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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands Trip Log - December 12 - December 28, 2017
Wednesday, December 13: Embarkation in Ushuaia
For so many a trip to Antarctica is a bucket list item, something they fervently wish to experience at least once in their lives. For some, today is the first firm step in realising that dream. Guests arrived on various flights from Buenos Aires into Ushuaia, to embark on Le lyrial this evening. A&K staff in the interim began the day early, receiving boots, parkas, back packs, waterproof trousers and the like, which need to be sorted and delivered individually to the cabins. Amidst frantic activity the previous guests disembark, cabins are turned around, the ship is resupplied whilst we prepare the vessel for our valued guests' arrival around 4pm.
Guests were treated to a wonderful buffet lunch at the beautiful Arakur Hotel, situated on a bluff high above the town of Ushuaia. After lunch many chose to take a walk in the Beech forests behind the hotel, with magnificent views over the mountains which surround this frontier town, and the Beagle Channel. The weather today could scarcely have been better-bright sunshine, almost no wind and very comfortable temperatures around 11 degrees Centigrade. Local tour company, Rumbo Sur, delievered guests to Le Lyrial from 4pm. Watching their excited faces filled with anticipation as they approach this beautiful ship is fantastic-their Antarctic dreams becoming a reality. With officers, expedition team and ship's staff out to greet the guests off the buses adding to the excitement, the ever-smiling waiters and cabin staff assisting with luggage. It has been a special treat having Bob Simpson, from A&K head office in Chicago.. Welcome drinks and snacks were followed by the mandatory life boat drill. Much amusement was created by folks stumbling about-the life jackets are so bulky that it is difficult to see one's feet. Suzana D'Oliveira, Expedition Director, then introduced the Captain, who warmly welcomed the guests on board, assuring them of an unforgettable experience in the White Continent. The Expedition Team then introduced themselves individually. Patri Silva, Ornithologist, brought the house down, as she so often does, by telling us that she began working in Antarctica more than 30 years ago. Patri will continue to delight, entertain and educate guests for the entire season; absolutely inimitable.
Dinner was the usual fantastic fare served by A&K on every cruise, and the sense of excitement on board is palpable. Some are out on deck revelling in the beauty of the Beagle Channel, and hoping to see some of the resident birdlife, including Magellanic Penguins. This itinerary includes the Falklands and South Georgia, before heading into the Antarctic Peninsula-undoubtedly the finest itinerary of all, for those who have the time.
Thursday, December 14: Sailing the Scotia Sea
Ernest Hemingway wrote “The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.”
Bunkering of fuel lasted until 1am, before we could proceed down the Beagle Channel and enter the open ocean. Early morning found Le Lyrial running fast up the east coast of South America, on a calm sea. When we turned eastwards towards the Falklands, as the Captain warned us, the swell picked up producing some movement end to end of the ship. The expedition team had a busy time exchanging parkas, boots and waterproof trousers for guests. Inevitably, there are quite a few guests still finding their "sea legs", feeling queasy and avoiding meals and lectures.
Patri Silva gave a marvellous lecture on Seabirds of the Southern Ocean. Seabirds being defined as those spending a significant part of their lives in a marine environment. With fantastic images, Patri showed us the more common birds we are likely to see, and the tube-nosed birds with their particularly unique manner of dealing with salt water ingestion. The dangers of introduced predators, long-line fishing and plastic in the ocean were highlighted. Some were daunted by the variety of Albatrosses, Petrels, Fulmars, Prions and Shearwaters, others fascinated. Photographer Richard Harker was up next, with his very interesting talk on what to expect and how to prepare when photographing Antarctica. He highlighted the advantages of visiting this early in the season, with pristine snow, typical Antarctic scenes everyone dreams of seeing, and the presence of nesting birds with eggs rather than young chicks. Richard's photographic knowledge and experience in Antarctica is very impressive. He provided invaluable tips for the guests on how to prepare themselves and their equipment, along with tips on how to take great photos in this extraordinary environment. Of his many wonderful images, the one most guests remembered showed Richard standing with all his equipment, absolutely covered in snow.
Ian Miller, geologist/paleontologist from Denver, gave us some insights into the geology of the areas we will visit, bordering the Scotia Plate. Mid-afternoon is never an easy time to present, and particularly not when tectonic plates, subduction zones, rifts and trenches along with the other aspects of this complex subject are being considered. The stone rivers of the Falklands created largely from a freeze/thaw action over millenia will be of great interest during our visits tomorrow. Antarctica would be a shadow of her present self, were it not for the massive ice sheets making up more than 95% of the continent, and raising it significantly above sea level.
Fin Whales and a pod of Orcas, including a huge male, created great excitement at 4.30pm. Dozens of guests lined the decks hoping to catch glimpses of these beautiful denizens of the deep. The naturalists assisted in identifying the abundant seabirds about the ship. Sadly they will realize that wildlife viewing, especially at sea, requires infinite patience, powerful observation skills, and plenty of good fortune. In these climes, appropriate clothing too!
Members of the team shared some insights into the Falklands, and what to expect tomorrow. Pete Clement who was born and raised in the Falklands gave fascinating glimpses into a society and land he loves passionately. Suzana warned of cool, windy conditions, and as expected the Rockhopper Penguin tours are fully subscribed. Most folks to these parts cannot wait to see their first penguins.
The evening comprised Captain's welcome, where our Captain Le Rouzic introduced the senior officers. A sumptious dinner followed in Le Ce'le'ste restaurant on Deck 2.
Friday, December 15: Stanley Falkland Islands
"but if it is peace and quiet you are after, rugged windswept beauty, with ever-changing light, superb farmhouse teas with cream, the most wonderful wildlife and fishing, then you will find them all in abundance in the Falklands"
Thankfully by evening last night the wind and swell had calmed considerably, and after a good night's rest, guests on board enjoyed the Falkland Islands off the port beam from sunrise at 4:30 a.m. Approach into the inner harbor at Stanley was rendered challenging by a stiff westerly breeze pushing ‘Le Lyrial’ towards the east bank of the very narrow entrance. Our Captain and his staff made it all look very straightforward, before waiting for a private super yacht to vacate the FIPASS floating dock. The multi-colored homes of Stanley providing their usual stunning welcome to this magical place. The wind resulted in anchor being lowered to the west of the ship's docking position in order for us to "pull off" should the westerly wind strengthen during the course of the day. I listened in awe to the cracking of the kinetic ropes and the groaning of the winches as the ship was pulled alongside. Getting the gangway into position proved problematic-clearing the railing and lowering it to the ground. A JCB equivalent of a Bobcat was secured to pull the gangway clear of the ship, whilst the winches lowered it to the ground. Port authorities and tour operators alike lining the dock eagerly awaiting our disembarkation-tourism a vital component of this island economy.
A variety of tours are offered to A&K guests-Rockhopper Penguin colony, battlefields, nature walks and a farm visit. Penguins were centre stage and most guests elected to go and see the birds in tuxedo's. Rockhoppers often come ashore in crashing waves, and scramble up impossible cliffs to roost and breed. Over the years their claws have eroded clear grooves in the rock, a very clear indication of their strength and tenacity. In true Falklands style, we experienced four seasons today, including squalls of hail. The westerly wind has blown unabated cooling temperatures considerably. The Watson family entertained guests royally on their farm, the tour only returning to the Visitor Centre well after 2.30pm. Since most sheep herds the world over have been much reduced, the price of wool is once again at an all-time high. Along with oil, the squid industry, sheep farming and tourism, the Falklands economy is booming. The locals are extremely friendly and welcoming in their remote island home, with its expensive housing, and irregular even more expensive flights. An interesting feature of this place, is a large crew of Zimbabweans who specialize in clearing land mines, a remnant of the 1982 conflict. Falklanders are delighted with their presence-the quality of the soccer team has improved, many of the women teach in the schools, and their singing in the church famous. In fact, the highlight of the Christmas carol service this evening is going to be the Zimbabweans' singing! I bet they miss the African sun?
The battlefields tour took us over East Falklands to Estancia, from where San Carlos harbor was pointed out, 50 miles away. Our guide shared his insights regarding the conflict, after the initial seizing of South Georgia on the auspices of collecting scrap metal at Leith Harbour. Argentine forces then invaded and occupied the Falklands in April of 1982. The military junta in Argentina convinced that the Falklanders would relish the idea of the British oppressors being evicted. More specifically lay the sphere of influence (size of wedge) into Antarctica. What followed was a very unfortunate 74-day saga with massive forces being sent to the Falklands from Argentina and Britain. May and June comprise the heart of Falkland winter, desperately inhospitable and cold. Many of the Argentine conscripts were hauled out of schools in the warm northern regions of their land, to occupy the Falklands-the human suffering is indescribable. In turn the sinking of container ship, Conveyor, resulted in the loss of almost all the heavy-lift British helicopters. British soldiers were forced to yomp and TAB across 60 miles of treacherous country, at night, to avoid Argentine aircraft, carrying 50kg (110lbs). Given this topography and her numerous stone rivers, a formidable task especially in the dark. Various battles ensued as the British advanced on the heavily entrenched positions and stone sangars of the Argentines surrounding Stanley itself. With the eventual surrender of the Argentine forces, how ignominious to consider that the Harbour Master at Puerto Madryn would not allow the Canberra to dock and off load thousands of emaciated, cold-ravaged Argentine soldiers. The point was forced, and many of those young men had to find their own way home! Falklanders feel particularly strongly about their sovereignty, and rights to self-determination-the conflict an unfortunate, tragic chapter in their history.
Everyone was back on board by 6:00 p.m., and ‘Le Lyrial’ moved out of Port Stanley's inner harbor back into the Scotia Sea for the 800 nautical mile run down to South Georgia. Pete and JD led an interesting Recap session regarding the Falklands, and our day on shore. One lady asked if everybody in the Falklands was related since there are only 3200 people living on the islands! Restaurants were cleared early, I am presuming everyone is tired after an exceptional day on shore. The Young Explorers were even granted a tour of the lighthouse at Cape Pembroke. A movie about Thatcher and the Falklands War was screened at 9:15 p.m., offering interesting British perspectives and some dramatic wartime footage.
Saturday, December 16: Sailing the Scotia Sea
John Muir once wrote "The world is big and I want to get a good look at it before it gets dark". Fair comment, and it is very interesting listening to guest's reasons for taking this journey south. For some it is to get to the Seventh Continent, but for many of these well-travelled clients the reasons are far more cerebral. The levels of intellectual horsepower, life experience and past reading on board is beguiling, as it always is with A&K clients.
Marine biologist, Larry Hobbs, the Whale Whisperer, gave a wonderful presentation on the seals of the Antarctic. With 50 years of research and study under his belt, Larry has a plethora of stories to tell, and in his inimitable style he draws the audience into a world of marine mammals they have hitherto only dreamed of seeing. These creatures with relatively constant body temperatures, who give birth to live young and nurse those young, have hair on their bodies and need to breathe air require special adaptations for marine environments, since the water absorbs so much of their body heat quickly. Elephant Seals are capable of dives more than a mile deep (1600 meters), and can swim 18000 miles in a year (29000 km), the big breeding males weighing as much as 10000 lbs (4500 kg). The Weddell, Crabeater, Antarctic Fur and Leopard Seals were discussed in detail, backed up with beautiful images, and sounds. Larry also maintains that with increased enlightenment comes hair loss, which is why whales are hairless! Larry himself being bald..
Rob Caskie presented a story about Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer who took the prize of being first to reach the South Pole. Guests were intrigued at the notion of sharing a story without images, particularly about an explorer they generally know little about. Scott and Shackleton being far better known for various reasons. Rob spoke about Amundsen's impeccable background as an explorer, having overwintered in the Antarctic on board Belgica in 1898, and being first to sail the North-west Passage in 1903-1906. Having learnt to ski at a very young age, and gleaning much knowledge from the Inuit people whose mastery of Polar environments is unequalled, secured Amundsen considerable advantages over Scott when their race for the Pole began in 1910.
During the afternoon, photo coach Richard Harker gave a talk on mastering one's camera in Antarctica. With the predominance of white and grey environments, matters of exposure, white balance, contrast and composition become all the more important. For some the idea of using one's histogram to evaluate exposure and/or burnout came as a great surprise. Richard has a special way of sharing his immense knowledge, mindful that for some his pointers and suggestions may appear as clear as hieroglyphics. I notice guests on board carrying the latest Leica and Hasselblad DSLR cameras, but the majority use Canon, Nikon and Sony. The Expedition Team met with Safety Officer and Expedition Leader to confirm arrangements and safety for the Zodiac operation. Dense fog and limited visibility has characterized the early part of this season providing challenging conditions. Experienced Zodiac drivers are requested to pair up with less experienced drivers, and always to maintain clear line of sight between the Zodiacs, backed up by use of GPS. Matters of biosecurity for South Georgia were reiterated, along with the real issues of Antarctic Fur Seal interactions. As Larry reminded us earlier, they are aggressive, grumpy and very agile, particularly now in the breeding season.
Patri Silva gave a masterful presentation on her favourite birds-Penguins. As a family, these birds in tuxedo's are found all over the globe. Seven species occur in New Zealand, and five in the Falklands. Only the gorgeous Emperor and Adelie breed entirely south of the Antarctic Convergence zone. Their adaptations for life in the freezer, and flying in the medium of water beggar belief. Absolutely emblematic too of Antarctica. At various times during the day, Patri and the other naturalists spend time on deck, to assist guests with bird identification, and use of their cameras. I have no doubt that Patri will convert many onboard into devoted bird watchers. After sailing much of the day on a calm sea under grey skies, by 6:30 p.m. the sun appeared below the cloud, creating a wonderfully striated sky.
At Recaps the Young Explorers shared some of their experiences on the Falklands, the lighthouse tour clearly greatly enjoyed. Tonight we put our clocks forward by an hour which is bound to cause some confusion tomorrow-a very full day with lectures, Biosecurity briefing and cleaning, Zodiac briefing and passing by Shag Rocks where we hope to see some whales along with the innumerable birds.
Sunday, December 17: Sailing past Shag Rocks to South Georgia
Overnight the ambient and sea temperatures dropped from around 6 degrees Centigrade, to 3 degrees, indicating that we have crossed the Antarctic Convergence zone. The waters south of the Convergence differs greatly from more northern oceans in salinity and temperature. Colder, less saline Antarctic water flows northward meeting warmer, saltier water flowing southwards from the South Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Where these water masses meet and mix, a denser layer is created and sinks flowing northwards. The Convergence is considered the biological boundary of Antarctica. The exact location of the Convergence varies slightly throughout the year, and from year to year. Primary indicator of having crossed the Convergence is a drop in temperature. Sea temperature may drop 5 degrees Centigrade in 20 miles/32 km. Another important feature of the Southern Ocean is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current-the world's largest ocean current flowing clockwise (eastwards) at a rate of 153 million cubic meters per second, about 1000 times the flow of the Amazon River! On an unusually calm sea, beneath brighter skies than yesterday, we continue to steam towards South Georgia.
Rob Caskie shared his story about Shackleton, concentrating on the Endurance Expedition. This human drama is considered one of the greatest survival stories of all-time, certainly one of the greatest feats of navigation of the modern age (Elephant Island to South Georgia in the James Caird lifeboat). It is an epic of human struggle, and triumph of the human spirit. After Rob's talk on Amundsen yesterday, the talk was well attended and attention levels were high. Most guests are surprised and delighted that we shall be visiting "The Boss's" grave at Grytviken on South Georgia.
Suzana D'Oliveira, A&K Expedition Director on board, shared the IAATO guidelines for visitors to Antarctica, with a brief overview on the protocols surrounding the decision that this continent be preserved in perpetuity for science and peace. Expedition Leader, Agustin Ullmann, from Buenos Aires, blessed with a wonderful sense of humor, and gentle demeanor, then shared the Zodiac operating procedures in detail. Safety is the first and most important priority on Zodiac operations, and with the excitement levels at fever pitch, many guests forget the requirements to keep the operation safe for all. After the briefing life jackets were distributed to all passengers. During the afternoon, we shall be examining clothing and backpacks for any possible biosecurity risks, and vacuuming velcro straps, zips, etc to remove any alien seeds.
The Captain has created a competition, and promised a bottle of good French Champagne, to the first guests to spot an iceberg larger than our ship. It is estimated that around 300,000 icebergs exist in the Southern Ocean at any time, ranging from a few meters (growlers) to many square kilometers. Generally speaking, 1/8 of the iceberg is visible above the water line, the remaining 7/8 beneath the water. In the Zodiac safety briefing, Agustin told the drivers that should they have to look up see the top of an iceberg, they are TOO close. Icebergs can roll at any time, becoming more and more unstable as they melt. Pieces of ice often torpedo towards the surface, creating further dangers for Zodiacs. This gorgeous, icy wilderness is no place to take chances with safety-driving through ice arches strictly forbidden.
Lunch was interrupted by the sighting of whales close to ‘Le Lyrial’, as we approached Shag Rocks. A beautiful Fin Whale, identified by the lower right lip being white, glided past my cabin, giving me a clear view of this identifying feature. Whalers in days gone by found Fin and Sei Whales impossible to tell apart. There were also Humpback Whales, feeding, tail-slapping, and generally enthralling the guests just off the bow of the ship. The Whale Whisperer was right (he usually is regarding these marine mammals he loves so passionately)-whales are often found where the ocean floor rises steeply to surface as it does here at Shag Rocks. Two pointed rock outcrops in the middle of the ocean, occupied by thousands of Shags (Cormorants), and visited by thousands of seabirds.
Larry gave a passionate, sensible lecture on whaling, in terms of its history and where we are today. Sad to consider that petrochemical pollution of the oceans poses a far greater threat to whales than whaling per se'. The A&K Marco Polo Club enjoyed a magnificent reception, complete with caviar and foie gras, before Recaps and briefing. Excitement levels on board are at fever pitch with our first Zodiac landing planned for Salisbury Plain, South Georgia in the morning. I doubt any of these guests have an inkling of the sensory overload in store, and the sheer wonder that is South Georgia.
Monday, December 18: Expedition Day Salisbury Plain and Fortuna Bay
Daybreak found us off the north-eastern corner of South Georgia, with some sun popping through low cloud, the play of light on the ocean, mountains, glaciers and snow-capped peaks quite indescribable. Mighty fells with snowy crowns and with sharp, uncovered teeth, around valleys through which enormous rivers of ice come flowing to the sea. We arrived in the Bay of Isles, and anchored off Salisbury Plain, hosting one of the largest King Penguin colonies in the world. Guests and team members alike could hardly wait to go ashore-many at breakfast on Deck 6 well before 6:00 a.m. The innumerable birds and seals could be clearly seen and heard from the ship. Guests had been warned of a sensory overload here, and many conceded that nothing could have prepared them for the scene awaiting them on Salisbury Plain. A strong swell required stern entries by the Zodiacs, with frogmen and team members steadying the craft before guests could disembark. It is never easy reversing onto beaches, with waves breaking over the fronts of the Zodiacs. The Philippine frogmen and team members did a Sterling job all morning of assisting Zodiac drivers and guests, with off-loading and loading of passengers. Antarctic Fur Seals were active and fairly vocal when we first arrived at the beach, and tried to establish a landing area. During the course of the morning they confirmed our warnings to guests of treating these mobile, aggressive creatures with caution.
As far as the eye could see, King Penguins, Giant Petrels, Skuas, Fur Seals and young Elephant Seals could be seen, creating an absolutely unforgettable scene. As a first landing for these A&K guests, one could not have choreographed a more perfect scene. The weather provided some hail, sunny spells, and largely dry conditions under a low, grey sky-this is South Georgia at her very best. The sense of awe on behalf of the guests absolutely unmistakable. Patri and Adam, assisted by Larry, hosted guests on the edge of the massive breeding colony of King Penguins, with the Oakham Boys covered in brown fluff, young birds still emerging into their gorgeous adult plumage, adults sitting on eggs, the Skuas overhead seeking any opportunity to steal an egg. Literally hundreds of thousands of birds, stretching as far as the eye could see. The baby Fur Seals and young Elephant Seals providing plenty of additional visual stimulation. Adult male Fur Seals fighting over territories and the rights to breed, youngsters wrestling as if in preparation for later life? Boarding the Zodiacs proved challenging, as we tried to get guests back onto ‘Le Lyrial’-nobody keen to leave the beach. Naturalist Matt Messina who earlier lost his radio, saw something in the water, and thinking it may be a guest's wallet, swam after it! Brave fellow, it turned out to be a frogman's goggles after waves crashed over his head. We brought a number of very wet, cold team members and frogmen back on board. As Russ Manning said to them all-Bravo Zulu-very well done indeed!
With glaciers covering 60% of the island and peaks towering 2900 meters above sea level, South Georgia is undoubtedly the most spectacular and mountainous of all islands in the sub-Antarctic. Lying at 54 degrees South, crescent-shaped South Georgia is 170km long and up to 40km wide. Captain Cook first landed here in 1775 claiming British sovereignty. In 1904, Grytviken, the first of six whaling stations, was established on the north-east coastline of South Georgia by a Norwegian run company. Shore-based whaling ceased in these waters in 1965, by which time over 175 000 whales had been slaughtered. Ernest Shackleton's miraculous 800-mile open ocean journey from Elephant Island, in tiny lifeboat James Caird, ended at King Haakon Sound on the southern coast of South Georgia. Shackleton then led Frank Worsley and Tom Crean across the Allardyce Mountain range, in the first crossing of South Georgia on foot, ending their epic journey at the Stromness whaling station. After three failed attempts, Shackleton eventually rescued his stranded men on Elephant Island on 30 August 1916. Shackleton is buried in the whaler's cemetery at Grytviken, having died of a heart attack here on January 5, 1922 on board the Quest, aged 47.
Our afternoon was spent at Fortuna Bay, named after one of the Norwegian-Argentine ships under Captain A Larsen, who participated in establishing the first permanent whaling station at Grytviken in 1904/5. Tide and swell once again necessitated a stern landing, with frogmen and team members receiving Zodiacs and guests in fairly deep water. The beaches are choked with Antarctic Fur Seals, and it took some time to establish a secure route to the King Penguin colony below the Konig Glacier for our guests. Some of us were fortunate enough to watch a seal pup being born. The last Zodiac left the beach at 6.30pm, with Recaps and Precaps scheduled for 7pm. The guests have been positively "glowing" all day, every expectation exceeded by some margin in this extraordinary wilderness that is South Georgia. Siegfried Sassoon recommended measuring Life via the moments that take your breath away-today was one of those days in every sense. Stromness and Grytviken await us tomorrow....
Tuesday, December 19: Expedition Day Stromness and Grytviken
South Georgia is for all those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden, where you walk among abundant and fearless wildlife, in a beautiful wilderness-an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature-Tim Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the spell of South Georgia.
Certainly the wildlife was unusually abundant and fearless during our first two landings yesterday, and we were surrounded by a veritable Garden of Eden. During the night we could feel the wind picking up. At 6am, Agustin, our wonderful Expedition Leader, announced on the PA system that wind prevented our proposed landings at Stromness. Thirty knots straight onto the bow, and a windswept sea makes a Zodiac operation untenable. Many guests raced out onto the decks to view this historic whaling station, and later ship repair yard. In the valley beyond, we could see the waterfall Shackleton, Crean and Worsley descended on May 20, 1916. His white dwelling to the left of the station remains intact. The Stromness shore whaling station began in 1912, and in 1931 whaling ceased-the station instead being used as a ship repair yard. The enormous chains, propellers and sheets of steel rusting away leave little doubt as to hard work required in ship repairs, especially to vessels used in whaling.
Suzana, Expedition Director, and Agustin immediately decided to head southwards to Godthul Harbour, with the intention of offering guests a Zodiac cruise. Despite a stiff breeze, the bay was calm enough to accommodate safe Zodiac cruising, and guests, all warmly dressed, massed to board the black, rubber inflatables. Plenty of Gentoo Penguins were seen, including a nesting colony, along with the usual birds and seals. Conspicuous were magnificent Kelp beds, with their long, strong trunks which form the basis of the ecosystem hereabouts. Many relics dating back to the whaling days litter the beaches, including whale bones. There seems to be no escaping this chapter in South Georgia's history.
Lunch in La Comete restaurant on Deck 6 was packed, everyone wanting to watch South Georgia sliding by in all her glory, as we head towards Grytviken. Grytviken means "Pot Cove" and is named after the sealers' tripots that were discovered here. The British later named it King Edward Cove. As a bay within the greater bay of Cumberland Bay, it is the best harbor in South Georgia, initially chosen by Norwegian Captain Carl Anton Larsen as the site of the first whaling station in Antarctic waters in 1904. In November 1904, Larsen arrived with a small fleet of ships to build a factory. Massive profits were made initially, but Grytviken and the other whaling stations were eventually forced to close since the whales had all but disappeared. One of the reasons Grytviken is the finest harbor on the island is its small size, protected on all sides by high mountains. Unfortunately the strong wind obliges our Captain to anchor outside of the small harbor, simply too risky to maneuver a vessel of this size in windy conditions within this tiny harbor. This creates a long Zodiac ride to the Museum, and/or cemetery where Shackleton and Wild are buried. Squalls of rain driving down off the mountains make for a typical South Georgia day- fine reminder of the generally calm, dry weather yesterday. Sarah Lurlock from the South Georgia Heritage Trust came on board at 2:00 p.m. to give our guests some fascinating insights into their programs on South Georgia.
Rob Caskie toasted Shackleton at his grave on Grytviken, before most guests hiked off up the steep hill to Gull Lake. The views make the hike and effort worthwhile, but the wind was howling up there. The afternoon was spent in the old Grytviken whaling station, museum, and Carr Museum with her James Caird replica lifeboat. Some took pleasure in ringing the church bells, others took a quiet moment to reflect upon this place and its history. Two very small sailing yachts were present in Grytviken-very hardy, experienced sailors only bring such small craft into the Southern Ocean. We assisted one with milk from our ship's kitchen-what a joy for them.
The wind however picked up considerably during the afternoon, becoming dangerous for the long Zodiac rides back to ‘Le Lyrial’. Eventually we asked guests to leave the site and head back to the ship, where the local Post Office sold First Day covers, postcards and stamps. A fun Recap and briefing session took place with Rob Caskie speaking about Wild and Shackleton's relationship, and eventual resting place alongside one another here.
Larry Hobbs answered questions on various matters, almost always humorously. Many guests have red windswept faces on exposure to wind, rain and hail today, but every one also brims with the realization of another incredible day on South Georgia. Gold Harbour and Drygalski Fjord await us tomorrow-can this get even better?
Wednesday, December 20: Expedition day Gold Harbor and Drygalski Fjord
After the high winds and inclement weather yesterday afternoon and evening, it was fantastic to wake up to a much calmer, drier morning. Anchor was dropped early (5am) off Gold Harbor on the southern end of South Georgia. We could clearly see the Bertrab Glacier hanging precariously on high, above mighty cliff faces plunging into the ocean. Regarded by many as one of South Georgia's most beautiful visitor sites, and deservedly so. I burst onto the rear deck at 6:00 a.m. to join the scouting party, and greeted everybody enthusiastically by name. This caused great amusement for everybody, my enthusiasm and largely the fact that they were all still half asleep.
The natural amphitheatre of cliffs and mountains, glaciers and waterfalls dropping steeply to the sea, providing a visual delight and unforgettable backdrop to the abundant wildlife found here. The name is derived from Filchner's German Antarctic Expedition of 1911, who called this bay "Goldhaven", on account of the iron pyrites or 'fool's gold' they found in the local rocks. Gold Harbor is home to a large King Penguin colony. Plenty of Elephant Seals lie on the beach, looking like so many enormous sausages, occasionally rearing up to wrestle with another seal. Moving like an inchworm along the beach, they are the most endearing creatures, the weaner pups absolutely adorable. Gentoo Penguins nest in the Tussock Grass, Fur Seals jostle for space with the much bigger Elephant Seals, whilst Skuas, Petrels and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses circle overhead.
On a calm sea, with scarcely any swell, guests were ferried by Zodiac to the beach landing area. It was humbling to literally watch their jaws drop to the pontoons, as South Georgia cast her magic spell irretrievably upon them. Elephant Seal weaners immediately arrived to greet the guests in their bright red A&K parkas. These creatures with their huge round eyes the guests realized are a very different animal to the Antarctic Fur Seal, and one could sense the guests relaxing-the anxiety of aggressive Fur Seals taken away. I took many young kids terrified by the Fur Seals up close to young seals, to placate their fears and have a photo taken. Some insisted that I remain between the seal and themselves, but significant headway was made. King Penguins stood on the beach unmoved by these tall, rather clumsy, red-clad visitors. In calm, warm, cloudy conditions guests wandered about in awe. Team members reminded them often, to carry this image with them as their memory of South Georgia. The whole scene was amplified by the sunlight making a regular appearance, creating unbelievable photographic opportunities. This is the sort of experience A&K dream of offering their valued guests, and this morning those dreams were exceeded.
Over lunch Le Lyrial was re-positioned in ever-increasing wind towards Drygalski Fjord, named after Prof Erich von Drygalski, leader of German Antarctic Expedition in 1901-3. Dr Wilhelm Filchner first chartered the fjord with German Antarctic Expedition in 1911/2. Besides the whaling, the regions to the south received considerable attention during the last century for political and possible resource reasons. By the time we reached the fjord entrance at the south-eastern corner of South Georgia, the wind was blowing at 40 knots (75km/hr). Standing on the outside decks was interesting, and I wondered whether the Captain would take the ship into the narrow fjord. Without hesitation he turned the ship into this most glorious fjord. The fjord is created by glacial erosion over aeons of time, with old Gondwanaland materials to the north, and newer material evident to the south. Glaciers, cliffs and waterfalls drop very steeply into the deep fjord creating a visual spectacle of the highest order. We are very grateful that visibility was good. ‘Le Lyrial’ was literally swung about using bow thrusters within her own axis at the top of the fjord.
Helen Ahern asked Rob Caskie to share some thoughts on Shackleton with the Young Explorers, and assist in a quiz to decide which survival objects they would take with them in similar circumstances. The questions and engagement from these youngsters was wonderful.
The movie Eight Below was screened after dinner. A must for all animal lovers, and definite tear jerker.
Thursday, December 21: Sailing South
After the absolutely sublime day yesterday at Gold Harbor and Drygalski Fjord, many guests went to bed late celebrating exceeded anticipations. The charm and glory of South Georgia having worked her magic on everybody on board. During the morning geologist/paleontologist Ian Miller presented a magnificent lecture titled "Our Ocean Planet-Stories from the Deep". The first half of his talk centered on ocean currents, temperatures and systems, with special reference to the Convergence Zone and Circumpolar Currents. Current temperatures affect the ambient temperatures, illustrated by cities in Chile and Brazil at the same latitude having markedly different average temperatures. Ian then went into detail regarding life in the oceans over the past 450 million years. Most interesting were his photographs of excavating marine fossils on mountain sides all over the USA and Canada, which were clearly at one time on the ocean floor. Ian is certain that life as we understand it today evolved from the oceans. What is it about the paleotologists that the names given to all these remarkable life forms are so complex, and practically impossible for most of us to pronounce, never mind remember? It was amusing to see photographs of a paleo-nird with tattoo's on his arms of early fossilized creatures.
Marine biologist Larry Hobbs was up next with his talk "Where Blubber is not a bad thing-the Whales of the Southern Ocean". As mentioned previously Larry is a Whale Whisperer and his commentary on these denizens of the deep is not to be missed. Yesterday his voice over the PA system with Humpback Whales swimming very close to ‘Le Lyrial’ clearly indicated a deep understanding and connection with these fellow mammals. Whales, like Dolphins, tend to evoke unusually passionate responses from human beings, and everyone on board is hoping to see plenty of whales during this voyage. Their adaptations for a marine life, their ability to swim enormous distances, feeding behaviors, breeding cycles and many other fascinating aspects of whale life were shared by Larry. His stories about Grey Whales off the US coasts, and human interactions with these cetaceans were brilliant.
There is a gentle rolling motion of the ship today as we sail the 900 nautical miles between South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. Guests are editing photographs and reflecting on this extraordinary journey in all common areas. During the morning an emergency drill was rehearsed by the crew only-always comforting to know that they are ready and able to deal with any eventuality at sea. At lunch I sat with a group of guests and I related a story about Mr. Gore-Tex before the age of digital photography wanting to get a photo of a large male Elephant Seal. At the penultimate moment, with Mr. Gore-Tex only feet from those enormous nostrils adorning adult Elephant Seals, the seal sneezed! About 5 lbs of snot flew out of each nostril, and Mr. Gore-Tex was still trying to clean himself, his clothing and his equipment at the end of the voyage. The laughter was probably the loudest in the dining room. Former BAS Base Commander, Russ Manning, gave a lively resume' of 26 years of life at the edge. Russ has enormous experience as field guide, Zodiac driver, climber, diver and Base Commander. Still involved with sea rescue in England, he has no peer as a Zodiac driver. His photographs and descriptions of years of working in Antarctica are of great interest to the guests. Russ's story about a reckless descent by rope into a crevasse, then 'potholing' through two more chambers until they reached bedrock 450 meters below, with the ice grinding and booming around them almost saw his Commander aspirations smashed.
Photo coach Richard Harker offered the guests suggestions on photographing the perfect penguin in Antarctica. Richard stressed getting down low, to penguin level, whilst attempting to remain clean-important, but could be challenging. Ideally one wants to photograph clean penguins, those coming from the ocean, as these birds in tuxedo's are often not clean. After much debate regarding editing, Richard warned against over-editing showing a photograph of a penguin and Polar Bear in the same shot. At the evening Recaps, Helen Ahern spoke about the happywhale.com website, who are collating photos of whales and seals from around the world trying to establish numbers, migrations and so forth. Richard showed us all some fascinating aspects of smart phone photography, especially as many guests are using them as primary cameras down here. All in all, a fantastic day at sea on board ‘Le Lyrial’, sailing south on calm seas, thankfully.
Friday, December 22: Sailing the Scotia Sea
Sir Raymond Priestley wrote "For scientific discovery give me Scott; For speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." Rob Caskie used these words, amongst others, to propose a toast to The Boss at his graveside in Grytviken. Like teabags, Shackleton showed his true strength in hot water. In the most dire of circumstances, he turned out to be an extraordinary leader of men. We hope later today to view Elephant Island from the ship, so central to the Shackleton/Endurance saga.
Patri Silva gave a masterful presentation on the Evolution and Biology of Penguins, recommending the work of Thomas Huxley. A fossil was found, complete with feathers, in Paraguay, estimated to be 36 million years old, and larger than an Emperor. Their evolution is a tricky subject as they are very widespread. The fantastic adaptations described in detail, from incubating on their feet, huddling together for warmth to searching for food from below. Emperor Penguins carry air within their feathers to give them a jet blast, as they exit the water from their deep dives. Breeding is brought on by length of day, along with ambient and water temperatures. Averaging between 5 and 7 miles per hour (8 and 11 km per hour) in the water, these birds in tuxedo's really do fly in their watery medium.
Great excitement was created by a massive tabular iceberg at 11:00 am. This 12 mile (20 km) long behemoth has been adrift for 17 years already. With 148 feet (45 meters) of beautifully level ice above the waterline, there is around 980 feet (300 meters) below the waterline. Guests streamed outside to take photographs. Many took pictures of me in shorts, them clad more like Shackleton wannabes. In fairness, the temperature was bracing, and most folk were not out for very long.
Geologist Ian Miller from the Denver Natural Science Centre gave an insightful talk on Deep Time Climate Change. With scientific evidence, Ian shared with us a time when there was 6 months of daylight, followed by 6 months of darkness. Temperatures being estimated by the serrated or smooth edges of leaves found as fossils. There were also disturbing tables of climate warming, glacial recession and so forth.
Antarctica is dedicated to world peace and scientific research as a result of the operation of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. This Treaty diffuses deep differences over territorial sovereignty and establishes an effective basis for cooperation among all countries interested in Antarctica. The unique legal system established by the Antarctic Treaty applies to 60 degrees south latitude. Antarctica belongs to the world, and those working here are subject to rules and measures formulated under the Treaty to protect this remarkable part of the Earth.
It is wonderful to see guests joining one another at meal times, new friendships formed and the excitement of Antarctica on the horizon. Our table enjoyed a lively discussion about Wilbur Smith, Laurens van der Post, Ted Talks, motivational speakers, and the derivation of the term being in the lime light. During the afternoon, Liz Huffman gave a presentation on the world of A&K with particular reference to the expedition ship departures around the globe for 2018 and 2019. Interesting to note that Japanese voyages are fully booked for 2018. Guests were invited to once again vacuum their equipment and clean their boots for complete bio-security clearance going into Antarctica.
Larry Hobbs gave a magnificent lecture on his life of work in the wild and sustainability. In the midst of incredible tales of wildlife experiences, it was announced on the PA system that the mist had lifted and Elephant Island was clearly visible. A fire could not have cleared the theatre more effectively. Guests streamed to outside decks and balconies to get their first view of an Antarctic landscape. And it was clearly overwhelming. I do not think that anybody can be sufficiently prepared for their first view of the frozen continent. From the ship we could see Cape Valentine where Shackleton and his 27 desperate and emaciated men first made landfall in April of 1916 after 17 months at sea and on the pack ice. To add to the wonder, spouting humpback and fin whales and porpoising penguins were seen all around the ship. After this magnificent intermission, many guests returned to the lecture theatre for Larry's experiences insights into our globe where human beings are 1,000 times the mean population of mammals our size. He stressed the importance of asking the right questions rather than trying to solve the problem by means that are clearly ineffective.
Saturday, December 23: A Day in the South Shetlands - Yankee Harbor and Deception Island
Guests often ponder the range of a vessel like ‘Le Lyrial.’ In Puerto Williams we took on 200 tones (200,000 liters) of diesel for this expedition. The engineers tell me that with full tanks, ‘Le Lyrial’ can comfortably sail from Marseilles to Buenos Aires, very impressive indeed. In glorious weather we arrived early this morning at Yankee Harbor, a small harbor between Glacier Bluff and Spit Point in the south west side of Greenwich Island. The protected bay offered better anchorage than nearby Half-moon Island, and has been used by sealers and whalers since the 1820's. The name Yankee probably associated with American sealers. Old sealers' tripots still lie on the beach, where we established a landing site for very excited guests at 7:00 am. Interesting how many guests anticipated Elephant Island to look like South Georgia, and the contrast was stark. This is clearly a very different part of the world, with nothing green. This is now an environment of black and white, blue and grey, the land of ice these guests have dreamed of visiting. As a first landing in Antarctica, conditions could not have been better. A very calm sea, comfortable temperatures and sunlight on the surrounding mountains initially. Guests were able to walk along a level, long spit of beach, looking at Chinstrap Penguins, and a large breeding colony of Gentoo Penguins. Seals on the beach added interest, but central to the experience was walking, awed by the Antarctic scenery about us. Low cloud cover and mist characterized the scene by the time the second group was due to depart, but in all respects a fantastic landing.
Two wonderful, short movies were screened before lunch, providing an overview of Deception Island's history, and Antarctica. Almost everyone on board turned out to watch the movies, such is the excitement of being here. A mixed grill was served, and enjoyed on Deck 6 at lunchtime. The quality of food on board is simply sublime, continuously.
Magnificent navigation by the Captain and his officers in very poor conditions (low visibility) with snow and mist, entranced guests as we slipped through the narrow Neptune's Bellows into the ancient caldera of Deception Island. A recently active volcano, and one of the most famous islands in the South Shetland archipelago. Discovered originally by American sealers (Palmer) in the 1820's, the name derives from appearing an island rather a caldera with a navigable entrance! Most early mariners sailed past the narrow entrance without ever seeing the protected inner bay. Once discovered, the island became a center of activity in the region precisely on account of the large sheltered harbor. Initially a whaling station, then ship repair yard before Operation Tamerind in 1944 established Base B for the British Antarctic Survey. An airstrip and hangar followed, until massive volcanic eruptions in 1967 and again in 1969 saw the base abandoned. The lava and mud flows significantly altering the base and surrounding landscape, destroying much of both. Our landings took place with constantly falling snow, transforming the place into the most beguiling Antarctic landscape imaginable, with us being part of the exquisite experience. Guests moved about the beach, seeing Leopard and Weddell Seals, took note of the old whaling station, water boats and whale bones. Covered in snow one could sense them feeling that this is the tour they signed up for. Children built snowmen in deep snow, having the time of their lives in relatively comfortable temperatures. By the time both landings were over, the team were rather wet and ready for a hot drink back on board ‘Le Lyrial.’
Patri spoke about Krill at Recaps. These wonderful crustaceans looking like tiny shrimps can live for 11 years, and form the basis of the entire Antarctic food chain. Krill gather microscopic food particles with their front legs, which form a feeding basket, and swim with their rear legs. In winter they feed upon the algae underneath the sea ice. Much about their complex life cycle remains a mystery, but females lay up to 10,000 eggs which sink to depths of 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), and go through various phases/forms before becoming the Krill we understand as feed for much of the regions creatures. Krill are now harvested for human food, aquaculture feed and sport fishing bait. The shell contains high levels of fluoride, so the shell needs to be removed immediately to prevent this contaminating the flesh. At this stage limits are set at 600,000 tons of Krill being harvested annually. Commercial Salmon flesh would be a bland white colour, were it not for the krill fed to the fish before processing.
The wonderful movie March of the Penguins was screened at 9:30 p.m., much to the delight of many on board. Tomorrow we go to Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay, with a special communal dinner planned for Christmas Eve. This A&K expedition continues to exceed very high expectations on every level.
Sunday, December 24: Expedition Day Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay
Many guests left their curtains open last evening (far less chance of bird strikes here than South Georgia) to enjoy the constantly falling snow. Snow has not stopped falling since we arrived at Whaler's Bay yesterday, and what an incredible experience to see the snow accumulating on our decks and balconies. With two hours of what would be called twilight between midnight and 2:27 a.m., the scene beyond the windows is surreal. The expedition ship moved from Whaler's Bay in Deception Island, between the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula, southwards to Cuverville Island. In beautiful weather, we anchored off Cuverville, situated at the northern end of the Errera Channel, just off the west coast of Graham Land. Named by Belgian de Gerlache in 1898 after a vice Admiral in the French Navy, and home to a wealth of breeding birds. This tiny island finds itself in a wonderland of mountains, glaciers and icebergs between Ronge Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Guests were given opportunity to take a steep hike in deep snow, up to a high vantage point, and see colonies of nesting Gentoo Penguins. Many took the vigorous hike option first, whilst others remained closer to the landing site and breeding penguins. Icebergs regularly broke up or rolled over in the bay, highlighting the dangers of being close to these behemoths in a Zodiac. The nearby glacier producing sounds like distant artillery as the ice cracked, and we saw two significant avalanches of snow. Temperatures were almost balmy for this part of the world, with no wind, our guests could not have imagined a finer scene. One Thai Chi master set up a video camera and filmed himself going through a class of one, penguins and icebergs behind, and was regularly photographed by passing guests. En route back to ‘Le Lyrial,’ Zodiac tours through the icebergs were taken, to everyone's delight.
Our Captain then deftly steered the ship through the Errera Channel, a very narrow body of water and choked with icebergs. The water depth hereabouts is 460 feet (140 meters), so icebergs are probably resting on the sea bottom, but move with changing tides. As a result a Zodiac is sent off to scout the passage, and conditions vary almost daily. In this area known as the Antarctic Alps, guests were out on decks still deep with last night's snow, marvelling at their surroundings. On an ocean as calm as a millpond with icebergs all about us, the scene is impossible to capture on camera. A Zodiac travelled alongside to photograph and video ‘Le Lyrial’ in this breathtaking scene. Minke Whales, the smallest of the Baleen Whales swam alongside the ship.
Over lunch, ‘Le Lyrial’ ventured into Paradise Bay, utterly appropriately named on account of the staggering visual beauty of the place. Humpback Whales surface close to the ship, and penguins swimming about us makes for a truly magical scene on these calm waters. Islands protecting us from the weather patterns of the Drake, and the Peninsula protecting us from the winds and gyre of the Weddell Sea. The afternoon was spent at the old Almirante Brown Argentinian station in Paradise Bay. The location affords guests the opportunity to walk up the hill behind the unused station, offering the most breathtaking views over this Antarctic jewel. Many guests chose to slide back down the hill, proving that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. The atmosphere heightened by Christmas Eve and the most gorgeous weather. The visit was rounded off with a Zodiac tour, which included a surprise "bar boat" stop offering champagne. Having said this before, operators in Antarctica dream of offering their guests days like these-utter magic. Whales entertaining us on all sides, penguins porpoising through calm, flat seas. Cherry on the top being that this is our proper Antarctic landing-the dream fulfilled of standing on Antarctica.
The Expedition Team led the guests in singing Christmas carols before dinner. The Young Explorers joined us, Bradley (guest) played the piano beautifully. Captain Le Rouzic graciously joined us, and led Jingle Bells in French. A thoroughly good time was had by all, with a special feeling of fellowship and camaraderie on Christmas Eve. Everyone enjoyed dinner in Le Celeste restaurant, and the kitchen produced a magnificent evening meal, accompanied by the staff singing songs. As if this day could get any better, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed through the Lemaire Channel after dinner. Known by various names like Fujichrome Fjord, Kodachrome Alley; this 7-mile channel deserves its reputation as one of the most photographed spots in Antarctica. With perfect reflections on calm waters, the mountains and glaciers plunge into the ocean, creating a quite indescribable kaleidoscope of grandeur. As Sassoon so significantly wrote-Measure life not by the number of breaths one takes, but rather by the number of times life takes your breath away. I believe Christmas Eve 2017 will be seared forever into the minds of every guest on board, as one of their life highlights.
Monday, December 25: Christmas Day Exploring Salpetriere Bay and Port Charcot
In 1908 Shackleton wrote "Some bergs had been weathered into fantastic shapes...Beautiful as this scene was, it gave rise to anxiety...for if we were caught in a breeze against this maze, it would go hard on us." Icebergs move by way of current, tide and wind. Large ones pose a major threat to ships, and especially to small craft. Salpetriere Bay conforms well with Shackleton's description. We awoke to mirror calm conditions, surrounded by a maze of the most beautiful icebergs. After a late night last evening, and the glories of the Lemaire Channel, guests came to breakfast later than usual, grateful for the lie-in. Santa Claus must have tracked ‘Le Lyrial’ on ShipSpotter, as he arrived by Zodiac at 9:00 a.m., and what joy he provided us all. Most guests wanted to be photographed with Santa, and the Young Explorers were delighted at his arrival, complete with gifts for them all.
Upon Santa's departure, Zodiac tours were taken in this maze of icebergs. A more majestic scene could not have been choreographed for Christmas Day. Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard Seals were seen on the ice floes. Kitchen staff laid on the southernmost barbeque in the world at lunchtime, and guests sat around on the pool deck, dining in this Antarctic summer wonderland. The food on board has been absolutely magnificent, and lunch lived up to high expectations.
The afternoon was spent at Port Charcot, where Jean-Baptiste Charcot overwintered on board Francais in 1903/4. So named in honor of his famous neurologist father, whose work influenced Freud, and whose passing left Jean-Baptiste a fortune to spend on Polar exploration. With his personal fortune, and a further 450,000 Francs from the French citizens, Francais was built of top quality materials. A three-masted schooner, dry weight 245 tons. Economising on the second-hand 125 horsepower engine proved to be Francais's Achilles Heel. Engine troubles eventually forced the crew to shelter in a narrow cove on Booth Island, a chain across the entrance spared the ship being crushed by icebergs. Tragedy struck when Toby, the pet pig, greedily ate a bucket of fish containing hooks. Charcot tried to operate on the animal, unsuccessfully. Charcot treated his men very well, and is remembered as the "gentleman of Polar explorers."
Guests walked up the hill to the commemorative cairn, and visited the Gentoo Penguin colony, including a few Adelies, creating great excitement. Minke Whales were moving about close to shore, in conditions warm enough for shorts and shirt alone. Guests could not have wished for a more magnificent final landing in Antarctica. Richard Escanilla managed to drop his GoPro into 9 feet of water, but was able with assistance from Cobus Kilian to push it to shallow water, and recover it. The team immediately sang "if you are happy and you know it, clap your hands" to "if you recovered your GoPro, clap your hands!"
Young Explorer, Andy, was inspired enough by Rob Caskie's talk on Shackleton, to write a diary excerpt from Stromness Whaling Station, by Shackleton, which he read beautifully to an enthralled audience. These young minds are sponges for information, especially Andy's. Patri Silva brought the house down with the most humorous presentation about Red-jacket Albatrosses-our guests. Explaining that they migrate south in search of food (on A&K ships), different lengths of proboscis (camera lenses), abandon their young once on board ship and that the young never properly fledge (leave home). This presentation has become legendary for our last evening in Antarctica, and it was hilarious beyond words. After dinner, travelling slowly through the spectacular Neumayer Channel, Larry Hobbs announced Orcas in the Gerlache Strait. Guests flew out onto the outer decks to watch these supreme predators, with their unmistakable dorsal fins swimming fast about the ship. What an utterly appropriate memory to carry as we depart this exquisite place, heading for the Drake Passage en route to Ushuaia.
Tuesday, December 26: Crossing the Drake Passage
After dinner last night in the spectacular Neumayer Channel, Larry Hobbs announced over the PA system that Orcas had been spotted near the Melchior Islands. Guests streamed out onto the decks as these gorgeous creatures moved all about the ship, their power quite incredible. The massive fin on the large male clearly visible, and youngsters moving about in groups. Excitement levels were acute-so many having dreamed of seeing the cream and grey top predators. The Orcas had no sooner dispersed when Humpback Whales were seen in profusion around ‘Le Lyrial.’ Photographic opportunities second to none, and beautiful photographs and video's were taken, including bubble-netting. The denizens of the deep were bidding us an Antarctic farewell, till well after 1:00 a.m. The Captain keeping the ship close to these awesome mammals.
Atmosphere on board was somewhat subdued, guests having handed their life jackets in yesterday afternoon, and this morning would be handing back their rental boots and waterproof trousers. Photo coach Richard Harker gave a presentation on digital workflow. Referring to Ansel Adams and other famous names who edited their photographs in various ways, photo post production is available to almost all with a digital camera and computer. Richard offered wonderful advice on editing and using Photoshop or Lightroom programs. The number of questions clearly indicates that many wish to upscale their skills in this complex field. Naturalists were out on deck pointing out the wildlife about the ship.
Patri Silva was up next with "Albatross-we have a problem!" Highlighting the threats posed by long-line fishing to Albatrosses, these magnificent birds mate for life, and fly incredible distances foraging for food. Should a bird be killed by baited hook, then the partner may perish awaiting food/rotation at the nest site. Patri explained the methods being adopted to reduce the long-line dangers to Albatrosses, but they remain endangered birds, unfortunately.
Shackleton wrote "..As though we were truly at the world's end, and were bursting in on the birthplace of the clouds and the nesting home of the four winds..." The dreaded Drake Passage has daunted our guests, but the Captain assured them of a smooth crossing, with more wind due for the morning tomorrow. All day we sailed fast on a gently rolling sea, in this sleek, fast, comfortable ship.
Rob Caskie was invited to join the Young Explorers for lunch, to chat about explorers, etc. The staff downstairs in Le Celeste restaurant were charming, offering menus to the children, and providing small burgers, etc for their little appetites. Conversation was lively, with 3 or 4 children often speaking at the the same time. Rob thoroughly enjoyed the interaction.
During the afternoon, Rob Caskie spoke about lesser known personalities of Antarctica. Men like Mawson, the winter journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs at Cape Crozier, Lashly, Crean, Wild, whose stories are easily as remarkable as the main players. Wild and Joyce are the only men to have earned the Polar Medal and four bars. Rob concluded his lecture with a story about Alfred Henry Hook, VC, hero of Rorke's Drift, suggesting that we should all consider how we would like our lives remembered and live our lives to that end. Hook would have been so proud of the inscription upon his gravestone in Churcham. It would be fantastic if the experiences, bonds and conversations forged together on this voyage were taken with us all, once we leave the ship and this incredible cruise together.
Captain's Farewell cocktail party and dinner was a resounding success-the Captain Le Rouzic is a thoroughly charming, engaging man who thanked everyone sincerely for their contribution to this great time together. Dinner was outstanding-most guests retiring early after the late night provided via whale watching last evening. Altogether a glorious day en route back to Ushuaia.
Wednesday, December 27: Crossing the Drake Passage and Sailing Beagle Channel Back to Ushuaia
"If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it!" Andrew Denton.
Guests are trying to collect adjectives to describe Antarctica, and even Shakespeare may have struggled to do so adequately. I often comment that nothing can prepare one for your first sighting of Antarctica, and this voyage was no different. Guests have been in awe, their breaths literally taken away. Moving about the vessel, seeing passengers editing their photographs, the quality of the images is staggering. Yet even top-quality photographs battle to capture the wonder and magnitude of Antarctica, in my opinion. This extraordinary continent surrounded by oceans, with the South Pole close to 10,000 feet above sea level. No tree line, no tundra, no native population, no terrestrial mammals, and a mean annual temperature at the South Pole of minus 50 degrees centigrade (-58F). On this expedition we have visited the gorgeous Antarctic Peninsula, which really is the temperate tip of West Antarctica, with lofty Mount Francais rising up to 9,000 feet above sea level. Thus far, even the dreaded Drake Passage has treated us benignly, a gentle rolling motion felt by the ship as we sail to the entrance of the Beagle Channel, our highway into Ushuaia.
Paleontologist/geologist Ian Miller presented a lecture titled "Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies". Ian has a most congenial, conversational style in bringing the complex subject of geology to life. The Young Explorers adore him. Ian loves deserts, where fossil records are easiest to find, and has embraced his first visit to the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on Earth-effectively a desert in its own right.
Of the 6 species of Seals living in the Antarctica, one is "eared" and the other five are true Seals. With small external ear flaps the Antarctic Fur Seal, and uses four flippers to swim. On land they move on fore and hind flippers to walk, capable of outrunning most people. Males can weigh 200kg, almost 4 times the weight of the females. Crabeater Seals are considered to be the most abundant, with estimates between 10 and 50 million animals, largely Krill feeders. Often heavily scarred from Leopard Seal attacks. Leopard Seals have leopard spots on their elongated bodies, powerful fore flippers with a large serpentine head and menacing 170 degree gape. Females are larger than the males, measuring up to 4,5 meters and weighing 600kg. Eating a widely varied diet including other Seals, but largely Krill. Weddell Seals are the most southerly occurring seal in the world, with their "cat-like faces". They use canine and incisor teeth to keep breathing holes open in the ice, often suffering impacted teeth in advanced age. Southern Elephant Seals are the largest Seals in the world, males weighing over 4 tons (second only in size to Elephants as land mammals). These mammals can dive to 1700 meters, and remain submerged for 2 hours. Little is known about the Ross Seal, a species confined to the heavy pack ice. Along with Weddell, Ross Seals are known for their singing.
During the morning, Expedition Director Suzana D'Oliveira gave guests an important briefing regarding disembarkation procedures tomorrow, flights, onward connections, etc. Many guests upon departing the ship are being taken on a bus tour of the local national park, before boarding their flights to Buenos Aires. For the ship's staff and Expedition Team it is an extremely busy day, "turning the ship around", as new guests board at 4pm.
During the afternoon, Casandre, the videographer, showed the video she had created for the cruise available for sale. Highlights of the day probably will be the Red-jacket Choir, and Richard Escanilla's slide show. A large group of guests got together and led by Prof David Armstrong on the guitar, produced an unforgettable song, pointing fun at every one on the Expedition Team, with the chorus comprising comments each team member will be forever remembered by. It was brilliant! Richard aka Blackjack/Professional Pirate choreographed a magnificent slide show from team member's and guests' photographs to which he had added music. Every guest and team member featured, and it will be sent to every guest via email. Suzana and Agustin thanked the team and guests warmly for an awesome expedition together.
During dinner, Le Lyrial docked in Ushuaia in rain-it is almost unbelievable to be back where we started only two weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime, the experiences certainly worthy of a lifetime.
For our guests, there is much to reflect upon, as a result of this wondrous journey. Unanimously, expectations have been massively exceeded. There have been no really rough oceans, the weather has been magnificent, and the landings sublime. Storyteller Rob Caskie mentioned in his talk last evening the idea of considering how we live our lives and how we wish our lives remembered, then live our lives to that end. The team hope that this extraordinary expedition provides the inspiration for each and every one on board to reflect upon their lives, to tread gently, and to correct positively where appropriate.
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