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Happy New Year! 2019 welcomed us with calm seas, blue skies, fantastic colours and stunning landscape wrapped all around the ship. In the early morning, Ortelius was sailing in the Gerlache Strait towards our first destination in Antarctica, Cuverville Island. Some of us hadn’t even gone to bed while others were a bit late for breakfast which, admittedly, was rather early for a New Year’s Day. Then again, how often does one get to celebrate the start of a new year in Antarctica? So, to breakfast we went then we layered up, put on our lifejackets and headed out to the gangway where the Zodiacs were already waiting for us.
Our first Zodiac ride was an exciting one – with lots of beautiful icebergs to look at, plenty of penguins porpois-ing and glaciated mountains to both sides of the channel. On shore, the welcoming committee was already waiting: several Gentoo penguins and a lone Adelie penguin which is quite an unusual sight in this spot. The guides had marked paths for us to walk on, some of which we shared with the penguins who of course had the right of way, leading to the different parts of one of the largest Gentoo colonies on the Antarctic Penin-sula. Sights, sounds, scents – it was overwhelming, and some of us just found themselves a spot to sit, watch, and enjoy while others trekked from site to site to see all of it. The kayakers came paddling into the bay while the mountaineers had gone to the neighbouring island of Rongé to make their way up a snow ledge to gain fantastic views of the ice-clogged waters with icy peaks in the background. Way too soon it was time to return to the ship.
While we were having lunch, Ortelius relocated to our afternoon landing spot, and the calm weather of the morning only got better: The sun came out, and we were looking at fantastic conditions for a landing on the outside of Orne Harbour. The mountaineers were the first ones to go for Spigot Peak, then the kayakers set out all the while two Humpback whales surfaced and swam and fed quite close to the ship and, after a short Zodiac ride, we all set foot on the continent of Antarctica! The snowshoe trail was a bit steep and felt a tad slippery in places but we were about as determined to go up to the colony or the viewpoint as were the Chinstrap penguins making their way from nesting spots down to the water or the other way around. It was amazingly warm in the sun, and it was hard to decide where to look first: at the Chinstraps with the first chicks appearing under the bellies of the parents, or at the scenery of Orne Harbour with huge glaci-ers and a lot of ice, or outwards over the Gerlache Strait where the kayakers were with the whales now. Only the mountaineers could possibly have had an even better view than us from their summit, and it was not an easy job at all for the guides to get us back to the ship in time!
Yet the first day of the new year had more in store for us. On the way to our camping spot, a pod of Orcas appeared, and they even seemed to be interested in two Humpbacks, possibly a mother with calf. Unfortu-nately, we could not linger to watch the scene unfold further but it was great to get some good views of those fascinating marine mammals. Shortly after 21:00 we reached Doumer Island where the campers went ashore for their first night out in Antarctica – and it could not have been a better spot nor a better night, for the light was glorious, there was hardly any wind, and the surroundings with the Seven Sisters and Jabet Peak towering over the islands were breath-taking. Small wonder some people got hardly any sleep at all but kept taking it all in, photographically or otherwise. Meanwhile, Ortelius retraced parts of her earlier route in the Neumayer Channel treating all of us on board to a magic Antarctic evening – hon-estly, it could not have been any better than this!
AM: Cuverville Island – Group 1 (14 persons)
What an incredible morning, arriving in Antarctica and to be greeted with sunny spells, light winds and calm seas! For Group 1 of the 114 signed up for kayaking these were just perfect conditions to enjoy their first activity experience in Antarctica. Cuverville delivered ice sculptures of all sizes that provided a perfect backdrop for the kayakers to manoeuvre around at a safe distance. A journey across the open water al-lowed the kayakers to spend some time with the Gentoo penguins washing themselves at the beach, always fun to watch and particularly nice from the sea. After a final round of group pictures it was (all too soon) time to weave our way back towards the waiting ship and lunch back on board.
PM: Orne Harbour – Group 2 (14 persons)
Nothing but light winds, calm seas, sunshine and blue skies the whole way for the afternoon kayaking trip. A full quota of ‘mad for it’ Kiwi’s and other equally adventurous kayakers were ‘all in’ for the full polar kayaking experience, Antarctica certainly delivered in ways none of the participants had imagined. The group of 14 followed the coastal line at the glacier edge away from the landing site to a peaceful position where they could all switch off and just listen in silence. Although the group were silent the environment was not. The sounds of calving ice cliffs, bird calls, penguins porpoising and the small pieces of popping ice knocking against the sides of the kayaks all completely filled one’s senses and stimulated the imagina-tion. There was also a small matter of a big marine mammal wishing to spend 30 minutes with the kayak-ers!! The pictures sum up the moment better than any words.
New Year’s Day Mountaineering
AM: Rongé Island, Georges Point
Our first landing in Antarctica on New Year’s Day was full of adventure. We had awoken to calm seas, lite winds and amazing views of the Peninsula and a rising sense of excitement that our journey in Antarctica was actually real! Our landing was a little bit wet and now we understood why we needed to use Muck boots to get ashore – the snow on the beach was quite high and the Gentoo penguin colony was just above us on a small series of rocky outcrops.
After getting ourselves established on the snow, getting into snowshoes and wandering up towards the glacier, Mal and Trev roped us up for glacier travel and we headed of towards a small col on the low flanks of Mt Adams that offered us amazing views of the Gerlache Strait.
The snow was actually quite frozen and even though we didn’t have crampons on, our snowshoes were able to give us enough grip make us feel secure going both up and down the small slope. A stiff breeze had picked up about 200m above sea level and despite taking shelter in a col we were rapidly cooling down. Heading back down to the shore we reflected that even if we had gotten ourselves into trouble, we would have been kept safe – Banana Man was there to save us!
PM: Orne Harbour, Spigot Peak
Our first afternoon ashore gave us the opportunity to use the technical terrain above Orne Harbour. Our guides were not certain that the snow conditions would allow them to keep a large group secure on the Peak so the numbers for this technical trip were kept low. Six hardy climbers set out to break trail towards the Chinstrap penguin colony that perches itself high above the sea here.
The snow leading towards the true start of Spigot Peak was reasonably deep and the travel was slow. We climbed to a point where we could leave our snowshoes behind and then travel up between rock and snow for about 50 m before reaching our crampon point. The terrain from here was steep and exposed but the snow actually allowed Mal and Trev to kick good steps which gave us secure footing. This meant that we could all move together slowly up the hill in two ropes.
Reaching the small summit gave as incredible views in 360 degrees. The wind was lite to moderate and the temperature quite acceptable. After sending the 1st Officer our best wishes from the summit we began the descent – going down is actually harder in many ways than going up. Good solid secure footwork was needed along with a slow steady pace to bring us back down to our snow shoes.
From the Chinstrap Colony view point it was easy going along a well-worn path back to shore where we jumped back on the zodiacs and we were whisked back to Ortelius by Sandra for hot showers, a snack and hot drinks!
After a stunning first day in Antarctica, the great weather continued into the night and we had a perfect camping evening. Several gentoo penguins and one chinstrap were waiting to greet us on shore. The sun-set colours were reflecting off the glaciers and mountains. We all worked on assembling our camp bags and digging our trenches. Then we did a short walk to get more sunset views. Working together we made our ‘ANTARCTICA’ photo in front of our amazing view spot. After a bit more fun everyone headed for the warmth of their bivy bags for a few hours of sleep.