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Classic Antarctica: December 13-23, 2018
Thursday, December 13: Arrive Buenos Aires, Argentina
We converged on the small city of Ushuaia, all of us arriving from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the wildlife and landscapes of Antarctica. As our respective flights approached Ushuaia, the majestic clouds parted at times to provide us with striking views of the southern Andes. The glaciers, lakes and towering peaks had to be seen to be believed, and the impressive scenery seemed to go on forever.
When we arrived at “El Fin del Mundo” (as Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is locally known), we found a growing outpost with plenty of restaurants and shops catering to adventurous travelers. We could hardly imagine a more picturesque setting from which to embark on our journey to the White Continent.
With a brisk wind and a sky of mixed sun and clouds overhead, we arrived at the pier, which was lined with a handful of fishing boats and expedition ships. We made our way up the gangway, where we were welcomed by the staff and crew of our ship, 'Le Lyrial'. After settling into our staterooms and getting familiar with the ship a bit, we headed to the Grand Salon to partake in some welcome champagne and snacks. Following a lifeboat drill, we joined our Cruise Director Paul Carter, our Expedition Director Suzana Machado D'Oliveira, and our Expedition Leader Kara Weller in The Theater for an introduction to the ship and her staff. As each member of the Expedition Staff gave us a welcome and some background on themselves, it became clear that their passion for Antarctica and their desire to share it with us would make this a grand adventure indeed.
Our day drew to a close over dinner and some time on the back deck watching Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Darkness fell over magnificent mountains lining the Beagle Channel on both sides, while small groups of South American terns and blue-eyed shags fished in the productive waters.
Friday, December 14: Ushuaia
We awoke to the ocean in all directions, with the land mass of South America now well behind us to the north. The next land we would encounter would be the islands off of the Antarctica continent, the green of the southern beech forests replaced by the white of ice and snow. The wind and swell have been coming from behind us, so the ride made for very pleasant sleeping conditions last night.
We had the opportunity to exchange our parkas for better-fitting ones before joining Photo Enrichment Coach Richard Harker in The Theater for his talk: “Photographing Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare". A talk for beginners and professional photographers alike, Richard covered everything from protecting our camera equipment from unpredictable weather to understanding how to best deal with the challenging lighting situations that are the norm in Antarctica.
After some time out on the back deck in the company of seabirds swirling past the ship, we joined Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his lecture “Seabirds: Ambassadors of the Southern Ocean”. Rich highlighted some of the species we would see out in the open ocean and told stories of their amazing long-distance travel abilities, including the fact that some species regularly circumnavigate the entire globe between nesting seasons!
Following lunch, we took in a good book in the Observation Bar before joining Historian Rachel Morgan for her presentation, "Footprints on the ice: A historical and political overview". From the early draw of sealing and whaling to the White Continent to the 1959 signing of the Antarctic Treaty, Rachel took us through Antarctica's fascinating human history.
Afterward, we joined the Expedition Team out on deck to admire the spectacular seabirds careening in the strong winds. Black-browed albatrosses made close passes alongside the ship, and an unusually large number of blue petrels darted past low on the water, their bright white tail tip revealing their identity.
After a good dose of fresh air out on the deck, we gathered back in The Theater with Geologist Jason Hicks for his talk, "Gondwana: Breaking plates to make a continent". Jason focused in on how tectonic processes, small changes taking place over a very long period of time, caused the break up of the former supercontinent of Gondwanaland and resulted in the formation of the Antarctica continent in its current location at the bottom of the world.
We then all donned our Sunday best and met Captain Rémi Genevaz and many other members of the ship’s staff in The Theater for the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, carefully swaying back and forth with the ship as we mingled over champagne. The Captain told us a bit about himself, and then introduced several core members of his staff. It became clear that, just like those of us traveling as passengers, the crew has quite the international flare. We all had a very enjoyable evening that was rounded off by a superb gala dinner.
Saturday, December 15: Cruising the Drake Passage
We pulled back the curtains this morning to a steel-grey sky, and a walk outside revealed cold, crisp air and a group of cape petrels circling the ship. These majestic birds spent most of the day with us, playing in the air currents and eddies around our advancing ship.
After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Marine Biologist Sabina Mense in the theater for her presentation, "An introduction to Marine Mammals: Cetaceans and pinnipeds." From the amazing migration of humpback whales to these high latitude waters for their summer feeding frenzy to the impressive leopard seals that ambush penguins returning to the sea just off their breeding colonies, Sabina covered the full cast of mammalian characters that inhabit the ocean at the bottom of the planet.
During Captain Rémi Genevaz's Open Bridge, we chatted with the officers and learned a bit about some of the equipment they use for navigation. After a good dose of fresh air out on the deck, we gathered back in the theater with Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira and Expedition Leader Kara Weller for a mandatory briefing about conduct while ashore in Antarctica. We also went over the ins and outs of the ship’s zodiacs, which are the transport of choice in this part of the world.
After lunch, we cleaned our boots and the clothes we are going to take ashore to meet the biosecurity guidelines for Antarctica. We then met Photo Coach Rick Sammon for his presentation, "Capturing the wonders of Antarctica: From the blue ice to the cute penguins." Rick went through some of the common photography situations we might find ourselves in while in Antarctica and offered ideas on how to get the best results.
We spent some time out on the deck watching the southern fulmars darting past the ship, and watched the blows of several sei whales puffing in the distance. As we passed through Nelson Strait on our way past the South Shetland Islands, several humpback whales were spotted not far from the ship.
We then met Ornithologist Rich Pagen for his talk, "Black and white and guano all over: Penguins of the Antarctic." Rich highlighted some of the species we may encounter on this trip including the Adélies, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach the sites of their breeding colonies. It was a very entertaining presentation, and we left eager for our arrival tomorrow at our first Antarctic penguin colony.
Before recap, we bundled up to watch as the Captain took the ship along a huge tabular iceberg called A57a, which measured 11 nautical miles in length and 5 nautical miles across.
Sunday, December 16: Cruising the Drake Passage
During the night, 'Le Lyrial' crossed the Bransfield Strait en route to the entrance to Antarctic Sound, named for the ship used during Otto Nordenskjøld’s fateful 1901-4 Swedish Antarctic Expedition. Out of excitement, many of us slept with our curtains pulled open during the night, in case a spectacular high latitude sunrise or large tabular icebergs might catch our eye when we stirred during the night.
We awoke to the sound of the anchor going down just off of Brown Bluff, on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. This site is named for the spectacular cliffs that back the landing beach, a nesting site for the dozens of swirling cape petrels and snow petrels that were constantly present overhead. We landed on the cobble beach, which is home to a large colony of Adélie penguins, and scattered clusters of gentoo penguins. Here we had the opportunity to see an impressive rock formation capped by volcanic ash and cinders, as well as a beach decorated with wind-sculpted rocks known as ventifacts.
But the highlight of the landing was spending time with the penguins. The longer we sat, the more we saw. Adults methodically picked up stone after stone, going back and forth to their nest sites, adding the rocks to the nests’ foundation. Chicks were nestled together in the nests, tucked in beneath their parent, which was ever vigilant for the threat from hungry skuas flying by overhead.
Over lunch, the Captain repositioned the ship in search of a site with enough wind protection to send us off on a zodiac cruise. But the wind was impossible to escape, and so we ship cruised along the spectacular snow-capped mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula, scanning for whales and taking in the surreal scenery. We tore ourselves away from the outer decks to listen to a wonderful lecture by Geologist Jason Hicks entitled, "Antarctic ice: From ice cap to growler". So many of the ice types Jason mentioned were present outside, and we headed out after the lecture for a look. In particular, we couldn't click our cameras quickly enough to photograph a large and impressive iceberg that Naturalist Pete Clement described as looking like Turkish Delight.
Back in the theater, Historian Rachel Morgan told some stories from the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, before we gathered for the evening's recap and briefing. Ornithologist Rich Pagen spoke about the fascinating behaviors of the Adélie penguins we saw today, and Assistant Expedition Leader J.J Apestegui put the massive iceberg we saw yesterday into a human scale perspective. It was a wonderful first day in the Antarctic.
Monday, December 17: Antarctica The White Continent
The wind had ceased and the sun peaked through the clouds, brilliantly illuminating the jagged mountain peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula. 'Le Lyrial' anchored off of Mikkelsen Harbour, and we boarded the zodiacs for the short ride over to the landing. The early season snow still covered most of the island, and any rock outcroppings were happily occupied by gentoo penguins.
As we climbed up from the landing beach, we couldn't help but notice the dozen or so Weddell seals resting in the snow just up from the shoreline. Further along, we came to the top of the hill where the far side of the island came into view. Spectacular glaciers and mountain peaks loomed in the distance, while Gentoo penguins went about their business all around us. Sleeping seemed to be the activity of the day, which made sense since most nests still had eggs and the attending parent's only task was to sit there keeping the eggs warm.
Gentoo penguins are the third largest of the penguins and tend to spread out at their nesting colonies much more so than the Adelies we saw yesterday, which like to cram into a small (and guano-covered) area. Mikkelsen Harbour was the perfect place to spend some time just sitting and taking in the penguins and the gorgeous scenery.
Back on the ship, we had hardly finished getting changed when a group of orcas was spotted up ahead. We rushed back outside, cameras in hand, and watched the show while Captain Rémi Genevaz expertly maneuvered the ship to provide us with great looks. First 200 meters away, and then before we knew it, the three whales were literally just below the railing.
After lunch, we boarded zodiacs for a tour of Cierva Cove, a particularly scenic spot choked with ice and flanked by impressive mountain peaks. We headed out to explore the area, stopping at countless icebergs and groups of penguins porpoising past us. Humpback whales were in the area, some of them participating in cooperative bubble net feeding. These magnificent animals migrate to the Antarctic for the short but productive summer, where great swarms of krill fill the sea.
Back on board, we gathered for recap and a lively dinner with views out across the surreal landscape.
Tuesday, December 18: Antarctica The White Continent
During the night, cold wind out of the southwest blew all the ice out of the bay on the north side of Booth Island. As we looked out at the incredible scenery, the expedition team was busy ashore making preparations for our morning landing at Port Charcot. Named by Jean-Baptiste Charcot for his father, a famous neurologist whose work influenced Freud, Port Charcot is the site where Jean-Baptiste and his crew wintered on board the Français, a three-masted schooner, in the winter of 1903-4.
A steep climb greeted us as we stepped ashore from the zodiacs. Gentoo penguins were walking about everywhere, all over the snowfield, while skuas feasted on stolen penguin eggs they carried up to rocky outcroppings surrounded by the deep early season snow. Many of us headed off on a trail that meandered past small clusters of nesting Gentoo penguins to a ridge that led to a cairn commemorating Charcot's French Antarctic Expedition. The view from the top was magical.
Others wandered over to the penguin colony, which was dominated by Gentoo penguins, but which also hosted a few nesting chinstraps and Adelies. Snowy sheathbills roamed the small spaces between nests, picking through any guano for possible tasty morsels. The penguins were sitting tight on their nests with their two eggs tucked in toasty and warm beneath them. A number of non-breeders were busy practicing the fine art of stealing stones from established nests to use in nests of their own construction.
Back on the ship, we kept our warm clothes on for a barbeque lunch served out on deck, where the conditions were ideal for being outside. After lunch, the ship repositioned to have a look down the Lemaire Channel and to investigate if ice conditions would allow the captain to take the ship all the way through. This legendary channel, often aptly referred to as “Kodak Alley” for its spectacular scenery is 7-miles-long and one-mile-wide. It separates Booth Island from the Antarctic continent with dramatic, towering snow-covered mountains lining the route on both sides.
It was a sight to behold, and soon it became clear that the southerly winds had squarely clogged the pass with ice. So we moved into Hidden Bay for an opportunity to meander in and out of the maze of ice in the zodiacs. Huge glaciers poured down to the sea all around us, and a few Crabeater seals loafed comfortably on ice floes. The strong winds made the hot chocolate waiting for us back on the ship taste that much better.
Wednesday, December 19: Antarctica The White Continent
We awoke to the Gerlache Strait at its finest, with towering mountains off the port side of the ship, all of them covered in glaciers that looked like frosting on a cake. The cool morning air greatly helped the wake-up process, and soon we found ourselves speeding ashore in a zodiac bound for Cuverville Island.
The Gentoos at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 6,000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. We watched their behavior closely, noticing how the Gentoos constantly add stones to their rock pile nests while attempting to steal stones from the nests of others. While this hilarious show was going on, skuas patrolled overhead in case the skirmishes over stones presented an opportunity for them to snatch an egg or two.
Naturalist Russ Manning led a hike up to a high vantage point to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was quite strenuous walking up the steep snow-covered slope, but the stiff wind kept us reasonably cool. On the way back down, many of us took a slide down the snow slope rather than walk. It was so much fun that some of us walked all the way back up just to do it again.
Over lunch, the ship passed through the very scenic Errera Channel en route to our planned afternoon stop in Paradise Bay. Upon arrival, the staff went out scouting and found the conditions unsuitable for a landing and zodiac cruise. So instead, we headed over to Gonzales Videla Station, a Chilean base situated on a very historic site on the Antarctica Peninsula. It was here in 1921-22 where two young British scientists, T.W. Bagshawe and M.C. Lester, stayed underneath a waterboat overwinter and conducted some of the first penguin studies in Antarctica.
We went ashore on a rickety but sheltered landing dock, where we encountered a rare leucistic gentoo penguin. This bird, lacking much of the standard dark coloration, was incubating eggs on a nest and seemed to be accepted by all the other gentoo penguins as 'normal', despite her very different appearance. We walked past gentoo penguins, so close on all sides, to the main building, where we shared coffee, tea, and cookies with the station personnel. We also visited a small museum, whose walls were covered with fascinating old photographs depicting the station's history.
Back on board 'Le Lyrial', we all gathered for a recap, followed by dinner with stunning mountain scenery out every window. After a rowdy round of trivia in the Grand Salon, we had a nightcap in the Observation Bar as the ship made its way north towards the South Shetland Islands.
Thursday, December 20: Halfmoon Island and Deception Island
During the early morning hours, 'Le Lyrial’ entered beautiful Moon Bay, with the spectacular ice-covered mountains of Livingston and Greenwich Islands wrapping nearly completely around the bay. The stunning glaciers and ice fields here were very reminiscent of the ones we passed late last night along the Antarctic Peninsula. If only we humans could function with just 20 minutes sleep a night, at least while we are in Antarctica!
Captain Rémi Genevaz dropped anchor off of Half Moon Island, and the zodiacs landed in calm conditions on a cobble beach with several chinstrap penguins in attendance to greet us. We made our way up the hill to the chinstrap penguin colony, and then headed off to the left to spend time observing a rather busy penguin highway.
At the colony itself, the chinstraps were perched upon their well-cared-for stone nests, keeping an eye on the skuas circling overhead, which were looking for any opportunity to drop down and steal the contents of the penguin nests. Every nest had an adult carefully tending to its eggs or tiny grey chicks, while the other parent was out at sea feeding. One chick was so new to the world that half of an eggshell was still stuck to his backside!
Down at the far end of the island dozed some elephant seals and Weddell seals. And the whole scene at Half Moon Island was carefully watched by snowy sheathbills, which happily gobbled up any tasty morsels hiding in the penguins' guano.
We left the chinstraps to their own devices and headed back to the ship, where we kept our eyes glued to the amazing scenery outside. Over lunch, the weather outside morphed into fog and light snow. We lined the railings to watch the ship’s approach to Deception Island, and its entrance through Neptune’s Bellows into the bay in the center. Deception Island is so-named because, although it appears to be a normal island at first glance, it is actually the flooded caldera of a volcano.
Deception Island has an extensive history, beginning as its use as a safe harbor for sealers during the 1800’s up to the extensive geological research that goes on there today. We landed in Telefon Bay in driving snow, and hiked inland for a look at an impressive parasitic volcanic crater. The accumulating snow accented all the details of the island's mountain slopes.
As the ship exited back through Neptune's Bellows, we warmed up in the bar with a gorgeous (and very delicious!) latte macchiato, or perhaps a Paris 75 cocktail, a particularly appropriate choice on our wonderful French ship, with its equally wonderful crew.
Friday, December 21: At Sea, En Route to Ushuaia
We awoke this morning to the Southern Ocean at its best (or its worst, depending on your perspective). Strong winds and impressive swells made the longest day of the year (the solstice) actually feel like the longest day of the year! From the Observation Bar, we could watch the occasional huge wave crash over the ship's bow, and spray up onto the deck and windows in front of us.
After breakfast, we joined Marine Biologist Sabina Mense in The Theater for her presentation, "The Evolution of marine mammals". It was fascinating to learn that modern day whales' closest relative is actually the hippo, and that the sea cows and manatees actually evolved from an animal closely related to the elephant. Sabina took us through the various groups that have arisen from several separate instances of terrestrial mammals reinvading the marine environment.
After a coffee break and some time looking out the window at the torn-up sea surface, Ornithologist Rich Pagen gathered us back in The Theater for his talk, "Albatrosses off the hook: Seabird conservation and fisheries in the Southern Ocean". Rich discussed the issue of bycatch in fishing, specifically the accidental catch of albatrosses and petrels in the Southern Ocean longline fishery for Patagonian toothfish.
After lunch and a bit of a nap, Historian Rachel Morgan presented her talk, "21 years in the Antarctic". Rachel told us all about her personal experiences living and working in very remote situations, and how the Antarctic continent holds such a special place in her heart. We left recognizing that there is so much more to see and experience on the White Continent.
This was followed by a presentation by Geologist Jason Hicks entitled, "Climate change: Ancient record, modern reality." Jason took us through the research and models predicting temperature change and sea level rise globally, and explained some of the consequences of these changes. He also spoke about the various steps taken regarding energy production, and how these small steps can make a huge difference for our planet.
Before dinner, we gathered for a lively recap during which Sabina Mense introduced us to the marine invertebrates living beneath the ice, Dennis Mense told us an inside-outside poem about sleeping bags, and Rich Pagen spoke more about the leucistic gentoo penguin we encountered at Gonzales Videla Station the other day. We went off to bed in anticipation of awaking to much calmer seas.
Saturday, December 22: At Sea, En Route to Ushuaia
Early this morning, we happily started to notice that the lumpy seas we'd been experiencing were dissipating, as Cape Horn and the land mass of southern Tierra del Fuego finally started giving us some shelter from the strong winds and large swell. An occasional black-browed albatross made a close pass by the ship, investigating the “unusual large grey object” plying its way northward towards Ushuaia.
Photo Coach Richard Harker started off the day with his presentation, "In the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Processing like the masters". Focusing on the importance of following through with the images captured by the camera, Richard gave us many suggestions about the best way to subtly adjust our images now that we’ve taken them. We left feeling empowered to begin the process of going through the many photos we’ve taken on this trip.
Cruise Director Paul Carter then gave a disembarkation briefing, during which we learned about our travel details once we leave the ship in Ushuaia. Many of us then began the task of packing, or put it off a little longer and substituted in a nap or some time out on deck watching our passage through the Beagle Channel.
Over lunch, we admired the spectacular mountain scenery of Tierra del Fuego before joining the Expedition Team for an overview of our trip. We watched a wonderful retrospective slide show of our trip, made up of photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Naturalist Blackjack Escanilla. It featured photos of our various landings, and many people recognized themselves disguised behind red parkas and rubber boots. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in Antarctica seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.
As ‘Le Lyrial’ pulled up to the pier in Ushuaia, it was quite a shock to see civilization after being away in the wilderness for so long, and to smell the green vegetation again after being down in the ice.
The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection and celebration. We have reached the end of our exploration of Antarctica. This is a special place beyond description, extremely powerful and fragile at the same time. With all that we have experienced and learned, we can return home with a newfound knowledge of how special Antarctica is, and how important it is to protect it for future generations.
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