Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula (Part 2)

by Robert Bush: November 20, 2015

After leaving the spectacular iceberg graveyard at Ciero Cove, the ship moved down Gerlache Strait to Cuverville in the spectacularly picturesque Gerlache Strait. Cuverville is the site of a huge Gentoo penguin colony. We couldn’t get on land because there was too much snow but the view of the gentoos from the zodiacs was probably better than we could have had on land. We sat there for hours watching these little penguins returning from feeding in the ocean and then timing the incoming swells to try to get some momentum to jump to the snow banks to get on shore. They would jump straight up, sometimes making it over the step snow banks and sometimes missing and being slammed into the snow by an oncoming swell and falling back into the water. The water was calm enough for the kayakers– and I have included one photo of the kayaks as they paddled among the icebergs.blog 11-5

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The ship then travelled about 3 hours to get to Neko Harbor.  Neko Harbor contains a number of spectacular glaciers and a large Gentoo penguin rookery. We were able to land the zodiacs late in the afternoon and hike up the glacier for a spectacular view of the entire bay (picture included). By the way, the fact that we landed late in the afternoon did not mean we were curtailed in the time we had to stay on land. We are so far south that it never gets completely dark at night, and even at 10 p.m, it is very light. In the middle of the night, it gets a dark gray – but never dark.

The Gerlache Strait itself is a spectacular area – a relatively narrow waterway surrounded on both sides by glacier covered mountains and with numerous of various sizes and shapes floating in the waters of the Strait. I am including several photos of that area.

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During the evening, the ship left the Gerlache Strait and traveled through open ocean to the Bransfield Strait. An approaching storm again resulted in rough water – but I will say that by

blog 11-2now, we are pretty much used to it. In fact, if the ship is not bouncing around at night, it seems like something is wrong. Having said that, traveling in these waters is not without some risk. This was brought home to us by something that occurred that night. In one of the images of the Gerlache Strait, you will see a ship in the water in the distance below a snow-covered mountain. That ship was the first ship we had seen since our journey began – and it was about twice the size of our ship. During the evening, it also was traversing these open waters, with high winds, big swells and occasional white-out conditions. Apparently, the crew did not spot an iceberg and last minute efforts to avoid the iceberg were unsuccessful. As the ship attempted to turn away from the iceberg, the aft port side of the ship struck the iceberg, resulting in a gash its hull!! No one was hurt and the ship didn’t take on any water – but it had to return to port immediately. (I will post photos of that ship on my next entry on the town of Ushaia, where we depart the ship at the end of the voyage.)

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Our destination the next morning was at Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands that are parallel the Antarctic Peninsula just to the northwest tip of the Peninsula. Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano. It last erupted about 45 years ago – and historically it erupts every 40 years, so it is due!   Often the beach itself is hot, but there was no heat on the day we arrived.   The entry to the caldera is through a very narrow gap in the caldera and if there is any kind of weather, navigation through that gap is too dangerous to attempt. Fortunately, even though it was still snowing and windy, the captain thought it would be safe to traverse the gap. The ship’s bridge is open to passengers almost all of the time, although passengers are asked to be quiet so the crew can talk to each other. Many of us gathered in silence to witness the captain and crew navigate through that passageway. It was quite impressive. The captain would call out directions, which would be repeated by the crew member who was making course corrections. We were all respectfully silent – and then the captain said “scary, isn’t it?” It was quite funny at the time!! The captain was given a big round of applause and his efforts to get us to many blog 10-5places under challenging conditions were noted by the expedition leader on many occasions and greatly appreciated by all of us.

Whaler’s Bay in Deception Island was one of the major whaling stations in Antarctica. Those whaling stations were very efficient – so much so, that during the relatively short time that they were in operation at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, they almost resulted in the extinction of the whales. blog 10-6Many of the buildings of the station are still there, in rundown – but picturesque – condition and the ambience was enhanced by the deep snow – more than the ship’s crew had ever seen there – and by the wind and blowing snow. Pictures are included. This was the location where passengers were provided an blog 10-3opportunity to swim off the beach – a “polar plunge.” The water was about 28 degrees – yes, below freezing. And then you had to ride a zodiac back to the ship to get warm. I decided not to do it – and have absolutely no regrets about my decision. Those who swam describe a sensation of not being able to talk or move their limbs.

Our last stop before leaving the Antarctic was the afternoon stop at Half Moon Island, another of the South Shetland Islands. In keeping with the theme of the trip, it was snowing, cold and very windy. It was touch and go whether we could land, but the decision was that we could do it safely.   The purpose of this landing was to visit a large colony of chinstrap penguins. We had to hike through deep snow for a quarter mile or so, and despite the wind and snow, I brought my tripod and biggest lens to try to photography these really cute little penguins. Despite my misgivings about being able to get anything in the pretty difficult conditions, I was pretty pleased with the pictures – and the snow again just made the whole thing seem a lot more authentically Antarctic than it would have if we had blue skies and good weather.

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blog 11-8Our journey that began three weeks ago, and brought us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Islands, and the Antarctica Peninsula is regrettably drawing to a close. There will be no more landings on shore, no more treks with 35 pounds of camera equipment through 50 knot winds, no more discoveries of unbelievable vistas of crashing waves on distant shores, looming mountains covered by glaciers, blue-ice icebergs that were formed from snow that fell thousands of years ago. No more zodiac rides to the beach, getting off on the shallow waters and being surprised and amazed by a rookery of thousands of penguins on the ground, swooping albatrosses, gulls, and petrals in the air, and all continually brushed by blowing snow.

We still have to get back to civilization – and 2 and ½ day journey through the infamous Drake Passage. That will be the subject of my next entry.