We’ve just returned from a two week ‘expedition’ to Antarctica. More specifically, we were on a cruise on the MS Expedition, which is a G Adventures operated tour ship expedition. What follows is a trip report for the second half of the trip. You can read about the first half of the trip HERE.
The sun shone through cirrus clouds early this morning. This morning’s destination was Mikkelsen Harbour on D’Hainaut Island. A choppy ride in the Zodiacs brought us to the small island, which was loosely populated by gentoo penguins. Weddell seals lay on the shore next to the remains of a waterboat and whalebones, and a walk through the snow brought us to an Argentinian refuge hut. It was windy and therefore cold. After lunch, we travelled further south. During the afternoon, we enjoyed a Zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. We explored the glaciated bay and saw plenty of interesting things: the Argentinian station “Primavera”, Weddell and crabeater seals, penguins, all kinds of other birds – and plenty of icebergs. The colours of the ice came out extremely well on this overcast day, just as nicely as the never-ending forms and patterns of the frozen bergs. During briefing and recap, G Expedition headed further south into the Gerlache strait, a body of water between the Antarctic Peninsula and outer-lying islands. Everybody chatted away in the restaurant, waiting for the dinner to be served, when whales were spotted. The excited cries came from all sides of the restaurant – suddenly, humpback whales were seen everywhere in the water! Dozens of whales were feeding on krill: blowing bubbles in so called bubble-nets, before breaking through the surface mouth-open, showing us their baleens. A group of four to six whales came extremely close to the ship: we heard their trumpeting exhales, saw their white flippers and dark-grey bodies under water, looked into their blow holes and smelled their breath. This was the most extraordinary whale-watching of the trip.
Gently falling snow in the Errera Channel created a ghostly beginning to the day as G Expedition sailed towards tiny Cuverville Island nestled into a cove of the larger Rongé Island. Snow continued to fall for almost the entire morning shrouding the sculpted icebergs
in a mysterious blanket and keeping the scenery mostly under cover. Although there are an estimated 5000 pairs of breeding Gentoos on the
island, their sounds were muffled by the snowfalls and they lay huddled on their bellies protecting eggs or young chicks from the cold and damp. A moulting Weddell seal lay at one end of the curving bay, which occasionally did some fancy acrobatics as it delicately scratched its tail with its front flippers. A group of intrepid hikers went to a high point on the island looking for a view but met with more soft large snowflakes. During the afternoon, the weather changed dramatically with blue skies and sunshine as our ship made its way through the
narrow Aguirre Passage and into picture perfect Paradise Bay. Lofty snow covered peaks, including 2825m high Mont Français, glaciers and chunks of ice were mirrored in the deep blue water. The unoccupied red painted Argentinian station of Brown contrasted against the soft white snow. There was time to walk between some of the buildings with a few gentoo penguins and a snowy sheathbill nearby. Most of us walked to one of the two lookout points giving great views over the bay. The soft snow became quite slippery during afternoon and we had to be careful going up and down the highest point. Chattering Antarctic terns and brown skuas were seen flying overhead. Kayakers had a chance to explore further into the bay and found a colony of blue-eyed shags with varying sizes of chicks on a rocky ledge. A small avalanche high up the mountainside came down showing a powder-cloud of snow. The evening had a lot more to offer as we enjoyed a BBQ on the aft deck with a feast from the galley. After all that, the happy campers set of for a night on the snow. Bright orange tents were erected and everyone was enthralled by the fabulous sunset, which seemed to go on for hours!
The morning excursion consisted of a ship cruise through the Lemaire Channel, arguably one of the most scenic transits in the Antarctic Peninsula. We would have plenty of time to soak up the views and sun while on deck as we had the fortune of transiting the Lemaire Channel back to the north after logging our furthest south point of the expedition – 65˚07’S. The afternoon provided the opportunity to visit Port Lockroy, the historic site of the British Antarctic Survey’s Base A and the “Penguin Post Office” and museum. This site was occupied between 1943-1962 by researchers studying geology, meteorology, botany and in later years, ionospheric research. It was a double landing with an opportunity to shop at Base A and send post cards to loved ones and an opportunity to visit Jougla Point, a short distance from Base A. Jougla Point provided a wonderful opportunity to view blue eyed shags with new chicks and nesting gentoo penguins, several with chicks but many still on eggs.
Neko Harbour provided a calm, splendid overnight anchorage with the blue-crackled glacier face and towering black mountains all around G Expedition. Sculpted icebergs and brash ice filled the bay with reflections from every angle. Our zodiacs took us to the dark sandy
shore to begin our exploration of the area around the chosen landing site on the Antarctic continent. Deep, pink-stained penguin highways curved up the snowy hillside to the gentoo rookeries neatly set out on snow free rocky outcrops. It was fascinating to watch the penguins
cleaning themselves in the crystal clear water on the shore and swim of at a great speed to then return, preen and make their way up their highways back to nests and mates. We were able to walk a little way up to a rookery with a nearby weather station set up. More energetic hikers went up to a higher lookout point close to a gentoo rookery. Some tiny chicks were seen but most adults were still sitting on eggs. We had a short zodiac cruise en route to the ship and saw a deeply scarred crabeater seal resting on a piece of ice. During the afternoon G Expedition cruised through Wilhemina Bay, yet another gorgeous bay surrounded by black volcanic mountains with snow-capped peaks and glaciers. The bay was named after the queen of the Netherlands (1890-1948). The still waters were ideal for whale watching and several humpbacks made an appearance showing fluking tails and white flippers.
We all woke up this morning to sunny skies again. We had travelled north through the night, back to the South Shetland Islands, where we planned to spend the day exploring. Our morning landing took us to Deception Island where we entered the caldera of an active volcano called Port Foster with a long history of sealing, whaling and science. The narrow entrance is called Neptune’s Bellows, as strong
winds frequently blow through it, and it is less than 500 meters wide where ships must avoid Ravn rock, which lies submerged at the entrance. A lonely whaling wreck, The Southern Hunter, lies on the beach to remind everyone how dangerous this is. We anchored at Whalers Bay, (the French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, named the bay because of its heavy use by whalers at the turn of the 20th century). We admired the old water boats, the buildings, airplane hangar, and oil tanks that sat along the beach giving us an idea of what went on during the history of this interesting place. We looked around at Neptune’s Window, where American sealer Nathaniel Palmer looked out over Bransfield Strait and saw the continent of Antarctica in the distance in 1820. After leaving Deception Island we made our way to Livingstone Island and our landing spot for the afternoon, Elephant Point. Getting into shore was a nightmare, as the tide was very low and we were faced with a bay full of rocks and reefs. As the name of the area infers, we were pleasantly greeted by a number of these great beasts and we took in all the sights and especially the sounds on the beach. The sun shone bright and lit up the mountains on Livingstone Island and it was a stunning landscape as we made our last journey on the zodiacs back to the ship. It was time to say good-bye to Antarctica and make our way north and back to the Drake Passage.
The remainder of the trip was fairly uneventful. The ship docked in Ushuaia on the evening of Friday, Jan 1, although we spent the night on the ship anyway. Saturday was flying from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, which went smoothly. The airport in Buenos Aires was a circus. The security line took nearly 30 minutes. The emigration line took over an hour. Despite that our flight departed on time, and we arrived the next morning in Dallas. The last flight back to SFO also departed on time, and we were back home by late morning.