Thursday 28 February 2013

The Scotia Sea

Slow and steady wins the race. That defines us right now as we ply our way across the Scotia Sea on our way to South Georgia. We’ve been making a steady thirteen knots all night and all day long, eating up mile after mile. And that’s the key to travelling at sea. 13 knots is 24.076 kms/hr or 14.960133 miles/hr. Not exactly a speed which gives flying bugs nightmares of windshield splatters. Not that there are a lot of insects winging their way over the southern oceans. Regardless, it is the unrelenting headway that eats up the miles and gets the job done when at sea.

We have excellent weather for the crossing. In the earlier morning we had heavy fog where visibility was reduced at times to 50 metres. By noon the fog had lifted but we were still accompanied by overcast skies. The good news was that we had a trailing sea taking us on the stern quarter imbuing a gentle roll to Fram all day long. This is about as comfortable as it gets at sea. The motion was just enough to remind you that you’re on a ship but not enough to cause you to spill your drink. A perfect motion for inducing a somnambulant restful state in everyone. That is precisely part of the enjoyment of these peaceful sea days. It’s a chance to rest after out grand adventures in Antarctica and recharge the batteries so we can hit the ground running we arrive in South Georgia.

As always on sea days we had a full lecture plan scheduled in the morning and in the afternoon, as well as several documentary films. 

Our course took us along the Hesperides Trough, a place in the middle of the Scotia Sea where the ocean floor rises abruptly from thousands of feet to several hundred feet.  This rapid change in depth creates an area of upwelling that promotes productivity throughout the oceanic food change with the ultimate result of an increase in numbers of whales and sea birds. We sighted several blows from large whales during the morning and early afternoon and the day was spectacular for sea birds. Our species list for sea birds for the day includes, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels including a really beautiful white morph, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Cape Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and Prions.

It is now 20:40 and the dark of night is quickly descending. Fram continues to rock gently to and fro. We will all sleep well tonight.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Our last day in Antarctica

The morning started again with sunshine and blue sky. Around 8 am we reached the Argentinean Station Esperanza in Hope Bay at the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  

The bay got its name during the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901 – 04 when three members of this expedition had to overwinter here. The historical stone hut out of this time still exists next to the station and is really a must for historic interested passengers. All passengers were guided around by someone from the station. We experienced a very warm welcome and we enjoyed the time at the landing side. The station is mainly a military base but we got in contact with Scientifics too. We visited the Adelie penguin colony first and got later on a good overview about the life in such a big station. We had even the possibility to buy souvenirs again. 

On our way back to the ship we recognized that this would be our last landing in Antarctica. So we had to say good bye to our last Antarctic penguins. Even we will see other penguins as soon as we will reach South Georgia it was difficult to let this wonderful wilderness behind us especially under this wonderful weather conditions. Some of us made already at this moment the decision to come back at any time. 

We sailed out of Hope bay into the Antarctic Sound during lunch time. The Sound is very famous for its breathtaking and impressive tabular icebergs we had not seen before. Especially under this amazing weather conditions this afternoon will never be forgotten. 

During dinner we had a last highlight of the day. A group of Orcas showed up directly next to MV Fram and started a race with the ship. We can be so happy with all the whales we have seen during our trip until now. Later in the evening we met our expedition team in the observation lounge for a question and answer round. It has been just the right end of an unbelievable first part of our trip so far in the South.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

The Seasons Change

I’m Canadian and as everyone knows, Canada is a land of four seasons.  In Canada it’s easy to tell the spring from the summer, the summer from the fall, the fall from the winter. However Antarctica seems more like a land of two seasons. Summer or winter. For the past three weeks you can see and feel the change of the season. Summer is over and old man winter is knockin’ at the door.

We are experiencing at least 8 hours of darkness every day now. It’s colder. You can feel the tenacious grip of winter in the air.  A day of warm sunshine is now a welcome respite from the more constant days of damp grey. Everywhere you look you see the foreshadowing of winter. For the most part, the chicks of all the sea birds in Antarctica have lost their down and are now fully feathered. The chicks from Gulls, Terns and Skuas are either flying or about to take their first flights. The Antarctic Shags are the same except their young are also taking their first plunges in the ocean. The Adelie penguins have already returned to the sea and the Chinstrap and Gentoos are soon to follow.

In Canada we see a change from summer to fall in the autumn leaves. On the Antarctic Peninsula the autumn colour might be represented by the pink and green snow algae. Certainly at the end of February the algae is at it’s greatest extent showing up in places like Peterman Island in big swaths of bright pink and green on top of the snow.

We landed on Petermann at about 09:30. The Expedition Team took a pool as to how many Adelies would be left on the island.  By the end of the landing we had counted seven. Drat! I was off by three. Still, there were lots of Gentoos roaming around. The Gentoo chicks at this stage are loads of fun to watch often approaching to within a metre or less. It is my guess that it is hunger driving their curiosity.

By 10:00 snow was falling steadily and the wind began to pick up.  At times there was a mixture of snowflakes and ice pellets but after a while large heavy flakes floated down. Soon the bright areas of pink and green snow algae were covered by a light blanket of snow. And just like that, Old Man Winter splashed a bucket of white over the bright colours of autumn. Everyone got a full hour on shore which was enough time to see the Blue-eyed Shags on the south end of the island and to wander over for a look at Iceberg Alley towards the north end.

By 13:00 we wrapped up the landing and headed into the Lemaire Channel, quite probably the most famous Channel in all of Antarctica. We couldn’t see the tops of the mountains with the low cloud cover, but it was still really great to cruise through the scenic channel.

Around 17:00 we encountered several groups of Humpback whales in the Gerlache Strait. We had time on our schedule to stop to do a little whale watching, and what incredible whale watching it was! We had feeding Humpbacks quite close to the ship yet once again!  We focused o na small group of three whales. It was our guess that it was a female with a large calf and an escort.  Time after time the whales lunged to the surface with their mouths agape. At times we could look down their throats!  We could see their plates of balleen and their ventral pouches fully expanded. The whales were feeding on krill which was evidenced by a large red cloud left behind when one of the Humpbacks defecated!! We stayed and watched the whales for about thirty minutes but then it was time for us to move on.

Tomorrow would be our last landing in Antarctica and then it will be time for us to begin our northward migration to South Georgia, the Falklands and Buenos Aires.

Summer is over.

Monday 25 February 2013

Antarctica in the sun

During the night we were heading southward to our next destination, Neko Harbor, in Andvord Bay, the southern end of the wonderful and very impressive Errera Channel. This should be our continental landing during our trip and we all were looking forward to it. During the night our lovely Lady MV FRAM had to struggle with a lot of ice and strong winds so that we reached Neko Harbor with a delay of two hours. But the morning started than directly with a beautiful sunrise and just before we reached Neko Harbor we could watch many Mink and Humpback whales. So there was no reason to be unlucky about the delay.

The morning in Neko harbor was brilliant. The sun was shining so strong that even 8 passengers went for swimming before they went back on board. A Weddell sea that was lying directly next to the landing site has been the first photo object. 

She was very lazy and stayed on the beach until the last passenger had taken his picture.  Neko harbor is famous for its Gentoo penguin colony and we had the Gentoos all over the place. It is the end of the season and so the chicks are running around in the colony, hoping to find the parents to get more food. Plenty adults started already their own malting, feathers were flying all over the place.

Most passengers climbed up a little ridge behind the penguin colony. The spectacular view we got from the hill over Andvord Bay will be unforgettable.

Back on board we sailed through the Neumayer Channel to our next destination – Port Lockroy, a former British Station. Today it is a museum and souvenir shop run by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. As the museum is a post office also we used the possibility to send postcards to our friends and family at home.

In the later afternoon the sun said good bye to us. The wind was picking up a bit and after the landing all passengers have been happy to be back onboard to enjoy the evening in the panorama lounge with a nice drink and an interesting talk with new friends. 

But we had 14 guests that had other plans for the evening and even the night. 14 campers left the ship after dinner to arrange their camping side in Damoy Point, just next to Port Lockroy. They built up their tents with the help of the expedition team and then they could feel free, perhaps a bit like the really great explorers. This special night, we named it “Amundsen Night”, will be an experience nobody will forget, that´s for sure

Sunday 24 February 2013

A fleet ship

When some ships are on their way to Antarctica they take two full days to cross the Drake whilst other fleet ships like Fram tear across the Drake in a day and a half and manage their first landing on the afternoon of the second day. It is a big deal. An extra half day in Antarctica? A half day less on the Drake?  Put them together and what do you have?  Wh-o-o-o - H-o-o-o!  That’s what!

And that’s just what we did this time and that’s pretty much what we do every time. Less time on the Drake also means we have a little less time to prepare everyone for their Antarctic adventure. We have less time but we still have enough time. It means that we keep everyone hopping on the 2nd sea day because the 2nd sea day is also the 1st day of landings. In order to prepare everyone we held mandatory IAATO and Polar Cirkel boat briefings in the morning.  By the end of the morning everyone knew exactly how operations were going to go in order to conduct our ship based Antarctic tourism in a safe and responsible fashion.  Safe for us and safe and responsible for the environment.

We were due to enter Nelson Strait at approx. 12:00. Nelson Strait is one of the gateways to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. It is also a well known place for whales to gather in the summer. We had been enveloped in a heavy shroud of fog all morning long. Everyone wondered how it would affect the landing and would we be able to spot any whales in the dense fog?

Earlier this summer we had encountered heavy fog several times before in this same area.  On several of those occasions the fog dissipated as we approached the South Shetlands.  And just like several times before, as we approached Nelson Strait and the South Shetland Islands, the fog parted revealing the magnificent coastlines of Nelson and Robert Islands.  And, sure enough, we spotted two massive Fin Whales as we were approaching the Strait.

By 14:45 we were at anchor just off of Half Moon Island under glorious blue skies and with very little wind.  It couldn’t have been any better. Lots of people signed up for the hike we had on offer at Half Moon - so in order to expedite that, we sent all of the hikers on shore first.  Approximately 120 people went on the hike.  It took the hikers just over an hour to get to a lofty view point where they could see all the way around tiny Half Moon.  I am told by several very enthusiastic hikers that the best part was “bum sliding” in the snow all the way back down a very long slope.

Meanwhile at the main landing site, everyone got a chance to see raucous Chinstrap Penguins.  Most of the chicks have completely moulted out of their down, boasting their first real feathers.  It was plain to see that very soon all of the penguins would be heading out to sea.

It is now 20:00 and we are making our way across the Bransfield Strait.  It is the last large body of water we have to cross before arriving to the Antarctic Peninsula.  We have a rather golden sunset to mark our first day in Antarctica.

Saturday 23 February 2013

It needs time to be prepared

After a good sleep during our first night on board FRAM we awoke in a Drake Lake. There was absolutely no wind. The sea was flat like a mirror. And those, that have been up early could enjoy an incredible nice sunrise.

This day was made for our Antarctica preparation.  Our lecturers were working hard to give us all the information about Antarctica. We had even a photo work shop where we were trained by our board photographer to do good photos later on. We felt a little bit like students in a university. Learning, learning, learning. Is this really a holiday day? Yes – we had so much fun and our expectations became even bigger as more as we heard about Antarctica.

Between the lecturers we had to vacuum our outdoor clothes and bag backs to be sure that we do not introduce any seeds or other biological material into Antarctica. After lunch we had the famous “Rubber boot rental”. The Muck boots we got look very warm and comfortable.

Antarctica – we are ready to go. We are looking forward to our first landing tomorrow.  Until now we were dreaming about penguins and ice. Tomorrow it will become reality.