Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The table is set

Overnight we sailed from the relatively ice-free waters of the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula north and through the Antarctic Sound. Quickly we started to notice the large icebergs ahead of us, many of which were tabular (= like tables) in nature. Then we started sailing by iceberg after iceberg, all of which were spectacular in different ways.

Some were the temporary home to small numbers penguins roosting in often impossible places. Tabular icebergs have smooth, flat tops and are chunks of ice shelf that have broken off. Ice shelves are portions of the Antarctic icecap that flow down into a bay and float on the sea while being supported by land on each side. Climate change and warming on the Antarctic Peninsula has caused several portions of ice shelves to break off catastrophically, producing icebergs so large that they are given unique names (numbers and letters) and called "ice islands".

Later in the day we arrived at Brown Bluff which was to be our landing site for the day. Brown Bluff is part of the mainland of west Antarctica and lies  on the Tabarin Peninsula. The ash-tuff cliffs with embedded volcanic "bombs" rise up behind the beach and tell the story that this is a volcano. The site is home to nesting Snow and Cape Petrels, Gentoo and Adélie Penguins, and Kelp Gulls.

This was the first large Adélie Penguin colony we had visited on our expedition and it did not disappoint! Large numbers of Adélie Penguins had already laid their two eggs and were comfortably sitting on them. The beach slopes towards the sun and loses its winter covering of snow early. Penguin like this because they can start breeding early and be finished before winter arrives.

We noticed quite a few broken penguin eggs on the beach, a sign of active skua predation. Huge coloured boulders encrusted with lichens were strewn around here and there, and had clearly broken off the high cliffs above.

After our landing we sailed back through the Antarctic Sound and again had great views of several spectacular tabular icebergs.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Closest to the Antarctic Circle

We reached our most southerly point today when we landed at Petermann Island. There, we were a mere 83 nautical miles from the Antarctic Circle. However, at this time of year it is a case of "so near and yet so far" because although this is a light ice year in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula, the ice is difficult to navigate that far south. Later in the season we will cross the Circle.

Petermann was a delight to visit with its splendid views of the Penola Strait and Mount Scott on the Antarctic mainland, as well as "iceberg ally" to the south. The small island is home to several species of seabirds including Adélie and Gentoo Penguins, Blue-eyed Cormorants, Skuas and Kelp Gulls. In addition we were very surprised to see a single pair of Chinstrap Penguins nesting amongst the Adélie and Gentoo Penguins. It is very rare to find the three species of Penguins nesting together. At this location Adélie Penguins are declining and almost seem to be overrun by Gentoos- maybe the Chinstraps will follow.

Our return to more northern latitudes was a very special one for a small group of 30 passengers. They had the chance to sail through the 11 km long Lamaire Channel in the Polar Cirkel Boats, getting to see Antarctica from another perspective.
While the Fram went ahead, we followed in our tiny vessels, but deviated to observe seals, icebergs, and penguin colonies nesting in the sharp steep slopes.

After the Lemaire, we sailed over to Port Lockroy for a short landing there. The British Base "A" is the summer home to four women working for the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. The trust has done a fantastic job of restoring the base to its former glory. It houses a very good museum, British Post Office and gift shop.
Outside, a small colony of Gentoo Penguins nest around the base buildings, oblivious of the human presence.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

A penguin day

We left windy Deception Island last evening and made our way across the Bransfield Strait. In the very early morning we cruised down the Gerlache Strait with the beautiful morning sun shining the meringue pie, that was the ice covered mountains on each side of us.

Our morning landing was at Cuverville Island. There over 20000 pairs of Gentoo Penguins nest. The heavy snows from the winter persisted over the colony, and is preventing the penguins from building their nests. Gentoos will try to seek higher, more exposed ground where the snow is thinner. This may mean a long hike up the hill for these 45 cm tall poor walkers with a very short gait.
We noticed that a few eggs had been laid by females who could not hold them in. These were laying on the snow unattended, and were easy prey to local Skua pairs. The snow will cause very late breeding and poor production of chicks. Foraging trips from the colony to gather krill produced a constant stream of birds coming and going.

Over the course of the morning the various bergy bits and smaller chunks of ice in front of our landing site drifted slowly ashore, blocking our way out. However, the Polar Cirkel Boats were able to push through the heavy ice and pick up remaining passengers. The last two boast to leave the beach were very fortunate to have great looks at an inquisitive Leopard Seal, who was in her element in the icy water.

We then moved to Paradise Bay to attempt a landing on the mainland of Antarctica at the Argentinean Base Almirante Brown. The approach to the landing was impeded by heavy ice to the point that we had to turn back and attempt an alternative mainland landing at Neko Harbour.

The ice conditions were excellent in the harbour so we made our mid-evening landing at Neko. We were glad we made this important landing on the continent. Some members of the expedition staff used this opportunity to try out a new product and set up camp to spend the night.

Conditions at this incredible glacier amphitheatre setting were peaceful and serene all night, the glaciers rumbling intermittently.  The camping trial was completely successfully, and the team learned first had that the gentoos continue to be active throughout the night, courting, trumpeting and staking out their nesting sites. An incredible experience which perhaps some lucky passengers may be able to undertake in seasons to come. Perta, we were thinking of you!!!!!!!!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Blizzard Island!

Like an icy-hot pad, this active volcano called Deception Island is freezing and hot at the same time. The geothermal activity produces hot spots all over the caldera making Deception Island the ideal place to challenge the cold of Antarctica and have a swim.

The day started early with a hike from Whaler's Bay to the huge Chinstrap Penguin colony on Bailey Head. This colony is extremely difficult to visit the traditional way- that is to land on the beach near the birds- because of the exposed nature of the shoreline and the steeply sloping bottom.
Three groups of about 30 people were organized to land in Whaler's Bay and hike over to the colony, the first group left at 0800 and made it to the colony by 0915. The second group started at 0845 and made it to the summit but were forced to stop and turn back by hurricane force winds and a blizzard. This made trekking impossible with zero visibility and wind strong enough to blow you off your feet.

The third group couldn't even start the hike and stayed at the beach to admire the agile Cape Petrels dance over the breaking waves to feed. As the tide went out, evidence that we were in the middle of an active volcano was obvious in the steam rising from the beach and in the smell of sulphur.

This was to be a full day in Deception Island, we had the place all to ourselves. So over lunch we repositioned to Telephone Bay, deep inside the caldera. There we enjoyed the beautiful scenery produced by patterns of snow and volcanic ash.  We walked along the shoreline of a small salt water inlet and discovered many dead and alive krill washed up.
Krill are small (3cm) shrimp-like animals which are super-abundant in Antarctic waters and represent the cornerstone of marine ecosystems in these parts. Almost everything eats krill!
The most courageous of our passengers decided to have a little swim despite the strong winds that kept swamping the beach.
An extremely young Weddell Seal -that still had the characteristic baby fur or lanugo- stayed on the beach during all our landing so that everybody could see him. The seal mother was not far away.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The monster is tamed

"The Drake" as it is not so fondly referred to, calmed down today and provided a relatively smooth ride for us south to Antarctica. Occasionally he bucked the ship just to remind us that he was still there but overall it was much more comfortable than yesterday. The sun shone all day which also added to the feeling of tranquility in and outside the ship, and prompted some to enjoy the rays over a nice glass of champagne!

We had a full programme of lectures on this sea-day including the mandatory IAATO (International Associated of Antarctic Tour Operators, www.iaato.org) briefings. Tourism in Antarctica is strictly controlled and these briefings give us all the information we need to behave in such a way that we do not have any negative impact on the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.

The bird watchers and photographers had a "field day" today with many seabirds flying around and following the ship. Petrels, prions, and albatrosses danced in the air like kites, which made following them in the viewfinder difficult. Every now and then a group would descend to the water surface, presumably to feed on something.

Then in the early evening we spotted a few whales, only to realise that they were forerunners of a much larger group of 25 or more Humpback Whales. The ship diverted its course slightly to give us a better look, and we were not disappointed. Whales in the group each spouted on its own schedule, like so many whistles letting off steam.

We could see the characteristic, long white pectoral fins of the "humps" showing as turquoise objects just below the surface and we saw one "fin slapping"- waving its pectoral fin from one side to the other and slapping the water at each end of the arc.

We also witnessed the special sounding dives of these animals when they arch over and descend to the deeps, finally showing their amazing and uniquely patterned (on the undersurface) fluke.

To top the day off we had our Famous Fram Fashion show, where the multitalented crew, officers and expedition staff modelled the beautiful clothing available in our gift shop. Tomorrow we start our landings in Antarctica with a full day a Deception Island- an active volcano!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Life on the ocean waves

That describes our day today quite well! We set sail out of Puerto Williams last evening in calm and sunny conditions. By morning however, winds had picked up to storm force as we approached Cape Horn. We were thrilled to see the "Cape" in these conditions because it was so easy to imagine what it must have been like to round the Horn in a storm. We could make out Isla Hornos in the wind-blown sea mist but were not able to land. The only comfort in this is that all the sailors who have rounded the Horn over the years expressly did NOT want to land there (can you say shipwreck?!).

The strong winds continued all day on the famous Drake Passage, and whipped up the sea into a maelstrom. We estimated the trough to wave crest height at about 10-12 metres or about 30-40 feet. Walls of spumy brine ran towards the vessel from the stern quarter, in a following sea. The Fram fought back, and with stablizers deployed, she pitched over the waves but took the sting out of the sea. We were very happy to be in such a stable ship this day. Two souls braved the fo'c'sle and held on as waves crashed into the bow of the ship!

The seabirds were clearly happy with these winds. They are experts at extracting energy from the wind and souring on open wings with apparently no effort. And they were certainly flying today! We had four species of albatross, a Snow Petrel, prions, Blue Petrels, and of course the omnipresent Cape and Giant Petrels.
Photographers took advantage of this and enjoyed several sessions trying to capture birds in flight. The buffeting from the wind combined with the extremely fast, jerky flight of the birds made this a particular challenge.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Beagle Channel

For most of the day we transited from west to east the Beagle Channel. The channel was named after the ship HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern part of South America, which lasted from 1826 to 1830. During that expedition, the Beagle's captain Pringle Stokes committed suicide and was replaced by Robert FitzRoy as captain. On a later and perhaps more famous voyage, the Beagle again sailed in South American waters, this time carrying the most influential biologist ever to have lived- Charles Darwin.
 The Beagle Channel separates the south coast of Tierra del Fuego to the north, from the many large and small islands in the archipelago to the south. These islands have been a source of serious dispute between Argentina and Chile.

In the morning we passed six impressive glaciers originating from the Darwin Cordillera ice field to the north in Chile. All these glaciers are retreating- you know the reason why is you have been reading this blog. We were struck by the contrast of the local Southern Beech silhouetted against the blue and white glacial ice. 
We noticed the sea water in the Fjord below the glaciers was coloured light blue-green. This we learned was due to rock dust or flour ground by the flowing ice from the rocks below. This dust makes it down to the sea in melt water streams or small icebergs that calve off the glaciers.

We then enjoyed great weather (for this place!) as we sailed further east towards Puerto Williams, where we landed in the late afternoon. We explored the town and its forested surroundings, and enjoyed a cultural show and local food provided by the community specially for us. 
On the hikes, several spectacular Magellanic Woodpeckers were seen. This bird is the icon of this cool southern Lenga forests. Lenga is one of the three species of Southern Beech- Nothofagus. Another remarkable plant to be found in many places was the native Dog Orchid.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


No we are not talking about colonial countries of the past, but seabird colonies of today. And the bloggers, who are both biologists and passionate about seabirds, make no apology today for writing a blog about birds!!

Very early this morning, the Fram repositioned from Punta Arenas to Magdalena Island about 22 nm to the northeast. Magdalena is a small lump of very soft sandstone in the Strait of Magellan, and has been designated a national nature reserve because of its importance as a penguin breeding site. The reserve is managed by the Chilean government agency Corporación Nacional Forestalis.

About 100,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins currently nest on the island, making it one of the largest and most important penguin colonies in Chile, if not South America. Sites like this rely heavily on protection for their future and the government of Chile is doing a wonderful job. Visitation is strictly controlled and we were fortunate to receive last-minute permission to land.

Mid-morning we returned to the ship with smiles on our faces testifying that we had witnessed such an amazing spectacle. Through the morning we continued to cruise the Chilean fiords and attended lectures on a variety of relevant topics. We had periods of glorius sunshine in the fjords, which is unusual as the wet westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean dump over 3000 mm of rain per year on this territory. Later we approached Tucker Island to observe the breeding birds there and, remarkably, were able to identify several from a distance including Rock and King Cormorant, Ashy-headed Geese, Magellanic Penguins, many Chilean Skuas, and even Chilean Swallows.

Our next highlight for the day was a transit of the narrow Gabriel Channel. To each side of us towered tree-clad hills and snow-capped peaks. Water streamed down the mountainsides every other meter until it plunged into the fjord. And with all this, we saw few signs of human habitation or indeed any human effect (a small fishing boat was seen!). We think that the word "pristine" was made for this place.

Temperature range for the day 5°C to 15°C.

Monday, 22 November 2010

A day in a southern city

Punta Arenas- what a place! We arrived to this the most southerly large city in the world last night. There are so many layers in this city and surroundings: history, culture, architecture, economy, people, wildlife, and we experienced all of it today.

This was excursion day for us on board the Fram. Groups went on city tours, to an estancia (sheep station), to a Magellanic Penguin colony, and on a hike in southern beech forest. Others simply walked into town and enjoyed this place. Even though it was Sunday, many shops and cafes opened later in the morning.

At the Estancia Olga Teresa, folks experienced sheep sheering, Chilean rodeo (the second most popular sport in Chile next to football), and an authentic sheep BBQ, A.K.A. cordero asado de Patagonia. In this famous culinary delight, lamb is cooked over wood fire.

The hike started out a bit slow but once the details had been cleared up, we had a beautiful walk through a green terrain with snow patches and magic trees full of green moss, lichens and ferns. We came out of the forest on a narrow trail, and experienced an open terrain with a beautiful view over the area, the city of Punta Arenas, and the strait of Magellan. Later the wind picked up and we experienced horizontal sleet and snow, creating a great setting and the end of the hike. As one passenger said it, "this is what we came for...!

The Punta Arenas city tour took people on an round trip which included a visit to the local museum which is mainly focused on the natural history of this area of Patagonia. The work of the missionaries that studied the local Fuegian populations, such as the salesian priest Father Augustini, is also highlighted. Augustini produced a unique photographic and cinematographic records of these ethnic populations.
The next stop was at the very interesting graveyard where most of Punta Arenas' history can be followed as you walk through the mausoleums and read the inscriptions. The tour ended at the main "plaza", where the weekly military exercise was taking place. They played music and accompanied the students of Punta Arenas' schools on a walk around the monument to Ferdinand Magellanes.

The visit to the Seno Otway Magellanic Penguin colony involved a 1+ hour bus ride over dry patagonian pampa. During the trip we were able to spot several fascinating wildlife species including a local skunk who had absolutely no interest in us as he dug for food in the soil. There were a few adult penguins making their way from the burrows to the sea and vice versa, and a larger group of younger penguins hanging around on the beach, waiting to moult.
At the end of the day, all of us moved to deck 7 to watch a wonderful Chilean Folklore show. The performers were accomplished musicians and dancers all of them very young. It was really good to see that these traditions are being maintained and celebrated by young Chileans.

I think we could say, we had a full day!!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A bumpy ride in the Chilean Fjords

Today was a sea day with a difference- we had land around us all the time as we sailed through the southern portions of the Chilean Fjords. Like Darwin, we were fascinated by the barren landscape, the rounded ice-scoured grey rocks below which we could see dark green cool temperate rain forest. The mountain peaks were snow covered and the overall look of the landscape reminded many of the fjords on west coast of Norway. 

The remnants of the last glaciation period, which ended 10000 years ago, can be found in the southern and northern Patagonian ice fields, in the Andes Mountains. Many glaciers flow down the U-shaped valleys from these ice fields to the  fjords below and we were lucky enough to see one today. Lucky because many of these glaciers are shrinking dramatically due to global warming. The particular glacier we sailed by was called "Contramaestre", which means boatswain or "bosu'n".

Our arrival to Punta Arenas was delayed by 60 knot winds that caused the temporary closure of the port but eventually we arrived and slowly moved towards the wharf, the final few meters sideways using our bow-thrusters. We docked opposite the world famous "Natheniel B. Palmer", the US National Science Foundation ice-breaker used to supply US Research Stations in Antarctica. 

Some adventurous passengers decided to explore the city of 120000 people by nightfall.