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Antarctic Voyage – Next Stop, the Polar Circle

Find Days 1 – 3 here: We’re Going South Baby, WAY South!
Find Days 4 – 5 here: Along The Great White Peninsula

Day 6 – Antarctic Peninsula

Overnight the weather had changed and on awakening we found it had begun to snow. While we’d loved the clear days, it just hadn’t felt like Antarctic until now.

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We set out across the bay to an Argentinian base called Almirante Brown where some of us docked and the others cruised around the harbour in Zodiacs looking at the scenery and the natural colours in the rocks…

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As we moved through the water we could see the snow slowing beginning to freeze the water. We were told the process starts with a type of ice called ‘grease ice’, which gives the ocean a strange greasy look, then moves on through several more stages before the bay freezes over.

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It would have taken hours, so no chance of us being iced in. After 45 minutes of cruising through the icebergs we were dropped off at the jetty.

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We walked across the new snow to the base, stepping carefully so as not to slip into the sea…

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…and up the hill behind it where a pinnacle of rock provided a great, albeit foggy view.

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There’s only one real way down from the pinnacle: on your backside skidding down a previously rendered track. I shot down the first part but there was an older guy in front of me who was struggling to get going. I couldn’t stop in time and careened off the side of him to slide sideways down the rest of the hill. Awesome! If there had been more time, many of us would have climbed up and gone again.

Then we were back on the ship and heading out along the beautiful Lemaire channel, with great icy mountains and glaciers along both sides. Whales have now become a common sight and penguins are just everywhere. Icebergs larger than previously seen dot the waters, the very occasional one having a leopard seal napping on it. We came out into a bay known as The Iceberg Graveyard, full of huge icebergs some twice the size of the ship or larger.

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Our next stop was Booth Island. We land and see our fourth variety of penguin, the Adelie along with their tracks in the fresh snow.

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We then climbed a hill to get awesome views in all directions, but because of the low clouds only the base of several rocky spires could be seen.

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We couldn’t resist sliding down the hill before being whisked back to the ship. That evening the boat made its way down the peninsula in hope of crossing the polar circle. According to the captain, it depended on the weather and sea conditions if we were to cross.  We all went to bed hoping the conditions would be right.

Day 7 – Antarctic Polar Circle

The polar circles are defined by the sun. In winter, Antarctica is a sunless icy land, while in summer there is 24-hour sunshine.

Today the battery of my fairly new camera refused to charge, evidently affected by the atmospheric cold.  Thankfully one of my shipmates had a spare he could lend me. So, while I wasn’t using my own camera, all of the shots are my own.

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It was snowing when we were roused for breakfast and the seas were rather rough. At breakfast we watched the largest iceberg we’ve seen float past. It was massive, the part we could see above water was the size of a city block and perhaps 100m tall. Under the water, we’re told it’s 7 times larger.

Then just after breakfast, we gathered in the observation lounge and with a glass of champagne to celebrate the crossing of the polar circle. We had only a single landfall below the circle. Two hours later we entered a bay where the water was significantly calmer. After another 30 minutes we boarded the Zodiacs and make our way around icebergs to land at Detaille Island, site of a former English research base.

The snow was thick on the ground and there were two different kinds of seals just languishing on icebergs – the Crabeater Seal and the Weddell Seal. They peer up as we go by but we don’t interest them so they go back to their napping. On the island is the hut where the researchers lived and we were able to go inside. It’s fairly roomy and once housed 8 scientists comfortably.

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After our time on the island we were taken on a cruise through the icebergs to get a little closer to the napping seals.

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Then back onboard the Plansius we set off again, beginning the long journey back along the peninsula.

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Mid afternoon, after we cross the polar circle again, we came across a large pod of Orca hunting. We circled them for about an hour, trying to determine what they were doing. The pod was about 10 animals strong and had a huge male with them. We were told they were killing an Arnoux Beaked Whale by trying to drown it  They did this by lying on top of it to prevent it getting to the surface. Once they considered it dead, they began tearing into it. It’s nasty, but it’s nature. This kind of action takes documentary makers 10 years to find, and we were lucky to chance upon it. Pictures don’t give it justice, however.

Next, The Journey Back To Civilisation.

The Antarctic Wanderer

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Antarctic Voyage – Along The Great White Peninsula

Find Days 1 – 3 here: We’re Going South Baby, WAY South!

Day 4 – More South Shetland Islands

The weather continued to be great, but it wasn’t the weather that was to darken the day… more on that later.  The beauty of the white islands was immense and even more so because of the blue skies.  Overnight the ship was moved further along the South Shetlands to Half Moon Island.

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We made landfall early and hiked along the beach with plentiful Chinstrap Penguins hanging out on the rock formations.  Nestled among one group we found a solitary Macaroni Penguin.

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While not as plentiful as the penguins, there were many fur seals in groups along the rocky beach.  They too were interested in us, but were more dangerous, so we took care not to get too close as they have a tendency charge. They’re easily warded off if they do by presenting a strong hand and calling ‘stop’, or by simply clapping hands.

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While not available to those of us who took ‘Last Minute Deals’ those who pre-booked the cruise were able to also book kayaking and diving. While today was too windy for the kayakers the divers got to get in the water, well, some of them at least…

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Not long after going ashore, we started hearing reports over our expedition leader’s walkie-talkie about a diver that had gone missing. For the rest of the morning our leaders began to act a little strange, anxious. Our stay on Half Moon Island was extended an hour longer than planned. Then after being ferried back to the boat, we were called to an urgent debriefing. The diver that had gone missing was an experienced Japanese woman. They’d found her drifting in 5 metres of water and had attempted resuscitation, but after 90 minutes she had been pronounced dead. No other news was forthcoming.

This set a somber tone across the boat and we weren’t sure if the trip was to continue. We eventually did get word we were and got back underway, but some of the crew were called to deal with certain things such as contacting next of kin, authorities, embassies and the storage of the body.

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That afternoon we sailed for Deception Island, one of the two known active volcanos in Antarctica. Centuries ago, Deception Island blew one of its sides and seawater flowed in to fill the crater. The plan was for us to sail into crater via Poseidon’s Bellows, where the wall had collapsed…

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But the weather wasn’t playing nice and with 35 knot winds, the captain decided it would be too dangerous. Instead we set sail for our next destination,  the Antarctic Mainland and The Great White Peninsula. On the way we spotting what was to become a very common sight… Humpback Whales.

Crossing the channel was an experience. Because of the winds the swell went a little crazy and that evening only a little of half of us passengers made it to dinner. It wasn’t long before I too retired to my cabin a little worse for wear.

Day 5 – Antarctic Peninsula

We were lucky, today was the fifth beautiful day in a row, clear and sunny. That’s five more than some expeditions. I awoke at 4am after going to bed at 8.30pm the night before and felt great. I peered from the cabin window and saw clear seas and the long white peninsula. We anchored at Cuverville Island surrounded by white cliff lines in a bay dotted with icebergs. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this place.

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We landed and wandered around the Gentoo Penguin colonies for some time.

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On the way back we were taken on a short zodiac cruise through the icebergs, many of which were a pure blue…

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I even had the wonderful experience of a leopard seal coming up to the craft to check us out before it went back to playing with the penguin that would eventually become its next meal.

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After lunch the ship moved into a large and beautiful bay strewn with icebergs with the plan to make landfall at the end. The boat slid gracefully through the crystal clear waters…

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…and in some places it was so calm the icy water mirrored the snow-covered mountains and massive frozen glaciers.

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We made landfall, and set foot on the main landmass of Antarctica at Neko Harbour. Woo-ha! And guess what? There were Penguins! Surprise!

We hiked up the side of a mountain to a great viewing spot. I was first to sit on a rocky outcrop looking out across the magnificent bay.

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Then some of us took a ‘polar plunge’, going for a swim among the icebergs.  Since salt water freezes at just below zero degree celsius, it was cold but not as cold as expected.  If anything, it was colder getting out.

Then in the beautiful clear evening what else do you do in Antarctica? We had a BBQ on deck, of course! It was a little chilly but great! We put down anchor in Leith Cove and watched the sunset.

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Next we’re heading further along the peninsula our Next Stop, The Polar Circle.

The Antarctic Voyager