Day 4 |
Jan 06, 2012

Weddell Sea en route from vicinity of Seymour Island to Paulet Island

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 63o 57’ S, 056o 07’ W
Weather: Overcast with a chill in the air but also Emperor Penguins on ice! ! !
Air Temperature: 0o C / 32 o F
Pressure: 983 HPa
Wind: 75 km / hour

We have experienced the complete range of what expedition cruising is truly about with both brilliant success, as well as significant weather challenges.

Of course yesterday we had one of the sunniest, warmest and calmest days that any of us had ever seen, reaching much farther south than we normally do on our 2nd day of crossing the Drake Passage. Then our Expedition Leader and Captain had a major decision to make with the primary options as follows:
a) Consider a guaranteed Zodiac operation in the Antarctic Sound, one of the most beautiful places of the world, filled with enormous tabular icebergs that have come crashing down off of a continent-sized ice sheet.
b) Take a risk and continue south into the Weddell Sea towards a location we’ve only previously reached once in the ship’s history, but a place that offers the chance to possibly see the elusive Emperor Penguin, a species that breeds so far to the south that it is almost impossible for us to observe these lovely creatures.

In true Expedition Style, the decision was ‘b’ and we carefully plunged through ice-choked waters towards Semour Island, hoping to get as far south as Snow Hill Island. The Expedition Team and Bridge Team stood ‘Emperor Penguin’ watches throughout last night and into the early morning hours. Of course no one could know if the risk would pay off.

Now it’s 0530 and the phone rings with our Expedition Leader at the other end of the line. “Possible Emperor Penguins” on the sea ice is the communication. My roommate, one of our onboard professional ornithologists, was out the door first with myself following closely behind.

Yes! We got lucky with Emperors seen just ahead of the ship on sea ice. It was a bit of luck but also the result of teamwork, some great decisions and a lot of hard work. A ship-wide announcement was soon made with everyone coming up on deck as the Captain skillfully maneuvered the ship closer to two different sets of juvenile emperor penguins of about 18 months in age. Observing multiple Emperor Penguins in the wild is truly a special and magical sight and one made more special knowing that it was only the second time in history that the Silver Explorer had been able to accomplish this difficult feat in such a challenging part of the world.

After the ship cruise, there was, of course, only one thing we could do: launch the Zodiacs and go out to cruise towards the penguins, sea ice and tabular icebergs. This way we can obtain a completely different viewpoint, which is more up close and personal. Off we went with all Zodiac groups having simply a splendid 75 or more minutes of being able to see such wonders that are available nowhere else in the world than in the deep south of the Antarctic.

Although we did focus quite a bit on the Emperors, there was also quite a number of other sea birds to observe including giant petrels, snow petrels and several Antarctic skuas who were harassing one of the young Emperors. In my Zodiac we also chatted about the formation of sea ice as compared to glacial icebergs and were able to briefly observe a Weddell Seal that was hidden away amongst the ice. This then led us to a discussion regarding the various seal species and genera that can be found throughout this area including Crabeater and Leopard Seals. Unfortunately we don’t often see Antarctic Fur Seals or Elephant Seals as these beautiful creatures were exterminated on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1820s but survive in other sub Antarctic location like South Georgia Island.

However, Antarctica is also a continent of high variability of the weather. We started out the day at about -5o C with little wind. Our intention had been to land at Devil Island in the early afternoon but the latest ice charts showed that the sea ice had piled up around the island blocking the possibility of access.

During the course of the morning the temperature rose but the wind did as well. Our revised plan was to conduct a landing at Paulet Island, but the wind rose up past 50 knots / 58 mph / 93 kph which prevented this proposed operation from occurring.

Our updated, revised plan had us turn back north into the Antarctic Sound and head towards Stahlberg Cove, which, it was hoped, would be sheltered between Joinville and nearby Dundee Island. However, the weather reminded us who is really in charge throughout this part of the world with the winds continuing to build past hurricane / typhoon / cyclone levels reaching peak velocities of 70 knots / 80 miles per hour / 130 km per hour.

Of course safety is our primary concern and operations are simply not possible in such wind conditions. Thus the ship headed out of the Antarctic Sound into the Bransfield Strait as the Expedition Leader and Assistant Expedition Leader scrambled to rearrange our schedule for tomorrow, shifting operations towards more sheltered waters in the South Shetland Islands.

However, in expedition cruising, we don’t just stop at that point. Quickly a presentation was announced in our purpose-built theater, allowing us to learn something about the ice structures of this continent from Juan, our onboard geologist. The topic was titled “Ice on the Rocks” and it was a bit of fun watching the presentation while at the same time being able to observe the storm-tossed sea filled with icebergs passing by The Theatre windows. It was nice to have such great visual aids during a glacier presentation!

In many ways, our day turned out better than the norm with the ability to observe those rare Emperor Penguins. In other ways, the weather gave us an insight into just some of the challenging conditions that must be faced by all wildlife in the area as well as must be dealt with by human researchers across this vast continent.