OTL27-17 trip log, Ross Sea
17.02.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
At 14:00 the time that we had all been looking forward to had finally come. We walked through security at the pier of Ushuaia and made our way to the Ortelius. The MV Ortelius looked very small next to the big cruise liners Hamburg and Crown Princess, but none of us wanted to change places. We were heading for the Ross Sea, a place the people on those ships could only dream of (or well, maybe not, they might prefer the warmer places).
After we had been welcomed by Michael and Sava, the hotel manager and his assistant and brought to our cabins by other members of the hotel department, we had some time to wander around the ship and get to know our new home for the next month.
When everybody was onboard we were welcomed to the Lecture room for the mandatory safety briefing by Warren, the third officer. After that Michael gave us a brief virtual tour around the ship, telling us, among other useful things about toilet paper usage and slow internet service! Next it was time for the Life boat drill. Hopefully this was the only time we had to wrap ourselves in those big, bulky orange life jackets, but it was good to have some practice in case of emergency.
With all of these mandatory briefings out of the way, nothing kept us in Ushuaia anymore and we could untie the ropes and sail away. Antarctica: Here we come!
Just before dinner we were called to the Bar for a Welcome toast with the
captain. Captain Ernesto Barria welcomed us all to the ship and wished us a very good, but above all a safe voyage – followed by self-introductions from the Expedition Team.
Our first stop was at Puerto Williams, Chile. Just after dinner the last people joined the ship: our helicopter pilots and mechanics flew their helicopters from this small military town in Chile to the Ortelius. Many of us went outside to watch their arrival, excited that soon we would fly in these machines as well!
The remainder of the evening was spent unpacking, drinking in the bar, chatting to new (or old) friends or having an early night. We were all very excited about what was to come. But first of all the Drake Passage. How bad would that be?
Today is the first of two days at sea – perfect for getting over the jet lag and exhaustion of travel. After a refreshing night’s sleep we awoke to smooth seas, with just enough of a gentle swell to know we were truly on our way to Antarctica.
When we’d finished breakfast, most of us dressed warmly and headed out on deck to do a bit of bird-spotting before Arjen’s 11.00 lecture on ‘Drake Passage Seabird Identification’. This came at a timely moment in our voyage and gave us many tips on how to work out if we’re looking at a Shearwater, Prion, Petrel or Albatross! Unsurprisingly, it was well attended (in the Lecture room on Deck 3) and afterwards people were out on deck again to put their new-found skills into practice.
A buffet lunch was available from 12.30 and most welcome it was too. Spinach soup to start with, then casserole with pasta and salad, followed by profiteroles (or fruit for the health-conscious!). Fortunately there was a brief lull after this feast for digestion to take place before Boot Handout at 14.30 in the Lecture room. Boots are all-important to our expedition, enabling us to walk through mud and penguin guano and across ice, so trying them on with thick socks to find a good fit was an important part of preparing to arrive in Antarctica. With the help of Expedition Staff – all of whom have a PhD in boot fitting – we were all kitted out by afternoon tea time. Hint: it’s important to stay away from the Bar area at 16.00 if you DON’T want to be tempted by the cake-of-the-day…
As well as cake there was a lecture on offer – Henryk was in the Lecture room to talk about ‘The Maritime History of Cape Horn’, in which he not only explained how Cape Horn acquired its name and infamous reputation, but also gave us anecdotes connected with its best known sailors and its graceful tall ships. He even quoted the well-known and beautiful poem engraved on the Cape Horn albatross memorial (originally in Spanish):-
‘I am the albatross that awaits at the end of the world... I am the forgotten soul of the lost sailors, rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world. But they did not die in the fierce waves, for today they soar in my wings towards eternity, in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds’.
We dispersed to our various activities after this, reconvening at 18.30 in the Bar for our first ‘Recap & Briefing’ of the trip. This provides the Expedition Team with the opportunity to talk of today’s events and allows Cheryl to brief us on what is happening next – and of course, it’s the perfect forum for a Q & A session over a drink or two! Today’s main subjects were appropriately enough seabird wing-span and Sir Francis Drake; we’ve seen lots of flying birds and are right in the middle of the Drake Passage after all.
Michael summoned us to dinner at 19.00, during which we got to know more of our fellow-passengers and made up the calories we’d lost whilst standing outside on deck taking photos during the day (Wilson’s Storm petrels, Cape petrels and a Wandering albatross that circled the ship a number of times were our main targets).
After dinner there was a showing of ‘Round Cape Horn’, a black-and-white classic documentary featuring the sailing ship Peking, hilariously narrated towards the end of his life by the man who took the original moving camera shots. For me, not only the sailors, but the ship’s dog too was the star of this gripping, real-life adventure story.
The bar was open until late for us to talk, read, play games, drink various beverages and generally enjoy the experience of an evening at sea in the Drake Passage.
Today was the second day of our voyage at sea towards the Antarctic Peninsula. We had a comparatively calm and beautiful morning – grey clouds with scattered blue patches of clear sky. We felt some movement of the ship, as it sailed through 2 m high dark-blue waves, with occasional bright white crests.
The air was cooler than yesterday – we have definitely already crossed the Antarctic Convergence.
Some of us were awake long before breakfast, enjoying the beginning of our new adventure and trying to identify the seabirds following Ortelius. We saw a few Southern and Northern Giant petrels flying nearby. They most likely were not nesting birds. The petrels had already started to moult and had new primary feathers on their wings, but were missing secondaries. Five White-chinned petrels were gliding above the waves and it was unusual to see them here, so far south. In the distance, Black-browed albatrosses followed the ship – and just after breakfast two majestic Wandering albatrosses (the largest flying bird in the world) gradually closed distance with our ship.
The scientific name of the albatross genus is Diomedea. The name derives from the Greek name of Diomedes (Διομήδης) – the king of Argos.
After breakfast, our Expedition Leader Cheryl gave us a presentation on the IAATO regulations before our first planned landing in Antarctica tomorrow. This presentation was immediately followed by a Zodiac Safety briefing, which was presented by Assistant Expedition Leader Lynn.
After lunch we had a Vacuum cleaning session (some people like to call it a “vacuuming party”!) to clean our used clothes and equipment, so as to avoid the possible introduction of foreign organisms into Antarctica.
Later Dmitri gave a well-illustrated presentation: “Life on the Edge”, in which he provided information on the identification and biology of birds of the Antarctic Peninsula - including Penguins, Petrels, Shags, Sheathbills, Skuas, Gulls and Terns.
Just before dinner we had a Recap & Briefing, in which we learned from our Expedition Leader Cheryl about our plans for the next day, with Victoria describing the three stages of Deception Island’s history – whaling, powered flight and science.
We had a very interesting and eventful day, and of course we are looking forward to our first day of landings tomorrow.
Most of us were up extremely early this morning, eager to get our first glimpse of Antarctica as we arrived at the South Shetland Islands. It had not been a calm night – more rocking and rolling than expected and as we headed into breakfast the decks were still closed and the weather was not looking very promising.
After hard-boiled eggs, sausage and a delicious range of fresh fruits however, we were more fortified to face the cold and the decks were reopened as soon as we reached the vicinity of Half Moon Island. This island is tiny – a crescent shape, loomed over by the much larger, glaciated Livingston Island. As we approached winds were gusting at 40 – 50 knots, which were much too strong for safe zodiac operations. However, Captain Ernesto did his best to show us as much as possible; we circumnavigated the island and despite getting blown about when we ventured out on deck, managed to get some good images and even see Chinstrap penguins, both in their rookeries and porpoising in the sea.
The decks had to be closed again as we continued on our way to Deception Island and came out of shelter. Arjen gave us his first lecture on ‘Ten Tips for Better Nature Photography’ at 11.00, once we’d had a hot drink and gathered upstairs in the Bar (where there is less movement than in the Lecture room). This provided us with some basic photographic tips, applicable to all camera-owners, at every level of experience! Later on in the trip, Arjen will be continuing with the more technical stuff…
Lunch was soon upon us – spaghetti bolognese and salad today. Shortly afterwards Cheryl announced our approach to Deception Island and we sailed successfully through Neptune’s Bellows and into the caldera of a still active volcano at about 14.00.
As the afternoon wore on, so the weather improved. Overcast sky yielded to sunny spells and by the evening, the sun was shining with the weather seemingly set fair for the morrow. There was almost no snow left on the beach at Whalers’ Bay, enabling us to see all the more clearly both the beauty and the desolation of Deception Island.
Streams of meltwater from snow threaded their way across the pebbles. Bright red and yellow chunks of rock lay dispersed over the black volcanic beach. Steam rose from geothermal activity along the shoreline - and standing out in this natural wilderness to a Historian like myself, were the remains of human artefacts. These took the form of fuel tanks, blubber cookers and graves from the whaling era (1911 – 31); traces of Deception’s flying history (from 1928) marked by a tractor in the sand and an aeroplane hangar; and several decaying buildings which had been occupied by British Antarctic Survey scientists from the 1940s to 1970.
Many activities were on offer: some folk chose to hike with Darrel up Ronald Hill; others headed in the opposite direction and climbed to the glorious viewpoint at Neptune’s Window – a notch in the caldera wall from which Nathaniel Palmer, American sealing captain, is said to have first recorded a sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1820; others were captivated by a small group of Chinstrap penguins strutting and preening at the water’s edge; and yet others visited all of the historic relics in turn, which included remains of water boats, wooden oil barrels, metal detritus – a hotchpotch of equipment remaining after human occupation of Whalers’ Bay ended.
The brave (or mentally challenged?!) went for a ‘swim’ at 17.00, before returning to Ortelius by zodiac. Stripping off outer layers, running into the sea as fast as possible, maybe swimming a few strokes and then heading for the beach again at full speed was the order of the day. No one lingered for long since any warm water (such as described in Lonely Planet...) lasted for the first half metre, after which the temperature shot down to about 2 degrees C. Changing back into clothing with one’s feet and legs coated in Deception Island black grit was a challenge, but we were all back on board by 17.45 and able to start a relaxing evening.
Recap & Briefing was held at 19.00. After talking briefly about today, Expedition Leader Cheryl told us of tomorrow’s plans and then introduced Team Disney, who are here to take mainly aerial shots of Adelie penguins for various films and documentaries. Ours is the perfect trip on which to do this!
Curry or cod for dinner, followed by a special treat: Expedition Team member Shaun presented a slide-show of photos he took in 1967 when he worked on Deception Island. As he was here when a major volcanic eruption took place, he had quite a story to tell…
Both before and after Shaun’s talk the views from deck were fantastic – as the sun descended in the sky, an orange light illuminated our first Antarctic icebergs, proving a paradise for photographers. And so to bed, to ready ourselves for tomorrow’s sights and sounds. Sleep well.
We were approaching the Lemaire Channel entrance just after breakfast and it was the perfect day for a traverse of one of the most photogenic spots on the Antarctic Peninsula. We were all on the bridge or outer decks, cameras at the ready. Captain Ernesto did a grand job of weaving through ice floes and avoiding icebergs as we threaded our way between pinnacles towering to either side. Crabeater seals congregated in groups on small, flat floes, sliding off into the ocean at our approach; penguins porpoised through the water and wherever we looked the scenery was just stunning. Keen photographers enjoyed capturing the reflections of ice and rock on camera, zooming in for special effects of texture.
Once at the southern end of the Lemaire Channel we prepared to make a landing. Even before we went ashore, our Pléneau anchorage treated us to a fine Humpback whale (with an unusually-shaped tail) display, beautifully backed by the glaciers coming down to the sea.
Then, not 100m from the ship and just as we stepped into the Zodiacs an Orca sounded, its dorsal fin like a triangular sail.
We were excited to step ashore on Pléneau Island, where several small Gentoo penguin rookeries provided good photo opportunities as we made our way to the top of the island. We had to look closely to spot tiny chicks hiding under their parents.
Then we returned to Ortelius for lunch, while our bridge officers repositioned the ship off Petermann Island.
Both of today’s landings had historical significance in the annals of Antarctic history: French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot twice visited this segment of the Antarctic Peninsula, first on Français (1903 – 05) and later on Pourquoi-Pas? (1908 – 10). Pléneau Island is named after his industrialist friend (and photographer) Paul Pléneau, who joined him on the former expedition. When asked if he would come along, his response was: ‘Where you like. When you like. For as long as you like’. A wonderful attitude!
And our afternoon landing was on Petermann Island. This was Charcot’s choice for his second exploratory expedition. The Pourquoi-Pas? was anchored for the winter at Port Circumcision and some of us were lucky enough to find the letters ‘PP’ engraved in rock just exposed at low tide. Petermann Island is the only site on Antarctica where penguin study records go back well over 100 years. Charcot’s two expeditions charted over 1000 miles of coast line, named dozens of geographical features, produced reams of scientific data, over 300 photographs and were awarded a number of gold medals for their outstanding achievements.
At Petermann Island we landed next to the Argentinian refugio and our first stop was to admire and enjoy the Gentoo rookery clustered at its base, complete with small chicks. There were several walks on offer, including a full round circuit. These walks – as well as splendid views - took in a mixed colony of Adelie and Gentoo penguins. It was fascinating to see the differing sizes of the chicks – Adelie chicks being ‘teenagers’ by now, but Gentoo chicks still newly-born and helpless. Down below us, close to the sea, a small number of Blue-Eyed shags were shuttling from sea to nest, busy feeding the family – as many as three chicks at once, rendering the nest very crowded!
The walk traversed to a super view point - a lovely “Sea and Iceberg Scape”, then headed back downhill to the refugio and a Zodiac ride home. No wind, sunshine most of the day - what luck!
Cheryl briefed us about tomorrow’s events on our return. Tomorrow is the day we will cross the Antarctic Circle and reach south of 66°33'; this is a point of the earth few people ever cross! Just south of there, we hope to make a landing at a science base occupied by the British from 1956 – 59 – Base W on Detaille Island. Victoria filled us in on its history and then we made our way down to the Dining room for dinner. Conversation was convivial as we talked over the events of our long day.
Today was billed as an ‘Expedition Day’, which meant our activities would even more than usual be dependent on weather, sea ice and iceberg behaviour…
Breakfast was served from 07.00 – 08.00, leaving us free to prepare ourselves (body and spirit) for the ceremonial moment of reaching 66°33'S. The weather was in our favour and so we wrapped up warm and headed onto the outer decks with cameras and GPSs. When the moment arrived the ship’s horn was sounded, leaving every single person on board in no doubt that we had penetrated the final boundary of Antarctica; from now on the sun will rarely set on our activities. Congratulating each other on this iconic event in our lives, we realised that we can guarantee to cross 66°33' again on the way OUT of the Ross Sea too!
Crystal Sound lay before us and we sailed on towards the mouth of Lallemand Fjord and our landing site at Detaille Island, Base W. This historic British Antarctic Survey hut has been empty most of the time since 1959. Established in 1956 for scientific work during the 1957 – 58 International Geophysical Year, the location turned out to be unfortunate; sea ice proved too thick for safe re-supply by ship from the north, yet too thin to permit safe dog-sledding to the main peninsula. After three years the men and dogs had to make an emergency exit across thin ice, taking with them only a minimum of equipment and scientific records; they were never to return. One particular sled dog (named Scott) ran away.
They could not wait for him…but he turned up safe and sound and fat as butter about three months later at a distant base. Presumably he had successfully hunted penguins to keep himself alive!
For today’s polar travellers, Detaille offers the rare opportunity to re-enter a late-1950s time capsule. Apart from making the building weather-proof, nothing has been changed. Because only 50 people can land on Detaille Island at the same time (it is small) and just 12 can enter the hut together, we divided into two groups for today’s operation. The first half of the passengers came to shore, whereas the second half went for a Zodiac cruise in search of ice and wildlife.
As historian, I had the good fortune to be positioned at the hut. Shaun and Cheryl did a great job of opening window shutters to let in enough light to see by (there used to be an electricity generator, but alas, no longer) while I checked out the interior and got the brush out, so that we could clean our boots thoroughly before entering this fragile building. There was plenty to explore both inside and out. Not only were there many angles from which to photograph the wooden hut itself, with its jaunty green-checked window curtains, but there were a number of associated outbuildings on the island, together with radio masts, bitch-and-pup pens and great views.
Base W consisted of one long corridor, with nearly all the rooms off to the left. Amongst storage rooms, larders stuffed with canned food, a radio room and laundry area, three rooms in particular stood out: two were bunk rooms arranged around a cosy stove, with jackets hanging on hooks, long-johns strung up to dry, home-made scrabble board and shelves full of books striking a homely note. The other was the kitchen and dining area, where 1950s magazines (including ‘Tit-bits’!!) were spread on the table and a number of our passengers recognized the kitchen range from their parents’ or grand-parents’ homes! Right at the end of the building was the latrine (not currently in use…) from where we retraced our steps back to the entrance to make way for the next group.
A good time was had by all, both in Zodiac and on shore. A few lucky passengers spied a Leopard seal basking on an ice floe during their Zodiac tour, but all of us were rewarded by magnificent scenery. By the time we headed back to the ship for a late lunch and Captain Ernesto turned our bow south and west into the Bellingshausen Sea we felt we had maximised our time on the Antarctic Peninsula and experienced a great variety of what it had to offer.
The weather continued magnificent as we sailed out of Crystal Sound and the decks continued busy. Icebergs, ice floes (some with seals) and cloudscapes reflected in the open water kept our cameras clicking and the afternoon sped past. And there was one more special moment to come. Just before Recap & Briefing we heard the PA announcement we had all been looking forward to – ‘Big Bird’ on an ice floe. Yes! Our first Emperor penguin was out there, distant at first, but our Bridge Officers did a grand job of edging nearer so that eventually we could all see this glorious bird with the naked eye as well as through binoculars or camera lens.
At 18.00 we gathered for our now familiar Recap & Briefing session in the bar – an extended version for Happy Hour! Cheryl advised that we would be spending another two days at sea before nearing Peter I Island, then handed over to Expedition Staff for a Q & A session. And Arjen covered a topic many of us had been asking about – who exactly was Abraham Ortelius, after whom our ship was named?
Time for dinner and a relaxing evening at sea. Bon appétit!
This morning we woke in the Bellingshausen Sea, to a sunny morning complimented by a flock of about 30 Southern fulmars. These beautiful, soft grey-patterned birds look almost identical to the northern version, and are a joy to see at sea. Pintadoes (Cape petrels) also occasionally came and went around the ship, but generally, we had a quiet morning. The drop in temperature since departing the Peninsula could be felt in the air, but with no wind it was easy to spend too long outside and end up with very cold hands, noses and ears. We finally got to hear from Victoria in a full lecture, where she presented a great review of the major players in the discovery of the Antarctic Peninsula, including Gerlache, Charcot and Nordenskjold.
Immediately following on from lunch, we had our vacuum party - the staff borrowed all the vacuums from Michael the Hotel Manager, and we cleaned all of our used gear. Bags, pockets, hats and gloves got a good hoovering, and poles and tripods got their first dipping in Virkon, the disinfectant best designed to shelter Antarctica from any northern contamination. The sight - and sound - of all of us filling the bar, vacuums going and gear spread for inspection was one most of us never expected!
Once we had completed our cleaning duties, we joined Cheryl down in the Lecture room for our helicopter briefing. The noise in the room was high - we were all excited about the prospect of flying soon. We learned about Mustering and setting our lifejackets to manual inflate, and met the team of South American pilots and technicians who would be taking us up in their three helicopters. Following our briefing, we went up and signed ourselves into Muster groups ‘Alpha’ to ‘Hotel’, then headed up to the bar for a drink and Recap & Briefing. The weather was still quiet and calm as we all retired to bed, and we continued to make good speed towards Peter I Island.
Today was another day in the open sea. But fortunately the Expedition Team had some excitement planned for us. Directly after breakfast we were called to the Lecture room for a recap of yesterday’s helicopter briefing. During this briefing Staff Captain Mika drew group ‘Echo’ to start as the first group for our first helicopter outing. Now we had completed all the mandatory briefings and we could begin with the real thing, albeit a dry-run.
Group by group we were called, first to the bar, then to the muster station so we could get real practice for how things would work when we actually flew in the helicopters. Our clothes and
life jackets were checked and we were assigned helicopter seats. Then it was time to head to the heli-deck and actually get in both types of helicopter. Many pictures were taken as this was the only opportunity to take photos of people sitting in helicopters or of the helicopters themselves on the heli-deck; once the helicopters are flying, safety becomes paramount and cameras have to be put away. This practice run lasted through the morning and soon it was time to have lunch.
After lunch the question of how close we would be able to get to Peter I Øy (thus called because originally claimed by Norway) became more and more important…but before that, Dmitri was waiting for us in the Lecture room on Deck 3 to tell us about ‘Antarctic Seals’, some of which we have seen already. He described the various species we have encountered and may still encounter, their characteristics and way of life.
This was followed at 16.30 by Darrel speaking on ‘Antarctic Ice’. He especially focussed (through movie excerpts) on ice formation and what its presence means to ships sailing in Antarctic waters – much of his talk coming from personal experience.
Shortly before dinner the first icebergs and ice floes were found and excitement was definitely in the air at Recap & Briefing, as Cheryl outlined tomorrow’s options. After dinner we found ourselves completely surrounded by ice. What a spectacular evening it was. The nice, low evening light lit up the big ice floes and the even more massive icebergs that had become trapped in the sea ice. Seals were all around, mainly Crabeater Seals, but we found one Leopard seal which showed up very conveniently close to the ship. We were roughly 35 nm from Peter I Øy by bedtime, but unfortunately visibility wasn’t good enough to get any distant glimpses of it. And we did not know what would happen next!
Despite the heavy ice, Captain Ernesto still kept on steering the ship towards the island during the night. Many of us stayed up late, enjoying this high Antarctic scenery, but also full of anticipation about what tomorrow would bring. Would we be able to get close enough to the island to see it, or maybe even make a landing there?
We already knew yesterday evening that we were close (ca. 30 nm) to Peter I Island, but very thick pack ice obstructed our way. Early this morning we woke up and went out on deck to see what progress we had made overnight.
We could see that the ice covering the water’s surface was not quite as dense as yesterday and we could see Peter I Island straight ahead of the ship, looking south. Our spirits rose, especially after Cheryl’s briefing, when she gave us the information that we would try for helicopter flights to the island. The water (what we could see of it) was calm, the sun was shining and everybody looked happy.
Having made their preparations, the first scout group of staff flew off in the direction of the island. All of us left behind on Ortelius were tense with expectation to find out what would happen next.
It was a long flight and instead of landing, the scout helicopter soon returned to the ship with Expedition Staff still on board.
After her return to Ortelius Cheryl first met with both pilots and Captain Ernesto to assess the conditions and possibilities. Then she gathered all of us in the bar (not for a drink!) to tell us that the snow on Peter I Island’s usual helicopter landing surface had been chiseled away by katabatic winds, leaving a dangerous, pure ice surface unsafe for helicopters to land on. Since visibility over the island itself was poor due to low cloud and fog, Plan B was quickly formulated. Our pilots were happy to offer scenic flights in the direction of the island instead of a landing – definitely a good decision.
Even without a landing, the scenic flight operation took nearly the whole day. Fortunately, the weather improved as the day wore on, so everyone got their turn to fly and take atmospheric photos. Each group was called to the Bar in turn, where Henryk and Victoria ‘checked our tubes’ were unscrewed (changing our life jackets to manual mode as on any aircraft) and that we were appropriately dressed. Then Lynn and Arjen mustered us, assigning each person to a helicopter. We donned our ear-defenders and were soon being guided to our seat in one of the three helicopters (Quebec, Tango or Victor). It was VERY noisy on the heli-deck, but our dry run yesterday had shown us what to do.
It was so exciting lifting off from Ortelius and heading out high over the ice. The surface of the ocean was very picturesque, covered with chunks of sea ice and icebergs. And on the horizon nestled the glacier-covered island of Peter I, illuminated by the sun.
After this helicopter operation our officers began to steer Ortelius out of the ice. The island looked beautiful in the sunshine as we slowly made our way past it and onward towards the Amundsen Sea.
As usual, Cheryl recapitulated our day for us at 18.30, also letting us know what lay ahead for us in the next week. We have 1,485 nm to go before we reach the Bay of Whales, so we must be patient! Victoria spoke about the famous Captain Cook (both a lucky and an unlucky man), who circumnavigated the world three times; he was lucky to be commander of the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle, but unlucky NEVER to see the actual continent of Antarctica. Had he been sailing at 71°S in the region of the Antarctic Peninsula, he would of course have made history as the first man to see this Southern Continent.
Arjen brought recap to a close with an interesting talk about the superstitions of sailors – including how it is unlucky to whistle, mention the animal ‘r_bb_t’, kill albatrosses, or carry women passengers (unless naked!) on board ship…though we cannot be sure how seriously he believes these superstitions since the last one he listed was that it is unlucky to let a staff member sit at the bar too long without a drink!!
After dinner we met again in the chapel (aka: Lecture room) to listen to Shaun telling us Part I of his tale of scientific adventure at the lower end of the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1960s. He illustrated it with slides, but imagine! It all happened in the days before digital photography…
Today is the tenth day of our voyage since we left Ushuaia. We are now on the Bellingshausen Sea, on our way south towards the Amundsen and Ross Seas.
The wind picked up this morning. The sky was grey and we already had a few snow showers after breakfast. There were not too many birds around the ship – mainly Cape petrels and Southern fulmars. To increase avifaunistic diversity, our doctor spotted a Blue petrel crossing the waves in front of the ship.
Before lunch Lynn presented a well-illustrated lecture called “Land, Sea and Poles” in which she talked about the physical characteristics that make Antarctica so special. She also compared and contrasted the Antarctic Continent to the High Arctic.
After lunch Henryk gave his history talk “Belgica: the cradle of scientists and explorers”. In this lecture he provided a detailed description of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition lead by Gerlache, which sailed south in 1897 on the vessel Belgica. Henryk also linked Gerlache’s voyage with his own adventures on the Antarctic Peninsula and told us of his discovery of a new island in 2003 - in the area of the Melchior Island archipelago.
Later in the afternoon we watched an HBO vice film “Our Rising Oceans” in which we observed the effects of climate change on melting glaciers and ice caps. Depressing as this was, it was a timely reminder of the fragility of our world and the especial sensitivity of the polar regions to climatic variation. As Darrel played a brief (but starring) role in this film, it was apt that he was there to introduce it.
Before dinner we had Recap & Briefing, in which we learned from Expedition Leader Cheryl about our progress so far (and how we will reach the Amundsen Sea tomorrow once we pass Cape Flying Fish), also hearing about Antarctic place names and dates from Victoria, with other intriguing contributions from Darrel, Lynn and Henryk. And then Arjen warned us that the final deadline for entering photos into the ‘Peninsula’ section of the photo competition would be this time tomorrow.
Dinner time once again! And afterwards Shaun gave us Part II of his tale, this time focussing on the true heroes under his command – the dog teams, which enabled men to traverse such long, cold distances safely. His photos and verbal account showed us what an individual personality each and every dog had and he really took us back to ‘the good old days’ of dog-sledding in Antarctica (all dogs were removed from the Antarctic continent in 1991 under the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty).
As we gained an hour again tonight, we adjourned to the bar after Shaun’s talk, to discuss today’s events and enjoy each other’s company.
According to the Bridge charts we entered the Amundsen Sea very early this morning, so we are well on our way towards the Ross Sea now! Strangely, the ocean out there didn’t look so different as I made my way to breakfast…
Hash browns again today and also pain chocolat, my favourite; clearly not a day to re-start the diet then. Well, my brain needed feeding as I was due to lecture at 11.00 on ‘Ernest Shackleton and the Greatest Expedition of the Antarctic Heroic age’. Or was it? By lunchtime, most passengers had their own opinion on that! Whatever Shackleton’s status as a hero, an explorer and a leader of men, the tale of what happened during his Endurance expedition is an exciting one.
After being surrounded by ice, his ship drifted at the whim of the floes for nine months before being crushed. Camped on an ice floe, his men watched and waited as currents continued to carry them north for a further five months. Finally, they made for Elephant Island in three tiny life boats…only to realise that no one would ever rescue them from that godforsaken place. So Shackleton and five of his men set out on one of the most famous open-boat journeys in the world, 800 miles to South Georgia. As they reached King Haakon Bay, the James Caird was smashed by a storm and so Shackleton, Worsley and Crean had to walk the remaining 30+ miles through the mountainous interior of this unexplored island to the whaling station at Stromness to fetch help. Meanwhile, Wild cared for the remaining 22 men on Elephant Island who were only rescued by the Yelcho over four months later, when they had almost given up hope of being saved. Three cheers for the ‘boss’!
This talk took us up to lunchtime, since Victoria kept up a steady stream of anecdotes and quotations with which to enliven her account. After some delicious slices of home-made pizza and a hot drink to aid digestion, we reassembled in the Lecture room to meet Dmitri, who was ready to talk to us about ‘Adaptations’. As well as penguins, seals and whales and how they coped with the harshness of the Antarctic environment, Dmitri showed us images of cute puppies and baby tarantulas, assuring us that their mothers found them beautiful even if we didn’t! It was at this dramatic moment in his talk that Cheryl’s voice came over the PA system announcing ‘Orca at 2 o’clock’ and the lecture room emptied out in seconds.
About half of us made it out on deck in time for a close bypass of the ship by a pod of Orca. The rest of us arrived in time to see some distant fins and splashing up ahead and we eagerly peered at the misty horizon for more action, only giving up when our camera fingers got cold. It was a tantalizing encounter – a reminder that unless you are out on deck, you can miss sightings (but we unadapted human beings CAN’T stay outside all of the time!). Dmitri kindly gave us the last 10 minutes of his talk upon our return to the Lecture room and by then it was just about tea time.
A guest appearance was lined up for us at 16.30. Alastair Fothergill had agreed to treat us to his presentation on ‘The Making of the BBC Documentary Series “The Frozen Planet”’. There was standing room only as he began his talk, since there was considerable interest in him and his team of camera-men who have all worked closely on various Attenborough documentaries over the years. He gave us a taste of the challenges, trials and joys of working on these huge projects – involving many years of patient organisation and a fair amount of physical discomfort. Having described the circumstances of various shoots, he then showed us the final product on film – wolves in Canada, Emperor penguins and Orca hunts in Antarctica. We were truly wowed by his stories and deeply impressed by the lengths these men went to get their job right and capture the perfect shot in freezing conditions.
There was time for a stroll on deck before Recap & Briefing, since sea conditions were fairly calm and visibility was improving. Cheryl gave us the usual update on progress at 18.30 over a drink and was followed by Dmitri on sea currents and Henryk with an animation of Shackleton’s daring Endurance adventure. Then dinner time was upon us again.
Despite the fact that we DIDN’T gain an hour this evening (some of us felt quite cheated…) quite a crowd turned up to view Part I of ‘Frozen Planet’ after dinner – a tribute to Alastair from earlier. At first Charlotte was surprised that the bar was so empty, though it suddenly filled up again for a time at 21.30. Breakfast will be at 08.00 again tomorrow, so lots of sleep time still.
This morning’s instruction and entertainment featured Arjen speaking on ‘Orcas’. These amazing cetaceans have been described as ‘wolves of the sea’ and ongoing studies are teaching us more each year about their matriarch-led groups and incredible social networks. Arjen described their characteristics, keen intelligence and hunting techniques as well as explaining how to identify the different ‘types’ according to their colouring and saddle-patches.
After chicken curry and profiteroles (not on the same plate!) many of us were back again in the Lecture room to meet Shaun. His talk was tantalizingly entitled ‘Would you like to meet a Martian? Hunting Antarctic meteorites’. Who could resist this?! Once again he drew on personal experience dating back to the 1960s, when he was involved in meteorite-gathering expeditions pretty close to the South Pole. His talk was part-practical, part-scientific and communicated to us some of the awe he felt at being a member of the team responsible for picking up these ancient rocks that tell us so much about the history of the universe.
A break for tea and then Darrel replaced Shaun in the Lecture room, presenting two films of his own Antarctic expeditions, which highlighted the differences between the still technology of 2009 and today’s drone capabilities. Darrel was on hand to elucidate what we were seeing and answer questions afterwards.
Who would have thought it – after a gloomy morning the afternoon weather improved and improved; the icebergs grew more numerous and more striking. One square, narrow tower must have been 75 ft. tall.
The beautiful light for photographers (and everyone else) caused our regular Recap & Briefing session to be cancelled in favour of getting pictures outside!! By 18.30, brilliant sunshine beckoned us out of the bar and Cheryl rightly believed it wrong to drag us all indoors when outside on deck was the place to be. We came into ice after dinner, with light conditions continuing good too, and those of us out on deck between 21.30 – 22.00 got a positive sighting of an Arnoux’s beaked whale. This mammal is rare, greenish-brown in colour and measures up to 10 m long.
The day ended with a 20-knot SW wind bringing snow flurries and a distinctly cold nip, with cloud backing off and a striking low light. All in all, a good day at sea. And we gained another hour too…
However, we still awoke to a sea day – we are getting into the rhythm now, covering this huge distance round the coast of Marie Byrd Land. We were greeted by driving snow when we opened our eyes and the outside decks were soon crowded with people taking photographs, making snow angels and even in one case, building a characterful snowman (who, sadly, did not survive the AB’s daily hosing down of the bow deck). What a change from yesterday evening’s glorious sunshine – a timely reminder of how quickly the weather can close in in Antarctica.
A scrambled egg-and-bacon or porridge breakfast was especially welcome after all of this early morning activity, washed down with one’s beverage of choice. Henryk was offering an educational experience this morning at 10.00. Those who wished to join his small workshop on how to plot a course on a naval chart were invited to the Dining room for some hands-on experience. We hear there is a waiting list for tomorrow’s identical session!
At 11.00 Dmitri was to be found in the Lecture room, ready to tell us all about ‘Penguins’. This is, of course, an understandably popular subject, leaving both Bar and Bridge fairly empty of passengers. Dmitri satisfied our curiosity about our non-flying feathered friends with a general description of the group including their taxonomy, distribution, ecology, generic adaptations, origin and phylogenesis…and along the way he explained all these scientific terms too, with clear images. Now we know a lot more about penguins’ life styles and idiosyncracies.
You could tell by the queue at the coffee machine when this talk had ended! There was still time before lunch to peruse the Ortelius’ polar library, pick up a crossword, word puzzle or Sudoku – or venture out on deck to enjoy the snow, which continued to fall throughout most of the day, transforming ordinary shipboard deck equipment into mysterious and unidentifiable piles of white crystals. Those of us who come from hot climates were particularly enamoured of the scene. The bridge was a popular place from which to gaze out on the falling snow, especially from a vantage point right in front of the heater. Captain, officers and staff were on hand to answer passenger questions, explain how to read the various screens, charts and radar, etc. Having an Open Bridge is a great privilege and nearly all of us are to be found there on a daily basis, following Ortelius’ progress and experiencing our voyage to the full.
After lunch it was Victoria’s turn to take the microphone in the Lecture room. Today’s theme was ‘The Problem of Longitude: or The Heavens vs. The Clock, Part I’. Thousands of sailors died because captains became lost at sea, leading to long, scurvy-ridden voyages or shipwreck. Dead reckoning was the only navigational aid for hundreds of years. From the sixteenth century onwards, the search was on for a means of measuring longitude at sea, whether by reference to the movements of the stars or by creating a reliable timepiece. Britain’s Longitude Act of 1714 offered a £20,000 prize to whoever could end the uncertainty and danger of long sea voyages, by enabling sailors to know their precise position on the world’s oceans. But despite the skill of the little-known, self-taught John Harrison, the problem of finding longitude was not to be solved for another 60 years; to learn the end of the tale, remember to go to Victoria’s Part II!
Just after teatime Shaun introduced a great film ‘The Last Husky’, all about the enforced removal of husky dogs from Antarctica in the early 1990s under the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (all non-indigenous animals except human beings were removed at this time). This is a bitter-sweet film marking the end of an era with interesting historic footage, then following the fate of the dogs on the Australian base Mawson into a life they had never known or imagined...Happily, they were successfully transported to a new home in Minnesota and the story of their great journey to a strange new continent with TREES (which they had never before encountered) kept us content for the next hour. Shaun answered general husky questions afterwards and used his personal experience to extrapolate from scenes shown in the film, which we all greatly enjoyed, though we were sad to hear that these same dogs had later died of a virus – though only after having first travelled to the North Pole itself.
Evening was approaching once more and Charlotte was getting busier with drinks orders as Recap & Briefing approached. We were all keen to learn of our progress into the Ross Sea and the bar was full by 18.30. Cheryl kicked off by showing us some charts, our positions over the last few days marked by red circles. Then it was Victoria’s turn and she took this opportunity to tell us of great events happening in Antarctica ‘on this day (January 21st) in 1821 and (January 24th - well, yesterday’s recap was cancelled!) 1895’. Amazingly, Bellingshausen had first seen Peter I Island on the very date WE did, and (maybe) the first people to step on the Antarctic Continent did so precisely 122 years ago in the Ross Sea region at Cape Adare. It all depends if you go with the official record or assume that some unknown sealer or whaler had the honour, but didn’t boast about it…
The highlight of Recap & Briefing tonight was the Photography Competition results, presented by Arjen on behalf of the judging panel (also including Cheryl and Dmitri). We got to see maybe a third of the entries (with Arjen indicating why each one had been singled out) before getting on to ‘Honourable mentions’ and 3rd, 2nd and 1st prizes. The winning iceberg and helicopter shot was universally admired, but there were some wonderful sunlit sea-and-ice-scapes and cute penguin pictures too.
Michael announced dinner and afterwards James Bond fans gathered for an evening of reminiscence in the Lecture room, reliving the classic ‘From Russia with Love.’ The bar was full of conviviality too, buzzing with a variety of conversations, scrabble games etc. in full swing, while out-of-doors the weather improved considerably and we could see huge tabular icebergs on the horizon. Yes, we gained an hour again – this is becoming a habit.
The wind changed direction overnight and so the movement of the ship also changed. There was an occasional very small bump from the side, but it was generally a smooth and gentle passage. By the time most of us got up it was cold, a bit windy and sunny. Henryk's navigation and chart-plotting class was popular; he had a full class of ten and more signed up for tomorrow. The first lecture of the day was by Arjen, who presented ‘Photography Part 2’ on how to create good photos to take home. His focus this time was more technical - on aperture size and shutter speed. Another truly popular topic, the talk went a little overtime with lots of things to discuss.
As usual, we all hurried in to lunch as if we had not had a big breakfast, and tucked into a hearty and tasty beef ragout with all the extras spread across the various buffet tables. By the time we came out of the restaurant, both the wind and sunshine had disappeared, and we sailed a calm, quiet sea spotted with ice and blown with small, light snow. There were a few Snow petrels, but the lack of wind kept the birds away, and only the dedicated birders glued to their spots on the bridge saw much wildlife.
Many of us had a quick nap (some unintentionally snoozing in the bar); then Henryk talked about Arved Fuchs, a moving personal story of a recreation of the voyage of the small boat James Caird, part of the Shackleton saga. We all came out of that impressed and thoughtful about the strength of the Antarctic environment.
Not long after Henryk finished his talk, word of “Fin whale” came over the ship's loudspeakers. Rushing for coats and cameras, we all headed outside to find the animal turned out to be a lone Minke, heading in the opposite direction to us. These small baleen whales can be found almost everywhere in Antarctica, and some may even overwinter in the ice.
Throughout the afternoon our weather gradually turned to very light snow and distant fog, with a few bergy bits and individual pieces of brash ice showing clearly in the dark grey water. Our officers and captain ensured the ship kept a good distance from the large tabular bergs scattered around us, so they remained on the radar and on our horizon only.
In the late afternoon, Victoria put on the programme 'A Year on Ice', an interesting personal view of life at McMurdo Station, which gave us some insight into what it might be like to be here for much longer than this one voyage. Just before dinner, Arjen gave us a quick recap on Arctic terns, the beautiful and delicate little grey and white birds we recently saw on the ice. He showed us some maps and photos explaining just how long and how far they fly every year to come down and gorge themselves on krill during the northern winter. What he didn't mention is that he makes the same annual trip!
The big draw for the night was Alastair, who showed some of the footage Ted has filmed so far with the special camera they have mounted on helicopter Tango. We saw some fabulous footage from the peninsula and near Peter I Island, reminding us how special this trip has already been.
After dinner, we watched the second episode of ‘Frozen Planet’, which was followed by
Cheryl's first call of “Emperor penguin sighted ahead” and the predictable rush to the decks. Many of us were still outside enjoying the evening light when the second Emperor was spotted; but even that paled into insignificance when we heard the first call of "Ross seal!"! These elusive animals are not especially rare, but are very hard to see due to their habit of staying deep in the thick pack ice that ships cannot reach. The weather had settled to a flat grey sky and matching sea, and with no wind it was not hard to stay outside to see the second Ross seal, which the ship circled at a distance. While there was an Adelie penguin on the same ice floe and a Crabeater seal on a nearby floe, all the attention was on the star of the moment, the Ross seal. That we spotted two Ross seals in the same general area suggests the ice we were passing through at the time had probably been further south and part of a denser pack quite recently.
By now it really was time for a nightcap and bed – especially since we were NOT gaining an hour tonight for a change!
Today was generally on the foggy and overcast side, though that didn’t prevent some super wildlife sightings. During the course of the morning we saw Ross seals, Adelie penguins (one apparently impossibly high up on an iceberg!) and Emperors on ice floes as well as the now familiar Crabeater seals. The ice- scape alone was worth being outside for, and after the first three calls many of us decided to wrap up warm and anticipate the next sighting! With regular runs into the bar for hot chocolate and coffee, this was a great way to spend a morning in the Ross Sea.
At 11.00 Victoria was in the Lecture room to finish her talk on longitude – ‘Longitude: the great scientific problem resolved.’ This section of her presentation focused on the human relationships between those who favoured reading heaven’s clock from the stars and John Harrison, who produced a series of ingenious man-made clocks to measure time at sea, culminating in H4, the size of a large pocket-watch. Once chronometers could be cheaply mass-produced (from around 1800) they clearly won the day, as using a sextant and lunar distance tables was a complicated and time-consuming process, open to error. So why haven’t more people heard of John Harrison and his long struggle for recognition at the hands of the Board of Longitude?
After a welcome lunch and some head-clearing power naps we reconvened in the Lecture room to hear one of our many erudite passengers, Gill Wood, share his favourite subject with us. Gill is in the process of researching and writing a book on ‘Ross and his Rivals’ and kept us enthralled by the adventures not only of James Clark Ross himself (UK), but also of contemporaries Dumont D’Urville (France) and Charles Wilkes (US). These three men were all exploring the same part of Antarctica as we are today – and this was some 50 years before the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration (traditionally 1895 – 1917). Each man was a real character in his own right, with both positive and negative traits! Gill kept us well-entertained with his accounts of Ross dressing as a woman for amateur theatricals, of D’Urville naming a penguin species after his wife (Adelie) and of Wilkes getting his maps wrong…He also reminded us of the recent discovery of Ross’ ships Erebus and Terror in the Arctic, where they disappeared in the late 1840s during Sir John Franklin’s quest for the North-West Passage.
It was chocolate nut cake for tea! Irresistible. I took some down with me to the Lecture room to enjoy during Shaun’s tale of ‘Four Guys Walking to the South Pole’. Well, they flew too – and saw Emperor penguins along the way. As ever, Shaun made his story come alive via anecdote and reminiscence.
Then it was time to get some fresh air before Recap & Briefing. Cheryl reported on our progress once again – good, though it is very difficult to predict our arrival time at Bay of Whales as we never know the thickness or extent of the ice we may encounter (satellite images are a helpful guideline, but not good on detail). With Dmitri talking about the Ross seals we have seen, Darrel speaking on the types of icebergs we have encountered recently, and Victoria telling us what some of the great explorers had been doing on this day in 1820 (Bellingshausen saw Antarctica), 1841 (Ross saw and named Mount Erebus) and 1911 respectively (Amundsen finished building Framheim at Bay of Whales), dinner time was soon upon us.
It was roast beef for dinner; all agreed it was delicious, though a deep and meaningful discussion was triggered at my table as to how it should best be cooked (Dutch, French, Irish, English all having different ideas!). The banana split (and birthday cake – Happy Birthday, Sarah) were consumed without any need for comment at all! Tonight’s after-dinner treat was supposed to be the movie Casablanca, with popcorn especially prepared by the galley team! Wonderful as this classic is, it had to be interrupted when our captain spotted about 15 Emperor and Adelie penguins hanging out on an ice floe just off our starboard side. Despite the evening being overcast and foggy, we got excellent views of these wonderful animals in their natural habitat, a number of them looking a bit scraggly since they were moulting.
A satisfying day, all in all. AND we gained an hour again, so the bar was buzzing until fairly late.
We have already been some days on the Ross Sea and it is not stormy, for which we are grateful. Sometimes we sail through open water, and sometimes we seek for a way between the ice floes just as the explorers did of old. In addition today quite thick fog arose, so full concentration was necessary on the part of our navigators. Nevertheless, we were still making 10 knots on average. And we managed to catch a quick glimpse of a Minke whale ahead of the ship as it sank into the sea fog.
At 11.00 Dmitri offered his talk about ‘The Origin of Whales’. And a very interesting (and maybe surprising) story it was too - how whales started their lives as land animals for about 50 million years, only advancing to conquer the seas in the last 10 million years or so. During Dmitri’s talk our ship proceeded to steam to the south. The weather changed and now a clear, sunny day emerged, but with a south wind of around Force 7 on the Beaufort scale. The bridge was continuously occupied by passengers, who have by this stage of the trip learned to stay very quiet, so as not to distract the duty officers from their work.
At 14:30 Victoria began her history lecture about Roald Amundsen and his incredible life; he always wanted to be a polar explorer from his early days of training on northern sealing voyages, then with Gerlache’s Belgica expedition to Antarctica in 1897. In 1903 he led his own small, tightly-organised expedition through the North West Passage before going on to be the first to reach the South Pole (beating Scott) in 1911. From that time on Amundsen focused exclusively on Arctic exploration, with his attempts on the North Pole by air (in N24 & N25, 1925), then finally succeeding in flying above the North Pole with Ellsworth and Nobile in the airship Norge (1926). And as the last act of a brave life, Amundsen and his team died attempting to rescue his former colleague Nobile from the High Arctic in June 1928.
After a break for us to go out on deck and get some air, Lynn introduced the film ‘Chasing Ice’ at 16.30 – a documentary about a team whose work focused on recording the advance and retreat of glaciers; there was some pretty amazing footage involved!
At about this time Ortelius was approaching Cape Colbeck, on the coast of King Edward VII Land (named by Robert Falcon Scott). And we could see the Ross Ice Shelf (formally known as the ‘Great Barrier’) on the horizon to the left, so excitement was hotting up even if outside it was rather cold…
At Recap & Briefing time our boss Cheryl spoke of the options for tomorrow - a potential zodiac cruise, or if the wind conditions do not allow for that, ship cruising in the Bay of Whales. Victoria provided us very properly with the history of the place, and Shaun talked about the various poles of the Earth (of which there are more than most of us realized!). Other recap offerings had to wait until tomorrow as it was time for dinner by then – sorry Henryk; we know you are a Pole too...
Today is the seventeenth day of our voyage along the shores of the Antarctic continent. We crossed the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas, took a beautiful scenic flight near Peter I Island and now we are in the Ross Sea sailing along the Ross Ice Shelf towards Ross Island.
We woke up early this morning. Some of us were already up at 05.00 in hope of seeing the Ross Ice Shelf that was just seven miles to the south of our ship. It was a beautiful, calm morning with some light cloud and patches of blue sky. The temperature was –10 degrees C and the Ross Ice Shelf was clearly visible under the low morning sun. Three Snow petrels were flying around, and for the first time in the last few days we had the chance to see South Polar skuas again, which are much lighter in colouring than the skuas of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We had been planning an early zodiac cruise along the Ice Shelf before breakfast. Unfortunately the cruise had to be postponed to another occasion because of a medical emergency. One of our passengers had a severe medical condition and it was a priority to evacuate her. We had to sail towards Ross Island as fast as possible in order to transport our passenger to McMurdo Station, with a view to her taking a subsequent evacuation flight on to New Zealand.
Captain Ernesto and Cheryl, our Expedition Leader, explained the situation to us and we totally agreed with their decision. So instead of a zodiac cruise, we were offered a scenic helicopter flight as we sailed along the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf! However it took 30-40 minutes to free the first helicopter (which was iced up on the helicopter pad), and by this time we were in the middle of a snow storm that lasted most of the day. It was very atmospheric, but not helpful for our flight-seeing plan. Just goes to show how quickly Antarctic weather can strike and change the best-laid plans.
After lunch Arjen gave his talk about the ‘Ross Sea Ecosystem’, during which he also described the establishment in the unique Ross Sea region of a new Marine Protected Area – a very good thing. And later in the afternoon, Arjen presented and showed the movie ‘The Last Ocean’.
Just before Recap & Briefing we had a chance to see Orcas not too far from the ship - most likely type C (which are fairly common in this area), but still a joy to glimpse.
Soon it was 18.30 and this time Henryk had his opportunity to talk us through the complexities of who reached the South Pole when and how; thank you for clarifying things for us! Victoria followed with tales of what Shackleton (1908), Mawson (1911) and the Ross Sea party’s Aurora group (1916) were doing ‘on this day’. And finally Darrel gave us a run-down on the logic behind the position of the date line, which we were about to cross soon after dinner tonight.
And then, there it was: a new day. Not starting at 00.00, but this time at 21.51. At that moment we crossed the 180th degree of latitude, which is also the date line. This means that for us January 29th ended at this time and a very short January 30th started. Many of our passengers wouldn’t have noticed at all because they were already in bed and sound asleep, but the people on the bridge and in the bar clearly noticed. On the bridge it was visible on the screens, as suddenly we were east of Greenwich again instead of west. At that moment all in the bar started on a ‘Happy Birthday’ as one of the guests now had a very short birthday (lasting just over two hours…) to celebrate. Whether people on the outside decks noted the exact moment of the date change is not certain, but they could still enjoy the really nice views of the Ross Ice Shelf as we continued cruising along it.
During the night Ortelius had come close to Ross Island in order to minimise the distance our helicopter would have to fly to McMurdo, the large US base. A passenger had suffered a stroke and needed advanced medical care – available only in Christchurch, which lies a five-hour flight north from McMurdo station. It was incredibly lucky that we should be close to help, and that the US authorities were able to accommodate our patient. Our thanks go to all involved.
Back on board ship, Henryk presented a detailed account of ‘Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party’ and their heroic efforts installing depots for ‘the Boss’ all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. They accrued more sledging days than any other group in the heroic era of exploration, and did so on the absolute bare minimum of supplies and equipment. Their main supplies were blown out to sea on board Aurora in an incredibly violent storm soon after arrival. Aurora had a remarkable wintering of its own in sea ice and was not able to return to Cape Evans until the next sledging season was well underway.
After lunch it was action stations again! Cheryl announced that we would spend the afternoon flight-seeing in the area around the Ross Island coast; the weather was fine and so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. We were all delighted with our scenic flights, managing to get some good still images and video shots of this breathtaking landscape, including excellent views of Mount Erebus.
Evening brought Part I of Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed ‘Shackleton’ movie. The film clearly portrays the complex individual and we look forward to further installments.
Finally, we gained an hour in bed as the clocks were put back again. We have been getting plenty of sleep lately, but this is the last time we gain an hour before our arrival in New Zealand!
Today was to be a red-letter day for the historically-minded, as our destination was none other than the largest and most luxurious (relatively speaking!) hut of the Antarctic Heroic Age - that of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition at Cape Evans.
There was no question of reaching it by zodiac as there is so much sea ice in the region this year, so our helicopter pilots prepared themselves for a long, but exciting day of flying over ice and icebergs with fine views of Mount Erebus all along the way.
Expedition staff were all ready to depart by 07.00. Just as the final pieces of essential safety equipment were being loaded into Quebec, a snow storm threatened to starboard of the ship and we had to wait patiently to see what the weather would do next. Many times we have to remind ourselves that the most important quality for a successful polar explorer is PATIENCE. We finally lifted off at about 08.30 when the pilots were once more satisfied with visibility and the 28-minute flight in to Cape Evans was a sight for sore eyes. At first we were flying over huge pancakes of ice, with penguins and seals to be glimpsed on and between the floes; but after a while there was just solid white stretching from horizon to horizon. Icebergs were frozen into this whiteness and then we were flying over land and could see a green New Zealand hut (used for scientific purposes) and in the distance, Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. But our destination lay further ahead.
Quebec circled, then hovered above black rock and a gravelly beach before gently settling onto the designated helicopter landing site at Cape Evans.
It was with great excitement that I hiked over the small hill between our landing site and the hut itself, key in hand. Set in a sheltered corner of beach facing north-west and well protected by numerous small hills, Scott’s last Antarctic home soon came into view. Scott himself was extremely proud of it and described it as follows: ‘We have made unto ourselves a truly seductive home, within the walls of which peace, quiet and comfort reign supreme. Such a noble dwelling transcends the word “hut”, and we pause to give it a more fitting title only from lack of appropriate suggestion. What shall we call it? The word “hut” is misleading. Our residence is really a house of considerable size, in every respect the finest that has ever been erected in the Polar regions: 50 ft (15 m) long by 25 (7.5 m) wide and 9 ft (2.7 m) to the eaves’.
The key turned easily in the padlock and I was inside! Fortunately, no snow was blocking light from the windows as in previous years, so with a few lanterns distributed round the main building and handy use of flash photography out in the pony stables, all could be revealed.
Despite Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party’s occupation (1915 – 17), the Scott legacy (1910 – 13) still predominates. What makes it so striking are the clearly recognisable features of the famed images taken by photographic artist Herbert Ponting: the wardroom table where Ponting captured Scott’s last birthday party, the tenements where five of the officers slept, Clissold’s kitchen still stuffed with Edwardian provisions and the science laboratory still brimming with scientific equipment. This truly is one of the birthplaces of Antarctic science.
We had plenty of space in which to soak up atmosphere and explore the hut, as our long helicopter ride in gave each of us around an hour to cover the small area with few other people about. Many photos were taken upon approach (Victoria and Shaun TRIED to keep their bright red parkas out of shot!) and passengers’ reactions to the hut interior were quite emotional; a number of people commented on how it seemed as if the occupants might just walk back in at any time and take up their daily work…after a hundred years. Every one of the 8000 historic objects has been worked on by conservationists in order that the process of decay can be slowed, and then replaced in the exact same spot. Even in the freezing conditions of Cape Evans the hut and its contents had suffered deterioration and needed to be stabilized; Falcon Scott, grandson of the famous explorer, has even contributed to the hut’s restoration over the past few years with his own carpentry skills!
The stables were a popular last port of call (especially the oil-oozing blubber stack, the penguin eggs, the wooden wheelbarrow, the bicycle (why bring a bicycle?!) and dog remains, chained in the end stall). And then for most there was time for a brisk walk up Wind Vane Hill to examine the cross erected to the memory of the three men who died in this region on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1916. The views from atop the hill were absolutely spectacular, with Mount Erebus dominating the scene behind the hut, and ice shelf/sea ice (with basking Weddell seal) drawing our eye in the opposite direction.
We reported for our flights back to Ortelius on time and yet more camera memory capacity was taken up with still and video shots on the return flight. Getting all of us to Cape Evans and back took the whole day – from 08.30 to 18.30 in fact, so we are grateful to our weary pilots. Dinner was extremely welcome – served as a buffet in order to accommodate the later arrivals back on board – and then Cheryl gathered us for a quick Recap & Briefing in the bar at 21.00. Victoria gave us a quick summary of the history behind what we’d seen today, whilst Cheryl showed us our current location and indicated plans for tomorrow – a day we hope to spend at sea by or in the air over the mighty Ross Ice Shelf.
Overnight the captain sailed the ship to just north of Cape Crozier, at the eastern end of Ross Island. Many of the landmarks in this area were named by James Clark Ross during his voyage in 1841, often after ships and their captains. In this case, Cape Crozier was named after Commander Francis R. M. Crozier, captain of the Terror, one of Ross' two ships.
The weather was good, but cold. Cheryl announced it was -6oC in the morning wake-up call, and we had both low fog around Mount Terror and a sea fog further out from land. The ice shelf itself was visible in the distance, and in some places fog-free. As we came closer the details of the ice shelf became sharper, with blue shadows and fractured white faces cut along the wall. The Ross Ice Shelf, around 400 miles long and up to 50 metres high, was first discovered by Ross on 28th January 1841, and is the largest floating ice sheet in the world.
When Cheryl announced the gangway time, we were all excited to hop in our little black boats, with up to two hours’ cruising planned. The gangway was a little tricky, but we have all practised now, so took it in our stride, simply waiting and watching until it was a good time to step in. After a few minutes’ driving toward the ice shelf, it started to come to life as we approached it. A rainbow of blues, greys and greens shone from the various facets of the ice, with pure, shining white glowing along the flat top of the shelf, where snow had fallen recently. Fractures in the ice held shadows, and in some places layering was visible across long distances. As we cruised along the length of the shelf, a few Adelie penguins could be seen porpoising in the water next to us, looking at the strange, noisy boats full of colourful people. The ice shelf was imposing, impressive and incredibly beautiful, with each new face showing unique colours and pinnacles, caves, cliffs and ledges making new shapes at each turn.
A small iceberg with a fairly flat surface held quite a few Adelies, lying down at rest and standing in small groups. The little berg was rocking slowly, and as the surface of the water raised and lowered, penguins gathered to consider jumping off into the sea, peering over the edge to examine the water around them for a few minutes, then backing up to wait for another time. Finally, one would slip and fall, and the others would follow. Even more entertaining was watching the penguins in the water that wanted to jump up onto the iceberg. These would 'fly' a metre or so out of the water, then hit the wall of the iceberg, and try to scramble up onto the level surface. Most did not jump high enough and gradually slid to the bottom of the icy slope, then fell backwards or upside down into the water.
All of the Adelies around us seemed to be on high alert, swimming in very tight groups, surfacing to look around on a regular basis. There were a lot of penguins in the water, but few of them were brave enough to come close to the zodiacs, so there were not many good photos of them swimming. As we travelled east, we came into the edge of the sea fog, and the air sparkled with small ice crystals. By this time the ship had started to disappear into the fog as well, and was reduced to an outline of grey against white - all the lines, cables and equipment outlined in fine detail by the mist.
Finally, we had to head back to the ship, and after a cold run back, Michael’s warm welcome and tasty food was very much appreciated.
Most of us were considering a quick after-lunch nap when helicopter flightseeing was announced. The beautiful afternoon sun beckoned, and we gathered in our groups to fly along the ice shelf. When we lifted off from the ship, the dark blue sea was below and the ice shelf a line of white ahead of us. The line quickly grew into the cracks, fissures and flat faces familiar from the morning, but this time we lifted up above them and flew over the shelf, looking from the sea deep into the interior, towards the pole. Our helicopters lightly touched down, and we had briefly landed upon the top of the Ross Ice Shelf! As we flew along, we could see Mount Terror rising above a fog bank in the distance. The fog ran in a thin band along the shoreline, and raised and lowered slowly, occasionally hiding the whole mountain, but usually leaving a sliver of clear air both above and below, with the mountain shining through.
Back on board, we had to look at our photos right away, so the bar was full of people leaning over shoulders to admire pictures and compare flights. The evening recap was well-attended, possibly more for a chance to visit with Charlotte at the bar than to hear the plans and tales from the staff.
As the McMurdo Sound area was full of ice - which limited us too much in our operations - it was decided to move the ship overnight towards Franklin Island. This island (named by James Clark Ross for Sir John Franklin of North West Passage fame) was a little further north of Ross Island and out of the ice.
Shortly after breakfast we dressed up warmly and headed out in the zodiacs. The weather was nice, with clear blue skies and not too much wind. The swell was also considerably less than during yesterday’s zodiac cruise, so the motion of the waves was a lot more comfortable - a good thing, as the ride towards the island was really long. On the way we several times found ourselves accompanied by Adelie penguins who were heading in the same direction.
On the island thousands and thousands of Adelies were waiting for us. We cruised the penguin-packed beach for a while and then moved on to the steeper parts of the island where we saw several Snow petrels flying around. Most likely these birds are nesting on the cliffs of the island. Soon it was time to make the long zodiac journey back to the ship.
After lunch we took to the zodiacs again to land at this magnificent penguin colony. It was super to set foot ashore again, especially in an area with this many penguins. The beach was filled with penguins and Weddell seals waiting to go into the water or just returning, and further inland we could observe penguin behaviour. It was funny to see adult birds running away with one or more chicks chasing after them; eventually one or the other would get fed.
The chicks were in the last stage before fledging and many were already shedding their brown-down jacket for their water-proof outer shell. They were nearly ready to head into the water and check out the world beyond the colony. The sky was filled with many South Polar skuas who were looking for some food - maybe a penguin chick snack! It was amazing to see how many skuas could live off a colony like this.
Special guest was the young Emperor penguin who had found a place among the Adelies. Born last winter, he had already left his own colony on the sea ice and had now found this Adelie colony to hang out with. It was not certain that he liked it a lot, as we could see he was being chased by a group of hungry Adelie penguin chicks until he fell down and just went to sleep – he was so tired!
Back on the ship it was time for a recap in which Cheryl explained the plans for the next day, Dmitri told us all about the breeding behaviour of our Adelie friends and Arjen told a story about the ancient breeding sites of Snow petrels.
During dinner the captain set our course to the north, towards Terra Nova Bay, our goal for the next day.
Our weekend began with a sunny, but windy, day. Everything was going well and we were preparing to visit the Italian station in Terra Nova Bay - Mario Zucchelli Station. Thinking of pasta, pizza, ice cream and espresso, we were out on deck around breakfast time to gaze at our planned morning’s destination. This is a summer-only station and usually too involved in science to welcome visitors, though this year a few ships have passed this way and the Italians have been very accommodating. Right now they were packing up at the end of a busy season. How fortunate we were that the area was clear of ice, enabling Captain Ernesto to bring Ortelius in quite close.
BUT Antarctica can be fickle: a radio call with the station informed us that there was a lot of swell on shore at the landing site, making a zodiac landing impossible. So, instead of landing we went on to Plan B, which was a scenic ship cruise along the coast in a southerly direction. As we sailed, Shaun spoke from the bridge about the fascinating landscape and its history in relation to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition (1910 – 1913. Was Shaun on that one too, we wonder? – sorry Shaun!). Scott’s northern party under Campbell explored this region and found many challenges to contend with due to weather, ice and the delayed return of their ship…and we could well believe it.
As we cruised, we came across some fantastically blue icebergs and an impressive ice arch pounded by ocean waves, which was great news for the photographers amongst us. The brisk wind had wrapped our brave ‘Oceanwide Expeditions’ flag tight around its own pole, but Darrel dauntlessly withstood the icy blast, reaching up to unfurl it so that it is now flying bravely (though somewhat threadbare) from the bow once again.
Even in the afternoon the wind did not lessen - in fact it was the opposite, with wind speed increasing, rendering zodiac cruising close to the Drygalski Ice Tongue impossible; however, we did have very good views of this ice tongue – the floating end of the David Glacier (30 x 15 miles at its greatest extent) from the ship. The name was given by Scott on his Discovery Expedition (1901 – 1904) to commemorate the leader of the first German Antarctic Expedition, Erich Dagobert von Drygalski. The Drygalski expedition (1901 – 1903) was undertaken simultaneously with the Scott expedition and the two leaders had made an agreement for scientific cooperation. Drygalski used the ship Gauss, which was built especially for his expedition. The construction of the ship was very similar to the construction of the famous Fram – bowl-bottomed, so that it would rise above ice under pressure, and this is why Drygalski arrived home a whole year before Scott, who had to wait an extra year for Discovery to break out of constricting ice.
The name Gauss commemorates the great German mathematics professor, despite the Germans’ region of operation being quite the other side of Antarctica from Europe. They arrived via Cape Town and Kerguelen Island, where they built a separate station with three members. The expedition reached the ice shelf at about 90° longitude and named the land behind the ice Kaiser Wilhelm II Land. It was strictly a scientific expedition. Gauss WAS temporarily trapped in the ice, but after ca. 11 months had a lucky escape, mainly because of a clever scientific idea: the men brought the surface ice to melting point by scattering black ash on top of it! After this expedition, 22 scientific volumes were published, with much achieved – as Henryk explained to us in our daily Recap & Briefing, during which Cheryl outlined tomorrow’s plans for Cape Hallett.
This morning we were heading north along the shores of Antarctica, bound for Cape Hallett - where we were planning to land on Seabee Hook. The sky was cloudy, with some clear blue patches. The wind was blowing at around 40 knots and we were hoping to arrive there in the early afternoon. By then it was hoped that the wind would have scaled down and that we would be able to visit the colony of Adelie penguins there. Since early morning there were not many birds outside – a lone South Polar Skua and unusually, some Wilson’s storm petrels, surprisingly far south.
After breakfast Victoria and Shaun presented us with two different tales of Borchgrevink’s Hut. His expedition was the first to overwinter on the Antarctic continent and reached the furthest south point at that time (78°50’S). Although Borchgrevink’s expedition proved that human beings COULD survive a winter in Antarctica (they brought rifles with them, to shoot potential Polar bears!), it was in other ways not very successful, with limited scientific results or charting work carried out.
Borchgrevink was notably unpopular with most of his men and it must have been a long, hard winter – terminating sadly with the death of 28-year-old zoologist Hanson, just as the first Adelie penguins returned to Cape Adare.
By lunch time we noticed a great improvement in the weather. The wind had calmed down and the sun was shining again as we approached our landing site at Cape Hallett. However, we were out of luck. Strong local katabatic wind with gusts of up to 52 knots prevented us from landing there.
After lunch we decided to wait in the hope that the wind would calm down. After three hours of waiting nothing had changed, and so we left the area to spend some time looking for wildlife in the sea ice, with the intention of coming back in the evening for a second attempt.
It was a great decision as the sea ice was full of life. Almost immediately we spotted a few Emperor penguins in a cluster – stretching their necks to try and work out what Ortelius WAS! On the ice nearby a group of Adelie penguins also gazed with curiosity towards our ship. South polar skuas and Snow petrels were flying nearby. In various directions we could see numerous Crabeater seals relaxing on large chunks of sea ice. One of the seals was much bigger and darker than the others. When we got closer we could easily identify it as a Leopard seal; and a short time after that we also spotted a Weddell seal on the ice nearby.
After dinner we came back to the vicinity of our landing site. The wind was not as strong, but still with gusts of up to 34 knots. The decision was to wait until 05.00 next morning and make a landing then if possible, or if wind conditions had not improved to continue on to our next adventure.
Later we watched the movie “Gladiator”; just before it started there were some passionate discussions going on in the bar as to whether it was ‘too violent’ or not. A number of passengers went down to check it out regardless – or maybe to sample the popcorn kindly provided by our Hotel Department.
There was no wake-up call from Cheryl at 05.00, from which we deduced (correctly) that wind conditions were still above our safety margin for landing operations. So we raised anchor and sailed for the Possession Islands, reaching them soon after breakfast.
Despite continuing high wind speeds, Captain Ernesto took us ship-cruising among the islands and rocks that were collectively claimed as a ‘Possession’ for the British Empire by James Clark Ross back in 1841. They were very dramatic – towering pinnacles flowing with ice, and Ortelius’ changing perspectives as she wended her way through the island group gave us many photographic opportunities.
Some of the huge natural walls of rock and rough, wave-hewn arches looked man-made at first glance (like fortresses and camps straight out of a fantasy movie), until we realised the sheer SCALE of what we were seeing. Foyn Island was especially impressive and so it should be, named as it is after the man who invented both the whale-chaser and exploding harpoon, thus laying the cornerstone for the success of the modern-day southern ‘fishery’ (as whaling was then known).
There were some superb icebergs floating along the horizon too, keeping us out on deck until hands and toes finally needed to be warmed up by means of a hot drink in the bar. All in all, it was an extremely scenic morning,
with our trusty ship providing a stable, solid platform from which to see some of our best land/icescapes yet.
After lunch we were once again approaching Cape Adare and Ridley Beach, this time in more cooperative weather, with blue skies above and a beautiful light quality cast over the whole scene. Tabular icebergs loomed to starboard and a belt of brash ice stretched to port and ahead of our bow as Captain Ernesto and officers steered us steadily towards Borchgrevink’s tiny hut, standing so bravely on a spit, backed by a huge bluff of sheer rock, which shone with a reddish hue in the sunlight.
This time all looked good for a landing! Cape Adare always offers challenging conditions, but today the swell didn’t look too bad and our zodiacs zoomed in and came to rest gently on a sloping beach – crowded with a welcoming committee of thousands of Adelie penguins, in all stages of fledging and moulting and just living their lives. They were curious about us, but didn’t change their routine just on account of a few gawping tourists. By moving slowly and respecting the five-metre rule (which the penguins didn’t always) we were able to get a huge buzz from observing these creatures in their natural environment. There is nothing of the zoo about Cape Adare!
For a historian such as myself, the scenery and wildlife were the icing on a very seductive cake, for this is the site of the oldest building in Antarctica (erected in 1899) and it is still standing. The Borchgrevink expedition travelled under a British flag and funding, but was a largely Norwegian venture and the Norwegians knew how to slot together wooden planking to make a significantly strong and weather-proof structure. What a contrast was provided by the one standing wall from Campbell’s hut, built next-door in 1911; Scott’s northern party (from the 1910 – 13 Terra Nova expedition) spent part of a research season here at Cape Adare, but admitted themselves that the walls of their hut buckled even when newly-constructed…
Scott’s hut at Cape Evans was the largest heroic age structure in Antarctica and Borchgrevink’s the smallest, with the living quarters measuring just 6.5 x 5.5 m. Ten men spent what felt like a very long year here, the first to survive over winter on the Antarctic continent. And we were the first visitors here for a year! Most of the hut’s artefacts had been removed for conservation, which in fact made it easier to move about and admire the compactness of this first tiny Antarctic ‘home’ (several people commented on the IKEA-style furniture!). The men used to withdraw to their bunks, close the wooden panelling and try to pretend they were alone…the hut nearly burned down one night when one scientist fell asleep reading by candlelight.
After poking our heads into the hut (only room for four people at a time and we needed lanterns and flashlights), there was still time to spend on the beach in the sunshine with the penguins. Many of us just found a rock to sit on and absorb the everyday life of a penguin rookery full of teenagers. Chicks in all stages of fledging were running around (often in circles), flapping their ‘wings’ (to see if they could fly?) and most hilarious of all, pursuing parents to demand food. The sight of fat-as-butter chicks bullying a thin and harassed-looking parent could be seen in every direction and made for wonderful photographs and video. Soon these chicks will have to learn that food is something you catch for yourself in the ocean, not something that gets regurgitated straight into your open beak!
It was a glorious afternoon for a last landing in Antarctica – and of course, we were standing on the actual continent itself at long last. Views of ocean, ice and mountains in all directions were breath-taking and we all had some time to spend alone with our thoughts on this perfect, late-summer day in one of the most remote spots on the most remote continent on earth.
Thank you so much to the long-suffering hotel department, who held dinner for a 20.00 start; the volume of chatter in the dining room was even louder than usual and as soon as we’d finished our chocolate mousse we headed back up to the bar, first to hear Cheryl’s briefing and second to toast our wonderful last few days here. The scenery outside was magical throughout the night as we continued to follow the coast towards tomorrow’s last area of activity in Antarctica, which was to be flight-seeing over the glaciers of Robertson Bay.
What a day...
The morning weather remained fine after yesterday afternoon’s “scorcher” - in fact there was so little wind that we had a mirror-like sea, with little Wilson’s storm petrels dancing on the water.
Helicopter flights for all commenced about 07.30 and to judge by the delighted expressions and pictures brought back, most everyone had a great experience. Mount Minto (4100m) - a significant peak and the highest in North Victoria Land - was visible for part of the time to the south. Panoramic views of the glaciers were magnificent (‘like being inside a documentary movie’ is how several people described it) and passengers enjoyed the roller coaster feeling of flying low over rock or ice and then suddenly, zooming out into nothingness, with the blue, blue sea hundreds of feet below.
Around about 13.00 we commenced our journey northwards, steaming slowly past the same massive tabular icebergs at the entrance to Robertson Bay that we had seen on the way in. They did not appear to have moved since we first saw them the previous day and are presumably grounded. We also visited streams of pack ice to look at the penguins and seals.
In no time the weather changed and we were in light snow and proceeding cautiously, keeping a lookout for bergy bits and growlers - big lumps of ice semi-submerged and capable of giving the ship a nasty knock. However, our trusty bridge watch team kept us safe, as ever.
Later afternoon brought Victoria’s talk on the ‘Antarctic Treaty System’; it is very complex! But now we have all had the privilege of being here, it is good to understand something of the system by which this 10% of the earth’s surface – belonging to no-one and everyone – is governed. We learned that the treaty itself will continue on into perpetuity, but that the ban on minerals extraction will run out in the 2040s... Later still at Recap & Briefing, Dmitri told us everything we needed to know about the hole in the ozone layer (in great scientific detail!) and Arjen asked us the question: ‘Can penguins fly?’, finishing with an amazing piece of BBC film footage that went out many years ago on April 1st.
All in all, a super day to round off our Antarctic visit. Now we are bound for one of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands – Campbell Island.
Today was the first whole sea day that we’ve had for some time; many of us took the opportunity of sleeping later than usual, though there are always a few early birds congregating before breakfast round the coffee machine. All of us were aware that we had to make the most of ice and iceberg sightings today, so quite as much time as usual was spent out on deck enjoying the Southern Ocean – and gazing wistfully south!
At 11.00 the great majority of passengers made their way to the Lecture room, where Arjen was about to give an extremely useful talk. Whatever the size of our camera lenses, just about everyone who comes to Antarctica leaves with hundreds (if not thousands) of photos and dealing with them can be intimidating. Today is also the last day for entries in the photo competition, Part II. Arjen proved very helpful indeed at this stage, with his talk ‘Photography After the Snap’. He made use of ‘Lightroom’ to introduce techniques helpful in editing and then cataloguing our images, a challenge weighing on our minds right now...So when friends and family ask to see our photos in future we will know exactly where to turn to produce the right number of suitably-themed snaps to match each individual’s interest (in theory at least).
Next thing on the agenda was lunch and after that the final Vacuuming Party of the voyage. Once again we were called up to the Lecture room deck by deck, to clean Velcro, pockets, seams, bottoms of waterproof pants, backpacks, camera bags, etc. of all traces of seeds and other materials we could transport by accident from Antarctica to Campbell Island (New Zealand). Virkon solution and brushes were available out on deck for boots, tripods and any really tough stains. We’re all familiar with this process now, so accomplished it fairly swiftly – undeterred by Victoria, who was gleefully capturing our cleaning efforts on camera.
During this process we crossed an important threshold, but this time in a northerly direction. Yes – it was our second opportunity to cross the Antarctic Circle. Dr. John was honoured by being selected as the official sounder-of-the-horn on the bridge and those of us outside on the deck below covered our ears – it’s always louder than you expect. We are still in Antarctica biologically and politically of course, but we are moving steadily back up towards the real world.
Biosecurity was finished before tea time, so we returned to our various shipboard activities for a sea day – cataloguing photos (and getting competition entries in to Arjen before 18.30) and updating our diaries were definitely the most popular occupations, closely followed by reading, crosswords, Sudoku and chatting with friends. The experience we are sharing on this one-month trip definitely creates many of those.
At 17.00 Victoria was to be found in the Lecture room, this time taking: ‘Captain Robert Falcon Scott: Hero or Bungler?’ as her theme. Initially hailed as a hero who died for his country, then accused of being a fool who failed to learn from his many mistakes, the pendulum is maybe swinging back into the centre as regards Scott’s reputation. Scott’s expeditions were not only built around setting new geographical records, but also on scientific discovery. Viewed in this light, he offered the world something that Amundsen didn’t even attempt. Yet it remains clear that Amundsen, with his hand-picked skiers and dog-sled drivers, was ultra-competent to achieve the prize of being first at the South Pole. Scott’s chosen combination of motor-sleds, ponies, dogs, skis and man-hauling as polar travel methods proved too much of a challenge for his Renaissance-style men –jacks of all trades, masters of none – and five men paid for it with their lives.
Recap & Briefing would normally have followed at 18.30, but Cheryl decided to cancel it for very good reason – we were passing through a belt of beautiful tabular icebergs, full of arches and caves and glowing deep blue in their interiors. This was far too good to miss! So out we went to enjoy and appreciate these Antarctic ice giants while we still could.
Michael called us in to dinner at 19.00 and ‘Happy Feet’ was the movie of the evening, sending us to bed tapping our toes and humming. Still time for a nightcap at the bar before sleep as tomorrow is another day at sea as we continue to sail towards Campbell Island, which is a number of days ahead of us yet.
Cheryl woke us gently, with a quiet call that we were in calm seas and light winds. Some of us chose to sleep in, popping in to breakfast at the very end to grab a quick bite, or even choosing to pass on breakfast altogether, knowing there would be biscuits in the bar if we needed something before lunch.
The morning talk was by Arjen, who presented a thoughtfully put-together lecture on climate change, showing some different data sets and discussing possible outcomes. Everybody found something worth thinking about, and question time afterwards was quite active. From the talk, we went upstairs to the bar for a hot drink and more chat. This second day at sea was generally very quiet. People still had some sleep to catch up on, lots of photos to go through, and friends and relatives to contact. The bar was full of people all industriously going about their computer and paper work, with the odd person snoring quietly to themselves, comfortable in the quiet hum and gentle motion of the sixth deck. Books were pored over, reading lists compared, and the coffee machine was very popular.
Many of us took the time to visit the bridge and ask questions we had not yet found time for. Tools and devices were examined, charts inspected, and most of us learned something about how Ortelius works. Dr John was up there most of the day, happy to be putting his binoculars and camera to work and delighted to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with all of us.
Lunch, as usual fully-occupied and consumed with gusto, was taken at a leisurely and relaxed pace, with many of us lingering over coffee before retiring for an afternoon siesta. The slow, measured pace of a sea-day afternoon quietly soothed us into peaceful contemplation.
The weather was neither good nor bad, with some rain, some cloud and a little sunshine throughout the day. We had calm seas and low wind speeds, which allowed us to move smoothly across the Southern Ocean. When Shaun and Darrel presented, together, a talk about modern tourism in Antarctica and IAATO, we were all there to find out about some of the weird, wonderful and occasionally whacky things going on around the white continent in our modern world. As we learned, truck races are only one of the many strange things IAATO is trying to manage in a sensible way, while protecting all of the features that make Antarctica unique and incredibly special.
Following on from Shaun and Darrel (and with a short trip to visit Charlotte and her afternoon tea trays) we went into Henryk's talk on Nordenskjold. This story is so incredible it seems as if it must be exaggerated, when it is nothing but unadorned truth. Sinking ships, long treks across ice, chance meetings at the last moment - all unbelievable, but it really happened.
After a long day of doing ... not much ... we found ourselves needing to sit down in the bar to chat, share stories and images, and keep Charlotte working hard leading up to and through the recap. The news from Cheryl regarding tomorrow’s weather was a bit worrying, but tomorrow is another day. In the mean time we relaxed, some threatening to skip dinner, but most of us joining Michael, Sava and the team in the restaurant, continuing to eat and drink our way through as much of the ship's supplies as we could before retiring at a reasonable hour (well, most of us) to be gently rocked to sleep by the light swell.
During the past days it has been heard several times: “I hope we get a bit more wind, so we can really feel what it is like to be on a ship in a storm”, or something similar. Well, those people have got what they asked for! As the weather forecasts have been predicting, we have ended up in a storm, with wind speeds of up to 60 knots and waves of around 8 metres high smashing into our bow. It was definitely a spectacular sight. At times the forecastle disappeared completely under a big wave. The captain closed the outer decks for our own safety, but we were still welcome on the bridge to enjoy this spectacle. Those of us who were not in bed seasick, that is - as this weather and constant pounding of the ship also has its downsides. Doctor John was busy dispatching sea-sickness medicine and many of us didn’t do a huge amount outside of our beds today.
Another downside has been that our speed was drastically reduced to 5-6 knots - not really a speed that will allow us much time on Campbell Island. Not that we could do much there in this weather anyway. In fact, with this weather there is even some uncertainty that we will reach Bluff at the arranged time...
For those who did manage to get out of bed, Victoria told us ‘The True Story of Moby Dick’, although the lecture room wasn’t really the best place to be with this movement. If you were there, you will now know that Shackleton’s boat journey to South Georgia in the James Caird was absolutely NOTHING compared with what the 1820 survivors of the whaleship Essex went through.
Dmitri was our entertainer in the afternoon, with ‘Earth History’, which managed to condense billions of years into a mere 45 minutes of explanation.
In between waves the avifauna changed as well. Sooty shearwaters and Mottled petrels seemed much more at home in this weather, effortlessly soaring on the wind. And also new albatrosses appeared: Campbell, Southern Royal and Antipodean albatrosses were all seen by patient bridge watchers.
At meal times there was a lot more space in the restaurant as not everybody felt up to eating and even the bar was a bit emptier in the evening as well, although rumours of four ‘Antarctic Walruses’ (refusing to be deterred by life on the ocean wave) ensconced on their bar stools through thick and thin are now running round the ship …
The storm is still gripping us. Another day of rolling and pitching. For the uninitiated, pitching is from bow to stern whilst rolling is from port side to starboard side (or vice versa). Around 09.30 Cheryl called us together in the bar and informed everybody of the new decision: because of slow progress, we must skip the landing on Campbell Island. Unsurprisingly the general reaction was not one of euphoria, but puny human beings still cannot control the weather systems at the ends of the earth...and it is humbling to be reminded of this fact from time to time.
The outside decks were closed for most of the day. The storm raging outside was NOT conducive to outdoor strolling in any case, but many of us spent large portions of time on the bridge, taking in nature’s spectacle and watching soaring birds and huge flumes of spray soaking the deck and even bridge windows!
It was a wonder that despite the ship’s current movement, so many people came to Victoria’s lection at 11:00 on ‘Douglas Mawson and the Home of the Blizzard’. Mawson was an Australian geologist who refused a guaranteed place on Robert Falcon Scott’s Geographic South Pole march in order to mount his own style of expedition to Commonwealth Bay (opposite Australia) in 1911 -14. His well-laid plans led to tragedy and adventure unprecedented even in the annals of polar history; and not one of us present in the Lecture room ever wants personally to try eating stringy dog meat - or crawl (literally – walking was too painful) hundreds of miles across Antarctica to reach safety, with two comrades left behind dead in the ice...
At 15.00 our guest Michel Roggo presented his film about the ‘Freshwater Ecosystems of our Planet’. Among 36 locations, these included Gunung, Kurilskoye Ozero, Sermersuaq, Rotomairewhenua and Rio Negro. He visited all of these places (and more) over the last seven years and was therefore able to present to us a fascinating world of flooded forests, Russian brown bears, meltwater lakes, Amazon River dolphins and much more – mostly underwater. His photography was superb and we are grateful to him for sharing these experiences with us. After a short break, at 17:00 Dmitri was on to talk about ‘Birds of the Wind’. His talk focused on the beautiful, big albatrosses and their relatives which can now be spotted around the ship. Unlike us, they adore the wind! He talked about their taxonomy, identification, biology and ecological/behavioural adaptations to this unique environment.
During Recap & Briefing at 18.30, Darrel introduced another clip of film taken from cameras attached to the undercarriages of our helicopters during this trip; if only we could strap ourselves on in similar fashion we would get to experience indescribable views, but it’s somewhat safer to be INSIDE the cockpit!
In the evening Lynn put on the next episode from the series ‘Frozen Planet’ for our enjoyment – and to distract us somewhat from the rocking and rolling still in evidence.
And that was today on Ortelius, ploughing through the aftermath of a storm as we made our slow, but steady way onwards, past the elusive Campbell Island and towards Bluff, New Zealand.
After a couple of days with strong wind, this morning was comparatively calm. Wind speed was only 18 knots and the waves were 3-4 metres high. The air temperature was close to 10 degrees C.
During breakfast we received the message from the bridge that the outside decks were open. Finally we could go outside again to gaze at the waves and numerous sea birds following our ship.
Before lunch we had already registered 13 different species of birds; especially remarkable were the many different types of albatrosses, such as Gybson’s, Southern Royal, Shy, Campbell and Grey-headed. Some of them were flying close to the ship, which gave us the chance to take good photos.
At 11.00 Victoria gave an interesting presentation – ‘A Miscellany of Mermaids’, in which she traced the origin of the mermaid myth round the world and talked of ‘historical’ sightings as well as mermaids in literature and art and the true ‘Sirenia’ of the sea – dugongs, manatees and seals.
After lunch we had a chance to continue watching the birds which were following us. Altogether during the day we identified 17 species of birds – a record for this area.
At 15.00 Alastair presented the making of his TV documentary “The Hunt”, which was created by the BBC Natural History Team. It was beautifully done and very exciting -especially the filming of the wild dog hunt ( both from the air and a parallel vehicle which captured what it was like among the pack) tiger (with camera mounted on an elephant) and Blue whale hunt (the filming challenges to capture a whale hunting Krill are of course somewhat different from the dramatic bursts of speed put on by land predators!).
After teatime, at 17.00 Stephen Freed presented the story of the vessel Morning, which carried his grandfather on board as Third Officer when it sailed to Cape Evans to relieve Scott's DISCOVERY expedition of 1901-04. It was fascinating to hear Stephen tell of his grandfather’s exploits, friendship with Teddy Evans and connection with Scott himself. His anecdotes and slides brought it all to life for us.
From about this time we could just see in the distance the mountain tops of Campbell Island. We had our daily recap 15 minutes earlier than usual in order to have enough time to go out on deck for great views of the island as our ship was passing by. Unfortunately, we did not have time to land there, because the storm of the last few days has delayed our navigation. Still, we experienced great views. A rain shower passed through during Recap and Briefing, and the sun’s rays shone through the clouds onto the tops of the mountains just as we headed out on deck. At the same time, the wind became stronger and wave height increased, amplifying our impressions of this wild landscape. Also, from the other side of the ship we glimpsed a brightly-coloured rainbow.
After a 19.30 dinner (delayed so we could enjoy views of Campbell Island first) we eagerly gathered again in the Lecture room to watch some film clips made during this voyage by our on-board professional video group. Their images really brought home to us how spectacularly the use of helicopters has changed our perspective of this icy continent. As for the films and still photos we have taken ourselves - they may not have been taken for documentary purposes, but what wonderful memories they will recall to mind after we’re home again.
Sea conditions are more or less back to normal now – though of course we are left with considerable swell from the storm we have passed through.
Today was a strange day, without the usual sea-day pattern of lectures and documentaries to attend, though meal times remained a constant, fortunately.
Instead we were invited down to the Lecture room to hand in our zodiac life jackets and rubber boots at 11.00, which some of our guests had become quite emotionally attached to! Staff then proceeded to screw back all the tubes to the automatic position, which is of course our favourite job…
During the course of this morning too we had a last chance to add our names and addresses to the email list in the bar, so as to be sent the trip log and voyage information once we’re back in the ‘real’ world. Some of us have survived without email for a month, so it’s going to take some adjustment.
Around 12 noon Michael summoned us to reception to receive our passports back, with his usual lunch announcement following at 12.30. Sous Chef Kabir is from India and we were informed that he had personally made our chicken curry for us; the chocolate cake for dessert was delicious too, by the way.
After lunch came every passenger’s favourite moment of the trip – account settlement with Michael and Sava at the reception desk! This process took several hours in total, but we came through it all smiling – plastic money has taken most of the strain (HOW many cocktails/beers/red wines was that?!).
By 17.30 we were largely over the shock of our bar bills, and we met in the bar (cash only!) to watch together a slideshow recap of our whole voyage, put together by staff member Arjen. This slideshow and various electronic charts shown by Cheryl during the trip were added to the shared computers for all to copy if desired.
Following this, Victoria acted as ‘auction master’ for the Oceanwide flag – the very flag that has been flying from Ortelius’ bow for the whole voyage. It was somewhat threadbare by this stage, true, but what better souvenir of our unique trip could we possibly take home with us? And the proceeds go to the Antarctic Heritage Trust to help preserve and maintain the Ross Sea historic huts such as at Cape Evans.
Next up was a cocktail with Captain Ernesto to toast our voyage as it draws to its conclusion, before heading down for our Farewell Dinner – which was a BBQ with drinks on the house (or maybe that should be ‘on the ship’)! We then spent our last evening on board packing and chatting to new friends, before climbing into bed on Ortelius for the last time – on this trip, at least.
And so we have come to our final day. We picked up a pilot at about 9.00, which meant arrival in Bluff at around 10.00 am. I seemed a little strange to go through customs clearance in our own Ortileus lobby.
As we headed for Invercargill airport or dispersed throughout New Zealand for our next adventure, many farewells were exchanged. Maybe we will meet again one day somewhere – even, perhaps, in polar regions on an Oceanwide ship!