Antarctica expedition on Bark Europa, Part 4 - South Shetland Islands
Disclaimer: A ship logbook and daily notes written by expedition guide Jordi Morales Plana were extensively used in this story.
Our unexpected late landing in Barrientos Island the day before gave us a small taste of what is to come next. I was amazed by the abundance of wildlife and their curiosity towards humans. I knew about all this from articles, documentaries, and Youtube videos but, experiencing it in real life is something else. The excitement was on a high level. Everybody was furiously taking photos without a deeper thought about subject, light, and composition. I was definitely guilty of that too. The experience was so overwhelming that it was hard to keep the emotions calm. That was our welcome to the South Shetland Islands and there is more to come in following days. Few more landing sites including the famous Deception Island are waiting to reveal their riches. Here we go.
13th February 2018Noon position: 62° 32.4’S /59°34.5’W Wind: Variable. We start with a westerly moderate breeze at midnight (11 to 16 knots winds) which increases at 05:00 a.m turning in to a strong breeze with winds up to 27 knots. In the morning the wind drops considerably and we get a gentle breeze (7 to 10 knots). At noon the wind is bearing to the N and it calms down even more. In the afternoon the wind increases again now coming from NNW with force 4 (winds up to 16 knots) becoming stronger during the night up to force 6 (up to 30 knots winds). Sea: Variable. Moderate sea, wavy and choppy most of the day due to strong winds but fair swell (less than 2m). Air temperature: 4.5°C min /5.2°C max Sea temperature: 2.5°C min /2.8°C max Barometer: 974.2 hPa at the beginning of the day. Then the pressure decreases slightly till 972hPa at 07:00. At noon we get again 974 hPa. During the rest of the day the pressure drops considerably till we get 965 hPa at night. Weather: fair weather. Cloudy most of the day with rare clear skies some in a while. The visibility is moderate during the day but it becomes foggy and poor from 20.00 (less than 2miles)
South Shetland Islands
This group of Islands was sighted in 1819 by William Smith, an English merchant sailing in his brig, the Williams, from Valparaiso to Montevideo. He informed the British Admiralty of his sighting. They did not believe him, and so he sailed south again and again. And he sighted them. This time the Admiralty acted on his word. They made Smith the pilot of his own ship and installed Edward Bransfield as captain. The two men sailed the Williams south and, as Smith had surmised, discovered the South Shetlands, which they named for their proximity in latitude to the Scottish Shetland Islands. Within a few short years, hundreds of British and American sealing vessels followed in their wake, obliterating the fur seal populations here. Today, years after banning the fur seal hunt, the population has rebounded well – particularly in South Georgia.
Landings at Fort Point and Yankee Harbour
Europa lifted the anchor at about 06:00 am in the morning, and then motored the short way from her anchorage at Barrientos Island towards Fort Point. At breakfast time she was already looking for a suitable anchorage on the North-East side of the rocky point. By that time we find ourselves surrounded by the splendor of Greenwich Island high mountains and glaciers. The overcast weather seems to open up for us at our arrival and blue skies peek through the low clouds. However, weather is ever changing and it is hard to bet on a forecast. We are better to be prepared for all alternatives.
Fort Point, our second landing site on the South Shetland Islands. It got its name after the resemblance that the conspicuous jagged spires of basalt (reaching over 100 meters in height) dominating the landscape has with an actual fort. This formation is linked by a low 700m long isthmus to the calving glaciers of Greenwich Island. The whole place is quite exposed to the whims of the Bransfield Strait, but today looked like a perfect day for a landfall here. Despite the gusting winds, the shoreline was relatively calm, allowing for safe zodiac operations.
As soon as we set foot ashore, a welcome committee of a large amount of Fur seals is inviting us to explore their home base. Although those seals species were virtually exterminated by the sealers, they did return to the islands where they were hunted. Luckily their numbers are recovering. About 95% of them breed in South Georgia Island, and the rest in smaller colonies around the South Shetlands. Why are their numbers so large the Antarctic areas at this time of the year? Whe are seing just big bulls now or some non-breeders, that migrate to Antarctica. Now they are having a rest in these quiet waters after they finish their stressful reproduction cycle. Here they recover from the fastening period they just had, trying to put together harems and fighting with other males. Females are still in their breeding grounds nursing their pups.
The feeling of wildnerness given by all the wildlife around framed on the imposing scenery is awe-inspiring. The breathtaking landscape is home to Chinstrap and Gentoo penguin rookeries. We also noticed several Elephant seals snoozing along the coast. The shoreline is festooned by bergy bits and brash ice, coming from calving on the neighbor glacier front. After a delightful morning time with the penguins, walking along the boulder beach we head towards the imposing ice cliffs of this glacier.
Here is one of the unusual spots where we can approach an arresting vertical calving glacier just walking along the beach itself. Swell breaking along the shore moves cobbles and boulders as the pieces of ice crash against them rumbling while an occasional calving echoes at the distance resembling a canon shot.
Photographic frenzy is happening all over again. We took countless pictures before we hike uphill snow slopes towards a neighbor “nunatak”. Nunatak is a cliff which the island’s glacier has eroded as it was flowing around it. Now stands like an island amid the field of ice. We walked up the ring-shaped corridor created between the granite pointy hill and the ice itself. The view from up there is extraordinary with the whole Fort Point area at our feet. Soon we make it down back to the landing spot. Zodiacs are already standing by ready to pick us up and transfer us back aboard Europa. Fort Point is a place of brutal unspoiled beauty, not frequently visited. I wish I could stay longer but the expedition has its schedule and we have to leave.
When we arrive back to Europa, yet again we go through biosecurity procedures. It is a serious thing and also pain in a butt but it needs to be done. And I am happy to see the guides enforce it. As lunch is served, we start our 11 nautical miles way towards the spot where we plan the afternoon activities. The spot is called Yankee Harbor, and it sits on the Southern shores of Greenwich Island. While finishing our meal, Europa motors her way into this enclosed bay. She slipped through the narrow entrance between a low glacial moraine and the ice cliffs of Glacier Bluff.
The site owes its name to the fact that is was used by USA sealers. They were after the pelts of the Antarctic Fur Seal and the blubber of the Southern Elephant Seals around the 1820s.
The most famous sealer of all times, James Weddell, also visited this bay on 22nd December 1821. As a witness of those old times, a single trypot lies at the beach, used to render the seal blubber into the precious oil. The landing took place next to the tip of the glacial moraine that dominates the area. It is formed by boulders and rocks that have been all been smoothened by the erosion of the sea. Amongst them, we could also find few patches of Antarctic Hairgrass - one of the only two species of vascular Antarctic plants. This area resembles Island quite a lot from what I seen from photographs. Weather is Islandic too as far as I can tell with ever present wind and rain.
Numerous Fur seals lay scattered all over, several Gentoo penguins wander around and Skuas look for a meal as we walk along. The afternoon cold and rainy conditions made many of us return to the ship after an hour and a half. Zodiacs picked us up close to a Gentoo penguin rookery. A few others decided to stay longer, walking further along the beach. There, another spectacular glacier was waiting for us. Making our way to its front we enjoy an open book of glaciological features. Heavy melting of its surface drains to the sea on streams, while big swell crashes against the dripping icy cliffs. We could even set foot on the glacier itself on our way back.
I am very excited about our next landing. Only 35 nautical miles separate Yankee Harbour from our next destination. The volcanic caldera of Deception Island is the place for tomorrow’s activities. That allowed us to have a quiet dinner at anchor.
From logbook - 14th February 2018Noon positon: 62°58.9’S/60°33.4’W Wind: Variable. We get very strong wind with gusts up to 50 knots during midnight coming from NW. The wind starts dropping around 04:00 till force 5 to 6 (up to 27 knots). In the morning before the first landing the wind decreases again to force 4 to 5 (around 20 knots). In the afternoon the wind drops again to force 3 to 4 and changes to the NW. At 17:00 the wind shifts slightly to WNW turning into a light breeze and finally it increases again around 20:45 with strong winds up to 20 knots. Air temperature: 2.9°C min /3.8°C max Sea temperature: 2.2°C min/4.1°C max Barometer: Variable. We start the day with 960 hPa and it decreases gradually during the day un(l the night when the pressure points 974hPa. Weather: Good weather. Clear sky during midnight then it gets cloudy in the early morning. Good visibility (more than 10 miles)
Deception Island is an island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, with one of the safest harbours in Antarctica. This island is the caldera of an active volcano, which seriously damaged local scientific stations in 1967 and 1969. The island previously held a whaling station, it is now a tourist destination and scientific outpost, with Argentine and Spanish research bases. While various countries have asserted sovereignty, it is still administered under the Antarctic Treaty System. (Souce: Wikipedia)
We are leaving Yankee Harbour shortly after midnight. Europa is met with strong winds on our way to Deception Island. Although the forecast was more benevolent, cold air shooting down Livingston Island glaciers made us struggle with variable hard conditions. The wind gusts on our nose reached 60kn. It almost felt like the Drake Passage all over again. Nevertheless, we managed to overcome this difficulty and reached the Neptune’s Bellows by breakfast time. This gap on Deception Island caldera is the gateway to its inner bay, called Port Foster. The wind blows over 25kn. Despite the cloudy and cold weather, many of us were on deck to enjoy and photograph our passage through this narrow channel.
It is not easy to navigate this passage in good weather, and under this morning’s circumstances, it takes nerve and skills to sail through it. As we pass by, we leave at our Starboard side a steep lava cliff and the submerged Ravn’s Rock at our Port.
Whalers Bay, the landing site for this morning, is just around the corner. Soon we see it with the remains of the Norwegian “Hector” Whaling station. Not just the early 20th Century whalers used the constructions but also been through other uses afterward. It became a Navy-military base during the English “Tabarin” Operation in the Second World War. After that it was part of research facilities belonging to the British Antarctic Survey, formerly called Falkland Islands Dependencies.
The strong inshore winds and unstable weather raised questions about the planned hike to Baily Head. It took a while to make the final decision to go ahead with this hike. Baily Head sits at the outer shores of the island. Besides this option, we are having another group to explore the decaying ruins of the whaling station.
People interested in the walk went to the shore first, then followed by the rest. Short waves breaking along the shallow beach made the landfall quite adventurous and wet for all of us. I've choosen to stay in the bay and explore the whaling station. There is so much to see here. The guides told us that the walk to Baily head is going to take a while and there may not be enough time to explore the rather large Whalers Bay.
The scenery is great, though completely different from what we saw before. The blustery weather in the early morning definitely let the blue skies to show up over the wide-open spaces along the shoreline. The whaler’s facilities, counting with houses, water-boats, high-pressure blubber boilers and oil tanks amongst others, lay framed by Neptune’s Bellows cliffs on one side, and a loose scree ridge over Kroner Lake at the other.
Here, between the years 1906 and 1931 countless whales were processed to render the highly appreciate oil from their blubber. All the original structures have been partially covered and melted by a mud-ash flow in 1969. Still, the devastating event left enough constructions standing. The place is nowadays considered Antarctic Historical Site, sort of open-air museum, in clear decay.
In comparison with the other places, we have visited during the last couple of days, Whaler’s Bay looks quite desolated. It is showing us a different beauty than we experienced until now.
Now and then solitary Gentoo penguin stop for a while to take a breath and enjoy the solitary beach. Few Skuas fly around and some Fur seals snooze on the gravel coastline. And there, at the foot of Neptune’s window, a beautiful Leopard seal rests. This narrow gap on the rocky ridge over Neptune’s Bellows was named by Lt. Penfold, from the British Royal Navy in 1948-49.
The Whalers Bay is amazing. I could have spend there entire day and it wouldn't be enough. However we need to move on, gathering on the shore and waiting for zodiacs to pick us up and transfer back aboard of waiting Europa. We leave behind the ghostly Whaler’s Bay to board Europa and start the short way to Pendulum Cove, a favorite spot for an “Antarctic swim”.
Deception Island still counts as an active volcanic caldera even though it last erupted about 50 years ago. We can clearly notice this fact along the shores that steam on low tide and Pendulum Cove is one of the areas where the thermal activity is high.
As a reminder of the earth power, showing as volcanic explosions, here lay the remains of the Chilean Base Pedro Aguirre Cerda, destroyed by the year 1967 eruptions.
When we set foot ashore, many were eager to strip their foul weather gear to the swimming suits and try the hot water along the shores of the beach. Soon they lay flat on the shallow ponds, just at the tideline. From the really hot water there, some are brave enough to run into the freezing cold seawater before claiming back their warm spots. I passed on this opportunity and rather took a walk alongide barren beach.
Pendulum Cove gave us the unique opportunity to experience Antarctic warm-springs. After couple of hours of great fun we returned on board for dinner. Then Europa lifted the anchor and started motoring the 65 nautical miles Southbound. She is about to cross the Bransfield Strait towards tomorrow’s destination. With the last light of the day we sail off Deception Island.