been a pretty shitty life under the Argentinian Junta, ironically Don was one of those liberators, but the decision was final, no South Georgia phase to exercise Southern Craftsman, we were gutted!
Don had 3 locations planned and the 3 phases, although changed with the impact of “Operation Salty Chicken Dinner”, would be environmental assessments of the differing locations. Following the Falklands Islands war and the re-establishment of UK sovereignty in the region, there was a very real chance of an influx of Oil Companies, hungry for new areas to exploit for the benefit of an exclusive elite, sat in board rooms across the globe, ignorant or uncaring of the destruction caused to pristine environments such as the archipelago’s of the Southern seas. Don had a mission from the Natural History Museum, gather specimens of local underwater species, kelps, sponges, anemones and whatever else could be had, and assess the eco-system health in the Three regions we would visit, take underwater photographs to record wildlife, and high quality film, and Don had been given one of the smaller BBC video cameras for the purpose. It was exciting to think there would be a record of our visit with some real importance attached to it! Our first phase would be Weddell Island, off West Falkland, originally called Swan Island, Weddell ad been discovered in 1766 on a hydrographic survey of the islands by Captain John McBride on the ship HMS Jason and eventually named after James Weddell a British Sealer who wrote “A Voyage Towards the South Pole” having spent time on the island in 1820 and 1823
Once we got to the dock finding the ISO was easy, it had been set up already by the crew, that helped, all that remained was to check the contents, load up the remaining personal kit and lash the inflatables down, we needed at least one of the inflatables to ferry kit and people ashore at Weddell Island on arrival
The trip out was a pleasant one, the St Brandan was a flat bottomed boat designed to be able to get close in to shore, (more about that later in the story) but it would be the inflatables we used to get our kit ashore. The ISO container would remain on the deck for the duration, allowing us an easier transition from each location and an element of storage should we need it. It helped that St Brandan had a huge crane on deck, a tracked and trackable unit that made on and off-loading a whole lot easier than hand-balling our kit!
On and off-loading with St Brandan’s crane….. a whole lot easier than hand-balling our kit
Weddell Island, our destination, did not disappoint, low lying and bleak, we motored into the sheltered, narrow straight that was close to the sparse outpost of Empire that would be our base for the next week or so at Weddell Settlement, shown in the wildlife map below. The Falkland Islands are a wildlife sanctuary of huge importance and attract those amongst us who seek out the off-grid, remote areas, without missing the congestion of modern western society life styles
We lost little time getting the Inflatables going and transferred the kit to our host’s Land-rover in short order. This wasn’t a location needing tents, there was already a well-established bunk house at the settlement, used on the odd occasion for island hopping by those on tours of duty in Port Stanley, a hiking and nature trail “base” location. I was looking forward to this phase, it would be a great introduction to the Falklands and an opportunity for some really ground breaking diving!
The little inflatables would be elevated to a level of respect well beyond our expectations in the next few days, they were a tight fit and the outboards were not exactly state of the art, but boy these little craft worked hard and well for the whole trip, making challenging journeys, loaded up and at the limits of their capabilities, on many occasions! They were easy to handle, rugged and they rode the sea in a particular way, flexing over wave peaks and absorbing impacts at the bow, to a degree, by folding slightly, making riding the waves a sinuous thing rather than like a RIB assaulting and breaking through…..it took some getting used to but it worked…..
Exercise Southern Craftsman, Weddell Island, the Falkland Islands, South Atlantic Ocean, January 1996 was about to begin….we’d arrived, and this was, officially, the end of the beginning!