OTL22A-17, trip log, Antarctic Peninsula, Emperor penguins
27.11.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
In the early afternoon we all gathered on the pier in Ushuaia, eager to board the Ortelius. In groups of 10 we were allowed on the ship, where we were welcomed by our hotel manager DJ and his assistant Sava. After some confusion about missing luggage and passengers, we all came together in the lecture room for our mandatory safety briefing, which was followed by a drill. Due to weather conditions we had to wait a little at the dock before we could leave, but around 18:00 the wind had died down enough for the captain to give the order to get rid of all ropes and make our way down the Beagle Channel. In the meantime, our Expedition Leader Lynn and Hotel Manager DJ had called all of us to the bar for an introduction to the ship and to the expedition team. After this Captain Mika Appel interrupted his work on the bridge for brief ap-pearance to the bar for a short welcome speech and a toast. And then we were on our way! Due to the delays it wasn’t sure if we would able to receive the helicopters in Puerto Williams (Chili), as they were only allowed to fly during daylight hours. However, during our first dinner on board we got the good news that they had gotten permission to fly after the normal hours. So after dinner most of us went to the top decks to see the two helicopters take off from the small airport, make a few rounds around the ship and land on the helicopter platform on the back of Ortelius. Now we had everything on board for a successful voyage and set course through the Drake Passage towards the Weddell Sea! All excited some of us had a few drinks in the bar, while others, most likely after a long travel to Ushuaia, went to bed early.
The first night on board the Ortelius was less bumpy than expected. Lynn’s lovely voice announced the be-ginning of the day over the PA, before DJ called us for the first breakfast of the journey.
As this day was a full sea day, the time was used to get all necessities done, before the action part of the adventure begins. Right after breakfast, we met our new companions the Muck Boots, which will keep our feet warm and dry on all our adventures.
While the first big birds were surrounding the ship, and demonstrating their sailing abilities, we got introduced to the IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, an organization besides the Antarctic Treaty that ensures and advocates responsible travel in Antarctica.
We learned how to behave and act close to historical sites and close to wildlife as well as what to take care of to protect the Antarctic environment. Also, we got introduced to the zodiacs, the rubber boats which we will use to go ashore or to cruise in the ice, as well as how to be safe while traveling in these little fast boats.
As the Drake Passage calmed further down over the day, we enjoyed the Drake Lake in beautiful sunshine.
Before dinner, Arjen called us to attend the first recap of our voyage, where we got introduced to the helicopter team and the rough plans for the next days.
07.45 wake up call on the second morning of our journey towards the Antarctic continent brought with it the excitement of a new day of adventures dawning ahead of us. The early morning report issued from the bridge by our Expedition Leader (Lynn) suggested that our progress south had been good overnight, the falling temperatures of air and sea confirmed this for those who may have required firmer scientific evidence. The cooling continued throughout the day as Ortelius ploughed her way south hindered only slightly by a moderate sea state and wind from the west to northwest. At 07.00 our course on the ships compass was 158 degrees and the air temp only 7 degrees above freezing. Just twelve hours later with a falling barometer (996 – 990) snow lay upon the lifeboats, the sea temperature had dropped to 1 degree above zero and we were about to spot our first iceberg.
The morning wake-up call for many of us brought with it the added bonus of multiple whale blows being reported directly ahead of the ship…. and closing! The grey morning light and sea state did not make identification particularly easy however by the time the creatures had passed by the ship the expedition team had conclusive photographic evidence that the species of whale we had identified was in fact a series of Fin whales. This large deep-water species not only the second largest creature ever to have lived on planet earth but is the fastest of all the great whales having a top speed close to twice that of our ship Ortelius. Pete gave a short presentation that evening at re-cap giving some more detailed information about these incredible creatures. It was not without a certain degree of expectancy that the guides awoke that morning to the cries of ‘whale’ ringing around the ship as almost on strike of midday Ortelius crossed the 60th parallel south of the equator positioning us directly in the midst of the Antarctic convergence. The meeting of the warmer tropical waters to the north and the cooler polar waters to the south provide a habitat so rich at the lower ends of the food chain that Fin whales travel thousands of miles south to feast on the plentiful supply of Krill and small fish feeding upon them. One of the largest lifeforms on the planet feeding upon one of the smallest, the contrast can hardly be any greater yet so delicately balanced.
However, the action was not restricted to activities away from the ship, shortly after breakfast Lynn invited everyone to the lecture room to find out more about one of the most adorable species of bird on the planet that of the penguin. Lynn not only introduced us to a range of penguins that we may come across during the expedition but looked at in some detail that of the emperor penguin a species that lay high on the agenda of most onboard.
Biosecurity vacuuming measures commenced shortly after Lynn had delivered her last slide and by the time lunch was being served most people had vacuumed their clothes and equipment in preparation for stepping out onto the Antarctic continent.
Mandatory helicopter briefings commenced midway through the afternoon and by the time cake had been served up in the bar area Arion was already part way through giving out his top-ten photography tips designed to help those that were interested to take better pictures. Re-cap, dinner, a quick drink at the bar and the day was rapidly starting to shut down for the night. The day finished as it had begun with whale blows approaching the ship and the prospect of another fun day just around the corner.
Early risers on board awoke to find Ortelius motoring into the Antarctic Sound in extremely poor visibility. After breakfast Bill gave the Indonesian passengers their IAATO briefing followed by Michael who delivered an interesting and well-illustrated lecture on Sea Ice as typical of polar habitat.
Lynn delivered the mandatory Helicopter briefing in the lecture theatre, discussed safety and explained arrangements for the projected ‘dry-run’ on the helicopter -deck in the afternoon. A draw was conducted to select flight groups. In the afternoon, everyone kitted-up and lounged on the deck or bar until the announcement that they were to report to the muster station. Life-jackets were unzipped and passengers delved into the mechanism to turn the release valves to the off position for safety during the helicopter flights.
During the exercise guides led each group of five suitably ear-muffed passengers to their allocated helicopter and assisted them to correctly board the craft and buckle their seat belts. Luggage was loaded into the compartments on the side and in the tail. The excitement was mounting during the dry-run, cameras were clicking and videos running as many had never been a helicopter before. Weather improved slightly in the afternoon but generally visibility remained poor as Ortelius throbbed her way deeper into the mysterious south. During recap Bill delivered the first of a series of presentations entitled ‘Secret Places’ on Ortelius….today it was the engine room. Passengers were amazed at the complexity of this part of the ship and astonished at the confines of the working environment.
This morning Antarctica unleashed her fury upon us with winds of over fifty knots, with gusts over sixty knots. Despite the impossibility of helicopter operations today, we had the opportunity to experience real Antarctic weather and appreciate the beauty amidst the reality of such a harsh climate.
By the afternoon the snow began to fall and as it swirled with the winds across the sea ice, it created a magical white wonderland contrasted against the dark water and rugged barrenness of Seymor Island. We had sightings of a few Emperor Penguins and we were entertained by small groups of Crabeater Seals swimming along the edge of the ice. In the distance we saw some Weddell Seals hauled up and the ice and we hung out with a group of endearing Adelie penguins. Many Snow Petrels were around the ship, effortlessly flying into the high winds. As the day came to a close, everyone went to sleep with the hope that this weather will break and dreamed of the possibilities of tomorrow.
Yeah!! We did it!! We managed to land at the Emperor Penguin colony south of Snow Hill Island! As the first ship since Ortelius managed to do so in 2013, we got to stand right next to these ador-able balls of fluff, enjoy their sounds and have a look at the way they interact with each other.
It all started with a wakeup call from Lynn, informing us that the weather had changed for the bet-ter, there was hardly any wind and we had clear blue skies. The first group, group 9, would be flying out in little over an hour. Breakfast was eaten quickly, especially for the first groups to fly. As we were still at the same location as yesterday, the flight took only 5 minutes, over the sea ice with frozen icebergs in it, towards the southern tip of Snow Hill Island. Just before landing a brownish-grey patch could be seen, the colony of Emperor Penguins! We landed on the sea ice, behind an iceberg so we wouldn’t disturb the penguins. When we exited the helicopter, it looked like we had landed on a completely different planet. Apart from a bright yellow and red tent which was our basecamp, everything around us was white and blue. Big icebergs were frozen into the ice, sticking out ten meters above the sea ice. Really weird to be standing on a frozen ocean, many meters deep. On the ice we were briefed quickly and after a short walk, we arrived at the colony. For about an hour we could enjoy the Emperor of all penguins.
The colony consisted largely of chicks who were roughly 6 months old, accompanied by quite a few adults. A constant flow of adults was moving to and from the colony, bringing and getting fresh food for the chicks. Above the colony Brown Skuas, Kelp Gulls and Southern Giant Petrels were patrolling, searching for something to eat. Especially gruesome were the few Brown Skuas trying to eat a live Emperor Penguin chick. He did try to get away, but wasn’t very successful. After a while he disappeared behind a snow ridge, so we didn’t see the end of it. Every now and then an adult or chick would walk over and check out these strange visi-tors who were even bigger as they are themselves. Sometimes they were only a few meters away from us. After about 50 minutes at the colony we were told to head back to the landing site to fly back to the ship. After lunch on the ship, we could get ready again for yet another flight to the colony. Most of us were still very eager to go again to the colony and spent another hour next to these really cute birds. Many more pictures were taken by some of us, while others would just sit down and enjoy. After another flight back to the ship, all of us were really excited about our experiences of the day. The mood was even more increased by the free beer and wine that the hotel team had for us, accompanying our BBQ-dinner. And after this dinner, the bar was busy long time after the bartender had closed…
Fortunately for some passengers on board Lynn was gentle with her wake-up call (at 07.45) softly advising everyone of the weather conditions outside the vessel and the outline plans for the morning activity. The celebratory party in the bar the previous evening (marking the successful visit to the Emperor penguin colony) had stretched into the early hours of the morning for a number of people… very likely not rushing to breakfast!
The captain and crew had smoothly re-positioned the ship overnight and by morning Ortelius was in Ant-arctic sound with the Expedition Leader making plans for a full ships zodiac cruise amongst the large piec-es of ice and bright sunshine. The breakfast buffet was announced at 08.00 by DJ our hotel manager by which time the crew had already started preparing the gangways. The plan was to lower 10 zodiacs that would accommodate all passengers that wished to join the mornings adventure.
Unfortunately, by the time Sava (assistant hotel manager) and his wonderful hotel team had cleared away the breakfast dishes the wind was increasing and with the presence of large tabular icebergs the captain took the wise decision to halt operations for reasons of safety. The Captain and Expedition Leader then considered their options for seeking shelter and a possible afternoon landing. As a result the ship set a new course in the direction of Brown Bluff and the opportunity for our first continental landing of the expedition. Brown Bluff is a nesting sight for both Gentoo and Adelie penguins as well as a nesting sights for Kelp Gulls and Snow Petrels. Last season Pete had reported the presence of a Lausisitic Adelie at this colony.
The journey towards Brown Bluff was stunning with the changing light, white horses and huge castles of tabular ice passing by the vessel. A number of passengers dressed warmly to withstand a cold air temp of -5 degrees and a wind chill factor very likely 20 degrees or more below freezing. For those that wanted to keep slightly warmer Bill delivered an extremely comprehensive lecture on the early whalers and sealers hunting in the polar regions both north and south.
Soon after lunch Ortelius closed into a position just off Brown Bluff in search of enough shelter to com-mence zodiac operations and start the landing. With winds continuing to spike over 40 knots the break in the weather everyone was hoping for (akin to the forecast) never materialised. So, after a ships cruise in the most beautiful of landscapes we all had to reflect upon the power of nature having the last word and accept mother nature sometimes lets us adventure and sometimes she doesn’t.
Lynn our Expedition Leader was first on during recap and delivered the latest weather forecasts that would dictate our plans and schedule for the remaining days of the expedition. Arjen and Micheal then did a great job informing us about some of the Emperor penguins we had observed the day before at Snow Hill. Time for dinner and early to bed for most given it would be an 05.00 gangway at Half Moon island.
The 4.30 early morning call felt more like middle of the night to some passengers but the soon woke up when they stepped outside and saw the sun shinning from a cloudless sky and Ortelius lying at 62.35 degrees, off the magnificent location of Half-Moon Bay. It was a stunningly beautiful scene.
4 Zodiacs were launched and passengers followed the red plastic pole trail set out by Bill to the rock out-crops festooned with noisy chin-strap penguins. The entertainment was endless as everyone witnessed nest building, rock stealing, suggestive posturing, aggressive chasing and frantic coupling.
After several false alarms, at last, guides hunting for the the odd one out in the colony…spotted the single Macaroni Penguin who returns year after year to bond with Chin-Straps in the midst of their
compact community. A Weddell Seal was found slumbering on the shore and remained undisturbed by the passing photographers. Several others were seen in the water.
Eventually it was time to leave and about 20 several brave souls [ of low IQ ] or insensitive bodies, stripped and plunged off the stoney beach into the ice-cold water. Gasps and shrieks followed as most then speedily re-emerged and staggered up the beach to be enveloped in blue towels.
The admiring crowd snapped away happily at the assorted examples of shivering human anatomy.
Time to go…everyone was ferried back to Ortelius, the anchor was weighed once the Zodiacs and passengers were on-board, then the vessel turned and still in brilliant sunshine, departed at 10.8 knots, steering 333 degrees into the dreaded ‘Drake.’ Early afternoon passengers on the bridge spotted 2 Fin Whales at 61.44 degrees.
After dinner passengers watched the Irvine Johnstone ‘Round the Horn’ video
This morning found us in a still relatively calm Drake Passage. After breakfast everyone returned their rubber boots and life jackets. During the morning lecture, Bill regaled us with his knowledge and perspective on “Paintings of the Sea”. In the afternoon the winds began to pick up a bit and we had many seabirds following the ship including Light-mantled sooty Albatross, Southern Fulmars, Antarctic Prions and many others. Many of us enjoyed a laugh while watching “Happy Feet” in the bar. At the daily recap, we learned a bit more about Emperor Penguins and Pete explained to us about adaptations that penguins have that enable them to keep their feet warm in such a cold environment. By nightfall the wind and waves of the Drake had increased and we settled in for a long night of pitching and rolling our way northward.
During the night, the sea started already to rise and to shake the Ortelius on her way towards South America.
The dining room looked quite empty during breakfast, as most people rather stood in their beds than won-dering around the ship. Due to the sea state, Arjens lecture was cancelled and the first half of the day was spend with conquering the waves of the Drake Passage. The lunch did not show a big difference in attend-ance from the breakfast as the sea did not calm down by lunch time.
Some brave souls decided to spend the afternoon in the lounge and watched frozen planet while waiting for the Ortelius to reach shelter.
In the late afternoon, it was time for the last recap of our voyage and a toast by our captain before DJ called us for our last dinner on board the Ortelius and the helicopter team took off with Sierra and Victor to return to their base in Chile.
All good things come to an end, as they say. Today was our last morning on Ortelius. After a last night in our cabin, which had started to feel like home already. We put our suitcases in the corridors this morning as instructed so the crew could take them out and off the ship. After one more breakfast it was time to say goodbye. Goodbye to our ship and its crew and staff, and to our new friends. Appointments were made to stay in touch and farewells were said. We could look back to a very nice and successful trip and all of us marveled at the sight of many Emperor Penguins and spectacular scenery.
At 8:30 we handed in the keys to our cabins, picked up our luggage from the pier and walked towards Ushuaia. Heading for new adventures and with many great memories in our pocket.
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
Furthest South: 64°30.38‘S 57°26‘W
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Lynn Woodworth, Hotel Manager Dejan Nikolic and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.