OTL28-15 Trip Log | Bouvet Expedition 2015
30.06.2015 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
We boarded Ortelius - our floating home for the next month and more - around 4.15 pm after a bright, sunny day in Ushuaia.
Leaving our luggage for the stevedores to heave up the gangway, we checked in at reception and headed for our cabins. A quick exploration of the ship led us to the bar, where we could get a coffee/tea 24/7, which was most welcome.
Most of us had time to unpack before Jan, our Expedition Leader, called us to the Lecture Room on Deck 3. Here we were introduced to Hotel Manager Robert, who explained the layout of the ship and gave us all-important information about mealtimes, laundry, webmail, etc. This segued into a mandatory ‘Safety at Sea’ and ‘Abandon Ship’ briefing, which has to be completed as soon as possible for safety reasons. Having heard the theory, we had time to return to our cabins to find our big, orange life -jackets and listen out for the seven-short-and-one-long-blast, which summoned us to our Muster Station in the bar on Deck 6. Our names were checked off and we were led out to the lifeboats by calm, trained crew. And we hope that is the last time we need our orange life jackets!
We then had free time to unpack and, more excitingly, to enjoy the views as we sailed away from Ushuaia (at 6.30 pm), and into the Beagle Channel. Our adventure has begun…
We met at 7 pm for a toast to our voyage and to be introduced to the most important person on Ortelius – Captain Tuomo Leskinen. It was also our opportunity to meet individual expedition staff and the ship’s doctor Lise, as well as to be given a weather update as we sail into the Drake Passage. Fortunately, the forecast is rather good.
Dinner followed at 7.45 pm, where we met more of our fellow passengers. After a nightcap at the bar for some, we headed for bed to get rid of any lingering jetlag – looking forward to waking up tomorrow on the open ocean.
We awoke to Jan’s cheery voice at 7.30 am, letting us know that our first full day at sea had arrived! Breakfast was served from 8 – 9 am and we were offered quite a range of choices, to satisfy every taste (I had bacon and scrambled egg).
After a gentle start, giving some of us the opportunity to linger over coffee or go out on deck to enjoy the seabird life, birder Bob (appropriately enough) met us in the Lecture Room on Deck 3 at 10.30 am for his talk: ‘A Wing & a Prayer: the Life of Seabirds’: Introduction to the seabirds of the Southern Ocean. We learned about seabirds’ wingspans, their adaptations to a life on the ocean wave, how long they can spend in the air, how far they fly to feed and finally, how they only need to come to land to nest and raise their young.
We were inspired to go back outside and search for all the birds he’d told us about! With persistence, it was possible to see albatross and petrels of various types round the ship.
However there was not very much wind (giving us a very kind Drake crossing), which means fewer seabirds. The bridge was a good place to go to keep warm and still enjoy the vistas offered by the skies and the ocean. Officers were very helpful and willing to answer questions about their jobs and instrumentation.
At 3 pm we were called to the Lecture Room, this time to collect our rubber boots. Some were lucky and found boots the perfect size first time; others were not, and spent some minutes putting on thick socks and trying on various sizes in order to achieve the most comfortable fit.
By 4 pm tea-time (there is always a sweet treat in the bar at this time) we were all equipped with footgear for the trip, so roll on the wet landings!
At 4.30 pm it was Dmitri’s turn to take the floor in the Lecture Room and tell us all about the ‘Whales of Antarctica’. It is difficult to comprehend the sheer size of these gentle monsters of the deep, but Dmitri explained clearly, with great diagrams and photos, about the different species we hope to see.
In the early evening the bar began to fill up and Rolando (barman) and Dejan (assistant hotel manager) were kept busy filling and refilling our glasses. 6.30 pm is recap time, when Jan tells us of the plans for tomorrow and when other expedition staff talk about what we have seen and done during the day. Speakers tonight were Jan, Victoria and Christian, the latter two of whom talked about Sir Francis Drake and gave us more birding tips.
A short documentary about the square-rigged sailing ship Peking was shown after a delicious dinner. In the olden days, rounding Cape Horn was a dangerous and exciting enterprise and this movie brought the risks and pleasures to life for us.
And so to bed, in readiness for another day in the Drake Passage tomorrow.
This was the second day of our passage across an area of water reputed to be the stormiest in the world. Happily it did not live up to its reputation! Although the prolonged gloomy, grey conditions did not encourage the photographers amongst us and the afternoon saw a dense and patchy fog bank, the sea remained relatively settled, and Ortelius continued her voyage towards King George Island at a steady 10 – 11 knots.
The day was usefully spent in briefings and on information and preparations. Jan explained to us the importance of avoiding accidental introductions of alien and invasive species, which can so easily be carried in folds of our clothing and in back-packs, etc. This was followed, appropriately enough, with a mega-vacuuming session in the bar, everyone diligently purging the seams, velcros and pockets of their weather-proof gear and back packs, of any stowaway aliens (otherwise known as ‘seeds’). After lunch we had further briefings on the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators’ (IAATO) code of practice for visitors to Antarctica, followed by one on the use of zodiacs.
At 3.30 pm, Victoria presented ‘An Introduction to Antarctica’ in the Lecture Room on Deck 3. This was a rapid run through the continent, its weather, its ice, rocks, plants and animal life; stage two consisted of visitors, scientists, tourists and the various aesthetic and cultural associations of Antarctica, which often inspire diary-writing, travelogues, fiction, poetry, music and artistic endeavours of all kinds.
Light winds and poor visibility presented something of a challenge to those interested in birds or other wildlife, however. Despite this, persistence brought its own rewards: birding from the bridge brought a number of sightings of Grey-headed albatross, Southern fulmar and particularly numerous Cape petrels both flying around the ship and resting on the sea during spells of extra light winds. Perhaps the most notable species was the Blue petrel, seen intermittently throughout the day, flicking and darting acrobatically back and forth between the grey swells, the white tail spot and characteristic wing bars easily seen despite the weather.
The day was rounded off by a pre-dinner recap at 6.30 pm: Jan on tomorrow’s landings on King George Island, Victoria on the first sightings of Antarctica and the South Shetland Islands (by William Smith and Edward Bransfield), and Dmitri on how to distinguish between the ‘Wandering’ and ‘Royal’ albatross. Some of us need more practice!
The documentary of the day was: Antarctica: of ice and men at about 8.45 pm (sure enough, as Jan had promised, we saw images of how passengers, before IAATO, had cuddled penguins!); and then, hot drink in hand, we made our respective ways to our cabins for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be our first landing day of the voyage.
At 6 am on this windy and overcast morning we sailed into a large bay at the south-western end of King George Island.
The bay is surrounded by low, dark brown hills of basalt flows (most likely erupted from fissures) and local glacial moraines, with patches of last year’s remaining snow decorating the landscape. A conspicuous, thick basalt flow resistant to erosion was seen to cap many of the low hills.
Vegetation was sparse, but lichens have got a foothold on some of the larger boulders that are not affected by the constant movement of loose soil due to the permafrost and the harsh weather conditions.
On our first landing of this expedition at the Russian Bellingshausen base, we were welcomed to the beach by a small group of very curious Gentoo penguins and a lone Brown skua. Drawing our attention away from the landing procedure and beach itself, we were confronted by numerous large and small, box-like constructions in vivid colours, some built on pillars extended into the permafrost ground, others founded on solid rock. Several countries have research stations here, sharing some facilities with each other, and the only commercial airport in the Antarctic realm is also located here. Some tourists fly here from South America in order to avoid the dreaded Drake Passage.
The first highlight of our visit was the beautiful, tiny Russian Orthodox Church that was constructed in 2004. (This project would have been unthinkable during former Soviet rule, but times change). The church was first built, village-style, in northern Russia from local timber, then dismantled, sailed from Kaliningrad, and re-erected at Bellingshausen.
The second highlight was the opportunity to get a nice, though unofficial, stamp in our passports in the station lounge with its Russian-style wooden interior. We also studied the neat group photographs and collages of previous station teams back through time that were hanging in the corridor – designed in different styles, but all with a distinctly Russian flavour.
And now to the third highlight. After lunch we visited the Uruguayan Artigas station, where we got a warm welcome from several of the 14 permanent staff members, most of whom were from the military. The hospitality included a great coffee/tea table with abundant and freshly-made cakes of several varieties. We were also shown around the base and went inside the building with research facilities for scientists, where examples of their current research were displayed on posters.
Both the commander and the lady cook (nicely dressed-up in black-and-white) were very polite, informative and photogenic and soon became our friends. As it was, we were the first, last and only tourist guests to the Uruguayan station this season.
In the late afternoon we enjoyed relatively warm and calm weather, with spectacular light effects of sun-through-clouds along the coast of King George Island and adjacent islands.
This excellent day was rounded off by the habitual recap in the bar, the evening meal and a documentary film Penguin Post Office (about Port Lockroy) in the Lecture Room.
The day started with whales. Jan had just made his classic wake-up call when Fin whales started popping out, with their thin and high blows and later on showing their smooth backs and fins. By that time guests were having breakfast (maybe the whales too), and a few individuals were seen extremely close to the ship.
The morning continued peacefully, with Ortelius crossing between massive flocks of Cape petrels and Southern fulmars, with a distant sighting of both Clarence and Elephant Islands. We also had a brief sighting of a sleepy Southern Bottlenose whale (a toothed whale, with melon and everything, thus closer to dolphins), but unfortunately, not everybody made it out on deck in time.
By mid-morning Victoria offered her insight on the Endurance expedition, arguably the most famous story of Antarctic survival, but not really the most important expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in most historians’ opinions...Soon after that lunch was offered and that munching activity was followed by a massive act of disappearance: codename ‘nap time’.
Around 3pm, new announcements from the bridge brought people's attention to the surrounding seas. Fin whales in numbers, several pods of orca, Southern Bottlenose whales and even the Southern Right Whale; animals that barely reach these latitudes were seen by many. During the late afternoon, flocks of Cape petrels and fulmars were our constant companions, as well as the sighting of a large number of Fin whales. The birders enjoyed their view of the "three white ones" - the languid Snow petrel, the massive White ‘nelly’ (white phase of Southern Giant petrel), and the chunky and almost comical Snowy sheathbill, common stowaway on ships.
With the sea ice on the horizon, vast icebergs floating by and a magnificent purple sunset, Ortelius continued her way towards the South Orkney Islands. Before dinner the expedition staff offered half an hour of edutainment including whales and geology. Via Jan's briefing, guests familiarized themselves with the plans for the following day, with the prospect of landing at Argentina's Orcadas Station at Laurie Island (South Orkneys). After dinner, a Hollywood movie was shown in the Lecture Room instead of a documentary – Saturday night is a time to relax after all!
Today we woke up to a bright sunny morning, and some of us were already before breakfast on the outside decks to catch our first glimpse of the South Orkney Islands. A beautiful sunrise, deep blue Antarctic waters covered with fresh pancake ice, magnificent icebergs and the white-powdered- with-fresh-snow tops of the mountains in the background, covered in some areas with massive glaciers, created amazing scenery.
Our destination this morning was the Argentinean Station Orcadas, located on Laurie Island. The station is built on a narrow flat area between two mountains with steep slopes. Orcadas station consisted of a number of small red buildings scattered over the flat area that is open on opposite sides to the ocean. This station is the oldest still- functioning station in the Antarctic region. It was established in 1903 by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, led by William Speirs Bruce; a year later, it was transferred to Argentina.
While arriving in zodiacs to shore, we were greeted by a few Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins and also a couple of always busy Snowy sheathbills. Two curious South Polar skuas flew towards us to check what was going on. In the distance a few Antarctic Fur seals were enjoying the sunny day - rare in the South Orkneys - on the beach.
Friendly Argentinean inhabitants of the station met and greeted us ashore. We were divided into three groups for a guided tour of the station. The base staff also offered us tea and coffee with cookies and the opportunity to buy some souvenirs. Many of us took advantage of this opportunity to get a stamp of the station in our passports. However, the time was flying fast and soon we had to return to the ship.
After a delicious lunch we had a couple of hours to rest before the afternoon’s lecture, delivered by Brent on ‘Penguin Research on the Antarctic Peninsula’. It is always interesting to learn first-hand about different aspects of scientific research in Antarctica.
Later in the afternoon we continued sailing towards the South Sandwich Islands. It will take us two full days to reach our next destination – Southern Thule Island – the southernmost island of the South Sandwich archipelago.
Dinner was delicious as ever (with a focus on Chinese dishes tonight), so a big thank- you to our chefs. After dinner we watched a BBC documentary video: Ice – how the Ice Ages on Earth formed our modern landscapes and influenced the evolution of humans.
It was a wonderful day, and we are looking forward to the next up-and-coming adventure.
Today was a little warmer (fingers and toes got cold during the zodiac ride yesterday!), but overcast, with livelier seas than we have experienced so far. Breakfast returned to its ‘sea day’ schedule of 8 am – 9 am and some of us enjoyed ignoring the wake-up call and gaining on sleep; the gentle rocking of Ortelius encourages laziness!
However, for the wide-awake, conditions were good for observing seabirds – the Wandering albatross could be seen again this morning; and the more time spent out on deck, the more likely whale sightings are. Today’s total number of whale species was at least three, namely Humpback whale, Southern Right whale and Unidentified whale (we get a few of these every day. Is it a brand new species, I wonder?!). Walking laps of the deck makes enough space inside for dessert AND you can get in touch with the things that swim and fly.
For a change of pace, the students of biology amongst us descended to the Lecture Room at 10 am to join Dmitri for his talk: ‘Adaptations of Animals to Extreme Climatic Conditions’. This was insightful and with the help of well- drawn diagrams and clear explanations, enabled us to understand how critters in Antarctic conditions can survive and even flourish; unlike humans, they have feathers, fur and blubber to provide the necessary insulation we get from our thermals and parkas.
In mid-afternoon Adam undertook to enlighten us about the ice we’ve been encountering, which comes in many forms.
He touched on all of them briefly (ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice) but focused dramatically on ’The Life and Death of an Iceberg’. With examples of mechanisms from both north and south, he helped us make sense of the ice we’ve been seeing around us, introducing us to some official terminology and of course, talking about why ice often looks blue.
The bar was buzzing at recap – people are beginning to get into the excellent habit of a drink in the hand during Jan’s information sessions, and of course the concept of ‘Happy Hour’ is a great one and gives us all a good excuse to indulge – no reason needed. Victoria enjoyed talking about Captain James Cook (discoverer of the South Sandwich Islands, though he wasn’t too impressed with them at the time), Adam led us through a little geology - and there were potato chips to help us put on an extra layer of fat with which to keep out the cold.
Pity we had to go to bed an hour early, straight after the evening’s documentary, but we are gradually moving forwards in time as we sail east and have to adapt our daylight hours accordingly. A nightcap is a great aid to mastering the shock of the time difference and definitely medicinal when you’re trying to get to sleep quickly and need to continue sleeping deeply.
Today we continued sailing towards the South Sandwich Islands, having woken up at 2 am to change ship’s time to 3 am (well, I changed it before going to sleep, but I’m sure the bridge did it right). The wonderful thing was that breakfast was delayed until the ‘new’ 8.30 am, so we only lost half an hour’s sleep. What a great idea and thank you, Robert.
After a stroll round deck to observe passing seabirds on this slightly overcast morning, many of us gathered in the Lecture Room on Deck 3 for an educational and entertaining session by Brent at 10 am, continuing the theme of his research along the Antarctic Peninsula. With many anecdotes and just-the- right-amount of supporting statistics, he talked about how to approach Giant petrels and skuas safely and especially on the decline of the Adelie penguin around US Palmer station on the Antarctic Peninsula, linking it to shrinking and expanding quantities of sea ice and krill population fluctuations. It was fascinating stuff – our Brent doesn’t lecture in a dry, university-professor style!!
There was time to catch up with emails, diaries and photo-editing before lunch (chilli con carne and delicious; just spicy enough). In the afternoon we had to go through Biosecurity procedures once again before landing in the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. We have had vacuuming experience and so it was a simple (but important) matter to inspect our outer gear, shake it clean of potential seeds and ensure we would not be importing anything alien into Southern Thule tomorrow.
possible about the history of the South Sandwich Islands before landing there met Victoria in the Lecture Room just after tea, to hear all about the intrepid explorers of the early days – Cook, Bellingshausen, Biscoe, Bruce, Larsen and Filchner to name but a few, all of whom braved icy, uncharted seas in order to put another piece into the jigsaw map of the known world. Their journals reiterate how tough it was sailing in these regions before modern technology came to our rescue. Accurate maps were rare, and what was thought to be land often turned out to be icebergs, mirages or products of over-active sailors’ imaginations.
Throughout the day we had whales round the ship – fleeting glimpses as ever, but including at least one Southern Right whale sighting and a number of Humpbacks swimming quite close – totalling hundreds of cetaceans by the end of the day. Out on deck is certainly the place to be.
Our usual recap took place at 6.30 pm. Most important was Jan’s briefing about tomorrow’s landing; we listened with close attention and many questions were answered. We were optimistic about sea conditions and the weather – it’s looking good, but you never can tell in the South Atlantic…Adam contributed some observations about ice and Dmitri also gave us a sobering explanation of how the ozone hole forms at the poles; then it was time for dinner and afterwards, a chance to watch Part II of the amusing and informative penguin documentary – Spy in the Huddle.
When we awake tomorrow we will have arrived at Thule Island – a first for most of us!
This was a notable day for all, and not because of a selection of dubious April Fools’ jokes! We approached Thule Island in the South Sandwich Islands in the early morning, gaining shelter off the southern shores of this high volcanic island.
Conditions generally were very settled and the 30-knot wind (in the sheltered Ferguson Bay – much higher elsewhere) was insufficient to create much of a swell overnight.
It was an impressive scene. Hewison Point, with its ruined Argentinian field station, lay before us, backed by steep slopes of snow and volcanic cliffs reaching high up into the clouds that swirled around the top of the volcano. We also had fine views of Cook Island which forms the other side of an ancient caldera. With a clear approach into Ferguson Bay, Ortelius came to a halt and anchored.
Expedition staff went ashore first to check conditions at the beach and the presence of wildlife. The swell was slight so landing would be easy, but there was a slumbering group of Elephant seals and large numbers of Fur seals on the beach and further inland, so ‘negotiations’ for access took place. Then we all landed by zodiac, made our way up the steep beach of volcanic cobbles, and up on to the undulating flat of Hewison Point. It was a spectacular scene – we estimate some 10,000 Chinstrap penguins, most in various stages of moulting (and other rather confused birds attempting to build nests!), were within our view across the point. This was far more than had been expected, and we made our way very carefully across the plain towards the old field station, avoiding disturbance to the birds at this very sensitive time and coming across a few satellite groups of moulting Gentoo penguins too.
Throughout our visit conditions remained extremely good for this normally hostile location, and we were able to examine the remains of the Argentinian station which was destroyed by British Forces as a final adjunct to the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. There were Fur seals around us the whole way, but not too aggressive, and a path avoiding them and the penguins was possible. Along the way, other species seen included a few Gentoo penguins, Southern Giant petrels cruising low over the colony in search of carrion, Kelp gulls and skuas.
Finally it was time to leave, and amazingly, our departure from the beach was as easy as our arrival; we had the bonus of views of a Southern Right whale casually circling our anchored ship, as we approached the gangway. Thank you to Dejan and Hotel Team for providing us with (alcoholic) hot chocolate on our return to Ortelius; it was very welcome and warmed us up nicely.
Shortly after this, Ortelius weighed anchor and we commenced our 1000 mile passage to Bouvet Island, gaining good views of Cook and Bellingshausen Islands as we got underway. The settled conditions continued, and we saw Humpback whales and Kerguelan petrels on several occasions. In the meantime, Jan gave a lecture on the ‘History of Whaling’ – very appropriately, given these cetacean-rich waters that saw so much whaling activity right up until about 70 years ago.
Recap provided a good opportunity to review what we have seen today with the staff (Christian’s account of the history and destruction of the Argentine base on Thule Island was especially enlightening) and enjoy a drink before dinner. After dinner, documentary (and penguin) addicts enjoyed the final part of Spy in the Huddle before bed.
The sea continued to be calm and the weather mild on this first full sea day between Southern Thule and Bouvet Islands. The light was good for bird and whale watching, as the sun was not completely hidden. The wind was just strong enough to make waves break and larger seabirds fly, and many Kerguelen petrels were spotted from the bridge.
We also had numerous whale sightings, including a couple of breaching Humpbacks in the far distance, and also Fin whales, more Humpbacks and a single Blue whale right by the ship! One of the passengers, Lidia Artiola, managed to get some good shots of the Blue whale, depicting its characteristic bumpy skin.
We also sailed past several medium-sized icebergs with sloping sides, which were literally full of moulting Chinstrap penguins. They were lodging on these floating hotels, as the nearest alternative of firm island ground was located hundreds of kilometres away. However it is risky business to moult on an iceberg. We observed a couple of little fellows being washed into the sea, and another iceberg with a steeply sloping face that was heavily stained by penguin poo but almost empty, told its sad tale. The iceberg had become unstable and had rotated during the moulting and thrown all of its passengers overboard except for two survivors.
Today’s lectures were by Victoria on ‘Shackleton’s Forgotten Men’ on the Ross Ice Shelf, and by Bob, quite appropriately, on ‘Leviathans: the Life of Whales’. And there was an extra bonus in the afternoon – a documentary about scientists and their work in Antarctica – Encounters at the End of the World.
The day ended as ever with recap and the wonderful, funny movie Paddington in the Lecture Room.
After a late breakfast, the morning activities included adjusting to a new time change (once again!) and a ship that moved more due to winds of over 40 knots. Ortelius continued on her way towards Bouvetøya, or let's say to the east of the middle of nowhere, taking that as our current position. Suspended as we have recently been over deep waters, always between 3000 and 4000 metres, the wildlife was less impressive than on previous days. Whales were extremely shy (we could say there were very few of them), and birds were mostly represented by the prions and the Kerguelen petrel, typical of low-productivity waters. The latter constitutes a taxonomical oddity, still not completely understood and with an outrageous number of retinal gangliae (about 3.8 million!) - a clear adaptation to diving in total darkness.
At mid-morning Christian offered a talk on the Nimrod expedition (‘Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition’) led by Shackleton in 1907 – 09, before his Endurance adventure some six years later. This expedition - his only real scientific and geographical expedition - produced many new specimens, geological studies, magnetic and meteorological readings, the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the discovery and conquest of the South Magnetic Pole, the first book ever to be printed on the Antarctic continent (Aurora Australis) and an incredible new farthest south record, just 180km (97 miles) from the geographic pole itself.
In many ways Shackleton opened the path for Scott, who would return and reach the pole following routes, means and methods tested during the Nimrod expedition. Scott, repeating Shackleton’s mistakes in terms of nutrition and logistics and also adding some of his own would come in second, completely overwhelmed by the efficiency and speed of Amundsen, only to perish with his hand-picked men in the most terrible manner: weak in the extreme, without water or food, sick with dysentery and scurvy. With both poles conquered, Shackleton could, of course, only imagine one remaining endeavour – to cross the whole white continent from sea to sea.
After lunch, a documentary on the Terra Nova expedition’s hut – The Secrets of Scott’s Hut - was shown in the Lecture Room, presenting a somewhat romantic view of Scott and his whole expedition, but fascinating nonetheless; and this was followed by Dmitri’s talk on ‘Antarctic Seals’, including eared and true seals (‘Otariidae’ and ‘Phocidae’ respectively). Different aspects of their biology, ecology and behaviour were addressed using many photos with captions.
By now daylight was practically gone and most guests started populating the bar, awaiting official news on Ortelius' progress and the weather forecast for the next few days. Over half an hour, the expedition staff presented another evening recap, mostly about history: scurvy, Ross, Scott and Amundsen were all part of the evening ’s focus.
After dinner, a Hollywood movie was selected by the newly-formed ‘movie committee’ and shown in the Lecture Room as Ortelius continued on her way towards enigmatic Bouvetøya.
Today we woke up to a morning of overcast skies and strong winds. We are now at sea, well on the way to Bouvetøya Island. All our hopes are for calmer weather by the time we reach the Island and attempt a landing.
There were not many birds outside, just a few Antarctic prions following the ship. However later we had the chance to see Cape petrels, Giant petrels and even three Wandering albatrosses.
After breakfast Bob gave a presentation in the bar:
‘Plankton – smallest creatures, biggest impact’. In this lecture Bob described different groups of Phyto - and Zooplankton typical for Antarctic waters, and their role in the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean.
Lunch was served in the dining room – different from the usual ‘buffet’ style because of the rolling ship; troubled witnesses reported afterwards that a plate full of profiteroles to be shared at table can bring out behavioural problems in even the most mild-mannered of our passengers. After lunch some of us watched a documentary film about the life of the orca family in the waters around the Subantarctic Crozet Islands.
After a break for afternoon tea, Victoria gave us a presentation: ‘A History of Bouvetøya’, in which she described historical events of discovery and various expeditions that visited the island, including the mystery of the Italian visit (or non-visit!) to Bouvet in 1959, and the even more mysterious life boat found there in 1964.
During our usual recap, expedition leader Jan informed us about weather predictions for the next two days and tried to give us an approximate time of arrival at Bouvetøya Island. To finish off the recap session, Brent showed a few videos of his travels in the Antarctic Peninsula region - featuring avalanches, collapsing icebergs and a highly-stressed Adelie penguin escaping from orca.
We had a nice dinner, and later in the evening we watched the film: Ghost writer. Before bed we had to change our clocks and watches again – one hour forward. From tomorrow we will be on – and stay on – Greenwich meantime.
EASTER SUNDAY/ CROSSED GREENWICH MERIDIAN
The wind direction has not been very helpful over the last few days, so consequently we have to contain ourselves in patience for 24 hours longer before we try and do whatever Bouvet Island will allow us to do! So it’s another day at sea for all of us, but always heading out towards this remotest spot on the globe and coming ever closer to the moment we’ve all been anticipating...
Sunday – beautiful, brightly-coloured egg napkins adorned our place-settings at breakfast, scattered with shimmering, foil-covered chocolate eggs. Happy Easter everyone! On Easter Sunday 2015 the Ortelius ‘Bouvet Expedition’ crossed the Greenwich meridian and suddenly our daily ‘south’ and ‘west’ co-ordinates have transformed themselves into ‘south’ and ‘east’. For the couple of days we expect to devote to Bouvet Island we will remain east of Greenwich; then back we go to the west again…
Meanwhile, Dmitri was in the Lecture Room (we are still rocking and rolling, but not nearly as much as yesterday) to deliver his talk on ‘’The origin of Whales’ at 10.30 am. That the whale as we know it today can have evolved from a small land mammal at first seems incredible; but we were taken through the process step-by-step and over millions of years, it does seem that these creatures adapted to their watery environment so well that their nostrils migrated to the top of the head and their legs became flippers – another point to Charles Darwin. Ironically, there were no whale sightings whatsoever today!
Wind speeds remained high and we were all very focused on not falling as we moved around the ship – on which Deck 3 port-hole shutters are being kept closed and the doors to the outer decks near the Dining Room are locked. It is only safe to go outside on Decks 6 and 7 at present. Keen birders amongst us were enjoying bird sightings from the bridge wings – including White-headed petrels and Fairy prions, which were a real treat in these latitudes.
Lunch was beef ragout followed by divine bread- and-butter-pudding – served again rather than ‘buffet style’ because of the motion of the sea. This afternoon’s 2.30 pm documentary was exceptionally well-attended – it was all about an expedition in 2012 which managed to land on Bouvet Island. Starting at the beginning of the planning process and following it right through to the climbing of Bouvet’s icecap, the Expedition Pour le Futur 2062 travelled down here on the Hanse Explorer. They then succeeded in climbing to Olavtoppen, the island’s highest point (780m), where they left a time capsule.
Bob managed to tear himself away from bird- watching on the bridge and get ready for his interesting presentation ‘Arctic: Antarctic; what’s the difference?’ During this talk he managed to squeeze in an overview of every aspect of polar regions, not only the flora and fauna, but also the geology and history. Why is it that, despite enormous differences between the ocean-surrounded-by-land in the north (home to the polar bear and walrus, carpets of wild flowers and an indigenous population) and the land-surrounded-by-ocean in the south (think isolating circumpolar current, penguins, little vegetation and no native population), many people confuse the two regions? Not any more after Bob’s talk at least!
Tension was mounting as we gathered for our regular ‘Recap & Briefing’ slot at 6.30 pm. Rolando was kept busier than ever serving drinks and when Jan picked up the microphone to speak, the hum of conversation instantly ceased. We were in the vicinity of Bouvet Island at last! However, weather forecasts for wind speed and swell conditions at the beach did not look very promising over the next 24 hours…The plan was to take a look in the morning, with an approach to Bouvet soon after 6 am tomorrow. There is time in our itinerary to hang out here for a while and watch the changing sea conditions carefully. Challenging times for expedition leader Jan and Captain Tuomo Leskinen. Jan outlined how we would go about a landing operation and the dos and don’ts of Bouvet behaviour. It is coming very close now.
The bar was not very busy later in the evening; some passengers were enjoying a screening of ‘The best, exotic Marigold Hotel’. Others were simply getting an early night so as to be ready for anything tomorrow. Bouvet, here we come…
Those of us who were not already awake heard Jan welcoming the new day at 6.30 am. We had good visibility and reasonably bright light, but very strong, gusting winds – literally breath-taking if you try and spend time out on deck photographing the island, its ice and wildlife.
Since an immediate landing was out of the question, our captain, officers and helmsman instead treated us to a full circumnavigation of Bouvet Island so that we could examine it from all angles. This took most of the morning and we had fantastic photo opportunities for panoramas. At the same time we were optimistically on stand-by, water- proof gear at the ready, camera bags packed, just longing for an opening in the weather to allow us to lower zodiacs and try for a landing.
But it was not to be. Furthermore, with something of an Internet ‘black hole’, communication with the outside world broke off just at the time we needed to be in contact with the Oceanwide office. We were destined to have a number of gatherings in the bar in the course of today, during which Jan interpreted the various weather charts and explained what options were being considered on the bridge. And the ship was moving a lot because of the wind and the swell.
So in the afternoon we had to play a waiting game. We stood off Bouvet Island for now, having completed our close-up circumnavigation earlier (we could clearly see seals in the water and on the strips of beaches and even managed to catch glimpses of the scientific station/weather centre only rebuilt there last year). A documentary about the life of Fur seals, especially focusing on Marion and Crozet Islands was on offer and we even caught up on a bit of lost sleep as well. For the wide-awake, the foam-whipped ocean was quite a sight as we ploughed through the crests and troughs of the waves, manoeuvring at a safe distance from Bouvet itself.
Recap was packed as we came together to hear the verdict: we will definitely stay here overnight and seek another window of opportunity for landing tomorrow morning. That decision will be made soon after breakfast tomorrow, at which point we will either land on Bouvet Island or sail on towards the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, first off towards Gough Island. Calm seas are not anticipated…but we are in the ‘Furious Fifties’ and what else can we expect?
Undaunted, Adam talked about the complex geology around Bouvet Island, and of the meeting of three tectonic plates right here under the decks of Ortelius. And Victoria took us up to dinner time
with reflections on the Greenwich meridian and the problems of calculating longitude without GPS or a reliable clock – much better to be on board Ortelius under Captain Tuomo Leskinen in 2015 than with Sir Clowdisley Shovell on Association off the Isles of Scilly in 1707 (only 26 of 1,673 men survived).
Many of us reflected on the fact that we have at least had excellent views of Bouvet – which was by no means guaranteed (so many explorers in the past have failed to get close enough to see it, frequently prevented by wind and weather); the mood at dinner was philosophical and realistic about our chances tomorrow. It is in the lap of the gods (especially Poseidon!) after all.
The entertainment this evening was One Hundred Foot Journey, which proved a very popular choice – alternately moving and funny and providing sensitive insights into cultural differences.
Tomorrow the decision – to Bouvet or not to Bouvet – will be made one way or the other.
We awoke to lighter winds than the previous day and our view of Bouvetøya was somewhat clearer, showing the gleaming slopes of snow and ice. As with yesterday, there remained a cap of cloud covering on the volcanic peak, and the upper slopes of snow could be seen merging imperceptibly into this.
We had determined to give the possibility of landing on the island our best shot, so the expedition team had assembled on the bridge very shortly after daybreak to assess the situation. In the meantime Ortelius cruised along the southern shore of the island, which presented the mostly likely opportunity for shelter. Despite careful scanning it became clear that the surf was too strong, crashing up the narrow beaches that were overhung by glaciers. There was even a notable amount of ice debris churning around in the breakers. At 9 am we made the final, sad, decision that landing was impossible, and that the swell was unlikely to ameliorate in the next few hours. We would therefore leave Bouvetøya and begin our passage northwards to Gough Island in the Tristan da Cunha group.
Ortelius was turned accordingly and we gathered speed on our new course. However, this isolated island hadn’t quite finished with us. There remained remarkable views of the frozen volcanic outcrop for some distance under conditions of good visibility. And since Bouvetøya is the only speck of land for over 1000 km in any direction, it is a focus for wildlife. So for the first few hours we had excellent views of Fur seals, Fin and Sei whales, and enormous flocks of Southern fulmars, prions, Black-bellied storm petrels, and even the occasional Wandering and Light-mantled sooty albatross.
The afternoon’s entertainment consisted of Part I of a four-part geological documentary series called Rise of the Continents, this part focusing on North & South America. And after tea Victoria was in the Lecture Room looking to the future to give us some history and diamond-hunting tales about Gough Island – that outlier of Tristan da Cunha, some 400 km (230 miles) SSE of the main archipelago.
In the evening we were treated to a wonderful sunset over a reasonably calm sea, although that same old swell kept rolling our ship through the night. The after-dinner movie, The Intelligence Game, was well-attended and a few people gathered in the bar afterwards to marvel (over a drink!) at what was happening at Bletchley Park during World War II and how Turing’s achievement was kept a secret for over 50 years.
This sea day was unusually uneventful as regards our voyage progress. In short, we woke up to a drizzle and a relatively quiet sea and went to bed in rain and struggling against a heavy sea, with waves at times reaching 9 - 12 m and creating big sprays – situation normal for the South Atlantic Ocean.
Christian introduced the many new bird species that we can expect to see on our way towards the Tristan Islands group in the morning (‘Seabirds en route to Tristan da Cunha’) and after lunch the next part of Rise of the Continents was shown, this episode on the creation of Africa.
Later in the afternoon, passenger Harry Mitsidis gave an intriguing presentation entitled ‘The Best Travelled Travellers’ Club & UN Travellers Hall of Fame’ – outlining in particular the activities and internet site of the club. And all members of the audience received a free calendar!
The Ortelius was behaving very well in the waves and the best place to be was on the bridge, watching the endless series of waves rolling on towards the bow from the open ocean. Most evenings as the twilight descends on the bridge, our First Mate Sven and Hotel Manager Robert have a habit of getting together to do some planning for the next part of the voyage – and today was no exception.
Our recap & briefing session was a little different from usual however, as Jan had an announcement to make about our itinerary with regard to Tristan da Cunha. There is a bronchitis epidemic at present in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas – with half of Tristan’s inhabitants affected. Regretfully, this means we won’t be meeting them or walking the streets of ‘The Settlement’ this trip. Now captain and Jan (together with the Oceanwide office staff) are working out the best way we can maximise our visit to the Tristan archipelago – maybe we will be able to attempt a landing on one of the other islands, or at least do a zodiac cruise at Nightingale or Inaccessible. Time will tell. This is certainly proving to be an expedition – destinations unknown!
Passengers and staff alike either turned in for an early night, headed for the bar after dinner, or watched Philomena in the Lecture Room – an enthralling film about an Irish mother’s search for her 50-year-old child (who had been adopted against her wishes when still very young) - and how she copes with her new knowledge.
The day started maybe a bit too early, as Ortelius danced all night and sleeping was a question of desire more than fact. After the morning eggs, protein (as some call bacon), fruits, yoghurts and various other concoctions, something was expected out there: and it was a big surprise for some of us - the first Gough albatrosses (they don't nest at Tristan!) were seen, and at least nine different individuals joined our journey, flying around Ortelius all day. It was a real delight to have such close encounters with a critically endangered species, more aptly named ‘Atlantic Wandering albatross’, of which fewer than 10,000 individuals survive the threats of longline fishing and oversized mice at the colonies. Mice that prey on the chicks, affect dramatically (90% down), the breeding success of the annual cohort of c. 2000 couples (these guys and girls breed every other year, sometimes every three or four years even).
With big birdies which breed on the Tristan archipelago around, it was time to learn about the processes that make an island emerge from the ocean. Dramatic forces from the earth's mantle, such as the product of subduction of continental plates and hotspots were recounted by Adam as he told us the story of ‘The life and death of Volcanic Islands’, both those we have visited in the south and those we are still to discover on our way north. Rocks tell the tale, for he who knows how to read them.
Lunch interrupted the birding, which included many species and whole flocks of prions, following the ship with great optimism. They were a bit surprised when their moving island stopped for a short time - some routine maintenance-work had to be carried out on the engine; so for about 40 minutes we let Ortelius catch her breath and get a bit pampered. Those keen on our current geology documentary watched Part III of Rise of the Continents – this time on Eurasia.
In the afternoon just after cookie time, Victoria offered the first episode of her talk ‘A History of Tristan da Cunha: discovery, settlement and shipwreck’. The islands were first discovered by Portuguese explorers pioneering a sailing route to the Far East - Gough in 1505 and Tristan da Cunha in 1506 (by ships pushed off their route by a storm). Despite plentiful water, fish, seals, and seabirds, the islands remained uninhabited because they lacked safe anchorages. The first attempt to settle the islands was led by Jonathan Lambert, (a Yankee whaler) in 1810, but this foundered when Lambert drowned (or was murdered?) in 1813, proving that living on remote islands is not easy!
Victoria continued her tale by recounting the arrival of a British garrison at Tristan in 1816 and how Corporal William Glass, with a few others, chose to stay behind and form a settlement after the military were withdrawn. Five women came over to Tristan from St Helena and from a total of 15 such ‘founders’, the present community of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas was formed.
Before dinner a recap and briefing took place in the bar, which included the progress of our journey, the news from our sister ship Plancius, the weather forecast and, on a more humorous note, an apology by Bob: yesterday Bob recounted the evolutionary process by which penguins lost their power of flight; however, now we know as scientific fact that penguins can and do fly, at least on BBC TV on April 1st!
After dinner The Theory of Everything was shown in our Deck 3 movie theatre (or chapel!), imaginatively and sensitively recounting the moving tale of one of our greatest contemporary astronomers and his fight with motor neuron disease. After that most guests retired, with the hope of a peaceful night ahead and sweet dreams.
This morning we woke up to relatively calm seas and grey sky. It was getting warmer: 7°C. This will be another sea day as we navigate towards Gough Island. A few Soft-plumaged and Kerguelen petrels, also Atlantic petrels followed our ship. Two Tristan albatrosses were flying at some distance, slowly getting closer to Ortelius. A single, curious Black-browed albatross inspected us from above.
The critically endangered Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) is restricted to Gough and Inaccessible Islands, with ~2,000 breeding pairs. The Tristan albatross (wingspan: 3.05 m) is smaller than the Wandering albatross and has a slightly darker back. It has two distinctive white patches on the dark upper wing, and never attains the full white plumage of the Wandering albatross. It feeds often at night on cephalopods and fish, and catches prey by surface-seizing.
The Atlantic petrel (Pterodroma incerta) is another endemic to Gough and the Tristan group. It breeds in large colonies on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island; nests are made in burrows, dug into peaty soils in fern-bush vegetation.
The distinctive-looking Great shearwater (Puffinus gravis) also nests in the Tristan-da-Cunha islands. It breeds on the main island, Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough Islands, although Gough is the major breeding site of the Great shearwater with ~ 3 million breeding pairs. It nests in large colonies, in small burrows or on the open grass. The nest is visited only at night to avoid predation by large gulls. Recently a small nesting colony of this species was found in the Falkland Islands. The Great shearwater is one of only a few bird species to migrate from breeding grounds in the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere each season.
After breakfast Christian gave a presentation-workshop in the Lecture Room: ‘Seabirds; the Difficult Ones en Route to Tristan’. Now we know about some of the more unusual species to look out for from the outside decks of Ortelius and can even place these rarely seen albatross in their historical perspective.
It was delicious fish-tempura with potato wedges for lunch, and after that we watched Part IV, the final part of the documentary: Rise of the continents – this time on Australia. Later Bob presented his lecture: ‘Whales of the South Atlantic – a Wish List’, in which he described how to identify the cetaceans we may possibly see in this area.
During recap in the bar at 6.30 pm, Jan described our odds of visiting or cruising Gough Island and talked further about what we hope to do when we reach Tristan itself. Alan brought our recap to an end with an unusual contribution - by singing a self-written song about our cruise and its tantalising destinations.
Following a good dinner (people at my table who shall remain nameless asked for seconds!), we watched a comedy for a change – the thoughtful and darkly funny ‘St Vincent’.
This morning dawned bright and sunny, though the sea was still moving. If anything, the motion of wind and wave increased during the day, though the sun stayed with us and was a cheerful sight, illuminating frothy waves breaking across the rolling ocean. After breakfast was a great time to be outside taking photos from the upper decks. And it is getting warmer each day as we sail north!
From about 9.45 am Brent was available behind reception on Deck 4 – he was selling Tristan da Cunha souvenirs in the form of handsome baseball caps. Fortunately for all of us, Brent was commissioned to restock the Tristan souvenir shop and is therefore carrying a number of these caps in his luggage. This means we have a shopping opportunity even though fears of infection are going to prevent us from landing on Tristan itself. Proceeds from sales will be sent to shore together with various medicines that are in short supply among the islanders during their bronchitis epidemic. So this is a win-win situation!
History buffs were in the Lecture Room on Deck 3 at 10.30 am to learn more about Captain James Cook – the Man behind the Legend, arguably the western world’s most famous explorer, who certainly discovered more land (and surveyed it surprisingly accurately) than any other explorer ever, setting a brilliant record for the 18th century. This BBC documentary was somewhat controversial, as it portrayed Cook in middle age very differently from other, more conventional interpretations. Whether or not he deteriorated into the type of irrational behaviour displayed here towards the end of his life (he died in 1779, in his early fifties – the result of a significant misunderstanding with the natives of Hawaii…) is a question the historians amongst us will want to check up. Facts can be open to different interpretations; it was certainly thought-provoking.
Lunch at 12.30 pm was most welcome – chicken casserole and rice, followed by a cinnamon-spiced rice pudding and fruit. What a treat. The 2pm documentary slot was taken up by the first two episodes of The Secrets of Bones, designed and narrated by a friend of many of the Ortelius staff, Ben Garrod. In Size matters & Down to earth we were carried along by Ben’s enthusiasm and fascination with bones; he pointed out how very much we can learn about animals from their skeletons and what a unique substance bone is (being both flexible and strong).
Despite Ortelius’ movement getting a bit friskier at around 4.30 pm, Victoria went ahead with Part II of her talk on ‘A History of Tristan da Cunha: Visitors & Outsiders, Evacuation & Return – A Social History of the 20th century’. Big changes came to Tristan with increasing influence from the ‘houtside warl’ (outside world), especially during World War II and the ‘Volcano Years’ (1961 - 63) when the entire community was evacuated to Britain. After their return home, the Tristan Islanders had to find a way to merge their former life-style of freedom and anarchy into a way of life that could also embrace the cash economy of the modern world - if they were to retain their independence. They have, in the last 50 years, succeeded in finding a surprisingly successful compromise, whereby they can retain the best elements from their former subsistence life-style, yet live a 21st century life too, though isolated from the rest of the world. As David Smallman so aptly said: “Physically, the island is their universe, but mentally, it isn’t any more”.
Recap at 6.30 pm provided us with news of tomorrow’s plans. We hope to reach Gough Island soon after breakfast tomorrow and take a ship’s cruise around it. The weather is not on our side for a zodiac cruise, unfortunately. There were many questions and answers (handled by Jan and Brent) and finally Adam spoke a little of Gough’s unique geology to take us up to dinner time.
The after-dinner movie was a comedy/drama set in Paris – ‘My Old Lady’, with Maggie Smith in the starring female role. It was thoughtful rather than frothy comedy, enjoyed by some ‘regulars’ and newcomers alike. The rest of us went to bed rather earlier than usual because the ocean was getting rougher and it was the most comfortable place to be! When tomorrow dawns we will see what we can do.
Breakfast was scheduled for 7 am today, though we were slowed down in the night by some plunging, ploughing and corkscrewing on the mighty ocean’s surface. Still, soon after we had consumed our scrambled eggs, sausage and tomato we could see Gough Island up ahead – what’s more, the sun was shining and the light conditions were beautiful. It wasn’t even cold, though the wind was hard to contend with and gave all of us (if we had hair) a ‘bad hair’ day…
Captain Tuomo and his officers did a grand job of getting Ortelius close to Gough - since a zodiac cruise was out of the question in these winds. In fact, our captain was observing that we had had 50-knot winds every single day for the last 11 days! In the lee of the island , however, we even had a few precious, near wind-free moments, perfect for taking photos of these green-covered mountain tops in mid-ocean.
As we sailed along Gough’s coastline, the vista and light angles were ever- changing. We moved gradually from clear views of the South African weather station based on the island plateau, past caves, waterfalls, rugged brown peaks and had several glimpses of a vividly-coloured rainbow draping the contours of the hills. As we passed beaches full of seals and outlying rocky crags covered in Rockhopper penguins, our changing perspective of the island seemed to alter its shape and we could see new rock formations appearing. It was a stunning ship’s cruise and lifted all of our spirits. The birds were displaying their dynamic soaring skills to full effect too and there will no doubt be a lot of photo -editing going on for the rest of the day.
Around 11 am Gough Island receded behind us and we left the bow for the bar and a hot drink. Out of the sheltering lee of Gough the ocean was soon shaking and swirling us around once again (with wind speed Beaufort 9) as we head for the main Tristan archipelago to see what comes next.
Crab-and-corn soup and a noodle dish were served to us at lunch and we were grateful we didn’t have to move around the dining room with full plates – the waiters and waitresses seem so poised and balanced! At 2 pm the series The Secrets of Bones was continued with Parts III & IV - Into the Air and Sensing the World respectively. Many of us have wished for the power of flight after watching the sea birds swooping and gliding on the wind this morning, and of course it is the structure of their bones that makes such a life-style possible. Ditto the deep and graceful dives and manoeuvres of the great whales, whose ‘unseen’ world is hard for us even to imagine.
The motion of the ship became somewhat more regular by mid-afternoon, so some people’s afternoon reading was done in bed, gently lulled…but on hearing Brent’s voice over the PA system at 4.15 pm, the environmentally intrigued all hastily awoke and gathered in the Lecture Room to hear Brent & Bob’s team presentation on ‘The Introduced Rodents of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island: Impacts and Management Option s’. The Gough mouse is at least double the size of the ordinary mouse and seems to have acquired a taste for fresh bird eggs (eg: of the rare Gough bunting) and fresh meat, involving eating beetles, petrels and albatross chicks alive. The species that breed on Gough, most of them rare, are completely defenceless; they are not evolutionarily capable of defending themselves from land mammal predation as they have never encountered it before. Just how this situation has developed is not well understood, but it’s happened over a matter of decades rather than millennia. And the solution? Well, dropping poison by helicopter has been successful elsewhere in the South Atlantic, but you have to kill off every single mouse…
Sunset was colourful and as dusk descended it was time for recap and briefing once again. The wind has been dropping and should continue to drop as we near Nightingale Island, which bodes well for a reduction in swell. Tomorrow we will try to cruise Nightingale, set foot on Middle Island and then drop off drugs at Tristan itself. According to Bob, we will cross the sub-tropical ocean convergence boundary in the night (somewhere between Gough and Inaccessible Islands), which is significant biologically, though we won’t feel a bump.
Tomorrow will be a busy day – and we have postcards to write tonight. However, the film on offer was tempting – ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, by the Coen Brothers, which was highly recommended by our expedition leader; after that, it was straight to bed with high hopes for the morrow and a 6.30 am wake-up call.
We arrived off Nightingale Island, with its two satellite islands of Middle and Stoltenhoff, shortly before dawn. As day broke, we were treated to a wonderful sunrise which was all the better for being quite warm - about 17˚C, and all of this in a virtually cloudless sky. Near Ortelius were the three islands, lit by the early sun that showed up the native vegetation very well, together with the little cluster of huts at the NW end of Nightingale. Around us, a significant but regular swell kept Ortelius rocking gently as we selected the best place for our zodiac operations.
We were soon launching, and one by one (with some breaks for the swell to die down!) our zodiacs were speeding across the deep blue waters towards a rendezvous off the huts. From there we spent the whole morning exploring the coast, though due to the regulations we were unable to land anywhere except Middle Island. So, we wound our way along the shores, exploring the many inlets and caves, looking for wildlife – and there was plenty. Having crept into the sheltered waters behind the long kelp weeds, we got excellent views of the hundreds of sub-Antarctic Fur seals, with their distinctive yellow-buff throats and bellies – indeed their howling echoed from the cliffs. Around us we saw Tristan skuas, Antarctic terns, and on the rocks the most characteristic terrestrial bird, the Tristan thrush or ‘Starchy’ as the locals call it. One zodiac even had a Nightingale bunting land on it, which kept the birders amongst us happy. And there was also the occasional sighting of northern Rockhopper penguins, though most had clearly moved out to sea by now.
We made our way through a tight little channel amongst the rocks into a sheltered cove on the south shore of Middle Island, and there were able to achieve brief landings, safe from the swell of the open waters. From here we continued our explorations along the shores, and some ventured across to Stoltenhoff Island, negotiating the dramatic little channels between its stacks at the SE end of that island.
Back on board, whilst we had lunch, Ortelius was under way once more for the short passage to Tristan. We were rewarded by wonderful views of the volcano as we approached and sailed slowly along the shoreline, enjoying the dramatic scenery and the homely sight of grazing sheep and cattle. Sadly due to the epidemic there, landing was out of the question but we wanted to drop off our postcards and had also undertaken to deliver some extra medicines to the little community. Accordingly these were packaged as water-tight as possible, along with an enormous ‘get well’ card, signed by lots of folk aboard. The Tristan longboat came out from the little harbour in Edinburgh, pulled alongside, and we let down the packages via ropes into their boat as it tossed next to us in the swell.
Finally, with much waving and good wishes,they pulled away. Ortelius gathered speed, and we were left with memorable views of the little ‘Settlement’, its clusters of multi-coloured cabins, the church, potato patches, and behind all of this, the looming presence of the volcano itself, the peak covered with a light dusting of snow.
Despite the breeze, some of us lingered on deck to watch Tristan recede into the distance as we pointed our bow towards St Helena. Some photograph editing was done by recap time at 6.30 pm, at which Jan talked about the weather, and what we had seen today was discussed from the geologist’s and the naturalist’s point of view. Even our Dr Lise contributed with some words on the history of epidemics on Tristan; it is interesting that in the past, ships have brought epidemics to the islanders. Now we have had to avoid landing so as not to transmit a local epidemic further afield.
The bar was quite busy since we have a number of sea days ahead of us, and therefore a later breakfast tomorrow. The after-dinner movie was an interesting one – The Lovely Bones. There was much discussion afterwards about this strange film. Did it work on different levels? Or was it, as Dmitri so succinctly put it, ‘just about a dead girl’?
After an eventful, sunny day in the northern part of the Tristan da Cunha island group, the Ortelius and its passengers went back into ocean mode – now riding a lukewarm ocean well north of the Antarctic convergence and supplied with warm currents coming from the north-west. However, the northerly winds that we knew so well from when we were down south were picking up again. Wind speeds up to 60 knots rocked the ship during the day and slowed down our progress. Although the birds were becoming scarcer due to lower primary food production, we still had visitors from Tristan da Cunha and Nightingale Island, including several Spectacled petrels. Seabirds like wind to fly on and waves to play with, and Spectacled petrels are truly acrobatic.
The morning was enlivened with a presentation by Brent on marine ocean threats. He talked first about his experience with an oil spill from Bahia Paraiso off Palmer Station (Antarctic Peninsula, 1989) and then moved on to the Nightingale Island oil spill of 2011, and subsequent attempts to rescue and treat damaged Rockhopper penguins in a temporary penguin hospital (in the swimming pool of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on Tristan da Cunha). Although the photos of oil- coated penguins were saddening, fortunately most of the sea birds avoided the same fate as it was late in the season, and also Fur seals managed to swim quickly beyond the oil slick. It could have been so much worse.
In the afternoon we were able to see the final parts of The Secret of Bones, this time entitled Food for thought and Sex respectively (intriguing titles indeed!). For later in the afternoon Adam and Brent had compiled a slide show on the recent Bardabunga eruption in Iceland in October 2014, based on stunning air and ground photography by two German and Icelandic photo - artists. The analogy to the lava eruption on Tristan in 1961, which we had all observed the day before, was well understood by the audience – it must have been a haunting sight for all concerned.
The weather cleared up a bit to display a beautiful sunset, while the Ortelius continued its north-directed battle with the omnipresent and eternal waves. First Mate Sven was obviously surprised to see staff and passengers taking photographs of the colourful sky through his bridge window…
Today’s scientific recaps in the bar before dinner dealt with the coriolis force and the growing bird inventory from our journey, which is being compiled faithfully with daily updates by Christian and Bob. After dinner, the film being shown in the Ortelius cinema tonight was Wild; although we are certainly visiting some wild places on this trip, we are not having to do it with quite the same level of discomfort as that movie’s heroine! And so to bed, lulled by a strongly-rolling ocean. We are lucky that Ortelius is such a stable ship.
Ortelius was riding the waves when Jan made his classic wake-up call! (7:30 is quite early for many!). In any case, the movement felt during the night would continue during the day, with winds from the NE always between 45 and 60 Kt. Only a handful of birds were still around, and all belonged to the Tristan area of influence, making clear these waters were some sort of buffer or transitional area.
The morning was a quiet one, munching breakfast, visiting the bridge, trying to see through the wave-splashed windows, getting a mid-morning cup of tea at the bar and attending Bob's lecture - ‘The Atlantic Islands – an Overview of their Wildlife’. He offered a fantastic overview of the different Atlantic islands on a variety of scales, from the very origin of these islands to the moment different species started colonizing them, to the point of genetic drift and allopatric speciation, which was the origin of the endemism phenomenon.
He described some experiments, made both by Mother Nature, Gaia, Pacha Mama…and by humans, on the repopulation of islands after a catastrophe like a volcanic eruption, or (for example) when E. O. Wilson used gas to exterminate the invertebrates on small islets to see how quickly they would be recolonized by plants and animals. A general overview of some charismatic species followed, including the enigmatic Buntings of the Tristan group, the different rails and crakes, the Wirebird (a Charadrius plover), and others - most of them endangered as it happens, with endemic species restricted to islands because exotic predators were introduced by explorers and/or early settlers to the mainland.
After lunch a documentary on Darwin and evolution (entitled What Darwin never knew was shown in the Lecture Room, and in the late afternoon a Trivia contest took place in the same Temple of Knowledge. Victoria opened our first Team Trivia session, in which she promised “lots of fun” and a prize for the gallant winners. Lee kindly ran this team game for us with a firm hand, making sure we kept to the rules and enjoyed ourselves as well. Teamed-up, guests fought for amazing prizes, all of the drinkable kind.
In the evening a briefing about the development of the trip and the weather forecast was followed by some edutainment and dinner. With full bellies, the ones interested in a bit of fiction and fantasy could enjoy another Hollywood movie, selected and endorsed by the onboard cinemascope secretariat and shown in the familiar yellow ‘Chapel’ of Deck 3 forward. After that it was time for some sleep.
This morning the wind scaled down and the ocean became calmer. Some blue patches among the clouds in the sky showed definite signs of improvement in the weather, but there were still some rain clouds on the horizon. Already before sunrise, the air temperature was a surprising 21°C. There were almost no seabirds outside, just one lonely Spectacled petrel (former subspecies of White-chinned petrel) gliding above the waves next to the ship.
After breakfast Christian gave a presentation: ‘Birding en-route to St. Helena and Ascension Island’. We are looking forward to seeing some of the local seabirds - the Red-billed tropicbird, the Bulwer's petrel, the Band- rumped Storm petrel, the Masked booby and other tropical seabird species affiliated with the islands.
Just before lunch our Hotel Manager, Robert, invited everyone onto the upper deck for sherbet with champagne. It was nice, sunny weather with blue skies and a temperature of 25°C. People responded to the invitation with appropriate enthusiasm and dressed for warm weather! Even BEFORE we had drunk the champagne we were spotting Flying fish – such an extraordinary sight.
After lunch we watched a documentary about the dark spots on the sun, sun flares and their influence on the magnetic field of the earth. And back by popular demand after yesterday’s launch, the winning Team Trivia panel returned to try and win their second (and third!) bottle of wine; they just managed this, but only on a tie-breaker, which kept the excitement going right to the last minute. Lee was at the helm again and kept order admirably, although there were occasional disagreements and voices raised among the teams! Most of us found it useful to have an American in our midst. The questions seem to have got harder, most of us agreed, though the challenge is what is so enjoyable, and fun was still had by all, if with lower scores.
During recap in the bar at 6.30 pm, Jan showed us our position on the map and described in general terms our possible arrival time and activities on the Island of St Helena. Victoria made a contribution about Flying Fish, in this case not the ones we have been seeing today for the first time, but a ship which sailed from Cape Verde in 1877 in order to seal in South Georgia. Klutschak was on board, one of the first people to understand the significance of over-exploitation of a species; he predicted the total extinction of the Fur seal, though fortunately they have recovered since becoming a protected species.
After dinner some of us watched the popular movie: Now you see me. Then we went to bed, hoping for a continuation of today’s good weather, so that we can arrive at St Helena on the morning of April 19th.
Today’s ocean was much smoother than for the last couple of days, so we were able to move around Ortelius without holding on to everything and everyone we came across! This makes it so much easier to get up and get going in the morning; most people were out on deck before breakfast, appreciating another sunny day.
It’s fortunate that the sea has calmed down, since this morning ’s talk/documentary was a BBC programme on Freak Waves. Also known as ‘rogue waves’, there has been much scientific study of what may cause them; occasionally a single wave can build (due to current and wind conditions) to enormous heights, completely swamping ships, wiping outside decks clean of everything, breaking bridge windows and causing electrical problems. We saw what happened to two such ships and Brent described what it was like being on another (lucky escapes in all these cases). It was a fascinating, but extremely unnerving subject – even Shackleton nearly failed to reach South Georgia because of a rogue wave breaking over the James Caird! Brent was available to answer questions and interpret what we had just seen.
Lunch was delicious pork neck and rice - buffet-style again, since we’re no longer rocking and rolling. It was another great day for Flying fish, so people were out with cameras afterwards, enjoying the balmy weather and attempting to better their shots from yesterday. Just about everyone has SEEN the Flying fish now, though getting really good photos is proving a challenge for some of us.
summoned out to the helicopter deck for a group photo. What a treat to be able to take this in the sun, with everyone in short sleeves. It also gave the opportunity for people travelling in various groups to take their own team photos. As ever, it was documentary time next and today’s choice was called Transit of Venus.
Something different was planned for the late afternoon slot, allowing the expedition team to sit back and enjoy themselves! Passenger Bob Parda took the microphone in the Lecture Room to tell us all about ‘Techniques and Tools of the Early Navigators’. This was a wide-ranging talk, in which we were given a practical demonstration on a white board as well as a slide-presentation to elucidate how best to catch the wind in our sails and use a sextant successfully – among other things.
Interest in tea-time cookies dwindled when it was discovered, just before recap, that Rolando had produced POPCORN in the bar. As if we really needed it…but it was a great accompaniment to a pre-dinner drink. Jan told us a bit about the plans he is now firming up for St Helena, where we expect to arrive the day after tomorrow; it will be a very full and exciting day on tour. Then Bob gave us a summary of what he has discovered on the subject of Flying fish (why, how and how far they fly!); these strange creatures, ‘like fairies leaping over the surface of the ocean’ as I overheard from one conversation, have adopted an interesting evolutionary path in order to escape from predators.
After recap, those who went out for a brief breath of fresh air on deck were rewarded with a fantastic view of the stars, including the southern cross; stars studded the whole sky and with no land in sight, there was zero light pollution.
Then it was time for dinner – fish (though not flying) with potato pancake and spinach for most people at my table – and the most difficult decision of the day had to be taken again: to watch the film (described as a ‘man’s film’!) The Wolf of Wall Street or not. Alternatively, there were some card and scrabble games going on in the bar and journals to be updated before bed.
It was another fine day today. Circuits of the deck were no chore and we headed out after breakfast for our daily exercise, before settling down to our favourite sea-day activities on board – knitting, crossword, reading, sewing, photo editing, chatting, etc.
Victoria kicked off today’s talks, with ‘St Helena – A History (minus Napoleon!)’. It seems that St Helena’s history can be divided into three phases: the first is discovery and settlement in the 16th and 17th centuries; the second is the daily trials and tribulations of the small garrison, plantation-owner and slave community, which at times was led by proactive and sympathetic governors, but at other times treated harshly and left to its own devices; and finally, St Helena became a place of ‘imprisonment’ for others than Napoleon. This small colony has a surprisingly varied history and we were all left wondering what changes the building of an airport (operational in 2016) will bring to this isolated island.
The final activity of the morning was to bring back the boots we have been using on Ortelius. Now that we are in warmer climes and have steps/a pier to jump out on, we shouldn’t need them any longer. Adam and Victoria were in the Lecture Room to make short work of the process.
After courgette/zucchini soup (depending on your provenance) and a very good beef lasagne, the afternoon got under way with another BBC documentary called The Earth Underwater, which took a look at the thorny issue of climate change. Then, cup of tea in hand, we returned to the Lecture Room this time to hear Bob give a stimulating history talk, ‘Napoleon & St Helena: a speedy potted history, 200 years on’. There was no heckling from Victoria, who enjoyed being in the audience for a change!
Bob covered a huge amount of ground, dealing with Napoleon’s youth, his military and administrative careers, his defeat at Waterloo and the final phase of his life, imprisoned on St Helena (1815 – 21). Did Napoleon die from stomach cancer or from arsenic poisoning (possibly from the wallpaper at Longwood)? We will never know. However, tomorrow we will get to see some of the places Bob described for ourselves!
As we sail ever further north, sunset gets nearer to 6 pm (and sunrise nearer to 6 am) and shortly before recap was a good time to be out on deck looking at and taking photos of the dramatic pinky/orange skyscape. Recap was all about tomorrow – we were given a map of Jamestown and details of our tour, post office and museum opening times, etc. We hope to have sufficient time for a little retail therapy after sight-seeing. After Jan had answered numerous questions, Victoria read us part of Darwin’s account of St Helena from 1836 before we went down to dinner. The lamb is SO good on Ortelius!
Announcement of the movie All Is Lost (Robert Redford on a sailing boat) met with a mixed reaction, but a fair number of people gave it a try. There was an exceptional degree of conviviality in the bar as well, featuring a rather risqué song about a mermaid…We had a think before going to bed about what we need to take with us tomorrow – packed lunch, water, sunscreen, money and so on. And we have our passports and Arrival Declaration forms ready. St Helena, here we come.
We awoke to another warm morning with light breezes, and most importantly, our first view of St Helena, a low smudge of dark hillside capped by grey clouds and rain showers. Indeed as we approached, Ortelius had a couple of brief soakings, the first in several days. This wasn’t to last however, and the duration of our visit ashore was accompanied by warm, humid sunshine – with just the occasional brief shower.
We motored ashore in the zodiacs as soon as we were given customs clearance – this took a little time because of the presence of our sister ship Plancius and the arrival of the supply ship RMS St Helena. However, we were soon on the quay and whilst some preferred to spend a leisurely day in the pleasant little streets of Jamestown, others opted to hop on a minibus for a tour of the island’s key sites.
The tour had a somewhat Napoleonic theme inevitably – some would claim him as the island’s most famous resident – so we visited his first tomb in a lush and rather beautiful valley in the hills (he is now entombed in Paris), and this was followed by a visit to the main home of his imprisonment, Longwood House, where we could see many artefacts from his stay there and find out about his complex relations with his captors. It was also a pleasure to wander the luxuriant little garden, originally laid out by the man himself.
From there it was off to Diana’s peak, for amazing views of the numerous volcanic outcrops that overhang the island’s valleys and hills, with their patches of pasture grazed by well-fed cattle, and little farmsteads. We also called in at the main government building, Plantation House – of course it was Sunday, so little happening, and the liveliest activity was from two ancient tortoises quietly grazing (or sleeping on!) the lawns right next to the tennis court. We then returned to Jamestown, some alighting to take on the challenge of a descent of Jacob’s Ladder, that precipitous stairway (699 steps!) that leads from the fort into the centre of town.
Back in town, our Ortelius mariners (crew and passengers alike) were enjoying the little park, the little streets and squares with 18th and 19th century town houses, and of course the odd pub and café where Wi-Fi and other essentials could be found. The ladies at the Post Office very helpfully not only broke their Sunday closing rules and opened for us, but kept it open, so a flock of postcards and letters are now on their way to all parts of the world.
Back aboard, the evening gave us lovely light to gaze out on St Helena, ending with a glorious sunset, and for those on top deck a glimpse of the mysterious and often-doubted green spot as the giant glowing ball of a sun finally dipped below the horizon. We then came inside for a drink and recap, at which Jan gave us some vital statistics for the two sea days ahead and Victoria ran through some architectural history of Jamestown, to enlighten us on what we’d just seen.
Dinner was buffet-style for a change – WONDERFUL chicken and salmon, with a return of lettuce salad as added excitement. Tonight’s movie was a good one, but a touch depressing – Still Alice, about the early stages of Alzheimers…
A slight problem ensued as Ortelius was preparing to depart – an issue with the control system. This necessitated a delay of a few hours whilst the problem was fixed, but before midnight all was well and we were on our way to Ascension.
Relieved to wake up in a fast-moving vessel, heading towards Ascension Island without too much delay, we faced yet another tropical sea-day. This meant some early morning exercise on the top decks for many of us before it got too hot, while others were snoozing in their comfortable cabins. Later, one could find small clusters of passengers in the shade or in the bar, recounting either their current experiences or talking about previous travels to other distant corners of the earth.
Victoria presented the first part of her ‘A History of Ascension Island Part I – The Early Years’ at 10.30 am, all about the island’s discovery, garrisoning by Britain during Napoleon’s imprisonment and its subsequent development up until the early years of the 19th century. At its beginning, Ascension Island was categorized as a ‘Sloop of War of the smaller class’, with all people on the island being treated as its crew and under naval authority!
The after-lunch documentary was two clips of black-and-white film from the 1950s and early 1960s about Tristan da Cunha – one showing the volcanic eruption and evacuation of the islanders, the other put together by the ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’, who regularly sent missionaries to Tristan.
As the day reached its hottest point, both passengers and crew had opportunities to freshen up in close encounters with spouting ocean water, pumped directly from the sea to a sort of ‘car wash’ style shower on Ortelius’ bow, and pouring out of a very agile hose on the helicopter deck. Then came another round of the popular Team Trivia game (headed by Lee in the Lecture Room), this time with a new winning team.
Our passengers, Karin and Carin, had been diving on St. Helena together with our sous-chef Matt, and Karin gave a fascinating account of their experience, including a couple of short but stunning video clips of herself and a Manta ray, skilfully filmed by Matt.
Then we went out and up to Deck 6, where Robert, Dejan and the other hotel staff had prepared our first open-air barbeque with varieties of salads and meat, and not least of all, fresh tuna fish from St. Helena. The mood was upbeat, and the partying went on into the tropical night.
Today is our last day on board for the whole group, and with temperatures reaching more than 30° C it was a hot one, with many sightings of schools of Flying fish throughout daylight hours.
We had an extra-packed programme today, starting off the final day of lectures at the earlier- than-usual time of 9 am. Passenger Karin Sinniger gave a well-attended slide presentation and talk on her experiences of ‘Diving around the World’. The glimpses she gave us of life under the surface of the ocean were awesome as we travelled with her all over the globe and were able to share a little in the excitement of her diving career; she kept us amused with international anecdotes and descriptions of her interactions with creatures of the marine world.
Victoria then returned for her final history lecture of the series, ‘A History of Ascension Island Part II: Into the Technological Age’. This started with the ‘terraforming’ of Ascension by Darwin and Hooker, then dealt with the changeover of the island from control by the marine garrison into the hands of the Eastern Telegraph Company (1922; later Cable & Wireless); and its further handover in the 1960s to a British administrator, finally questioning what is happening on Ascension Island in the 21st century – it is a source of some concern to the islanders that they are all regarded as non-resident ‘employees’ with no rights to live there after retirement. Who knows what the future of Ascension holds?
The only really unpopular activity of the trip took place both before and after lunch – the settlement of accounts and the payment of the bar bill! Team Trivia (a different winning team again!) helped some of us get over the shock and then a certain amount of packing was happening among our departing guests. Wherever people spent the afternoon (showering on deck again maybe?) it wasn’t on the bridge, which was amazingly quiet…
Most people found time to attend the last lecture before Ascension Island, in which Christian gave his take on ‘Seabirds to Extinction – the South American View’. As always, this talk was delivered enthusiastically, with good slides and backed up by plenty of facts.
And so we came to the evening of the day: at 6 pm we gathered upstairs to enjoy a Farewell drink together and to toast our voyage. Dinner followed at 7 pm and then there was a final get-together in the Lecture Room afterwards; instead of a Hollywood movie, we were treated to a showing of the slide show that Frank Rainer has been making throughout our voyage – ‘Bound for Bouvet’. Many thanks go to Frank for sharing his stunning photography with us on our last evening.
The bar was open, albeit cash only and the cool of the evening attracted many of us out on deck to enjoy the balmy night air before going to bed.
Today we arrived at Ascension Island and this is where the fellowship of Ortelius divides up.
30 passengers disembark here and make their own way home by air; the rest of us continue on, arriving at Cape Verde on April 28th. Meanwhile, we spent a final day together exploring the island before heading our separate ways. Bon Voyage!
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Tuomo Leskinen and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!