Part five is the last in our Antarctic travel diary series, but luckily it’s a bumper edition covering the last five days of the trip. If you missed the rest of the series fear not! Here’s parts one, two, three and four.
We steamed north briefly this morning to the small, but heavily populated island aptly named Avian island, one of the southmost regions for breeding colonies of a multitude of species and one of the many Antarctic Special Protection Areas – ASPA. A fragile no-go zone, this is truly and officially a special place. The wildlife population on Avian is dominated by approximately 70,000 nesting pairs of Adèlie penguins plus their chicks! The island is also home to a number of birds including Blue-Eyed Shags, Giant petrels, Skuas, Kelp Gulls and Wilson’s Storm Petrels. Fur seals and Elephant seals are regular visitors here too, enjoying the comfortable rocks and stony beaches of the island.
Our morning activity was a zodiac cruise of the shoreline of Avian observing the wildlife at a respectable 100m from the rocky coast. The stoic kayaking group chose to paddle towards the island using their own fuel and ever-increasing strength and grit.
Some of the cosy coves sheltered a group of Elephant Seals taking some well-earned rest. The deep, yet disturbing guttural sounds occasionally letting everyone know that this was their beach. A couple of Zodiacs were lucky to see both Fur and Elephant seals swimming just off the Chilean Station “ Lt Luis Carjaval” on the southwest end of Adelaide Island.
Looming ominously around the corner from this base are the sheer ice cliffs, threatening to topple off in enormous chunks into the channel between the two islands. Thankfully today they held fast and looked spectacular.
After another sumptuous lunch, we were invited to hear a lecture on an introduction to Antarctica, followed by a historic film of what life was like on Horseshoe Island’s British Base Y in the 1950s.
With the spectacular backdrop of Adelaide island’s pristine snow-covered mountains, we journeyed back north towards more adventures. Another day of beauty and wonder sets slowly with the sun.
Overnight we journeyed north and by morning found ourselves at the southern entrance to the Neumayer Channel. Our morning excursion was set for Damoy Point in Dorian Bay, a shallow, rocky harbour surrounded by pristine glaciers. The main event? Gentoo penguins! Nestled on several rocky outcrops, chicks of all ages nuzzled into their protective parent’s belly while opportunistic skuas hovered above. Damoy Point is also home to Damoy Hut, which stands out in bright turquoise. This UK historic base was last used in 1993 as a transit station for staff and provisions of the British Antarctic Survey, which were to be flown south from the skiway on the glacier above the hut to Rothera Research Station, not far from where we visited Avian Island just yesterday.
Both the kayakers and snorkellers made the most of the morning while a few expedition team made their way over to nearby Port Lockroy to deliver our healthy stock of postcards, which will slowly make their way to the UK before entering the British postal service. When they will be received is anyone’s guess!
The afternoon was earmarked for whale watching, and what better place than the southern Gerlache Strait. While in transit, John and Dan gathered keen citizen scientists on Deck 8 for a seabird survey and cloud observation. Several small groups of humpback whales made their presence known as we approached the southern entrance to Dallman Bay, one of the gateways to the Peninsula.
Two whales, altogether uninterested in our visit, logged on the surface and made shallow dives just off our bow as we drifted in the wind and current.
As the afternoon wore on, we headed towards the glacier at the back of Fournier Bay. From here we had fantastic views of Mount Francais, the tallest peak on the Peninsula at 2,825 metres. Brash ice, growlers, bergy and icebergs glided past our balconies as soft, early evening light cast the most beautiful, serene reflections on the sea. Later we gathered for recap presentations and a briefing, and enjoyed a quiet dinner in the protection of Fournier Bay.
Written by our cheerful Naturalist Lauren Farmer
Waking up to the soft light on the mountain peaks was an early morning mark in the win column as we headed towards Danco Island. The coffee was poured and the restaurant was full as glimpses of glaciers, icebergs, and porpoising penguins sailed by us.
As we approached Danco Island, the winds blew strong as we found shelter in the lee, cancelling the kayak excursion and giving us a bit more of a sporty experience on our way towards the landing. At Danco Island, we were greeted by Gentoo penguins swimming in & out of the water. It’s hard to imagine how many times the penguins waddled up and down the side of the mountain in order to carve those highways. As we smiled, laughed, and captured photos of our favourite waddlers, our SNORK friends swam with penguins. Others trekked up the mountainside to take in the breathtaking views.
After a much-needed warm-up and hearty lunch, it was time for round two. In true expedition style, we turned Plan A into Plan B. No worries though…at this point we’re seasoned explorers and used to adapting our plans! Hoping to take full advantage of the calm winds and glassy seas, a zodiac cruise it shall be! With the promise of a white penguin named Lucy, we loaded up our zodiacs and navigated our way through the icy waters of the Aguirre Canal towards Paradise Harbor. Flowing tidewater glaciers, leopard seals, huge icebergs, feeding humpbacks, and porpoising penguins lined the channel as the overcast skies only deepened the blue of the ice and crevasses. Paradise Harbor definitely lived up to its name!
This morning we landed at Hydruga Rocks, a small island in the Shetlands known for its protected landing site and wildlife. This small piece of Antarctica was found by BAS survey flights in 1956 and named after the Latin name for Leopard Seal.
It’s late in the season now and we walked around the island, now almost bare of snow watching the last movements of the wildlife before the cold winter sets in. The rocks harboured fur seals, an elephant seal and Weddell Seal. Wilson’s Storm Petrel flew over the water, feeding on tiny pieces of food on the surface, their black legs moving so quickly it looked as if they danced on the surface. A giant petrel flew low over the visitors checking out the possibilities. The kayakers and snorkelers also enjoyed their activities and landings to the full absorbing the offerings of the quiet morning.
It was then back to the Greg Mortimer for another hearty lunch before sailing to Spert Island, a magnificent volcanic group of basaltic rocks, 58 million years in the making. Softer layers of rock have been slowly eroded away to leave channels, caves and arches. In zodiacs we cruised around and between these rugged cliffs, awed by the solemn rock giants, standing firm as if they were the ramparts and gateways of an ancient forgotten city. Fur seals rested on beaches, growling at our presence and clouds of skuas flew from the cliff tops above. And again the diversity of Antarctica’s geology surprised us mortal zodiacers.
In the evening, the embarkation briefing, the reminder that this voyage was closing, and that soon the trip will be found in memory and friendship. But not quite over, as the glowing colours of the setting sun lit the low cloud cover bringing us back to the Antarctic world.
It’s the saddest of days as we bid farewell to the Greg Mortimer and all of its crew. We climb onboard our zodiacs one last time and head to King George Island and the airstrip. You appreciate om the way up the hill to the airstrip just how “up the hill” it really is. We’d not noticed ten days ago in our excitement how “down the hill” our trek had been. We swap out our muck boots for our own shoes and cheer as the planes land and we can get in out of the cold. We will never be cold like that again. And when we arrive back at Punta Arenas, the bus trip back to the hotel will be the last thing we do as an expeditionary group together again. We go our separate ways but are united in our beliefs that we have something very special.