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OTL23-18, trip log, Weddell Sea – in search of the Emperor Penguin incl. helicopters

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation, Ushuaia

Embarkation, Ushuaia
Date: 18.11.2018
Position: 54°51.1‘S, 068°01.4‘W
Wind: SW 2
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +12

It was early afternoon on Ushuaia dock when the first new passengers arrived to board the Ortelius. The expedition staff mingled with the guests on the dockside or directed them up to the Reception Desk where DJ and Alex welcomed them and checked them in. After a brief period to settle in and familiarise themselves with the ship, all guests were invited to the Lecture Theatre for the compulsory safety talk with the Chief Officer, followed by a meeting in the Lounge Bar where DJ and Alex did the roll call of names for the abandon ship drill. Passengers put on their lifejackets for the first (and hopefully last time) before moving to their appropriate life boat. Whilst this was going on the Ortelius had already moved away from the dock and into the Beagle Channel ready to take the helicopters on board. There was much excitement and anticipation when the helicopters approached, circling the Helideck one at a time so that they could land between the wind gusts. As each landed, the pilots stripped down the rotors and each was set up on a wheeled cradle so they could be rolled int the Helihangar, a delicate operation and a tight squeeze. Once they were on board, the crew re-erected the deck safety rails again in well-practiced operations. Heading out through the Beagle Channel, the Ortelius made her way out to open ocean surrounded on both sides by mountains. At 6:00pm the passengers were once again invited up to the lounge for Captain’s cocktails. First of all, DJ ran through a list of domestic details and meal times, then Captain Ernesto introduced himself to the crowd giving his thoughts on the first time he saw Antarctica. He exhorted us all to make sure we really took in the sights and sounds of Antarctica with our own eyes and not always through the lens of a camera. Next up Lynn introduced herself as Expedition Leader before introducing her expedition staff all with their own anecdotes about how they “caught the Antarctica bug”. After all the introductions were out of the way, it was time for dinner in the dining room. A wonderful three course meal was served by DJ and his team, much to the delight of all those new aboard. After dinner, the divers met for a short ‘’pre-briefing’’ briefing whist others went up on deck to enjoy a beautiful sunset and to draw deeply on the last of the green and earthy smells of the South American continent. The doctor invited people to come and see her about the impending lumpy crossing and managing sea sickness over the infamous Drake Passage. Armed with drugs and information the passengers retired for the evening to spend their first night with their new cabin mates on this new adventure.

Day 2: At sea – Drake Passage

At sea – Drake Passage
Date: 19.11.2018
Position: 56° 39”4’ S 064° 55” 6’ W
Wind: NW 7
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +5

The first full day onboard Ortelius welcomed passengers and crew with moderate winds – at least in terms of the Drake Passage after a rolling night. Some remaining swell from an earlier low-pressure system (approx. 3m waves) reminded everybody that it might be summer in the region, but that the Drake Passage is one of the most challenging parts of the global oceans a ship can navigate. DJ announced the breakfast buffet to be open at 8.00. The queue at the buffet was not as long as one could have had thought, as many of us experienced seasickness. After another two hours or so of relaxing, coffee-drinking and chatting with the staff, and bird watching Martin gave a lecture about Seabirds. At 15.00, it was time to join our Assistant Expedition Leader Arjen for an introduction to photographing. Outside the seabirds have been going on about their business. Some are following the ship others just flying past. We had a squadron of Cape Petrels in tow and the obligatory Giant Petrels. Three species of albatross crossed our bow this morning. Their realm is the sea and the air and today most of them were better off in the air. The albatrosses might travel a few hundred miles in a single day. A highlight of the day was seeing a Southern Royal Albatross, a gigantic bird that actually nests in New Zealand but disperses eastward to feed in the rich shelf waters off Patagonia during its first couple of years. The Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses we seen around the ship nest on South Georgia northeast of our position but make long foraging trips into the Drake Passage to find food for their young. We might think of ourselves as world travellers, but seabirds have been doing it as a matter of course for a long time. At recap, Lynn told us the plans for tomorrow; another day at sea, thus there wasn’t too much on the agenda of today’s recap but recap time is also usually the moment to explain more in depth some topics. Today was a good time to talk about seabirds, which Martin was happy to oblige. Recap will become one of the most important formats over the next couple of days. All staff are definitely prepared to handle our questions and if time might be too short, discussions can always be continued after dinner in the Bar. Altogether, a quite calm day onboard Ortelius, but a perfect day to prepare for Antarctica itself.

Day 3: At sea – Drake Passage

At sea – Drake Passage
Date: 20.11.2018
Position: 60° 16” 5’ S 059° 25” 2’W
Wind: W 5
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

On our second day in the Drake the seas were still gentle and pushing Ortelius southwards at a good speed. We were invited by Lynn, our expedition leader, to an IAATO and Zodiac safety briefing. Everybody who wanted to go ashore in Antarctica had to come! As an original activity, we had to vacuum all our outer clothes and bags that we wanted to bring ashore. We then had to sign the IAATO declaration while another part of our expedition team was making the inventory and organisation of the safety bags and boxes for the landings in the Weddell Sea. These activities were interrupted by the sighting of a group of fifteen orcas chasing a humpback whale! Everybody was out and the clicking of cameras was continuously increasing! Then people spent time on the outer decks, peering into the gloom at the birds which still doggedly accompanied us. Cape petrels were the most numerous, their harlequin black and white plumage distinct against the grey sky and even greyer sea. We also had Royal, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses and even 2 or 3 Sooty Albatross. After lunch it was time to finish the vacuuming party! Again some passengers spotted breaching humpback whales and everybody went out to see that. At 15.00, a comprehensive briefing was held in the lecture room about the practical aspects of helicopter operations: what to wear; where to muster; how to climb in and out, and the dangers to avoid. It was time to ask the many questions we had, even of the pilots. Excitement was palpable. At 17.00, the aim of the Celine’s lecture on penguin biology was to provide us a better understanding of the different kind of behaviour that we could see ashore when observing these wonderful non-flying birds. Martin rounded off recap with an entertaining practical demonstration of the various wingspans of birds we had seen on the voyage from the tiny storm petrel to the wandering albatross, using a long piece of string to demonstrate their respective sizes.

Day 4: Antarctic Peninsula

Antarctic Peninsula
Date: 21.11.2018
Position: 63° 35”1’ S 056° 15” 1’ W
Wind: SE 3
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: -1

This day really felt like we were travelling in, not just to Antarctica. Ortelius had to slow her speed as we encountered more and more sea ice and remnants of old calving glaciers. This sea ice scenery is typical of the East side of the Peninsula. Temperatures are colder than the west side, encouraging sea ice formation and we were witness to large areas of one-year old pack ice. Individual Emperor Penguins, the reason for this voyage, started to be spotted out on the ice with increasing regularity as well as Weddell seals, lazing on flows. As we sailed through the Antarctic Sound, Islands appeared on the horizon. They appear very different from the more ‘alpine’ or jagged peaks on the West side of the Peninsula, the landscape here has a more ancient look, being more rounded and eroded, peaks often ice-capped with undulating plateaus. Today was also the first opportunity for a reconnaissance flight for our helicopters. There are many factors that must align to make a successful expedition to the Emperor colony. We had to know whether Ortelius could find her way through the sea ice ‘leads’ and if there was a suitable, and safe landing site. There was an air of tension as we awaited the results from this flight. Word came back at last. The passage to the start of the sea ice looked good for Ortelius though was 20 miles from the colony. This would mean longer flight times but not impossible. Sadly, the flight was turned back at the ice due to a sudden snow storm so the colony and landing site was not seen. Adventure can be described as activity with uncertain outcome. Tomorrow would be an adventure.

Day 5: Snow Hill Island - Emperor Penguin Colony

Snow Hill Island - Emperor Penguin Colony
Date: 22.11.2018
Position: 64° 14.5 S 057°4.2 W
Wind: SW 4
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: -4

Waking up with baited breath, looking out the window to see the state of the Antarctic environment… will Mother Nature let us go out to play? It sure didn’t look like it at first… there was an hour delay after the first meeting with the pilots at 0445. But then, by 0545… the cloud ceiling had risen and things were looking promising. The go ahead was given by the pilots and the EL, and then with the Captain’s final call, the expedition team began making preparations. The captain wedged the ship into the edge of the fast ice, creating an even more stable platform for the helicopters to work off of. The first helicopter was moved into position and the scouting party went out at 7am to look at the ice conditions, to see if the colony was in reach of the ship’s position, and what hazards if any needed to be considered for the day’s operation. The team onboard continued to make the helideck ready for flights, the muster station was readied with the virkon boot wash and passenger group lists, and waited for the scouting report. ALL GOOD was the verdict! Arjen the muster master made the first call for passengers over the loudspeaker: “Group 9, this is your 15-minute notice, please report to the bar.” Keen faces with arms loaded, full of cold weather gear and cameras (some even larger than the helicopters, Ben noted later on!) filed in. Checked by name, and twisting the inflation cylinders to ‘manual’ on lifejackets took a bit of time but then the call came: “Group 9, please report to the muster station.” Outside they went, to be divided into the two flight groups-- either on Tango with Julio or Sierra with Marcelo. As folks would come to understand… if you fly on Sierra, you were in for an extra special ride! And then, finally! Group 9, to the heligate. Walk through the Virkon wash, pick up your ear defenders, backpacks to the side, and get ready to board. “Who is going in front?” asks the gatekeeper. Then the signal comes from the helideck-- ‘send me two’, ‘send me three’. Entering the helicopter was a blur of noise, and cramped conditions, trying to find the seatbelts amongst all the elbows, cameras, and padded clothing. Then the doors were closed, thumbs up given… and the helicopter was off the deck, above the ship…. and screaming along the ice towards the distant horizon. Icebergs trapped in the land-locked sea ice made for a surreal landscape below and the occasional seal, hauled out next to a breathing hole, raised its head in curiosity as a noisy shiny bug flew by overhead. perhaps 20 minutes has never gone so quickly with so much unfamiliar terrain to watch… but then-- what is that, those stains on the ice below? THE COLONY! Like an abstract work of art, small pods of penguins-- mostly looking like grey fuzzy blotches with the occasional black spots-- were scattered below. And looking closer, finely shaded lines streamed out and away from the pods of penguins in all directions. Penguin tracks covered the ice surface in such a beautiful pattern of biological chaos. Then, all of a sudden, the helicopter was on the ground and the doors were opened… we’re really here! After a short briefing and the time to be back at the landing site, we were set loose-- on the trail of emperor penguins. Follow the red stakes to the colony. Perhaps all we needed to do was follow our noses-- the smell of the colony certainly preceded the sight of it. Before even getting close to the denser pods of birds, it was easy to be distracted and waylaid by individual wanderers who seemed keen for a chat… or at least a good neck stretching, trying to get the measure of these strange tall creatures who had come for a visit. Kneeling down for a better camera angle may have resulted in more attention than expected-- looking up from the viewfinder it seemed more than a few people were surprised to be the subject of some scrutiny themselves-- though with a few prods or pecks of a beak instead of a camera lens. What a glorious experience! The wind, the sun, the impressive cloud formations… and the ever-present noise of the colony: pairs bonding after returning from feeding; chicks calling out to parents, begging for more food; frustrated skuas not finding the meal they were hoping for… all of that against the backdrop of the wind and the deep, deep Antarctic silence. Which was broken all too soon by the hum of an approaching helicopter-- at once the sad sound of parting as well as the reassurance of a warm home to return to. Returning to the helicopter came too quickly, but the memories of such an incredible experience will not soon fade from memory. The fact that all groups made it, and even the Captain-- after 12 years of sailing these waters and not once experiencing what it is like off the ship-- registers as an incredible success for this voyage. Many cheers were made in the bar as we drank celebratory champagne for the second time. Hooray for those who visited, those who made it possible, and most of all for the penguins-- the steadfast colonizers of this icy world.

Day 6: Brown Bluff

Brown Bluff
Date: 23.11.2018
Position: 63° 44.8 W 056° 58.3 S
Wind: NW 6
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +6

After one of the most exciting days of our lives, flying in the helicopters to spend some time with the Emperors, when the weather was on our side during the whole day, we started experiencing some true Antarctic conditions. Wind picked up at night and it remained so for several hours until the morning, so by the time we woke up we saw the non-favorable circumstances for the landing. Anyway, as we know the weather can change in a matter of minutes for good or bad, Lynn and Captain Ernesto decided to change the plans a bit and go straight to Hope Bay (the afternoon plan) instead of Paulet Island, hoping to find better conditions there for arranging some activities. Almost at the position the Captain was aiming for, it was clear that weather was not improving at all but at least the views from Brown Bluff were stunning and beautiful for taking some pictures. Once Ortelius made its way to the bay where Esperanza Base is located, the only thing to do was to wait in “hope” for the weather to change in our favor to try to disembark at the Argentinean base or to take a Zodiac cruise. The peculiar history of this Base is that it’s that the location has been used for two countries (United Kingdom and Argentina), but probably the reason that makes this Base one of the most known in general, is the fact that in this place the first baby of the Antarctic Continent was born. Unfortunately for us, this time, Antarctica makes the rules and you have to respect that. Even if we were not able to do any of the planned activities, the fact of seeing what the weather can be like in this remote and unpredictable place, made us realize how lucky we were the day before in presence of the “noble” Emperors at such an amazing location.

Day 7: Esperanza and Anderson Island

Esperanza and Anderson Island
Date: 24.11.2018
Position: 63° 23.1 S 057°00.4 W
Wind: N 6
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Today was bright and breezy and we woke up to the view of brightly colored buildings of Esperanza, the Argentinian Base at Hope Bay on the tip of the Trinity Peninsula. We stood by for a cruise in Hope Bay and Ben, our onboard Argentinian Spanish speaking expedition guide spoke to the Base with the hope of securing a landing in addition. Even Ben’s charm and offers of yerba mate weren’t enough to persuade the Base commander to allow a landing - in light of the weather. Although the wind was blowing a steady and manageable 20 knots or so, significant gusts of over 40 knots were blowing through, creating ‘williwaws’ or whirlwinds on the water. This was not the morning for a cruise. Looking at the wind charts we decided to head south for the south side of Anderson Island which looked protected from the strong northerlies pushing through. It seems only a short time later that we were all called for the second attempt at a cruise – quickly mustered we were mainly on the water by around 11am with the promise of a late lunch. The divers too were delighted to be out, half of them heading out for their test dive in the shallower waters off the island. Over to the shore there was indeed some respite from the wind and some really great sights – a leopard seal lazing fatly on an ice floe, showing a distinct lack of interest in our presence. A small flock of Adelies on a high edge of an ice berg, peered down on us and kept a keen eye out for said leopard seal. All the more of interest was the sight of two Antarctic fur seals, long dead and frozen onto the ice of a berg – a rather gruesome sight it must be said though a tasty morsel for the giant petrel that had found them. We speculated long and hard about how they had come to be there and the manner of their death – was it naturally of old age? Or disease? Or wounds from a fight with a greater predator? One of those mysteries that will remain so. Back at the ship, the Captain noticed that the wind was rising so we made our way back in convoy, the divers being recalled from the water at the same time. Back at the ship, it became apparent that the wind had really risen and this called for some challenging driving to get passengers back on board. The gangways were taking a beating but gradually we managed to get people on board, although one Zodiac engine decided to ‘die’ at the peak of the difficult conditions. Eventually the passengers on that boat were transferred onto another Zodiac and the defunct Zodiac was towed back to the ship and lifted. At the same time one of the dive boats also experienced an engine problem and the ship left position to pick up the divers, the other Zodiac drivers taking shelter behind an ice berg until this exercise had been completed. At long last in gradually calming conditions, the seven other drivers were picked up and everyone was safely accounted for. Dive 1: Andersson Island, Cape Betbeder, 063°36.870´S/056°38.201´W After we left the ship in good conditions and partially finished the check-dive, the conditions changed and were giving us an antarctic adventure. After recalling and picking up the divers we returned to the ship to enjoy the warmth of a hot chocolate ready to try again the following day. Divers off Anderson Island Later at recap, Lynn explained the rigors of the weather systems we have been experiencing which have hampered our efforts to get on shore in this most exposed place, the Weddell Sea. However, she outlined tomorrows plans for a visit to Deception Island in the South Shetlands, always a favorite, a sunken caldera entered by the narrows of Neptune’s Bellows. Fran then ran through a short presentation about the first British Base at Hope Bay and the Operation Tabarin, the British government’s secret mission to establish a permanent presence in Antarctica in the mid 1940’s. At 1900 DJ called up to say that barbeque food and free beer was being served in the dining room, news that was welcomed by all.

Day 8: Deception Island

Deception Island
Date: 25.11.2018
Position: 62°58.929´S 060°33.418`W
Wind: N 4
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

The previous night we had been delighted to hear that Ortelius would be entering the centre of Deception Island, an active volcano. Just after 05:00 am the PA announced the arrival at the island and encouraged everyone to take a look out the starboard side as the ship past through the narrow entrance to the islands centre, aptly call the Neptune’s Bellows. The ship had to pass hard up against the cliff face of the entrance making for a spectacular photo opportunity. Finally, around 05:30 am we parked our ship in Whalers Bay, the first lagoon when entering the horse shoe formed Deception Island. The high cliff edges completely surrounding the ship and the black sands made for an impressive backdrop. First, the staff went ashore and gave the all clear to ferry passengers ashore. Three routes were set for viewing. One was a hike up to Rollins Hill above the old whaling station, the second; a beach walk which ended in the stunning views over a cliff edge out to sea called Neptune’s Window, and lastly a stroll through the whaling station itself ending at the graveyard. Time wore on and at 8.30 it was time to return to the ship. Once we all were aboard and the passengers descended to the dining room for a late breakfast and Ortelius made her way out of Deception Island and made a course the Drake Passage. During the late morning and afternoon, we cruised along the snowcovered mountains of the South Shetland Islands. A rugged group of islands just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. We also passed by several whales and had amazing views of two curious Humpback Whales that approached the ship down to 15 meters! Later during our Expedition Guide, Fran, gave an interesting talk about the overlooked heroes of many tough Antarctica expeditions, the dogs. As the ship left the South Shetlands behind and headed out for the Drake Passage many of us spent the late afternoon watching for birds the last of the ice go by. Tomorrow the Drake Passage! Dive 2: Deception Island, Whalers Bay, 062°58.929´S/060°33.418`W This day we made an early start, because captain wanted to head-off towards the Drake at 09:00. All divers went ashore to start a shore dive from the black beach of Whalers Bay. We saw many brittle stars, sea stars, sea pans, starfish, nemertean worm, isopods, shrimps. This is an interesting place as it is one of the few active volcanos in the world you can dive. After the dive we made a short visit around the buildings of Deception island and returned to the ship.

Day 9: At sea, Drake Passage

At sea, Drake Passage
Date: 26.11.2018
Position: 59° 44.1 S 062° 00.3 W
Wind: W 6
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

It dawned a clear day, with beautiful waves crashing and foam spraying, and groups of pintados surfing the air currents just above the danger zone… but then the clouds came in and suddenly the Southern Ocean didn’t look as inviting or invigorating but took a more sinister aspect. There were even a few snow squalls, the large flakes flying horizontally past the salt-water streaked windows. The announcement was made to close the decks and the few hardy sailors on deck made their way to safety as the crew hurriedly went around posting signs on the outer doors. Just as quickly as it blew in, the snow was gone and the ship was under blue skies again. The seas increased over the morning and there were very few birds around the ship. The waters were still too cold to pick up the black-browed albatross so we will wait to cross the convergence to see more of those big fliers. There certainly was enough wind to support them though! We heard a lecture by Martin about krill and their central role in the Antarctic ecosystem. The links between their biology and the changing sea ice (ice forming later would be too late to entrap diatoms, creating a lack of food source for juvenile krill during the winter/early spring) was an interesting point to learn. Then after lunch, for those who were up and able while the seas were still rolling us about, Tim shared with us some stories and views from his experience working on the Antarctic continent. The photos he showed, of vast ice sheets, nunataks as small dark specks against a backdrop of white, and craggy mountain ranges and ice blocks that he navigated around using skidoos and sleds really gave us an inside perspective of what life *in the Antarctic world is like as opposed to simply visiting it for an hour or two as we have done off the ship. Then, perhaps after a small comforting rest rocking back and forth in your bed, the evening’s recap came from Celine about how birds are tracked by researchers to get data about where they fly, swim, and feed; basic penguin facts from Martin; and some “housekeeping” information from DJ about settling bills and how to make sure you can still have drinks after your bill is settled! The bar after dinner was hopping-- whether because of extra alcohol or the 5-6m seas, or perhaps the combination of both, it remains for you to decide. What was clear though was the Drake Shake would continue through the night and into tomorrow. Sleep tight!

Day 10: At sea, Drake Passage

At sea, Drake Passage
Date: 27.11.2018
Position: 56° 45.0 S 064° 57.1 W
Wind: WNW 7
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Things were definitely going ‘bump’ in the night as Ortelius hit the expected bad weather and increased swell. Guests navigated the corridors and stairs in gravity defying postures and positions as they avoided suspicious damp patches appearing on the carpets. Today was to be a real Drake experience. Waves increased from 5 or 6 metres to an awe inspiring 8 metres during the peak. The wind blew a constant 45knots. It was good to be in the warmth and safety of the ship in conditions like this. The decks were out of bounds to all passengers and crew. Of course, for some, conditions like these are fun. We saw a Southern Giant Albatross dive and soar above foam flecked waves as a reminder that we are far from adapted to a life in the Southern Ocean. As the Albatross wheeled away South, passengers’ thoughts no doubt returned to the imminent arrival in South America and the adjustment to a life more normal. Lectures on board continued. Celine explained how important hormones are in breeding and mating, how heavy metals, POP’s and PFAS are found in the food chain and continue to be a legacy we should not be proud of and a lesson to all of us to perhaps take a little responsibility in our actions as consumers. The rest of the afternoon was taken up by bridge watch, returning boots and life jackets and of course settling bar bills! In the evening a final recap saw us all join together with the Captain to say thank you to all. A mutual acceptance of the special journey we had undertaken together. No one travels without change and it will be some time before the experiences of the voyage are fully assimilated.

Day 11: Disembarkation, USHUAIA

Disembarkation, USHUAIA
Date: 28.11.2018

And so our journey comes to an end, bumping gently up alongside the dock in Ushuaia in beautiful early morning sunlight. Lots of things happened overnight – the Pilot came on board at midnight to assist our way into port; then at 0500 the helicopters left with waves from a few hardy souls who turned out to see them go. They had been our link to the wonderful frozen world of the emperor penguins and we felt a sadness at their departure as we had when leaving the colony. But onwards to new adventures or back home to work with fully recharged batteries. After the final wake-up call and a final breakfast, we gather our travel bags and leave our home for the last 11 days, heading for the airport or a look around Ushuaia, already planning how to make a second trip a reality.

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