Tag Archives: Mikkelsen Harbour

Farewell, Antarctic Peninsula

Wednesday 28 February 2024 – I have no idea what plan we’re up to, but the briefings that Pippa gives us every evening about the prospects for the following day make me believe that we’re working our way steadily through the alphabet as weather changes and conditions at potential landing sites become clearer.

The original plan for today had been a landing on D’Hainaut Island, where there are the remains of a whaling operation and, goodness me, some penguins, followed by a cruise around Mikkelsen Harbour. For those idiots hardy souls who wanted this, there was also the Polar Plunge – the opportunity to swim in the Antarctic Ocean.  On looking out of the cabin window first thing this morning, it was clear that the luck with the weather which had seen us through the first few days had really deserted us.

Winds were 25 knots.  I’m only passing familiar with the Beaufort wind scale, and I haven’t got Google to look it up for you; but I do know that a 30-knot wind is pretty much gale force 8.  The 25 knots that we did have was sufficient to ensure that the rain lashed more across than down. It was also sufficiently strong that the Zodiac cruise was cancelled. For Jane and me, the decision to have no part of the day’s expeditions was easily and swiftly made; after all, we’d seen a good number of gentoo penguins already and I wasn’t prepared to risk my Nikon in the persisting rain. Coffee in the lounge was a more attractive proposition. We could see the landing area

and even make out some detail of the whaling shed,

and that was good enough for us.  Jane spotted an iceberg with a face on it

and, as we departed D’Hainaut Island, vigorous use of the “clarify” slider on my image processing software revealed that there would have been a great view were it not for the fog.

And (again, courtesy of computer software) we caught what turned out to be our last glimpse of the Antarctic peninsula as we headed north

to exactly what, we weren’t sure, but we had been warned to expect some rougher seas as we went through the Bransfield Strait, which separates the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

During the afternoon, we had a couple of interesting lectures.  One from Meike about Antarctic Krill, the small, shrimp-like creatures which not only form a key link in the food chain, since just about all the local wildlife depend on them, but also operate a significant carbon sink as they feed on algae on the base of sea ice, then sink and deposit carbon on the sea bed in the form of their excretions.

The other was from Pelin, who expertly took us through one of the remarkable rescue stories of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration – the Norrskjöld expedition of 1901-03. This involved three exploration parties who had become separated from each other, each in a different area off the Antarctic Peninsula and state of distress (e.g ship destroyed by ice, being confined to a tent for months during an Antarctic winter, that kind of thing) setting off to try to find each other and, rather improbably, succeeding. Even more incredibly, a rescue ship, which had been dispatched (because the exploration ship hadn’t returned when it should have) with instructions to find them, even more improbably succeeded.  In all, a party of 20 men was saved, with only one death, probably from a chest infection.

After this, everyone eagerly awaited Pippa’s recap which would be the point at which we found out what was on the cards.

It was enlightening to listen to the process that Pippa and the team had gone through.  For example, the first thought was to go to the Antarctic Sound, at the tip of the Peninsula, to view some of what Otto Norrskjöld had seen on his expedition.

But the captain had seen the weather forecast

(hint: red and purple are the highest wind speeds) and said “no”, or more likely “nyet”.  Various other possibilities were discussed, but in all cases the winds were too strong.  And so we took our leave of the Antarctic Peninsula for the last time and headed out on our route towards Elephant Island

and more specifically to Point Wild

so named for reasons I will come to in the next post, but which has great historic and emotional significance for anyone who knows the Shackleton story.

The recap session also featured several short talks. Annelou spoke on the topic of the Antarctic ice, how it varies over the course of a year and how it ages in different ways.

Rose discussed the several versions of “South Pole” there are, starting with the obvious geographic south pole, which is where all the lines of longitude meet (altitude 2835m above sea level, the top 2.7 kilometres of which is ice);

and covering the other four (2 is the magnetic south pole, 3 the geomagnetic pole, whose explanation I couldn’t quite grasp and, of course, can’t easily Google), 4 the pole of inaccessibility (84° S,64° E), which is furthest from all of the coasts, and 5, the ceremonial south pole, where the flags of the 12 original sharing nations were erected but which has now moved with the ice away from the actual geographic south pole (I hope you are keeping up at the back…?).

Joyce discussed the heroic efforts of humpback whales to foil the killing exploits of orcas.  Apparently orcas can take humpback whale calves, and, unsurprisingly, humpbacks take the, erm, hump at this and have developed ways of chasing orcas away; this extends to orca attacks on other species, not just other whales.

The evening ended with an after-dinner presentation. Sasha, in his usual idiosyncratic and droll way, told us how his journey through life led to him being in the Antarctic after five years serving in Pyramiden, the Russian ghost town in the Arctic, via his first journey on a very idiosyncratic aircraft, the Ilyushin 76.

With the increasing pitching and rolling of Hondius indicating that we were in more open water, we headed for bed, with the enticing prospect of Elephant Island and more detail on the Shackleton story awaiting us in the morning.