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Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands Trip Log January 16 - February 1, 2018
Wednesday, January 17: Ushuaia
We flew from across the globe to Buenos Aires and onward to Ushuaia, the Gateway to Antarctica. Some of us came early for a pre-cruise excursion to the spectacular Iguazu Falls. Following the spine of the Andes throughout the morning, our flight passed over countless mountains, like a sea of snowy peaks extending to the horizon. As we approached Tierra del Fuego, the scenery had to be seen to be believed. Eventually we dropped into Ushuaia, a small city with a population of 45,000 that calls itself Ciudad del Fin de Mundo (the City at the End of the World), the southernmost city on the planet. Although growing rapidly, the city maintains some of its frontier-town atmosphere with bustling streets of houses of every shape and size.
Situated on the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia means “inner harbor to the westward” in the native Yahgan tongue. The city is 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 captain 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 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 and back to our cabins.
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 a lovely evening with sunshine breaking through the clouds to illuminate the calm sea of the channel against a backdrop of forest-clad peaks – the tail end of the Andes.
There was one more formality before the sail-away dinner: an introduction to the layout and services of the ship and 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’ – he is very tall) 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, Argentina, Russia, the Philippines and Costa Rica. Each one described 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. Just before we retired, the ship stopped and anchored off the Chilean settlement of Puerto Williams so that a small tanker could come alongside to supply the fuel we needed for our long cruise. We hoped for a speedy and comfortable crossing to our landing places — but would our hopes be realized? Read on!
Thursday, January 18
The morning found us still in sight of land. ‘Le Lyrial’ was following the coast of Tierra del Fuego as it curved to the east, past Staten Island and Cape Horn, and we then headed north-east into open ocean towards the Falkland Islands. There was a sea running with some fairly high swells but we were already beginning to realise how stable is our ship. There was just enough ‘rocking and rolling’ to show that we really are having a life on the ocean wave.
The weather was overcast and outbreaks of rain did not encourage us to spend much time on deck, which was a pity because there was plenty of bird life, and even some sea-lions. We were in the ‘albatross zone’ and there were nearly always some of these magnificent birds circling the ship effortlessly on outstretched wings, together with numerous smaller seabirds. The currents and upwellings around the coast make for fertile waters and result in concentrations of birds feeding at the surface. Through the day the expedition staff were stationed on the pool deck at the stern looking for wildlife to share with us. As well as wandering and black-browed albatrosses, there were giant petrels (looking like small albatrosses), smaller white-chinned petrels and relatively tiny Wilson’s storm petrels
This was also a day to settle into shipboard life and enter into the spirit of the expedition to the Southern Ocean. The stable ship enabled us to explore the decks and locate the many facilities of our new home or merely introduce ourselves to our new neighbours. 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 with room for plenty of warm clothes underneath. These parkas ensure that we will be suitably clad with a weatherproof layer – and be highly visible! – when we go ashore.
Much of the day was taken up with 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!
The first lecture was the vital one on photography. Photo Coach Richard Harker discussed "Photography in Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare". Nearly everyone aboard has a digital camera or an iphone. We will take hundreds of photographs to make a permanent record of the expedition and to share our experiences with friends and family back home. Richard's coaching will be invaluable for getting the most from our cameras and not return with disappointing results.
Before lunch it was the turn of Adam Walleyn (our official onboard 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 to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and beyond. 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.
In the afternoon our geologist, David Dallmeyer, presented a lecture entitled ‘Geology of the Falklands: Islands Out Of Africa’. He began with a review of the concepts and processes of plate tectonics and continental drift and how these applied to the evolution of the Scotia Sea which ‘Le Lyrial’ will traverse between South Georgia and Antarctica. He then discussed formation of the Gondwana supercontinent between approximately 800 and 530 million years ago. This was followed by a description of the five major bedrock geological units that are exposed in the Falkland Islands. These units have no direct links with South America, but there are striking similarities with rocks to be seen between Durban and Port Elizabeth in South Africa. These suggest that there was once a direct connection between the Falklands’ bedrock and African elements of Gondwana. This linkage was broken during initial breakup of Gondwana which started approximately 170 million years ago. Finally, in a day of continuing ‘enrichment’, members of the Expedition Staff gave short presentations in “An introduction to the Falkland Islands”. Starting with the complex history of colonisation over the last five centuries, we also heard about the sea mammals (Peale’s dolphins and Commerson’s dolphins are likely to be seen from the ship) and numerous birds – landbirds as well as seabirds. Perhaps most interesting was the presentation by Pete Clement, a native of the Falkland Islands, who described life on the islands, farming, fishing and the possibilities of oil extraction.
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 in the bars afterwards. And so to bed.
Friday, January 19: Falkland Islands
‘Le Lyrial’ made good time overnight and coast of the Falkland Islands came into sight around 5.00 am. By 6.30 we had come up Port William, turned through The Narrows into Port Stanley harbour and Captain Le Rouzic was bringing her expertly alongside FIPASS despite the strong wind. FIPASS stands for Falkland Interim Port and Storage System and is a large floating pontoon connected by a road bridge to the land. ('Interim' is a misnomer – the facility has been in place for 35 years!)
We were blessed with fine weather of high clouds and occasional sunshine. Heading off in buses, groups went on excursions to see penguins and other wildlife, tour the battlefields of the 1982 conflict when the British retook the Islands from Argentina, visit a traditional farm to watch sheep-shearing and peat-cutting and a Photo-Walk with photo coaches Richard Harker and David Salmanowitz. We all agreed that the information imparted by the local guides and drivers about life in the Falklands contributed hugely to the enjoyment of the excursions.
The afternoon was free to wander the small town of Stanley, the world’s smallest capital that still manages to have traffic jams because modern SUVs have outgrown the roads. High on the priorities was some important souvenir shopping, mainly involving products featuring penguins and with grandchildren as recipients! A shuttle bus was available for the short journey to and from the JVC (Jetty Visitor Centre). An unexpected bonus was a group of four sea-lions sunbathing unconcernedly at the end of the nearby jetty. The new museum was a great attraction for its informative displays of Falkland history and reminiscences of the 1982 conflict. The cathedral was also worth a visit for the many memorials lining its walls and its pleasant garden featuring many-colored flowering lupins. Fish-and-chips-with-a- pint-of- beer lunches were another popular ‘tourist experience’ in this so-British community.
It was back on board for a 6.00 pm departure. Captain Le Rouzic manoeuvred ‘Le Lyrial’ away from the colourful town and back through The Narrows. Course was set for South Georgia on a course just south of east. We still have the wind behind us and are being pushed forward at a good speed and there is little movement of the ship.
Saturday, January 20: En route to South Georgia
This was another day of shipboard life. We continued to experience a strong following wind that sometimes reached gale force and was whipping up high waves topped with foaming breakers. The sun broke through the thin clouds at intervals and illuminated the seascape, turning the water bright blue and shimmering gold. We were now in the ‘albatross zone’ and there were usually some of these birds, including the magnificent wandering albatross, circling the ship. The ever-changing view of the ocean swells and seabirds were worth watching through the windows of the remarkably stable ‘Le Lyrial.’
The lecture program was back in full swing, starting off with Matt Massina and his talk “Whales of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica”. These are the giant creatures that we will encounter as we head into the Southern Ocean. We were excited to learn that whale sightings will be likely for the entirety of our voyage, and that the productive waters around Antarctica draw in the largest creatures on the planet to our area. We should get some really good 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!
After Matt’s Talk, the expedition naturalists in their distinctive yellow parkas, gathered on the Pool Deck to point the different birds surrounding the ship and tell us a bit about their habits, while photo coaches Richard Harker and David Salmanowitz were on hand to help with camera problems and give advice on taking photos.
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 South Georgia and 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.
The afternoon saw Richard Harker presenting “Photographing Antarctica: Mastering your camera”. He dipped into the best camera settings to capture the wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. Geared for ‘point and shoot’, digital SLR and iPhone audiences, Richard explained how certain settings can vastly improve our Antarctic photographs.
The last lecture was Bob Burton on “Sir Ernest Shackleton - Heroic Failure?” The Irish-born explorer is famously connected with South Georgia and is buried there. For many guests, the island and the explorer are the main reasons for joining this cruise. Bob pointed out that although Ernest Shackleton is famous for rescuing his men when his ship Endurance was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea, this expedition to cross the continent of Antarctica was only one of four Antarctic expeditions that he took part in. He first went South on Captain Scott's first expedition and then led his own expedition to attempt to reach the South Pole. He got within 100 miles before being forced to retreat by a shortage of food. After Amundsen and Scott had reached the Pole, Shackleton determined to cross the continent of Antarctica. He was foiled by the loss of Endurance. After World War I, Shackleton returned to the Antarctic aboard Quest but died on the day after he reached South Georgia, where he is buried. Bob's conclusion was that Shackleton was certainly heroic but certainly not a failure.
Sunday, January 21: Scotia Sea and Shag Rocks
Last night ‘Le Lyrial’ was a little more restless than usual. Mostly the ship rocked gently under the control of the stabilisers but on a couple of occasions she was hit by a larger wave that sent a shock through the hull. But no matter, we were safely in bed! In the morning we found a good swell running with 20ft, sometimes 25 ft, waves. The seascape through the windows was dramatic and like yesterday, there was sunshine to increase our appreciation of the scene and there were plenty of seabirds circling or flying past to distant destinations. Once more it was a day for lectures.
First off was Bob with the history of South Georgia – Gateway to Antarctica, our first destination. South Georgia is a small island packed with interest and is The Jewel in the Crown, an allusion to the position of the island with its wonderful scenery and amazing wildlife spectacles in the territories administered by the United Kingdom. The first landing on the island was by Captain James Cook in 1775. He had been searching for the presumed southern continent of Antarctica. He thought South Georgia could be it until it proved to be no more than a long thin island. His visit precipitated the arrival of American and British sealers who destroyed the populations of fur seals and elephant seals. From 1904 to 1965, shore-based whaling stations were located on the island and 175,250 whales were brought ashore and processed mainly for their oil. The oil was converted into a solid fat used in the manufacture of soap and margarine. The whalers were mainly Norwegians, who exploited the large whalebone whales that gather to feed on the abundant krill. The British administration tried to regulate whaling but were eventually foiled by the development of pelagic factory ships which were able to operate outside territorial waters. Since the 1950s there has been exploitation of fish. Since the 1980s South Georgia waters have been fished for krill, Antarctic cod, mackerel icefish and Patagonian toothfish. After early overfishing, the Government of South Georgia has successfully brought this under control to prevent overfishing. It is now possible to buy toothfish (often marketed as Chilean sea bass) which are recorded as coming from South Georgia's sustainable fishery, which also employs measures to prevent albatrosses from being caught on longline hooks.
Adam was next with his presentation on penguins entitled “The Birds In Tuxedos, a Penguin Primer”. These unique birds are familiar from films, photos and cartoons and they are one of the greatest attractions for visitors to Antarctica. The talk gave some background on penguins and their way of life, and helped prepare us for things to look out for in our upcoming visits to penguin colonies. (South Georgia is the home of several species including the king penguin whose huge colonies are one of the wonders of the region.) We heard about the life histories of the breeding species that we will encounter and how these fit with the chilly environment. So we now know what to look for.
Not long after lunch ‘Le Lyrial’ came in sight of Shag Rocks, six pinnacles of rock that, with the nearby Black Rock, emerge from the sea 155 miles west of South Georgia although they are geologically more closely related to the South Orkney Islands. These lonely outliers are, as the name suggests, home to a large colony of blue-eyed shags and are stained white from the guano of 2,000 nesting birds. From the ship we could continuous streams of shags flying in small flocks to and fro and many more could be seen on the white, guano-stained sides of the rocks. The sea is relatively shallow here and the upwelling of the water makes it productive. Because of the wind and swell we could only sail slowly past the rocks without stopping but the scene was dramatic in the extreme because the waves were crashing into the rocks and spray was being hurled high up the vertical faces.
With that excitement over, in mid-afternoon, preparation for the landings continued with the boot scrubbing and vacuum cleaning of parkas, backpacks and camera bags to comply with the Government of South Georgia's regulations for preventing the importation of alien plants and animals. Seeds, for instance, could have been picked on Velcro fastenings. The Island of South Georgia has already been colonised by a number of plants and insects, some of which have become a problem to the integrity of the native ecosystem, So 'biosecurity' is taken very seriously.
At some point in the afternoon ‘Le Lyrial’ crossed the Antarctic Convergence (also known as the Polar Front) where the warm, more saline surface currents coming south from the tropics meet the cold, denser and mainly non-saline waters moving north from the Antarctic, which sink and flow under the warmer water. The instruments on the bridge register a sudden drop in water temperature of several degrees as we head south and the reverse will be registered when we return northwards. The mixing waters along the Convergence provide the environment for the abundance of plankton, so the Convergence nourishes huge numbers of seabirds and sea mammals.
The final talk was by Matt delivered his own on the oceanographic phenomena that make South Georgia one of the most luxuriant oases of the Southern Ocean. We learned that the steep continental shelf surrounding this remote island causes cold, nutrient-rich water to upwell towards the surface, where sunlight can feed the trillions of microscopic algae (known as phytoplankton) that form the basis of the Antarctic food web. Matt then described the types of seals that we would eagerly be searching for throughout the duration of our landings on South Georgia. These would be mainly elephant and fur seals which swarm on the beaches but we may be lucky to spot the rarer Weddell and leopard seals.
Because we were entering South Georgia waters we complied with local regulations to prevent seabirds striking the ship, by ensuring curtains of the staterooms were drawn and outside lights were turned off.
Monday, January 22: Fortuna Bay and Salisbury Plain, South Georgia
We were sailing along the coast of South Georgia in the early morning. The swells had reduced overnight but were still moving the ship. A thin sun was attempting to shine through a layer of cloud, the mountains and glaciers were in evidence and there was every reason to be optimistic about our planned landings.
‘Le Lyrial’ turned into Fortuna Bay shortly after 6 o’clock for a landing that was perhaps earlier than some of us would have chosen. But it is worth making a little sacrifice to make the most of our visit to such an exquisite destination as South Georgia!
Fortuna Bay has a colony of 7,000 pairs of king penguins and is also famous for lying on the route of Ernest Shackleton’s epic crossing of South Georgia. It is a bay surrounded by mountains so there is shelter from the swell when landing is impossible at exposed beaches. There was also only a short Zodiac run to reach the beach but a walk of about 1.5 miles to the king penguin colony. Along the way there was much to see. Elephant seals lay in a muddy fetid wallow and fur seal pups were everywhere, frolicking in groups while they waited for their mothers to return and feed them. In a pool where a stream had been dammed there was a flock of South George pintail, a duck whose numbers had been severely reduced and is benefitting from the recent eradication of rats from South Georgia. There were even some South Georgia pipits, the only songbird on the island. This species was almost wiped out on the north coast by rats and only survived on rat-free islands. Now that rats have gone, the pipits have been making a dramatic comeback.
During the morning the wind dropped and the clouds lifted. So when ‘Le Lyrial’ moved back along the coast to Salisbury Plain in the Bay of Isles, the weather was approaching perfection. The beach at Salisbury Plain is much more exposed than the one at Fortuna Bay but we enjoyed the easiest landing that the Expedition Staff could remember in the last 10 or more years. Salisbury Plain has a much larger and more accessible colony of 60,000 pairs of king penguins. It was a sight difficult to describe! There were also the ubiquitous fur and elephant seals, so there was much to see. The king penguins were sitting on their eggs (they do not make a nest but hold the single egg on their feet) and there were also some ‘oakum boys’ - well-grown chicks covered in dense brown down from the previous laying.
Our first day at South Georgia has been a great success. The weather could hardly have been better and we have had a magnificent experience of two landings with unbelievable colonies of king penguins set in incomparable surroundings. The elephant seals, fur seals and varied birdlife were a bonus.
Tuesday, January 23: St Andrews Bay and Grytviken, South Georgia
Our good luck is continuing. We headed into St Andrews Bay in glorious sunshine and just a few small clouds sitting on some of the mountain peaks. There was no wind and the sea was glassy smooth with only a small underlying swell causing rolling undulations in the surface. And we were not called to go ashore as early as yesterday!
Our destination was the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia, that numbers 160,000 pairs. The Expedition Staff who had gone ashore for a reconnaissance soon reported a problem however. We needed to cross a small river to reach the colony and because of recent snowmelt it was deeper than usual. So plans were quickly modified and we walked inland along the river for about a mile to a rocky outcrop which gave a good view over the broad valley behind the beach and we could see the hundreds of king penguins lining the river, apparently liking to keep their feet wet. After this walk, we returned to the Zodiacs for a cruise along the beach to the king penguin colony. Because we have already had visits to colonies and seen nesting penguins and their young at close quarters, the cruise gave a good perspective of the colony as a whole and showed its huge extent.
Our landing at Grytviken started about 1330. Grytviken is the site of a whaling station that closed in 1965 and is now the home of an excellent small museum. This is the 'capital' of South Georgia where the British maintain a small research base and a team of government officials at nearby King Edward Point. It was to be a busy afternoon. We were free to go ashore when the ship had been cleared by one of the government officers. (We would have our passports stamped with the cachet of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.) We first gathered at the whalers' cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried. Bob Burton told us about his qualities of leadership and proposed a toast to The Boss, as he was known to his men. Then many of us took a short but steep hike to a viewpoint beside Gull Lake which provides water for a hydro-electric power plant.
Everyone wandered through the old whaling station. This has been cleared of asbestos and other dangerous material but much of the machinery that was used for processing the carcasses of whales into whale oil has been left. For anyone interested in learning more, Museum Director Sarah Lurcock led a tour of the station. The museum is in the whaling manager's house and it is amazing to find such an excellent museum in such a remote place – and to find so many items to buy in its gift shop! Another good place to visit was the Whalers Church, a typical Norwegian church which had been built in 1913 and fully restored in the 1990s. If you had ever wanted to ring church bells, now was the opportunity!
Meanwhile the Post Office had been brought on board and was waiting for our return. South Georgia has its own stamps so mail from here is something of a collector's item. For the recap, staff from the British Antarctic Survey told us about life and work on the research station. They and their colleagues stayed aboard for dinner so we could learn more informally about their lives, but the surprise visitors were the two incredibly friendly terriers which are being used to search for signs of any rats that have survived the eradication program.
Wednesday, January 24: Gold Harbour and Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia
Gold Harbour is a scenic wonder even by South Georgia’s standards. There was hardly a wave breaking as we went ashore in the zodiacs, although a low swell was breaking on the steep beach to make landing a bit more exciting. The first sight was piles of elephant seals that had come ashore to moult. The really large breeding bulls were feeding at sea but there were many 'smaller' ones dozing on the sand or 'play-fighting' with their companions. Behind the beach there was a small colony of gentoo penguins with well-grown chicks but the main attraction was yet more stately king penguins. For the observant, there were a few light-mantled albatrosses gliding to and fro along the cliffs. With their long, narrow wings, they are the most elegant of the albatross family and a pair gliding with synchronised movements is one of the sights evocative of South Georgia.
Gold Harbour is said to be named for the glittering seams of iron pyrite, known as fool’s gold, that are found in the cliffs, although there is no direct evidence that this is the reason. The Harbour is backed with vertical cliffs showing lines of geological strata and topped with an ‘icing’ of glacier ice. It was not always like this. Fifty years ago and more, the glacier poured down the cliff and ran out to the sea. Since then, many of South Georgia’s glaciers have been in fast retreat as the climate has warmed.
Cruising around the eastern end of South Georgia, ‘Le Lyrial’ entered Drygalski Fjord, named after the leader of the German ‘Gauss’ Expedition of 1901-3. This is a long, Norwegian-style fjord of immense beauty. Lofty crags and precipitous glaciers line its sides and it ends in a wall of ice. Geologist David described the geology of the fjord over the PA system as the ship moved slowly to near the head of the fjord. The fjord is a sea-filled former glacial valley 10 km long and 200 m deep with retreating tributary glaciers beautifully displayed. It has been carved between the two oldest rock masses in South Georgia. On the north side (starboard side sailing in) lie granitic and metamorphic rocks that were part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland. On the south side (port side sailing in) are basaltic rocks injected upward to form the floor of the ocean basin that opened between the separating granitic rock masses of Gondwanaland.
From Drygalski Fjord, we sailed along a breathtaking coastline and past Cape Disappointment, where Captain Cook realised that South Georgia was not a continent but only a long, narrow island. In the clear weather, we saw the same view and, as we sailed away, the entire 100-miles of South Georgia's southern coast was laid out before us. No wonder the island has been described as 'the Alps dropped into the sea'! From Drygalski Fjord, ‘Le Lyrial’ headed into open sea and started the two-day voyage to the South Shetland Islands.
This gave time for David Dallmeyer to present his lecture entitled “Introduction to Antarctica: A Fragile Continent of Extremes”. David reviewed the overall geographic and climate character of Antarctica and discussed variations in the extent and thickness of ice cover on the continent. He highlighted important differences between East and West Antarctica. East Antarctica is an old continental fragment that was once part of the Gondwana supercontinent. By contrast, West Antarctica is comprised of a series of contrasting island fragments.
The Captain’s prize for sighting the first iceberg has already been won. Twice! Claims were submitted while we were in Gold Harbour at the same time from the ship and the shore. So two bottles of champagne have been won.
Thursday, January 25: Crossing the Scotia Sea
We have left South Georgia well behind us. The sea continues to remain calm and ‘Le Lyrial’ is only pitching a little as she heads into the wind and a low swell. One obvious difference from yesterday is that the huge numbers of seabirds – prions, white-chinned petrels, diving petrels and albatrosses are now seen less frequently. Because of the large numbers in the coastal waters, the deck lights have been dowsed and a public announcement has been made every evening to keep our curtains closed. Lights attract the seabirds at night and there are fatalities as the birds fly into lights and windows.
The day’s lecture program started with Richard Harker's popular series on getting the best out of our cameras. Today's talk was "Photographing Antarctica: The Perfect Penguin”. Richard gave us tips for photographing Antarctic subjects and contained advice on composing a photo before pressing the button: avoid clutter in the background, wait for the penguin to turn its head, crouch to get the camera at penguin-eye level, and more.
Geologist, David Dallmeyer followed with a lecture entitled “Geology and Tectonic Setting of the Antarctic Peninsula: A Unique Island World”. David described the relationship of East Antarctica to the Gondwana supercontinent. He explained how the fragments of West Antarctica were accreted to East Antarctica as a result of subduction and terrane accretion. David concluded with a discussion of the current active earthquake and volcanic activity along the Bransfield Strait, at the top of the Antarctic Peninsula.
In the afternoon naturalist and ace Zodiac driver Russ Manning (“Russ of the Antarctic”) talked about '28 years of living and working in Antarctica'. During the 1990s Russ worked at three British research stations and had been Base Commander of two, before he started work on cruise ships. He gave a vivid account of life in these isolated communities, with the perils and pitfalls as well as the highlights and sheer pleasure of working in such a wonderful environment.
Then it was time for the twice daily donning of parkas and festooning of necks with cameras and binoculars to go onto the aft deck where the naturalists were gathered to spot seabirds and, hopefully, whales. The photo coaches were also on hand to dispense advice.
The final lecture of the day was Bob’s presentation. “My Favorite Heroes of Antarctic Exploration,” examined the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; the time of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton that lasted from 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. Bob examined why this age deserved the epithet “Heroic” by sharing stories of incredible endurance. They included two from Scott’s Last Expedition. In “The Winter Journey” three men trudged through a bitter Antarctic night to collect emperor penguin eggs, the “Northern Party” spent the winter in a snow hole, and Australian Douglas Mawson made incredible solo trek back to base after his two companions had died, a triumph of mental strength over physical adversity.
Friday, January 26: Elephant Island and Crossing the Scotia Sea
We awoke to find fog shrouding a calm sea, and the knowledge that we had an extra hour in bed. The clocks had been put forward one hour as we approached South Georgia to conform with local time and we had now put them back again.
It was another day of lectures that started with geologist David presenting a lecture entitled “Antarctica: Continent of Ice”. He described the extent of glacial cover on the continent. The ice averages 7,000 feet thick with a maximum thickness in excess of 16,000 feet at Dome C. Ice-coring indicates that the oldest ice is approximately 800,000 years. David also described formation of Antarctic ice shelves and discussed the causes and mechanisms of the breakup of ice shelves. That of the Larsen Iceshelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula has received considerable publicity in recent years. He also described how icebergs and sea ice are formed and gave facts about their flotation.
Second to talk was photo coach Richard on “Beyond Basics: Tips and Tricks with your camera”. He offered dozens of tips that photographers can use to improve their photography. He also showed several of his recent shots and explained how he made each one stand out.
Later in the morning, Matt Massina’s “Leopards of the Deep: Ice Seals of Antarctica” was a lecture on the seals that we will be searching for on our voyage. 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 a mile and are equipped with incredible sensory organs that help them detect prey. As we sail through the Antarctic, we are eager to enter a world dominated by an abundance of seals at every turn.
The fog lifted in the afternoon and became a low pall of cloud, through which the sun occasionally broke to light up patches of the sea surface. The change in visibility presaged a change in the day’s experiences from a rather dull passage with little to see in the fog. Our course would take us past Elephant Island (named for the number of elephant seals on it).
We first headed past Clarence Island (named for the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV) which was discovered by Edward Bransfield in 1820. The surrounding sea was dotted with dramatic tabular icebergs and, suddenly, there were reports of whale sightings over the PA. A group of fin whales had been spotted and Captain Le Rouzic altered course to bring us nearer. We could see little more than the tall blows as they surfaced to breathe but they were soon joined by two humpback whales which were easier to identify. These whales were soon put in the shade by the appearance of two very large male killer whales or orcas, distinguished by their enormous dorsal fins. Le Lyrial turned to come closer and eventually stopped. The two whales took not the slightest notice and continued diving and surfacing together within a few hundred feet of the ship, providing excellent opportunities for photographs.
Eventually we went on our way, sailing along the length of Elephant Island, on the opposite side to Point Wild where the crew of 'Endurance' had spent 139 days in 1916 waiting for Shackleton to return and end their ordeal.
Saturday, January 27: Halfmoon Island & Deception Island
Having made the passage from South Georgia we are now making landings in the South Shetland Islands. The first landing was on the well-named Halfmoon Island, a small crescent-shaped island that nestles within Moon Bay on the eastern side of the much larger Livingston Island. We were lucky that the clouds were high and the spectacular ice-covered mountains of Livingston Island were standing out like moulded icing.
There was a light breeze and calm sea, so there was no problem with what would be our first Antarctic landing, although the air temperature was distinctly colder than at South Georgia. We were sharing the anchorage with two small grey naval ships: 20 de Julio from Colombia and xxxxx from Argentina. They were visiting the summer-only Argentine station Camara and we could figures walking between the buildings,
The main object of our landing was a small colony of the pugnacious, feisty chinstrap penguins. A short walk up a compacted path brought us to their colony, and a breathtaking view of the nearby mountains of Livingston Island whose glaciers tumbled down to the narrow channel at the back of Halfmoon Island. The ice-covered mountains stood out like moulded icing to form a backdrop revealed as the clouds parted and regrouped.
The chinstrap penguins had small chicks that could be seen nestling under their parents. It is amusing to watch as adults wandered unconcernedly among us as they walk to the sea and back bringing food to their chicks. They emerge suddenly from the sea then trudge up the steep snow-covered slope. Then we could stand at a respectful distance from the colony, but well within camera range, to watch the chicks being fed and the various social interactions between adults. A brisk walk over the hill took us on a scenic route to a photogenic collection of elephant seals and some old whalebones. It was a useful but undemanding stretch of the legs while drinking in the view.
'Le Lyrial' left Halfmoon Island and headed for Deception Island. The four hour journey would leave time for lunch and Bob’s talk “The Antarctic Treaty System: 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.
About 2 o’clock, Captain Le Rouzic brought 'Le Lyrial' through Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera, the collapsed volcano crater that is Deception Island. The channel is narrower than it looks because of a submerged rock in the centre. The flooded centre of the island is called Port Foster. It was once the haunt of sealers and then the site of whaling factory ships. After World War II research stations were set up by Argentina, Britain and Chile. Volcanic eruptions destroyed those of Britain and Chile. The Argentine station survived and has been joined by a Spanish one. Deception Island 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 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 in Telefon Bay. Next year, she was repaired 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 David 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.
Sunday, January 28: Cuverville Island and Brown Station
‘Le Lyrial’ had sailed south during the night and arrived at scenic Cuverville Island in the morning. This is a small island nestling among larger, ice-capped islands, which was named for a French admiral who had supported the ‘Belgica’ Expedition of 1897-99. Our route took us through some scenic channels with ice-covered peaks dropping from the low clouds to the sea. Cuverville Island is notable for the profusion of green vegetation made up of extensive banks of mosses.
Our landing involved a hike up the hillside was for the fitter and more adventurous. This was quite arduous as it involved ascending a steep snow slope. But the pay-off was the opportunity to slide down a steep snow slope. The rest of us spent the time watching gentoo penguins going about their business. Now we are more familiar with them, it is easier to appreciate the different aspects of their behaviour. These chicks were now becoming too large for their parents to brood them. Marauding brown skuas were waiting to carry off any chicks that were not closely defended.
The trip back to the ship was a delight because the bay was of small icebergs and large icefloes. As well as being very scenic, the floes were inhabited by groups of crabeater seals which lay undisturbed as the zodiacs stopped to allow photographs to be taken. Some boats encountered an inquisitive leopard seal and others were able to see humpback whales.
Lunch was a special barbecue on the pool deck. The kitchen staff had gone to great lengths to make a memorable spread and the weather was fine enough to enjoy eating outside (although clad in our parkas). However, the meal had to compete with an outstanding display of whales. There were several humpback and killer whales in a small area and Captain Le Rouzic stopped the ship so we could enjoy watching, and photographing, them from close quarters. The humpbacks were ‘bubble-feeding’ – blowing rings of bubbles to trap swarms of krill so they are easier to engulf in their huge mouths.
Shortly afterwards, we passed the Chilean research station Gonzalez Videla and entered Paradise Harbour, one of the most scenically stunning parts of the Antarctic Peninsula region. The clouds were high enough to clear the tops of the mountains and we could why the harbour got its name. Our destination was the Argentine Brown Station (formerly Almirante Brown). It is named for the 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 small team who undertake maintenance. 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!
We had an easy landing at a jetty just below the empty station buildings where some gentoo penguins were nesting. The main object, however, was to climb a steep snow slope for a stunning view across Paradise Harbour, followed by some with a slide down. This landing was our landing on the mainland of Antarctica – the seventh continent to be visited by some. On the return the zodiacs diverted to cruise past a cliff colony of blue-eyed shags and ice floes with sleeping crabeater seals As the zodiacs started to return to the ship, there was a surprise waiting. Suzana's Zodiac appeared to be having engine trouble but on investigation she and her team turned out to be dispensing glasses of champagne to celebrate our landing on the continental landmass of Antarctica.
‘Le Lyrial’ continued her voyage south past more spectacular icebound scenery and, after dinner, wended her way through the famous La Maire 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. The passage was a superb finale to a marvellous day in Antarctica.
Monday, January 29: Petermann Island and Port Lockroy
After sailing through the Le Maire Channel last night, ‘Le Lyrial’ anchored for the night so that she was well-positioned to arrive at Petermann Island for the morning landing. The zodiacs took us to a small cove where the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot wintered his ship ‘Pourquoi-pas?’ (Why-not?) in 1909. On the way in, we were shown the benchmark for recording tides, inscribed P P after the ship, that can still be seen in a rock near where we landed. We had two objectives: to see nesting Adélie penguins and hike over a low hill to the back of the island where there was a magnificent view over seascape dotted with stranded icebergs. It was easy going over the snow and we were surprised at the colours imparted in the snow by green and red algae. The geology of the island also caught our attention, with its basaltic dykes – the broad black stripes - in the grey gran¬ite rocks. There were also black 'freckles' in the granite called zenoliths (hidden stones), and multicoloured lichens added further colour to the scene. Combined with the mountain setting, the blue sea, fine weather and easy walking, this was a landing that was hugely enjoyed.
Over lunch ‘Le Lyrial’ sailed back through the Le Maire Channel so we had a second view of its dramatic setting. We were en route for out last landing, at Port Lockroy, a cove named for a French politician, in Goudier Island. This the site of the British Base 'A' that was built in 1944 and operated continuously as an ionospherics research station until 1962. It was then abandoned and fell into disrepair but was carefully restored to its original condition in 1996 by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is now manned by four people every summer for maintenance and operating the post office and gift shop. Outside the hut, Bransfield House, visitors find gentoo penguins going about their nesting activities oblivious of the attention. Monitoring has shown that, far from being disturbed, the penguins' numbers are increasing.
Alas! At last our luck ran out. As we approached Port Lockroy the wind sprang up and it was soon a howling 40 knots. One zodiac was launched and it was clear that landing would not be safe. All that could be done was for Russ and Augustin to run ashore with our mail which would be stamped with ‘British Antarctic Territory’ stamps and despatched from Port Lockroy’s post office. Apart from missing a tour of the little base, there was the disappointment of missing the best shopping opportunity in Antarctica.
To fill the gap in the afternoon, Bob reminisced about 'When I was a lad: Two Years in Antarctica'. Bob had worked at the British Antarctic Survey station on Signy Island in the mid-1960s (the same station that Russ Manning commanded in the 1990s). Bob gave a lighthearted account of a very simple, rather idyllic life in a small, very isolated and (technically) primitive community of young men.
Despite the disappointment of the missed landing, the day ended on a high note. As dinner was finishing the captain announced that we were approaching a group of humpback whales feeding. They took no notice as the ship stopped nearby and we were treated to a grandstand view of their behaviour.
As the night progressed ‘Le Lyrial’ left the sheltered waters of Dallmann Bay and headed into the open ocean of the Drake Passage.
Tuesday, January 30: Crossing the Drake Passage
Captain Le Rouzic had forecast that wind and waves would rise, but not severely. The morning revealed ‘Le Lyrial’ moving more than usual but the stabilisers were doing a great job. From the windows an endless procession of Southern Ocean rollers could be seen moving in from the west, but they slipped under our keel almost imperceptibly. It looked as if anyone hoping to go home with tales of the ferocity of the Drake Passage would be disappointed! A stable ship made the return of rubber boots and waterproof pants that we had rented for the duration of the cruise so much easier.
With two days at sea ahead of us, it was back to lecture theatre. Photo coach Richard gave a presentation called “In the footsteps of Ansel Adams: The basics of digital workflow.” He 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. It turns out that many of the steps today’s digital photographers take are similar to Ansel Adams’ work. But they are much easier to accomplish with today’s software. The conclusion was that were Adams alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images!
Adam Walleyn followed with “Seabird conservation in fisheries”. This talk discussed the issues of seabird bycatch in the fisheries industry. The birds grab baited hooks and are dragged underwater and drowned. Albatross and petrel populations have plummeted in the Southern Ocean because of the huge numbers killed. However with mitigation measures now being implemented and enforced in most fisheries, these declines are being halted and some populations are beginning to recover. In support of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels (ACAP) an illustrated chart of our voyage was raffled.
The evening was given over to the limited formality of Captain Erwan Le Rouzic’s Farewell Cocktail Party. The degree of dressing for the occasion varied widely, according to taste. The captain 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. It also gave us the opportunity to add our thanks. 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 31: Beagle Channel and Ushuaia
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 2790 Euros. It is a good way of showing our appreciation of the hard work, cheerfully undertaken by the crew, many of whom we never see. Guests who purchased tickets stood the chance of winning a sea chart marked with our route, decorated with illustrations by one of the crew and signed by the senior officers.
An important part of the morning was the briefing for disembarkation to make sure that we, and our luggage, will leave the ship and board the plane to Buenos Aires with effortless efficiency. The last of the Enrichment Lectures was by Photo Coach David Salmanowitz who gave a talk on “Making good photos great” and showed how Adobe Lightroom software can transform an average photo into a piece of art. So we will be able to work on our hundreds of photos back home and create a personal record of our journey through the Southern Ocean and all its wonders.
As a recap of our journey, we watched a wonderful slide show compiled by naturalist JD Massyn. It featured photos taken by the Expedition Staff that recalled many of the highlights of the cruise: the landings on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, together with the shipboard experiences of whales, albatrosses and icy landscapes. Many people recognized themselves disguised behind red parkas, big hats and rubber boots. So much has happened in a short space of time that it took a large number of slides to do the experience justice!
By this time, ‘Le Lyrial’ had proceeded well up the Beagle Channel and would soon be coming alongside the jetty at Ushuaia. Eventually, at 6.45 we were moored back where we had started. We were soon cleared by customs and immigration and we could go ashore to wander into the little town.
So ended our cruise. We will leave tomorrow to go our separate ways – perhaps to meet again aboard on one of A&K's Arctic expeditions. It has been an incredible cruise and, although it is sad that it is over, we have photos, videos, journals and most importantly vivid memories of lands almost too magical and captivating to describe. Now that we have experienced them, we will never forget them.
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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