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Yearly Archives: 2015 − News & Stories


Kap Evans

Cape Evans, sacred ground of antarctic history and a stunningly beautiful place in this kind of weather. Base of Scott’s last expedition, with the Terra Nova. The cross is a memorial to Spencer-Smith, Haywood and Mackintosh. Now I am sure you have all done your antarctic homework so you will know during which expedition these 3 men were here and died ..? Yes, it was of course during the Aurora-expedition, the logistical counterpiece of Shackleton’s Endurance-expedition. It isn’t quite true when it is said that Sir Ernest always brought all of his men back home alive.

The main focus of attention was, of course, the famous hut of Scott’s last expedition. A time machine that takes you a century back into the heroic days of antarctic exploration. The smell of seal blubber and hay for the ponies is still in the air. The hut seems to be ready to welcome the explorers back at any time, who are just outside and may be for some time. A sacred place.

Mount Erebus is towering behind the hut in all its splendor today, great views over the barren hills of black volcanic rocks at Cape Evans. There is still fast ice to the south, icebergs frozen in between islands: Inaccessible Island and Razorback Islands, all of them important landmarks for Scott and his men. And of course for Shackleton during the Nimrod days (1907-09).

Memorial cross for the 3 men who died during the Aurora expedition, Shackleton's Ross Sea party

Mount Erebus

Talking about Mount Erebus … 🙂
 
 
 

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Cape Crozier

The day could have had a very early start with a Zodiac cruise at Cape Crozier, where the Ross Ice Shelf meets Ross Island. But the wind was screaming around the ship, zodiacs were not even a remote option. Nevertheless it was interesting to have seen the famous cape, even from a distance. Next to the scenic and animalistic impressions, it is the „Worst journey in the World“ (splendidly narrated by Apsley Cherry-Garrard) which made Cape Crozier famous. I have to summarize this wild story in a few sentences, but not now. Now I have to watch out. Mount Erebus should come into view soon, and the Transantarctic Mountains are already on the horizon. We are heading for Cape Royds and Cape Evans now. Fingers crossed that it will work out well.

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Ross Ice Shelf

Too soon after the opportunity seemed to have come yesterday afternoon to admire the Ross Ice Shelf from the helicopter perspective, the weather window closed again, way before everybody had had the pleasure. Which can stretch the nerves a bit. It is too easy to forget that safety comes first. Few would question that from a distance.

But today, the famous ice shelf presented itself in a most pleasant way, in the sunshine and with a few decorative clouds, so we could complete our flightseeing in the best conditions. And it was worth it!

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It is good and important to have started our activities in the Ross Sea now. Cabin fever had started to make itself felt here and there.

Bay of Whales

The ice conditions over the last bit have been seemingly paradox, but are actually quite normal: quite a stretch of open water between the sea ice further north and the Ross Ice Shelf, which is where we are now. So we could make good speed of about 11 knots, until the „great barrier“ came into view this morning, the foresaid ice shelf, an endless wall of ice of a height of 40-50 meters. The Ross Ice Shelf is one of the most remarkable places on Earth, it does not really compare to anything else, other than the other antarctic ice shelfs, but how often do you get to see them ..? I will leave it up to James Clark Ross to give a description of the Ross Ice Shelf, as he discovered it on 28th January 1841:

„As we approached the land (Ross Island) under all studding-sails, we perceived a low white line extending from its eastern extreme point as far as the eye could discern to the eastward. It presented an extraordinary appearance, gradually increasing in height, as we got nearer to it, and proving at length to be a perpendicular cliff of ice, between one hundred and fifty and two hundred feet above the level of the sea, perfectly flat and level at the top, and without any fissures or promontories on its even seaward face. What was beyond it we could not imagine; … Meeting with such an obstruction was a great disappointment to us all, for we had already, in expectation, passed far beyond the eightieth degree, and had even appointed a rendezvous there, in case of the ships accidentally separating. It was, however, an obstruction of such a character as to leave no doubt upon my mind as to our future proceedings, for we might with equal chance of success try to sail through the Cliffs of Dover, as penetrate such a mass.“

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Carsten Borchgrevink was the second one to visit the Ross Ice Shelf after Ross. He landed on a lower part in early 1900, after his wintering at Cape Adare, and noticed that the ice cliff had shifted its position 30 miles to the south. A day’s hike took Borchgrevink to 78°50’S, which was a furthest south that lasted until December 1902.

In 1911, Amundsen landed on the Ice Shelf in the Bay of Whales, a wide embayment at 164°W, and put Framheim up, the wintering base. Framheim was at 78°30’S. We have now been at 78°32,5’S/164°54’W, which is 11 miles west of Amundsen’s Framheim, but, what is more interesting, 2.5 miles further south – and we were obviously still at sea, still a mile or so to the ice shelf. Today, Amundsen would have built Framheim several miles closer to the pole. He would certainly have liked that. This is not much of a retreat considering more than a century has gone since then. It is said that the part of the ice shelf where Framheim was standing broke off and drifted out into the ocean in 1928.

Snow showers were threatening to take the visibility, so a helicopter landing on the shelf ice as Don had planned was cancelled, so we are now sailing with a westerly course, towards Ross Island (Mount Erebus) and McMurdo Sound, eagerly awaiting what the next days may bring.

Ice

The Antarctic is living up to its reputation of being a continent of ice this year. Well, it does not exactly come as a big surprise that the seas around Antarctica have ice. But it is indeed a heavy ice year, and it would be nice if the ice charts were a little bit more precise and reliable. We are now in the northeastern Ross Sea, 250 nautical miles northeast of the Bay of Whales, and according to the satellite-derived ice chart we should have mostly open water here. But one drift ice field is followed by the next one, and even though the average ice cover is no more than 2/10 to 4/10, we do have dense fields with larger, stronger floes quite regularly and need to maneouvre around them or carefully break through them. Not only is this a lot of hard work for the Captain (I don’t think he has left the bridge at all last night) and his guys, but it also slows us down considerably.

Yesterday evening, a snow shower decreased the visibility to almost zero, and when the curtain went up again, the ice was pretty dense in most directions. A first helicopter ice recce flight covered 60 miles (nautical) in our general southwesterly direction, achieving information about a navigable route, but not discovering generally open water. We are eagerly awaiting the further development.

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But the way is the goal (does that translate ..?). The wonderful world of the ice, including smaller tabular bergs every here and there, was lying around the ship last night, in the soft light of the antarctic midnight sun. Emperor penguins on the ice every now and then. The amazing beauty of the coldest end of the world.

The Ross seal

I might just write one sentence this time: we have seen a Ross seal. But some more sentences may be necessary to explain why this comes pretty close to a real jackpot.

If you travel to Spitsbergen, you will most likely want to see a polar bear. That is easy. Only those who really have done their homework might say: I’d rather see an Ivory gull or a Grey phalarope. That is a bit less easy.

This here is similar. If you take a trip to Antarctica, most likely you want to see penguins. And of course I don’t want to put down a lovely encounter with a curious Gentoo penguin, an experience that has made countless visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula smile for more than just a short moment. Or the Albatross, about which Robert Cushman Murphy said „I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross“. That may be taking it just a little bit too far, but an exposure to such an amazing creature may actually make you feel that way.

The rarest animal in Antarctica is the Ross seal. After dozens of trips down here through 14 years, including the Ross Sea trip 2 years ago, I have now seen my first Ross seal today. And this includes of course everybody on board, also most of my colleagues, who all have countless antarctic seasons behind them. I believe that Don, our fearless expedition leader, came to Antarctica for the first time with Mawson. It is a while ago. And even he doubled his number of Ross seal experiences with that sighting.

A very rough estimate of the „global“ population is something near 130,000. That is not much. That is, actually, very little, considering the immense areas this population of a middle-sized city is spread over. Theoretically, you can find them everywhere around Antarctica, even on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. But I don’t know anyone who has ever actually seen one there. The Ross sea, that sounds like the Ross seal, you will either see it here or not at all. To find this treasured species, you will have to take this long, long trip down here. And when our Ross seal then finally slid past the ship on his ice floe, probably happy to be on his own again, everybody had a wide smile and more than one mentioned to me that this trip is now already a success. Well, of course we are looking forward to more, whatever the next days will bring, but this is definitely a very significant entry in the log.

By the way, the sighting of both the first Emperor penguin and the Ross seal have to be credited to Nick, a sharp-eyed fellow passenger from the Netherlands. Well done! (I feel I should add that we guides were busy with the dry-run of the helicopter operations).

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The Ross seal is the smallest of all antarctic seals, and quite peculiar with regards to its body shape with the unproportionally strong neck and the stripes in on the same part of its body. It is easy to distinguish, as soon as you have got a reasonable view of it. And nobody needed binoculars anymore when the ship was near her (his?) little ice floe.

Emperor

Of course you are not coming without hopes and wishes on a big trip like this. And of course it will be safe to say that a number of these wishes are shared by all of us here. Anyone here who does not want to see an Emperor penguin? Unlikely. Clearly, both chances and excitements were rising as soon as we had the first bits of drift ice in view. Binoculars are currently in frequent use here.

Yesterday evening then the big moment – the first of several! – some in the bar, others in the cinema, but some tireless observers on the bridge. Only moments later, all of us out on the open deck, in the cold wind, to admire the Emperor in his very realm. A lonely, juvenile Emperor, the yellow on the sides of his neck not yet really yellow, rather whitish-greyish, standing there on his little ice floe.

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Always great to see how such a precious moment lifts the spirits immediately.

Ice

After a lot of consideration, the (preliminary) decision has been made to set a southwesterly course, directly into the Ross Sea. The ice seems to have opened up along that route in the last couple of days, so it is worth a try. Nobody can know what will actually happen, it is really quite exciting now, truly expedition style. The Ross Sea is a challenge this year. It will be very interesting to hear what the Spirit of Enderby will encounter, they are now sailing south in the western Ross Sea, along the traditional route near the 180th degree of longitude. Ideally, that could become our exit route. Into the ice is one thing. Out again another. We would quite like to get out of it again, not just eventually, but at a given time. We are not the Fram (no, I am not thinking of Hurtigruten now). A shame, actually … but we have all booked our flights back home from New Zealand.

Maybe we are getting in the area of the Bay of Whales in some days. This is where Amundsen went alongside the shelf ice edge more than 100 years ago, built his hut Framheim and went straight to the south pole after the winter, a few weeks before Scott went there as well. Framheim was on the schelf ice and does of course not exist anymore, but how great would it be to get there anyway? Maybe. We shall see, we shall see … (as Amundsen said).

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Many small, open drift ice fields today, smaller tabular icebergs every here and there, with a lot of open water. Very good, we are making good progress now. And dozens of Snow petrels – animals that are well symbolizing Antarctica, as the Emperor penguin. Less famous, but some birdwatchers would give a lot to see just one Snow petrel. And we have had dozens around the ship today, several times.

Ice

We have been keeping an eye on the ice chart for days with quite some excitiment. What appears like some colourful square centimetres on paper is hundreds of miles of drift ice in real life, covering much of the Ross Sea. Yellow is not vitamin-rich lemon, but half open water. Purple is not blueberry, but a very dense pack ice cover, tougher than a cherry stone and absolutely inedible.

In the arctic, the sea ice is shrinking rapidly. In the Antarctic, it is breaking records. There is a lot of ice in the Ross Sea this year.

The ice is the focus of everybodies attention here on Ortelius. We are all regularly examining the icechart, following the development, discussing what all the colours may mean for us. The degree of experience that goes into these discussions is variable, and so is the patience that Shackleton identified as a polar traveller’s most important quality. These ice charts are always rough and sometimes amazingly misleading, and even the satellites don’t know what will happen over the next days.

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Talking about Shackleton. It was on 20th January 1914 that the Endurance got stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea. That is 100 years ago today.

So we are eagerly awaiting the development over the next days. The first ice floes are drifting around the ship. A beautiful view in the sunshine.

Amundsen Sea

18th-20th January 2015 – As Shackleton said, the most important character feature for every polar explorer is patience. Now we are not talking about spending a long antarctic winter together in a little hut, squeezed around a far too small table with permanent darkness and long blizzards outside. But some days at sea are enough to make the inner clock turn a bit slower. Some may have difficulties with it, but I think, most of us are actually enjoying it. At home we are always on to something, always online, 24/7 workloads, permanent stress. How often do you have the luxury to watch waves for hours on end, waiting for the occasional Cape or Giant storm petrel – they have become a bit rare these days – passing by? One of these days, even a mighty Wandering albatross was seen during the early morning hours. Far south of the convergence, but there is no way too long for these eternal riders of the southern winds.

Still, every day is different. One day, the wind was strong enough to be disagreeable for some, one day was grey, the outside world hidden behind a curtain of snow. One day, it was after leaving Peter I Island, we had pods of Orcas several times, and today early morning, there were Minke whale backs breaking through the waves, catching some rays of the rising sun.

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Of course we are having a series of lectures and films. Michael has explained the various subtypes of Orcas, and Victoria is telling the stories from the earlier years of exploration. Stories? Heroic adventures! These are only a few examples, we have got quite a range of stuff between us. But I have to rave on a little bit about Victoria Salem’s history talks. They should become a TV series. I am not a TV junkie, but I would turn it on. High frequency rhetorical artistry, every seemingly casual sentence a punch line with high-grade history flavour. 40 minutes that feel like at least one well-researched history book. Looking forward to more 🙂

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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