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03/09/2008

Neumeyer Channel, Errera Channel and Cuverville Island

In the early morning hours, the Explorer II stopped at Port Lockroy station to pick up the three summer staff, who were returning home to the United Kingdom after four and a half months in the Antarctic. The ship then headed north through the beautiful Neumeyer Channel, where steep glaciers tumble directly into the sea over most of its twenty-six kilometer length. As the sun came up, the clouds turned a glowing pink color and the mountain peaks began to illuminate. The ship’s railings were packed as we took in the ever-changing scene.

Over a hearty breakfast, we kept our eyes directed towards the windows. The sun was now breaking through the clouds, and blue sky was fighting hard to take over the sky. Captain Giovanni Biasutti took the ship through the ice-choked Errera Channel, where a mother and calf pair of humpbacks was feeding along the cliffs. Their blows lit up in the bright sunlight and hovered for what seemed an eternity in the windless conditions.

We boarded the zodiacs off of a bell-shaped island called Cuverville Island. The choice activity at Cuverville turned out to be just watching life at this gentoo penguin colony LITERALLY stroll by. The gentoos at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 5000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. Many of them approached us, occasionally picking at our boots or nibbling on our parkas. Others lay sprawled out on their bellies, taking a siesta or perhaps attempting to dissipate some body heat through their feet and flippers on this balmy day.

Some of us walked up to a ridge overlooking the beach, and sat with rock, ice and sea laid out before us. Those of us that walked to the end of the beach had another wonderful view, and some of us came across groups of Antarctic springtails in small puddles of water amid the muddy guano. These arthropods, only two millimeters in length, are actually the largest terrestrial herbivores in the Antarctic! Their small size was quite the contrast to that of the musk oxen, which fills the largest herbivore role in the Arctic.

The density of leopard seals in the waters around the long beach was impressive, and was no doubt related to the large number of young gentoos getting ready to head to the water for the first time. On zodiac tours, we saw leopard seals on ice, playing around the boats, and pursuing and eating penguins. It was an impressive show only upstaged by the occasional glacier calving or iceberg rolling. Weddell seals and a crabeater seal were also in the area, as were plenty of penguins porpoising their way to and from the colony. The final surprise was a stop at the “bar boat” where Maitre D’ Andrzej Gronowski served us champagne to toast the gorgeous Antarctic day.

Back on the Explorer II, Executive Chef Michael Wiesner prepared an Indian cuisine buffet out on the pool deck, and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon as the ship steamed towards Dallman Bay. A magical wall of low foggy clouds loomed ahead and the combination of ice, fog and sun was impressive. The fog lifted as we sipped afternoon tea and by Recap, we took in our last views of Antarctica and headed out to open waters for our journey back to South America.

Right before dinner, Captain Giovanni Biasutti called “Whales!” from the bridge and we rushed outside once again, this time to see a feeding aggregation that consisted of orcas, fin whales, humpback whales and fur seals. Many of us watched until darkness fell and sleep beckoned.

   

At 7am, we take the Port Lockroy crew of three aboard for their passage back to Ushuaia

The Neumayer Channel is especially beautiful in the first light of sunrise

Like Pleneau, there are many large grounded icebergs in the shallows of Cuverville Island

The Gentoo chicks of Cuverville Island are ready to fledge, though some still have downy feathers

For our final adventure, we cruise the magnificent icebergs and thrill at the variety of their textures and colors


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