Sunday 30 November 2014

Things you can do at sea

A ship is not just a means of transport - it is a floating community, a little city on the move, self-sustained, self-contained.
So, there is no time for boredom. Standing on deck watching the waves and the birds alone is something you can’t get enough of. All these species! Cape Petrels, Prions, Southern Giant Petrels, Albatrosses, all are soaring high above the ship, around it. And if you are really lucky you’ll see a whale, in our case it was a breeching humpback, a rare thing.
Once you get chilly, you can always get inside, maybe to get one of the many lectures. Doesn’t hurt to smarten up a little on birds, history, geology, whaling, does it?
The crew takes advantage of the landing-free time to conduct a fire drill. No worries, the smoke is just for show…
Captain Rune opens up the bridge for his explanatory tours, obviously quite proud of the top-notch equipment on his ship.
Toward the evening the waves get a little more benign, so curtains up! for the MS FRAM crew show! Everybody had a great time, also it is a good occasion not to think two days ahead. Somehow the departure is looming over our heads. Already…?
Next day probably remains unforgettable, for the ship is getting pretty much pounded by waves of 6-7 m height. Plates slide off the table, glasses in the bar topple over. So, always a hand for the ship, please!
Fortunately, in the afternoon we are getting in lee of some rocks. Some rocks?! Crikey, but this is Cape Hoorn! Captain ad kept good speed during the first day of the crossing, so we have some time in the bank to make this detour to everybody’s delight.
A little later, the sea is more or less calm now, the last official event on deck 7: Captain’s Farewell, much acclaimed by everyone.
And later on something spectacular: Our Chinese group has a ceremony during which we all put a letter into a time capsule, a letter to our future selves - the capsule will be kept on FRAM and reopened in ten years time. How very interesting!
And now? Now it’s packing, exchanging addresses, having last drinks at the bar. Many are heaving a sigh.
One more night, folks!

Friday 28 November 2014

Port Lockroy and heading home

Guest blog by Tudor Morgan - Antarctic Heritage Trust

The morning at Port Lockroy started with a radio call to MS Fram who were anchored in the bay overnight to discuss the plans for the visit. Fram moved close into Port Lockroy and held position just in front of the base to make the transfer easy for the passengers to visit.

Port Lockroy is a Historic Site run by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust who have a small dedicated team at the base through the summer months, showing visitors around the site first sighted by the German Explorer Dallman in the 1870s and named by the French explorer Charcot in 1903, whaling followed in the 1920s and 30s. 

Bransfield House was build as part of a war time operation by the British in 1944 and was subsequently run as a scientific research base until 1962. The base is as it was in the 1950s with interpretive material to help the passengers understand what it was like to live and work there as well as the important work that was undertaken.

The expedition team arrived ashore to check on conditions, it was great to see old friends, Over the years Fram has visited Port Lockroy many times and Hurtigruten have supported the works of Trust by helping with logistics of getting cargo to Port Lockroy as well as taking the occasional person to or from Ushuaia. This is where I come in, I have been helping get the new team settled in at Port Lockroy and it was time for me to head home with Fram after the visit.

The passengers started visiting and due to the size of the main building and island only 60 people could be ashore at any time, so Line the expedition leader coordinated with the ship to bring people back and for through the morning.

The buildings are surrounded by a colony of Gentoo penguins, as there is a lot of rock around the buildings the nests are far advanced and most now have 2 eggs, giving everybody the opportunity to see this advanced stage compared with other landings during the trip. Of course the penguins are just adorable and one can never take enough pictures! Port Lockroy is also home to a large number of Snowy Sheathbills who scavenge on penguin eggs, and also clean up after the penguins. During the visit about 30 birds were counted busying themselves around the island and keeping a watchful eye on any unsuspecting penguin that may leave it’s egg. Skuas also nest on the Island and keep an eye out for the same thing. An mini ecosystem at the doorstep!

Inside the base the passengers enjoyed the museum looking at the artifacts and living conditions as well as the opportunity to write and send a postcard home to friends a family. The small gift shop provides great small mementos of for people to take home as well as support the valuable work of the Trust as all the profits from the shop go directly into Antarctic Conservation projects.

With everyone back on board we sailed south through the scenic Lemaire channel, a narrow 7 mile long channel cut between Booth Island and the mainland. Peaks either side rise over 3000ft. The cliffs and occasional peak appeared through the cloud. After our transit we turned west and went through French Passage and safe route between low lying islands, we encountered bands of brash and pack ice and were lucky enough to see numerous seals from the decks including a  Leopard.

As we turned north and headed into the open seas and the motion and reflecting on the busy past week of landings, lectures and breathtaking scenery meant that the ship was quiet!

Thank you Captain, crew and all on board for your help and assistance and for taking me back to Ushuaia from this magical place.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Blizzard Island

After five amazing days of sun and no wind, I guess we deserved a more "Antarctic" day. And we got it at Damoy! The wind howled and the snow fell sideways but all this did not deter us! We landed in a blizzard!

Damoy Point is on Wienke Island and is just around the corner from the familiar, let's say downright famous, Port Lockroy. At Damoy the British established a landing strip for Twin Otter aircraft on skis. The purpose was to ship people and goods by aircraft to British stations farther south when ice prevented ships from going farther than the Lemaire Channel.

A hut was built to accommodate staff who ran the skiway and for personnel waiting for weather to fly south. The idea was a good one on paper but the weather with at Damoy or at the southern stations was so "iffy" that often personnel were stuck at Damoy for weeks. Thanks to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the hut has been refurbished and is maintained as an historic site. With the foul weather we had outside, the hut was a very welcome respite.

The nearby breeding Gentoo Penguins were hunkered down during the blizzard and seemed to be taking the storm in stride.

For us the wind and snow really completed our Antarctic experience and your faithfull Expedition Team kept everyone safe and sound.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

The Silent Vastness

When people go to Antarctica they do this for several reasons. Already the remoteness is tempting, we do have a tendency toward the rare, unaccessible; maybe it is a welcome escape from the dreaded mediocrity of life. We like exotic, be it tropical or - like in Antarctica - very, very cold.
Some want to go because this continent is missing in their collection, some just want to see penguins in their habitat, some love ice.
Whatever the motivation, each of us had a first idea of how it might look like before we went.
It is probably not too bold to say that every single traveller’s expectations were exceeded by far. This continent is beyond all imagination. If you let it happen, if you are open enough to let Antarctica get to you, you will be returning home as a different person.
Two great examples of the Mighty White we visited today. In the morning we went to Neko Harbour, a truly grand arena of glaciers that are coming down in a steep angle from all sides, looming over the beautiful bay, every now and then, under great noise, sending an avalanche downhill or a big chunk of iceberg into the water.
The penguins are absolutely unfazed by the splendor of this place and go about their daily wash right in front of our feet. They live high above the bay, using the only rocky outcrops they could find for their breeding activity. We wonder if they are aware of the incredible view…
FRAM acts one more time as the mothership for our activities, Cruising and Kayaking. Whereas the latter enjoy total silence at sea level, the cruisers span quite a distance and are even lucky towards the end, spotting a Minke Whale next to the boats.
From here we go one more time through the utterly scenic Errera Channel, to reach Cuvehrville, the island of peace. Well, that’s what we call it - once you climbed up the hill above the beach and look down onto the unlimited parade of icebergs, sporting all shades of blue and turquoise, blinded by the myriads of reflections of the sun on the water, you lose the intention to speak. It is like a friendly spell, everyone who arrives takes one look and stops talking. The eyes are resting on the enormous mountains in the background, the ears are only receiving what nature has to offer. And inexplicably relaxed we return to the landing site, either on foot all the way or - like many do - sliding on our backsides.
A particularly magnificent day comes to an end.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

In the realm of the Gentoo

Our two destinations today are home to colonies of Gentoo Penguins. The first, located in the fairly called Paradise Bay and on mainland Antarctica, is also occupied by the few building of the Argentinian Brown Base, once called Almirante Brown Station. 

A Polar Cirkle Boat cruising offered some of our guests the opportunity to have a closer look at the icebergs and wildlife in Paradise Bay. 

The rest of us admired the views from top of the approx. 100 m high hill right behind the station, and remembered our childhood days by sliding our way down. 

The Gentoo Penguin colony near the settlement has increased in the last few years, now numbering some 100 individuals. They were, like many other penguins in the same area, patiently waiting for the snow to melt in order to build their nests and start the breeding season... 

But they are not waiting with their wings crossed! We witnessed a lot of “practicing” during our stay there. 

Blue-eyed Shags also nest on a nearby cliff, we saw them flying all around the station carrying nesting material on their beaks back to the colony.

Danco Island is located in the southern part of the very scenic Errera Channel, off the western coast of Graham Land. The Gentoo Penguin colony here is bigger, with some 2000 breeding pairs, and they are distributed in two main areas. 

The first large group is located on the northwest slope of the island, and the others found their way to the very top of the island, some 170 m high. Up there, snow has melted and some eggs were already to be seen on the nests. 

Some of our very sportive guests circumnavigated the 1.6 km long island on kayaks, while others were given a nice tour comfortably seated on the Polar Cirkle Boats.

Last but not least, camp was set up at around 9pm and a lucky few could experience a night out in Antarctica. Some slept more than others, but all had the chance to hear the sounds of Antarctica in a small group and for a long time: calling penguins coming and going, curious Snowy Sheathbills flying around the campground and landing on the tents, as well as the noise of the icebergs moving with the currents.