Sunday 28 February 2010

We're Here For The Chicks

It's my favourite time of year to visit a Gentoo penguin colony.  It's because of the chicks. They are hilarious.  They are in mid-moult, off the nest and very  inquisitive about their world.  They hang about in protective groups called creches waiting for one of their parents to return to feed them. Meanwhile they interact with one another. They play in melt water pools. They chase one another about. Sometimes, in a spasm of energy, they will stand and flap their wings furiously and then run around in excited circles  (LOL!).  They will sometimes watch snowflakes fall and then catch them (quite amusing to watch). And the best thing of all, during this brief moment in their lives they will very often interact with us.  Stand quietly and you might have a penguin pecking your boot.  Sit quietly and they might peck at your glove or finger.  I have seen them climb into someone's lap and then fall asleep. 

It was a perfect day to visit Cuverville Island, the site of the largest Gentoo penguin colony in the Peninsula region.  Over 5,000 pairs. We had cloudy skies with brilliant periods of sunshine.  It was also an opportunity to go for an Antarctic dip!

In the afternoon we turned our bow to Wilhelmina Bay. My nephews tell me that the word "awesome" is out and the word "epic" is in. Today Wilhelmina was epic in every way.  We saw at least a dozen Humpback whales.  We saw several Minke whales. Antarctic Fur Seals lolled about in the water and lounged on icebergs.
It was nigh on to impossible to take a poor photograph.  Trip with your camera and you would come up with a great shot.  Everyone was out on deck taking it all in, trying to preserve this postcard of a day forever in their memory.

Saturday 27 February 2010

A Short Photo Essay Of Our Day

We decided to try a different approach to the blog today.  We are going to describe our day with images and a paucity of words.  As you will see in the photographs, we had a fantastic day.  Our morning was spent at a former British Base called Port Lockroy.  It is now a beautiful small museum with the one of the southernmost gift shops in the world.  The white birds are Snowy Sheathbills.
As you can see we had some dramatic weather both at port Lockroy and during our afternoon landing at Almirante Brown/Paradise Bay.  Those of us on the ship will have to go online to see all of the images.  For you at home, please click on the images to enlarge them.

Friday 26 February 2010

Deception Island

Slowly throughout the day the Drake lay down.   It was a relief to get in the more sheltered waters around the South Shetland Islands.  It was exciting to see our first icebergs today.  Within short order we had also seen our first penguins in the sea and our first whales.  Humpbacks! This only helped to build our excitement level for our first landing at Deception Island.
At 5pm we cruised through Neptune's Bellows which is the dramatic entrance to the hidden caldera of Deception Island (the reputed southern base of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus).
The cold overcast day added to the heavy atmosphere of Deception.  There were even a few snowflakes in the air. It was wonderful to stretch our legs again.
On shore to greet us was a rather large gathering of Skuas lounging around a small fresh water pool.  One of the expedition team told us it was the "Skua Spa" and that there is always some Skuas there in the summer. Down the beach was a large sleeping Elephant Seal. At the other end of the beach was a bachelor group of Antarctic Fur Seals, lots more Skuas and a flock of Kelp Gulls.

Our expedition team enthusiastically pointed out the hundreds of Salps in the water - small, clear, gelatinous barrel shapped tunicates.  At one point during the landing, thousands of dead krill washed up along the shore.  the Skuas and Kelp gulls had a short lived feast until the Krill washed back out again.

Everywhere there was left the signs of former human occupation: old whaling artifacts and buildings from a British Base.

Our first landing had a little of everything.  History. Geology. Wildlife. Snow.
What will tomorrow bring?

Thursday 25 February 2010

Drake Dance

We hit a storm in the Drake Passage, and a quite serious one to be true. When Sir Francis Drake discovered this infamous body of water in the 16th century he was thrown into it by a mighty storm and he did not even want to be here!! Now, we have come here out of our own free will, but the weather is not exactly making it enjoyable for us. Everyone on board was trying to hold on to something and a lot of people were using many more steps to get from one place to another than they would usually. It was nice that there were some places where we could just sit back and relax like the fireplace with its soothing atmosphere of natural calm...
because outside, the elements were having their way and large waves and strong winds were our constant enemy today. 

The only ones who seemed to enjoy this day tremenduosly were the albatrosses and the petrels who found ideal flying conditions in these winds. Today we began to understand why the sailors of centuries gone by considered the albatross to be a sign of good luck. There is something curiously reassuring about the quiet and peaceful way in which these majestic birds soar in the trough of the winds of the southern ocean and do not seem to be affected by them at all!

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Adventure Begins

For Fram it is the last time in Ushuaia for this Antarctic season but we will be ending our Austral summer with a bang!  The South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula! Elephant Island and South Georgia!  The Falkland/Malvinas Islands (or is it Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands)!  Regardless, yippie! This is going to be one fantastic trip.  I can't wait.   Whales, seals, fur seals, penguins, albatrosses. Blubber, fur and feathers.  Two different oceans.  Ice everywhere - glaciers, icebergs.  It will be non-stop adventure.  It will be incredible scenery and amazing wild life encounters.  And tonight our grand adventure begins.

We boarded Fram at 17:00 and were quickly and efficiently checked in.  We received our room keys/picture IDs and were escorted to our cabins where our luggage was already waiting for us.  The staff and crew were very friendly and we were certainly impressed with the excellent buffet at dinner.
At 20:00 we had a mandatory safety drill which was immediately followed by the Captain's welcome speech and cocktail.
Now we are in the sheltered waters of the beautiful Beagle Channel on our way to the open sea. Soon enough we will be plying the waters of the notorious Drake Passage.  The Captain cautioned us that there may be some motion to the ocean tonight and tomorrow.  We shall see.

Monday 22 February 2010

Lazy Hazy Drake Days

Cape Horn island is named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands.
We had a lovely smooth crossing of  Drake Passage which allowed us the time to cruise past this most famous of all nautical landmarks. The division between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans lies precisely on the meridian of Cape Horn and runs south to the Southern Ocean.  I think for many people this will be the only time in their life when they will be on three different oceans in two days.  Yesterday morning we were cruising north on the Southern Ocean.  When we crossed the Antarctic Convergence we entered the Atlantic ocean.  Today at around 17:30 we crossed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean as we "rounded the Horn".  The next time we are at dinner with family and friends we can entertain them all by loudly proclaiming, "Yep.  I remember when I rounded the Horn...It was a very cool thing to do."     
Oh, I almost forgot to mention (lest you think we are still in the wrong ocean) that we did turn around and head back east into the Atlantic and continue on up to the Beagle Channel.
It was a wonderfully relaxing day with lots of lectures.  We also had an informal cocktail gathering in the early evening for an introduction to some of the other exciting Hurtigruten destinations.  Later our photographer presented a beautiful slideshow of the trip.
At 22:00 we attended a charity auction to raise funds for a variety of environmental organizations.


"Was it a dream? Were we really there? Did we really have all this wonderful weather - and all these rare encounters with the wildlife?

This morning we woke up in calm seas to a gloomy and foggy Drake Passage. Antarctica was already a few scores of nautical miles behind us. Was it a dream? Were we really there? Did we really have all this wonderful weather - and all these rare encounters with the wildlife? Questions like this came to our minds as we were getting ready for the day; however, there was also another question which seemed to be nagging: Do we really have to spend the next two days on the Drake Passage at sea? Personally, I think it is a very good way to finish an outstanding voyage like this. Imagine what it would be like to finish your last landing in Antarctica and then be catapulted back to everyday life in an airplane in a matter of hours. These two days to wind down from an overdose of new and unforgettable impressions and from experiences so exciting and stimulating as we lived through during the last week are necessary for one's mental hygiene. I would not not want to be back quickly and be confronted with my daily routine, with news big and small, which will seem overly important all too soon. I do enjoy the privilege to sit back for the next two days and spend some time with my memeories and thoughts before it is back to the "real world".

Naturally there were all kinds of activities for us on board Fram today. There were bridge visits, lectures, movies, and of course we had the Captain's Dinner. After mercifully short speeches, the crew quickly and efficiently served a sumptuous meal.  An unexpected parade of baked Alaska replete with sparklers and music was served for desert by a very enthusiastic crew. After our outstanding dinner the crew once again surprised us with their unexpected show talent. Again a memorable day.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Charismatic Megafauna

There are signs that summer in Antarctica is nearing an end.  The days are getting shorter.  Sunset was shortly after 21:00 this evening.  Some penguins have already left their colonies.  Most Adelie penguins have headed out to sea.  The gentoo chicks are fat, many of them are bigger than their parents.  Some of them now have their first real feathers.  The rest are in various stages of plumage.    There is however a lot of mega fauna around.  Whales are abundant.  Seals are ubiquitous.
We continued to be lucky with the weather today.  Our morning in Paradise Bay was completely overcast but it was mild with nary a breath of wind.  The Expedition team scouted the hill overlooking Paradise Bay.  It was determined that while the hill was safe to climb, the conditions were definitely not conducive for safe sliding. Several people made it to the very top where they enjoyed an amazing view.  We also went for a short Polar Cirkle boat ride.  One of the highlights of our Poloar Cirkle boat cruise was the Leopard Seal pictured in this post.
In the afternoon we set course for Wilhelmina Bay to hopefully do some whale watching.  Wilhelmina Bay has been known as an excellent spot for whales since the early days of whaling in Antarctica.
Well, we didn't have to go all the way to Wilhelmina to see whales. Shortly after we passed the Chilean Base at Water Boat Point (Gabriel Gonz├ílez Videla) we encontered a group of surface feeding Minke whales.  They were exciting to watch as they frequently erupted out of the water with dramatic feeding lunges. Humpback whales were in evidence throughout the afternoon.  In fact we stopped and and enoyed a fantastic encounter with three humpbacks shortly after arriving in Wilhelmina.  It was a fantastic encounter.  The three whales came right up to the ship.  At times you could see the entire whale just beneath the surface.
By now the overcast sky had cleared up and we were once again bathed in brilliant sunshine.
The Expedition Team, working with the navigation officers on the bridge, continued to spot wildlife. A true highlight of the day was when the Chief Officer skillfully brought Fram right alongside an icefloe laden with Crabeater seals.  There were fifteen seals on the icefloe and another two or three in the water. Wow.
In the last blog photo you can see pretty much how our day ended.  Double wow.

Saturday 20 February 2010

The Lemaire Channel

Just before 7:00 we entered the Lemaire Channel.  It was very cold this morning but it seemed everyone, camera in hand, was out on deck.  Not for nothing is it sometimes referred to as Kodak Alley.  While it was very chilly, it was a gorgeous morning as you can see in the photo of the mountain peaks.  We saw numerous Crabeater and Leopard seals and several Minke whales.
At 9:00 we arrived at the Ukrainian Base Vernadsky.  The guided tour of the base was very interesting.  Many people stopped at the famous bar upstairs for a shot of Vodka.  We then went for a twenty minute Polar Cirkle boat cruise before heading back to the ship.
In the afternoon we landed at Petermann Island.  Most of the Adelie penguins and the Blue-eyed shags have left the island.  There were however lots of Gentoos wandering around.  At this time of year the chicks seem to be everywhere.
The view over Iceberg alley was really great.
In the evening the Captain arranged a big surprise for the entire ship: even though we had cruised the Lemaire Channel with the ship in the morning and would do it again in the evening, some of us would get the opportunity to see it from our Polar Cirkle boats before dinner!  There wasn't enough time for everyone to go so a lottery was held for those willing to pay 100 Euro for the privilege of cruising in the Lemaire Channel in our Polar Cirkle boats.  In the end a lucky 45 people went!  It was a beautiful evening.  There were still lots of Crabeater and Leopard Seals on ice floes.  We even spotted several Minke whales.
A nice way to end a VERY full day.

Friday 19 February 2010

Breakfast In Paradise

"We are travelling through some of the most dramatic scenery seen anywhere on earth... in the cool clear Antarctic air, it seemed that we could see forever.

Imagine yourself at breakfast in the spacious, bright dining room of Fram.  Looking out the large picture windows you watch three Humpback whales surface as the ship turns towards our first landing of the day, Cuverville Island.  Lots of penguins porpoise in the water.  Majestic mountains rise around you.  Icebergs are everywhere.  Could there be a better way to start your day?  I think not.

You don't realize the difference a sunny day makes until you've had a few days of cloud.  Here in Antarctica, on our adventure vacation of a lifetime, blue skies mean that we can see the snow and ice covered mountain peaks.  It makes a huge difference.  We are travelling through some of the most dramatic scenery seen anywhere on earth often much of it is obscured by clouds but today, in the cool clear Antarctic air, it seemed that we could see forever.

Shortly after 9:00 we started our landing operations.  Cuverville Island is the site of the largest Gentoo Penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula and perhaps the largest colony in Antarctica with approximately 5000 pairs.  It seemed as if penguins were everywhere.  That is quite typical for this time of year because the chicks are off the nest, wandering around. Penguins took up most of the beach on the west side of our landing area preventing us from going further along the beach.  Too many darned penguins!! An amusing challenge.  Instead of going along the beach we went up.  The climb wasn't too difficult and it was well worth the effort.  The view over the Gerlache Strait was magnificent. From our lofty view point one of the lecturers spotted a Leopard Seal hunting penguins.  With binoculars it was possible to see the seal successfully capture at least two penguins.  At first the seal was more intent on playing with its penguins than eating.  It was a very dramatic event to watch.  The seal was like a cat with a mouse. It is never easy to watch a top level predator at work.

In the afternoon we set our course for Port Lockroy.  Port Lockroy is a restored British Base and now serves as a small but very interesting museum and like museums everywhere, it even has a gift shop.  The money we spent in the gift shop goes to the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust which is the organization responsible for restoring Port Lockroy and other historic sites in Antarctica.

Thursday 18 February 2010

A Dream Come True

Our calm weather continued today.  This morning we awoke to cloudy skies but the good news was that there was very little wind which provided a comfortable ride to end our traverse of the notorious Drake Passage.  Many of us had bridge tours during the morning.  It was a rare opportunity to chat with Captain Rune Andreassen.  We learned a little about what makes Fram tick and that the most important machine on the bridge is the coffee machine. 
This morning we also had our backpacks vacuumed!  It was part of the Prevention Against Alien Species in Antarctica program.  At the same time we were issued our life jackets for the Polar Cirkle boats. The Expedition Team helped fit each one of us with a life jacket but even so, it  felt  a bit like wrestling with an octopus with straps all over the place.
Our busy morning continued as we all had to attend an important IAATO briefing.  The briefing explained how we must conduct ourselves while on shore in Antarctica.
In the afternoon we had more lectures, this time on photography and ice.
At 15:30 we dropped anchor at Half Moon Island. The sun came out.  The sky was clear. Perfect conditions  for our first landing in Antarctica. It was a very short boat ride.  Once on shore we had a quick orientation as to the layout of the island and were told what time to be back at the landing site.
Suddenly we were face to face with our dreams of Antarctica.  All over the beach were cavorting Antarctic Fur Seals and PENGUINS!!!  Chinstrap Penguins.  None of us will ever forget this day.  Our first icebergs. Our first time setting foot in Antarctica.  The huge impressive landscapes of mountains and ice. Antarctic Fur Seals. AND PENGUINS.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Our Good Luck Charms

An albatross following a ship used to be considered good luck by sailors, that is until the mariner in Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner shot one with a crossbow.  Fearful of the consequences of killing their good luck charm, his fellow sailors hung the albatross around his neck as punishment.  Regardless, the sailors in the famous poem all ended up dieing.
I suppose, depending on your point of view, an albatross can be seen as good luck or as bad luck.   All day long we had several Wandering Albatross and Black-browed Albatross following the ship.  How can anything so magnificent be anything but good luck?  They soared effortlessly over the sea using the mild winds we had today to stay aloft.
The Drake has been rolling by in steady swells throughout the day.  A calm Drake is an excellent way to start our Antarctic adventure.
After breakfast we joined the Expedition team on deck seven for wild life watching.  Occasionally those magnificent albatross would soar by the length of the ship having a look at all of us.  At around 21:00 we noticed a definite change in the outside temperature.  There is now a frigid chill to the air signifying that we have crossed the Antarctic Convergence.  We are now in Antarctica!
We had a full day of lectures and watched part of the excellent Blue Planet documentary series in the evening.
Tomorrow we hope to do our first landing at Half Moon Island.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The alarm goes off at 5am.  Taxi to the airport - 6am.  Wait 10 minutes for self checkin machine.  Machine rejects my passport. Wait thirty minutes in line for assisted checkin.  Wait twenty minutes in another line to go through security.  Take my shoes off?  Frisked thoroughly by security guy.  Walk fifteen minutes to gate.  Starbucks infusion enroute.  Wait thirty minutes in lounge.  Board aircraft.  No food on the airplane.  Should have bought a sandwich in the airport. Fly for a long while. Damn. My personal television monitor isn't working. Land in a new airport.  Thoroughly lost in the airport.  Grab a snack.  Find gate.  Wait 4 hours for the next flight.  Try to sleep but the seats in the waiting room are designed to prevent sleep. Board another aircraft.  Great!  Got my aisle seat.  Crying baby keeps me awake most of the night.  Finally manage to fall asleep.  Beverage cart crashes into my leg jolting me awake.   Finally. The baby is asleep.  My bruised, throbbing leg keeps me awake.  Fly for 14 hours.  Land in Buenos Aires.  My bag is the very last one off the plane.  Thrilling taxi ride to hotel. Line up to check into hotel.  Sleep at last.  Wakeup call at 5am. Wide awake during thrilling ride to the airport.  Lineup to check in. Lineup for security. Pulled aside for security check.  Thiry minutes later, repack luggage. Board another airplane. Three hour flight to Rio Grande.  Rio ___?  Where am I? Deplane.  Another waiting room.  Replane.  Fly one hour to Ushuaia.  Finally at 5pm we board our ship.  The Fram.  She is impressive. A beautiful ship. At last. Our home for the next 8 days.  No more lugging overweight bags around.   No more taxis or buses or trains or airplanes. No more airports. No more moving or packing. Just kick back and relax.
YOU MADE IT!!!  Now we will do everything for you.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!!

Once the Panama Canal opened in 1914 there wasn't much of a need for sailing vessels to "round the Horn". Still, rounding the Horn is a major nautical achievement and a piece of mariner's history. It is a "must see" piece of real estate if the chance presents itself. Given our fair weather we were able to alter our course and head directly for Cape Horn. Not only did we have excellent views of the famous rock but we cruised from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean and then back into the Atlantic again. We truly rounded the Horn.
Our day was filled with lectures and the routines of preparing to disembark Fram: packing, retrieving our passports and reviewing our ongoing travel arrangements.
Our photographer Camille Seaman showed a delightful photographic recap of our adventures in Antarctica.
We have been moved by the Icey Continent. At times our contact with nature has been nearly overwhelming. None of us will forget our adventures. We have made new friends. We will be sad to leave Fram. But if we are sad upon departing Fram and Antarctica, doesn't that mean we had a perfect holiday?

We Paid The Price

We paid the price on the way down. We had a storm. It was rough. Lots of people were ill. But you know what? It made the next ten days all the sweeter. I bet that there isn't one person on board that would say it wasn't worth it.
We had a nearly perfect trip. Read back through the blog. We do our best to describe our adventures but words fail us. I think words would fail even the best of writers. Photographs cannot capture the reality. Words can't describe the experience. Besides, what I feel does not describe what the person standing next to me is feeling.

These Drake days are a chance to reflect on all we have seen and done. A chance to catch our breath after a whirl wind of unceasing exciting activity. Today our time was taken up with lots of interesting lectures, bridge tours and relaxation.

All day long the Drake has been dead calm with a gently rolling swell. It is very soothing. The motion lulls one to sleep. We deserve these calm seas after our bumpy ride down.

Tonight we enjoyed a sumptuous Captain's dinner. The Captain gave a very nice speech before dinner and thanked all of the departments on board for doing such an excellent job.

At 22:00 there was a spirited auction to raise money for various environmental charities. The prized item for auction is always the ship's chart showing our entire trip. In fact it was the very chart pictured here. The red arrows and labels were added in Photoshop.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Got'cha Penguin!!

Ok, we were bragging yesterday, so we will be very low key about the events of today: It was even better!! In the morning we were all getting ready for a hideously early landing at Brown Bluff. The weather was beautiful and there was hardly any wind. Perfect landing conditions, but, alas, the ice was blocking the landing site. Oh my, we could have stayed in bed, everybody thought; but not so, because instead of landing we went for a cruise with Fram along the ice in search of wildlife. And, lo and behold, after a while we came across what we all had secretly been hoping for when we came to this northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. There on an ice flow an Emperor Penguin was basking in the sun. This unique inhabitant of Antarctica seemed to enjoy all the attention he was getting, because he patiently remained in place until everybody had their picture of him. Only then did he take to the water. For us it was time to leave the Antarctic Sound for the South Shetland Islands and as we were getting into open water we struck it lucky yet again. A sizable pod of Orcas were travelling alongside us at high speed for a short while. They were actually the only species we had not seen on this voyage. After this nothing, we thought, could really excite us any more.

We were taught differently in the evening when we went for the last landing of this cruise at Halfmoon Island. It was already rather late when we got here, so the light was getting dim, but again the wildlife presented new firsts for us. We had seen penguins and seals all right, but so far no Chinstraps and no Fur Seals (not up close at any rate). Here they were on the beach in abundance, and we saw them in perfect weather conditions with wonderful evening light in front of the breathtaking panorama of the islands. Again we cannot but be grateful for another unforgettable day.

Friday 12 February 2010

Words do not describe it!

We really shouldn't brag, but we did have another perfect day in Antarctica. After a relatively quiet night on the Bransfield Strait we woke up very early in front of Deception Island. It was a gloomy morning and it was snowing lightly, but the scene was perfect for the passage into the famous caldera. Dark loomed the active volcano as we were cruising its forbidding waters. Later in the day we continued back to the Antarctic continent and - what do you know - as we were getting into the Antarctic Sound the weather was clearing up again and perfect sunshine greeted us. We viewed the famous tabular icebergs in front of a breathtaking panorama under perfect conditions. We even had fresh waffles to complete the unforgettable moment.
Later on we encountered sea-ice from last winter (which is extremely rare at this time of the year) and there was a lot of wildlife on the ice and in the water. As the light was getting mellow and charming in the evening we put the Polar Cirkle boats into the water and went for a small cruise. It was simply indescribable. There were Leopard, Weddell and Crabeater seals on the ice flows as well as Adelie and Gentoo Penguins (no Emperors though); and to make the whole experience even more unbelievable some Humpback Whales decided to stop by and say hello. Some of us even had the privilege to get to see these majestic animals up close. Well, what a day; we all hope you out there are sufficiently jealous now. We cannot wait to see what tomorrow has in store for us on this amazing voyage.