PLA31-17, trip log, Antarctic Peninsula
30.03.2017 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. This was also a chance to meet our Russian Captain Alexey Nazarov and toast our voyage with a glass of Prosecco. While still in the Beagle Channel we spotted the first wildlife, Magellanic Penguins, Blackbrowed Albatrosses and Cormorants.
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.
Our day began with the now familiar morning wakeup call from Beau followed by a fantastic buffet breakfast. The Drake Passage was a bit rough causing discomfort to many but those hardy souls who ventured from their cabins and made it up to the bridge and top deck were treated to an impressive number and variety of seabirds.
King among the skies of the Southern Ocean were the several Wandering Albatrosses that followed the ship throughout the day wheeling above the waves, long wings outstretched in the strong WNW wind. Other sightings included: Black-browed Albatrosses, Giant Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, White-chinned and Blue Petrels, Prions and Storm-Petrels and several other species.
We were also privileged to make our first Cetacean sighting: Two Hourglass Dolphins made a brief appearance near the ship and were quickly identified by our onboard University of St Andrews students who were on watch on the bridge, much to the delight of all on board.
Today was filled with informative lectures. At 10:00 the English speakers joined Katja in the lounge while the French speakers joined Gérard in the dining room for respective lectures giving us an introduction to Antarctica filled with fascinating facts and giving us a little bit of an idea of what to expect in the coming days. At 15:30 Sonja and Gérard regaled us with their knowledge and passion for the whales of the Southern Ocean and wet our appetites for possible sightings to come. Bruce met us at 17:00 in the lounge for a talk about photographing Antarctica, giving us hints, tips, and tricks of the trade to help us to get pleasing photographs of the Southern Continent.
During the daily briefing we learned more about some of the things we had seen earlier as well as plans for the future. After a wonderful dinner, most headed off to bed in an attempt to be rocked to sleep by the not so gentle rolling of the ship.
07:45 and Expedition Leader Beau was back on the air with our daily wake-up call informing us that despite the grey and misty morning we were well on track, having passed the Antarctic convergence during the night. The now calmer seas ensured most of us had managed to get some rest overnight and everyone was eager to get some breakfast and start our second day at sea.
Today there were several important briefings from the team but before we could begin, the keen eyed Marine Biology students on the bridge were off to a great start already spotting a pod of hourglass dolphins and some porpoising chinstrap penguins close by – obviously no one had told them about our strict itinerary!
Once the excitement of our surprise visitors had died down, Beau (who gave the English version) and Gerard (who gave the French edition) were ready to start the first briefing of the day- the IAATO lecture. Full of useful information to allow us to enjoy Antarctica whilst minimizing our impact on the pristine environment and flora and fauna present, this briefing was mandatory for everyone who wants to go ashore in Antarctica.
With our IAATO instructions now memorized and with fresh coffees in our hands we went to the second lecture of the day – the Zodiac briefing where lifejackets and the correct procedure for boarding and disembarking the zodiacs was explained – this was vital as we will use the Zodiacs for going ashore.
With no time to rest we were then up to our elbows in jackets, trousers and bags in the observation lounge which could only mean one thing………Vacuum Party! All outer clothing and equipment was thoroughly cleaned, especially pockets, seams and Velcro to ensure no seeds or plant material foreign to Antarctica would be brought with us on land. Once done, we signed the biosecurity declaration and we were then good to go ashore when we would arrive tomorrow – great news although equally good news right now was that after such a busy morning it was lunchtime!
Shortly after lunch the fog lifted and we were treated to another surprise visit, this time from several fin whales accompanied by more chinstrap penguins who altered course towards us to say hello, allowing some great photo opportunities much to the appreciation of all on board. Then, however it was down to the boot room to kit everyone out with their Arctic Muck boots. Now suitably equipped we are all excited and ready for our expedition trips ashore.
With no time to waste (but just enough to grab another coffee) it was back into the observation lounge for a great lecture from Katja about ‘Ice in Antarctica’ while Gerard spoke about ‘Glaciers and ice caps’ to our French passengers in the restaurant.
After such a busy day there was just time for a quick recap in the observation lounge before dinner and a well-earned early night filled with anticipation for our arrival at Cuverville and Antarctica tomorrow!
Today we awoke in Antarctica proper surrounded by majestic mountains and small icebergs floating near shore as we sailed South in the Gerlache Strait. And then, there they were: Blows! Not one or two, but whale blows appeared all around the Plancius as we approached our first landing site, Cuverville Island. This morning had so many firsts! First humpback whales, first penguins, first landing, first time getting into the zodiacs……..Half the group went ashore for our first encounter with Gentoo penguins, while the others went zodiac cruising, and we swapped groups on shore, so everyone got to experience the splendour of the scenery and the wildlife spectacles both in the water and on land. Most of the humpback whales were rather docile, and we got to drift next to them in our zodiacs and listen to them sleep and snore. Some whales made very loud trumpeting/ snorting noises which our resident whale biologist explained as some form of communication sounds. Some whales were more active and we were incredibly lucky to be treated to some very close encounters, with several whales passing right under the zodiacs letting us appreciate their huge size and long white pectoral flippers. Some whales even popped their heads above water to take a good look at us which we learnt was called ‘spy-hopping’ in scientific terms. In the distance some whales were seen lob tailing (beating their tails on the water surface).
To round things up, there were docile Crabeater seals and Antarctic fur seals on ice floes affording us close looks and great photographic opportunities. Meanwhile on shore, passengers were being inspected by young and curious Gentoo penguins. The young of this year came right up to us pecking our boots and trousers, and begging us to regurgitate some krill for them (an offer, that we kindly declined). So much for the 5 m distance rule. We obeyed but the penguins clearly did not. Some adult penguins were still busy feeding their fully grown young, while others had already started their annual moult. The moulters looked a miserable bunch, surrounded by piles of white feathers, with their backs hunched and their heads drawn in. Moulting penguins are not waterproof so they have to simply sit and wait and fast until all their new feathers have come through. Several skuas were patrolling the beach, always on the lookout for food (usually a dead or weak penguin). We also stumbled across whale backbones and ribs which were stark reminders of the whaling period less than 100 years ago when the humpback whales just off the shore would not have had such a peaceful existence.
Back aboard there was much noisy chatter in the lounge during lunch, for many the first proper meal they got and kept down after the Drake Passage. But no rest for the wicked…. Our eagle-eyed observers spotted large fins ahead of the ship. Orcas! And a large group of 18-20 individuals, in two subgroups, and with several young calves and four big males (easily recognisable by their huge dorsal fins). Everyone rushed out onto the decks, camera at the ready. A few of us wished they had taken the time to add a few extra layers of clothing, but who feels the cold when an amazing spectacle unfolds right in front of you? The orcas (or killer whales) were travelling, and made several close passes of the Plancius bow, greeted by loud cheers. We got great looks of their identifying features, and our whale biologist later explained that these were Type B killer whales which are known seal and penguin hunters. But something seemed strange, and our on-board biologists scratched their heads…. There were Antarctic fur seals mixed in with the killer whales. At first we thought the killer whales were hunting the seals, but it soon became clear that this was not the case. Instead, the fur seals were actively seeking out the killer whales, leaping right next to and swirling all around them. It was a melange of flippers and fins, with the occasional big splash. Later during recap Sonja recounted this amazing encounter and explained that this was definitely not a predatory attack as the fur seals seemed to be following the travelling killer whales and actively sought to interact with them. Why fur seals do this is not known, so to witness this unusual behaviour was quite a special experience for everyone!
Soon we were in the zodiacs again for our afternoon cruise in Foyn Harbour. Several resting and snorting humpback whales provided a welcome distraction en-route to the wreck of the whaling cargo ship Governøren which was in 1915 deliberately run aground in one of the harbours after a fire broke out on board and threatened to destroy all the valuable cargo of whale oil. The wreck is only partially submerged and is located in a stunning amphitheatre of ice walls. Two wooden lifeboats could be seen around the corner, and several fur seals and a lone chinstrap penguin in the Cormorant colony provided additional entertainment. It was a slightly damp and wet outing so we were happy to head back to the ship for a brief recap and briefing, and a hearty dinner after this action-packed first day in Antarctica.
Waking this second day to brilliant blue skies and very light winds bode well for our morning excursion to the remaining Gentoo population at Neko Harbour. This harbour was named after the Norwegian whaling ship “Neko” that used to frequent this harbour. Our landing proceeded to plan despite the abundant floating ice floes our zodiac drivers had to skilfully navigate. Soon the first guests carefully scaled the rocks and icy slopes towards a look out near the area where the penguins had by now finished nesting. The roar and occasional sighting of the nearby glacier carving provided an exciting interlude to the vista and surrounding atmosphere.
Fantastic views of the harbour greeted us and it was interesting to watch the other guests go about their zodiac cruise, visiting seal covered icebergs and spotting at least one humpback whale in the distance but too far to access with the zodiacs. Changeover occurred effortlessly with those on shore swapping with those in the zodiacs allowing all the guests to enjoy the experience of landing and cruising in this beautiful area.
Before heading back to the Plancius there was still one important task however….. The Polar Plunge! 30 or so hardy expeditioners gathered anxiously at the water’s edge before stripping off and making their way over the rocks like overgrown penguins into the water. Some lasted longer than others but everyone emerged invigorated and in high spirits as we quickly dressed and made our way back to the ship for another fantastic lunch. It was only later when our resident scientists had checked their data that we realised a new record had been set…… The water temperature was -0.3°C - the lowest ever recorded temperature for one of our polar plunges!
During a sumptuous and warming lunch our “home from home” transported us to Base Brown Station in Paradise Bay where we once again had the opportunity to gain some elevation for a spectacular view of the surrounding glaciers and mountains. Base Brown was stark reminder of human habitation in this icy wilderness.
The Zodiac cruisers gained a close up view of the Blue-eyed Shag nesting area in the cliffs. One Weddell and several Crabeater Seals were also encountered. Skontorp Cove did not disappoint with its towering active glacier front, often calving large pieces of ice into the bay. The sun remained brilliant throughout the afternoon and the almost tropical conditions provided us with a very satisfying afternoon.
After our daily recap guests once again enjoyed the gastronomic delights of head chef Ralf and his team. The bar was sparsely populated owing to most guests opting for the comfort of their cabin for a well-deserved rest before our next busy day began the next morning.
The wakeup call came at 7 am, a quarter of an hour later than anticipated, because it was dark, foggy and drizzly with fresh snow covering the outer decks. Nevertheless, many were up to watch our entrance into the Lemaire Channel. This 11 km long channel cuts a narrow path between the Antarctic mainland on the East and Booth Island on the West. Near-vertical peaks rise on both sides to almost 1000 m. However, today these impressive peaks were shrouded with clouds.
As we got closer to the narrowest part of the Lemaire Channel, less than 1600 m wide, we saw that it was blocked by several huge icebergs. There was no way through. Captain Alexey performed an amazing U-turn between these icebergs. Whoever looked out of the lounge windows saw icebergs to both sides. They were very close, it felt like we could touch them. Rafts of Gentoo penguins floated on the calm water. As we sailed back we spotted a pod of Killer whales. Some of us saw them spy hopping just outside the dining room windows during breakfast. They came very close to the ship. One male with a huge fin stood especially out.
As we watched the Killer whales the Ortelius, Plancius’ sister ship, passed us. We gave them a wave and wished them bon voyage for their attempt to go through the Lemaire Channel, while we decided on a ship cruise in Deloncle Bay, a small bay on the eastern side of the channel. It started to snow and on the calm water we could see freshly formed sea-ice. Winter is certainly on its way and we really felt like Antarctic expeditioners.
Also our second attempt to go through the Lemaire Channel was thwarted, the currents were too strong, the gap between the icebergs and the land too small. But on the way out we saw two adult humpback whales with a very small calf.
We continued on our way north, rounded Booth Island on the eastern side and sailed into Port Charcot from the North. Here Jean-Baptiste Charcot the French Antarctic explorer spent the winter of 1904 with his men onboard their ship Français. On the top of the hill we could see the commemorative cairn. The bay below was filled with an impressive collection of icebergs that unfortunately blocked the usual landing site. So only the nimble footed hopped ashore on some dark granite boulders and attempted to hike to the cairn. Due to the late season the snow was very icy and at the steep slope leading up to the cairn we had to call a stop. It was too slippery to continue, especially with icy cliffs looming below us. But on our way back we saw several Adélie and Chinstrap penguins. Seeing two new penguin species made certainly up for our efforts. For the people that could not master the difficult landing a zodiac cruise with Céline and Sonja was on offer. They saw thirteen Crabeater seals hauled out on an ice floe, an Adélie and two Chinstrap penguins and the historic “F”-mark in the rocks which stands for Français.
As we returned to the ship it snowed heavily which prompted some, to spontaneously break into Christmas Carols, the Happy hour in the bar adding to the cheerful mood. At the daily briefing Beau spoke about the plans for tomorrow, Sonja explained what happened during our whale encounters, Gérard talked about the origin of the naughty icebergs that blocked our way and Katja enlightened us why the Lemaire Channel is named after an explorer of Central Africa.
Having sailed north during the night, we awoke amidst of the spectacular Melchior Islands. The sunrise was beautiful with warm pink hues illuminating distant clouds and mountain peaks. After breakfast we set out in the zodiacs to explore the labyrinth of channels and islands that make up this wildly stunning archipelago located between Anvers and Brabant Island to the Northwest of the Peninsula.
Cruising around the Argentinean base we enjoyed close up views of massive glaciers and jagged icebergs under the watchful eyes of the local Antarctic fur seals perched high on the rocks or swimming near the zodiacs. Fur seals were not the only wildlife though, a few of us were lucky enough to encounter a mother and calf Humpback whale, whilst others spotted Weddell seals and even a lone Elephant seal was seen amongst the rocks on the shoreline along with the ubiquitous Antarctic shags.
Returning to the ship we were treated to hot chocolate on the top deck in the warm sunlight by a fourth species of penguin, Katie, who arrived on deck just in time for a farewell to Antarctica Expedition Team photo!
Standing on the deck we had some final time to soak up a few more moments of the amazing view all around us and to reflect on the magic that is Antarctica before heading out to sea once again.
All too soon however we were heaving the anchor and setting our course to the North and Ushuaia, leaving the peninsula behind us as we passed Roca Williams to our starboard side and the rolling seas of the Drake Passage came back to greet us.
In the afternoon Chris gave a very informative presentation on the biology and adaptations of penguins in English and Celine gave a similar lecture in French, both of which were enthusiastically received by both groups despite the pitching if the ship. After the daily recap another fine dinner was served as Plancius continued to sail North into the Drake Passage as the seas began to abate, much to the delight of the less stalwart sailors amongst us anxiously hoping for a good night’s sleep.
After a rather gentle night of rolling, the morning broke beautifully calm but cloudy. The Plancius bow was firmly pointed northward, and the large aggregations of Pintados (Cape petrels) and Southern fulmars started to disappear. A slightly disgruntled looking Wandering albatross had to beat its wings to stay airborne as there was not enough wind to help it soar. We learned more about these amazing birds in Sonja’s lecture on sea bird ecology while our French speaking guests enjoyed a talk by Gérard on the Southern Ocean. At lunch time the visibility worsened and the wind picked up, making both sea bird and mammal watching rather more challenging for the dedicated student observers maintaining constant watches on the bridge wings.
Then second officer Matei had a surprise for us: He intended to deploy an Argos float (an oceanographic buoy that floats at depth, rises to the surface every 10 days and relays information on water temperature and salinity via satellite link) for the Dutch Hydro-graphic Office.
We gathered at the back decks to watch the action with oceanographer Lars briefly explaining what the instrument does. While the float was being readied an excited Sonja shouted “Hourglass dolphins”. Two dolphins made several close but rather quick passes of the Plancius revealing the beautiful black and white pattern on their sides that has given them the name Hourglass dolphins.
The afternoon continued with good weather and more Hourglass dolphin sightings as we made good progress towards South America. We were kept busy with lectures from Gérard about the Southern Ocean, this time in English, its currents and foodweb components, many of which we had seen for ourselves only a few days ago. Chris (CC) also gave a talk on whaling in the Southern Ocean. The evening recap saw the brief appearance of a life-sized whales in the lounge, an Hourglass dolphin and a Minke whale which filled up the entire width of the lounge. The St Andrews student team then gave a short summary presentation of what they had been up to during their daily wildlife watches and what they had observed during our trip.
Closing in on Patagonia during the night the seas calmed and the rolling of the ship eased despite the freshening wind from the West allowing us to make good time – so much so that Captain Alexey decided to give us one more special experience before heading into the Beagle Channel… a rare close approach to Cape Horn.
Sonja called up the Chilean Naval Base on the radio and used her best Chilean Spanish and feminine charm to persuade them to let us within 2 nautical miles of the Cape, much closer than would usually be granted as the Horn is in Chilean national waters.
And so it was, with a vanguard of Black-browed Albatrosses and Giant Petrels swooping overhead and an escort of Peale’s Dolphins playing under our bow that we arrived at Cape Horn as the skies broke and the sun shone through.
In the distance, standing proudly atop the Cape Horn rock itself we could just make out the Albatross sculpture there, inscribed with the following poem dedicated to sailors long since passed:
‘’I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth. I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world. But they did not die in the furious waves. Today they fly on my wings to an eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind’’
A touching reminder of the voyage we had just made and how hard things were in the not too distant past.
Along with our visit to Cape Horn, we also managed another milestone in our voyage – owing to the generosity of the Chilean authorities allowing such close access to Cape Horn itself, we had also managed to cross over into the Pacific Ocean!
After this excitement it was nice to head back inside out of the freshening wind just in time for oceanographer Lars from St Andrews University to deliver his lecture entitled “Seals for Science” where we learnt how seals equipped with scientific data recorders are helping to increase our knowledge of ocean currents.
After another fantastic lunch events took a rather more sombre note – it was time to return our now beloved trusty muck boots. Having taken us on many adventures, these boots had kept us warm and dry and safe, however, it was now time to say goodbye (although more than one person vowed to buy some when they got back home!) Even more gut-wrenching, at least for some, was the settlement of the on-board accounts with Zsuzsanna and Katrin in reception. Very nice was on the other hand an encounter with several Sei whales in the Beagle Channel in glorious sunshine.
All too soon it was time for the last briefing and a look back at everything we had experienced over the last 9 days accompanied by a fantastic slide presentation from Bruce, a google-earth fly-by from Gérard and a farewell cocktail drink toasted by the Captain as he said a few words about the voyage. Everyone toasted to the trip with raised glasses and smiling faces, realizing that all good things must come to an end. At long last it was time to head off to bed and try to catch a little bit of sleep before disembarkation began the very next morning bright and early. A fine end to a fine trip.
Today marks the last day of our amazing voyage as the Plancius, our home for the last 9 days pulls back in to port in Ushuaia at 0700. Coming alongside, we were boarded by the Argentine officials who cleared our vessel and allowed us to disembark. After making sure we were all packed and ready to go we made our way down the gangway and bade farewell to all of the friends we have come to know over the past 10 days. Once back on land, we turned to look one last time at the Plancius, the ship that took us safely on such an incredible voyage from Ushuaia, across the infamous Drake Passage to Antarctica and back again. We saw more whales, penguins and seals than we could have hoped for, experienced all kinds of Antarctic weather from warm sun to gales and snow and simply enjoyed the wildlife and scenery of this very special continent and are privileged that we were able to do so. 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: 1638 nm | Kilometres: 3034 km
Furthest South on 22 March 2017: 65°06’S / 063°60’W
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Nazarov, Expedition Leader Beau Pruneau and all the staff and crew, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.