Sunday, 30 December 2012

Join in

There have been lots of superlatives in this blog. Writing about today it is tempting to add more. But it would not describe this day properly. Because to all of the superlatives about wildlife, scenery and beauty there was something extra, something special today. And that cannot be expressed by nicer and bigger words. It is more about something that happens inside, deep inside. It happens to individuals every day. Just today there were many onboard that had this special impression. As many that it was possible to feel it "in the air". A feeling of very close connection to the nature surrounding us. A feeling of being a real part of it, free of the loads that the usual daily life in the 'world at home' is presenting.

We saw Humpback Whales and Orcas in the Errera Channel moving around the ship, diving and showing up again. We could hear their breathing and see the giant bodies move gently in the water. Further in the Channel we stopped at Neko Harbour for a landing. On every rocky patch there were Gentoos breeding and all the time there are others on the "penguin highways" between nests and shore. There were lots of ice chunks, bergies and a few ice bergs in the small bay and while we were ashore we witnessed several more calvings of the glacier. One falling part of the glacier caused a set of waves rolling onto the opposite beach where we were. One of the waves around two meters high.

From Neko Harbour we went on through the nearby Paradise Bay. It was surprisingly silent on the ship. Many passengers were standing on decks 5 and 7 being totally attracted by the mountains and glaciers around. Three hours later we arrived at the northern end of Lemaire Channel. While we went through the channel there were just small comments on the decks like "What did I do to deserve this beauty". The upper part of the mountains was hidden in clouds but here and there we could see snow covered peaks through some holes in the clouds. In the channel there were again chunks and bergs of ice but still leaving enough space for us to manoeuvre in-between them to the southern end of Lemaire Channel. Passing by some impressive arched icebergs we turned northward towards the Drake Passage.

That is what we saw. The atmosphere on Fram and the feelings deep inside most of us are far beyond words. It is more like joining in to the nature's own heartbeat.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Life on an island

Actually, on two islands, as we visited both Deception and Astrolabe Islands today, and we had a lovely time there.

Early in the morning, we arrived to Deception Island and sailed into the caldera through the impressive and famous Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance into the heart of this active volcano. We navigated across Port Foster to arrive at Telephone Bay. There, we landed at Stancomb Cove and hiked along the edge of the lovely secondary volcano there – it’s a “baby” volcano inside of the much bigger volcano that is Deception Island.

The view from the top of the ridge was very beautiful: the rim of the whole island was visible and its contours made very contrasting by the fresh snow and the clouds rolling over it; it was nice to see the icebergs floating in the distance, outside of the island; and one could –almost– feel like a bird, as the wind was a rather strong 20 knots and with the elevation, one could think to be flying…

In the afternoon, we landed across the Bransfield Strait, in Astrolabe Island. This was also a very nice landing: a cobbled beach under an imposing mountain coated by thick glaciers, dozens of seals dozing on land and atop icefloes, Adélie penguins hurrying up the snow slope and tobogganing down on their bellies, icebergs in the bay silhoutted against the setting sun Wonderful!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Antarctica – here we are.

Yes, we made it around the drifting ice to our first landings in the Antarctic. Early this morning we went through Nelson Strait to the southern side of King George Island and anchored next to the Polish station Arctovski. It is a place where we enjoyed both, wildlife and station life.

There were Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, in the water, along the shore and on a hill where they are nesting. To the other side of the station on the beach and in the water were some young elephant seals. And a leopard seal was patrolling along the beach and in-between our polar circle boats. Even though it seemed to be very interested in us, it didn’t seem to be hungry…

Inside the station the winter team awaited us with tea, coffee and some sweets. And of course with some stories about the station and about life in the station. Some are looking forward to the winter because they will be able to walk across the glacier to visit other stations on the island. 

After lunch there was a set of lectures and we were visited by a couple of humpback whales that played behind the ship. Then we spent the late afternoon on Half Moon Island. One thrilling aspect about our visits to this island is the same question again and again: Is the Macaroni penguin still there? It was there. Often it turned away from us as if it was sleeping. But from time to time the Macaroni looked across to us and even tuned in with the surrounding Chinstraps, just with a very different voice. The Chinstraps are still breading but the first chicks have freshly hatched. At the right time when a cold wind started to blow over the island we returned to the ship and closed this first day in Antarctica with a very nice dinner while Fram was still inside the bay of Half Moon Island.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Living on the edge

… on the edge of the ice, that is. Which is exactly what we have done for the past three days! Our original plan was to sail from South Georgia to the South Orkney Islands, but we were not able to do it because these isolated islands were completely surrounded by pack ice, as you can see from the ice charts of the day:

Of course, Fram’s hull is reinforced to be able to navigate through a bit of floating ice, but it definitely cannot traverse solid pack ice, which is what we have been sailing past for the last several days. The edge of the pack ice makes for very beautiful and interesting scenery, but it is best observed from afar: let’s not forget that all too often Antarctic expeditions turned sour when the ships were engulfed by the ferocious grip of ice, which tore its frigid claws into their hulls…
Plan B was to skip South Orkney and sail directly to Elephant Island; but of course, this being an expedition cruise and Antarctica being a place famous for dramatic climatic changes, plans are something to deviate from. But even if we know this, we were completely unprepared for what awaited us: yesterday’s ice charts and satellite images showed that the ice that had previously surrounded South Orkney, had now flowed all around Elephant Island, making it impossible for us to reach it.
It was also remarkable to see from the satellite images, that some of the many icebergs migrating out of the Weddell Sea are 5-6 times bigger than Elephant and South Orkney Islands. That is, we could probably not reach them easily, even if we were on board an icebreaker!

So, on to plan C… Which meant a HUGE detour around the ice to be able to reach the South Shetland Islands, where we hope to make a landing tomorrow. It is always sobering to remember who the true ruler is around Antarctica; it certainly isn’t mankind… 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Pack Ice

On our way roughly southwestward we continued with the Fram University, which offers a wide range of subjects from popular science, over unique first hand expedition reports to discussions about current polar topics. And this university is as open and flexible that the lectures have breaks when there is something thrilling going on around the ship. Like a group of fin whales, groups of penguins on drifting ice, or spectacular ice bergs with intense blue holes, caves and arches. In this area there are mostly tabular icebergs, formerly parts of the circum Weddell Sea ice shelf areas.

On the second Christmas Day we reached the pack ice north of the Weddell Sea.

The ice of the Weddell Sea is rotating clockwise. It was this movement of the ice that saved Shackleton's Expedition by taking them northward. But for us going southwestward it was a problem. Reaching far out north the pack ice forced us to change our course for a couple of hours and go northward to circumnavigate it. Finally at a place where the ice coverage was less than 8/10th we pushed our way through to open water on the other side and continued towards Elephant Island and Antarctic Peninsula.

And again we were accompanied by big groups of birds and whales.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas day at Grytviken

This morning we woke up in beautiful, scenic Grytviken and after breakfast, went for an easy stroll in the old whaling station. Of course, before starting the promenade, we paid our respects at Shackleton’s grave, where he now is in the good company of his inseparable friend and colleague, Frank Wilde, whose remains have been recently put to rest right next to the great man himself.

The whale station – better stated, the remains of the whaling station – are a rather interesting and photogenic collection of decaying machines and rusty tanks, that form a labyrinth that we successfully crossed to get to the simple wooden church that was transplanted, 99 years ago almost right to the day, from Norway to this island in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It was in this peaceful building that we held a little Christmas celebration, where we actually turned a building into a living church.

Finally, we ended our short visit to Grytviken with a visit to the small but very interesting museum, where exhibits give one a very good overview of everything related to this island: the history, the geology, the fauna both on land in its rich waters, etc. Of course, we also paid a visit to the very well stocked gift shop, where a wide variety of books, clothes and gifts were there to tempt us – with a good purpose, as all the proceedings go towards the conservation of this beautifully rugged place…

…whose beauty we were able to appreciate all afternoon, as we gently sailed past its mountainous coast en route to the Drygalski glacier, where we sailed into to enjoy a Christmas eve in its sheltered waters.