Log of an Antarctic Expedition

Ship's Log
Sydney University
Department of Continuing Education
Inaugural Antarctic Expedition
Professor Molchanov
2-12 January, 1997

Crew List

 

Captain

Vitaly Repin

Chief Mate

Alexander (Sasha) Savchenko

Second Mate

Anotoliy Omelchenko

Radio Officer

Sergey Gorbunov

Doctor

Boris Kobernyak

Boatsman (Bosun)

Valentin Litosh

Able Bodied Sailor

Vladimir Seliverstov

Able Bodied Sailor

Vasily Suchanov

Russian Crew Cook

Andrey Rudenko

Steward (Dining)

Margarita (Rita) Zaytseva

Steward (Dining

Lyubov Sycheva

Steward (Cabins)

Valentian Molchanova (Decks 4 & 5)

Stewards (Cabins)

Irina Belichenko (Deck 3)

Steward (Laundry)

Natalya Grishko

Chief Engineer

Sergey Lopatin

Second Mechanic

Eugeniy Kiselev

Third Mechanic

Andrey Slepsov

Electrical Engineer

Vladimir Kimaev

Motorman

Gennadiy Metelev

Motorman

Oleg Drushinin

Sydney University/Aurora Expeditions Staff

Expedition Leader:

Greg Mortimer B.Sc, OAM

Assistant Expedition Leader:

Lynn Woodworth B.Sc(Hons)

Continuing Education Co-ordinator/Lecturer:

David McGonigal B.A LL.B

Lecturer:

Professor Michael Bryden

Lecturer:

Dr Gary Miller

Chef:

Richard Widows

Chef's Assistant:

Peter Charles

Bar/Shop Manager:

Mary Anne Kennedy

This log compiled by David McGonigal with the much appreciated assistance of David Burke, Carolyn Colfelt, David Colfelt, Penella Fesq, Lynne Joshua and Paul Matthews.

Gary's map of route

 

Day 1: Thursday, 2 January 1997
DEPARTED USHUAIA

Statistics: Ushuaia is located at the bottom of Tierra del Fuego at 54°48'S, 68°19'W. At 2300 our speed is 13 knots, the wind is 10 knots from the north, the air temperature is +9°C and the sea temperature +5°C.

For most of us it was a day of exploring Ushuaia and buying souvenirs and a few last minute purchases. Meanwhile, the Tierra del Fuego weather went through its paces from pouring rain in the morning to clear blue sky in the afternoon. Many walked down the dock for a first look at white ship that was to be our home for the next 10 days. In the usual dockyard bustle there were a few strange movements, too - as a motorcycle was lifted by crane and lowered into the aft hold. Then a tiny old fashioned sailing boat was brought out of a large shipping container by the ship.- in this a group of Irishmen are soon to recreate Ernest Shackleton's epic voyage of survival from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Finally, we're on board and soon gather for our first briefing. David welcomes us on behalf of Sydney University and reminds us that this is the very first Antarctic Peninsula expedition conducted by the University. Then Greg gives us a briefing on the ship's operations. Most surprising is the complete freedom to go where we like. Unlike most cruises we are welcome on the bridge at any time, without notice, unless the Captain clears the bridge for tricky navigation. Finally Gary explains the operation of the ship's special vacuum toilets and how holding the button up too long can disable the whole ship's system. Departing the dock was an anticlimax - no friends to wave goodbye (just a few passengers from the last voyage begging to return) and no streamers. However there were wonderful views of the Beagle Passage down which Charles Darwin sailed in 1832 on his way to the Galapagos Islands and his place in history. In the twilight, some Magellanic penguins can be seen swimming alongside the ship. So far it's very smooth sailing and we have a chance to get used to the beat of the ship's engines. But what about the Drake Passage and the savage waters below Cape Horn?

At 11 pm we left our pilot at the mouth of the Beagle and steered south-west into the South Atlantic Ocean. After months of planning and speculation, our next stop is Antarctica!

 

Day 2: Friday, 3 January 1997
DRAKE PASSAGE

Statistics: our position at 2300 is 59°09'S, 61°00'W; our speed is 13.5 knots; the wind is 5 to 10 knots from the south east; air temperature +8°C; sea temperature +3°C; sunrise & sunset: 0328/2250. So this is the savage Drake Passage? Most of us have been on rougher Manly ferry crossings. I think a few are disappointed that we aren't in a Force 11 gale with green water breaking over the bridge. The rest of us are grateful that we can be up and about observing the rich wildlife of the Southern Ocean. Our observations are augmented by lectures: first with Gary and an introduction to sea birds then Michael on whales of the Southern Ocean. Our travelling companions include Black-Browed and Wandering Albatross, petrels and whale birds. The albatrosses, in particular, were beautiful as they effortlessly swooped and soared in our wake then sped across the waters, just millimetres above the waves yet without ever touching them. We can relate to Robert Cushman Murphy's sentiments when he wrote that "I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross". However, it's hard to get them in perspective and realise their great size and accept that they have the longest wingspan of any bird in the world.

At about 6.15 pm about six people spotted our first whale from the bridge. At first it's thought to be a Minke but its massive blow suggests it may have been a blue whale. If so we are fortunate indeed - there are only about 1000 of these magnificent creatures left on the planet and they are the largest creature that has ever lived.

We have made very good time so far and crossed the Antarctic Convergence just after dinner. Most noticeable was the drop in water temperature and its colour changed from blue to a more grey/green. Our suitcases have gone into storage and David has lectured on the specific problems of photographing wildlife against a background of snow and ice. Antarctica is getting closer.

Before dinner we had drinks with the captain in the bar. With the wide range of talents of this group of passengers perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised to discover that one of our number speaks fluent Russian. Paul Tenukest was our perfect conduit for our various conversations with the captain whose knowledge of English largely (and fortuitously) seems to consist of the phrase "no problems".

We later saw an excellent historical documentary entitled "Rounding the Horn". It was a narrative in very laconic style about one of the last of the tall ships rounding the Horn in huge seas. Maybe our smooth Drake passage is an unmitigated blessing.

 

Day 4: Saturday, 4 January 1997
TO THE SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS

Statistics: Our position at 2330 was 62°12'S, 57°51'W; our speed 9.5 knots; the wind 15 to 20 knots from the south east; the air temperature +1°C; sea temperature +2°C; and sunrise/sunset 0259/2247.

This morning we had to lodge our calculations (or guesses) for a competition to pinpoint when we'd sight our first iceberg. Our time at the chart table was interrupted by several minke whales that were sighted throughout the morning. The captain's patience is astonishing. Not only do the crew not object when crowds of passengers loom over their precious maps but at one stage the captain waited patiently until two passengers had finished with the radar so he could use it for navigation.

Irony reared its ugly head in the iceberg competition. Susie Danos left the dining room at 1.45 pm declaring that it was time for her iceberg so she'd go up to the bridge to spot it. She did and the call went out minutes later. However, Gary's subsequent calculations decided that Paul Tenukest's estimation of time and location were closer so he won the prize. Sadly for the organisers, the prize of 1000 roubles went to the one passenger who knew exactly how worthless it was.

Then we had our first sighting of Antarctica in the form of King George Island. Susie's iceberg soon disappeared below the horizon but throughout the afternoon we passed much closer to other icebergs. The wildlife of these waters is becoming more abundant, too. We have seen killer whales and humpback whales, and chinstrap and Adelie penguins swimming far from any land. It was fascinating to watch these remarkably muscular birds apparently "flying" through the water and regularly launching themselves into the air in a porpoising motion that suggested they may have had trampolines position just below the surface. Evening brought us to an anchorage off Penguin Island (62°06'S, 57°54'W), a wonderful cinder cone with flanks of grass and lichens. It's 1.6 km long and lies close to the south coast of King George Island where it marks the east side of the entrance to King George Bay. It was first sighted in January 1820 by an expedition led by Bransfield and named by him, not unexpectedly, after the numerous penguins occupying its shores. This is one of the very few places within the area covered by the Antarctic Treaty where grass grows. However we didn't get to see it for long because a storm came out of nowhere and covered it under a blanket of snow. Unfortunately, it also whipped up the sea and the step from gangway to Zodiac, which had been exciting enough to our unaccustomed feet, was nothing in comparison with the reverse process to reboard the ship. Greg informed us that it was the most challenging first landing he'd ever done and we should all feel proud to have managed it so well. The heady mixture of adventure and beauty and strange experiences that was to be ours for the next week was already at work.

For most of us, it was a strange experience to have so many clothes on. Then there was the whole unaccustomed safety ritual to observe: cover the camera, turn your tag so the ship knows who's ashore, no more than three on the gangway, take a firm hold of the crew member's arm, step onto the pontoon of the Zodiac first, etc. Fortunately, Lynn was at the top of the gangway, helping us through and reciting a mantra of what we had to do and remember.

The time ashore was special, too, and our first footsteps on Antarctic soil led us through a magical world of cobbled beaches littered with whale vertebrae and the rounded timbers of an ancient shipwreck. Gentoo, Adelie and chinstrap penguins lived in noisy harmony, while the southern giant petrels remain aloof on the slopes above the beach. Any doubts we had about the abundance of life in Antarctica were immediately dispersed. While the penguins and adolescent elephant seals remained sublimely oblivious to our presence a couple of fur seals expressed their displeasure if anyone ventured too close. Those who walking inland to the crater lake and the cinder cone itself had to run a gauntlet through nesting skuas who had no reservations in making their displeasure at our proximity known by swooping dives at exposed heads. Back on board we changed into warm, dry clothes then some retired to the bar to discuss our landing and to celebrate the birthdays of Michael Ahrens and David McGonigal, just two of an abundance of lawyers on this voyage.

 

Day 5: Sunday, 5 January 1997
ANTARCTIC SOUND

Statistics: Our position at 2330 was 63°37'S, 56°16'W; our speed 10 knots; the wind 10-20 knots from the west; air temperature +1.5°C; sea temperature +1°C; sunrise/sunset 0303/2258

What a welcome we had to the Antarctic Peninsula today! The blizzard of last night had dissipated by morning and we arrived at the Argentinean base of Esperanza (63°23'S, 57°00W) to find it glistening in bright sunlight. The Argentines like to think of Esperanza more as a town than a base so it has whole families living here and a school for the children to attend. It was here on January 7, 1978 that the first child was born in Antarctica - one Emilio Marcos de Palma. One certainly can't fault Argentinean hospitality: an instructive introduction and tour of the base was augmented by some excellent hot chocolate and a visit to the Adelie penguin rookery nearby. Esperanza is in Hope Bay (esperanza means "hope" - so "ultima esperanza" means "last hope). Hope Bay is five kilometres long and 3.2 km wide, indenting the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and opening on Antarctic Sound. It wa discovered on January 15, 1902 by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition under Nordenskjold, who named it in commemoration of the winter spent there by several members of his expedition.

We came out from the Casa Grande to be confronted by the most unusual sight of a NSW registered BMW motorcycle standing on the road outside. David McGonigal had landed his motorcycle here to be the first touring motorcyclist to incorporate Antarctica on a world ride. Today was not only the first time a BMW had been in Antarctica but David had become the first person to motorcycle on all continents. For the rest of us, the entertainment was watching the trepidation on his face when Valentin, the bosun, casually swung his bike out of the Zodiac so it was dangling over the waters of Antarctic Sound. When he could speak again, David related how Valentin had also driven the bike to shore on a Zodiac while the always-stylish Vladimir sat in the saddle and listened to pop music on the bike's radio. After this event, Gus was heard to refer to David's co-rider, Lynn as 'the gangway biker babe" - and it was worth noting that everyone was subsequently meticulous in ensuring that they turned their tags.

For much of the afternoon we cruised through Antarctic Sound and crystal canyons of icebergs topped with penguins. One of the most impressive was a huge tabular berg estimated to be about two miles long, with deep fissures that seemed to glow in electric blue.

Greg reported that this winter had been particularly mild so we could progress further into the largely ice-bound Weddell Sea to Paulet Island (63°35'S, 55°47'W) It's a circular Island about 1.6 km in diameter, lying 5 km south east of Dundee Island off the north east end of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was discovered by a British expedition under Ross 1839-43 and named by him for the Right Honourable Lord George Paulet, RN.

In the late afternoon we made an easy landing here to visit the million-plus Adelie penguins that call Paulet home. This was a place of bulk penguins and for the first time the sheer biomass of Antarctic wildlife was evident. And for the first time we saw the leopard seals that swim with sinuous grace as they cruise the shores of penguin rookeries. When penguins push one of their number into the water, it's generally to check on the presence of leopard seals. There were so many penguins here that there was a quest to find a satisfactory collective noun. A previous Antarctic voyager suggested the correct term should be "a lot" but a more poetic soul proposed "a frieze". Perhaps the collective noun for photographer should be "a clique"

After dinner, we were treated to a spirited rendition of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by John Bryson and could marvel at Coleridge's ability to so accurately depict an alien landscape that he never saw. In particular we could relate to "And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold: And ice, mast high, came floating by, As green as emerald."

Many of us then adjourned to the bridge. As we passed by the face of the tabular iceberg that we had seen earlier today, large chunks started breaking off. It was at once beautiful, exhilarating and scary. Even with the evidence of Jim Wilcock's excellent video, eye witness reports of what happened varied greatly. A plume of spray revealed a massive face of ice had rolled over and for the next 10 minutes we saw the sea turn into a maelstrom and walls of ice many times larger than the ship loom up nearby. Two particularly strong images are of sinking ice creating a whirlpool that pushed the bow of the Molchanov against a stationary iceberg and of a pyramid of ice many times larger than the ship suddenly looming out of the water on the starboard side. The captain and crew remained calm while we all ran around like Henny Penny in a flurry of cameras and emotions. As the captain steered us through into open waters and we proceeded westwards into the night we saw the disintegration of the iceberg continue behind us in a massive display of nature's might. The really devoted birders amongst us tore their eyes from the tumult of ice to observe the snow petrels and other birds that materialised to make the most of the sea creatures unexpectedly thrust to the surface.

Everyone wants to feel that their time in Antarctica is special. To some extent it always will be, because the continent presents so many divergent and special experiences that no two trips can be the same. Besides, its beauty and grandeur and fecundity call on us to respond - and no two people relate to Antarctica the same way. All that said, today was very special in absolute terms. The tabular iceberg collapsing around us is something that old Antarctic hands like Greg and the captain have rarely seen. They, too, will be talking of today for many years to come. Once our trepidation that we wouldn't get through had dissipated we could appreciate, nay revel, in the knowledge that we had observed something few are ever privileged to see. It was a remarkable birthday, Jan O'Donnell - and thanks for sharing it with us.

 

Day 6: Monday, 6 January 1997
DECEPTION ISLAND

Statistics: our position at 2330 was 63° 26'S, 60° 49'W; our speed 8.9 knots; the wind 10 knots from the west; air temperature +3°C; sea temperature +2°C; sunrise/sunset 0256/2336

The Daily Program stated that we were heading south today so there was some surprise to wake and find we were heading west. It turned out that in the early hours of the morning, we were beaten away from the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula by a strong southerly wind so we had turned towards Deception Island and the calm waters of its expansive caldera.

It was an impressive arrival. The clouds lifted to reveal the icy majesty of Livingston Island to the north before we passed through Neptune's Bellows into the sanctuary of Port Foster. Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) is a ring-shaded island, 12 kilometres in diameter with a narrow entrance into a central landlocked harbour that is a drowned breached volcano. It's 15 km south of Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands.

With a few chinstrap and gentoo penguins to greet us, our landing at Whaler's Bay transported us into the industrial and scientific history of the South Shetland Islands. Prior to landing David Burke gave us an entertaining account of the island's important role in Antarctic aviation history that added greatly to the shore experience for many of us. The eruption-shattered ruins of the old whaling station with its rusted boilers and storage tanks, and a former British Antarctic Survey Base and its deserted hangar proved remarkably evocative. Better still, there was lots of room so we could all spread out and have the chance to spend some time alone and appreciate the awesome stillness of Antarctica. Alternatively, there were a few penguins around and Zodiac cruises to visit a seal colony.

During lunch the ship moved further into the harbour to Pendulum Cove where we could see steam rising from a long shallow pool of water just beyond the edge of the bay. The chance to have an Antarctic swim lured 12 intrepid expedition members. While the fact that the water was too shallow to fully immerse their bodies should have been a constraint, it wasn't. However, the rest of us could only question their sanity after discovering that everyone of them, led by the intrepid Chris Timms, had elected to swim in the definitely chilly open waters of the harbour, too. After dinner, tabular bergs glowing in the extended sunset lit our resumed southward passage.

 

Day 7: Tuesday, 7 January 1997
GERLACHE STRAIT

Statistics: position at 2330 was 64°54'S, 62° 52'W at anchor in Paradise Bay; wind 0 knots; air temperature +8°C; sea temperature +2°C; sunrise/sunset 0256/2340

Today's log entry was provided by Lynn Joshua

It is 6.30 am and with a "dobre utra", a friendly good morning from the watch on the bridge, we cruise down the Gerlache Strait on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It's a beautiful sunny morning -6°C and no wind - it would be a great skiing day with snow-capped mountains and pristine slopes. All around. The only difference being icebergs at the foot of the ski runs! Gerlache Strait at 64°30'S, 62°20'W, we are told, separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula. The Belgian Antarctic Expedition under Lt Adrien de Gerlache explored the strait in January and February 1898 and naming it for the expedition ship Belgica. The name was later changed to honour the commander himself.

After breakfast, we're into the Zodiacs with our intrepid leader Greg Mortimer heading towards Cuverville Island between Anders Island and Brabant Island in the Errera Channel. Flourishing moss beds, home to "voracious" nesting skuas, cling to craggy rocky cliffs, adorned by patches of red and green lichens - the only plants that can survive here. Cuverville Island, at 64°41'S, 62°38'W, we are told, is a dark, rocky island lying in Errera Channel between Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Ronge Island, off the west coast of Graham Land. It was discovered by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition under Gerlache 1897-99 who named it for JMA Cavaleir de Cuverville (1834-1912), a vice-admiral of the French navy.

We land at a rocky inlet with clear turquoise blue water - leopard seals have been spotted by the alert and lucky in one Zodiac. Snow reaches right to the shore, crunchy and knee deep. Here is a colony of gentoo penguins, the first we've seen en masse but they smell the same as the other species. The easiest way to get around is by following penguins paths, tracks carved to a depth of 30 cm by countless penguin feet. There are well-trod routes along the shoreline while others go straight up the steep slopes from the sea to the rookery at Cuverville Heights. The nesting penguins must be sitting on eggs as there are no sign of chicks yet.

I can count at least two icebergs in the bay plus countless bergy bits of all shapes and sizes. The icebergs are not grounded in the shallows. Reliable eyewitnesses Frank and Susie saw two of them break and one turned over. Zodiac cruising, we round a rocky promontory into a peaceful, lake-like area and negotiate a path through bergs, disturbing basking Weddell seals. The last few Zodiacs come across two young leopard seals frolicking in the turquoise water in the lee of a small iceberg. For over half an hour they are treated to a wonderful display of their superbly graceful swimming and natural curiosity about the visitors in their midst. The naturalists and photographers are ecstatic.

Back on board, with energy levels raised, we have a popular pizza lunch then it's back on deck to catch sight of a couple of minke whales as we continue down the Gerlache Channel between Lemaire Island and the Denco Coast. Mother and baby humpback whales accompany the ship for some distance then we turned into Paradise Bay to call at the Argentinian base of Almirante Brown. As we pass a Chilean base, the radio on the bridge bursts into life with a request from "Gonzalez Videla Port Control" asking us to identify ourselves. Later, David McGonigal tells how his Chilean guidebook shows the whole Antarctic Peninsula as "Tierra de O'Higgins" (he was the liberator of Chile) and while acknowledging Australia's "reclamacion" of 42 per cent of the continent, dismisses Argentina's and Britain's claims, even to the bits that Chile doesn't want, as mere "pretensions". Greg politely answers the radio call anyway and thanks them for their offer of assistance if required.

Paradise Bay or, more correctly, Harbour is a wide embayment behind Lemair and Bryde Islands, indenting the west coast of Graham Land between Duthiers and Leniz Points. The name was used by whales since 1920 and few would disagree with the aptness of the nomenclature.

A nice steep snowy climb to a rocky outcrop overlooking the bay was welcome exercise and the view magnificent. We sit here, perched like penguins, photographing one another and making socialising noises. Most took the easy way down - a toboggan ride on plastic garbage bags produced by Gary. The champions were Gus Kernot and Chris Timms - and Mark Allsop who mastered the penguin tummy slide.

Cruising around the bay, the Zodiac draws close to the densely fractured ice walls that threaten imminent fracture and collapse. We spot blue-eyed shags and imperial cormorants nesting, tucked away in sheltered nooks and crannies, protecting fluffy chicks. Beautiful little grey Antarctic terns fly past sheathbill nests.

The last Zodiac to return is Gary's. It was on a quest to find clear glacial ice for the bar (the lump they did find lasted three days!) so we could have naturally bubbling, thousand year old ice with our drinks. As they returned they spotted four minke whales that led them to two humpbacks that stayed with them for 45 minutes. As the whales surfaced right alongside the tiny Zodiacs the rest of us could only watch enviously from the ship.

A surprise barbecue on the afterdeck was laid on by chefs Richard and Peter - and the Argentineans who had served us in the little souvenir shop at their base appeared as guests. Voyages, base staff and crew alike bopped to Russian and Argentinian pop music - and the whales came over to see what all the noise was about, the first time the Argentineans had seen them so close to the base. The bay was a millpond so this whale sighting was spectacular. The festivities continued into the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the night. Who can tell when there's no sundown? What a day!

Molchanov on Antarctica
by John Timms

This Antarctic trip we did approach
With a little apprehension
". . . Is there enough clothing, film and odds' n'ends
And other things I won't mention?
"If I'm to starve and freeze I'd rather be dead."
There she was at Ushuaia wharf
A white ship of great beauty
With Russian crew and Pommy cooks
All ready to do their duty;
Within two hours the bosun toiled
Making ready to cast off,
From Ushuaia east we headed
In the good Professor Molchanov
A bunch of voyagers
diverse in age, albeit but a few
Aussies, Pommies, South Africans
Even an Italian or two
In the first two days of sailing
A mild Drake Passage we caught
But for some a pill and a long lie down
With a needle the last resort
Of birds seals and other mammals
We learned all about
The Miller-Bryden duo
We couldn't have done without
Our craggy red-haired leader
A competition did devise
"The first to spot an iceberg
Will win an invaluable prize"
The voyagers attacked the navigation desk
With great alacrity
At 2 o'clock the winner was announced
In an informal ceremony
To Paul a thousand roubles
(which wasn't all that much)
He was so pleased to win the prize
He spent it all at once
We sailed on to Penguin Isle
Which we reached late afternoon
A desolate place with the bones of whales
Shipwrecks, penguins and penguin poo.
The sea came up, the snow came down
It became very, very breezy
For voyagers and crew alike
Making it back to the ship wasn't easy
We anchored at Esperanza the following day
In weather bright and sunny
A quick guided tour around the base
A lecture then "where's your money?"
Thence to Paulet Island we went
The home of Adelie Penguins
Some leopard seals we also saw
Untroubled by rookery din.
That night we gathered in the bar
To hear John Bryson's recital
His was the performance of the week
Easily winning the title
The Professor Molchanov made great haste
While the weather was calm and mellow
Deception Island soon appeared
Cleft by Neptune's Bellows
Inside Whaler's the Professor anchored
Close by the old whaling station
Its rusty tanks and ravaged huts
- no longer with any life
Its only message to remind us
of times when killing whales was rife.
After lunch to Pendulum Cove we swung
As the light grew dim
"There's steam coming off the water,
Why not have a swim?"
We stripped and shivered in the breeze
Someone yelled "wait for us"
But the first man into the water
Was the intrepid Gus
A full frontal bellyflopper
He came up without his specs
"I told you so" said Gary Miller
"Way back on the deck"
The next day down Gerlache Strait
Our progress was quite fast
Beautiful bergs, brilliant white snow
Brown mountains a dreamy path
But notwithstanding all these dreams
There's nothing quite as real
As a Zodiac full of voyagers
Snapping a Cuverville Island seal
"The shop is closed, I'm out of film
I wonder if I can borrow . . ."
On this trip you never know
how much you'll need tomorrow.
In the afternoon we gently plied
Through Ice to Paradise Bay
Another Argentine station
Glacier and whale watching completed the day
(And tobogganing for some, garbags under the bum)
As night out came the beer
The bangers and tomato sauce too
For in the ice you just can't beat
A good old barbecue.
Music came from the engine room
Russian rock and roll
People danced on the deck
There was no protocol
The following morning the leader
Whispered into the microphone
(Yet again) "You can't miss this"
We got out of bed but with a moan.
In Lemaire the ship passed through
Sculptured bergs of different hues
Pack ice, crab eaters looked at us
first startled then bemused
Behind as we leave this wondrous world
Of light and colour ethereal
Of cloud and cliff and Nature's gifts
Of penguins, whales and seal
While we may leave this wilderness
Of vastness, ice and calm
Within each of us is a picture
Of Antarctica
We always ate aplenty
In our cruise through Faeryland
With beer, spirits and French red wine
Dispensed by Mary Anne
Looking back it's hard to find
One meal better than the next
Curry, salmon, minestrone
But Day Four's pizza was the best
Away from meetings, phone and fax
And all our normal bother
We related to the environment
And also to each other.
That night for the foolish and the hearty
There headed ashore a camping party
Tents on the snow flattened as far as we could
Soon there were sounds like the sawing of wood
We huddled together amidst the crackling of ice
The cackle of penguins all through the night
This morning we were ready our appointment to keep
With a very full breakfast and a more comfortable sleep
This afternoon we sat in the sun
Surrounded by wildlife, snow and blue seas
Hydrurga Rocks with reluctance we left
Awed by its beauty and peace.

 

Day 8: Wednesday, 8 January 1997
THE SOUTHERNMOST POINT OF OUR VOYAGE WAS AT 65°06', NEAR PL'NEAU ISLAND. HERE WE WERE 1173 KM FROM USHUAIA, ON A BEARING OF 336°.

Statistics: our position at 2115 was 64°44'S, 63°02'W; at anchor in Neko Harbour; wind 10-20 knots from the north east; air temperature +6°C; sea temperature +1°c; sunrise/sunset 0300/2336

Today's log entry was provided by David Colfelt.

This morning arrived too early. Last night's barbecue on the fantail became a night of wild dancing, sipping Chateau Cardboard From Hell, sampling a Russian version of gluhwein, eating blackened potatoes in their jackets and watching whales cavorting in the harbour to the strains of Russian pop-rock. "Ladies and Gents, we're going to be entering the Lemaire Channel in a few minutes, and it doesn't get any better than this." The speaker in our cabin gave a click and fell silent. Quarter to bloody six.

The walls of the narrow passage we were entering were massive towers of rock gleaming white in the morning sun. The twenty-knot northerly winds had painted the sea a Prussian blue, and huge lumps of white ice were strewn across our path, some of them taller than the ship. The captain slowed the vessel to a few knots, threading a tortuous path, the ice grating and crunching along the hull. At breakfast this morning many faces were a little subdued, some noticeably absent. "Who was Lemaire?" someone at our table asked, trying to kick-start the conversation. When no answer was forthcoming, Wilfred's face lit up with his familiar lopsided grin.

"Le mayor of Paris?", he suggested. It turn out Charles Lemaire was a Belgian explorer of the Congo. That doesn't make much more sense.

We were headed for Petermann Island, the southernmost point in our journey, but the ice was getting thicker -- too thick to go further south, it was decided, and instead we hauled in to Pl'neau Island (65° 06.4'S, 64° 02.8'W), a small island at the edge of the passage mostly buried under a huge snow drift that got higher and deeper at the southern end, where it ended abruptly in a sheer white cliff.

Pl'neau Island is just 1.3 km long and was first charted as a peninsula of Hovgaard Island by the French Antarctic Expedition 1903-1905 under Charcot who named it for Paul Pl'neau, expedition photographer. It was first shown as an island on a 1957 Argentine government chart. The smooth grey granite of Pl'neau has been carved and sandpapered into smooth, flat domes by relatively recent glacial activity (within the past 1000 years). Gentoo penguins occupy much of the rock that isn't snow-covered. Immediately to the north of the island lay a 'city' of icebergs, shimmering in the morning sun. After we'd been on the island for only a short while the sweeps of pristine white snow and slabs of grey granite were punctuated by splashes of yellow, red and orange (foul weather gear) as explorers headed off to make new footprints or to commune with penguins. The Zodiacs headed off one after the other to explore the magic white city to the north. What an amazing array of ice edifices -- giant sharks' teeth, Sphinxes, sweeping viaducts, vaulted archways, billowing mushrooms gleaming white with iridescent blue and green margins, towering office blocks with columns of cerulean 'windows', caverns festooned with dripping icicles, narrow streets and alleyways with overhangs.

As the morning wore on the sky turned to grey flannel, the sun a golden flare near the horizon, and the city stood out in relief. "What causes the blue in icebergs?" someone asked. It seems it's the same thing that causes the blue in the sky -- the Tindall effect, where minute particles in the ice (or atmosphere) scatter and reflect light at the blue end of the spectrum. The bands of deeper blue are caused by ice that has melted and refrozen, magnifying the blue of the iceberg like a lens. We wended our way through numerous side streets, our driver occasionally succumbing to the 'boy within' and gunning the Zodiac at breath-taking speed through the narrow passages.

Back aboard the Professor Molchanov the crew prepared for the return trip through the Lemair Channel in what was now a full-on snow storm. Our weather seems to change with chaotic abandon, driven by powerful unseen engines. One hundred and seventy-five metres of anchor chain were winched back aboard, and we threaded our way again through the mass of icebergs that the northerly winds had packed into the channel since we came through earlier in the morning. Lunch of bread and a 'borsch-ish' soup, and then a delicious slice, was followed by a much needed nap.

Our destination in the afternoon was Port Lockroy, the British station on the Neumayer Channel, Antarctic peninsula. The British surely have some claim to this continent, according to the old ways of doing things. Captain James Cook circumnavigated it way back in 1773-75 and discovered the 'country doomed by nature to lie buried under everlasting ice and snow'. Scott wrote himself into Antarctic history in the early 1900s, and in 1943 the Royal Navy mounted 'Operation Tabarin' to provide reconnaissance (listening for German U-boats) and meteorological information on the peninsula. The base at Port Lockroy was established on 16 February 1944 and remained occupied until 1962. The original station hut, 'Bransfield House', still survives in part, having been enlarged in the early 1950s. Whalers used to call in at Port Lockroy, and artefacts from this period remain, including the remnants of a wooden boat, chain moorings and whale bones. The hut has recently been refurbished by the UK antarctic Heritage trust and now serves as a small museum with a shop. Some rooms still have remnants of their original equipment -- a kitchen with an Aga cooker (the tins on the shelves bear original 1950s labels), a radio room with a massive old valve radio and bits of electronic apparatus (rectifiers, transformers, a balun coil) that make one reflect on how far the field of electronics has advanced in a relatively few years.

A trip in the Zodiacs to a nearby beach revealed the bones of several whales, one set having been laid out more or less in their proper position, giving us some insight into the fantastic architecture of these beasts -- almost one third of them just jawbones and eating apparatus!

Back at the ship, the speaker in our room cracked once again, and Greg announced a meeting in the bar at 7.30 pm for all those interested in camping on the ice. There was quite a crowd in the bar -- enthusiastic pre-dinner drinkers, surely, not all campers. "Hands up those who think they'd like to go ashore for the night," Greg invited. Twenty hands shot up. Greg's jaw dropped for one millisecond before he regained his life-has-no-surprises-for-me smile. "Well, we have tents for 15. Who's going to sleep out in the open?" The usual nuts, Gus and Paul, were the first to volunteer, and then, when the breakdown of the tents was revealed -- a handful of 3-man tents and one 4-man tent -- more fresh-air fiends and second-rate nuts emerged.

"Dress in full regalia", Greg advised. After dinner the Zodiacs, loaded with tents, sleeping bags, ground mats, a case of bottled spring water, a black bucket (a psychological ploy to discourage defilement of the environment) and 20 campers headed off for the shore.

Our campsite was on the shores of Neko Harbour, which is surrounded on three sides by cliffs of rock clad in blue ice and white snow, which fell away periodically in huge lumps with a tumultuous roar, causing 2-foot-high waves to crash on the opposite shores. The bay was packed with icebergs and floating slush kept imprisoned by the onshore winds. The zodiacs pushed through the ice, and we hit the beach about 11.00 pm, dragging the gear through deep snow that readily admitted one up to the thighs.

It was necessary to prepare the tent sites by stomping down the deep snow so that we didn't just melt our way into our own graves. From the ship we evidently looked like so many barmy penguins performing a strange ritual. At midnight almost all of us were exhausted and were tucked well away, ten or so in the open air, and the rest in a row of round green tents. It started snowing shortly after midnight and continued until we woke up, by which time the snow was falling heavily and wet. The quilting in our sleeping bags harboured puddles of melted snow. It was never dark during the night -- simply darker between 12.00 midnight and 2.00 am. All night long there were regular thunderclaps as ice fell from the sheer rock faces into the bay, and the sea gulls incessantly mimicked kookaburras on the hills above our beach.

At 6.00 am we arose and groggily packed up the gear. My gumboots refused to go back on my feet, and I had to make a short, wobbly trip through deep snow to a large rock where I could stomp my feet and drive my heels down into the boots. On the return trip I passed David McGonigal, and was about to offer a cheery 'good morning' when the soft, deep snow swallowed my legs and I fell splat on my face. As I struggled to get up, David said "It's nice to see someone so in touch with his environment". A few steps further on a smiling Greg enquired:

"How did you sleep?"

"Oh, great. Woke up occasionally to empty the snow out of my left ear hole, but, otherwise, great."

"Why didn't you just let it melt and run out the other side?"

Boom-boom. The end of a perfect day.

 

Day 9: Thursday, 9 January 1997
GERLACHE STRAIT

Statistics: position at 2330 was 63°17'S, 61°21'W; speed 14.5 knots; wind 10 knots from the north; air temperature +4°C; sea temperature +2°C; sunrise/sunset 0341/2241

For half our number, the morning began when the dry snow that had fallen all night changed to wet snow at about 6 am. Of the 20 campers 10 had elected to sleep outside on mats on the snow. These were the first to arise, followed by those in the tents. All were back on board with their wet sleeping bags and soggy tents by 7 am. As they enjoyed long hot showers and even longer hot breakfasts the ship set sail from Neko Harbour for Hydrurga Rocks.

The day cleared to become warm and perfect. Icebergs, glaciers and snowy peaks glistened under an eggshell blue sky. Even David Burke's talk about Australian Antarctic pioneer John Rymill was delivered on the foredeck in the sun.

Throughout the morning we simply enjoyed the sunshine and the 360° panorama of blue waters and snow capped peaks, of beautiful icebergs and expansive glaciers. After lunch we put the Zodiacs in the water for the last time and cruised across to Hydrurga Rocks. This is the scientific name for "leopard seal" and one was obligingly spotted near the shore. However, for most of us the enduring memory will be of the sleeping colony of Weddell seals - and the one that was in the water as a welcoming committee when Richard, our chef, arrived in his kayak. As a last landfall it couldn't have been better and we had time to sit in the sun watching the chinstrap penguins and their tiny, grey, fluffy chicks who were also enjoying the sunshine. This was Antarctica at its most benign. Still, it was a subdued group that climbed the gangway for the last time. Indeed, Gary had to practically prod the last group of reluctant mariners back into the last Zodiac. Back on board we turned our tags for the final time and many bequeathed their penguin adorned gumboots to the ship's stores.

But Antarctica doesn't let go easily. After dinner and a thorough review by Gary of the main events of the trip (what a lot we have achieved since that first landing on Penguin Island), the call came from the bridge that there were whales ahead. Over the next two hours (before it became dark for the first time in a week) 12 humpback whales were sighted performing a full routine of tail slaps, blows and breaches. As we moved into the Drake Passage the seas came up, rocking us to sleep and leaving us in some doubt about the smoothness of the way home.

 

Day 10: Friday, 10 January 1997
SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS

Statistics: position at 2300 was 58°51'S, 64°55'W; speed 11.3 knots; wind 20 knots from the north-east; air temperature +7°C; sea temperature +3°C; sunrise/sunset 0431/2223

"In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendour, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man." Sir Ernest Shackleton At least that's what the daily program declared. Although we hadn't suffered or starved and "the bigness of the whole" seemed to relate to our shrinking wardrobe as a direct result of Richard's and Peter's culinary skills, we could share with Sir Ernest in his exclamation of achievement and joy. Again we are accompanied by the Wandering Albatross. Today was a time of reflection and consolidation. While the Drake Passage remained kind to us, many found a need to catch up on days of sleep deprivation. For the active, there were a couple of talks that further explained what we had observed. Firstly, there was Gary's "The truth about skuas" to redress the balance for this much-maligned bird. Then Greg provided a fascinating insight into "Ice" and later we saw "Great Scott" - the video of David Burke's musical about the heroic, if ultimately unsuccessful, explorer.

 

Day 11: Saturday, 11 January 1997
CAPE HORN (55°59S, 67°15W) AT 6.50 PM.

Today was our last full day at sea. Our opportunistic leaders made the most of the prevalence of lawyers aboard to have a group discussion on the Antarctic Treaty, preceded by Michael's outline of Australian scientific work in Antarctica. In the afternoon, we uncovered the last place of refuge for the Russians from the inquisitive eyes of their guests - we had a tour of the engine room.

The big event of the day was approaching Cape Horn. While our crossing had not resulted in need for the sanctuary that the South American landmass provides, it is still a name surrounded by mystery and legend. Cape Horn is the southernmost tip of the Americas It was discovered by the Dutch sailor Willem Schouton (along with Jacob LeMaire) in 1616. In the days of sail, rounding the Horn was a major event because it usually meant a dramatic shift in sea and weather conditions as the ship moved from one ocean system to the other. The meeting point of the Atlantic and Pacific breeds violent and unpredictable weather. A Chilean naval detachment is stationed at the Horn, manned by three sailors posted from their normal base of Puerto Williams.

The Chilean authorities gave permission for us to sail within a mile of Cape Horn this afternoon. From the steep cliffs sloping downwards to the small promontory capped by a beacon that is Cape Horn, it was good to put a setting to the famous name. Then it was time to change for farewell drinks with the captain. Entering the bar it was hard to accept that the many friends crowding the room had been strangers a fortnight ago. Common interests may have initially drawn us together but it's a wealth of shared experiences that are likely to see us remain in contact into the future.

About midnight we anchored at the mouth of the Beagle Channel to await the pilot who will take us to our berth at Ushuaia early tomorrow morning.