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Classic Antarctica Trip Log December 27, 2017 - January 8, 2018
Thursday, December 28: Embarkation in Ushuaia
The country and geography certainly changes markedly as one flies south from Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia, a frontier town in southern Patagonia on the Beagle Channel. Amongst the passengers on the flight, one could sense the excitement of people about to travel to Antarctica. Friendly, efficient A&K representatives met them at the airport, dealt with luggage, and transferred guests to buses. The lunch venue, the beautiful Arakur Hotel, sits high up on a hill above Ushuaia, rather like a cosmic power point riveted to the mountainside. Patri Silva and JD Massyn, from the A&K Expedition Team welcomed guests, and provided them with their cabin door cards, before sitting down to a wonderful buffet meal. The view from the Arakur over the surrounding mountains and Beagle Channel is spectacular, and is surrounded by natural Beech forest.
This cruise enjoys a full complement of 200 guests, who began arriving at the gangway at 4pm. The quayside in Ushuaia is very busy today, with no less than 5 expedition ships being reprovisioned, and new guests embarking-a hive of activity. Wonderful to see Le Lyrial's sister ship, Le Boreal, also in port. The massive Europa 2 belonging to Hapag-Lloyd somewhat dwarfs our beautiful, sleek Le Lyrial directly opposite her on the pier. The Expedition Team welcomed them, along with the Captain, his Officers and the staff, who assisted in getting luggage to the cabins. Parkas, boots, backpacks and waterproof trousers had earlier today been distributed to all cabins by the Expedition Team. Fantastic canapes and drinks were served in the Grand Salon on Deck 3, once guests had checked into their lovely cabins. At 6pm the mandatory evacuation/life boat drill was conducted, us all looking rather strange in bright orange life jackets, assembling in the Theatre for instructions, and then walking out on deck to our respective life boats. There are 30 Young Explorers on this expedition, ranging from 7-18.
Our Captain Erwan le Rouzic, and Suzana D'Oliveira, Expedition Director, welcomed everyone on board. Cruise Director, Loic Menguy, explained the workings of the ship, and where various public areas are to be enjoyed.
The Expedition Team then introduced themselves individually, Richard Escanilla claiming to the first Philippine Polar Explorer, creating much amusement. Fantastic dinners were enjoyed in Le Celeste and La Comete restaurants. It is clear that all guests are exhausted after long travel days in getting to Ushuaia, at the bottom of the world, coupled with the excitement of their expedition to come. At 9pm the ship anchored at Puerto Williams in Chile, to rebunker/refuel-as Captain pointed out, we want enough diesel to get BACK again.
We then sailed out of the Beagle Channel into the dreaded Drake Passage, but a smooth crossing is anticipated, thankfully. These stormy waters of the Southern Ocean encircle Antarctica in a continuous current of mainly eastward flowing water, comprising 10% of the world's oceans, and connects the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. It also isolates the continent from warmer waters-the Circumpolar Currents is roughly 4 times the flow of the Gulf Stream. Where these cold waters meet the warmer, northern oceans is called the Antarctic Convergence, or Polar Front. The ocean south of the Polar Front contains the coldest, densest water in the world. Cold Antarctic bottom water moves along the ocean floor into the Northern Hemisphere, where it adds oxygen and reduces temperatures of these waters to below 2 degrees Centigrade. This cooling effect on tropical and temperate seas is an important feature of the world's heat balance. Sailing over the Southern Ocean carries the fantastic psychological benefit of reinforcing Antarctica's remoteness and immensity. Tomorrow is a day at sea in the Drake Passage, filled with lectures and entertainment on board.
Friday, December 29: Crossing Drake Passage
"The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind him and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean." Ernest Hemingway. We have done likewise, after rebunkering last evening in Puerto Williams, we have left Patagonia, and sailing south on very calm seas across the Drake Passage. The cleanliness and smell of the air outside is wonderful.
On the previous voyage via Falklands and South Georgia, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed 3,200 nautical miles, or 5,760 km. On this journey, we shall sail around 1,500 nautical miles, or 2,700 km to Antarctica and back. Parkas were exchanged, and the team felt like workers in a large clothing store trying to find a garment that fitted just right. The bright red A&K parkas are lovely memento's to take home after this trip south.
Photo coach Richard Harker presented "Photographing Antarctica-What to expect and how to prepare". Since most cameras exposure readings are based on an 18% reflectivity grey scale, one generally needs to over-expose in Antarctica, to render snow white, rather than pale grey. Richard explained in detail the suggested ISO speeds to adopt, continuous/burst shooting mode and the largest JPEG quality available for those not shooting RAW images. Our friend, the histogram, was pointed out, and its many uses in attempting to secure properly exposed pictures down here. Richard provided useful homework exercises for all to attempt, that they have the hang of correct exposures, when we get on land in two days. Bo provided translation to our Chinese guests, via wonderful ear devices called Whispas.
The pool deck was busy with guests joining naturalists for assistance with bird identification, and photographic advice. Little surprise as the weather is glorious, and the ocean calm. A lone Wandering Albatross (largest wingspan on Earth) soared effortlessly alongside-what a special treat for all present. Ornithologist, Patri Silva, was up next with her beautifully illustrated talk on "Seabirds of the Southern Ocean". Patri speaks lovingly of her feathered friends, and imitates the movements of many we are likely to see perfectly. Differentiating the various Albatrosses, Gulls, Petrels and Prions can be vexing for newcomers, and the naturalists will take delight in converting all into devoted bird watchers. Patri has warned guests that she is posing a quiz at journey's end, and those with unsatisfactory results will not have their passports returned. Guests already love Patri, and her special, Uruguayan sense of humor.
Marine biologist and Whale Whisperer, Larry Hobbs, presented "Where blubber is not a bad thing-the Whales and Seals of the Southern Ocean." Larry's incredible knowledge and experience shone through, as he took us all on a journey of the evolution of whales, their respective sizes and distinguishing features, feeding patterns, etc. Believing our planet should be called Water, rather than Earth, the great mysteries for Larry have always rested in the oceans. An appropriate thought with land not visible in any direction, and two miles of water beneath us. Wonderful footage of baleen whales feeding on Krill, with their 12 foot throats expanding to 36 feet, to ingest a ton of Krill in one mouthful. A video of Orcas cooperatively creating a massive wave to wash a seal off an ice floe.
Geologist Wayne Ranney presented "The landscape history of Antarctica" as the last lecture of the day. Wayne has a very confident, engaging lecture technique, and with 33 years experience in Antarctica, fascinating insights to share. Wonderful images of the Scott-Amundsen base at the South Pole, which at 9,300 feet ASL, is 9,000 feet of ice, resting on 300 feet of bedrock. Anyone coming to Antarctica for the scenery, is really coming to this place for the geology asserts this geologist. Were all the ice held in Antarctica and Greenland to melt, world sea levels would rise 320 feet (100 meters). Most importantly, Wayne explained the composition of the Earth, Tectonic Plate shift, and the evolution of Antarctica in a manner we all understood. Imagine a peach, the core as the pip, the mantle as the fruit, and the crust as the skin-the proportions relatively correct making our planet considerably easier to imagine. Well attended, comprehensible and very well presented.
Our delightful Captain Erwan le Rouzic hosted his cocktail party, introduced his senior officers and then welcomed guests to dinner in Le Celeste restaurant downstairs on Deck 2. Nice to see almost everyone dressed for the occasion, the photographer and videographer recording the scenes for sale during the cruise. Expedition Director, Suzana, introduced the iceberg competition-first iceberg spotted larger than our vessel wins an expensive bottle of French Champagne from the Captain. No radar or bribing of Bridge officers allowed! Bright sunshine outside, a wonderful evening all round.
Saturday, December 30: Crossing the Drake Passage
"The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving...we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it-but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor." Oliver Wendell Holmes. Considering the infamous Drake Passage, we can not have asked for finer conditions. The crossing this far has been extremely calm and gentle. Fog slowed us down somewhat during the early hours, but we are due to pass the South Shetland Islands en route to Antarctic Sound around 4:00 p.m. Weather conditions for this expedition are expected to be good. As Captain mentioned last evening during his Welcome, ‘Le Lyrial’ is our private mega-yacht, large enough to deal easily with Antarctic conditions, yet small enough for congeniality and access to special areas of the White Continent.
On that note, let me share some specifications of this gorgeous vessel, only launched in 2015. ‘Le Lyrial’ is 142 meters long (460 feet), and 18 meters wide (60 feet), with a gross unladen weight of 11,000 tons. Maximum draft less than 5 meters, hence her suitability for expedition-type work. Under full power from her two 2,300KW (3,080 HP) engines, she travels at 17.4 Knots (almost 32km/hr). Bow thrusters fore and aft render ‘Le Lyrial’ extremely maneuverable and able to turn within her own length. Sailing as we are, each engines uses 6 tons of diesel per day. Collectively, around 12 tons (12,000 liters) per day-little wonder 200 tons were required for the expedition of 3,200 nautical miles/16 days via Falklands and South Georgia, en route to Antarctica. Bridge Officers were intrigued at my enquiring about fuel consumption yesterday. Stabilizers made by Rolls Royce enhance stability in open water, where ice poses no threat to these vulnerable "fins" (5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, same size as Humpback Whale fins!)
Ornithologist and Penguin Princess, Patri, gave a masterful presentation titled "Birds in Tuxedo's-Why they look so different." Patri took us on a journey of discovery regarding the various penguins we are likely to see on this expedition. The emblematic little Adelie Penguin with its unmistakable black head and white eye ring, was named after the wife of Dumont D'Urville, early French explorer. Spending much of the year on pack ice, these cartoon-type birds are reliant on leads of open water for feeding. Patri explained the identifying characteristics of various species, their distribution and numbers, relative sizes, etc. As always, her talks are beautifully illustrated and presented. Translation once again via Whispas for our Chinese guests.
During the night we crossed the Antarctic Convergence Zone, or Polar Front. The ocean south of the Convergence differs markedly in salinity and temperature from northern waters. Where the warmer saltire southward flowing water, meets the colder, less saline Antarctic surface water is considered the biological boundary of Antarctica. The position of this zone varies annually, but water and ambient temperatures drop appreciably. An important feature of the Southern Ocean is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current-the world's largest ocean current flowing eastwards at one thousand times the flow of the Amazon.
Expedition Director Suzana explained the mandatory IAATO guidelines to all guests regarding going ashore in Antarctica. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, no food or litter ashore, do not approach or touch wildlife, etc. As Suzana explained, common sense really, but a very important briefing before our first landing in the morning, on this continent dedicated to peace and science. Expedition Leader Agustin Ullmann then explained in detail the use of Zodiacs in our landings, stressing safety foremost and for all to enjoy themselves out there. The Expedition Team handed out life jackets to each guest for use in the Zodiacs. These light safety devices contain a tiny canister of carbon dioxide which inflates the jacket upon contact with water. The option exists to manually activate the canister, but the shock of landing in water of this temperature may preclude one thinking of doing so. We trust nobody requires the life jacket on our watch.
It is good to see a lot more guests out and about today, clearly over their jet lag, and seasickness experienced early on. Storyteller Rob Caskie spoke about Roald Amundsen-the great Nordic explorer who took the prize of the South Pole. With impeccable Polar credentials, vast experience, clinical planning and dogs, dogs, dogs, Amundsen forestalled Scott to the South Pole by 34 days. Some authors suggest that Scott's party died psychologically when they realized they had been beaten to the Pole. As a brazen last minute and secretive entry to the race for the South Pole, Amundsen's story is most compelling indeed.
To comply with biosecurity regulations clothing, backpacks and camera bags along with the zips were vacuumed to remove any seeds and organic matter from entering Antarctica. Boots will be washed in Virkon disinfectant before and after each landing on the Peninsular. As we approached the South Shetland Islands, snow began to fall strongly driven by wind straight onto the bow, so flakes are swirling parallel to the water. This is the sort of weather our guests were expecting, grateful still for a very calm sea. As Captain predicted, at exactly 4:00 p.m. we began sailing through the South Shetland Islands. The excitement levels at fever pitch, guests pouring out onto the decks to catch and record their first glimpses of Antarctica.
Richard Harker, Photo Coach, gave advice on trying to secure the perfect penguin and iceberg shots down here. From depth of field, light on the eye, animal interaction and avoiding compositions that are "too busy", Richard used his own exquisite photographs to illustrate his points. Composition and proportion perhaps more important with iceberg photography, along with correct exposure. Observations on animal behavior, and taking care of your camera equipment in these environs regularly interspersing Richard's commentary. Recaps and Precaps was very well-attended this evening, with Brown Bluff and Goudin Island in the offing for tomorrow, in the Antarctic Sound.
Sunday, December 31: Antarctica Sound, New Year's Eve
"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art-write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself." Neil Gaiman. An unusual New Year wish, and wonderful, hence its inclusion today. Greatest surprise for me is being in Antarctica on an expedition ship, and early this morning we found ourselves in the Antarctic Sound, surrounded by thousands of icebergs. ‘Le Lyrial’ slows down as we find a way through this labyrinth of ice, in a scene beautiful beyond description. Agustin Ullmann, Expedition Leader, last evening shared with our guests that we would be landing at Brown Bluff, then showed a picture of this big brown bluff, in a perfectly timed bit of humor. Plenty of snow overnight, however, has rendered it a big white bluff, with a myriad icebergs separating the shore from our ship.
The team were off by 6:30 a.m. to scout the landing. Just magnificent, with no wind and gently falling snow. The Bridge commented on a 2 meter tidal difference between the beginning and end of our proposed landing, creating challenges for the Zodiac drivers as the approaches are extremely rocky. Once again, witnessing guests approaching an Antarctic shore for the first time, with Penguins aplenty, icebergs in all directions, seabirds overhead and a landscape like no other is heart-warming. Most guests were snapping away at Penguins before the Zodiacs landed, incredulous at the proximity of these emblematic little birds in tuxedos. Today, we were fortunate to see large breeding colonies of Gentoo and Adelie Penguins with small chicks, and some rather out of place Chinstraps. To see three species of Penguin on the very first landing, along with a large Leopard Seal on the nearby ice floe makes for a very auspicious start to this Antarctic expedition. The Leopard Seal looked extremely well-fed, no doubt feasting on the abundant Penguins hereabouts. In the cliffs above, breed Snow Petrels, Cape Petrels, Kelp Gulls and Skuas-keen eyes and binoculars required to view them with any ease. Interesting to note how many guests are carrying phones as primary cameras now. During the 4 hours on shore, the water level dropped by 2 meters, and the temperature rose 5 degrees Centigrade, from 1-6 C. Many icebergs broke or rolled during our sojourn ashore, reminding all of the dangers of approaching icebergs too closely with a Zodiac.
During the afternoon, guests were taken on Zodiacs amongst the icebergs around Goudin Island. The guests enjoyed incredible sightings of Weddell, Leopard and Crabeater Seals, 3 species of Penguin, and 3 species of Seal recorded today. In mirror calm conditions, and pleasant temperatures this Antarctic masterpiece presented an utterly appropriate end to 2017.
It was gratifying watching happy, smiling faces returning from the Zodiac cruise-clearly today's activities have been a fantastic "starter" for these guests' Classic Antarctica expedition. This navigation through a maze of icebergs practically all day has been sensational with so many flat-topped tabular examples about the ship. The crew displaying special skill in unloading and loading the Zodiacs. Early this morning the first Zodiacs were deployed with the ship still in motion, and indeed after the Zodiac cruise this afternoon the last Zodiacs go "on the hook" with the vessel already moving off towards our next destination. For those unfamiliar with expedition ships, the Zodiacs are stored on the very top of the ship, and lowered/raised by crane, hence the term on the hook. During the afternoon, ten Zodiacs, plus two twin-engine safety boats were in the water for the entire operation. The 60 horsepower, four-stroke Mariner engines with electric trim rendering great service. How they cope with being exploded to life in these frigid temperatures is interesting.
A fun Recaps/Precaps was had with Patri presenting on Penguin behavior, before Agustin explained our landings tomorrow at Half-moon Island, and Deception Island. The kitchen served a glorious New Year's Eve dinner for everyone on board in Le Celeste restaurant, before the music began in various venues on board in preparation for midnight. Wishing you all a wonderful, safe, blessed 2018.
Monday, January 1: Halfmoon and Deception Islands, New Year's Day
"We will open the book, its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. This book is called Opportunity, and its opening chapter is New Year's Day." Edith Pierce. Some of our guests partied the night away, retiring between 3 and 5 a.m. The Ukrainian stage manager, Denys, is not only a wizard with sound, lighting and AV, but clearly a very talented DJ too. From the kids to the Captain, everyone is talking about his fantastic music last evening around the pool deck, with many guests choosing to swim(heated pool) at some point. All around a wonderful evening on board.
With an Argentine Navy vessel nearby, resupplying Camara Research Station, we anchored close to Halfmoon Island, on the eastern side of much larger Livingstone Island. The naval vessel departed at 8 a.m., by which time we had been receiving guests ashore from 7 a.m. Halfmoon is a tiny island, used as safe anchorage by sealers as early as 1821. Known for its Chinstrap Penguin colony, the greater appeal lies in the surrounding scenery offered by Livingstone Island. In calm conditions, with the sun creating a visual feast, we looked out across the bay, Minke Whales evident, at mountains and glaciers tumbling into the ocean. Larry showed delighted guests two young Elephant Seals, Matt explained the behavior of two gorgeous, cat-faced Weddell Seals, whilst Penguin Princess Patri hosted and directed at the Penguin colony. Many guests were exhausted after their celebrations last evening, but certainly were not going to miss out. Without snow the ground was very muddy, and we all cleaned our boots with brushes at the shoreline before boarding the Zodiacs. With the regular boom of ice cracking, guest after guest commented on this being the Antarctica they imagined, only impossible to describe or record accurately digitally. Our eyes and senses clearly infinitely better than sensors at appreciating Nature's bounty here. During the morning, the wind picked up dropping the temperature appreciably. Antarctic Terns and Kelp Gulls share the high rock outcrops for the nurturing of their young, whilst ubiquitous Skuas patrol overhead. From a logistics perspective, Halfmoon is a delight. The bay is sheltered and affords our ship close anchorage to the landing beach. The landing beach is honestly sloped, comprising pebbles rather than rocks facilitating landing enormously. For those unfamiliar with this type of operation, landing an empty Zodiac and departing with a loaded Zodiac carrying 10 guests ideally requires a beach with an honest gradient and some swell to get the laden craft back off the beach.
Over lunch, ‘Le Lyrial’ sails the 30 miles separating Halfmoon from Deception Island-our afternoon destination. Restaurants are quiet, guests may be resting in preparation for another extraordinary Antarctic experience. Probably the most famous island in the South Shetland archipelago on account of being an active volcano. Its name refers to its deceptive appearance, looking like an island rather than the collapsed caldera with a very narrow entrance, making for an unusually large, protected harbor. Used by American and British sealers originally, as early as the 1820's, and accessed via the narrow entrance known as Neptune's Bellows. Threading the needle through Neptune's Bellows at 2 p.m. had guests out on decks and balconies in awe of the careful navigation required. The channel is as narrow as the ship is long (440 feet). Guests looked around the old whaling station, which ceased operating as such in 1931-the boilers and whale oil tanks still present. We spoke about Operation Tabarin which established Base B here in 1944, and the subsequent activities of the British Antarctic Survey along with the building of an airstrip and substantial hangar. Volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969 saw the place eventually abandoned completely. Wooden buildings, a shadow of their former selves, and rusty metal remains provide a glimpse into a once vibrant base and entry point into the Antarctic Peninsula. Passengers were pleased to take the fair hike up to Neptune's Window and look out towards the Peninsula, passing a young, molting Elephant Seal along the beach.
At Recaps Wayne Ranney, geologist, gave us a fascinating talk on Volcanism in Antarctica, along with wonderful photos of the eruptions at Deception Island. His description of the volcanic history of Brown Bluff was concise and easy to understand, vet well done indeed. Richard Harker taught us much about photography on smartphones, wowing the audience. Agustin briefed us on the activities tomorrow with Cuverville, Neko and Lemaire Channel in the offing and great weather expected. Many guests are planning an early night-last night and today's excitement has clearly been intoxicating and wearying.
Tuesday, January 2: Cuverville Island Neko Harbor and Lemaire Channel
"Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic.." so wrote Ernest Shackleton. Indeed our activities today, in glorious weather, have presented scenes beyond description. These are the sort of days operators in Antarctica dream of, the sort of days that cement one's reputation as leader of the pack. During the night we sailed the scenic Gerlache Strait, first explored by Adrien de Gerlache on the Belgica in January/February 1898. An expedition which overwintered involuntarily in the Antarctic, with American Dr. Frederick Cook on board along with soon-to-be-famous, Roald Amundsen. For many there may be some sensory overload taking place, such is the magnitude and splendour of this extraordinary place.
The morning was spent at Cuverville Island, named by de Gerlache in honor of a vice Admiral in the French Navy. Freezing temperatures overnight created a most gorgeous environment, but such slippery conditions ashore that hiking to the high viewpoint above the bay was impossible. The snow was so frozen that it never even crunched beneath our boots. Many guests made their way up the slopes to enjoy the view, and tried to slide back down. Most guests battled so in getting up the slopes, that the idea of a hike was absolutely out of the question. The views were breathtaking with sunlight on much of the scene, Humpback Whales close to shore, and plenty of Gentoo Penguins. Antarctic wonderlands at their very best. Some cloud hanging low over the mountain tops, but generally a fairly clear sky, and no wind.
After the excitemenet and gandeur of Cuverville, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed through the narrow, extremely scenic Errera Channel, separating the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and Ronge Island. Rightly known as the Antarctic Alps, this piece of geography, with many icebergs, proved worthy of its reputation.
The afternoon was spent at Neko Harbor, a small bay indenting the eastern shore of Andvord Bay along the west coast of Graham Land. With its actively calving glaciers and lofty mountain peaks surrounding the small bay, it really is a dream destination. In deep, compacted snow guests were able to walk up the slope, via nesting Gentoo Penguin colonies, to a vantage point, Russ Manning having carefully checked first for crevasses. Some chose to slide down, creating much pleasure and amusement. Most just wanted to meander slowly absorbing Antarctica at her very best. Expedition Leader, Agustin Ullmann, tackled Historian Rob Caskie in front of a large group of guests, but being of much slighter build ended up being picked up and placed bodily in the deep snow by the larger South African, much to the guests' delight. The camaraderie and team spirit in this Expedition Team is magnificent. Naturalist Cobus Kilian found an extraordinary piece of clear ice, the size of a large Elephant Seal. We could not decide whether the hollowed ice looked liked a mammal's skeleton, or something out of Battleship Galactica. Two symmetrical openings at one end, looking like the afterburners on a fighter jet, responded with a drumming sound to the wake of the Zodiac. Everyone wanted to take a photograph of this natural phenomenon, like something we have never seen before. Humpback and Minke Whales put in appearances this afternoon, guests watched penguin eggs hatching, chicks being stolen by Skuas and Kelp Gulls raising their young. A stationary Weddell Seal on the landing beach happily obliged photographers and guests alike, looking like a huge sleeping sausage with a cat-like face. Once again stepping onto the Antarctic Continent adding to the magical afternoon.
Krill remains the foundation of much biology and ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. Eaten by very nearly everything, from Baleen Whales to seals, fish and seabirds. The exoskeleton has a very high concentration of fluoride. Penguins have a stomach lining to absorb this fluoride, before being regurgitated, which we regularly show our guests. If harvested for human consumption, the skeleton must immediately be removed to prevent contamination of the flesh, raising the costs of harvesting and processing markedly. On account of its color, most droppings in Antarctica tend to be pinkish, since the overriding component of the diets is Krill. As I write this piece 'Le Lyrial' is steaming along the Gerlache Strait proving what a capable, sleek and fast vessel she is. Earlier the propellers were stirring up much green diatomic algae, which in turn nourishes the Krill, hence our seeing so many whales today. We are heading for the Lemaire Channel (Fujichrome Fjord as it is known to many, and one of the most photographed spots in Antarctica) where internet access is impossible, so I shall send this off immediately, and pick up the tale tomorrow.
Wednesday, January 3: Charlotte Bay and Hydruga Rocks/Two Hummock Island
‘Le Lyrial’ sailed the Lemaire Channel late last evening, in perfect conditions, and sunset the jewel marking day's end after midnight. In awesome wonder guests lined the decks and public areas incredulous at the scenery sliding by. High mountains and glaciers tumble haphazard into the ocean, whilst Bridge Officers navigate between numerous icebergs. Fujichrome Fjord or Kodachrome Canyon, as it is affectionately known, on an evening like this is jaw-dropping. Wonderful to see many guests soaking in the scene visually, realizing that photography will never adequately capture this scene. Long- serving team members say this is the best Lemaire experience in 10 years, with Minke Whales in the bow wave, inquisitively viewing the ship and its occupants. The sunset seemingly got better and better. We are grateful that the narrow channel was not choked with ice, as is often the case, the Captain doing a superb job of taking ‘Le Lyrial’ all the way through.
Robert Browning, one of Shackleton's favorite poets, wrote "I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his Life's set prize". This line is inscribed on the reverse of Shackleton's gravestone at Grytviken. Considering how Shackleton strived to reach the South Pole and then attempted to cross Antarctica, the deprivations of previous expeditions having taken their toll, along with various health challenges and constantly changing his response to varying circumstances, I believe these words apply to him. Antarctica tends to inspire her visitors to reflect on their lives, especially at New Year, with thought regarding possible changes. After 3 days of exceptional weather down here, and a very calm Drake Crossing, fog and snow from very early this morning reminding us that nature is in charge here, and changes take place very rapidly. We require changing our responses accordingly. The Expedition Team were up from 5:00 a.m., scouting for whales, but by 8:00 a.m., there were sadly no sightings or behavior worth stopping for. Wilhelmina Bay is well-known for its whales, so this is most unusual. I took up a position on the outside rear deck, eventually taking cover from the snow and cold on Deck 5. After two hours coffee was calling loudly. The Lemaire last night more than making up for the different conditions this morning.
With their sway-backed upright posture, smart black-and-white coloration and endearing waddling gait, Penguins are perhaps the most distinctive of birds. Only 4 species breed on the Antarctic Continent proper-the Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo, whilst 7 other species live and breed south of the Polar Front defining far southern oceans. As Penguins are flightless and must feed in cool waters, they are unable to travel across warm, tropical waters to inhabit the northern hemisphere. Highly specialized, non-flying, marine birds ranging in size from the Little Penguin at 1kg, to the Emperor Penguin at 38kg, standing at 115cm(45 inches). The basic dark and pale coloration, repeated with variations, provides both protection from predators and camouflage when hunting. Being dark against a dark background, and white against a light background when viewed from below has many advantages for these emblematic birds of the Antarctic. Their feathers have modified from flying equipment into waterproof insulation, thickening the birds outline, and shaping them to hold air against the body. Swimming compresses the feathers and gradually forces out the insulating layer of air, so that swimming Penguins emit a fine trail of air bubbles. Indeed, they fly in their watery environment!
Morning activities comprised Zodiac cruising in Charlotte Bay. Discovered in 1897, and named in honor of Georges Lecointe's fiancee', executive officer, hydrographer and 2IC of de Gerlache's expedition. Like the Adelie Penguin named after Dumont D'Urville's wife, these men must have spent much time thinking about loved ones and sweethearts back home. Considered one of the most beautiful bays in the Antarctic Peninsula, confirmed this beautiful morning with low cloud, snow gently falling and the calm ocean a maze of stunning icebergs. Tiny Andree' Island off to starboard of the ship, a more magnificent scene to explore by Zodiac is impossible to imagine. Drivers and guests alike donning extra layers for warmth. The ambient temperature is 0 degrees C (33F), and this will fall once the wind chill begins on moving Zodiacs. This is the "other face" of Antarctica, and what a wonderland it is out there this morning. Plenty of Humpback Whales were seen by both groups, and clearly everybody had an awesome tour.
Lunchtime found guests enjoying the southernmost barbeque in the world in La Comete restaurant upstairs, snow falling steadily beyond the windows. ‘Le Lyrial’ sailing north towards Hydruga Rocks.
Unfortunately high winds and constantly falling snow put paid to our plans for Hydruga Rocks, and we sailed to Mikkelson Harbor instead. This sheltered harbor was favored by whalers and sealers in days gone by.
With plenty of wind and a choppy sea, we made our way to the landing site, which had to be approached very carefully- plenty of rocks and low tide. The Expedition Officer carefully placed buoys to guide the Zodiac drivers on their approach and exit from the landing site. An old whaler's water boat, and large numbers of massive whale bones littered the beach. An adult male Weddell Seal looked on unconcerned, as Larry and Matt explained the various bones to interested guests. The size of the skulls, vertebrae and rib bones was staggering. This afternoon, guests and team alike felt some of the bite of the keen Antarctic wind. It was very cold, and most were looking forward to a warm shower and hot soup when we got back to ‘Le Lyrial’ around 7:30 p.m. Larry, particularly as he had stepped off the Zodiac into water deeper than his boots, and spent the afternoon with two wet, frigid feet. Trinity Island provided a gorgeous backdrop with steep, ice-covered slopes running into the sea.
Tonight we sail northwards, to King George and Penguin Islands-our intended visits for tomorrow.
Thursday, January 4: Exploring King George and Penguin Islands
Early this morning we anchored at King George Island in the South Shetlands. The island is roughly 43 miles long and 16 miles wide at its broadest. Named by a British Expedition under Edward Bransfield in 1820 for King George of England. Less than 10% of the island is ice-free yet it supports several year round stations maintained by many countries. Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva (known as Frei Station) is the Chilean Station on the Fildes Peninsula, built in 1969 and operated as a permanent village with airstrip, cafeterias for personnel, a bank, post office and comfortable homes housing families. At the top of the base is a Catholic Church. Chile (like Argentina and Great Britain) regards all of the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands as part of that country's territory. The terms of the Antarctic Treaty allow Chile to colonize the Fildes Peninsula without overtly pursuing its territorial claims. There is a lovely monument to the Antarctic Treaty signed in Washington in 1959, securing the future of Antarctica for peace and science, alongside a bust of Eduardo Montalva.
Russia preceded Chile with the establishment of their Bellinghausen Station in 1968, separated from Frei by a small stream. On a hill above the stream is the first Russian Orthodox Church in Antarctica, and what a special little place of worship it is. The Russians also have a tiny, very antiquated souvenir shop, which our guests were thrilled to find and support. The Frei Post Office and shop did a brisk business with our guests, wanting souvenirs to take home, send postcards and the like. It was a wonderful opportunity to wander around a working, modern Antarctic base. The vehicles used in these environs markedly different to what we are used to. Men carting 10 liter bottles of drinking water to the individual homes. A smart new Chilean Navy building, slipways for their Zodiacs. More fuel storage than one would have imagined, enormous generators providing electricity. Just behind the base is a large, modern airstrip.
In the bay were some mightily impressive private mega-yachts. Legend, Enigma and the brand-new Cloud Break amongst them. Everyone was very friendly and courteous, the Base Commander coming to introduce himself. A huge totem pole with boards indicating direction and distances to cities all over the globe must be one of the most photographed poles in Antarctica. For this group of guests who have enjoyed incredible weather, calm seas and amazing wildlife sightings, Frei offered something completely different and what a morning it turned out to be in every respect.
Over lunch, ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed north out of Maxwell Bay to Penguin Island which marks the eastern entrance to Admiralty Bay, South Shetlands. Penguin Island comprises a volcanic crater, with Deacon Peak 170 meters (560 feet) above the sea. The crater and cone are an unmistakable red color, and the islands hosts scores of breeding seabirds. As the final landing day of this expedition, guests could not have requested finer weather. Under blue skies and no wind, we landed on Penguin Island. The landing was challenging, the beach comprising large, rounded, uneven boulders. Many guests required assistance from the Expedition Team to get across the beach to the snowline, some 50 meters from the Zodiacs. Most of the guests chose to tackle the strenuous hike to the top of Deacon Peak, and around the crater's rim. They were justly rewarded with breathtaking views, photographic opportunities and the rare sight of a bright red crater. Some were blessed with sightings of 3 groups of Orcas in the ocean far below! All went across to view the Chinstrap Penguin colony-an infinitely easier walk that the crater rim. One could sense the nostalgia, guests aware that this was their last landing on the White Continent, and nobody wanted to leave this magical final destination under fine, blue skies. The last Zodiacs left the rocky beach at 7:00 p.m., with Patri's inimitable Red-jacket Albatross presentation due at 7:15 p.m.
At Recaps, Matt Messina spoke about conservation, and what we could all do in our own lives to conserve/preserve our beautiful planet and the nature about us. Patri brought the house down with a hilarious comparison of our guests' behavior and that of Albatrosses. From catastrophic molting, abandoning of chicks onboard, various mutations of coloration, foraging trips and the varying lengths of proboscis (lenses), this original spoof accompanied by appropriate photos is the presentation highlight of the expedition.
Whales are the largest mammals on Earth, and highly intelligent. Before commercial whaling decimated their populations, Antarctic whales comprised the largest stock-in sheer weight-of mammals ever to have existed on Earth. Whaling ceased in the 1930's with whalealmost extinct. Since the 1970's commercial exploitation of whales is one of the most controversial conservation issues, and today controlled by the International Whaling Commission. Since the signing of the moratorium banning whaling, Russia have taken 60,000 Blue Whales illegally. Little wonder no increase in their numbers has been recorded. Thankfully most species show healthy increases in numbers. Tomorrow there will be a number of lectures on board, along with the return of life jackets, boots and waterproof trousers. The reality dawning, that we are now en route back to Ushuaia, this extraordinary experience and expedition almost over.
Friday, January 5: Crossing the Drake
"And now to conclude. Is it worth doing? Ask any member of Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and you will receive the reply-Yes, I wouldn't miss it for the world. Would you go again? Rather, such is the call of the South!" TH Orde-Lees, diary of the Endurance Expedition. As we sail across the infamous Drake Passage, in unusually calm conditions, I very much hope that those on board have become Antarctic ambassadors, and that they will wish to return one day. Such is the call of the South, and its little white voices. This expedition in particular has enjoyed calm seas, incredible weather and an impressive miscellany of landing environments.
Storyteller Rob Caskie opened the enrichment lecture program on board today with his tale about Shackleton's Endurance Expedition, on which the impressively fit Orde-Lees was storekeeper, and a somewhat pedantic one at that. This saga beggars belief, their ship crushed by ice, man-hauling boats across the ice floes, then a desperate rowing for 108 hours without warm drink or meal before landfall on Elephant Island (after 17 months at sea or on the ice). In one of the greatest feats of navigation in history, Shackleton and 5 men sailed their James Caird lifeboat 800 miles to South Georgia, seeking help. The 22 souls left on Elephant Island under Commander Frank Wild were eventually rescued on 30 August 1916, after 4 horrific months enduring a second Antarctic winter. One of the finest survival stories in modern times. During the morning, guests handed back their waterproof boots and trousers, rented from Ship to Shore Traveller. These will be cleaned and prepared for rental next season-a wonderful facility for our guests. Many guests are playing cards in the Grand Salon, chatting, and some editing photographs. There is an air of bewilderment that this unique, life-changing adventure is practically over, as we sail back towards Ushuaia.
Photo coach Richard Harker's lecture on digital workflow, and post production editing was interrupted by Orcas about the ship, as was Rob Caskie's session with Young Explorers about Shackleton. Finding a large group of Orcas this far out in the Drake Passage is unusual, and they granted us magnificent, close-up opportunities to view them. The males with their high dorsal fins, females and youngsters all about the ship, at times swimming beneath the vessel. The height advantage offered by a ship is the best platform from which to view any whale species, and these sightings were spectacular. Larry Hobbs identified them as being rare Type D Killer Whales, with relatively small eye patches, and the size/colour of the cream patch on their backs. This group last filmed in 2015, so indeed a very rare sighting. Viewing these top predators ease and power in the water is awe-inspiring. Guests were able to take great photographs. This experience the cherry on the top of this fantastic expedition.
After a wonderful lunch with a distinctly Asian feel today, Geralyn Garavan from A&K presented the ever-growing portfolio of destinations A&K have on offer. Arctic, Japanese and Antarctic expeditions becoming most sought-after. Whilst naturalists were out on deck assisting guests with seabird identification, Richard Harker assisted with camera-related queries. Richard's awesome photographs, shared every evening before Recaps, a very clear indicator of his skill with camera and editing, along with iPhonography, as he calls it.
Patri Silva moved the audience with her talk titled "Albatross-We have a problem!" Highlighting the threats to these magnificent creatures who pair for life, live to 60 years and fly thousands of miles on foraging trips, especially long-line fisheries. With vivid images and commentary, Patri left us in no doubt the serious threat these birds are under, and what is being done in attempting to reduce the threat. These include deploying long lines at night and encapsulating the bait in a cover which only opens at a certain depth out of reach of the birds. The scale beggars belief. Patagonian Toothfish long-liners deploy two lines of 30km length, with a baited hook every meter, so 60 000 baited hooks, pulled in by powerful winches. Ultimately, time will tell whether the fisheries and/or the bird populations are sustainable. Very sobering and thought provoking indeed
Guests enjoyed tea and wonderful French Macaroons, before Larry Hobbs lecture on Sustainability and his experiences over 50 years of Marine Biology and environmental studies. Larry feels strongly that culturally we are asking the wrong questions, and that change will only happen from the bottom up. Referring to the National Geographic articles on how are we going to feed 7 billion people, Larry argues that we should be asking why are there 7 billion people to feed? Relating his unique experiences with wildlife around the globe, including fitting radio collars to the backs of young Grey Whales, Larry's presentation was personable, honest and thought-provoking, from a human being who genuinely "walks the talk."
Tonight we enjoyed the Captain's Farewell cocktail party and dinner. All staff were brought out on stage, which is wonderful, since most guests never even glimpse many of the 155 staff who live below decks and keep Le Lyrial functioning properly. Dinner in Le Celeste restaurant was magnificent, everyone clearly enjoying their second last evening on board with A&K.
Saturday, January 6: Crossing the Drake Passage and Sailing the Beagle Channel
Andrew Denton wrote "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!" Standing at the monument to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, at Frei Station gave me considerable reason to reflect upon this extraordinary place, dedicated to peace and science. Larry Hobbs lecture on sustainability did likewise, in terms of Systems and how as human beings we believe we can manage/control systems, rather than being part of a system? Antarctica, the frozen continent surrounded by oceans and her mighty Circumpolar Current, continues to entrance and beguile exponentially. Words fail to describe this mystical place, and as all our guests concur, photographs cannot capture the true essence of Antarctica.
Overnight our journey continued on a calm Drake towards the Beagle Channel. From 3-6am there was considerable choppiness on the ocean, creating more movement on board, before we entered the sheltered waters of Patagonia. Geologist, Wayne Ranney gave a superb presentation on the Native People's of Tierra del Fuego and how humans first arrived in the America's. With excellent images, Wayne explained how humans moved from East Africa beginning about 200,000 years ago, into Asia, and eventually across the Bering land bridge into Alaska around 12,500 years ago. The Clovis people migrated as far as Venezuela in only 500 years, which for some researchers is too fast. Eighty percent of present Native Americans originate from the Clovis people. Was it the Clovis people who eventually moved down into Tierra del Fuego, across two glacial moraines over the Straits of Magellan into this region? Such folk were land dwellers, collecting some food along shorelines. Hunting Woolly Mammoths with spears was very hazardous. A separate theory involves moving by boat down the west coast of the Americas, via the Kelp Highway, to reach Patagonia. These folk deriving all food from the marine environment. Difficult to examine evidence of these people since old shoreline 300 feet below present sea level, so beyond scrutiny. A third, and much less substantial theory, involves people arriving from Polynesia as Thor Heyrdahl did. If so, no genetic remains have ever been found of these early inhabitants from Polynesia? Irrespective of how they got here, the early inhabitants lived naked, as wet clothing drains the body of heat very quickly, and also promotes disease. These tough First Peoples of Patagonia were tragically wiped out in the 1880's largely by Argentines-a bounty on their heads. A fascinating subject, and beautifully presented by Wayne. The African-Patagonian connection reminds me of highly-skilled Zimbabweans clearing landmines in the Falklands, their only complaint being the weather!
Sir Francis Drake, English Explorer and buccaneer, discovered the stretch of water between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula in September 1578. Drake went to sea aged 13, and in 1577-80 sailed around the world. During this time, on board the Golden Hind, having passed through the Straits of Magellan (through two Narrows, the glacial moraines referred to above), into the Pacific, they ran into a storm and were driven far to the south. Drake's nephew Francis Fletcher describes falling in "with the uttermost part of the land towards the South Pole without which there is no main nor island to be seen to the Southwards, but the Atlantic Ocean and the South Sea meet in a large and free scope". Extremely convoluted English, and the Drake Passage was named.
Sei Whales, Magellanic Penguins and rarely seen black and white Dusky Dolphins welcome us into the wide entrance of the Beagle Channel late morning. Guests once again being afforded opportunity of great wildlife viewing, and photography.
Expedition Director Suzana gave the important disembarkation briefing. Getting 200 guests and their luggage onto flights out of Ushuaia requires careful planning, which A&K excel at. The bitter cold and storms in the USA have created some delays at major airports. Many of the American guests are going home to considerably lower temperatures than they have enjoyed in Antarctica. Le Lyrial will be turned around in Ushuaia tomorrow, and departs for Antarctica with new guests in the evening. Notwithstanding the cold and storms delaying their arrival into Ushuaia. After the disembarkation briefing, the expedition DVD was screened, ably filmed by videographer Cassandre. This DVD is for sale and serves as a wonderful memento of this journey together. Watching guests, young and old alike, sliding down snowy slopes brings back marvellous memories, as does the Lemaire Channel, the whales, the penguins, Penguin Island.....it has been a magical journey of discovery and delight.
Mid-afternoon, we gathered for a fantastic slideshow/video put together by Richard "Blackjack" Escanilla, using staff photographs and video's. Yesterday afternoon, whilst doing the final touches on this presentation, Richard's computer crashed. What a relief-Blackjack Richard we are told had gone white! Brought memories flooding back, before a heartfelt thank you from Suzana and Agustin. Denys, the Ukrainian stage manager was given a gift from the Expedition Team, for being so pleasant, able and professional. A truly delightful young man, and pleasure to work with. Captain le Rouzic joined us, to be given a warm hug by Agustin for being such a brilliant Captain. His Open Bridge policy, and charming interaction with guests and staff alike makes him a very popular Commandant indeed. Five Expedition Team members are departing for home tomorrow, and will be replaced by excited new team members. By 4:10pm the Captain and Bridge Officers were bringing Le Lyrial alongside in Ushuaia, under sunny skies and a mirror-calm sea. Seeing the town, other ships and plenty of activity almost an assault on the senses. Many guests have chosen to take a walk into this frontier town, with its lofty snow-clad peaks, and friendly inhabitants. A definite anti-climatic feeling realising that this expedition is over. We very much hope they return home changed individuals on account of this Antarctic experience.
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