OTL24-16, trip log, Antarctic Peninsula with South Shetland Islands
20.12.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a breezy, humid afternoon in Ushuaia when from the end of the world (“Fin del Mundo”) we were about to embark on a special journey. At the pier, our new home for the next ten days was waiting: Ortelius, the ship that would take us to the beautiful Antarctic Peninsula. We climbed up the gangway for the first time and were welcomed by the Hotel Team who showed us to our cabins. There we found our luggage and in no time we settled in and started to explore our new surroundings.
It was not so easy not to get lost in the hallways and on the staircases so when Expedition Leader Sebastian called all of us to the lecture room on deck 3 for an introduction to the ship, we eagerly listened to Hotel Manager Michael explaining about decks and amenities, providing vital orientation. Third Officer Warren acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel and with the essential do’s and dont’s on board. Soon afterwards it was time for the mandatory safety drill and we gathered in the bar, donned our big orange lifejackets and went through the roll call to make sure everybody was there. Then we had a look at the lifeboats while Ortelius was leaving the pier. Our Antarctic adventure had begun!
With the landscape of the Beagle Channel passing by on either side, we made our way out towards the open sea. Birdwatching had already begun with Black-browed albatrosses gliding past, and there were even a few Magellanic penguins porpoising! At 19:15 we gathered in the bar again – it was time to meet Captain Ernesto Barría and the Expedition Team for a toast to our voyage. Afterwards we enjoyed the first of many delicious meals on board. The ship’s movements were very gentle and even as we reached the beginning of the infamous Drake Passage later in the evening, they remained subtle – we certainly took this as a good omen for our voyage!
Upon waking up we found Ortelius surrounded by the seemingly endless expanse of water called the Drake Passage. The skies were grey but with the ship still only moving very gently and the wind being a soft breeze, it certainly was a morning “Drake Lake”!
We took to exploring the breakfast buffet awaiting us and then the lecture program followed starting with a talk by Sandra. This initial talk introduced us to the white continent of Antarctica, touching on many interesting aspects such as climate, history, wildlife, and how Antarctica got its name. Arjen followed with his lecture on sea birds which were not too numerous this morning because there was hardly any wind – Albatross species as well as Giant petrels are quite heavy birds which need a considerable amount of wind to take off and glide. The smaller species sighted included Blue petrel, Antarctic prion and Wilson’s storm petrel.
Having restocked our energy depots at lunch, we were ready for the next step towards Antarctica: In the lecture room, we received our rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets. A little while later, Tobias acquainted us with the geology of Antarctica. We learned that what we had thought to be one landmass was in fact a collection of pieces (geologically speaking) of which the Antarctic Peninsula happened to be the most recent addition. In the afternoon, Ortelius’ movements increased a little but the Drake Passage was still amazingly calm given the stories we had heard prior to our departure. The seas remained so peaceful that after dinner some passengers even decided to try their luck on building a house of cards in the bar!
Just before dinner, the Expedition Staff invited us to our first recap of the voyage. Recaps, as we were to discover soon, were a great way to both look back and ahead: The Staff members would give mini-talks about interesting topics, and Expedition Leader Sebastian would introduce us to the plans for tomorrow. There was a day of activities ahead which would include mandatory briefings and lectures as well as the biosecurity protocol. In addition, we got to know the story behind the man our ship was named after, cartographer Abraham Ortelius. Soon after, Hotel Manager Michael called for dinner.
Surprise, surprise: The morning started significantly colder than the evening before as during the night, we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence and were now officially in Antarctica based on the biological boundary. We hadn’t finished breakfast before our next surprise: Humpback whales in front of the ship! They were very active with tail slaps, pectorial slaps and peduncle throws and one even breached. Of course, the whales also showed their tails regularly shortly before diving. We spent some time with these magnificent creatures before the ship had to resume its course towards Antarctica.
After this amazing encounter, it was time to dive into the daily routine: briefings galore! We gathered in the lecture room and the bar to listen to Seba and John respectively 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.
Later this morning, Sandra introduced us to photography and gave us valuable advice on how to improve our pictures. How it is not just picture taking, but more about picture making, how we can arrange the horizon and where to put our main component of the picture. She also introduced us to some of the technical terms and settings, such as f-stop, shutter speed and ISO and which to use for what kind of picture.
With all this new knowledge, it was time to regenerate our energy with a delicious lunch served to us in the dining room.
The break did not take long as we saw further whale blows all around the ship. In order to not miss anything, it was time to come out onto the outer decks to watch these majestic animals. At one point, two Fin whales came fairly close to the ship on their voyage through the open ocean.
Thereafter, the kayakers met with Pete for a briefing and an introduction into the activity including the distribution of the gear and setting up the kayaks.
Equipped with a whole lot of new information and Antarctica now being in sight on the horizon, we proceeded to the next necessary step towards visiting the White Continent: the vacuum-cleaning of our outer garments 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.
All this was followed by another meeting. This time, it was the campers meeting with Arjen and John to prepare for a fantastic night out in Antarctica.
To round up the day, we had our daily recap with the plans for our first activity day in Antarctica and a description of the Antarctic Convergence by Sebastian before finishing off the day with a lovely dinner.
Overnight, we had crossed the Bransfield Strait and by 07:00 we were approaching our first Antarctic operation at Orne Harbour. It was cloudy but bright and calm, and we soon found ourselves in another world.
The zodiacs were lowered at 08:30 and soon afterwards we set off cruising through the sea ice and icebergs. A small Chinstrap penguin colony was our first stop and here we watched as the birds arrived and departed their summer home on the icy shore. Antarctic Cormorants nested alongside the penguins in this bare and exposed location. On the cliffs above small numbers of Antarctic Terns were seen, and heard, as they too breed here. A Leopard seal appeared briefly offshore on patrol and on the lookout for an unwary penguin. We cruised around the bay enjoying the glacial landscape, mountains and overall.
Back on board for lunch and Ortelius sailed onward toward our next stop at Brown Station in Paradise Bay. En route we passed close to mighty icebergs and had an unusual sighting of a Leopard seal with her pup resting on an ice floe.
We had two options this afternoon and each was a great Antarctic experience. We landed at the Argentinian base where the only residents were Gentoo penguins. Some folks climbed up through the deep snow for a good overview of the base, the bay and the surrounding mountains. A zodiac cruise offered more icebergs, and the highlight was the sighting of a pod of Orca close to the ship and some of the zodiacs. They moved fast into the inner bay – it looked like they were on a hunting mission. Perhaps they could hear something under water?
Back on board for recap, briefing, dinner and maybe some sleep before continuing to experience more of Planet Antarctica the next day – at least for those who spent the night on board Ortelius.
For the ones brave enough to go camping in Antarctica, it was a busy evening: Right after dinner, we grabbed the camping gear we had been provided with and headed to the gangway. As Leith Cove was blocked by ice, the Expedition Team had decided to change the camp site to Station Brown in the middle of Paradise Harbour. Zodiacs shuttled us ashore and with our big waterproof bags containing mattresses and sleeping bags we made our way up to the first snow plateau. Here, under Arjen’s supervision we dug out snow pits and placed our gear while Ortelius slowly retreated to the far end of the bay. Then it was time to wander up the path to get a great view over Paradise Harbour in the evening light. A blow was heard and a Minke whale was briefly sighted. There was the chatter of the Gentoo penguins by the station and the cry of a gull or tern flying by. Quite tired after our day’s adventures, we soon worked our way into the many layers of our sleeping kit and fell asleep in the snow of Antarctica!
For some of us the day started really early. At 04:30 the campers were awoken from their sleep close to Station Brown. After a short (and for some, also a cold) night in our sleeping bags it was time to get up and clear the camp. But what a night it had been: How many people on Earth can say they have slept on the continent of Antarctica, surrounded by high mountains and spectacular glaciers? That definitely made up for the short and cold night. Back on the ship we could sleep a little in the comfort of our own bed before we were woken with the rest of the passengers to have breakfast. After breakfast Sebastian introduced us to the plans for the day. We started in Neko Harbour. It took us a little while before we arrived there, as this narrow bay deep into Andvord Bay was quite full of ice. On land we could walk up towards a viewpoint or enjoy the many Gentoo penguins, either on the way up or near the beach. It was not very easy to walk on the soft snow, but the views were definitely worth the effort.
Back on board we enjoyed lunch and after that we headed into Errera Channel towards Danco Island. Here the Expedition Team had brought snowshoes ashore for us. For the people up for a little hike up the hill, the snowshoes made the walk a bit easier through the soft snow. At the plateau we had a great view over the channel, packed with icebergs and surrounded by spectacular glaciers. Halfway we met a colony of Gentoo penguins who clearly didn’t need any snowshoes to make their way up (and were still faster).
For those who didn’t want to walk that high, there was enough to see on the shore. Antarctic terns, Snowy sheathbills, Kelp gulls and Brown skuas were fighting over small fish and even smaller crustaceans; every now and then a few Gentoo penguins would come out of the water to take the penguin highway up to the colony. For those who wanted a zodiac cruise was offered around the huge icebergs in the channel, in all different shades between white and blue.
Back on the ship there was a short recap where Mick played us a recording of the sounds of the Gentoos. Even more importantly he pointed us towards the sounds of silence Antarctica may also offer. After that Arjen helped us look for a flying penguin (and told us why they don’t). The search ended with some surprising (and funny) footage …
After another nice dinner some of us headed to the bar for a well-deserved drink, while others went to their cabins for a good night of sleep.
Ortelius continued on a southerly course in the sheltered waters of the ice-filled Gerlache Strait. Our first activity of the day wasn’t on the daily program but came as a great surprise: a pod of Orca (type B) swimming ahead of our ship as we approached the northern entrance of Lemaire Channel. It was an extended family group consisting of male, female and subadult animals as is the usual mixture in these Orca pods. Good views were had and good photographs too!
We knew from reports that the Lemaire was blocked by ice but we decided to zodiac cruise the channel as much as possible. Down with the zodiacs and off we set southwards towards the towering icebergs. We stopped to look and marvel at nesting Gentoo penguins on the steep slopes of this former ravine cut by a massive glacier a long time ago.
At the southern end we encountered the sea ice and frozen within it, were massive bergs. This gave us some perspective on the scale and perhaps the amount of ice which exists in Antarctica. Driven by wind and currents these bergs would travel for hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers before they break up and melt.
Back on board Ortelius we enjoyed our usual fine food as the ship steamed north this time, destination: Port Lockroy. Although the weather and light wind conditions were favourable the ice and wind direction was not. Large amounts of drift ice had entered the bay where the station is located. A scout zodiac was launched and the staff battled through to eventually reach the landing. The four resident Antarctic Heritage staff were watching and waiting to exchange mail and greetings! Unfortunately, it was not possible to land our guests due to the massive amount of ice, and another option was investigated in the nearby Dorian Bay.
Following an inspection of the landing at Damoy we got the go-ahead to proceed ashore. This site has two huts, one British, one Argentinian, and it was formerly the location of an ‘airstrip’ where Twin Otter aircraft could land on the snowy ridge close to Port Lockroy.
We hiked up and across the deep snow and had great encounters with nesting Gentoo penguins, Antarctic skuas, Snow petrels and a sleeping Weddell seal. Many more photos were taken – some of the animals, some of the spectacular scenery and light, some of the people of course – and overall the afternoon landing was greatly enjoyed.
Late back on board but in good time for dinner we once more set course through the Gerlache Strait. A beautiful evening sky, wonderful cloud formations and a full moon had us all out on deck late into the evening. Sebastian briefed us on the next day’s landing possibility, and that rounded off another day of spectacular Antarctic activity.
The day started with a nice breakfast followed by Sebastian 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 Ortelius 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. From the ship we could see 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. The pressure cookers were used to boil the bones, meat and entrails 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 atmosphere of the old whaling station, a sobering reminder of such a destructive era of exploitation.
The wind was strong and the waves were scratching Ortelius’ hull. We could see our Expedition Team boarding the first zodiac and heading towards shore, bouncing through the waves with water splashing into the zodiac. They made it to shore to assess the situation but unfortunately had to stop because the waves were too high for safe operation. As the conditions did not improve, the decision was made to cancel the landing – the waves at the gangway were too high making it very difficult to board the zodiacs. Instead, we went for a ship’s cruise through the inside of the caldera, also called Port Foster.
Eventually, we started our way out of the island, again squeezing through Neptune’s Bellows. Then we were on the lookout for whales and we did not have to wait long before a Minke whale showed up. Blink and you miss it – the whale was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
After lunch, Seba announced that we would be passing by the stunning scenery of Livingston Island soon. So we dressed warmly and went outside to enjoy the views with Ortelius sailing into English Channel to Discovery Bay before continuing through Nelson Straight towards the Drake Passage.
In the meantime, Pete introduced us to whales that we had seen throughout the trip and described how to identify them. Thereafter, the ship suddenly turned into a busy colony of ants as the Crew performed a fire drill, including donning firefighting equipment and lifejackets while radios were blaring. The exercise did not take too long, peace and quiet soon being restored.
Just before dinner, the Expedition Team invited us to the daily recap. The plans for the following day were quite simple: we would be sailing the Drake. Tobias explained why ice is blue, Arjen talked about Snow Petrels and their favourite pastime of spitting stomach oil at predators. Christophe’s grande finale beat them all: He introduced us to serious research about penguins under pressure when pooing – the perfect way to start dinner. Bon appetit!
The morning saw Ortelius out in the Drake Passage continuing on a northerly course for Ushuaia. Thanks to ‘moderate sea’ conditions the night had been reasonably comfortable and relaxed. With no wake-up call we enjoyed a late breakfast. Sea time also gave us a chance to write journals, postcards, send e-mails and generally catch up on everything that was put on hold upon arrival in Antarctica.
At 10:30 Mick gave a presentation entitled ‘Penguin Summer’ which provided us with an overview of the breeding cycle, habitat and seasonal change effecting several species of penguins. It looked at the challenges and pressures involved in reuniting with a partner from previous years or finding a new one, setting up home with a good nest, finding food and avoiding predators. All of this has to be achieved in the short Austral summer and the penguins do it, not with ease, but with great determination and courage in a very difficult environment.
This ship was noticeably quiet today and there was no queue at the lunch buffet! At 15:00 Christophe gave his presentation entitled ‘Bird Migration’ about the great journeys some birds undertake in order to breed successfully in areas many thousands of miles from their wintering grounds. Christophe revealed the reasons for migration, the difficulties faced during the travels and the theories which attempt to explain the origins of this behaviour.
At 17:00 Seba introduced us to ‘Antarctic Ice’. The talk and images covered the many types of ice and ice formations. Definitions of icebergs, brash ice, bergy bits, growlers were explained. Many of these types of ice we had seen ourselves in the past few days! Seba also described ice shelves and in particular the Larsen ice shelf and the latest news regarding the changes taking place there.
We had our recap and briefing in the bar at 18:30 and there were many empty seats! The wind speed had increased throughout the afternoon and we were now pitching into a force 7 north-easterly wind. For most folks it was an early night after dinner with the prospect of the sea conditions remaining the same overnight, which they did.
After a slightly bumpy night we awoke in calmer waters. Even though there was still a fair amount of wind the wave height had reduced due to the protection we now received from South America. It still took a couple of hours before we could actually see the islands south of Patagonia. As the ship became increasingly more stable the outside decks were re-opened and we could go outside to watch the albatrosses and Giant petrels flying around the ship. Several different species were seen: the gigantic Southern Royal albatross and Wandering albatross, but also the smaller (but still big) Giant petrels and the small Sooty shearwaters – the latter being proof that we were getting further north.
Those less interested in birds could attend a lecture by Tobias about the different atmospheric phenomena one could see in polar regions. After lunch it was time to settle our ship’s accounts – and to hand in our rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets. Who would have thought at the beginning of the trip we would become so attached to these items?
In the afternoon an episode of ‘Frozen Planet’ was shown. Even though many of us had watched it already at home, it meant a lot more as we now had seen several of the places in real life. Now slowly came the time for packing and saying goodbye to our new friends.
Our last dinner on the Ortelius was preceded by a slideshow the guides had prepared during our trip. It was great to see what we all had been doing during the past nine days. After this the Captain thanked us all for being here and we toasted our safe return to the Beagle Channel. Sebastian now took his time to say thanks to all who made this trip possible, the Captain and his Crew, Michael and the Hotel Department and the Expedition Staff and Doctor. During dinner Michael called all the people working in the Hotel Department so we could thank them as well.
The evening was spent packing leaving just enough time for a few last drinks in the bar before saying goodnight we all headed to bed. The last time on board Ortelius – for now …
The last morning! What more needs to be said? – Returning from our Antarctic adventure with time flying by, we had now arrived back to the pier in Ushuaia where our adventure had begun. 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. We stepped down the gangway once more, our luggage already waiting for us on the pier. The last photo, and then another one, and yet one more, adding to a treasure vault of moments to be cherished. Although we had seen and experienced so many different things, we felt that we had caught only a glimpse of Antarctica but the White Continent quite clearly had gotten hold on us. By the time we were disembarking, some of us had already made plans to return to the magnificent White Continent …
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 1.615 nautical miles / 2.991 kilometers
Southernmost position: 65°04.9’ S / 063°56.7’ W (Lemaire Channel)
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.