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Ushuaia and Beagle Channel ~ 20th January 2023

The dawn has finally broken on the day many guests have dreamed about for years – going to Antarctica. For some, this voyage has been postponed twice due to the Covid pandemic. In true A&K style, our stay in Buenos Aires, the Paris of the South, has been magnificent with various options/tours to enjoy. Guests were up early for the transfer to the airport, to board a special charter flight to Ushuaia, in southern Patagonia. Buses transported guests from the airport to the beautiful Arakur Hotel for lunch, with its splendid views out over Ushuaia (the bay which faces West) and the Beagle Channel.

It is a stunning day – sunny, warm with no wind to speak of. Rare for Ushuaia we are told. Covid tests are conducted before the lunch. Clearly the quay is busy with ships lining both sides, being resupplied for trips south. The quay is being extended to cope with the increasing demand for Antarctic travel out of Ushuaia.
Our ship, Le Lyrial, is stunning – looking so much more like a huge private yacht, than an ice-strengthened, purpose built, ecologically green expedition ship. The Expedition Team, Captain and crew members welcomed guests onboard and showed them to their suites, where luggage, parkas, waterproof boots, backpacks and water bottles awaited them. Champagne flowed freely whilst travellers looked around the ship. At 7.15pm the mandatory life-jacket and lifeboat drill was carried out, after which weary guests enjoyed a sumptuous meal in either Le Celeste or La Comete restaurants. By 8pm we are steaming down the Beagle Channel heading for the Drake Passage.
T. H. Orde-Lees who accompanied Shackleton on the ill-fated Endurance Expedition in 1914-1916, recorded in his diary “And now to conclude. Is it worth doing?” Ask any member of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition and you will receive the reply: “Yes, I would not have missed it for the world” and “Would you go again?” “Rather! Such is the call of the South!” The White Continent dedicated to peace and science continues to lure folks from all corners of the globe. No doubting she will cast her magic spell over these excited guests too…
This is a 11-day trip. Two days to cross the Drake, 7 days in Antarctica, then 2 days back again. This voyage takes us south of the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees South), probably into Marguerite Bay. Thereafter I am heading home, what a treat.

Drake Passage ~ 21st January 2023

This is indeed an extraordinary trip. Antarctica is defined in various ways, generally considered the area south of 60 degrees, but realistically the region within the Antarctic Convergence Zone. This voyage takes us south of the Antarctic Circle at 66.6 degrees South, into areas not often visited including Marguerite Bay. To boot, instead of the usual 5 days spent in Antarctica, this expedition offers the guests 7 days unbroken in Antarctica! Little wonder this departure has proven so popular.

Today we were introduced to the Expedition Team, one of the most experienced in Antarctica. Expedition Leader Marco Favero and Expedition Director Suzana D’Oliveira began working in Antarctica in 1986, so 74 years combined experience between them alone. Ornithologist Patri Silva gave a magnificent talk on birds of the Southern Ocean. Of particular note were her impressions of various flight patterns, which are certain to assist guests with bird identification. Jason Hicks, geologist, brought the house down, being oldest of 5 kids. His 3 siblings came in quick succession, then a 7 year gap before his sister Finale’ was born. His father saying No More, his mother dreaming of another little boy for 15 years, who was to be called Encore! Jason gave a presentation on how Antarctica was formed from parting continental plates. I explained how Amundsen was first to the South Pole, with clinical planning, experience and dogs, dogs, dogs!
Tonight was the Captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner, where Captain Julien Duroussy welcomed everyone onboard, introduced his senior officers and hosted Captain’s table in the main dining room Le Celeste on deck 2. All told, a magnificent day at sea onboard Le Lyrial. The ocean has been benign, despite the ship rolling somewhat from side to side. Tiring as one is constantly being caught off balance getting dressed, in the shower and the like. At dinner Pete Clement and Agus Uhlmann were talking about the “old” days, no stabilisers, bunk beds, lee boards and belts to strap yourself into bed. Being hurled out of the top bunk is no fun. Thankfully Le Lyrial is NOT one of those ships.

The mighty Antarctic Circumpolar Current is roughly four times the flow of the Gulf Stream. The region where cold Antarctic waters meet warmer waters of northern oceans is called the Antarctic Convergence Zone or Polar Front. The seas south of the Antarctic Convergence contain the coldest and densest water in the world. This cold, dense water sinks to the ocean floor, moves northward cooling tropical and temperate seas, a very important feature of the world’s heat balance. Ocean depths around Antarctica average 4000 – 5000meters (13-16000 feet), with very few shallow areas.

Cruising the Drake Passage ~ 22nd January 2023

On Wednesday 22 January 1879, 144 years ago, two famous Anglo-Zulu battles took place in South Africa – Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Over the past 23 years I have tried to build a storytelling career largely around these two stories. Today in 2023, we are sailing across the Drake Passage on a relatively benign ocean. Some big swells (7m/22 feet) have rolled across the direction of travel, but with the stabilisers deployed, Le Lyrial is riding very comfortably. It has been a busy day, with 3 Enrichment lectures, and the mandatory Zodiac and IAATO briefing. Suzana explained how to wear life jackets and backpacks, safe entry and exit from the Zodiacs along with safety guidelines. Marco provided the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) requirements to be adhered to by all guests visiting Antarctica. Basically, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. After which life jackets were handed out to all guests, in preparation for their first landings in Antarctica in the morning. The excitement is palpable.
At Recaps Frederique Olivier explained the importance of the Antarctic Convergence Zone, which is mentioned in yesterday’s blog. The Antarctic Convergence is not some hypothetical line on a chart, but a very real physical boundary, since many sea species are only found on one side of this boundary. I spoke about distances to the South Pole from 68 degrees South (1920 Nautical miles, 2160miles or 3456km), how Marguerite Bay is named after Charcot’s second wife, the Adelie Penguin named after Dumont DÚrville’s wife, and Shackleton’s ship Endurance found on the centenary to the day of his burial on South Georgia (5 March 1922). Otto Nordenskjold’s uncle, Nils, was the first man through the North-East Passage onboard Vega in 1878/79. Otto led an extraordinary survival story of his own, when their ship Antarctic was crushed by ice, to end up being killed by a bus aged 59 in Sweden.

Having mentioned my first trip to Antarctica in the Russian jet on 14 December 2011, the centenary of Amundsen getting to the Pole, Marco brought the house down during his briefing saying he had no idea where I was heading with my story. In fairness, having moved away from my notebook, neither did I! Guests are very relieved to learn that operations only begin on Jenny Island at 9am in the morning – we need time to get that far south.

Jenny Island and Bongrain Point ~ 23rd January 2023

Siegfried Sassoon said measure Life not by how many breaths you take, but rather by how many times Life takes your breath away.

Today was certainly breath-taking. We crossed the Antarctic Circle just after midnight last night, and awoke to find Antarctica all about us. Nothing really can prepare one for a morning like this – brilliant sunlight, not a breath of wind and Antarctic Whiteness as far as the eye could see. Guests sat at breakfast completely overawed by what they found themselves part of. Swell and a shore break created some problems for the Expedition Team trying to find a landing spot on Jenny Island. We were taken ashore in the Zodiacs, and saw many Elephant Seals on the stony beach. Huge icebergs punctuated the bay, and beyond lay glorious white mountains in all directions.

The Zodiacs came in stern/engine first to collect us, the handling all beautifully taken care of by the A&K team and shoremen.
The afternoon landing found us at Bongrain Point, to enjoy breeding colonies of Adelie Penguins. Many birds with their jet-black heads and white eye-rings walked up and down the beach delighting the guests. Southern Fulmars and Snow Petrels soared overhead, indicating their nesting sites high up on the cliff faces. All guests chose to take the Zodiac tour through the icebergs, and brash ice between the shore and ship. As fortune would have it, the tours yielded Weddell, Crabeater AND Leopard Seal.
Almost unheard of that guests would see all 4 species of local seal on their FIRST day. We trust we shall find Antarctic Fur Seals to complete the seal list shortly. Whales all about the ship before and after dinner on a perfectly calm ocean completed an absolutely perfect start to our Antarctic Circle expedition, some feeding very close to the ship. The weather today being almost unbelievable, especially given weather conditions over the past two weeks. Days like this will keep us coming back year after year. Those little white voices keep calling us back….

Adelaide Island, Marguerite Bay ~ 24th January 2023

At 67 degrees South the days are long – sunrise at 3.30am, sunset at 23.30. Today guests were taken out on Zodiac cruises around Adelaide Island, which lies within the Argentine, British and Chilean Antarctic claim areas. The very large (75 x 20 miles), snow-covered island presented wonderful icy landscapes in which to explore. Many seals were seen hauled out on the ice floes, along with whales, many of which obligingly showed their flukes. Humpback Whale flukes are as individual as fingerprints, and good photographs of the underside assist citizen science project happywhale.com in identifying individuals, their movements, their offspring, etc. It is quite a rush to photograph a whale in Antarctica, and then have it seen months later off the coast of Hawaii or Brazil.

Guests and staff alike got cold on the tour – we are far enough south for temperatures to be appreciably lower than further north along the Peninsula. Whilst the guests were out on the Zodiacs, I presented Going South with Scott twice – once for each group.
Over lunchtime Le Lyrial repositioned towards The Gullet. A very narrow, long channel first thought probable by Jean-Baptiste Charcot in 1909. John Rymill of the Graham Land Expedition roughly surveyed the channel in 1936, but the descriptive name was given by FIDS in 1948 – it does indeed resemble a gullet and oesophagus! Geologist Jason Hicks named the islands and channels over the PA system, and a magnificent transit was enjoyed. The amount of accumulated ice and snow hereabouts is glorious to behold. Plenty of seals were seen on ice floes. Dinner was enjoyed on a millpond-like surface, under a sky of light only Antarctica can produce. The cheese buffet was exquisite, complete with apricot jam. Huge snowflakes complete a perfect scene.

Not far from here the Falklands Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS) was conducted in 1956. Polar explorer extraordinaire, Wally Herbert, led a team with sleds and dogs along the top of these 7000 foot high mountains, assuming a hut had been established, and a route scouted to the summit of the mountains for his team to descend by. Sea ice thwarted plans of the hut party, the hut was not erected, neither was a route scouted. Herbert’s party descended off treacherous glaciers to Charlotte Bay. Like Amundsen, the only brakes being rope wound around the sled runners to increase friction. Try to imagine their horror at finding no hut, nor resupply. Mounting a sled across two barrels, they improvised a raft of sorts, and using snow shovels as paddles, were able to hunt seals in the bay and survive for a long month, until the resupply team could get through to them. Probably the greatest modern Polar explorer of them all, Wally Herbert is seldom mentioned, possibly because he never screwed up, neither was he particularly politically correct. Only knighted 30 years after his incredible journey on skis from Alaska to Spitsbergen, via the North Pole in 1969. The hut eventually erected by the FIDS in 1956 is now beautifully restored and on view in the Port Stanley Museum, along with original equipment. Herbert’s book Noose of Laurels regarding Peary’s attempt to get to the North Pole in 1909 is well worth reading. Then find a copy of Tom Avery’s Pole Dance.

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