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Day 6 - February 14, 2010 - Anchored Off Vernadsky Research Station, Argentine Islands

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist & Cartographer

Coordinates: 65° 14' S, 064° 14’ W
Weather: Light overcast but with clear long distance views of the nearby mountains
Air Temperature: -1o C (30o F)
Sea Temperature: -1o C (30o F)
Pressure: 1,007 Hpa
Wind: 15 Km / hour

Happy Valentines Day to everyone! It was truly a wonderful day for lovers, including one special couple on board who were also celebrating their wedding anniversary.

After a very quiet night at anchor amongst the numerous but small Argentine Islands, I awakened to the sun coming over the towering, snow- and glacier-capped peaks that line the Antarctic Peninsula in this area. The sight was simply stunning, well beyond the views of many other, remote mountainous areas of the world. 

Soon enough the ship started to quickly launch our fleet of Zodiacs and I was near the end of the line to pick up guests, only to find that the first group had already been taken ashore to the Ukrainian Research Station. I came to the loading platform to find that not only was the Captain going ashore to visit his countrymen, but that he also wanted to drive the Zodiac as well! It was quite nice to be on the receiving of a private, Captain-driven Zodiac trip from ship to shore, even if the voyage was quite short.

Ukraine’s Vernadsky Station used to be operated by the British as Faraday Station, but responsibility was transferred in the mid 1990s. This station was one of the key research locations that identified the ozone hole during the 1980s and atmospheric research continues today. The base personnel who had been working in this area for the past 11 months were quite gracious in opening their facility for our visit, and in return, Silversea provided some fresh fruit, a difficult commodity to obtain here at the end of the world.

While half of our guests were ashore, I had the pleasure to conduct a Zodiac cruise for our other guests in the waters surrounding the station, which was filled by massive icebergs, some of which had Crabeater Seals resting on top. I also took the opportunity to cruise up a narrow, shallow channel between the small, rocky islands to view several other Crabeater Seals as well as some of our closest views yet seen of Weddell seals. We also passed ‘Wordie House’ which is the historic site of the first British Research Station in the area built over 50 years ago and named after the Geologist on Shackleton’s 1914-1916 expedition. Later in the morning the shore and Zodiac groups exchanged positions such that everyone had the chance to view all areas of opportunity. 

In the afternoon the Prince Albert II repositioned to visit Petermann Island, located just South of the beautiful Lemaire Channel, which we had recently transited in concert with Killer Whales. The island has well-developed colonies of Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. Previously, we had had only had a limited chance to observe Adelie Penguins, so today was a special treat. These smaller penguins have a distinctive white ring around the eye and were typically the ‘classic’ Antarctic Penguin until partially displaced with the popularity of Emperor Penguins within the past 10 years. 

Petermann Island also provided us with an additional surprise. As onboard Historian, I was sent ahead to scout out a safe path towards an Argentinean Refuge Hut that had been constructed in the 1950s, as well as a memorial cross nearby that is dedicated to three British Antarctic Survey researchers who lost their lives in the 1980s. The island is also well known for its historic linkage with the French Charcot Expedition at the beginning of the 20th century where their ship spent an entire winter conducting research while tied to Petermann Island. At my end of the island we could view one of less than 100 Historic Site Monuments (HSM’s) located in the entire Antarctic Continent, with this particular one dedicated to Charcot’s excellent work. 

However, the surprise was that I also found an Antarctic Fur Seal hauled out onto some rocks. This is a quite rare occurrence as these creatures had literally been hunted to extinction in the Antarctic Peninsula during the early 1820s. As recently as the 1930s they had been considered extinct until a very small colony was discovered at South Georgia Island. Now they are only very slowly beginning to reclaim their former living areas after nearly 2 centuries of absence. Thus, I was tremendously pleased to have the rare chance to observe such a wonderful animal and describe its behavior and history to the guests who came down to visit ‘my’ Southern portion of Petermann Island.

This seemed like a full day, but the Expedition Team still had one more card up their sleeves. As planned, and after dinner, we offered a Zodiac cruise in Pleneau Bay, one of the most beautiful ‘Iceberg Parking Lots’ in the world. I was fortunate to be able to drive one of the larger Zodiacs to go out and explore the area. Now Zodiac cruises have no set schedule or route. We literally go out to explore an area with new features and wildlife, never knowing what we might find. The icebergs presented an ever-changing modern sculpture gallery with new features around every turn. I also gave the Zodiac group an opportunity for some ‘quiet time’ where the engine is turned off and we can appreciate the near silence and awesome beauty of Antarctica.

Tonight we had tremendous good fortune to experience something I have come to call ‘Seal Day’. Early we had observed both the Weddell Seal near Vernadsky and the very rare Antarctic Fur Seal at Petermann. Now I found an almost equally rare (for this area) group of Elephant Seals whose males can grow to be literally thousands of kilograms. Later on in the cruise we again saw Crabeater Seals lounging in a greenish blue pool of water above an underwater ice shelf extending from a huge iceberg. The coloration was magnificent. But now came the capstone of the day: an encounter with the one seal species that had previously eluded us . . . the fearsome Leopard Seal, an apex predator of both krill and penguins. At first we saw one simply resting on a small, flat iceberg. His ‘smile of death’ was clearly visible from a head and neck that is vaguely reptilian. 

Our second encounter with a different leopard seal was much more memorable. I stopped the Zodiac near a relatively small piece of ice that had a leopard seal nearby swimming through the water. He became more and more curious about us as we quietly observed his behavior. Then the leopard seal began swimming around and under our Zodiac, turning and rolling on both sides! No one needed a zoom lens on their camera, as the animal was literally alongside our small craft, at times looking right at us with nostrils flaring. At one point as we were stationary, the leopard seal came back to bite our propeller. He also unsuccessfully tried to bite through the bottom of our rubber Zodiac on at least 4 different occasions. Fortunately, our Zodiacs are quite strong and withstood the attack!

All in all it was a spectacular end to a wonderful day and in the late evening most of us retired to the Panorama Lounge for some hot goulash and a drink to both warm up and reflect on the joy of exploring Antarctica on board the Prince Albert II.

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