Coordinates: 64° 50' S, 063° 39’ W
Weather: Intermittent and light snow showers with early overcast, changing to blue skies and brilliant sunshine.
Air Temperature: +1o C (33o F)
Sea Temperature: +0o C (32o F)
Pressure: 982 Hpa
Wind: 20 Km / hour
We could not have asked for a better day in the Antarctic, our first day in this continent of delights. This is our ‘extra day’ that had been previously dictated by the weather conditions, so carefully considered several days ago by the Captain and Expedition Leader. As a result we had the opportunity to explore just a little bit farther south than usual at this time of the year and awoke very early to find ourselves, as planned, approaching Petermann Island, which is located past 65o south latitude.
I was in the scout boat that first went ashore just before dawn, pushing our way through floating brash ice that covered most of the distance between ship and shore. The Expedition Team’s assignment included evaluating conditions, ensuring the safety of the landing site, considering the wildlife situation and marking out safe pathways for our guests to experience the wonder of this magical area.
Fortunately I was given the great opportunity to lead one of the guided hikes, something that I quite enjoy. This allows me to spend a great deal of quality time with guests, covering a wide variety of subjects ranging from penguins, ornithology, geology, glaciology, botany, marine mammals and history. Our walk started off past hundreds of Gentoo penguins, then led down to the site of the Adelie penguin rookery where I was able to describe the differences between the two related but different species. We even had several juvenile penguins come directly over to us as we were standing quite still and literally started to curiously peck away at jackets and trousers in an attempt to determine just what kind of strange creatures we are that were visiting their home. The nearby shag / cormorant colony also provided us with great displays of allo-preening between many of the bird ‘couples’.
Along the path I was able to discuss several types of moss and lichen that appeared on a series of basaltic rocks which had a number of interesting mineral inclusions. We also had the chance to chat about the French Charcot Expedition that remained an entire winter on the island conducting scientific exploration in 1909. Just for fun, we stood in the same location as a French iconic photograph taken just 101 years before!
As a final capstone of the morning, we hiked over Megalistris Hill through a pass that offered a spectacular view of a beautiful bay covered in icebergs. It was a great way to complete our morning ashore for our first landing in the Antarctic.
During mid-day, the other Expedition Team members and I remained on deck to describe some of the awesome views that could be seen as the Prince Albert II transited towards our afternoon activities. First up was a cruise through the Lemaire Channel, considered to be one of the most beautiful ship passages, not just in the Antarctic, but in the world. For the first time this season, this narrow fjord-like channel with high, glacier-covered mountains on each side, was heavily choked with floating ice. Fortunately the Prince Albert II has a Class 1A ice-strengthened hull, something that is quite unusual even in the Expedition Cruising market.
The ice may have been only a small challenge for the ship and Captain, but its benefit was that everyone had the opportunity to observe an unusually large number of seals basking on the ice floes. They were primarily Crabeater Seals but I also was able to point out a Weddell and Leopard Seal as well.
I then took a break to dash inside for a wonderful lunch with a couple originally from the United Kingdom. They indicated that despite many years of traveling all over the world, they were simply not prepared for the tremendous beauty and awesome scale of Antarctica. At the end, I had a small piece of cheesecake (one of my favorite desserts on board) before venturing back out on deck just before the ship entered the Neumayer Channel, which is another long, winding channel between high, snow-capped peaks while slaloming between and around icebergs.
As the Prince Albert II exited into the Gerlache Strait, the sun came fully out and illuminated the far peaks of the Antarctic Continent, our next destination for the afternoon. However, there was a ‘small’ interruption for almost one hour as we came across two Humpback Whales that appeared to be mother and calf. Of course we stopped to observe a long series of feeding dives, punctuated by the occasional pectoral slap of the water as well as the famous periodic fluke display as these magnificent animals conducted a deeper dive every few minutes or so. I never get tired of pointing out the characteristics and behavior patters of these large creatures of the Southern Ocean.
Targeted arrival time delayed by whales? No problem! We just pushed back everything (including dinner) just a bit to ensure that we utilized every available minute of this gorgeous sunshine. We extended the landing times such that even though we started later, we retained the same amount of time for our final two activities of the day; a landing directly on the Antarctic Continent combined with a Zodiac cruise through the well named Paradise Bay.
For many, this shoreside landing near an Argentinean research station and adjacent to a huge glacier (which calved off several icebergs during our visit) was a visitation to their 7th Continent, which is always a special occasion.
After the first group of guests landed, they explored the area around the station, observed Gentoo Penguin behavior and had the optional chance to climb a large hill for a great view of the surrounding area, which contains a series of glaciers cascading into the sea.
I was lucky enough to provide Zodiac cruises with only 8 guests on board. This small grouping gave me a great chance to answer questions as we cruised through a sunlit bay filled with icebergs tinted blue along with brash ice. We were able to see another cormorant nesting area as well as a bright green malachite inclusion on one cliff face before heading around the corner to observe the 50-meter high ice cliffs of the glacier face. These towers of ice were studded with crevasses, snow bridges, and fractured surfaces. The associated icebergs had a wild variety of shapes and sizes, many with intriguing ‘bubble rilles’ formed during earlier periods of melting as well as a multitude of textures.
All too soon as the sun began to set and provide the most beautiful early evening light on the glaciers, thus it was time to turn back and head for the ship. As a child I was no more disappointed when told it was time to go home and put away my toys, than when we finally had to return to the Prince Albert II.
This first day was truly special and words do not properly or completely convey the wonder and beauty that we had had the good fortune to behold throughout the day. We are all looking forward to building upon those experiences upon the morrow.