Thursday, December 10, 2009

South Shetland Islands

Ship Log

Greetings from Vernadsky Ukrainian research base! At 65 degrees south, the furthest point south we'll reach on the trip. Lovely sunny and warmish day - just visited the base and sampled their vodka.

Wonderful trip. Very lucky with the weather, often very clear allowing great vistas. Seen many penguins, seals and today humpback whales in the Lemaire Channel. Four more days in Antarctica before Drake 2!

Amazing first week in Antarctica, taking in the South Shetland Islands - Barrientos, Edinburgh Hil, Yankee Harbour, Half Moon Island - Deception Island in the Bransfield Strait, Trinity Island and finally reaching the continent proper at Neko and Paradise Harbours, having followed the coastal islands and seen Enterprise and Cuverville Islands in the Gerlach Strait (Belgian names abound here! Weird seeing Anvers, Brabant, ... populated by Penguins!

Thursday 3 December, from Barrientos Island to Yankee Harbour & Half Moon Island

  • 12h00: 62°32.7 South / 059°53.2 West
  • Yankee Harbour: 62°31.6 South / 059°53.2 West
  • Half Moon Island: 62°35.5 South / 059°53.7 West
  • 20h00: 62°35.2 South / 059°52.9 West

03h45: anchor watch from 2am through to 4am. Quite a few duties, the main one being to ensure that the ship does not drag from anchor and that no icebergs are on a collision path with us. On watch with Kelvin, a Canadian who is making a film documentary of a travel from Antarctica to the Arctic. He filmed part of the watch, well briefly. It is cold, windy but otherwise fine. Signing off as too early in the morning to write more.

18h00: Another full day of island touring and landings – and it is not yet over. Having worked the anchor shift, I quickly returned to my bunk to catch up on much needed sleep. Saying that, sleeping in Antarctica sometimes feels like time wasted as you never know what you might be missing outside! Today was a case in point as I knew the Europa was due to weigh anchor at 6am and head off to our next landings. So come 9am it was a case of dragging myself out of bed for breakfast and another day in Antarctic paradise! Our itinerary today has taken us around the coast, heading away from Barrientos Island and in the direction of the larger Livingstone Island. We were making two landings at Yankee Harbour and Half Moon Island.

Ahead of these trips, we took a detour from our programme to visit the aptly named Edinburgh Hill – a huge volcanic rock standing high and majestic at the end of a large bay. Approaching the Hill is an amazing experience as the Europa has to steer through a relatively extensive icefield.

As small bergs passed by there was an audible crackle sound as the ice reacted with the water. It felt as though the ice had all originated from the promontory and the glacier behind it. The rest of the morning was taken up with reading in the library, both my book on the natural history of Antarctica and checking the charts indicated our journey around the Peninsula islands.

Around lunchtime we anchored across the bay at Yankee Harbour. The harbour is named after American sealers who established a temporary refuge there at the height of the sealing trade. Europa is one of the few boats which can actually enter and anchor in the harbour. It is protected by a spit of land on one side and mountains on the other.

A penguin colony is located at the foot of the mountain while a mixture of seals can be found on the spit of land, mainly Weddel and Elephant Seals. The spit of land also serves as a penguin super-highway, as the gentoos and pin-straps continuously make the trip back and forth to sea to feed.

One partner always remains at the nest to keep the egg warm, so this task is shared. Another first sight – at close-up – was the build up of ice, swept alongside the windward side of the spit.

Part of the beach was still a frozen puzzle of beached icebergs, broken ice and frozen sea water! Walking across this was a surreal experience.

Later on we motored around to Half Moon Island. This is a relatively small bay, with an Argentine research base on one side. In previous years, the Europa crew has been welcomed in for hot drinks and chocolate, but we arrived too early in the season – they have not yet arrived.

A group of us made a landing after dinner, to visit some of the bird colonies. The little black birds we went there explicitly to see duly turned up, returning from a day’s fishing at sea. They are storm petrels and are very small, as my attempts at photographing them revealed! It was a cold end to the day however.

The wind was blowing and it felt a lot colder than this afternoon – admittedly it was past 9pm by then! We hurried back once the sun set in, but some of the views looking over the bay to the far side of where we are moored were pretty sensational.

Wednesday 2 December, Barrientos Island

  • 04h00: 62°03.6 South / 060.14.1 West
  • 08h00: 62°18.2 South / 059°52.5 West
  • 12h00: 62°27.0 South / 059°.41.5 West
  • 13h15: Barrientos Anchor: 62°24.6 South / 059°44.5 West

Arrived South Shetland Islands in the night passage. Our watch scheduled for 4am was cancelled as the permanent crew took over the running of the ship at this point. This raised no objections from Red Watch when it was announced via the preceding watch. Getting up at 7h45 we awoke to our first proper Antarctica morning and the view was simply splendid.

Our course was set for Barrientos Island, part of the Aitcho Islands within the South Shetland Island chain. These islands lie to the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula and are the first islands one reaches when arriving from the Drake Passage. It took us a few hours to weave our way into the islands, and we extended this slightly as we were early for our visit (we are following a strict schedule around the islands with a load of other cruise ships – however we are yet to see any of them!). But this time was not wasted as we were able to take relatively close up views of icebergs in the vicinity.

The vicinity was Discovery Bay, where we also saw a rather large Chilean base on the shore. Many of icebergs have been shaped by the wind, and some of us tried in vain to point towards and through the carved out holes. The picture probably looks better without me in it!

The scale of the bergs is something else and I don’t think we have seen anything like the largest ones, although this one was pretty impressive. The blues around the berg and the sea are truly incredible and I think my photos were able to catch some of the hues.

The last mini berg is near our current anchor position and one we have to pay attention to in the anchor night watches – more on this later. The morning shot by and soon it was lunch on deck – lovely Chinese tomato soup (!) and something like a Cornish pasty, but with a Dutch twist. It was great.

And then the time came for our first landing on Barrientos Island, to the north of Discovery Bay. We kitted ourselves out properly, picked up all our essential emergency gear (and cameras, binoculars and all the other stuff!) and we were ready for the short zodiac crossing. Arriving at the beach, we were greeted by a sea of penguins (we had already noted their presence by the distinctive aroma and their calls we could hear from the ship!). One of their number gave me a particularly warm welcome, one which I only truly appreciated on returning to the ship and seeing the photo on a bigger screen!

I was surprised how relaxed they seemed around people. One could get what I thought was relatively close to them. There is a good pic of me kneeling down with a penguin only a few feet away which I hope I get a copy of.

Their relaxed state was later explained to me as being linked to the lack of many predators, a situation which has limited the development of a stress mechanism. In any case, they are a lovely animal (smell aside) and we were very fortunate to have arrived at the start of the breeding season. As the pictures show, one penguin sits on the egg in the nest while the other goes off hunting for food in the sea (fish and squid) or looking for material for the nest (including stealing it from other nests!).

We walked around the coast, following the volcanic rock before turning inland and hiking up a snow and ice covered hill. Reaching the top, the views over to the other side were simply stunning.

As the clouds rolled in later in the afternoon, I truly felt I was in another world. It had such an eerie feel to it, especially with the sound of the penguins and then the elephant seals. As these the photos show, the elephant seals are pretty big animals. It turns out that the ones we saw were the females.

They have come onshore now, ahead of the males and the start of the mating season. This is in contrast to the behaviour of Antarctic fur seals where the males are onshore first to mark out territory for their “harem”. We spent nearly four hours onshore. It was a magnificent experience and a great first landing, we were very lucky with the weather. Long may it continue! We were treated to steak for dinner tonight and then everyone was comparing photos and chatting about the day in the bar later. However, it was to be an early night for me as I signed up for a night anchor watch between 02h00 and 04h00 so I needed some shut eye!

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