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Yearly Archives: 2015 − Travelblog


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.

d2_ice-flight_23Jan15_071

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).

c9_Ross-Seal_22Jan15_056

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.

c7_Amundsen-Sea_21Jan15_29

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).

c6_Amundsen-Sea_21Jan15_14

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.

Eiskarte_19Jan2015

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.

b9_Amundsen-Sea_17Jan15_68

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.

b6_Bellingshausen-Sea_15Jan15_27

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.

b5_Crystal-Sound_14Jan15_08

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.

b3_Petermann-Island_13Jan15_093

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.

b1_Paradise-Bay_13Jan15_278

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.

b1_Paradise-Bay_13Jan15_183

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.

a9_Deception-Island_13Jan15_363

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.

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