Tag Archives: South Shetlands

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

Friday 23 February 2024 – Plan C2 seemed to be holding, at least for the morning, so the schedule demanded an earlyish 7am breakfast and expeditions starting at 8am. The passengers have been split into two groups, Blue and Orange.  The idea is that when one group does a landing, the other does a Zodiac cruise and they swap over at half time. Jane and I are in the Orange group and it was our lot to do the landing bit first.

We had a hasty breakfast (though not so hasty to make me ignore the chance for bacon and egg) and then fossicked around in our cabin worrying about how to kit ourselves for the weather, which was actually very benign but still 0 degrees and with a chill breeze.

The island in the picture is called Penguin Island, and this gives a clue as to some of the animals we might see once landed.

As I’ve said, muck boots are mandatory on a Zodiac expedition, as are a waterproof jacket and trousers. The rest is up to us, so we put on a couple of layers underneath all that, packed a backpack with stuff, donned lifejackets and headed down to level 3, where a controlled chaos similar to yesterday’s was in evidence.

We shuffled forward and were checked for correct wearing of all of our gear before heading down to stumble on to a Zodiac.

It was a short trip to the shore, where a sort of base camp was set up, including a tarpaulin which allowed people to put stuff down without it touching the actual ground, and a bag for the life jackets.  Pippa was there to brief people before they got out of the Zodiac – where they could walk, how long they should be and what to do if charged at by any of the local wildlife (hint – don’t run). A little more gentle pandemonium ensued whilst everyone got all their various bits in the places they wanted them to be

and we stumbled off over a somewhat rocky terrain.

The island is called  Penguin Island, and indeed hosts several penguin rookeries.  It is also home to a large number of fur seals, mainly females and younger males – the bigger bull males have had their wicked way with their various harem members and buggered off to the local equivalent of the pub, i.e. gone out to sea until it’s time to come back and do the wicked thing again next year. But there are a lot of seals still on the island.

Which gives plenty of opportunity for portrait studies.

We had a choice of route on the island, each option being indicated by red poles to guide us.  One way took us to a rookery of chinstrap penguins.

and the other, somewhat more challenging, route was up the side of the volcano which formed the island.

We started with the penguins, who were very numerous

and many of which were moulting – adults losing their down in the post-breeding season annual cycle, and juveniles losing their first down covering.  In both cases, this moulting process renders the birds non-waterproof so that they can’t enter the ocean.

After a short time we left the penguins, who were selfishly just standing around shedding feathers rather than doing anything attractive, cute and penguinish.  In their defence, moulting takes a lot of energy, so one can understand their disinclination to waste any more by clowning around for the benefit of spectators. We set off up the side of the volcano, which gave us some great views back across the sound, nicely gussied up by a recent sprinkling of snow,

as well as into the caldera.

It was then time to stumble back down to base camp, reacquire lifejackets and join the queue to get on to a Zodiac for the cruise bit of today’s expedition.

We were piloted by Rose, who took us around the island and past some quite striking scenery

to another rookery of chinstrap penguins.

Rose then started to take us, along with our “buddy” Zodiac, towards where she knew there were some Adele penguins.

But the conditions, reasonably benign as they were, were still a little too rough and so we turned back.  We passed some more seals, including an elephant seal with an interesting pale colour

and as we headed back towards Hondius, the value of the buddy system among the Zodiacs became clear, as ours developed a fuel leak which disabled the engine.  We were quite near the ship at this point, but it could have been quite a lot more serious than it was if we hadn’t had the other Zodiac to basically push us back home.

Once back on board it was time to clean and disinfect our boots; the cleaning is done by a fancy machine with a bunch of rotating brushes, so all one has to do is to stand there for a few seconds and then exit via a “sheep dip” biocide bath for the boots.

Lunch was available almost immediately after our return, so we threw ourselves rather hungrily towards the buffet and then retired with coffee to our cabin to take stock, backup the photos, and, in my case, hope like hell that that was it for the day, as the morning had been quite tiring. It’s not that we did much that was strenuous, but we have a way to go before getting rigged up in all the necessary gear becomes a less demanding task, and struggling to work out or remember what to do under which circumstance becomes replaced by the ease of second nature. Fortunately for us, the scheduling necessities of the medevac exercise did mean that no further expeditions were possible, so we actually had a good, relaxing afternoon to recharge. The weather obligingly gave us some nice things to look at, too.

The area we were parked in for the medevac features a variety of international research stations, so every so often our phones would ping with a message from our UK mobile supplier saying “Welcome to China” or “Welcome to Uruguay”, or whatever. Sadly, none of these signals provided any internet access, so we had to go back to the boat’s rather expensive system of buying credit – probably a good idea to discourage us from getting too distracted by events outside our Antarctic bubble.

And that was it for the day.  We’re currently headed south, and tomorrow might see us actually set foot on the Antarctic continent itself, depending, as ever, on conditions.  I’ll try to post an update on how that went as soon as I can.

Nearly There…final preparations!

Thursday 22 February 2024 – We headed for bed having crossed the Circumpolar Current which delineates the Antarctic Ocean and provides the cut-off mechanism which effectively isolates it from other oceans it touches. This normally means a change in the weather – usually colder and often foggier. For us, not so much.

We really have been sensationally lucky with the weather enabling a calm crossing of the Drake Passage.  (Mind you, we have to head north again on the return journey, so the weather gods probably haven’t finished toying with us yet.)

We’re nearly there…

The food selection for breakfast was a little less to my liking than yesterday’s – frankfurter and hard-boiled rather than bacon and scrambled – but I did make one discovery that brought Oceanwide Adventures even closer to my heart.

We were promised a busy day, full of lectures and final preparations for actually leaving the boat at some stage, maybe even tomorrow. And so it proved.

The lecture programme started with a very engaging presentation from Sasha, a Russian Antarctic Scientist, who provided us with the first actual joke in all the lectures we’ve had so far.

He pointed out many arcane facts about Antarctica, which is, of course, a continent – but you knew that, didn’t you?:

  • At over 13 million square kilometres, it’s not the smallest continent. You can fit Australia or North America within Antarctica’s land mass
  • Its ice sheet contains 70% of the world’s fresh water, is up to 4km thick and is so heavy that it distorts the earth’s crust
  • If you were to remove the ice, before the crust sprang back into shape (at a sort of geological pace), this is what the continent would actually look like:

Yes, the Antarctic Peninsula (top left above) would be an island!

Sacha’s joke was based on comparing Antarctica and Russia. Antarctica is nearly 14 million square kilometres in area; Russia is just over 15 million square kilometres.  Antarctica is cold, 99% covered in ice. Russia is cold, 65% covered in permafrost.  Antarctica has Emperor Penguins. “And Russia”, he said, deadpan, “used to have an Emperor”.

The other lecture, from Ursula, a Swiss scientist, covered Pinnipeds.  She talked about five varieties in the Antarctic region, many of them concentrated around South Georgia.  There are true ones, there are eared ones, there are toothed ones. There are some which walk, some which can only waddle. They are seals – fur, leopard, Weddell, elephant and crabeater.

Humans are much more interested these days in conserving the various seal species than they used to be; fur seals, for example, were once hunted to near extinction because of the effectiveness of their pelts as warm clothing. The population has since recovered nicely and is thriving. This is not so much from human conservation, as from human predation on another species, principally the blue whale. Because of the effectiveness of human whaling, the  number of whales around to eat the krill that is such a key element in the food chain of the local fauna plummeted, thus leaving more krill for the fur seals, enabling the population to recover quickly. Unintended consequences litter the world of human hunting and conservation.

The preparations bit of the day was quite intense, mainly because there was quite a lot of it to be done and it had to be done to for any passenger who wanted to leave the boat on an expedition, i.e. all 170 of us.

Firstly, we all had to collect waterproof boots, which had been referred to as muck boots and which were a non-negotiable piece of clothing for any Zodiac-based landing.  Having collected ours, we discovered why they’re called muck boots.

The next, and particularly chaotic, process was the Biosecurity Session, to get all of our outerwear inspected, cleaned and disinfected, to ensure we don’t carry unwanted life forms to, from or between Antarctic locations.  So we carried our coats, waterproof trousers, backpacks, poles, gloves, hats, scarves, lifejackets, and boots down the four flights of stairs to a scene of barely controlled pandemonium.

The expedition staff were really earning their keep, dashing from one person to the next and helping them check their gear over – little bits of grit stuck in boot treads, fragments of seed caught in Velcro, splashes of mud anywhere, all had to be cleaned up and anything that would contact the ground, meaning boots and poles, disinfected.  It might have been somewhat chaotic, but it was done with charm and energy and we were soon checked over, signed off and free to lug our stuff back up the four flights of stairs to our cabin.

Evidence that we’re getting closer to the Antarctic landmass came in the form of sighting of the first iceberg.

The wonderful visibility that enabled us to see the iceberg at such a distance didn’t last. We suddenly found ourselves fogged in.  It looked very dense fog from our cabin window, but I thought I saw a fogbow forming so popped up to the top deck.

I wondered at the time whether the fog had come about because we were now near the South Shetland Islands (we had been told earlier that we might be able to see them as we went by). It turns out that our proximity to the islands was through a change of course which, in turn, had been necessitated by the need for a medical evacuation of a passenger.  Pippa gathered everyone together to brief us: the Plan B we’d been on was to become a Plan C whilst we took the boat close to where there was an airstrip via which the evacuation could take place – King George Island.

In a relative way, we were lucky – particularly the passenger who had to be evacuated – because the calm weather and our consequent good progress meant that we could likely combine the diverted route and evacuation procedure with an expedition to somewhere on the South Shetlands before heading south of the Antarctic Circle. The Plan B itinerary had had these components in the reverse order.

This was the plan, then, as we went into Dinner. During dinner, our slightly eccentric dining pattern drew the attention of Aleks, the restaurant manager, and Marvin, the senior steward, who are beginning to get used to the two odd English people who never have a main course at dinner.  The food on the boat is great, but, as with all cruises, there’s too much of it; also, we don’t like taking on a big dinner – at home we typically have just two meals a day.  So we have been having just a soup and starter.  Of course, the ship’s restaurant is geared up to whizzing out 170 full meals as efficiently as possible, and they do it very well – hordes of waiters scurrying back and forth dispensing plates of food with good cheer. The odd couple who don’t want one of the courses is thus a bit non-standard; but they’re beginning to cotton on, bless them.

Before dinner, Pippa had emphasised that the auguries for Plan C were good, but that, of course, we were still dependent upon the weather gods, and the times of the critical flight into and out of King George Island.

Which changed at least once, in what is clearly becoming very much business as usual for expedition-style trips such as this one.  Pippa’s original Plan C – let’s call it plan C1 – had involved everyone going out on a Zodiac cruise (i.e. no landings) tomorrow morning.  As we were dining, Plan C2 was announced, meaning that there would after all be a split expedition – one set of people going out for a landing, the other on a Zodiac cruise, with the two groups swapping over during the expedition timeslot. That’s the plan as we head to bed.

Let’s see if Plan C2 prevails, or whether a C3, or even C4, is needed.