We have seen so many penguins, whales, seals and birds. Also beautiful landscapes and seascapes. And let’s not forget the incredible ice….both on land and in the sea. (See our previous blogs on Antarctica and days 1-4, and days 5-6.) Can our last few days on our Antarctica Expedition beat what we’ve seen so far? The answer is yes.
Day Seven. After an overnight cruise through the Lemaire Channel, we were on our way to Peterman Island. Unexpectedly for this time of year, however, the channel exit was blocked by an ice sheet. Even though we could see a ship on the other side of the flow, our ship did not have the ice breaker rating required to even attempt to break through the flow, And even if we did, we could not and would not break the ice on which a couple of Weddell seals were lounging. And, judging from what we heard about the ship that got through the previous night—that had to go 55 miles out of its way to return—it is probably best that we couldn’t get through. In any case, we turned back and searched for an alternative to Peterman. This, therefore, marked the southernmost point reached in our Antarctic journey at 65 degrees south latitude. Our subsequent stops were on our return journey.
Our expedition team, however, found an alternative for us—Hidden Bay on the peninsula’s Cape Renard. Faced with 2,300 sheer cliffs plunging down to the Channel, the ship’s team searched valiantly for a landing spot on Hidden Bay. They, however, came up empty. We instead had to “settle” for a still very interesting zodiac ride beneath these cliffs where we learned about the unusual still-active subduction zone on which they lay: a combination of 300 million year-old sedimentary rock that was so pressured the igneous rock and the glacial ice that was layered atop, that it had been transformed into metamorphic rock. This and the surrounding mountains have been scoured by glaciers, and carved by “frost shattering” (where repeated freezing and thawing cycles create, expand and eventually break away sections of even the hardest rock) and smoothed by waves and the gravel that are blown by 100+ mile per hour winds.
The glaciers, meanwhile, were topped by clearly delineated layers of snowfall from recent seasons—layers that, as more and more snow falls atop them, have the air squeezed out of them and compress into indistinguishable (other than by chemical or photoelectron analysis) masses of pure ice that, when exposed as surface cracks or crevasses, take on the characteristically deep, almost iridescent blue color.
Then, after a slight delay, the ship stopped to view two groups of feeding humpback whales where we saw numerous airspouts, the characteristic humps and the flukes of diving whales. Although we would have certainly loved to see the spectacular breaches and tail slaps that we had seen in Alaska, Antarctican whales appear to be too focused on feeding for such antics. Then, almost to prove that there was plenty of room and food in this channel for everyone, we saw a long, narrow tabular glacier that was packed with about ten Crabeater seals who had already had their fill of krill.
Our next and final stop of the day was at Torgerson Island, where we again had a combination zodiac tour and island landing. This stop provided our first chance to see Adelie penguins, which appear to have some different behavior patterns than either Chinstraps or Gentoos. They nest much more closely together and this seems to result in more skirmishes. It seems that whenever a penguin tries to wend his or her way either into or outside the scrum, its neighbors begin squawking and pecking. And speaking of squawking, we also saw more penguins—often atop rocks that lifted them above their neighbors–craning their necks to the sky, flapping their wings, and calling out.
There were also many more mating and bonding rituals, where pairs of the birds, in unison, crane and twist their necks, calling out for the world to hear. Many of the chicks in the rookeries, were older and larger than those we had seen in previous stops, a number on the verge of losing their brown baby feathers in favor of their adult plumage. It was also the first stop on our trip where, as our geologist told us, we found the first true soil, composed of a combination of crushed rock (mineral) and pigeon guano (organic matter). It is therefore fitting that it was the first place that we found hairgrass, one of the only two plants that grows on the continent.
The zodiac tour was just as interesting, with a number of bluest and most fascinating-shaped icebergs–pinnacle, mushroom, pillar, spindle and some with holes through the center. We also saw a pair of giant petrals, Crabeater seals and as a special bonus, our first Elephant Seal of the trip: a young male. Although nowhere near the size of the giant beachmasters we have seen at Northern California’s Anno Nuevo Beach, it was impressive nonetheless. We also got a look at, but were unable to visit one of the U.S. Antarctic Research Centers; Palmer Station. While it is certainly not the largest, it was a far larger and more modern facility than the rather small, basic Spanish Station we had seen on a previous island. This year-round station accommodates about 100 people, with about half, scientists.
Day Eight. After a 140 mile overnight cruise, we reached Cieva Cove by early morning. The plan was for a two-hour zodiac cruise through a cove filled with glaciers and islands with Chinstrap penguins and a wide range of mosses, lichens and liverwort onshore. Didn’t sound very promising, but we went anyways. It turned out to be one of the loveliest, most interesting of all the excursions we had taken.
The cove was densely packed with ice…all types of ice, from tiny crystals to bergs the length of four or five football fields, and every size in between. The early morning water surface was particularly rich in pancake ice; all sizes of thin, round disks that form during cold nights. If the days are warm, they gradually dissipate; if cold they merge and form a thin layer of ice over the surface. We cruised past weirdly shaped icebergs that had turned over to expose unevenly eroded and suncup-mottled surfaces. We stopped, with engine off to listen to the cracks and one small calving of bergs and glaciers and to the pops of exploding ice crystals. And, of course, we stopped to check out all the black ice (50,000-year-old pure water that has been so compressed over time that all air and impurities have been removed, leaving ice that looks like large shards of glass), discarding piece after piece of those that were too small, too large or that had were too close to the bottom of the glacier and had picked up sediment. We ended up with a prizewinner—exactly the piece that will be used in the evening to chill our evening drinks.
The cove had much more than ice. We saw not only Chinstraps, but also Gentoos and Adelies. They climbed up and down steep penguin highways to their nests and down to the base of the rocks were they dove into (often in groups to protect themselves from lurking Leopard Seals) and leaped out (although some jump five to six feet, those that we saw only managed two to three feet). And there were the shags, petrals and gulls and the Antarctic terns that continually (and usually unsuccessfully) divebombed other birds that ventured too closely to their nests. Then there was the Minke Whale that was reported to be in the cove, but that we did not see.
And they don’t call them moss islands for nothing. Big patches of green moss and orange lichen covered some of the cliff faces and patches of snow that had been fertilized with guano and served as a bed for green algae. Then there was another big patch of one of the islands that contained large patches of pigeon feathers from the annual molting.
Signs of science were also in evidence with Argentina’s Primavera research station on the coast and Penguin Cams (which take pictures roughly every 15 minutes to track movements).summittome1
Afternoon took us to the last stop of the trip before our return voyage via Drake Channel. Mekklesen Harbor’s D’Hainaut Island features ice cliffs, nesting sites for Gentoo penguins and many species of birds, an Argentinian rescue hut a dumping ground for whale bones and serene views over a tranquil cove. Our visit also saw temporary occupancy by a pair of sunning Weddell seals and load cracks and crashes from surrounding glaciers (which all could hear, but nobody saw).
We also saw yet another example of the difficult life of penguin chicks. An older chick, both of whose parents had apparently left to find food for the chick that was too large to be satisfied by one feeding at a time, was being harassed by two adult penguins that were effectively taking turns pecking the defenseless chick. Hopefully its parents will return before it is too late. On a lighter note, one of our expedition’s younger members took advantage of her last day in the snow to build a small sunglass-wearing snowman and a snow penguin (which she named Sea Explorer 2 in honor of our sip. So realistic is her creation that we half expect a male to court her. Unfortunately, since our ship is about to leave for an afternoon race to beat a low pressure system to the Drake Channel, we won’t be around to see if she accepts, much less to celebrate the birth of their chick.
Unfortunately, the memory card in our camera failed so we can’t share any of the beautiful scenes. They are only in our minds now.
Days 9 and 10. Will we or won’t we beat the coming low pressure zone on our return voyage through Drake Channel? Will fewer people suffer through this crossing than the previous one? How many of us will end up returning to Antarctica? Such were the burning questions that hung over our heads at the beginning of our return voyage. We left our last Antarctica destination a couple hours early and increased the speed of the ship (from 11 to 14 knots) in attempt to beat the low pressure system and get us into the harbor about 12 hours ahead of schedule—in time to spend our final dinner and evening comfortably in harbor.
Since we were able to beat the weather system to the shelter of the Beagle Channel, we had yet another relatively smooth crossing and what our tour director claimed was the best sustained period of weather (no rain, a couple of short snow flurries and temperatures that that varied by only a few degrees (from slightly below to slightly above the freezing level) they had experienced this season!
By the end, we had clocked 2,156 nautical miles with stops in the South Shetlands, the Antarctic mainland and a number of islands and harbors just off the peninsula and crossed the notorious “Drake” with modest winds and swells of only three to six meters. We had a full itinerary with two stops a day, had a reasonably pleasant night of camping on the mainland, learned an incredible amount about Antarctica and the entire Antarctic regions and made some new friends in the process. What more could we have asked of a trip with notoriously challenging cruising conditions and unpredictable weather?