Tag Archives: Antarctica

Gen 2

Tuesday 27 February 2024 – Our luck with the Antarctic weather looked to be running out as we peered at the morning’s prospects from the cabin.

There was a stiff breeze (about 10 knots, we were told) and it was raining. The only redeeming feature, and it was only a marginal redemption, was that the temperature was above freezing – about 2°C.

We were parked in Salpetriere Bay, known as the “Iceberg Graveyard”, because the vagaries of prevailing wind and currents tend to shepherd passing icebergs into the bay such that they can’t then float out again.  Thus it seemed that a Zodiac cruise around the bay should give us some great icescapes.

It did.

It also gave us a great wildlife experience, one which I hadn’t expected and, indeed, one which even the guides found remarkable.

But first the scenery.  It was spectacular.

This was my favourite among the many scenes we enjoyed on the morning expedition.

We had been told that there were colonies of gentoo penguins in the bay, and so there were.

The ones above look quite neat and tidy in their back-and-white dinner suit outfits.  The colony as a whole

not so much.  The pinky-brown stuff is penguin shit.  And there’s a lot of it. Really, a lot.

The individual penguins are very penguinish.

Many of them are chicks or adults which are moulting and hence couldn’t go into the water.

Also on the wildlife front, I tried to capture a few shots of the birdlife around.  There were some shags on the rocks and several kelp gulls.  This one is an adult.

And a juvenile or two were flying around.

We also saw an Antarctic tern. We weren’t anywhere near its nest, so it wasn’t in attack mode.

Some of the penguins were in the water and were skipping about madly.

This tactic, called “porpoising”, is how they move at their fastest, some 35kph.  And we managed to catch sight of the reason why.

A leopard seal, the only seal species in these parts which eats penguins.  This was the unexpected treat for both us passengers and the guides.  These seals are solitary and elusive and some of the guides had rarely seen them.  This one was very curious about us

and came and played around our Zodiac, and the other ones that were in the same area as we were.  The water was clear enough that we could see it actually swimming around and under the boat, so we had several minutes in its company.

Extraordinarily, it was not the only leopard seal in the bay.  We came across another, basking on an ice floe,

which gave us a chance to see its snake-like, evil and Voldemortish head.

Amazingly, there was yet another, also basking,

which, like the others, was the centre of considerable attention.

Leopard seals are probably the most voracious of the seals, in that they prey on a huge variety of other creatures, including baby seals of other species, as well as penguins, fish and the ubiquitous krill.  To deal efficiently with the latter, they have evolved teeth of a special shape which close together to form a filter; the seals can take a mouthful of water and krill, and expend the water through clenched teeth, leaving just the krill to eat.

Crabeater seals (whose pups are prey for the leopard seals) also have this tooth configuration, as almost their entire diet is krill.  Leopard seals, on the other hand, have also got fearsome canines and strong jaws which allow them to catch and bite their other prey.  We were told not to put a hand in the water, as a bite from a leopard seal could actually take it off.

That was our wildlife treat for the morning, alongside the spectacular icescapes of the iceberg graveyard.  The afternoon had the possibility of a landing at a nearby site, reached after a short move by Hondius to a place called Port Charcot. Calling it a port rather overstates its extent.

On the top left you can just make out a cairn, which is a not to Jean Charcot, who was a Frenchman who made two noted expeditions mapping the Antarctic Peninsula in the early 20th century. He was part of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration between 1901 and 1920, during which thousands of kilometres of the coastline were mapped; the era included the Shackleton debacle and the Scott-Amundsen competition.

Those who were interested could walk up to the cairn; there was also a reasonably substantial colony of gentoo penguins on the island.  It was really quite windy and there was also a fair bit of rain in the air, moving more horizontally than vertically. On that basis, the visit to the cairn held few attractions for Jane and me, and we contented ourselves with stumbling and sliding our way to the penguins

across snow and ice which was lavishly decorated by algae, turning it green, and penguin shit, turning it also brown.

As is the norm with penguins, they were behaving in agreeably penguinish ways; I have video but internet bandwidth constraints mean it’s not practical to share it, I’m afraid.  There were adults feeding chicks;

penguins eating snow as a source of “fresh” water*,

which must be quite a test for their digestive system, I’d have thought; and several penguin highways, routes from the colony to the sea etched out by thousands of laborious penguin journeys.

The colonies tend to be high up because gentoos need rocks upon which to build nests (normally by stealing stones from their neighbours’ construction efforts), and the tops of hills is often where the snow is first cleared by the wind; hence the need for the journey from sea to colony.

The net effect is that the whole area is covered in penguin poo,

so being careful with one’s footing is very desirable.  You can’t avoid stepping in it, but you can at least try not to fall over in it, something that a couple of our landing party failed to do.

After a while of watching the penguins, we decided to head back down and go back to the boat.  The landing area was near one of the spots where the penguins entered the water

and we could see them porpoising around in the water close to the shore as they sought food (again, I have video, but blah blah).

It is impossible to walk there without getting one’s boots covered in penguin excrement, which is not something to be transported back to the boat: partly because that would possibly spread unwelcome biological material to where it shouldn’t be; and also because it stinks.  So the team take care to ensure that boots are well cleaned before you are allowed back on to a Zodiac.

Even so, clean as we were were on arrival to Hondius, there seemed to be a pervasive pong of penguin poo hanging around for a while afterwards.

That was it for the day’s excursions, but there was still some visual entertainment to come as Hondius was carefully steered up the narrow Lemaire Channel,

which, we were told, is one of the most dramatic and most-photographed pieces of coastline.  Obviously the best place to see the scenery from would be the bow of the ship.  But it was bloody freezing, raining and blowing a gale, so I, like other sensible souls, retired to the bridge to watch the scenery go by through windows which were obligingly cleaned by the large windscreen wipers there.

There were a few idiots hardy souls who braved the bow.  There always are.

The hour or so spent gingerly creeping along the channel was a perfect exemplar of the standard Walker holiday mantra: “it would have been better if it were clearer”.

It was obvious that the scenery was dramatic; I just wish we could have seen more of it.

It’s a very narrow channel, littered with ice

as you can see from the radar plot.

After a while the fog really came down and so I retired to the bar for a G&T and waited for the briefing for the morrow.  The destination, which is a fair bit north, is Mikkelsen Harbour at D’Hainaut Island, where can be found the remains of a whaling station and more gentoo penguins.  The weather prospects are less than stellar so it may well be that we will spurn the opportunity to get cold, wet and caked in penguin poo in favour of a calm and orderly morning. Time will tell.


* Gentoo penguins can drink salt water (just as well, really) and they have a special gland on their forehead through which they can excrete the salt. A tricky choice, I’d have said – which tastes better, ocean water or shitty snow?

Detaille Oriented

Monday 26 February 2024 – The morning dawned somewhat greyer and rather windier than I would frankly have liked.

But the weather was still, equally frankly, a lot more benign than it might have been.  There were two items on the plan today, the first of which was a visit to a disused British research base dating from the 1940s, Base W, on Detaille Island.  From the warmth of our cabin we saw the teams headed out to prepare a landing area

and if you know where to look, you can see the base in the picture above.  There it is, top left. You can see it more clearly below.

Our Orange group was due to do a short Zodiac cruise before making the landing, and we were hosted for that by the very droll Sasha.  The conditions weren’t great – 0°C, a little snowy drizzle in the air and just windy enough to make things a little uncomfortable – but we saw, as ever, some great icescapes

and a reasonably substantial colony of Adelie penguins.

Many of them were milling about by the water’s edge

and Sasha explained that what was going on was a sort of group negotiation about getting into the water. An individual going in might be caught by a passing predator, but if a group could all go in at the same time, individual chances of survival were better; so it was a game of “after you, Claude”, “no, after you, Cecil”.  This groupthink actually resulted in none of them going in whilst we were watching, which is a bit of a shame. One solitary penguin seemed to be trying to tell us something

but we don’t know what, since we don’t speak penguin (I wonder if it’s related to pidgin…?).

After a bit more desultory cruising, we made our landing on the island

and stumbled up a somewhat icy path to the hut that housed the main part of the base.

We had a short history briefing from Pelin as we stood outside the entrance.

She explained a little about the geopolitical games which surrounded the establishment of these research bases, but the idea mainly was to establish territorial rights before some other buggers got in and tried it on.  The first British base was Base A, and so you can work out that Base W was established some time later, sometime in the late 1940s.  It didn’t last long, as a really harsh winter forced an evacuation, which was carried out via a 30-kilometre dog sled pull across sea ice to Base Y (Base W actually had some 20 working dogs – more than the number of personnel – which were housed in separate kennels). The harsh conditions started to destroy the buildings and they have been only relatively recently excavated from the snow which had engulfed them, lovingly restored by volunteers and established as a historic site.  Clearly, as such, it has to be treated with respect, and no more than 12 people are allowed in at any one time.  But one can go in and inside it’s like a time capsule.

After spending time looking around inside the hut, we walked a little up the hillside to take in the overall view, which was spectacular, if somewhat difficult to capture in a single image.

Then we stumbled and slipped our way back down to the landing area

to take a ride back to Hondius. It was by this stage snowing reasonably obviously, and the wind had got up a little more, so we declined the option of a further Zodiac cruise in favour of a hot chocolate and a bit of a sit down.

After lunch, at which we had a really interesting chat with Judy and Knox, a North American couple who had lived and worked in China in the 1990s, the original plan had been to go to Hanusse Bay for a further look-round.  But the prevailing conditions didn’t make that a particularly inviting prospect,

so Pippa and the team decided to start heading back Oop Narth to cross back over the Antarctic Circle and head to our next place instead. It’s not, at this very moment, completely clear where that will be, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait; and in any case, after all the relentless expeditioning of the last days, it was nice to have an afternoon off.

We visited the bridge, which is an oasis of calm

even as quite a lot of attention has to be paid to not bumping into things as we go.

We were also able to pick up the certificates which proved that we’d crossed the Antarctic Circle.

Who knows what tomorrow may bring?  At the moment, not I, but you can be sure that I’ll let you know what actually happened as soon as circumstances permit.


Stepping on a Fish

Sunday 25 February 2024­ – I had sort of expected the skipper to put the hammer down again overnight, but he didn’t.  I suppose this might have had to do with the need to steer around icebergs and going ahead full steam probably militates against the necessary manoeuverability, as the skipper of the Titanic found out, of course. Our transit was utterly calm, to the point where I was actually able to practise my balancing by standing on one leg whilst cleaning my teeth. Sorry if this is oversharing, but it’s a normal accompaniment to my morning toilette which hitherto had not been possible on this cruise.

Calm it might have been, but the weather outside hardly looked inviting – cold, misty and, for the first time on this expedition, snowing, slightly but tellingly. Temperatures we were told, stood around -1°C. I tried a photo from the top deck but it was just a sea of grey. Jane managed a nice shot of a passing iceberg with some Adelie penguins on it.

We waved, but they ignored us. Bastards.

The plan for the morning was for a Zodiac cruise – so just get on the RIB and potter about. We were just off a small group of islands called Salmon, Trout, Mackerel and Flounder – the Fish Islands.

To start with, it appeared that what was on offer, photographically speaking, was just some more spectacular Antarctic scenery.

Fortunately, the snow that had been falling cleared up and we got a nice clear view when we came across some Adelie penguins

who were prepared to set themselves up for their close-ups.

While there was a lot of the usual spectacular scenery to gawp at

it gradually became clear that a landing was planned, which had not been on the original schedule.  Some exploratory work had been done and a couple of sites identified as possible landing points.  Our buddy Zodiac and we made ground on Mackerel Island.

where there was a small colony of Adelie penguins.

The backdrop was spectacular

and, after some while with the penguins (giving me the chance for some video of their antics), it was time to leave.

This was another illustration of the possible excitement of expedition cruising, as getting our Zodiac off the rocks it was on was non-trivial and again proved the value of the buddy system among the RIB drivers.  Several passengers from the other Zodiac combined and eventually got us off and away, but some got their boots full of water and one chap actually lost his footing and fell in to the icy waters, which must have been very uncomfortable. Of course we waited whilst the other RIB got clear and then we all hastened back to the ship in increasingly cold winds, thanking our luck that we’d had the opportunities we did.

Once everyone was back on board, the skipper set off southwards, with the objective of reaching the Antarctic Circle, which we did at around 5.30 this afternoon.

Despite fearsome winds, there was a party atmosphere on the bow of the boat, with music, staff in fancy dress and hot chocolate laced with rum and whipped cream.

People were invited to “kiss the fish”.  I don’t know why.

It wasn’t always a popular proposition.

What was popular was getting a photo in a frame especially created by Ursula, one of the scientist guides on the expedition.

After everyone had calmed down a bit, we all went for dinner, but not before Pippa had explained what was likely to happen tomorrow.  Thing is, we’d crossed the Circle at the first attempt, so didn’t need the day set aside for a second go; instead we could go exploring.

So we continue to head South.

Tomorrow, we should, if all goes according to plan, visit a now-defunct British research station at Detaille Island and take a Zodiac cruise around Hanusse Bay.

The weather forecast looks great – very light winds.

I’m daring to think we might have another great day.  Here’s hoping….