08.03.2013 - 11.03.2013
This morning we awoke in anticipation, as we were to visit the flooded caldera of an Antarctic Volcano.
Before approaching Deception Island the sun was shining on the mountains, we were hoping that was a sign for the whole trip.
Look how flat the ocean was.
Our first landing was to be at Deception Island in the South Shetland Island Group. On our last visit to Antarctica we had not been able to visit this as the weather was so bad. So with flat seas, porpoising penguins and a pod of orcas in the distance we were heading closer to our destination.
The bergs in the distance shone like brilliant icy white beacons. Up on the bridge we were in humpback heaven with over 20 humpbacks spotted.
Deception Island eventually came within touching distance – almost literally, as the Polar Pioneer squeezed between its narrow rocky entrance called Neptune’s Bellows and into the flooded caldera.
As we arrived at Whaler’s Bay the eerie atmosphere of this sleeping volcanic giant struck us all. Clouds of sulphurous steam rose mystically from the water’s edge, gradually revealing the dark ashen beach behind which were strewn remnants of past whaling and scientific activities. In a way it was quite sad as it was quite a junk yard. Some of the remnants have been removed and apparently there are plans in place to remove some more.
Despite the apparent bleakness, delights of beauty and life were evident in the way of fur, elephant and crabeater seals. They were hauled out on the sand. Kelp Gulls stood proudly on the top of the old boilers whilst Skuas preened. We also saw some gentoo chicks that were malting. They looked so cute.
To top it all off it even snowed lightly.
After slurping down bowls of pumpkin soup we were able to relax a while until we reached Livingston Island. Cruising in between a water border of jagged rocks, we landed our zodiacs amongst long strands of kelp on the beach (apparently very comfortable “wallow nests” for the several snoozing elephant seals). There were wonderful penguin antics for those happy to sit and survey or wallows of smelly, slovenly “blubber slugs” to wrinkle one’s nose. We were able to get within 5 metres of the elephant seals. They were grunting and groaning constantly. Cameras were snapping whenever they yawned.
Once back on ship, the subsequent boot scrubbing took some focus and energy but it was not long before we headed down to the dining room for a delicious fish dinner.
As we had a couple of days to spare seeing we could not get far into the Weddell Sea, we left the South Shetland Islands and travelled overnight across the Bransfield Strait and down the Gerlache Strait on the Antarctic Peninsula. We headed for Cuverville Island which was discovered in 1897 and named for a vice-admiral in the French Navy. We awoke early and could feel that the seas were very calm. Sunrise was beautiful with the sun shining on the white peaks.
We were greeted by more humpback whales as we arrived at Cuverville Island. There was not a breath of wind and we were indeed blessed by the sun. The whales were amazing, but you will have to wait and see.
We first cruised around the bergs and bay before arriving on the beach where we were enraptured by the Gentoo penguin rookeries.
When we visited Cuverville on our last visit it was a December and all the penguins were sitting on their eggs. It was really nice to now see the results of eggs and there were penguin chicks everywhere all losing their baby fluff, awaiting their mums to return with their food. They were really inquisitive and although we were not to go within 5 metres of them, the rules did not apply the other way around. They came right up to our feet. It was another great experience.
Meanwhile a zodiac had broken formation and kidnapped the captain. They were soon to be spotted moored to a small ice flow. Two large penguins – one in a vintage bridal dress and the other in a dapper waistcoat and tie were seen exchanging some special words whilst Captain Sasha listened on. Shaney and Chris had snuck away and got married. That same day we also had a marriage proposal on board so the ship was renamed the “Love Boat”.
The bow was the place to be before lunch, with the vistas along both sides of the Gerlache Strait so mind-boggling magnificent they were almost surreal.
It was also time for the trip photo so we were told to bring out our bright colours for the group photo. We decided to adorn our Carnivale outfits to add some colour.
By that time it was lunch time, so because the weather was so great it was decided that we would have lunch out on the bow of the ship in the sun. We had quiche and potato salad. We had to keep pinching ourselves each time we looked out – could we really be picnicking in Antarctica? To top it off we even had ice cream cones and the ice cream was actually melting from the heat of the sun. We could not have asked for a better day; weather wise.
Our evening excursion was within the peaceful Cierva Cove. It was filled almost completely with snapping, popping, crackling brash ice, it made for some fun cruising with each zodiac driver trying to pick the best course through.
We were in the zodiac with Doctor Lesley who also performs role of a zodiac driver. We managed to collect a sizeable chunk of ice which required both female members present to lower one booted foot each over the side of the boat and push. At one stage even the oars were out to try and assist. We finally got free, and had a laugh. Of course Shane made a comment about “woman drivers”.
Curious leopard seals spent time around us, and we were even lucky enough to see a seal catch a penguin for its supper and make a real mess.
We also managed a landing onto the Antarctic Continent adjacent to a dramatic glacier.
Upon returning to the ship, the weather was so good the Polar Plunge was offered up. Shane was not feeling well so did not participate he was devastated as he had been talking about it for a couple of months. So with the striking colours of the setting sun a few of the group decided to have their adrenaline fix. From naked leaps from heights above (our photographic staff member), to gangway somersaults and nose pinching plops, we all cheered the hardy souls before they gathered in the sauna to de-frost in solidarity.
We had a lovely dinner of pork belly. Doctor Lesley popped her head in to see Shane as he gone straight to bed after the zodiac trip. He popped some panadol and went off to sleep.
Words often become inadequate when trying to describe the experiences and memories from a day like today but it was spectacular.
From today we are now heading into new territory. The weather had once again changed and was extremely cold and overcast. Overnight we made our way north to the top of the Peninsula and into Antarctic Sound. There were massive ice bergs everywhere.
We were going to see if we could venture into part of the Weddell Sea. We first made it to Brown Bluff. This is situated on the eastern side of Tabarin Peninsula, the spectacular 745 metre volcanic cliffs towered over us.
Back on ship we had a hearty lunch of Pumpkin & Sundried Tomato Risotto. All carbed up we camped out on the bridge to view our approach further into the Erebus and Terror Gulf. The sight of all the tabular icebergs confirmed our entry into the Weddell Sea. It was with joy that Howard revealed that we would indeed be able to make it to Paulet Island.
This circular volcanic cone island measures 1.6 km in diameter and features two large melt lakes beyond its terraces. It forms the nesting grounds for some 120,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins, there were still some wandering about as they still needed to finish their moult before heading out to see to join their mates, but most had already left.
There was also a large rookery of blue-eyed cormorants which had prime real estate on the steep cliffs overlooking the waters below. Apart from the wildlife, Paulet is also rich in the history of Antarctic exploration, for it was here that the 22 men of Larsen’s ship Antarctic arrived on 28th February 1903 after their ship had sunk. The men wintered on Paulet, living on penguins and seals, until eventually Larsen and five of the men rowed across Erebus and Terror Gulf to be reunited with members of Otto Nordenskjold’s geological exploration party. We were able to see the remains of the stone slab hut (insulated with penguin droppings).
The chilling temperature and fading light was the catalyst for most to head back to the zodiacs. And so, the lights of the Polar Pioneer beckoned us home.
Overnight the fog had descended upon us as we headed back out through the Antarctic Sound and started our journey towards South Georgia. Our course was set for Elephant Island, a half-submerged mountain cloaked with an ice sheet at the outer limits of the South Shetlands on the South Scotia Sea. This is a significant place for those Shackelton admirers. It was at Elephant Island where they first hit land in their lifeboats after abandoning their crushed and sunken ship, the Endurance, in the Weddell Sea. They had been at sea for 16 months. It was also where Shackelton and five crew left the rest of the men in search of help. After a quick and delicious veggie lasagne we were all back on the bridge and bow to see Elephant Island come into view. Birds aplenty provided additional embellishment from what was a beautiful afternoon. Grey-headed and black-browed albatross soared and swooped their wing tips millimetres above the water. As we cruised past Cape Valentine where the men first put ashore, it was not difficult to understand why Shackelton and his men decided to leave shortly after their arrival – despite it being their first landing after so long at sea in their three little life boats. Shackelton described the sight of “men reeling about the beach as if they had uncovered a secret supply of rum, laughing uproariously, letting pebbles trickle through their fingers.” It was the delirium of men who had not seen land for 16 months.
We then headed for Point Wild where the men eventually set up camp under two of their upturned boats and some old tents on penguin infested land. Upon seeing Point Wild we were even more appreciative of our warm, dry ship; modern polar clothing; stable zodiacs; radio and satellite communications; and that we would not be eating penguin for dinner … and breakfast … and lunch … The weather was good to us and we too embarked on a reconnaissance of sorts to see if we were able to land at Point Wild. And we did!
Despite fighting off ravenous leopard seals; freezing winds gusting off the glacier; and the thick barrier of brash ice around the landing rocks, we hardy souls set foot on Point Wild. We were able to see a chinstrap penguin colony and there is also a memorial at the point. It was nice to have achieved this feat.
The leopard seals were amazing, we saw one in the water catching sea birds and eating them and the curious leopard seal came right up to our boat and attempted to take a bite out of the rubber. Shane got a movie of him popping up right beside him.
Our day ended with the magical light of the sun moving quickly towards the western horizon, and with fin whales providing a show and blow in every direction. Bangers and mash for dinner. Shane got his fill as they were lovely meaty polish sausages.