Day 6 |
Dec 13, 2010

North of Cape Renard

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist & Cartographer

Coordinates: 60° 02' S, 063° 46’ W
Weather: Early overcast, then continuously clearing throughout the morning with clear, blue skies and brilliant sunshine by late morning.
Air Temperature: +1° C (34° F)
Pressure: 968 Hpa
Wind: 50 Km / hour

Today was expedition cruising at its very finest! Our plan for today as announced last night was to enter the Lemaire Channel then conduct a Zodiac tour followed by a landing. Our actual activities for the day were very close but with just a few important twists that afforded us the best sunshine of the voyage. Our location for the morning Zodiac cruise was completely different than anticipated and in the afternoon we had the unexpected opportunity to transit the Neumayer Channel, one of the most beautiful waterways in the world, not just in Antarctica.

While we are living in our home countries, most of us, including myself, have schedules that are rarely affected by weather. However, in the Antarctic, the changing weather conditions are a constant issue for the Captain of the Prince Albert II and Expedition Leader, but the also offer unanticipated joy.

The approach to the Lemaire Channel is another one of my favorite ship passages in the world. There are towering mountains on the continent to the west as well as lofty peaks on islands that lie only a few hundred meters to the east. In effect, the Lemaire Channel is a bit like a frozen Norwegian fjord that is open on each end along with a continuous series of enormous glaciers that cascade down to the sea. Today was even better as I came out on deck very early to see the sunshine cast a sparkle like diamonds across the snow and ice.

By now I was engaged in answering questions from the many guests out on deck enjoying the spectacular views. In addition there were a few seals lounging about on ice floes that floated by the Prince Albert II, our ice-strengthened home away from home.

However, Mother Nature had a bit of adjustment for us. As the ship cruised further into the Channel, it became more and more choked with ice floes, bergy bits and icebergs whose sizes continued to grow to the point where our path was blocked. Thus, we physically were not able to proceed the last few miles south to our intended destinations.

Yet, one of the benefits of having such a large and experienced Expedition Team is the ability to quickly pool the knowledge of all to come up with the best series of alternatives. Of course this is exactly what our Expedition Leader did in concert with the Captain.

The decision was made to scout out a very narrow but spectacular channel that separates Cape Renard and Renard Island from the mainland continent of Antarctica. Until just a few decades ago this channel was so full of glacial ice it was thought to be just an extension of the Antarctic Peninsula. Then that ice partially melted away to reveal that a large, 750-meter-tall island existed! After a careful Zodiac scouting by the Expedition Leader we were able to safely take our guests through this awe-inspiring passage into the wonders of Hidden Bay.

This remote area is too shallow for regular ships and Zodiac access from the Lemaire Channel side can only be accomplished at certain higher tide levels. As a result, virtually no one ever visits this stunning but very remote location on Earth. We felt very, very privileged to have the opportunity to do some true expedition cruising with the flexibility offered by Silversea and took advantage of this great, unexpected opportunity.

Hidden Bay has a series of glaciers cascading down into the crystal clear waters from three sides. The view in every direction was overwhelmingly beautiful. Of course I was able to easily drive our guests in Zodiacs through an almost never-ending series of small icebergs and even smaller brash ice that glistened on the water. Stopping periodically I could utilize my background as a Naturalist to describe the formation and behavior of glaciers, snow algae and many other phenomena that was arrayed before us.

Working as a team, we all also kept our eyes open for seals and our cooperative work was rewarded by spotting a Crabeater Seal on an ice floe. We carefully and quietly approached to a respectful distance to ensure our policy of non-disturbance of wildlife and were able to observe this creature, which is one of the more numerous large mammals on planet Earth.

During mid-day, the Prince Albert II repositioned to our intended destination for the afternoon, Dorian Bay, also known as Damoy Point. By now the sun was highest in the sky and illuminated the surrounding glacier-covered mountains with a fierce intensity.

This afternoon I was on board the ‘scout boat’ that goes ashore to evaluate landing site safety and other important conditions. We determined a safe approach through shallow waters, then dug ice steps and positioned a ladder from the beach area up over a small ice cliff onto a snow plateau. Unfortunately, despite the fine weather, the scout team ran into other challenges. We had hoped to offer three hiking options; one out to an area of Gentoo nesting colonies, another up to one Argentinean Refuge hut from the 1950s and one British Research hut from the 1970s with the final hiking option a more strenuous selection up to a high ridgeline that overlooks the area. However, despite our best and most determined efforts, we were unable to establish what we felt were going to be safe conditions in any direction. The snow was very deep and occasionally so soft that I would break through up to my hips. Of course safety is our primary concern and our scout team reluctantly returned to the ship to consider other options.

However, every challenge also offers the chance for another wonderful opportunity. In this case we changed the intended direction of the Prince Albert II to another route, which shortly took us to the mouth of and then through the Neumeyer Channel. As I mentioned earlier, on a sunshine-filled day such as this afternoon, this unexpected ship’s cruise through this long but relatively narrow channel gave us a another wonderful panorama of views including the high glacier-capped mountains on each side along with penguins porpoising through the water, seals on ice flows and two Minke whales that happened to wander by.

All in all it was simply a splendid day, not one that we had initially planned but one where we were able to accomplish marvelous activities through the benefit and flexibility of Silversea Expeditions.