Day 5 |
Dec 16, 2011

Bransfield Strait and Gerlache Strait between Antarctica and South Shetland Islands 

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 63o 47’ S, 060o 09’ W
Weather: Overcast with increasing winds and seas
Air Temperature: 1.5o C / 35 o F
Pressure: 979 HPa
Wind: 75 km / hour

Today was an excellent example of how variable the weather patterns can be around the Antarctic and how quickly plans must be changed as meteorology and not human technology turns out to be the real ruler of the lands and seas around this beautiful but challenging continent.

Yesterday we had near optimal conditions with sunshine and light winds, which allowed us to accomplish even more that what we had hoped in terms of observing unique penguin behavior, Zodiac cruising and achieving a rare landing on sea ice.

This morning we had hoped to land a bit early at Brown Bluff in winds forecasted to be 25 knots but rising to over 55 knots in the afternoon. However, the conditions deteriorated more rapidly than expected. Unfortunately by 0500 the winds had already reached 35+ knots and with higher gusts. In addition, the wind direction was piling up waves on the landing beach along with an increasing mass of growlers and sea ice that were beginning to block access to the landing site.

Unfortunately, but with focus on safety as the first priority, the decision was made to begin our travel to the south now rather than later in the day. This will allow us to proceed towards our intended operations for tomorrow and will also begin to take us away from the major storm system that is beginning to pass over the northern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula.

In true expedition style, the day was quickly reorganized to provide additional educational opportunities. First up was Liz Bradfield, one of our expert, onboard naturalists. She has spent a lifetime at sea and has vast experience in marine biology and sea birds. Liz provided a comprehensive overview regarding the life of krill, which is the foundation of the entire Antarctic food chain. Every animal from penguins to seals that we have the privilege to observe during our voyage in these cold waters either eats krill directly or eats another animal that eats krill. Thus the food cycle is quite simple but incredibly reliant on this tiny, fundamental creature.

Seabird activity off the stern remained quite strong throughout the day although many people on board were still commenting on the brilliant display by the flock of beautiful Antarctic Petrels that occurred just towards the end of last night’s evening reception on the stern as we cruised by the immense tabular icebergs. These creatures soared so close to the back of the ship and so fast that they simply zoomed over our heads. Yet they were simply using the energy of the winds stirred up by the ship with hardly a beat of their wings. Today they continued to follow us through the storm as we continue our voyage further south along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Later in the morning, our Executive Chef and Chief Pastry Chef teamed up to provide an outstanding cooking demonstration. For a main dish there was a clever display on how to prepare Graved Lax for yourself or a group. Of course no meal would be complete for me without a ‘sweet’ and today was no exception with that wonderful delight called Torrijas. This is a type Spanish ‘French Toast’ that I find quite irresistible.

After a nice lunch with several chocolate desserts (yes, I do have a sweet tooth), Shoshanah Jacobs was up in our special purpose theatre with a presentation titled “Life in the Southern Ocean”. She covered the wide-ranging set of species that make up the diverse variety found in Antarctica. These animals span the size category from tiny krill to penguins and sea birds, then extend upward towards seals and whales. Each of these broad groupings contains a number of different species, each with unique characteristics that interact within a complex set of parameters. Sho also gave us a number of examples where even small changes in the environment have had an enormous impact on breeding success and species survival.

Later in the afternoon, the day’s presentation program was capped off by Luciano Bernacchi, our resident expert on ice. He has been a major driver in the recent opening of the largest glacier museum and interpretation center in South America. Today’s topic was “Introduction to Glaciers”, something that has a fascinating story of science and beauty. Of course Antarctica represents an entire continent covered by the largest glaciers on the planet. Yesterday we were able to observe excellent examples of huge icebergs, some more than 1 Km on each side, towering 30 or more meters above the water and perhaps another 250 meters below the sea surface. These glacier generated blocks of ice had calved off ice shelves into the Weddell Sea, each containing trillions of minute air bubbles which can be sampled to determine exact atmospheric constituents going back almost 1 million years.

The early evening before dinner concluded, as usual, with a Recap & Briefing conducted by the Expedition Leader and Expedition Team. This review projects our plans for tomorrow down towards the Antarctic Continent along with additional material regarding special subjects including our recent and rare encounter with Emperor Penguins, the largest such species on planet Earth.

Many people finished up the day contemplating the wild variability of Antarctic weather as we have experienced both ends of the spectrum. Due to relatively smooth seas on the Drake Passage, we were able to arrive a half a day early, which allowed us to offer one additional landing opportunity. Yesterday gave us a day of magical sunshine, icebergs, calm winds, leopard seals, crabeater seals, Zodiac cruise, landing on an ice floe and those wonderful Adelie and Emperor Penguins as well. Today the pendulum swung towards the other end of the spectrum and focused on educational activities, but also gave us an excellent chance to compare a wide spectrum of the environment in this remote, rugged and sometimes raw form of life that we know and love as the Antarctic.