Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Yet another great day in the white continent

Cuverville Island

This morning we were greeted by another splendid day as we approached Cuverville Island, our first landing destination for the day. Almost two weeks had passed since the Fram visited this Gentoo colony and we were thrilled to find that some chicks had hatched since then and were now snuggling with their parents on their rocky nests. It is so easy to get swept away by the sheer splendour of these animals as they display such primal family behaviour. Those who could tear themselves away from watching the Gentoos also had the option of a small climb to a viewing area above the beach. Two humpback whales were spotted in the distance from this panoramic location. Time went by all too quickly and before we knew it we had to return to the ship for lunch.

Cuverville Island

Gentoo Penguins Cuverville Island

Port Lockroy

By 3pm we had reached our next destination, Port Lockroy, a British Station and the southern most Post Office in the world. Five staff members occupy the station and share it with hundreds of Gentoo penguins. The museum and souvenir shop kept everyone busy and the passengers also had time to visit Jougla Point (a neighbouring island) with enormous whalebones from another time and even more Gentoo penguins. A leopard seal took interest in one of the polar cirkel boats before it was time to get back onboard and we were happy to host our British friends from Port Lockroy as they joined us for dinner.
Another wonderful day with two very contrasting locations and there is still more to come…

Blog entry by Mark Woszczalski

Port Lockroy

Monday, 30 January 2012

Astrolabe Island & Deception Island

Oh yeah! Another sunny day in Antarctica! The calm sea allowed us to do a landing at Astrolabe Island, which is a very rare opportunity. The male fur seal were more or less happy sharing the beach with us for a few hours. A Leopard seal and some Weddell seals were swimming around near the landing site. And of course there was a penguin colony, this time Chinstraps.  Some of us made it to the top of a snow-covered peak. Not just for the amazing view, but also for the enjoyment of sliding down the mountainside. On the way back to the ship we did a cruise around the Island and had a look at birdlife; Southern Fulmars, Giant Petrels, Antarctic Terns and Kelp Gulls. 

We were expecting to spend the rest of the day onboard, but the weather was just too good. We just had to get out again. The Expedition leader and the Captain quickly re-arranged the schedule. After some relaxing time onboard with lectures and delicious waffles we were ready for an evening landing at Whalers Bay on Deception Island. We walked between the historical buildings of a Norwegian whaling station that operated here from 1912 to 1932, we tried to imagine what the place must have looked like then. Obviously, two hikes where offered, one to the East side and one to the West side of the landing site. The bravest ones among us also went for a swim in the ice-cold water. This was another day in paradise.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Paulet Island and Brown Bluff

Adelie Penguins on Nodenskjöld hut, Paulet Island
Photo © A. Wenzel
Antarctic Fur Seal Paulet Island,        Photo © A. Wenzel
We had yet another fantastic day.  The sky was overcast as we zipped ashore in the Polar Cirkle boats at 09:00.  The ride took all of two minutes and then, there we were, standing on the shore of Paulet Island, the home of 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie Penguins.  But that really doesn’t describe the numbers accurately nor does it give you a good idea of the scenario.  100,000 breeding pairs does not include the chicks, or the sexually immature birds, or the singles and divorcées.  Of course many of the adults are out feeding and will return later to feed their chicks. So how many birds were there when we were there?  It is difficult to say.  A lot.  How many could be there at one time?  Probably somewhere around 300,000 on the entire island.  That’s a lot of penguins.  Needless to say, it is a busy place.
A short walk of about 150 metres brought us to an historic hut where 19 men from the Nordenskjøld expedition were forced to stay over the winter.  The word hut is somewhat boastful in this case.  The walls are barely over a metre high and the roof is long gone.  Penguins now nest and roost along its historic walls.
About another 150 metres further inshore, lying in a natural amphitheatre is a small beautiful green lake, green because of the dense algae flourishing in its waters.  A chorus of calling Adelies line the walls of the concert bowl. The sound is rather impressive.

Brown Bluff. Gentoo and Adelie Penguin colonies.
Photo © A. Wenzel
Paulet Island, Adelie Penguin colony, fresh water lake.
Photo © A. Wenzel
If you walked the landing in a large loop you would complete the circuit at a large colony of Antarctic Shags.  They are handsome black and white birds closely related to cormorants.  When they are in peak breeding season they have a large crest and beautiful bright blue eyes.  Close to the shags was a young male Antarctic Fur Seal, the first of many that will arrive in the next few weeks.  In fact in a month’s time there will be several hundred of these handsome animals scattered along the beach and throughout the landing area.
By 13:00 everyone was back on board Fram.  The dining room was filled with the chatter of happy people relating their experiences to one another over a very welcome and hearty lunch.
On the glacier at Brown Bluff,       Photo © A. Wenzel
After lunch there was lots of time to rest or admire the scenery as we weren’t due to arrive at Brown Bluff until 16:00.  Just before 16:00 we dropped the anchor and headed to shore.  Once again we had perfect conditions for a landing! The sky was now hazy overcast with large regions of clear blue sky poking through.  The sea was flat calm.
When we arrived on shore the Expedition Leader Karin briefed us on our options. We had lots of choices.  We could hike to the left and trek up the glacier with Karin.  We could hike to the left and head on up the moraine where there was a fantastic view with Andy, or we could hike to the right where there were thousands of nesting Adelie and Gentoo penguins, or we could do any combination as long as we were back at the landing site at the prescribed time.
Sunset on the Weddell Sea,           Photo © A. Wenzel
Whatever we chose to do we could not go wrong.  En route to the glacier a Leopard Seal was snoozing on a large ice floe and just behind the Leopard was a similarly somnambulant Crabeater Seal.  And another 15 metres past those pinnipeds were a couple of Antarctic Fur Seals on the beach.  High up on the moraine with Andy were a pair of skuas with two chicks.  
About midway through the landing a huge piece of ice calved off of the glacier face sending an impressive wave racing to shore.  As a safety precaution, the Expedition Team cleared everyone off the beach.
Humpback Whale.
Two fantastic landings in one day.  But the perfect ending to a perfect day was yet to come.  At about 21:15 we encountered three humpback whales.  There was no wind.  The sea was flat calm.  The sunset was inspiring. We stayed with the three whales for about a half hour.  We could clearly hear them breathing each time they came up for air.  The experience was humbling.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

From Devil Land to Virgin Land

We woke up to a beautiful sunny day... again! The weather has been kind to us during this trip. 

The approach to our first landing site was spectacular. The Fram sailed smoothly through nicely shaped icebergs and bergibits. At 0930 we landed at Devil Island. This 1.6km long island northeast of Vega Island was discovered and named by Nordenskjöld during his 1901-1094 Swedish Antarctic Expedition. 

The island has a fairly big colony of Adelie Penguins (over 2000 breeding pairs) and an exceptional panorama of the surroundings. Hikers had the chance to get to one of the summits on the island which offered 360° views of the Erebus and Terror Gulf and the Vega Island. Two of the stranded parties of the Nordenskjöld expedition were reunited by chance after the long winter on Vega Island. The place were they met was called Cape Well-Met for obvious reasons!
On our way to our next destination we had the opportunity to admire the numerous and spectacular waterfalls on Vega Island. 

We stepped on land that has never been walked upon by tourists before!!! Crystal Hill, on the Antarctic continent. Our Expedition leader picked the spot on the map, it looked very appealing for a long hike, and indeed, it was the perfect place! Two itineraries were proposed in order to reach the two highest points from where amazing views were offered to us. There was also a third option for the passengers who didn’t feel like making a big hike: a cruise on Polar Cirkle Boats to get the chance to have a closer look at the beautiful icebergs surrounding us. 

This has been another extraordinary day in the Weddell Sea!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Continuing in the footsteps of Nordenskjöld

Many of us were outside on deck or in the panorama lounge until late last night. How can you sleep when thousands of beautiful icebergs are floating by, seals and penguin enjoying the sun and seabirds flying around? In spite of the late evening we all woke up early, ice was surrounding the ship. Would a landing be possible? The Expedition leader kept us updated as we were approaching Snow Hill Island, informing us that it did not look too promising for a landing as the ice was too packed.  
Now we are like the old explorers, we never now what is awaiting us around the next corner. Is the ice packed or will we be able to get safely through it? … We had to be prepared!!
The experienced Officers on the bridge managed to navigate through the ice faster than expected allowing us a fantastic experience. 

We arrived at Snow Hill Island and got to see the hut where the Swedish scientists from the Nordenskjöld expedition overwintered in 1902 and 1903, 6 men in a hut with 3 small bedrooms and a kitchen. It looked small to us, but compared to the guys who were left on Hope bay, and who had to build a stone hut, they were in paradise. Snow Hill also offered us the opportunity to admire many fossils and a spectacular scenery.
After this beautiful landing we were already satisfied with our day. But it turns out the day was not over jet!! Pushing through more ice we landed at Penguin point in Seymour Island. The name Penguin point speaks for it self. There were penguins everywhere, 20000 breading pairs and their chicks. Weather again played in our favour and the terrain allowed us to walk right in the middle of the huge penguin colony without disturbing the birds. This was a perfect landing!

Happy Australia Day to all the Aussies on board!! 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Weather it's Dr. Jekyll or Mr.Hyde

There is no place on earth more beautiful than Antarctica in the sunshine. At the close of yesterday evening the sky was also closing in. Clouds had continuously moved in to stuff all of the blue patches full of grey. We went to bed expecting morning weather of a similar ilk.

To our surprise we awoke to sunny blue skies and absolutely calm seas. Hardly a breath of wind disturbed the sea. Not what we were expecting but we will take it!

En route to our landing at the Argentine Base Esperanza we cruised by many giant tabular icebergs. We are now on the north east side of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddell Sea. These colossal islands of ice have broken free from ice shelves many miles to the south. They hitch a ride on north bound ocean currents and drift inexorably to where we saw them today.

Shortly after 09:00 we began our landing operations. We could see all of the bright orange buildings of the base from the ship. Esperanza looked like a small town and that is probably the precise image Argentina had in mind when they first laid their sovereignty claims to Antarctica. In the seventies pregnant women were encouraged to come to Esperanza and in 1978 the first child was born here in Hope Bay further bolstering Argentina’s claims.

The tide was high when we arrived which permitted us to land at the quay. Several personnel of the base were there to greet us including the base commander. We were given a guided tour which included an historic stone hut from a Swedish South Polar Expedition in 1901-03. Three men had been stranded there for the winter with nothing to eat but seal meat, penguins and one bottle of Aquavit.

Inside the community centre we had the opportunity to buy souvenirs and mail post cards.

On return to the landing site we found that the tide had fallen buy a metre and a half. We could no longer use the dock and boarded the Polar Cirkle boats from the rocky shore beside the pier.

Our next landing was scheduled for Kinnes Cove at 14:30. It was only about 25 miles from Esperanza but in the short distance between the two landing sites the weather had done a Jekyll and Hyde. Sunny blue skies were now solidly overcast. Our mill pond sea was now laced with white caps. The gentle breezes of the morning were replaced with 35 knot winds. A landing at Kinnes Cove would be impossible.

We spent the next couple of hours investigating two other landing site alternatives in the vicinity but none offered shelter from the wind and the sea.

To make use of the unexpected sea time, lectures were soon arranged and the Framheim and Polhogda lecture halls were soon filled with people eager to learn more about the Geology and biology of Antarctica.

At about 17:30 we entered Fridjhof Sound where we encountered two Humpback Whales, two Minke Whales and several hundred Adelie penguins. Undoubtedly all of these animals were here to share one giant smorgasbord of sea food. We paused for awhile to enjoy the scenery of the sound and the many animals before proceeding out to the Weddell Sea.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Touching ground

Our day started with the mandatory IAATO Briefing, we were told how we have to behave in our landings in order to disturb as little as possible this last pristine place on earth. We learned that there has been an important introduction of alien species to Antarctica through tourists and scientists. To avoid this, we proceeded to an intense vacuum cleaning process of our landing equipment. 

Shortly afterwards we saw our first conically shaped iceberg, and as we approached the South Shetland Islands we encountered flocks of thousands of Cape Petrels. They accompanied us for a while, displaying their fabulous acrobatic flight all around the ship. To reach our destination, we entered Nelson Strait and as we headed west towards Livingston we saw a three Humpback Whales.

Our first landing in Half Moon Island started at around 16h, we could feel the excitement in the air!  As if we had asked for it, we had perfect sunny weather. Half Moon Island is a 2km long, crescent-shaped island between Greenwich and Livingston Islands. It has a big Chinstrap Penguin colony, with more than 3000 breeding pairs. It used to be a known destination for the whalers that visited the area in the 1800, which is still visible because of the many whale bones scattered around the landing area. One group of hikers climbed up the 102m high hill at the northern extremity of the island and passed in front of the Argentinian Station Camara. Others walked to the other extremity of the island and had the chance to encounter Weddell and Fur Seals. 

One thing is sure, we all came back to the ship with a big smile on our faces!!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

What Happens On A Sea Day?

Southern Giant Petrel
In the morning we entered the dreaded Drake Passage, the ride was a little bumpy in the beginning, but calmed down during the day. Apart from some welcomed visits from the seabirds we were alone at sea. We were lucky to spot a Light Mantled Sooty Albatross and several Giant Petrels.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
After today’s lecture program we are well prepared for the voyage. All our questions about penguins were answered. Do penguins get cold feet? Are penguins faithful? Have you ever wondered how penguins recognize their kids and spouses in a huge colony when they are all dressed in the same clothing? The secret is they recognize the voice of their loved ones and that’s why penguin colonies can sometimes be very noisy. We had a wide variety of lectures to attend; the incredible story of the Nordenskiold expedition, geology, whales and seals.

With a day at sea we had time to get familiar with the ship. Many used the day to relax in the panorama lounge on deck 7 and some even used the opportunity to visit the gym and sauna. Tomorrow morning we will reach Antarctica and hopefully we will have the chance to set foot on land again.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Land of Fire

Tierra del Fuego. The land of fire. The very name of this storied land conjures a sense of romance and adventure. Our voyage to the land of ice begins in the land of fire. There is a certain poetic symmetry to that.

It is about a three and a half hour flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Excitement built as we made our descent to the Ushuaia airport. We could see our ship, the MS Fram far below.  
 After collecting our luggage we had time to explore Ushuaia on an introductory tour or go on an excursion to Lago Escondido. Exploring the streets of Ushuaia there is still a feeling of a burgeoning frontier town. Certainly tourism is still growing here. Ushuaia is the gateway to one of the last really great wild frontiers. While it is the height of summer the weather is cool and a jacket is still required. Many of the local people are on vacation. By the early afternoon all of the restaurants were filled with a mixture of locals and tourists.

At 16:00 we boarded the buses that would take us on a very short ride to the pier. Smiling crew members greeted us as we walked up the gangway and into the ship. Soon we were issued photo IDs and were escorted to our cabins where our luggage was already waiting for us. Then it was a simple matter to open a cruise account at reception, hand in our medical form to the Doctor and finally, to pick up our spiffy new blue Expedition Jackets. It didn’t take very long to process two hundred people. The lineups were short and the whole procedure was very efficient.
The wind had been building throughout the afternoon and as we approached departure time at 18:00 gusts of over 40 knots were ripping across the harbour. We wondered what that might mean out on the more open ocean. But by 20:30 the winds had abated and it was time for the mandatory safety drill.

When we heard seven short alarms followed by one long alarm we gathered at our muster stations on deck five. It was a gorgeous evening on the Beagle Channel. Our attention was split between watching the crew demonstrate the immersion suits and life jackets and admiring the sunset and the beautiful scenery of the Beagle.

Immediately following the drill at 21:00 we rendezvoused in the Observation Lounge on deck seven where we met the Captain and Officers of Fram and were introduced to the Expedition Team and other key personnel from the ship.

Phew! Just about everyone that chooses to go to Antarctica has a very long and arduous journey to make just to get to the starting point. But now it is time to kick back and relax and to let the adventure carry us the rest of the way.

Photos by Mark Woszczalski

Sunday, 22 January 2012

From Drake Lake to Drake Shake

It is almost hard to believe, the calm sea we had yesterday. Today, our crossing of the Drake was again rough and shaky. In the morning Karin announced an 8 on the Beaufort scale, but as we approached Cape Horn (which we managed to see in the distance) the waves seemed to grow bigger and bigger.
Despite the movement, we had another day packed with activities. Lectures were given on different topics including a public discussion on climate change. In the afternoon, as usual, we auctioned the sea chart of our voyage. The money raised during these auctions goes to several charities that protect the wildlife of the area, so the chart is not only a beautiful souvenir but it is also a contribution towards the conservation of the unique (sub-) Antarctic nature we have just experienced.
The Captain and all crew & staff bid farewell to our guests that will leave us tomorrow morning. We all hope that you have enjoyed this trip on board Fram, that you take unforgettable memories with you and that you have a safe journey home!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Impressions from Port Lockroy

Today I am the guest writer as the Drake Passage is way too calm for good stories.

As you might have read, Fram dropped me off last voyage in Port Lockroy, the former British Base.
Lets be honest for a moment: when you are coming to Port Lockroy for the short visits that ships usually do, you tent to wonder what the staff there is actually doing all day long when there is no ship. One then imagines it to be a rather quiet spot. If you have travelled with us before, you know exactly what I mean.

It has always been a dream to spent more time in Antarctica at one spot, not to move around and to see a little bit more and get a different input and impression. When I asked the „United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust“ a year ago if there is a slight possibiliy to join the Port Lockroy team for a few days, I was not quite sure if it would all work out.

With Ylva in the shop

It turned out to be a crazy busy time! The main team consists of four women with Ylva as base commander, Claire, Cath and Kat. When I was there we also had a carpenter called Michael (who looks a bit like Harrison Ford) as well as for five days Jonathan who got some technical equipment (webcam, iridium phones etc) going. You get up at around 6.30am every day and then basically work through all day long. As soon as one ship was gone, the next one moved in. And it staid like this for nearly the entire time! Now it is high season in Antarctica and you do not have time to sleep or rest: talking about the history with arriving passengers, restocking the store, counting needed to be done in addition to the ongoing renovation work of the historical buildings.

What I realized very soon is the hard work that the entire team puts into their work- and the total dedication to the project. I realized that this is definately not a relaxing job but is very challenging in many aspects. I learned to admire the girls for their „handyman“ skills and can just say in German: HUT AB! It is interesting to see how ones abilities are stretching, how you want to learn more and more and really get into it. During the time, the work shop was painted as it is hopefully soon part of the museum. It will look absolutely great when it is done and just thinking about it makes one smile. The great thing is that despite all the work it was a bit „therapeutic“ as well as you see what you have done in the end of the day. Which as Expedition Leader you never have the feeling that you are totally finished in the end of the day...Often, tasks took long- just to paint a window can take a few days due to the fact that a) it took so long to dry in the Antarctic climate, b) visitors came and one had to leave the current work and c) something unexpected happened all the time. Which was great! Carrying wood and other rubbish to the landing site for the soon-to-be pick up by the HSM Protector was not an easy task. Not because it was heavy alone, but also because you had to go over slippry stones and you just knew that you could not afford to miss-step on any of those and slide and fall.

We were 7 people in a very tiny building and a confined place but without any hesitation I can say: I loved every minute of it! But I do think that porridge for breakfast ist something that you have to grow up with to
REALLY appreciate it.

Friday, 20 January 2012

No Deception at all!

Today was our sportive day! Hiking and swimming were two major activities during Fram’s stay in the famous caldera of Deception Island.
The fittest of us started for a 4 hours hike in the morning, heading from Whalers Bay towards Baily Head at the outer part of the island, where a huge rookery of chinstrap penguins is located.

In the meantime, the remaining passengers had ample time to explore the rests of an old whaler’s station and a British base that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1969. For many of the guests this was also the opportunity to try out a swim in Antarctic waters.
After lunch the Fram repositioned and we had a second landing at an (at the moment) uninhabited Argentinean station. Another walk started in this moonlike volcanic landscape and again our final destination was a penguin colony. Some of us managed to get close to it, others enjoyed the beautiful view (and sound!) from above the ridge.
All in all it was an active last day in Antarctica!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

No hope for Esperanza

During the night we made good speed and in the morning we were in the eastern part of the Bransfield Strait. The sea has calmed down considerably and we enjoyed an agreeable sea day with good weather, a little bit overcast. The sunshine gave us a good view on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula with high snow covered mountains and glaciers coming down into the sea. During the morning and also in the early afternoon we had lectures about the Nordenskjöld expedition, seals, penguins, ice and geology.
Around noon we reached the entrance of the Antarctic Sound, more and bigger icebergs especially tabular icebergs appeared and the wind became stronger and the waves higher.
Around 15.00 we arrived at the Argentinean Station Esperanza, we contact its crew and they told us, that there is no possibility for a landing under the prevailing condition. Our Expedition leader decided to wait until the weather conditions would have improved and went further into the Antarctic Sound to enjoy more of this marvellous scenery. We came close to Brown Bluff and checked the condition for a landing here, but the swell was too high for a safe operation with our Polar Circle Boats. Though the wind was blowing and we had quite high swell, we still had nice sunshine and could enjoy a the wonderful scenery of the Fridtjof Sound and the western part of the Weddell Sea with the high brown cliffs of the volcanic coast and the volcanic islands, glaciers, some small waterfalls and again lots of picturesque icebergs.
Turning back we passed again the Esperanza Station and again the swell was too high for a landing operation. We continued slowly through the Antarctic Sound, still cruising. Finally we made our way into the Bransfield Strait and sailed for our next exciting destination, the active volcano Deception Island.