December 8th to 12th
08.12.2011 - 12.12.2011 2 °C
Day 1 - 8th Dec
At 16.00 hours we met the rest of the Antarctica expedition team at the wharf to be escorted to the Polar Pioneer, our home for the next 12 days.
We quickly settled into our cabin by unpacking and making ourselves at home. Then we navigated the convoluted and sometimes hidden stairways, finding our way around the ship including the bar, dining room and lecture room. We went out on deck and had a lovely view of Ushuaia.
Next was a warm welcome up on the bridge, where we were introduced to the crew and our fellow passengers. There are only 40 passengers this trip, along with 4 Ukrainian Scientists that we will be dropping off in a few days’ time, if we can reach Verdansky.
At 18.00 hours our Russian crew expertly navigated away from the wharf. At last we were under way and headed for much colder climes. The constantly changing landscape of Tierra del Fuego slipped by as we coasted east along the Beagle Channel. While we were still in calm waters we undertook our safety lecture and then had a real life boat drill. The life boats are polar boats so they are totally enclosed. With life jackets on, they loaded us into the life boats and for the full experience started the engines. It was an interesting experience huddling together in the life boat contemplating our survival in case of an emergency dressed in our orange jackets.
After the drill, we watched Giant Petrels and South American Terns following in our wake.
Five hours after our departure a small boat came along side to allow our pilot to climb nimbly down a shaky rope ladder and leave our ship and captain to their own devices. The pilot had been with us for our journey in the Beagle Channel.
Once leaving the Beagle Channel the seas went from calm to rough, although we were told that this was actually good for the Drake Passage. Shane and I popped sea sick tablets and went to bed.
Day 2 – 9th Dec
Despite Polar Pioneer rocking and rolling across the Drake Passage overnight, we awoke to a glorious day of gentle swaying on a relatively calm sea, still, neither of us could tolerate breakfast and stayed in bed. Lesley the ship doctor popped her head in to see if we were ok. Apparently we were not alone as a lot of us had not surfaced for breaky.
We arose midmorning for the great gumboot give away in the lecture room. This allowed us to select from a stylish array of rubber footwear for our land excursions in Antarctica. We then staggered up stairs where the sun was out and the Black-browed Royal and Wandering Albatross wheeled around the ship.
Lectures for the day were on “Seabirds of the Southern Ocean” and “Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean”.
Before dinner we gathered in the bar to toast Captain Aleksandr Evgenov who warmly welcomed us on board. We also enjoyed the opportunity to meet our fellow travellers and sample a glass or two of punch, along with tasty canapés from our talented Australian chefs.
Day 3 – 10th Dec
Feeling better this morning we had a little breakfast with a nice cup of tea.
During the night we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and were then eagerly searching for a sighting of our first iceberg. Of course for a bit of fun there was a competition to guess the time and location of our first iceberg. Our first sighting was at around 3pm. Whilst viewing the iceberg there were dozens of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross wheeling and souring alongside us. There were also Cape Petrels and Wilson’s Storm Petrels soaring really close to the waves.
Our lecture today was on the Antarctic Penguins. There were also 2 compulsory briefings on Zodiac Operations and Environmental guidelines. One of the key points was to ensure that before and after each landing we washed down our gumboots and put them in disinfectant so that we did not carry any germs from landing to landing.
In the afternoon we headed southward towards the South Shetland Islands which were guarded by fortresses of floating ice and Humpback Whales. As we had made such good time surfing across the Drake Passage we had an unplanned stop at Elephant Point on Livingstone Island. We set out for our first landing at 8pm to be back for pick up at 10pm. It felt really weird wandering around in daylight at 10pm. In fact it was still light outside when we finally fell asleep around midnight. At Elephant Point we found ourselves in the company of several hundred Elephant Seals. Most were immature males ashore for their annual moult. Even though they were not mature bulls they were still impressive in size. The sounds and smells were impressive too. Some budding beach masters were bashing at each other like sumo wrestlers, practicing for a few years down the track when they will fight bloodily for their chance to breed and increase the size of their harems.
Gentoo penguins paraded along the beach and over the other side of the island were small nesting mounds with very new born chicks.
What a delightful place to start our adventure. Once back on our ship we headed overnight along the Bransfield Strait to the northern end of the Gerlache Strait.
Day 4 – 11th Dec
We awoke this morning to arrive at our next destination which was Enterprise Island. This was not a landing but a 3 hour zodiac ride around the amazing ice sculptures created through the combined forces of nature.
We were well and truly rugged up in layers like onions, just not as smelly. Firstly our thermals, 3 pairs of socks so our feet didn’t get cold, then a set of clothes, then our waterproof jackets and pants. Beanies, gloves and neck warmers were also required.
As our journey started we heard from another zodiac that there was a leopard seal nearby and there it was a solitary leopard seal with his own ice amphitheatre, and then we saw a lonely crabeater seal.
We came across the relic of an old wooden whaling boat and the rusting burnt out hull of the 1900’s Norwegian whaling boat the 'Governoren' which apparently caught fire one Christmas eve and was run aground, all the crew survived.
Riding around the amazing icebergs was beautiful as the blue palette of ice colours reflected the density of ice.
After lunch we sailed towards Cuverville Island which is book ended between the Artowski Peninsula and Ronge Island. A pebbly beach landing amongst scooting and wave hopping Gentoo’s proved exciting as we scrambled up into the snow between multiple penguin highways.
As wandering expeditioners we walked between busy rookeries seemingly floating in lakes of penguin poo.
With keen eyes we spotted the occasional mating attempt and Gentoo parents constantly fussing over their eggs and nests as Skuas stalked for unguarded eggs and chicks.
Whilst on the island the sun came out and gradually lit the landscape.
In the evening we sailed through the Errera Channel. Once again the weather put on a show. The mountains glowed in sunlight. We stayed up to around midnight to look at the scenery and never ending Antarctic sunset as the sun had still not gone down.
Day 5 – 12th Dec
We woke to a mystical morning and came to anchor at the mouth of the Peltier Channel just off Port Lockroy. Base A, as Port Lockroy was once known, was one of the British bases built for Operation Tabarin during World War II. Through the 1950’s the base operated as a weather and research base, collecting data and contributing to our understanding of the ozone layer. Abandoned in 1962 and left to disrepair until the early nineties, the hut has been painstakingly restored to a museum, post office and shop.
We set off to Jougla Point. It was a grey bleak day and the wind was blowing, very typical Antarctic weather. All rugged up we headed out to brave the elements. At Jougla Point we enjoyed the Gentoo colony and the nesting blue-eyed cormorants and marvelled at the piles of gigantic whale bones.
At Port Lockroy we posted our post cards in the little red British post box, admired the museum and shopped enthusiastically to boost the funds of the British Antarctic Heritage Trust.
We indulged in more Gentoo watching until the wind picked up and the snow started to fall.
We then headed off further down the peninsula. Captain Aleksandr skilfully manoeuvred us down the misty, mountainous and narrow 7 mile long Lemaire Channel. The channel is 0.7 miles at its narrowest and 1 mile at its widest. At the end of the channel we encountered an absolutely fantastic David Attenborough event, a pod of orcas patrolling an iceberg with a couple of seals hugging themselves into the tranquil blue safety of an ice shelf. It was a crabeater and a leopard seal, and even when the pod had left they were reluctant to move.
We could see the Argentine islands but there was an ominous thick band of ice ahead, which we had to break through in order to be able to drop off our Ukrainian guests. The bridge is open to all guests on the ship so we were able to watch in the warmth or first hand at the bow. I chose the bridge and Shane spent some time out in the cold. Slowly and steadily Captain Aleksandr navigated our ice class ship (not an ice breaker) through the ice flows to an open lead where we could drop the zodiacs in and ferry the team and their equipment ashore. It was an exciting moment as we had reached our furthest southerly point at 65o15’S, 16o13’W.
The captain turned our vessel northwards back through the ever thickening ice. This was as far as we could go this time of the year due to the ice. This was also the furthest south this ship had been able to go so far this season.