PLA30-17, trip log, Basecamp Antarctica
20.03.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, but also the start of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. During the summer this rapidly growing frontier town of 55,000 bustles with adventurous travellers. The duty-free port flourishes with tourism but also thrives on a sizeable crab fishery and a burgeoning electronics industry. Ushuaia (lit. “bay that penetrates to the west” in the indigenous Yaghan tongue) clearly benefits from its magnificent, yet remote setting. The rugged spine of the South American Andes ends here, where two oceans meet. As could be expected from such an exposed setting, the weather has the habit of changing on a whim.
For many of us this is the start of a lifelong dream. The excitement comes in different forms for each person, but even the most experienced of us felt genuine excitement to depart on a journey to the Great White Continent of Antarctica. At the gangway we were greeted by members of our Expedition staff who sorted our luggage and sent us on board to meet Hotel Managers Zsuzsanna and Katrin. We were then checked into our cabins with the assistance of the fabulous Filipino crew.
A short while after boarding we convened in the lounge on deck five to meet First Officer Artur, who led us through the details of the required SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) Safety and Lifeboat Drill, assisted by the crew and staff. On hearing the alarm we reconvened at the ‘muster station’, the lounge, for the mandatory safety briefing and abandon ship drill donning our huge orange life jackets that will keep us safe should the need arise. After this lifeboat drill we returned to the outer decks to watch our departure from Ushuaia.
Once we were under way we got an introduction by Hotel Manager Zsuzsanna to the ship and by Expedition Leader Beau to the expedition team who will guide us in Antarctica in order for us to enjoy the various Basecamp activities that are on offer: kayaking, mountaineering and camping amongst others.
This was also a chance to meet our Captain, Evgeny Levakov and toast our voyage with a glass of Prosecco.
The rest of the evening was occupied with dining in the restaurant, exploring the ship and settling into our cabins. In the early hours of the morning we would be out into the open waters of the Drake Passage and heading South towards Antarctica.
Today we woke up under grey skies but the sea was calm and the dulcet tones of Beau, our expedition leader promised us an interesting day: lots of briefings to prepare us for our numerous activities over the next few days. After our first generous breakfast on board, the Expedition Team called us deck by deck to hand out our rubber boots. At 11.00 am, our photo guide Bruce made his famous “Introduction to Photography” to help people to take the best pictures possible. During lunch, the weather changed. After an hour of wind, it stopped totally and the sun shone. So far, the infamous Drake Passage had treated us more gently than we could ever have imagined. No swell, instead sun and deep blue sky! Only a few birds were flying around - the bigger ones much prefer windier weather – but we saw some albatrosses, petrels and prions.
The afternoon was dedicated to introduce the various Basecamp activities: hiking and camping, kayaking, mountaineering and diving! One after the other, our specialized guides (Gérard, Nacho, Chris, Paul, Massimo, Mal and Henrik) explained all the ins and outs of each activity including a safety briefing. They also checked our own equipment.
After so much information, it was time for us to spend time on deck appreciating how exceptional this flat calm sea was! At Recap, Beau told us about the plans for tomorrow. Recap is also usually the moment to expand on Antarctic topics of interest. Today was a good time to talk about the Antarctic convergence, the “border” in the sea where the temperature changes and marks the boundaries of Sub-Antarctica & Antarctica waters from the rest of the oceans. Bruce also did a talk on sea bird wingspans, showing with visual aid just how small and how large some of the birds can really be, such as the tiny Wilson’s Storm Petrel with a wingspan of just 40cm and the Wandering Albatross with a wingspan reaching over 3.5 meters.
Slowly the day came to an end, and after a wonderful dinner under the stunning light of the sunset, photographers were out to immortalize these colors and to discover a nice moon rise. Everyone then made their way to their cabins ready to dream about the promise of the days ahead.
Whereas yesterday we awoke with clear skies and the sun shining, today we were met with fog and twenty knots of cold wind. The 5°C drop in temperature since yesterday can be attributed to Plancius crossing the Antarctic Convergence: the biological boundary of the Antarctic where the warmer waters of the South Pacific and the South Atlantic meet the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. Our vessel also crossed 60° south overnight, which is the geopolitical boundary of Antarctica as defined by the Antarctic Treaty. It was safe to say that we had made it to the Antarctic!
Our plan for the day was simple – full steam south until we arrived at the continent! Another day at sea meant more presentations from the Expedition Team. Today there were mandatory briefings to attend before we are allowed to disembark the ship for landings tomorrow. In the morning, Beau briefed us on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines when visiting the region, as well as some do’s and don’ts on land and how to safely use the Zodiacs. After the briefing we started “The Vacuum Party’’: a biosecurity measure to remove any invasive species from our clothing and equipment that we might bring to the White Continent.
After a delicious lunch, we resumed vacuuming our clothing and equipment until all passengers and staff had completed the required biosecurity controls. Now it was time for more lectures. Katja gave us a lecture "Introduction to Antarctica", explaining the characteristics of the continent; the surrounding Southern Ocean, the infamous katabatic winds, the Ice Sheet and what there is below the ice, like Lake Vostok.
The visibility improved during the afternoon and we spotted a mountain between two clouds: LAND. It was Smith Island, with a mountain spine of about 2000 m elevation, covered by lots of glaciers. As we arrived on the continental shelf, some passengers saw whale blows and a small group of Fin Whales was briefly spotted in the mist. Later in the afternoon, Mal talked about glaciers, giving some information on how glaciers are formed, and their action on the landscape. He finished by talking about impacts of human activities on glaciers and how the ice ages occurred on Earth due to astronomic parameters. Before dinner, we all met in the Lounge. For many of us, it was the moment to share a drink or to watch some black browed albatross flying around the ship. Our Expedition Leader Beau interrupted those intense talks to give us the program for tomorrow, containing several activities: kayaking, mountaineering, diving, hiking, watching wildlife and also camping overnight. During dinner Plancius approached the Antarctic Peninsula, with a very colourful sunset. Several islands were visible just before dark, so giving us the feeling of actually arriving in Antarctica.
We awoke this morning to the spectacular beauty of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Gerlache Strait. We were blessed with blue skies and calm seas. Upon arrival at Cuverville Island, it seemed that the entire ship was surrounded by Humpback Whales. They were actively feeding and spy-hopping so it was decided to do a split landing and Zodiac cruise. Many of us had amazingly close encounters from the Zodiacs as some of the whales were curious and approached the Zodiacs, spy-hopping to check us out and providing us with unforgettable memories of our first morning in Antarctica. Ashore on Cuverville Island we had the opportunity to experience our first colony of Gentoo Penguins. The sights, sounds and smells of thousands of penguins proved that we were finally in Antarctica. As it was very late in the season, the penguin chicks were nearly fully grown and were in the process of moulting their down feathers and preparing to leave the rookery for a life at sea. Some of us were lucky enough to witness a Leopard Seal that had captured a penguin and proceeded to tear it into bite-sized pieces. It is not easy being a penguin!
After a very satisfying lunch, the Zodiacs were launched and we headed to Danco Island. Many went on a longer walk to the summit of a hill and enjoyed panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Others took a leisurely stroll along the beach with more Gentoo Penguins and stunning views. Our first day in Antarctica was a stunning one indeed!
Mountaineering, Georges Point
The first mountaineering landing was at Georges Point. There is a large Penguin Colony here and the shoreline was dotted with large numbers of fur Seals. We spent some time being careful to not disturb the Gentoo Penguins and seals as we made our way to the start of the glacier.
From the glacier, we roped up for glacier travel and after 20 minutes of easy travel we began our climb the saddle beneath a short steep climb. Along the way we encountered a number of large crevasses – open and with safe edges so we were able to look inside them – we were surprised at just how deep and wide these hidden dangers are! From the saddle a rocky ridge was a little bit more challenging: simple climbing moves on the rock and more demanding steps with the crampons on the hard ice and we gained a summit, with satisfaction of everyone!
During the afternoon we had a nice surprise to see large numbers of large whale bones on the shore, exceptionally sun bleached. Our climb here was a nice easy slope where we were able to gain an impressive view point overlooking the calving glacier beneath us and impressive seracs above. From here, as the afternoons team was moving without crampons, we did a series of sessions to give the team the skills and confidence to negotiate the slopes back to shore – glissading and self-arresting with an ice axe were mastered by all!
Team E were all very excited as we made our way from the ship to a safe location to get ourselves into the kayaks. This was done with great ease and once everybody was on the water we made our way to Cuverville. En route we were met two very inquisitive humpback whales who decided to get very close and check us out before continuing on their way. Once at the island, we were greeted by Fur seals and Gentoo penguins. As we passed by the divers we had word of a leopard seal in the vicinity but didn’t see it. Further along the shoreline yet more Gentoos beyond which we headed out to a few icebergs where five Crabeater seals were relaxing in the sunshine. Our journey finished with making our way around some of the many icebergs before heading back to ship for a well-earned lunch. What a great start to our trip!
The afternoon saw Team C venturing out at Danco Island in marginal conditions, with wind speeds at 15 knots. That said, once in the lee of the island and close to shore, the wind speed dropped considerably to around 5 knots. Great conditions for us, as long as we stayed close to shore. During our journey we caught sight of a Minke whale, the first of our voyage and as we kayaked along the shoreline, we saw an abundance of Gentoo penguins before being turned back by strong winds. So we backtracked to our starting point, only to be forced back by Force 4 winds. It was time to jump into our Zodiac and head back to the ship. All seemed to enjoy their good workout in the strong winds!
Camping – Kerr Point
After an early dinner at 19:00 the first team of stalwart campers made their way to their cabins for a final preparation of gear for the much awaited night ashore on Antarctica. Reassembling at the gangway they received their 5 star accommodation in the form of sleeping bags, bivi bag and a shovel before being transported ashore by Expedition Leader Beau and the ever cheerful Bruce in the Zodiacs. Conditions on the shore were perfect – light winds, clear skies and, for Antarctica, pretty mild conditions with the temperature not dipping much below freezing all night. Under the watchful eyes of Nacho and Chris the campers were soon enthusiastically flinging snow in all directions with the shovels as they each sought to out-do their neighbors efforts at making a home in the snow – resulting in some pretty impressive snow structures more fitting of a week ashore, not just a night!
Soon enough though the work was completed and everyone settled down, just in time to see the moon rising as Plancius raised anchor and steamed away, leaving us on our own tiny part of the vastness of Antarctica with only the sighing of the whales and the snoring seals for company. Wrapped up in our bivi bags watching the sky it seemed incredible to think that the satellites passing overhead were actually closer than the nearest town…. And so, pondering our remoteness, the camp fell asleep.
The night passed without incident and morning (OK – 5AM) came quickly and a happy Nacho roused the camp from its slumbers as Plancius had returned and the still cheerful Bruce was on his way to take us back to our cabins showers and breakfast before another incredible day in Antarctica!
We woke again to calm conditions and good visibility, although a little overcast in places. The campers were lifted at “silly o’clock”- that is about 05:30 hours but were in fine spirits having enjoyed a clear night, a nearly full moon and a sky full of stars. We sailed into Paradise Harbour and believe me by the end of the day, we were convinced! Throughout the day the cloud lifted from the high tops leaving them intermittently clear, occasionally wreathed in beautiful atmospheric clouds and the sun cast light and shadow over all. The passengers split between Zodiac cruising and snow shoeing at Stony Point. As the advance guard of the snow hiking team neared Stony Point, a Minke whale rose and dived again a hundred metres of so from the Zodiac. Stony Point was to be the first continental landing on this trip – the chance to stand on the great white continent of Antarctica. The beach was pretty clear of wild life apart from the odd fur seal – and as a result the snow was remarkably pure and white. We donned snowshoes and followed Gérard onto a small summit of snow from where we had all round views of the bay. The summit overlooked the face of an ice cliff which was very active – we spent five minutes in almost total silence broken only by bird call, the pops and groaning of fracturing ice and the movement of ice at sea. Everybody loved that opportunity to just be at complete peace with nature and sit and think about what we had seen and heard and felt over the past few days.
The afternoon saw the passengers split between Zodiac cruising and Base Brown – as the 1 metre high sign welcomed us. There is a Gentoo penguin colony here and the base buildings are of interest although we didn’t go too close, Brown is a working station though in summer only. However we did have the opportunity to get high’, which we did by climbing the small peak behind Brown from where we had superb views over to Mt Français on Anvers Island, the highest peak at 2,825m. And closer to home we had an overview of the kayaking and diving trips from our lofty perch. We all got back to the ship eventually – despite one broken down Zodiac – and at Recap Beau told us of our plans for tomorrow and Gérard talked to us about the 4 different seal species we had encountered – the Crab Eater; the Weddell; the Leopard and the Fur seal. He then showed a short piece of footage taken by one of the diving team showing a leopard seal eating a penguin, taken that day. And on that note we all went for our own dinner!
Almirante Brown and the short steep peak behind the base was our morning destination. We landed at the base which was actually closed for the season and the Gentoo Penguins have taken over! We climbed up behind the base and began our approach to the peak beyond - however the team encountered a fair bit of difficulty with very steep and icy slopes. Mal and Massimo went on ahead to prepare the route for the team and did a series of steep pitches to the shoulder above. As always the mountain conditions dictated our summit success and with time running out we only went to the first short shoulder beneath the summit before beginning the return to shore. From the top of the icy section it was a simple 50 m lower to the easy terrain below. Mal lowered each client one at a time down to Massimo before down-climbing the route himself as Massimo and the rest of team made good time back toward the shore in time to reach Plancius before we moved to the afternoon’s destination.
The afternoon was again a trip designed for the team whose boots and footwear could not take crampons. The afternoon’s sun had warmed and softened the slopes allowing us to make our way safely to the top. However at this time of the day, with softening snow bridges we again encountered some crevassing with a few guests placing their legs into small unexpected holes! Roping up whilst travelling on glaciated terrain is crucial! The large rounded summit at Conesa point gave us amazing views of Paradise Bay and with the sun setting in the west is was a magical moment to be walking back down towards the glowing ocean.
Conditions for Team J this morning were idyllic – sunshine and calm waters. What more could you ask for? Once in our kayaks, we headed to Stoney Point before venturing into the cove behind to take in the sheer vastness of our location – steep ice cliffs with heavily crevassed glaciers behind displaying their wonderful colours. From the back of the bay we headed towards Skontorp Cove squeezing ourselves between two rather large icebergs. All we could here was the ‘cracking’ of the glacier behind us, followed by a rather large ‘crack’ from one of the icebergs we had passed earlier. It was time to head back to Stony Point where we got back on our Zodiac and headed to the ship. A truly wonderful morning was had by all!
Team F were in for a real treat - no wind, calm waters with great reflections throughout the afternoon. We got into our kayaks and headed into the cove behind Base Almirante Brown. The water was shallow and still, with just the odd ‘shag’ to take pictures of so we moved out of the cove to take in the Gentoo penguins around the Base. From here we continued passed the steep cliff and into Skontorp Cove where we maneuvered around the small icebergs that were sitting on the mirrored surface of the water. After taking it all in we retraced our steps back to Base Brown then on towards the ship where our Zodiac picked us up and took us back to our ship. What a great afternoon!
Camping – Leith Cove
20:30 After another early dinner the second group of 30 intrepid campers assembled on Deck 3 to receive their dry bags of camping equipment and a quick final briefing from Nacho before boarding the Zodiacs to begin our adventure. Landing at Leith Cove is not an easy affair – it requires a certain degree of agility to negotiate the jagged rocks on the shore and the steep icy incline that follows but this was no challenge for the hardy group and we were soon on top of our own private island surrounded on three sides by steep glacier walls. Digging into the snow was a different matter altogether though as the surface snow was only a light cover sitting on top of compacted snow and ice so most dwellings were constructed by scraping the surrounding snow around the bivi bag to make a low wall which seemed to do the trick. Whilst the snow conditions were difficult, the weather was again fantastic with mostly clear skies, stars and no wind - and after a period of taking photographs everyone settled down for a quiet night, with only the frequent calvings from the surrounding glaciers breaking the peace. As always happens, 04:30 came around quickly and soon the camp was being dismantled and everyone headed back to Plancius courtesy of Katja who was driving the Zodiac. All in all another successful camping expedition!
This morning started in Andvord Bay: Plancius was sailing through the glassy calm waters when the top of the mountains caught the first sunlight. Glowing red like fire at first the colours changed quickly from orange to golden. On the water lay a thin layer of ice that had formed overnight. With the sound of breaking glass Plancius pushed her way towards Neko Harbour, a tiny rocky promontory which is the only break in a coastline of sheer ice cliffs. It was named after the whaling factory ship “Neko” that operated in the bay between 1911 and 1924. The bare ground here is occupied by a Gentoo Penguin rookery. Disembarkation proved difficult because huge chunks of ice threatened the gangway and hindered the progress of the Zodiacs.
As soon as we approached the shoreline we could smell the stench of hundreds of penguins. Close to the water’s edge adolescent Gentoo Penguins entertained us with their antics, shaking their lanky flippers, exploring our boots with their beaks or toppling on top of each other in their eagerness to snatch another free meal from their parents before being booted out of the colony. Stepping carefully around the chicks we passed the foundations of an old Argentine refuge hut and soon reached the top of the colony. Here a wonderful view of Andvord Bay opened up. Icebergs littered the deep blue still glassy calm waters. On our left and right bedraggled penguins stood in drifts of feathers and down, going through their catastrophic moult.
Back at the landing site, many guests took the opportunity for a Polar Plunge. A lot of laughter and screaming accompanied the dive into the icy cold water. A small iceberg was conveniently located to pose for some ‘hero’’ pictures. But with the sun and the blue sky, Neko felt more like the sunny Riviera than Antarctica. During lunch the captain took us on a scenic ship cruise, out of Andvord Bay and into the Errera Channel. Soon Danco and Cuverville Island came into view and as on our first day at Cuverville we were treated to fantastic whale sightings. Several whales were spy hopping, i.e. raising their heads vertically out of the water as we passed by.
The destination for the afternoon was Enterprise Island in Foyn Harbour. As we were Zodiac cruising it started to snow slightly and for the first time it felt like real Antarctica. There was so much to see: Not far from the ship 5 Humpback whales were lunge feeding. Alternately their huge jaws and tails appeared at the water surface: They were taking in big gulps of water in order to filter out the krill. A little bit further we could view the wreck of the Governoren. She was a whaling ship that was deliberately beached here by her crew in 1915 in order to save her valuable cargo of whale oil after she caught fire. On another island the remains of two wooden water boats could be seen. These boats were once used to carry precious fresh water for drinking. Along the coastline many Fur Seals were hauled out and King Cormorants and Antarctic terns circled overhead.
You can always tell how good a day it was by the noise level in the lounge and today it was difficult for expedition leader to Beau to make himself heard over the excited hum. So it must have been a good day!
Today we had a very early start at Neko Harbour to give us the time to try and explore a new mountaineering objective. The Zodiac journey in the fjord was hampered a little by ice which slowed us down - however as the air temperature was below zero it was good not to be moving so fast and with utterly calm conditions and a brilliant sunrise we were not in any hurry!
Again the mountain conditions dictated our climbing objective – with a late season snowpack giving very hard ice underfoot and steep climbing, combined with the amount of ice in the bay we made the choice to head back to the point of Neko Harbour and go ice climbing on a 40 m section of stable seracs. The ice climbing wasn’t for everybody so Massimo took a few guests for a glacier walk whilst Mal organised the ropes for tope roped ice climbing. In the cold calm conditions it was a very nice morning’s activity.
The afternoon was an ice climbing opportunity for everyone. Just in front of the wreck of the Governoren we climbed a short icy wall where Mal and Massimo had set top anchors to allow the guests to be lowered down towards the water below and then to climb back up.
Massimo gave a good demonstration of how to be lowered and climb back up – showing the correct technique on how to use crampons and ice axes in the vertical world of ice! People were excited, someone said “I am terrified!”, but in the end everybody had an amazing afternoons climbing experience in this magical place. And from our lofty perch we were able to throw snowballs at the kayaking team in the harbour below!
This weather just kept getting better. Team B had a real treat this morning at Neko – mirror conditions on the water and lots of bergy bits to negotiate. Once in our kayaks, we headed towards the shore before turning to take in the many Gentoo penguins taking their polar plunge off the beach. It was great to see them interacting with each other as we photographed them both above & below the surface. Moving on past the penguins, we headed to find out what our ice climbers and divers were up to. They looked to be enjoying the conditions too. With our polar plunge in mind, we made our way back towards the ship, breaking trail through the surface as we went. Yet another wonderful Antarctic kayaking experience not to be forgotten!
It was time for the Rookies to take to the water in Foyn. Conditions were perfect yet again. The sunshine may have gone for the afternoon but we still had calm waters. Once in our kayaks, we hugged the shoreline and made our way around the cove, taking photos of the Chinstrap penguins, shags and fur seal, some of whom were very inquisitive. We stopped at the wreck for some pictures and to check out what the divers were up to before continuing on our way. Once out of the cove, we headed towards the ship, passing by a few rather large icebergs en route. The team were no longer Rookies as the session came to a close. What a great afternoon was had by all!
The early wakeup call this morning was at 6.15 am! It was worthwhile as we entered the Lemaire Channel just before sunrise. The channel cuts a narrow path between the mainland on the east and Booth Island in the west. This 11 km long channel is impressive because of the near- vertical peaks rising close on the both sides to nearly 1000m. We arrived at Pléneau Island which gave us the opportunity to walk up onto a small rocky hill and to get an awesome view of the well-known icebergs “cemetery”. All around us, we watched all the amusing antics of the teenage Gentoo penguins, waiting to be fed by their harried parents.
We also got the chance to see two young elephant seals (“weaners”) lying in the water nearby the shore and looking very much like smooth rocks. We had to cut our landing short due to the increasing force of a katabatic wind. The return Zodiac ride was quite wet but everybody got back on board in time without any trouble. Unfortunately our landing at Port Charcot had to be cancelled due to the strong wind. But our brilliant Expedition Leader Beau proposed an excellent Plan B, and instead we got a wonderful ship cruise around the icebergs in Penola Strait that made people really happy.
Captain Evgeny agreed to bring us as far south as possible without compromising the other scheduled operations. We reached this southern most point of our trip at 15:44 - 65°17.7’S 064 18.3’W.
Thanks to the kindness and skills of the Captain, we had a great time, even making innumerable detours to observe the large numbers of crab-eating seals, fur seals and a few Adélie penguins on the ice floes. Then we came back up through the Lemaire channel in order to reach Jougla Point where the next group of campers was going to stay the night. Unfortunately due to the wind this had to be cancelled the camping night but overall everybody was delighted with this beautiful day.
Today we had a very gentle and beautiful walk up to near the summit of Hovegaard Island. This small peak is heavily glaciated and as we arrived at the shore we could see the super smooth bedrock, exposed in the late season snow melt, showing evidence of glacial erosion and ‘rounding’.
Whilst the wind was affecting the rest of the teams we had very calm and warm conditions on our approach to the shoulder of Hovegaard and amazing views of “Iceberg Alley”.
Hovegaard is home to a large number of nesting skuas - so our initial approach to the peak needed a slight bit of change so we did not disturb these nesting birds and our return to shore was via a different route – picking our way amongst the boulders next to the ocean to avoid disturbing them - and of course to avoid having a large skua try to dive bomb us! We had great views from the top over the Lemaire Channel, with its towering ridges, rock walls, ice falls and glaciers.
Due to the wind and ice conditions in the afternoon we had to cancel the plans for climbing near to Port Charcot.
Team G were all geared up for kayaking this morning with all the kayaks on the water when the wind picked up to 25 knots. As a result kayaking operations were cancelled for the morning. The conditions didn’t change for this afternoon so kayaking was again put on hold until tomorrow.
Unfortunately camping didn’t happen on this night. The winds stayed strong and we watched Nacho and Catherine heading out on the zodiac to check the possibilities for landing at Damoy Point. The sea was rough with a big swell and they came back very wet just from a five minute outing!
During the night Plancius navigated in the Bismarck Strait and Neumayer Channel before coming back again to Port Lockroy. The weather had improved just enough by the time we arrived at this famous station – the home of Base A, the ‘Penguin Post Office’. We were divided into two groups, the first was shuttled to Port Lockroy, and the second to Jougla Point. The first group was able to look around the Port Lockroy museum and we gave our postcards to Gérard, our temporary postmaster. These will be picked up next season by the Port Lockroy staff and posted on to our friends and families. The rest of us spent time amongst a large colony of Gentoo penguins and taking photos of a large whale skeleton that had been reassembled on the beach in 1974. After an hour it was time to swap landings, a very short ride of a few minutes. We also had the second sighting of a leopard seal eating a penguin only a couple of hundred metres off shore. As the weather improved a bit, our return to Plancius was completed without the drenching of the day before.
During lunch, the captain moved Plancius to Dorian Bay, but he was not able to drop anchor at this small cove as a few icebergs straddled the exact spot he wanted to be. He quickly found another location as the wind had reduced to a breeze. For the afternoon, Beau proposed a long walk on Damoy Point. This area holds a group of small rocky outcrops with large snow patches between. We followed Gérard to the summit of Tombstone Hill, the highest point. Most of the penguins nesting up there had dispersed so we were able to stand very close to the top and we were also surprised and delighted to see three Chinstrap Penguins moulting amongst the Gentoos. After enjoying the scenery for a moment, we continued our walk to the small hut called Damoy close to the shores of Dorian Bay. This former British refuge was used in connection with Base A Port Lockroy, with the nearby snowy ridge serving as a landing strip for small airplanes. The hut is still maintained by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust as a site of historical importance. On the way to the hut we passed a small outcrop from which we could see the heads of two skua chicks peeking out. We gave them a wide berth as the adult was flying low over our heads to scare us away! After some time spent along the shore, with a lot of brash ice left in this cove, we resumed our walk passing some big icebergs grounded in the bay. We went back to our landing spot while the wind was picking up to 30 knots. The return to Plancius was "wet" as the sea was quite rough.
At 18:00, we were all back on board. Dinner was a special affair: a BBQ on the aft deck. The crew had prepared salads and grilled meat and served it outside. Some benches and tables had also been set up for the ones who wanted to have a real Antarctic dinner. After the meal, the crew played music and started to dance, inviting us to do the same. The evening lasted long in a warm atmosphere even when the actual temperature was close to zero.
Standing over Port Lockroy and Dorian Bay is the beautiful peak of Mt Jabet. This is an often sought after peak – however not that often summited! The late season snow conditions were very good for this climb, which meant that the snow and ice conditions were firm and fast – meaning good crampon conditions – which also meant less room for error. In these conditions Jabet Peak is a true mountaineering objective with everything from pitching on steep ice, glacier travel, crossing bergschrunds, traversing steep exposed ridges and climbing to a definitive summit. Given the nature of the climb it was unfortunate that we were only able to take a very small team given the nature of the climbing conditions
Right from the start it was a challenging climb. As soon as we were ashore it was necessary to climb the shoulder of the glacier on hard blue ice! We did two pitches with crampons and axe using a climbing style known as multi-pitch climbing – mountaineering directly from the sea to the true toe of the glacier!
After this we had a long gentle walk along the glacier ridge, with the saddle to the left of Jabet as our first objective. The view from the saddle was amazing, but the team wanted to go higher, so Massimo and Mal led 3 1/2 pitches across a steep slope to the upper shoulder, using snow stakes and ice screws to make belays. The last section was climbing was on mixed terrain, (over snow, ice and rock). An icy couloir, loose rocks, and a short ridge led to the final steep wall and the summit.
We greeted each other with the word “Bergheil”- this German word, meaning good summit, is the traditional way to say “Congratulations”. We were delighted to have climbed the route as a team, sharing the difficulties together and as we looked out from our lofty height, we could see Plancius, looking very small in the corner of the bay. We returned by another route which was quite easy but a large crevasse needed to be negotiated with care.
Our last steps on Antarctica were across to Damoy Hut, where we visited the simple shelter where British scientists used to stay whilst studying the penguin colony. Finally a short Zodiac cruise brought us back to the ship, and we were sad to say goodbye to the incredible mountains of this almost untouched land!
Once again the team prepared for kayaking but again it was not to be. The wind was not decreasing as hoped and the gusts were too strong. So sadly they had to hand their kayaking equipment back, however, instead of kayaking they had the opportunity to visit Port Lockroy in the morning and Dorian Bay in the afternoon.
Although we had been hoping to camp tonight, once again the weather gods were not on our side with strong winds, cloudy conditions and even some light rain falling. However, this did mean that everyone was able to participate fully in the barbeque and dancing!
Having sailed north during the night, we awoke amidst of the spectacular Melchior Islands. After breakfast we set out in the Zodiacs to explore the labyrinth of channels and islands that make up this wildly stunning archipelago. We cruised around the Argentinean base, Melchior, and enjoyed close up views of massive glaciers and jagged icebergs. Many Antarctic fur seals were seen on the rocks and swimming sometimes near the Zodiacs. A few of us were lucky enough to see a Chinstrap Penguin! We returned to the ship and were treated to hot chocolate on the top deck by a fourth species of penguin – the human penguin! We had some time to soak up a few more moments of the amazing view and to reflect on the magic that is Antarctica before heading out to sea once again. In the afternoon Céline gave a very informative presentation on the evolution and biology of penguins. After the daily briefing another fine dinner was served as Plancius continued to sail north into the Drake Passage.
A lazy swell rolled Plancius and its precious cargo from side to side this morning. It was overcast but not very windy. The day at sea started with a relative sleep-in, Beau afforded us 45 minutes longer than on activity days.
After breakfast Katja spoke about her overwintering at the German Antarctic Base Neumayer and other scientific expeditions that brought her to Antarctica. She recalled good and bad moments and shared some of the impressions of her time on the ice with us.
The lecture program continued after lunch with Gérard speaking about whales in the Southern Ocean. After our close encounters with the Humpbacks at Cuverville Island we were keen to learn more about whale biology and their behaviour.
Though Michael was on board as a dive guide one of his interests is history. His presentation about the Australian Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson in 1912 was very informative. Mawson’s fight for survival after his two companions Merz and Ninnis died blew us away.
While Plancius steadily ploughed North through the Drake Passage there was time to relax, sort through some of the thousands of photos, catch up on reading, get fresh air on deck or visit the friendly officers on the bridge, including, Alexey the bridge duck.
After the daily briefing where Zsuzsanna talked about the disembarkation we sat down in the dining room for another great dinner prepared by our Chefs Ralf and Ivan. Just before the desert was served the whole hotel crew made an appearance. Finally we got to see all the faces from behind the scenes that were looking after us in the kitchen, laundry and hotel department. Thank you guys, you rock!
There had been a little more swell overnight and the rocking of the boat was more pronounced. However as we continued north it died down and continued through the morning as we reflected on the experiences we had had, sifted through our hundreds of pictures or started to gather our belongings. After breakfast, Fran invited us to the lounge, where she talked about the use of husky dogs on British bases from 1944 to 1994. When she finished, we noticed that land was in sight. With the permission of the Chilean authorities, PLANCIUS was allowed to approach Cape Horn as close as 3 nautical miles. At 11:22 PLANCIUS was in position with sight on this mythical cape. Through binoculars we could see the monument at the Cape. While adding some more photographs to our memory cards, the sea became even calmer and all expedition members were able to enjoy the sight of the southernmost point of the Americas on the outer decks.
After lunch, the Expedition Team was waiting for us in the boot room to hand back our rubber boots. Everybody had done a good job of cleaning them. Later in the afternoon, Zsuzsanna and Katie called us by deck to come to reception and to settle our ship’s accounts – some of the regulars at the ship’s bar found their wallets to be much lighter after settling up! At around 18:00, we all gathered again in the bar, where Beau and Zsuzsanna explained the process of disembarkation the following day. This was followed by a presentation by the divers and a slide show of the trip prepared by Bruce. He put together photos into a fascinating compilation. All the moments and memories kept coming back. We then welcomed Captain Evgeny Levakov for his farewell speech and clinked glasses to our successful voyage. One more dinner on board was ready for us. While PLANCIUS made her way towards the coast and into the Beagle Channel, we celebrated our last evening and prepared ourselves for a return into our busy lives.
Today was disembarkation day in Ushuaia. Coming alongside, PLANCIUS was boarded by Argentine officials who cleared our vessel and allowed us to disembark. On the pier we bade farewell to many of the friends we made over the past days, and had one last look at the PLANCIUS, the ship that took us safely on such an incredible voyage from Ushuaia to Antarctica and back again. We did so much, and it was lovely to enjoy the wildlife and scenery of this very special part of our world. It was a privilege to visit. This trip will endure a lifetime – in our memories, our imaginations, and in our dreams.
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
Total distance sailed on our voyage: Nautical miles: 1838 nm | Kilometres: 3404 km
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Levakov, Expedition Leader Beau Pruneau and all the staff and crew, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.