Monday, 24 November 2014

Night and Day

The difference between yesterday on the South Shetland Islands, and today on the Antarctic Peninsula was like “night and day”. Yesterday, it was cold, snowy and very windy. Today was as close to perfection as you can imagine- almost zero wind and sun. In fact it was downright hot and many of us stripped down to t-shirts and thin jackets.

This perfect weather was fitting for a new landing. None of us had ever visited D'Hainaut Island in Mikkelsen Harbour before. Mikkelsen Harbour is on Trinity Island, in the Palmer Archipelago. The island was charted by a Charcot expedition, 1908-10, and named by the sixth Chilean Antarctic Expedition (1952) for Lt. Ladislao D'Hainaut.

The island is an exquisite place, surrounded by Trinity Island and farther in the distance, the mainland of Antarctica. On D'Hainaut we found Gentoo Penguins breeding in several different sub-colonies, with of course, an attendant pair of skuas, which had evidently been active eating penguin eggs.

Clearly a lot of snow had fallen the previous winter because most of the Gentoos were still standing on snow and some had even started to make their nests and lay eggs. This is not a good proposition because the snow and ice forms an unstable platform for the nest. As the spring thaw occurs so the snow and ice melts unevenly and the nest falls apart. However, lots of penguin "hoochy-koochy" (technical term) was seen (sorry Manuel, that's how you spell it).

After a wonderful landing we head out into the Gerlache Strait for our second destination for today, Cierva Cove. As we sailed south we came upon a pod of Orcas. The male was lagging behind the main group and came quite close to the ship.

Cierva Cove is another gem, apparently infrequently visited. We saw only penguin footprints there today. It is the location of the Argentinian station “Primavera” but it seems we got there before any Argentinians. Gentoo Penguins bred all over the place, and unlike D'Hainaut this morning, there was lots of open ground. Many Gentoos were incubating. Cierva seems to be something of an Antarctic oasis. Despite the snow still covering extensive areas of ground, in the bare patches we could see moss beds and lots of Antarctic Hair Grass. By the way, this grass is one of only two flowering plants growing in Antarctica.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Half a Moon and a full volcano

After a day at two stations we go definitely nature today.
In the embrace of the mighty glaciers of Livingstone Island lies the long and crescent-shaped Half Moon Island, a very descriptive name if you look at it from above. It resembles a semi-volcanoe and, point of fact, it might well be just that. The landing there is an easy one, a sheltered shore with many a chinstrap penguin giving us a welcome at the beach. And on approach we notice two large shapes on the snow - sleeping Weddell seals, totally unfazed by our presence.
So we were watching the tiny brave waddlers carry pebble after pebble to lofty heights in order to build their nests, a tedious task considering they need about a thousand of these…
And that was just the morning landing, the day is far from over.
Just around the corner, not quite but almost in the middle of the Bransfield Strait, lies one of the most stunning phenomena in Antarctica - Deception Island. The name isn’t given just like that: Seen from any direction, the island is a high-walled fortress and anything but inviting. But look at it from the South-South-West you’ll notice “Neptune’s Bellows” a narrow entrance, a tricky passage. Once you braved it, however, you enter the immensely well sheltered Port Foster. And when you are in there, you are navigating inside an active volcano - in Antarctica!
The large caldera has several active research outposts, but it also sports some very picturesque abandoned stations from the past, the most scenic being without a doubt Whaler’s Bay.
After a period of land-based whaling the protected harbor was home to the British Station B, where not only significant research was carried out, but also the first ever flight in Antarctica took place in the 1950’s.
The eruption of 1970 smashed the base, and no British activity has taken place ever since. But it remains a site of adventure, and today the scenery was suitably decorated up by the strong winds that drove the snow across the rusty ruins and installations. Untroubled by the weather were the skuas who have one of their favorite bathing sites here.
Well, some are always compelled to push things a little farther. And so a intrepid group of adventurers started a walk that seemed near impossible: Across the crater wall down all the way on the other side to Baily Head. On a fine day this is a terrific hike that takes about three to four hours. Today, however, the daring party had to fight heavy snow under their boots, violent, blizzard-like gusts blasting the snow in their faces, and a visibility under ten meters.
They wouldn’t quit, they just wouldn’t, until they reached the very crest. But that was as far as things went, every single step further would have been totally irresponsible. And that is what we don’t do. So the only option was to turn around and go back down. But the memories will last forever, of a snowstorm inside a volcano in Antarctic
Well, what can I say? Just back down at the beach, some of the group went swimming… How nice to travel with thrill-ready people!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Station day

We had our first landings in Antarctica today. Although is was quite cold, -4°C, and lightly snowing, there was no wind and the visibility was also quite good, perfect conditions!

We arrived at King George Island at around 8 this morning, this is the largest of the South Shetland Islands and also home to the biggest collection of scientific stations in Antarctica. Our first destination was Admiralty Bay, where two stations are located, the Brazilian Ferraz Station, and our goal, the Polish Arctowski Station.

The station is named after the geologist Henryk Arctowski, he was a member of the first truly scientific expedition “Belgica” (1897-99) to Antarctica under the command of Adrien de Gelache. The station is near the Point Thomas Antarctic Specially Protected Area, which is off limits to visitors. Here, Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins breed, making it a unique place for comparative studies on their breeding biology.

We had the chance to see all three species resting on the beach before their final hike up to the colony, as well as a Skua feasting on a stolen egg.

We also had the possibility to see for ourselves the living quarters of the scientists from many nationalities that spend the austral summer here.

During lunch the ship repositioned to Maxwell Bay on the western extremity of King George Island. This bay is home to Russian, Chilean, Uruguayan, Korean and Chinese Stations, and the latter, the Chinese Great Wall Station, was our second destination of the day.

It was built in 1985. This station can accommodate up to 80 scientists during summer, and the wintering team is always composed of 12 to 14 members.

The weather didn’t change much, as we arrived, snowfall was constant and the visibility very limited. But as always in Antarctica, conditions changed trough out the landing and by the end it stopped snowing and we had a clearer view of our surroundings. There is little wildlife around the station, therefore we focused on visiting the facilities and hiking up a nearby hill that offered astonishing views of Maxwell Bay.

 A little group of 15 passengers went of on a snowshoe adventure up on the Fildes Peninsula behind the station.

Friday, 21 November 2014

A refuge in the middle of nowhere

After almost two days at sea we had crossed the Drake Passage relatively unscathed and approached the iconic Elephant Island. The island plays a central role in the Shackleton saga. There’s not enough room in the blog to go over all of this but the short story is that “the Boss” and 27 of his men made it to Elephant Island after losing the Endurance to sea ice much farther south.

The trip was unbelievably arduous but forms only one of several monumental accomplishments that is the Shackleton saga. Their first landing on Elephant Island was on Cape Valentine but it was clear that they could not stay there. The next morning four men under Frank Wild set out in one of their small boats to find a better landing. They returned in the evening with news they had found such a place just 7 miles farther down the north coast of Elephant Island.

That place we visited today! About it, Hurley, the expedition photographer wrote “such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld”. The exact location where 22 of Shackleton’s men spent 4 months on Elephant Island is now called Cape Wild in honour of Frank Wild, who was left in command of the shore men when Shackleton and five of his men sailed to South Georgia in the James Caird.

Our plan was to land on Cape Wild. This was a particularly exciting prospect, even for the seasoned Antarctic travellers amongst us, as few had ever done so before. Alas, our plans were thwarted by a heavy swell, which pounded the Cape. Instead, Fram heaved-to long enough for us to fully contemplate what it might have been like to live there for 4 months. The conditions of heavy swell onshore, overcast conditions, low ceiling and snow flurries really helped this contemplation.
Waves pound the "Gnomon", the rocky bluff protecting the cape seaward
Nearby breeding Chinstrap Penguins
Cape Wild with the Pardo monument to the right
Cape Wild today seemed surrounded by breeding Chinstrap Penguins, as it probably was in Shackleton's days, almost 100 years ago. And lucky for the men who stayed there too, because had it not been for the penguins they would likely have starved to death. What is curious is that the men were left on Elephant Island at the very end of the penguin breeding season (April) and they had another 4 months to wait before they were rescued by Capt. Pardo in the Chilean tugboat "Yelcho". Penguins normally leave for sea at that time of year. However, luck must have been on their side for they were able to kill penguins during the winter and survive, one and all.

Cape Wild

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Leaving the Map

Imagine a globe on your desk. Then try to find Ushuaia. Little hint: It’s on the bottom of the sphere, just before the brass cap...
You have to have a globe, maps usually don’t do the trick, as our destination is so far  out that the projection leaves the cold continent as a white smear, impolitely disfiguring the most amazing place in the world - Antarctica.
So extreme is this destination that you have to travel something between 24 and 36 hours, just to get to the departure point of our journey, which is at the same time the southernmost city in the world. Not really a short trip…

But there are perks galore: Surrounded by ragged sharp mountains, Ushuaia is nestled beautifully in a large bowl near the very “End of the World”, which is also the motto of the place and to be found on every other Tee-shirt.
And then there is the food! If you like meat you have come to the right place. Just try one of those typical Parilla places, where there artfully roast all kinds of delicacies over an open coal fire. A feast not to be missed.
And here, smack in the middle of it, lies our brave FRAM, waiting for our excited guests to arrive, who are coming from no less than 18 nations all over the globe. They all are embarking on an adventurous journey into the Mighty White, the last true wilderness on the planet. So, spirits are high, camera batteries get charged, binoculars cleaned, cabins are moved in, the ship gets thoroughly inspected.
The mandatory drill takes place a little after time, so at 6:30 pm we cast the lines and head out for the notorious Drake passage.
A memorable voyage to you all, is the key message of Captain Rune Andreassen, during his welcome speech the same evening.
Well, we couldn’t agree more!
And here’s a little reverence to our lovely Frieda which only she and Captain Arild will fully understand. Why else should someone appear dressed up as a whiskey barrel…?! But, dear reader, we will solve this mystery a little later during the voyage. Stay tuned!!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Reflections from Jakob

This is Jakob, one of our trainees on board the Fram. As usual we ask our trainees to write an edition of the blog and as mentioned the other day, your faithful bloggers are thrilled when they accept (do they REALLY have a choice?!!!).

We are now in the notorious Drake Passage after 17 days on board. All the way from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, via Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It’s been an amazing voyage with tons of wildlife, all types of weather and breathtaking scenery. I’m very happy be in a place with 20 hours of sunlight compared with 4 months of darkness, and be close to harmless penguins instead of giant polar bears.

From my home in Svalbard to Antarctica is about as far away as I can get. This is my second time as a trainee in the expedition team, but my first time in Antarctica, actually my first time in the southern hemisphere. I had a lot of fun learning and thinking about the fundamental differences in the south of the planet. Just the fact that the sun moves in the opposite direction when it’s going down, the stars are different and my compass doesn’t work.

This is truly the realm of the great explorers. I have walked in the footsteps of Shackleton in South Georgia, spent a night tenting in Antarctica, just like Amundsen. Kayaking in Neko Harbour was the best, with penguins and icebergs all around. I'm looking forward to one more voyage down south.

(Eds. note- we are now heading for Ushuaia and the end of this fantastic cruise). It all starts again tomorrow with another trip so keep following the blog!)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Home away from home

The most popular landing in Antarctica, if you consider shear number of ships and visitors is the British Base in Port Lockroy. And it's no wonder why this is so. Built on the minuscule Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, the landing offers amazing scenery, wildlife, and an old British base. Base "A" as it is called, was brought back to life by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in 1996, after being abandoned sometime before.

In the base building can be found a museum detailing the work that went on at the base, a well stocked shop, and what must be the most remote, official British Post Office! A delightful team of UKAHT staff live in a newly constructed Nissan hut, which they obviously consider their home away from home, as they will spend the entire 5 month summer on the island. Those who occupied the base and lived in what is now the museum section of the main building must have thought the same way. 

Your faithful blogger sat quietly in the lounge for a while and contemplated what it would have been like to sit by there coal stove, drinking a nice dram of whisky, gramophone playing some 1940s or 50s hit in the background, your friends slapping cards down on the nearby table in a competitive game of cribbage, and the smell of pipe tobacco smoke wafting in the air. Those were the days! And it was not hard to conjure up these thoughts because the museum is so well presented for us today.

Wildlife on Goudier Island mainly consists of breeding Gentoo Penguins, with the perfunctory Snowy Sheathbills running around getting into all sorts of trouble.

The penguins are a relatively new arrival and were not breeding on the island when the base was built in the early 1940s. Gentoos are increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula, while Adélie Penguins are decreasing- both a likely result of climate change. On-going monitoring of the penguin colony has shown that visitors and the general human activity around the base do not affect breeding success. Rather, the amount of winter snow fall does, with larger amounts (more frequent these days), causing delayed breeding and poorer success. The first egg in the colony had been laid yesterday.

Some of us were lucky enough to go on a guided snowshoe hike before visiting the base. The hike wended up snow hills to the ridge above the spot where others of us camped the previous night. From there, the views down on to Goudier Island really placed in perspective the whole location. Note that the inner part of Port Lockroy was still frozen so Goudier Island looks like it is joined to Wiencke Island. Others explored the area in our Polarcirkel boats and got to experience the place from sea-level.

Some practical aspects of running a shop in Antarctica were realised today as well. Fram had taken on stock for this season in Stanley (Falklands) and some of us spent a part of the morning unloading boxes of t-shirts, books, fleeces and all the other items you see on the shelves.

After leaving Port Lockroy we sailed south to the entrance of the famous Lemaire Channel to see if it was possible to navigate through to the other end. As we approached it was pretty clear that sea ice was blocking the entrance. Nevertheless our captain expertly slid the ship through the ice so that we could take a close look.