Weather: Overcast but with good contrast
Air Temperature: 1º C 34º F
Sea Temperature: 1º C 34º F
Pressure: 986 hPa
Wind: Force 6, East Northeast
The Prince Albert II was already cruising through the Errera Channel when I peered out through my stateroom porthole to check on the morning’s weather. The sky was a matte shade of light grey and without signs of the promised snowfall. The cracked blue faces of glaciers lined the channel edges, while smooth snow slopes ran up the steep peaks above. The water was deep, dark and endlessly profound.
Scattered ice floes offered rest to crabeater seals. They raised their heads in surprise at our sudden appearance. We glided past and continued on our way around Beneden Head and turned southeast into Andvord Bay and anchored in Neko Harbour. I went ashore in the first Zodiac to scout out the landing site and to mark the pathways to the gentoo rookeries with flags so that our guests make little impact on the wildlife present. Once the scouting party is satisfied with the site, the Zodiac team ferries half of the guests ashore. The remainder then boards the Zodiacs for a cruise among the ice floes and bergs to spot crabeater seals and Minke whales.
Ashore, Ken our ornithologist, Christian our Historian and I lead the shoreside guests to the gentoo rookeries. For the more energetic, I lead a hike up the snow slopes to a rocky outcrop affording spectacular views of the bay below. The glacier front immediately below our position creaks but refuses to spill its load for the audience of video recorders trained on its face.
The Antarctic threatens snow but the thick grey clouds blow past and the groups of guests swap places. This time I stay with the gentoo rookeries and watch young chicks pestering adults for food, getting scolded for their persistence and in extreme cases getting chased off by irate parents. The chicks are beginning to huddle together in crèches, their numbers offering protection against the ever-present and hungry-eyed skuas.
We cruise back through the Errera Channel and to Cuverville Island. Cuverville Island is a dome-shaped island of some 2km by 2.5km and lies at the northern entrance to the Channel. I’m on mountain climbing duty again and set off up the slopes to scout out the pathway to the top of the dome. Uli, our Oceanographer, helps to cut some steps in the lower section of the walk over some icy patches that wind up between rocky outcrops. The outcrops are home to gentoo rookeries, nesting skuas and are in places covered in mosses and lichens and thus off limits to the new age of Antarctic explorers.
Higher up the slopes williwaws blow snow drift into and around us as we ascend to the summit. From there the small number of guests who have sweated up the slopes are rewarded with some fine views over the Errera Channel and out into the Gerlache Strait. Most remark on the serenity; not a sound pervades the scene. A skua flies by, not a meter above the surface before wheeling away down the slopes to scan the rookeries for weak chicks. I take group photos for the guests with dramatic glacial backdrops before descending part of the way with them, and to meet the next group making the ascent. In the Strait below, the Prince Albert II is dwarfed by grounded icebergs.
The gentoo penguins of Cuverville Island are in a desperate race for survival. Late winter snows covered much of the rocky outcrops early into the summer season and so the breeding pairs were delayed in their egg-laying efforts. If the summer season isn’t a long one, then the parents won’t be able to find enough food with which to feed their young and few will fledge. Such is life on the coldest, windiest and harshest of continents where there exists a fine line between beauty and the cruel hand of nature.
We steam out into the Gerlache Strait and head for the entrance to the Neumayer Channel in the hope of locating some orcas. They are however, unwilling to show themselves and as our hope wanes, the weather begins to close in with winds blowing 35 – 40 knots and snow clouds obscuring the last of the day’s light. We set course for Deception Island in the South Shetland group of islands where we will make the last of our voyage’s landings.