Day 6 |
Jan 10, 2011

 Pleneau Island and Vernadsky Research Station 

By Uli Kunz, Oceanographer


Coordinates: 65˚00’ S, 63˚48’ W
Weather: Blue sky
Air Temperature: 1°C, 33.8 °F
Sea Temperature: 1°C, 33.8 °F
Pressure: 982 hPa
Wind: 20 km/h

We are still lucky: When I looked outside the window in the early morning, I saw a blue sky and magnificent mountains covered in ice and snow! At 7 o'clock, the Prince Albert II approached the entrance of the Lemaire Channel, one of the best-known places and must-sees in Antarctica. On our previous voyage, we had tried to go through but failed because there was too much ice in the channel blocking the way of the ship! But the ice was gone today and thus our guests were the first to sail through the Lemaire Channel with Silversea this season!

Nearly everyone was out on the decks to enjoy the spectacular scenery. On both sides of the waterway, steep cliffs rise out of the water, up to 1 km high! But the cliffs don't stop at the waterline, they continue under water to a depth of more than 150 meters, making the narrow channel a good place for whale sightings too! We spotted several seals on ice floes as well as a Humpback and one Minke Whale.

In perfect calm conditions, the Captain dropped anchor off Pleneau Island west of Booth Island near the southern entrance to the Lemaire Channel. I dressed warmly, put on my rubber boots and the floatcoat (a warm parka with built-in lifejacket) and entered the Zodiacs together with the Expedition Staff. It was time for a Zodiac cruise!

The area between Booth Island in the east and Pleneau in the west is a famous graveyard for icebergs. Bizarre ice sculptures, wonderfully colourful forms and sharp, icy pinnacles dwarfed our small rubber boats in the bright sunlight! It was windstill and the sea smooth like a blanket between the huge icebergs. During the first fifteen minutes, the guests in my Zodiac spotted several crabeater seals and a leopard seal swimming near a rookery of Gentoo penguins. Just as we wanted to leave the place, I spotted a dark shape on a rocky ledge, only 30 metres away. The shape was moving and lifted its head... it turned out to be a female Southern Elephant Seal, which is quite a rare sight in these waters. The seal is so well camouflaged, that one can hardly see it when it is not moving. It normally lives offshore where it dives to an incredible depth of 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) to catch fish and squid. The sightings of seals did not stop until the end of the cruise, when we saw an ice floe with 19(!) crabeater seals on top!

The Prince Albert II continued sailing to its southernmost position and anchored off Galindez Island in the early afternoon. I joined the Expedition Staff in the scout boat to the island where we could visit the Ukrainian Antarctic Station: Vernadsky Research Base! The station was established by the British Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey) in 1947 and renamed Faraday Station in 1977. Ukraine took over the operation of the base in February 1996, after buying the base for a token sum of one pound! The coin is still displayed in the base's bar!

After taking off their shoes and boots, the guests were taken on a short tour through the main building, guided by one Ukrainian scientist. We could see the offices, workshops and laboratories of the station, as well as the famous “Ozone Hole”, an opening into the attic where a big spectrometer is taking measurements. The name of the opening it not far-fetched, as it was here, at the former Faraday Station, that the depletion of the ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere (later to be known as the Ozone Hole) was proven for the first time!

While one group was visiting the station, the second group went on a Zodiac cruise and explored the nearby islands and icebergs. When they arrived at the landing site, they were very enthusiastic and told stories of beautiful scenery and yawning leopard seals, showing their enormous jaws... Next time I will be at Vernadsky, I might see it myself.

The day ended with the ship cruising back north along illuminated glacier cliffs and snow-covered mountains. We sailed once more through the Lemaire Channel and enjoyed a cocktail party on the aft deck, spontaneously organized by our Hotel department. (For those looking for the flaw... we didn't see a Blue Whale... we missed that part on purpose… it would have been too much...)