Drake Passage and Brown Bluff ~ Wednesday, 14th December 2022
Andrew Denton said “If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet is something even greater; the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it”. At the start of this voyage, I mentioned to many that nothing can prepare one for your first trip to the ice.
Having crossed the Antarctic Convergence around 10am, there is a thick bank of fog about the ship. Brash ice and icebergs common around us. Ornithologist Patri Silva started the lecture programs with her animated talk “Birds in Tuxedos”. Her knowledge of penguins beggars belief. Patri’s imitations of penguins sounds, movements and behaviour, along with her humour creates presentations in a class all their own. We are now well into the Antarctic Convergence Zone, where the water and air temperature has dropped a good 5 degrees. Warm, saltier water flowing southward meets cold, less saline water flowing northwards, and these two water masses mix, sink and flow northward. The cold water supports vast concentrations of sea life, hence the birdlife, whales, seals and fish hereabouts. Air temperature outside much colder too. The Antarctic Convergence Zone is usually considered the biological boundary of Antarctica.
I spoke at 11.30am about Scott’s journey to the South Pole, explaining the last-minute decision to proceed with 5 men to the Pole instead of the carefully planned group of 4. When they finally arrived at the Pole, 3 weeks later than anticipated, with horror they learnt they had been forestalled by the Norwegian party of Roald Amundsen by 34 days. TODAY happens to be the 111th anniversary of Amundsen getting to the Pole at 3pm on 14 December 2011. Not one of Scott’s 5-man party made it back to the hut alive. The last 3 perished only 11 miles from One Ton Depot. Scott’s Letter to the Public, written as he died, is an extraordinary piece of writing.
The afternoon found A&K guests enjoying a landing on Brown Bluff. This is a proper continental landing, in the Antarctic Sound, at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Geologically very unusual, with looming brown cliffs above breeding colonies of Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. We were fortunate enough to see a few Chinstrap Penguins too, and a large female Leopard Seal cruising along the shoreline in search of unsuspecting penguins. She caught a penguin and thrashed it violently on the surface, to separate feathers from the body, before swallowing her meal. The Cape Petrels and gulls were in a frenzy feeding on the scraps. Low tide made the landing difficult, given numerous rocks. Experienced A&K drivers coped easily with difficult conditions, including plenty of ice requiring stern landings (coming in bow/engine first). A number of the team, including myself, ended up with both boots full of water assisting the guests. I have washed my boots out with warm water, and am trying to dry them with a hair dryer, given that we have a 6am start in the morning. My cabin resembles a laundry, with plenty of items hanging out to dry.
Many guests were ecstatic to have their photo taken holding a 7 sign, indicating their Seventh Continent.
Writing these lines passing through Bransfield Strait back to the South Shetland Islands, with low cloud, land masses very close to ship covered in snow and ice. Considering the distance of 900km between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula, the fact that we are here in well under 48 hours, grateful for calm seas, gives some indication of the speed and stability of Le Lyrial. On a vessel like this it is absolutely impossible to imagine the discomfort and deprivations of passengers on ships in days gone by. Roald Amundsen spoke about the ‘mustard’ within Scott’s ship, all over the table, living area, beds, etc. that came as a result of the horse urine pouring through the floorboards from the horses stabled above! No warm bathing or washing facilities. Clothing only washed in salt water – fresh water was far too valuable for the washing of clothes. Men, bedding and clothing were damp for the duration of their voyages, and with that commensurately cold. Limeys derived from the ration of lime juice allocated to ward off scurvy. Nightly reading required lying on your side with a candle balanced on the side of your face. Woe betide you if you fell asleep! The Golden Age of Exploration surely a misnomer in terms?
A friend sent me a message this week asking if I had seen any Polar Bears? I hadn’t the heart to reply that down in the Antarctic, we have Penguins instead. I hadn’t the will either to explain about Arktos, then Antartkos – at the opposite end of the world. One an ocean surrounded by continents, the other a continent surrounded by ocean. The North Pole is situated around 3 feet above sea level, depending on sea ice thickness. The South Pole sits at 9500 feet above sea level on the Polar Plateau. Antarctica – no native population, no tree line, no tundra, no terrestrial mammals. Arctic – clear tree line, native populations, well-defined tundra and many terrestrial mammals. Mean annual temperature at South Pole -50C versus -18C at North Pole. Antarctica, less than 20 bird species beyond 70 degrees south. Arctic, more than 100 bird species beyond 75 degrees north. Greenland is the largest island on Earth, with the second largest icecap behind Antarctica. Two entirely different environments, both with enormous appeals all their own.
After a lively Recaps session at 7pm, A&K guests enjoyed another magnificent meal onboard. Tomorrow we plan to visit Half-moon Island and Deception Island in the South Shetlands. Many cannot believe they are actually here..
Half Moon Island and Deception Island ~ 15th December 2022
Life on board Le Lyrial began early this morning. I try to get a head start on the day, by rising early, making coffee, and contacting Karen before breakfast (if wifi allows). Breakfast was served at 6am, that staff and guests be ready for the Zodiac tour by 6.30am. Conditions were certainly good, with a very calm sea. We were ferried across flat water to Half Moon Island, dominated as it is by Livingstone Island. For Marco and Patri, a special visit given their regular sojourns at the Argentine research base Camara here. The slope from the pebble beach was quite slippery with snow, ice and guano to the penguin colony above. Sadly Chinstrap Penguin numbers in this part of the Peninsula are in decline, being replaced by Gentoo Penguins. The Chinstraps are moving south, probably food related, a warming climate, and only a few pairs remain on Half Moon.
Off to the left were the few breeding pairs of Chinstrap Penguins, with some Gentoos thrown in for good measure. Osi Shahaf spent much time sharing her knowledge of these creatures. Mike Hamill and Juan Pablo Seco Con shared their huge knowledge of seals at the far end of the island. Initially only one Weddell Seal was present, but a large number were spotted further on, and gave us all a grand show, at the waters edge, looking as if they had a permanent smiles upon their countenances. Weddell Seals look like large, fat sausages with a face at one end. Two Humpback Whales cruised close to shore adding to a stunning vista. A further young Weddell Seal exited the water at the landing site, with gorgeous colourations on its hide, much to the photographer’s delight.
Many guests felt overdressed and hot in their plentiful layers. Renato gave us some tips on Award-winning images, and shared some exquisite pictures. During lunch, Le Lyrial repositioned toward Deception Island, aptly named by 19th century sealers precisely because it is deceptive. It appears to be an ordinary, solid island at first glance, but is actually a flooded volcanic crater, shaped like a donut with a small bite taken out. Technically, this is a caldera — an enormous crater formed when a normal volcanic cone collapses down into the underlying magma chamber. The crater filled with water.
Neptune’s Bellows is the bite portion of the island and also the entrance to the caldera, which formed a safe anchorage for early 20th century sealers and served as a center for the whaling industry. A tricky entrance for ships as there is a large collumn of rock in the middle of the entry. Ships have to avoid the rock, staying very close to the right-hand cliff face. Beginning in 1906, Whalers Bay was an anchorage for factory ships which processed whale carcasses into oil. A whaling factory was built on shore in 1911, though seven or more floating factories were also anchored at times in the bay. Whale-catchers brought in the whales which were flensed (stripped of blubber) alongside the factory ships. Whaling anchorages need shelter and fresh water for the ships’ boilers. Water was collected from streams and glacial runoff by water boats, wooden boats with decks and square boxed hatches. Remnants of these boats can be seen on the beach at Deception, along with myriad whale bones.
Whaling was abandoned at Deception in 1931, when the old floating factory ships were replaced by pelagic (open water) factories, equipped with slipways in the stern that allowed the whales to be hauled onto the deck. Whaling could now take place on the open seas, away from the shelter of harbors, like Port Lockroy and Deception Island. This consequently put whalers beyond reach of the British authorities who limited the number of factories and catchers in operation and taxed the oil. Had this control continued, it is possible that whale populations would not have been so devastated.
We landed at Whalers Bay, near the ruins of the whaling station, later occupied during and after World War II by the British as a research station. Britain determined to keep a beady eye on German and Russian intentions in the area. The station was abandoned after volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969, the latter of which inundated the whaling station with a huge flow of volcanic ash.
As well as wandering around the ruins and up to the old hangar, there was the opportunity for a brisk hike to Neptune’s Window, a broad gap in the caldera wall that offers spectacular views over the surrounding seas. The expected warming by volcanic heat of the shallow water at the tide’s edge produces water of bath temperature. At evening Recaps Reed Sherer explained the geology of Brown Bluff and Deception Island. JD Massyn then told us about Kelp Gulls. Her story beautifully flowing from 1991 when JD worked as shop steward on A&K’s red ship Explorer, to meeting Marco and Patri at Camara Station, a 9-year hiatus, and then being re-united with these extraordinary ornithologists! A beautiful, personal story of Antarctic Expedition Teams and wonderful friendships. The 5 onboard dancers and singer gave a most enjoyable show after dinner at 9.45pm. I watched, before retiring to my room to write this blog. It has been a long day. Good night.
Exploring Neko Harbour and Cuverville Island ~ 16th December 2022
Roald Amundsen en route to the South Pole in 1911 wrote “Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairy tale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed, wild as any land on our globe, it lies unseen and untrodden.”
Guests were up early again today, in preparation for a landing at Neko Harbour. In 1921 Neko Harbour was named after Christian Salveson’s floating whaling factory ship Neko, which operated in the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula between 1911 and 1924. Amundsen’s description above certainly applied to the landscape around Neko early this morning, added to by the magic of ocean water. This is THE Antarctic environment our guests have been dreaming about. Large snowfalls this season required that we made steps onto the slope, where our guests hiked up to view the Gentoo Penguin colonies. Plenty of mating behaviour was observed. The wind was cold, but a wonderful landing was enjoyed by all. Our second Antarctic Continental landing in as many days.
Le Lyrial has 17 watertight compartments, each separated by hydraulic doors which need to be treated with respect. These doors can be operated separately from the bridge. Four massive diesel engines (320 RPM usually) run generators, which in turn power two enormous electric motors driving the fixed-pitch propellers. Maximum revolutions per minute on the props is 175. The electric motors run on 700 Volts, and can be individually adjusted. These diesel engines consume roughly 1000 litres of diesel an hour between them, and Le Lyrial has holding capacity for 600 000 litres. This is sufficient diesel to run from Marseilles to Montevideo, right across the Atlantic diagonally, but Albert prefers to fill up in Las Palmas – just to be safe he smiled.
The filtration process for the diesel is complex, and enables the engineers to control the viscosity and temperature of fuel going into the engines.
This ship, carrying 200 passengers and 150 crew, requires 70 000 litres of fresh water daily. This compares with domestic consumption estimated at 150-200 litres/person/day. Sea water is filtered through sand, then mechanical filters to 5 microns, before being pumped at 60 bar pressure through reverse osmosis filters. Two units each produce 2500 litres/hour. During the night much water is produced and stored for use the following day, but these units run at least 15 hours every day.
Bacteria, then filtration through carbon and mechanical filters produces “technical water” from black and grey water on board. This water is used in the galley, for washing decks and the marina, and some is mixed with fresh water for use in the laundry. The marina is a large flat deck (rear of ship) at water level where guests enter and exit the Zodiacs, wash their boots, etc.
Incidentally, we are all in awe of the laundry service on board. Clothes for washing are back within 4 hours, beautifully ironed and clean.
Cold rooms run at 3 and 5 degrees, the freezers at -25 degrees. Food of this quality and quantity requires proper storage facilities.
The stabiliser fins are roughly 5 meters long and 1,5 meters wide, operated by a single gyroscope controlling the list and pitch of the ship. Good to note the entire unit is built in Glasgow, Scotland, with Rolls Royce producing the motor and control board. It was fascinating watching the pitch and angle of the arms changing as we discussed this fantastic comfort feature on Le Lyrial. Considering the size of this ship, and the stabiliser arms being the same size as the pectoral fins on a Humpback Whale, I cannot help believing the whale has a much better deal? There really is a factory below decks, which most passengers are blissfully unaware of. The technology and costs beggar belief. To see it all in its pristine state is a special privilege indeed.
Over lunch, we transited the narrow Errera Channel, whilst guests enjoyed a lovely BBQ served on the pool deck. The scenery sliding past the ship was magnificent beyond words in all directions. The planned afternoon landing at Cuverville Island was thwarted by abundant sea ice. Cuverville is named after a vice admiral in the French Navy, by Adrien de Gerlache on Belgica in 1897-99. De Gerlache and his crew were saved from scurvy and worse by the actions of Amundsen and Dr Frederick Cook, who hunted seals and served the meat under-cooked providing essential Vitamin C. A&K guests instead were treated to an exciting Zodiac tour along the island’s shoreline, and amongst the abundant icebergs in the bay. We saw Gentoo Penguins at close quarters and marveled at the various ice formations reflected in the icebergs. The experienced drivers added richly to the guests’ enjoyment with their knowledgeable commentaries, and superb driving skills. Plenty of whales enjoyed around the ship during and after dinner.
Today has been long, cold and wet. My fellow team members and I are weary, given a busy start to the season. Zodiac drivers all have wind-burnt faces. Tomorrow we get as far south as we are going on this voyage – 65 degrees South at southern end of Lemaire Channel.