Monday, February 11, 2013

Drake Passage and Cape Horn

The foggy weather of yesterday was replaced today with mostly blue skies.  Elegant albatross sailed in the air around the ship.  Some would say that the Wandering Albatross is the most majestic bird in all of the oceans of the world.  I would tend to agree.  Throughout the day we were accompanied by these stately sea birds.
We were scheduled to arrive at Cape Horn at 15:00 but with the near perfect sea conditions we were a mere 1.5 nautical miles off the most infamous nautical landmark in the southern ocean by 14:00.  With todays great visibility we could clearly see the statue that was erected in memory of all of the sailors that lost their lives when rounding the Horn.

 As usual on our north bound Drake Passage days we filled the day with bridge visits and lectures. And as now is the custom on board Fram we held our charity auction in the Observation Lounge at 16:00.  $2000 USD was raised which will go towards the charities; Bird Life International, Falkland Islands Conservation, The South Georgia Heritage Trust and The Antarctic Heritage Trust.

In the early evening Dominic previewed the superb images he has been taking throughout the expedition in the Framheim Hall. 

Our grand adventure to Antarctica was coming to completion.   We had, it seemed, experienced a little bit of everything.  We experienced the raw nature of the South Shetland Islands and explored all the way south of the Antarctic Circle. Countless times we were surrounded by ice.  We witnessed icebergs in all shapes and sizes. We saw majestic landscapes that filled our minds with wonder.  We encountered Humpback, Minke and Fin Whales, six species of penguins and four species of seals and several encounters with Antarctic Fur Seals.  Our experiences are too many to list but this had certainly been an experience of a lifetime that none of us will ever forget.


As the morning passed the seas calmed and the fog came and went.  The morning was full of activities, visits to the bridge, were the captain gave a mini lecture on the different attributes of the vessel.  The bridge visits were followed by another series of lectures.  At mid-morning a full scale emergency drill was ongoing – but nothing was going to stop the lectures.

Early afternoon after our lunch the lecture series continued and two other groups went to visit the bridge. There was a nice break with waffles and coffee in the Panorama Lounge. 

 Later we had an expedition recap where passengers had the opportunity to ask to the expedition staff questions and clarify our thoughts on wildlife, sightings and observations.
As we looked through the windows looking for bird, but we found that nothing was here, nothing was there and nothing was anywhere. We felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere going nowhere.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Today we spent the entire day at Deception Island.  In the early part of the 19thcentury sealers were unaware of the existence of the entrance to the hidden flooded caldera. They called it Deception Island when they discovered that it contained a very conveniently-sheltered harbour, Port Foster.

Navigating the entrance is always a little bit tricky as several unlucky ships have discovered that there is a rock hidden just beneath the surface and just off centre.  It behooves a navigator to choose his course with care when navigating the entrance to the caldera which aptly called Neptune’s Bellows.

We breezed on by Port Foster and continued deeper in the caldera to Telefon Bay where we dropped anchor at approximately 08:00.    Our plan was to hike up a gentle slope to the rim of a crater and then to hike all the way around the rim.   However even the best laid plans are often foiled by the weather gods of Antarctica. Low dense clouds covered the highest parts of the crater putting an end to the circuit.  Instead we were able to hike on both sides of the rim and proceed half way around from either direction.  The views from the top were largely of fog but from time to time a rent would appear in the mist revealing much of the flooded caldera of Deception Island. Across from the landing site six Crabeater Seals lay hauled out on the beach.  They offered another fine photo-op en route back to the ship.

In the afternoon at 14:00 we dropped anchor at Port Foster in Whaler’s Bay beside the old whaling station. Deception Island is geothermally active.  Huge clouds of steam arose from the beach.  A strong smell of sulphur permeated the air.  If you put your hand in the wet sand along the water’s edge it was very warm.  Cool!  Er... warm!

The fog continued to pulse in and out.  Patches of blue sky would tantalizingly appear for a few brief seconds and then just as quickly disappear.  Our plan at Port Foster was to offer a much longer hike to a very well known Chinstrap colony called Baily Head on the outside of the island.  Sixty four people had signed up for the much anticipated hike.  But the fog!  The fog put the kibosh on that plan too!  Still, despite the fog there is plenty to do and see at Port Foster. Manuel lead the way up to Neptune’s window where the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer first sited Antarctica.   Rudolph lead another group in the opposite direction past the remains of the old whaling station to the airplane hangar. 

Before heading back to the ship, many passengers opted to take a  Polar Plunge.  While the water is somewhat warmer inside the caldera especially at low tide along the shoreline (because it is heated geothermally) somewhat warmer is a very relative term.  The shock that registered on just about everyone’s face as they hit the icy water attested to that cold fact!

Now we are headed north on the north side of the Bransfield Strait and will soon make our way to Drake Passage.  We are enveloped in a heavy blanket of fog.  

Saturday, February 9, 2013

What goes up came down

We woke up with a slight rain but soon it cleared up.  Our landing this morning was Base Brown and Argentinean base that was abandoned for a while and now is under repair.  
We meet some of the summer crew that is doing the work at this place.  The site is home of a couple of hundreds Gentoo Penguins.  The small colony had well grown chicks most of them in good health.  Many of us went into a hike up the 80 meters snow covered hill were we had a magnificent view of Paradise Harbour a real paradise.  The more adventurous one went up and came down the hill in a nice and fast slide. 

After the fun in the snow we went to the landing site and all of us went for a polar circle boat ride.  There we observed a Leopard Seal, many penguins and some saw even whales -- what a way to start the day.
In the afternoon we divided the landing in two places Jougla point and the ex-British Base, base“A”.  The first landing was at Jugula – here we visited a medium size Gentoo Penguin Colony and a small size Blue-eye Cormorant colony, both colonies contained medium to well grown chicks.

In Jougla point not only we saw the birds but also a couple of Wedell seals.  Right after Jougla we went to visit base “A” or better known as Port Locroy, a museum and a nice souvenir shop, were we had the opportunity to buy some souvenir for our love ones.  As the evening settle down we sailed to our next destination that would be on Deception Island.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Fish Islands

At 12:00 we were ready to make a landing at the Fish Islands. The weather continued to be mild with an afternoon high of 2˚C. The sky was a uniform grey and once again we were blessed with very little wind. Several large icebergs surrounded the landing site as well as a lot of brash ice.

 The island we landed on doesn’t have a name and probably isn’t much more than 100 metres in diameter but it supports a thriving Adelie Penguin colony. The Expedition Team laid out a path with orange traffic cones that led us all the way around the island. The chicks were quite large and indeed some of them had completely lost their down and had proper feathers. It wouldn’t be long, just a matter of days before they ventured out for their first plunge in the ocean. This is also the time of year when the adults start to moult. Many penguins were obviously moulting and lots of feathers were strewn on the ground.

This colony was rather wet and muddy. Being located on more or less solid rock there is no drainage. Combine that with mild weather and rain and lots of fully grown chicks and adult penguins defecating everywhere and well... there were quagmire like areas that were, shall we say, rather pungent. On a large ice floe close to shore, we could could see a large Leopard Seal. It obviously wasn’t bothered by the Polar Cirkel boats going to and from the ship. By 16:00 we were all wrapped up on shore. We heaved anchor and headed north once again. As we departed The Fish Islands we encountered two Humpback whales. We stopped and o-o-o-h-h-ed and a-a-a-h-h-ed for awhile and then continued on toward's tomorrow’s destinations, Almirante Brown and Port Lockroy!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The why not day

After picking up the campers at Horseshoe we set out for a little exploration in the northern part of Marguerite Bay. Marguerite Bay is a large bay in which to the south is the Wordie Ice Shelf and to the north is Adelaide Island. Along the bay we saw several tabular icebergs all of which originated from the Wordie Ice Shelf, although some ice from glaciers was also present.

We started the day with a bit of soft snow fall. Our exploration started at Pourquoi Pas Island (or the Why Not Island) we landed at Bongrain Point, a Fram first. It was the first time at that site not only for passengers but also for staff as well. The site contained a small colony of about 700 breeding pairs of Adélie Penguins, and literally hundreds of skuas around the colony. Some skuas were breeding as well and had small nestlings that were cute and cuddly.  The penguin colony contained many well grown chicks and some were ready to go to sea. Also there were many adults at different stages of moulting. The key to distinguish the young from the adult Adélie Penguins is in the throat: young will have white while the adults have black throats. Around the colony several Fur Seals were found, and some were very grumpy.

As it was the "why not day", during the afternoon we continued with explorations of Marguerite Bay and we decided to go to Jenny Island. Jenny was another unknown site for us. There we found several seals including large numbers of Elephant Seals. We attempted unsuccessful landings at several sites but there were too many rocks and heavy swells for the Polar Circle boats to handle. However, we managed to do a landing in a corner of a large cobble beach. Slightly higher above the beach, the island was covered with Fur Seals and the large swells restricted us to a small area, but we succeeded in observing Elephant Seals and some Fur Seals.

Island hopping: Stonington and Horseshoe

Another superlative day!  There was between 10 and 15 knots of wind blowing with scattered sunshine.  Temperatures hovered near the freezing point and just above.
Our first landing was at Stonington Island at 09:00. 

There was lots of time to explore the various buildings in both the old British Base “E” and the former American East Base.  A handful of squawking Adelie penguins seemed to wander aimlessly about the island.
The scenery was stunning (as it always is down here).  A large glacier loomed immediately behind the island.  We were able to witness a couple of minor ice calvings. The sounds of “white thunder” periodically punctuated the sonic landscape at Stonington.

Our second landing of the day was at Horseshoe Island at 16:30.  We had plenty of time to muse through the old buildings at Base Y.  The base is in fantastic condition. There was plenty of canned food (long past the expiry date!) lining the shelves.  There were dishes, tools, radio equipment, snow shoes, books and numerous other items spread throughout the building.  It seemed as if the former occupants had just got up and left the day before.

Several Skuas watched our every step as they fiercely guarded their chicks.  Quite a few of us were dive bombed by attacking Skuas.  We soon learned where we could and could not go!

This was also where 14 lucky people spent the night on shore in tents.  It was perfect weather for the camping enthusiasts.  All of the participants returned to the ship for dinner after the afternoon landing and then went back on shore at 21:30 for their night south of the Circle!