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Classic Antarctica Trip Log January 6 - 18, 2018
Sunday, January 7: Ushuaia
We flew from across the globe to Buenos Aires and onward to Ushuaia, the Gateway to Antarctica. Following the spine of the Andes throughout the morning, our flight passed countless snowy peaks and, as we approached Tierra del Fuego, the scenery had to be seen to be believed. The growing outpost of Ushuaia, a small city with a population of 45,000, calls itself Ciudad del Fin de Mundo (the City at the End of the World), and is proud to be the southernmost city on the planet. Although growing rapidly, the city maintains some of its frontier-town atmosphere with streets of small houses and every kind of architecture.
Situated on the Beagle Channel and surrounded by mountainous peaks, Ushuaia means “inner harbor to the westward” in the native Yaghan tongue. The city is known as a duty-free port catering to travel adventurers and serves as the stepping-off point for nearly all cruises to Antarctica.
At 4:30 p.m., we boarded our home-away-from-home, ‘Le Lyrial,’ where we were warmly welcomed aboard by her staff and crew. We checked in at Le Grand Salon (the main area for socializing) before being shown to our cabins, where our complimentary parkas, backpacks, and any waterproof pants, walking poles and rubber boots loaned to us for the expedition were waiting. We were treated to a welcome glass of champagne and explored the ship until Captain Erwan Le Rouzic addressed us over the PA system about the mandatory General Emergency Drill. Then we grabbed our life jackets and parkas and made our way to the lecture theater for instruction on safety procedures in accordance with Maritime Law. Afterward, we made our way past the lifeboats.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., the lines were cast off and ‘Le Lyrial’ moved away from the dock, setting out down the Beagle Channel to the open sea of the Drake Passage. It was lovely, with sunshine breaking through the clouds to illuminate the calm sea of the channel with a backdrop of spectacular, forest-clad peaks – the tail end of the Andes.
There was one more formality before the sail-away dinner: an introduction to the Abercrombie & Kent Expedition Team.Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira, a Brazilian with over 20 years of Antarctic cruise ship experience, introduced Captain Erwan Le Rouzic, who welcomed us on board and described his experience as an Antarctic mariner and his delight in sharing his enthusiasm for the White Continent. Loic (‘Little Louis’) Menguy, Cruise Director, gave an overview of the restaurants, bars, fitness area and other facilities important for our well-being and enjoyment of the cruise.
It was now the turn of the men and women of the Expedition Team to introduce themselves. They come from the USA, UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Russia, South Africa, the Philippines and Costa Rica. Each one showed their experience of the Antarctic, which ranged to more than 50 years, and their knowledge and enthusiasm for their roles as lecturers, guide and boat drivers which will be crucial for delivering an inspiring cruise.
After dinner, it was an early night for those who had flown in from distant parts of the world. We hoped for a speedy and comfortable crossing to our landing places — but would our hopes be realized? Read on!
Monday, January 8: Crossing the Drake Passage
During the early hours ‘Le Lyrial’ left the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel and sailed into the open ocean of the infamous Drake Passage. And, marvellously, from the comfort of our beds, it was difficult to tell! The ship was barely rolling. A look through stateroom curtains showed that there was indeed very little swell. So it was safe to get up for breakfast!
This was a day to settle into shipboard life and enter into the spirit of the expedition into Antarctic waters. So, after breakfast, we started with the 'grand parka exchange' where we could swap our complimentary Abercrombie & Kent red parkas for more suitable sizes. The objective was not to look fashionable but comfortable. These parkas ensure that we will be suitably clad with a warm, weatherproof layer – and be highly visible – when we go ashore in Antarctica.
This is also the day for the start of the series of enrichment lectures in which we learn from experts something about the places we will be visiting. By hearing details of the particular interests of the lecturers we will learn more than simply consulting Wikipedia! We began with special guest Jim McClintock’s “From Plankton to Penguins: The Impacts of Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula.” Jim offered a closer look at the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. With warming sea and air temperatures, glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates, and floating ice shelves — hundreds of feet thick and attached to land — are following suit.
Marine life is also responding to this dramatic change. The Adélie penguin, whose life is intimately tied to the annual sea-ice, is disappearing from Palmer Station, the U.S. research station where Jim conducts some of his research. Warmer, more humid conditions have caused storms that bury nesting penguins in snow, and when the snow melts, their eggs drown. But the hole in the ozone over Antarctica offers promise. Over 190 countries collectively enforce regulations to prevent the release of refrigerants that destroy the ozone that protects us from ultra¬violet radiation. Scientists now estimate the ozone hole is likely to close by mid-century. Jim’s talk set the tone for an important subject that would continue to be explored throughout our cruise.
Sandwiched between the lectures, the staff were stationed on the pool deck at the stern looking for wildlife to share with us. Not only wandering and black-browed albatrosses, giant petrels (looking like small albatrosses), smaller white-chinned petrels and relatively tiny Wilson’s storm petrels, but two fin whales cruised past – easy to track by their tall ‘spouts’!
Next lecture up was Photo Coach Richard Harker's talk on "Photography in Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare". Nearly everyone aboard has a digital camera or an iPhone and will take many photographs to make a permanent record of the expedition and to share their experiences with friends and family back home. Richard's coaching will be invaluable for getting the most from our cameras.
After lunch it was the turn of Adam Walleyn (our official on board ornithologist – there are plenty of unofficial ones!) who gave a presentation on ‘Not all who wander are lost: The Albatross’, This outsize bird has been seen gliding around the ship since yesterday evening and it will accompany us across the Drake Passage. Adam’s talk discussed the incredible life history of this, amongst the longest living of all birds, and gave a more in-depth look at the five or so species we are hoping to see during the voyage. The most incredible part of the albatross story is the way that they cover thousands of miles in search of food to take back to their nestlings.
During the afternoon ‘Le Lyrial’ crossed the Antarctic Convergence, now more correctly known as the Polar Front. This is the circumpolar boundary, where cold Antarctic water meets warmer water to the north. It is quite a sharp boundary where in the space of a few hours, the water temperature dropped several degrees. It certainly felt much colder when we stepped out on deck! The mixing of the waters provides an environment for an abundance of plankton, so it is a good place to spot seabirds and sea mammals.
Matt Messina finished the day with ‘Whales of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’. These are the giant creatures that we are already encountering as we cross the Drake Passage and sail to Antarctica. We were excited to learn that whale sightings will be likely for the entirety of our voyage, and that the productive waters around this continent draw in the largest creatures on the planet to our area. We should get some really close-up views and spectacular photographs. We even learned how to spot and identify these ocean giants from our own staterooms, with no need even to go out on deck!
Then it was time to get smartened up for the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, an occasion for an official Welcome Aboard and the presentation of the senior officers, as well as an opportunity to get to know more of our fellow guests. This process continued in the Captain’s Welcome Dinner, a gala occasion in Le Célèste restaurant. And so to bed.
Tuesday, January 9: Crossing the Drake Passage
We are so lucky. If anything, the sea is calmer than yesterday. We have a following wind and sea so there is very little movement of the ship. The weather is gray but the visibility is good enough to see that there was still a wandering albatross or two in sight, as well as many other smaller birds. We are really sough of the ‘albatross latitudes’ but they may have been brought down by the wind.
It has been another day of lectures. We started after breakfast with historian Bob Burton who told us about ‘My favorite heroes: a personal view of the Heroic Age’. This was a discussion of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which lasted from 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. Bob emphasized that expeditions were exploring the most inhospitable part of the world with inadequate equipment and provisions, but with indomitable strength of character. Bob illustrated this with three stories of incredible endurance: men who kept going when it would have been easier to lie down and die. There was the Winter Journey by Edward Wilson and two companions in search of emperor penguin eggs, the six men who spent the winter in a snow hole and Douglas Mawson’s incredible solo trek after his two companions died.
After light refreshment in Le Grand Salon, expedition director Suzana gave the mandatory briefing on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) guidelines for going ashore in Antarctica. It is essential that everyone going ashore on our landings abides by these simple rules – no disturbance of the wildlife is the main one. Then expedition leader Agustin explained how we use Zodiac inflatable boats for going ashore. If we follow the simple procedures for getting in and out under the supervision of the driver we will find them comfortable and extremely safe.
During the course of the morning the first iceberg was sighted. It was larger than ‘Le Lyrial’ so it qualified for the bottle of champagne awarded by the Captain. The lucky winner was Bonnie Ann Walsh.
Land was sighted in the afternoon. Visibility was not good but we got a glimpse of Anvers Island. ‘Le Lyrial’ had by-passed the South Shetland Islands and made landfall father south. We were entering Dallman Bay between Anvers and Brabant Islands, both names for Belgian cities by Adrien de Gerlache of the Belgica expedition (1897-99). Dallmann Bay is named for the German whaler Eduard Dallmann who brought the first steamship to Antarctica.
So we had crossed the dreaded Drake Passage without mishap. Was there a slight regret that we have nothing to boast about and have missed a chance to exaggerate the height of the waves! Another advantage of the calm sea is that it had been possible to drive ‘Le Lyrial’ at full speed and so give us the maximum time in Antarctica. The weather, however, was not its best. It was snowing from thick, low clouds but even this gave guests from warmer places the first snowfall of their lives! Landfall was celebrated with tea with crêpes. Eating was interrupted by a rush to the windows to watch a humpback whale in search of its own tea. It’s a good start!
Back to the classroom for lecture by our marine mammalogist Matt Messina on ‘Leopards of the Deep: Ice Seals of Antarctica’. He introduced the seals that we will be searching for on our voyage to the White Continent. He explained that roughly 30 million years ago, a group of bear-like animals took to the sea and began a transition to life in the ocean that has continued to this day. We learned that many of these animals can dive to depths up to one a mile and stay submerged for over an hour. They are equipped with incredible sensory organs that help them detect prey. As we sail through Antarctic waters, we are eager to enter a world dominated by an abundance of seals at every turn.
Finally, Adam gave a presentation on penguins entitled ‘The Birds in Tuxedos, a Penguin Primer’. The talk gave some background on the penguins, unique birds, and helped prepare us for things to look out for in our upcoming visits to penguin colonies. We heard about the life histories of the locally breeding species. So we now know what to look for.
After lunch, Daria Nikitina talked about 'The geology of Antarctica'. The Earth’s outermost layer, the lithosphere, is broken into series of plates which move relative to each other. They move during earthquakes along plate boundaries as well as during the eruption of submarine volcanoes along mid-oceanic ridges. Continents rift apart when volcanic rocks intrude into existing rocks. Antarctica has a rift structure, the West Antarctic Rift, that is comparable in size to the East African Rift. Antarctica has 31 active volcanoes, with Mount Erebus being the southernmost active volcano and having a 100 m deep lake of molten lava on its summit. Recently scientists found evidence of a volcanic eruption beneath Antarctic ice sheet. This volcano erupted 2000 years ago and is still active. It has been possible to reconstruct the position of continents as far back as 650 million years ago. The supercontinent Gondwana assembled 550 million years ago in the Southern Hemisphere and included Antarctica, Australia, India, South America and Africa. About 300 million years ago North America and Europe collided with Gondwana to form the supercontinent Pangaea. Pangaea began to break apart about 200 million years ago and by 14 million years ago the position of continents was as we know it now.
As continents moved apart, Antarctica was separated from other landmasses. The Antarctic circumpolar current was established around 20 million years ago and the Antarctic glaciation began. Antarctica ice sheet is divided into West Antarctica and East Antarctica ice sheets. The West Antarctic ice sheet is rapidly losing ice via collapsing of the ice shelves, while East Antarctica ice sheet remains stable so far.
Wednesday, January 10: Port Charcot
‘Le Lyrial’ had spent the night at Port Charcot so we could make an early start. The first group started going ashore in the Zodiac boats at 8:00 a.m. The skies were gray, a light snow and a rising wind were threatened but this did not dampen the eagerness to get to land. There was a slight hitch because floating ice had drifted into the usual landing place so the boats had to divert around the headland to a more sheltered place. Once ashore there was a walk through the snow to the viewpoints.
Port Charcot is the harbor where the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot wintered his ship Français in 1904. It is bad form to name a place for yourself but Charcot named it for his father!
As people reached the top of the ridge and saw the myriad of stranded icebergs, cameras were immediately deployed. This place is sometimes called an “iceberg graveyard” because so many bergs are carried there on the prevailing current and left stranded. A track led to the penguin colonies where there was the “grand slam” of Gentoos, Chinstraps and Adélies, as well as a good view of crab eater seals lying on ice floes just offshore. At the top of a small hill there was a large cairn of stones which had been built by Charcot’s men over a century ago. By touching the stones, we could imagine a link with these pioneer explorers of the Heroic Age.
The weather could have been better but it was our first trip ashore, there was a superb view and we had a very good introduction to penguins, so everyone was happy.
In the afternoon, we had a Zodiac cruise among the same icebergs that we had looked down on in the morning. Close up, the bergs are even more spectacular in shapes and colors. Antarctica is not just black and white. There are amazing shades of blue and green in the ice. There were also seals and penguins to observe up close. Best of all there were three humpback whales feeding near the ship and we got good views and photographs from the boats as they surfaced, and then dived with a final flick of the flukes into the air as they disappeared.
Back on board, Daria Nikitina, our geologist, gave her talk 'Old continent under icecap: geology and glaciology of Antarctica' to each group while they were aboard. The Earth’s outermost layer, the lithosphere, is broken into series of plates which move relative to each other. They move during earthquakes along plate boundaries as well as during the eruption of submarine volcanoes along mid-oceanic ridges. Continents rift apart when volcanic rocks intrude into existing rocks. Antarctica has a rift structure, the West Antarctic Rift, that is comparable in size to the East African Rift. Antarctica has 31 active volcanoes, with Mount Erebus being the southernmost active volcano and having a 100 m deep lake of molten lava on its summit. Recently scientists found evidence of a volcanic eruption from beneath Antarctic ice sheet. This volcano erupted 2000 years ago and is still active. It has been possible to reconstruct the position of continents as far back as 650 million years ago. The supercontinent Gondwana assembled 550 million years ago in the Southern Hemisphere and included Antarctica, Australia, India, South America and Africa. About 300 million years ago North America and Europe collided with Gondwana to form the supercontinent Pangaea. Pangaea began to break apart about 200 million years ago and by 14 million years ago the position of continents was as we know it now.
As continents moved apart, Antarctica was separated from other landmasses. The Antarctic circumpolar current was established around 20 million years ago and the Antarctic glaciation began. The Antarctica ice sheet is divided into West Antarctica and East Antarctica ice sheets. West Antarctic ice sheet is rapidly losing ice via the collapsing of ice shelves, while the East Antarctica ice sheet remains stable so far. This is an important point to be remembered when climate change is being discussed.
Thursday, January 11: Dallman Bay and Cuverville Island
Last night at recap, expedition leader Agustin encouraged us to go to bed thinking ‘blue skies, blue skies’. And it worked. When curtains were drawn back this morning, the skies were blue, the sun was shining on a calm sea and the ice-covered mountains surrounding Dallman Bay were glistening brightly. What a morning for a Zodiac cruise! There were no complaints at the early start. ‘Le Lyrial’ had been circling in Dallman Bay overnight and, over breakfast, she closed on the Melchior Islands where we would have the Zodiac cruise.
Although the islands had been discovered by the German whaler Eduard Dallman in 1874, Jean-Baptiste Charcot named them for Vice Admiral Melchior of the French Navy. Much later the Argentines built a small station on the main island but it is not occupied at the moment.
Bob Burton gave us a lecture on ‘The Antarctic Treaty: Success and Co-operation’. The governance of the continent of Antarctica, one-sixth of the world's landmass, is an important subject for all visitors. It is amazing that there has never been any serious conflict during an age in which the rest of the world has been beset with serious conflicts. Bob showed how territorial claims were made even when it was found that it was a frigid landmass. From overlapping claims by Argentina, Britain and Chile came the need for a solution to the governance of the continent. Then, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, 12 nations established research stations in Antarctica. From their good co-operation emerged the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 and the continent is now ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Bob showed how the Treaty system works to regulate activities in Antarctica, from fishing, through mineral extraction (which is banned) to tourism, and, unlikely as it may seem, so many nations are able to achieve consensus.
Our afternoon landing was on Cuverville Island in the scenic Errera Channel. This is a small island that is little more than a steep hill with a fringe of flat ground where we land on a rocky beach. At the end of the beach and on the slopes behind there were small colonies of gentoo penguins (distinguished by their orange beaks and the white patches over their ears). These birds had large chicks of about three weeks old. It was delightful to watch the chicks begging and receiving meals from their parents – something often seen on television which cannot convey the true charm of the scene.
Cuverville Island was once the site of a small station where researchers studied the effects of visitors on penguins and other forms of wildlife. They had an ‘electronic’ eggs which they put under nesting penguins so they could monitor their heartbeat without disturbing them. The results showed that, if people approach slowly and stand quietly not too close, the penguins are not significantly disturbed.
While some of us were content to watch the penguins, many climbed the steep hill to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was a trudge through the snow but this avoided the dense swards of moss and lichen which make Cuverville Island one of the most verdant spots in Antarctica.
On the way back to the ship, the zodiacs took us on a tour of the icebergs stranded in the bay and to ice floes where some crabeater seals were basking. These seals can be identified by their silvery coats and small heads with narrow snouts. Some of them bore huge scars on their bodies. These were made when they were attacked by leopard seals when they were young. The exception was a leopard seal. The species has a reputation for ferocity and frequently eats young seals and penguins but, like the crabeater seal, it eats large quantities of the shrimp-like krill.
That could have been the end of the day’s excitements but after dinner there was an announcement from the bridge orcas had been sighted. The ship reduced speed to a crawl so we slowly approached what turned out to be 20-25 orcas, split into small groups. Viewing conditions were perfect: bright evening light falling onto a glassy sea and the whales coming as close as 50 yards of the ship. We could easily see the distinct white patch behind the eye and the pale ‘saddle’ behind the dorsal fin, as well as the tall fins of the adult males. The small groups were moving slowly in no particular direction, perhaps they were simply enjoying the evening too! There were also some humpback whales ‘lunge-feeding’ – erupting vertically with their mouths open. Normally this would have been the center of attraction but they could not compete with the orca families.
Today we fell under the spell of the Antarctic – its scenery, wildlife and atmosphere but, as Ernest Shackleton wrote in 1908: ‘Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic’.
Friday, January 12: Brown Station and Neko Harbour
The weather continued as it left off last night: rather cloudy but bright and calm. Today would be a red-letter day because the two landings will be made on the actual mainland of Antarctica, rather than on offshore islands.
In the early morning ‘Le Lryial’ entered Paradise Harbour, one of the most scenically stunning parts of the Antarctic Peninsula region, and anchored off the Argentine Brown Station (formerly Almirante Brown). It is named for an Irishman who established the Argentine Navy. A short Zodiac ride brought us to the cluster of orange buildings. The station is now closed but is visited every year by a few people to undertake maintenance and some science programs. We were made welcome by the Argentineans as we came ashore at a small jetty and climbed steps to the station. It had been partly destroyed by fire in 1951, rebuilt in 1952, completely burnt down in 1984 and again rebuilt. Fire is greatest hazard in Antarctica!
There were some gentoo penguins nesting around the buildings but the main object was to climb a steep snow slope for a stunning view across Paradise Harbour. As the zodiacs started to return to the ship, there was a surprise waiting. Sally's Zodiac appeared to be having engine trouble but on further investigation she and her team were dispensing glasses of champagne to celebrate our continental landing. The cruise is full of surprises and this is one we might not have anticipated!
We left Paradise Harbour, heading north and passing close to the Chilean Gonzalez Videla station and, after lunch, ‘Le Lyrial’ maneuvered around magnificently sculpted icebergs into Anvord Bay and anchored off Neko Harbour. This scenic spot was first seen and roughly charted by de Gerlache. In 1921, Neko Harbor was named for Christian Salvesen’s floating whaling factory Neko, which operated in the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula area between 1911 and 1924.
Many of us decided to make the hike to the ridgeline above, but were pleasantly distracted by the charismatic gentoo penguins nesting in small clusters along the way. Once past the penguins, we ascended a steep snow-covered hill and cut back to a rock outcropping from which we could see Anvord Bay in its entirety.
Down below, we sat and watched the penguins, and absorbed the scene. A massive glacier with cerulean blue crevasses cascaded down to the sea on the other side of the harbour. There was some excitement when a large lump ‘calved’ off the face and hundreds of tons of ice crashed into the sea, setting up a small tsunami that lapped along the shore. Gentoo penguins loafed along the shoreline and from the water’s edge up to the nesting colonies stretched steep meandering “penguin highways”. The penguins use these trails when the snow is deep, to save energy on the walk from the sea to their nest. They are also happy to use human trails and we have to give them "right of way."
Moving away from Neko Harbour after the landing, ‘Le Lyrial’ continued to steam along the panorama of icy mountains of the Gerlache Strait until, just as dinner finished, we entered the famous Lemaire Channel, a 7-mile long, 1-mile wide, spectacular passage between Booth Island and mainland Antarctica. It is nicknamed 'Kodak Alley' and is a ‘must’ for any visit to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Channel is flanked by glaciated cliffs and peaks that soar to over 2000 feet on the island and 3000 feet on the mainland. Unfortunately visibility was not the best but the passage was still dramatic and was enlivened by ‘Le Lyrial’ weaving among the lumps of ice. Having passed down the Channel, we turned and made the passage in reverse and ‘Le Lyrial’ proceeded towards our next destination while we slept.
Saturday, January 13: Palmer Station
We pulled back the curtains to reveal a beautiful morning in Antarctica. The skies were blue and the sun was shining. There were more waves than we would have liked but the sea calmed as we came into the sheltered waters of Arthur Harbour where the US Palmer Station is located.
The setting for this morning’s Zodiac cruise around Torgersen Island could not have been more dramatic. Sculpted icebergs, some a gorgeous blue and others a shimmering white, were scattered about. As we made our way toward Torgersen Island and the other small islets nearby, elephant seals could be seen in the rocky coves. Many of them were immature animals and, judging by the rearing up and roaring behavior, some were males practicing for the day when they will defend territories. Elephant seals are polygynous, meaning that males have a harem which can be of more than 30 females.
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins were observed in small numbers on the islands and in the water, many of them lounging on the snow or porpoising around the channels. The main interest was an Adélie penguin colony that has been the subject of research for many years. It has declined by 85% over the past 35 years, possibly due to the effects of climate change. Warmer, more humid air has resulted in more frequent heavy snowstorms during the spring and summer, often flooding the penguin nests with melt water, so drowning the eggs or chicks. Also, a decrease in the extent of winter sea ice is taking a toll on the krill population (an important food source for penguins) because juvenile krill feed on the algae that grow on the underside of sea ice. (We later learned that the local gentoo and chinstrap penguins have been increasing).
Back on the ship, some staff from Palmer Station came aboard to talk to us about the base and its research program. We had a fascinating briefing about Palmer Station, which will help our American fellow-guests learn how their tax-dollars are spent. Station Manager Rebecca Shoop described the station which is the smallest of the three U.S. year-round stations (the others are McMurdo and South Pole). The station is maintained by the US Antarctic Program and the science program is administered by the National Science Foundation. Thanks to its northerly, relatively ice-free location it can receive supplies by ship all year. Maximum numbers are 45 support personnel and scientific staff. The station was built on the southern shore of Anvers Island in 1965 and is named for American sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer who, in 1820, explored the Antarctic Peninsula area on a ship called Hero. Near the station lie the nearly submerged remains of the ship Bahia Paraiso, which sank off the coast on 28 January 1989, creating one of Antarctica’s worst environmental disasters.
There are three main areas of scientific research. There is fundamental knowledge of the Antarctic; fundamental knowledge of Antarctica; Antarctica’s role in global systems, such as large scale movements of ice; and Antarctica as a platform for research, such as tracking balloons that gather information on the upper atmosphere. The South Pole, itself, is a good place for astronomical telescopes. Rebecca also pointed out the importance of education and outreach, not only linking up with students but also including 12 visits a year from cruise ships. Randy Jones, who 'makes science happen', then took over to describe the science program. The programme includes research on the peculiar physiology of Antarctic fishes, which sheds light on the evolution of fishes and may help in medical research. SCUBA divers study the way that animals fixed to the seabed, such as sponges, defend themselves against predators, and small transmitters are glued to the heads of elephant seals. One was tracked by satellite from Palmer to New Zealand! The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) programme monitors changes in the environment, from the numbers of penguins to climatic factors. One project that captured the imagination is the study of the wingless midge Belgica Antarctica (discovered and named by the Belgica expedition in 1898). This tiny insect (‘the largest land animal on Antarctica’!) survives extreme desiccation and freezing.
Following these presentations, Jim McClintock, for whom Palmer Station is a ‘home away from home’, presented the station with a hexacopter (drone) on behalf of Abercrombie & Kent. It will be used for the LTER cetacean research program. We were told how drones are used to photograph whales so that measurements can be made to reveal their physical condition and records made of their behaviour. The staff from Palmer were delighted with the new scientific equipment, and we were all very pleased to be playing a part in furthering research on Antarctica.
Following an excellent barbecue lunch under blue skies, we prepared to visit Palmer Station. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to land at the station, since they normally do not accept visits from groups larger than 150 people. However, because Jim McClintock is a researcher there, we were granted permission to come ashore and tour the facility. The station tour took us to see the workshops, laboratories, and other assorted facilities. A small gift shop was one of the most exciting facilities! We then made our way to the lounge where we were served brownies and coffee. Some of the maintenance and research staff had gathered to talk to us about their work and what it is like to work in such a remote but beautiful environment. Among the post-grad students there were some staff who were not so young and have been visiting Palmer, and other US stations, over many years. Palmer, we learned, is the prize posting!
Sunday, January 14: Deception Island & Hannah Point
There seems to be no end to the fine weather. This morning’s destination was Deception Island which is famous for being blanketed under a pall of low cloud, but today was enjoying high cloud with breaks for blue skies and sunshine. The island gets its name because it looks like a 'normal' solid island until you get round to one position and can see through a gap - Neptune's Bellows - that reveals the caldera (flooded crater) of a volcano. Neptunes Bellows was so-named because of ‘the gusts that blow in and out as if they came through a trumpet or funnel’.
The captain had to manoever ‘Le Lyrial’ very carefully through Neptune’s Bellows because there is a submerged rock in the entrance. The rusting remains of a whalecatcher on one bank is witness to a captain who got it wrong. Once inside we could look around the broad caldera to the ash-covered shores, still partly covered by snow. In the distance there were the remains of the whaling station that operated between 1911 and 1931 and where the British later had a station. It was damaged by a volcanic eruption and abandoned in 1969, the neighbouring Chilean base having been demolished by an eruption the previous year. Only the Argentine station remains and it was later joined by a Spanish station. Deception is also famous for the first aircraft flights in Antarctica which were made by the Australian Hubert Wilkins in 1928.
Our destination was Telefon Bay named for a Norwegian freighter the Telefon. It had gone aground not far away and the crew escaped to Deception Island. The ship was then refloated and brought round to Deception Island and beached. Next year, she was repaired, refloated and sailed to Punta Arenas, Chile. Our trip ashore at Telefon Bay consisted of a steady hike up a slope to the lip of a small crater where geologist Daria explained the volcanic scenery. It was a pleasant, not too taxing walk among interesting scenery.
We had another good look at the caldera scenery as we left Deception Island, squeezed back through Neptunes Bellows and into open sea. Time for lunch during the short passage to the afternoon’s landing at Hannah Point.
Hannah Point is a very special place. It is a wildlife paradise, even by the standards of the places we have already visited. Because of the abundance and diversity of wildlife and its sensitivity to disturbance, it is closed until 10 January. Moreover, only 50 visitors are allowed ashore at one time and we had to split into small groups for guided walks. One reason for taking especial care was the numerous nesting giant petrels. Unlike penguins, for example, giant petrels (known as stinkers by generations of Antarctic visitors) abandon their nests when approached, leaving the eggs and chicks vulnerable to their neighbours. Another reason is the unusual amount of vegetation. It was mostly a sward of green algae that looked like a rather rough snooker table but there were profuse growths of lichens on the rocks and tufts of Antarctic hair grass, one of the two ‘higher plants’ in the Antarctic.
The main attraction, however, was the colony of chinstrap penguins who had well-grown young. The chicks were becoming too large for their parents to cover them and they would soon be gathering into creches. One of the features of a chinstrap colony is the way one penguin starts to display – pointing its beak at the sky, flapping its flippers and trumpeting. Then others join in until there is a noisy cacophony of flipper-waving penguins. There was another little treat at Hannah Point: a pair of macaroni penguins. This species nests mostly farther north but a few pairs are to be seen in the South Shetlands. The macaroni is distinguished by the plumes of orange plumes on its head and the name comes from the traditional song: ‘put a feather in his hat and called it macaroni’.
Although our stay at Hannah Point had to be brief, we were then ferried across to Walker Bay where we could visit groups of sleeping elephant seals and a collection of fossils that had been gathered by previous visitors. Daria was on hand to describe the minerals and fossils of ferns and trees.
And so we returned from our last landing, after ‘another fine day in paradise’. There was a widespread feeling that the cruise had exceeded all expectations and the last landing was the best of the lot.
Monday, January 15: Drake Passage
We woke to find another sunny day but there was no need for an early rise because we were now proceeding northwards across the Drake Passage and there were no more landings to prepare for. More important than the sunshine was the sea state. There was very little wind, so very little swell and ‘Le Lyrial’ was sliding smoothly through the water with hardly any movement. And we were back in the albatross belt.
With a day at sea, it was time to ‘return to the classroom’ for more lectures. Daria started with ‘Is Antarctica melting?’ Whether the continent is warming or cooling at present has been a question of intense debate and uncertainty. Data from weather stations and satellites show that Antarctica as a whole has been warming over the last 50 years. However, while West Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have been warming, East Antarctic temperatures appear rather stable. The western Antarctic Peninsula warmed by 2.5°C from 1950 to 2000 and waters west of the Antarctic Peninsula have also warmed rapidly.
Areas with a clearly higher risk of melting include the floating ice shelves. They play a fundamental role in the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet because they buttress the flow of ice down the glaciers from inland. The impacts of recent rapid warming around the Antarctic Peninsula have been dramatic, with the collapse of ice shelves: in 2002 Larsen B ice shelf and in July 2017 Larsen C. Ice shelf collapse amplifies the flow of ice from inland and has led to the retreat of several glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula. The glaciers that have lost their ice shelves speed up by as much as 300–800%. Other glaciers have thinned and receded as a result of melting. As a result, the Antarctic ice sheet is in a state of disequilibrium and 87% of it is receding.
In the breaks between lectures it was time to go on deck to see what seabirds might be out and about. The naturalists were on hand to help identify species, and some of us had the good fortune of seeing a wandering albatross soaring right along the ship’s rails. At such a close distance, we could see how incredibly large this bird really is-and look directly into its beady eye! It was magical to watch the albatross soar effortlessly in even light winds. It helped us understand how they can routinely travel hundreds of miles to collect food for their chicks.
Photo Coach Richard Harker’s last presentation was on a practical and timely subject: ‘In the footsteps of Ansel Adams: the Basics of Digital Workflow’. When we get home we will be able to transform our hundreds of digital photos into excellent shots that will really impress families and friends. Richard discussed the value of 'processing' digital images with software such as Photoshop. He compared the work done in the wet darkroom by Ansel Adams (famous for his pictures of Yosemite National Park) in the mid-20th century with the computer work done today by digital photographers. The conclusion was that were Adams alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images!
Bob's last lecture was a personal story. In ‘When I was a lad: Tales of Old Antarctica’, he told stories of life on a British Antarctic Survey research station in the early 1960s. It was a time closer to the Heroic Age than to the present day. Unlike other nations, Britain sent men to Antarctica for two years' overwintering. This not only gave scientists time to collect good sets of data but overlapping personnel ensured a nucleus of experienced men on the station. Bob gave details of how life was lived in a small and very isolated community of young men in a period when there were fewer regulations and communication with the outside world was very limited, and included the adventures of Ginge the cat and a strange tale of a haunted whaling station.
Jim McClintock’s talk ‘Drug discoveries in Antarctic seas’ opened up a subject that we did not know existed. Jim went into detail about the chemical defences that many marine species use against their predators, and how some of these chemicals have properties that may aid in the prevention and cure of certain diseases in humans. It is a field of research that could benefit humankind enormously and that relies on the fact that evolution has, over millions of years of natural selection, come up with chemical solutions to many challenges faced by organisms both in the sea and on land.
The evening was given over to the limited formality of Captain Erwan Le Rouzic’s Farewell Cocktail Party. Cruise Director Louic Menguy took the opportunity to introduce and publicly thank some of the many members of the crew who have worked to make the cruise such a success and the Captain added his thanks and wound up the cruise. The Party was followed by the Captain's Farewell Dinner, which turned out to be a lively affair, although tinged with the knowledge that the adventure is coming to an end.
Tuesday, January 16: Beagle Channel
The sea got up during the night and while we were safely tucked up there was the occasional thump as ‘Le Lyrial’ hit a wave, but it was calm again by morning. Once again we have been robbed of the opportunity of collecting personal stories of the perils of the Drake Passage! In fact, it had been a fast crossing and land was already in sight before breakfast.
There was a single lecture this morning, the last of what had been a very informative and enjoyable series of Enrichment Lectures. Jim McClintock talked to us about ‘Diving under Antarctic Ice’. This is rather different from diving off the Bahamas. You have to wear a warm layer under your dry suit which then means you have to guard against overheating and sweating before taking your polar plunge! Then there are various safety protocols for swimming in freezing water where access is through a small hole in the ice. Jim’s photos showed that it is worth the effort: the life on the seabed is surprisingly rich and varied.
After the lecture there was an immediate call from the bridge because ‘Le Lyrial’ had closed on a small group of four sei whales (say ‘say whale’!). These whales, the third largest of the rorqual species, are usually spotted only fleetingly but these whales were feeding and essentially staying in the same place. So the Captain Le Rousic could easily keep close enough for wonderful views but at a distance that would not disturb them. So we watched as the group surfaced to blow every minute or so. There were more whales in the distance, as well as a pod of dusky dolphins, groups of magellanic penguins porpoising through the water and some sea-lions resting on a distant island. Later, after lunch, we had the thrilling sight of a three-master, the barque Europa, passing by under full sail.
Our last gathering in the lecture theatre was for ‘On Expedition’ – a look back over our voyage of discovery with the Expedition Staff. But we started with the raffle to benefit the Crew Welfare Fund which raised the magnificent sum of 2050 Euros. Guests who purchased tickets stood the chance of winning a sea chart marked with our route, decorated with illustrations by the crew and signed by the senior officers.
As a recap of our journey, we watched a wonderful slide show compiled by Richard ‘Black Jack’ Escanilla. It featured photos taken by the Expedition Staff that recalled many of the highlights of the cruise: the landings on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, together with the shipboard experiences of whales, albatrosses and icy landscapes, and many people recognized themselves disguised behind red parkas and rubber boots. So much has happened in a short space of time that it took many slides to do the experience justice!
By this time, ‘Le Lyrial’ had proceeded up the Beagle Channel and was preparing to come alongside the jetty at Ushuaia. As soon as we were cleared by customs and immigration, we could go ashore and wander into the little town.
So ended our cruise. We will leave tomorrow to go our separate ways – perhaps to meet again aboard one day on one of A&K's Arctic expeditions. It has been an incredible expedition and, although it is sad that it is over, we have photos, videos, journals and most importantly vivid memories of a land almost too magical and captivating to describe. Now that we have experienced 'the Ice,' we will never forget it.
Ernest Shackleton once wrote: 'Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civi¬lisation'.
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