OTL29-16 Trip log | The Antarctic Peninsula
23.02.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a very exciting day in Ushuaia, with the strong wind blowing the clouds along, plus the occasional moment of sunshine. Walking eagerly up the gangway for the first time we were at last aboard Ortelius, our new travelling home. During the embarkation process we had a real taste of Ushuaia weather when the wind was very strong and the rain was very heavy. As soon as we had received our cabin keys and settled in, we began to explore the ship, beginning the process of getting to know our new home.
However, it wasn’t long before we were gathered together - firstly in the lecture room and then in the bar for a variety of briefings and introductions. Information was imparted by the safety officer, the expedition leader, the hotel manager and our captain. The expedition team also introduced themselves. Before the first of many dinners on the ship we got the chance to try on our big, orange lifejackets and to have a look inside the big orange lifeboats. The ship left the dock at 18.00 and went past a large, Argentinian sailing ship. Once the formalities were over we were able to enjoy the stormy sights of the majestic Beagle Channel, as we headed east towards the open sea. On the way we passed the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams in Chile.
Last night was very rough and we experienced force 11 wind and, seemingly, super-sized waves. Some us were rocked to sleep but most of us weren’t! At breakfast there were just a few of us to enjoy the food but at lunchtime most of us made it to the dining room for an excellent meal. The lectures in the morning were postponed so in the afternoon Andreas introduced us to the whales of the southern ocean, whilst Mick waxed lyrical about the birds of the Drake Passage and Antarctica. There weren’t very many birds to be seen outside but several kinds of albatross flew by: Wandering, Southern Royal, Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty. The latter bird made repeated passes of the bridge, giving those lucky enough to be there fabulous, close views. During the afternoon the wind dropped and the sea got calmer so many of us hoped to get some sleep tonight!
This morning the sea was calm but we couldn’t see a thing outside, except thick fog! However, once breakfast had been consumed there was plenty going on inside the ship to keep us busy, such as lunch and dinner. There was also an Antarctic behavior and zodiac operations briefing, the handing out of rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets, hoovering our clothes and bags, a kayak briefing, a camping briefing and then, just before dinner, a briefing about the plans for tomorrow. There was a lot of excitement when Andrew announced that we should be able to get our first sight of Antarctica early tomorrow morning!
But back to this morning and it didn’t take long for the fog to clear. When it did conditions were ideal for looking for wildlife and a variety of species was seen, such as Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-petrel, various albatrosses, Blue Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and our first Chinstrap Penguins. There were marine mammals too – numerous Fin Whales, two Antarctic Minke Whales, a male Antarctic Fur Seal and a female Southern Elephant Seal, a species that is very rarely seen in the Drake Passage.
What a morning! There was an early wake-up call from Andrew today to announce that conditions outside were so good that we should all get up and see for ourselves. It was true – the sea was calm and was studded with icebergs, the sun was shining from a blue sky and there was land, covered in ice and snow. Antarctica at last! The mountains were very dramatic; on our starboard side was a large island and ahead of us was the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Passing a group of feeding Humpback Whales our breakfast was interrupted when a group of 15 or more Gerlache Killer Whales was spotted. The ship stopped and several of these impressive animals swam past us, quite close – what a way to start the day! On our way southwest some distant seals, Humpback Whales and penguins were seen. During the morning Mick gave a fascinating talk about these highly adapted birds. Then four Pack Ice Killer Whales (larger than the Gerlache ones) approached us from ahead and when they were level with us they dived underneath the ship!
Later on the ship entered the northern part of Paradise Harbour, going past a Chilean base in the process. Some of us spotted a big Southern Elephant Seal down by the water’s edge. The captain then waved to all his friends at the base; maybe some were relatives too! Soon we were passing the big cruise ship that we last saw in Ushuaia, which obligingly waited for us to pass. A little further on and we saw the small Argentinian station, which was our destination. All around were icebergs, snow-covered mountains and tremendous glaciers. Most of us were taken ashore – something special as this was a landing on the continent itself, rather than on an island. Five boats then departed on a zodiac cruise towards nearby Skontorp Cove and the kayakers set off with Louise in the same direction. Highlights for the boaters were icebergs, a Crabeater Seal and a very close Leopard Seal or two.
Not far away was Leith Cove, the camping site and the ship headed towards it as soon as everyone was back aboard. Soon dinner was over so the brave campers set off for a night on the icy, frozen, harsh, desolate, windy, wastes of Antarctica.
Well, the campers all survived the night and were all back aboard by 07.00, when the ship set off for nearby Neko Harbour, in Andvoord Bay. This was another continental landing but this time there was a much larger colony of Gentoo Penguins to look at. Many chicks were present and many were demanding food from their parents, after chasing them for it. The climb to the top of the colony and to the top of the hill was well worth it, as the views were spectacular. The bay below us and the distant Gerlache Strait was full of icebergs and bergy bits, upon which numerous Crabeater Seals rested.
It took approximately three hours to reach Port Lockroy. To get there we sailed across the Gerlache Strait and entered the narrow but snowy Neumayer Channel. After a couple of twists and turns the small base buildings could be seen at the head of the bay. In the whaling days of the early 20th century Port Lockroy was a centre of operations. The British base was established in 1944 as part of a military operation but when the war ended the buildings were used for scientific research instead. It was abandoned in the 1960’s but was restored in the 1990’s and is now one of the most visited places in Antarctica. In addition to an excellent museum there is also a post office, a gift shop and more Gentoo Penguins. Across on nearby Jougla Point were more gentoos, many whale bones and a fat Weddell Seal. But the wind was quite strong so we were all pleased to get back to the comfort and warmth of Ortelius.
Early this morning, just as the sun was rising, came another early wake-up call – we were just about to start our transit of the famous and spectacular Lemaire Channel. On either side of it snowy mountains disappeared up into the clouds, creating a truly ethereal effect. There was lots of ice that we had to pass through before we got out into the Penola Strait. Petermann Island was not far away and as we arrived so did another ship, an orange one. It was Spanish (Hesperides) and was dropping off some scientists to do some scientific stuff at a guano lake. Soon we were dropped off too and most of us made our way to the northern end of the island. Waiting for us were Gentoo Penguins, Antarctic Shags, our first Adelie Penguins and tremendous views to both the north and the south. There was lots of time to explore other parts of the island before time eventually forced us to return to the ship. Some were lucky on the return journey because an ice floe had drifted in, carrying several Crabeater Seals with it, which allowed a close approach.
However, we barely had time to finish our lunch before we were off again! The ship had stopped among large icebergs and it was now snowing but the zodiacs had us ashore at Port Charcot in no time at all. This was a split activity, with people ashore and others zodiac cruising and then a switch-over. At the end of the flagged route were three species of breeding penguins – Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap, the most surprising of all. Simon pointed them all out, Andreas led a hike to the hilltop cairn and Andrew, being the leader, supervised. There was much excitement when a Humpback Whale was spotted from the penguin’s hill. It spent a lot of time underwater, feeding but later on several boats got very good and close views of it when it re-appeared close to the ship.
The whale caused a little delay in getting back on board Ortelius but waiting to greet us in reception was Michael, with a very welcome hot and fruity mulled wine. As soon as all the boats were aboard, the ship headed northwards, transiting the Lemaire Channel for the second time today. Dinner was a special barbecue – inside! The weather was a little too much to have an outside barbecue so the hotel department arranged for it to be in the dining room instead. There we had another surprise when the staff “romeo” delivered a special Valentine card to every young lady present! The day was a real Antarctic one – penguins, a whale or two, summer snow, atmospheric clouds, snowy mountains, narrow channels, lots of ice and seals, mirror-like water and romance.
The darkness was just lifting when the call came to get up and get out because we were already at Cuverville Island and it wasn’t even five in the morning! The sky was overcast and the sea near the beach was full of ice but we were soon ashore and ready to explore. The landing was at the largest colony of Gentoo Penguins, with perhaps 5,000 pairs. There were so many chicks that we had to try really hard to avoid them but some came right up to us because they were so curious. Two others had a lot of fun pecking at one of the red flags, until they knocked it over. There were great views across the Errera Channel to the continent and distant, triangular Spigot Peak was a real landmark. Our time ashore was necessarily quite short but we were quite happy to get back to the ship for a filling breakfast.
Towards the end of the meal some whales were seen; both Pack Ice Killers (10-15) and Humpbacks. The killers were just ahead of the ship and went down both sides and the humpbacks were everywhere. There was a huge krill swarm below Ortelius, which is why there were so many whales in the area. The focus then changed to the inside of the ship where, during the day, there were some superb lectures. Louise spoke eloquently about whaling, Joe spoke enigmatically about Antarctica’s rocks and Andreas spoke fervently about things that lie on them – seals. There was a huge amount of very interesting and informative facts and figures from our staff experts.
The wind picked up later on; as did the snow and the waves, which made the ship rock and roll a bit. Things were improved by the happy hour in the bar to such a degree that when things got rougher again no-one even noticed!
The stormy weather outside today was a good reason to have a comfortable and relaxing time inside; there was plenty of time (between presentations) to reflect on our experiences in Antarctica. During the course of the day various people lectured: Louise spoke superbly about Shackleton, Simon spoke enthusiastically about albatrosses, Mick spoke poetically about penguins and Nicholas spoke generally about Antarctica.
In the afternoon the clouds cleared and the sun came out, shining from a bright blue sky. The waves were still big and the wind was still strong but there were some interesting wildlife sightings for the fortunate people on the bridge. The most impressive of the few birds to be seen was Wandering Albatross, one of which stayed around the ship for some time. No whales today but the beautiful, small, black-and-white Hourglass Dolphin was spotted from the bridge. There were at least two and they made several close approaches to the bow of the ship.
This morning the sea was a little calmer but the ship was still moving as we headed ever-closer towards land. The wildlife highlight was a huge Wandering Albatross, which hovered over the bow, giving everyone on the bridge extraordinarily close views. In the sea, a couple of beautiful, small Hourglass Dolphins paid a brief visit. Other highlights included the ever-popular Louise, who talked admiringly about Amundsen and returning our boots and lifejackets. Later on the sea got calmer and calmer and there was sunshine too. Joe took the opportunity, before we paid our bills, to talk coolly about global warming. Finally, in the early evening, we were all invited to the bar to celebrate the voyage and to enjoy a captain’s farewell cocktail.
This was an international voyage in every sense, with people on the ship coming from many different countries. Among the guests were citizens from Australia, Belgium, Belarus, Canada, China, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Panama, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States of America. Additional countries represented by the crew were Austria, Chile, India, Latvia, Lithuania, Philippines, Poland and Serbia, giving a total of 34 nations represented!
This morning it was finally time for us to leave Ortelius, our floating home, after what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime trip!
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria and the officers, crew and staff of Ortelius have pleasure in saying that they have enjoyed having you aboard with them.
We hope that you have a safe journey home and that, one day, you and your luggage are re-united!
Please travel with us again soon!