09th-10th February 2015 – The journey came to an end a week ago, but we have to have a final blog entry. We can’t just leave good Ortelius somewhere near Campbell Island.
On 09th February, the gently rolling hills of Stewart Island came into view, on the horizon first, then slowly coming closer, to everybodies delight. That was obviously a signal for the Albatrosses to say goodbye to us during that day. By the way, White-capped albatrosses had been amongst our faithful attendants for sometime. Admittedly, I had initially believed they were juvenile Campbell albatrosses. But now, they are fully grown, beautiful representatives of a species that I had never seen before, or more likely, that I had not knowingly seen before. Splendid!
The end of a big journey is usually rather profane. Passports need to be stamped (took surprisingly long), luggage to be moved from ship to shore (went rather quickly), hands are shaken (not enough time) and then a seemingly endless number of food items is carried down into the ship (took far too much time). Then, relaxed moments in a café, claiming to be the most southern outpost of its globally known owner company, in Invercargill (a one-horse town … sorry, did not want to offend anyone) and in a pub in Bluff (compared to which, Invercargill is a metropolis) with my good fellow colleagues. A day later, the beginning of a long series of 6 flights half way around the planet.
Meanwhile, Ortelius is on her way again, now already well on her way back into the Ross Sea. On the way south, Campbell Island was far more friendly than a few days before, when we were there on our way north, as far as I have heard. Well, good luck to the ship and all on board, have a safe, great journey into the Ross Sea and beyond!
That’s it with my antarctic blog for the moment. Not too long before I will continue in the arctic. But before we get that far, have a look at the triplog and the comprehensive photo galleries from this Ross Sea voyage, the antarctic odyssey, semi-circumnavigation. Advanced Antarctica. And during the weeks to come, I will obviously update the antarctic panorama collection on this website. I started the polar panorama photo pilgrimage 2 years ago in the Ross Sea. Looking back, I think I have used these 2 years for good benefit. It will be well worthwhile to have a look at the Ross Sea panoramas photos soon. So have a look. After the trip is before the trip.
In case the headline reminds you of the previous blog entry, there is a reason for that. It is just how the area is. Our early morning attempts to land on Campbell Island were doomed by winds of 40-50 knots, it was not even possible to keep the ship longer in Perseverance Harbour than just a few moments, let alone drop anchor or even zodiacs. The bay provides shelter from the westerly swell, but channels the wind, making it even stronger than it is outside.
Considering near windy 30 hours spent off Campbell Island, time running out and a forecast not giving much reason to be optimistic, there is not much choice but taking off, back to the high seas, and setting course for Bluff, our next and last stop, in New Zealand. Campbell Island was not meant to be, or, as a fellow traveller put it so nicely: it is the privilege of an island to say ‘no’.
The following day at sea was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Rocks on the road. But those who live here don’t use cars or bicycles, and they don’t walk. Nature has equipped them with the most elegant and efficient wings and they glide without effort sharply over waves that keep some of us from enjoying their breakfast. More than a dozen Royal albatrosses keep circling around the ship, approaching every couple of minutes to the delight of those who stay outside as if they were glued to the deck. Regularly, eyes and cameras go up, when the large royals of the winds and their smaller relatives (subjects?) come near, as little lunar objects around our little planet, the ship Ortelius, seemingly following Kepler’s laws.
For a few precious moments, we even have the pleasure to enjoy this with the golden sun disappearing behind some low clouds in the evening.
The Southern Ocean – that sounds like some warm, quiet islands with beaches and palm trees. But that is the roaring forties, the furious fifties and the screaming sixties. They keep living up to their bad reputation today. That is quite a spectacle in itself, and of course there was no serious thought about any zodiac cruising along Campbell Island’s wild cliff coasts, searching for Yellow eyed and Eastern Rockhopper penguins, various Albatrosses, Sea lions and so on, not to mention going ashore. Well, if we can’t get to them, maybe they will come to us. And they do! Dozens of Albatrosses around the ship, and some patience is rewarded by sightings of Yellow-eyed penguins plunging in the water near the ship. Brief sightings, but … sightings! The odd Sea lion jumping out of the waves. Have I ever seen this many Great Albatrosses in one place? I am quite sure I haven’t. Southern Royals, all of them, as far as I can tell. And all the smaller o nes, Campbell albatross, plenty of Light-mantled sooties … the whole lot.
The windmeter is almost equally interesting. A steady 40-50 knots for a start, and then the gusts. The strongest one I have seen was 84 knots, that is a good 150 km/h. Wind force 12 on the Beaufort scale starts at 64 knots. Force 12 is the last once, called hurricane. 84 knots.
Fingers crossed for tomorrow morning. If it is getting a bit (a good bit, that is) calmer, then we’ll go ashore on Campbell Island shortly after sunrise. That would, of course, be the icing on the cake.
04th-5th February 2015 – It was clear that the nice weather was not going to last forever. We still can’t complain. We have got southerly to southwesterly winds, so it does not slow us down too much. Time is key. But now we do feel that we are actually on a ship. Some are enthusiastic for the wild ocean and the big waves, others less so.
If you put on some warm clothes and spend some time outside – the aft deck on level 4 is decidedly the best place to watch and photograph birds, that is where the community meets – you will get a lot. We are back to the Albatros latitudes, the furious fifties, which are now living up to their good reputation. Buller’s albatros, Wandering albatros, Southern royal albatros, Campbell albatros, Light-mantled sooty albatros, did I forget one? And of course, all the prions, the ever-present Cape petrels, Soft-plumaged petrel, Mottled petrel, shearwaters … there is a lot around. Lucky who gets a sharp photo of a prion.
02nd-03rd February 2015 – We need one day to get through the pack ice north of Cape Adare, which turns out to be fairly unproblematic. Compare it to the 43 days that the Antarctic needed in 1895 to get through to Cape Adare, coming from the north … I know, it is not fair to compare the Antarctic in 1895 and the Ortelius 120 years later. Captain Kristensen had no ice chart, no steel hull and no 3200 kW in his engine room. But it is good to keep those 43 in mind to understand the environment we are in.
The weather Gods are in good mood. It is calm and sunny, a real cruise across the Southern Ocean, we are standing on deck, holding a cup of hot chocolate, camera hanging over the shoulder. Life isn’t too bad like this. See how long it will last.
Cape Adare is the point where the Ross Sea coast becomes the coast of East Antarctica. A high rocky peninsula sticking out into the Southern Ocean. You will expect that such an obstacle will catch any winds, clouds and drift ice fields in the area, and there is a lot of all of this.
Accordingly, you have to be ready for everything when you are getting near Cape Adare. Hope the best, be prepared for the worst, this has always been the way of thinking for polar travellers, at least those who knew something about the environment they were about to visit, and this has not changed until today.
Admittedly, I had nevertheless high hopes for a successful landing at Cape Adare when it became visible on the horizon. One of the big, historically well-known placenames in Antarctica, the geographical guard watching over this entry into the Ross Sea, discovered January 11, 1841, and even this old reptile, one of the finest mariners of his times, did not get ashore: „ … the wind being on the shore, and a high sea beating heavily along the pack edge, we found it quite impracticable.“ But he did certainly like the scenery: „It is a remarkable projection of high, dark, probably volcanic, cliffs, and forms a strong contrast to the rest of the snow-covered coast. … It was a beautifully clear evening, and we had a most enchanting view of the two magnificent ranges of mountains, whose lofty peaks, perfectly covered with eternal snow, rose to elevations varying from seven to ten thousand feet above the level of the ocean. The glaciers that filled their intervening valleys, and which descended from near the mountain summits, projected in many places several miles into the sea, and terminated in lofty perpendicular cliffs. In a few places the rocks broke through their icy covering, by which alone we could be assured that land formed the nucleus of this, to appearance, enormous iceberg.“
How incredible it was for us when even the morning’s gentle breeze calmed down while we were approaching the famous headland – under a brilliantly blue sky. None of those few whom I know and who have been there will ever believe that. Just a dense belt of drift ice between Ortelius and the dark cliffs, so we’ll get the helicopters out. If good old Ross had seen that!
The shore of Cape Adare consists of inaccessible steep cliffs, and the actual landing site is a little, flat peninsula on its western side. A triangle of dark gravel, of volcanic origin and piled up to a series of beach ridges by the everlasting surf, with some small, long lagoons between them. The white-blue icebergs and densely packed ice floes, all swimming in darkblue, calm water, are a view of unearthly beauty from the air, from where we could also already see the immense number of penguins crowding most parts of the peninsula. Ridley Beach, as it is called, is home to one of Antarctica’s largest colonies of Adélie penguins, if not the largest one. 250,000 breeding pairs are mentioned in the literature, good for well beyond half a million individuals. Considering this, we are soon finding surprisingly large areas with few or no nests at all, maybe there is too much snow there in the beginning of the breeding season. On the other hand, many o f the Adélies are climbing up high onto the adjacent cliffs, reaching up to 300 m with their nesting sites. First class views, but the weather protection leaves a bit to be desired, and I don’t even want to imagine the struggle they have to go through to provide their chicks with every single meal.
People develope weird habits when there are too many of them in little space, and so do penguins. In 1911, when of Scott’s biologists spend a while at Cape Adare, making some remarkable observations. His paper about the „sexual habits of the Adélie penguin“ was deemed too bizarre for publication. It has been dug out again a century later, believed to be accurate and published only in 2012 in Polar Record. An interesting read.
Not only wildlife is teeming at Cape Adare, people have also lived here once for a year. This was Carsten Borchgrevink’s wintering in 1899, crowded together with 10 men in a far too small hut with far too little to keep them busy, leaving far too much time to make life hell for each other. But they were the first ones ever who wintered on the continent of Antarctica. The hut is still there, it is the very oldest one in Antarctica, an icon of polar history, and the only building on this planet that can claim to be the very first one on its continent ever.
Hundred thousands of penguins and other assorted wildlife, antarctic scenery on the highest level, the oldest hut of the continent – it is safe to assume spirits were high as we returned back to the ship after a long afternoon out there. The welcome greeting by our great hotel team is icecream and hot wine on the top deck to celebrate the day. Ice in your hand, ice around the ship, ice everywhere shining under a still bright evening sun. It is our last day near the antarctic coast. Once again, Antarctica has shown us how beautiful she can be, and pulled on all strings to do so.
A bay and a cape in the headline – Terra Nova Bay, Cape Hallet – both on the coast of Victoria Land in the western Ross Sea, that indicates a wealth of overwhelming impressions. Some of the Ross Sea’s great iceberg alleys, huge glacier tongues, penguins and orcas almost guaranteed, possibly a landing, maybe on Inexpressible Island, where Scott’s northern party was forced to winter under very difficult circumstances. Zodiac cruises, helicopter flights. Under the midnight sun, before breakfast, from early morning to late evening.
Well, it turned out to be a very relaxed day. As it turned out, the coast was everywhere blocked by dense belts of ice. Many miles of old, tough floes. So we stayed far off the coast, felt like at high seas, with low clouds and stiff wind. Well, the Ross Sea is no lake. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong about relaxing a bit, after the long days we have just had. And Cape Adare is still ahead of us. Fingers crossed.
We made another attempt last night to zodiac-land at Cape Royds, just to find out that Backdoor Bay was still as much filled with brash ice as the day before. So today was to be the day. We gave it an early morning start, dragged the helicopters out and soon the air bus shuttle service was in operation.
Cape Royds is at the foot of Mount Erebus, a very volcanic landscape with some peculiar erratic boulders of granite. A beautiful, if not slightly dark scenery, which can be very grim at times of bad weather, but just grand on a sunny day like this, and again Mount Erebus is looming clear from any clouds above the site of our excursion. Which is very appropriate, as it is from here it was climbed for the first time ever, during the expedition we want to pay hommage to now.
The Nimrod-expedition (1907-09) was the first one Shackleton was in charge of himself and certainly his most successful one ever. He almost reached the South Pole. Within less than a hundred miles from it he saw himself forced to give up and turn around, „better a living donkey than a dead lion.“ As mentioned, Erebus was climbed for the first time during the expedition and the south magnetic pole was reached, something James Clark Ross could only dream of in 1841.
The hut is smaller and less complex than Scott’s at Cape Evans. Tins are still standing on the shelves. All men shared one room, only the Boss had a little cubicle to himself, which he willingly gave to other expedition members who needed time for recovery. You can even find Shackleton’s signature on a wooden board.
Adelie penguins are breeding a few hundred metres away from the Nimrod hut, they say it is the southernmost one anywhere. Maybe there are some more nesting at Cape Barne, a good stone throw further south, I don’t know.
Our little pre-breakfast excursion is indeed short enough so we, the guides, just make it back in time for lunch. It always takes a while in the end, as the very last helicopter can only land on the ship once the other one has been shut down, folded together and stowed away. Helicopter logistics are always quite an operation. But it was worth every minute. Even our penguin specialist colleague, not a polar history lunatic or a Shackleton groupie, agrees. Cape Royds would be worth a visit even without the historical hut.
After an early start and a long morning out, it is a quiet afternoon on board as we are sailing northwards, leaving McMurdo Sound behind. The few precious days there are over for this time, as always too short, but spoiled with amazingly good weather. Mile after mile through calm, open water, with great views of Ross Island with all 3 major peaks at the same time: Mount Terror, Mount Bird and Mount Erebus, this famous trio of glacier-covered volcanoes. How often can you see them so beautifully?
No, we have not just slept through the 28th. It did not exist. The date line.
The weather just can’t get better than it is today. That is the opportunity for our longst helicopter operation, the flight into the Dry Valleys, namely Taylor Valley. The Ortelius is in New Harbour, on the western side of McMurdo Sound, pushing its bow firmly against the edge of mile of fast ice separating us from the real coast. Ahead of us we have got the Transantarctic Mountains, this immense mountain chain with countless wild peaks stretching hundreds and hundreds of miles from Cape Adare to well beyond 80 degrees south. And in the middle of it, these weird valleys which are too dry even for the glaciers.
It is a lot of work today for the pilots to fly almost 100 people from Ortelius to Canada Glacier in Taylor Valley. By the way, the last visitors before us, apart from scientists, will also have come from Ortelius, in February 2013. It is, generally speaking, not an overcrowded place.
As everything here, visits to the Dry Valleys are strictly regulated. There is only one small visitor zone, everything else is generally off limits. The bottom of the large valley is completely covered with ancient moraines, a huge, colourful open air museum of the regional geology, a wide desert. A little meltwater stream is running from the glacier to Lake Fryxell, which is of course frozen. You won’t find any traces of life here, you would have to have a microscope to discover anything alive, with biggest chances for discoveries in the streams or lakes. Don’t expect trout or salmon, though, but hardy microbes. But even some seals have made it up here ages ago, more than 10 km away from the coast, just to find out that life in the Dry Valleys is no good for a seal. The condition their sad remains are in are silent witnesses to the raging sandstorms that are frequent in this hostile place.
Apart from seal mummies and glaciers, the moon must be quite similar, I guess.
As a contrast, there is plenty of wildlife at the ice edge, where others are cruising with zodiacs, the day is long and leaves time for more than the flight into Taylor Valley. Several pods of Orca are travelling in the channels between the big ice floes, slightly nervously watched by Adelie penguins, who are standing every here and there in small groups. The zodiacs are sometimes in the focus of peaceful attention of these mighty predators. A little walk on one of the ice floes, which measure metres in thickness and are hard as concrete, with Mount Erebus providing a more than appropriate background, rounds the day off.
After this great afternoon at Cape Evans, we figured we might as well continue with the momentum we were just in, so on to Cape Royds, just a few miles north of Cape Evans. This is where Shackleton’s Nimrod-expedition was based from 1907 to 1909, not his most famous, but certainly his most successful expedition. And the only one from which he left a hut in Antarctica.
So, as usual we went quickly out just before dinner to have a look at the shore if everything is as it should be for the evening landing – and what do we see, Backdoor Bay is completely filled with ice. Not the good, solid fast ice over which you can just walk, but a wide rim of brash ice, too densely packed by the stiff breeze to drive through by boat, but far too small pieces to walk on. Not very helpful.
So we do what one should always do and don’t worry about what we can’t do, but rather enjoy the equally recent and pleasant memories from the afternoon at Cape Evans and the views of Mount Erebus in its full splendor, with its famous little steam cloud being ejected from the 3,794 m crater into a clear blue antarctic evening sky.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.“
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.