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Home → January, 2015

Monthly Archives: January 2015 − News & Stories


Bellingshausen Sea

15th-17th January 2015 – From here on we really start our antarctic Odysseey, the seemingly endless distances around a good part of the continent. Many hundred nautical miles over open sea. The coast remains far away and out of sight, and so does the pack ice. This is how it should be. If we start making endless curves and bends already now, then we will never get anywhere. Time our most precious resource now.

And it is passing quickly. Sometimes with a breeze, sometimes without, but it is generally with quite calm seas these first days across the Bellingshausen Sea are going by. When the wind is blowing, many like to be out on the open deck, because then many of the beautiful Cape Petrels are gliding around the ship, in seemingly endless numbers. It is probably a limited number of individuals that are always coming back in circles, visiting the ship every couple of minutes, but it must still be some hundreds of them. Sometimes, they will sit on the water for a moment, dip their head into the waves and then take off again with a few running steps on the water, the maneouvre that has given the petrels their common name, after St. Peter from the bible, who also tried to walk over water, slightly less successful than his boss. In contrast to St. Peter, the petrels don’t sink into the water, but are soon flying up in the skies again, with some more krill in the s tomach. I have never seen krill in the stomach from a moving ship. If I was depending on finding krill, I would long have starved to death. But what looks like a desert of water to us, is a rich table for these seabirds.

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The super-remote island of Peter I remains hidden behind clouds and waves. We spend a few hours near this now almost invisible island. Once, we put a zodiac on the water to find out what we actually already know: the sea is too rough for us to board the zodiacs. Every few seconds the platform of the gangway is either hangin high above the water or disappears inside a wave. From the boat you can see what it is really like, it looks less dramatic from deck. This does simply not work, not today, not in these conditions. So we wave goodbye to this lonesome, desolate island and continue our journey westwards. We can’t do anything against wind and ice, human desire is nothing against the forces of nature. This can occasionally be disappointing and difficult to accept.

Crystal Sound

The well-known sounds and islands of the central Antarctic Peninsula, where we almost always know a sheltered place somewhere behind a corner, is now behind us, and we are heading into the more unknown. Well, not really unknown, but much less of a well-trodden path than we have been on so far. More difficult terrain at the same time: more open, less sheltered, more ice, no small bays giving protection, longer distances.

It became clear quite early on that the Fish Islands didn’t want us. At least early enough so we did not have to set the alarm clocks for 4 a.m. A second attempt during the later morning came to an end once we had reached a massive array of huge icebergs, guarding the Fish Iclands like giant ice demons. They clearly did not have any intention of letting us through, so we sneaked out again to try our luck elsewhere. The Fish Islands are just a number of small skerries, just big enough to support a population of Adélie penguins and Blue-eyed shags. We would find another interesting spot for us elsewhere.

Detaille Island was to be the next destination, but first of all we had to cross the magical line that separates high latitudes from even higher latitudes: the south polar circle. You can cross its northern equivalent conveniently by train, bicycle, car or bus, or in a plane, without getting to know about it. Here in the south, the club of those who have crossed the line is far more exclusive. That was clearly something that had to be celebrated duly, and our fearless leader Don had very distinctive ideas of how this was to be done. Maybe an old ritual from New Zealand? Who knows. Anyway, some of us looked like Maori chiefs after having completed the procedures duly. Well, almost.

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Again, nature had set her mighty ice guardians between us and the promised land. Not as gigantic as earlier today, but more than enough icebergs, bergy bits and sea ice floes to keep us from reaching Detaille Island and its historical hut. So we went into the Zodiacs and out into the ice and enjoyed it greatly. Blue colours of all shades, bizarre shapes, Crabeater seals resting on ice. A fine farewell to the Antarctic Peninsula. Then, we went out into the Bellingshausen Sea, heading for Peter I Island.

Petermann Island

The Lemaire Channel ist amongst the most famous bits of Antarctica. Thousands of tourists cruise every southern summer through this unreal waterway, a jawdropping experience. The Antarctic Peninsula to the left and Booth Island to the right. Mountains almost a thousand metres high and some quite impressiv glaciers to either side. The Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache, together with a young Roald Amundsen, was amongst the first who described the Lemaire Channel as a place that could make a visitor shiver in awe. That was in early 1898.

The actual passage is a few hundred metres narrow and from a distance one may wonder if there is actually a passage at all, and indeed, it can be blocked by drifting ice. There was a lot of ice, but far from being too much to keep us from passing through. Crabeater and Leopard seals were watching as Ortelius was winding her way through between the bergy bits and icebergs.

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Most ships pass twice through the Lemaire Channel, once on the way south and then back again on the return journey. We don’t turn around, we rather keep going further south. Petermann Island, a common furthest south, is for us just a stepping stone on the way to the south polar circle. We were a bit worried that the small rocky landing bay might be blocked by brash ice, but were delighted to find the coast clear. I was to have the pleasant task of guarding the southern end of the island for a while, which was visited by nobody. Understandably so, as the main attraction, a colony of Adelie penguins, a new species for us on this trip, is on the northern end, a few hundred metres away. So I spent an enjoyable while sitting on a rock, a little island in a sea of deep snow, with breeding Gentoo penguins as my nearest neighbours, which are busy stealing stones from each others nests and feeding their offspring. They are breeding around a wooden cross that commemorates 3 British scientists who got lost in sea ice in the vicinity of Petermann Island a while ago. I don’t think anybody knows if they got lost on an ice floe that drifted away or if they broke through thin ice. Their bodies were never found. Even the penguins seem to bend their heads in front of the cross.

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Gentoo penguins are near their southern distribution limit here on Petermann Island. This part of the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, between 64 and 65 degrees south, is sometimes called the banana coast of Antarctica, as it is supposedly mild. Nothing is really mild here, it is a wild landscape of barren, mostly steep rocks and a lot of snow and ice, but on a fairweather day like today, it feels indeed warm.

Mild or not, we leave this coast behind us and set course for colder parts of Antarctica.

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Paradise Bay

Paradise Bay (actually Paradise Harbour) is a classic in the Antarctic Peninsula, everbodies favourite. The grand scenery of coastal Antarctica is culminating here with vertical rockwalls almost 1000 m high, separated by mighty and heavily crevassed glaciers pushing down to the icy sea, producing mighty icebergs with an impressive rumble. Complete this with the occasional Weddell seal relaxing on piece of ice and a short glimpse of a Minke whale, and you have got all you need for a 3 hour Zodiac cruise.

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Now we are on our way towards the Lemaire Channel and Petermann Island. The Lemaire was recently blocked by ice, so we are curious if we can get through today.

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Deception Island

It is part of a polar traveller’s life to return to the same place again and again. Of course there are those places where you are getting blown by the wind only once in a lifetime. Others are routine. Most are something inbetween. And occasionally, as I have to admit, there are those places I could well do without, at least sometimes.

Deception Island is amongst the letter. The island has got its name for good – or rather: bad – reason. Who cares that nobody really knows anymore what that reason was. Anyway, too often you feel deceived for the precious time after a visit there. But everybody knows this famous island and almost everybody wants to go there.

Not so today. Already the approach was an antarctic delight, a light breeze under a bright sun, the rim of the caldera of Deception Island ahead of us in full width. The entrance, known as Neptune’s Bellows, is such a thing in itself. It is quite narrow, and to make bad things worse, mother nature placed a rock in the middle of it, probably in a moment of bad temper. This rock has cost some ships more than just a scratch of paint.

The Norwegian whalers used to be tough people. Put a whaling station there, on a plain of black volcanic sand. Those who think that it is generally calm inside this seemingly well-sheltered natural harbour will soon be disappointed (decepted, isn’t it?), and I don’t want to know what it was like to spend the day up to the waist in whaleblood and –oil, in almost constant wind, cold and a natural sand blower.

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Little is left of all this, or of a station that was built here later by the British. Volcanic eruptions that went together with ashfalls and meltwater torrents turned it all into splinters.

On a normal day, which means in windy, cold, grey weather, most will be done rather quickly here and happily be back on board sooner rather than later. But life is good here on a rare sunny day. Of course, I am supposed to enjoy it in any kind of weather and always to capture some good pics, but … nothing, it is simply less fun in bad weather. Period. But today, there are so many larger objects and small details that catch the eye and the photographer’s attention. The combination of decaying buildings, rusting early 20th century industrial remains and antarctic nature in a volcanic setting is indeed unique. Starting with colourful volcanic rocks lying on black ashes to lonely patches of mosses and the old airplane hangar (it took ages and almost burying the camera in the ashes to get that photo right) to the few remaing graves (dito).

Considering that the earlier described visit to Halfmoon Island was actually also today, you will agree that it was a great day.

Halfmoon Island

Hooray – Land! We have been at sea for just two days, very calm days, nothing compared to the long legs that are to come later in the trip. But it is always great to arrive somewhere. „Somewhere“ is th South Shetland Islands in this case, a group of islands off the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, neighbouring the Drake Passage. As you might imagine, the weather is usually sh … here, and optimism was limited last night as I went to bed and the islands were mostly hidden behind curtains of snow.

And indeed, the wind was a bit adverse when we approached Halfmoon Island in the middle of the night, so Captain decided to drop anchor not in the usual by of the island that bears its name for a reason, but behind it – the dark side of the moon, as one might say. Turned out it wasn’t the greatest position for our Zodiac operations when we started: a longish ride into the waves, and my colleague Dima and I spent quite some time in (moderate) surf, handling Zodiacs while we were getting everybody ashore. At 5 a.m., as shouldn’t go unnoticed. Well, sleep is generally overrated, and so is breakfast. But who cares about sleeping and eating when you can spend the early morning walking around on an antarctic island in the vicinity of Chinstrap penguins? They are the loudest, dirtiest, liveliest and baddest-tempered amongst the antarctic penguins. Amazing creatures, like all the wildlife down here. Very entertaining!

And a lonely Maccaroni penguin in the middle of one of the colonies. Whatever he was doing there, he must have been feeling like a horse in the middle of a herd of cows, but he did appearently not mind, as he was standing there happily with his big, red beak and his lovely yellow-golden haircut. Good for us, as we are unlikely to see this species again on our trip, and we would certainly have missed something we we hadn’t seen this peculiar, rather sub-antarctic penguin. All this with the grand scenery of the islands of Livingston and Greenwich in the background. Hard to leave … but then there were rumours about breakfast on the ship, something that came as the icing on the cake of a great early morning. Don’t believe anyone who pretends breakfast isn’t important.

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On the rare occasions when Livingston Island is stripping off its usual cloud cover, it is just great. A few small clouds for decoration purposes near some of the higher peaks, mostly blue skies over Bransfield Strait, warming sunrays on the skin and the blow of Humpback whales quite regularly not too far from the ship. A mother with calf, swimming their way in a relaxed manner, hardly taking notice from us. Unforgettable hours!

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Drake Passage

10th-11th January 2015 – God has put the Drake Passage between Antarctica and the rest of the world, and this seaway has got its bad reputation for good reason. But it is not at all living up to its reputation now, you hardly feel that you are on a ship, to our great satisfaction. You could play billard, something which is not usually associated with ships at sea. No reason to complain, in other words. Those who wanted to could even get sunburnt on deck yesterday, while there were relatively few birds around the ship. They are more numerous today: Wandering albatrosses of different age stages, as the plumage makes clear: the brownish ones are juveniles, while the mostly white ones are fully adult. In addition to that, there is a nice cross section of typical species for the area around the ship, including the small Wilson’s storm petrel with its very lively flight, the beautifully patterned Cape petrel, the occasional White-chinned petrel and the majestic Wandering albatross at most times. Many of us are out on deck, enjoying the Southern Ocean and its inhabitants, trying to capture them on memory card. Call yourself happy if you have got a fast camera J

It is noticeably colder now, during the second day of our crossing, the cold is making itself felt through thin clothes, and the visibility is occasionally decreased by snow showers. Antarctica is clearly getting closer. Meanwhile, we can see the first whales, a group of 7-8 Fin whales, swimming above a 3,000 m water column.

You wouldn’t expect to be forced to do some vacuum cleaning on an antarctic expedition. But you are. Taking unwanted organic matter to Antarctica, such as plant seeds which might introduce new species to this remote environment or bacteria or viruses that could bring diseases to the wildlife there, has to be prevented by all means. What means some minutes of cleaning work weighed against the risk of bringing „aliens to Antarctica“.

Unnecessary to mention that these sea days are broken up by regular lectures, introducing the „birds of the wind“ or the whales of the Southern Ocean and of course mandatory events including environmentally friendly behaviour in Antarctica.

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Snow showers are getting more frequent in the afternoon, while we are doing the vacuuming session. Cape petrels are around the ship in numbers, and a beautiful and elegant Light-mantled sooty albatross is making wide circles around us, coming near every couple of minutes, while the excitement on board is rising with every mile that we are getting closer to the South Shetland Islands.

Ushuaia & Beagle Channel

Unbelievable how much 152 people are supposed to eat within 31 days. Well beyond a dozen of us needed an intense couple of hours to carry all those boxes with things from frozen fish to big melons up the gangway and down the stairs into the various freezers and holds. Which seems to be as efficient as loading a coal freighter with buckets. But good to keep us fit! And good to see that all the fish boxes have got the MSC stamp which is supposed to guarantee sustainable fishing. Good thing.

We would have been faster if Argentine customs had not taken hours to stamp the papers for the last few boxes of vegetables. And at the same time, fuel bunkering was going on. Smoking on and near the ship is obviously strictly forbidden then. Funny to watch Argentine official relaxing with a cigarette while leaning against the fuel pump. I guess the diesel knows it’s officials who are smoking so it doesn’t incinerate.

There isn’t much left before we really start, so I refrain from my usual last walk to one of Ushuaia’s many lovely cafés and rather get organized in the cabin that I will share with Dmitri („Dima“), a fellow team member, Russian marine biologist who lives in Seattle and Japan. Think about that. But within the context of this staff team, it even isn’t too unusual, there are many great characters and extremely experienced people, a good gang. People like Don MacFadzien, our fearless expedition leader, who does probably not even know anymore how many times he has been to the Ross Sea. Or Jim Mayer, who used to work for the British Antarctic Survey, blowing things up in Antarctica. Then he decided that was too much noise and joined the tourist industry. Well known names in these latitudes.

We spend the afternoon with the usual hectic of the first day, welcoming 93 passengers, putting them and their luggage into their cabins, going through the mandatory lifeboat drill – may we never do it again! – and having a toast with our Chilean Captain Ernesto Barría, another well-known character on this ship in the Arctic and Antarctic. At the same time, the Beagle Channel is gliding past us in slight drizzle. We drop anchor for a while at Puerto Williams to get the 3 Chilean helicopters on board (yes, 3, last time we had only 2, but we are also more people now). Good to see friends amongst the helicopter crews, very experienced people also on this side of the operation.

Ushuaia

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I hav heard that it was Lao Tse who said that, and he was quite right. In this case, however, the first step is actually not small at all. It is a number of flight miles that I don’t really want to think about. Many hours of sitting and tiredness, a short drive through Buenos Aires, almost 30 degrees warmth at the Rio de La Plata, then another flight of several hours over the Argentine Pampa until suddenly mountains are rising steeply, hiding the Beagle Channel between them. On its shore, there is Ushuaia. Her inhabitants call their town the southernmost one in the world, which is quite true. Another nickname they give to their homeplace is El fin del mundo, the end of the world. For us, it is not the end. This is where we are actually starting.

In high latitudes – in the southern hemisphere, everything south of 50 degrees qualifies – people always seem to be afraid of cold. I can’t think of any other reason why one would heat his house up to temperatures that remind me of a Finnish sauna. Inside, it is hardly less warm than at the Rio de la Plata. There is no way to turn the heating down, there is only a window that I can open. You can’t blame them for being overefficient in terms of energy saving.

The later, the more lively it is on San Martin, the main road. A street musician and a juggler are making for a relaxed southern atmosphere, while tourists are walking up and down the steep roards. Some final shopping, and then it is time for the last night on a matress that isn’t moving for a couple of weeks.

Antarctic blog ready to go in time

While Rolf is heading torwards Antarctica and will soon send his first impressions, the webmaster of  Antarktis.net was hard-working too. Soon we will be able to provide an Antarctic blog for those interested in Rolf’s adventures in the far south. Have a look at the Arctic blog written in summer to get some impressions of Rolf’s reports. Hopefully the first posting will be published already this weekend.


If you want to follow the Antarctic blog during the next four weeks, please bookmark
https://www.antarctic.eu/triplogs-photo-galleries/antarctic-blog.html

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