Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands: December 13-29, 2016
Check out daily updates from our recent Antarctica cruise.
Quite auspicious that we should begin this adventure yesterday on the 105th anniversary of Amundsen’s attaining the South Pole on December 14, 1911. It was at 3pm on that day that Amundsen and his team arrived on that flat, uninspiring piece of ice at 90 degrees South. Guests have flown in from all corners of the globe to this city at the end of the world. Despite its 47,000 residents, Ushuaia maintains her frontier-like feel, and hosts around 90% of the visitors to Antarctica through her airport and dockside. After a wonderful buffet lunch at the Hotel Arakur outside Ushuaia, our guests starting arriving alongside ‘Le Lyrial’ at 4pm. Perhaps appropriately the weather changed suddenly, from a balmy, sunny afternoon, a tempest developed with squalls of rain creating much chop and spray off the water surface. Guests rushed on board off the buses, the excitement and anticipation clear on their faces. The mandatory life-boat drill was carried out, many guests wondering if the huge life jackets were the ones they would have to wear for shore landings. Cruise Director, Jannie Cloete, introduced himself and the Captain, Remi Genevaz, before Expedition Leader, Suzana Machado D’Oliveira introduced herself and the Expedition Team to the guests. Suzana and the Captain work closely on achieving our itinerary, depending on local conditions like wind and ice. We were clearly reminded to remain flexible and patient at all times-Antarctica is a wondrous, unpredictable place. The evening meal was enjoyed whilst the ship eased down the Beagle Channel, surrounded by wonderful mountains, cloud formations and sunset. Bunkering of fuel was performed in the middle of the night at Port William in Chile-as the Captain said in his introduction, “we don’t want to run out of fuel!”
Today ‘Le Lyrial’ is making fine progress towards Port Stanley in the Falklands, surrounded by sea birds on a calm sea. Guests were given the opportunity of exchanging their Parkas and muck boots. Ornithologist Patricia Silva kicked off the lecture program with “Sea birds of the Southern Ocean”. Patri has an enthusiastic, infectious lecture technique-her passion for these doyens of the air ever evident. Threats to sea birds, along with their incredible migrations and pointers to identification were shared. ‘Le Lyrial’ provides a Whispa earpiece for the many Chinese guests on board, that the lecture be simultaneously interpreted into Mandarin for their added enjoyment.
Photo Coach Richard Harker followed Patri with his talk “Photographing Antarctica-What to expect and how to prepare”. Richard has a very dry, understated manner of speaking and his insights for guests new to Antarctica are invaluable. Many guests find their cameras behaving strangely, largely on account of moisture, and all the camera requires is a good drying-out.
No doubt guests dream of taking images like Richard’s, unaware of just how challenging that may prove to be. Patience, observation of subject’s behavior, and being prepared were emphasized strongly.
In balmy conditions, Le Celeste restaurant on Deck 6 was packed for lunch, including guests on the pool deck, enjoying the calm conditions and sea birds about the vessel.
Geologist Henry Pollard presented his talk on “Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift:How Antarctica came to the South Pole” in the afternoon. For many, this is a complex presentation, which Henry makes appear simple. There were many questions surrounding Magnetic Poles, resources in Antarctica, Mount Erebus as a hotspot within Antarctica and the super continent Pangea 180 million years ago. Sadly, a bit like World War graveyards, geology figures and time frames are mind-numbing.
Outside the naturalists and photo coach are assisting guests with bird identification, and how to photograph these magnificent creatures on the wing. The young adults on board (7-17) are enjoying an enrichment program presented by Helen Ahern and Dean Hattingh, which will add much value to their overall Antarctic experience.
Before Captain’s cocktail party and Gala Dinner, the team presented a medley of the Falklands, highlighting what the guests are likely to see and providing some insight into this infrequently visited archipelago. Captain’s cocktail party was thoroughly enjoyed by all who had dressed for the occasion, before a sumptuous meal in Le Celeste restaurant. The anticipation of arriving early tomorrow in the Falklands is palpable.
Quite strange to contemplate that on this day in 1838 a very significant battle took place in South Africa between the Zulus and the Boers, as we approach Port Stanley in the Falklands. It was a relaxed start for many guests, who may have eaten (drunk) more than usual last evening at the wonderful Captain’s Dinner. The tussock grass and low hills of the Falklands beckon seductively as we ease through the outer harbor, and inner harbor to the floating docks left here after the conflict in 1982. For all the passengers, it is their first visit to the Falklands and excitement levels were high as they prepare for various excursions. Some are going off in search of Rockhopper Penguins, others into town. Farm and battlefield tours are also on offer-sheep farming has long been a mainstay of this remote community. Nowadays, fisheries and tourism fill the two top revenue spots.
I was fortunate enough to go on the battlefield tour, guided by a local market gardener who lost his left eye to a misguided Argentine bomb during the war. A garden shed stood between him and the explosion sparing his life! This is unusually difficult terrain for any infantry advance, particularly mid-winter. With the Argentine forces seizing control of Port Stanley early in April 1982, a Vulcan bomber rendered the airstrip unusable to Argentine aircraft. After serious losses by both Navies the British established a beach head at San Carlos on 21 May, surrounded by high ground making air attacks almost impossible. This however demanded a 60-mile march eastwards across the island to engage the Argentines at Port Stanley. With no cover to speak of, all movement was effected after dark, exacerbated by winter weather and cold. Legendary hand-to-hand conflicts followed, between veteran soldiers on both sides. The British lost most of their helicopters when a civilian container ship was sunk, requiring assistance from local farmers using tractors and 4×4’s to move equipment and ammunition forward. Desperate fighting ensued in mid-June as the high ground around Port Stanley was taken inch by inch. On 14 June 1982, the Argentines eventually surrender to the British-a very sobering tale of modern warfare. On the positive side, the sovereignty hiatus ended, and economically and socially the Falklands have advanced significantly since 1982.
The cool, windy overcast conditions very quickly changed to sunny skies and warm temperatures-a beautiful day in the Falklands. Guests have ample opportunity to walk around Stanley. The new museum is a beautiful addition to this town, and the incredible display of 35 decorated Christmas trees in the Cathedral beggars belief. An unusual fund-raising initiative. It is lovely to see many of the staff off ‘Le Lyrial’ out and about, enjoying the freedom and sunshine. Tours to the Rockhopper Penguins were hugely enjoyed, as were the nature hikes around the bay.
The youngsters who partook in the rock pooling had 5 scientists between 10 of them, collected samples, prepared slides and observed them through microscopes. Some of the youngsters joined the farm tour, where 2700 sheep were being shorn. The outdoor lifestyle, horses, motorcycles and ATV’s really appealed. A yearling Leopard Seal was found dead on the beach, whose teeth thoroughly impressed the observers.
Watching the Captain maneuver ‘Le Lyrial’ away from the quayside, and out via the narrow gap with a very strong wind across the bow was very impressive. His 42 years at sea clearly evident, 23 as captain. At Recaps/Precaps this evening various aspects of life in the Falklands were discussed including the massive increase in squid fishing, decline in wool trade, decline in oil prices and the delights of life generally down here. Flights out, however, are few and far between, either via England or Santiago, and very expensive. The evening proved balmy enough that many guests chose to sit outside on Deck 6, alongside the swimming pool. Yes, there is a pool on board, not that anyone has used it since we left Ushuaia. Ahead of us lie two sea days en route to the Southern Ocean gem of South Georgia.
‘Le Lyrial’ has a following sea today, making for very comfortable sailing despite a fair swell. Large numbers of sea birds about the ship-stars of the show being the Wandering Albatrosses with their 3 meter wingspan. Guests delight in standing on Deck 6, the birds being identified by the naturalists and expert photographic advice being offered by Richard Harker. Much cooler today, and most folks are wearing their bright red A&K parkas. Some interesting comments were shared about not seeing land in any direction, with thousands of meters of water beneath us. Larry pointing out that even if all the landmasses were pushed into the Pacific Ocean, it would still be 2 miles deep! Perhaps Earth should be called Water?
Marine Biologist, Larry Hobbs presented the first lecture of the day “Elephants, Lions and Leopards-the Seals of the Antarctic”. With more than 50 years experience, Larry’s knowledge and passion is extraordinary. He speaks about these creatures with a deep empathy and understanding. The Fur Seals with their delayed implantation, and annual increase at nearly 16% despite 1.2 million animals being slaughtered on South Georgia alone. The Antarctic Sea Lions have a steadily declining population, probably due to the massive increase in squid fishing-their primary food source. The enormous Elephant Seals who are capable of diving a mile deep (1,6km), and swimming extraordinary distances on their foraging journeys. The beach master breeding males can weigh 4500kg, yet only hold a beach/harem for a season. Their pups are born weighing 90lbs, and grow to 250-300lbs in 23 days-the nursing female producing milk with 60% fat content, and losing 20lbs/day in body mass. As usual, it is the Leopard Seals with their large, serpentine heads and long, slender bodies who elicit most fascination. Some have been recorded eating 10 Penguins in an hour, and having 175lbs of penguin in their stomachs at any one time. As in the bush, it is the Sea Leopard, and the Killer Whale (Orca) that guests most want to see.
Geologist Henry Pollard presented fascinating, sobering lecture titled “Earth’s Ice-A Shrinking Inventory”. Citing many examples of receding ice fields all over the globe, especially Greenland and Western Antarctica, Henry made human impact very clear. There is no denying global warming and the hothouse gas effect, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary. The hard, statistical evidence cannot be denied, nor can the satellite images of receding ice fields. Henry has an unusual way of presenting unpleasant information without alienating his audience-a special skill. Various options to alleviate the present trend were outlined, and we ALL need to take responsibility.
In the afternoon I spoke about Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who took the prize. An almost unbelievable Polar career, first through the North-West Passage, first to both Poles, one of the first through the North-East Passage before embracing the age of flight. I concentrated on his background and astounding preparation to conquer the South Pole, before his tragic death aged 56 searching for his arch rival, Italian Nobile, in 1928. Perhaps the unhappiest explorer of all, ironically.
Spent part of the afternoon with a special couple from Saskatchewan in Canada, talking about the ship/yacht industry and the folk who work in it. Of course we got onto the Canadian cold and collisions with Moose. Harold once hit and killed a Moose with his truck, and was so incensed that he ran over and kicked the Moose in the snout, almost breaking his foot. Three young singers alternate is entertaining guests in the lounges. They are brilliant, and I fear it is a thankless job singing whilst guests are chatting, enjoying a drink and generally disengaged. ‘Le Lyrial’ is exceptionally comfortable and fast-guests unfamiliar with vessels of this size have no idea what a magnificent ship this really is.
Richard Harker then spoke on Photographing Antarctica-Mastering your Camera. It is very interesting watching the audience following matters surrounding aperture, shutter speed, white balance and depth of field. For some it may as well be Hieroglyphics, but Richard has a unique manner of imparting his knowledge and skill. There is no doubt that guests who attend his lectures, and pay attention, will depart ‘Le Lyrial’ as better photographers. The number of guests using their phones as a primary camera is intriguing. At Recaps Richard showed the audience a number of features to use when photographing with their phones, much to our utter astonishment.
It has been another fine day at sea aboard ‘Le Lyrial’, steaming eastwards towards South Georgia.
Another full day at sea, with plenty on offer to keep everyone entertained. Patri began with her magnificent Penguin lecture “Birds in Tuxedos”. Of course, everybody is dying to see Penguins, or rather more of them. We were lucky enough to see Magellanic and Rock Hopper Penguins in the Falklands. In her beautifully illustrated presentation, Patri explained the habits and breeding cycles of the species we are going to see. Her impersonations of their movements and sounds are absolutely inimitable. New Zealand boast the largest number of Penguin species globally-7 in all. Falklands follows with 5 species. A consummate professional, Patri’s lectures are always fantastic. The finale’ included video of Penguins tripping one another, which they may do to us should we venture too close to them-it brought the house down.
At 11am, Suzana, our experienced Expedition Leader presented the IAATO briefing, along with the Zodiac protocol. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators wishes to preserve the region for future generations, so our conduct is crucial. All aspects are common sense, but this may vary from individual to individual-some may like to leave their name engraved in Antarctica, or take whale bones home for all to see? The Zodiac protocol is vital for everyone’s safety and enjoyment. To avoid transfer of disease or germs from one site to another, we will wash boots and other goods in contact with the ground in Virkon, before and after every landing. One guest asked how many walking poles to take on shore, to which Suzana responded that one was the minimum, and two the maximum! Ideally these poles should be handed to the driver for the transfers, otherwise they pose a danger to other passengers, along with tripods.
I enjoyed lunch with an extended family from Wyoming, who wanted to ask more about Amundsen, the Jeanette, Cook and Peary, Mawson, etc. It was a fascinating conversation, which included their visit to the Eastern Front of World War 2, being guided by a Russian guide. Unofficial records would indicate that 27 million Russians died during the war, roughly 9 million amongst them soldiers. This is one aspect of these voyages which is just magical-the folks one meets and the conversations generated. Apparently research is being conducted regarding gunshot wounds, to drain the blood of the victim whilst cryogenically freezing them. The blood being replaced by saline solution, the wounds treated, the blood returned and the victim slowly warmed up! Now that is a conversation I have NEVER previously had. During lunch it was announced that Caspar and Walter Bayliss had spotted the first iceberg! What excitement. Caspar has a beautiful pair of Zeiss binoculars and young eyes. They have won a large bottle of expensive champagne, which will be enjoyed at Christmas.
Just after lunch we passed Shag Rocks, famous for its Blue-eyed Shags (what an unlikely name). A Cormorant with bright blue eyes. These rocks pointing out of the ocean are festooned with thousands of nests, and white from the guano. Some Humpback Whales were also seen in the nutrient-rich waters. The excitement amongst the guests is palpable now, the air cold, and the realization that Antarctica beckons-we have seen our first iceberg. Boots, wet pants, back packs and jackets were then cleaned and vacuumed to ensure that no seeds or bugs are taken onto South Georgia. Thankfully the frustrations of gloves being consumed by vacuum cleaners was not experienced today. With the Reindeer gone, and the rat eradication program on South Georgia almost complete, the authorities are more diligent than ever regarding the sanctity of their wildlife paradise, and rightly so.
Marine biologist, Larry Hobbs, gave an outstanding lecture on the History of Whaling. It was the Basques who first began trading in whale products, thus commercializing the practice. Prior to this point, whaling was seen as a highly dangerous, almost religious experience with much respect being shown to these marine giants. When Norwegian Sven Foyn invented the exploding harpoon gun, mounted on the front of fast hunting vessels, the days of commercial whaling were numbered. This was accelerated by the advent of factory ships, which took commercial whaling to sea, almost entirely unregulated. Official figures indicate more than 3 million whales taken just in the 20th Century-a conservative figure excluding those poor creatures which were never recovered. Of course, commercial extinction of many whale species quickly followed. Since 1986 most species have been on the increase, but competition for food especially krill, fish netting and by catch, along with marine noise and pollution pose constant threats to whale populations.
Recaps involved the geology of South Georgia, the Antarctic Convergence zone, and preparation for landing on South Georgia early in the morning. Excitement levels are at fever pitch.
Long southern summer days afford one many hours of light down here, and many guests were up very early enjoying their first views of South Georgia. Undoubtedly the most spectacular and mountainous of the sub-Antarctic islands, glaciers cover 60% of the island and peaks tower 2900 meters above sea level. Lying at 54 degrees south, crescent-shaped South Georgia is 170km long and up to 40km wide. Captain Cook made a landing in 1775, and claimed British sovereignty. For the expedition team, breakfast was at 5:45am and on shore by 6:45am. Salisbury Plain proved to be a perfect first landing site-gentle swell, good weather (some light rain to start with) and South Georgia in all her glory. The American ornithologist, Robert Cushman Murphy did much research here in 1912/13, and Grace Glacier is named after his wife. As far as the eye can see were Antarctic Fur Seals and King Penguins in their thousands. As Suzana had warned, many would get on shore and stand with their jaws agape-they did. It took some time to establish a safe landing beach; male Fur Seals were just not budging. The Zodiacs offloaded guests from the stern, from 7am onwards, and the second group from 9.15. Nothing can prepare one for the immensity and wonder of Salisbury Plain. The tiny seal pups born in the past fortnight all over the beach, their mothers calling out to them, the males wrestling and jostling constantly, the Skuas and Giant Petrels overhead. With the backdrop of the Allardyce Mountains, fresh snow and clear air, it really is a most spectacular place. The brown, fluffy “Oakam Boys”-last year’s King Penguin chicks looking comical, the adults looking ready for the ramps in Milan. Two yearling Elephant Seals moved through the black ooze below the penguin breeding colony, the smell almost unbelievable. Somehow these innocent yearlings always look incredulous, as if they are a Dollar short, and a Day late with their huge, brown eyes.
The ship was buzzing with excitement and adrenaline when we got back on board, most guests still processing the morning clearly. Yesterday afternoon, a documentary was screened about Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition. It was magnificent, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Somehow the calm, unmoved Freeman from Shawshank Redemption was carried along, as so many are, by this epic tale of human struggle and endeavor. Using Hurley’s haunting images and modern footage a thoroughly accurate rendition of Shackleton’s Imperial adventure was portrayed, and enjoyed by many guests. Shackleton died on 5 January 1922, aged 47, and is buried at Grytviken on South Georgia.
Today, The Quest for Frank Wild was screened, based on the book by Angie Butler. Wild was Shackleton’s second-in-command, and clearly the two held huge regard for one another. Wild’s life ended in abject poverty in Klerksdorp, South Africa in 1939, when he was 66 years of age. Butler’s instinct and search for Wild’s ashes led her to a crematorium in Braamfontein, South Africa. With members of his family present, Wild’s ashes were interred alongside his great friend and hero, Shackleton, in 2011. The gravestone simply reads Here lies Shackleton’s Right hand Man. All being well, we shall visit both graves tomorrow afternoon.
Plans for the afternoon involved Zodiac cruising in Elsehul-Else’s Harbour named by Norwegian whalers a century ago. This small cove is host to colonies of penguins, albatrosses and other sea birds, who use the cliffs for nesting and shelter. Unfortunately the swell and wind upon arrival proved too severe to safely host a Zodiac operation, so we changed plans and moved off to Right Whale Bay. The breathtaking scenery and environment of Elsehul was not lost on the guests from the ship, however. This led to an early Recaps/Precaps session where Suzana outlined plans for St Andrews Bay and Grytviken tomorrow. I teased many guests on how good it was to see them at Recaps, not having seen them at any previous sessions. Patri gave much detail on the complex life cycle of King Penguins, before Rob Caskie spoke about Shackleton’s grave, the whisky found below the Cape Royds hut in 2007, and Wild’s ashes return to South Georgia.
At 5:30 the first group of guests went Zodiac cruising in Right Whale Bay-a gorgeous inlet on South Georgia’s north shores. From Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses and Gentoo Penguins (our first), Giant Petrels and Skuas, the profusion of birdlife and wildlife overwhelmed the senses. Fur Seals lay on the beaches in their thousands, interspersed with a few Elephant Seals. Deep valleys run down into the Bay, with numerous waterfalls adding to the visual feast. It was after 8pm by the time the last guests arrived back on board, every expectation exceeded by their first day on South Georgia. St Andrews and Grytviken beckon tomorrow-can it get any better?
The weather yesterday and today has been simply sublime. We were up early, for the expedition team to be on the shore of St Andrews Bay by 6:30am – guests to follow at 7:00am. Mount Skittle overlooks the beach from the north and Heaney and Cook Glaciers between the mountains creates an awesome vista. Unfortunately snow melt made crossing the river which separates the landing site from the largest known breeding colony of King Penguins impossible. Nothing, however, was going to dim our enjoyment of this glorious place. Weaner Elephant Seal pups were all over the beach, their huge brown eyes perusing us gently. Many came up to sniff our trousers and given the opportunity would happily lie down beside us. The Fur Seals were far less belligerent than those at Salisbury Plain. There were hundreds of molting penguins lining the river course, and in beautiful weather our guests had ample time to wander, wonder and appreciate this unique experience. The din coming from the breeding colony left one in little doubt that hundreds of thousands of penguins were going about the earnest business of raising chicks. Zodiac tours were offered en route back to the ship via the face of the breeding colony. Many guests were fortunate enough to see Leopard Seals, and almost all watched Giant Petrels feasting on an Elephant Seal carcass in the water. If anyone wondered why they had come to South Georgia, this morning confirmed their decision unequivocally. It was the most wonderful sensory overload – this region has a long history of doing just that.
Lunch was taken in misty conditions, sailing down to Grytviken in Cumberland Bay. King Edward Cove is the finest harbor in South Georgia, and it was here that Norwegian Carl Larsen established the first whaling station in Antarctic waters in 1904. Interesting to note that he was backed by Argentine funders and the Argentine colors are still to be seen on many of the old vessels. Those early halcyon years saw massive profits being made, more whaling stations established and the whale populations decimated. Some 172,000 whales were caught and processed in 60 years by South Georgia’s whaling stations alone. As we entered King Edward Cove, the mist cleared and we were spoiled with stunning views in every direction.
Guests were disembarked to join Rob Caskie at the grave of Earnest Shackleton, for a traditional toast to “The Boss”. Appropriately Shackleton and Wild were toasted with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition left Grytviken on December 5, 1914, at the height of the whaling days. Whalers warned that pack ice in the Southern Ocean was the worst in living memory. As Churchill had recommended, Shackleton decided to proceed! What followed is one of the greatest survival stories of our age. The ship initially beset in the ice, just 43 miles from land, would eventually be crushed, leaving 28 men and 57 dogs floating on the sea ice for 6 dreadful months. Facing the most awful deprivations and suffering, the men would row for 108 hours without rest to reach Elephant Island. Shackleton and 5 men sailed the 22 foot James Caird lifeboat back across 750 miles of Southern Ocean to seek help at South Georgia. The 22 men left on Elephant Island would eventually be rescued on August 30, 1916, 4 months and one week after Shackleton left them in April. Only 8 years later Shackleton would be back on South Georgia, on board the Quest setting out to map Antarctic islands. On January 5, 1922, at age 47, he died while at anchor at Grytviken. His widow, Emily Dornan, remarked “that Antarctica always was his mistress, bury him there.” Hence this famous Polar explorer’s grave in Grytviken cemetery, to be joined appropriately by the ashes of his dear friend and second-in-command, Frank Wild in 2011.
After the toast, many guests set off on a hike up to Gull Lake, offering incredible views over the Allardyce Mountain range. We then had ample time to look around the old whaling station, take guided tours of the same, marvel at the replica of the James Caird and many displays at the wonderful museum. The Lutheran Church built by Larsen in 1913, with a permanent priest, unfortunately was not well attended by the tough whalers. Many guests found the whaling station tour haunting, as so many do. Unfortunately it is an integral part of this region’s history.
Back on board, Pat Lurcock, Governor of South Georgia, spoke to us about the role of his government, before the scientists offered some insights into their research, the fisheries and life on South Georgia. It appears that there is now careful monitoring of the Patagonian Tooth fishing and almost no bird losses to long-liners. Suzana outlined plans for Gold Harbour in the morning, then ship cruising in Drygalski Fjord before setting off for the Antarctic Peninsula. After dinner the dancers on board gave a lovely, short show of dance and movement, taking the opportunity while the ship is stable in King Edward Cove. For every guest, this is one of those days which I am certain will be seared into their memories forever – it could NOT have been more perfect.
In our case, the weather could not have been any better for our 3 days in South Georgia. Forecasts are that the weather and seas are going to be challenging en route to the Peninsula. For those guests who believe any talk about the weather in these parts is exaggerated, the moment of truth is coming. Early this morning, we anchored off Gold Harbour-regarded by many as one of South Georgia’s most beautiful visitor sites. A natural amphitheater of hanging glaciers and cliffs rising straight out of the ocean, creating an extraordinary backdrop to abundant wildlife and birds. The name Goldhaven is derived from the iron pyrites or “fool’s gold” found in local rocks by the German Antarctic Expedition under Filchner in 1911.
Guests were taken ashore, and almost unanimously confirmed this to be the most beautiful spot they had visited in South Georgia. A large King Penguin colony, small Gentoo Penguin colony, Fur Seals, Petrels, Albatrosses and Elephant Seals of varying ages made for a heady mix. Some were lucky enough to see the rare South Georgia Pipit-usually referred to as a little brown job. In glorious weather, and almost no wind, guests were not faced with aggressive, breeding Fur Seals and could wander at leisure soaking in this incredible vista. It was the Elephant Seals who stole the show today. Sub-adult males wrestling and vocalizing, testosterone clearly coursing through their veins. Yearling, weaner pups appeared to be awaiting our arrival. They immediately approached guests in numbers, sniffing at trouser legs and wanting to make contact in whatever way possible. One insisted on climbing up my leg, at times wrapping his flippers around my leg and gentling chewing on my hand, much as a young Labrador would. Impossible to resist, particularly when they approach us. Guests enjoyed photographing penguins and seals exiting the ocean, the former often being bowled over a number of times by the waves, before gaining their balance, and footing. It was difficult ushering guests back to the Zodiacs-nobody wanted to leave.
‘Le Lyrial’ then steamed southwards, intending to enter Drygalski Fjord around 12:30 p.m. Captain Genevaz is a very precise fellow, and at 12:30 p.m. exactly we entered the fjord at the south-eastern end of South Georgia. Initially chartered by the German Antarctic Expedition of 1911/1912, Dr. Filchner named it in honor of Professor von Drygalski, leader of their 1901-1903 expedition. This narrow fjord has mountains and glaciers dropping into the sea on all sides. Out of the wind, it was almost balmy, as most guests took up positions outside on the decks to savor this natural masterpiece. A number of ice falls off the face of glaciers added to the scene. The Captain took us close to the face of a major glacier, before turning ‘Le Lyrial’ to retrace our journey outwards. It is always incredible when the guests are unsure as to where to point their cameras-Drygalski Fjord achieved this with ease. Having passed the southern tip of South Georgia, interesting mirages were viewed over Cape Disappointment. The steep, snowcapped peaks on the western side of the island leave little doubt as to why the whaling stations were all situated on the windward, eastern side, in protected bays and coves. With poorer weather in store, the Captain is running hard to get some distance covered, with 800 nautical miles ahead of us to the South Shetland Islands.
At 3:00 p.m. March of the Penguins was screened in the Theatre. This beautiful movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman (is he becoming an Antarctic junkie?) highlights the life/breeding cycle of the Emperor Penguin, which nests 70 miles (110km) inland, during the depths of the Antarctic winter. The males incubate the egg, whilst the female returns to sea to feed. He waits 4 months, banking on her safe return, with food for the chick, that he may return to sea to feed. At all stages, many birds are lost to predators, cold, starvation or age, often compromising the life of the other partner and chick. With magnificent footage, this is a movie anyone interested in the mysteries of the Seventh Continent should watch. At 4:00 p.m., Crepe Suzettes were served with tea, much to everyone’s delight. With the Ukrainian singer, Anna, providing beautiful background singing, the lounge was a fine place to be.
At 5:00 p.m., Rob Caskie, told the story of Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, without any PowerPoint or visuals of any sort. The age old art of storytelling is being steadily lost, so it was gratifying to see a large turnout, and the audience clearly enjoyed this incredible saga of endeavor, ending in tragedy for Scott and all 4 of his comrades in 1912. There were many questions, before the guests were hurried out to enjoy some quality wine tasting in Le Celeste downstairs. Recaps/Precaps was hilarious with Larry and Patri hosting questions from the floor. Leonard, a child on board, brought the house down when he asked why Gentoo chick’s poop was expelled with such force in a cylindrical bag?! The behavior of juvenile Elephant Seals prompted Patri to say that penguins (her favorite birds on Earth) are far more civilized. Suzana outlined plans for lectures at sea tomorrow, before guests enjoyed the wonderful dinner in either restaurant. We have put our clocks back an hour tonight, which “buys” us an extra hour of sleep-for many, much needed.
Last evening we set our clocks back an hour, which everyone was very grateful for, securing an extra hour’s sleep on a rather bumpy night on board. Five meter swells have created a lot of movement, and Le Comete restaurant on Deck 6 will remain closed all day as a result. Geologist Henry Pollack kicked off the lectures with “Geology of Antarctica: a blanket of ice with surprises beneath”. We learnt about Lake Vostok, larger than Lake Ontario 3,800 meters below the ice, and the ice core drilling operations providing climate and atmospheric records over the last 400,000 years. Henry explained about the Zero Meridian separating East and West Antarctica, the mountains rising up to 15,000 feet above sea level, and ice 2.5 miles deep. Lovely photographs provided insights into transport around the continent, bases, the Ross Ice Barrier and the action of glaciers. Not far from McMurdo base are Dry Valleys, reminding us that this is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on Earth. Henry provided images with Antarctica overlaid upon other continents, showing that she is larger than Australia, the same size as South America and roughly half the size of Africa.
Rob Caskie then presented his talk on “Shackleton: Scott’s great rival and destined for a very different greatness”. Shackleton’s early expeditions were mentioned, with Scott on Discovery in 1901/1902, then Furthest South in 1909 off Nimrod. With Amundsen and Scott having reached the South Pole respectively in December 1911, and January 1912, Shackleton immediately set his sights upon an even greater undertaking-the crossing of Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, via the South Pole. Called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, this is the saga Shackleton is best remembered for. His ship beset in the pack ice only 43 miles from land, and eventually crushed by the ice, leaving 28 men and 57 dogs floating on the sea ice. After 16 harrowing months, landfall is made on Elephant Island at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, and Shackleton sails a life boat 22’6 long across 750 miles of Southern Ocean to seek assistance from the whalers at South Georgia. Regarded as one of the greatest survival stories we will ever know, and a masterclass in leadership. Shackleton eventually died of a heart attack at Grytviken on January 5, 1922, where he lies buried. One wonders if the guests realize what a privilege it was to visit his final resting place, along with that of Frank Wild.
Lunch was enjoyed downstairs in Le Celeste, with regular exclamations as the water pounded against the windows. Many commented on the horrors of sailing this ocean in a life boat, as Shackleton did in 1916. ‘Le Lyrial’ is equipped with stabilizers. In fairness they are 5 meters long, and 1.5 meters wide, designed and built by Rolls-Royce. They are no larger than the pectoral fins on a Humpback Whale. Considering that a whale weighs 40 tons, and this vessel weighs 11,000 tons, I can’t help the feeling that the whale has a far better deal. They do however add significantly to the stability and comfort on board this beautiful ship. For those interested in specifications, ‘Le Lyrial’ is 142m/466ft long and 18m/60ft wide. Her draught is 4.7m/15.5ft, and cruising speed 14 knots. There are two mighty engines below decks, producing 2,300kW or 3,200bHP apiece. Build cost around $240 million. Her greatest asset, undoubtedly, are her staff. The staff are astounding, ready to improve the guests’ experience at every turn-no request too large, no detail too small. Ponant should be very proud of her staff on board ‘Le Lyrial’. No doubt, her sister ships are similarly staffed.
Russell Manning shared his experiences as base commander on Signy Base for 28 months, along with numerous other Antarctic trips. An experienced outdoorsman, and ex-military, Russ in invaluable on any expedition team. He handles a Zodiac as an extension of his body, and has an enviable knowledge of Polar regions generally.
Larry Hobbs presented his talk on Whales “When blubber is not a bad thing”. With nearly 50 years experience as a marine biologist, Larry speaks about these marine giants as if he knows them individually. We learnt a great deal about the whales we are likely to see, illustrated with beautiful images and video. The largest animal ever known, the Blue Whale may weigh as much as 180 tons, and Orcas regularly kill Elephant Seals weighing 2 tons. The hunting behavior of Orcas intrigued the audience, particularly those who specialize in hunting 30 ton Minke Whales. Captain Minke, a Norwegian whaler, always bragged about hunting the largest whales, so they named the smallest specie after him. Co-operative feeding of various species illustrates just how socially oriented these magnificent creatures are.
Recaps and precaps had Richard Harker share some aspects regarding photoshopping,and Rob Caskie discuss some aspects of the character of Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott before guests set off for dinner downstairs. Sea is still rough which has slowed our progress somewhat, along with some minor deviations on account of ice. More than 500 nautical miles still lie ahead of us to get to the Peninsula.
As Rob Caskie said in his toast to Shackleton at Grytviken “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” These three great Polar explorers so similar in many ways, yet so different in others. The swell continues to run at 5-7 meters and the constant movement of the vessel is exhausting. One spares a thought to the explorers in wooden sailing vessels, inadequate clothing and even more inadequate diets, never mind Shackleton and his comrades in the James Caird between Elephant Island and South Georgia in the freezing May of 1916!
Richard Harker began the lectures this morning, trying to show guests how to photograph the perfect penguin. Matters of perspective, background and white balance were discussed. Richard emphasized photographing birds exiting the ocean, rather than those going to the water as they are clean! The advantage this early in the season is that much of the background will still be snow, rather than rock later on in the season. Less is often better than more, and it was advised to have the frame less full, rather than overly busy. Given the size of penguins it can be challenging (and very dirty) getting down to their level for an eye to eye perspective. Hopefully guests got the memo regarding shallow depth of field, light and focus on the eye, and enjoying it out there amongst the birds in tuxedos.
Next up was geologist, Henry Pollack, speaking on climate change in the Antarctic Peninsula. Henry shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Laureate prize with Al Gore and IPCC science colleagues, and speaks with great authority on these matters. Henry emphasized the importance of consistent field work and record keeping (often the first abandoned when budget cuts are made), and that climate change is a global phenomenon. With the warming, penguin populations are moving further south, ocean life is affected markedly and king crabs are being found in these waters for the very first time. Most Antarctic creatures have no defense against the powerful pincers of the king crab.
The Antarctica Challenge DVD was screened after lunch, with predictions surrounding global warming, glacial recession and melting, reduced salinity of the Antarctic oceans creating more evaporation and precipitation. Larry Hobbs then delivered his talk on Sustainability. This included a fascinating resume of Larry’s life thus far, from studying spinner dolphins in Hawaii, grey whales off California, polar bears near Hudson Bay, fresh water dolphins in Myanmar and all his Antarctic work since 1983.
Patri Silva spoke about penguins and their life history. Patri’s presentations are always memorable, from her gorgeous Uruguayan accent, her impersonation of the birds’ movements and sounds, to her unrivalled knowledge. Patri is a delight.
By evening the ocean has calmed considerably and we are making good speed towards the South Shetland Islands. At the end of dinner, Elephant Island appeared to port.
Guests slept very well last night. Weather delayed our approach to the South Shetland Islands, but at last we have arrived! During the morning we could see Elephant Island and Point Wild off to port, where Wild and 21 of Shackleton’s men spent almost 5 months in 1916. During the morning Henry gave his talk on “Poles Apart”. The most obvious difference between the North and South Poles being the South is situated on a continent surrounded by oceans, and the North being in an ocean surrounded by continents. Henry however pointed out the many fascinating differences between these two points on which our planet rotates.
Suzana then briefed a very excited audience regarding our first two stops in the South Shetland Islands, Half-moon Island, and Deception Island. The South Shetland Islands lie about 120 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula, and host various nation’s research stations. Bransfield Strait separates them from the Peninsula. After almost 3 days on ship, two of which in very rough seas, the guests were bursting to get off and enjoy solid land. Views over this spectacular frozen land from the ship are wonderful. After lunch served in La Comete, the first group of guests landed on Half-moon at 2:00 pm. Grey fluffy kelp gull chicks were very popular, along with the chinstrap penguins. Larry found 12 weddell seals for the guests’ enjoyment. Conditions were near perfect with calm water and gentle temperatures. The odd snowflakes added to the beautiful scene, surrounded by Livingstone Island. It was wonderful to see guests walking about, their jaws in the snow, clearly finding their first views of Antarctic landscapes even greater than they had anticipated. I have always maintained that nothing can prepare you for your first sighting of Antarctica. Getting folks back to the Zodiacs on time was challenging – nobody wanted to leave, and rightly so.
‘Le Lyrial’ then moved southwards to Deception Island. The island is doughnut shaped with a tiny bite taken out of it, providing access to the flooded caldera within. Most sailors ventured past without ever realizing there was a beautiful, sheltered harbor within, hence the name. Used by American and British sealers in the 1820’s, the entrance is known as Neptune’s Bellows. In the early 1900’s whalers used Port Foster as a mooring site for floating factory ships. In 1967, a sizeable volcanic eruption destroyed the Chilean base, and in 1969 another eruption damaged the British base and partially buried the old whaling station in ash and cinders.
After dinner, ‘Le Lyrial’ was skilfully guided through the narrow gap into Foster Bay. Although Neptune’s Bellows are approximately 150 meters across, a nasty rock guards the center of the entrance. Ships need to hug the cliff face on the right-hand side to ensure safe entry, and most guests were out on the decks to watch. Henry, Patri and Larry offered commentary over the PA system regarding various aspects of this extraordinary place.
The Expedition Team led Christmas carols before dinner, and the Chinese guests offered a song of their own, which was a wonderful addition to a jolly time together. The kitchen produced a most magnificent Christmas meal. Considering we have been at sea 10 days, and the number of guests they were serving, the fare was simply amazing. For Christmas Eve, it has been a wonderful day in every sense, and all are eagerly anticipating Wilhelmina Bay and Cuverville Island tomorrow. The White Continent which beckons so seductively has exceeded all expectations.
For those dreaming of a White Christmas, this morning was breathtaking beyond description. ‘Le Lyrial’ cruised into Wilhelmina Bay early. Humpback whales were feeding alongside our ship, calmly surfacing and diving, showing us the unique undersides to their tail flukes. A more gorgeous Antarctic scene could hardly be imagined. With the Antarctic Continent off to starboard, surrounded by sea ice, seals, icebergs and glaciers. Some of the mountains rising to 6,000 feet, spilling glacial ice into the ocean. It was de Gerlache, best remembered for having overwintered involuntarily with Amundsen and Cook on board in 1897, who named the bay in honour of Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned in the Netherlands. Zodiacs were lowered and guests were taken off on a cruise, to view crabeater seals up close, adelie penguins and, of course, the whales. On water as calm as a millpond, and very bright light, guests could be seen looking about feeling overawed. This was even better than the Antarctica they had dreamed of seeing. With Christmas spirit, and everyone in fantastic form, this is day that will live in guests’ minds for the remainder of their lives.
Over lunch the vessel repositioned to Cuverville Island, whilst the staff prepared and served the most wonderful barbeque on Deck 6 alongside the pool. With Antarctica sliding by in her indescribable glory, this is the most incredible Christmas. The meal was served in two settings, so that all guests could be accommodated outside on Deck 6. Whales were sighted all day near our vessel.
The afternoon found us landing on Cuverville Island, at the northern end of the Errera Channel, just off the west coast of Graham Land. Named by de Gerlache in honour of de Cuverville (1834-1912), a vice Admiral of the French Navy. Host to numerous breeding bird species, including the delightful gentoo penguins. Guests were given the options of a hike up the snowy slopes to high vantage points, or simply remaining near the water’s edge, close to penguin colonies. Certainly the hike was enjoyed by large numbers of guests, working up a sweat in the process. The youngsters slid down the slope on their bottoms, and loved it. Leopard seals were spotted, and seen by most of the passengers, much to their great delight. En route back to the ship, a short tour was taken through the numerous, massive icebergs dotted in the bay.
We had no sooner got back to the ship, when it was announced that Santa Claus was visiting the ship. He came flying out from behind an iceberg, clinging to a rope on a Zodiac. Adults watched, enjoying an eggnog, taking pictures of everybody with Santa. Recaps involved much talk from Patri regarding the habits of penguins, then Russ explained the link between early inflatables, Harley-Davidson, Evinrude and the development of the modern Zodiac. Larry answered questions about the whales we have seen today; everyone hoping to see Orcas of course. Guests are all riding the high of a Christmas, perfect in every way, and one they shall never forget. Every one of us will sleep soundly tonight, wrapped in the embrace of emblematic, surreal Antarctica.
In January 1908, Shackleton wrote “tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic…” Never a truer word was written – the environment in which we find ourselves is absolutely indescribable. A strong northerly wind, and much ice precludes our entering the Lemaire Channel unfortunately. As if on cue, at 7:00 am, a pod of orcas was sighted near the ship, and the bridge officers skillfully kept us close to these gorgeous cream and black hunters of the deep. On occasions the animals came very close to the ship, giving us ample opportunity to photograph them, and marvel at their power and speed in the water.
Two pointed peaks mark the eastern side of the channel entrance. Mountains and glaciers descend steeply into the sea, where Zodiacs were lowered, and guests taken on a Zodiac tour. A young weddell seal was seen, along with glacial calving accompanied by its mighty sound. The sun was out with much blue sky, creating a very bright environment. Some of the glaciers look like fluffy, pure white meringue descending at leisure to the water’s edge. Every day on this voyage has seemingly been better than the previous one, and if our guests hoped to finish their time in Antarctica with a grand finale’, this is certainly it.
A trip to the Southern Ocean would not be complete without mentioning krill. There are around 80 species of these crustaceans which resemble shrimp, of which 5 live in these waters. Krill gather microscopic food particles with their front legs, which forms a feeding basket, and swim with their rear legs. Their complex life cycle remains largely a mystery, but females can produce up to 10,000 eggs at a time. Without krill the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean would collapse.
Moving northwards over lunch, from the Lemaire towards Paradise Bay, involved more calm water, blue skies, and reflections of arguably one of the most beautiful environments on Earth. Brash ice occasionally scraping down the sides of the ship. Seals hauled out on the ice scarcely batting an eye as we slide past. ‘Le Lyrial’ is almost silent to us, and unusually smooth.
A glorious afternoon was spent at the old Almirante Brown Argentine base, now called simply Brown – the color of the buildings making this abundantly clear. This base in Paradise Bay afford guests opportunity to walk up a steep, snowy slope, and slide down, along with viewing nesting gentoos. On a sunny afternoon as it was today, the surrounding bay and mountains glisten. Deep snow made the hike more challenging than usual, but a huge proportion of our visitors made it to the summit – some doing it twice to enjoy the slide a second time. Zodiac tours were then conducted too view blue-eyed shags nesting, before a surprise champagne stop.
Dinner was enjoyed with Antarctica bathed in gorgeous evening sunshine. In fact the light all day today has been unusual, great for photography, and utterly appropriate for these visitors last day here.
There was considerable swell last night. During the morning guests returned their rented boots, wet pants and walking poles, leaving little doubt that this Antarctic voyage is sadly almost over.
Richard Harker gave an enlightening lecture on “Turning good photos into great photos – the Basics of Digital Workflow”. Like Ansel Adams, the final results depend on the editing process. In days gone by we depended on laboratories to improve our photos off film, nowadays much of the responsibility rests with us and digital software. As with many consummate professionals, they make it look so darn easy! Matters of white and black levels, white balance, sharpening and panoramic possibilities were discussed, and there is no doubting that those who were able to follow Richard’s lecture, will be the better photo editor for it.
Patri Silva then presented “Albatross – We Have a Problem!” Outlining the threats of long-line fishing together with land-based issues affecting Albatrosses. These great flyers pair for life, and fly massive distances foraging for food. Various policies implemented on fishing vessels have resulted in far fewer casualties to long-liners, but the Albatrosses at large remain vulnerable, and threatened. With the rat eradication program on South Georgia so successful, let’s hope that populations recover.
Considering Henry’s wonderful talk “Poles Apart”, let us take a quick look at some of the other differences between the Arctic and Antarctica. The South Pole is 9300 feet ASL, with bedrock 100 feet ASL. The North Pole is situated on 3 feet of sea ice, with bedrock 1400 feet BELOW sea level. Antarctica – no tree line, no tundra, no native population. Arctic – clear tree line, well-defined tundra, circumpolar native populations. The South Polar ice sheet covers 98% of the land, whilst there is limited land ice in the Arctic. Mean annual temperature at South Pole minus 50 degrees Centigrade, versus minus 18 degrees Centigrade at the North Pole. No terrestrial mammals in the south, whilst reindeer, wolves, musk oxen, hares, lemmings and foxes inhabit the north. Antarctica hosts less than 20 bird species, more than 100 species in the Arctic. Perhaps the most obvious – penguins in the south and polar bears in the Arctic.
At 2:00 pm, a Werner Hertzog movie was screened “Encounters at the End of the World”. Lauren DiSandro from A&K is available daily for those interested in investigating or booking future A&K departures.
Rob Caskie then spoke about lesser known characters of early Antarctic exploration. Time precluded a more comprehensive spread, but Australian Mawson featured, along with Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard in search of Emperor Penguin eggs in the winter of 1911. The furthest south journey with Shackleton, Wild, Marshall and Adams was discussed particularly their struggle back to safety.
Jannie Cloete introduced all the staff to the passengers, in a lovely ceremony prior to the Captain speaking to all on board. Accompanied by Anna’s singing and snacks, it was a lovely farewell, before we all adjourned to the Dining Room, for yet another sumptuous meal.
The ocean became progressively calmer during the night, and the ship was quiet this morning. Henry Pollack spoke about the mechanics of governing Antarctica, after the initial Antarctic Treaty was agreed upon in 1961, and unanimously ratified again in 1991. Most importantly, that the continent be preserved for peace, and that member countries may inspect one another’s bases and ships, to ensure that all comply with standards set by the Treaty. Nations may traverse across one another’s “territory”, but the status quo regarding territories remains unchanged. Thankfully, all 24 member nations seem to agree that Antarctica be preserved for future generations – long may that last.
Jannie then explained to guests the procedure for our arrival into Ushuaia this evening, and disembarkation procedures tomorrow. Quite how he and Sally Escanilla arrange it all, Heaven only knows. There are four different flights out of Ushuaia tomorrow, some guests going on a scenic drive in the National Park, three flights coming in, lunch for incoming guests at the Arakur Hotel, and new guests arrive on board at 4:00 pm. The expedition team will be getting boots and equipment off ‘Le Lyrial’, taking delivery of new stocks, and delivering them to the cabins.
At 2:00 pm, the documentary “Red Army” was screened, introduced by fellow guest and producer, Liam Satre-Meloy. The movie is about the best ice hockey players in Soviet history and their life stories including moving to the USA to play in their NHL.
Naturalists were out on deck, as they are every day at sea, and pointed out Hourglass Dolphins to a few very lucky guests. These gorgeous animals swam alongside for some time, before leaving us to proceed towards Ushuaia. At 5:00 pm, we gathered in the Theatre for a recap of this voyage. A highlight was Patri’s inimitable comparison between our guests (Red Albatrosses) and the real deal. Dealing hilariously with their foraging journeys for food, backpacks filled with food, the submissive behavior of the males following dutifully their females, males with long proboscis (lenses), and various sexual displays/dances was just brilliant. Of course, those from England are referred to as the Royal Red Albatross, for whom we lay the red carpet. Our Albatrosses are usually red on top and black below. This year, however, there were albinos, pink-footed, blue footed thrown into the mix, along with some who had undergone a catastrophic moult! Suzana thanked us all for a wonderful trip, before a slideshow prepared by Richard Escanilla was screened. With photographs contributed by all on the team, it serves as a beautiful reminder of this time together.
Over the past two days we have been crossing the famous Drake Passage, discovered by Sir Francis Drake in 1578. Drake went to sea aged 13, and in 1577-80 sailed around the world. One often hears about the “Roaring Forties”, “Furious Fifties” and “Screaming Sixties”, referring to the oceans at these latitudes. Despite some rough seas during our traverses, we have been very fortunate – the wind and weather when it counted was unusually benign and pleasant.
After dinner many guests left the ship to explore in Ushuaia, and enjoy this town at the end of the world. The morning will be very busy with all guests disembarking.