Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula (Part 1)

by Robert Bush: November 18, 2015

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[This is the first of several entries about stops along the Antarctic Peninsula. Other entries will be posted soon.)

Our visit to the Antarctic Sound was the silver lining of having to leave South Georgia Island one day early because of the storm that would have blocked our path if we had waited. As I described in the last post, that “silver lining” was actually a tremendous opportunity to view one of the most amazing phenomena in the Antarctic – the huge pieces of the B15 iceberg. I have since learned that those tabular icebergs rise about 150 feet above the ocean and extent more than 1000 feet under the water.

It was a full night of travel north out of the Sound to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. As soon as we left the protection of the Sound, we again ran into big winds and swells. Another night of “flying” as the swells lifted the ship, and then a “thunk” as the ship smacked back into the water. The weather prevented us from our intended early morning landing and we headed to Mikkelson Harbor on Trinity Island to see if we could land there.

When we would approach a landing, Brandon – our expedition leader – would get on the PA system and tell us what the weather looked like and whether he thought we would be able to land. When it was windy and the water was a bit rough, the final decision would not be made until the staff scouted the landing site in a zodiac. All staff communicated by walkie-talkies. “Bridge, bridge, bride, Hanna” would be the way that Hanna, the assistant expedition leader, would communicate to the other staff. Communications often went through the bridge because they had a stronger signal and could relay any message to others – although if a staff member wanted to communicate with another staff member, they would just do so by calling something like “David David, David, Hanna.”

Once it was determined that a landing was possible, an announcement would be made to the passengers. All passengers were placed into two landing groups – group 1 and group 2 – and the groups alternated being the first ones go get onto the zodiacs for an excursion. The Lanting photo group was all placed into group 2 so we could attempt to coordinate our photography and get some help from Franz and Chris. Before heading to the aft deck on deck 2, where the zodiacs docked, we would all go through the process of getting dressed for cold weather – long underwear, followed by fleece tops and bottoms. Everyone had to have waterproof pants because we always had to walk through water to get ashore. We all wore high rubber boots and I wore two pair of warm socks. On top of the long underwear and fleece top layer, I also wore a light but very warm synthetic down jacket, and on top of that the red waterproof red jackets that were given to all of us to wear. I had three layers of gloves – a thin glove liner that I could wear and still handle the camera settings, a warm pair of wool mitts that could be folded back when I wanted to take a picture, and top layer of water proof gloves. The latter I would only wear on the zodiac rides and on occasion when it was really cold and windy. Before we got on the zodiacs, we stepped into a tub of pink liquid that killed anything that we might have otherwise carried onto shore. When we returned, we first scrapped our boots off in a tub of water and then again stepped into the pink liquid to kill anything that we might have carried from the landing.

Mikkelson harbor is a 3 km wide bay lined with ice cliffs on the southern side of Trinity Island. The expedition staff carved some steps into the snow banks near the water so we could climb onto the shore and follow a path up the hill to see the breeding colony of Gentoo penguins. There is a small red structure there that is part of the Argentinian Antarctica effort. The image of our ship and red jacketed humans climbing the snowy hill is from this stop, as is the posing single Gentoo. This was a cold and windy site – the blowing snow led to challenging photography. This really felt like Antarctica. As the wind picked up, we headed back to our zodiacs for the short trip to the ship.

After we all returned from Mikkelson, the ship headed north for an intended afternoon landing at Ciera Cove in the Gerlach Strait. This is an area that is referred to as an “iceberg graveyard” – a place where icebergs calve from glaciers in the area but the winds and currents do not drive them out of the area. This was a zodiac trip, not a landing, and the photography groups were put in zodiacs together. The cove is a wonderland of incredible glacier ice sculptures. There was one spectacular iceberg that we must have spent an hour photographing. It was crystalline blue with incredible shapes. The clarity and blue color signifies that this was very old ice from the bottom of the glacier. Just to top off an amazing day, we were treated to a pure white snow petrel flying around a pure white glacier. This outing was truly one of the highpoints of the trip.

This is also the place where people first stepped on the Antarctic continent and after a couple of hours of taking photos, the zodiac beached on a rock outcropping so we could stand on the shore for a moment. One adelie penguin was there with a group of Gentoo penguins. The adelie walked over to talk to us and seemed very disappointed when we departed without him.

We have a few more days to explore and I will post separately on those experiences.

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