Saturday 31 December 2011

Antarctic Sound

A desperate crew seeking shelter two weeks after losing their ship on the dangerous waters of the Weddell Sea are probably not in the appropriate mood to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. But Captain Larsen and his men really hit the spot when they overwintered at Paulet Island, off the south entrance of the Antarctic Sound. Today, MV Fram has sailed the same waters named after Larsen’s ship, the Antarctic, giving everyone onboard the chance to enjoy one of the most beautiful landscapes of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Early on the morning we landed at Brown Bluff, a volcanic and impressive outcrop on the western shore of the Antarctic Sound, at Antarctica mainland. Fantasy shaped brown and yellowish rocks fallen from the cliff and spread all over a long pebble beach set amongst two glaciers house a large Adelie penguin rookery and few hundred pairs of nesting Gentoos. Chicks of both Adelie and Gentoo became the preferred target of all the photographers ashore. Some, though, after warming up climbing the moraine for an aerial view of the area, opted to cool down on the icy waters of Antarctica!
Hundreds of icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colors dotted the course of MV Fram on its way to Paulet Island. Clear skies and ideal conditions for photography on the approach to the island allowed everyone onboard to enjoy an impressive panoramic view of the place where the Norwegian crew overwintered in 1903. Swell was too big for a safe landing operation and the captain decided instead to spend the rest of the afternoon cruising slowly between the ice choked waters of the sound. As everyone on the outer decks agreed, the magnificent views of such mighty icebergs so close to the MV Fram were exactly what they expected Antarctica to be.
Tonight we will celebrate New Year’s Eve on the waters of the Bransfield Strait with the satisfaction of having successfully landed on the coldest, windiest, driest and most isolated continent on Earth. Antarctica, for us, is no longer terra incognita 

Friday 30 December 2011

Arctowski Station and Half Moon Island

Having reached the northernmost of the South Shetland Islands, Elephant Is., today we’re in the heart of the archipelago: this morning we landed on King George Island, where we visited the Polish research station Arctowski. The beach in front of the station was littered with the weathered skeletons of various whales which were brought to their demise by whalers of years gone by, as well as by the occasional and much smaller skeleton of a seal or a penguin, which we assume came ashore willingly. Upon decomposition, all of them provide the nutrients for plants to grow, and at Arctowski we saw 50% of the flowering Antarctic flora: there are only two vascular plants on the white continent, and we saw vast fields covered with the light green of the small grass Deschampsia antarctica.

After combing the beach for a little while, we visited the station itself, where a very hospitable and friendly crew welcomed us with tea, coffee and biscuits, and delighted us with their interesting stories and adventures in this desolate place.
We then sailed towards Half Moon Island, a small crescent-shaped island located between the much bigger Greenwich and Livingston Islands. Cruising to get there took us some 5 hours, which was time enough to eat lunch, rest a bit and get ready for the second landing of the day.
This afternoon, the day was a bit overcast, but that did not matter as the dark sky was actually quite beautiful; and also because we all enjoyed a brisk walk on Half Moon Island; we were all happy to see the funny and –why not say it- cute little penguin chicks clumsily asking their parents to feed them; were happy to find the lonely and distinguished Macaroni penguin standing out in a sea of chinstrap penguins; and were amazed to see that 23 of our guests were so overheated after such an energetic visit, that they went for a swim! In brief, we enjoyed a varied and very exciting day in Antarctica.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Elephant Island

 From the comfort of the Fram it is hard to imagine the harsh conditions that Shackleton’s men had to endure in Point Wild. The Boss was long gone on an uncertain and dangerous voyage to South Georgia. Weeks and months passed but no relief ship appeared on the horizon. Frank Wild did his best trying to keep spirits but I was evident to anyone ashore that their situation was desperate. Nobody in the world knew their whereabouts and nobody would ever look for them in this small beach hidden behind a pointed rocky outcrop on the lonely northern shore of Elephant Island. Nobody but Shackleton…
Today, as MV Fram steamed its way into the small cove of Point Wild, the twenty two polar castaways of the Endurance were in everyone’s minds. The precipitous dark cliff behind the surf washed beach, the chinstrap penguin rookery that feed the helpless explorers and the menacing blue ice of the hanging glacier. Everything was there, exactly as it was a hundred and five years ago. Except for a little monument dedicated to Piloto Pardo.
As August passed by, the harshest part of the winter of 1916 was history. Unaware of the upcoming conclusion of the Endurance drama, the twenty two most destitute men of the Antarctic continued their mass slaughter of chinstrap penguins. Because it was the penguins, the grand grand parents of the very same penguins we are seeing today, that kept them alive. Then, on August 30th, 1916, the small Yelcho commanded by Piloto Pardo, appeared in the horizon. A rowing boat was launched. On the bow, the castaways recognized the figure of Shackleton. “Are you all well?” he said. “We are all well, Boss” replied Wild. The saga of the Endurance was over. So is our pursuit of Shackleton’s footsteps.
We are now heading towards the main group of the South Shetland Islands and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Birds and whales are our only companions on this last stretch to the Seventh Continent. Tomorrow we will be in another world…

South Orkney Islands

Today we had the first experience of what is living in the Antarctic. We landed at Orcadas, the Argentine station at Laurie Island, in the South Orkney Islands. We were welcomed at the beach by the base commander and his staff, being the third ship in the season that called on the island. Eleven months had elapsed since they left Argentina and the relief boat is still two months away…
The South Orkney Islands, due to their position at the northern limit of the Weddell Sea, are famous for their difficult ice conditions. They were experienced by the sealers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by the Scottish explorers that established the first station on the archipelago in 1903 and by the whalers that attempted to earn their living on the islands during the first decades of the twentieth century. Today the ice has been gentle to us.
Orcadas is a kind of living museum. The remains of Omond House, built by the Scottish in 1903, are still visible. So is Moneta house, the first Argentine building at Orcadas, completely restored and named after the first Latin base commander in 1905. The station of the 1930s is nowadays a sort of emergency hut, the magnetic observatories of the 1950s are still in use and what remains of the building burnt in the late seventies will in the near future be converted into laboratories and sleeping rooms for scientists to improve the capacity of the red painted modular living quarters of 1980.
Some Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins showed up at the landing beach and a crab eater seal and three leopard seals were resting on the big ice floes that chocked North Bay. And as far as animals go, that was it. The Argentines told us that this year the winter had been long and all the biological cycles in the area are delayed.
We left Orcadas under heavy snowfall and we headed towards Elephant Island, sailing the Weddell Sea waters along the southern shores of Coronation and Signy islands. Weather permitting, tomorrow we will reach Point Wild. After all, we are in the Shackleton Christmas adventure…

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Scotia Sea

After a slightly bumpy night, today we awoke to calm seas. This enabled our passengers to wander at leisure around the vessel; and perhaps, to take a look at some of the original artifacts of the Fram of Nansen and Amundsen fame, which we have on board as a loan from the famous vessel’s museum in Oslo.

One might start analyzing the model of the ship in its display case, with its robust round hull designed by Colin Archer to withstand the tremendous pressure exerted by ice – should it become trapped in it. Afterwards, it’s interesting to take a look at the various navigational, exploration and everyday use objects also on display: knives with beautiful scrimshaw handles, sextants, gunpowder pouches, enamel dishes sporting the name of the ship… Also on public display are very interesting photographs of life on board the original Fram, as well as life outside its cozy interior, when mariners ventured out to explore the cold territories awaiting them on both poles of the planet, the Arctic and the Antarctic. And it’s nice to know that you can get some rather nice replicas of some of these objects in our shop – they make great souvenirs and elegant presents.

Finally, a further nice thing about experiencing gentle waves and winds in the Scotia Sea, is that some of its inhabitants are easier to spot – and we were lucky to spot some today: fin and humpback whales, antarctic and cape petrels, light-mantled sooty albatrosses… A fine day at sea!!