“Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic..” so wrote Ernest Shackleton.
Indeed our activities today, in glorious weather, have presented scenes beyond description. These are the sort of days operators in Antarctica dream of, the sort of days that cement one’s reputation as leader of the pack. During the night we sailed the scenic Gerlache Strait, first explored by Adrien de Gerlache on the Belgica in January/February 1898. An expedition which overwintered involuntarily in the Antarctic, with American Dr Frederick Cook on board along with soon-to-be-famous, Roald Amundsen. For many there may be some sensory overload taking place, such is the magnitude and splendour of this extraordinary place. Many guests from the past voyage have been in contact, regarding how the little white voices are already luring them back!
The morning was spent at Cuverville Island, named by de Gerlache in honour of a vice Admiral in the French Navy. Freezing temperatures overnight created a most gorgeous environment, but such slippery conditions ashore that hiking to the high viewpoint above the bay was impossible. The snow was so frozen that it never even crunched beneath our boots. Many guests made their way up the slopes to enjoy the view, and tried to slide back down. Frozen snow however does not lend itself to being enjoyed in this manner. Most guests battled so in getting up the slopes, that the idea of a hike was absolutely out of the question. The views were breathtaking with sunlight on much of the scene, Humpback Whales close to shore, and plenty of Gentoo Penguins. Antarctic wonderlands at their very best. Some cloud hanging low over the mountain tops, but generally a fairly clear sky, and no wind.
After the excitement and gandeur of Cuverville, Le Lyrial sailed through the narrow, extremely scenic Errera Channel, separating the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and Ronge Island. Rightly known as the Antarctic Alps, this piece of geography, with many icebergs, proved worthy of its reputation. Passing very close to icebergs in a ship is always exciting. Titanic notwithstanding.
The afternoon was spent at Neko Harbour, a small bay indenting the eastern shore of Andvord Bay along the west coast of Graham Land. With its actively calving glaciers and lofty mountain peaks surrounding the small bay, it really is a dream destination. In deep, compacted snow guests were able to walk up the slope, via nesting Gentoo Penguin colonies, to a vantage point, Russ Manning having carefully checked first for crevasses. Some chose to slide down, creating much pleasure and amusement. Most just wanted to meander slowly absorbing Antarctica at her very best.
Expedition Leader, Agustin Ullmann, tackled me in front of a large group of guests, but being of much slighter build ended up being picked up and placed bodily in the deep snow by myself, much to the guests’ delight. The camaraderie and team spirit in this Expedition Team is magnificent. Naturalist Cobus Kilian found an extraordinary piece of clear ice, the size of a large Elephant Seal. We could not decide whether the hollowed ice looked liked a mammal’s skeleton, or something out of Battleship Galactica. Two symmetrical openings at one end, looking like the afterburners on a fighter jet, responded with a drumming sound to the wake of the Zodiac. Everyone wanted to take a photograph of this natural phenomenon, like something we have never seen before. Humpback and Minke Whales put in appearances this afternoon, guests watched penguin eggs hatching, chicks being stolen by Skuas and Kelp Gulls raising their young. A stationary Weddell Seal on the landing beach happily obliged photographers and guests alike, looking like a huge sleeping sausage with a cat-like face. Once again stepping onto the Antarctic Continent adding to the magical afternoon.
Krill remains the foundation of much biology and ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. Eaten by very nearly everything, from Baleen Whales to seals, fish and seabirds. The exoskeleton has a very high concentration of fluoride. Penguins have a stomach lining to absorb this fluoride, before being regurgitated, which we regularly show our guests. If harvested for human consumption, the skeleton must immediately be removed to prevent contamination of the flesh, raising the costs of harvesting and processing markedly. On account of its (Krill) colour, most droppings in Antarctica tend to be pinkish, since the overriding component of the diets is Krill.
As I write this piece Le Lyrial is steaming along the Gerlache Strait proving what a capable, sleek and fast vessel she is. Earlier the propellers were stirring up much green diatomic algae, which in turn nourishes the Krill, hence our seeing so many whales today. Often the propellers are used to simply create current to move icebergs from near the rear of the ship. After Recaps/briefing the entire team went to the top of the ship for a celebration of Charley’s life. Larry Hobbs, Russ Manning and I spoke about our memories and deep affection for Charley, and Suzana closed. Shortly after Suzana’s mother died, Suzana was in a Zodiac with Charley and two penguins jumped into the Zodiac. Charley immediately said they were messengers from her mother, something Suzana never forgot. Most team members too moved to speak, hard as it was. Two whales swan under Suzana on the marina this afternoon, and we are certain that the number of whales seen today is a message of goodwill to us all from Charley, who loved the oceans and everything in them deeply. As Russ said, may his spirit swim!
We are steaming towards the Lemaire Channel – one of the most photographed spots in Antarctica. No Internet there so I plan to send this off now. We are all feeling tired, and I have volunteered for early morning whale-spotting duties in Wilhelmina Bay, so I am not waiting up for the Lemaire, as much as I would like to. Hope to pick up the tale tomorrow.