Antarctica expedition on Bark Europa, Part 5 - Sailing towards Antarctic Peninsula
Disclaimer: A ship logbook and daily notes written by expedition guide Jordi Morales Plana were extensively used in this story.
Our time on the South Shetland Islands ended and we keep pushing towards the Bransfield Strait. It is a big body of water that separates the islands we left behind from Antarctic Peninsula. There are more adventures ahead and more exciting sight to see. Here the time will come when I set my foot on Antarctic continent itself.
15th February 2018Noon position: 63°51.3’S/60°54.1’W Wind: We start the day with a light breeze coming from the W. The wind decreases slightly in the early morning. Around 08:00 we get light winds and it changes to the NE. From 16:00 the wind direction is variable and it finally turns to the SE in the evening turning in to a light breeze again (no more than 5 knots) Sea: smooth sea small wavelets at midnight and becoming very calm during the rest of the day. Air temperature: 1°C min /3°C max Sea temperature: -0.2°C min /2.8°C max Barometer: 976hPa and increasing gradually till 995hPa in the evening. Weather: very good weather and great visibility (more than 11 miles) during the whole day. Sunny with some clouds during the morning but it gets overcast from 14:00.
The Bransfield Strait and Antarctic Peninsula
Finally, sailed off Deception Island through the Neptune’s Bellows. We said goodbye to a great day on the volcanic island and also to the South Shetland Islands. Soon we headed southwards along the Bransfield Strait towards Antarctic Peninsula.
This body of water is about 100km wide, extending 300km, and separates the South Shetlands from Trinity Peninsula and the Joinville Island group, off the North tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Here, we can find many interesting areas. Amongst them the Intercurrence group of islands. We had good enough weather overnight, but then we found ourselves in the long Drake Passage swell. It hits the western shores of this small archipelago. Indeed, the conditions were a bit too rough to drop zodiacs and cruise them, but instead, we spent a couple of hours enjoying the amazing and wild beauty of the scenery and the plentiful Humpback whales feeding there. The sun rose over blue skies, while the whales repeatedly showed their flukes on their shallow dives. In the background, the swell crashing against the toothed cliffs of the island fills the surface of the ocean with haze. Our next destination, the channels between Trinity and Spert Islands, lays 12 nautical miles away, and after breakfast, we need to start our preparations. There we plan to cruise amongst icebergs and mighty basaltic cliffs.
Intercurrence-Christiania Island. Sper-Trinity
Once reached the destination, we've launched the zodiacs. With half of the voyage crew we started the cruise that brought us to explore the narrow passages between rocky crags and the countless little bays between them. All filled up with icebergs of any kind, size, and color.
While Europa is been visiting the place for many years, poorly charted waters and difficult navigation due to the numerous shallows around might contribute to the fact that not many other ships use this spot. Although nowadays more of them are getting to know it.
A wide channel that traps drifting icebergs act as a magnet for our zodiacs as they cruise. The rocky shores were full of Fur seals, packed in the narrow beach areas amongst unstable glacier fronts. The weather is beautiful and after few days of overcast skies, strong wind and occasional rain we finally enjoyed a whole morning of sunshine. I stayed the whole morning on the ship. I was a part of the second group who was to make the same zodiac cruise afternoon. Europa has only two zodiacs and one slooppy that fits only half of the people at the time.
The sunny morning didn’t last much longer than till lunch. Low clouds were quickly taking over the blue skies. Time for our group to join the boats and do a similar cruise than the others. I didn’t mind the incoming clouds at all. I think from a photography point of view it was much better. Sun was great for a morning rest on the deck, now let’s get to work. I picked the sloopy instead of a zodiac. I think it is little more comfortable to sit in and it takes fewer people which can be an advantage. However, in Antarctica, things go rarely as planned. Poor sloopy. About 20 min to the cruise the engine malfunctioned. Sloopy needed a tow for part of the afternoon adventure in the recondite channels between Spert and Trinity Islands, a spectacular place of untamed nature. This sounded like a disaster but it was unbelievable fun.
Before turning back and make our way to the Europa, we found a quiet spot amongst the wild environment where we tie up the three boats together. Time for a little break to enjoy the roughness of the setting while relishing on a nice cup of hot chocolate, before carrying on to where Europa lay at anchor.
Straight away after we return to Europa she lifts the anchor and leaves to Cierva Cove, in Huges Bay. Soon after dinner, we arrive at the amazing Cierva Cove, framed at its head by the superb Brequet Glacier. Lucky enough it seems that lately it has been pretty active calving, and large parts of the bay are filled up with icebergs and brash ice. As we pass through it, many of us climb the rig for a better view, others have a good time on deck, while the sun sets making a perfect end for another good day in Antarctica.
16th February 2018Noon position: 64°37.1 S/62°02.8 W Wind: Very light winds from SE during midnight. Around 06:00 the wind shiJs to the NE turning in to a moderate breeze with winds up to 15 knots. Around 15:00 the wind is confusing varying in strength and direction. Around 17:00 the wind changes to the N and eventually we get constant moderate breeze coming from the NW at the end of the day. Sea: the sea is very calm at midnight. We get slight sea with small waves and it gets calm again during the evening. Air temperature: 1.9 °C min /5.9°C max Sea temperature: 1.8°C /2.6°C max Barometer: 897hPa and decreasing (ll 980hPa during the night. Weather: drizzle snow during midnight and the early morning with moderate visibility (less than 11 miles). At noon the visibility improves, s(ll cloudy but fair weather. In the aJernoon around 16:00 the visibility decreases and it becomes poor again at the end of the day (less than 5 miles)
Cierva Cove offered a fantastic closure for yesterday’s day. Sunset when we were amongst the brash ice and icebergs from recent glacier calvings. The deep waters and a large amount of drifting ice are not suitable circumstances to drop anchor, so we soon start our way southwards along the northern part of the Gerlache Strait. At midnight, the engines stopped, and Europa quietly drifted for a few hours, timing our entrance to the Graham Passage for around 07:00h. Then it was time to venture into the scenic passage that separates Bluff Island from the West coast of Graham Land. Even though its often clogged by ice, today we can make our way through without much difficulty. Luckily on this gloomy, cloudy and rainy morning, just a few big icebergs are scattered around. Getting off the passage, still, a couple of hours navigation are ahead, until reaching Enterprise Island where the whaling vessel “Gouvernoren” shipwrecked in 1915..
Enterprise Island - Gouvernoren Harbour
There she lays, in a small inlet with her bow off the water and the rest of the hull submerged up to a depth of 20m. As we motor our way, we are surprised by a couple of Humpback whales spotted close to the ship. Skillful maneuvers lead to a great approach to the feeding animals, and soon we found ourselves turning the engines off and drifting to them. At that moment they seem to realize our presence, as they stop their feeding activity to come along the Europa for a close inspection. For a while they were swimming and diving right next to us, offering an unbelievable spectacle for all of us. Spy-hoping, showing their flukes and scrutinizing all the length of our hull they spent a good 20 minutes with us. Time long enough to climb the rig and have a look at those magnificent animals from up the masts. Once sure it was just the old Bark Europa again sailing those waters, they resume their feeding, swimming away searching for the nutritious Krill, the base of their Antarctic diet.
In a few more days the Humpback whales feeding now in Antarctica will start their yearly migration North towards their breeding grounds. The individuals we see during this trip belong to what is known as the “G” population, breeding in the tropical waters of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica, coming all the way to these high latitudes in the South for feeding. As they continue their activities, so do we, starting our engines again, heading towards the picturesque “Gouvernoren” sunken ship, located in the little cove of the same name, indenting Enterprise Island. With its 1.5 miles in length, it lays at the NE end of Nansen Island in Wilhelmina Bay.
Being a whale catcher/factory ship and loaded as she was with 16,000 barrels of whale oil, it was not possible to extinguish the fire that finally doomed her. Actually, the Captain had time enough to intentionally ground the ship in the little cove, saving his crew and part of the cargo, who were picked up by other vessels.
Captain Eric dealt with the wind blowing into the bay where she sits, and for a while he managed to steer the Europa alongside the wreckage, offering great photo opportunities from our decks or aloft. The sailing yacht “Ocean Tramp” was moored alongside the Gouvernoren. In fact, the cove offers good shelter and is normally used by small boats sailing these treacherous waters.
Soon after waving farewell to the shipwreck and the crew of the “Ocean Tramp”, we steer Europa into Wilhelmina Bay. There we encounter more Humpback whales. At the distance several blows are spotted but just following our intended track, two individuals lay side by side resting on the surface.
After this other close encounter, it was time to steam to Orne Harbour, where the afternoon landing is planned. There, the zodiacs left us ashore at the rocky shores that lead to the conspicuous 285m high mountain top of Spigot Peak. For the first time, we were leaving our first footprints on Antarctic continent itself, that welcomed us with a windy and variable weather.
A steep hike over slippery snow and loose rocks lead to a rocky ridge, home for a Chinstrap penguin rookery. The views from this high saddle are breathtaking. On one side Orne displays all its beauty, half filled with bergy bits and brash ice, surrounded by high cliffs and huge glaciers. At the other side of the ridge, the scene shows the Gerlache Strait, the Errera Channel, and its islands. Also, there, along withnutrient rich the steep snow slopes, runs the long penguin highway used by the inhabitants of such perched rookery. All the snow slopes under the penguin colony are dyed by the colorful microscopic snow-algae that thrive at this time ofnutrient-richsnowfields.
From up there, the views are stunning and over a large area. It allowed us to see more of Humpback whales that hang around this area. Suddenly we spot many other smaller blows. Our guides just need a quick look to identify a pod of about 20 Orcas. They are swimming fast in a hunting formation. Seals and penguins shoot in any direction escaping from the formidable predators. A Humpback whale seems to struggle a bit more to get rid of them as they get out of sight in the distance.
Blizzard blowing over the high peaks announces a quick weather change. Looking down towards Orne Harbor we see the field of brash ice closing up rapidly around our landingsite. We quickly descend to the coast again after we radiod to Europa to send the zodiacs for pickup. Zodiacs battled their way in the gusting winds and through the compacted brash ice to get to us. It took a while to get everybody back on board. But all enjoyed a spectacular ride amongst the ice to reach the ship. From then on, the Europa motors a short way until a good anchorage South of the neighbouring Cuverville Island.
17th February 2018Noon position: 64°41.4 S/62° 37.5 W Wind: variable wind but very light at midnight and during the morning. In the aJernoon around 17:00 the wind increases turning in to a gentle breeze with 10 knots average winds and at night it shiJs to the SE and drops again. Sea: very calm and flat sea during the whole day Air temperature: 2°C min/5.8°C max Sea temperature: 0.2°C min /2.5°C max Barometer: 987hPa and increasing during the day till 991.7 hPa at the end of the day. Weather: very nice weather during the day. Clouds passing clear skies and good visibility (more than 10 miles).At 17:00 we get light rain and overcast weather and the visibility becomes moderate
Europa spends part of the night avoiding Icebergs drifting towards our anchorage. They welcomed us to the new day, under a stunning sunrise on the unique spot South of Cuverville Island. Colorful skies over the mountains and spectacular views of the Errera Channel, Ronge Island, the Antarctic coasts and the Gerlache Strait made for a fantastic photographic early morning. The shallow waters of the channel that separates Cuverville and Ronge Islands, at the entrance of which we lay at anchor, don’t let the largest icebergs to drift towards us. The medium and small sized ones can overcome the reefs around and with the change of tides and current increase, we find ourselves having to deal with them by breakfast time.
Shortly after breakfast, we board the zodiacs and land at Cuverville, where we plan to spend the morning. The Europa steers through shallows and grounded icebergs before leaving us on the rocky NE coast of the island, that actually is surrounded by steep and nearly vertical walls except on part of its Northern shores. There gentle slopes come down from the glaciated island’s top to a wide beach that extends 200 meters from the shore to the base of the cliffs.
There, the large and rounded bare rock areas provide good nesting sites for Gentoo penguins. Here we find one of the largest rookeries of this species, the Gentoos use to nest on smaller colonies than other penguins, but in Cuverville, several thousands of them find their home during the breeding season.
Ashore we have the morning to walk around the coastline enjoying the penguin colony and the spectacular surroundings. Countless chicks walk all over, while the adults look busy feeding them and disappearing again in the seas, to look for more nourishment for their hungry offspring.
Amongst the penguins, several whale bones lay scattered along the beach, they remain as a witness of the old whaling times in Antarctica. The ones between us that were up to a bit of hiking, could climb up half way to the top of the island. First along snow fields and rocky outcrops and then on the small glacier that cover the island top. As we walk, we have to strip several layers of our clothing on this warm and windless morning. From half way up we enjoy a magnificent view of the mountainous surroundings, with the Europa anchored way below us. The Gerlache Strait, Errera channel, Antarctica mainland, Ronge, Brabant and Anvers Islands disclose their beauty under the partially covered skies, where clouds keep fighting to shadow the sun over the blue skies.
The way down from the top of the mountain was more fun and much faster, tobogganing effortlesly down the slopes that we arduously climb just a few minutes ago. After making our way down to the beach, zodiacs were ready to bring us back on board, making a short detour on our way to cruise around some spectacular icebergs and for the lucky ones even getting closer to a couple of resting Humpback whales. Afterwards, about three hours of motoring lead us to Paradise Harbor, where we planned the afternoon activities.
And soon, at the base of a rocky headland of mainland Antarctica, home for the Argentinean Station “Almirante Brown”, we drop our boats for a cruise in combination with a short landing at the Base itself to climb to a beautiful viewpoint over the whole Paradise bay. At the Station small jetty, we are welcomed by Astrid, the only girl amongst 8 men that are here since January and will take care of the Argentinean facilities until mid March.
There, following a well-marked track over a snow slope, we head to the top of the basaltic 80m high cliff named Shag Crag. From the top, we can get outstanding views of the whole Paradise Bay. On the way to the zodiacs, again we have a good chance for sliding down before keep going with a picturesque tour towards the ship, now repositioned next to the impressive Skontorp Cove glacier front. Driving around countless ice floes and icebergs we encounter several Crabeater seals having a rest on them. With them, we have sighted all the most common species of seals that can be found on those waters. At a point during the cruise, one of the boats takes a bit of distance from the rest and heads towards a beautifully carved larger iceberg.
There the photographer Frits and his girlfriend Merel set foot on it, and even though she was not very convinced of the operation, there was a good reason for it. After taking a few pictures, a remarkably romantic moment takes place. Frits heels on his knees take off a beautiful diamond ring from his pocket and a wedding engagement takes place on this unbelievable beautiful setting. Luckily he receives a “yes” for an answer, in front of the astonished eyes of the people cruising in the zodiac, as the whole procedure was clearly kept as a secret. Rest of the people on the zodiac immortalize the moment in videos and pictures for the happily soon married to be a couple. After this noteworthy moment, the cruise continues amongst the icebergs and more Crabeater seals snoozing on them are found.
18th February 2018Noon position: 65°11.3 S/64°07.2 W Wind: very light winds during the whole day. Westerly winds at midnight un(l early in the morning when the wind shiJs to NE and then to NNE around noon. During the evening it changes slightly again to the N. Sea: very calm ocean during the whole day. The sea is like a mirror some(mes forming some ripples. Air temperature: 0.5°C min /6.5°C max Sea temperature: 2°C min / 2.6°C max Barometer: variable. 992hPa at midnight decreasing slowly at noon (ll 989hPa increasing slightly again (ll 994.8hPa at 16:00 and decreasing again (ll 985.7hPa late in the evening. Weather: Beau(ful weather. We get some fog and sun bringing poor visibility in the early morning (less than a mile). From noon the fog goes away and we get clear skies and sun during the rest of the day.
The good weather we had during last night turned out to be foggy this morning. We were ready to start crossing the narrow channel called Eclipse Point, sort of the Bark Europa’s gate to the renown Lemaire Channel.
As impressive as it is, this narrow passage presents a navigational challenge even in good weather, so today, our Mate Jelte faces it in the mist, squeezing the ship between the icebergs that leave bare any space to maneuver and glacier fronts at either side of the ship.
Leaving behind the tight passage, it's just about a half hour of open waters to the Northern entrance of the coveted Lemaire Channel. From then on, the conditions indicate that at any moment the fog bank that hovers low on the waters of the scenic strait can lift. And indeed, leaving the spectacular cliffs of Cape Renard at out Port-side, the high mountains of the surroundings start taking a peek through less dense foggy areas.
Gradually the situation improves, the mist gets thinner and the glaciated and steep scenery starts to unfold for us to enjoy. The layer of thin fog, together with the blue and sunny skies above produce a fog-bow. Similar to a rainbow but in that case the light gets refracted by the tiny droplets of fog vapor instead of raindrops. At the same time, they also stick to the ropes and cables of the rig leaving a layer of little icicles on them. Suddenly, half way on the Lemaire we found ourselves in the sun with blue sky above our heads. On the horizon, all around us, still, the lower areas of the Lemaire still remain under the foggy sheet.
Europa takes her time on that sunny spot, cruising amongst the icebergs and brash ice of Deloncle Bay, a side cove of the main channel. After a while we resume our way South, gradually steaming into the fog once more.
As it became hazy, fog bow appears again and could be seen by many from deck and more clearly from aloft. Luckily the ice conditions are pretty good inside the Lemaire Channel, and we keep motoring amongst icy patches and scattered icebergs between its high and glaciated mountains that shoot up to 900 m on either side of the ship.
Argentine Islands and Vernadsky Station
As we approach the small archipelago of the Argentine islands, we found several huge icebergs stuck amongst the numerous shallows and rocks, some of them dwarfing the old lady Europa that tries to squeeze between tight waterways on her way to a suitable anchorage.
Before visiting Vernadsky Base, we start disembarking at Winter Island, where the Historical building Wordie House is located. Walking across the snow fields of Winter Island, soon we all reach the hut for a short visit to this sort of Antarctic Museum.
There we were picked up and after a short zodiac ride, we reach the Ukrainian Base Vernadsky, where the friendly crew welcome us. Right here was the place where the British discovered the ozone hole in 1980,.
Ukrainian crew guides showed us around and then we ended up in – a pub. This Antarctic bar was already built by the British, but in the Ukrainian hands become a most famous “southernmost pub and souvenir shop”. I have to note the spirit they sell for USD $3 a shot is underwhelmingly weak. I had 8 and still no effect :(
Before diner, we make our way back on board just to be surprised by the special plans for the evening. A full barbecue was set on deck, and the party could go on until late night hours. Today we had the privilege of enjoying the wonderful sunset while having a copious and great diner on deck, dancing afterwards and getting to know each other better. The event was joined as well by some of the Base workers, that like everyone, like to have a fun time on board our beloved Europa. Tomorrow we continue our adventure moving more south along the Antarctic Peninsula.