Antarctic Classic Expedition Log: 3 February - 13 February, 2007
Ushuaia, Argentina – Feb. 3
Position: 54°49’S/68°18’W Temperature: Air 7° C; Water 8° C Wind: Beaufort 2 Sunny skies
An astonishing amount of shipping tonnage littered the quayside and the harbour as the passengers approached the “Little Red Ship” for boarding. Upon arrival, everyone was gradually relieved of their passport and shown to their cabins, then ushered into the forward lounge where drink and sandwiches awaited. Free to wander, many took to the sundeck above the bridge for the best views of our departure. Stephen called a meeting of introduction to the staff and the ship and then immediately after, we slipped our lines and with three blasts on the ships whistle set off astern from the quay. Ushuaia receded into the distance as we listened intently to the Captain describe the procedures for our emergency drill and shortly afterwards the general alarm was sounded and with much hustle and bustle we all arrived in the lecture theatre clutching our large orange life-jackets. The safety officer Santiago gave an explanation of the procedure and then everyone made for one of the open lifeboats for familiarisation.
Dinner was served as we passed Puerto William on the Chilean island of Navarino and the Estancia Harberton on the Argentinean coast of Tierra del Fuego, both glowing in the evening sunshine. The Argentinean pilot was dropped at the mouth of the Beagle Channel around 2130 and we steamed out of the Beagle Channel, named after the ship, captained by Robert Fitzroy which transported Charles Darwin to these parts in the 1830’s. We were bound for the great white continent!
Drake Passage – Feb. 4
Noon Position 57° 26’S 064° 04’W Temperature: Air 7° C; Sea 5° C Wind: West Beaufort Force 6
A rolling night after we left the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel but nevertheless the attendance at breakfast showed that our passengers had a relatively good constitution as the Explorer rolled and pitched her way southwards into waters named after the Elizabethan privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake. The winds gradually moderated during the morning and by mid afternoon the swell, which at times had reached heights of 5 metres or more, gradually moderated and swung round to the stern quarter, which made the motion much easier.
Our programme of lectures started with an introduction to seabirds of the southern ocean by Chris Cutler who illustrated and described some of the seabirds, particularly the albatrosses and petrels, which would likely be encountered during our crossing of these stormy seas. Heidi’s introduction to the choosing and using of binoculars was followed by a move to the pool deck where hardly any birds were to be seen probably due to the light winds. Just before lunch the staff gave a quick overview of the trip and some of the places and things that we may expect to see including whales, birds, geology, vegetation and history. After lunch Shannon gave a detailed account of some of the marine mammals in these regions and then after tea Christopher Gilbert (Gilbo) gave a masterful account of the early history of the realization and discovery of Antarctica. The film after dinner was a compilation of the BBC Life in the Freezer series, which gives a good introduction to the Antarctic.
Drake Passage to Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands - Feb. 5
Noon Position: 61°44’S 057°15’W Penguin Is: 62°06’S 57°33’W Temperature: Air 4° C; Sea 1° C Wind: Southwest, Force 3
The sea continued to moderate through the night making it comfortable by breakfast time. Stephen’s wake up call at 0730 advised us that we had just crossed the Antarctic Convergence as the water temperature had just reached as low as 2°C. Minke whales had been spotted and the bird life was more abundant than had been the case yesterday, before we reached this biological boundary. After breakfast, the few lucky people on deck saw two fin whales quite close to the ship and chinstrap penguins in the water – we knew that land must be close! Shortly afterwards three hourglass dolphins were also spotted.
The morning lecture programme commenced with a geological exposition of the Antarctic Peninsula as a volcanic mountain range from Chris Edwards aka Rocky. This was followed shortly afterwards by Stephen’s lecture on our Zodiac operations and the mandatory I.A.A.T.O. (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefing, where we learned how to be ‘boat-safe’ and how to behave properly in penguin country. Before lunch Chris Dolder gave us a short talk on using your camera in Antarctica. Meanwhile outside the fog had closed in, making bird and mammal observations very difficult. Lunch proved to be the turning point in the weather, which cleared to give a bright and sunny start to the afternoon with King George Island, part of the South Shetland Islands appearing out of the mist. Shannon gave us a lecture on some of the pinnipeds we might encounter and soon afterwards, the cry of whales had everyone rushing for a vantage point on the sundeck or on the bow. Two groups of whales were blowing and the Captain manoeuvred the ship to approach the first group, which promptly disappeared but not before we had fairly confidently identified the group as the rare Southern Bottlenose whale. We then repositioned to approach a pair of humpback whales who, quite unconcerned by our presence, provided a perfect couple of fluke photographs only a short distance from the ship.
The weather continued fine as we approached Penguin Island, which lies on the southeastern side of King George Island. This island was sighted and named by a British expedition under Edward Bransfield in 1820 who presumably espied large numbers of penguins on the island. Indeed bones of penguins have been found buried in the moss banks on the island which may indicate that penguins were once more numerous here. Geologically the island is exciting because of the extremely fresh cone-shaped volcanic peak (Deacon Peak) as well as an explosive vent to the north-east which is often filled with water and surrounded by large blocks of material ejected by the volcanic explosion. The island is likely only about 1000 years old which is very young! There are Chinstrap Penguins on the northern side and Adélies reported to be on the inaccessible southern side, although after a circumnavigation of the island, none of our intrepid explorers found any. There are also Giant Petrels and Wilson Storm Petrels in rock crevices, Antarctic terns, Skuas and Kelp Gulls also breed here. Elephant, Fur and Weddell Seals occasionally haul out. The vegetation is a microcosm of Antarctic botany with both Antarctic flowering plants present (Antarctic Hair Grass and Antarctic Pearlwort) as well as extensive moss beds. Lichens are abundant with Usnea sphacelata common attached to rocks exposed to wind on the upper slopes of Deacon Peak.
We passed an impressive piece of ice christened the Half Pipe on account of its shape and anchored on the eastern side of Penguin Island. We were keen to get ashore after our days at sea to experience Antarctica!. The landing was on to a boulder beach with suitably camouflaged Antarctic fur seals, whalebones from the days when whalers utilised only the blubber and chinstrap penguins. Shortly after we arrived, a three-man team from the Polish Arçtowski Station in Admiralty Bay pulled up alongside us on the beach intent on carrying out a topographical survey. Almost everyone headed along the beach towards the chinstrap penguins at the end of the beach taking care to avoid the fur seals but marvelling at the ice cliff on King George Island and the artefacts on the beach. Gilbo and Rocky took a group up the hill towards the summit of Deacon Peak, some 170 metres. This volcanic cone is composed largely of ash and so the walking was easy as we meandered our way to the top for a superb view over the island and the surrounding area. Many completed a circuit around the cone and then headed back to lower slopes and the penguins.
The Captain’s Welcome Cocktails just before dinner was an opportunity to informally meet the Captain who said a few words of welcome to the assembled company with a glass of bubbly. After dinner, an impromptu singsong developed in the forward lounge.
Devil Island and Brown Bluff, Antarctic Sound – Feb. 6
Devil Island: 63°47’S 57°18’W Brown Bluff: 63°32’S 56°55’W Temperature: Air 2°C; Sea -1°C Wind: Northwest, Force 2 Weather: overcast to sunny.
Early risers (some earlier than others) may have seen a watery dawn at around 0430 with an overcast sky but calm conditions. The Explorer made her way down Antarctic Sound (named after Nordenskjöld’s 1901-04 Swedish South Polar Expedition ship) and into Erebus and Terror Gulf (named after the two vessels of James Clark Ross’s expedition who explored these waters in 1842-3). Icebergs of all shapes and hues of blue littered the route and caused various changes in course. We marvelled especially at the massive flat-topped tabular bergs derived from the ice shelves of the Weddell Sea, some of which reached “airport” sizes. Snow petrels and the occasional minke whale were also spotted. As we approached Devil Island, our landing for the morning, the seas were flat calm and sprinkled with many bits of brash, growlers, bergy bits and bergs. The twin peaks, which gave the island its name, were first described and named by the Nordenskjöld expedition. Our landing was onto a very narrow beach and immediately a walk up the steep slope to a position above the noisy colony of Adélie penguins. Antarctic skuas were also in attendance. Everyone spread out behind the colony to watch the antics of the penguins, including the feeding chases and the various stages of moult in the chicks, almost ready to head off to sea. The more energetic climbed the western peak of the island, which is entirely of volcanic origin. Some passengers had a circum-island tour by zodiac and managed to spot Weddell and crabeater seals on the floating ice, and everyone had a chance to see icebergs en route back to the ship.
During lunch, the ship retraced her route back across the gulf and into Antarctic Sound towards Brown Bluff. As we approached the landing site, the floating ice increased and we began to notice significant numbers of leopard seals on the floating ice near the anchorage. A decision was made to split the landing into two with half the group zodiac cruising for an hour while the others enjoyed the Gentoo and Adélie penguins on shore. The young Adélies were slightly more advanced than those at Devil Island and many had already made the move to floating ice off the beach. These birds were presumably the target of the many leopard seals many of which were lazing about on the floes or in the water attempting to catch and eat a tasty penguin. Several of the zodiac cruises witnessed seals dismembering and devouring penguins while others saw as many as eight leopard seals on the same floe surrounding several dozen penguins. The fog which had been lingering half way down the cliff at Brown Bluff, obscuring the geological evidence of this young (<1 million year) volcano, finally rolled in at sea level and precipitated an end to the zodiac cruising and everyone was returned to the ship to warm up. Just before dinner, a short recapitulation (recap) relived some of the excitement of the day, in particular the leopard seals and the penguins!
In the evening serious entertainment ensued with Chris Cutler as the Master of Ceremonies, performing some acrobatics clad in tights emulating Mr Incredible. This was the warm-up act for a session of “Call my ANTARCTIC Bluff” where Christopher Gilbert, Heidi and Chris Dolder provided spurious or otherwise incredible explanations for a variety of Antarctic slang words. The winning team of Anglo- Dutch Friends otherwise known as the Brown Bluffers shared a bottle of champagne after an amusing evening.
Gerlache Strait, Enterprise Island, Foyn Harbour & Port Lockroy – Feb 7
Foyn Harbour: 64°33’S 61°60’W Port Lockroy: 64° 49’S 63°30’W Temperature: Air 2°C; Sea -1°C Wind: Southwest Force 4 Weather: clear skies and sunshine!
The morning started very early for some with a sunrise deck watch, and they were rewarded with several blows. Before breakfast we approached a pod of three humpbacks and slowed the ship. Stephen made an early wake up call and almost everyone appeared on deck for a spectacular view of around six humpbacks intent on having a krill breakfast. We also witnessed bubble netting, a technique that humpbacks employ to concentrate krill. In the distance, several other pods were also busy feeding. The surrounding mountains added to the scene in the early morning sunshine and we departed after nearly an hour with the whales. The weather continued to improve with the cloud lifting to reveal the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula rising to 4-5000 feet on our port hand. Just before 1000 we passed a sailing yacht close-hauled and reefed down as she made her way down the Gerlache Strait in a fresh breeze.
The wind was still a bit fresh as the ship anchored off Nansen Island. All the zodiacs were put in the water and initially we headed westwards towards a small snow- covered dome, which had a black speck on its summit. Eagle-eyed ornithologist Chris had spotted the penguin from the ship and a rapid recon prior to boarding passengers had confirmed that it was indeed a rare EMPEROR penguin! Although we could not get very close, everyone confirmed this great sighting, which was probably a first year bird in a moulting phase. The zodiacs moved off to explore this archipelago and everyone had different experiences, but most saw the evidence of the whaling era in the form of water boats, ruined huts and anchoring posts. The wreck of the Guvernøren, a whaling factory ship which caught fire in 1916, was beached in a small cove. To contrast this hulk was a modern yacht Australis, moored alongside the wreck with some intrepid climbers playing on the snow nearby. A long run back to the ship lying in Gerlache Strait got everyone back in time for lunch and we departed southwards heading for Port Lockroy in brilliant sunshine.
A pair of humpback whales passed just as we slowed the ship to effect a repair to a fuel pump on one of the main engines in brilliant sunny weather in the middle of the Gerlache Strait. While we waited there, the Laurence M. Gould, an American research vessel, passed up the strait ahead of us, and a minke whale passed astern of us. Mount Français, the highest peak at 2760metres (9052 feet) beckoned on Anvers Island with its cloud banner, as Brabant Island lay on our starboard hand. The visibility was excellent.
The weather just continued to get better and better as we navigated the narrow waterway of the Neumayer Channel (discovered by a German expedition in 1874) and rounded Damoy Point to approach Port Lockroy. Gasps of incredulity from some as perhaps they were expecting dockyard cranes, neon lights and a bustling port. Instead we had black with red detailing on Bransfield House and the smaller boat shed on a very small island surrounded by high peaks (Mount Luigi, one of the Fief Mountains rises to 4400 feet, and Jabet Peak is just above the base hut). The Scottish saltire temporarily replaced the house flag on the jack staff at the bow. Even before we anchored we had a zodiac in the water to collect the base team who look after Port Lockroy museum and the post office during the summer months so we could bring onboard Explorer for dinner. The sheltered harbour of Port Lockroy was first named by Charcot in 1907 after Edouard Lockroy (LaCroix) who helped finance the expedition. However the harbour was well known to whalers before this date, as they used the sheltered anchorage while they flensed their catches. Evidence of this usage is found in the whalebones found in the harbour and onshore. The hut on Goudier Island was established initially in 1943 as part of a secret wartime mission codenamed “Operation Tabarin”. After the war the operation of the base was handed over to the British Colonial Office to be operated as a scientific base, and this continued in operation until 1962 when the work was transferred to another base on the Argentine Islands some 50 miles further south. Observations made here included the early ionospheric work, which led to the discovery of the depletion in the ozone layer above Antarctica. The base hut is surrounded by gentoo penguins and is home also to sheathbills and skuas.
Rick Atkinson, the base leader, gave a presentation about the history of the base since its inception through the scientific phase during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. After an early dinner everyone was taken ashore either to Goudier Island and the site of Port Lockroy for some retail therapy and the opportunity to look round the hut as well as gaze at the Gentoo penguins which surround the building and cover the island; or to Jougla Point where there are more Gentoo penguins as well as skeletal remains of several large whales. The evening light was just perfect with a pink/red flaming sky just after sunset. Back on board the hotel department had thoughtfully supplied chocolate in solid and liquid form as a nightcap. The ship remained at anchor until the early hours of the morning before departing southwards.
Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island and Danco Island – Feb 8
Pleneau Island: 65°06’S 64°02’W Danco Island: 64°43’S 62°35’W Temperature: Air 6°C; Sea -1°C Wind calm
As the ship arrived at the northern entrance of Lemaire Channel for our transit of this narrow waterway we were all out on deck for the spectacular scenery. What had started with a cloudy morning gave way as the day progressed to clear blue skies and little wind. With the Lemaire Channel behind us we had reached our most southerly point of the trip at 65°07’S 064°01’W. One group put ashore at Pleneau Island, named after Paul Pleneau who was the photographer with Jean Charcot who, in 1903 wintered his ship the Français at Port Charcot just north of our anchorage position. The others had a zodiac cruise round icebergs grounded in the bay just to the north, a place that has been dubbed “Iceberg Alley”. Sleeping crabeater seals and perhaps even a fleeting sight of a minke whale competed with the desire to photograph some of the fantastic shapes in the ‘bergs which littered the bay. Those onshore on scoured Pleneau Island (once covered by glacial ice, which polished the very hard rock into the rounded shapes now present) sat and watched and listened to the Gentoo penguins or just soaked up the scenery and the sunshine.
Our return journey through the Lemaire Channel with the spectacular scenery now bathed in glorious sunshine. During the afternoon, the weather continued bright and sunny with occasional patches of stronger wind, which, by the time we arrived at the next location had died to a manageable 5-10 knots. We rounded the southern end of Rongé Island into the Errera Channel and approached an anchorage at the northern end of Danco Island, a rounded dome-shaped island set amid stunning scenery. Everyone was ashore onto a rock beach and many chose to scramble up the rocky slope to view the surrounding area from the top of the hill some 170 metres above sea level. The sky by this time had become cloudless, the towering peaks of the peninsula stood out clearly, and visibility was in excess of 30 miles. The Gentoo penguins were scattered about in small colonies towards the higher ground, although one bird had chosen to nest on the lower ground near the site of the old Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey Base “O”. This penguin still had fairly young chicks and it will be touch and go as to whether these chicks will make it to maturity before the winter comes and the adults have to abandon them before having to go to sea to feed before undergoing the annual moult.
With everyone aboard, we weighed anchor and headed north passing some of the finest mountains in the glorious low light of the early evening. The few people on deck and those on the starboard side of the dining room were able to witness a couple of humpback whales completing a feeding dive surfacing with jaws agape. With clear skies persisting everyone was encouraged to come out onto the pool deck and enjoy the sunset as it sank behind Anvers Island.
Deception Island and Half Moon Island, South Shetlands – Feb 9
Whalers Bay, Deception Island: 62°59’S 60°02’W Half Moon Island: 62°35’S 59°27’W Temperature: Air 3°C; Sea 0°C Wind: Southwest Force 3
Deception Island is a volcanic island, which is still active. Its last eruption was in 1969 and before that 1967. Port Foster is the flooded caldera which is navigable and entered through a narrow entrance called Naptune’s Bellows. The island was in use since the early 19th century and ever since has been a port of refuge in a storm-tossed Bransfield Strait. In more recent times a whaling station was established at the head of Whalers Bay and was operational from 1911-1931. The factory ceased and was abandoned in 1931. In 1944 a secret British wartime operation (Operation Tabarin, named after a Paris nightclub) established a base at Deception (and also a base at Port Lockroy) to monitor enemy shipping and this was the forerunner of the current British Antarctic Survey, the main British Antarctic science organisation. The BAS hut, utilising one of the original whaling station buildings, was partially destroyed during the 1969 eruption when a wall of water, ice and stones removed part of the back and front walls of the hut and buried much of the surrounding area in about 6 feet of ash. An early morning approach through Neptune’s Bellows, brought the Explorer into Port Foster and we anchored in Whalers Bay off the remains of the ruined whaling station. Everyone was landed on the cinder-strewn beach adjacent to the disintegrating floating dock structure, which now lies at a drunken angle on the beach. Some chose to walk to the gap in the caldera wall known as Neptune’s Window for a view towards the Bransfield Strait and potentially to the Antarctic Peninsula. The debris of the whaling era persists along the shore in the form of oak barrel and staves, water boats and whalebones. The boilers and digesters of the factory where whales were processed between 1911 and 1931 remain as rusting remnants of that period. Towards the end of the landing, a large number of hardy souls bared their flesh to the searing winds whipping the spray off the waves in Whalers Bay and competing with the Cape Petrels who were wheeling in the bay, took a plunge into the waters. Fortunately the heroic efforts of some of the staff had constructed a deep pit, at the bottom of which was a modicum of warm waters. This water was heated by the same subterranean forces which had created the volcanic island and allowed the intrepid bathers to warm up briefly before dressing and making rapidly for the ship and a warm shower! Meanwhile the skuas continued their meandering along the shoreline harvesting the par-boiled krill washed up on the tide line.
Our departure from Deception Island deposited us back into a rolling sea as the wind swept down the Bransfield Strait. We headed for the shelter of the South Shetland Islands and Half Moon Island, which lies tucked in between Livingston Island and Nelson Island.
The welcoming party on a cobble beach on Half Moon Island consisted largely of fur seals with the occasional chinstrap penguin whose colony was situated on the ridge above. A short walk round a rocky eminence gave a flavour of most of the island and terns, gull and skuas as well as penguins, seals and a profusion of lichens gave colour to the spectacular scenery. Overhead tails of cirrus clouds gave detail to the sky. A longish walk along fossil beach ridges composed of graded pebbles of various hues brought many to the Argentinean Camara Station where we were welcomed and able to purchase various gift items. All too soon, our last landing was over and with a last photo of a penguin and last sniff of the air we were aboard and heading eastwards to pass through English Strait to enter the Drake Passage en route for Ushuaia. A group photo in the afternoon sun was held on the Pool Deck as a memento. As the ship cleared Table Island the effect of the gentle roll characteristic of the Drake Passage became evident.
Drake Passage – Feb. 10
Noon Position: 59°30’S 063° 18’W Temperature: Air 6°C; Sea 3°C Wind: Northwest Force 7
During the night the seas had increased slightly and so breakfast was a fairly lively affair, but during the day the seas increased and the swell measured at around 5-6 metres (although for the story you could say it was 7-9 metres!!). This meant that the turnout for the lectures during the day and meals was somewhat depleted. Nevertheless Chris (Birdy) gave a retrospective account of penguins, Chris (Rocky) talked about ice in its myriad forms, Shannon gave an insight into what whale could be seen (on a good day) as we crossed the Drake Passage. Christopher (Gilbo) gave an interesting account of the “other side” of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition i.e. the Ross Sea Shore party who had some epic adventures equal to those experienced by the men on Elephant Island. In the evening a film shot in 1929 graphically illustrated what it had been like to “round the Horn” in a sailing vessel in an “A1, top class” storm. The lounge was fairly deserted this evening as the weather continued to give an uncomfortable motion to the ship.
Beagle Channel – Feb. 11
Noon Position: 55°05’S 66°38’W Temperature: Air 11°C; Sea 7°C Wind: Southwest Force 2
The weather gods had been kind to us during the night and the seas had abated so that breakfast was well attended. The skies turned blue as we approached the eastern end of the Beagle Channel and around 1300 we picked up the pilot for the transit of this waterway. The Beagle Channel was named for the ship H.M.S. Beagle, captained by Robert Fitzroy that carried Charles Darwin during the time he formulated his ideas for The Origin of Species by Natural Selection. The Beagle and its crew spent months investigating the natural history and the peoples of Tierra del Fuego in the early 1830s.
In the morning Chris Cutler gave a disturbing account of the dramatic loss of albatrosses due to long-line fishing and how it can be mitigated. Chris (Rocky) gave an account of his life when in the Antarctic using huskies as a prime means of transport. Immediately after lunch, we had a disembarkation briefing and a final recap of the trip and concluded it with a short slide show illustrating some of the aspects of the trip.
During our transit of the Beagle Channel in glorious warm sunshine, a blow of a humpback was spotted ahead and despite slowing the ship, we did not see the whale again. Magellanic penguins were also in large groups on the still sea surrounding Explorer. During the late afternoon, Christopher (Gilbo) gave another polished performance partly in person and partly as a recording of two stories of the heroic age of polar exploration. Explorer tied up alongside in Ushuaia shortly after 1800 once our berth had been vacated. The evening entertainment included the Captain’s cocktail farewell and the highlight was the auction on behalf of the Save the Albatross fund. We raised over $6800 US dollars for this worthy cause – Thank you!!
Ushuaia, Argentina – Feb. 12
Position: 54°49’S/68°18’W Temperature: Air 8° C; Water 8° C Wind: Beaufort 2
With bags packed and outside cabins breakfast was a mixture of excitement and sadness. We disembarked to go our separate ways with memories of penguins and ice staying with us.
Thank you for travelling with G.A.P Adventures. We hope to see you again some day soon on the Explorer, north or south, or somewhere in between.