Sunday 31 January 2010

Shopping and Fluking

What’s an adventure expedition without a pre-breakfast landing? An opportunity to sleep in is what! Forget about it. That’s what our time at home is for. We want to maximize our opportunities to see Antarctica because for most of us our next time here will be exactly never.
A quick injection of caffeine at our bistro and we were ready to board the Polar Cirkle boats at 5:30. A short, brisk ride brought us to the single most visited site in all of Antarctica, Port Lockroy. Port Lockroy is the site of a former British Base and has been restored as a small but excellent museum. The income from the well-stocked gift shop goes to the British Antarctic Heritage Trust and amongst other things helps to maintain the museum. The Gentoo penguins here are more habituated to human visitation. They seemed completely oblivious to the 5 metre rule!

The rest of our day was taken up with scenic cruising with the highlight being Wilhelmina Bay. Whalers were well aware that Wilhelmina Bay was a prime spot for Humpback whales and that remains true today. We spotted many whales and were able to approach a group of three Humpbacks that were resting at the surface. The navigation officers approached the whales slowly and skillfully. Undisturbed, they continued in their resting mode: gently breathing and submerging barely beneath the surface. From time to time the three of them would dive under the ship and appear on the other side. At times we could clearly see the entire animal under the crystalline waters of Wilhelmina Bay.

Now we begin our return journey to Ushuaia but our trip is far from over. One never knows what wonders Drake Passage will reveal.

This is Antarctica After All

The weather continues to co-operate. This morning a gentle breeze and mild temperatures in the neighbourhood of 5ºC were the order for the day. We seemed to have lost our blue skies for the moment but there isn’t a single person on board that would complain. In fact it was a pleasant change to see a few snowflakes falling throughout the afternoon. This is Antarctica after all!
This morning we visited the Ukrainian Base, Vernadsky. There are twelve men who over-winter at Vernadsky every year. As usual, the base was immaculate. We were instructed to leave our boots and outdoor clothing in the cloak room. In short order we were introduced to Sasha and Eugene, the two gentlemen that would escort us on a tour of the base.

We learned about the ongoing meteorological work and that the discovery of the ozone hole was made at that very location. On completion of the tour we had the opportunity to sample the base’s home brew vodka and to visit their modest gift shop. Perhaps the best souvenir of our visit was simply the Vernadsky Base stamp we all received in our passports.
In the afternoon we dropped anchor in front of Petermann Island. We began landing operations at 15:00. Petermann has a lot to often with interesting history, Adelie and Gentoo Penguins, a small colony of Antarctic Shags and an incredible scenic view of Iceberg Alley where we could see not only a lot of icebergs but also a Crabeater seal and a Leopard seal.
In many places bright pink and green snow algae added intense swaths of colour to a largely monochromatic landscape. But, being mid-summer the snow has melted on much of Petermann revealing to the careful observer tiny clumps of grass. Not enough to golf on of course, this is Antarctica after all!

Saturday 30 January 2010

Feathers, Ice, and Fur

Another perfect day in Antarctica. We begin to wonder why we seem to deserve this preferential treatment by the gods of the elements. In the morning we went to the Fish Islands in glorious weather and landed on a small island which was densely populated by Adelie Penguins. The rookery greeted us with its normal pungent stench, but that was forgotten soon when we saw the interesting behavior of these birds up close. Some were already moulting, most of the chicks had already reached the size of their parents, and some seemed to be preparing for their departure from the rookery already. Beside the close encounter with the penguins there was the awe inspiring scenery to enjoy.

The afternoon brought us to a very special place in the Biscoe Islands where we set out on a cruise in our Polar Cirkle Boats. We cruised between the icebergs and were dumbfounded by their sheer magnitude. As a very special extra we struck it lucky when we came across various seals. There were both Crabeater and Weddell Seals which were resting on some ice floes. They were not overly active since they usually come to shore to rest and sleep, but that gave us a wonderful opportunity to observe these magnificent animals. Indeed, it was another perfect day in Antarctica.

Friday 29 January 2010

A Day At Sea

How can a day be more pleasant or more relaxing than a day of scenic cruising in Antarctica on board Fram? The skies were overcast and the seas were calm.
Our day was filled with lectures about; Leopard Seals, Ice, Explorers, Penguins and Whales.
Towards the end of the first dinner sitting we witnessed one of the more dramatic wildlife displays in nature. Two pairs of humpback whales were very obviously feeding. We watched feeding lunge after feeding lunge. Each pair of Humpbacks was perfectly synchronized. Together they would rush to the surface with their enormous maws agape and at the same time roll onto their side engulfing tons of water and vast amounts of krill. We crowded the bow rails in awe. The staccato rapid-fire click of dozens of cameras filled the air, capturing this special moment forever.

The whales were not the only ones enjoying the food. One of the pleasures of exploring Antarctica and other parts of the world by ship is unequivocally the food. We are fortunate to have very talented chefs that are backed up by a large hard working team in the galley. Having worked on a large variety of ships I can attest to the fact that not all chefs on all ships produce the quality and variety of food that we enjoy on Fram. In recognition of that we would like to extend a huge thank you to the chef and his hard working crew. Our expanding waistlines are testimony to your great work!

Thursday 28 January 2010

It was a wonderful day

Relatively wind free for most of the day. Periods of sunshine and high cloud cover. Nearly perfect.
We landed at Horseshoe Island shortly after 9:00. We had plenty of time to muse through the old buildings at Base Y. The base is in fantastic condition. There was plenty of canned food (long past the expiry date!) lining the shelves. There were dishes, tools, radio equipment, snow shoes, books and numerous other items spread throughout the building. In the library there was still an old record player with a Beatles, Sergeant Pepper album beside it. It seemed as if the former occupants had just got and left the day before.
There were several Weddell seals scattered around the shoreline including one dead seal that most of us paused to examine.
Our geologist, Steffen Biersack enthusiastically pointed out the veins of bright green malachite that wove through the rocky landscape.
Several Skuas watched our every step as they fiercely guarded their chicks. Quite a few of us were dive bombed by attacking Skuas. We soon learned where we could and could not go!

At 18:00 we landed at Stonington Island. We counted a total of nine Weddell seals spread out around the shoreline. Here too were aggressively protective Skuas with chicks. We had lots of time to explore the various buildings in both the old British Base “E” and the former American East Base. A handful of squawking Adelie penguins seemed to wander aimlessly about the island.
The scenery was stunning (as it always is down here). A large glacier loomed immediately behind the island. We saw a couple of minor ice calvings. The sounds of “white thunder” periodically punctuated the sonic landscape at Stonington.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Antarctic Circle - 66.33º

Wind and ice are powerful reminders of just exactly who is in charge in Antarctica. You’re expecting me to say Mother Nature. Nope. In this case it is definitely Father Neptune.

The decks were filled with a sea of blue jackets. We all eagerly waited for the ship’s horn to proclaim the very moment we were crossing the Antarctic Circle. King Neptune himself was on the bow to baptize all of the first time circle crossers with ice water.
There was a loud cheer when the ship’s horn blew at 10:15:54. Soon there was a lineup of people eager to have ice cold water poured on their heads and down their necks. Tomas Marina, one of our onboard biologists, had the entire bucket dumped on him! Brrrrrrrrrrrr!
We arrived at Detaille Island for a landing at 14:00 but the winds were far too strong to launch the Polar Cirkle boats. We waited two hours for the wind to abate but it seemed that Neptune had other plans for us. Perhaps someone didn’t show up for their baptism?

Fram turned to the south and headed for the famed Gullet; a particularly beautiful and very narrow passage. Narrow passages, ships and ice often don’t go well together. As we slowly navigated through the Gullet we passed flocks of Snow Petrels and Kelp Gulls (is that why it is called the Gullet? :^) ) and many Crabeater seals on ice-floes when our progress came to a dead stop. The narrowest part of the passage was choked with ice. Darn it!! Who didn’t get baptized?

Tuesday 26 January 2010

The peak of austral summer

We began landing operations at 9:00. It was a very short ride in the Polar Cirkle boats and then suddenly, we were immersed in Gentoo penguin central. Cuverville, is home to one of the largest Gentoo penguin colonies in Antarctica with ~6000 pairs. Most adults at the nest had two fat chicks.

Circling round and round the adults and fat chicks were the ever-present Skuas. Skuas are the F16s of the southern skies. Large predatory birds that are powerful on the wing and skilled in aerial pursuit. They can also be quite curious. They will sometimes fly off with items incautiously left on the ground… like the gloves in the photo on the blog for instance!

Shortly after noon we weighed anchor and headed for our second landing at Almirante Brown, an inactive Argentine station in Paradise Bay. There was excitement in the air as we all knew this was going to be a landing on the actual continent of Antarctica, not a mere island.

We were treated to brilliant patches of blue sky, occasional bursts of sunshine and nary a breath of wind to stir the mirrored waters of the bay. Most of us hiked to the top of a 120 metre hill behind the small base where we could see the entirety of the bay. No less than three Humpback whales and two Minke whales were spotted from the hilltop. Whether it was on shore, or on the ship, or in a Polar circle boat, everyone had a chance to a see a whale!

As if that wasn’t enough for a full day, there was still the crew fashion show at 10pm and a stunning voyage through Kodak Alley – the Lemaire Channel.
What a day!

Sunday 24 January 2010

Our Day Was filled With Firsts

I suppose it isn´t surprising that on our first trip to Antarctica our days would be filled with many amazing first time experiences. We had many wonderful experiences that are not listed below, but here follows a few of the day´s highlights and most interesting firsts.
1. Our first iceberg was seen early this morning. The spotting of the first iceberg in Antarctica is one of those moments that truly heralds your arrival to the land of ice!
2. Our clothes were vacuumed! I´m sure none of us had had our outdoor clothing and backpacks vacuumed before. It was all part of the measures to prevent the introduction of alien species to Antarctica program.
3. Humpback whales! For many of us it was the first time to see a whale. This morning at 9:20 as we approached Nelson Strait two humpback whales surfaced about 100 metres from the ship. We had excellent views of the mammalian behemoths. We could even see what they had been dining on for breakfast as a brilliant pink cloud of digested krill plumed behind one of the whales just before it dived.

1. It was our first time in the speedy sturdy Polar Cirkle Boats. It took all of about 120 seconds to get from the ship to the shore where the Expedition Team greeted us. Expedition Leader Anja Erdmann gave us the layout of the landing and a time to be back to the landing site. Helpful expedition Team members were spread along all of the points of interest on shore.
2. Who will ever forget the first time they laid eyes on a real live, walking, swimming, defecating penguin? Who will forget the head-bobbing walk, the pendulum body wobble, the wings wide-to-the-side, the dissonant chorus of the Chinstrap ecstatic display, the olfactory-ness of a thriving penguin colony?
3. A crested penguin. Without a doubt Macaroni´s are one of the coolest of all birds. Most of us climbed a small hill to visit with one muddy Mac in the midst of the Chinstrap colony.
4. Our first Antarctic Fur Seal which was also the first pinniped for many of us. We had been schooled during our rather comprehensive IAATO briefing earlier in the day that Antarctic Fur Seals are aggression on flippers. This animal was the exception that proved the rule. The healthy young male slept through almost the entire landing. Perhaps he could be best described as passively aggressive.
5. And please remember… this is only day one of our landings. There is an entire boat load of exciting adventures to come.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Sir Francis Drake and Drake Passage

Sir Francis Drake was a captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, a politician and a pirate. He was a hero to the English and was feared by the Spanish.
We anticipated a day with his namesake, Drake Passage, with nervous trepidation. Would our experience be something more akin to the actions of the violent pirate or the smooth politician? All of us were aware of the Drake’s justified reputation. The roughest body of water in the world. Sure, there are other bodies of water in the world with storms just as tempestuous as here but nowhere are there cyclones circling with such fierce frequency
Some of us wished for a storm. An adventure. They wanted to see whether this was all rep or real. Not me. Never me. Why ask for an adventure that does not have an off switch. There is no getting off of this roller coaster until Drake decides.

It turned out that today was a near perfect Drake Day. There was enough motion to the ocean to placate the adventurous souls amongst us and yet not so much as to confine too many of us to our cabins. There was sunshine. There were patches of blue sky. It was wonderful really.
The conditions were also ideal for the many seabirds about the ship throughout the day. There was enough wind to keep the albatross and various other seabirds effortlessly aloft, This morning from 10:00 until 12:00 we joined our lecture team on the upper aft deck to o-o-o! and a-h-h! as majestic Wandering albatross glided by. They are truly seabird royalty. We also saw; Southern Giant Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Prions, Wilson’s Storm Petrels and Black-bellied Storm Petrels
Throughout the day the winds dropped. The seas dropped. Perhaps the next Drake will better suit the storm chasers amongst us. I hope not.

Fantastic conditions for our bird watching session. However, the company of two cups of coffee
would have made it ideal.