Monday 31 January 2011

A Restful Day at Sea

Today Neptune was much kinder to us than yesterday. The sea was calm and we had a comfortable ride North. Some us just wiled the day away resting and dreaming about Antarctica, while others were busy with activities such as lectures, learning how to tie seamens’ knots, a charity auction, and – of course – the traditional Captain’s Dinner in the evening. Today we are taking a look behind the scenes and see a few pictures from the crew mess where our ever ready helpers spend their few hours at leisure and get new energy to serve us so cordially.

And there was the surprise about which we were hearing roumors yesterday: Fram was making good speed on the Drake during the last two days and so the Captain decided to make a beeline for Cape Horn. You might almost call it the coronation of a dream voyage. It was a privilege to see this famous landmark in the history of navigation.

It is with great sadness that we will leave Fram tomorrow morning, but we will be back eventually, either in Greenland, or Spitzbergen, in Europe, or on the beautiful coast of Norway.

Food Galore

We are in the Drake Passage again and it is not as easy as it was on our way down to Antarctica, but it could be much worse. It is true the ship is moving, however none of the horrible stories we have heard about this infamous body of water is coming true for us. The routine on board is carrying on normally with a safety drill for the crew, lectures, documentaries, and visits to the bridge, which are surprisingly well attended given that some of us prefer to stay in their cabins today. The most amazing people on board today are the wonderful men and women who work in the galley and the restaurant. With same happy composure as usual they brave the moving seas and spoil us with excellent service an tasty morsels. Some passengers find it hard to stand up and the waiters still manage to juggle plates and glasses as if they were on firm ground!

The food on this voyage has been excellent. Some meals were served as sit-down dinners, but mainly it is buffet style which makes it more flexible during landing operations in Antarctica; remember: Flexibility is the name of the game during an Antarctic voyage, and that holds true even for the restaurant. The buffet is always decorated according to varying themes and sometime our waiters even dress up to fit the motto of some evening meals. It is quite surprising to see the variety and range of different delicacies they conjure up in the galley every day given that they have no chance to go shopping anywhere during the voayge! Every meal is fun, because we are always anxious to see what will be on the buffet. Shackleton wrote about his men who were marooned on the sea ice in the Weddell Sea, "The very fact that they don't know what is going to be for dinner gives them something to think about." Well, we do not need this kind of mental distraction, but still our admiration for the crew members who are responsible for our culinary entertainment is immense.

During the day the sea calming down a little, so it bodes well for tomorrow; who knows, maybe there is another pleasant surprise for us in store.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Leaving the Best for Last....

Deception Island must the most bizarre place anyone has ever visited. Fram sailed into the caldera of an active volcano through a very narrow passage. Alas, it was raining and very windy, but we would not be daunted by this and the more energetic went on a hike during the landing and learnt a lot about previous eruptions which one of our lecturers witnessed years ago. The stations had to be evacuated so quickly then that you can still find plenty of old equipment sticking out of the landslide deposits. Again we were lucky and the weather picked up during the landing.

The afternoon brought our last Antarctic landing at Hannah Point. It was the most perfect landing site to say good-bye to Antactica and make us want to come back next year. The place was teeming with wildlife and among other creatures we found was the elusive maccaroni penguin, nesting giant petrels, and elephant seals, all of which we had not seen yet on our expedition. The presence of grass on this landing site made us aware that we are already relatively far North at almost 63°S.

We realize how lucky we have been during the last 9 days. We actually managed to make 13 landings or cruisings in this relatively short period of time, which is not the usual average for any voyage to Antarctica. From now on the Drake Passage awaits again and we will use the time to listen to more lectures, and to make our own reflections on the last days and the privilege we had to enjoy them.

Friday 28 January 2011

Shopping Frenzie!

The weather gods were not as kind to us as yesterday, but it was not a bad day either. The famous Lemaire Channel was our first major sight early this morning, very early indeed! It had been snowing heavily all night and we woke up to a rather bleak morning, but luckily the cloud cover was high enough and we could view the extraordinary scenery as Fram found her way through the narrow passage. Surely, it is one of the most fascinating areas of the continent. The first landing was Peterman Island. The Expedition Team went out first to prepare everything for us. They always look like true explorers when they get into the first boat; ever cheerfully they go out and make sure that our visits are conducted safely and with minimal environmental impact. Peterman holds many natural beauties with unique views of glaciers, the Antarctic mainland, icebergs, and a lot of wildlife. There is, for instance, a very special "multicultural" colony which houses Adelie penguins, gentoo penguins, and cormorants all at the same time. The wind had meanwhile picked up considerably and we all got soaking wet during the boat ride to the island. Not very comfortable, indeed, but if you want everything to be nice and warm and dry you must not go to Antarctica!

Our second "port of call" was a former British station, Port Lockroy, which is a wonderful museum nowadays. It takes you right back to Fifties and Sixties when life in the stations was still much more basic and simple than today. The penguins occupy most of the island but there are plenty of exhibits and interesting remains from the olden days to make for a wonderful afternoon. Port Lockroy also operates a post office which is part of the Royal Mail, and everyone took the opportunity to send cards or letters to our loved ones at home with Antarctic stamps and all. There is also a souvenir shop with a surprisingly vast array of gifts and souvenirs from Antarctica. Most of us spent far too much money; it is, however, for a good cause, because the proceeds go towards the upkeep of historical sites in Antarctica. It was a funny sight when everybody came back from the landing with shopping bags. We were told that we should always have our hands free when we get on and off the boats; but how do you that when you are laden with cameras, binoculars, rucksacs and shopping bags? Believe us, there was enough reason for smiles and laughter again today.

Tomorrow we will be in the South Shettland Islands again, which means that our adventure is slowly coming to an end; but we refuse to think about that yet, because more fascinating Antarctic enounters await there.

Pinch me, please! It cannot be true

It is getting better by the day on our Antarctic adventure. This morning we woke up to blue skies and breathtaking scenery. We were in Andvord Bay. A landing in Neko Harbour was what we had in mind, but then the Expedition Team returned to the ship shortly after they had gone out to prepare the landing site. Something must be amiss, we all thought, and some of us were getting disappointed because we were under the impression that the landing would have to be cancelled. Indeed, we could not land there because ice was blocking the site. Instead we went for half hour cruises with our Polar Cirkle Boats. Many of us thought that this was almost more enjoyable than the landing itself, because we were extremely fortunate with wildlife sightings during these cruises. Crabeater seals were on the iceflows in abundance and we all had good chances of taking some wonderful photographs of these friendly inhabitants of Antarctica. For a while a pod of orcas accompanied us and the excitement in the encounter with these magnificent whales was intense.

During lunch the ship repositioned to Paradise Bay which was named by whalers in the 19th century. Now, these men were not renowned for their romantic ideas, and so you can imagine how beautifully stunning the landscape is, when even whalers were reminded of paradise. The good weather developed into a truely glorious day, which even enhanced the incredible vistas. We landed at the Argentine station of Almirante Brown where a statue of the Madonna greeted us, which is not surprising for a station maintained by a Latin-American country.
Some gentoo penguins breed here and we had the extremely rare sight of a nest with triplets in it. The biggest fun, however, was the ascent to a small mountain. Many a hardy mountain climber found it odd indeed to go hiking with a life vest and rubber boots; those who made it to the top were doubly rewarded. The panorama was more spectacular than words can express and there was slide on the snowy slope which took us back down to the landing site in no time. You can imagine that the afternoon on shore was filled with uprorious laughter.

We had another perfect day today and the Expedition Team tell us that tomorrow will be even more beautiful. Let's hope the weather stays nice, because the beauty of this continent is unfolding for us in a picture-perfect way.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Dramatic Coastlines

We are now on the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula and the scenery is very different here. The mountains soar dramatically from the sea and the glaciers feed directly into sometimes rather narrow waterways. Again the weather was good for us and landing conditions were easy. Our skillful boatdrivers manouvred us to shore safely today without great difficulty. It must be said though, that the drivers are true masters of their trade. Nobody envies them for the constant cold in which they have to perform their task; yet they are always friendly and polite.

The first landing spot which the Expedition Leader chose for us today was Cuverville Island. It houses an enormous colony of gentoo penguins. We saw that a large proportion of the chicks have been born far too late in the season to have a chance of survival. This, we learnt, is partly due to global warming and the resulting greater quantities of snow which fall during the winters nowadays. Consequently the nesting sites for the penguins are snowfree too late in the season for the penguins to be able to complete their breeding cycle in time: a rather sad reminder of the careless use man makes of the whole planet. Apart from the penguins there was a lot of whale bone on shore which captivated our interest; and a fierce looking leopard seal was patrolling the shoreline. It kept sticking its head out of the water and sizing us up as if it wanted to decide who us might be the tastiest morsel for it. These seals are actually quite capable of making a human their victim so care had to be taken as we were leaving and boarding the boats.
After only a short break for lunch we reached a very different type of landing site in the afternoon. The Chilean research station of Gonzalez Videla is situated in a magnificent setting. The crew there kindly interrupted their daily routine to welcome us. How interesting to see the way scientists live and work in Antarctica! They also maintain a small museum with a souvenir shop and many of us jumped to the rare opportunity to get some gifts from Antarctica for our loved ones at home. The station is fully surrounded by a penguin colony and here we saw a very rare albino penguin. Our hosts assured us that the albinos are breeding as successfully as their pigmented kin.

Again we know at the end of a day that we have been very lucky and are privileged to experience this pristine wilderness with Fram. Tonight the Expedition Team and the ship's officers are going to present a fashion show which will surely add to the memorable impressions of this voyage.

Antarctic Alphabet Soup

When we woke up this morning plan A for today had already fallen through during the night. The wind in the Weddell Sea had picked up very strongly. So the decision was taken that we leave the Weddell Sea prematurely lest we get locked in by the ice. Plan B was a landing on Joinville Island but as we could see in the morning the landing site was full of ice, so our ever optimistic Expedition Leader had to contrive a plan C: we carried on into a bay nearby, however when we got there the wind was so strong that anybody could see that a landing there would have been all but suicidal. On to plan D: we enjoyed lectures on board while we were cruising through the Antarctic Sound towards better weather. Plan E would have been a visit of an Argentine research station, but they very much regretted that they couldn't host us, because their cool house had a technical defect. This must have been the strangest excuse ever Antarctica! Plan F was a landing site on an island called Gourdin, but there wind was too strong again, so on to plan G: more lectures! Well we had been told from the beginning that we would have to be flexible, but it was also astonishing how flexible the Expdition Team and their fearless leader were. She even also had a plan H: We were to attempt a landing on an island called Astrolabe.

And what a landing it was! The scenery was beautiful, the weather sunny, and the sea calm enough for us to go out. We saw a rather large rookery of Chinstrap penguins, and we met all kinds of seals on the beach. The fur seals were a boisterous lot. Weddell seals and crabeater seals had a quiet snooze on the island as well. A leopard seal was sighted in the water. The Expedition Team tell us that is is unusual to see so many defferent kinds so close together. By the end of the day it was a wonderful experience again. We have now seen real Antarctic conditions and had a very memorable landing in the end. All's well that ends well.

Tomorrow we will arrive on the Western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula and we can hardly wait what adventures are in store for us there.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

The Biliss of Solitude

Ever since we left South America we have not encountered another vessel, which truely gives the impression of being on an exploration voyage. This is not altogether surprising since the Weddell Sea is a very rarely visited area. We were told from the beginning that weather and ice conditions would require the utmost flexibility from us and that we should not be surprised if sudden changes or cutbacks of our programme became necessary. So this morning when we woke up to a bleak and foggy morning in this ice ridden sea we thought that we would be in for a day with little hope of landing anywhere. But someone on board must be on very friendly terms with Lady Fortuna. The weather improved quickly and we had a wonderful cruise in the Weddell Sea with magic ice formations all around us. The wildlife watch proved successful as well as an unusually large number of whales crossed Fram's course. There was even a sleeping humback whale very close to the ship which was a splendid sight. Seals of different kinds and penguins completed the experience and then there appeared for a brief moment a lonely Emperor Penguin on an ice flow. How could we ever be so lucky?

In the afternoon we came ever closer to Snow Hill Island and the tension on board rose. Would we able to make it through the ice close enough to shore to reach the landing site there? The captain admirably steered the ship safely through the ice and we made landfall. Snow Hill was home to the Swedish expedition in 1901 - 1904. The old hut is still there and gave us an unforgettable impression of the lives of the early explorers. The guest book in the hut informed us that we had been the first visitors for more than one year. That really goes to show how isolated we are in this part of the world!

The island is largely volcanic and does not support a lot of wildlife, but the walk was beautiful. We admired a lot of rare fossils. The volcanic ash is very wet which turns the island into a mudcake and some of us got stuck with their wellingtons, which was a hilarious sight for those who did not have to struggle with these conditions.
Tomorrow we will brave the ice again and attempt another landing in the Weddell Sea. Let's see if we will be favoured by conditions again.

Monday 24 January 2011

Paradise Found

We must be among the luckiest people on Earth! Today was a truely amazing adventure filled with impressions you can hardly describe with words. We woke up this morning in good weather in the Antactic Sound which is usually full of icebergs. The scenery and the ice were simply stunning. As we approached the first landing site of the day - Brown Bluff - it quickly became clear that the ice conditions would allow us to land there, so we made our first landfall on the Antarctic Continent. And what a landing it was: The reddish brown volcanic cliffs were towing over a beach which was relatively easy to walk and we had an interesting and entertaining look into a colony of Adelie Penguins. These little fellows quickly conquered our hearts with their sometimes almost human behaviour.

Everybody on board thought it could not get any better than this, but then as we continued on our voyage the sun came out and we saw seals and various kinds of whales among the icebergs. The light was beautiful as we cruised along. We were told about the hardships and miraculous salvation of a Swedish expedition which was marooned in this area more than 100 years ago. Just to think that we are following in their tracks today!

Slowly we arrived at Paulet Island for our afternoon landing, and all those who thought that we had already had our highlight of the day was proven wrong. This rarely visited island is home to a colony of penguins which is more than 300.000 birds strong. It is true, the smell of the colony is as strong as its population, but nobody minded really, because the experience of being in this place was aweinspiring and exhilarating at the same time. There were also nesting cormorants and we saw the remains of one of the huts which the unlucky Swedish explorers had built. It is a truely enchanted place.

Surely, it cannot get any better than today, although who knows ... tomorrow we are going South into the Weddell Sea, where only very few vessels operate, and there may be many surprises for us in store.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Antarctica - we made it

Oh, we had another glorious day in our adventure! In the morning we continued our crossing of the Drake Passage and there were lots of things to do: We had a comprehensive briefing of all the rules and regulations that need to be observed by everyone visiting Antarctica in order to leave minimum impact on this last great wilderness on Earth. Isn't it remarkable that so much care is taken here to protect the envirionment? Later we had our bags and rucksacs vacuumed so that we do not introduce any alien species accidentally. At the same time we received our life vests for all the landings in Antarctica. We had many a laugh trying to put them on in the beginning.

Around lunchtime we saw the first icebergs as we reached the South Shettland Isands. Neptune was getting a little angry as we approached our landing site in Halfmoon Island. The wind picked up and snow squalls started to set in. Were were by no means certain if we would be able to do the landing, but in the end it turned out that conditions were just good enough. It was such a joy that most of us made it to shore and set foot on Antarctic soil for the first time and we saw many interesting and lively ceatures. There were some remains of the days of the sealers as well and it was an exhilerating feeling to be in the middle of this amazingly strange wild place. By the end of the landing Neptune really was angry and started moving all the furniture around. The last of us to return to Fram had a very wet ride. Nobody minded though, because all of this is part of the adventure.

Tomorrow will be another exciting day and there will be more encounters with an altogether mysterious world.