OTL23-16, trip log | Weddell Sea – In Search of the Emperor Penguins
08.12.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Ushuaia at the end of the world (“Fin del Mundo”), we were about to embark on a very special journey. At the pier, our new home for the next ten days was waiting for us: Ortelius, the ship that would take us to Antarctica in search of the Emperor penguins. Our luggage had already been brought on board, and soon we settled into our cabins and started to explore our new surroundings.
Once everybody was on board, we gathered in the lecture room on deck 3 for the first meeting. Third Officer Warren acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel, with a few rules to keep in mind on board a moving ship. Afterwards, Hotel Manager Michael introduced us to the Ortelius and her features, providing very welcome orientation. Equipped with a lot of new knowledge, it was time for the mandatory safety drill. So we gathered in the bar, put on our big orange lifejackets, and went through a roll call to make sure everybody was there. We got a look at the lifeboats, and by the time the drill was done, Ortelius was about to leave the pier. Bidding farewell to Ushuaia, we snapped our first few pictures of the trip as we started sailing into the Beagle Channel and towards Puerto Williams on the Chilean side to pick up the helicopters which were to play a vital role in our voyage plans. Black-browed albatrosses were swooping past the ship, accompanying us on our way.
In the early evening we gathered again in the bar. Expedition Leader Sebastian and his team introduced themselves, and we had a toast to the success of our voyage. Before too long it was dinner time, and we enjoyed the first of many delicious meals on board. The timing turned out to be perfect: just when dinner was finished, the first of the two helicopters approached Ortelius, flying a loop before actually landing, thus providing a lot of photo opportunities in beautiful evening light. Almost all of us were gathered at the top deck watching in excitement. It was a bit windy by now but that did not stop us from taking photos and videos, and excitedly discussing the events. Then the second helicopter came in, racing the dark clouds and winning by a few seconds before the first raindrops landed on our cameras, jackets, and noses. The wind picked up considerably, so much so that the crew had to postpone the scheduled bunkering of fuel, and Ortelius even had to leave the Puerto Williams bay. The pilots had made it just in time.
Upon waking we found ourselves … in front of Puerto Williams, Chile! The wind that had picked up yesterday evening just after the helicopters landed on board Ortelius did not drop during the night, postponing our fuel bunkering to the late morning. While bunkering, we gathered in the lecture room and met our Expedition Leader Sebastian who introduced us to the IAATO guidelines we would have to follow in Antarctica. In other words, we learned how to behave around wildlife, and how to cope with the challenging environment. This interesting briefing was followed by instructions about zodiac operations. Shortly after, we were called once again to the lecture room to collect our rubber boots. Lunch was very welcome to refill our energy deposits after this knowledge intake!
After lunch, as Ortelius was sailing the Beagle Channel, we enjoyed the outside decks and the nice scenery of Tierra del Fuego. We encountered more seabirds, passing by a shag colony, and we practiced taking photographs of albatrosses as many Black-browed albatrosses were flying around the ship.
At about 18:30, we left the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel and officially entered the mythic Drake Passage. The ship started to roll and it was time (already) to gather in the dining room for another good meal. Some of us preferred to retire in our cabins, others made their way to the bar to share polar stories and other travel adventures!
It had been an eventful night so the considerably calmer conditions of the morning were very welcome. We awoke to the same grey weather and an endless carpet of waves but the rolling of the vessel had eased, and one by one, or two by two, we made our way to the dining room for breakfast.
Afterwards, Sandra’s talk about Antarctica touched on many interesting aspects of the White Continent – history, ecology, wildlife, climate, to name a few, and also how Antarctica got its name. With the movement of the ship easing and some of the outside decks being opened again, we dared venturing outside for fresh air which still contained a considerable amount of humidity. After lunch, we gathered in the lecture room for another mandatory briefing. This time Expedition Leader Sebastian introduced us to the helicopter operations, a very fascinating topic. Equipped with a whole lot of new information, we soon proceeded to the next necessary step towards visiting Antarctica: the vacuum-cleaning of our outer garments in order to prevent the introduction of non-native species. So the big vacuuming party in the bar started, and we carefully checked and cleaned jackets, pants, gloves, hats and backpacks. Meanwhile, the sun peeked through the clouds, and after having finished our cleaning duties, we treated ourselves to some delicious chocolate cake made by our on-board baker, and to another visit to the outer decks.
Time flew by, and finally we got to meet Captain Ernesto Barría who introduced himself during our first recap of the voyage. This institution, as we were to learn, was a great way to both look back and ahead: The Expedition Staff members would give mini-talks about interesting topics, and Sebastian would introduce us to the plans for tomorrow. This time, Kurtis acquainted us with the Antarctic Convergence and the worldwide system of ocean currents being driven by the circumpolar current of Antarctica, and Sandra talked about Abraham Ortelius, the Flemish cartographer our vessel was named after. Sebastian announced the trial run for the helicopter operations for tomorrow afternoon, conditions allowing. Exciting plans indeed!
As the forecast had suggested that the weather would turn foul again towards the evening, the galley team had searched for a Drake-proof alternative to normal plated dinner: pizza! With the conditions being much better than expected, we enjoyed the delicious meal even more! Soon afterwards most of us had climbed into their bunks and fallen asleep, being gently rocked by Ortelius’ movements which were virtually non-existent in comparison to last night.
We woke in the Drake Passage to Michael’s dulcet tones calling us down for another delicious buffet breakfast. Those up and about were treated to views of Fin whales crossing paths with the ship through the mighty Southern Ocean. The birds were loving the windy conditions, and on the outer decks we enjoyed stunning views of many of the smaller albatross: Light-mantled Sooty albatross, Black-browed and Grey-headed. The visibility reduced and a light snow flurry enveloped the ship – we could feel Antarctica getting closer.
Sebastian called us all down to the lecture room for our second mandatory helicopter briefing, recapping our groups and preparing us to fly in Antarctica. Our youngest expeditioner drew group Echo as the first to fly, and the bond between group Delta grew immediately!
After another cup of coffee and a bit of fresh air, we met again in the lecture room for Arjen’s introduction to tubenoses, true seabirds which are very much at home in the windy southern Atlantic.
After enjoying lunch and some more of Marlon’s freshly baked bread, we finally saw land! We made our way into the calmer water of Nelson Strait between the South Shetland Islands, and our helicopter practice run began. The two helicopters were taken out of the hangar and onto the helideck. Group Echo was called up to the muster station, and all the preparation was put into practice – adjusting our lifejackets, collecting our ear defenders, dropping off our luggage and stepping into the helicopters for the first time with palpable excitement!
The weather demonstrated how quickly it can change and with wind gusting and the swell picking back up, we ended our practice run before safety was compromised. In Antarctica, flexibility has to be practiced too!
Over dinner and during the evening we continued our journey towards our ultimate destination: the Weddell sea, across the Bransfield Strait, into Antarctic Sound. It was difficult to sleep with all the excitement!
Well, well, well … What a day! We were up early to finish the last few groups’ practice runs with the helicopters and as we did this we sailed further south into the Weddell sea. In the early morning the light on James Clark Ross Island was sensational, and the distinctive shape of Cockburn Island was like a beacon drawing us further south through the morning.
Being too windy for helicopter operations, we moved in close to the fast ice, our most likely opportunity to see Emperor penguins. Lo and behold we saw a couple of lone penguins on the ice, much larger than their Adélie cousins: Emperor! The only thing to do was to lower the zodiac boats and try and get a closer look. So we did this and went out as a group.
The channel between Snow Hill and James Clark Ross Islands is a funnel for the area’s tides, producing very strong currents. The bridge measured icebergs traveling at two nautical miles per hour! A few of our boats were unlucky enough to get trapped by ice floes, an experience not often had these days and in the footsteps of heroic adventurers. The rest of us had a few precious moments with a single Emperor penguin as he casually tobogganed across the ice before slipping into the icy waters not to be seen again. We went on to see a single Crabeater seal, Weddell seals with their distinctive patches, nonchalant Adélie penguins, acrobatic Snow petrels, Giant petrels and Skuas. Meanwhile in the ice, a very rare treat, a Snow petrel caught an icefish just meters away from the zodiacs. With the ship to the rescue, we all went back on board to have a lovely lunch and warm our cold toes.
Later this afternoon, the weather conditions improved and we were able to fly the helicopters. A reconnaissance flight over the fast ice revealed not one but five Emperor penguin colonies, the largest population in recent memory, a good year for the chicks. To our disappointment, the ice conditions were poor, with water visible through the thin sea ice, and heavily crevassed over the southern tip of the island, such that landing on the ice to visit the colonies was impossible, much too dangerous to walk on let alone land a helicopter on.
So we did the next best thing: we took a flight over the Emperor penguin colonies, keeping our distance of course so as not to disturb them, to get a different perspective on the world around us. We saw huge icebergs frozen in the expanse of sea ice, with seals hauled out around their breathing holes and all shades of blue through massive pans of sea ice and ocean.
The odd line of Emperor penguins marching from open water to their colony crossing the expanse of ice they call home. Finally, an unforgettable sight as the helicopter slipped down through the air back onto the ship we call home, half stuck in the ice.
There were many smiling faces in a noisy dining room at dinner, the sign of a good day in Antarctica!
In the evening the Captain had brought Ortelius out of Admiralty Sound, the strait between James Clark Ross Island and Snow Hill Island, so in the morning we had to sail back in. Again the expedition team was on the bridge to scout for Emperor penguins on the edge of the sea ice, but this time they had less luck than the day before. However, as the weather conditions were good – it was not too windy, there was no precipitation, and the clouds were just high enough – the Captain, Sebastian and the pilots decided to land the helicopters on James Clark Ross Island. Group Kilo was the first to get ready, unscrew their life-jackets, put on ear defenders and head to the muster station. After a short but exciting helicopter flight we landed on James Clark Ross Island.
This island clearly had a volcanic origin, as was confirmed by one of our geologists Kurtis, and as could be seen by the dark rocks and the very fine sand (or ash) in between. Only a few patches of snow remained. On land we could take a 20-minute walk towards a viewpoint. At this point we had a great look over a glacier and the frozen Admiralty Sound, all the way to Snow Hill Island. Somehow here it looked and felt like we had reached the end of the world.
Close to the viewpoint we found a dead seal, most likely a Leopard seal, completely dried up. In these places it is very cold and dry, making decomposition very slow, and animals might get mummified before they decompose. As the two helicopters together could only take nine people ashore at a time, the first people had to leave before the last ones had arrived. And then unfortunately the weather changed: snow flurries started to move in, and the wind was picking up, making helicopter operations dangerous. So the decision was made to abort the landing, even though not everybody had left the ship. The people on land were all gathered at the base camp and were taken back to the ship as quickly as possible. Fortunately, everybody made it back before the helicopters had to stop operations. It was a nice enough place to land, but we still didn’t want to get stuck for several hours or days …
As it didn’t look like the conditions would change for the better, we started to sail north again, out of Admiralty Sound. On the way, the hut where members of the Nordenskjöld expedition had wintered could be barely made out in the fog, and some Antarctic shags, Adélie penguins and Wilson’s storm petrels were seen.
During a briefing our Expedition Leader Seba informed us about the plans for later today and tomorrow, and we were delighted to hear that we would get the chance to do another landing quite soon: During dinner we arrived at Devil Island, where we would go ashore. We landed in between two large Adélie penguin colonies. It was really nice to sit down and watch these very pretty black and white penguins walk around, steal pebbles or incubate their eggs. The ground was surprisingly green for Antarctica, with things that could be considered plants growing everywhere. Apart from the many Adélie penguins we also saw several Wilson’s storm petrels fly around; they were breeding in the scree slopes above the penguin colony. We returned to the ship cruising around the big icebergs in the bay, nicely lit by the setting sun. Back on the ship the mood was cheerful after this really special Antarctic day!
The morning started with very nice weather: blue sky, no wind, and sunshine bathing the area, illuminating the icebergs and glaciers in a magnificent way. Quite a few of us were outside before breakfast, enjoying the gorgeous views. During the night, Ortelius had sailed towards Brown Bluff in Antarctic Sound where we planned to do our morning landing. Right after breakfast, we put on warm clothing, rubber boots and lifejackets for going ashore in the zodiacs. The approach to the landing site was quite spectacular as we were zig-zagging in between icebergs, taking in the great scenery with the cliffs of Brown Bluff in the back and glaciers to each side. Penguins were porpoising and diving underneath us, clearly visible in the clear waters.
The beach was crowded with Adélie and Gentoo penguins waiting for their opportunity to jump into the cold water. Further inland, we were able to watch Gentoo penguins on their rocky nests, protecting their eggs from the cold and from predators. Some of the penguins already had their chicks – we were very lucky to see them so early in the season, especially as the chicks were still tiny, fluffy and very cute!
Some of us also climbed up a steep talus slope to find some Snow petrels nesting in between the rocks – a fantastic and rare sight.
In the meantime, the four groups that had not been able to fly the past day embarked the helicopters for a scenic flight in the area, before coming ashore as well to spend some time with the penguins.
We were all back on the ship in time for another delicious lunch while Ortelius continued her journey through the Antarctic Sound, passing by the Argentinian Esperanza Station soon after we finished our lunch. Near the station the Protector, a British patrol vessel, was anchored.
At around 15:00, we came close to Gourdin Island, the destination for our afternoon activity. As it turned out, big tabular icebergs were blocking the ship’s anchorage, and shallow areas prevented us from navigating around them. No problem at all though – we boarded the zodiacs and headed out on a fantastic cruise past the majestic blocks of ice formed over thousands of years. The light was absolutely perfect for photography, the sea flat calm. For a moment, one could forget that we were sailing in Antarctica had it not been for those white giants floating on the water, and the land covered in snow and ice.
After arriving at Gourdin Island, we were able to watch Adélie, Chinstrap and the occasional Gentoo penguin climbing up the slopes and hopping across rocks and snow, jumping in and out of the water and porpoising in and out from open sea. It was a busy place – every corner opened up a new surprise to us. We navigated through narrow channels and open bays with Crabeater and Weddell seals basking in the sun on the shoreline. Towards the end of the cruise, just before heading back to the ship, we decided to quickly stretch our legs on shore, giving us the opportunity to have a closer look at the penguins.
Unfortunately, everything eventually comes to an end, and so it was time to head back to Ortelius where the galley team had another yummy dinner ready for us. Afterwards, Sebastian filled us in on the plans for the coming day which sent most of us straight to bed as it would be a very (!) early start for our last day in Antarctica…
We woke early to Seba announcing our approach to Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow chasm in the crater rim of the sunken caldera of Deception Island. We gathered on the outer decks and held our breath as Captain Barría guided us through the eastern side of the 300-metre gap, with Ravn Rock waiting just below the surface to founder another ship in the middle of the passage.
After passing the stern of Southern Hunter wrecked on the western beach, we turned to starboard and made our way into Whalers Bay. After a short zodiac ride, we stepped onto the volcanic ash beach and breathed in the beautiful smell of sulphur indicating the island’s ongoing geothermal activity.
From the rusting dry dock where we landed, we had time to wander through the remains of the Norwegian whaling station which operated on shore from 1911 to 1931. During that time, whales were harpooned at sea, floated alongside ships into Whalers Bay, winched up the slipway and flensed. We walked around the pressure cookers in which the bones, meat and entrails were boiled to extract as much oil as possible, with waste bones crushed down for fertilizer. The sheer scale of the oil tanks added to the eerie silence of the old whaling station, a sobering reminder of such a destructive era of exploitation.
The hangar beyond the whaling station was a reminder of the feat of the Australian Sir Hubert Wilkins, making history in Deception Island by becoming the first person to fly an aeroplane in Antarctica in 1928.
We walked around the buildings from the British Base B, established in 1943 as part of Operation Tabarin, conducting scientific research and reinforcing British territorial claims in Antarctica. The base was damaged beyond repair in the mudflows resulting from the volcanic eruption of February 1969, and the buildings are a fascinating insight into that devastating force of nature.
Many of us walked along the shoreline past a couple of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins and the old water boats and enjoyed stretching our legs on the way up to Neptune’s Window with its steep precipice into the ocean below.
Back on board we enjoyed a well-deserved breakfast as the ship made its way into the back of the caldera, into Telefon Bay and Pendulum Cove. The weather conditions were steadily worsening and zodiac operations were not possible. Sebastian once again arranged plan B, and as we began our turn back towards the Bellows, a Humpback whale was spotted close to the ship, a great sign of nature rebalancing.
Outside Deception, we made our way along the south coast of the beautiful, heavily glaciated Livingston Island and towards Half Moon Island. We came ashore to find an Elephant seal lounging close to the water boat near the landing site, and enjoyed the raucous chatter of Chinstrap penguins up on their rocky nests. We watched as they waddled through the snow, to and from their incubation duties. We also watched as two human penguins decided to strip off and get wet. It didn’t last long before they were bundled back up and off to the ship, squawking as noisily and happily as ever!
We had just begun our passage from Half Moon Island when a number of Humpback whales were spotted from the bridge. Soon enough, we were surrounded by them and everyone had great views of these magnificent creatures moving so gracefully through the water. After a spectacular show, it was finally time to bid farewell to Antarctica and make our way out of McFarlane Strait. We could feel the beginnings of the Drake Passage through the daily recap in the bar, but luckily it stayed calm all through dinner, even with a little time to spare in the bar!
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, naming Cape Horn during this voyage for his hometown of Hoorn.
For us in the 21st century, the passage remains one of the most notorious stretches of oceans anywhere in the world, with the lack of any significant land mass around the Southern Ocean at this latitude meaning that storms have an infinite fetch to gather strength. Fortunately for us the worst storms happen in winter time and our crossing so far had been anything but rough. A gentle rocking accompanied us all day as we reflected on the experiences we had had, sifted through our hundreds of pictures, caught a talk or two in the lecture room from Christophe about penguins, Kurtis about glaciers, icebergs and sea ice, or Sebastian with Nordenskjöld but otherwise watched the waves drift past as the ship glided through the fog.
The forecast had been not too promising but stunningly enough, after a rather calm night we woke up to great sunshine and a superb view of Cape Horn. With the permission of the Chilean authorities, our Captain brought Ortelius as close as 3 nautical miles from the mythic cape. With some more photographs on our memory cards, we gathered in the dining room for a good breakfast (and soon dashed out again for even more photos). At 10:30, it was time for some more information intake – this time Cheryl gave us more information on some of the to the marine mammals we have seen on our journey.
After lunch Michael and Dejan called us by deck to come to reception and settle our ship’s accounts. This was also the time to hand in our rubber boots and return the lifejackets. Soon afterwards we heard Seba’s announcement that the helicopters would be departing soon. We quickly grabbed our jackets and cameras and gathered on the top deck to watch the helicopters take off and circle the ship for a last goodbye – again just in time before the wind picked up and rain clouds moved in.
Most of us returned to the bar to share photos and stories with our fellow passengers while some others took a very welcome nap, being rocked gently by the amazingly peaceful seas off the southern tip of South America.
At 17:45 we all gathered again in the bar. Sebastian explained about the disembarkation tomorrow, but then the main focus of interest was Arjen’s slide show of the trip. He had been putting together photos and videos into a fascinating compilation. All the moments and memories kept coming back, and we thoroughly enjoyed the great work of the photographers and videographers. We then welcomed Captain Ernesto Barría for his farewell speech and clinked glasses to our successful voyage before it was time for the last dinner on board – a BBQ buffet! While Ortelius made her way towards the coast and into Beagle Channel, we celebrated our last evening on board in style.
The last morning! What need we say more … After our final breakfast on board Ortelius, we bid farewell to the ship and her crew, to the Expedition Team and the Hotel Team, and finally also to our newly-found friends. Then we stepped down the gangway one more time, our luggage already waiting for us on the pier. One last photo, and another one, and one more, adding to our treasure vault of moments to be remembered, relived, and cherished. Antarctica had gotten hold on us, and by the time we were disembarking, quite a few of us had already made plans to return to the magnificent White Continent…
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 1.712 nautical miles / 3.170 kilometers
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barría 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.