OTL21-16, trip log | Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula
21.11.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a sunny and breezy afternoon in Puerto Madryn, a lovely place in the coast of Patagonia. Many of us had been walking around the city and watching the ship moored by the pier. The moment to board her finally arrived, at around 4pm we started gathering by the gangway while the staff tagged our luggage with our cabin numbers. After going through the security procedures we were allowed to board Ortelius, our new home for 19 days to come. As soon as we had received our cabin keys and settled in, we began to explore the ship, enjoying the view from the outside decks.
When everybody was aboard, we gathered in the lecture room on deck 3 for the first meeting with the Hotel Team and Expedition Staff. Hotel Manager Michael introduced us to the Ortelius and her features, providing orientation. Whoever had so far felt a bit lost in the hallways and on the staircases now gained confidence to go explore the ship for him- or herself. Straight afterwards, Third Officer Warren acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel, and with a few rules to keep in mind on board a moving ship. Then it was time for the mandatory safety drill, and equipped with our big orange life jackets we first mustered in the bar, then went out onto the outside deck behind the bridge to have a look at the lifeboats. By then, Ortelius was about to leave the pier, and we watched the coastline disappear in the distance. As we sailed out of Golfo Nuevo we all kept our eyes scanning the sea searching for the blows of the Southern Right Whale that breed in this area.
Then Hotel Manager Michael called for the first of many delicious dinners on board Ortelius – and hungry we were, at least as much as we were excited!
After a good night of sleep, we were woken by our expedition leader Sebastian at 7:30. The sea was really calm and the weather good. Nice and sunny, not too cold and not too windy, so most of us went to the outside decks to enjoy our sailing. Several birds were seen flying around the ship, with the large Southern Giant Petrels being the most common. To help us with the identification of those birds, Lyn gave a lecture on the sea birds around us in English, while Olle did the same in Swedish for the Swedish passengers among us. After that we found a lot more birds, like the Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Black-Browed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel and Cape Petrels. Even a few Wandering and a Southern Royal Albatross showed their huge wingspan to us. Even more excitement caused the short visit of a group of Commerson’s Dolphins and a little later a group of Hourglass Dolphins. Unfortunately, both visits were really short, so only the people who happened to be outside had a chance to see them.
After lunch Arjen gave us a few tips on how to approve your photography, something that might come in handy during the rest of the trip. A little later Sebastian told us about the British-Argentinian issue about the Falklands/Malvinas. The rest of the day was spent sailing through calm waters, watching birds, reading or sleeping a little to catch up on some sleep. It is a nice way to start a trip, calm and easy. Before dinner we were called to the bar for our first recap. Here Sebastian told us about tomorrows plans and the doctor gave us some advice on how to prevent seasickness. After this the expedition team introduced themselves. Then it was time for a toast. Captain Ernesto Barria came to the bar to wish us all a very good and above all a save voyage to which we all toasted. After a nice dinner, most of us went to our cabins, while others went to the bar for a few drinks or went outside to enjoy the starry night.
We slept well after our first full day at sea, settling nicely into our cabins onboard Ortelius. The ocean was treating us well and we were having an extremely smooth crossing to the Falkland Islands. Breakfast was served from 8 to 9 am.
After breakfast at 9.30 am we all gathered in the Lecture Room for Expedition Leader Sebastian’s mandatory Zodiac Briefing. He followed this up with an overview of the trip and a detailed briefing on our activities over the next few days in the Falkland Islands. We were all fired with enthusiasm for tomorrow to arrive!
After a quick coffee break, rubber boots and zodiac life jacket hand-out happened next, deck by deck. All this had made us very hungry, and Hotel Manager Michael and his team did not let us down, providing us with a delicious buffet lunch.
Afterwards most people put on warm layers and went out on deck to do some bird-watching in the beautiful sunshine. Arjen on the bow and Kurtis on the heli-deck were awaiting us and were very happy to name various species and talk about their characteristics. On the heli-deck the birds were so close we could have reached out and touched them as they soared in our wake, a fantastic day for practicing our bird-in-flight photography! Most commonly observed species this afternoon were the Black-browed Albatross, the Giant Petrel, the Cape Petrel and from the bow we saw the first Diving Petrels of the trip.
Mid-afternoon we saw a particularly unusual large bird – a British military plane from the Falkland Islands coming to check-out our ship on a routine flight. Flying right towards us and close down our port side, she was certainly something to behold!
Finally, after two days at sea, land became visible on the horizon through the afternoon sunshine. We all stayed on deck to see the approaching mountainous islands, Steeple Jason, of the West Falklands. Flocks of Black-browed Albatross sat on the water and flew around the ship with the Giant Petrels and more dolphins approached the ship as we made our way towards the nutrient rich shoreline.
Captain Ernesto Barria treated us to a fantastic ship cruise around the island, coming quite close to the shore despite the lack of depth charting in the area. Many of us snuck into the bar to warm up our hands with a quick hot chocolate as we came around the tip of the island, but not for long as the spectacle on the south shore was magnificent. With over a quarter of a million birds nesting above the crashing waves, Steeple Jason hosts the world’s largest colony of Black-browed Albatross. Our binoculars and long-lenses revealed the incredible density of birds nesting all along the island side, which just increased in magnificence as the sun moved lower in the sky and magical golden light fell all around us.
At last, Michael called us in for dinner at 7.30 pm and we dragged ourselves in off the outer decks, reluctant to let the sight leave our eyes. There was much convivial conversation over dinner, some of which was continued in the Bar later. Then we headed for bed, full of anticipation for what tomorrow would bring.
Today we woke up with blue skies over patchy low cloud. The anticipation of our first landing resonated through the dining room after our tantalizing views of Steeple Jason Island the previous evening. A quick breakfast and we were off to the zodiacs and windy weather to Carcass Island, named after the HMS Carcass which visited in the 1700s. Our drive in was a little bumpy and wet but a glorious sunny morning awaited us ashore. Most of the group headed off straight away around the outside of the bay for a walk to Dyke and Leopard Beach where they were greeted by Gentoo and Magellanic penguins. Along the way we spotted many other bird species resident to the Falkland Islands like the Tussock Bird, Upland Goose, the Austral Thrush and the endemic Cobb’s Wren. As an extra treat and to top off our excellent morning, Rob McGill the Islands owner and his hospitality team greeted us in their B&B for an impressive spread of tea and cakes.
Hungarian Goulash back on board filled our bellies for a bit of a wait for our afternoon excursion at Saunders Island. When we arrived the wind gauge was reading an unfavorable 40kts, well outside our safe operating conditions, Sebastien gathered us in the bar and told us the bad news but promised to stay for a while and hope the conditions settled. As luck would have it, the wind subsided enough to make our wat ashore for a walk along the white sandy beaches of Saunders Island. Here Gentoo, King and Rockhopper penguins were the stars along with Black Browed Albatross and two Macaroni Penguins. As the excursion progressed the low cloud over the hill tops started to break open giving us dramatic views and excellent light for photography. Naturally no one wanted to leave but we none the less peeled ourselves away and back to the ship to start our sail around to Stanley for the next morning.
Around 7 o’clock in the morning we arrived at Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. After an efficient electronic control of the passports of all passengers by emigration services, we were allowed to disembark.
We were still lucky with the weather conditions. After a quite cloudy/windy/wet landing at 9, the superb sunshine of the previous days came back and all of us appreciated the warm and friendly welcome by locals at the dock and in town. All of us received a card for security control when leaving the dock.
Following the main street most of us dispersed into the various gift and coffee shops.
Many walked to the end of the town to visit the interesting small museum at the historic old quay and were rewarded with good information on the island community and natural world. Some stranded clippers from a century ago can be seen from that point. On the way some visited the Cathedral and church to appreciate the very peaceful atmosphere with the sound of children playing at the local school. The town is a charming mix of Victorian and South American characteristics and buildings. Some birdwatchers hired a taxi to be driven to the natural reserve east of the town. One of the big activities of the morning was also to reach the Post office and stamp the many postcards we wrote.
At 10 and 11 Arjen and Cheryl provided a zodiac taxi service back to the ship for the passengers and particularly to the 3 new passengers we were waiting for. Between 12 and 12.30 it was then time to leave for everybody… just before the rain!!! Again, how lucky we are!
Rapidly following departure we reached the open sea and a part of the afternoon was dedicated to spotting a variety of seabirds like albatrosses, petrels and prions. Almost everybody was out on deck, enjoying the warmth and sunshine, and learning how to identify the different kind of birds with Arjen and Céline, our 2 ornithologist guides.
At 16 pm we were invited to an interesting and appropriate guest lecture on “How to link tourism and wildlife conservation” by Peter Prokosch which gave us the opportunity to debate about how to minimize our impact during such a voyage.
During our recap, Expedition Leader Sebastian introduced us to the plans for tomorrow (as he will do every evening) and we refreshed our memories of the previous day with Arjen and Kurtis.
Today, we spent the entire day at sea. The Ortelius made great progress in a very calm sea, at a speed of around 10 knots. The swell was almost non-existent, allowing everyone to enjoy our smooth navigation towards South Georgia.
The dedicated birders (you know who you are!) were out on the bow early, and almost everybody else headed outside at some point. It was the battle of the lenses as the bird life came to visit, drifting in and out of range and circling around the vessel. We had a great range of species, including Atlantic petrels, some unexpected King penguins and a dolphin or two. During the morning, Lynn presented her "Blubberfest", a talk on the seals we expect to see during the voyage, while Adam spoke about seals in Swedish. Following on from these talks was the mandatory film from the South Georgia government, explaining how the island is governed and how fisheries and tourism are managed to ensure the protection of all of the unique features of the island, including how we must behave to do our part.
Later, we headed out on deck and allowed the fresh, cold air to clear our heads. As the wind was quiet and the skies were clear, many of us found a sheltered spot on the outer decks and soaked up the sun while the ship seemed to glide through a very dark blue sea.
Most of us came inside willingly for the usual lunch feast from Head Chef Gabor, and later in the day we did our vacuuming, turning out our pockets and bags, cleaning all our velcro and checking all our equipment carefully before signing the biosecurity declaration. Before dinner, we joined Seba and the team in the bar for the recap, making time to check out each other's photos and have a pre-dinner drink with new friends.
After another lovely dinner we went up to the bar to continue our conversations and photo sorting, and then put our clocks forward one hour to ensure we would not be late for breakfast tomorrow.
Two full days the sea journey lasted. The fourth was a nice day, inviting us to time on deck, with a friendly wind across a blue sea where wandering albatross showed up among dispersed prions, storm - and Cape-petrels. Rarely seen tubenoses were noted, - the Atlantic petrel for one. A couple of whale blew, and a school of hour-glass dolphins passed at a distance. Other marine mammals, the seals, were presented in a lecture. Some we were to meet us on our landings.
IATTO’s code of conduct is at large covered also in South Georgia’s own. Both were passed on to us before we vacuumed our gear.
The fifth offered increasing winds and waves under a grey sky. We had crossed the convergence, the rendez-vous of the seas in the sea. Few seabirds, but some tube-noses - the blue petrel was new for the day. And late afternoon we had 2+2 humpback whales close to our ship!!
Shackleton’s adventure in the ice – the story was told by Valeria. Penguins met and hoped to see were presented in the lecture room, where later Curtis had an intro to the Southern Ocean and the importance of its currents & its sea ice, both for our climate and the local food chain.. Our first iceberg emerged out the fog, a whiter shade of pale.
And Christopher had his birthday all day long!
After 2 ½ days at sea we were finally in sight of land once again, the isolated, wind-barren paradise of South Georgia Island.
South Georgia lies about 900 miles (1450km) from the Falklands and being literally in the middle of the ocean is totally exposed to the furious fifties. It’s a somewhat hostile environment to us human beings but certainly an oasis for the wildlife breeding here.
The plan for the morning was to make a landing at Brighton Beach in Possession Bay, son called because in this bay James Cook raised the British flag and took possession of the island in His Majesty’s name.
Unfortunately for us, wind conditions were too strong to launch the Zodiacs so we decided to sail into a nearby harbour and check if conditions were better there. Prince Olav Harbour lies at the very entrance if Possession Bay, on its western coast. James Cook first explored the harbour and his accounts were soon well-known to the sealers and later to the 20th century whalers, and the remains of these activities are still visible in the rusty buildings on the shore and the three masted ship Brutus forever beached in the harbour.
Once again the wind prevented us from doing Zodiac operations so we resumed navigation to the Bay of Isles, right round the corner. Inside the bay we approached Rosita Harbour but the wind kept on blowing with gusts up to 40 knots, still it was very exciting to feel the fury of the wind in our faces and take in all the wilderness of this desolate place on earth.
After lunch time, the longed for announcement was heard… we were going to land at Salisbury Plain in the afternoon! Salisbury Plain is, needless to say, a huge plain, a glacial outwash that extends all the way to the foot of the mountains surrounding it. This vast plain is home to the second largest colony of king a penguin with an estimate of 60 thousand pairs and with as many as 250 thousand penguins counting chicks and immatures as well.
It was a bit of a challenging landing with some surf at the beach where we were welcomed by elephant seals; bulls, females and the cute weaners. The light was wonderful with some sunbeams cutting through and the breath-taking scenario all around us.
We couldn’t help stopping every five steps to photograph the curious penguins and the even more curious chicks that kept on approaching us and inspecting ourselves and our cameras.
It was hard to leave but we brought back on board a bunch of pictures and loads of unique and unforgettable memories. At recap time we all celebrated our first landing at South Georgia and after dinner most of us went to our cabins seeking for a good rest since the following morning we would probably have a very early wake up call.
This morning started very early. Shortly after 4 am we were woken by Sebastian so we could get ready for an early morning landing. Despite the early hour the chefs had already prepared some pastries so we didn’t have to land on an empty stomach. Due to the bad conditions higher up the mountain it was already decided that the ‘Shackleton hike”, the last part of the crossing Shackleton did little over 100 years ago between Fortuna Bay and the Stormness whaling station was not possible. The fresh snow that had fallen overnight only confirmed this decision. We would however land at Stromness so the hikers had the opportunity to walk up the valley towards the Shackleton Waterfalls and so do the very last part of his epic journey. For the ones who didn’t want to walk that far there was enough to see on the beach. Big Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals filled the beach and several groups of King Penguins tried to make their way through this maze of blubber. The whaling station itself was closed due to the danger of debris blown away and asbestos, but from a distance we could have a nice look and even see the villa where Shackleton finally could make his call for help. And all this in a really nice white winter coat, early summer on South Georgia definitely looks different from the ones we know back home.
When we went back onboard Ortelius, it turned out the decision to start early was a good one. The wind had really picked up and the last zodiacs were just in time back on board. Now we really deserved a proper breakfast.
After breakfast we sailed towards Fortuna Bay to have a ships cruise in this beautiful bay. Most of us went outside to enjoy, while others took the time to catch up on some lost sleep. After lunch we had arrived in Cumberland East Bay where we had another ships cruise towards the magnificent Nordenskioldbreen. A little later we sailed towards Grytviken where some people from the South Georgian Heritage Trust came onboard together with a official representative of the government. While the latter checked our passports, the first gave a talk about the habitat restoration project they had going on and the succes story of the removal of rats from the archipelago. After this it was time to go ashore and see a little bit of history on South Georgia. We landed close to the cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his right had, Frank Wild were buried. After a short walk, accompanied by King Penguins and South Georgian Pintails we arrived in the old whalers station. As this one was restored, we were allowed to wander around, or we could join one of the guided tours. Another option was to go to the museum, the gift shop, post office or the replica of the James Caird, the small boat Shackleton and 5 companions had used to cover the distance between Elephant Island and South Georgia. There was enough to do, but too soon we had to return to the Ortelius again. The wind had picked up again, so a longer stay was not possible. And besides, a nice barbecue was waiting for us on the ship. Due to the wind the food was served indoors, but it was a really nice ending of another splendid day!
St. Andrews Bay welcomed us with her usual temperamental conditions along the exposed bay. However, once we negotiated gangway safely and survived a little spray in the zodiacs, the beach was calm enough to allow us to land at this wonderful place with the largest king penguin colony in South Georgia. Upon landing, we were greeted by enormous male elephant seals on the beach occasionally snorting through their huge proboscis. A couple of big bulls had a few short spats, rearing up to bite into each others’ necks. However, it was clearly too early for big fights and they relaxed back down onto the sand. Behind the beach, we walked through dozens of king penguins towards a wide rushing meltwater stream lined with hundreds of kings along the shores. Many of us walked back towards the glacier to take in the stunning landscape of this wilderness jewel. The vegetation is sparsely distributed in the area due to recent glacier retreatment and heavy reindeer grazing prior to the recent eradication. However, some spots with native grass species were seen on the hills. We all enjoyed watching skuas, giant petrels and snowy sheathbills enjoying a feasting table, foraging amongst the king penguin colony. They were often seen circling to find eggs and small chicks.
After our lunch onboard we made our way towards Ocean Harbour. By this time, South Georgia’s fickle nature was again on display and strong winds in the entrance forced us to make alternative plans. Captain Barria brought the ship into Hound Bay and we enjoyed stunning panoramas in the sunshine, with snow-capped mountains retreating into the distance in the back of the bay. The wind was so strong that the ship dragged anchor, so tireless Sebastian re-routed us towards Royal Bay. After about two hours of sailing, we entered Royal Bay with Ross glacier dominating the back of the bay.
Although we were running out of daylight hours, we jumped straight into zodiacs for an hour long cruise in Moltke Harbour before darkness set in. Moltke Harbour is named after the first powered craft to operate in South Georgia, the three masted steam corvette Moltke, the 1882-3 German International Polar Year expedition vessel. The site has the ruins of the research station hidden amongst the vegetation, but for us, we were focused on the vast abundance of wildlife along the shoreline. Shags nesting up on the tussac covered cliffs were easily viewed from the zodiacs in the calm kelp-strewn waters, with a few gentoos and the odd king penguin on the rocks beside the waves. But the main attraction was the elephant seal covered beach, with extensive harems already established. Giant petrels were feasting on the carcass of a juvenile elephant seal, thrusting their heads into a small hole in the skin to access the internal organs, before retracting them dripping with blood. They pushed each other out of the way when they decided it was their turn for more, leading to numerous fights.
Another early morning today, or so we hopped. The plan was for Sebastien to be on the bridge around 4 in the morning to assess conditions at Gold Harbour for an early morning excursion before breakfast but alas the call never came. Weather conditions and swell told the story, the wind was already gusting near our safe operating limits and forecast to get stronger in addition to swell making the step from the gangway to the zodiacs treacherous. The day followed much the same, we left Gold Harbour for Cooper Bay hoping to find some shelter amongst the islands at the southern tip of South Georgia and were greeted there by marginal conditions, as we put our inflatable Zodiacs in the water, a few strong wind gusts heeled over the ship, signaling an end to the excursion before it began.
So we bid farewell to South Georgia with its magnificent mountain ranges and incredible wildlife and turned our ship south, bound for the Antarctic, sent off by views of a number of large icebergs a glimpse of things to come.
Of course our day was not over yet, the gusty conditions that kept us ship bound through the morning were still blowing outside. As we entered open water a strong gale kicked up 4 meter seas causing our ship to pitch and roll giving us a small taste of what it must have been like in the olden days spending weeks at sea to reach the frozen continent.
After the rough sea and winds we got yesterday, how nice was it to see the sun! The long regular swell was like a cradle rocking.
At 9.30 Lynn invited us to her lecture “Land, Sea and Poles” to explain to us how special the Polar Regions are and pointed the main differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic.
We also got a nice encounter with three Fin whales feeding! Many pictures and films have been done to keep this moment unforgettable. It was a good idea to do that because what surprise we got when we discovered that one of the 3 was a Blue whale: the biggest animal on earth!
Then, postponed because of the whales, at 11.30 we got another lecture. Adam fascinated us with the story of the race to the pole in the 19th century, telling the adventures of Amundsen, Scott and others… their determination and their courage.
After lunch, to prepare our next landings in Antarctica we had … again… to vacuum our jackets, pockets, backpacks, camera bags… as required by IAATO. It was a convivial moment during which one some of us (no names should be given ;)) even discovered how to use a vacuum cleaner!!
As for recap of the day we got a short mandatory video from IAATO and we finished the by moving clocks backwards one again leaving definitively the time of South Georgia.
Ortelius arrived at the South Orkneys before breakfast, in wind, fog and ice. It was truly Antarctic in every way - our wildlife has included the very Antarctic species like the Snow petrels and Antarctic fur seals, now we also have big, flat tabular icebergs all around. We crossed 60¬¬oS while we slept, and so are now in Antarctica by geopolitical measures, as well.
The scene was stark and beautiful, a monotone of grey and white - battleship grey water, pale grey sky, white ice with touches of blue. As we approached, the boxy orange buildings of Orcadas Station could be seen in the saddle of Laurie Island, which was all dark rock and white snow, rising abruptly from the wind-blown sea.
Orcadas station is the longest continually occupied base in Antarctica, with people in permanent occupation since 22 February 1904. Currently, there are 16 Argentine men, largely from the Argentine Navy doing the general station management, but some meteorological and technical researchers also present. After a long, quiet winter, they were looking forward to offering us coffee and a tour, but it was not to be. Captain Ernesto spent several hours on the bridge, trying to find a safe position for the ship and zodiacs, but the weather defeated us. Wind was blowing straight through Scotia Bay, and both gangway and beach were far too dangerous.
We rugged up and went out to take photos of this isolated little dot in the Southern Ocean and the amazing ice around us. While it was cold and windy, this is what we came for! The coffee machine in the bar got a good workout, as we cycled through going out to take in the views, returning to the bar to delete wind-blown fuzzy photos and warm up, then returning outside to repeat the process.
By mid-morning, Seba and the Captain had seen the conditions were not going to improve for us, so we turned the ship and set sail for the Antarctic Peninsula. At 1100 we had two minutes silence to mark the fallen of WW1. At 1115, Arjen began a great talk on whales, showing us some of his amazing photos and using them to illustrate how whales go about their daily lives. The talk was interrupted by Seba, announcing an incredible tabular iceberg on our port side. We scrambled out of the lecture room for our coats and cameras, and all headed out on deck to admire the different sides of the giant berg as we sailed by. Once the berg was behind us, Arjen restarted his talk, finishing just in time for lunch, which was lasagna, always a favourite.
After lunch, a few of us snuck in a little nap before Kurtis gave us a talk on the geological history and rock types of our voyage. It was both very interesting and quite fun, if a bit complex for those of us who have not done this type of study for many years. Coming out of the talk, some of us put our heads out into the windy weather, but most of us gathered in the bar, inspecting the auction goods about to be sold.
It was a very entertaining afternoon, with an auction of items from South Georgia, to aid the protection of the island. Adam was a very polished auctioneer, letting us know how special each piece was and encouraging good donations to such an incredible cause. We raised US$705, which will go back to the island to help with the rat eradication and other conservation projects.
At the evening recap, Seba updated our plans, explaining what the windy conditions meant, then Kurtis gave us some info on ice, so we had a better feel for what we were seeing all around us. Dinner was the usual noisy, convivial affair, and most of us retired quite early, with the sound of strong winds still whistling around the ship.
The same persistent wind, south-easterly, and the same windspeed. Some cracks in the cloud cover let through some heavenly light during the morning, and some almost new acquaintances were hanging above the crests: the Antarctic petrel showed up a couple of times – especially for those who stood close to Rob – and the Southern fulmar joined in larger groups the Cape petrels. The snow petrel was a mandatory guest – never before have we seen so many of the gracile beauty as under this long sea journey.
Olle and Adam talked about Otto Nordenskjöld’s remarkable expedition to the big ice, an exciting story about harsh conditions for the three spread out groups which knew nothing about the fate of one another. More remarkable, though, is the enormous amount of scientific data they gathered. And the whole story had a happy ending! Nicely timed after the talk on landice we closed in on a particularly fine iceberg, with a cargo of penguins on a cruise. The berg soon showed to be two, which disappeared in our wake. We had now entered Brandsfield strait, and when eagerly looking we could make out a the curving line of an icecap in the haze – our first glimpse of the land! The day closed with a clear sky and lovely light reflected in an armada of icebergs.
The morning of the 13th was certainly a different one, we were surrounded by the breath-taking Antarctic landscape. When Sebastian woke us up that morning, we were close to Hydrurga Rocks, a tiny island very close to Two Hummock Island at the very entrance of Gerlache Strait. The wind was blowing hard once again and given the exposed position of the island, together with the swell and the 30 knots wind, it was impossible to carry on with zodiac operations. While we had breakfast the ship repositioned at a new location, Cierva Cove. This sheltered spot offered the perfect scenario for a Zodiac Cruise among beautiful icebergs and floes. Sea conditions couldn’t be better, not a single wave and the sunshine warming up our faces, it was just perfect.
Cruising among the floes we found a few Crabeater seals resting on them. Crabeaters don’t really feed on crabs but on krill, and their teeth are designed in such a way that allows them to filter out the water and keep the food in their mouth.
On an island close by we could see Chinstrap penguins nesting on its tops and some of them hiking up or sliding down the slopes. Every now and then a flock of penguins would show up porpoising in the water, they really looked like salmons!
But certainly the highlight of the cruise was the Leopard Seal swimming around the boats, inspecting us all with its curious eyes. Our cameras were just not good enough to capture the excitement that such an encounter caused.
Marveled us we were, we made our way back to the ship where Michael was already waiting for us with a delicious warm lunch.
The next destination was 4 hours away sailing along the astonishing Gerlache Strait. The plan was to land at Portal Point and make a cruise around the point but one more time we were bound to change the plans because of all the ice accumulated in the landing site and the strong winds and high swell.
We resumed navigation south and we had dinner earlier than usual because we were going to have an after dinner landing at Cuverville island!
This island is home to the largest Gentoo penguin rookery in Gerlache Strait, already from the distance you could see the pink spots were the colonies were. It was a great opportunity to stretch out our legs and to land on a truly Antarctic island for the first time.
Full of joy we returned back to the ship seeking for a warm shower and a good sleep since we a had a day full of activities ahead.
This morning we started early again. A little before six we were woken by the voice of Sebastian and without breakfast we climbed down the gangway towards the zodiacs. Overnight the captain had moved the ship around the corner towards Orne Harbour. Here we went for a zodiac cruise. This little, ice-filled bay was surrounded by glaciers and snow-covered mountains. Close to the shores we found several small colonies of Chinstrap Penguins and Antarctic Shags. It always amazes seeing these creatures walk around or just stand in the snow. Even on the high ridges we saw penguin colonies. They favour those places as they are free of snow earlier in the year. After an hour and a half it was time to go back to the ship to enjoy our well deserved breakfast.
Little time off was given to us. Right after breakfast we were close to Danco Island, close to Cuverville, where we landed the night before. It was time again to go into the zodiacs to have a landing at Danco. As this little island was completely covered in snow the expedition team had brought snowshoes ashore. With these under our rubber boots we climbed up the hill to enjoy more Gentoo Penguin colonies and the view we had over the channel. Just after we arrived we had a good view on a spectacular avalanche, fortunately on the mainland and not on our little island. Those who went on a short zodiac cruise almost got stuck in the ice, but were rewarded by our first Weddell Seal.
After lunch (we were up so long already it felt more like dinner) we went out for another time. This time the group was split in half. Half of the group went ashore close to the Argentine station Almirante Brown. This station was not in use at the moment, at least not by humans. It looked like it was taken over by Gentoo Penguins. For those who wanted a bit more exercise it was possible to climb the hill to a viewpoint over Paradise Bay, something that was well worth the effort. But the most important thing about this landing was that it was on the continent of Antarctica. For several of us a very special moment, as it was their seventh and thus last continent. Many pictures were taken of people standing in the snow on this special place.
Meanwhile the other half of the group was taken on a zodiac cruise into Skontorp Cove. This little bay was filled with ice again and surrounded by steep mountains with jagged peaks and spectacular glaciers. For several of the expedition staff this is the most beautiful place on Antarctica or maybe even on Earth and soon we understood why. When the zodiac drivers switched off the engines we could just sit and enjoy this awe-inspriring landscape and listen to the silence, something we don’t have at home. At a closer look we even found some Crabeater and Weddell Seals hauling out on the snow. After a too short period we had to change and the people who had just made the landing went on the zodiac cruise and vice versa.
Back on board we had a recap followed by dinner. After dinner many people went straight to bed happy and satisfied, but also tired after a long day in beautiful sunshine.
This morning, the Captain pointed the ship straight at the side of an island with only a very narrow gap in its shores, Neptunes Bellows, just wide enough for us and on the other side opened the calm waters of Port Foster. Port foster is the sunken centre of an active volcano caldera that collapsed 10 000 years ago. An obvious choice to establish sealing and whaling operations as well as scientific and military bases, Port Foster has been used as a safe haven since 1820 when it was discovered. Since then a number of eruptions, notably in the late 1960s, most operations decided the risk of another eruption required prudence leaving only a Spanish base active in the caldera today. We however threw caution to the wind and sailed to the far end of Port Foster to Telefon Bay, where we stretched our legs and gained some elevation finding spectacular views above the ship. A short sail next door and we landed at Pendulum Cove where the bravest amongst us stripped down to their swim suits and plunged themselves into the icy Antarctic waters. And with a heavy heart we came back to the ship for the last time and set sail north, bound for Ushuaia. Livingston island on our port side gave us a fantastic farewell from the icy continent under blue sunny skies.
The Drake Passage, named after Sir Francis Drake who, blown off course in a storm in the 16th century after coming through the Straits of Magellan, concluded that a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans must exist. The first passage through the strait was made by Dutch Captain Willem Schouten onboard the Eendracht in the early 17th century, they named Cape Horn during this voyage. For us in the 21st century, the passage remains one of the most notorious stretches of oceans anywhere in the world, lack of any significant land mass around the Southern Ocean at this latitude means storms have an infinite fetch to gather strength. Fortunately for us the worst storms happen in winter time and our crossing so far has been anything but rough. A gentle rocking has accompanied us all day as we reflect on the experiences we have had, sift through our hundreds of pictures, catch a talk or two in the Lecture room and generally watch the waves pass by and the albatross they bring with them.
Ortelius have been moving a bit during the night and early morning, and at 8.00 we found the ship sailing under the rain and in more quiet waters. The Drake Passage has been more gently than we could ever have imagined.
As soon as 9.30, Adam made a talk about Swimming Amongst Crystals with fully nice underwater pictures that he made during its numerous diving experiences.
Then Céline invited the French-speaking passengers to its lecture (already done in English) on the effects of contaminants on polar seabirds.
Peter Prokosch launched later a general discussion on the vision he have about the future of the Arctic
In the afternoon, the Expedition Team called us deck by deck to hand in our rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets. At the same time, Hotel Manager Michael asked us for another duty: the settling of our ship’s accounts.
Around 6 pm, it was time for a beautiful slide show with photos of our voyage, put together by Adam – what a lovely way to summarize the trip and thank everybody for efforts to make this voyage so special.
Afterwards we gathered in the bar for Captain’s Cocktails and toast to our very successful journey to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic! Since Ortelius was moving towards the Beagle Channel, it did not feel like the last evening on board at all!
Sad enough, the last day of our Antarctic adventure had come – it was time to say goodbye to travel mates, new-found friends, and Ortelius and her crew. The night before, we had picked up a nautical pilot and sailed up the Beagle Channel, back to Ushuaia from whence we had set out earlier – it felt like months had actually passed. Well, it was a whole new year by now after all, and certainly we were not the same anymore after all our encounters with the wonders of the subantarctic and Antarctica.
After we had enjoyed our final breakfast on board, we waited for customs clearance before we disembarked Ortelius. It took a while to say goodbye and thank you to the ship’s team, a few last photos had to be made, and finally the staff waved from the pier as our buses were leaving. We were about to begin another journey: the one homewards – or, for a lucky few among us, an extension of our Antarctic adventures in other locations …
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 3.726 nautical miles / 6.900 kilometers
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!
Have a safe return to home – we hope to welcome you on board again soon