by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Elka "Nunio" Vasileva

Elka "Nunio" Vasileva becomes first Bulgarian woman to helm boat in Antarctica

elka nunio vasileva (c) PetarSapundzhiev.jpg

Аt 36, Elka Vasileva, whom everyone knows as Nunio (a childhood nickname given to her by her parents that she is particularly proud of because it discerns her from her famous grandmother), is a remarkable woman. At 15 she starred as Snow White in a Christmas sketch. At 19 she graduated the Applied Arts High School in Sofia. She went on to study metal sculpting at the Arts Academy. Four years later she went on a boat with her parents sailing all the way from the Black Sea to the Caribbean and back – in a 30-foot boat, a journey that lasted three years and included crossing the North Atlantic twice. At that time she was in her 20s.

Nunio in action: Negotiating the southern seas © Alexander Nedyalkov

Stints with late Christo, the US artist of Bulgarian origin, in Paris (L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped) and at Lago Iseo in Italy (The Floating Piers) failed to divert Nunio from her two main passions, boating and travelling.

Currently, when it is summertime in the northern hemisphere Elka Vasileva is a... ski instructor in southern Australia, most recently at Hotham Alpine Resort. And when winter comes, she goes to the, well, summery climes of... Livingston Island in the South Shetlands, Antarctica. This is where the Bulgarian Antarctic base is located and this is where Nunio drives a Zodiac boat as part of the Bulgarian Antarctic expedition.

The Isle of Livingston False Bay from Cerro Mirador, after some strenuous snowmobiling followed by rock climbing

A diminutive and ostensibly fragile woman, Elka Vasileva demonstrates remarkable resolution to accomplish maritime tasks that take years to master. Her job is to skipper the zodiac on a daily basis and bring scientists with varied interests to at times remote bays, beaches and rock stacks for them to take their probes at. Sometimes there are unexpected storms, sometimes there are killer whales in the distance. Mostly, this has to be done in the unchartered – and icy – waters of the Southern Ocean. Safety and security come first for Elka, who has gained the reputation of a strict but fair logistics expert who makes cool-headed decisions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Navigating around the Antarctic icebergs

As anyone who has spent more than a few hours at sea, Elka Vasileva has her fears. But, significantly, they are all related to things beyond her control. One is the doldrums, the areas in the Atlantic Ocean where thunderstorms come and go within minutes and you are bound inside a boat while high-voltage electricity literally rains upon you from every side. Another involves the leopard seals, a frequent sight in the southern seas. They can get aggressive. The orcas usually do not approach but, being one of the largest living animals on the planet, they command respect, even from a distance.

A waddle of penguins

For Elka the biggest challenge, at least initially, was not the weather and the remoteness, but the need to get along with a small but dedicated team of people, all very different in their areas of interest but equally united in their determination to do their jobs correctly and on time.

In Antarctica do not make plans, warns Elka. The weather can change within minutes and you may end up somewhere and not be able to return. So, it is important to have had a good breakfast!

The Bulgarian polar ship St Cyril and Methodius

Nunio with Professor Hristo Pimpirev, who has directed the Bulgarian expeditions to Antarctica since 1993


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