Jonathan's Adventures to Antarctica on the Professor Molchanov
Latitude: 54º15.0' S, Longitude: 68º19.0' W, Wind Speed: 0 knots 0, Weather Conditions: calm, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 0.0 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 0 ºC, Sea Temperature: 0 ºC
It was nice getting a full night's sleep in Ushuaia, waking up excited for the adventures ahead. During breakfast at the hotel, I realized that there was an inch of snow on the ground in Ushuaia. Isn't this the summer in Argentina? I would hate to see the winter here! Out in the Beagle Channel, a white ship was pulling into port. Could that be the my ship, the Professor Molchanov?
All of the travelers met in the lobby of the hotel to prepare for the beginning of our trip. It was interesting meeting this diverse group with travelers ranging in age from 21-75 years and representing many countries, but we all shared the adventurous spirit and desire for Antarctica travel.
First, we took a trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park. It was a surprisingly snowy trip but an interesting opportunity to see the park with a guide who explained the history, flora and fauna of this park that is literally at the end of the world. It was a good opportunity to introduce myself to my fellow adventurers over a cup of hot chocolate.
We boarded the Professor Molchanov at 1600 hrs, the suns rays were tempered by an icy blast seemingly straight from our destination, Antarctica. At last we were soon to be on our way to the great white continent.
Before the mooring ropes were freed, the first item on the agenda was to meet the staff -- at 1645 hrs in the lounge/bar we were duly introduced to the staff by our Expedition Leader Jonas Wikander. The three lecturers, Trevor Potts, Nigel Milius and Barrie McKelvey are experts in the fields of exploration and history, biology, and geology and glaciology respectively. We also met our Kayak/Camping Master, Tim Thomas, and Kayak Guide, Louise Adie, for those intrepid souls signed up for such excursions. All in all, a team with vast experience of the regions we are to explore over the next ten days. We also met the most important man on the ship, Captain Evgeny Baturkin, who proved to be a great leader and set an example for such a wonderful crew.
We sailed through the Beagle Channel toward open water and the famous (or infamous) Drake Passage with which we would become well acquainted with over the next two days. I spent time out on the bow of the boat watching dolphins "bow ride" the Molchanov, surfing its wake and accompanying us out to the open sea.
As we retired to our bunks I wondered what mood this stretch of water was going to show us; would it be mountainous seas and gale force winds, or would it be serene and glasslike? Time would tell.
Latitude: 56º42.0' S, Longitude: 65º25.0' W, Wind Speed: 10 knots SSW, Weather Conditions: Cloudy, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 163.5 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 2 ºC, Sea Temperature: 1 ºC
We awoke to find the Drake in a frame of mind that wasn't exactly tempestuous, but could be reasonably described as boisterous: swells from seemingly all directions colliding with one another, while above the waves, strong winds brought frequent snow squalls. Was this the side of the Drake's personality we were to see for the next two days? Luckily, as the day passed the seas and wind both receded and the sun shone to produce, by evening, quite a different spectacle to that in which we had started the day. And there was the irony -- here we are heading south toward a polar region, but it is getting warmer!
The staff treated us to a full day of lectures about the history and geology of the region. Trevor enlightened us about the early explorers and sealers who came to Antarctica as the first discoverers of this rich and land. The remoteness, sense of adventure, a search for profit and exploitation of the region's rich wildlife enticed those that were willing to face the challenges that Antarctica presented. There were so many tragedies and failures that resulted due to the inhospitable weather in a time before Gore-Tex, fleece jackets and sonar.
Our afternoon lecture was focused on the "land of ice" as Barry prepared us for the glaciers and geology of Antarctica. Barry preceded his discussion with, "Everything you need to know about rocks in 12 easy minutes", and I was taken back to a brief deja-vu of my college geology classes.
And then there were the meals on board. I felt like we were eating like royalty, and it was amazing to see how the chefs and staff could pull off the gourmet meals in such a small galley. Even the Drake Passage could not ruin our appetites!
Latitude: 60º1.0' S, Longitude: 61º45.0' W, Wind Speed: 0 knots 0, Weather Conditions: Sunny, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 253.5 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 0 ºC, Sea Temperature: -1 ºC
The dawn heralded even smoother seas -- the Drake Passage was dubbed by the expedition staff as the "Drake Lake" overnight -- and having passed through the convergence zone during the small hours, we were now in Antarctica (based on crossing into the colder waters). We had good opportunities to see albatross and cape petrels (pintados) flying around the boat. The bridge was a good place to be since it was quite windy outside on deck despite the calm seas.
We had our first lecture from the biologist, Nigel, whose enthusiasm about birds was infectious. The title of his lecture today was "Penguins - the Feathered Fish." In the afternoon, the activities were interrupted by the unscheduled and spectacular sighting of Humpback whales. Up to 20 of these magnificent beasts surrounded us for over half an hour. The captain and his officers did a wonderful job slowing and maneuvering the vessel to give us some great views as the humpbacks swam amongst a sea of red - a swarm or school of krill. The day was by now calm and sunny. The only sounds were the exhalation of the whales, the hum of the engines and the whirr of camera shutters!
Soon we started seeing more signs of Antarctica. Up until now there had been only the occasional penguin and the random ice "cube" (could not classify it yet as an iceberg). But as we continued south, there were more Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins and the ice was turning into the "bergs" that we were waiting to see.
The excitement was mounting as the thought of visiting Antarctica was becoming more tangibile. It was time for the mandatory briefing on the International Associates of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Zodiac; Jonas described them in some detail. He covered all of the safety procedures for using our inflatable craft, the Zodiacs, as well as the rules governing our conduct while on shore. Quark, the operator of the Professor Molchanov is a member of IAATO and as such honors their regulations. IAATO is a self-governing association that is dedicated to keeping tourism in Antarctica as low-impact as possible. IAATO regulations cover everything from boot washing (to prevent cross-transfer of microbes), to the number of visitors on shore (to minimize our impact on shore), the distances that people should keep away from wildlife (to prevent disturbance) and human behavior around Antarctic wildlife. Observing these regulations enables ongoing enjoyment of visits to the Antarctic Peninsula by all current and future visitors.
Around 1800 hrs we had our first views of Livingston Island in the South Shetlands, still some 65nm distant to the southeast, but clearly visible on the horizon. It was such a beautiful sight to see the sun set behind the icebergs, the colors made more vibrant by the clouds of a storm in the distance.
Latitude: 62º45.0' S, Longitude: 59º58.0' W, Wind Speed: 8 knots SSW, Weather Conditions: Sunny, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 178.6 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: -1 ºC, Sea Temperature: -2 ºC
Today was one of those sublime days in Antarctica when pretty well everything was perfect. Half Moon Island between the glistening jewels of Livingston and Greenwich Islands was to be our very first landing. You could just sense that today was going to be good!
By 0700 it became a little duller; there was even a brief flurry of snow as we waited to board the Zodiacs. Had the weather broken? Had we seen the last of the suns rays? Luckily our fears were unfounded, the shower soon passed on its way, and we were left once again to see Antarctica in its full splendor.
The three hours ashore here were enjoyed by all, and thus passed by with remarkable speed. There was just so much to see! About 3,000 pairs of Chinstrap Penguins were busily incubating their eggs, also Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, Blue-eyed Shags (including at least one pair with chicks) and skuas were nesting. There were also mosses and lichens, some fascinating rock formations, snow covered peaks and glaciers for the photographic backdrop.
With seven yellow kayaks lined up at waters' edge the sea kayakers assembled for a safety and dry land technique session. We looked on as the kayakers stood on shore clutching paddles and going through the motions of performing strokes that would provide them with an effective and efficient means of maneuvering in these cold waters. We marveled at their appearance, all decked out in their dry suits and life jackets. Only their brightly colored caps would provide any individuality to this uniformed group. I watched as all ten paddlers, along with their leaders, Tim and Louise, disappeared around a near bluff -- off for an adventure.
We were planning on continuing to Deception Island, but the conditions were so perfect that we made a brief deviation to head to Bailey's Point, home of 200,000 Chinstrap penguins (100,000 pairs). It was a special opportunity to go there because usually the swells are too bad to accommodate landings. It was awesome. There were so many penguins. The glaciers were also producing run-off making little rivers. We had the chance to climb high on a ridge to see both coasts, the glaciers, and the colonies below. Awesome weather and an awesome day.
On the way into the island's great caldera for our next landing at Whalers Bay, we were treated to the spectacle of a leopard seal having its lunch: fresh penguin. A gruesome sight in some ways, but one that nonetheless let us witness first hand the awesome power of this top predator. Everyone has to eat. . .
On arrival, our Zodiacs quickly made their way to the shore for an inspection of the rusting and derelict whaling station, along with the younger abandoned British Antarctic Survey Base. A volcanic mudflow, a consequence of volcanic ash eruptions of 1969, has obliterated much of the dreadful history of the whaling operations, but rusting relics still stand as silent testimony of last century's slaughter. The empty large airplane hangar has the record of a more laudable enterprise for it was from here that the aerial photography coverage of the Peninsula was carried out.
In addition to examining the old base and station most of us walked and scrambled up to Neptune's Window to look out over Bransfield Strait and to the mainland at the northern end of the Antarctica Peninsula. We shared the view with nesting Cape Petrels. We also encountered another leopard seal, this time resting on the beach. Mindful of our earlier viewing, we treated it with the utmost respect.
The human race is indeed a strange one, and to 12 hardy souls, the perfect end to the day's landings was a dip in the waters at Deception. Why would someone want to strip down into shorts and swim trunks and remove the layers of warmth to knowingly make the polar plunge? After a few brief seconds (except one guy, goggles, swim cap, and Speedo, from San Francisco who does daily swims in the bay and was used to the cold water), we ran out of the water and quickly made our way into a nearby hot spring fed by the caldera's geothermal activity.
Latitude: 64º3.0' S, Longitude: 62º37.0' W, Wind Speed: 0 knots 0, Weather Conditions: Sunny, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 146.3 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 1 ºC, Sea Temperature: -1 ºC
By the time we had breakfast and dropped anchor at our position off Cuverville Island, the wind too had dropped to nothing -- perfect conditions once again when combined with the cloudless sky. Some people even were walking around in only their long sleeve shirts!
Three hours ashore Cuverille Island gave us the chance to study another species of penguin breeding, the Gentoo. Much larger numbers exist further north, but the peninsula is home to about 20,000 pairs. Cuverville is home to roughly a quarter of these pairs. As with the Chinstraps yesterday, the birds were spread through a variety of small groups on the more prominent rocky outcrops (the first areas to become snow free in the spring). They were sitting or lying on nests made of pebbles, and were busily incubating eggs and protecting them from the unwanted attentions of the ever watchful skuas. One or two Weddell seals were also observed, and, for a lucky few, a female elephant seal swam by.
Our route back to the Molchanov was somewhat circuitous to take in some of the prettier icebergs. The range of colors and textures, and the endless variety of intricate and ornate designs were to be marveled. Our skilled drivers wound their way through these icy masterpieces, sculpted by the Antarctic wind, water, and sun.
Proceeding around Lemaire Island and into Paradise Bay, we anchored during lunch just off the unoccupied Argentine Almirante Brown Station. The Zodiacs were launched and quickly boarded for a cruise to the Petzval Glacier at the head of the tranquil Skontorp Cove. We motored between sea ice and small icebergs, passing Blue-eyed Shags on their nests (some with chicks). Then in a sweep, passed along the huge mass of the fractured and splintered ice front of the glacier.
The cruise culminated in our disembarkation at Almirante Brown, a somewhat unimposing cluster of boarded up huts, but a special site for us nonetheless. It was our first opportunity to set foot on the actual continent of Antarctica itself; a primary objective of the trip for some. To celebrate, it was time for some fun! We quickly weaved our way through the base and found the well-beaten track up onto the snowy slopes made for us by previous visitors. Then came the down hill derby! Down out of the mist rocketed, tumbled, ploughed and spun a steady stream of noisy yellow jackets. The techniques, grace and style of the descents were rather varied, but all survived. And so back to the Zodiacs and Molchanov.
We had dinner on the back deck in the form of a barbecue. Everyone enjoyed the sun, Russian music, and the chance to interact in such a festive atmosphere with our hosts, the Russian staff and crew members. They invited everyone to join them in dancing to traditional Russian music.
For some, there was yet one more activity to do before grabbing a few hours of sleep. About half of our team went back ashore to spend the night camping. We had already set up the tents in a line along a ridge, ten small shells that we would call home. Leaving them on shore, it was a special moment when the ship upped anchor and sailed off sounding its horn. It may have only been going around the corner, but it still gave something an eerie and romantic impression of Antarctica's solitude.
What an incredible experience to spend the next 12 hours on shore in Antarctica to watch the sun drop below the horizon only to rise a few hours later, never getting dark. I didn't have too many hours of sleep due to a snoring tentmate, so I watched the penguins as they too tried to catch some sleep after their busy day of swimming, rock stealing, and nest guarding.
Latitude: 65º11.0' S, Longitude: 64º8.0' w, Wind Speed: 6 knots NNE, Weather Conditions: Snowing, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 57.2 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 0 ºC, Sea Temperature: -1 ºC
We woke up with some grey clouds and snow falling. We spent the first part of the morning at Peterman Island, the site of the Oceanites Research Station with three researchers. It was nice to meet an actual group that was living at the station for the summer. They were studying the fluctuating populations of Gentoo penguins whose populations are increasing and moving south. In contrast, the Adelies' numbers are on the decline. At present the Gentoo penguin nests number about 2,300. In 1988 there were only 755. On the other hand there are only 500 Adelie nests at present -- there were 1,080 in 1988. Peterman Island is the most southerly Gentoo rookery known. This season the estimated laying date for the Gentoos is the 24th of November, and for the Adelies it is the 14th of November. Both of these dates are considered to be rather early. The Gentoo increase and Adelie decline is considered to be a consequence of melting sea ice and the related availability of krill. Krill larvae develop beneath sea ice and so a reduction in the latter means less krill. This impacts on the Adelies because they are wholly krill eaters. The Gentoos on the other hand have a more varied diet (krill, fish, limpets etc) and so are less affected.
It was neat to see the two species in the area, co-mingling. We also watched a large group of blue-eyed shags, relatives of the flightless cormorants that I saw in the Galapagos. I hiked with some other travelers and Barry to the top of a ridge that gave a great vista of the island. Barry grabbed our attention when he thought he spotted a seal about half a mile from us on the shoreline. With our binoculars, we concurred and tried to determine the species. At this point the kayakers came around the bend, and Barry gave them directions to scope out the seal and confirm species. Tim, the kayak guide, could only laugh once he arrived into the area, and our seal turned out to be a rock. Barry chuckled and said, "I guess I am not a good geologist or biologist." I can attest that I saw the head move as well.
We then took off to visit Port Lockroy for a quick visit of the Gentoo colony. The station and port office were closed, but we saw where Nigel spent a summer as the Post Master. He had great stories of his dinner invitations from the crew of ships that passed through --once on board, the crew would strongly encourage a quick hot shower. I guess you get quite stinky among thousands of penguins.
We then climbed into the Zodiac for a tour to the icebergs. The icebergs were of course great, but the highlight was the two Minke whales. Our experience with these two magnificent beasts was one of those magical once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will never be forgotten. We cut the engines and sat there whilst the whales examined us. Back on board there was much excited chatter and passing around of digital cameras with some amazing shots. Everyone was excited and relating there own versions of events. "It dived right under the boat," said one. "You could see every last detail of it," said another. "What about when it gently pushed our Zodiac?" added a third. "I'd never have believed how delicate the movements of something that size could be," "I saw its whole profile under water!" "How could anybody possibly kill these?" And, "it was incredible to be that close to such a large animal without feeling the least bit afraid," were others. Even the staff, whose experience in these waters is vast, agreed that it was the best sighting of Minke whales they'd ever had!
Latitude: 64º49.0' S, Longitude: 62º40.0' W, Wind Speed: 0 knots 0, Weather Conditions: Sunny, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 68.7 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 5 ºC, Sea Temperature: 3 ºC
After breakfast, we were in position to disembark at Neko Harbor in Andvord Bay, our final landing of the trip. Over the last few days, we have all come to enjoy penguins -- watching their activities at a variety of rookeries provided us with many happy memories to take back to our respective homes. It was then, with some sadness, we realized the Gentoos here would be the last rookery we were to visit. The gray clouds and intermittent snow added to the somberness of the scene.
It was not only the penguins that were of interest. We were also attracted by a walk up to a viewpoint over a nearby glacier. Some frivolity was inclued by sliding quickly down the steep snow slopes to the accompaniment of the Swiss contingent in our expedition, who was yodeling from above.
Our last Zodiac cruise was to be another memorable one. Calm seas and sunshine around the Melchior Islands, and, once again, some very pretty icebergs. Looking at the depth of snow coating these low-lying islands, one could easily see that conditions here were not always so benign. Attractive though it was, the scenery once again had to move off center stage as we had our second amazingly close encounter of the whale kind in as many days. This time it was two Humpbacks performing to the musical whirr of the camera shutters. Keeping slightly more distant than yesterday's Minke whales, it was still a quite remarkable display.
Latitude: 61º10.0' S, Longitude: 64º16.0' W, Wind Speed: 14 knots NW, Weather Conditions: Fog, rough seas, Distance covered in previous 24 hours: 228.5 nautical miles (nm), Air Temperature: 1 ºC, Sea Temperature: 1 ºC
There was a sense of melancholy as we left Antarctica and were now traveling northbound. Did we all just fall in love with Antarctica and were not ready to leave? Had we enjoyed the comraderie that developed with our fellow travelers of varying age and nationality? Were we all beginning to worry the re-entry into the "real world" and forecasting a rude awakening of heading back to our jobs and other tasks that make vacations all the more important?
I think it was all of the above, but it was good to feel this way. It was the experience of a lifetime that we shared with others. Many of us commented that we only wanted to come back to Antarctica again and that this was not our last time to experience a polar region. We learned a lot, laughed a lot, ate too much, and took a lot of pictures.
The next few days of the Drake Passage were quite pleasant with relatively calm seas combined with travelers having developed their sea legs. We stayed active with wildlife sightings on the bridge, having some free time to view our photos, and catch up in our journals. We were privileged to have some final lectures that recapped our experiences, and we learned about Trevor's expedition that followed Shackleton's footsteps in a modern day replica of the small boat, the James Caird; he navigated from the peninsula to South Georgia and then overland across South Georgia Island. Trevor had impressed us the entire trip with his experience and knowledge of the region's history, but we hadn't realized how hardcore he was!
And so we sailed north with a great experience behind us, rolls of photos and digital cameras full of the memories … and the smell of penguin scat stuck in our clothes.