Day 8 |
Dec 29, 2011

Port Lockroy and Jougla Point in Palmer Archipelago off Antarctic Peninsula

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 64o 50’ S, 063o 38’ W
Weather: Calm winds, partly overcast with long rolling seas
Air Temperature: 3.4o C / 38 o F
Pressure: 977 HPa
Wind: 25 km / hour

This was a triply fantastic day! Sometimes there are a few moments off during the normal day and I then take the opportunity to write just a bit in this log in order to make it a relatively simultaneous communication. However, there were so many wonderful vistas and experiences that I must admit that most of this authorship is occurring mid day on the 30th.

My overall summary of the day is, Wow!

A longer review of the highlights can be simplified by indicating that we were able to participate in an almost unprecedented triple set of three absolutely captivating experiences:

1. Ship transit through 3 of the most beautiful ship passages in the world: Neumayer Channel, Peltier Channel and Lemaire Channel. Please note that I did not say the most beautiful in Antarctica but rather in the world.
2. Observing 3 different species of penguins: Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap. Often we can watch 2 different species at morning and afternoon activities but to see 3 is quite nice. In addition, many penguins were sitting on eggs or very tiny chicks!
3. Viewing 3 of only 84 Historic Site Monuments (HSMs) recognized under the Antarctic Treaty: Port Lockroy, Port Circumcision and Port Charcot. Imagine a continent larger than Europe or the United States but with only 84 HSMs and thus to see 3 in one day at 3 different locations is extraordinarily special.

The day started off quite early as the Silver Explorer entered the long but narrow Peltier Channel. Image a long line of tall snow and glacier capped mountains almost overhanging an ocean passage just barely wide enough to have the ship pass through safely. Now consider that the light reflections change every moment and you can begin to see in your mind’s eye the beauty of this route.

At the end of this wondrous sea passage lies Port Lockroy. Discovered by Charcot’s French Expedition at the early part of the 20th century, it later became the first modern scientific base operated by the predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey. It operated as a small research center from 1944 – 1962 and thus provides a wonderful window into the past or the early days of year round Antarctic research. I had a great time speaking to guests and answering questions just outside the main entrance, next to a former dog sled, in an area that is surrounded by hundreds of nesting gentoo penguins whose chicks are just beginning to peek out from under their parents.

This morning there was also a simultaneous landing where we also gave everyone the opportunity to explore another nearby island starting at Jougla Point. This site offers nesting penguins as well as nesting blue eyed shags, a whale skeleton on the beach, and was capped off by an optional hike to the top of a hill, which provides superb views of the ‘7 sisters’, multiple snow-capped mountains that wreath Port Lockroy and its Historic Site Monument.

Exiting Port Lockroy during the lunch hour, we immediately passed into the Peltier Channel. This gorgeous stretch of water is similar to Neumayer with tall, glacier-covered mountains on both sides of an iceberg-dotted waterway. The length is somewhat shorter but does have a reasonable sized ‘dog leg’ that the ship must maneuver through that also offers some insight into the highly skilled Bridge Team aboard the Silver Explorer.

Now we continued south, achieving a ‘Farthest South’ for this voyage with every passing nautical mile as we worked towards the entrance of the Lemaire Channel. This water passage is rightfully considered one of the most, if not THE most, beautiful stretches of water just about anywhere. It extends more than 14 km almost due south. Up to this point in the Antarctic season we have previously been unable to transit Lemaire due to high levels of sea ice.

I had the privilege of opening up the foredeck of the ship for guests to observe this frozen but open-ended ‘Norwegian-type fjord’. There were several points in time when the ice began to close in but the expert skill of the Captain and the Class 1A rating of the Silver Explorer allowed us to make the crossing in this channel, which is only 100+ meters wide but with 930 meter high mountains on both sides, most with heavy ice cornices and large glaciers cascading down into the water.

As we cruised along we could spot seals resting on nearby ice floes along with penguin highways dotting the hillsides from the water to the higher nesting colonies. At the southern end of the Lemaire we pushed through another 5 nautical miles of heavy ice, and headed south towards Petermann Island where we investigated the possibility of a landing. However we literally discovered that the approaches to the landing site were too piled up with ice to permit safe operations in the Zodiacs. Thus the Expedition Leader asked me to use the public address system to point out some of the features of this famous island that hosted the 1908 – 1910 Charcot Expedition winter-over. This achievement in the early exploration of the area is now recognized by a rock cairn, which was quite visible atop the nearest hill. Oh, by the way, the name ‘Port Circumcision’ was selected by Charcot as he discovered the location on 01 January 1909, a day commemorating the Feast of the Circumcision.

In true expedition style we adjusted plans and traveled slightly north to Pleneau Bay. This is an area well known as an ‘iceberg parking lot’. The ice was too heavy in the front portion to permit a Zodiac cruise but the Captain skillfully maneuvered the ship to the head of the bay while the Expedition Team discussed alternatives, which led to a bold move to land where Silversea Expeditions had never landed before. Of course Port Charcot is an approved IAATO landing site but its remote location was only reached by us today for the very first time. I had previously been in a Zodiac in this area but not landed. Thus I ended up driving the Zodiac ashore with the Expedition Team to scout the location and ensure its safety before approving guest operations. One portion was quite tough going for a while, where we had to carefully maneuver our rubber Zodiac through fairly heavy ice. Fortunately all of the Expedition Team has extensive experience in these types of conditions.

Once ashore we found the snow to be fairly deep but we were able to create a safe path that curved upwards towards a series of penguin nesting colonies. Our staff were spread out at many levels, which offered guests the chance to hike as far or as short a distance as they wished, yet take in such fabulous views of mountains, penguins, glaciers and ice-choked bodies of water at this time frame somewhat late in the day. At the very top of the hill we even found a number of nesting chinstrap penguins just past the gentoo and Adelie penguin colonies. This was a very rare situation where we could observe 3 species of penguins at the same time.

Over the lip of the hill we could also observe ‘Port Charcot’, named after his father and the site of the Frenchman’s 1903 – 1905 winter over. This location is also marked by a rock cairn and is another Historic Site Monument (HMS), thus making a nearly unheard of 3 HSMs seen in just one day.

I could go on for many more pages on such a great day but now I’ve got to go prepare for new wonders on the ‘morrow’!