OTL30-16 Trip log | Antarctic Peninsula, Basecamp
29.02.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
It was a very exciting day in Ushuaia – the sun was shining brightly and we were about to set off on a great adventure. Walking eagerly up the gangway for the first time we were at last aboard Ortelius, our new travelling home. As soon as we had received our keys and been shown to our luxurious staterooms, 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 once the formalities were over we were able to enjoy the scenic magnificence of the Beagle Channel. The ship headed east towards the open sea and on the way we passed the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams in Chile. We also saw lots of birds and the last trees for quite a while. Just after dinner a few lucky people saw a group of energetic Dusky Dolphins porpoising along beside the ship – a nice way to end the day.
A glorious sunrise this morning heralded our first day on the ship and the first day on the Drake Passage. The sea was calm to start with, with just a long, rolling swell coming from the west but the wind picked up a little later on. Early visitors to the ship included two of the largest albatrosses – Wandering and Southern Royal but they didn’t stay for long. Albatrosses and a few other bird species, including some surprise Chinstrap Penguins, were seen during the day but the birds were generally few and far between. An Antarctic Minke Whale put in a brief appearance.
Much of the focus today was on the ‘inside’ events. There were numerous meetings and briefings for the mountaineers, skiers, kayakers, campers, snowshoe wearers and photographers – the excitement level was getting higher and higher!
Sunshine greeted us again this morning, then the sky became overcast and then, during lunch, the ship plunged into thick fog! There were fewer birds to be seen but during the middle of the day a curious Wandering Albatross circled the ship for some time. Just before lunch some distant whales were spotted but they were not close. The spouts were huge and their owners were Fin Whales, the second largest species after blues. Among the larger and faster fins was at least one rotund humpback. All were no doubt feeding on krill, although we never saw any!
Today there were more meetings and a lecture too: a mandatory IAATO and zodiac briefing, rubber boot and zodiac lifejacket collection, bio-security hoovering, a mountaineers meeting and a camper’s conference. Simon talked enthusiastically about our little, smelly friends, the penguins. In the evening we had hoped to see Antarctica but it was too foggy so we had to wait.
The clouds were low this morning but the ship was sailing down the Gerlache Strait and we could finally see land, on both sides. Snowy mountains disappeared into the clouds and there was ice in the water. The sea was calm and from a long way off the spouts of whales could be seen. An announcement was made and as we got closer we could see that the whales were humpbacks; here for the summer to feed on krill. One passed very close to the bow of the ship so offered a fantastic opportunity for views and pictures. It was so close that we could hear the explosive exhalation too. Others lifted their tails high into the air – fluking. It was all very exciting and was an unexpected but great way to start the day!
After breakfast the activities finally started so the kayakers, divers, skiers and mountaineers all set off on their adventures. The rest of us, plus the photographers, took a short ride to nearby Cuverville Island, where thousands of Gentoo Penguins were waiting patiently to greet us. This is the largest Gentoo colony in Antarctica, with something like 4,500 – 5,000 pairs. Add to that all the chicks and that is a lot of penguins! We could smell them before we reached the beach and the ground was so covered in sweet-smelling guano that it made the stones and rocks very slippery. Above the mossy hill behind the beach were many skuas and they were active lower down too, attacking, killing and eating penguin chicks. Many of the larger ones were huddled in protective crèches but the skuas know how to isolate individuals and then pick them off.
Near the landing place there were lots of old whale bones, mostly ribs and vertebrae and probably almost a century old. The outlook from ashore was magnificent. There was a lot of ice in the water, there were lots of icebergs nearby, distant mountains had bare rock as well as extensive snow and ice fields and the patterns in the sky formed by the moving clouds and changing light were mesmerising. One of the nearer bergs started to break up and great chunks fell off at intervals for some time. Although we had plenty of time to appreciate all this time soon ran out and we all had to return to the ship for lunch and to get ready for a busy afternoon.
Danco Island was not far away and was where most of us landed after lunch. The divers, kayakers and mountaineers went off to do their own things close by. The photo group was led along the shoreline by Bruce, in search of suitable subjects. The island was the site of another Gentoo colony but unlike this morning, when the top was out of reach, the summit of Danco was scaled by many of us. Danco lies in the scenic Errera Channel and not far away to the north was Cuverville Island. Looking to the south we could see distant, snowy mountains but it was impossible to judge how far away they were. The views from the top were well worth the effort involved in getting there. Once again there were lots of penguin chicks and, once again there were plenty of predatory skuas. Down at the beach a Leopard Seal swam by, Antarctic Terns were mobbing some Pale-faced Sheathbills and a little further on was a family of Kelp Gulls.
After dinner the wedding party and the campers were dropped off for the night, with only Weddell Seals and a single penguin for company.
Another sunny morning! The ship left the Errera Channel early this morning and Andrew encouraged us all to be outside to see the beautiful scenery; the bridge was closed again, anyway. The sea was flat calm and the sun was illuminating both snowy mountains and large icebergs. We travelled the short distance to (Argentinian) Brown Station, in Paradise Bay; passing a Chilean station on the way.
Soon everyone was off again in the boats for their various activities. Most of us did a split activity, with half ashore on the continent and half going on a zodiac cruise. Most landings in Antarctica are made on islands so to get onto the continent itself was very special. Around the base buildings there was a small colony of Gentoo Penguins and one or two of the scavenging Pale-faced Sheathbills, which had a fluffy chick. The view from the top of the hill was out of this world and there was a great opportunity to sit down and absorb Antarctica. The cruisers went past the Antarctic Shag colony before going around to the huge glacier in Skontorp Cove. Elsewhere, there was a lot of ice in the water to explore and some pieces had Crabeater Seals on them.
Stoney Point was very close and although the sky clouded over at lunchtime, it soon cleared again. Cloud drifted in and out, concealing and then revealing the ice-covered peaks all around us. The landing was a very easy one and the snoe-shoers were soon off up the hill, whilst others cruised around in the zodiacs in the Ferguson Channel area. There were a few Crabeater Seals on ice again but several obliging animals swam along with the boats. A Humpback Whale that was seen from the ship disappeared completely but driving around looking for it on the mirror-like, ice-studded water was a pure joy.
This evening the hotel department pulled out all the stops and prepared a magnificent feast for us up on the helicopter deck – a Grand Antarctic Barbecue! The scenery was still stunning and still panoramic – 360 degrees in fact. The last of the sun was illuminating the mountain tops and tables and benches had been set up for us. The food was delicious and was complemented by some of Emily and Chad’s wedding cake!
Although the sea was like a mirror and there was still lots of ice floating in it, the land around us this morning was shrouded in low cloud and fog. After picking up the campers the ship headed out of Paradise Bay, across the Gerlache Strait and, heading south, into the narrow Neumayer Channel. Our destination was the historic Port Lockroy, where we spent the morning. After a couple of twists and turns the small base buildings could be seen at the head of the bay. In the whaling and aviation 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.
The first zodiacs to leave the ship went to the base and the rest went to adjacent Jougla Point; switching over later on. The kayakers, mountaineers, divers and ski-ers went off as usual to do their own thing. At Jougla Point were more gentoos, Antarctic Shags, many whale bones and a fat Weddell Seal. Once everybody had been to the base and once all our money was spent we returned to the ship for a very fast lunch. Damoy Point was just around the corner and we left the ship immediately after lunch to go ashore there. A large number of us took advantage of the snow-shoes and followed Steffi up the hill. The ski-ers and mountaineers went even higher and were rewarded with exhilarating views. Meanwhile, down at the old British hut, some of us were surprised to see an aged, slow-moving, grey-bearded, wizened, Antarctic explorer from the old days but when we got closer we realised that it was just Simon.
He explained that the hut was used as an ‘airport hotel’ for 20 years from 1975 onwards. Personnel and supplies would arrive by ship from the north and would then be flown south to the big base at Rothera, south of the Antarctic Circle. Manned by two or three people to help with the transfer of supplies from ship to shore, the hut was often used as a place to stay in if the weather prevented flying. The aircraft were ski-equipped Twin Otters. Anyway, all too soon we were back on the ship again and in the evening we returned to Port Lockroy, ready to disembark the courageous campers.
Under a full moon the campers were collected from their snow bank behind Port Lockroy; all were accounted for! Ortelius then re-traced its course, northbound up the Neumayer Channel, eastbound across the Gerlache Strait and then into Andvoord Bay for Neko Harbour. Once again we were blessed with good weather, although variable wind prevented the kayakers from going out. The divers went off diving and the rest of us made another landing on the continent and saw some more penguins. However, at least one lucky person saw a single, moulting Chinstrap Penguin among the gentoos. We were all hoping for a big calving from the nearby glacier but nothing bigger than a small piece fell off.
Once on the beach we had the chance to walk up a snow slope to the top of the penguin colony. Beyond that was an even steeper trail that led to a high, rocky vantage point. Rainer led the way and, yet again, we had extraordinary views. Andvoord Bay was surrounded by high, snowy mountains, there were spectacular glaciers everywhere and the sea was full of ice. The sun even attempted to come out! It was with great reluctance that we returned to the ship for lunch.
Orne Harbor and pointed Spigot Peak were close by so it wasn’t long before the zodiacs were being lowered to the water. This would be another continental landing and on the way we saw some very obliging Humpback Whales. However, the weather had other plans and the gusty wind caused the cancellation of operations and the retrieval of the boats. Every cloud has a silver lining though and ours came very soon afterwards in the form of Pack Ice Killer Whales (large type ‘B’) – lots of them! They were on a converging course and we had them in sight for a long time. There was at least one, possibly two tiny calves, females and at least one big male. Rather than the expected shades of black-and-white these whales were mostly grey and cream. The distinctive orange colouration of many of the animals was caused by a microscopic organism called a diatom. Although the killers were all around two or three humpbacks there was no sign that the much larger animals were being actively hunted.
This was a very exciting and prolonged encounter and eventually, with the whales heading southwest to the Errera Channel, Ortelius turned around and continued in a north-easterly direction. Our destination for the early evening was Wilhelmina Bay and here there were more humpbacks. The big attraction though was the sunlit landscape. Words cannot do it justice but the elements included ice in the sea, a ferocious wind taking spray off the water, icy mountains, monstrous glaciers, blue sky and dramatic and ever-changing clouds. Many of them were of the lenticular kind – that is, lens-shaped, like flying saucers. They are formed by strong wind being deflected upwards by mountains. Elsewhere the peaks wore a white, wooly cap, which seemed to be cascading down the slope. Then, after sunset, the clouds and even a mountain-top turned bright pink and a Humpback Whale swam by!
Andrew’s threat to wake us up early if the conditions were good became reality this morning. Very soon afterwards, the ship weaved its way between the small islands in the Melchiors and anchored near the occupied Argentinian station. Three activities were on offer – diving, kayaking and boat cruising and the cruising was so popular that it had to be done in two waves. The sun was shining from a clear, blue sky and the sea was nice and calm so we set off with high expectations. There was a lot to interest and excite us – a blue iceberg, Antarctic Fur and Crabeater Seals, Gentoo Penguins, Antarctic Shags, Antarctic Terns and a young Weddell Seal. But, best of all, there were the first Chinstrap Penguins for the majority of us. An even bigger surprise, literally, were the Humpback Whales, which were seen by many at very close range.
Time, as usual, was limited so we set off towards the nearby Drake Passage once all the boats were back aboard. However, the ship had hardly started to move before three more (or possibly the same) humpbacks were spotted. Well, an hour later and we were still with them! They were resting and dozing and only infrequently making short dives. At times they were very close to the ship and we were actually looking down on top of them; it was very exciting. Then they started to breach, right in front of us! As we continued on our way we saw a lot more humpbacks, plus lots of icebergs too. With the sun still shining, there was just time before gin-and-tonic o’clock for a couple of lectures from our two learned staff members. Andreas talked glowingly about glaciers and Louise spoke passionately about her Norwegian great-grandfather, who was an Antarctic whaler.
Today, thanks to Andrew and the captain, we went on a zodiac cruise in the middle of the Drake Passage (right on the Antarctic Convergence) and astonishingly, thanks to Simon, we all saw at least one Emperor Penguin from the boats!!!!!
This morning the sun was shining and we were close to the fabled/infamous Cape Horn, although by the time we arrived the sky was grey. The small, red-and-white marker could just be seen, whilst to the east of it was the steel albatross monument and the Chilean station that now incorporates the small, old lighthouse. The island was dramatic and it was easy to imagine all the sailing ships that tried but failed to ‘round the horn’. The captain took the ship slightly to the west of the cape so that we could make the transit from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the albatross poem from the Cape Horn memorial by Chilean Sara Vial:
"I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners who passed Cape Horn from all the oceans of the world
But they did not die in the furious waves
Today they sail on my wings toward eternity, in the last crack of Antarctic winds"
Today we handed in our rubber boots and lifejackets but in return we received a special Antarctic certificate and a free drink from the captain during his farewell toast. Yesterday we had presentations about whales (Beau), albatrosses (Simon) and the South Pole (Wilson). Today Louise spoke about Shackleton, Andrew spoke about sea ice, Bruce showed his trip slide show and we were treated to a ‘what the divers saw’ presentation. Finally there came the trip highlight – paying our bills at reception!
Around the ship there was another good selection of wildlife to be seen. Species included Wandering, Southern Royal, Black-browed and Grey-headed albatrosses, Imperial Shags in the shallow coastal waters, giant-petrels, other petrels and shearwaters, South American Fur Seals and some Peale’s Dolphins that came to the bow of the ship. During a general, ‘come out for wildlife’ announcement some rarely-seen Southern Bottlenose Whales appeared a few metres in front of the ship. Surprisingly, two of them were mother and calf and good but brief views were had before they disappeared back into the depths.
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.
They 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!