14th November 2018 – Meeting the Gentoo Penguins on Cuverville Island

The crew pulled up anchor in Cierva Cove and we set out to sail for three to four hours to Cuverville Island further south on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula. On route, looking down from my balcony I could see ice everywhere.20181114_101010.jpg

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20181114_101039.jpgSailing out from the Cove I listened to the sounds the glaciers, floating icebergs and the wind. As we re-entered the sea, we had a view of a littered landscape with icebergs of many sizes; watch this video.

The crew has just completed a safety drill – without us.  This made me think about the consequences of hitting a large iceberg.  It would be appalling if we had to get into the lifeboats and watch our ship founder; despite not much wind, the temperature outside is below freezing, and even wearing everything I own, I know that the cold would seep quickly into my bones.  We are two days sail from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. Possibly some researchers on stations nearby could reach us somehow, but such help might take 24 or more hours.  Perhaps another tourist ship is nearby; maybe not. Regardless, the remoteness of our location and our isolation is comprehensive.

In addition to the litter of icebergs forever in view as we travel, occasionally I discern small islands with rock surfaces peeking from the snow – sometimes being able to identify other masses as a humungus iceberg or an island is impossible.

See below, on the shots I have taken from my cabin television, where we have travelled and where we are right now – over 2650 nautical miles covered to date.IMG_4252.JPG

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IMG_4255.JPGAfternoon ashore

Cuverville Island or Île de Cavalier de Cuverville is a rocky island lying in the Errera Channel between the Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Ronge Island, off the west coast of Graham Land, in Antarctica. Over the lunch period we reached Cuverville Island by passing through a sea of icebergs.  Here is a photo of an iceberg that isn’t large enough to be tracked by satellite, but it seemed large to me.20181114_102258.jpgI was off the ship at 3pm-ish and given 1.5 hours onshore with a very large colony of Gentoo Penguins.  My cabin television provided the following close up photo making it easy to identify this particular type of penguin.20181113_150705.jpgThe colony was huge and spread itself into pockets on the flatter areas as well as high up on the mountains.  The Gentoos’ abilities to clamber up steep snow was most impressive, and some amused me as they skied down slippery slopes without rolling at the bottom.IMG_4264.JPGSnow stairs were carved by staff to get us from the rocky beach to the upside of the deep snow.  We were warned not to walk on the penguin highways. With flags placed by the naturalists to guide our path, we stamped new highways which undoubtedly the penguins will find very satisfactory.

Mostly I stood and stood and stood in one place and tried to watch the courtship and mating habits of pairs of penguins.IMG_4257.JPG

IMG_4259.JPGThis meant I did not have time to climb the hill to get a grander view, or to go to other parts of the colony.  But no matter.  Quality before quantity.

If you listen to this video, you will hear the communications of the few nearby penguins going about their business.

I was surprised with the steepness of some sections where penguin highways had been forged towards rocky outcrops for their nests.IMG_4263.JPGTo return to the beach we had the choice of being helped down the slippery snow steps or to slide down.  I sat down on the snow and whizzed downhill to the stony beach and was as delighted as a young girl on their first slippery slide.  I could have done that over and over – but I thought that acting like a child might have made others feel awkward.IMG_4269.JPGWe attended a Recap by the Expedition team of today’s excursions and a briefing about tomorrow’s adventures before dinner.  However, our official ‘discovery’ day wasn’t over.  We were urged to take a quick dinner and then be prepared for another gorgeous panorama.  What would that be?  Where?

14th November 2018 -having a whale of a time

Morning Zodiac cruise

A new day in Antarctica and a new program of brilliant experiences were anticipated.  Cierva Cove was to be our first stop.  Cierva Cove lies 6 nautical miles (11 km) southeast of Cape Sterneck in Hughes Bay, just south of the Chavdar Peninsula along the west coast of Graham Land, Antarctica.

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This morning I swung open my curtains to see a wall of glacier flowing down a mountainside and reaching the sea perhaps 100 metres from my balcony. It was real.  I needed to tell myself this was a real glacier. You can look at it in the photo below, and see its pressure crevasses.IMG_4201Once layered with clothes and a balaclava, I could see more of this glacier bay and the thin spreads of sea ice, from my balcony.IMG_4199.JPG

IMG_4200.JPGNot a breath of breeze is passing so that the water below me is calm, with small blocks of ice floating imperceptibly without melting.

And then there were the gigantic blocks of ice that looked like land, seemed almost indistinguishable from land, but were small icebergs right in front of me; see video here.

When I look from my cabin balcony, I can see a Zodiac with a few passengers meandering through the sea ice near the foot of one of the glaciers.  The Zodiac is a small black/dark shape to the right of the photo below.IMG_4206.JPGThis morning we are not taking an on-shore excursion rather we are scheduled for a Zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula, without landing.

When I left half an hour later, I expected to find myself looking up at the ends of several glaciers that have reached the sea. That did not happen but my experience out on the water was unexpected and astounding.

Now I have just returned from an amazing AMAZING amazing hour cruising Cierva Cove on a Zodiac with 9 others – and we have had a whale of a time.  Whoops!  Spoiler alert!  Let me start at the beginning.

From the ship we headed towards the sea ice/’brash’ ice seemingly emanating from a glacier, and we began to travel through it.  Hard as rocks even when small.  Rocks of ice. It is a hard powerful sound as the Zodiac propellers hit these and they crunch against the craft.  Andy, our driver, asked to be told if he we heard a hiss.  We all laughed hoping that the inflatable Zodiac will not be pierced.IMG_4209.JPG

IMG_4215.JPGTwo different types of ice are floating; one that is comprehensively aerated and appears shades of white to blue. The other is clear like a diamond (no aeration and perhaps from the bottom of a glacier where the pressure has squeezed all air from the ice) and at a distance seems to be black and dirty – it is simply reflecting the darkness of the water within which it bobs.  Often when looking across the water it could be difficult to discern the difference between snowy ice on water and snowy rocks on land.IMG_4207.JPG

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IMG_4236.JPGSometimes we would swear this ‘dirty’ ice was a seal because the distant shape appeared to be a head or tail or body.  But we never saw a seal. Just stunningly beautiful ice structures in all directions.  I guess I preferred the blue/white ice combinations.IMG_4240.JPGWhen Andy said he could see a Minke whale in the distance, there was a collective intake of breath and our eyes widened. He powered our Zodiac towards the whale.

I stared at the ocean surface until I saw the whale’s dark body arcing up and down into the water with its fin being the last to drop below the surface.  I looked around and realised there were a great number of Zodiacs on the water (previously hidden behind icebergs or at a great distance across the Cove) and they were all motoring to this area. The word was out. For fifteen or more minutes the Minke whale occasionally surfaced and slipped out of sight again.

Andy decided to follow it into some sea ice and there we idled without sight of the whale. For a while. To our eye-popping amazement, suddenly the whale seemed curious and even to play around our Zodiac. It rolled over under water, so we could see its white underbelly length glowing through the crystal-clear ocean. And then a couple of times its head cut through the surface and rose high above the water less than 5 metres from where I sat/stood (can’t remember what I was doing in so concentrated a moment, except keeping my eyes open).  Here is a photo by Australian Andrew, of one of those moments; thanks Andrew.DSC_1067 -Andrews photo of Minke.JPGThe Minke twisted and turned under the water, arced occasionally, swam under the front of our Zodiac, meandered over to another Zodiac and then headed elsewhere leaving us with the occasional view of its back arcing up from the sea surface. Its length was easily twice that of our water craft yet its flexibility and ease in the water was supreme.

Phew!  Wow!  These are the beautiful unplanned moments of life.

As the Zodiac returned to the ship, our sense of profound satisfaction with our extraordinary luck was almost tangible.  Everyone except me took many photos of the whale and some got the ‘money shots’ – whether those photos will be emailed to me or not, somehow I don’t care.  These images are locked into me. I am in Antarctica. I am in that environment. I am here.  I am not over there on that map. I am here. But I am finding the notion of being here difficult to grip.  I have now seen an Antarctic whale up close in its own environment. It was real.  I have seen it. I have experienced being as close to its deep-water environment as it is possible to get (the water temp was minus 1.1 degrees, and flakes of snow constantly fluttered around us, so no-one was prepared to take a dip).  My god! Stupendous. Momentous.

13th November 2018 – landing on Antarctica mainland

Here comes the day I have been waiting for, seemingly forever. We will be placing our feet on a tiny bit of the super large continent of Antarctica.

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It is early morning and we are slightly south of the South Shetland Islands. We are cruising in a strait on route to the Antarctic peninsula where we will land this afternoon at Brown Bluff.

This video shows how calm the sea was.

There is no sight yet of the Tabular shaped iceberg named ‘A57A’. Cape Petrels still glide on the air currents next to my balcony – they have had a free ride from South Georgia Island 800 miles away.

At 7.30am I was up front looking across the sea and there, above the horizon, a parallel line extended from the right of my vision to the left.  One kind person loaned me his binoculars and I could see the white wall of this extraordinary tabular iceberg.  I went to breakfast and when I stood up and looked out from the windows, we were beginning to sail past this mammoth ‘beast’ – a beautiful structure. What we could see was an iceberg which extended for 20 kms in length and 8 kms across; the iceberg was taller than our ship at around 30 metres above the water line. The ship’s radar indicated there was nearly 300 metres of iceberg below water. In fact, this iceberg was grounded, and satellite history indicates it had been situated in this location for some time having started drifting around Antarctica in 1987.   It is mapped on shipping charts as A57A.  Extraordinary scale.IMG_4176.JPG

IMG_4179.JPGI noticed that generally the sky was a pale muddy brown/grey but over the top of this iceberg a glow extended into the air. Must be the light reflected from that upper white surface.  Watch these 3 videos herehere and here.

The lines of different snow falls onto the iceberg, marking the different years, were clearly parallel.  The ship spokesperson told us the oldest was at the bottom and most recent at the top.  A few of us rolled our eyes but we believe that sort of common-sense detail is for the benefit of the passenger who early on was concerned that we were not going to the South Pole, and another who asked whether the black sand beaches were natural or were man-made.  One can never underestimate the ignorance of others. To be a little fairer, with the sensory overload that I am feeling, I know in some moments I really cannot work out some very obvious things.

Now we are becoming blasé about smaller icebergs.  The one in the foreground below would probably be labelled a ‘Bergy Bit’.  Yesterday we learnt the categories; if my memory serves me correctly they are from smallest to largest – Brash, Growler, Bergy Bit, Small, Medium, Large, Super Large. One Australian suggested a new category this morning – ‘F…g Large’.IMG_4184.JPGA wonderful technical man came to help get my computer working again; he felt the problem wasn’t me or something that I had done, nevertheless he also could not determine exactly why it was misbehaving.  He has downloaded a different software for me so now I can open my videos; that is a boon.  We agreed that when I get back to Argentina into free WiFi land, I should undertake a factory reset; we both feel some ingredient has faulted and needs to be reinstated or reconfigured.

I sat through the last part of a repeat of yesterday’s lecture on Antarctica (this time in English) and picked up a little more knowledge and understanding.

The coastline was dramatic as we sailed toward Brown Bluff, and then the Bluff itself was clearly identifiable.20181113_132803.jpg

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20181113_140513.jpgOnce anchored, I looked out to sea as the first Zodiac headed to land; a few blocky icebergs dotted the distant ocean.20181113_140659.jpgSituated next to Brown Bluff, a glacier was travelling across land to the sea.20181113_142844.jpgI did not go onshore near Brown Bluff (a flat-topped extinct volcano) t so I didn’t see the colony of Adele penguins first hand, nor more Gentoos. Many passengers have offered to email me their photos of same. Some stunning photos were taken on the slippery rocky shore.  Did I wimp out? Probably. Or maybe I was incubating a cold. I spent a great deal of time on the balconies around the ship outside in the morning and, even though I was well wrapped, I got cold.  Then the announcement was made that it was a difficult landing for the Zodiacs and only those who could get in and out of the craft without assistance should attempt it.  In addition, we were informed it was highly likely we would get wet in the process. I was already cold and waiting for the excursion under my duvet; getting wet seemed like the last straw.  I chose not to go.  Later it seems that only 3 Aussies didn’t make the trip and we were all single travellers – perhaps we needed a prod from a companion traveller. Since then the others have told each of us, that they would be there for us from now on, to make sure we didn’t find reasons not to go and would provide any psychological or physical support to make sure we don’t miss out.  Good people. Well – you may wonder – was it difficult and did some get wet?  It seems only one Zodiac did have a wave swamp one end of the craft leaving a foot of water washing around everyone’s feet.  In this instance, some had the freezing water run down their necks and inside their jackets, but the occasion was a return trip to the ship so minutes later those who suffered were back on ship and could dry out and warm up.  As for the difficulty getting off and on the Zodiac on a steep rocky wave-driven shore, all went well (others would have helped me I now realise; my legs are short and so when I stand next to the Zodiac my bottom is below the top edge on which I need to sit in order to throw my legs over.  If I could go in face first, I would be fine, however OH&S concerns will not allow me to choose this method.). It is now assumed the announcement was intended to deter those with walking sticks and injured legs (from circumstances prior to the ship’s initial departure) from attempting a landing.  For example, we have an assertive 93 year-old French lady who has needed a couple of crew members to help lift her on and off the Zodiacs, and previously she has walked onshore with two sticks to keep her balance.  I admire her tenacity.  She is one who is not to be beaten by age or physical difficulties.

I finished the day by drinking and dining with the pack, hearing all their news and seeing their photos of the onshore wonders.  Then, late evening, we headed to the lecture theatre and watched the Paris C’Show dancers perform a show Constellations.  A series of costumed dances with background graphics and colourful light displays. Masterful balance across a stage as the ship rolled, albeit gently.  The other passengers in my group went off to have a night cap.  Not me. I was in bed and asleep possibly before the first drinks had touched their lips. I am coming down with a ship cold.

12th November 2018 – preparing for serious icebergs

Day two at sea from South Georgia Island, on route to Antarctica.

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By a little past 6am I had pulled the curtains wide and was sitting looking out through my cabin windows.  Just as I was wrapped in the big soft white towelling robe, the ship was wrapped in snow laden fog.  The horizon was so close.  The snow flakes eddied onto my balcony and collided gracefully with the windows, themselves, and the outdoor furniture.  It was soft inside, and the world appeared soft outside with the colour of the air and the water all variations of muted greys. However, this softness was unlikely to be felt beyond my cabin doors – I felt sure it would be bitingly cold outside. The waves had white crests and, away from the ship, the snow was being driven horizontally. I could have stepped outside but the passenger information on my television informed me that the wind was blowing at 80kms/hr. No point in getting cold and wet!

Yesterday another Salsa dance class was scheduled but I didn’t join it (conflicted with the Expedition team delivering their final recap on the South Georgia Island experience) and I was in bed last night watching the movie “A Very Long Engagement’ (which was appropriate to be seen on Remembrance Day) while the Dance Contest was in full swing upstairs. Today Origami and tonight, Karaoke are programmed.  Will I miss those as well?  It seems as if this trip has something of an identity crisis and cannot decide whether on offer is a cruise or an expedition.

At 9.30am I settled into what turned out to be an excellent lecture, in English, ‘Cetaceans of the Southern Ocean’ by a German naturalist, Hanna Michel.  Systematic, organised, told a story and pre-empted almost all our questions.  I understand now that the whole whale category (cetaceans), consisting of 90 species, includes whales, porpoises and dolphins, and I know more about each of the balean (includes Grey and White) and the toothed (includes killer/orca – 5 different ecotypes in the Southern Ocean alone with different communication dialects, beluga and sperm) whales we may see in the Southern Ocean.

The lecture covered the vexing topic of beach strandings, with the explanation that solar flares which disrupt earth’s magnetic fields, may interfere with whales’ navigation which seems to depend on magnetic fields. Another issue associated with strandings is that these categories of whales are tight social family units so as one member is rescued, it hears the distress calls of others still beached and returns to land to support them and becomes beached again.

At 10.45am I settled into an interesting lecture, in French, ‘La Vegetation antarctique et son adaptation en milieu extreme’ by Myrtille Berenger.  I understood some of what she said, and her PowerPoint slides made that process easier. The types covered by the lecture were fungi, lichens, hepatthiques, algae, moss, ferns, and plants with flowers.  There was a long section on the constraints for vegetation – temperature, rainfall, wind speed, movement of animals, amount and timing of sun, variation in altitude, relationship between altitude and latitude, the type of strategies a particular vegetation has developed to tolerate an environmental change, ability to acclimatise or adapt to a different climate or height above sea level.  Towards the end of the lecture the presenter discussed some of the tests undertaken in relation to the morphological adaptations that plants undergo to cope. At the end, the reproduction situations were covered briefly.  Beetles are the main insect however, with global warming, flies are becoming an introduced species in the sub- Antarctic and Antarctic, and they are likely to have a significant impact in several ways.

Oh oh. The Captain has made an announcement throughout the ship that we are all to proceed to the lecture theatre for an important announcement. In the theatre, Judy and I waited, speculated and decided the message would be associated with a medical issue or a severe weather situation. The Captain addressed us. We learned that a Le Cercle Polaire special guest (he was scheduled to give us a lecture) died and was found by his steward this morning; the Captain is waiting on the Argentine authorities to instruct him what he must do. So, we wait and wonder whether we must turn away from Antarctica and head for Ushuaia.  If we must take the two-day trip to Argentina, it is doubtful that there is enough time to return to Antarctica afterwards.  We are all telling each other that if we die please put us in the fridge and don’t upset the other passengers by shortening their trip.

Now it was time to listen to Agnes Breniere presenting a lecture in English on “Icebergs: Cathedrals of Ice”.  Three types of ice exist (not counting the blocks in your gin and tonic):  fresh water land ice/glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost.  10% of the world’s land is covered by glaciers.  Check out the International Ice Patrol Classification – www.polarview.org. Generally, the submerged part of the iceberg is 8 times the visible volume, but it varies according to the shape of the iceberg. The ratio for a tabular is 1:11 compared to a tall comparatively thin shape which might be 1:2-3.  Agnes showed us maps that track icebergs over the decades – the first satellite tracking started in 1976.  At https://www.polarview.aq/antarctic there is a publicly available website where anyone can follow the tracking of icebergs of a large size. A useful informative lecture.

We were required to drag all the external clothes we have been wearing on South Georgia Island downstairs for a mandatory Biosecurity Cleaning – with the vacuum cleaner, along all the seam lines and velcros and pockets.  It is a tedious business but ensures that anything we picked up inadvertently on South Georgia Island, does not get relocated to Antarctica.

Afterwards I raced upstairs for a lecture in French on ‘Le Continent Blanc’.  Samuel Blanc spoke quickly so I didn’t understand as much as I would have liked, although most of the PowerPoint slides made sense. As I watched the super-sized projection screen sway as the ship rolled (as usual) I learnt that very little rain falls on the large eastern plateau of the Antarctic continent.  Sam showed fabulous maps with the speeds of Antarctic glaciers then changed to the topic of wind.  It was startling to learn one of the explorers defined 148km/hr wind as calm.  In 1972 the strongest wind on record registered 320km/hr!

We watched a time lapse photo through the seasons of the ice and the melt on the Ross Shelf, learnt that in winter depending on the location, the temperature might be -70 degrees or -15 degrees. In July 1983 the gauge dropped to an exceptional -89.2 degrees, saw phytoplankton frozen in ice, and then the presenter moved onto the endemic life on Antarctica.  15 species of birds, 5 species of manchots (penguins); 6 species of pinnipedes (seals), 300 types of fish and 2 plants.  He introduced a section on the major explorers associated with Antarctica. Finally, and most astonishing because I had never thought about it (although now it seems obvious), we were shown a map with the wedges for 12 time zones around Antarctica. Of course, this connects with the time zones of different countries further north, but I imagine at a practical level when you are working on comparatively small Antarctica research stations, it is a nuisance keeping these different nearby time differences in mind.

At 6pm I sat through the Briefing about our future; for the next three days, we will be in and around the Antarctic peninsula (so we were all relieved that a death did not require us to abandon travel to and landing on Antarctica). We can expect one stop-over tomorrow afternoon and two each on the subsequent days, before hauling for two days to Argentina.

A small break back in my cabin and looking out at the endless sea.IMG_4160.JPGWith my pack of Australian shipboard friends (there was Jane and Duncan, Lee and David, Anne-Marie and Ken, Neal, and Sue and Warren, and sometimes others) I settled into pre-dinner drinks, we moved to dinner and had a few more glasses of beverage, and then relocated to the lounge for a Karaoke session.  I have never experienced a Karaoke session before but now I can understand why they are so popular. When you have time on your hands, you have drunk too much, it is so easy to laugh and laugh and find yourself standing with a microphone, reading the teleprompter and singing at the top of your voice out of tune.   Four of us got up together to sing ‘Stop in the name of Love’ – we chose this song because we wanted to (and did) some disturbing choreography (I ‘performed’ with Jane, Sue and Duncan).   So much fun and I haven’t laughed so much for so long.   And of course the Ponant photographer was happily snapping away and making a record of our antics:JaneDuncanSueHelenin the name of love.JPG

Duncan Sue and Helen Karaoke.JPGIt was around 11.30pm when I called it quits – in anticipation of a big day in Antarctica tomorrow.

Reflecting back on the expedition to date, nobody could have predicted how successful this trip had been. We were lucky to have non-windy weather.  South Georgia Island welcomed us with the good fortune to see the native animals in their thousands, and to experience that landscape and climate.

11th November 2018 – at sea all day

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I felt no urgency to wake and arise today, so stayed dozing. This is the first of two days at sea while we cross the windy waters between South Georgia Island and the Antarctic peninsula (the TV information board in my cabin tells me we are sailing in 69 knot winds between 56 and 57 degrees Latitude).  Today I will have time to complete the write up of the entire four-day crossing from Montevideo to South Georgia Island and the days spent discovering tiny parts of South Georgia Island.  Last night we remembered it would be Remembrance Day today – this morning I realised Australian blog readers would have remembered this date 14 hours ago.

A team of 20 or so Cape Petrels with their black white marked backs and upper wings, are flying/gliding beside my cabin, accompanied by a sole Blue Petrel with the stretched W from the tip of one wing across the back and reaching the tip of the other wing.IMG_4152.JPG

IMG_4166.JPGHaving a cuppa and considering attending the Pilates class in 10 minutes.  Nah. Maybe tomorrow.

The lecture by Dale Evans (born on the Falklands Islands) in English, on seals in the Southern Ocean was terrifically informative. Later in the morning I attended the lecture in French on seals by Elsa Freschet; this complemented the earlier one. I could understand some of what she said, and I could certainly translate most of what was written on the projected slides.  The lecture theatre is usually too warm and seems to lack a flush of fresh air so that I left that lecture before it was over and had a queasy lie down and nap. Woke in time for a late lunch.  Joined Ian and Judy also eating late.

A piece de resistance which I have just returned from was a lecture in English “China: a new polar power” presented by Admiral Patrick Hebrard, an associate fellow of Le Cercle Polaire.  This was full of substance. He was very knowledgeable both in breadth and depth.  Early in his presentation he made a remark which captured my attention:  the countries who control the islands of the world, control the world.  I must congratulate China on its commercial, maritime and military strategies – these are played out across the globe and the interlinkages and variety of their ‘occupations’ within other nations make it almost impossible for another nation to compete with their activity.  China demonstrates what can happen when long term plans are put into practice over decades and it shows the inherent weakness in the short-term views and practices common to democracies. Very slick.

At the beginning of this lecture we all rose for one minute’s silence in recognition this was the 11th day in the 11th month – remembering.

Now back in my cabin and out on my balcony, wearing my Antarctic jacket against the chilled wind, I watched the waves and the endless sea that softens at the horizon.IMG_4157.JPGPhotographed the Cape Petrels and other birds gliding by on the air currents above the smooth-ish waves.  The ship is still rolling a great deal. The elevators cannot be used so we are all moving up and down on the stairs. Some outer doors are sealed and the furniture in the upper restaurant is still stacked and tied together.IMG_4167.JPGI would think this type of sea is as good as it can get way down here on this part of the globe.

With time on my hands and tired of wearing the few same clothes I headed to the ship Boutique. I came away with a top in typical deep French blue with a white and gold trim. I know the number of Euros on the receipt, but I don’t care to calculate what this means in Australian dollars.  It does mean that before I reach Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, I will need to divest myself of one old shirt to make space for the new.

The final Recap session about South Georgia Island given by several Expedition Team members provided new information and was worth attending.

This evening the Captain has scheduled a ‘White Night’, when the expectation is to dress in white clothes and join the Officers at dinner.  I donned my white shirt just in case I was inspired by anyone I know to join them for dinner. I was relieved when I sat down with Jenny and Phil in the Lounge and found they had no intentions of ‘going to dinner’. So, like them I have returned to my cabin and have ordered room service – I did bring with me my third flute of genuine Champagne. And since this is a free service and part of the deal, I may return to the Lounge for a fourth before bed. Dressed in my white shirt I will look like I am excited about this ‘white night’ opportunity.  Illusions. Delusions.

Another 24 hours has passed, and I feel the absence of activity – the past few days have been so physical, so enlightening, so magical.  Perhaps rest days are important.

When Rico, my cabin steward, came to turn down the bed and generally update the linen etc, I gave him a tip of 40 euros because his work from before 6am to nearly 10pm daily has been exceptional, and since he is from the Philippines, I know his pay would be at the bottom of the barrel. He smiled and thanked me and in the fastest movement on earth, the notes slipped out of sight into his pocket and he was, almost in the same movement, turning down the bed. This was probably a paltry amount for those used to Euros but when our exchange rate is considered, I thought it was enough – for the moment.

Error in blog post of 10th November-Drygalski Fjord

A big thanks to blog follower Megan for the alert.  In today’s blog post I created a link to two paintings by two different artists. Unfortunately I used the same address for both links and so you could only see the art work of Eugene von Guerard – twice.

The correct link to the Caspar Friedrich painting is here.

The point I was making was that the drama and grandeur of what I saw on South Georgia Island reminded me that elsewhere artists had found other spectacular landscapes.

 

Saturday 10 November 2018 – Drygalski Fjord

Afternoon cruising

At Cooper Sound, a crossing of wind conditions created serious waves and we rocked and rolled.IMG_4115.JPG
Twenty minutes later we reached the entry to Drygalski Fjord, an inlet approximately 11 kms long and not much over a kilometre wide. We sailed along with a careful monitoring of small icebergs to the left and right.

Walls of mountainous rock, in part thick with snow but mostly well dusted by snow, stood to attention and lined our route.  See a video of some of the spectacular scenery here.IMG_4118

IMG_4120.JPGTowards the end of the channel chosen by the Captain and his crew, spectacular glaciers marked the landscape.  Previously I had seen documentaries with glaciers that descend and enter the sea parallel to the water’s edge. That  is what I thought a glacier did. But today I was surprised when I saw glaciers that finished high up on the side of a mountain and the big chunk edges hung hundreds of feet above us.  A waterfall effect was noticeable below these high mountain glaciers.IMG_4125.JPG

IMG_4137.JPGAnother glacier: –IMG_4134.JPGAt the end of the Fjord channel that we travelled, our path was finally blocked by what I would have called a typical glacier, one that descends into the sea.IMG_4143.JPGWhile watching, a huge block of ice collapsed sending shock waves through the water.  I was amazed how well the ship’s stabilisers worked and we did not feel a water bumpThis video, taken from inside the ship looking out, may give you a sense of the atmosphere.

The ship turned around at the end of the Fjord and set off for the next hour to reach the open sea. To reach the wind and the drama of the waves.

I have eaten lunch. Will finish this post and then perhaps retire to bed to ride out the convolutions. And now we are into that maelstrom.  Adieu.

Okay I’ve slept, dressed again, been to a Recap session where further information about the sperm whale, the eyes of seals, the distinguishing marks between King and Emperor penguins and the tagging of albatross was presented.  I have returned to watch the waves as we sail around Cape Disappointment (Captain Cook was disappointed to realise that South Georgia Island wasn’t the great south land).

Today it was suggested to me that all I could say in my blog is ‘I visited South Georgia Island’ and leave it at that – because the riches and complexity of the island cannot be described completely.  Words cannot adequately express the scale of the landscape, the sea, the sky nor the atmospheric effect of the changing weather.  Words cannot adequately describe the grandeur and majesty of the mountains. If you want to look up the work of German artist Eugene von Guerard, and the romanticism with which he painted large scale mountainous landscapes going on 200 years ago, then you may gain some notion of what I have been seeing. Have a look at this site or at Caspar Friedrich’s work, such as this example.

Perhaps my photos have given you some appreciation of the look of small parts of this wild island.  Perhaps my writing has given you an idea of how appreciative I am to have experienced this remote land. A land where the animals and birds don’t run away in fright, or attack you in the normal course of behaviour, as they do in the Arctic polar regions. In this way South Georgia Island has been much like my understanding of how things work on the Galapagos Islands.

During the evening I enjoyed dinner with the birthday man Tony and wife Anne from Perth, Canberra’s Phil and Jenny with her wonderfully expressive face, and Sydney’s Charles and Beverley (who retired early feeling a little queasy).  I find it interesting that no matter which Australians I talk with (and I have assumed they would come from a range of political inclinations), national politics always gets a round and people like Abbott, Dutton and Abetz are universally disliked and found deeply concerning.

Away from the parochial – We are now Antarctica bound and a new chapter will be written.  Let the continuing thrills abound!  If you want to make a donation to support the continued existence of South Georgia’s pristine environment and its history then complete and submit one or both of these forms;  the South Georgia Heritage Trust Donation form:

SG Heritage Trust donation form

and the Protect a Hectare of South Georgia Island form

Protect a hectare of SGI.JPG

 

Saturday 10 November 2018 – schools of Penguins swim by

Morning excursion

We have been anchored all night at the entrance to Gold Harbour, towards the southern end of South Georgia Island.  The first map is from Google and the second from the Poncet/Crosbie booklet.Gold Harbour2.jpg

Gold Harbour

Snowflakes were powdering my balcony rail and outdoor furniture this morning and several small ice chunks were strewn across the floor.  As I looked out through the blurred air towards the horizon and the soft whiteness on the mountains edging Gold Harbour, a slip of black arced in the water. And there were more.  And more. A cluster of penguins were swimming and swimming very fast towards shore.  I noticed a second pod. Streamlined. With bodies that flex in the buoyancy of the sea. Slipping quickly through the ocean.  A breathtaking privilege to see this – creatures going about their business without fear of our ship. A white scavenger bird flew past.

Then a Zodiac prepared to leave with its first passengers for the day. IMG_4100.JPGI am writing this at 5.30 am so as not to miss a thing; I am not due to disembark until 8am, but before then there will be plenty to do and see.  Front Cover.JPG

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Snow and rain persist outside, and we wonder if our Black disembarkation group’s luck with getting reasonable weather will continue. We are due to disembark in 15 minutes; the snow is being driven almost horizontally right now. I am wondering if I need more clothes this time.  I wave to the people returning and they seem happy, so my decision is made – I won’t talk myself out of going ashore.

While waiting to disembark a new-found friend Judy from Sydney, took my photo.  June – you can see that possum is still on my head.  My head is always warm even when I let the hood drift off.  The possum never let me down.IMG_4103.JPGOnshore, the beach was thronged with Elephant Seals of every size. Incredibly noisy. Few spaces remained so that walking safely was an issue – added to that, the weaners were curious and inquisitive and kept moving to check us out.  Enjoy this video of a weaner’s curiosity about a fluttering flag. With no trees growing on South Georgia Island and without the opportunity for leaves to flutter or for anything to flutter, the concept of fluttering/the fact of fluttering would be completely novel to the local animals.  The guide explained that every time she planted the red flag, this weaner would come and eventually knock it over. Then she would reposition the flag and again the weaner’s curiosity would bring him/her to the flag. The naturalist/guide also talked about the nature of their opaque eyes – they are glassy black orbs without an apparent iris.  Apparently, this is an adaptation which allows the seals to dive deeply into the sea during the search for food, and to see better in weaker or no light (they can see the fluorescence of squid and other marine creatures in the deep).   Their eyes don’t suffer with the depth.

Our naturalists created pathways onshore for us to navigate in small single file groups until we reached an area behind most elephant seals and we could enter into King Penguin territory.

I stopped for ages watching a colony of thousands of King Penguins in various stages of youth and age.  Enjoy their interaction in this video.  Did you listen to their whizzing songs and other sounds; a cacophony?  How cute are the fluffy baby penguins? How about the big eyes of the weaner Elephant Seals – sad but adorable?  What did you think about the scavenging Skua birds stomping through the territory?  This close view – and I was perhaps 6 feet from the fluffy browns – is the highlight of my South Georgia Island experience and that is saying a great deal because each onshore excursion has offered sensational views and memories.

Rather chuffed.  An Australian came up to me, while I was communing with/becoming a whisperer to the penguins and invited me to join a dinner table he was making this evening to help celebrate his birthday.  Had to tell my pack group not to count me in for dinner with them this evening.

One half of a recently married couple took my photo with that King Penguin colony behind.IMG_4112.JPGYesterday, he and his spouse had dressed up in their suits under their Antarctic clobber and walked to the high point looking down over the 100,000+ penguin colony, disrobed down to their special clothes and had honeymoon photos taken.  What a gift to give themselves.  Marvellous.

I could see waterfalls in the distance.IMG_4109.JPGNotice the dark fur seal in the foreground of the photo. He is an early arriver.  At the moment, the elephant seals are in the last stages of their breeding cycle (one person watched a baby being born yesterday) and they will leave the beach in a few weeks. Then it will be the turn of the fur seals to occupy the beach and plain, for their babies to be born and for the females to be impregnated.

Occasionally a Gentoo Penguin landed on the beach and wandered around. At one point three could be spotted but they didn’t create a community. There were no pebbles around for nesting, so we wondered if they needed to be elsewhere.

This was our last onshore excursion on South Georgia Island and already I am feeling a little sad. Without doubt this visit has exceeded all expectations – the itinerary for which I booked offered 3 stop offs if weather permitted. We have participated in five onshore excursions that will culminate with a Fjord cruise in about an hour – all organised and managed seamlessly with superb competence.

We are already sailing south and by midday will begin to come through a small strait, Cooper Sound and into the Drygalski Fjord. The ship will cruise around for us to look at the glaciers and much more.

Then we have been warned to expect 7 metre waves when we curve around the southern end of South Georgia Island and begin to battle towards the Antarctic peninsula. Balcony furniture has been removed on Level 3 in anticipation the balcony might be swamped by high seas. I am on Level 4 and have retained my outdoor table and chairs. My cabin housekeeper warned me to stow all toiletries in drawers and to pour my papers and other odds and sods that layered this working bench, into drawers – anywhere where material can’t fall.  I have taken the precaution of swallowing a heavy-duty seasickness tablet.  Fingers crossed the next 24 hours will be fun and not a trial.

From a window I watched a massive chunky glacier.20181110_104801.jpgOthers went out on deck, but it wasn’t safe with the swell; I wasn’t wearing my Antarctic jacket or my boots with tread and the deck was slippery with snow.  However when I leave the cabin in a short while, I will be totally dressed and equipped for the elements.

 

Friday 9th November 2018 – Moltke Harbour

Second excursion for the day

Since breakfast I have slept for a couple of hours and now at midday, I will complete the description about this morning’s excursion while the ship sails the 16 miles to Moltke Harbour further south.

When a little before 2pm the anchor was lowered, I realised I had missed lunch. I knew room service meals were part of the deal so 15 minutes after ordering I sat in my plush towelling robe, eating a small serve of fish and vegetables while looking out at the magnificent scenery, and listening to the grunts of the elephant seals from afar.  Occasionally a snow storm would flurry by and then rain. I felt sorry for the first two groups who were already onshore or making their way.  I remember how impossible it was to take photos yesterday in that weather.

This stopover has a beach lined with lumbering elephant seals, but I understand the idea of this landing is that we walk inland a little around the base of a largish ‘hill’. This afternoon I am scheduled in the group for the last departure from the ship at 4.45pm. Whether I go will be weather dependent.  The first map below is from Google and the second is from the Poncet/Crosbie booklet.Royal Bay.JPG

Moltke Harbour

As we entered Royal Bay and headed for Moltke Harbour, the outlying land was in sun. However, towards the harbour beach, the land was under cloud and engrossed by a storm. See below a selection of photos taken from my balcony on arrival.20181109_132853

20181109_132857Once I had a look at the ‘beach’, I created this video with wind and elephant seal sounds.

On the snowless rocky mountain sides, the evidence of gradual disintegration is apparent in the massive scree slopes.  These potentially sliding rocks are interspersed with low vegetation and grassy tussacs. All on exceptionally steep surfaces.20181109_153947Again, I had to persuade myself that going back onshore was in my best interests.  How easy it would be to do nothing – but that would mean I would have no new memories. Ridiculous, of course. So back on with all the heavy unwieldy clobber and clump to the waiting zone, through the boot cleansing station, onto the Zodiac and off we went to shore.

Onshore again, I listened to a briefing about what to find where, and away I meandered. Moltke Harbour is renowned for colonies of Gentoo Penguins, a type I had not previously seen.

I navigated my way around the harems of elephant seals some with dark seal babies less than a few weeks old, walked across the strong currents of many streams without getting water into my boots and without slipping over on the uneven rocky base, through muddy grassy clump areas towards the base of a distant small mountain.IMG_4083

IMG_4070At that point there was little snow but where patches of snow lay, clusters of King Penguins stood.  On the rocky edges nesting Gentoo Penguins were going about their business.

Our Expedition team had told us not even to pick up and keep a small stone thinking the loss of such an object was of no significance to the environment; what we observed these Penguins doing made clear the reason for that instruction.  The Gentoos use pebbles to help build their nests.  I was about 10 feet away from this set of parents when I made the following video – see here. Notice the male collects a pebble in his beak and takes it over and drops it into the nest to help build it so that when it rains the nest will drain and the egg/s won’t be on the ground getting wet. Down the hill came another Gentoo who was waiting for an opportunity to steal pebbles from that nest. We see both parents stand their ground and then yell to make their territorial rights clear. I cannot express clearly in words my profound pleasure in seeing how these Gentoo Penguins have evolved to be able to survive in such a hostile environment, and how they were unafraid of us and wasted no time as they went about their nesting business.

The afternoon experience continued with a circular track that meandered over the small plain at the base of the mountains.  I watched dashing waterfalls cascading down the high slopes and feeding the plethora of creeks and rivulets that I needed to cross from time to time.IMG_4089Watch this video to see one gushing waterfall and listen to the sounds of the wind.

Occasionally I was surprised when I nearly walked into the space of a weaner elephant seal who had wandered inland on his/her own; their brownish body lumps often seemed like the muddy bumps punctuating the landscape.  Perfect camouflage.IMG_4066

IMG_4086The variety of sounds that the elephant seals make surprised me.  I came across a very vocal group trying to be together on the same ground in a stream and, as each moved, they were communicating loudly accompanied by a background of some human voices, and rough wind sounds. View this video.

Throughout this walk of about one to two kilometres, widely spaced snowflakes floated through the air. Magical. Not too cold. No wind. No rain so it was easily possible to take photos.  At one end, the decision had been made that we could climb a snowy incline, clamber onto a slate like rise and then wander ever onwards to higher vantage points over the harbour.IMG_4091I chose not to walk this, rather I strolled across the plain and along the beach and stood silently for a long time in order to look at the rocks, and to look thoughtfully at the seals.  I wanted to remember these things, rather than needing the prompt of a photo in the future.IMG_4092

IMG_4093Eventually, when strong wind gusts flattened the water and pushed it onshore dramatically and I had spent two hours on land, I joined a Zodiac group returning to the ship.IMG_4094

IMG_4097Showered. Off to the lounge and joined a cluster of Australians that seems to be becoming a cohesive and regular pack at the end of each day. We have a drink, a debrief, then go off to a formal briefing for each next day, before dining together on a large table.  It works. I don’t know whether some people would feel comfortable in such a grouping if they hadn’t travelled much; the chatter is mostly about the experiences of places visited and most people have been on several cruises of discovery. I made a point of spreading my time across a range – after all, I can tell my few stories again.

Finally, bed beckoned, and another extraordinarily wonderful day ended.

Friday 9th November 2018 – St Andrews Bay

First excursion for the day

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The first map below is from Google and the second is from the Poncet/Crosbie booklet.

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St Andrews Bay

The crew dropped anchor in St Andrews Bay around 5am (I did wake temporarily around 3am and it was light – we are located about 54 degrees south Latitude) and, out at sea, a large iceberg rested on the horizon. The sea was almost flat calm. The zodiac watercrafts were lowered and whizzed to shore to determine the best entry point on a very busy animal concentrated bay edge; and one where waves broke against a steeper bank than we had experienced yesterday.  The more waves and the steeper the bank the more likely I will get a gumboot full of water when I roll off the Zodiac – so I watched the choice of landing sites with great interest.IMG_4020.JPGThe Expedition team chose the north western end because this was receiving the least swell.St Andrews Bay beach.JPGAt the other end of the crescent, from the ship I could see the forward edges of a glacier where blocks were in the process of falling and making their way to the sea about a kilometre away.  Would you believe – these South Georgia Island glaciers are losing 2 metres of length a day on average, and this is considered to be an excessive loss rate.IMG_4026.JPG

IMG_4025.JPGBetween the two ends of the beach/bay were tens of thousands of King Penguins, many thousands of elephant seals and some fur seals. IMG_4024.JPGEnjoy a little of the majesty and grandeur of this very large landscape in the video here.

I felt excessively tired after yesterday and almost talked myself out of going onshore (a few of us considered the extra weight, not to mention the inflexible bulk – the additional clothes and heavy boots – and we reckon it could be 5kgs).  Of course, I told myself a few home truths in language you might guess at, pulled the gear on and, long after the call for my colour group (four different groups are rostered over the days to be first off, last off, etc) to disembark, I did so.  By the time I was in the Zodiac they were all French speakers and yet, when we copped more than a few gallons of thick salty spray over us as the Zodiac chopped through the water, it wasn’t difficult to understand some of their reactions.  But I sat comfortably; delighted with my waterproof trousers and jacket and oversized boots.  Dry as. Warm as.  June – your New Zealand possum fur beanie has been the best!

Immediately off the zodiac – see my view from the northern end of the beach looking southward past the King Penguins and the Elephant Seals, with the main glacier in the far distance.IMG_4028.JPGLooking inland from the same starting point you can see my view – over some slumbering elephant seals – and notice the two at the rear who are asserting themselves against each other.IMG_4029.JPGPhotos, like the next one, give you some indication about the volume of wildlife, and how close we were able to walk past them.  The large elephant seals, longer than the length of my loungeroom and weighing a tonne or more, were not to be treated lightly. They can move fast and if we were to be bitten, major problems from infection would result. That’s if you don’t get rolled over and crushed. So, we were seriously on the alert as we walked because when they move the direction they might take, is not always predictable.  Even the small seals could cause terrible damage. This is their territory. Not ours.  Respect for their environment was in most of our minds. Despite the arrival on their shores of nearly 200 red coated walkers, we tried not to get in their way for both their and our sake.IMG_4031.JPGI noticed the antler evidence that reindeer, once introduced by whalers and now eradicated, once walked this island.IMG_4037.JPGWatch the King Penguins walking past me and hear the grunting of the elephant seals nearby; the straight backs of the penguins and their regal bearing are a reminder about the importance of posture when walking. You can hear the grunts of some elephant seals off camera.

We crossed a small stream and I didn’t get water in my boots going but did a little on the return – current quite strong as the water rushed to the sea; uneven rocky underfoot.IMG_4040.JPGSometimes it was easy to think the penguins were curious as they wandered close to us, but I wondered if they were simply trying to work out how to say, ‘bugger off’.IMG_4041.JPGThe sad tale of death, and of the hostility of the environment and life here, is encapsulated in the following photo showing the remains of a baby seal and a couple of scavenging Skua birds watching the carcass.  The second photo shows the remains of a baby King Penguin while still decked in brown fur – perhaps the parents did not return in time to feed this one and death came from starvation or perhaps a flying predator caused the death.  IMG_4045.JPG

IMG_4049.JPGI climbed up and down and up several small glacial moraines and finally, when atop the last one permitted by the Expedition team, the panorama was astonishing. Watch these two videos (repetitious but delightful)  to see the largest colony of King Penguins (with their brown furry babies) on South Georgia Island; the ship on which I sailed, Le Lyrial sits at anchor in St Andrew’s Bay. Watch two videos here and here.

During the morning we were permitted to walk almost to the glacier; between our landing and the glacier were tens of thousands – some of our Expedition team believe there are in excess of 100,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, and youngsters in various stages of growth. This colony it is known to be one of the largest in the world. We did not disturb this main part of the colony by walking through.

It is moulting season and little white feathers litter the land, the beach, between the grassy tussacs, and in the creeks.  IMG_4054.JPG

IMG_4056.JPGI wanted to collect a sample of these feathers, flippers from the carcasses of dead penguins, pieces of whalebone that dot the landscape, the occasional rock – but this cannot happen; the British Government and the Conservation Heritage overseers want nothing added or taken away from this natural landscape because the environment is self-supporting and everything is used in some way by the local wildlife. Besides – my chances of getting such animal matter through our customs would be zero.

Here is a photo taken by the ship photographer of a weaner elephant seal.Weaner elephant seal.JPGWe were allocated up to three hours on land this morning; I used about 2 hours and was more than happy with all that I experienced. Back on board around 8.45am; changed and off for breakfast – the ship had opened at 5.30am for breakfast for those who needed it before embarkation. At that early hour I was fiddling around in my cabin trying to get my head into the right place and to get dressed ready for shore.  I wasn’t hungry that early. Besides the excitement of going ashore took away all thoughts of something as pedestrian as eating.