OTL27-16 Trip log | Antarctic Peninsula
25.01.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a nice day in Ushuaia with clouds moving and the occasional moment of sunshine as we walked up the gangway for the first time and boarded Ortelius, our new home for the next days. As soon as we had received our cabin keys and settled in, we began to explore the ship, enjoying the views from the outside decks.
Once everybody was aboard, we gathered in the lecture room on deck 3 for the first meeting with the Hotel Team and Expedition Staff. Hotel Manager Michael introduced us to the Ortelius and her features, providing orientation. Whoever had so far felt a bit lost in the hallways and on the staircases now gained confidence to go explore the ship for him- or herself. We got informed of the safety features of the vessel, and were introduced to a few rules to keep in mind on board a moving ship. Then it was time for the mandatory safety drill, and equipped with our big orange life jackets we first mustered in the bar, and then went out to the outside deck behind the bridge to have a look at the lifeboats. By then, Ortelius was about to leave the pier, and we watched the houses of Ushuaia and the snowy mountains disappear in the distance. While sailing the Beagle Channel towards the open sea, excitement took over completely – we were ready to embark on our Antarctic Adventure!
A little bit later we found ourselves in the bar, meeting Captain Sergei Kotlovskii for a toast to our voyage. The Expedition Staff members introduced themselves, and Expedition Leader Sebastian Arrebola told us about the plans for tomorrow. Then Hotel Manager Michael called for the first of many delicious dinners on board Ortelius – and hungry we were, at least as much as we were excited!
As expected, we entered the Southern Ocean in stormy seas. To give us time to adjust, the morning program was cancelled and with time, we hopefully gained our sea legs. The wildlife has no problem with the stormy weather and several species of seabirds flew close to our ship. Southern Royal albatross, Giant petrel, Pintado and many others appeared and disappeared from view. It became brighter and sunny and the sea colour changed from grey to blue.
After lunch conditions improved, and Louise gave her Kayak briefing. Later in the afternoon Barbara introduced us to the Seals of Antarctica in her presentation. There was time to enjoy being on deck and observe the seabirds as they came close to Ortelius, circled around then went away, perhaps to seek some new strange object in their habitat. At 18.30 we had our first recap and briefing in the bar. Christophe showed us the comparative size of some of the birds we had seen around the ship today. Dinner was served at 19.00 and it was good to see the dining room almost full again!
Kayaking briefing with Louise:
Fourteen eager paddlers turned out for our very first meeting while at sea for the first of two briefings. One alternative joined us, determined to be on the water, too….Rich and wife Cheryl would round out our hearty group.
We learned about the many joys and some of the dangers paddling in these frigid waters of Antarctica, while also learning how to avoid these pitfalls but what to do in case something should go “not as planned.”
Fortunately, by the end of the trip, we could all say we held a clean record…no capsizes!
But first, it was time to try out the paddling.
We were a varied group, with most of us having little to no experience, save for two very bright shining stars who brought a collective 55 years of paddling experience with them. We were honored to have them among us and with their kind and pleasant dispositions we never felt intimidated by their very high skills. Indeed, they were given free reign to enjoy paddling a wee bit off course as they chose…having an innate sense of our location, group speed and collective abilities.
We woke up to a much more benign Drake Passage, our ship gently rolling under mostly blue skies. Several sea birds, including wandering albatross, storm petrels, and sooty albatross, were close around the ship and at times flying right past the bridge giving us a better appreciation for the size of these birds. The day was filled with activities preparing us for our visit to Antarctica, so in the morning the IAATO briefing outlined the guidelines of wildlife viewing and overall etiquette of behaviour on land in Antarctica. Following this rubber boots and life vests were handed out, and we all felt one step closer to Antarctica and getting off the ship for our first adventures. All the while the condition of the sea remained fairly calm, and we were able to take in some much-appreciated sunshine on the deck.
The afternoon started with the biosecurity check, where we had to vacuum our outer gear we were planning to wear on shore and make sure that we didn’t intentionally bring non-native species to our landing sites. In the late afternoon special briefings for the kayaking and camping groups were held.
The rest of the day we were able to just enjoy the open ocean and watch the birds come and follow the ship for some time before departing again to forage and follow their own itinerary. In the late afternoon and early evening we were lucky to have two pods of fin whales and a pair of humpback whales come close enough to the ship, and just before recap we sailed past our first icebergs of this trip.
The adventurers on Ortelius woke up in the Bransfield Strait, not far from Smith Island. The conditions of the night forced us to slow down a bit so we still had some hours before reaching Portal Point, our first landing on this cruise.
Mick and Christophe gave lectures about penguins in English and French and the weather improved, which gave everyone a good chance to come on the outside decks and bridge to enjoy the scenery of the Gerlache Strait.
After Lunch, Sebastian gave a briefing about this afternoon’s landing, as well as tomorrow’s program at Port Lockroy and Port Charcot.
Finally the time of the first excursion came in the middle of the afternoon and the passengers enjoyed a very beautiful first and well-deserved experience. A continental landing at Portal Point to start with, with excellent photo opportunities of stranded icebergs all around and an amazing zodiac cruise with Adelie, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins, as well as crabeater seals, a leopard seal, and a young elephant seal among blue-eyed shags, kelp gulls and Antarctic skuas.
The late dinner was followed by a quick «go to bed» as tomorrow the program will start at 6h30 with sailing through the Neumayer Channel.
We woke up this working as Ortelius was heading into Neumayer Channel. This channel was named after the German geophysicist Georg von Neumayer who initiated the first polar year in 1882/83. It is well known for its magnificent mountain scenery and many people were on the outside decks enjoying the first class Antarctic landscape. Rounding the last corner we could see the dark buildings of Port Lockroy. This historic British Base is now a museum, shop and one of the southernmost post offices in the world. While some indulged in some retail therapy, buying souvenirs, books and maps, others watched the Gentoo penguins and the snowy sheathbills next to the buildings, stamped their passports, or wrote some Christmas-postcards. We also visited Jougla Point where Antarctic cormorants nest well camouflaged inside a Gentoo penguin colony. A nice pathway through the compact snow was made by our expedition team, along which we could see some whale bones and five Weddell seals resting on the fast-ice.
The weather was warm and sunny and after lunch we cruised through the famous Lemaire Channel, which is an 11 km long fiord between Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, and only 800m wide at its narrowest point. Icebergs and 300m high cliffs were mirrored in the calm water, and towering glaciers with huge icefalls fringed both sides. As Ortelius glided through the Lemaire cameras worked overtime and it was hard to decide which was the best view. Upon exiting the Channel a large icefloe blocked our path, and the Captain and his officers decided to break some ice, which was an unexpected highlight of the day. We tried to reach Salpétrière Bay, on Booth Island, but some big icebergs were in the way and we turned to plan B: Pléneau Island. We enjoyed a gorgeously sunny afternoon with dramatic views of the stunning peaks of Booth Island and the Peninsula, as well as some quality time with Gentoo penguins. We savoured the expansive view from the top, looking out over the pack ice and the stranded icebergs. It was good to be back on board and enjoy the great dinner that our chefs had prepared for us.
Port Lockroy was to be our first paddle outing and while it looked inviting it was very clear the wind would be too much for us.
Our guide, Louise, went ahead early on for a scouting mission but reported later the only shelter at all was behind the station’s little island in a spot the size of a swimming pool.
It was just as well, it gave us a chance to visit the museum and shop as well as having a look at a dense Gentoo colony and two sets of whale bones, left over from the whaling era.
Pleneau Island was a different story entirely! “Just like that” the weather went from crummy to absolutely brilliant and calm so we then had our first taste of true Antarctic paddling.
Getting into the kayaks was a bit daunting but once settled we began to feel the easy rhythm of working together to move the kayak forward. We found it a bit tricky with the footpegs and turning but in all due time it became apparent and we adapted to our new mode of transportation.
With the very high peaks of Booth Island shimmering nearby we paddled along a group of low islands with interesting channels and a few close by penguins here and there. Some appeared to be exiting the water after a good feed and were enjoying the quiet time on shore, preening before returning to the colony and their egg incubating duties.
Louise found us a large patch of sea ice and we could attempt mimicking the ship as it had just broken through the sea ice in the Lemaire Channel a couple hours earlier. It was great fun ramming the ice then backward paddling through the slushy edge.
We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day, filled with sunshine and sparkling dark blue water.
Camping at Hovgaard Island:
However, the day wasn’t over as after dinner some of us decided to give up their warm cozy cabins and instead go camping. A group of 30 campers with their guides Barbara and Christophe were quickly assembled after dinner and camping gear was handed out to all. Sebastian, Chris, Joe and Mick were the taxi drivers taking the expectant group of campers for their night on the frozen Hovgaard Island! A very pleasant slalom run by zodiac for a while between the myriad shaped icebergs delivered the campers and guides on the Island. A Weddell seal and some skuas at the landing site welcomed everyone. Until one o`clock in the morning people were busy with preparing their sleeping place or enjoying the silence and wilderness of Antarctica. At around three o`clock snow started falling and temperatures dropped. At 5:30 Barbara woke us up and our short overnight stay ended, definitely an experience!
For our hard working expedition team the day started very early as the campers had to get picked up from Hovgaard Island. The campers arrived on Ortelius at around 6:30 after a cold snowy night. We enjoyed a hot shower and a nice breakfast before we started the day with a zodiac cruise around the Yalours Islands. It was not cold but cloudy during our tour around fantastic blue icebergs. Our guides spotted a well fed female Weddell seal on ice and we were able to take nice pictures. We watched a colony of Adelie penguins and blue-eyed shags, with many big cute chicks.
We then spent the afternoon at Petermann Island! This island is only 2 km2 and belongs to the Wilhelm Archipelago. The small bay where we landed has its own name “Port Circumcision”. In 1909 the French explorer Jean Baptiste Charcot and his sailing steam ship “Pourquoi-Pas?” spent one winter in this small bay to perform seismic and magnetic measurements. At the landing site next to an Argentine hut some elephant seals were resting and molting, lifting their heads or tails from time to time; very entertaining.
We were able to spend time with Adélie penguins again with their cute fluffy chicks! Some blue-eyed shags and Gentoo penguins were breeding among them. We were very lucky with the weather, the sun was shining, no wind and hardly any clouds in the sky, it couldn`t be better. After a little hike to the other side of the island and a nice view, we went back on board. Just before dinner Sebastian asked us to come out on deck, as Ortelius was breaking a big ice floe just at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel. It was spectacular to see the ship fight through the ice, as well as around 60 crabeater seals lying on the ice. During dinner we watched the sharp high mountains with glaciers passing by, another exciting day came to an end.
The Yalour Islands location was a sweet morning paddle going around the small islands with Fred darting in and out of the channels nearby.
We’ve found an easy pace among our group with time for sightseeing, photo snapping yet keeping steady movement.
We get time for a little break now and then and this time we had chocolate passed around….it really hit the spot out on the water.
Nearing the end we paddled straight for the ship while it was under power and moving forward…a steady and determined group of us passed the ship.
The Second Mate was in the bridge and gave us a big hearty wave as we passed by the bow…it was thrilling to be next to our very big (and moving) ship.
In the afternoon we began our paddle at Petermann Island in a breeze with small waves. Our first stop was inside a small cove where we could watch easy going Gentoos emerging from the water and preening again…being so close made us realize just how big they are…especially when their bellies are full from a good feed. The protected cove was delightful as it was tucked into a quiet spot and was very private.
Our intention was to circumnavigate the island (“it’s only four miles, guys”) but three miles into it we became aware of the impossibility of the task…ice. Dense ice, bergy bits and small icebergs were all crammed in together around the south end of the island, making passage impossible…even the ship wouldn’t be able to navigate it later on.
We accepted a ride back to the ship with no shame and loads of pride in having paddled such a good distance.
We think we’re getting the hang of this!
We approached Neko Harbour in the most beautiful blue world of icebergs, sunshine and clear skies. Our ship was surrounded by ice and this slowed down our operations. There was much to see and photograph and the sunshine was warming. On shore the staff had flagged the route and soon we were climbing the snowy trail to the viewpoint. Some crevasses were evident so we had to be careful. Gentoo penguins were nesting en route and we watched as they walked up and down through their deep-in-the-snow highways. The view from the top was magnificent; mountains, azure sea and sky, massive icebergs, the steep angle of the nearby glacier and Ortelius below, looking like a toy ship! There was time to observe the Gentoos as they arrived and returned to the sea, tended to their chicks, and took little notice of our presence.
As always, when having fun, the time passed quickly! Soon we were sailing again bound for Danco Island. After lunch the weather changed to cloudy but it remained calm. The Errera Channel was almost blocked by icebergs but our ship anchored and soon we were ashore again. This landing offered three choices; a hike to the top for a good overview, a gentle beachcomber walk, and, as always, penguin therapy. Antarctic terns were nesting by the beach and this attracted the attention of skuas and gulls. The small terns are very tough and they are not afraid to counter attack the much larger predators. During our landing, Ortelius had to ‘weigh anchor’ and stay adrift, as always-drifting icebergs came closer and closer to the ship. The size of the bergs was made clear by the proximity of our ‘little’ ship next to them!
We were back on board at 17:30 and soon thereafter had recap and briefing. Tonight is BBQ night and the galley served us a wonderful array of fine food and beverages. The sea remained calm as we sailed northwards towards the South Shetland Islands. A long and great day had passed and for most folks it was time for an early-ish night.
Neko Harbour was our next stop but as promised it appeared to be a beautiful hike in a gorgeous setting…and on a brilliantly sunny day as well so we all fourteen opted to sit out the paddling and head up the walk next to the ice field…apparently loaded with crevasses.
We all snapped loads of photos and marveled at the scenery and ice all around.
Danco Island in the afternoon became our next focus. Having successfully paddled a few miles the day before we were given the challenge of another circumnavigation. Hoping for whales we were constantly on the lookout and alert for any sound or movement. We had one false alarm when Rob yelled “Whale!” just as we were being set up for our ‘moment of silence’ which caused us all to take off like crazy, hoping for a sighting.
This also wasn’t meant to be, Louise thought we perhaps had seen a Slinky Minke…so called as they come up for a blow, a sideways glance then they disappear forever.
We paddled hard along the very long ice face of the island, then rounded the point into the wind and more….ICEBERGS. These were larger and a bit more intimidating so we boarded the zodiac and beat a trail back to the ship. In all we paddled four miles…it felt great to add mileage.
The day started early today, with an overcast sky and a slow approach towards Neptune’s Bellows to sail inside the caldera of Deception Island. We arrived at Whalers Bay and after breakfast our first landing in the South Shetland Islands and of our last day before heading back across the Drake Passage started.
Once ashore we explored the remnants of the whaling station and the British Antarctic Survey station. Along the shore we found brittle stars, several skuas lying and resting, a very young male Weddell seal, who had hauled out a short distance from the shore for a long rest, and many pieces of different types of algae.
A short hike along the shore and up to Neptune’s Window allowed us a view of the Antarctic Peninsula, the same view from which Nathaniel Palmer in 1820 spotted the seventh continent for the first time.
Brave swimmers enjoyed the POLAR PLUNGE!
We left Whalers Bay and headed back through Neptune’s Bellows and sailed North towards our last landing of the trip, Hannah Point on Livingston Island. Shortly after lunch our ship encountered a pod of orcas, as well as a few humpback whales. We were extremely lucky as the orcas became rather playful, came right to the ship, diving just below the surface in front of the bow and staying with us for some time before heading off again to mind their own business.
A little bit later than expected because of our fantastic encounter we arrived at Hannah Point. We were split into three groups, and were guided on a walk from the landing beach through the rookeries of chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, past a pile of elephant seals to a nice viewpoint atop a cliff from where we were able to see Deception Island again. Amongst the chinstraps we spotted a single Macaroni penguin, bringing the total to four different species of penguins on our trip. From there we followed a well-worn path to Walker Bay where we could look at some of the fossils found in this area. As a special farewell, two male elephant seals started to fight right next to our departure point and we were able to watch this experience from a short distance.
As we departed the South Shetlands and set sail north across the Drake Passage we sailed past many big icebergs, some tabular, some sculpted by the sea into beautiful forms, and one of the last ones was particularly beautiful with fantastic blue colours and a big cave eroded into the berg by constant wave action.
Mysterious Deception Island loomed in the distance as we approached Neptune’s Bellows for safe passage into Whaler’s Bay.
Having now mastered the routine of getting people settled into their kayaks thirteen of us this time took off from near the beach in search of fur seals…they must’ve gone to the tropics, they were nowhere to be found.
But we did manage to paddle on and out through the Bellows, veering left past the numerous caves and toward the large stack and swelly gap. Fred and Neil explored the caves. Fred being in his element (a whitewater kayaker with 35 years’ experience, many of those years also as a high level instructor and certificate examiner, BCU) and Neil, his constant companion for worldwide kayaking trips, zipped into and out of each cave…timing the swells perfectly, of course. Fred was happy to report later the caves were quite deep…he could hear and see the rush of the waves as they hit the backs.
For the rest of us we paddled passed the swelly bit between the stack and shore to turn and have a look at it from the other side. The swells didn’t seem too large and with a low tide it seemed reasonable to paddle through the gap. With the wind in our faces we paddled hard and fast and all made it through without mishap!
If we’d given thought to attempting this at the beginning of the trip most of us would’ve laughed and said, “I don’t think so!”
But with our newfound skills, confidence and practice we were up for the challenge.
What a load of fun it was and extremely gratifying. It was also fun watching Fred as he rammed through swells breaking against the rocks…now we have something to aspire to in paddling! We accepted a ride to the beach and watched as some of our fellow paddlers joined the fray in having a Polar Plunge. Jason and Beverly had on their penguin costumes just for the occasion.
All in all it was paddling perfection…a wonderful way to see Antarctica on the mostly quiet waters, away from the ship and other forms of human intervention. We were thrilled to have this amazing opportunity and privilege to experience being on the water surrounded on all sides by this breathtaking scenery and these wonderful marine mammals and birds.
For many of us, this will be the highlight of our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. In total, we enjoyed five kayak outings with all fourteen present, but for the last one when Rich sat it out. Well done, Lamb family (Graeme, Mel, Em and Georgie) and friend Vicki, Nikki and Ingrid (from Most Timid to Most Improved), Jason and Beverly (our resident penguins), Rob and Emily, Rich and Cheryl and of course Fred and Neil (our two sub-guides and intrepid paddlers).
You all made this such a splendid and memorable experience. It was Paddling Sublime in the Extreme!
Our final day at sea began with Mick’s talk about Greenwich meantime and navigation at sea, two very interesting topics.
After a break for coffee and perhaps a stroll on deck, we reconvened in the bar where Joe told us everything about ice!
After lunch it was time to settle our accounts, return our rubber boots and lifejackets and begin to think about packing for our homeward journey.
At 6.30pm we met together in the Bar where Alain, the French tour leader, offered a slideshow of highlights from our voyage, followed by farewell drinks with our Captain and a final toast to Antarctica. As we made the final leg of our voyage towards the Beagle Channel we enjoyed a fabulous last dinner and the opportunity to meet and thank the hotel staff who have looked after us so well throughout. We enjoyed the food, the company of our fellow travelers and before retiring and packing, we gathered in the bar for a last drink.
Sadly enough, the last day of our Antarctic adventure had come – it was time to say goodbye to travel mates, new-found friends, and Ortelius and her crew. 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 months had actually passed.
After we enjoyed our final breakfast on board, we waited for customs clearance before we disembarked Ortelius. It took a while to say goodbye and thank you to the ship’s team, a few last photos had to be made, and finally the staff waved from the pier as our buses were leaving. We were about to begin another journey: the one homewards – or, for a lucky few among us, an extension of our Antarctic adventures in other locations …
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Sergei Kotlovskii 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.