The nice weather we had after leaving Palmer has disappeared, and it’s near whiteout conditions outside with really cold winds. After leaving Palmer the bulk of the day was spent steaming up to Paradise Bay, although there was a long detour to watch an orca chasing a group of minke whales. The orca apparently wasn’t hunting, but was instead just stalking and harassing the minkes. During the hour we were watching them the whales twice came right under our bow, and the clarity of the water provided some awesome viewing. Paradise Bay was also a great spot, although after the obligatory group photo most of us were spending the time grabbing photos of fellow passengers. Tomorrow is the last day on the peninsula — the weather gods really need to send us one last good day so that we can make the Bailey Head landing and see the chinstrap highway.
Despite the fact that I’m by far the youngest one out here, there’s been a core group of people who I’ve had a blast hanging out with. Rod, Carter, Tim, and Hugh have been non-stop entertainment, whether they’re doing elephant seal impersonations, playing butt darts, or giving each other unending grief. Dave & Ann can be counted on to always be the other folks that hike to the remote parts of the landing sites, and they’re also the ones who brought this new party game to us. Kaiyote has been a mystery throughout the trip, but she’s also the first to climb a mountain and is one of the sweetest people out here, even when clamoring to get Arnie to drive through an iceberg. Ted has been doing this sort of thing his entire life and has seen more remote places than anyone I’ve ever met. The Alaskan contingent, especially Jim and Ken, are always good for a conversation, and Jim has managed some real zingers (“What’s the name of them crazy shit-eatin’ birds?”). Margi & Chris are fellow Case Western grads, and Chris is even a fellow Shaker High alum. The list goes on and on… Neil, Jim, Marlene, Mary & Ken, Arnie, Doug & Gail… it’s been a great trip with a great group of people.
A memorable day in many ways — we started out at Port Lockroy with penguins and ended with many empty wine bottles and Rod uttering the now famous words “Follow your dreams. When I was a kid people said I’d never be able to fit four quarters up my ass, but look at me now.” Rod & Marlene, Margi & Chris, Ted, Carter, Tim, Kaiyote, Dave & Ann, Rocky and Hugh were all involved in the festivities, but you really had to be there to understand the madness as we sat in the snow on the stern eating and drinking, and then spent nearly an hour playing the southernmost-ever game of butt darts. Between Rocky’s Canadian longjohns, the USA vs. Canada grudge match, and a dozen other shenanigans we should all be committed, but it was a heck of a time nonetheless.
Even without the evening’s insanity today was still a fun day, despite the snow and clouds. Port Lockroy had a ton of penguins and shags, and the snow let up somewhat during our landing. The Lemaire Channel is supposedly one of the most scenic spots on the planet, but it was mostly shrouded by clouds and snow as we passed through. Peterman Island was my favorite island thus far on the Antarctic Peninsula despite the fact that the weather was uncooperative. While there I climbed a big hill in the center of the island, causing far too much concern amongst some of the other passengers. The view from the top was great, and watching the adelies toboggan across the snow as I descended was an added bonus. Two more days here, and they should be good ones.
Anyone coming to Antarctica should make sure that Cierva Cove is on the itinerary. No sooner had we lowered zodiacs this morning when a minke whale showed up and began circling us. The water is so utterly clear that the twenty foot long whale showed up perfectly as he swam under and around our boats. Shortly thereafter we moved towards the head of the cove and saw numerous leopard seals out on the ice flows, often only a few feet from the zodiac. That experience was followed by a humpback whale sleeping at the surface.
After the excitement at Cierva Cove my thought was that the rest of the day would be a wash, but after lunch and with perfect weather a humpback and her calf decided to come right up to the bow of the ship and hang out with us for ten minutes. When leaning off of the bow you could see both whales below in the water, and people were yelling “Port! No, starboard!” and racing across the deck as the whales swam under the boat. My 75mm lens was too close for pictures — at times the whales were surfacing no more than ten feet from me. An incredible day, and we’ve still got an evening landing at Cuverville to go.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” — As spoken by Ken Campbell (while heavily, heavily bundled up)
Terrible, terrible weather, but a really fun morning. The landing at Bailey Head was cancelled, so we moved to the more protected shores within Deception Island (the island is an old volcanic cone). Snow was causing near-whiteout conditions, winds were blowing at 30-40 miles per hour, and there were no animals (five Weddell seals and a few skuas being the exception) but Hugh, Carter, Rod and Marlene started flinging snowballs and suddenly we were all about six years old again. Rod and I did a bit of hiking afterwards and had a skua following us at eye level and only a few feet away for a bit. Given the chance I’d have been happy to stay out and continue to experience the more adventurous side of Antarctica, but the staff (wisely) decided that conditions were deteriorating too quickly and pulled everyone out. Our afternoon landing will probably also be scrubbed, but with luck we may still salvage tomorrow’s excursions.
As Doug would say, our karma returned this afternoon and we spent several hours with a group of feeding humpbacks. The cold was pretty intense, but no one was complaining. Just as we were getting ready to depart one of the young whales began breaching, making for a memorable sendoff.
Forty knot winds (about 45 mph) inside of the caldera, so the afternoon landing is scrubbed. No complaints though, it’s pretty cool just to look out of the window and see the snow blasting around us. It should be even more interesting to see what the open ocean is doing when we get out of here.
After spending the afternoon out on deck and seeing only a few distant whales I was sitting down to write a journal entry about the lack of whales when two minkes started lunging out of the water next to the boat. Forgetting the irony of waiting six hours to see whales and having them show up ten minutes after I quit looking, these whales provided a lot of good looks during the fifteen minutes that they stuck around. However, aside from the few sightings that we’ve had it’s been an unusually slow trip for whales — Rod and the rest of the staff say we would normally be seeing dozens of whales at this point, but today we saw five, and three of those were fairly brief.
The day started with a landing on Brown Bluffs, which is an old volcanic formation that is now home to thousands of relatively human-tolerant gentoo and adelie penguins. Wanting to get away from the group I did a bit of scrambling up to the higher slopes, and had the countryside and penguins all to myself. A few of the passengers are grumbling that they’ve seen (and smelled) enough penguins to last a lifetime, but I’d be quite content to spend a lot more time down here with the little buggers. The next stop will be Deception Island, and as we’re steaming there the snow is falling heavily. Four more days on the peninsula to go, and I wish it was a lot more.
Arnie and the crew managed to navigate the pack ice, and we arrived at Paulet very early this morning. I felt like a kid at Christmas — I woke up before the wakeup call, was at breakfast at 5:45 AM, and had all my gear ready to go shortly thereafter. The scene outside was exactly what you imagine when you think of Antarctica — penguins everywhere, glassy water, thousands of icebergs varying in size from ship-sized chunks to pieces the size of a zodiac, and cold temperatures. I was the first on land, sat with thousands of adelie penguins as they poured in and out of the water, and then hopped on a zodiac to cruise around looking for penguins on the ice flows. Later in the day Ted led a group up to the 1200 foot high volcanic cone in the center of the island, and the view was unreal — amazing visibility, seas that perfectly reflected the surroundings, and thousands upon thousands of pieces of ice floating in the waters.
Still cruising along. Despite ominous weather reports the seas have been calm, temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and we haven’t seen the pack ice since morning. I had one good orca sighting after breakfast, Hugh and I spotted a minke whale after lunch, and Mary (from New Hampshire) spotted two humpbacks about an hour ago. There were also nice leopard seal and crabeater seal sightings, but otherwise it’s been a slow day with only a few distant whale sightings and the usual penguin sightings. Tomorrow is Paulet Island, although so far this year no boats have been able to make it through the ice to the island. With luck the Polar Star can punch through, but we’ll soon see.
Today was our first day to sleep in while on this trip, but I woke up at 4:45 because the boat had slowed down. Looking out of the porthole I realized we were surrounded by pack ice, so I went outside to watch the boat pushing and plowing through ice that was at times several feet thick. One thing that I wasn’t expecting was that there were enormous icebergs within the pack ice — since the ship is about 300 feet long I’d guess some of the ‘bergs had to be close to a half mile in length. Not a lot of wildlife out here, but we’re keeping a watch out for whales, and seals sometimes haul out on the ice. Practically a full day already, and it’s not even 6:00 AM yet.
I woke up this morning and knew something was wrong. It was only after walking down the hallway without being violently thrown into a wall that I realized the seas had calmed and the boat had stopped rocking. Shortly thereafter we finished navigating a vast number of icebergs and set anchor in the South Orkney Islands. While anchoring Arnie nearly backed the ship into one of the ‘bergs, and only when the stern of the ship was about ten feet from the ‘berg did he casually say “Oops, hard to port.”
Our landing at Shingle Cove in the Orkneys was a nice one, although very cold and snowy. The adelie penguin colony that was there provided ample entertainment as the parents would return to feed the chicks, who would in turn rush the parents, overwhelming them and causing them to eventually flee the ravenous youngsters. The ensuing chaos in which adult penguins were wildly running everywhere with the chicks in hot pursuit was great fun to watch. We left just after noon, and will be making one last crossing before reaching the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather report is an ominous “very strong gale warning”, but at least for the moment the seas aren’t too rough.
One last note, while Rod was out on deck expounding on his belief that rather than burial or cremation he would prefer to be publicly blown up (“but people would be kept back so they wouldn’t have pieces of me splatter on them — that would be gross”) Tim made the observation that it wasn’t quite as cold if you stood downwind of Rod, seeing as there was so much hot air flowing out of the man. Gotta love the staff.
The passage to the Antarctic Peninsula is continuing. Tomorrow we’ll have a brief stop at the South Orkney Islands, and then it’s on to Antarctica. The winds have calmed a bit, but the swells are much bigger; as a result the boat isn’t rocking as often, but the rolls are more pronounced and will often send chairs, drawers, and people flying. While listening to Tim Davis give a presentation on his digital photography (the man creates some amazing images) the chairs were sliding from port to starboard with each swell. The weather hasn’t bothered me except for late into dinner last night when I got a bit queasy. Since then I’ve been wearing motion-sickness bracelets, and thus far the waves have been fun rather than vomit-inducing.
Our last day at South Georgia, and it was a another good one. Winds kept us out of Cooper Bay early in the morning, so we instead took the boat into Drygalski Fjord, and Arnie cruised to within probably ten feet of the glacier at the head of the fjord. Forgetting any concerns about the glacier calving while we were sitting there, it was pretty neat to be that close. We then returned to Cooper Bay and enjoyed the remainder of the day among a colony of macaroni penguins. It took me over two hours to take my first picture, but after realizing that the essence of a macaroni is being grumpy, hopping on rocks, and having a wild yellow feather crest the photographs came fast and furious. Also of note is that while we were onshore an elephant seal wedged itself into some rocks, and since the staff felt it may have been trying to hide from us a rescue was undertaken, and after almost an hour the seal was freed.
Now we’re underway for Antarctica via the South Orkney Islands, and the seas have kicked up to insure that we enjoy the ride. The winds are sustained at about fifty miles an hour, gusting up to seventy, so we’re rocking and rolling as water breaks over the bow. I was out taking photographs from the bridge (deck seven) and got drenched by spray on a couple of occasions. Most of the passengers seem to have disappeared, so I’m guessing a good number of folks won’t be making it to dinner tonight.
Completely exhausted, but it was a great day. We had the option to skip breakfast and go ashore at 5:30 this morning, so obviously I jumped at the opportunity, along with about fifteen other people. Got a few photos of the king penguins and elephant seals in the morning light, then took off for a hike up to the face of the glacier. On the return trip the terns attacked (apparently they were nesting nearby) and after escaping their onslaught I ended up emerging on the wrong side of the penguin colony. The long trek around the far side of the colony was done through swampy filth that the elephant seals seemed to love wallowing in, but several gentoo colonies along the way made the detour worthwhile.
After a brief lunch and a ten minute power nap I returned to land and took off up the side of one of the mountains that circle the harbor. The terns were again ferocious, but after a long climb over razor-sharp shale the view of the glacier-covered inland mountains and surrounding iceberg-filled ocean was incredible. The descent was a bit hairy, but in the end there were only a few scrapes and bruises to show for it. The ship’s captain (Arnie — great guy) had earlier been climbing the same mountain and required twelve stitches on his return.
Due to the unseasonably warm weather today (I was in a t-shirt all afternoon) the elephant seals were suffering a bit and had to take measures to stay cool. The sight of them all lined up along the river with their heads submerged was a bit comical, but by evening they had moved into the ocean and the sea was so thick with the beasts that you probably could have walked off shore without getting your feet wet. Tomorrow there’s a 5:30 wakeup planned, so the South Georgia marathon continues.
After getting blown out of St. Andrew’s Bay we steamed for the more protected Gold Harbor. A steady stream of icebergs marked our path to a steep-walled harbor with giant icefalls tumbling down into it. We went ashore despite strong winds, and were immediately greeted by a massive pile of elephant seals and numerous king penguins, gentoo penguins, skuas, fur seals, and sundry other critters. While the harbor didn’t offer the abundance of wildlife that other landings have provided, it made up for it with quality. I took tons of photos, had skuas pecking at my boots and resting in the sand six inches from me, sat encircled by king and gentoo penguins, and was often eye-to-eye with elephant seals at distances of only a few feet. We’re anchored here overnight, and I’ll be getting up early for a 5:30 return trip in the morning.