Category Archives: Patrick in Antarctica

Summers End

The past few days in Antarctica have seen some dramatic changes. Just ten days ago we were basking in sunlight and calm days. Ever since land reared out from a turgid sea on this trip we have been accosted by strong winds, steel grey skies and a constant mix of drizzle and sleet. The penguin colonies and mires of mud and guano with only a hand full of penguins standing miserably in a pile of feather as they shed the bedraggled growth of the last year in preparation for the comming winter. The gloomy conditions are relieved by huge numbers of humpback whales congregating to mop up the last of the summers krill, and also by the fat looking leopard seals and orcas rilled to bursting on the easy snacks made from young penguins taking to the water for the first time. With season turning all around us we are also fleeing the approaching winter also and we are now bound for the North with only two more days before we leave the frozen continent to it’s seasons slumber. There are still many exciting excersions ahead but there is definitely a feeling of farewell upon us at present.

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The best zodiac cruise ever

Today we started out with a glorious landing at Orne Harbour – a steep climb up to a chinstrap penguin colony 90 m above a mirror calm ocean reflecting a perfectly clear blue sky and the white capped peaks all around. Resting amidst the clamour of the penguins, it was hard to contemplate that the day could get better….

…until we launched the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. After lunch the clouds had drawn in to cast the bay in steel grey light but immediately upon nosing the boat into the brash ice lining the bay the deep bass bellow of humpback whale blows resounded from the glaciers and we watched avidly as two whales crashed through the jumble of ice before making their way into deeper water. Leaving these leviathans to watch a basking leopard seal we were soon diverted by a pair of dwarf minke whales which played around the zodiac for 15 minutes and swam below us in the clear water looking up as they pondered these odd visitors to their domain.

But the minke whales where simply the warm up. Ten minutes later we found two more humpback whales that were fascinated by our cruise ship. They circled the ship for what seemed an age spy-hopping to gain a better view of what must seem a rather strange apparition in these icy waters. At one point they pushed their noses out of the water and seemed to be seriously contemplating mounting the gangway to get the tour of the inside as well!

But this time there was a cluster of zodiacs around the action and before long these gently giants shifted their curiosity to the smaller black zodiacs. What ensued was two hours that will be etched into my memory forever. As we drifted with a gentle breeze the whales moved from zodiac to zodiac paying each of us a visit and giving us all a thorough inspection. The whales lay on their sides gazing up at us from 3o cm below the water with their pectoral fins waiving above us. They pushed their nose above the water to eye level and gazed at us from the air to see if we made more sense above the water than below. They scratched their back on the bottom of our boats, they pushed against the side of the boat as if requesting a scratch, and they thoroughly covered all the spectators in a thick coating of whale snot as they sent jets of water towards us accompanied by the deep sound of a whale blow at close quarters.

After many years of working in Antarctica this was an experience that will redefine the “zodiac cruise”. It is hard to imagine it could get better!

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Sail on the horizon

We have just finished yet another crossing of the Drake Passage with deep swell, endless horizons and winds which travel around the globe before throwing their force across our bow. In the middle of this vast expanse of blue my eye was caught by a fleeting white cloud standing proudly against a steel grey sky. As we sailed on the glimpsed of white peeking over the swell resolved itself into the sail of a small yacht valiantly striking our in defiance of Southern seas. As our huge steel ship quickly left the small yacht in our wake I reflected on the two modes of crossing and dwelled on our rapidly approaching voyage on Widdershins that will follow the same course. Today I sit in comfort in an enclosed bridge, I eat three fantastic meals a day prepared by talented chefs and spend most evenings luxuriating in the comfort of a sauna after a beer in the bar. When we cross on our yacht we will battling the elements in a semi-enclosed cockpit, shipping the occasional wave over the side, and blown before the rage of the wind. Our meals will be whatever we can scrape together on a kerosine stove in a madly rocking galley and and creature comforts on board will rarely extend beyond a mug of warm rum to help sleep come after a stressful watch. Seems strange but I can’t wait to jump into the yacht and face the Drake on our own terms. You can keep the sauna … just so long as the diesel heater keeps us warm enough that our fingers are able to type the daily blog!

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Wilkins’ Mechanic

Yesterday we were exploring the remnants of the Hector whaling station in Whalers Bay of Deception Island. The derelict remains of building once devoted to the wholesale slaughter of whales marks an important part of Antarctica’s history, but amidst the rusting hulks of steamers and the rotting remains of the whaling industry, Whales Bay also offers an insight into the spirit of adventure and exploration that marked the early operations in this region. The site boasts the remains of a British research station abandoned in the volcanic eruptions that saw massive mudslides hitting the area in the late 1960s, but it also is home to a rather non-descript hanger like building that perched on the northern end of the beach. And indeed it is a hanger, and in fact the hanger once housed the plane that embarked upon the first powered flight over Antarctica - captained by an Aussie by the name of Sir Hubert Wilkins.

Today as we leave Deception in our wake we were privileged to hear the reminiscences of the daughter of the mechanic who helped Wilkins piece together this amazing endeavour. A young man born in 1896 in Washington, Ona’s father started working on Model T fords and ended up participating in no less than 5 expeditions with Wilkins visiting both poles and being central to the operation to get the first flights up and running. Apparently they saw it all as a rather dry operation with his diary reflecting comments such as “Plane assembly in makeshift hanger, 55 degrees below” with little commentary on the guts of exploration … a feature which makes many of the men of early aviation history. Wilkins and his team did not search for fame or glory. This was a precise operation to reach a defined goal to aid our understanding of the world and to promote a cooperative approach to the exploration of the planet.  As we look back it is fantastic to gather an insight into the lives and opinions of these pioneers who pushed the boundaries of our knowledge into the ice south.

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Whales – before and after

Today we cruised amidst the debris of the black history of Antarctic whaling. Sunken whale chasers loomed like drunken steel castles above the quiet waters of Antarctica, water boats used for carting water required to render whales into oil for lamps rotted on the shore and the scattered remains of the rough accommodation used by the whalers marred the pristine shores of the icy continent.

Meanwhile, the waters offshore resounded in the deep bass notes of humpback whales jetting water into the blue skies as they surfaced to catch a breath before sinking to the depths in search of krill. The humpbacks in these waters were hit pretty heavily earlier this centuries and like many of the great whales their numbers dwindled at these magnificent beasts were slaughtered. Unlike many of the whales however, the numbers are starting to increase and each year we get a chance to watch more whales as they return to their icy domain. This morning I was lucky enough to spend half an hour with a mother and calf as they slowly picked their way though the pack ice, happily unconcerned by the zodiacs trailing in their wake full of awestruck spectators. My boat in particular managed to entice the leviathans for a closer inspection and my heart rate skyrocketed as the two beasts circles slowly around and under the zodiac, and raised their heads out of the water to look back at us. Just ten or fifteen minutes of wonder but enough to feel a unique contact with the denizens of the South, and enough to remind me that to visit this land you need to come under it’s terms – the wildlife of the Antarctic is worth so much more than a few lamps of oil…

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Paradise Harbor

Today we had a glorious day in Antarctica with blue skies and white ice cradled in a mirror like sea that reflected  the peaks surrounding Paradise Harbor. The bay was filled with sea ice and I spent hours weaving in and out of the dense ice flows and circling the chunks of ice to view the lounging leopard seals that seemed to be parked on every second flat piece of ice. The glacier in Skontorp Cove was shedding ice regularly in spectacular crashes that sent chunks of ice the size of houses rolling into the calm seas and breaking the mirrored surface in rolling waves that spread out to us just in time to awake us from the awed stupor that witnessing the birth of bergs imparts. The highlight of the day though, was certainly a pod of Orca that slipped through the still waters of the Errera Channel and casually inspected the zodiac before swimming beneath and disappearing with the sure certainty that we were not food. Another fantastic day!

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Pals from the other pole

Today as we were exploring Goudier Island in the Antarctic Peninsula I spotted a yacht that seemed vaguely familiar. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the Anne Mari (http://annemaritilantarktis.blogspot.com), a Norwegian yacht with a number of sailors aboard that I had been in touch with a few years ago in Oslo, Norway. Seems they have sailed all the way from the Arctic circle in Norway to the Antarctic Peninsula over the past year and are now exploring the icy tip of Antarctia! Unfortuantly some of the folk I had hoped to catch up with on board had not been able to make it this far south but it is such a wonder to see familiar faces down here. It seems the spirit of adventure is still alive in the frozen south and the paths of those that dare are destined to cross!

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Crossing the Circle

This morning at 10:00 we slowly nosed over the Antarctic Circle – that point at which the sun refuses to dip below the horizon in the Southern summer and stubbornly hides its face for the duration of winter. The sea was shrouded in fog as we crossed the line and the wind was eerily absent so that an feeling of mystery hung in the air to be shattered by the strident blast from the ships fog horn to mark passing of the circle. This is the furthest South we have made it this year and despite the heavy ice we know will dog us as we make for Marguerite Bay, right now there is no ice in sight and the air temperature is a comfortable zero degrees. Strange to think that here in the depth of the Antarctic we are walking around in light sweaters while in Europe people are freezing to death in the grips of an icy spell that has seen temperatures thirty degrees below zero. But then again the Antarctic is a capricious mistress and all this calm weather leaves me with an inkling that at any moment the gales will be switched on and the ship will be wreathed in ice as the blizzard begins.

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Back into the Drake

We are on our way back across the Drake with the Antarctic circle in front of us … a slightly longer trip than typical and a trip which will take us into the “big ice”. This season has seen us encountering unusually heavy ice all through the Antarctic Peninsula but this time we will be heading into a region where no ships have managed to reach their destination. The ice has formed a barrier that thus far has withheld the summer traffic but we hope to pierce throuhgh the circle and beyond. Sometimes it feels like we are a very small boat in a big ocean but the journey itself is half the challenge…

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Happy Australia Day!

It’s always a tradition to have a BBQ on Australia Day (26 January) and even in Antarctica it’s just not right to make exceptions. So after a day exploring Antarctica we broke out the grill on the back deck and cooked up some snags and steak under the crisp blue skies of an Antarctic summer day. The weather really played the trump card and after days of freezing cold and grey skies the weather treated us to a blazing hot sunny day (well hot by Antarctic standards means over zero). The ship was surrounded by spectacular glaciers and the sheer cliffs of the Errera Channel. A long way from Australia but a great place to celebrate all things Aussie!

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