PLA31-18, trip log, Antarctic Peninsula - Whale Watching Voyage

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina

Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina
Date: 19.03.2018
Position: 042°45’S / 065°01’W
Wind: 20 knots
Weather: Mixed cloud cover

So here we are at last in Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of the world. Well, from Ushuaia we’ll be going south of south... a long way south. But for today, we ambled about this lovely Patagonian city, savouring the local flavours and enjoying the sights. Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Argentine Tierra del Fuego, but also the beginning – the beginning 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. However, temperatures during the long days of the austral summer are relatively mild, providing a final blanket of warmth before heading off on our adventures. For many of us this is the start of a lifelong dream. The excitement comes in different forms for each unique person, but even the most experienced of us feels genuine excitement to depart on a journey to Antarctica. Most passengers were promptly at the gangway at 16:00, ready to board our ship MV Plancius, home for the next 10 days. We were greeted at the gangway by members of our Expedition staff who welcomed us aboard. Our luggage was already on board so after a short wait on the wharf we made our way up the gangway and onto the good ship Plancius. We were met at Reception by Zsuzsanna and Michael, our Hotel and Managers. We were then checked into our cabins with the assistance of our fabulous Filipino crew. A little while after boarding we convened in the lounge on deck five to meet First Officer Luis, 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 (with Toby as life jacket model!). 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 the jetty of Ushuaia and the last of city life for a while. We entered the Beagle Channel with the escort of black-browed albatross, great shearwater and sooty shearwater. Once we were on our way into the channel we were invited once again to the lounge to meet our Expedition Leader, Andrew Bishop and Hotel Manager Michael who gave us an overview of the ship, a floating hotel which will be our home for the next couple weeks. We then met the rest of the Expedition Team, an international group who will guide us during our voyage, driving us ashore, giving lectures and ensuring we get the best possible experience during our trip. This was also a chance to meet our Captain, Evgeny Levakov and toast our voyage with a glass of pink prosecco. At 19:30 we sampled the first of many delicious meals on board, prepared by Chefs Heinz and Sean and their galley team. This first evening on board was occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to her movements, 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 eastwards towards Antarctica.

Day 2: At Sea Drake Passage Southward

At Sea Drake Passage Southward
Date: 20.03.2018
Position: 056°21’ S / 064°47’ W
Wind: W 35 knots
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +2

This morning was our first wake-up call of the voyage and Andrew woke us up with news of wind and weather. There was around 30 knots of wind blowing. For some of us the smell of food was a perfect start to the day but for others it was all a bit too much for the seasick body and escaping back to the cabin was the best option. After breakfast some of us headed out on deck for some fresh air, to enjoy the sunshine and enjoy a few birds that were flying around the ship and gathering at the stern as we sailed towards Antarctica. The most common species was the giant petrel, both southern and northern but there were also black-browed albatross, Wilson’s storm petrels, soft plumaged petrels and even some southern royal albatross. Birds habitually follow ships at sea looking for food brought up to the surface by the wake but also to enjoy the uplift created by our passing. Traditionally they follow fishing vessels for discarded food but that is not on offer from Plancius, of course! Toby gave a fabulous talk after breakfast about albatrosses and other great seabirds; fascinating on so many levels. Lunch was served at 12.30 and we enjoyed yet another delicious meal from our lovely chefs. After lunch the wind picked up and only a few strong were out birding with Toby. By the time afternoon tea had been consumed in the lounge it was time to go back downstairs to the restaurant for an introduction to all things Antarctica from Liz. She gave us an overview of the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth from the characteristics of glaciers to the history of Antarctica (dating back 200 MYA to Gondwana!) to some of the more charismatic creatures we may meet on our voyage ahead. Andrew then gave a great lecture about glaciers. Now everyone has some decent background knowledge about glacial moraines and calvings. At 6.30 pm we were invited to the lounge for the daily briefing where Andrew explained our plans for tomorrow. One more day at sea with lectures and the great rubber boot hand-out.

Day 3: At Sea Drake Passage Southward

At Sea Drake Passage Southward
Date: 21.03.2018
Position: 059°59’ S / 060°02’ W
Wind: W 15 knots
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

This morning we woke to our first sunrise over Antarctic waters as we continued our journey across the Drake Passage. Having crossed the Antarctic Convergence overnight, a few keen birders were out on deck early to scout for some of the seabirds of the south, while the rest of us started our day with tea and coffee in the lounge or a quiet morning in our cabins. After breakfast, the business of preparing ourselves for Antarctica began. We attended mandatory briefings, where we learned about IAATO requirements and Zodiac operations, which filled many of us with a mix of excitement and anticipation. This was followed by a vacuum party - unfortunately not the kind of party with party hats, clowns, or birthday cakes, but the kind of party where you clean and vacuum your expedition gear. Vacuuming gear is mandatory for all ships and guests heading down to Antarctica to make landings, to minimise our impact on the environment and avoid introducing foreign species of plants and fungi. So, with great fanfare six vacuum cleaners were brought up to the lounge and strategically placed for us all to clean every last little bit of grass, seeds, and even cow manure from our outerwear. After a scrumptious lunchtime meal from head chef Heinz and his team, we made our way to the boot room to pick up our cosy polar boots in preparation for our first day in Antarctica tomorrow. The afternoon was one of attending lectures for some of us, and quiet rest for those of us who were still adjusting to the rolling rhythm of the Drake Passage. The afternoon lecture program included another fine talk from Toby, this one about penguins. We learned about some of the different species we hope to see while we’re in Antarctica and how to identify them. This was followed by an educational hour with Sonja, our resident marine mammal expert who told us about some of the whales we may be lucky enough to see down south. As the evening drew in the birders’ patience on the rocking upper deck was rewarded with sightings of the rare Kerguelen petrel – a prized sighting! This evening there was an air of anticipation at the briefing and recap as we gathered to hear the plan for tomorrow: our first day in Antarctica!!

Day 4: Wilhelmina Bay & Danco Island

Wilhelmina Bay & Danco Island
Date: 22.03.2018
Position: 64°38'S 62°10'W
Wind: Calm
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: -1

Today we woke up with much better conditions than the previous few days; the sea was slowly calming down and we had our first sight of the Antarctic Peninsula as we entered the Gerlache Strait. After breakfast everyone gathered out on deck to appreciate the fantastic landscape. The morning was bright and clear, the good visibility allowed us to see the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula, Liege and Brabant Islands. Soon, humpback whales started to show up, at first one or two, but then many more were swimming, resting and feeding in the waters of the strait. Around mid-morning we entered Wilhelmina Bay to look for more whales; soon we found more humpback whales, Plancius made a slow approach and we had the chance to experience a close view of these magnificent creatures. The students on board totaled 250 whales seen that morning! Once we came out of the bay it was lunch time, and after spending so many hours on deck a warm meal was very much appreciated. After lunch we approached our second destination of the day, Cuverville Island, named after a French Admiral by Adrien de Gerlache. The wind had picked up from a northerly direction and was heading towards our landing site. A quick response from Andrew, our Expedition Leader made us change the plans for the afternoon and instead of trying to land at Cuverville with deteriorating conditions, he decided to change our landing spot for Danco Island, that lies in the protection of the Errera channel. The call proved to be the right one as we had a fantastic afternoon at Danco Island. Many of us walked all the way up to the top of the island, enjoying a 360° view of the mountains and glaciers of the Errera Channel. Gentoo penguins were busy coming up and down the slopes to get to their (now barely visible) nesting sites, and there was a Weddell seal dreaming of fish on the shore that many of us had the chance to see. Just before we headed back to Plancius, some “brave” fellow travelers challenged the Antarctic waters with a Polar Plunge. Back on the ship, Andrew told us the plans for tomorrow and we enjoyed a nice dinner prepared by our chefs on board. We went to bed with the feeling of having had a great day and already wanting to be tomorrow to see more of this wonderful world.

Day 5: Neko Harbour & Skontorp Cove

Neko Harbour & Skontorp Cove
Date: 23.03.2018
Position: 64°50'S 62°33'W
Wind: SW 10 knots with gusts of 30 knots
Weather: Clear morning clouding over with passing snow storms
Air Temperature: -1

As our bleary-eyes blinked awake at Andrew’s 0700 call to breakfast, Plancius steamed toward Neko Harbour and our first landing on the Antarctic continent. Toby’s rendition of ‘You are my Sunshine’ echoed through the crew mess as the ship closed in on Neko in a strengthening wind. Brash ice surrounded our landing site and 30 knot gusts buffeted the higher slopes. Undeterred, we launched Zodiacs, cruised through the brash and landed beside the gentoo penguins and occasional crabeater seal. Staff led many up onto the slopes once we’d determined it was safe, whilst some stayed on the beach zone amongst the penguins, watching humpback whales out in the bay. Andrew’s call for Polar Plungers brought many back to the beach, stripping in the gusty conditions to plunge from shore into the ice-strewn water for a few seconds of… Invigoration? Agony? Or just the huge satisfaction of the ‘I did that’ moment! Afternoon brought us to Brown base still in strong winds, we launched a staff Zodiac to check the landing, but conditions decided us upon a cruise into ‘Paradise’, another name for Skontorp Cove’s surrounds. As half of us watched Toby’s lecture on his part in BBC’s Planet Earth 2, the other half donned waterproofs and headed for the Zodiacs, swapping an hour or two later. The day was fittingly brought to a close by Michael and Susannah’s call to a ‘Barbecue inside’ in deference to the ever-present wind. A great end to a great day!

Day 6: Whaler’s Bay (Deception Island)

Whaler’s Bay (Deception Island)
Date: 24.03.2018
Position: 062°59’ S / 060°34’ W
Wind: W 15 knots
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +1

We were woken up a bit earlier than usual this morning so that we could be out on deck as we approached the notorious Deception Island, one of the three active volcanoes in the world that one can sail into. Neptune's Bellows ho! Far off on the horizon we could see the ominous silhouette signifying the entrance to Deception Island. A fresh dusting of snow had transformed this usually monochrome vista into a textured landscape. Once inside the caldera, the patterns on shore were breath-taking. The gentle undulations of the volcanic remains were powdered with light snow, revealing outlines and forms just as varied and creative as patterns on an iceberg. Old rusted whaling silos complemented the white, red and brown hues of the snow, sand and silt on shore. Deception Island’s last eruption in 1969/70 buried large parts of the whaling infrastructure that was in place when the island was evacuated. Nowadays, the eerie remains are slowly fading into the landscape as they are continually eroded by snow, sand, wind and water. An energetic group followed Toby up to Neptune’s Window, learning how to stand their ground against fur seals on the way. Looking south into the Bransfield Strait, the group strained their eyes to see a distant glimpse of the mountainous spine of the Antarctic Peninsula. Those at the other end of the beach took a hard right after reaching the aircraft hangar, and proceeded up to a perfect vantage point at the base of Ronald Hill. With clear skies and good visibility, the climb up was rewarded with brilliant views across Port Foster. On the water’s edge, we met our first couple of chinstrap penguins … who quickly became probably the most photographed penguins of the entire voyage! Back onboard, a four hour steam to Half Moon Island was next on the agenda. As we reached the rocky turrets the island the wind had picked up considerably with gusts reaching over 40 knots. With the wind speed forecasted to increase even more in the following hours, unfortunately our planned landing had to be cancelled. And just as Antarctica had shown us her beauty and fragility in days prior, it seemed she was farewelling us with a reminder of her might. And so the afternoon progressed. Nina gave a fascinating presentation about Antarctic politics and after securing our cabins for the sea days to come, some of us started to review our many photographs taken on our expedition. Yet we are now part of a privileged group that know that Antarctica is a place that is so much more than can ever be captured in a simple image. And although words are also often inadequate in describing one’s experience of this icy continent, these ones may just resonate in some way: If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it. — Andrew Denton

Day 7: At Sea, Drake Passage Northward

At Sea, Drake Passage Northward
Date: 25.03.2018
Wind: 37 knots
Weather: Overcast morning, clear throughout afternoon
Air Temperature: +4

As we pushed onwards for the journey north to beat the approaching storm, the whispers of high seas did nothing to deter the hardiest on the ship – the birders and students were lining the bridge wing at dawn. The birds trickled in throughout the morning with Cape petrels, black-bellied storm petrels and grey-headed albatrosses, and ultimately after a cold, wet and quiet morning, the birders’ patience was rewarded with a very windy though clear, bright and bird-filled afternoon. Left, right and centre there were shouts of prion and petrel! Several stunning light-mantled sooty albatrosses approached the bow and followed the ship. At one point three albatross species could be seen in one scan with binoculars (black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled)! Tiny diving petrels whirred past in the lee of the ship, while soft-plumaged and Kerguelen petrels wheeled in and out of the head winds in enormous loops at high speed. The audience on deck was thrilled as the Kerguelens hung above the stern in full sunlight – a rare look at this gorgeous slate-grey pelagic bird. For those preferring to stay indoors today there was a jam-packed lecture schedule that was hard to break away from. Sonja gave a fascinating and sobering talk about Southern Ocean exploitation while guest speaker Lars gave a knock-out lecture about his work with elephant seals – they can dive to two kilometres and hold their breath for an hour and a half! Squeezed in between these there was a showing of the hilarious though gripping ‘Rounding of Cape Horn’ in the lounge and head chef Heinz’s superb food laid on for lunch and dinner failed to disappoint yet again. Halfway through our battle northwards we were briefed by Andrew on the advance of the winds and what lay ahead – spurred on by a wonderful day, most of us were looking forward to it…

Day 8: At Sea, Drake Passage Northward

At Sea, Drake Passage Northward
Date: 26.03.2018
Wind: 37 knots
Weather: Clear morning, clouding later in the afternoon
Air Temperature: +5

Most of us arose feeling slightly groggy and bashed around. It had been another rather rocky night, so during breakfast we shared stories of sliding and rolling around in our bunks. Some of the particularly big rolls made our trusty ship Plancius lean to 35 degrees which even impressed the officer on watch on the bridge. Most of us have found our sea legs though. A beautiful sunrise and relatively calm sea opened the day. The keen birders were once again crowded onto the left bridge wing keeping a keen eye out for our feathery friends. When the upper deck was opened the observers poured out grateful for the space and air. The many black-browed and some grey-headed albatross and soft-plumaged petrels did not disappoint, and even a wandering albatross or two made a short appearance much to the delight of those who had missed these mighty birds on the way south. A distant whale blow was spotted from the bridge wing at around mid-morning. After a few more blows this materialised into what became the highlight of the morning for many up top: a sei whale! The tall, falcate dorsal fin of the whale surfacing just a few hundred metres from the ship was a dead giveaway of this mighty and often hard-to-see species. Nina provided our morning on-board education and entertainment with a fascinating talk on 2,000 years of Antarctic history and the quest for the elusive Terra Australis Incognita. After yet another lovely banquet lunch we were treated to a showing of a documentary film about Shackleton’s extraordinary expedition to Antarctica and guest speaker Lars finished the day with a wonderful and incredibly thought-provoking lecture on climate change and the future of sea ice in Antarctica. The birders had the final hurrah though, as the wind picked back up in the evening and a fly-by Atlantic petrel paid a brief visit! An exciting sighting indeed.

Day 9: Staten Island

Staten Island
Date: 27.03.2018
Wind: NW 22 knots
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +12

We had made excellent time in crossing the Drake Passage - and all on board were grateful to have reached the other side! Since we had left a little early to beat an approaching storm with gale-force winds, we had a little extra time to spare. Andrew and Seba had been busily preparing something behind the scenes, and to everyone’s great surprise and delight announced that they had arranged special permission (with the Argentine navy!) to do a ship cruise past the rarely visited Staten Island! With very exciting species to offer both the mammal and the bird lover that we didn’t have a chance of seeing further south, almost everyone was out on deck to soak in the opportunity at first light. The sun rose and already the boat was surrounded by the silhouettes of southern royal and black-browed albatrosses. As Staten Island loomed in front of us, birds filled the air – it was a truly glorious sight. The gorgeous weather continued for the duration of the day, with sunny weather raising us to a balmy 12 degrees Celsius! The pace of things picked up a notch as we spotted South American fur seals lazing on a rocky beach, and even more so when the tall fins of a group of at least seven killer whales broke the surface! The whales surrounded the ship, with some young individuals leaping clear of the water right next to the ship! They appeared to be staying in a current break and so were probably fishing there. They were accompanied by a big group of black-browed albatross and giant petrel looking for scraps. After breaking briefly for a fantastic lunch, everyone was back out in the sunshine, only to be greeted by a group of very playful Peale’s dolphins, jumping right out of the water and bow-riding. After they’d disappeared, the birders spotted a group of Andean condors circling high above the dramatic peaks of the wild-looking island, and even sighted the long-ago-introduced red deer on the island. We were all buzzing with the day’s sightings so far, but the wonderful icing on the cake was the coordinated efforts of Andrew’s keen eyes and the Captain’s superb navigation efforts to put us in a bay overlooking a large rockhopper penguin colony! The sight of the penguins, accompanied by two species of caracara, a red deer stag and a royal albatross flying underneath the whole scene will stay with many of us forever. It was finally time to head across the Lemaire Strait to the entrance of the Beagle Channel, where we toasted our Captain, a fantastic voyage, and everyone on board.

Day 10: Disembarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina

Disembarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina
Date: 28.03.2018
Position: 042°45’ S / 065°01’ W
Wind: ESE 5 knots
Weather: Sunny

We were woken by the last wake-up call from our Expedition Leader Andrew and got ready to disembark for the final time. We didn’t have to turn our tags, there was no Zodiac ride ashore and it was a dry landing. The last ten days have taken us on a remarkable journey from the Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, across the dreaded Drake Passage to Antarctica and allowed us a glimpse of life in these remote and sometimes inhospitable places. We will all have different memories of our trip but whatever the memories, whether it was the many gentoo penguins (and humans!) the stunning Staten Island, or stepping on the continent of Antarctica at Neko, they are memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Total distance sailed on our voyage: Nautical Miles: 1743.7 nm Kilometres: 3229.3 km Your Expedition Team! On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.