Friday, 31 January 2014

Sigh... Our Last Landing :^(

Cruising in the Errera Channel
It has been phenomenal.  Our adventure in Antarctica has exceeded all of our expectations and our last landing at Danco Island did not disappoint.  First of all, our good luck with the weather continued to hold as it was largely sunny all day with very little wind.
Danco Island and Gentoo Penguins
We were given an extra long time on shore here on Danco.  We were only doing one landing today so we had time to make it a long one.  No one complained.  We would've taken even more time on this beautiful ice-bound rock.  
Danco is the site of a large Gentoo Penguin colony and is situated in the middle of the beautiful Errera Channel.  Snow has been late in leaving this part of the peninsula this year with the result that some of the areas of the colony that would normally have content, nesting birds were abandoned.  In addition the entire colony on Danco was behind schedule.  It is likely that a high number of the chicks will not fledge in time.
On Danco it is possible to hike up to the top of the island where there is a terrific view of the Errera and Cuverville Island just to the north.  
Kayaking with Humpback Whales in Errera Channel
For most of the landing we could see three Humpback Whales lounging in the Channel.  They were often very close to the ship where people from both the ship and the shore had excellent views of the whales.
The lucky ones that chose to go kayaking, or on a Polar Cirkel Boat excursion had amazing views of the Humpbacks.
We waved goodbye to Danco at around 16:00 and enjoyed an amazing evening sailing across the Gerlache Strait and then on into the Bransfield to Drake Passage.
Later in the evening we were entertained in the observation lounge with an enthusiastic show put on by many of our talented crew members.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A beautiful day... it don’t get much better than this!!!

This morning we had our second Continental landing and our second day with a glorious weather. Blue skies and a Weddell Seal welcomed us at the sandy beach of Neko Harbour, where hundreds of Gentoo Penguins were going in and out of the water, sunbathing, or rushing up and down the steep hills that separate their colony from the sea.
Now that it is later in the season the penguin highways are deep channels in the snow slope, in some places as deep as the penguins themselves.

Those lucky enough to be kayaking or cruising enjoyed close encounters with a Humpback Whale, while the rest of us looked at it from a distance. The amazing icescape of the surrounding glacier tumbling into the sea captivated many of us whilst the penguins carried on regardless.
During lunch we crossed Gerlache Strait into the northern entrance of the Neumayer Channel, which is extremely scenic with Winke Island to one side and the Anvers Island to the other. The Captain slowed the ship to watch more Humpback Whales before reaching Port Lockroy in the early afternoon.

Port Lockroy, historic Site and Monument Nr. 61, is managed by the Antarctic Heritage Trust as a living museum and is manned by a team of 4 who welcomed us with opened arms. This season a BBC film team is also onsite filming a documentary entitled “Penguin Post Office”. Our arrival on the base was filmed. 
The museum captures life on the station in the 1950’s. The trust runs a small shop and post office to support the Antarctic Heritage Projects, including the conservation of other historic bases that we have seen during this incredible journey.
 Penguins and chicks were suffering from the heat that we highly appreciated. We heard the poor things pant and saw them spread out on the ground trying to loose some heat.
The chicks here seemed very clean and healthy. We witnessed some very touching interactions between adults and chicks.

The surrounding mountains were the playground for our snow shoe enthusiasts who started and finished their trek from Damoy Point, the same place where the camp for the night was set up later. We all enjoyed an incredible evening with stunning colours as the sun dipped very low in the sky.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Fish Island

 This morning we got surprised. We were scheduled to arrive at Fish Island around 12:00, but due to favorable ice conditions we were there already around 0900. 
Around the Island there were quite a lot of ice drifting with the current, but we were able to get to the landing sight. For the group who should go snowshoeing at Prospect Point things were a bit tricky. It was too much ice to get a shore so the snowshoeing was cancelled and the snowshoers did a normal landing instead, they will try again tomorrow! Things were a bit tricky for the kayakers as well. They had to breach through a bit of ice during their kayak trip.
Fish Island is a small island with several small colonies of Adelie penguins. We got really close and could see that many of the chicks were loosing their down and probably will be entering the ocean within short time.

After the landing at Fish we headed north breaching through ice. The scenery was absolutely amazing! We could see steep mountains and glaciers in the horizon. It was a beautiful light and thousands of ice flows, with seals on some of them, surrounded us on a completely calm ocean.  The day ended with a breathtaking sunset.

Tomorrow we have scheduled two landings; one at Neko Harbour and one at Port Lockroy, and a new group will get to experience an “Amundsen night” outside camping.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals

Adelie Penguin Colony, Bongrain Point, Pourquoi Pas Island
This morning felt like a vacation on vacation as we got to sleep in just a tad.   Our landing at Bongrain Point on Pourquoi Pas Island didn’t start until 09:30.
It was snowing for a good part of the morning.  Not enough to give any ground cover but it certainly added to the Antarctic ambiance.
The landing sight was quite impressive.  Beautiful black and brown craggy cliffs rose up over a boulder strewn plain.  Adjacent to the plain was an impressive blue glacier.  Along the shoreline and at the base of the cliffs were several small Adelie Penguin colonies.  The large number of Skuas here seemed disproportionate to the small number of penguins.  It seemed likely that the Skuas were also predating on fish.  One had to be careful when crossing the plain not to wander too close to a nesting Skua.  If you’ve ever had a zealous guardian Skua fly at your face, you’ll know why.
Male Antarctic Fur Seal
There was one lone young male Antarctic Fur Seal which growled threateningly if anyone strayed too close. 
Southern Elephant Seals, Jenny Island
In the afternoon we landed on Jenny Island.  The attraction here were molting Southern Elephant Seals and a handful of young male Antarctic Fur seals.  Southern Elephant Seals have an annual catastrophic molt where they haul out in small groups and shed their skin and hair. This process takes three to five weeks. They leave the water for the duration of the molt as growing new skin and hair requires a rich blood supply right at the body’s surface.  This would then present them with a problem of heat loss in the water. 
Southern Elephant Seals, Jenny Island
Essentially they haul out at this time to prevent the heat loss.
The Southern Elephant Seals we saw today are at the extreme southern edge of their range.   

Monday, 27 January 2014

Stunning Stonington and Happy Horseshoe

After an evening spent going around Adelaide Island we crossed Marguerite Bay in the early hours of the morning, arriving at Stonington Island at 08:00. The bright polar sun shone down on the calm sea. The surrounding scenery of glaciers pouring down to the sea between magnificent mountains left everyone speechless before we even got off the ship.

Stonington Island is home to abandoned British Base E and American East Base. Both bases now historic Sites and Monuments protected under the Antarctic Treaty. We enjoyed walking around the buildings and hearing stories of past endeavors of the former inhabitants. The majority of work relied upon easy access to the mainland, and when the ice ramp deteriorated, the British base was closed in 1976. (The American base was only opened for a very brief time in 1946-7).
We saw at firsthand the magnificent power of nature as a large chunk of ice fell in front of our eyes into the sea making the gap between Stonington Island and the mainland even bigger.
The island is now home to breeding Antarctic Terns, Skuas and some stranded Penguins. Some of the more crazy of us tested the water temperatures for a very quick swim.
 We reached our afternoon destination, Horseshoe Island (which actually is H-shaped and not as its name states) is located East of Pourquoi Pas Island and is home to British Base Y. This station was built in 1955 to replace Base E  Stonington Island after the access by ship to Stonington was found difficult. It was mainly used during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year and abandoned afterwards. It remains a time capsule of life on a base in the 1950s with a real sense of feeling of its occupants not long moved out.
Many Weddell Seals were resting on the island and on the remaining sea ice in Sally Cove and we got the chance to see them from very close. This location was also perfect for many activities, so we took advantage of it and some of us went kayaking, others had a closer look at the icebergs while cruising on the Polar Cirkle Boats, and a fortunate bunch even spent a glorious night camping on the island. The weather was just perfect! We all left Horseshoe Island with a happy smile.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Passing the magic circle!

This morning we passed the Antarctic polar circle! After passing the circle we got a royal visit of King Neptune himself. All the passengers, and some of the crew, were welcomed to his Kingdom by a baptism on the outside deck. It was a cold welcome!

After lunch we had planned a landing on Detaille Island. Unfortunately, due to wind, we could not go through with our plan. The landing was cancelled and Fram headed south. We had an amazing view while we were breaking our way through slush and ice, incredible icebergs and seals surrounded us, and the sun managed to break through the clouds.

During the day a lot of Snow Petrels could be spotted from the boat.

Tomorrow we will arrive at Marguerite Bay- the most southern point a cruise ship has been this season. We are wondering how the ice conditions will be when we get there. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Penguin That Everyone Wants to See, AN EMPEROR!

EMPEROR PENGUIN molting on Plenneau Island
Our morning started with a landing on the White Continent itself.  At 08:30 the Expedition Team headed to shore at Almirante Brown in Paradise Bay.  This is a base that belongs to Argentina.  Today there was a few Argentina personnel at the base.  Setting foot on the actual continent of Antarctica is a very special thing.  For many people on the ship this is their seventh continent. 
Leucistic Gentoo Penguin chick.
Most people took the opportunity to walk up a beautiful snow-covered hill where there was a terrific view of glaciers and Paradise Bay.  At the bottom of the hill, by the base there is a small Gentoo Penguin colony. One pair of penguins had a leucistic chick and a chick that had normal pigmentation.  The leucistic chick was beautiful tones of very light brown.  
During our landing a Humpback Whale paid a visit to the ship.  It came within 10 metres of the tender pit and seemed rather curious about the ship.
By noon everyone had had a chance to set foot on shore and it was time to head for our second landing of the day. At 14:30 we reached the north end of the Lemaire Channel.  There was lots of ice in the channel with many Crabeater Seals on the ice floes.
Just on the southwest side of the Lemaire lies Plenneau Island and some of the best small boat cruising on the entire Antarctic Peninsula.  The area between Booth Island, Plenneau Island and Port Charcot is always chock-a-block full of icebergs.  
Instead of a landing we went cruising in the Polar Cirkel boats in the ice.  It was superb. 
Crabeater Seals Near Plenneau Island
There were Crabeater seals everywhere!  And, as if we weren’t already having a fantastic day with a lucky sighting of a leucisitic Gentoo Penguin chick, there was a lonely Emperor Penguin molting on Plenneau Island.  This was a rare opportunity to see THE PENGUIN.  The pengiun that everyone wants to see.  
By 19:30 everyone had had their turn cruising in the ice and Fram turned her bows to the south once again.

Today was an absolutely amazing day.  We all wondered what tomorrow held in store.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Preparation day

We woke up to a very calm Drake again, so everybody was in good shape and spirit to attend the mandatory IAATO briefings and vacuum clean the outdoor clothing and equipment in preparation for this trip's first landing. We sighted land at approximately 12pm and sailed through the Nelson Strait to reach our destination, Half Moon island.
We were greeted by rafts of swimming penguins and a few whales. Half Moon Island is located to the east of the larger Livingstone Island, which belongs to the South Shetland Islands archipelago. Relics of a bygone age are present in the form of an old whaling water boat abandoned on the beach. It is now designated a Historic monument.
As soon as the Captain put down the anchor we got underway with our landing, those more intrepid amongst us went snow shoeing and kayaking. On the Island we were greeted by 3000 pairs of Chinstrap penguins and their cute fluffy chicks. The chicks around 4 weeks old and starting to creche in groups. Food must be plentiful in the oceans because on most nests both chicks are waiting for their next feed looking very healthy. The thick down coats are starting to molt creating some very street wise haircuts.
We returned to the ship for a well earned dinner and drink reveling in our first close penguin encounters and relating storied of the animal behavior to each other and looking forward to seeing different species in the days to come.
Evening entertainment was provided by the MV Fram fashion show. The models strutting the latest fashion wear from the on board shop. Although of course the models are professionals they are not models but we all had good fun and this finished our first day in Antarctica on a high.