Category Archives: South Shetland Islands

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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White Christmas

It has been a few days since I last wrote which has been packed with Christmas festivity, icy fun and wildlife frenzy. In the days before the holiday we were treated to the most spectacular Orca experience I have ever witnessed. We were watching a pod of six Orcas attack a Minke Whale when the whales were distracted by a passing chinstrap penguin … a morsel which was clearly too tasty to pass up not (not to mention easier to tackle than a whale!). We were then treated to a spectacular 30 minute show as the pod of Orcas proceeded to train the young calf in their midst how to persecute a penguin. The penguin, clearly somewhat disturbed by the sudden turn of fortune, rapidly made for our ship which was the closest approximation to shelter … what unfolded was a spectacular game of chase the penguin as the killers used team work to corral the bird between the adult members, but always with the calf in the middle of the throng to observe. While, they clipped the penguin several times, it really appeared that the intent was never to actually catch it, and indeed for the penguin lovers out there, you’ll be relieved to hear that ultimately the poor penguin escaped … short of breath but apparently none the worse for wear.


We spent Christmas day in the South Shetland Islands with much Christmas cheer, though it’s always a little hard being away from family and loved ones at these moments. The jagged mountains and precipitous ice cliffs take on a slightly sinister aspect at times and it is possible to feel truly isolated in this icy continent. But then again, the sun might suddenly find a gap in the clouds and an ominous grey landscape can be instantly transformed into the most uplifting and awe-inspiring setting on the planet. Throw in a few humpback whales, some seals lounging on the ice and penguins porpoising through the water … and the doubts are dispelled.

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Traces of Shackleton

After several days in South Georgia loosing ourselves amidst the vibrant wildlife that has to be seen to be believed we have had a couple of days at sea dodging heavy ice that has successfully fended off our attempts to land on the South Orkney Islands and kept us on a merry chase through rafts of ice until we finally manoeuvred our way to the bleak rocky shores of Elephant Island.

While on South Georgia we visited the grave of Earnest Shackleton and his right hand man Frank Wild who was interred next to the boss just days before we arrived at Grytviken. Strangely enough old Frank ended up falling off the face of the planet after being a central figure in the exploration of the Southern continent. In fact he ended up as a local barfly in South Africa and his ashes were recently discovered in an undistinguished grave …. When they were finally recognised whey were sent all the way to South Georgia so that Shackleton’s right hand man could finally rest beside the man who he always revered and who he had helped to make such a distinguished figure in the history of exploration.

Today we launched the zodiacs in heavy swell off the coast of Point Wild and visited the site where Shackleton’s crew spent over four months waiting for the “boss” to return and save them from their bleak predicament. Frank Wild was in charge of this desperate crew surviving on the few penguins that hadn’t fled in the wake of the advancing ice. To see this barren shore really places one in the midst of these poor beleaguered sailors.

For us it was merely a quick visit – to these men it was a small spit of land that stood between them and a cold hungry death. These men had a huge faith in their leader who had left them to sail on a seemingly impossible journey on a small wooden boat through the most dangerous seas in the world to seek securer for his stranded men. One can only imagine the anguish of these men went through but we know that their long months of hardship were rewarded by the site of the “boss” rowing back to them to relieve them from their drastic predicament.

In our case we head further south towards the Antarctic Sound after leaving Point Wild. The ease with which we move around the Antarctic region would have seemed incredible to these early explorers, but we cannot travel far without acknowledging these brave men who drew the first maps of this lost icy continent.

Posted in Antarctic Sound, Elephant Island, Grytviken, Patrick in Antarctica, Point Wild, South Georgia Island, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands | 1 Comment

Extremes

Yesterday we were hunkered down unable to hold anchor in wild weather with winds gusting to over 100 knots. The wind was whipping the water into a writhing carpet of foam, the waves were rolling the ship from side to side and stray items were flinging across the cabins. Clearly landings at Deception Island were not going to be an option and we spend the day talking about how impressive the weather was and how barren the black rocks of this active volcano appeared.

Likewise, the morning was heralded by gusting winds and ominous grey clouds,yet by breakfast the wind was such that you could just about stand up on deck without being flung into the frothing ocean and we decided to have an attempt at launching the small boats and getting to shore. As it turned out the wind gradually diminished and after a couple of hours of strolling amidst the crumbling remains of the whaling station at Whalers Bay, the clouds were trailing away on the horizon and the wind was dropping.

Two hours later we were sailing through calm seas and exploring the brilliant white sea-ice of Pendulum Cove beneath a clear blue sky. Penguins glanced anxiously at us as we followed leads in the ice into the heart of white and I even managed to get sunburnt.

Now we are crossing the Bransfield Strait with the Antarctic Peninsula stretching out before us, the sun glinting of icebergs on the horizon and a gentle following sea rocking the boat gracefully. It is certainly a rapid change but this comes hand in hand with any venture in the South …. It can be horrible one minute and benign the next … I just hope the order of weather does not reverse itself tomorrow when I shall be sleeping under the southern skies in a thin goretex bag while we camp out at Dorian Bay!

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The Volcano

At present we are anchored in the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands. Deception Island was named after the fact that it took them a few times of sailing around the island before they discovered that through a narrow entrance named Neptunes bellows, you could sail into the empathy expanse of water that is, in fact, the crater of an active volcano. It could equally have been named for the fact that while the island seemed like a sleeping giant it was, in fact, rather a light sleeper. In just 30 years ago the island awoke and spewed pumice and ash all over the various scientific bases that have taken over from the whaling stations that set up shop here in the early 1900’s causing panic and the evacuation of all personnel.

The glacial record of ash deposits in the region suggests that this volcano does actually erupt every 30 years and the fact that the last catastrophic eruption was in the early 1970s is some cause for concern, but right now, it is a sheltered anchorage and a place to catch up on sleep after a very bust first day in the Antarctic.

We awoke at 6:00 for a early landing at Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group where we walked upon the fresh snow of the season amidst Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins with a few Weddell Seals thrown in for good measure. The landscape here is absorbing and I could spend hours immersed in the jagged rocky peaks, glaciers and icecaps if it wasn’t for the thousands of penguins constantly passing to and fro as they establishing their nests for the season… and it looks like it will be a great season as the gentoos are already proudly defending their eggs  which last year at this time were merely a glint in the eye with many penguins being punished by heavy snowfalls and thus not laying until much later. However, this year the season looks good, and at our second landing of the day we were again greeted by hordes of chinstrap penguins getting ready for a busy season of raising chicks. A busy season ahead for me as well as I prepare for several months sailing around Antarctica, but a few moments amidst the grand scenery, vibrant life and strong smells (penguin colonies smell like ..well… guano) reminds me that this really is paradise.

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Aitcho

We are now lying at anchor off Barrientos Island in the Aitcho group. The sea is calm, the occasional penguin is gracefully sliding through the water and the scenery is dominated by icecaps, bergs and the dramatic basalt outcrops of the South Shetland Islands. No matter how many times I visit this continent, the first time I see Antarctica every season is always a thrill and leaves me with a crazy grin …. It’s great to be back in the ice!
Early to bed tonight so as I’ll be landing early in the morning and walking (or waddling) with the penguins!

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Bountiful seas

As we head further North the degrees of latitude steadily increase and the degrees of temperature go sharply the other direction. Previously the steep slopes of the Norwegian fjords plunged to the sea with green foliage born of birches, spruce and pines; now we are seeing barren shores facing the battering of the weather and cold. But this is where things begin to get interesting….

A few days ago in an Arctic fog we were blown towards the shore of the southern-most puffin colony in Norway – the isle of Runde.  At 62°N these islands are at the same latitude of their southern counterparts the South Shetland Islands – adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula. Here in Runde it is a far cry from the glaciers and extreme conditions of Antarctica but we have still crossed a boundary on the trip North. The south-western coast of Runde in composed of plunging cliffs that hold a startling arrange of nesting sea-bird life. Previously our journey along the Norwegian coast was in the company of gulls, a smattering of terns, the occasional eider duck … suddenly we were surrounded by birds of a dazzling diversity. Gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, shags and guillemots suddenly soared overhead. Here we climbed to the cliffs and sat and watched the puffins flap furiously through the fog towards their nests amidst the rocks, and craned our necks to see the graceful flight of the Gannets…. But it wasn’t just above that the wildlife had suddenly appeared. As we sailed on (again in mist) occasional schools of fish broke the slick surface, and eventually something bigger emerged from the depths.

With a high pitched squeak long-finned pilot whales where suddenly porpoising all around Widdershins chasing schools of mackerel. A pod of over 20 whales herded fish around us for the better part of an hour, briefly pausing to spy-hop – raising their heads out of the water to peer at these strange intruders to their watery world. Eventually we left them to their feeding, but not before securing some whale left-overs for ourselves…. Mackerel for lunch!

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Heading North

Today we spent a relaxed day with a morning landing and cruise at Port Lockroy were the passengers indulged in some Antarctic shopping before cruising amidst beautiful icebergs against a backdrop of surging glaciers. The sun just peeked through the looming grey clouds to brush the mountain-tops with colour and the wind paused to catch its breath leaving the ocean like a mirror. In a way this is time to say goodbye to Antarctica as tomorrow we leave the continent and head for the South Shetland Islands just to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula. I have a feeling that the drake will not be kind to us on our last crossing but for now I feel that Antarctica has sent me a final pleasant farewell and has sent a welcome note for two in the blue. Next time I see these towering mountains it will be from the deck of Widdershins with Leonie.

 

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Another trips end

Once again we are bidding farewell to Antarctica – at least for another five days until we are back again. Today greeted us with gusty winds and a high probability of no landings at all, but we managed to find a sheltered anchorage at Half Moon Island and got ashore for the morning. It’s an incredibly different place at the South Shetland Islands right now. The snow has been cast aside at the end of summer to reveal the rock of the islands. The landscape has been transformed from one of icy blues and whites to one of brown rock and rivers of red mud. Red of course because the mud is comprised of penguin guano which is, in turn, comprised of digested krill. Needless to say the whole place is a little on the nose. Definitely a feeling that the season is at its end now though as the breeding season is at an end and the only penguins onshore for the most part is molting chicks gaining their adult plumage before taking to the water. Being on land with nothing to do makes these little fellows incredibly curious and if your not paying attention you’ll be surprised by a gang of youths busily pecking at your knees and slapping your shins with their flippers. As they are in the process of shedding their your feathers they really have a disheveled look that brings to mind a gang of miscreant youths. The feathers are falling everywhere and drifts of cast aside plumage blow about your feet like the snow that was here but weeks ago.

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Back in the Drake

The ship is starting to rock again as we set our bows to the drake passage after a wet cold day in the South Shetland Islands. These islands have a tendency to be grey and wet but it suits the mood of the location, especially at Deception Island amidst the bleak remnants of the whaling era and the abandoned research station that saw scientists fleeing with burning ash settling on the station that had been home. Today the sand of deception was cool however and there was not a shred of warmth coming from the earth to chase off the chill on a cold expedition staff member.

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