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Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands

1st to 19th December 2019

MS Island Sky

 

 

Sunday, 1st December 2019 - Ushuaia towards Falkland Islands

 

A long flight of 3.5 hours from Buenos Aires finally arrived in two waves at the small domestic airport of Ushuaia and a short bus ride brought everyone to the quayside where Island Sky was waiting. After everyone was aboard and satiated with tea and other culinary delights, a mandatory briefing was held to advise everyone of the emergency procedures to follow in the event of an incident aboard the vessel. Thereafter everyone reconvened in the lounge for a short briefing and introduction to our initial plans and also to the staff who would be looking after everyone and driving boats to get everyone ashore during the voyage. Julia then presented a brief description of the vessel and some of the ‘Do’s and Don’ts before a very pleasant dinner was served. Meanwhile Island Sky departed from the quayside in Ushuaia just before 1900 and quietly motored out into the Beagle Channel and eastwards towards Staten Island and thence towards the Falkland Islands. The Beagle Channel had barely a ripple as the light faded around 2200.

 

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Monday, 2nd December 2019 - En route towards Falkland Islands

Despite the forecast of up to 2.5 metres seas the crossing certainly for the larger part of the day remained virtually calm with a barely detectable motion of the ship. By breakfast time Staten Island and the eastern-most tip of Tierra del Fuego was receding astern. The day started with breakfast and this was swiftly followed by distribution of waterproof boots and jackets. A lot of mandatory information and procedures had to be achieved this morning and initially Jane gave an indication of our plans for the following two days in the Falkland Islands. This was followed by a biosecurity briefing and then a “how to behave around wildlife of FI, SG and Antarctica” and then finally a Zodiac small boat “this is what we do and how”. A boot and outer clothing cleaning station was established on each deck level and guests were asked to show and sign a form to be “bio-secure” and not transport seeds from one landing/country/continent to another. Wheeling giant petrels, occasionally Cape petrels and rare black-browed and Wandering albatrosses soared around the ship. 

Mid afternoon saw Tony with the first lecture on some of the birds we may see in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. At sea the weather turned almost glassy calm, which deterred the giant petrels and other birds from flying, except the diminutive Wilson’s storm petrels, which continued to flit around like sea swallows. Mark gave a presentation on the Antarctic Treaty, which reached its 60th anniversary yesterday. Late in the day we had a couple of whale sightings and even during the run up to the Captain’s cocktail party in the Lounge a couple of possible fin whales were spotted off the ship. A sumptuous dinner was served in the restaurant and with an impending early-ish start in the morning everyone retired early ready for the excitement of the morrow.

 

Tuesday, 3rd December 2019 - Saunders and West Point Islands

After a very quiet night at sea Island Sky approached an anchorage south of The Neck on Saunders Island in the north-western Falkland Islands. It was overcast, with a slight southerly breeze and temperature of about 9°C, and a hint of rain - all very typical for the Falkland Islands. There was considerable excitement to step ashore onto a sandy beach and see the first penguins strolling along. However, with a bit of a climb there was a lot more to see from gentoo, Magellanic, rockhopper and king penguins, but also the flying birds – shags, gulls etc. Vegetation is sparse which befits a typical sheep station here. The weather continued dry for much of the morning and during lunch the ship repositioned to West Point.

Around 1400 there was a general disembarkation of everyone to West Point. As we rounded the point into the bay the small house and jetties came into view along with the Golden Fleece, a substantial yacht and well known in the Falkland Islands and Antarctic waters. An easy landing on to the jetty, where we were met by the current caretakers, Alan White and his wife. The flagged route over the island to The Nose was easy to follow over the “hard camp” to the albatrosses and rockhopper penguins which are to be found in amongst the tussac grass. The mist and fine, wet drizzle were not particularly conducive to photography. By around 1600 most guests were on their way back heading for the farmhouse and an impressive spread of cakes and confections laid out in the kitchen, although most guests took their cups and goodies and headed outside to sit in the sunshine. The turkey vultures on the roof were either looking for new meat (us!) or perhaps a cake crumb or two.  Everyone was back aboard by 1730 and shortly afterwards the ship upped the anchor and headed Stanley-wards. A good turnout on the Lido saw a lovely sunset over the outlying islands of the northwest Falkland Islands.

 

Wednesday, 4th December 2019 - Stanley, Falkland Islands

Just before 0800 the Island Sky approached the “temporary” port facility of FIPASS at the eastern end of Stanley Harbour. The clearance of the vessel was swiftly completed and by 0845 with the coaches in position the first group set off for a tour of a sheep station on Long Island. At 0900 the bus, which was later used for the shuttle bus, set off for the Visitor Centre in Stanley with the walking group, and fifteen minutes later the tour for the battlefields of the 1982 war departed. The weather was cool with a slight breeze but otherwise dry.

The walking tour started from the Visitor Centre at the public jetty opposite Jubilee Villas and headed along Ross Road towards the Cathedral. From there a number of the interesting sites around Stanley were visited and the tour ended at the Historical Dockyard Museum on the seafront. The Long Island Farm tour headed westwards from Stanley and after around an hour reached the farm area where a sheep shearing demonstration was performed on the Corriedale sheep common in the Falkland Islands. A rather sleepy sheepdog gave a less than perfect demonstration of rounding up sheep, made up by the excellent guiding provided by the local expert.

The battlefield tour had the benefit of two 1982 veteran soldiers in the form of Mike and Kevin who provided an extra dimension to any commentary from the local guide. During the afternoon many of the guests took the opportunity of seeing the sights of Stanley, whether the Globe Tavern or the Historic Stanley Museum and the several shops. The last shuttle back from the Visitors Centre collected all the 28 stragglers and towards 1700 the lines were slipped and Island Sky moved out through the Narrows into Port William and towards South Georgia. Chris gave a few points of interest on the PA regarding the SS Great Britain, which ended her working days in Sparrow Cove, just off Port William. Our first recap took the form of a briefing from Jane and a light-hearted look at the concept of recaps from Damon and some birds seen during the last few days from Tony.

 

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Thursday, 5th December 2019 - Scotia Sea towards South Georgia

Jane’s wake up call at 0745 included all the items on the daily programme as issued as well as the sea water temperature and a weather outlook, which was favourable. For those on the Lido for breakfast it was an impressive sight with black-browed and wandering albatrosses, many prions, pintado and giant petrels and perhaps other birds. At 0930 a repeat of our biosecurity briefing with an added inclusion of a film from GSGSSI on the pristine nature of South Georgia and attempts to maintain it was shown. A further equipment cleaning was instigated which, we hope, will satisfy the government officer. Later in the morning Sue gave a talk on how to improve your photography. At lunchtime the volume of birds around the ship had dropped to a fraction of those about earlier, perhaps a reflection on the variability of the abundance of food in the waters. The sun shone from a cloudless sky and the waves and swell were around 2-3 metres with a quarter sea, which was quite comfortable. Mid afternoon saw Colin outline details of the cetaceans we may see and the animal group in general and at 1700 Chris gave an account of the contrast in the geology of both the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. During the late afternoon the wind and the swell dropped although the cloud increased slightly to obscure the sun.

 

Friday, 6th December 2019 - Scotia Sea, Shag Rocks, towards South Georgia.

The weather conditions are astounding the “Old Hands” as it must be very rare indeed that this part of the Southern Ocean is as calm as it has been overnight and which persisted throughout the day. However, what did change was the air and seawater temperature overnight as we passed through the zone of the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front. This is a zone of transition from colder polar waters to warmer and potentially less biologically-rich waters of the South Atlantic. It also known as a zone of fog because of this temperature transition and indeed this is what we got. During the morning the fog was relatively thin as Mike gave a gripping first-hand account of the war in the Falkland Islands in 1982 when he was one of the “yompers” who trekked across East Falkland to remove the Argentinian invaders. The talk was well received and the questions could have gone on all morning. The estimated timing for passing Shag Rocks meant Tony’s talk on penguins was rescheduled for the morning. In the afternoon we were estimating Shag Rocks at 1525 but it looked less than hopeful as the fog closed in and visibility was less than two ship lengths. However, miraculously as we made our closest approach of only 4 cables (4/10 nautical mile) the fog thinned and everyone had a good view of the six pinnacles of rock, which at their highest point reach 70 metres (~250 feet) ASL.  The eponymous shags were much in evidence around the rocks as were other birds including grey-headed albatross, and occasional fur seals. The fog gradually thickened again and the temperature did not encourage lingering on the outside decks. Instead there was a good turn-out for Marks talk on Admiral Beaufort and his wind scale.

Our recap started with Jane’s briefing for the next two days in South Georgia. Nacho demonstrated using a piece of string the immense (or otherwise) the wind span of the birds we have been seeing during our crossing from the Falkland Islands.

 

Saturday, 7th December 2019 - Hercules Bay, Grytviken South Georgia

In the early morning the island of South Georgia (never South Georgia Island!) was visible off the starboard side of the vessel as we made our way from the Willis Islands at the western end, past Bird Islands to Hercules Bay, a small inlet east of Fortuna Bay.  Humpback whales helped to make breakfast on the Lido more interesting as we entered the bay to drift in the calm waters.  Ten Zodiacs were lowered and virtually everyone participated in a cruise round the bay, which contained shags, fur and elephant seals and macaroni and other penguins. It was a lovely introduction to some of the wildlife of South Georgia.

Over lunch we motored down the coast and entered Cumberland East Bay and then into Grytviken, passing King Edward Point with its BAS scientific base on our starboard side. Everyone was landed on the beach near the whalers graveyard and negotiating the sleeping fur seals, entered through the white-painted post-and-rail fence, to gather at Shackleton’s graveside, collecting a tot of Glenmorangie on the way through. When everyone had assembled Chris gave an account of how Shackleton came to be buried on South Georgia and proposed a toast to the Boss and explorers everywhere. After this everyone dispersed around the whaling station, the church and the museum but more than an hour before last Zodiac time there was not a soul left on the beach!

During the evening a few of the SGHT staff were invited to dinner on the ship, and shortly after 2130 with the main engines running had to make a rapid exit as we departed Grytviken for our next location.

 

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Sunday, 8th December 2019 - Fortuna Bay and Stromness

Shortly after midnight Island Sky anchored in Fortuna Bay off Anchorage Bay and the tongue of ice descending from the Fortuna Glacier. The weather was overcast but the cloud gradually appeared to lift during the early morning until a squall passed through bringing light snow and an increase in wind speed. This coincided with the ship moving up the fjord to a position nearer our planned landing. However, the water here was too deep to anchor and therefore she drifted.  Zodiacs were lowered in anticipation of making a landing on the beach but the scout boat into the beach reached a vision of turbulent water, waves dumping on the beach an extensive swash and abundant fur seal activity. Our Expedition Leader therefore made the decision that an attempt at a landing was not feasible and instead a Zodiac cruise was planned in two tranches. It was an impressive sight with a continuous beachhead lined with adult male, female and new-born black fur seal pups, occasional giant petrels and sub-Antarctic skuas looking for placentas. For most the end–point of the cruise was large iceberg grounded in the shallower water at the end of the fjord. This was exciting as it was our first encounter with a large piece of ice. The striking aspect was the intense blue colour where light has managed to penetrate the ice, red light has been absorbed and the “fluorescent” blue light exits. Also of note was the fluting and dimpling of the ice structure, which is formed during melting of the ice under water. Once everything had been stowed Island Sky left the confines of Fortuna Bay with its Shackleton links (it was here that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley passed on their way to Stromness whaling station in May 1916). As we left Fortuna Bay the snout of the glacier was visible to the west and in the open sea a number of humpback whale blows were spotted and a distant breach was observed. During lunch we entered the fjord complex in which the three whaling stations of Leith Harbour, Husavik and Stromness are located. Anchoring off Stromness a scout boat was dispatched to investigate a landing and despite the abundant fur seal population it was decided that a landing was feasible. In due course everyone was sent ashore and with careful management in a large group we weaved our way through the mass of seal muscle to reach a less populated area. The bulk of the guests decided that a good walk up the valley to the waterfall at its head was their goal and set off with Sue and Mark. This is the site where Shackleton wrote that they had to abseil down the waterfall to reach the valley floor during their final leg to rescue at Stromness. 

The other group with Tony, Chris and Jane followed part of this route observing plants and wildlife.  Just at the end of the landing light snow grains started to fall and during the evening there was sufficient snowfall to provide a dusting on the higher levels of the valley.  

Our recap consisted of Jane giving a briefing on our last day on South Georgia, Julia with some details of the whaling industry which flourished on South Georgia from 1904 until 1965 as well as moving offshore to factory ships in the 1920’s, Dave with an account of the establishment of the church at Grytviken, and Chris on some of the plants and other flora when have or will see during the trip. Island Sky remained at anchor in the peaceful conditions at Stromness until the early hours of the morning before heaving the anchor and motoring south-eastwards towards St Andrews Bay and another adventure.

 

Monday, 9th December 2019 - St Andrews Bay, Gold Harbour South Georgia

Around 0400 the anchor was weighed and Island Sky moved out into the open sea and headed south-east along the coast and around 0800 approached an anchorage position in St. Andrews Bay. The origin of the name is not known unlike most of the locations on South Georgia. With the staff boat scouting ashore, it became evident that, despite a little swell at the ship, there was no reason to prevent a landing on this, perhaps the most stunning beach in the whole of the island.  And so around 0840 the first boatload of guests arrived and were so overwhelmed with the wildlife surrounding them as they stepped off the beach that it was difficult to give them a very brief briefing! Weaner elephant seals and king penguins were everywhere. A path was marked across the grassy area behind the beach to reach a reasonably safe crossing of the melt stream from the distant glacier, which enabled everyone who wanted to, to reach an overlook position on the moraine ridge. This allowed a view over the main king penguin colony of perhaps 100,000 penguins.

During lunch the ship repositioned to Gold Harbour (originally Anna Bay), with the hanging Bertrab Glacier looming over the bay. Again the scout boat reported a similar easy landing and the beach was thankfully almost devoid of fur seals, but a plethora of elephant seal babies, king penguins and a few Gentoo penguins. After all the Zodiacs were aboard, Island Sky headed round Cooper Bay and passing several large icebergs, entered Drygalski Fjord, a seven mile fjord at the extreme southeastern end of South Georgia. A short explanation was given by Chris on the PA before the ship turned and then, during dinner shaped a course to Elephant Island across the Scotia Sea.

 

Tuesday, 10th December 2019 - Scotia Sea towards Elephant Island.

 

Throughout the night only gentle rocking disturbed the peace as the remarkably calm conditions persisted. A light snow shower passed through while some guests were enjoying breakfast on the Lido while the temperature hovered around the 1°C mark! Shortly after 0800 while most guests were busy with breakfast a sighting of whales from the bridge alerted everyone. Initially identified as humpback whales, they turned out to be the second largest whale on the planet, namely Fin whales, and there were a lot of them, perhaps 10-15 around the ship, which stopped for a while as we got close to some of these impressive animals.  There was even a breach just as we were regaining our speed. Fin whales can be very fast indeed, capable of out-running the ship. Under weigh again, we commenced the days activities with a short briefing on our plans for the next couple of days as we cross towards Elephant Island and beyond, and Sue gave a glance at some of the aerial footage she had shot from her drone at Gold Harbour. Our final biosecurity check of boots and clothing was instigated – we do not want South Georgia seeds to thrive in Antarctica.   Later in the morning Tony presented a useful lecture on identifying some of the oceanic birds, which thrive in this part of the world and explained some of the details of why these birds favour the southern ocean. After lunch Mark  elaborated on the details of some  large icebergs and their effects on South Georgia and later Colin gave an appropriate talk on the whales of the region, given our recent encounters with fins and humpbacks. The sea state continued in a “slight” condition, quite remarkable given that we were approaching the “screaming sixties”.

 

Wednesday, 11th December 2019 - Scotia Sea towards Elephant Island

 

Overnight we had regained the extra hour we “lost” as we approached South Georgia a few days ago. It was so calm with only around 15 knots of wind and very little noticeable swell. During breakfast on the Lido a number of possibly Sei or Fin whales were spotted in the distance, and during the morning southern fulmars were spotted, a new species for this voyage. Sue gave a talk on how to take photography to a more controllable level using the sophistications built into many cameras. Chris gave more information on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition and during his talk we went through a patch of drift ice probably emanating from the Weddell Sea. A very long wavelength swell became evident by lunchtime, probably originating from a storm to the NW of our position which at noon was approximately NW of the South Orkney Islands and nearing the Antarctic Treaty boundary at 60° S.

During the late afternoon Mark presented his account of working for the various BBC polar wildlife series and some of the science behind the climate change situation. Before dinner our recap included Jane’s briefing about our plan “A” for tomorrow and then snippets of information from Colin on fur seals, Mark on sea ice and Damon on sea sickness.  During dinner a large tabular iceberg was passed extending to over a mile in length.

 

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Thursday, 12th December 2019 - Elephant Island and Gibbs Island

 

After an astoundingly smooth crossing of the Scotia Sea this morning we arrived off Elephant Island around 0700. A slow approach brought us to an anchoring position NW of Point Wild, the historic site where 22 men spent over four months during 1916 ekeing out a living from meagre resources, as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition commanded by Sir Ernest Shackleton. He and five others had set off from this point in late April in a small 22 ft long boat called James Caird, bound for help on South Georgia nearly 800 miles away across the stormiest seas in the world. Meanwhile, those left were perched on an inhospitable rocky ridge exposed to the vagaries of the weather, but they all survived, one with fewer toes than he had arrived with! However, all the Island Sky passengers came and went with all their toes as we Zodiac-cruised the shoreline, getting as close as we dare given the waves rolling in from the sea. The statue to Luis Pardo, the captain of the small Chilean tug Yelcho which rescued the men, was visible just near the position where the two upturned boats had been located which had served as a makeshift home for the stranded explorers. The chinstrap penguins present today replace gentoo penguins, which were present in Shackleton’s time. During the cruise the snow grains turned more fluffy as the particular meteorological conditions subtly changed. The wind was thankfully light and brash around the ship easily negotiable by the boats. Once everyone was aboard the ship steamed eastwards towards Cape Valentine where we spotted numerous whale blows and slowed to view some of these magnificent animals. The identification proved that these were fin whales, the second largest whale in existence after blue whales. After the whales started to move away and we had had sufficient time to view their activities, the ship headed south and in due course a revised plan was formulated for the afternoon. By 1530 we had reached an anchoring position off Gibbs Island, part of the Elephant Island group. This was a new landing for most of the staff, which made it intriguing. After a scout boat ashore, everyone was provided with a Zodiac cruise and a short landing to view the four different penguin types present on the island (Gentoo, Adélie, Macaroni and Chinstrap). The island was first roughly charted by Edward Bransfield in 1820. The weather remained nearly calm although there was a sharp chop in the bay but this did not deter either the penguins or abundant Cape Petrels and Silver-grey Antarctic fulmars.

Our recap and briefing this evening concentrated on our plans for the day ahead in Antarctic Sound with further contributions from Colin on the leopard seal we saw today at Point Wild, and Dave with interesting facts on the reindeer and penguins from South Georgia, while Mark added some scientific facts to the Shackleton Endurance saga with details of the average sea ice as measured from satellite data from the last 40 or so years, and showed that, despite assertions to the contrary from the whaling community that it was a “bad” sea-ice year in the Weddell Sea, it was in fact a perfectly normal year as far as the amount of ice was concerned. Certainly it seemed very lucky that Yelcho got through the sea ice to Elephant Island, just choosing a time when the “average” reached a minimum value in sea-ice distribution.

 

Friday, 13th December 2019 - Brown Bluff, Paulet Island

 

Around about 0700 the ship arrived in the vicinity of Brown Bluff and slowly approached the shore to a drift position. With a scout Zodiac ashore the decision was made to go ahead with the landing. Brown Bluff is a massive structure, essentially a cross-section through a sub-glacial volcano, which erupted about 1 million years ago. However, most visitors come to see the Adélie and Gentoo penguins nesting on the gravel and boulder raised beach and there was no shortage of them. Additionally some guests followed Tony to view a snow petrel nest until it was noted that a kelp gull nest was adjacent and everyone moved away.

Over lunch the Island Sky sailed through Antarctic Sound, past Rosamel Island and into the Weddell Sea. Because of the existence of a massive iceberg, designated A68 and located around 20 miles to the South, this area of the Weddell Sea was remarkably free of drift ice or even major icebergs. This made our approach to Paulet Island simple and without delay. It was extremely low tide when we arrived off the landing place but this did not hinder the procedure. A walk along the beach lined with Adélie penguins and then a short walk up the hill brought most people to the remains of the Swedish South Polar Expedition hut of 1903, and from there over the hill to the frozen lake beneath the bulk of the dormant/extinct volcano that is Paulet Island.

The sun was now shining from a blue sky which encouraged some to sit and absorb the penguin behaviour until our last Zodiac time. We retraced our track via Antarctic Sound and on a parallel with Almirante Irizar the Argentinian  icebreaker, which was probably returning from Marambio, the base on Seymour Island. During recap from Jane, then Tony with some bird info and Mark on the discovery of a deep point in Antarctica someone spotted killer whales from the ship and a series of sharp turns brought us closer but perhaps not close enough. Chris improvised for a while until Mark returned to complete his delivery, and then dinner time intervened. Meanwhile the weather continued glassy calm as we occasionally passed through belts of dis-membered pressure ridges and pieces of glacial ice.

 

Saturday, 14th December 2019 - Mikkelsen Harbour & Cierva Cove

 

Overnight the sea remained glassy calm and because we are behind a string of islands there is not even any swell from the Bellingshausen Sea. By early morning we were making a cautious approach stealing into Mikkelsen Harbour to make our morning landing on an island sometimes referred to as D’Hainult Island (Chilean) or on British charts as Bombay Island. The bay is situated on the south side of Trinity Island (three significant peaks) and the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula lies to the south. We were surrounded by high, snow and ice-covered mountains with icefalls and crevasses being picked out in the bright sunshine. Access to the beach round the north side of the island involved careful navigation through several shallow areas before the shingle beach was reached. Whales bones and a water boat were reminders that this region was once the source of whales and their butchery in the 20th century.  Four Weddell seals were happily sunning themselves on the snow and gentoo penguins had chosen the island to establish a colony. A small Argentinian refuge hut, painted with the Argentinian flag is actually only a statement of hopeful sovereignty rather than serving any scientific purpose. It, and the outside toilet block, was surrounded by penguins taking advantage of the shelter the buildings provided.

Two major calving events occurred in the ice cliff opposite the landing beach but did not result in a tsunami larger than a few inches in height! The weather was so warm and sunny that some guests were reluctant to leave the beach until the last moment. As we departed back into the Gerlache Strait a few humpback whales were spotted but nothing that warranted making a detour. Over lunchtime the ship headed southwards and turned into a large bay called Cierva Cove adjacent to the Argentinian station of Primavera. As we arrived another vessel departed, a sign of the increase in tourist traffic to the Antarctic over the past 30 years.

Once established in a drifting position the Zodiacs were lowered for our afternoon excursion. There was sufficient floating ice to make for an interesting cruise. The first animal spotted was a female leopard seal sunning herself on a small floe and despite many of the Zodiacs being fairly close on occasions, she only lifted her head a couple of times and then went back to sleep. Otherwise interesting iceberg shapes and the fascination of being surrounded by floating ice surpassed expectations. Aboard the ship the officer of the watch radioed that there were a couple of humpback whales feeding adjacent to the ship so everyone headed in that direction. Two adult humpback whales, largely oblivious to both ship and 10 Zodiacs, continued feeding doing relatively shallow dives without fluking up.  About 30 minutes was spent in trying to second guess where they would come up next before they moved further away, which signalled the end of the whale watching and indeed the Zodiac cruise.

The recap this evening included of course Jane’s briefing, a piece of drone footage from Sue, and concluded with a circus entertainer in the form of Nacho performing tricks with bottles, juggling with lemons and creating wonderful shapes with balloons. Throughout the evening the ship moved very slowly southwards through the Gerlache Strait. Some great sightings of humpback whales also occurred this evening. There were still people on the deck gazing at the scenery as the sun disappeared behind some low cloud after 2300.

 

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Sunday, 15th December 2019 - Danco Island & Paradise Harbour

 

Around 0700 the ship turned slightly off the Gerlache Strait and entered the narrow-ish waterway of Errera Channel. Because of ice conditions ahead we could not easily proceed and so the Zodiacs were used for a moderately long run into the landing on Danco Island on the east side of the channel. Before even the whole manifest had been offloaded some guests were requesting a return to the ship on this, the most perfect morning one could imagine in Antarctica with virtually no wind, perfect visibility and stunning scenery. The landing on to the snow piedmont above the beach was adjacent to a path that had been established by previous visitors, which made the walking up to the Gentoo colonies much easier if it wasn't for the occasional potholing episode as the surface crust gave way to the softer snow below.  Many of the group managed to the top of the small hill, although that wasn’t the primary purpose of the landing, which of course was to drink in the magnificent landscape and absorb the behavioural antics of the gentoo penguins.

As the landing progressed the ship headed through the channel as the current and wind moved the ice and so by return to the ship time the run back was much shorter. Lunchtime was a superb buffet on the Lido with masses of food prepared by the chefs as the ship completed the Errera Channel, headed south-westwards towards the northern entrance to Paradise Harbour. En route we passed the Chilean Presidente Gonzales Videla station, another political statement. The flag here was flying at half-mast the recognition of the loss of the C-130 aircraft crossing the Drake Passage and probably bring personnel perhaps some of whom were destined for this station.

During our crossing of this stretch of water it was clear why the area had been given the name Paradise Harbour, and used by whalers in the past. The ship dropped anchor off the semi-derelict Argentinian station of Almirante Brown with its red-painted buildings and leaking fuel oil tanks. The group was sub-divided to avoid congestion with half going to the station and half on a cruise round to the Skontorp Glacier snout and then a swap. When all aboard a ritual “polar plunge” took place off the marina deck and around 8 hardly souls took the plunge attended by the doctor, just in case, and attached to a stout rope, just in case! This was also our absolutely furthest south (although those in a Zodiac cruise did go around 0.5 mile further south) and this was64° 53.4’S   62° 51.9’W With everything stowed Island Sky departed Paradise Harbour between Lemaire Island and Bryde Island back into the Gerlache Strait and shaped a course northwards, still in brilliant sunshine with Mount Français, at 2825 metres clear of cloud and towering over the landscape.

Our recap as well as a briefing on Deception Island and Half Moon Island from Jane included a plea from Chantal on behalf of the NCCT charity auction, Chris gave an account of the significance of the ozone hole over the continent of Antarctica and how the result of industrialisation of the northern hemisphere affects the southern hemisphere.  Finally Mark presented some explanations of what we may expect when entering and seeing Deception Island, a volcanic caldera. During dinner a number of humpback whales were spotted feeding on the west side of Gerlache Strait with their blows outlined nicely in the low sun. Later our sister ship Hebridean Sky hove to alongside and a number of stores were transferred from ship to ship. This is an opportunity that does not arise very often and the charterer of that vessel required some equipment that we had. During this time the wind had increased to about a force 4 and this was a reminder that the calm weather we have experienced over the past days, while it is unusual for such an extended period, could have been very different.

 

Monday, 16th December 2019 - Deception Island, Half Moon Island

 

The morning dawned, yet again, bright and clear with the visibility in excess of 60 miles – the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula/approximate entrance to Antarctic Sound could be seen stretching over the horizon, as we approached the low island of Deception Island - quite a different prospect from the towering snow covered mountains further south. This is due to the nature of the geology here for Deception Island is an active volcano that last erupted in August 1970 after more severe eruptions in 1967 and 1969.  Immediately after breakfast we made the turn and lined up for our approach through Neptune’s Bellows, the very narrow entrance into the caldera of this large volcano. There are no other more impressive calderas anywhere in the world where this can be done. Once through the tricky part of the navigation, avoiding the 2m deep Ravn Rock right in the centre of the channel, we turned into Whalers Bay to view the remains of the whaling station and the destroyed British base on the beach covered with volcanic ash. Heading further into the caldera the Spanish and Argentinian bases looked all closed and non-operational. We turned and headed back to the entrance and thence to the Bransfield Strait. Just to the north of the entrance lies Neptune’s Window and just beyond that are the Sewing Machine Needles off Baily Head. A ship was involved in a landing at the chinstrap colony around Baily Head but we approached the beach to have a look from the sea at this largest colony of penguins in this part of Antarctica. Our route then headed eastwards towards the eastern end of Livingston Island and a small island nestled between that and Greenwich Island.  Our landing onto Half Moon Island around 1400 was onto a steep shingle beach and was easy with the chinstrap penguins not far from the beach.  It was a very peaceful visit with patchy sunshine on the snows of Livingston Island but perhaps there a change in the weather was indicated as the cloud was increasing as the two hours ashore came to an end.  Island Sky secured for sea and everyone returned boots and jackets to have them packed away before any potential bad seas make that job more difficult.

Before dinner Chantal, Dave and Damon proposed a number of items which were up for auction on behalf of the Noble Caledonia Charitable Trust At about the same time the ship entered the Drake Passage as we completed our transit of Nelson Strait through the South Shetland Islands chain. Occasional snow showers accompanied our entry to the open ocean but the smooth sea was contrary to most people’s expectations.

 

Tuesday, 17th December 2019 - At sea towards Ushuaia

Overnight conditions afloat remained relatively smooth with only a 1-1.5 metre long wavelength swell from the NW.  The wind too was only 15 knots from that direction and so our ship speed was not unduly hindered. Air temperature at breakfast was still a bracing 1°C and yet the stalwarts still made it out on the Lido wrapped in coats and hats for breakfast. Mark gave a detailed account of some of his work with the Open University on sea-ice, again illustrated with clips from the BBC Frozen Planet series and some good graphics, particularly concerning the 2016 winter sea-ice distribution which was ascribed to unusual weather conditions.

Later in the morning Chantal provided information and insights into the workings of Noble Caledonia, its formation and forward plans for the various ships that the company operate or have on charter. As an additional offering, Greg our Hotel Department manager agreed to provide some insight into the workings of how to operate and manage a ship-borne hotel and the difficulties and challenges that poses. Outside pintado petrels, prions and white-chinned petrels with the occasional giant petrel, black-browed albatross and whale blow kept some guests glued to binoculars. A little excitement immediately after lunch as a light-mantled sooty albatross and a grey-headed albatross winged past. During the afternoon the wind and swell picked up with the wind swinging from NW to NE and increasing to circa 30 knots and the swell picking up to ~2-2.5 metres. This did not deter many from attacking the chocolate confections, which appeared for afternoon tea in the Club. At 1700 Tony gave a general introduction to bird identification, concentrating on the shape, size and all the other factors that go to make up the “jizz” of a bird. In the evening the Captain invited everyone into the Lounge for a final thank you and farewell drink before the crew were introduced and gave their own farewell rendition! The dinner in the restaurant had a few no-shows on account of the increase in ship motion, which during the night gradually decreased until around 0400 when the motion became acceptable again. 

 

Wednesday, 18th December 2019 - Beagle Channel and Ushuaia

 

Following our reasonably good crossing of the Drake Passage we entered the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel earlier than anticipated and just before 1200 dropped the anchor off Isla Gardner and the Argentinian pilot station. The morning was fully occupied – first Mark wrapped up his talks with a discussion on the differences beween Arctic and  Antarctic warming and concentrated on the Antarctic Peninsula which is where 2-3 degrees C of warming has been measured over the last decades. The remainder of the over-jackets were collected before Chris gave a talk about his two years in Antarctica as a geologist in the 1970’s.

The pilot was due aboard at 1400 as other ships arrived near our anchorage to begin the 5 hour transit of the Beagle Channel between Navarino and Tierra del Fuego islands before we arrived alongside the quay in Ushuaia at the end of this epic and wonderful voyage round these magnificent parts of the world. A wet end to an incredible voyage, weather –wise! The evening was concluded before dinner with Sue’s compilation of images, both still and moving, of some aspects of the trip, which she has both taken and annotated as a record of our time aboard Island Sky.

 

Thursday, 19th December 2019 - Ushuaia

 

Disembarkation for everyone is normally at what seems to be inordinately early but this is to allow us to show you something of the surrounding area of Ushuaia and also allows the crew to prepare all the cabins and public areas for the next guests who arrive in only 8 hours, as well as re-victual the ship, take on fuel, water and any other commodities needed.

 

 End of Voyage

For further inspiration, view slideshow of images taken during the voyage

 

 

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