OTL31-16 Trip log | Antarctic Peninsula, Basecamp
11.03.2016 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 floating home. As soon as we had received our door keys and been shown to our luxurious staterooms, we began to explore the ship, beginning the process of getting to know the ship.
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. There were already lots of birds to be seen, including brown Sooty Shearwaters and our first albatrosses – black-browed. A big surprise came in the form of two Humpback Whales, which are hardly ever seen in the Beagle Channel! One of them was repeatedly slapping its very long pectoral flippers on the surface of the water. The ship was heading east towards the open sea and on the way we passed the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams in Chile. We also passed the last trees for quite a while.
Sunrise this morning was at 06.40 and was fabulous but there were few, if any of us, awake to see it. We were probably all still recovering from our long journeys to Ushuaia! For much of the day the visibility was excellent (foggy later in the afternoon), there was sunshine and the sea was flat calm; with just a long, rolling swell. Little in the way of wildlife was noted but close views were had of three kinds of albatross – Southern Royal, Black-browed and Grey-headed. Splashes in the early afternoon were made by Hourglass Dolphins but the animals themselves remained unseen.
Much of the focus today was on the inside of the ship, as there were numerous briefings etc. to attend. There was a video of a journey around Cape Horn in 1929, a photography workshop with Bruce and briefings for those involved in diving, snow shoes, mountaineering, camping and kayaking. The three meals were popular too!
In the middle of the afternoon there was great excitement when the ship suddenly veered to starboard to go and look at some wildlife! There were lots of albatrosses (4 species: Black-browed, Grey-headed, Wandering & Southern Royal) and the many splashes in the water were being caused by Long-finned Pilot Whales. It was estimated that there were about 200 of them but they are actually dolphins, rather than whales. At just over 7 metres long for the males they are black, not very big but they are highly social and have been recorded in groups of up to 1,000 animals. We were able to watch them for a long time and there were all ages and both sexes represented; there were even some small calves. Due to the number of birds that had been attracted, the whales must have been feeding but they didn’t seem to mind being close to the ship. Some of them, when they dived, raised their (tail) flukes in the air – something that is not often seen. They are not often seen this far south either so we were doubly lucky!
To get us ready for our arrival in Antarctica there were the last meetings, briefings and other sessions today. We learnt about the Antarctic code of conduct, we learnt how to use the zodiacs, we collected our rubber boots and inflatable lifejackets, we hoovered our clothes and bags, we met the dive guides (Jerry, Andre and Malcolm), the kayak guide (Louise), the mountaineering guides (Mal & Markus - the ‘M&M’s’), the camping guide (Beau) and then, finally, Chief Guide Andrew briefed us on what to expect tomorrow. In between all these things Simon found time to tell us all about penguins but he was soon interrupted by two large and impressive icebergs – our first ones.
This was a sure sign that land was not too far away and during dinner Smith Island, Snow Island, icebergs and spouting whales were announced. A small variety of birds was seen during the day, including several kinds of albatross and a few Chinstrap Penguins. The most unexpected birds were Soft-plumaged Petrels, which were unusually far south in the Drake. A Fin Whale was seen briefly, as was a Humpback but the first Antarctic Fur Seals were much easier to spot. After all the preparation, we were getting more and more excited about our first excursion off the ship!
The Gerlache Strait was stormy but beautiful this morning. Andrew woke us all up very early so we could go out and see the mountains and clouds and glaciers and icebergs on the stormy sea. The wind was extremely strong and we wondered about our planned landing. In the meantime, the sun was rising and turning the clouds pink and the snowy peaks yellow; it was very dramatic! Ortelius soon reached Georges Point and we were pleased to see that it was sheltered from the wind. Everyone was itching to get off the ship: the kayakers, the mountaineers, the divers and the Penguin Peepers.
There were lots of Gentoo Penguins waiting for us and although they were very smelly they couldn’t really help it. Some adults were moulting their feathers and others were still feeding chicks, some of which were down by the water. Here, the older ones were already going into the sea; shortly they will leave the land behind and take off on their own. Most of us were lucky enough to see a leucistic chick. With much less than the normal amount of pigment, this downy bird was light brown instead of dark grey and looked very strange. Other wildlife of interest included a few Chinstrap Penguins, predatory skuas, Kelp Gulls, Pale-faced Sheathbills, Antarctic Shags and a good number of male Antarctic Fur Seals. Those who climbed to the top of the moraine were rewarded with spectacular views.
Danco Island was very close but lay in the narrow and spectacular Errera Channel. There was shelter here as well; in fact, later on, the wind dropped completely. The team’s two youngsters (Steffi and Beau) went to the top of the hill and, along the way, helped Andrew on the steeper sections. Bruce led his fans along the beach, taking pictures as they went. Way along the beach they finally came to a sleeping Weddell Seal, which the kayakers saw as well. During our time ashore there were several huge roars, from breaking ice somewhere but we couldn’t see where. There was plenty of space for us to spread out and sit and watch the penguins and to consider the challenging times ahead for this summers’ chicks. The campers left the ship after dinner and hoped for less challenging times ahead.
Due to the overnight rain the campers were picked up early so everyone was back aboard by 06.30. The ship then headed off towards Paradise Bay, in the area of which we would spend the day. There was rain all morning and some people (especially the mountaineers!!!!) were put off by it but the majority of us, including the intrepid kayakers, did leave the ship. Everyone was ready for new adventures; the main one being to land on the continent itself (as opposed to an island) at Argentina’s Brown Station. The friendly locals (penguins and people) were waiting with a smile and those who wanted to were able to climb to the top of the snowy hill. Views were restricted by the low cloud but just being at the top was quite an achievement.
The zodiac cruising was a bit damp, to say the least, but was thoroughly enjoyable, nevertheless. Close to the station was a colony of black-and-white Antarctic Shags, which looked a little like penguins – until they flew in or out! The majority of the chicks had already left but there were still one or two curious ones around. Veins of copper (the green on the rock face) were seen and nearby rocks had been twisted and folded by enormous pressure. In adjacent Skontorp Cove some lucky people saw a big calving from the glacier and there were Crabeater Seals around too. Two boats were even luckier and had some very curious crabeaters come right up to them.
The landing site for the afternoon (Stoney Point) was not far away and offered the chance to walk with snowshoes. And with Steffi. The route was up to the top of a snow dome and then down to and along the beach, back to the landing site. Some people then went straight back to the ship but others took the opportunity to go on a cruise – in the snow! Yes, the persistent rain had now turned to snow and the sea was so cold that the snow settled on the mirror-like surface. Another friendly seal was found and completely ignored the boatful of people next to it – what a treat! Another treat came shortly after dinner for everyone on the camping list, because it was time to leave the ship for the night. Good luck!
Once the campers were back on the ship we set off across the Gerlache Strait, heading for the narrow and scenic Neumayer Channel and Port Lockroy. The sun was rising behind us and was lighting up the clouds, mountains and icebergs to great effect. Where there was bare rock, it was covered with fresh snow, as were the decks of the ship. After arrival at Port Lockroy we had a talk from one of the base staff before we went ashore to see it for ourselves.
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 mountaineers and divers went off as usual to do their own thing. At Jougla Point were more gentoos, many whale bones and a small colony of Antarctic Shags. Something completely unexpected was also spotted – yet another leucistic Gentoo. This pale brown adult was moulting and spent most of the time huddling in the shelter of a big rock. Once everybody had been to the base and once all our money was spent we returned to the ship for a very fast lunch, as Damoy Point was just around the corner.
However, it was too windy there for an excursion so the ship went the short way to Borgen Bay instead. At the head of it there was the huge Hooper Glacier so it was decided to take divers and mountaineers off for their activities and for everyone else to go on a zodiac cruise. At first it was a bit breezy but things got calmer as we went further into the bay. A few fur seals and a single Weddell Seal were seen initially and then it was just birds – Brown Skua, Kelp Gull, Gentoo Penguin, Antarctic Tern, Wilson’s Storm-petrel and two very curious young Antarctic Shags. After some snow we got closer to the glacier and were lucky enough to see some big calvings. Much of the front of the glacier was blue, which indicated that lots of ice had only recently flaked off. The ship then returned to Port Lockroy to drop off the courageous campers.
The campers’ pick-up today was extremely early and our three guests from Port Lockroy also joined us. The pink sunrise colours, in the gaps between the mountains, were impressive but nothing could beat the green Aurora Australis seen by those ashore during the night. Sailing south and looking at it from a distance, the Lemaire Channel seemed to be blocked by ice. It wasn’t but it was almost blocked by Crabeater Seals, of which there were dozens on the ice! The gap between the mainland and rugged Booth Island seemed impossibly narrow but the captain managed to get us safely through.
Petermann Island was not far away so the zodiacs were soon in the water and ferrying us from the ship to shore. Scouts had been sent out so it wasn’t long before the first of only a few Adelie Penguins was found up at the northern end of the island. Once there we were able to appreciate not only the penguins and shags but also the views northwards towards the Lemaire Channel. A distant glacier calved a huge amount of ice into the sea, causing small tsunami around the island. Another vantage point gave us far-reaching views towards the south and southwest. There were dozens of icebergs in sight and many miles away to the south, the mountains, in the light, looked cream-coloured. The mountains closer to us were coated with fresh snow and the sea was full of ice, which the boats had to struggle through on the way back to the ship. Some zodiacs were going much faster than others because they were carrying frozen people. They were the ones who went for a thrilling and exhilarating but chilling and bone-numbing polar plunge!
Vernadsky Station was next on the agenda but it took a long time to get there because of some friendly Humpback Whales. Numerous animals were spotted so the ship was stopped and two particularly curious leviathans came right up to us. It was difficult to believe that what we were seeing was actually happening – they were so close! At times we had to lean out over the railings in order to be able to look down on them and the best views were when the whales were just below the surface. Some of us also got the ‘benefit’ of being spouted on by a whale, which was a pretty smelly experience!
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the whales but the equally friendly Ukranians at Vernadsky Station were waiting for us. This was another split activity so we all got the opportunity to visit the base and to go zodiac cruising. During the latter there was the option to see and go into, historic Wordie House. There were lots of pieces of ice in the area and many of them had Crabeater Seals on them – almost as common today as Gentoo Penguins! At the station (it was snowing by now) we were given a warm welcome and were shown around by our hosts. Afterwards there was ‘free’ time, which meant shopping, posting mail or perhaps sampling a drink. Kate Bush was spinning around on the record player and behind the substantial bar was a very interesting and substantial collection of brasseries.
After being so busy for so much of the day it would have been nice to sit down in the warm for a meal and a drink. Instead, we did that outside – it was the Grand Antarctic Barbecue! The hotel team did a superb job for us and our food and beverages were available in the snow on the snow-covered heli-deck. Halfway up the Lemaire Channel the ship turned into an ice-filled bay backed by a giant glacier to give us some respite from the wind. Being surrounded by ice-filled water, glaciers and mountains that disappeared up into the clouds whilst having a barbecue in the snow was a surreal experience!
No camping last night so no early morning pickup so a sleep-over – no! Andrew woke us up early anyway! The ship was at Orne Harbour and, as usual, various activities were undertaken. There was some snow-shoeing, some diving and some mountaineering, which took people up to the summit of 938-foot/290-metre high Spigot Peak - some achievement. The landing was notable in another way too because it was another continental landing; the first for some! The rest of us took to the zodiacs for a sunshine cruise around the bay. The highlight was to drift in the brash ice, at the whim of the wind.
On the way to Foyn Harbour, at the northern end of Wilhelmina Bay, numerous Humpback Whales were spotted and the ship turned and slowed down for some of them. At Foyn the plan was to go to the old shipwreck and then have a look in the area for anything else of interest, such as the nearby water boats. Both were relics from the whaling days and served as a reminder of the ‘bad’ old days. Plans are great and are often changed; this one was too.
An eagle-eyed staffer spotted a whale near the ship and, eventually, all five cruising zodiacs got extremely close views (almost within touching distance at times!) of two or three humpbacks. This was one of the highlights of the whole voyage for many people, especially when the whales repeatedly lifted their flukes in the air right in front of us. Conditions were perfect for both cruising and kayaking. The sun was very warm and the light that was reflected from the ice around us was blinding. On a small piece of ice were numerous crabeaters, lots of Antarctic Terns were on rocks nearby and quite a few Kelp Gulls eyed us nervously. Old wooden boats from the whaling era complemented the wreck of the old whaling ship, which caught fire and was grounded in the late 1920’s. The diving here was excellent and even from the boats the underwater parts of the wreck could be seen. The day had been perfect, for all sorts of reasons and ended with yet more feeding humpbacks.
During the regular evening briefing Andrew mentioned that if Simon could find it we would see a Macaroni Penguin on Half Moon Island in the morning. Simon groaned.
Half Moon Island was reached just before breakfast but, due to low cloud/fog/snow/bank, it wasn’t all that easy to see. On the plus side, the sea was calm and there was little wind. Andrew announced over the p.a. system that Simon would be looking for the Macaroni Penguin once he was ashore. Simon groaned again and tried to call in sick, due to the intense pressure but the doctor said he was fit to go ashore. The first people ashore saw a leucistic fur seal and then Simon found a landbird from South America – a totally unexpected, vagrant Rufous-backed Negrito. It is a kind of flycatcher so will not last long in Antarctica. A little way away was another Argentinian station and there were hundreds of curious and friendly fur seals on the island, waiting to welcome us. Some were a bit too friendly and excited and came much closer than some of us wanted! The divers had a lot of fun with the seals too.
It was a fair way to the colony of Chinstrap Penguins but we were able to get almost to the far end of the island. Among another group of chinstraps out there was a solitary Macaroni Penguin – our fourth species of penguin in Antarctica. Normally they are further north so we were lucky to see it and on our last landing too! By now the wet snow was being blown horizontally so it wasn’t long before we were all back aboard after a very successful last landing.
The fog closed in around the ship just after lunch so we concentrated on the inside of the ship instead of watching out for more wildlife. Activity gear was being sorted, cleaned and packed and thoughts turned towards our own packing and what the Drake might have in store for us. During the afternoon there were a couple of lectures in the bar – Beau gave us ‘a plethora of interesting facts” about whales and Lady Louise shared all she knew about Shackleton’s disastrous Endurance expedition.
Everyone was very tired this morning and most of us were still asleep during Simon’s talk on albatrosses, including Simon too. However, by 11.00 we were wide awake and looking for to the very informative talk on seals by Andreas. Later on, after a chicken and chips lunch, Mal abseiled down from the top of the mast to talk about glaciers – a world premeer!
Very few birds were seen today but the best ones were during Andreas’ talk (a massive and fantastic Wandering Albatross) and Mal’s talk (a regal and fantastic Southern Royal Albatross).
In the bar before breakfast there were only two people – both sleepy-eyed. They had either only just woken up or they had been there all night! The night was another very bouncy one, when it was difficult to sleep. This morning the waves continued to break over the bow, sending great plumes of spray across the decks. As time went on, the weather got brighter and brighter until the sun was shining from a clear, blue sky. The closer to land we got the calmer the sea got too. In fact, once we were in the Beagle Channel and there was no movement at all, it felt very strange!
Our inside activities continued apace: Louise talked about her grandfather’s whaling enterprise, the Port Lockroy team spoke of their fascinating experiences over the last few months, all of us trooped down to the lecture theatre to hand in our rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets, then we all trooped up to reception to settle our accounts, then Andrew really had us all rocking when he spoke eloquently about the geology of Antarctica. Later in the afternoon there was a gathering in the bar; with all the staff team on hand to look back at our extraordinary voyage and some of the things that we did and saw. The captain then joined us for a farewell toast before we sat down in the dining room for our last dinner on board Ortelius.
Due to the stormy conditions outside for most of the day there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to be seen. Early birds included a Soft-plumaged Petrel, Southern Royal and Wandering albatross. Many smaller albatrosses nest in the Cape Horn area so as we got closer to the colonies more and more Black-browed Albatross were seen. There were also a few Grey-headed Albatross and Sooty Shearwaters. One of the last sightings of the trip was dolphins, with at least two pods being seen. It was as if they were leading the way into the sunny, calm and forested Beagle Channel, at the end of our long, long journey across the Drake Passage.
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!