Antarctica expedition on Bark Europa, Part 6 - Last days and farewell Antarctica
Disclaimer: A ship logbook and daily notes written by expedition guide Jordi Morales Plana were extensively used in this story.
With barbecue on the deck of Europa, we entered the second half of Antarctic Peninsula exploration. At this stage of the voyage, we reach our southernmost point. Still a little bit short of South Polar Circle, but the pressing time and unfavorable weather forecasts don't allow us to go any further south. Let's enjoy last few days in Antarctica before turning the ship around towards North and leave this beautiful continent behind.
19th FebruaryNoon position: 65°20.5 S/64°06.6 W Wind: Variable wind changing directions but just very light air. Around 09:0 it gets stable coming from the E but around 13:00 gets confusing again. At 16:00 the wind comes from the N and in the evening comes from the SE and increase slightly to force 3 turning in to a gentle breeze. Sea: flat sea during the whole day Air temperature: -0.5°C min /2.5°C max Sea temperature: 0.2°C min /2.1°C max Barometer: Stable. We get 997hPa at the beginning of the day and increasing slightly to 998hPa at night. Weather: Generally good weather but variable visibility. It is foggy at midnight the visibility is poor. In the morning the fog goes away but gets overcast. During the afternoon the visibility improves becoming moderate (2-11 miles). In the evening very nice weather cloudy with some clear skies and good visibility but it decreases again during the night (less than 10 miles)
Yesterday’s excitement of crossing the Lemaire Channel and the visit to Ukrainian Station of Vernadsky ended up with an enjoyable night at anchor. In the morning we woke up to overcast skies again. Europa lifted the anchor and under snowy conditions, we reached Betherlot Islands. We plan to spend the morning ashore in this location. This small archipelago consists of two main islands and a few rocks and islets. They are steep in appearance and holding large moss beds. The only accessible islet for landing is the smallest of the archipelago, but it holds a numerous group of nesting Adelie penguins. We have not yet spotted these species of penguin during our trip.
The hazardous navigation amongst icebergs and the low visibility made for a quite difficult approach to Berthelot. With the ship dealing with shallow waters and icy conditions, the crew dropped zodiacs shuttled to the rocky shores start. And there, right next to our landing site, we already see the first group of Adelie penguins. They are mostly almost fledged chicks that are around at this time of the year, forming creches seeking for protection against Skuas and other predators. On that fashion, they wait for their parents to come back from the sea to feed them.
After spending some time in the areas around the coast, many of us take a bit longer hike to the island top, over snowfields and rocks. There lichens and mosses thrive, and care must be taken not to step on them. Up on the top of the rounded island, a fantastic panorama reveals to us. Huge icebergs surround us and at the background, favorite the high Antarctic peninsula mountains start to show their splendor between the clearing clouds.
Difficult as it was to keep the Europa safely at the northern side of the island, Captain decides to look for a better spot on its southern shores. There they sit until zodiacs are sent to pick us up. Berthelot turned to be a great spot to spend a relaxed couple of hours, encrusted on the magnificent surroundings of Collins Bay. Here we had our first “5 minutes silence” moment. It was the time when we lowered our cameras, stopped talking and quietly enjoyed the Antarctic beauty that is still quite off the main tourist areas on that part of Antarctic Peninsula. These 5 minutes were easily one of my favorite time of the trip.
Colligns Bay (Trooz Glacier)
We spend the rest of the day at the large Collins Bay. Cruising along its glacier front we have lunch admiring its ice cliffs about 80m high, extending over a length of 1.5 nautical miles and climbing up the mountains for over 15 nautical miles. By the time almost all of us are running around on deck with a coffee in our hands. One of the large icebergs that sits close to our drifting position, calves and turns over, offering an unforgettable spectacle.
Shortly afterwards Europa is repositioned a bit southwards, closer to a smaller glacier tongue, neighbouring Trooz. Here our guides discover a wonderful spot for a zodiac cruise. Brash ice, bergy bits and icebergs of any shape and shades of blue, festoon the whole area, surrounded by a few huge tabular icebergs. And further away behind the ice chaos, large glacier fronts frame the scene. Swell under the floating ice makes the whole landscape a dynamic experience. Plentiful Crabeater seals snooze on the ice floes, allowing us to approach them closely without being disturbed. As the cruises take place, the weather keeps clearing up. Funny enough, we started the afternoon activity under the clouds just to finish it with blue skies, becoming overcast again later on.
Due to the non-favourable winds forecasted for tomorrow, Europa will spend the evening and part of the night steaming her way north through the Lemaire Channel. With the Northerly wind starting later on, it looks like tomorrow could be our Antarctic sailing day. If all goes well, the plan is to sail the Lemaire Channel Southbound again, and if conditions allow, take some shots of the sailing from a zodiac.
We are no about 60 nautical miles from the Southern Polar Circle. All an all a great day full of truly Antarctic experiences, spent amongst Adelie penguins and icebergs on the southernmost area reached on our trip.
20th FebruaryNoon position: 65° 07.5’S /64° 02.8’W Wind: variable. At midnight we get a gentle breeze from SE bringing winds of 10 knots average speed. Around 04:00 the wind shifts to the E and increase slightly up to 15 knots average speed. In the early morning the wind shifts again to the NE and then to the N around 11:00 varying in speed from 10 to 20 knots. IN the afternoon the wind changes to the E and starts dropping down till force 2 (5 knots average) and it remains stable during the rest of the day. Sea: variable. During midnight and in the morning we get moderate sea with long waves and some sprays. In the afternoon we have fair sea with small waves and low swell. Air temperature: 0.6°C min / 4.5°C max Sea temperature: 1.2°C min / 2.1°C max Barometer: the pressure points 996.9hPa at the beginning of the day and it keeps decreasing during the day un(l late in the night when we get 986.0hPa Weather: Generally very good weather! In the morning we get some fog and the visibility get moderate for few hours but it disappears around 09:00. Then we get sun with some big high clouds dancing with the wind in the morning. During the evening it gets overcast but s(ll we have good visibility.
Lemaire Channel under sail
Expecting Northerly winds for the day, but willing to set sail in Antarctica, last evening Europa steams through the Lemaire Channel from our southernmost position of the trip in Collins Bay. As it gets dark, Captain finds a precarious anchorage in a shallow plateau around the islets of Puzzle Islands. They offer excellent views over the entrance to the Lemaire Channel and represent a great departure point to sail again this picturesque passageway. As forecasted, the wind had shifted and now blows towards the South giving us the chance to start setting sail and try a Southbound crossing of the Lemaire. Despite the cloudy morning, this time the visibility is good. Visibility keeps increasing during the morning hours and even sun will end up shining over the mountains around the narrow waterway.
Soon a zodiac is ready to take us touring around the ship under sail on that amazing setting. Lemaire is about 7 mi in length and averaging about 1 mi wide. Narrow as it is and usually filled up with ice.
Right after heaving anchor, about 07:00h, we gather on deck to start setting some canvas. Topsails, Top Gallants, Lower and middle Staysails, Spanker, Fore Top Mast Staysail and Inner jib are hoisted, while one of our zodiacs is launched. We will use it as a platform to follow the ship and take shifts photographing her sailing adventures through the Lemaire Channel. Facing variable winds, weather and sea conditions, we all have the chance to take a tour around the Europa on this spectacular scenery, as she faces the icy waters of the passage.
On some occasions the 15knot winds forecasted funnel into the channel reaching speeds over 30knots, making difficult for the small zodiac to catch up with Europa. The captain also faces difficulties to lower the speed and turn around waiting for the zodiac to come alongside and change photographer groups. On other times the wind decreases just to pick up again afterwards.
While some of us enjoy the ride on the rubber boat, the others are busy on deck following captains sail-handling instructions. We spend a great morning sailing and photographing the old lady Europa along the impressive Lemaire Channel and its ice filled waters. It is not always possible to sail in those treacherous Antarctic waters, and today we could even do it along one of its most famous passages in amazing light conditions and sometimes adventurous zodiac rides. However, the wind direction just allowed to sail southwards, when actually our next destination is located North of us. It is also time to start our way back. There is just one more day left of our Antarctic program.
Port Lockroy (Goudier Island)
At the southern mouth of the Lemaire Channel, we turn around, put the zodiac on deck and strike all our canvas. Many of us give a hand on deck and then aloft furling all sails while Europa faces headwinds motoring north towards Goudier Island. There, the famous Port Lockroy Historical site is located. We plan to spend the night near Port Lockroy and if possible try our chances for a short late afternoon visit ashore. That will depends on our arrival time and when the large passenger ship “Le Boreal” finishes their activities there. After radio communication with the Base, it is agreed that we can land for approximately an hour.
There we can use the reduced walking space (even half of the island is closed to visitors due to a research project on their impact on the Gentoo population and their breeding). Multitude of Gentoo penguins are everywhere, making it difficult to believe that this location for the Base, back in 1944, was chosen because there were no penguins breeding there.
Soon zodiacs are ready to drive us back on board as the sunny afternoon becomes overcast once more. Anyway, Europa looks gorgeous on her anchorage at the foot of the large Wienke Island glaciers. After we are back aboard, we welcome the personnel of the Base to join our diner.
21st FebruaryNoon position: 64° 47.7’ S / 62° 45.8’ W Wind: Variable. Very light easterly winds at the starting of the day and increasing slightly till force 3 early in the morning turning into a gentle breeze. Around 09:00 the wind dies becoming very light again and shifting to the NE. During the evening the wind suddenly increases a lot and we get near gale winds up to force 7 in Beafourt scale (wind speed about 28 to 33 knots) Sea: Calm seas with small waves and low swell (less than 1 m) but becoming very choppy and sweelly when the wind increases and we enter in more open waters. Air temperature: 2.3 °C min / 4.9°C max Sea temperature: 1.4°C min /2.2°C max Barometer: 988hPa and decreasing till 979hPa in the late evening. Weather: variable. Good. Overcast in the morning and moderate visibility (less than 10 miles) with some light rain. Around noon the visibility improves considerably and in the late evening it becomes poor again because of the showers.
The last day of Antarctic activities has come. Europa lifted the anchor early morning and left her scenic anchorage at the glaciated bay between Goudier and Wienke Islands. This will be our last day of activities before heading north to Ushuaia through the feared Drake Passage.
We spent the whole morning motoring with 15 to 20knots headwinds and rainy weather along the picturesque Neumayer Channel towards Andvord Bay.
There we plan the last landing of the trip, in the small cove of Neko Harbor. As soon as Europa finds herself out off the Neumayer Channel and on the more open waters of the Gerlache, the winds are good enough to let us set some canvas. We sail again until we reach Andvord Bay. There, under calmer conditions and getting closer to our landing spot, the sails are clued up.
Neko Harbor (Andvord Bay)
Shortly after lunch, we left for our last landing on this marvellous spot, that sits on the continental shores of Antarctica. As beautiful as it is, Neko Harbor hides a few threats that require our attention. Part of the short hike to a scenic viewpoint, takes a walk over glaciated slopes. There we all need to take care and pay attention not to leave the already marked path, as some crevasses could be around. Down at the beach, the glacier that surrounds the cove could be dangerous as well if any big calvings occurs during our visit. In that case, the shallow waters make possible for big waves to rapidly grow and wash the coast.
Landing takes place on a small sandy beach and at the background, many penguins highways are busy with many Gentoos climbing up and down the snow slopes.Many also enjoyed the hike to the vantage point with views over the whole bay, with a large glacier at our feet…the perfect spot for yet another marriage proposal from our voyage crew Benn to his girlfriend, and now fiancée, Daina. After spending a while enjoying the scenery and having a few quiet minutes listening to Antarctica, we all make our way down the hill, leaving behind the couple to have a bit of intimacy. A nervous Ben, that has been waiting for this moment the whole trip, now wearing a shirt and a tie, heels on his knees. A second later the moment is sealed with a kiss and the magic word “yes”. Congratulations to the couple! Unbelievable. Two marriage proposals on one voyage. Europa is a true loveboat.
In the meantime, with most of the people gone up the hills, the shoreline became quiet, and the remaining ones greatly enjoy the quietness and beauty of the place just slowly wandering around or sitting on a rock. There, heaps of penguins are constantly on their way in and out of the water, purposing, and having baths in the shoreline.
Neko Harbour is a great spot on continental Antarctica, and with the high clouds opening now and then it offered great photo opportunities. Great farewell to our Antarctic landings. Now is time to start our way back, first over the calm waters of Andvord Bay but soon reaching the Gerlache Strait. There a whole different weather situation awaited us. Forecasted winds of 15knots, in reality, became gusts of 45knots and high seas, welcoming us to the conditions expected in the upcoming crossing of the Drake Passage. During the night we reach the exit gate of Western Antarctic Peninsula that we will use to enter the Drake. And this means, that the beginning of the seawatches starts already tonight.
After the quiet afternoon at Neko Harbor, with good weather and calm conditions, by the way, perfect for Benn and Daina engagement, conditions quickly worsen.
Farewell to Antarctica
Soon after lifting anchor, Europa finds herself under 45 knots of winds as crossing the Gerlache Strait. Quite unexpected for all of us, just a couple of hours before, conditions were much calmer. In fact, for the whole day the raging winds experienced didn’t match at all with the model of the prediction, indicating different forces and directions.
Once in the Schoallert Channel, we were sheltered a little while from the strong gusts by Anvers and Bravant Islands. Early in the morning, Drake welcomed us with all his ferocity. Once we got into the open waters and left behind the maze of little islets we met the high Drake seas. Europa is behaving like a wild horse in those conditions, and she will behave like this for almost all day, enduring raising winds over 35 knots.
As the sun rises the wind keeps increasing over the confused seas. It is hard to maintain the course. The steering is becoming increasingly difficult. The wind blasts over 50 knots sweep over us, the ship heavily pitches and rolls, swell crashes against the hull and waves wash our decks. Here we are at the mercy of the treacherous Drake Passage.
This washing-machine won’t stop until a few days later. On 26th of February, on I sat in the net on Europa’s bowsprit enjoying the view the ship under sail. Then looking ahead I though I saw outlines of a land. And sure enough, after few minutes I was certain and I turned my head towards the ship and screamed “Land” as loud as I could. Of course, nobody could hear me but I felt like I discovered America. It was a great feeling.
Day later we sailed into Ushuaia’s port and we are about to spend the last night aboard Europa. Tomorrow this familiar ship will no longer be our home. It's a strange idea to leave her. I feel little sad and emotional that trip has come to an end. Next morning we all gather on the deck with all our baggage. Last words, hugs and tears. Some of these people I never see again.
After I said my farewells to everybody I picked my bag and left the ship with a turbulence of emotions inside me. I cannot resist, after a minute or so I stop and turn around to lay my eyes on Europa one last time. She is one fine lady, I tell you. I am leaving but I am determined to come back to see how is she doing. She is a family now.
13 - Cuverville Island, landing and walk
14 - Paradise Bay (Brown Station + Skontorp Cove), Continental Landing + Zodiac Cruise
15 - Eclipse Point - Lemaire Channel, ship cruise
16 - Winter Island - Galindez Island (Wordie House + Vernadsky), landing and station visit
17 - Berthelot Island, landing
18 - Collins Bay - Trooz Glacier, ship cruise
19 - Trooz Glacier South, zodiac cruise
20 - Lemaire Channel, ship and zodiac cruise
21 - Port Lockroy (Goudier Island), landing and historical site visit
22 - Neumayer Channel, ship cruise
23 - Neko Harbour, continental landing
1 - Barrientos (Aitcho archipelago), landing
2 - Fort Point (Greenwich Island), landing
3 - Yankee Harbour (Greenwich Island), landing and walk
4 - Whalers Bay to Baily Head (Deception Island), landing and walk
5 - Whalers Bay (Deception Island), landing
6 - Pendulum Cove (Deception Island), landing and swim
7 - Christiana Island (Intercurrence Islands), ship cruise
8 - Trinity - Spert Islands, zodiac cruise
9 - Cierva Cove, ship cruise
10 - Graham Passage - Enterprise Island - Foyn Harbour ship cruise
11 - Wilhelmina Bay ship cruise
12 - Orne Harbour, continental landing