Monday, September 23, 2013

1. Introduction

February 2012 I went on a journey to fulfill a childhood dream: visiting the continent of Antarctica on a sailing vessel no less, the Bark Europa.Though I did not have any experience with sailing, when I read about their expeditions the choice for adventure was easily made.

This blog has links to several fotoalbums and videos will be added regularly.
It follows my journey in chronological order. In the posts below I give short descriptions of the places and what is included in the pictures.

The albums are hosted on the nikon site nikon image space,. It is also possible to switch to a slideshow presentation (but I recommend to set the music off). The site seems to be a bit slow, but that's the price for being free I guess.

You can download the albums, feel free to do so. The pictures are compressed and reduced in size from the originals though. If for some reason you would like to receive the full size picture, just post a comment. However I ask for one thing, and that is that you are not going to use it for commercial purposes. But if you want to be creative with it, go ahead.

Here's a little introductory video, it covers the first days of the trip. It has no sound though.

2. Ushuaia, The Beagle Channel and Drake Passage

Ushuaia in Argentina is called the most southern town in the world, or like the Argentinians like to call it el fin del mundo.
It has a very interesting history and you can still see that not too long ago this was still a pioneering town, but those days have gone. Nowadays the town is thriving on tourism and big cruise ships visit the town daily (in summer). Penguins can be seen everywhere, in the form of  unatttractive souvenirs (except for the beer mug in the form of a penguin that I forgot to buy), even in the form of  pastries.
The countryside has several good hikes to offer which I did at the end of my trip. But my first days here I just spend acclimatizing and preparing for the adventure ahead. The Bark Europa was already in the harbour but I could only gaze at it.

On the 7th of February we were allowed on board, we were all wondering how to stow away all our luggage in the tiny cabins but we all managed. After a warm welcoming speech of the captain everybody started to get to know each other and I remember some Japanese tourists thinking that we had a party and suddenly they were on deck as well, but unfortunately for them they were not allowed on board.

The 8th of February was departure day.
After first filling the tanks with fuel and freshwater and probably some paperwork we finally departed.
We got instructions on how to behave on board, safety procedures and which tasks were expected from us.
We were all divided in three watches, the task of the watch would be to steer the ship and be on the lookout for any object that could be in our way, like floating containers or maybe even sleeping whales, not that anyone of us had an idea how a sleeping whale would look like though.

The first hours through the Beagle channel we still had a mandatory pilot on board, after he had left we raised the sails and took over. Dolphins and some Magellanic penguins accompanied us, the weather was calm and nice.

That would change though.

During the night we entered the ocean between South America and Antarctica, the swell was increasing and the waves grew bigger.
So when it was time for my morning shift, I tried to get breakfast, was wondering how anyone could feel comfortable in these conditions and before I knew it I had to run our bathroom to get rid of my breakfast as fast as possible: seasick.
That first watch was not meant for me.
Fortunately for me I recovered within a few hours after which I truly enjoyed the conditions out there.
Not everyone was so lucky though, some of us were stuck to their bed for the whole ocean crossing.
Safety lines were spanned across the ship and we were strongly advised only to go on deck with a harness on  and to secure yourself on those saftey lines.
The library was off limits after a fellow passenger crashed into one of the tables and broke it.

After that first day the weather became calmer and we got to see blue skies again.
It took us 4 days to cross the ocean. Actually it was a good experience that you do not arrive instantaneously at your destination. This was a journey, not a holiday trip and you need to have some determination to get there.

It is a spectacular feeling to be in rough conditions with absolutely nothing else in sight than the ocean and birds accompanying us. Also in the skies above you would not see any trace at all of airplanes, we had just entered another world.

This album here has mainly pictures of Ushuaia, the Beagle channel and sailing on the Drake Passage.
It has 41 pictures.

click here for the album

And here is a video, play it with the sound on (and best to see it full screen):

3. Isla Barrientos (Aitcho Islands) 62°23'60" S 59°45'0" W Welcome to Antarctica

On the 12th of February we had arrived. We arrived at night when I was asleep. In the morning I had my first view of a piece of Antarctica, Isla Barrientos, part of the Aitcho Islands.

It was a strange feeling, to finally have arrived, the ship not moving, a stable deck and no welcome comittee. But, we finally could take a shower without running the risk of sliding through the cabin.

The days before we had gotten instructions on rules and regulations, like disinfecting your boots on leaving and returning to the ship, where you are allowed to walk and where not and the distances to keep when encountering animals.

We disinfected our boots and entered the zodiac to make our first landing.
The first thing you notice about penguins is that you smell them before you see them.
A penguin colony has a strong odor.... , like a huge chicken coop.

Then we saw tiny moving dots, and more and more and still more. A lot of penguins.
The minimum distance to keep for penguins was about 3 meter unless they approach you, because then it is natural behavior . This was our welcome committee.

Penguin chicks can be very curious.

We were allowed to walk on our own as long as we remained between certain landmarks and followed the rules. The first hour or so I just remained on one place, there was no need to walk around, everything in penguin life just happend in front of me. They really went on on their own business.
Adults were feeding their chicks, the chicks were running after their parents hoping to get more food.

Skuas were attacking penguins hoping that they would vomit up their food and some people saw a Gaint Petrel killing a youngster. I saw the dead body floating around later.

In the afternoon we made a second landing and went for a walk to the other side of this island. After climbing a short ridge we saw a dramatic landscape with razor sharp rocks peaking out of the sea, truly an alien landscape.

On this side of the island were less penguins but we would see fur seals and elephant seals here.

The first seal however was a mummified carcass.

The Elephant seals were lying in groups, they were moulting, shedding their coat for a new one to be prepared for the next winter. I had to pinch myself that it was not a documentary I was viewing, that I was not in a zoo but that this was real life. It is truly a sight to see these huge animals in their own environment.

When we returned and I tried to find a way between the mosses we were not allowed to tread on and the penguins I had to keep distance to I overlooked a fur seal, they have good camouflage, but after some growls and me returning quickly the peace was settled again.

Just this day alone would have been worth the journey.

This album here has pictures of Isla Barrientos, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Skuas, Fur seals and Elphant seals.
It has 69 pictures.

click here for the album

Here is a short video:

4. Livingston Island, Hannah Point and Whales 62°38'60" S 60°36'0" W

The next day we would sail a bit first along Livingston Island to reach our next landing spot called Hannah Point. The main attraction there would be besides the penguins more Elephant seals. But the show started earlier. While sailing we where all gazing at the icewalls that we were passing, I have seen plenty of glaciers, but this was something else.

Somewhere in the morning excitement broke loose. Whales had been spotted and the whales probably had spotted us too because they were coming to us. Two humpback whales were around the ship for quite a while and they were generous enough to show their tails.

Arriving at Hannah Point it took us about an hour to move maybe 100 meters, so much to see all around us.
It was a marvelous place again, with Elephant seals, more penguins than the day before, more Giant Petrels and beautiful weather.

This album here has pictures of Isla Barrientos, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Skuas, Fur seals and Elphant seals.
It has 69 pictures.

click here for the album

Here a video:

5. Deception Island 62°54'60" S 60°36'0" W Ashes And Snow

Deception Island is actually an active volcano. The last eruption was in 1969. At the moment it is dormant though and it is a safe anchoring place, inside the crater. Who can say that he was on a ship inside an active volcano?
We had a long day ahead of us, with visits planned to the largest colony of Chinstrap penguins, (about 250.000), making our own jacuzzi by mixing the almost freezing ocean water with the scalding hot water that wells up from the volcano and visiting Whaler's Bay where the remnants of an old whaler's station is decaying to time. So we were up for an early start.
However, the weather in Antarctica can be a hazard. We arrived with very strong winds (7 Bft), the sea was rough and it was snowing once in a while. To make things worse, the motor of one of the zodiacs did not seem reliable. After some tests with it the captain decided to cancel the landing. There was a serious risk if the motor would break down in this weather and you always need to have a backup, what if the good one would run into problems as well?

Deception Island is also very accessible for bigger ships and a popular stop, so we encountered a few other touring ships, some of those approaching us to take pictures of the Europa. It must be a stunning sight if you are on another ship and then suddenly see a tall ship in this environment.

When the weather calmed down a few hours later we could net go directly to Whaler's Bay, because of the regulations, no more than one ship can visit the same place at the same time and so you need to reserve a time slot in advance. This might sound restrictive but is for the best, we are only visitors and one of the aims of all the rules is to have as little impact on the environment as possible. So no more than 100 visitors are allowed on one visit. And actually, you do not want to neither, you want to have the places more or less for your own, feeling as if you are truly exploring.

In the evening we visited at Whaler's Bay the whaling station, which was abandoned in 1931 and remains of a research station that was destroyed by the volcano in 1969, both left to their own. Because of the late hour and little light, the fresh thin layer of snow on the ashes and the still blowing wind this was a magical place.

This album here has pictures of Deception Island, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Skuas, a Fur seal and Whaler's Bay at dusk.
It has 46 pictures.

click here for the album

Here a video:

6. Trinity and Spert Island 63°21'0" S 60°35'0" W Touring The Ice

On the 15th of February we left the South Shetland Islands to go deeper south, into more 'icy' territory.
The first half of the day we were mainly crossing the sea after which we sailed along the coast of Trinity Island on our way to our anchoring place close to Spert Island.

We encountered our first big icebergs from relatively close.

Late in the afternoon we would go on a tour with our zodiacs and sloopy to navigate the small channels here between high rising rocks and getting up close for the first time with icebergs in the so called iceberg graveyard.

What amazed all of  us was the incredible blue color of the ice.

Some Chinstrap penguins were trying to keep afloat a small ice floe, we all wondered how a group of these little fellows had climbed a quite steep ice slope, encountered a big dead jellyfish and enjoyed a truly magical sunset.

Anchored here, next to towering icewalls with no human presence in sight except our own, staying the nigh was an impressive experience . I do remember I went out at night alone on the deck just to take in the breathtaking scenery and enjoy this to the fullest.

 This album here has pictures of Trinity and Spert Island, Chinstrap Penguins, a lot of icebergs, sunset, us touring on the zodiacs through the ice and a dead jellyfish.

It has 53 pictures.

click here for the album with thumbnails below

7. Gerlache Strait and Cuverville Island 64°21'11" S 61°28'28" W Fields Of Ice, Shipwrecks And Whales

This day, February 16th would be one of the highlights of a trip that was filled with extraordinary events. We started navigating the Gerlache Strait. The amount of ice floating around us was increasing dramatically, the scenery left us literally speechless for hours.

One of the most memorable experiences was that nobody said a word or was just whispering. Everyone was deeply impressed by the beauty surrounding. Nature can be truly astounding.

It was really hard to get into the deck house to get something to eat or drink, you just did not want to leave the deck.

Just when lunch was being ready to be served, whales were spotted, sleeping whales to be exactly. When at the beginning of our trip we were instructed to on the lookout of sleeping whales nobody of us knew how that would look like and here was our answer, some big logs, like treetrunks remaining stationary.
The two Humpback whales eventually woke up and would remain with us for maybe 3 quarters of an hour. They seemed to enjoy us as much as we enjoyed them, rolling around next to the ship, spyhopping to get the better view of us, one jumped out of the water.

Unfortunately I ran out of batteries and memory on both my cameras, I had always spares with me, but today I had changed jumpers and I forgot all the spares were within that jumper, so instead of directly running to get this, I decided to first take in what was happening around us, choosing to look through my eyes instead of through a lens. The water was exceptionally clear and we could see the whole animal through the water. And yes they are huge, but without anything familiar to compare the size I did not have the feeling I was looking at animals as big as a freight truck. Quite often I had to remind myself about the sizes of what we saw, be it whales, icewalls or icebergs, it is difficult to get a feeling of the in an environment that is totally devoid of recognizable human habitation.

After this lunchbreak we continued and met the remains of an an old whaling ship, the Gouvernøren, that stranded here in 1916 and is now a monument to these days past. Nowadays with the Antarctic Treaty in place if anything would happen, the government under which the ship sails is held responsible to salvage everything left behind fortunately. It helps reminding you though that as breathtaking the environment is, this can also be a dangerous place.

The day was not over yet, late in the afternoon we arrived at Cuverville Island where we would land and take another tour visiting a really large Gentoo penguin colony. Compared to the first two colonies we visited this was different because there was less rock and more ice all around the island.
This was truly a memorable day.

This album here has pictures of the Gerlache Strait, Icebergs and Ice floes, a Crabeater Seal, Humpback Whales,the Gouvernøren shipwreck and the Bark Europa.
It has 69 pictures.

click here for the album

This album here has pictures of Cuverville Island, Gentoo Penguins, a Skua and the Bark Europa.
It has 24 pictures.

click here for the album

A part of this video was shot this day: