Thursday 30 December 2010

Farewell Antarctica!

On this, our last day of Antarctic adventures before starting our long way back home, several of our passengers donned their explorer hats and exercised their adventurous hearts: starting at 6 in the morning, we climbed the steep hills surrounding Whaler's Bay, the famous derelict settlement inside the caldera of Deception Island. It was not an impromptu jogging session for the early birds - we hiked to Bailey Head! When we reached the top of the ridge, at an elevation of about 250 metres above sea level, we were completely engulfed by a thick fog bank; we had only some 30 metre visibility, but we slowly wound our way towards the chinstrap rookery. And when we got there after an hour a half's walk, the fog burned away and we were able to take in the splendid sight. This fabulous spot is where one of Sir David Attenboroughs famous TV shows was shot - and an impressive setting it is!

Upon return to our landing site, several of our hikers cooled off after the strenuous hike in the best - and most extreme- way possible: they went for a short swim in the gelid waters of Whaler's Bay.

After a nice, warm lunch, some coffee perhaps, and a couple of hours' rest on board Fram, we landed in Half Moon Island. This island is located in a beautiful spot, close to majestic Livingston Island, with a view across the water to Greenwich Island. And there was plenty of life on it to make for a nice landing: on the avian front, we had chinstrap penguins, dominican seagulls, Wilson's storm petrels, and Antarctic sterns; on the marine mammal front we saw several Weddell seals, a couple of leopard seals patrolling the beach, and some humpback whales in the distance.

And to finish our Antarctic journey in style, midways through our charity auction, a pod of orcas swam beside our vessel: yes, these majestic creatures crowned an already fabulous day, and made their fleeting apparition a symbol of the fragile beauty we have been lucky to behold the last few days.

The Best Laid Plans

One makes plans in Antarctica in order to have something from which to deviate. This morning our plan was to land on the actual continent of Antarctica at Brown Bluff at 07:30.    But by approximately 07:00 it became very apparent that a landing at Brown Bluff would not be possible.  There was just too much ice!   Alright.  Okay. Deviate to PLAN B.  We would head for Paulet Island and see if the weather, sea and ice conditions would allow us to go cruising in our sturdy Polar Cirkle boats.

Upon arrival at Paulet it seemed like a very good plan indeed.  There was barely a breath of wind. It was cloudy with sunny breaks.  Flat calm conditions with plenty of ice and penguins everywhere!  Perfect. We dropped the Polar Cirkle boats again and off, into the ice, went the first 40 people. But Antarctica had other plans. Within 45 minutes the wind was howling.  The situation quickly became untenable.  Everyone in the Polar Cirkle boats got completely soaked.  They all looked like they had had a shower with all of their expedition clothing on!  It was also very challenging for our AB's (Able Bodied Seamen) to maneuver the boats at the tender pit.  The decision was made to cancel the cruising and switch to  PLAN C...  

Plan C was to head to Active Sound; a beautiful narrow channel that usually has lots of ice.  We had also heard reports of Emperor Penguins and Killer whales in the area.  At approximately 14:00 we arrived in Active Sound and at approximately 14:00:30 it was determined that the shelter from the wind that we had been hoping for, just wasn't happening.  The winds were gusting in excess of 35 knots.  Yeesh.  Back to PLAN A.

Or is it? We had barely begun changing course back to Brown Bluff (aka PLAN A), when we spotted a big colony of penguins cascading down the slope in front of us! The place looked wonderful, sheltered and within easy reach of our Polar Cirkle boats – which, as you might have guessed, immediately placed this unnamed rookery in the category of PLAN D. And what a fantastic plan it turned out to be: we all enjoyed looking at the breeding birds (Gentoo and Adélie); we were reminded of the red nature of tooth and claw when a pair of hungry skuas killed, skinned and ate a penguin chick in front of our eyes; and several of our passengers hiked up a small hill, enjoyed the panoramic view from atop it and then slid down the snow. After such an adventurous day, we all very much enjoyed the creature comforts awaiting us onboard Fram…

Wednesday 29 December 2010

From the Great Wall of China to Yankee Harbor

If you want to see the Chinese Research base The Great Wall of China, we recommend having a passenger on board whose father was an important researcher at the base many years ago - this is exactly how we, after several years of trying to arrange a visit, finally managed to do so! The base commander gave us all a very warm welcome and had an exchange of ideas with our Captain. While this important meeting took place, we were shown around the relatively new base buildings - and we were all mightily impressed by the fabulous installations the Chinese base offers its residents: wonderful labs to carry out biological research, very well equipped sports facilities, and nicely welcoming housing facilities. We must say, if one could choose what Antarctic station to spend the winter in, this would be it!

And for all of you sports fans that have been anxiously awaiting the results of the First MV Fram Chinese Day Invitational International Table Tennis Tournament - rounds two and three were played this afternoon.  After yesterday there were 9 Chinese players and four players representing the International Union.  Now we are down to the final four: two players from China, one player from Holland and one player from Canada.  The matches today were very competitive and a lot of fun.  The finals will be played at the first opportunity!

After our interesting visit, we sailed past several of the national research stations located on King George Island, and towards Greenwich Island, where we made a landing on the scenic Yankee Harbor. There, we enjoyed a splendid afternoon, watching the gentoo penguins go to and from the sea to their nests; and also a small window into the red tooth and claw of nature, as several penguin chicks were included in skua's dinners this evening.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

11 Nations United to Play Table Tennis!!!

One of the really terrific things about life on board Fram is that we have a great opportunity to mix with people from many different countries and from very diverse backgrounds.  Today was certainly all about that.  We have a large group of passengers on board from China (57 people)!  Several events were organized to help celebrate Chinese culture, including an exciting table tennis tournament and a Chinese Chess tournament.  All told we had 26 players for table tennis.  13 players representing China and 13 players from 10 different nations representing "The International Union"! The atmosphere in the gym was like a loud party.  Everyone was cheering for their favourite players.   It took two hours to finish round one of the tournament.  Round 2 will commence tomorrow afternoon at 14:00.  Standby sports fans for further results!  It was a great opportunity to get to know one another.

Pretty much all day long, we sailed through dense fog banks. Therefore, the visibility was not great, but we still managed to spot the occasional whale blowing. And dare we say, a foggy day with some snow thrown in provided the perfect atmosphere for our arrival to Elephant Island.

Had we seen Point Wilde under sunny weather, we would probably have had a good view of the monument honouring Captain Pardo, the Chilean pilot that rescued Shackleton's men after their heroic stay on this rocky outcrop... But seeing it partially veiled by heavy fog and snowfall made it far more impressive: to think that we are visiting this unforgiving place in December (the beginning of the Austral summer), and that those famous shipwrecks survived 4 months in far less hospitable months of the year is quite astonishing - and humbling, too.

Towards the end of the day, we were treated to a double set of gastronomic delights - both of them traditional and delicious! In the afternoon, we had freshly-prepared Norwegian waffles. For dinner, thanks to the efforts of some of our Chinese passengers, we tasted delectable dumplings - what a delightful way to conclude our onboard celebrations of Chinese Day!

Sunday 26 December 2010

Rare Sightings, Ice Bergs & Research

The morning found us sailing south towards South Orkney in glorious blue skies and warming rays of the sun. Whilst enjoying yet another scrumptious breakfast buffet, prepared by Chef Johan and his able team, we were entertained by the elegant flight paths of the Cape Petrels. In fact so many Cape Petrels were around the ship, that we realised we were seeing a rare event indeed, first described by Oy and Winterbottom in World Avian Nature Knowledge circa 2008, A Chardine Agglomeration. A Chardine Agglomeration is described as a mass of birds surrounding a ship South of the Antarctic Convergence, which we crossed at 0440. Chardine Agglomerations are predominantly associated with Cape Petrels, however, they have also been observed with Prions, Fulmars, Giant Petrels and Albatross. Soon after we saw our first iceberg of the trip.
Leaving the Chardine Agglomeration behind in our jewel laden wake, we steamed into the Iceberg laden Washington Strait. We were greeted with majestic new..ish tabular icebergs which have made their way north from the Weddell Sea, and older bergs which have rolled and tumbled several times. Pods of penguins porpoised out of the bow waves of the ship, and several were seen resting on the ice bergs - leaving many to wonder how they got so high up on ice bergs - one then remebered how motivating a leopard seal behind could make you.
Over lunch, we were able to make a landing at the oldest continuously operated research station in the Antarctic, the Argentine Base Orcadas, which has been manned since 1904. The crew of the station were delighted to show us around their facility, and we think more than that, they enjoyed being able to talk to fresh (female!) faces after 11 months duty at the station. They were counting down the remaining thirty days till the end of their season at that station. As we left the beach at Orcadas, Adelie and Chin Strap Penguins seemed to be pointing us in the direction of our next historic stop, weather permitting Elephant Island.....

Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas from the Scotia Sea!

Our day started with overcast skies. The extremely good news was that there was not much wind. A gentle swell imbued a lazy roll to Fram as we steadily plied our way south east towards the South Orkney Islands. 

This has been a nice smooth ride.  Those of us that traverse the southern ocean on a semi-regular basis know that it can be much worse.  Today it’s rough enough that you know you are on the southern ocean and yet smooth enough where you’re not apt to spill your drink.  That's important.

It has been a wonderfully relaxing Christmas day. There is a serene yet festive atmosphere on board.  The ship has been tastefully decorated and seasonal  music is quietly playing in the background.  Everywhere you look there are signs of Christmas! There were plenty of things to keep you occupied.  The lecture halls were busy throughout the day.  Some people chose to go to the gym or spend time in Jacuzzi and still others found a quiet spot in the Observation lounge to read or just watch the ocean roll by. 

In the morning, several people were lucky enough to be on deck to see Christmas  Fin whales!   
It was also an outstanding day for bird watching.  Some of the most magnificent flying birds in the world soared around the ship throughout the day including 3 species of albatross; Wandering, Royal, and Black-browed. Other sea birds sighted included; Cape Petrels, Wilsons Storm Petrels, Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Antarctic Prions, Blue Petrels and White-chinned Petrels.

Tonight we are all looking forward to a quiz that the expedition team has prepared.  It should be lots of fun!!

Merry Christmas to Everyone! 

Friday 24 December 2010

Christmas at Grytviken

This morning we arrived to the scenic and history-laden harbour of Grytviken. The winds in South Georgia are so strong, that even within the safe waters of this bay, sheltered by tall mountains on three sides, we could not bring the Fram alongside the pier. Not that this minor obstacle would stop us: we launched our PolarCirkel boats and were exploring the site in no time!

The beaches were blanketed with seals - both furry fur seals and blubbery elephant seals. They were all enjoying the delightfully sunny day; something we did, too! It was nice to see the wobbly movements of the obese elephant seals; and also the gracile and funny run- and swimarounds of the juvenile fur seals.
Apart from wildlife,  Grytviken is also an interesting historic site: one of the biggest whaling stations on the island operated here, and one still can get a very good idea of how life was during the whaling days, by exploring the remains of the huge factory, as well as the many interesting artifacts exhibited in the museum. Of course, a further very interesting historic highlight of Grytviken is a visit to Sir Ernest Shackleton's tomb - unmistakable for two reasons: one, it's the most remarkable in the small graveyard, and it's the only one among them facing SOUTH! Having died in Grytviken, Shackleton's funeral service was held in the beautiful whalers's wooden church, which -in IKEA-fashion- was built in Norway and assembled on site in 1913. And today we had a fabulous, and very special way to see the church...
...  As today it's Christmas Eve, so we held a little, moving ceremony in this church. A short Nativity service was conducted in Norwegian by our Captain Rune Andreassen, followed by English and German versions; all accompanied by the beautiful music played by Catherine and Manuela, our gifted musicians on board. We dare say it was a wonderful experience for all involved - it certainly was among the highlights of this trip for us!

And to cap an already great day, we had wonderful weather as we sailed all along South Georgia's northern coast - even with no particularly trained eye for geology, it was easy to see that this awesome island is nothing but a stretch of the Andes gone astray - without losing any of their splendor!

The Shackleton Walk!!

We had a beautiful day for an early morning landing in Fortuna Bay.  Fantastic in fact.  At 7:00 we loaded into the Polar Cirkle boats for a short ride to the beach. The beach is 2 km long and as we were expecting, it was filled with Antarctic Fur Seals.  Thousands of growling, howling, squealing, yelping, fighting, playing Fur Seals packed the shoreline. Big males, small females and thousands of tiny pups.  The pups are the cutest critters you have ever seen.   We were escorted by the expedition team through a veritable gauntlet of large males.  Very exciting!  
Our main goal was to get to the King Penguin colony.  7000 pairs of King Penguins were ensconced on the flat gravel moraine just below König Glacier.  The colony was a pleasant 1.5 km walk from the landing site. At the colony it was wonderful to see penguins of all ages.  Adults promenaded about in regal courtship behaviour.  The fat "furry" chicks were fun to watch. If you sat or stood quietly the young birds became accustomed to your presence.  The bolder chicks would gradually shuffle up, perhaps hopeful that we might be a source of food for them.  Now and again a chick would run amok in an exuberant burst of energy.  It was if it had been wound up too tight and then suddenly let go.  It was hysterical and difficult not to laugh right out loud.

 At 10:30 we set out on the famous the Shackleton walk, starting in Fortuna Bay and ending in Stromness. We made our way between and amongst the partially aggressive, partially inquisitive fur seals on the beach, and started climbing the tussoc-covered slope - and we still encountered some fur seals quite high on them; possibly enjoying the great view?  At the highest point in the hike, some 300 metres above sea level and some distance from the vegetation, too, we were treated to commanding vistas over the two neighbouring bays - this sight alone was definitely worth the trek!
 However, despite the fact that the vistas we had enjoyed were magnificent, the best was yet to come: once you arrive to the edge of the slope going down towards Stromness, you cannot help experiencing awe and admiration for Shackleton and his men, for it is from this spot where they saw the whaling station after their incredible and perilous journey. The numerous passengers that participated in the walk were more than happy to commemorate that famous adventure with a happy and multitudinous group photo.

At 15:45 we began our third landing of the day!  But my, how the weather had changed.  As we headed for the beach by the old whaling station at Stromness, stiff winds and a biting rain blew in our face.
It didn’t seem possible but there were even more Fur Seals here than at Fortuna Bay.  We “ran the gauntlet” again and made our way behind the whaling station to visit the old whaler’s graveyard. We weren’t allowed to venture into the whaling station as the buildings are unsafe and there is still lots of asbestos on the site. Cold, wet gusts of katabatic wind periodically roared down from the glaciers, winds strong enough to knock you off balance.  The driving rain added to the wild atmosphere. 
By 18:30 we were all back within the comfy confines of Fram.  Tonight it will be time to decorate the Christmas tree!

Wednesday 22 December 2010

A Blizzard of Prions

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, the ocean is a rollin’ (sung to the tune of Rawhide).  We awoke to blue skies and 25 knot winds. There were a few high-scattered clouds, brilliant sunshine and deep blue seas. A strong swell imbued a gentle but constant roll to Fram as we steadily plied our way towards South Georgia. 

The southern giant petrels of yesterday seemed to have been replaced with Antarctic Prions today. They flitted and soared in their erratic flight paths all about the ship. It was a beautiful morning and a glorious day for sea birds. In addition to the Prions were: Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Southern Giant Petrels, White-chinned Petrels and Blue Petrels.  There were also several representatives of avian royalty: Wandering Albatrosses.  Stately monarchs glided elegantly around the ship throughout the day.

Is it a new dry cleaning service?  What?  Vacuum our clothes?  The introduction of invasive plant species to South Georgia is a very real concern.  As a precautionary measure, all visiting vessels must vacuum all outdoor clothing, backpacks and camera bags.  Vacuums were set out on deck two and everyone lined up to have their gear sucked free of seeds!

At about 15:30, right smack dab in the middle of nowhere, rose 5 dramatic, guano covered slabs of rock. Shag Rocks!  As Fram cruised by the jagged inspiring spires everyone ran out on deck with their cameras or watched from the Observation lounge.

Throughout the day we passed many hundreds of Antarctic Prions but around 16:30 their numbers increased dramatically.  There were many thousands of them flitting and soaring everywhere you looked and for as far as the eye could see.  It was a blizzard of Prions. It seemed that they were numbered in the millions.  There were also many other species of birds in great numbers as well as Antarctic Fur Seals a Minke whale and even a Southern Right Whale!  There was absolutely no doubt that all of this wildlife was attracted to food.  It must have been an enormous smorgasbord, but of what?  We will never know for sure, but most likely small zooplankton such as krill, amphipods and possibly copepods.

Wow!  With such an exciting day at sea we all wondered what tomorrow would hold for us when we finally arrived in South Georgia.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Scotia Sea

Yesterday, the prospect for today’s sailing looked a bit grim: our itinerary pointed us directly into a big low pressure zone, which usually means high winds and waves. And both we had today aplenty – but we were lucky, because both came from astern, making the ship roll gently all day long. And with the wind pushing us from behind, we rode the wind, albatross-like, making very good headway at a very respectable 14 knots.
Gently-rolling seas also meant that most of our passengers enjoyed a comfortable, queasiness-free time on board, and lectures were very well attended – something lecturers like a great deal.

Although our chef and cooks in the galley are used to all kinds of seas, a calm sailing is a welcome thing - which today was put to good uses: to start preparing the delicious dishes and desserts they will offer us all for our Christmas festivities. Both our Expedition leader and Hotel manager were caught in the festive mood, and helped a bit in the cookie-cutting activities - yummy!

Port Stanley

We spent the whole day exploring Port Stanley and environs. That means visiting a quaint little town with signs of Britishness everywhere.  There were lots of shipwrecks, victims of the perilous days of rounding Cape Horn, when ships were left mastless and had to slowly make their way to safe havens.  On many occasions that meant arriving at Port Stanley - for posterity; and the reminders of the bygone days of whaling.

Exploring the area of Port Stanley was interesting: venturing outside town, one quickly reaches beautiful, white sandy beaches where Magellanic penguins congregate before of after foraging trips; scenic coves enclosed within stratified quartzite cliffs with rock cormorants nesting in them; gently rolling hills overlooking the bay across the pier; or, for the most adventurous people, a bumpy but exciting ride on four-wheel vans to cross the island and reach Volunteer Point, where gentoo and king penguins sun themselves in Caribbean-like beaches, before plunging into turqoise waters. 

For ship lovers, our visit to Port Stanley was rather exciting today, because of 2 famous vessels: SS Great Britain, which for a long while was stranded here, before returning to its birthplace in Bristol; and the Antarctic supply vessel James Clark Ross, with which we shared our mooring.

Monday 20 December 2010

The Free Spirits of Westpoint and New Islands

To sit and watch an albatross is to contemplate the essence of wild freedom. These free spirits inspire a peaceful  introspective experience in the observer. They are magnificent, gentle creatures.
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that it is you sitting quietly with an albatross. On second thought, forget about closing your eyes. You won’t be able to read this. Wild surf pounds on the shore. Wind sighs through the tussoc.
There is a cacophony of albatross and penguin calls all around you. Watching, listening and photographing, you feel closer to nature than you ever have before. The contentment of the young bird is contagious. The stress of your busy life at home forgotten. You are at peace for the first time in a long time. In some small way you feel grateful to the young bird. The important things in life seem to come in to sharper focus.
We had brilliant weather for two absolutely outstanding landings:  West Point Island in the morning and New Island in the afternoon.  None of us will forget this day. At West Point we had a thirty minute walk to the Albatross and Rockhopper colony.  The spicy smell of gourse permeated the air as we walked through the gently rolling countryside that is very typical of the Falkland Islands.  On the way there were many Upland Geese, as well as, Austral Thrushes, Long-tailed Meadow Larks, Turkey Vultures, Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Black-chinned Siskins and Correndera Pipits.
Striated Caracaras were ubiquitous on both landings.    At both colonies Rockhopper Penguins were mixed in amongst the albatross; their raucous ecstatic displays filled the air.  Most of the Rockhoppers and Black-browed albatross were sitting on chicks.

At West Point tea was served with lots of scrumptious cakes and cookies. What a wonderful way to start our great adventure in the Southern Oceans.

Sunday 19 December 2010

The Southern Giant Petrel Sea

The whole day we sailed the Scotia Sea, which today showed its quiet side: gentle breezes and soft waves carried us on our journey towards the Falkland/Malvinas Islands.

And you could be forgiven for thinking this stretch of water was called the Southern Giant Petrel Sea, because we were followed by a seemingly unending stream of these imposing birds for most of the day. 

This just happened to coincide with the photography and birdwatching session we had planned after lunch, so we could not have asked for more, really. In fact the entire day was good for bird watching.  We also saw Antarctic prions, Wilson's storm petrels, a regal wandering albatross, many black-browed albatross, cape petrels, white-chinned petrels and a greater shearwater.

Today we also started with our lecture series, which gave our passengers general information about the history, geology and biology of our planned destinations on this cruise - and so we hope, whet their appetites for them!