On a Tuesday night, I went to bed thinking of the penguin lecture that I was to give the next morning to a group of about 100 Chinese tourists (with a translator of course). We had spent the day making two landings with passengers at two remote Falklands Islands locations: New Island where we saw an amazing and large mixed colony of albatross, Imperial cormorants and Rockhopper penguins and Grave Cove where we saw a Gentoo penguin colony which had a large male sea lion actively stalking (and catching two) penguins as they came in and out of the sea.
A little after midnight we were awoken by a desperate conversation over the loudspeakers between an engine room worker and an officer. The French word “feu” was often repeated. Next we began to notice the obvious smell of smoke. A loud knock was heard at each cabin door and we were told to head immediately to a little meeting room on deck 6 at the front of the ship. I had a quick look outside from our balcony and there was considerable black smoke billowing into the sky from a location one floor up and a bit in front of us. I quickly dressed, put on shoes and a coat and hat and headed out; leaving wallet, boots, watch etc in the cabin. I would regret this later.
The corridors were full of smoke as we headed up to deck 6. When we reached the small meeting room, it was packed with over 200 people; most of them standing: bringing to mind the Toronto subway at rush hour. To make matters worse, there was no electricity and the ship was bouncing about in high waves. In fact, as I later found out, we were drifting towards a rocky coast just a few miles beyond.
At 3am we were told that the fire was under control. At 5am a more onerous announcement was made. The fire was NOT under control and the order was given to abandon ship. Already there were several British military helicopters in the sky and a battleship not too far off.
Once again we all trekked through even smokier corridors to Deck 4 where the two life boats were located. All the while the ship was listing heavily and gave the impression that at any moment it might topple. Some of the decks we walked through were full of water making me wish I had brought my boots.
The helicopters removed some passengers placing them in little mushroom shaped boats which were later towed to the shore. The rest of us entered the life boats with about 120 in each. I was the last in and found a tiny bit of stair to sit on. As the lifeboat was lowered, the wind forced it to crash heavily into the side of the ship creating much fear.
Once in the sea, the hope was to dock at the back of our sister ship which had just arrived. It was clear however that the high swell of the sea rendered this an impossibility. The decision was made to travel to sheltered water. This was done and took almost five hours. Virtually everyone was ill due to the high waves and motion sickness bags were in all hands. Even the lifeboat driver suffered from it.
After noon, we were able to board our sister ship. Then came many days in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. For the first few days we slept on the sister ship (naturalists on the floor in the spa). After that, passengers were billeted by Islands families and staff were put up at the military barracks. Our baggage finally was retrieved and brought to us on Saturday.
On Sunday morning half of us flew to Chile to begin our journeys home and the other half flew to Paris.
We all owe the captain and his staff a debt of gratitude for the professional manner in which the entire episode was handled!