OTL22-23, trip log, Weddell Sea, In search of the Emperor penguin

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Ushuaia - Embarkation Day

Ushuaia - Embarkation Day
Fecha: 10.11.2023
Posición: 54°48.561’S / 068 18.070’W
Viento: NW 3
Clima: Overcast
Temperatura del Aire: +14

Today was the start of something amazing: the start of an expedition to the Weddell Sea in search of the Emperor Penguin at Snow Hill Island. This is where the most northerly Emperor Penguin colony exists, and it is where we will be going once we leave the port of Ushuaia.

The 77 guests embarked on Ortelius at 14:00 with smiling faces and excited hearts. Sara the Expedition Leader started with a safety briefing followed by a safety drill where everyone donned their big life vests and went to the lifeboat station. This was shortly followed by the captain’s cocktail with the Expedition Team eagerly handing out sparkling wine and canapés to welcome us all on board. While we were cruising through the Beagle Channel, Captain Remmert toasted to a safe and fantastic voyage. It had begun, and we were off! We were all introduced to the Expedition Team, nine of them all from different walks of life, with an array of knowledge and experience on birds, whales, photography, and microorganisms.

That night there was a buffet dinner in the restaurant, and there was everything you could possibly want to eat. This is going to be a good voyage! We joined in the bar and chatted away as the ship slowly moved farther into the notorious Drake Passage, a body of water 620 miles (820 km) wide, with some of the roughest seas in the world.

Day 2: At Sea towards Antarctica

At Sea towards Antarctica
Fecha: 11.11.2023
Posición: 60°55.1’S / 058°21.1’W
Viento: N6
Clima: Clear
Temperatura del Aire: + 0,7

Waking up to Sara calling us for breakfast was a welcome relief after the hectic days of travelling to get to Ushuaia. As I lay in bed feeling the gentle rocking of the ship, I thought to myself how lucky we were to have such an easy Drake Passage on our first full day. We had a busy day ahead of us, so it was time to get up and get ready for all the activities.

First on the agenda for the Expedition Team was to spend an hour on the bridge watching for wildlife. The sailor on watch let me know that he already spotted a Minke whale earlier this morning, so I set in to record some of the many birds circling the ship. For most of the day, the most common species was the Black-browed albatross. They were joined by a much larger Wandering Albatross and a Southern Royal Albatross. There was a constant squadron of Cape Petrels and Southern Giant Petrels swirling around the ship. Over the day, we also spotted a few other species of birds to add to our wildlife list. To get everyone in the wildlife mood, Martin gave us a brilliant talk on identifying many of the birds we will be seeing along the way in the Drake Passage. No penguins yet, but all the likely flying birds along our crossing.

After a delicious buffet lunch, things started to get serious. We all met for mandatory briefings to prepare us for our upcoming adventure. First there was a video and briefing about IAATO rules for visiting wildlife, then Sara prepared us for getting in and out of the Zodiacs when we go to shore. This was followed closely by a video safety briefing for the helicopters and some additional explanation. We’re nearly ready for the big days to come! Tomorrow we’ll go through a dry run for getting into and out of the helicopters safely.

By later in the afternoon, we were ready for something a bit lighter, and Werner came up with just what we needed. He gave us a talk on photography to get us all thinking about how to get the most from our pictures. That brought us nearly to dinner, but first our recap. Sara started us off with a little summary about what will happen tomorrow, and what the weather should be like over the next couple days. Things are looking very good for at least one of the next few days, so anticipation is running high along with great optimism. Gary gave us some fascinating information about how seabirds use the wind to soar great distances without even so much as flapping a wing. Sara then showed us very graphically, with lengths of rope, just how big the wingspan of the seabirds we’ve seen around the ship all day is. Very impressive. It’s hard to imagine those birds can be that large.

That took us to dinner. Tonight there was nothing scheduled after dinner, so most of our group spent a little time at the bar for a quiet nightcap or headed directly to our cabins for another peaceful rocking sleep as we continued to make progress across the Drake Passage.

Day 3: At Sea towards Antarctica

At Sea towards Antarctica
Fecha: 12.11.2023
Posición: 60°55.1’S / 058°21.1’W
Viento: N 6
Clima: Clear
Temperatura del Aire: + 0,7

Sara roused us from our slumber earlier than expected, announcing the sighting of Fin Whales near the ship. Watching outside in anticipation, we were treated to the majestic sight of blows in the distance. The weather was sunny, and the normally turbulent Drake Passage was surprisingly tranquil. It appeared luck was on our side, granting us a serene ‘Drake Lake’ instead of the anticipated ‘Drake Shake’. Following a hearty breakfast, Charlotte delighted us with a lecture on the whales of the Southern Ocean. This ocean, acting as a vital feeding ground for these magnificent marine creatures, provides an ample supply of food, including krill. Following this enlightening session, Gary took the stage with a lecture on ice. Antarctica is home to the largest ice sheet on Earth, holding approximately 70% of the world's fresh water. While Gary later provided a comprehensive explanation of ice--its formation and the reasons behind its blue hue--in the afternoon, we underwent a biosecurity check and helicopter drill.

The IAATO biosecurity procedures took place in the lecture room on Deck 3, where we prepared our outer garments, bags, and boots. Pocket vacuuming and velcro cleaning with a paper clip were necessary precautions to prevent the inadvertent introduction of alien seeds, pests, or diseases to the pristine white continent. The helicopter drill was organized by group at the bar. Clad in warm attire, mimicking a flight to Snow Hill, we endured the challenge of waiting with layers of clothing making us overly warm. Upon the call, we made our way to the helideck, where our pilots briefed us on procedures: door opening, embarking, and fastening seatbelts. Inside the helicopter, we felt the confined space of the helicopter, preparing us for the adventure ahead. The evening brought our daily recap, where Sara outlined the plan for the following day. Our arrival in Antarctica was close, with hopes of a first landing at Hope Bay near Esperanza Station.

Day 4: Hope Bay and Brown Bluff

Hope Bay and Brown Bluff
Fecha: 13.11.2023
Posición: 63°24.5’S / 057°01.8’W
Viento: NNW 6
Clima: Overcast
Temperatura del Aire: +1

We woke this morning to ice. We had travelled overnight into the Antarctic Sound and had arrived at Hope Bay. It was a wonderful snowy scene, everywhere around us turned black and white, with the snow complementing the dark bare rock. The expedition team were already out scouting the landing site as we got up. The landing site was currently too dangerous to land, so it was time for a leisurely breakfast followed by a very interesting lecture from Sara about Penguins with some fantastic photographs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the expedition team were back out to the landing site. This time the tide had dropped, exposing some beach and making the landing possible. The team spent the next 30 minutes preparing the landing site for us, cutting steps into the ice and preparing a circular route taking in some great views. Following Sara’s excellent lecture, we all got dressed in our finest winter gear and stepped out for our first Zodiac ride and our first steps on Antarctic soil: actually rocks and snow!

We arrived on land at Hope Bay and were greeted by the Expedition Team and large numbers of Adelie Penguins and a few Gentoo penguins for comparison. We spent the next two hours being entertained by the penguins, walking through the pristine snow and enjoying some fresh air. We watched the antics of the Penguins, carrying stones, squabbling over the best nest sites and Brown Skua’s trying to harass the nesting Penguins, trying their luck at stealing any newly laid eggs. Of course, time went too quickly and before we knew it was time to go back to the ship. It was time to warm up, dry off and have a well-deserved lunch.

After another great lunch, it was time to relax and watch the scenery, there were some spectacular tabular icebergs, the clouds forming great skyscapes. We then had the news that we had arrived at Brown Bluff, huge red brown cliffs formed from volcanic action, home to thousands of Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. Excitingly we were offered a Zodiac cruise! Loading from the gangway onto the Zodiacs was quick and efficient, and we cruised around icebergs and along the beach at Brown Bluff. Adelie and Gentoo Penguins, Antarctic Shag, Kelp Gulls, and a Wilsons Storm Petrel were the highlights of the trip, not forgetting the jaw-dropping scenery.

Most of us had gotten wet from the spray during the cruise, so it was some relief, to some, to get back on board Ortelius. Following a very informative (Sara and Massimo) and entertaining recap from Gary, it was time for another sumptuous dinner, followed by time to relax either outside in the sunshine or in the bar chatting to fellow guests. A great day in Antarctica!

Day 5: Snowhill Island

Snowhill Island
Fecha: 14.11.2023
Posición: S 2
Viento: 64°37.5’S / 057°21.4’W
Clima: Clear
Temperatura del Aire: +3

For a few hardy souls, the day started at 0300. We were still motoring down through the northern Weddell Sea, past Seymour Island, then along Snow Hill Island. The dawn was coming early, so a few decided to watch our approach. For most, the day started when Sara called over the PA that we were along the ice edge and there were many Emperor penguins along the ice to see. That got most out of their cabins and onto the decks. It was an absolutely beautiful calm sunny day. Everyone started the day on the decks watching Emperor penguins--the keen observers also spotted a couple Crabeater Seals and a Leopard Seal in the distance on the ice as well. With a bit of diligent scanning, it turned out there were dozens of Emperor Penguins scattered in small groups all around the ice. We were right up against a big expanse of fast ice that extended for a good distance north and south and all the way to Snow Hill Island and beyond it turned out later.

At 09:30 Gary gave a talk on the life of emperor penguins and had everyone enthralled until he was upstaged by a dozen or so real penguins on the ice right next to the ship. Everyone streamed out onto the decks again for a good half hour of penguin watching. Eventually the penguins wandered off toward the colony in the distance, and Gary was able to finish his lecture. It was the perfect primer for the day though. About 11:30, the first helicopter went out to scout the location and decide where to set up camp. It took two helicopter loads of equipment and about two hours to get everything prepared, so at 13:30, passengers started heading out to the colony.

It was still bright and sunny (not the most preferred weather for polar photography, but hard to beat for those just wanting a premier experience). As the day wore on, nearly everyone was able to walk the kilometre or so to visit one large group of the Snow Hill Emperor Penguin colony. First spotted in 1997, it was the 44th colony discovered of the 54 colonies now known. Today there were at least seven separate large groups within sight of each other. Many penguins were slowly waddling between the different groups as well as curiously stopping along our track to gawk at us walking along. Just who is watching whom here?

At the colony, there were loads of chicks standing, lying, sleeping amongst many of the adults. Some spotted a chick or two get fed by one of its parents, but everyone was held in awe as they finally got to see the largest penguins. It was a 20-minute walk each way to where the colony was, so everyone got a little less than a full hour at the colony, but most did a splendid job of respecting their time limit and heading back along the track to the helicopter landing site. The whole experience was remarkable, just to be out walking around on sea ice dotted with icebergs. Such an otherworldly environment is a privilege to experience.

It took most of the day, but by the time everyone was back on board, the bar was abuzz with happy people sharing their excitement. Dinner was buffet style to accommodate the fact that several people were still away from the ship when it actually started, but with a short recap about tomorrow the only other business was downloading pictures and charging camera batteries for another sortie tomorrow. That’s right, the word is that as long as the weather holds, we are on again! That announcement sent a new wave of excitement through the crowd in the bar. In reality, the partying didn’t go on too long because the excitement of the helicopter ride and emperors wore everyone out. So most retired early to rest up, no doubt dreaming of fluffy Emperor Penguin chicks and their stately parents out on the ice.

Day 6: Snowhill Island

Snowhill Island
Fecha: 15.11.2023
Posición: 64°39.2’S / 057°24.2’W
Viento: E 3
Clima: Partly Cloudy
Temperatura del Aire: 0

While the Ortelius team prepared for our landing on the sea ice, Chloe treated us to an enthusiastic lecture on plankton. We delved into the world of beautiful diatoms, the intriguing sea angel, and, of course, the crucial krill. In Antarctica, the krill plays a pivotal role as a keystone species, serving as the primary food source for much of the life on this pristine continent.

Shortly after the enlightening lecture, our attention turned to the much-anticipated visit to the emperor penguin colony. As our group was summoned through the PA system, we adorned ourselves in our warmest attire and life jackets, gathering in the bar, which doubled as a waiting room before our embarkation.

When our turn finally arrived, we boarded the helicopter, which gracefully flew us near the colony. The experience of soaring over the vast sea ice in Antarctica was nothing short of fabulous. En route, we admired icebergs, spotted seals, and observed emperors making their way towards the sea. It was an enchanting and truly magical experience. Upon landing, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Sara had allocated an extended 2.5-hour landing time, even longer than the previous day. We felt incredibly fortunate.

Following a phenomenal walk on the sea ice amidst icebergs, we reached the colony. Watching these majestic animals and their adorable chick with their fluffy down was an absolute delight. These adorable youngsters depend on their parents for warmth and nourishment. Waddling around in small groups, the chicks communicate through vocalizations, forming bonds that contribute to the communal nature of their icy habitat.

In the evening, we gathered for our daily recap, during which Sara presented our plan for the following day. It was another successful day, filled with memorable experiences and adventures in the Antarctic landscape.

Day 7: Gourdin Island

Gourdin Island
Fecha: 16.11.2023
Posición: 63°09.2’S / 057°26.4’W
Viento: WNW 4
Clima: Overcast
Temperatura del Aire: -2

The day started with another wakeup call from Sara. She announced that we were now in the Bransfield Strait, having sailed overnight through the Antarctic Sound to Gourdin Island. There were icebergs all around us, and it was snowing gently. Gourdin Island is home to over 24,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins, around 5,000 pairs of Chinstraps, and over 1,000 pairs of Gentoos. After breakfast we headed out to the Zodiacs for a zodiac cruise. It was cold but the sea was calm, and the snow had stopped. The weather was once again very kind to us.

Heading towards the island, we could see that there were very large numbers of penguins at the colonies. The first penguins we saw up close were a couple of Chinstraps, a new species for many of us and a first for the trip! This was closely followed by Adelie’s and Gentoos all at the water's edge, either leaving or preparing to enter the water. We slowly cruised around the coastline to a sheltered bay where there were many more Penguins of all three species and a Leopard Seal resting on some ice. It was a large animal with its serpent-like body and sinister smile. Yet another amazing sight. While some were watching the Leopard Seal, others were lucky enough to see a Cape Petrel at close quarters feeding on an Adelie carcass in the water. The poor Adelie was most probably a victim of the Leopard Seal.

We carried on manoeuvring around the ice and found a Crabeater Seal also resting on a piece of floating ice; it was unusual in that it appeared to be a molting juvenile. We were so lucky to also see a Weddell Seal that got itself out of the water to rest on rocks directly in front of us. There was wildlife everywhere and we didn’t know in which direction to look next. Do we watch the Gentoos trying to figure out how to climb an almost vertical ice wall? It was so interesting watching the thought process.

On our return to the ship, a wonderful lunch was ready of course. It was time to warm up and refresh. The ship, our home for the past week, was repositioned along the Bransfield Strait past massive icebergs. We watched a few Penguins and other seabirds on the way as we moved towards our evening position. During this time, Chris also gave a revealing lecture about his time living in the Antarctic and working on the Scott base, New Zealand’s Antarctic Research Station. This was shortly followed by Claudio presenting his lecture on climate change. By late afternoon we had positioned ourselves at Duroch Island with the Chilean research base, O’Higgins Station, in view. Dinner this evening was BBQ. The crew were fantastic and had set up tables and benches outside. We had a wonderful evening eating great food, chatting and drinking in the snow. After the meal had been eaten, the tables were moved away and the music began. Sara led us into an evening of dancing and fun. At 10pm there were still some hardy folk dancing, but it was time to prepare for an early start the next morning.

Day 8: Deception Island and Elephant Point

Deception Island and Elephant Point
Fecha: 17.11.2023
Posición: 62°48.3’S / 060°37.3’W
Viento: ENE 5
Clima: Snow
Temperatura del Aire: -2

Well, I think there were a few people who started a bit more slowly than usual this morning—and perhaps a couple of sore heads as well. After our lovely BBQ last night, with so many dancing into the night, the 6am wakeup call came a bit early for many. But it was well worth the effort as Captain Remmert navigated the narrow Neptune’s Bellows to bring the ship into the flooded caldera of Deception Island. The already narrow passage is made narrower by the fact that there is a rocky shoal with a shipwreck blocking about half of the passage on the western side. As we entered the Bellows, we could see a small piece of the wreckage sitting on the left-hand shore. There was even a Chinstrap Penguin colony on that western shore at the entrance. While the penguins are smart enough not to bring their colony right inside the active volcano, they still like to take advantage of the outer slopes of Deception Island to have quick access to the rich feeding grounds surrounding the island.

As we entered, we almost immediately took a hard right turn to enter Whaler’s Bay. We could immediately spot the remains of the old whaling station and some of the additional buildings that were used exclusively by the British Antarctic Survey as a research station. With the remaining snow cover and the cold stiff breeze, it seemed a particularly desolate place to think of living and working—especially for something as hard as the whaling industry. Whaler’s Bay has a long history for Antarctica. Deception Island was one of the first places discovered in Antarctica and very soon sealers and whalers were regular visitors to the protected area in the caldera. It wasn’t until 1911 that the full-on whaling station started operations and by 1936 the whales had been hunted out of the immediate area and factory ships started to dominate the industry that Whaler’s Bay stopped operation. About that time, the UK decided to use the facilities for a station. They built the hangar in the 1960s for aircraft doing aerial mapping up and down the peninsula. Finally, the eruption of the volcano in 1968-69 destroyed the station sufficiently that it never operated again. It was the easy beach and the (false) promise of a little thermal activity that prompted the polar plunge. Some 15-20 of our shipmates decided on taking part in the little bit of craziness and took a dip in the decidedly cold water at Whaler’s Bay.

Leaving the caldera was just as serious a navigation as coming in, but having done it on the way in it just didn’t seem to have the tension of entering. Shortly after getting clear of Neptune’s bellows, we had our best whale experience of the voyage. A particularly energetic Humpback Whale breaching repeatedly was the first to catch our attention, but eventually it was 3 humpbacks, 2 Fin Whales and at least 5 Orcas all in the same area off the southeast corner of Deception Island. We spent a magical pause in our navigation to view the whales.

As we proceeded, we came to Elephant Point on Livingston Island. As our last landing, we had choppy weather at the gangway and a little surf at the beach, but what a place. We were all greeted by the visual—and olfactory—sensation of piles of elephant seals, a good-sized Gentoo Penguin colony and many Giant Petrels at a fantastic landscape. The weather made it a bit of a challenge, but the diversity of experience made it a tremendous final stop. Many of the penguins had at least one egg in their nests, the elephant seals occasionally had arguments, we even had a horny male trying his best to mate with a few of the remaining females on the beach.

Finally, though we had to leave the shore and we all got back onboard Ortelius just in time for recap and dinner. The day ended as we navigated around Low Island and into the Drake passage. Those who may have still been up would have felt the ship start its rolling and pitching late at night.

Day 9: At sea towards Ushuaia

At sea towards Ushuaia
Fecha: 18.11.2023
Posición: 60°26.3’S / 063°20.8’W
Viento: ENE 7
Clima: Cloudy
Temperatura del Aire: 0

Today, we commenced our journey towards Ushuaia, once again confronting the challenging waters of the Drake Passage. Although the waves measured a mere 2 meters, the boat's movement exceeded expectations due to the interplay of wind direction, swell, and wave angles. Unfortunately, some of us began to feel unwell, succumbing to seasickness. Amidst this, light mantle sooty albatross, cape petrel, and Prion gracefully circled the ship. The morning unfolded with insightful history lectures. Martin delved into the compelling story of the HMS Terror and Erebus, robust vessels utilized in the Ross expedition—a scientific exploration of Antarctica from 1839 to 1843, led by James Clark Ross.

Following Martin, Charlotte discussed the intense race to the South Pole in 1911, where Britain's Robert Falcon Scott and Norway's Roald Amundsen launched competing expeditions. Amundsen emerged victorious, marking triumph for him and tragedy for Scott. Post-lunch, we gathered in the bar as Martin shared his adventurous tale of overwintering with Emperor penguins in Antarctica. In the evening, our final daily recap featured Sara demonstrating the size of cetaceans with a rope, Gary discussing penguin divorce rates, and Chloe presenting a recap on an unexpected Antarctic inhabitant: the water bear.

Day 10: Drake Passage

Drake Passage
Fecha: 19.11.2023
Posición: 56°10.4’S / 065°47.6’W
Viento: SSW 6/7
Clima: Overcast
Temperatura del Aire: +2

We continued our journey through the Drake Passage as the ship rolled from left to right. We ate breakfast and afterwards slowly wandered up to the bar for Chloe’s lecture on diving in Antarctica, it was fascinating to see all the sea creatures that live down here in the freezing cold, icy environment. Chris very quickly followed with an intriguing lecture on Weather forecasting. After another delicious last lunch, we all paid our bills and Sara gave us a sad lecture on marine threats, but something we all need to be aware of! It was Captain’s cocktail at 18:15. The staff dressed up and fed us sparkling wine, while Werner showed us his unbelievable slideshow of the trip. Wow, that was absolutely stunning! Lastly, we had the most fantastic ‘Surf and Turf’ dinner while we chatted about how magnificent the trip was.

Day 11: Disembarkation Day- Ushuaia Port

Disembarkation Day- Ushuaia Port
Fecha: 20.11.2023
Posición: 54°48.6’S / 068°18.0’W
Viento: NW 3
Clima: Cloudy
Temperatura del Aire: +4

The ship docked late last night, so as we woke up this morning, we looked outside the window and saw the familiar view of the beautiful mountains of Ushuaia. We finished packing our belongings and put them outside our cabins for the staff to take to the gangway. We filled up on our last free breakfast and shortly afterwards sadly said our goodbyes to the staff. What a fantastic trip it has been!

Thank you for your enthusiasm and support, but most of all for joining us on this adventurous Arctic voyage. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!

Total distance sailed: 1686 nautical miles

Farthest South: 64°44.3’S / 057°22.3’W

On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Remmert-Jan Kostet Expedition Leader Sara Jenner, Hotel Manager Volodymyr Cherednychenko, all the crew, staff and pilots and engineers of M/V Ortelius, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!


Código del viaje: OTL22-23
Fechas: 10 nov. - 20 nov., 2023
Duración: 10 noches
Barco: El Ortelius
Embarque: Ushuaia
Desembarque: Ushuaia

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Aboard El Ortelius

El Ortelius, reforzado para navegar en el hielo, está completamente equipado para la exploración polar y, en caso necesario, para vuelos en helicóptero.

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