Antarctica Cruise Part 3: Reaching the Peninsula

After South Georgia, a full day at sea gave us all some much needed down time to relax, recharge and for many, to sort through the thousands of pictures taken thus far.  As the trip progressed I was polling some of the more avid photographers to see how many photos they were taking.  Chris was looking mighty good with his measly couple of thousand photos as compared to some who were close to 20,000!

I succumbed to the cold I had been fighting for a few days and welcomed the opportunity to rest.  Some were suffering from the effects of the increasing swells on the open water but we were assured these were still considered calm waters; it usually was much worse.  Others took the opportunity to stand on the lookout for whales which were noticeably absent thus far.  We did catch a glimpse of a few humpback whales off in the distance, and a pod of about ten orcas which was pretty cool.

During this part of the voyage, we travelled to the South Orkney Islands, Elephant Island, the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula, and the Shetland Islands.

Chinstraps holding hands. Chris' favourite shot of the trip!

We interrupted our second day at sea with an excursion to Sandefjord Bay which lies between the west end of Coronation Island and Monroe Island, which are part of the South Orkney Islands.  We were still more than 600 km from the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula so our journey was far from over.

The South Orkney Islands is a group of four main islands in the Southern Ocean of which Coronation Island is the largest measuring 48 km long.  The total area of the archipelago is about 620 square km of which about 90 percent is glaciated.  It was, therefore, not surprising to see all the ice in the water presenting a rather challenging landing for our zodiac drivers.  We enjoyed some beautiful scenery and observed a large colony of chinstrap penguins. After touring the colony on land, we took to the seas and explored the bay via zodiac.

A tricky landing!

A Weddell seal.

Chinstrap penquin covered in pink poop!  

I think this is a Weddell seal.

The scenery at Sandefjord Bay.

Video:  Tricky zodiac landing in the ice.

By now, ice bergs of all shapes and sizes formed an intricate part of the changing landscape.  I marvelled at these naturally formed sculptures, veritable works of art.  Our next stop was Point Wild on the northern coast of Elephant Island.  This was a hostile site comprised of a long, narrow ridge of boulders under high, vertical rock cliffs and the likelihood of landing here was extremely low; this became our one and only failed excursion.  However, history buffs were satisfied to get a good look at this site from the ship.  As  I mentioned in Part 2, it was on this spit of land between the boulders and cliff face where Ernest Shackleton’s crew of twenty-two men set up camp under a life boat when their ship Endurance sank in the Weddell Sea.  The stranded party was led by Frank Wild (Shackleton’s right hand man), for whom the site is named.  Shackleton and a few of his men made the infamous 800 mile voyage back to South Georgia to get help and returned to rescue his men with the vessel Yelcho four months later in August 30, 1916 – in the middle of winter.  A bronze bust of Yelcho’s Captain, Luis Pardo Villalon has been erected commemorating this historical event.  I’m afraid this historic site was lost on me that day as I was spending the day in bed recovering from my head cold.  I did manage to drag myself outside for a very brief glimpse of the rocky shoreline and the monument before returning to the refuge of my cabin.

Elephant Island

Paulet Island which is located in the Weddell Sea was an intriguing site to visit.  Not only did it hold historical significance, it was also home to 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins.  Sheathbills, skuas, and blue eyed shags also breed on this site. This was where Captain Carl Anton Larson and his 19 men and the ship’s cat were marooned during their 1901-1904 expedition after their ship, Antarctic, sank.  The remains of their stone hut are a testament to their resourcefulness and fortitude. This was another historic tale of courage, exceptional leadership and just plain good luck.  If you’re interested, click here to read a brief account of this story.

The remains of the hut built by Carl Larson and his crew on Paulet Island 

Today this remote island it is overrun by a large colony
of adelie penguins and their chicks.

As we approached Paulet Island in the zodiac, we observed a beehive of activity along the beach.  Thousands of adelie penguins were lining up along the shore, several feet thick.  As more penguins crowded onto the narrow beach, we held our breath in anticipation.   Suddenly, a collective cry arose from the swelling crowd.  And then one penguin dove in; that was all it took to trigger a wave behind him as a couple of dozen or so penguins quickly followed suit.  But then they stopped.  We were expecting the entire beach to plunge into the waters but that didn’t happen.  Once a small group had gone to sea, that was it; the remaining penguins reorganized themselves to fill in the gaps and to allow more room for the new arrivals.  Then they would start to cry out again and the whole process would repeat itself.  There was a continuous stream of activity as penguins marched to the shoreline, gathered in expectation, began their squawking and then dove into the sea in small increments.  Now and then a predator seal swam close along the shoreline on the lookout for a tasty snack.  The penguins would immediately sense the danger and react in unison retreating several feet away from the shore as if pulled by a string.  They would cautiously return to the shoreline after a few moments, but seemed hesitant to dive in.  We could have stayed all day watching these entertaining penguins.

Video: One, two, three…..GO!
 

Penguins collect pebbles to build their nests.  As you walk around the colony, you can see evidence of these nests everywhere.  But what was really amusing was the way in which penguins shamelessly steal pebbles from each other to build their nests.  Its not as if there aren’t enough pebbles to go around. More than once, we saw one penguin busily collecting pebbles for his nest and as soon as his back was turned to get a new pebble, another penguin would steal a pebble from his nest and take it a few feet away to another nest.

Video:  Adelie penguins building a nest on the remains of the stone hut built by Captain Larson and his men.  Watch closely to see if you can detect the thieving penguin.


Icebergs were an integral part of the landscape now and I was simply mesmerized by their beauty.  We spent some time cruising in the zodiacs in the area known as “iceberg alley”.  I was envious of the kayakers who had the opportunity to paddle amongst these magnificent sculptures.

Adelie penguin on the ice.

The lovely pink hue of this ice berg is caused by penguin poop.

Survival of the fittest: this bird snatched a young adelie chick
and devoured it right before our eyes.

Later that same day, we landed on Devil Island which lies in a small bay southeast of Vega Island in the Weddell Sea.  This island is long and narrow with two peaks which appear as horns, offering exceptional views on a clear day.  As luck would have it, we arrived on a sunny, warm day – perfect conditions for the challenging hike to the peak.  At the top, we were richly rewarded with views of Cape Well-Met on neighbouring Vega Island.  I found a quiet spot on the mountain ridge and soaked up the view for as long as I could, long after everybody else had descended.  This was one of those tranquil moments on this trip where I could enjoy some rare solitude and simply absorb the serenity and beauty surrounding me.

On the way to Devil Island, the shelf iceberg in the
background was the largest iceberg we saw,
easily measuring three times the length of our ship. 

Video: Heading straight for the biggest iceberg – shouldn’t we be turning??
 

Enjoying the solitude and the view from the top of Devil Island.

View from top of Devil Island.

Christina with Tricia amongst the penguins on Devil Island. Tricia was one
of my favourite people on board.  She was a feisty 72-year old
woman, travelling on her own, and she participated in everything
(including the polar plunge!)  with a fierce independence that inspired me.
She has travelled the world, about 110 countries at
last count, and she generously shared many travel tips.  

We were hanging out in the bar one night (did I mention we had an open bar for the entire duration of the trip?), when something caught our eye on the horizon in the fading light.  Whatever it was, it was swimming back and forth along side the ship with its huge head above water.  Turns out it was a southern right whale, skimming the surface using its baleen to sieve for krill.  It was such a strange sight to see and it really got the expedition guides excited as nobody had ever seen this behaviour before.

Video:  Southern right whale feeding
 

Finally – we landed on the coldest, driest and windiest continent – Antarctica! Our landing on the Antarctic Peninsula seemed somewhat anticlimactic after all the wondrous sights of the past two weeks.  We landed on Brown Bluff, an exposed section of a glacial volcano, which lies 14.5 km south of Hope Bay on the eastern side of the Tabarin Peninsula. We saw snow petrels and pintados nesting on the bluff face; adelie and gentoo penguin colonies littered the beach.  The chicks were inquisitive; if you were so inclined to sit on the beach, in no time one or more chicks would make their way over to check you out often snuggling right up to you as if you were their mother.

Landing on Brown Bluff – Antarctica!

A fellow “steerage” passenger, Andrew, striking a pose on Antarctica.

A zodiac excursion in Kinnes Cove, a small bay indenting the western end of Joinville Island just south of Madder Cliffs offered fantastic up close views of beautiful ice bergs.  Sure, we saw lots of penguins and plenty of Leopard and Weddell seals sleeping on the ice bergs, but it was the ice bergs that simply took my breath away.  The variation in size, formation, color, and texture was astonishing.  Some were larger than our ship! These natural beauties reminded me of the stunning ice sculptures meticulously carved out byinternational  teams of artists during the Winterlude festival in Ottawa in February each year.

Our final day of excursions brought us to Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island and Hannah Point on Livingston Island, both of which are part of the Shetland Islands.  Whaler’s Bay is actually located in the caldera of an active volcano.  Instructions were given should an eruption occur:  get back on the ship and leave immediately (really?   I would never have thought to do that!)  As its names suggests, this bay was once home to a thriving whaling station at the turn of the century, the remains of which are rusting away on the beach today.  While many walked around these old relics for the morning, I joined a small energetic group who hiked to the top of a ridge from which you could see Livingston Island on one side and the Antarctic Peninsula on the other.  We again enjoyed perfect weather conditions and great visibility.

View heading down towards Whaler’s Bay (left).

We could see the Antarctic Peninsula in the distance (behind me)
from this lookout.

Remains of the whaling station.

Buildings deteriorating over time.

View of the whaling station from the ship.

Hannah Point was teeming with wildlife: Chinstrap penguins (about 1,500 breeding pairs), gentoo penguins (about 1,000 breeding pairs), a couple of macaroni penguins, a variety of other birds (blue-eyed shags, snowy sheathbills, kelp gulls, pintados, skuas and southern giant petrols), and elephant seals.  We were captivated by the sight of a small Gentoo chick that had inadvertently walked on top of an elephant seal.  Interestingly, when at sea, elephant seals are predators to penguins but on land they all get along just fine.  Still, it was a little disturbing to watch this fluffy chick in such a precarious situation.  After quite some time, the chick walked along the seal’s body, onto its head and then hopped onto the sandy beach.  He somehow managed not to get swept away at sea and returned to the safety of higher ground.

 Elephant seals lounging around on the beach.

Hey, you don’t look like my mother!

Our final two days at sea were spent travelling through the notorious Drake Passage.  The seas did swell during this crossing, but it was tame compared to stories told by the crew.  Chris and I along with three other passengers from the “steerage” deck (our nickname for Deck 2 where our cabins were located), received invitations to sit at the Captain’s table for the final dinner.  I am still perplexed as to how and why the steerage gang received invitations, but we all accepted the honour and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Dinner at the Captain’s table on the last night at sea. 

The final morning of our passage through the notorious Drake Passage brought us in sight of Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.  Our captain had navigated the ship somewhat off course to avoid several storms thus taking us into the Pacific Ocean off the south west coast of Chile.  We then turned east and headed towards the Beagle Channel.  The Drake Passage is dreaded by most travellers as it has a reputation for severe weather and corresponding seas.  For the most part, the seas were relatively calm during our voyage through the Drake.  Aside from some swells during one night, and some small pockets of precipitation when we neared Cape Horn , it was clear sailing all the way back to Ushuaia!

Cape Horn,  the southern most point in Chile, South America

Category: Antarctica
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4 Responses
  1. Angus says:

    Absolutely love the pictures of the icebergs. I could watch them all day as the light changes.

    • christina says:

      Hi Angus
      I loved the ice bergs too and could have spent another week just cruising around watching them. In fact, the next sailing of our ship was doing a different itinerary – 11 days just on the Antarctic Peninsula. We actually tried to get on that voyage (last minute of course) but unfortunately it was completely booked when we enquired. I don’t usually like going back to the same place but I would definitely do another Antarctica cruise. Cheers. Christina

  2. Fellow Steerage Passenger says:

    Go “Steerage” GO!! – Only the BEST for the Captain’s table.

    I can’t believe you actually put that photo on-line!!
    I look worse than a demented penguin covered in poop!

    Have you met any other crazy people on your travels?
    Hope your both keeping well?

    • chris says:

      Well hello again ‘Fellow Steerage Passenger’… :-)

      That photo will always help us remember what a craic individual you truly are! Would you prefer we use the photo of your tattoo?

      Can’t say we’ve met any other ‘crazy’ people lately, but we’re amazed at how often we meet ‘really nice’ people in our travels… who knows… there just might be hope for this world we live in after all!

      We’re resting up for another day or so before heading out to El Chalten to trek/camp for 5 days… bruises and blisters be damned!

      Take care, and keep in touch!

      Chris & Christina