LIFE IS EITHER A DARING ADVENTURE OR NOTHING AT ALL —— Helen Keller.
Before you read this post, I must say that no photographs or words can do this trip to Antarctica justice, it is blow your mind stuff, to be seen with one’s own eyes.
Well it obviously was to be! As we arrived in Ushuaia a few days before Christmas we had time to check out the last-minute deals on travelling to Antarctic,(we had a path worn to the shop) and boy we did leave it until the LAST MINUTE as we only booked it 24 hours before we were due to sail . They were offering 2 trips , one for 10 days and just going to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the other for 18 days going to Falkland Islands, South Georgia Islands and then, the Antarctic Peninsula which is the one we went for, and don’t regret one minute of it, despite the rough sea in The Drake Passage on our return to Ushuaia.
Christmas was really a great event on the campsite, we ate and drank until the early hours of the morning, along with fellow travellers from 11 other countries.
On the campsite were we stayed for Christmas we met up again with Jurgen and Ruth, whom we had previously met on the road earlier in our trip, and when we were broken down in Esquel, Jurgen very kindly helped us jack up the mog onto its 3 wheels, so here again we were parked side by side. As it turned out they too only booked their trip on Christmas Day and reported to us that there was a cabin for 2 still available!!!!!! No pressure , No pressure, so the next day we booked and moglander.com and happyfeetontour.de were going to another continent, another new one for all 4 of us !
We boarded the Ocean Diamond in Ushuaia, on the 27th December in the late afternoon and we watched from deck as we left Ushuaia and made our way through the beautiful scenery of the Beagle Channel en route to The Falkland Islands.
We had a welcome briefing which also included essential safety information which was followed by a mandatory Lifeboat Drill. Also the Expedition Team introduced themselves and what a capable gang they where, as we had Marine Biologists ,a Geologist , two Ornithologists, a Wellness Guide ,and Climbing/Ski, Kayak, Photography and Naturalist Guides on board with us, and finally also a Physician, very important, and oh nearly forgot 2 Penguinologists, yes a new one on us. Later on in the evening we were given our waterproof and fleece lined jackets and wellingtons to keep us warm from the elements of the weather, while on deck watching for wildlife , and for going ashore in zodiacs to the various islands to see more wildlife. Also we attended a mandatory briefing on how to enter and exit the zodiacs when leaving the ship to cruise or go ashore. ( Zodiacs are really cool inflatable boats.)
After about one and a half days sailing , Captain Peter navigated us through Wespoint Pass which is a very narrow piece of water, we arrived at Carcass Island and Saunders Islands, both of which are part of the West Falklands. Carcass Island lies to the northwest of the West Falklands and in the late 1800s it was a sheep farm, 4,680 acres in total, and was established by a Danish seaman and sealer called Charles Hansen. When we went ashore by Zodiac, in the wind and rain, we were met by Magellanic Penguins and you could wander freely through them, some just walking through the tussock plantations, others on the beach.
As there are no cats, rats or mice on this island the population of Magellanic Penguins and small birds is very high. The small birds are difficult to find as they hide in the tussock. In the bay we also saw Peale’s and Commerson’s Dolphins plus some Rock Cormorants.
Saunders Island is the home to very rich wildlife despite the presence of rodents, including 11,000 breeding pairs of the Black-Browed Albatross, so we hiked up to see them sitting on the rocks with their new-born chicks . Even me as a non birder I have to say they are quite spectacular, so so big and yet so graceful when they fly. Here also on this island we were spoilt for choice with the penguins as we had 4 different types, The Magellanic, The King, The Rockhopper and The Gentoo. Saunders also had the first British settlement on Falkland Islands, the reason being it included the presence of a safe natural harbor and nutritional plants which were beneficial to sailors departing on long voyages.
Last but not least we visited Stanley the capital of the Falkland Islands and just to make us feel at home it was lashing rain when we went ashore after breakfast. Stanley has a population of 2,050 residents, a wonderful little museum , War Memorial (we won’t mention The War , we all know the story ) beautiful botanical gardens which house Government House, and a Cathedral with a whalebone arch, pretty impressive. Stanley was used as a port by sealers and whalers until the late 19th century, then sheep farming until the 1980’s, but its current economy is based on income from the sale of fishing licenses which are heavily monitored. The visit to Stanley would not have been complete without sampling some Falklands Ale in The Globe pub, after all it was raining heavily so where better to take some shelter.
And so we had another two days at sea as we headed towards South Georgia Islands passing the Shag Rocks en route and we were very lucky as this was the first time in many trips that the sun was actually shinning on them and could be seen, so all the Expedition Team were thrilled. Also while on deck there was so many sea-birds to watch, for example the fabulous Snow Petrel and the wandering Albatross, also penguins and hump back whales.
The whales really get everybody’s attention and there was always some of the Expedition Team on the bridge looking out for this wildlife ,and even if you hadn’t spotted it yourself they would make an announcement so people knew exactly what is there and where it is. Luckily one of these two days at sea was New Year’s Day and it was very much appreciated as most people had a very late night, (early morning) to ring in 2013. Such a good night, our first New Year at sea, and even though we had the most delicious meal at 7.30 we still were given lovely finger food and glasses of champagne at midnight which helped us dance the night away. Also being New Year’s Day we had no wake up call at oh my god o’clock, and brunch was served at 10.30 am, much more civilized indeed, and included was a recovery day, just as well as it was all systems go the next morning at 5.30 as we went ashore to Salisbury Plain and Prince Olav Harbour on South Georgia Island, and let me tell you it didn’t disappoint.
As we landed on shore we were met by 60,000 breeding pairs of king penguins as it is the 2nd largest colony of them , and dotted everywhere on the beach were elephant seals and fur seals which were amazing, just being so close to them and to cap it all the sun was shinning perfectly for us, morning light was perfect as we landed on shore by 6 am. Salisbury Plain is really a vast expanse of glacial outwash on the southern shore of Bay of Isles and it was a fur hunting ground for Sealers during the 19th century where both fur seals and elephant seals were taken in large numbers. The brown skuas also breed here.
Every now and then you had to pinch yourself and say its like we were in a David Attenbourg documentary. Reluctantly we left this wonderful place of isolation inhabited by only wildlife and we went to Prince Olav Harbour which is a sheltered inlet in Cook Bay at the western entrance to Posession Bay, which was first explored by Captain James Cook. Here we saw the harbour’s abandoned whaling station, also the beached hulk of the 3 masted ship Brutus used at the whaling station as a coaling hull, and we saw the whalers cemetery on the hill side. The fur seals also breed here in large numbers, kelp gulls can be seen feeding on limpets , and it is favored by Elephant seals for breeding and moulting. Also here were some huge ice-bergs floating on the water and they are so so white in colour, and with the sun shining on them the reflection in the water and the colour was amazing, it created a totally different colour of blue, much lighter blue, mind you these ones were small in comparison to what we saw further on in our trip.
As we made our way to Stromness Bay which is located on South Georgia’s north coast the scenery was just spectacular. It was here that the famous Shackleton party’s final destination ended on their epic journey across South Georgia in search of help. Of course both of us are very interested in the Shackleton story so we were really in for a treat. Here in Stromness the whaling company Saderfjord Hvarfangerselskab conducted whaling operations from 1907 – 1932 after which it was subleased as a ship repair yard to South Georgia company until 1961. The station is now abandoned and it is home to fur seals and also reindeer can be seen in this valley. Grytvikan was our next port of call and it lies within King Edward Cove on the western shore of Cumberland Bay. Grytviken means ‘pot cove’ and earned its name from the numerous sealers tripots that were found here. The ruins of the whaling station are still here at the head of the cove surrounded by spectatular mountains and it was the hubb of the South Atlantic whaling industry for over 60 years. In its heyday over 300 men worked here and over 54,000 whales were processed in total. A very interesting tour can be taken here all around the whaling station. Sir Ernest Shackleton grave is also here in the whalers cemetery,and here everybody made a toast to ‘The Boss’, while a memorial cross is located on Hope Point at the eastern entrance to King Edward Cove,which we went to visit, despite the seals trying to attack us en route.
This point today is home to a British Antarctic Survey Research Station plus government administration on the island. Here we also visited the museum which obviously has many details of Shackleton and his great expedition and also the church which has a great library and many plaques on the wall with tributes to Shackleton, and it was super to read all these and see the Irish Flag. We kept asking ourselves how did they survive their perilous journey? Remarkable men indeed.
You probably all know about Shackleton , but anyway just in case here is A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SHACKLETON – Originally from County Kildare in Ireland, He first was an officer on Robert Scott’s Antarctic Expedition , but he then led his own and came within 97 miles of the South Pole before having to turn back . Then his next goal was to cross the Antarctic continent , however his ship Endurance was caught in the ice and sank leaving the crew stranded. After months of camping as the floes drifted North, Shackleton led his men 100 miles to Elephant Island in 3 small boats. He himself then took one of the boats and sailed with 5 of his men (Tom Crean being 1 them, also Irish) another 800 miles through some of the stormiest seas in the world to South Georgia, where he trekked across the mountainous island to a whaling station to raise the alarm about what had happened. Remarkably not a man lost his life, how they survived was just incredible. Sadly Shackleton died 5 years later on his beloved South Georgia aged 47, and what a picturesque spot to be buried in.
We hiked up the mountain here to recreate one of those famous pictures of Shackleton pointing/looking South with 2 of his men, and from this height the scenery was just surreal and wonderful as the sun shone over the whole bay below us.
That evening at our Recap of the Day meeting (we had one each evening) some of the people working on The South Georgia Fund joined us to talk about what they are doing on the island. Really what they are trying to do is eradicate the rats as they are not a species that belongs on the Island. They would have arrived on various boats over the years, and gone ashore with cargo and never left. They cause a huge problem for the small birds as they all have to nest on the ground, and the rats have been eating all the eggs and small chicks. Some of the smaller birds like the pip-pits now only breed on the smaller outer islands.
Our next port of call was to be Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay to go ashore and to see King Penguins 25,000 breeding pairs of them on Gold Harbour but this was not to be as the swell was way to high to load the zodiacs,and so it was very unsafe, but what we did see was the Bertrab Glacier hanging over vertical cliffs. We moved on to Cooper Bay and here we had hoped to see the Macaroni Penguins and the Chinstrap Penguins as it is the only colony that is reasonably accessible by boat, however this was not to be either as the swell was way worse here, so we had to be satisfied with just seeing the Macaroni in the water, ah well all part of the adventure nothing is a guarantee. So Plan C was put into action, and what a Plan C it was, we headed towards the Drygaiskii Fjord and here we took a zodiac through Larsen Harbour, what a treat, it was like an historic channel that had been there since the dawn of time and us in our little rubber boats feeling very insignificant when surrounded by the majestic mountains and massive rock walls of the fjord, the silence, the wildlife on the shore, the mist just settling on the top of the rocks giving the whole area a moody feeling. After this great trip we then cruised by ship into the Drygaiski Fjord going right in to the end, turning round and back out enjoying the more dramatic rock walls of the fjord with the snow on top and a little sun sneaking through. What a way to spend the last hours of the evening with a cup of hot chocolate in hand.
Sadly we were now leaving South Georgia, but as we said if our trip was ending here, no way could you possibly be disappointed as we got to see so much wildlife and learn more history than we ever thought possible and the Antarctic still to come, it will be difficult to match South Georgia I reckon but we would have to wait and see. Just as well we had 2 sea days to catch up on our photography downloads , sleep and basically to take it all in and create some space in the brain for what lay ahead. As we made our way through the open seas , each day it sways a little more, we made our way through some ice en route to Elephant Island. It was amazing to see the ice on both sides of us, surrounded by the fog and the mist, even made this part of the journey more like an adventure as we kept changing our route depending on the ice, and the icebergs that were in our way, so we had to wait for confirmation re Elephant Island. Even though we couldn’t see a lot outside we were kept busy inside with lectures on what wildlife we would see in the Antarctic, Geology and Flora to be found, all of these talks were so interesting. It was like being back in school again, but without the homework ! Anyway the ice ahead was way to difficult to break through, despite Captain Peter making several attempts in trying to get us ashore to Elephant Island, so next time !….From trip to trip the ice varies greatly, and a shore landing that they might have been able to do on one trip , could be impossible on the next trip, and vice-versa, all part of the adventure for the Expedition Team and Passengers I guess, but if one landing was impossible on a given day , they would sail to an area that we could go ashore and explore, , their back up plans were also so good.
And so the Antarctic awaited as we sailed through tremendous big waves, fog and the crunching of the ice underneath and on both sides of us. A quote which was probably apt for these days ‘Some of us are over the seasick stage and no longer want to die’ – by Hartford after 10 days on the ‘Nimrod’ with Shackleton in 1907. ( Thankfully we were not affected by illness, so Claire Lyons your Sturgeon tablets are alive and well still)
Half Moon, part of The South Shetland Islands was our next stop, and Half Moon lies in the entrance between Livingston and Greenwich Island. This little island is home to approximately 3,300 breeding pairs of Chinstrap Penguins, what a sight to behold with the snow all around as we hiked to see them, fabulous. We then sailed to Neptune’s Bellows through a very narrow entrance which brought us to a Whalers Bay on Deception Island. Here whaling activity took place in the 1900s and you can still see the remains of it,also a British Antarctic Survey which was evacuated in 1967 due to the eruption of a volcano. As a result the beach is covered in ash and cinder, under which can be seen barrels, whale bones and other artifacts from the whaling station and research groups that worked there. Here we cruised by Zodiac in the crater of the Volcano.
As the water in this fabulous bay in Deception Island was warm, warm in Antarctic terms , many people did the POLAR PLUNGE, rather them than me, but it was a great bit of fun and excitement, even a couple of people did it starkers !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Just when you would think it couldn’t get any better, it did. We entered Wilhelmina Bay, a large 24 km wide glaciated bay containing many islands , what a sight to behold. Orne Harbour was also surrounded by glaciers and here we climbed uphill in the snow to a long summit ridge where we could gain access to a chinstrap penguin colony, plus excellent views of the Gerlache Strait, oh and a lot of excitement here as we all had set foot on another continent, for some their seventh! Another hike we did was to the top of Danco Island we were met with spectacular views all around which was mainly due to the heavily crevassed glaciers in the surrounding mountains and the rolled ice-bergs that collected in this area.
Here also gentoo penguins breed very high up on the slopes. We also went ashore at Neko Harbour and here we saw Weddell seals on the cobblestone beach. Also when out cruising in the zodicaks we saw many fur seals, and then the greatest of them all the Leopard Seal, awesome. Also one day we had the most amazing experience in this area when we were surrounded by hundreds of penguins swimming and jumping in the water, dodging the ice.We cruised through Lemaire Channel and at its narrowest it is less than 0.5 miles wide and has huge towering peaks overhead and the icebergs and sea ice made it difficult for manoeuvrings. We also zodiac cruised through the ice-berg graveyards of Pleneau Island where large tabular icebergs and older rolled ones have been run aground over the years and these were just so magical you could have spent days and days here.
A sudden shock here as we were very close to one of the Icebergs calving, what a sound it made as it broke and collapsed into the water, and being so close was super. Mind you we had been tempted to ask our Zodiac driver to rock on through some of the arches, I guess we now know why they don’t!!!!
Peterman Island was our last shore landing before heading back, and here we saw the Adelie Penguins (the list was now complete), over 500 breeding pairs, and also here was the most southerly colony of the Gentoo penguins in Antarctica,, over 2,000. The blue-eyed shags were also here. We had stunning views of the Lemaire Channel once we started walking through the ice and snow and the mountainous landscape was stunning.
Sadly we had to return to Ushuaia, hence we had one very rough day coming back through the dreaded Drake Passage, and as we made our way closer and sailed by Cape Horn the seas had settled once again. Stunning views of the Cape from our ship, guess we were lucky, as sometimes the weather is just too bad.
Strange. There is always sadness on departure. It is as if one cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil…
– Fridjof Nansen 1912
Here are a few FUN FACTS of the Trip :-
Distance travelled-8,783.4 km Or- 3,427 nm (nautical miles)
Pictures submitted for DVD-92,935 or-9.67Gb
Water usage-720 metric tonnes or 720,000 litres
Eggs consumed- 1,350 dozen or 16,200 each
Expedition Staff-25 + 2 Penguin Dudes
Excursions-17 + 9 Ship Cruises
Lectures, talks and other entertainments-128
AND ONE TERRIFIC TIME OVERALL !!!