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The Unpredictable Antarctic: South Shetland Islands

King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands. Eight separate year- round research stations are maintained by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, S. Korea, Poland, Russia, and Uruguay.

This morning we awoke to exciting news — we were nearly through the Drake Passage. It had been a very tolerable journey.
On our way out of the breakfast room, we spotted our first iceberg. One of our guide estimated that it was about 300 feet high! After that, we plunked ourselves down in the 7th Deck Panorama lounge to view our approach to the continent. More bergs appeared and we began to see pods of penguins "porpoising" through the water on their way to their favorite fishing spots.
At 11:00 a.m. the naturalist/ landing manager gave us an orientation on the landing protocol. All of the passengers are divided into 10 groups; each group will be called — one at a time — to board the PolarCircl landing craft. When reporting for debarkation, we need our ID card (they scan in as we go out and return, to insure that no one is left behind), our lifejacket, waterproof pants and waterproof jacket. Once on the second deck, we put on knee high rubber boots, check in, walk through a trough of antibacterial liquid (they want no new germs in Antarctica), and head down the ship-side steps into the landing craft.
Our first scheduled landing was to be in Admiralty Bay on King George Island at the Arctowski Station; however, rough surf made landing impossible. So goes life in the wilds at the end of the earth. So that his passengers would not be too disappointed, the captain cruised around to the west side of the island to Maxwell Bay. It was here that we made our first landing in Antarctica. At the end of the bay is a Chilean base and a Russian base. Permission being given, we were allowed to land at the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei. Despite the fact that no penguins reside there (everyone on this ship is penguin crazy), it was wonderful! We had finally set foot on Antarctica.
The two of us visited the base souvenirs shop (yes... since Antarctica now has about 30,000 visitors per year, even these remote bases have a shop...) and then we walked up the hill to the Catholic chapel to thank God for getting us here — and with such good weather!
We had about 45 minutes on land and then it was time to head back to the ship. By the time our turn came around it was 7:00 pm. After a celebratory toast (of a hot coffee drink...despite the warm temperature of 35 degrees F, our feet were cold...), we headed for the dining room and ate a big dinner. All of the getting in and out of boats and walking through shin-high, wet, heavy snow definitely stimulates the appetite.

Once dinner was over, it was time to retire. The ship was already on its way to the Antarctic Peninsula, where we have two more landings scheduled for tomorrow. Sleep came easy, but we woke up around 4:00 a.m. to find the ship bouncing around like a cork — and it was snowing like mad. But as we were powerless to do anything else, we went back to sleep. (There are elastic straps on the beds that can be used to fasten oneself into your bunk so you don't fall out of bed in real rough seas, but we didn't need those.)

Tomorrow promises to be even more exciting — we are headed down the Gerlache Strait for Cuverville Island where we hope to visit the world's largest Gentoo penguin colony.

Stay tuned!

Posted by jeburns55 02:10 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

Penguin Party! Graham Land, Antarctica

Cuvewille Island sits in the Errera Channel. The Argentinean base Almirante Brown is located on the Antarctica mainland.

This was THE DAY. We were up and fed by 8:00 a.m., because the first PolarCircl pulled out at 8:30 a.m. to land on Cuverville Island. Cuverville is home of to one of the largest Gentoo penguin rookeries in the world. Once again, we were shuttled out to land, but this landing area was far from "user friendly."
Our boat pulled up into the shallows where four men were ready to wrestle boat to a stand-still while the waves were pulling it away. Once we got out of the boat, we had to walk through a foot of water over large round rocks. More than one person fell down.. .but we didn't. Finally up real land, we found three to four feet of snow that we had to walk through. One of the naturalists gave us a few rules (stay on the path...penguins get the right of way...) and then we spent the next hour walking around our path to view all the Gentoos. It was fantastic.
The females were resting on their nests (made of pebbles) while their mates waddled around the rookery, stealing pebbles from others' nest to use for their own. Most of them were noisy and very dirty — from living on the rocks where everyone eats, sleeps, incubates, and poops.
Returning from our adventure, we watched the other passengers being shuttled in and out. At 11:00 a.m. we sat in on the orientation for tomorrow: we are scheduled to stop at Port Lockroy, Petermann Island, and cruise through the Lemaire Channel (supposedly the most breathe-taking scenery down here). By noon, we were ready for lunch. Today's buffet menu was interesting; it included reindeer steaks.
Back from lunch, we had a little down time. But by 3:00 p.m., we were ready to get into our outdoor clothes once more. The afternoon destination: Almirante Brown Station in Paradise Bay. This was our first landing on the main land of Antarctica. There were only a few penguins there (we saw many Gentoos and our first Adelie), but there is a fantastic hill behind the camp. From the top, the view of Paradise Bay was unbelievable. John
trekked to the top and Susie stayed down below to photograph John sliding down on his butt (in waterproof pants, of course).
By 7:00 p.m., everyone was back on board.

After celebrating our conquest of the terra incognito ( that is, "unknown land"), dinner was ready. The theme for the meal: Norwegian — things like reindeer stew, lots of fish, squid, shellfish, and lobster.

A little more time to relax and swap stories with other passengers and then we're off to bed...because tomorrow we'll be up in time to watch the navigation of the Lemaire Channel. The sun never sets in the Antarctic — and we don't sit still while we're in the Antarctic.

Stay tuned.

Posted by jeburns55 03:11 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

It Only Gets Better... (Graham Land, Antarctica)

Wildlife seen so far: Gentoo and Adelie penguins, porpoises, Weddell seals, many birds, and one whale (its "spout" only).

Today was the best yet. We hurried through breakfast so we could get up on deck and watch our cruise through the Lemaire Channel. First sighted by Eduard Dallman in 1873,this 7 mile long/1 mile wide channel is strikingly beautiful. The steep cliffs and glaciers of Booth Island on one side and the Antarctic mainland on the other create what is known to the staff as the "Kodak Crack."
Shortly thereafter, we suited up for our landing on Petermann Island, our most southern stop on the cruise. This was an incredible stop because we saw several rookeries of Gentoo penguins, some Adelie penguins, and a large, lazy Weddell seal. The landing was "dry", that is we didn'thave to walk through the surf. Once on land, we trekked to the far side of the island to see the Antarctic Sea on the other side. (This was a 'long landing'; we had an hour on land.)
Once we were back on the ship, we had lunch and started back north. Those folks who were too tired to get up and see the Lemaire Channel in the morning now had their second chance. We — on the other hand — used that time to take a nap!
The second stop of the day was Port Lockroy, a British base on Goudier Island. This landing was notable for two reasons: one, we were able to be very, very close to the penguins; and two, there is a post office/ store where you can mail postcards that will have an Antarctic postmark.
Once again, it was a dry landing (we all said, "HURRAY!"). This place was the a dream! As soon as we stepped onto land, the Gentoos plodded over and escorted us up their paths to the main camp. Many of them have nested under the post office.. .penguin condos!
We stepped into the post office briefly to send a couple postcards. The ladies who were operating it are very nice, rather young Brits who spend most of their time researching the penguins. Then it was back out the door to watch this wild, wacky world of Antarctica. This was the 'highlight' to date!

Once we returned to the ship, we settled down to write, read, cross-stitch and relax...with the end of the earth as our backdrop.

  • Hard Choice for History Buffs: As I sat down in the Panorama Lounge tonight to write, a fellow passenger asked if we enjoyed Port Lockroy. I said we did and she said it was wonderful, particularly the museum. (The British base has a post office/store with a museum in the back.) I told her that we didn't go into the museum. She asked, 'Why?" I told her that with only 30 minutes allowed on land, we had to choose between living history versus history of the past. Most of you know both of us very well; how on earth, you may ask, could Susie and John pass on a museum?! The explanation is simple. With the limited time that we are allowed on shore, we want to see as much of today's Antarctica as we can because each day a little more disappears. For example, at Port Lockroy the Gentoo penguins are right at your feet. To have them close enough to touch while they build nests, fight over pebbles, and waddle down their 'highways' is priceless. We have other touch points to history to appreciate: we've cruised the Beagle Channel where Charles Darwin made hisobservations of native peoples in South America; we will make our way through the Strait of Magellan that was discovered 500 years ago; in Puerto Williams we will see the bow of the ship Yelcho that Shackleton commissioned to rescue his crew from Elephant Island and in Punta Arenas we can see the home of the British club where the rescue was planned. For us, however, the purpose — the value — of this trip is to see this most- remote part of the world as it is...as it exists today, because tomorrow it may be gone.

Posted by jeburns55 04:12 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

Standing on the Mainland Once More: Graham Land, Antarctica

No landing at Deception Island because too many ships are queued up ahead of us. Slightly disappointed because the bay at Deception Island is the crater of a volcano, and visitors often swim there because the water is warm.

Another early start this morning, as we were in the second group to go ashore. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., our PolarCircl boat brought us to a small beach in Neko Harbor in Andvord Bay. The bay penetrates deep into the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula; from here the Weddell Sea is merely 50 km (30 miles) away on the other side of the mountains. Once inside the bay, we were surrounded on all sides by mountains and alpine glaciers.
At the bottom of the bay is Neko Harbor, named for a whaling ship that anchored here in the early 1900's. It is the home of a large colony of Gentoo penguins that live on several granite outcroppings above the beach.
As soon as we landed, we were told to get off thebeach because the glacier just across the harbor is very active; when it calves, huge waves roll up the shore!
Once again we were fortunate to be quite close to the penguins. Lying on the snow next to their nests were two large, lazy Weddell seals.
John trekked up a hill behind the rookeries and was rewarded with an amazing view of the bay, while Susie stayed on lower ground to be entertained by "the locals."
Watching the penguins is fascinating (to us, anyway...) and they are all quite busy in their own little communities. Of course, swimming out to sea and eating involves a lot of time. We see pods of them diving in and out of the water all around the ship as we get near a rookery. The biggest job they have on shore is stealing pebbles from each other's nests and dropping them at their own. Today we were lucky enough to watch one pair swap positions to sit on their nest; we even saw them — ahem...making baby penguins.
The morning landing came to an end and we had time to drink coffee and watch the rest of the folks shuttle back and forth to the beach. After lunch we were supposed to get ready to take a boat tour of Wilhelmina Bay. The bay has the remnants of a ship that burned in 1915 and it is well known as a place to possibly see whales, crabeater seals and leopard seals. Unfortunately the passage to the bay was blocked with ice, so we continued on our way to tomorrow's destinations.
So goes life in Antarctica.

  • Antarctic Explorers - The Big Three: On this ship, it's not uncommon to overhear or partake in a conversation about the Antarctic explorers of the early 20th century. The earliest crossing of the Antarctic Circle was made by Capt. James Cook in 1773, but he never sighted any land. The South Shetland Islands, where we made our first landing, were discovered in 1819 and they soon became a haven for seal hunters. There is evidence that three sealers actually set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula during the winter of 1820-1821, making them thefirst to set foot on the continental mainland. The big prize, however, would go to whomever was the first to reach the South Pole. Despite several unsuccessful attempts, the real race was on in 1911. Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert F. Scott of Britain both landed on the continent with the same goal in mind. As it played out, Amundsen reached the Pole on Dec. 14, 1911 and then returned home. Scott reached the Pole 35 days later; he and his 4 companions died trying to return to theirhome base. Sir Ernest Shackleton found his own place in history in an attempt to transverse the entire Antarctic continent in 1914. His ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice in Jan. 1915. The ship was crushed in the ice pack in Nov. Shackleton led his men across the ice, through the sea in three small boats, and then went for help with two other men across 700 miles of ocean. The 3 men were successful and on Aug. 30, 1916 all of his crew were rescued from Elephant Island by the Chilean ship Yelco.

Posted by jeburns55 05:13 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

From Whence We Came: South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Last night we began sailing away from the mainland and back toward the South Shetland Islands where we began our Antarctic adventures. The passage wasn't an easy one. When we got into our bunks, the heaving swells of the sea seemed to roll us from one side of the bed to the other... and more disconcerting was the occasional sensation of sliding up and down our beds the long way! Thank goodness for all those fine motion sickness medications.

Once we woke up, things were a little better — but not much. Our first landing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Half Moon Island, a very small (1.2 miles long) crescent shaped island in the shadow of picturesque mountains and glaciers of nearby Livingston Island. It's a favored expedition stop because of its large chinstrap penguin rookery. Chinstraps are the one breed of penguins that reside in the Peninsula area that we haven't seen yet. (We found out that two were sighted yesterday at Neko Harbor after we returned to the ship, but we missed them!)
One must remember that things in the Antarctic are unpredictable. When we arrived off Half Moon Island, the wind was high and the waves were spectacular, but the landing conditions were nil. Sadly, the captain announced that we would have to push on to our next scheduled stop, Yankee Harbor. This half- mile spit of land on Greenwich Island is named for the American sealers that frequented the island in the 1820's. It's a favorite resting place for elephant and fur seals. However, as we cruised into the harbor the sea was no less frantic that it had been earlier, so we were forced to abandon that landing as well. To provide all of us some diversion, the captain invited all of the passengers to have a tour of the bridge. We were able to see the ship's controls, radar screens, and GPS systems.
In mid-afternoon, it was announced that we were approaching King George Island and that we would attempt a landing at Arctowski Base. Actually, this was our first scheduled stop of the voyage; we had abandoned it because of poor weather conditions. The ship sent out a landing party and the word came back — thumbs up. We were in the first group to land; the waves and wind were still rather high, and we were pelted with spray as we rode in. Thank goodness for waterproof clothing!
Once ashore, we were able to walk up the stone covered beach to see quite a few Adelie penguins marching across the snow and rocks to the sea. A few Gentoos were intermixed with the Adelies. As luck would have it, we found out later that one or two Chinstraps were identified in the crowd after we had returned to the ship, but frankly when you are gazing on a group of penguins that numbers in the tens of thousands at one time, it is hard to pick out the one that has a black line under his bill.
Besides, there was so much wind with cold and blowing snow (yesterday it was 40 degrees and I was in a T-shirt...) that we were glad to get back. Three of the later boatloads were delayed — stuck on the island — until the weather conditions subsided so they could return. But eventually things calmed down, everyone was boarded, and we all sat down to dinner with new stories to tell.
Tomorrow we begin our passage back across the Drake. Pray for good weather!

Posted by jeburns55 06:14 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

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