OTL24-15 Trip log | Antarctic Peninsula – Weddell Sea
17.12.2015 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a sunny and breezy day in Ushuaia as we boarded the Ortelius, our new ‘home’ for the next 10 days. As soon as we had settled into our cabins, we began to explore the ship, enjoying the view from the outside decks.
As soon as we had everybody aboard, we gathered in the lecture room on deck 3 for the first of many meetings with the Hotel Team and Expedition Staff. Hotel Manager Michael introduced us to the daily life on board and told us all about the ship, its facilities and on which deck to find them. This was followed by a safety briefing by our Third Officer Warren who explained precisely how to act in the event of an emergency. Soon afterwards, we had to prove that we had listened carefully, as seven short and one long blast were sounded and we mustered in the bar, wearing warm clothes and our bright orange life jackets. When all our names were checked, we followed the Hotel Managers to the outside deck and to the lifeboats to have a look at them.
Then we were about to set sail! It was an exciting moment when the gangway was raised. Soon the last rope was cast off and we were on our way in the Beagle Channel.
After a bit of time to finish unpacking or take in the views on deck we gathered again, this time in the bar, for a toast to our voyage with the Captain, Tuomo Leskinen. The Expedition Staff introduced themselves, and then Michael called us to the dining room for the first of many delicious meals on board Ortelius.
During dinner, the ship headed to Puerto Williams on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel, and we finished our meal in time to witness the arrival of the two helicopters on board Ortelius. Almost everybody was out on deck, camera in hand, to take photos or videos of the helis against the evening sky with its colorful clouds. It was very exciting to watch! Afterwards, most of us retired to our cabins while others paid a visit to the bar. In the meantime, Ortelius made her way towards our next destination, the Drake Passage.
Upon waking we found ourselves in the Drake Passage. Ortelius was moving gently, and most of us had had a pleasant first night on board. After the delicious breakfast buffet it was time for our next step towards the Antarctic adventure that lay ahead: Equipped with our thick socks, we made our way to the lecture room where we received our expedition rubber boots.
Our Expedition Leader Christophe then acquainted us with the IAATO guidelines we would have to follow in Antarctica – we learned how to behave around wildlife, and how to cope with the challenging environment. Lunch was very welcome after this knowledge intake to refill our energy deposits! Most of us retreated to our cabins afterwards for a little rest while keen eyes on the bridge were keeping a lookout for birds and other creatures. Different species of Albatrosses had already been spotted, Black-browed Albatrosses being the most numerous ones. But there were also some of the „big guys“ around, Wandering and Royal Albatrosses. Cape Petrels kept on accompanying the ship.
In the afternoon Sandra introduced us to some of the features of Antarctica: Her lecture covered aspects of history, geography, climate as well as wildlife, and it also explained how Antarctica had received its name, being opposite („anti“ in Greek) the North („arktos“).
Just before dinner the sun came out, and we met in the bar for the first „recap“ of our journey. This kind of daily summary and outlook we immediately came to like very much: Christophe gave us an idea about the next day, and thanks to Jean-Baptiste’s – aka JB – visualization we had a good idea about the wingspan of the birds around, from the rather tiny Wilson’s Storm Petrel (with a wingspan of 45 cm) to the giant Wandering Albatross (up to 3 m).
Having been gently rocked by wind and waves during the night, after breakfast we gathered in the lecture room for our mandatory introduction to the helicopter operations we hoped would be part of our journey. Excitement was in the air as we learned about how to prepare for the flight, how to safely board the heli, and how to safely step out of it again. First this briefing was given in English, followed by a Chinese version for our fellow passengers.
After lunch we were called to the bar for the mandatory biosecurity protocol also known as the vacuuming party! We made sure that all our outer garments were clean, so as not to introduce any species to the pristine Antarctic environment. By now, the weather had cleared, and the sun came out. Seabirds circled the ship; at one stage we counted a total of seven Light-mantled sooty Albatrosses. It was a beautiful afternoon in the southern Drake Passage, with Ortelius making good speed approaching the South Shetland Islands.
Before dinner all of us gathered in the lecture room, eagerly awaiting Christophe’s update on our planned activities, and the final helicopter briefing. But the star of the show was the ice-chart – it looked like we would indeed be able to get quite close to Snow Hill Island for our planned visit at the Emperor colony! In addition, Christophe introduced the helicopter groups, and our youngest guest was the lucky one to draw group G (or „Golf“) as the one who would be the first to go for the practice run – but of course this also meant the „Golf“ members would be the first ones who would have to get up the following morning. There was much excitement about the news, and we shared our thoughts and experiences during another delicious dinner.
The wake-up call came very early this morning, at quarter past six. Looking outside, we found ourselves traveling in a wonderland of snow. Snowflakes sailed from the sky, huge icebergs and smaller ice floes came slowly traveling by – a very different experience compared to the Drake Passage. It really felt like Antarctica proper now! Over night Ortelius had made her way through the Antarctic Sound, and now we were about to enter the Weddell Sea.
The Hotel team had prepared a light breakfast; juice and delicious pastries were available in the bar. Soon afterwards we started the long-awaited practice run for the helicopter operations! We put on warm clothing and our lifejackets, and then, according to the announcements made, it was time for each group, one after another, to gather at the muster station or get ready. By then, the two helicopters had been brought out of the hangar and onto the heli pad, and we went through the procedures very carefully: adjusting our lifevests, being assigned to one of the helicopters, receiving ear protection, and following the staff to the heli deck. Here Janke was in charge. Upon her signal we stepped out onto the deck and walked towards the helicopters. It was an exciting moment to have the first proper look at those flying machines, and even more exciting to actually climb in, sit down, put on the seat belt, and imagine taking off. We were even allowed to take our time in taking some photos, and many of us sure made good use of it!
By the time we had finished our exciting practice Ortelius was surrounded by icebergs, with sea ice floating in between. It did not take long before the Expedition Team spotted the first dark spots on ice floes, and soon it was confirmed: Emperor Penguins! They were far away still, but it made us feel that we had come a little bit closer again to where we wanted to go … Other dark spots were identified as a Weddell and a Crabeater Seal, and when Ortelius approached one of the flows slowly the seal curiously lifted its head before it went back to its snooze. Huge icebergs created a beautiful backdrop.
We kept sailing through this beautiful landscape made of ice, water, and sky. In the afternoon some of us chose to watch the amazing BBC wildlife series movie „About Penguins, Using Spycameras“ – as entertaining as it was educating!
Our recap consisted of the outlook by Christophe, Bill’s „Looking, seeing, thinking, doing“ about many aspects of the history of exploration in Antarctica, and of some useful advice by Sandra regarding achieving better photos.
The weather had started to improve during late afternoon, and after dinner the team decided to try for a reconnaissance flight to check out the conditions. We gathered at the top deck, cameras in hand. It took a while until we finally heard the engine start, and then the helicopter took off from Ortelius, making its way towards the west. In the evening light, the big icebergs at the horizon started to glow against the dark skies, and the ship slowly moved through sea ice in different stages of forming.
Those who kept watch at the top deck witnessed the helicopter returning, circling the ship before landing. Most of us had gone to bed by then, though – the program for tomorrow stated that the start could be very early since at 4 o’clock the pilots, the Captain and the Expedition Leader would assess the conditions!
But no wake-up call came in the middle of the bright Austral summer night – the conditions had not been good enough to allow for helicopter operations. So after a good night of sleep we gathered in the restaurant for breakfast, wondering what the outcome of the recon flight might have been. Soon we heard Christophe announce that the scouting party had found the sea ice to be much too instable to land on it; hence we would not be able to fly to the Emperor colony as we had hoped to do. The same general ice conditions that had allowed us to enter deep into the Weddell Sea prevented us from landing on rotten fast ice.
But the Expedition team had immediately come up with a Plan B that included a helicopter landing on Seymour Island and a walk to the Adelie penguin colony there. It was not meant to happen, though: As soon as the helicopters had shuttled the staff ashore and the guides had set up the base camp, as soon as we were about ready to start, huge clouds came rolling in, bringing snow and low visibility. Just in time the team returned with snowflakes dancing in the sky.
So Plan C it would be, consisting of another attempt to find Emperor penguins, this time by zodiac. In order to be allowed to board those sturdy inflatables, we had to attend the mandatory zodiac safety briefing during which we learned how to safely get into and out of the rubber boats, and how to behave while being on a zodiac cruise. Straight after lunch we could test our theoretical knowledge: We boarded the zodiacs for a cruise along the ice edge, hoping to find wildlife.
It was a beautifully moody Antarctic afternoon, snowflakes falling out of an overcast sky. Following the ice edge, we spotted a couple of the all-white Snow Petrels, Wilson’s Storm Petrels flitting from iceberg to iceberg, and soon we came across the first penguins. Adelies they were, dressed up for an evening out in their black-and-white coats. Some rested on the ice, some were tobogganing on their bellies, some simply stood and watched their visitors.
The ice was a sight itself: flat floes, huge tabular bergs, cracks and crevasses, hills and humps, torn edges and smooth shapes – all there, including every shade of white. From our guides who were driving the zodiacs we learned about the difference between sea ice and glacier ice, about the behavior of penguins, about the seals we saw (Crabeater and Weddell), and we had a lot of fun taking photos of the very impressive scenery and, of course, of ourselves.
After almost three hours out in the white wonderland we returned to Ortelius where hot showers, tea, coffee and hot chocolate were in high demand. Dinner came in handy, too! While the ship was zigzagging around icebergs and ice floes to reach more open water for the night, we were treated to the eagerly awaited part three of the movie „About Penguins, Using Spycameras“.
Again, the outside world looked and felt different this morning. A layer of snow covered the decks. With 40 knots of wind, increasing, snowflakes came tumbling down. Still we were not willing to give up on our search for Emperor Penguins, and hour by hour the expedition staff and keen guests watched from the bridge, bino-ing every ice floe and every berg.
After breakfast, in his lecture Bill introduced us to the history of whaling in the Arctic, closely connected to Antarctic waters where the whalers went when they had exploited – or rather, over-exploited – the fishing grounds in the North.
While Ortelius was pushing on against the wind, we could watch waves splashing all over ice floes. Huge tabular icebergs were passed. A couple of Adelie penguins rested on flat floes. Snow petrels seemed to play with the steadily increasing wind. It was a true Antarctic experience – and an impressive reminder of the forces that are in charge here. Whoever dared to go outside to have a look soon felt the power of the gusts and the bite of the cold. Well before noon, the wind reached 60 kn with visibility deteriorating and lots of bergy bits and growlers in the vicinity so the Captain and the Expedition team decided to turn around. It was not an easy decision to make but with the forecast promising increasing wind speeds and the ice drifting towards us at considerable pace, there was nothing else left to do.
During lunch, busy hands had set up the Ortelius’ ship shop at reception, and when we came out of the restaurant, we were greeted by a manifold of souvenirs including cuddly penguins, t-shirts, fleeces, and jackets. But there were also badges and magnets for sale, as well as memory cards and mugs. We had a hard time deciding which items to take home, either for ourselves or for our loved ones.
Some of us then seized the opportunity to catch an afternoon nap while others gathered in the lecture room for watching the famous BBC series „Frozen Planet“. Outside the winds started to howl as our trusted ship approached the Antarctic Sound. With bad visibility and bits of ice around, it was a tough time for the bridge crew. Hour by hour they steered Ortelius through the waves, carefully making their way around the ice. Astonishingly enough, even at 60 knots of wind and more, Snow Petrels and Skuas appeared out of nowhere, made a few turns in front of Ortelius and vanished again. Originally, the team had had the idea of trying for a landing at Brown Bluff, hoping for some shelter, but of course with those conditions it was out of the question. A few guests less than usual came for dinner, but those who did enjoyed it nevertheless – despite the adverse outside conditions.
While we had felt in our sleep that the ship had been moving, the world looked pretty much the same in the morning – 60 knots of wind, ripping spray from the wave crests, low visibility, growlers hiding in the waves. Only sometime after breakfast did the visibility increase enough to actually allow for us to proceed towards the North and out of Antarctic Sound. Huge tabular bergs were blocking our way, and good visibility was crucial for navigating those ice-clogged waters.
Many of us chose to attend Arjen’s lecture on penguins (translated into Chinese by John), some preferred to watch from the bar how the ship approached the incredibly massive chunks of ice. It seemed like Ortelius was surrounded by walls of white, and only careful observation and inching closer in the howling winds revealed an opening between the icy obstacles. They were of great beauty, though: finely chiseled cliffs with vertical walls, overhangs, caves and cracks, with wind gusts ripping the snow off their tops.
Finally, Captain and the Bridge crew found a way through the maze, and it did not take long before the weather applauded their achievement: The dark clouds began to lift, and a little later even the sun came out! Some whales were observed quite close to the ship, most likely Minkes, two Gentoo Penguins porpoising, and a raft of shags.
Still, it was constantly blowing more than 40 knots, and Christophe informed us after lunch that the conditions were not yet good enough to allow for the scheduled scenic helicopter flight, but that we would wait for another two hours until we were really due to proceed to the South Shetland Islands to be in time for Great Wall Station tomorrow morning. Maybe we’d get lucky, and the weather would improve enough so that we could give it a go?
Many fingers were crossed during those hours but unfortunately to no avail. The winds stayed at more than 40 knots which meant it would be impossible to fly the helicopters. So in the afternoon we set sail towards our next destination, leaving the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Sound behind. As soon as we started, the now-familiar snow squalls were back as well, and in low visibility Ortelius made her way across the Bransfield Strait towards King George Island. Meanwhile, keen Polar adventurers watched part two of „Frozen Planet“ in the lecture room.
We observed Minke and Humpback whales close to the ship, and keen birders spotted Snow Petrels and Antarctic Petrels. In today’s recap prior to dinner, Johan asked some of us to join him in the tale of Nordenskiöld’s famous expedition, much to the fun of everyone. Bill talked about the meaning of pictures, and Sandra familiarized us with terms like Nautical Mile, cable, and knot – words we had heard quite many times during the previous days (and were likely to hear again in the days to come).
Upon entering Maxwell Bay we were greeted by wonderful evening light. Huge icebergs towards the west stood like monuments against yellowish clouds. It was a very atmospheric lighting stage set-up, especially as the past hours had been almost exclusively grey.
We woke up with high hopes to be able to finally make a landing today. But again, the weather was clearly not on our side: Icebergs had been drifting into the bay making navigation difficult, and the wind was still blowing 35 to 40 knots, with gusts up to 45 knots, putting white crests on top of the waves. (According to all forecasts, it should have been an almost perfectly calm morning with next to no wind.) So after an early breakfast there was nothing else to do but wait. Eventually, the sun came out, and we marveled at the stunning scenery surrounding our ship.
But still the winds were at gale force so the Captain and the Expedition team decided to lower one zodiac in order to assess conditions at the gangway, in the water and upon landing on shore. The original plan had been to zodiac cruise around some impressive icebergs prior to making landfall at Great Wall Station but as soon as the zodiac set off towards its destination from the relative protection Ortelius had in the spot she stayed in, we could clearly see that conditions were adverse: The boat was bouncing in the waves, spray flying everywhere, and it did not take long before everyone inside was quite soaked. Still, they made it around the corner and to shore where they delivered gifts for the station personnel. Upon their return, Christophe – who had been in the zodiac – informed us that it was clearly not possible to follow our original plan, and that there would be no landing today. This was reinforced by Captain declaring it unsafe to continue zodiac operations due to wind and swell. Of course this was a disappointing message, not easy to digest. But at the same time it was also an impressive reminder that nature is in charge in Antarctica …
So we departed from King George Island in beautiful sunshine, Ortelius making her way around icebergs of various sizes and shapes. The scenic ship’s cruise continued in Bransfield Strait before we passed through Nelson Strait again. Here we encountered even more icebergs, many of them being huge tabular ones, and right in between we found Humpback Whales, whereas some Chinstrap penguins had chosen the odd flat-ish iceberg as their resting place. One highlight was the circumnavigation of a chinstrapped iceberg looking like a strange kind of reptile itself!
It was a beautiful Austral summer afternoon, and the views from the outside decks were just gorgeous while the seas remained amazingly calm. Many of us took advantage of the sunshine and the scenery and filled their memory cards with images. No „Frozen Planet“ is complete without part three, though, and the final episode found just as many fans as the first two.
With the swell slowly increasing, Ortelius continued on her way north, still passing huge tabular icebergs even hours after we had left the South Shetland Islands behind.
A long, gentle swell let Ortelius sway during the night, and most of us slept very well. During breakfast we passed through a bank of thick fog. Until then, the odd small piece of ice had been floating in the endless blue fabric of the ocean, as far north as 59 degrees South.
A Wandering Albatross was gliding past Ortelius shortly before Christophe invited all of us to the bar for his talk about this aptly-named enigmatic species. During the morning we could also observe Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels, a Grey-headed Albatross, four Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses circling our ship, a Blue Petrel, and a Black-browed Albatross. Later in the day, the observers added Antarctic Prion and White-chinned Petrel to their list. Until noon, the winds increased steadily up to 25 knots – again much more than what had been forecasted. Ortelius’ movements were still gentle, though, so we did not feel uncomfortable.
After lunch the sun came out. At the same time, strange things were going on in the restaurant: It was turned into a manufacturing station for Chinese dumplings! Busy hands kneaded the dough, formed loaves, rolled, sliced, cut, collected, transferred, filled, closed, and finally set the little dumplings onto trays. More and more were added, accompanied by much chatter and laughter, all the while Ortelius followed her course towards Cape Horn.
After the dumpling session Jean-Baptiste told us about his overwintering in Antarctica – he spent 14 months at the French station Dumont d’Urville, doing research on penguins and various other bird species. In his very impressive, informative and funny presentation he explained what it was like to live in places as remote as this.
In the daily recap Arjen covered the Antarctic Convergence, and Bill interpreted another painting of the sea. And then it was time to devour the dumplings – yummy!
The morning saw Ortelius sailing towards Cape Horn which was already visible in the distance. It had been another amazingly calm night in the infamous Drake Passage.
After breakfast, just as we were about to settle with the day’s program as published on the whiteboards, Christophe called for a meeting in the lecture room. He had great news for us: The calm conditions would allow for a helicopter flight around Cape Horn! It was as if in the end, after all of the adverse weather and conditions we had faced, we would still have some luck. How often you have a sunny day with beautifully calm conditions at this notoriously windy place known for rocking every ship? How often do the authorities allow not only for an approach closer than 12 nautical miles but even grant their permission for helicopter operations, thanks to our Chilean pilots?
At great speed we got ready. Astonishingly enough, not everybody opted for the scenic helicopter flight – but those who did surely had an absolutely amazing time. Everything went exactly as practiced in the training run a few days earlier: We dressed warmly, taking only our cameras with us, and gathered at the muster station behind the bar. Here, staff would hand us ear protectors and check our lifejackets, then guide us towards the heli deck where officer Janke was in charge.
One by one we climbed into the chopper, and before we even knew it we were airborne already. Off towards the Cape we went, getting a good look at this famous place, then swinging by the rocky coastline before returning to Ortelius. The pilots did an amazing job allowing for great photos of our ship – which looked quite tiny from high up in the air – before they gently touched down at the deck with the big painted letter H. As we stepped onto the deck, we could not help but smile from ear to ear – both thumbs up to the Captain and his crew, to the pilots and the expedition team for making a dream come true!
After our return to the ship, Hotel Manager Michael called for lunch. As soon as possible afterwards many of us made their way to the outside decks again. Sadly enough, it was time for the first good-bye: The helicopter pilots prepared the flying machines for their home-run to Puerto Williams, then set off towards the coast with a final loop around Ortelius. From the top deck we waved our good-byes to them, silently thanking them again and again for the amazing experience.
In the afternoon Sandra invited us to the lecture room for a presentation on Oceanwide’s expedition destinations in the Arctic: Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and Greenland, home of the Polar Bear, icebergs, and beautiful geology. She finished just in time with the appearance of the delicious afternoon treat in the bar, and in addition we were to return our rubber boots.
Before we were to have our special farewell dinner, we gathered in the bar for a farewell cocktail with the Captain and the Expedition team. Outside, the sun was shining, the sea was almost flat calm, and we could see the coastline in the distance. The special finish to the day was the BBQ buffet we had in the restaurant, accompanied by delicious apple punch made by Kati. Later in the night, we would arrive in Puerto Williams for Chilean customs clearance, then proceed to our final destination Ushuaia. But for now, the conditions were perfect for a pleasant evening on the outside decks, taking in the views.
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 much more time had actually passed than just ten days. After we had enjoyed our final breakfast on board, we waited for customs clearance before we disembarked Ortelius, and the staff waved good-bye from the pier as our buses were leaving and we were about to begin another journey: the one homewards (or, for a lucky few, an extension of our Antarctic adventures in other locations) …
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 1.748 nautical miles / 3.237 kilometers
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Tuomo Leskinen and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!