Wednesday 30 November 2011

We made it!

It is understandably very important for our passengers to set foot on the mainland of Antarctica (although if you think about it, all land is connected and the separation of islands from the mainland by water is merely an illusion!). Yesterday we could not make our mainland landing due to waves and swell at the tender-pit, so today we had another go, this time at Almirante Brown in Paradise Bay. But before we tell you about our visit, we should mention our fantastic cruise through the Gerlache Strait this morning. Overnight we sailed on a bumpy Bransfield Strait but as soon as we entered the Gerlache, the sea smoothed out. The sun was shining through breaks in the cloud, illuminating Brabant and Anvers Islands to our starboard side and the mainland to port. The ice caps and glaciers on those islands always remind us of whipped meringue! The clouds were foreboding, especially the Altocumulus lenticularis clouds, which often indicate bad weather to come.

Almirante Brown is the site of an Argentinean summer research base, seldom used (no one was home today!). When we arrived in the afternoon, we were confronted with a lot of ice and icebergs apparently blocking the landing site. However, we were lucky to have a beautiful, clear path between two medium-sized bergs, which acted to shelter our landing from the very strong winds blowing at the time.

After we touched down on mainland Antarctica, many of us climbed the steep hill behind the station and admired the tremendous view of Paradise Bay before sliding down on our rears. What fun!

So, for those “ticking” continents in their travels "life list", Antarctica is the big one, and certainly the most difficult to achieve. Today we made it!

The other side

We normally visit places on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula because the ice conditions are usually favourable. However, if you are very lucky, like we are, you may get to visit the eastern side, AKA the Weddell Sea side. Early this morning we approached Paulet Island in idyllic conditions of sun and calm winds. Paulet is famous for its huge Adélie Penguin colony and it did not disappoint! Almost everywhere we looked we could see Adélies laying down incubating their eggs, standing and singing to each other, carrying stones and generally doing what Adélie Penguins do (note the flying penguin below!). On one corner of the colony and in several other places, Blue-eyed Shags were breeding. We had a chance to hike up a hill on the island for a great view of the penguins and the beautiful, though stark, landscapes below. Although the wind picked up a little through the morning, it remained pleasant, and the sun was strong. Towards the end of the landing the wind picked up.

After returning to the ship we sailed towards Brown Bluff, our next landing site. The winds which started at Paulet, increased and we were soon in raging 60 knot catabatic winds from the nearby mainland icecap. We instantly understood how fickle the Antarctic weather can be- from a lamb to a lion. We anchored at Brown Bluff and the Expedition team suited up for the landing but it was clear from the conditions at the tender-pit that we could not continue (the tender-pit is where we get in and out of our Polarcirkel boats). We closed the doors and sailed on through the Antarctic sound, admiring the incredible tabular icebergs that seemed to be all around us.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Once in a blue moon

Our title for this blog describes the weather we had today- our first in Antarctica. From morning till night is was calm. The weather in Antarctica could be described as “energetic” and the wind almost always blows, sometimes ferociously. But today not! We also had sun and intermittent bright overcast conditions which made for great photographic opportunities.

Our first landing in Antarctica was Yankee Harbour, Greenwich Island, which we approached in the early morning. There we found the harbour frozen in from last winter’s ice- an unusual condition for those on board who had been coming to this place for the past 15 years or more. However, the ice conditions did not affect our landing because we were able to bring the Polarcikel boats to shore at a point towards the tip of the gravel spit. At "Yankee" we found Gentoo Penguins, which had already begun to lay eggs, skuas, also on eggs, and a few Weddell and Elephant Seals. There were many smiles on people’s faces when they returned to the ship for lunch.

During lunch the Captain repositioned the Fram to Half Moon Island just a short distance to the southwest. Half Moon is home to a wide variety of breeding birds including Blue-eyed Shags, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Antarctic Terns, Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and of course you can’t forget the large colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The sun came out on several occasions and lit the stunningly beautiful north coast of Livingston Island. Many Half Moon rocks were uncrusted with Caloplaca and other lichens. Our smiles were double-sized coming back to the ship this time! What a (first) day in Antarctica!

Tomorrow will be another exciting day as we head for the Antarctic Sound and the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Sunday 27 November 2011

It’s a lot of work to be well-prepared!

As we approach Antarctica, a lot of things need to be done on board the ship to prepare us for this part of the journey. In the morning, we had our clothing and bags vacuumed to remove seeds and other foreign material that may contaminate Antarctica. There are already plants from afar growing in a few places in Antarctica and so we make sure we don’t contribute to this problem.

We also had our mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefings. It is an IAATO regulation that everyone who wants to land on the “Last Continent” has to attend. The briefings include all the information we need to conduct ourselves in such a way that we do not have a significant impact on the fragile and pristine ecosystems and wildlife of the extreme south.

Later we had our boot fitting. We rent special, high-quality boots to passengers so that they remain dry and warm while ashore and also so that we can clean them thoroughly between landings. Again this is to prevent contamination between sites.

As a reward for all this hard work, Elmer and Dennis made magic with the waffle iron on deck 7!

Sometime today we crossed the Antarctic convergence and entered Antarctica proper. One would like to think that perhaps this Southern Fulmar is doing just that as it appears to fly into a fog bank which often hangs over the colder water at the convergence.

Finally best wishes to Margaret Jolly aged 101 years. Her son Anthony and his cousin Keith send greetings from Antarctica, and so does this Cape Petrel! 

In the wake of the old sailors

Early this morning we arrived at the iconic Cape Horn. The Cape is a southerly projecting peninsula on Isla Hornos. The island is renowned for being the most southerly point in the Americas but there is an island called Diego Ramirez farther to the south- details, details! Cape Horn is steeped in history and many a sailor has lost his life trying to “round the Horn” in bad weather. “Our” weather this morning was changeable with strong winds mixed with sun, and there was a lot of swell- in other words, typical for Cape Horn! Unfortunately this prevented our landing but instead we circumnavigated the island in an anti-clockwise direction going from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. We felt that this was THE WAY to see real Cape Horn- in blustery weather.

After dropping off the Chilean pilot we headed south into the Drake Passage. The sea was rolling and we felt the movement. Most of us did well but some gave up the fight against the sea and went to our cabins. Once we settled in to the Drake we got our sea-legs, the sun came out, and the albatrosses and petrels followed the Fram.

In the evening some of our great crew sung to us in the Panorama Lounge on deck 7. It was the perfect ending to our day.

Friday 25 November 2011

Ice and wood!

Two "elemental" themes for today were ice and wood. Ice in the Beagle Channel, and wood in and around Puerto Williams. The morning was devoted to ice as we cruised west along the beautiful Beagle Channel, named after the ship HMS Beagle during the first hydrographic survey of the coasts of southern South America in 1826-1830. Both sides of the channel are mountainous and on the mainland (north) side, the ice cap of the Darwin Cordillera, feeds several spectacular glaciers that end above or on the shores of the channel. Each glacier, starting with “España” to the west, and ending with “Holanda” in the east is named after a European country. The viewing conditions were wonderful with the sun lighting the glacial ice and ice-capped mountain tops and myriad puffy clouds strewn about the sky.

Once the glacial parade had finished, we continued down the Beagle to our afternoon destination of Puerto Williams, Chile. Puerto Williams is a smallish navel town on Isla Navarrino, Chile. It is the most southernly TOWN in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina being the most southerly CITY in the world. Magellanic forest, hills and mountains form the backdrop to the town, which we took advantage of by making two hikes- one to an ethnobotanical reserve and the other to a small waterfall and forest trail. Along the way we immersed ourselves in this cool forest, the smell of the Southern Beech wood, and its flora and fauna.

In the evening we returned to the ship for supper and started our voyage to Antarctica. Tomorrow morning we should be off Cape Horn with the Drake Passage in the front of us. Exciting times are ahead!

It just gets better!

Yesterday in the mid-evening the intrepid Torres del Paine visitors returned to the ship. We did not have a chance yesterday to show any images from that trip so here are a few.

Today, we had a very early start when we landed at Isla Magdelena in the Strait of Magellan to the northeast of Punta Arena. We spent the early morning there, enjoying the calm conditions and eventual sun. Of course the good weather was only a backdrop, albeit welcome, to the main attraction- the huge (ca. 70,000 pairs) colony of Magellanic Penguins that call Magdalena their home for a few months each year. Neighbours to the penguins were Kelp Gulls and skuas.

We were back on-board at 0900 and we started steaming back south, through the Chilean Fiords. For the normally wet and misty fiords, the weather was marvelous. In the afternoon we approached Tucker Island to observe the breeding birds there. However, when we arrived we had a great surprise- a family of Andean Condors were perched in a dead tree, on the ground, and soaring overhead! We spent about 30 minutes watching these great, iconic birds. It was hard to leave the island but as we did, a large pod of Peale's Dolphins followed us and took our minds off the birds!

Later in the day we navigated the narrow Gabriel Channel. In places, the land each side of us came close and we could make out individual trees, waterfalls, and birds along the shore. Save for one lonely fishing boat there was not a single mark of humans on the cold but appealing landscape.