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01/14/2009

Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island, Port Lockroy

Under misty morning light, the Prince Albert II approached the northern entrance to the legendary Lemaire Channel, often aptly referred to as “Kodak Alley” for its spectacular scenery. This 7-mile-long and one-mile-wide channel separates Booth Island from the Antarctic continent with dramatic, towering snow-covered mountains lining the route on both sides. Captain Peter Stahlberg maneuvered the ship through this narrow passage, while Geologist Ralph Eshelman highlighted some of its striking geologic features.

Once we had exited the southern end of the channel, a pod of orcas was spotted just ahead of us.
The Captain positioned the ship, and we all gazed out as they swam along with us only 50 meters from the ship! Orcas (also known as killer whales) are not true whales at all, but rather large dolphins; nor are they credited with killing humans, but perhaps instead received their common name because some of them kill seals and even small whales. In Antarctica, there are three types of orcas, each with distinct physical characteristics, and it is suspected that they may actually be different species. They each specialize in different prey, one being a fish eater, the second a seal eater, and the third a minke whale eater.

The orcas disappeared so we continued on south to rocky Petermann Island, our furthest south stop of the trip. Petermann Island is where the French expedition led by Charcot overwintered in 1909, and it is now the site of an old Argentine hut. The island was covered in a blanket of snow with bare rocky outcrops occupied by penguins. This is the southernmost breeding colony of gentoo penguins on the planet, and approximately 1,000 pairs of Adelie penguins breed here as well.

The wind was howling and the rain horizontal as we roamed the island. The Adelie penguins were nesting on a very exposed rocky promontory, and the first thing that drifted into our minds as we stood there watching them was, “Why would they select a nesting site so exposed to the wind and rain?” The answer of course was that the same wind blows the snow away in the spring allowing them an early start at breeding and raising their young. Even so, the chicks appeared quite miserable, drenched in rain and covered in guano. It was hard to imagine that in an hour’s time, when we are warm and comfortable back on the ship sipping hot chocolate, these penguins would still be out in the elements, completely adapted to the harshness of this place.

During lunch, the Prince Albert II passed back through the Lemaire Channel en route to our afternoon landing at Port Lockroy. Originally used as an anchorage for whale factory ships in the 1920’s, Port Lockroy became a site for a British base built on Goudier Island in 1944. This was part of Operation Tabarin, a secret project in World War II meant to deny anchorage to German commerce raiders and thwart the Argentines’ claims to sovereignty of the area. It closed in 1962 and subsequently suffered from looting and decay until the recent restoration work by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Once ashore, we wandered through the museum, which was filled with relics of early British occupation in Antarctica. Various artifacts gave us an idea of what it would have been like to live at such a remote outpost, and we had an opportunity buy books and souveniers in the shop. A colony of gentoo penguins occupied all available space outside the building, and we took some time to observe and photograph them as well.

Back on the ship, we hung our wet clothes out to dry and then gathered for a Recap and briefing with the Expedition Team. A lovely dinner was followed by the well-anticipated talent show, highlights of which included a song sung in Chinese, some hilarious impersonations by Sam Prouty, and several impressive song and dance numbers.
 

   

Despite the rain and strong winds, our transit of the Lemaire Channel was spectacular

Our morning visit to the restored base at Port Lockroy was a chance to step back in history

Enjoying the Neumeyer Channel with friends on the back deck

The snow covered peaks and glaciers of the Neumeyer Channel in early evening light

The after dinner talent show was an ensemble of numbers performed by students, faculty, staff, family friends and crew


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