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From Dakhla to Dakar – arriving in West Africa
Dakhla, our last stop in Morocco/Western Sahara, turned out to be a far cry from the touristic hotspots of Essaouira or Agadir further north. First, we were greeted by no less than five different authorities boarding our small sailboat: the civil guard, the police, the customs, the military and the port authorities all wanted copies of our ships papers, passports and various other documents. Once these obstacles were surmounted we briefly explored the town, a short taxi ride away from the harbour. Walking through the long, dusty roads our little Jack Russel “Sparrow” sought shelter from the merciless sun wherever one of the artificially watered little shrubs would allow it, whilst Patrick and I longed for a cold beer – a rare refreshment in this Islamic town. Strolling amongst men in long dresses and women in long floating, colourful scarfs skilfully wrapped around the whole body, we felt like we once again entered a different world. However, the obvious presence of Moroccan military and UN soldiers, paired with one of the most hostile climates we’ve yet encountered, also made us feel slightly uneasy. Indeed we were almost a bit relieved when after a couple of days we set our sails once again to head further south.
To reach our next destination, Dakar in Senegal, we had to cover the distance of over 600 nm, more than 110km, which is the furthest non-stop passage of our trip yet! The most comparable journey took us from Svalbard to Jan Mayen across the North Atlantic. In comparison, the present crossing can only be described as benign, with the biggest challenge being posed by the burning midday sun. Low to moderate winds from the North gently pushed us further south, flocks of shearwaters and storm petrels accompanied us for much of the way, and occasionally a pod of dolphins jumped around our bow. One day we even spotted the big blow of a giant rorqual, possibly a fin whale, from a distance, the first big whale we’ve seen since leaving Iceland. Not much later a pod of large, black pilot whales briefly followed us, waking memories of cold Norwegian fjords, the last time we’ve come across this species.
During the third night Patrick suddenly cried out: “Léonie, come up, quick!” Sleep-drunkenly I stumbled on deck, to be told very enthusiastically: “Look, the Southern Cross! We’re on our way home!!”. Indeed, hovering just above the horizon were the five stars that make up the symbol of the southern hemisphere’s sky. We were definitely on the right track!
Two days later our chart told us that the “Cap Verde”, the green cape that Dakar is built upon, lay only a few miles ahead. It took some time to penetrate the haze that lies over the African continent but finally the ephemeral silhouette of the westernmost tip of continental Africa appeared through the shimmering air.
Shortly after we dodged around small, buzzing banana boats, uncharted ship wrecks and a handful of sailboats on anchor, until we finally dropped our own anchor in front of the “Cercle de la Voile Dakar” yacht club. Once we stepped on the rickety jetty leading ashore we received the warmest welcome of our journey yet: located between flowering bushes, acacia, papaya and palm trees lay the picturesque buildings of the yacht club, with a big terrace overlooking the bay crowded with a cheerful mix of yachties, European ex-pats and locals. We were quickly offered a cold beer, all arrival formalities were postponed to the next day, and after a cold shower we felt more home than we had anywhere for a long time.
But talking of home: back in Switzerland another very important event is taking place: my nephew turns five years old today! Dear Maxim, we wish you all the best and hope you have a fantastic birthday! This little video is just for you!
Posted in At sea, Morocco, Senegal Tagged Fin whale, Long-finned Pilot Whale, Shearwater, Short-beaked common dolphin, Wilsons Storm Petrel Leave a comment
The birds that make the wind blow (R.C. Murphy)
We are now half way across the Drake Passage with our bow pointed towards the Lemaire Channel which is much further south than we normally aim for the start of a trip. Very much looking forward to getting in amongst the serious ice right at the beginning of the trip!
But right now we are gently rolling in languid seas with an escort of albatross soaring around the ship. Wandering albatross with their wingspan of over three meters surround us and display their plumage like badges of rank denoting their age. Some birds still present the dark cap and brown plumage of juveniles, some have discarded the brown feather but retain the collar that proclaims them as sub-adults, some hold the black and white plumage of breeding adults and a few proudly display the broad expanse of white wings that marks them as mature adults approaching the full 50 years of their lifespan. Amidst these colossal ocean wanderers are a host of other albatross including black browed, grey headed and light mantled sooty albatross, as well as smaller ocean birds like the Wilson’s storm petrel, cape petrel, Antarctic prion and the slender billed prion.
It’s a vast ocean but it is hard to feel lonely when surrounded by such splendid companions.
The full monty
The highlight of today was a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. Started off in windy weather with a decent surge and I admit that it looked to be an uninspiring cruise with no wildlife despite the amazing scenery of glaciers and sheer cliffs covered with moss (a feature which has warranted special area status for the region).
But within ten minutes of leaving the ship I discovered a humpback whale cruising amidst the iceberg. What followed was 15 minutes of excitement as the whale breached and played within 15 meters of the zodiac. Pretty heady stuff, but eventually I decided to leave the whale to its own devises and find out what else the area had to offer. Ten minutes later I was sidled up to a leopard seal pup on an ice flow and watched as it yawned and slipped silently into the mess of brash ice covering the water. Apparently the pup was a little concerned by the ominous black zodiac checking it out and communicated the fact to his mum who promptly turned up and put on a show as she circled the zodiac and swam beneath us to see exactly what was threatening her young pup, Absolutely amazing to see these graceful predators up close and see the elegance of these killers swimming through the icy waters.
These highlights were followed with more fantastic Antarctic wildlife. Penguins porpoising and flying rocketing out of the water to land on icebergs … or occasionally to miss their mark and ricochet of the ice and back into the water. Groups of crabeater and weddell seals lounging on icebergs. Wilsons storm petrels skimming small crustaceans off the surface of the water … and many more of the sights that make the Antarctic one on the most spectacular wildernesses on the planet.
Definitely a good day….
Contrasts and Carnage
Today we spent the day in the Antarctic Sound with a spectacular sunrise heralding a clear morning that seemed to erase the memory of the furious winds we were battling yesterday. The crisp brown rocks of Brown Bluff stood starkly on a field of white snow and glaciers and beckoned us to touch ground again finally after three days at sea with wind and waves preventing us from reaching any landings.
Once onshore, we were greeted by hordes of Adelie penguins with a good number of Gentoo penguins thrown in for good measure. After walking around the colony for a few minutes we were greeted with the sight of the first chicks of the season. Of course everyone love the cute chicks peeking out from the nests and receiving their regular dose of regurgitated krill from their parents …but even more exciting is the fact that we were seeing the next generation of leopard seal food!
Prowling around the beach were at least three leopard seals waiting for the chance to pounce on an unwary penguin. One study has shown that just two leopard seals can consume as many as 15.000 penguins over a 15 month period! At Brown bluff we saw these statistics heading toward fruition with at least two separate penguin kills observed – watching a seal thrashing a penguin on the surface to remove the delicate flesh from the unpalatable skin and feathers is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is certainly thrilling to watch the drama of life in Antarctica play out to the ultimate (and bloody) end. Even more surprising was the chance to watch a full grown leopard seal devour a young weddell seal that was about half the length of the predator. More carnage again but the feast was attended by clouds of cape petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels picking up the scraps – the ecological system here is all interconnected and while one feels compelled to barrack for the underdog, the penguins are certainly a serious part of the life cycle of all the other animals that make up the system.
A glorious morning onshore was followed by raising winds and swell that drove us out of any further landings, but after several hours on shore watching nature in its most raw form there were no complaints from anyone. It’s a land of contrasts and occasional carnage but one thing is certain – Antarctica never fails to deliver excitement!
Towards the ice
This morning I awoke early to feel the swell of the Drake Passage tossing my body around the bed and various loose items around my cabin. I must be on my way to Antarctica!
After a quick tidy up of my various scattered belongings however, I took the time to take in the splendour of being on the southern seas – rolling waves crested by white caps, wind-whipped foam lining the deep blue water … and of course the birds. While sailing all summer up the Norwegian coast in our own little yacht accompanied by northern fulmars, puffins, guillemots, gannets, razorbills and various gulls it’s easy to forget just how numerous the sea birds of the Southern Ocean are.
In Norwegian waters there is generally one or two birds in sight of the ship … Strolling on the pitching deck this morning I was greeted by clouds of seabirds trailing after the ship like a wheeling cloud of moths over a flame. Wandering albatross, giant petrels, pintados, storm petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatross and more all formed a soaring entourage to herald our passage towards the southern continent. In an ocean that stretched around the globe it’s hard to feel alone.
Wilsons on board
In the morning I awoke and paced around the back deck feeling the cold wind blow across the ocean and feeling the salt settle on my skin. I was out there for about ten minutes before I notices the small lump of feathers sitting in a corner – the only movement the occasional flutter of the feathers as the wind stroked its small friend so recently plucked from the heavens. It was a Wilson’s storm petrel – a tiny bird with a 30cm wingspan that is famous for traveling through all the worlds oceans. It’s always a remarkable sight seeing these tiny little birds darting around the waves of the mighty Southern Ocean like lost moths in the night. They always seem a little out of place amongst the graceful albatross as they furiously flap their way over the seas. It looked even more out of place lying limp in my hands. The unfortunate animal was probably blinded by the ship’s lights and flew headlong into the cold unforgiving steel of the ship. The small bundle of energy that drove the little bird across the immense distances of the Southern Ocean was extinguished on the steel deck where the scream of the wind was deadened by the regular thrum of engines and the metallic clinking that is the constant background song of the vessel. As I released the dead bird back into the ocean and watched the miserable bundle of feathers drift away in our wake I couldn’t help but feel sad to be part of the alien intrusion into the world of wind and waves that led to the demise of this tiny little life.
Posted in Patrick in Antarctica Tagged Wilsons Storm Petrel 2 Comments