OTL29-17, trip log, Antarctic Peninsula - to the Polar Circle and back
11.04.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
After a sunny day spent looking around Ushuaia, we boarded Ortelius between 16.00 and 17.00 and set about exploring our new floating home. There was time to unpack our bags and find our way to the bar (the location of the all-important coffee machine) as well as visit the outer decks before being summoned to a mandatory meeting in the Lecture room at 17.15.
Here we were welcomed by Hotel Manager Dejan (DJ), who gave us a virtual tour of the ship and filled us in on how shipboard life on the Southern Ocean works. This information was followed with a Ship Safety Briefing and instructions on the lifeboat drill to come. When the seven- short-and-one-long-blast signal was heard, we put on our large orange life-jackets and made our way to the Muster Station (aka: bar) on Deck 6. A roll call was taken and we followed Sava and DJ respectively out to lifeboats 1 and 2. We are hopeful that we will not need to do this again in the next 10 days…
Most of us gathered out on deck to witness our departure from Ushuaia at around 18.15, shortly after the drill. As we headed into the Beagle Channel there was a sense of excitement and anticipation as to what lay ahead.
Antarctica here we come!
At 19.15 we met again in the bar, this time for a welcome cocktail with Captain Mika, the most important man on the ship. He spoke a few words and explained that we are welcome on the bridge during daylight hours, which is a great viewing platform for bird-watching and also the place to find out from officers on watch what life is like at sea. Expedition leader Rolf then welcomed us and told us a little about the coming voyage over a toast in sparkling wine and canapés; he has a large team of expedition guides working with him to make our trip a success, and they introduced themselves and their roles on board. There is a diving and kayaking programme running this trip, so there will be plenty going on.
By now it was nearly dinner time and there was a real buzz in the dining room, as we got to know each other and talked about our expectations of Antarctica. The bar was quiet after dinner – most people were tired from their long journey and ready for bed. Now we are underway and will wake up tomorrow at sea!
Rocking and rolling started in the small hours and by breakfast time (sausage, scrambled egg and beans) we were well into the Drake Passage. The weather was fine, so walking the outside decks was one option to keep seasickness at bay, always with one hand for the ship; Sooty shearwaters and a Wandering albatross were already to be seen before the first lecture of the voyage at 10.30, which was Arjen with tips and ideas on ‘Photography’, especially with regard to taking good photos in snow and ice conditions.
Not everyone made it to the talk – some people kept to their cabins in order to get gradually used to the ship’s motion. Sea legs will be acquired soon, we hope!
Lunch was at 12.30 and was buffet-style. Captain Mika and his officers kindly changed course slightly so that we could walk to and fro carrying loaded plates without incident. By early afternoon our doctor had handed out a fair number of patches and pills and we were all getting our sea legs; being out and about on deck or on the bridge helps with this process, and so does lying down for a siesta…
Victoria woke us from our slumbers by announcing her 15.00 lecture: ‘A selected Antarctic Peninsula history, 1897 – 1937’. This covered three Heroic Era expeditions (Gerlache - Belgian, Nordenskjöld - Swedish and Charcot -French) plus Rymill’s British Graham Land expedition (UK) from the later, technological era of charting and science. Some of these expeditions went horribly wrong, though all achieved pioneering work on the Great Southern Continent at a time when it was almost unknown and largely unexplored.
16.00 was tea-and-cake time in the bar and since we had time between lectures, this was also a good opportunity to head for the bridge, meet some of the people on watch there, gaze out at the Southern Ocean and enjoy any passing bird life. Talking of sea birds, that’s just what Dmitri was doing at 17.00 in the Lecture room, in a presentation entitled ‘Birds of the Wind’. His talk covered identification of the main species we expect to see on the Drake Passage, their biology and adaptation to the sub-Antarctic environment. More reason to spend time out on deck observing the dynamic soaring of a variety of sea birds as we sail.
Our second evening on board Ortelius began with Recap & Briefing at 18.30. Rolf gave us an update on our progress south and the weather forecast (improving all the time!), followed by Victoria on Sir Francis Drake (we are sailing in the Drake Passage right now) and Arjen on crossing the Antarctic Convergence 60th (Antarctica’s biological boundary) and the parallel south (Antarctica’s political boundary). By the time we wake up tomorrow morning we will be in Antarctica in every sense…
Dinner followed and at 20.30 the first episode of ‘Frozen Planet’ was screened in the Lecture room to help get us in the mood. A few people gathered in the bar to get to know Charlotte and each other, but most of us went to bed fairly early. We have a lot of mandatory briefings and activities tomorrow and need to be alert.
Today was our second day in the Drake Passage and our crossing turned out to be most pleasant. The wind had gone down quite a bit during the night, to a bearable 12 knots - a level of wind speed that satisfied most of our passengers. There were (almost) no empty seats in the dining room.
Not only had the wind gone down, but the temperature had dropped four degrees centigrade during the night. We were in the middle of crossing the convergence, the area where the warmer and saltier sea water from the northern oceans mixes with the cooler and less salty water from the south. During the day we also crossed the 60 degree latitude line, so now we are in Antarctica both biologically and politically.
The day was full of mandatory activities. In the morning we learned about Antarctica and biosecurity - how to follow IAATO’s guidelines so as to make as little impact as possible on the environment during our stay. We also learned how to stay safe during our landings and when using zodiacs.
An important part of the IAATO guidelines is to have everyone vacuum and clean their clothes and equipment. We took turns in doing that during the earlier part of the afternoon. In the latter part of the afternoon we were issued with important pieces of gear: rubber boots and zodiac life jackets.
Recap & briefing turned out to be more of a ‘precap’ for tomorrow than a recap of today. After Rolf had told us about our planned landings, Johan gave us the history of Deception Island and Catherine told us all about the Chinstrap penguins we hope to see shortly. After that it was time for dinner and perhaps a nightcap in the bar before bed.
Meanwhile, throughout the day our ship was accompanied by a lot of different sea birds, including albatrosses, petrels and prions.
We woke to our first morning in Antarctica in fog - there was nothing to see! Occasionally a narrow sliver of ice, rock or snow showed through the low cloud, but mostly it was only the dark water around the ship. The wind was about 25 knots, and air temperature was quite warm (for Antarctica) - four degrees C. As we went to breakfast, sunrise was outlining the cloud in pink and a little more land was coming into sight.
We finished our breakfast in record time, and quickly dressed so we could head outside to watch as we approached our landing for the morning, Half Moon Island. We came in with the island on our left, its dark, steep, rocky sides covered in orange and yellow lichens. Our first time down the gangway was not too bad, and the ride ashore was exciting. Getting our feet onto Antarctic rocks was definitely a highlight, especially as there were penguins right there!
Rolf briefed us, and we set off to explore the island. Many of us took some time to get past those first penguins, which were Chinstraps. They were down near the water, some using their beaks to clean their feathers, and others simply standing, or lying down, not doing much at all. Nearby fur seals slept, chased each other, and occasionally came to look at us. Once we got past the beach, we climbed up to a flat ridge with more rocky outcrops and lots of penguins resting on the higher points. Cutting through a rocky saddle to the other side of the island we found more penguins, more seals, and great views of Livingston Island. This large island is covered in glaciers, and the icy blue cliff faces were showing below the slowly rising cloud.
Back on board, we changed out of our heavy clothes and went to lunch, where we all talked about - and shared photos of - our time on shore. Meanwhile, we were getting closer to our afternoon landing spot, at Whalers’ Bay inside Deception Island. As we approached, the island looked solid and round, with the small opening of Neptune’s Bellows only becoming visible just before the Captain took the ship in. It was an exciting passage, with the ship sailing hard against one cliff in order to avoid Raven Rock, which sits in the middle of the channel.
As we came through into Port Foster, Whalers’ Bay was visible on the right, all the old buildings, oil tanks and huge fuel tanks standing out on the sheltered flat behind the beach. We put our zodiacs in the water with a light wind blowing, but by the time we had only two boats full of people ashore, conditions had changed so much we had to cancel the landing. After we got everybody back on board, we took the opportunity to sail the ship all the way into Port Foster, and see Telefon Bay and Pendulum Cove, as
well as the Argentine base Decepcion and Spanish base Gabriel de Castilla. Sailing back out through the Bellows, conditions were a bit rougher outside the island as well, and the Bransfield Strait, which separates the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula, was a little less smooth than some people would have preferred. But things were not too bad, or at least not bad enough to keep us from dinner, and for many of us, spending some time in the bar afterwards before bed.
What an exciting day! From early morning as soon as we started operations we knew there was an extremely difficult task ahead…to move in any direction without disturbing the Humpback whales!All of us were stunned by the high number of individuals in
the water. The divers had a family of Humpbacks playing with them, kayakers could not paddle more than 50m in a row because there was always a whale in their way, and even zodiacs taking people to shore for a landing had to be driven circumspectly, with as little wake as possible, so as to respect the IAATO guidelines.
Some of the whales were sleeping, while others were being really curious and spy-hopping near us or in the vicinity of the surrounding icebergs; anyhow, what a blessing to see so many whales on our first day in Antarctica proper!
Just to join the party, many Crabeater seals were having a nap on the ice and at the same time a Leopard seal was eating breakfast, which consisted of fresh, tasty Gentoo penguin – which was, incidentally, our second penguin species to date. In addition to all of this, a couple of Orcas passed by to say ‘hello’ right at the end of the morning’s operation, just to show us that in Antarctica, the magic is just around the iceberg…
After a great lunch prepared by our galley team, we visited one of the most scenic places around, which was for many passengers the first Antarctic continental landing of their lives; I’m referring of course to Neko Harbour, with its splendid glacier views and many active Gentoo penguins. Here we could see chicks being fed and even chasing after their parents to demand more food because they were still hungry!
Meanwhile, the divers spent some time watching icebergs from a different perspective as they melted and the sunlight played with their shapes and shadows. It was a flat calm afternoon and the sun showed its face from time to time just to make everything perfect.
But wait, there was still some more to come; the chef and his outstanding team prepared a BBQ for us so, as soon as we returned from the landing site, tables were placed on Deck 6, next to the heli-hangar, on a beautiful Antarctic evening. Everyone was there to enjoy a terrific dinner outside, accompanied by drinks such as mulled wine and beer. Afterwards we adjourned to the bar to celebrate all we have seen and done today. As I overheard someone say:- “Just a perfect day!”
This morning we woke up before 7 am to be ready to go through the scenic Lemaire Channel. The weather, however, was against us. It was foggy, with minimal visibility. In front of us was Oceanwide’s other ship, M/V Plancius, which reported a big iceberg partially blocking the exit from the Lemaire Channel at its southern end. Our Expedition Leader and Captain decided to attempt a passage through the channel anyway!
The water was calm; low clouds covered the mountain slopes, and we could see steep glaciers close on both sides of the ship. We also had a chance to watch Orcas passing through the channel northwards. On the southern side of the Lemaire Channel as expected, a giant iceberg was blocking the exit. However Captain Mika decided that we could pass through between the iceberg and the shore. It was very tight and exciting, but we did it!
Next in our plans was a morning landing at Port Charcot on Booth Island. When we moved closer to our destination, we were able to see that the whole area between Pléneau and Booth Islands was blocked by big icebergs. It was still foggy with some snow, and time was running out. As a result, this morning’s landing was cancelled. Instead, Dmitri gave an interesting and well-illustrated presentation about penguins in the Lecture room on Deck 3.
After lunch we planned to visit the Ukrainian Vernadsky station. The weather improved, and the fog all but disappeared. This time we carried out all of the activities as planned in our daily programme.
The station’s locals showed us the base facilities and of course we visited the famous bar and shop. This is a great station to visit – doing serious science, but also welcoming tourists and happy to show us around.
And Vernadsky has an interesting history; it used to be the British Faraday base (where the ozone hole was discovered), but was sold to the Ukraine for £1 in 1996. You can still see this famous pound coin set into the Faraday Bar counter.
After the station visit we took a zodiac ride through the narrow channels to Wordie House, the original British base in the Argentine Islands – a time capsule from the 1950s and the days of dog-sledging. We also had a zodiac cruise around the islands and among beautiful icebergs grounded between them. On the way back to the ship there was a heavy snowfall and both scenery and zodiac were coated in white.
We returned just before Recap & Briefing, during which Expedition Leader Rolf informed us about the plans for tomorrow. We will continue further south and will cross the Antarctic Circle tomorrow morning. If we are lucky with the weather, we plan to land on Detaille Island. After dinner we watched Part III of the “Frozen Planet” series, by the end of which we were ready for bed.
Overnight our captain brought the ship a lot further south. After breakfast most of us went outside to enjoy the scenery of Crystal Sound as we headed even further south towards the Antarctic Circle. Icebergs surrounded us and some pieces of sea ice as well. Many seals were seen swimming or hauling out on ice floes - mainly Antarctic fur seals and Crabeater seals.
Then suddenly the ship’s horn sounded, which meant that we had crossed the Antarctic Circle! This is the line where on December 21st the sun doesn’t set for one whole day (and doesn’t rise on June 21st) and this is our final Antarctic boundary. And in local folklore we are now all allowed to have at least one foot on the kitchen table (or two for those of us who have also crossed the Arctic Circle). Many pictures were taken here, proving that we really WERE here. Meanwhile some Snow petrels were seen, a true Antarctic bird species and one of the furthest south breeding birds in the world.
Slowly we made our way to our destination for today: Detaille Island. On this island an abandoned British research base was stationed from 1956 – 59 and our original intention was to visit it. However, after lunch, a quick scout by our expedition team showed it would be impossible to land on the small, exposed island due to several large icebergs and bergy bits near the landing site. Instead we went for a zodiac cruise around the island. From the zodiac we could still see the hut from the outside and enjoy the many Antarctic fur seals and Adelie penguins on land and on the icebergs. After an hour it was time to swap over and give the second group the opportunity to have the same experience.
After this cruise we headed north again. As the visibility wasn’t really what we wanted, it didn’t make too much sense to hang around here longer as we wouldn’t be able to see much anyway. On our way north we had to cross back through the same belt of ice, which again drew many people to the outside decks. In the evening Johan told us a story about one of the dogs (called ‘Steve’) of Detaille Island, who got lost and was found again at another station many kilometres away after several months, presumably surviving on fresh penguin... After this Arjen explained a little about the significance of the Antarctic Circle and how special it was to cross it. Now it was time for dinner and then to head either to the bar or to bed; another spectacular day will be waiting for us tomorrow!
We woke up to beautiful weather and stunning scenery, approaching the classic Lemaire Channel once again. Since the southern entrance still had a lot of ice, we entered from north in virtually no wind the and with beautiful sunshine.
We took our time in the lemaire, taking it all in - the high mountains descending into the water, the glaciers and the ocean. A leopard seal gazed at us as we went past.
At noon we headed north again, still surrounded by great scenery, towards Paradise Harbour. There we enjoyed a long afternoon, taking turns going ashore and doing a long zodiac cruise. We had great luck with whales and everyone came close to 100 metres from a Humpback whale (the closest IAATO-permitted distance though the , Humpbacks don’t know that!). Further into the bay, in Skontorp Cove, we were out of sight of the ship and could no longer hear its engines. With glaciers all around and with the zodiac engine turned off for a short period, we could absorb Antarctica in all its pristine glory. And on our way back to Ortelius, we saw a Weddell seal – the only one missing from our list of ‘seals we are likely to see’.
On land we could take a good look at the rather tatty Argentinian base (Almirante) Brown and its (also rather tatty, because moulting!) Gentoo penguins. Some climbed up the hill to a view point above, others settling for a halfway stroll to some rocks in order to get some elevation above the ocean. And those who did not wish to climb were able to walk on a level across to a small hut and pier a few hundred metres away, for different views. As the sun was setting we felt the temperature dropping, but it didn’t stop the brave (or crazy?) ones from taking the opportunity for a short swim – the so-called Polar Plunge.
By the time we got back to the ship it was dinner time and spirits were high. Rolf gathered us for a short briefing in the bar afterwards, to let us know about tomorrow morning’s zodiac cruise here on the Antarctic Peninsula; it is important to make the most of it as after that we will be heading into the Bransfield Strait and on our way back to Ushuaia.
Our last day of adventure commenced early with a 06.30 wake-up call, followed by the usual great breakfast, lovingly prepared by our galley team.
As soon as that was finished we started the last operation of the trip - a zodiac cruise in the vicinity of Enterprise Island (Foyn Harbour), whose highlight was the shipwreck of the steam whaler Guverneren. The divers managed to get an extraordinary and unique view of the wreck from under the water, afterwards kindly sharing some images with the rest of the passengers and staff, and the kayakers also had the chance to paddle around it and get their own perspective.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were enjoying our zodiac seeing the wooden cruise, also water boats which the crew from the Guverneren used to abandon ship - just around the corner - providing a great opportunity for photos, posed as they are, like silent witnesses to the passing of time.
And there was more to make this last day in Antarctica memorable; the clouds parted for a while, letting the Antarctic sun shine through, kissing our faces for the very last time. Then a large number of Humpback whales approached us, come to say goodbye, showing
their flukes and some of them even breaching. Some guests had the chance to put their feet on land for the very last time on a little island next to a wonderful glacier and throw snowballs at each other, made with fresh snow from the night before.
During lunch time the captain set our course to the north and we began the long voyage back to the southernmost city in the world, our beloved Ushuaia.
During the afternoon we had a drill involving all the crew and the staff team, but not disturbing our guests at all…
Later on, a recap was conducted to talk about the day just gone and tell us what will be happening tomorrow. And so to dinner and to an evening in the bar, then bed. It was a glorious last day on a glorious trip to the Antarctic Circle and beyond, aboard the M/V Ortelius.
We were woken up by the harmonious sound of the waltz “Over the waves” on the PA system - this morning it was Dmitri who made the wakeup call!
We are on the way home, in the middle of the Drake Passage, which is in its usual, natural state. The water is grey. The sky is cloudy. The wind speed is around 25 knots, and waves are rolling the ship from one side to the other. There are still 455 nautical miles left before we arrive in Ushuaia.
There is surprisingly little wildlife outside. Three Cape petrels appeared for a short time in front of the ship and a couple of Northern fulmars were flying in the distance. Later, a Black-browed albatross crossed our path without even turning its head in our direction.
After breakfast Arjen presented his talk about ‘Climate Change’. It was a good lecture, in which he presented and analysed facts that support the latest trends of warming in the polar regions of the earth. And he managed to end on a positive note for the future!
After lunch it was time for a nap for some of us, and later at 15.00 Johan gave his lecture about ‘Sealers and Whalers in Antarctica’; from the time of Captain Cook (late eighteenth century) man has exploited the oceans of this world for his own gain, and the Southern Ocean has been no different. This exploitation only drew towards an end with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, though some whaling continues to this day.
It was nice to have tea time before the final lecture of the trip. By now, too, there were more birds around the ship – Light- mantled Sooty albatross, White-chinned and Giant petrels, Blue petrels and according to Arjen’s identification, even a Magellanic Diving petrel.
At 17.00 Victoria made a very interesting presentation entitled ‘Ernest Shackleton and the Greatest Expedition of the Antarctic Heroic Age’. In it she gave us details and anecdotes about the Endurance, or the Imperial Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. This is a dramatic and gripping tale, which lost nothing in the recounting.
During recap Rolf and DJ described our activities for tomorrow, Dmitri gave a short analysis of wind (surface currents and gyres of the ocean originally based on Nansen’s observations), and Victoria talked about the establishment and functioning of the Antarctic Treaty (1959, ratified in 1961), including various later agreements on the environmental protection of the Antarctic continent and its surrounding ocean.
During dinner we had our final birthday celebration of the trip, with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, cake and candles.
After dinner in the lecture room we watched Part IV of “Frozen Planet” and after that the bar was buzzing with life until late!
And so our last full day on board M/V Ortelius has arrived. Our penultimate breakfast experience included black pudding (yippee!) as well as fried eggs and the usual trimmings of yoghurt, cereal and toast, fresh fruit, coffee, tea and orange juice. Going home is going to be TOUGH!
But at least the sun was shining from a blue, blue sky and the latter stages of the Drake Passage were providing us with calm seas - so that we could comfortably do all the last-minute things necessary to tie up the loose ends of our trip.
The first activity of the day was a sad one – at 10.00 we returned our boots and life jackets, bringing home to us that we truly were drawing near the end of the trip of a lifetime. Some people just didn’t want to part with them…
After hanging out near the coffee station in the bar, most of us returned to the Lecture room at 11.30 to watch ‘Around Cape Horn’; this is old footage of an original clipper sailing ship Peking, narrated many years later by Captain Irving Johnson. So THIS is what it was like to round Cape Horn in the olden days, in much danger, but with real style.
Soon it was lunch time; the well-organised amongst us pre-bought some drinks for later today, after our accounts have been closed…
We were to be deprived of our afternoon nap today because DJ and Sava (most unreasonably!) wanted us to settle said accounts; HOW many glasses of red wine/G & Ts was that?!
The rest of the afternoon was taken up with packing. How we got everything into our luggage before was a mystery – the extra items must have come from Vernadsky and Ortelius’ shop and must be shoved into the suitcase/backpack somehow.
And so, having partaken of afternoon tea, it was time to meet again in the bar for our final Recap & Briefing. Arjen has been busy making a slide show for us of what was happening ABOVE the ocean’s surface, which we enjoyed watching together with some diving footage from Jerry and team, of what was happening BENEATH the surface; and we can take a copy home with us from the passenger computer in the bar, which will be a great souvenir of our trip.
The man who has made all of this possible was present after the slide show – Captain Mika Appel raised a glass of sparkling wine with us to toast the success of the trip, followed by a bitter-sweet Farewell Dinner in the dining room - during which there was a crew parade, so that we could say a big ‘thank you’ to nearly everyone who works on the ship, both known and unknown.
The evening was devoted to last-minute swapping of photos and email addresses if we wanted to keep in touch; and the cash bar was busy as ever as we shared our last evening on board with the only other people in the world who can truly understand what the last 11 days have meant to us all. Then to bed, as we need to be up betimes, ready for a day of travel – wherever life takes us next…
We picked up a pilot in the wee small hours and came into Ushuaia about 07.00. The ship was all a-bustle, dealing with luggage and handing back people’s passports…After breakfast we filed sadly down the gangway for the last time (no need to don rubber boots or turn our tags) and bade farewell to all our new friends. Some of us headed into town to see the sights, whilst others got on the bus going straight to the airport. Maybe we will meet again somewhere in high latitudes, on an Oceanwide ship!
Total distance sailed on our voyage: 1965 nautical miles.
Thank you all for such a great voyage, for your excellent company, good humour and enthusiasm! We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be. On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Rolf Stange, Hotel Manager Dejan Nikolic and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.