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A South Atlantic

This article was originally found on 0102-24.html

At: February 24, 2001

A South Atlantic diary

A baby elephant seal "talks" to King penguins on South Georgias Island. The moment was captured on film by a passenger of a Quark cruise to one of the world’s last frontiers.




During a 20-day cruise to the South Atlantic islands
and Antarctica, there’s time to take note of everything.

By Gunnar Hagelberg
For the Buenos Aires Herald

For those who work all year round without a break, a long South Atlantic cruise offers a rest with the taste of soft adventure, and astonishing tidbits of knowledge that demand the pages of a diary. Here are excerpts from the first voyage of the 2000-2001 Antarctic season of the Kapitan Dranitsyn, a Finnish-made icebreaker that Quark Expeditions has been leasing and operating with a Russian crew since 1994.

On November 22, 2000, we were among the passengers from several countries who met at the new Los Đires Hotel in Ushuaia the day before departure. It was windy and there was snow on the ground — a typical Patagonian day that we enjoyed from behind the hotel’s beautiful big bay windows overlooking the Beagle Channel.

When we saw the Dranitsyn, we thought it looked familiar, and we were soon told why. It was built by the Wartsila Company in Finland, the same shipyard that constructed the Argentine icebreaker Almirante IrÝzar.

Quark has been operating the Dranitsyn in the Arctic and Antarctica for six years; of these, the last two were dedicated to circumnavigations of the Arctic.

The friendly Russian crew cordially introduced us all to our cabins. The icebreaker has an international staff of 20 people, including the expedition leader, the catering folks and world-renowned lecturers who inform passengers daily of the history, marine biology and glaciology of Antarctica, and share with them their personal experiences in the world’s polar regions.

Those islands

On the second day we reached New Island, a real paradise for birdwatchers that is one of the many islands of the Malvinas archipelago. There we saw a rookery of black-browed albatrosses, where imperial cormorants and rockhopper penguins also nest.

Our afternoon landing was Steeple Jason, an island that receives few visitors because its exposed position in the extreme northwest of the Malvinas makes it difficult to land. But we did it because Steeple Jason is home to 250,000 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross — 80 percent of the world population of this bird species. Why this huge colony is growing when others around the world are declining is believed to be associated with how the different species interact with fishing fleets..

Early the next morning we entered Port William, the outer harbour of Port Stanley. Here we anchored close to a British frigate because our ship was too broad to sail safely through the Narrows. Over a low ridge separating the two harbours, we could see the brightly-coloured roofs of Stanley, and behind them Sapper Hill and mounts William, Tumbledown, Twin Sisters and Longdon.

The Malvinas have a population of about 2,000 residents, most of whom live in Stanley. After a long zodiac ride, we landed on the town’s jetty and were soon walking down its main street, Ross Road, named after the famous Antarctic explorer Sir James Clark Ross.

Walking along Ross Road by the harbour, we came across some of the oldest buildings in Stanley — a row of Victorian terrace houses with carefully tended front gardens. All the trees we saw had been brought from elsewhere, the most common being Monterey cypress like the ones that line the pretty driveway to Government House, another Victorian residence with a well-tended garden. In summer these gardens would be alive with lupines, dianthus and poppies, but it was so early in the season that only gorse - not a garden plant — was in flower.

Christchurch Cathedral, built in 1892, dominates the waterfront from behind its entrance arch of Blue Whale jawbones. Inside are memorials to Edward, Lord Shackleton, and Nick Barker, captain of HMS Endurance during the 1982 conflict.

The two war memorials — to the 1982 conflict and the 1914 Battle of the Malvinas — reminded us of the islands’ controversial history and highly strategic location close to the shipping routes around Cape Horn.

It was Sunday, but shopowners were kind enough to open their shops for us. Stamp collectors and people eager to post mail from this remote corner of the globe quickly formed queues outside the post office.

A visit to the Falkland Islands Museum reveals excellent exhibits illustrating the islands’ importance, pioneer past and two stuffed specimens of the warrah, a small mammalian wolf native only to the islands, which was exterminated by sheep farmers in the 19th century.

Outside the museum is a small hut that was actually the Falkland Islands and Dependencies Survey Station, formerly located at Portal Point on the Antarctic Peninsula. Inside, you get an idea of what life was like in such a station in the early 1950s — five bunk beds, pin-ups of Bridget Bardot, tins of cigarettes, a small library and a paraffin stove. Life was obviously hard with very few comforts, but the hut was a refuge for companionship and shelter from the harsh weather.

Despite recent development, fuelled by the sale of fishing and oil exploration licenses, many residents cling to old traditions such as the use of peat for fuel, and keeping vegetable gardens that give them a degree of food self-sufficiency.

Access to Stanley for those who live out of town ’on camp’ is restricted to four-wheel-drive vehicles or, on outlying islands, to boats or light planes.

South Georgia

One of our lecturer/zodiac pilots had spent several years in South Georgia with the British Atlantic Survey. Before our first landing, Scobie entertained us with his personal experiences on the sub-Antarctic islands and showed us slides of the fauna, concentrating on the introduced species that have had an impact on the ecosystem: reindeer, cats and rats. Black and brown rats — inadvertently introduced by sealers and whalers — have reduced bird populations by preying on eggs. Cats, brought to hunt the rats, are also predators. The reindeer were introduced to vary the diet of whalers.
As the Dranitsyn approached the calm waters of the Bay of Isles, large numbers of Antarctic fur seals played off the bow and King penguins porpoised through the water as grey-headed albatrosses, rare worldwide but common here, flew overhead.

Our first landing in South Georgia was Salisbury Plain with its huge King penguin colony. The shingle beach of grey sandstone and white vein quartz gave way to sand, gravel and moraines on the plain, which is one of the few areas of extended, low-lying land on South Georgia. Above the Grace glacier at the back, we caught fleeting views of Mount Ashley (1,154m) throught the clouds.

The beach was full of thousands of King penguins and occasional Gentoos. With their blue-grey suits, white fronts, golden throats, ear and beak patches, and brown eyes, the Kings are surely the most magnificent of the world’s penguins.

While rookeries of other smaller penguin species appear anarchic, order seems to pervade a King colony. The brown, fluffy chicks, some of them bigger than the adults, huddle together. They look so different that they were once considered a separate species: the ‘wooly penguin’!

On a beautifully calm South Georgia day, we sailed into Cumberland East Bay and around King Edward Point, the site of a restored British Antarctic Survey station and until recently a British military garrison. In front of us was the abandoned Grytviken whaling station, looking picturesque under a blanket of snow.

After clearing ‘Customs,’ everyone but our six Argentine passengers — whom unfortunate bureaucracy did not allow to land in South Georgia — went ashore. Our expedition leader was only allowed to take the Argentines on zodiac cruises.

Meanwhile, the rest of us went to the whalers’ cemetery where the great British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried. Shackleton died on January 5, 1922, just one day after reaching the island on the Quest. At his wife’s request, he was buried there, a place which meant much to him during his lifetime, and was the scenario of his greatest achievements. By his grave, our historian read a poem and we toasted with rum.

Later, we took zodiacs across the bay to the old whaling station, a ghost town of rusting buildings, tanks and ancient-looking equipment scattered everywhere. The long-gone sounds of motors, whistles and the smell of cooking whales have been replaced by the barking of baby elephant seals and the trills of King penguins.

The South Georgia Whaling Museum, recently set up by Tim and Pauline Carr, the island’s only permanent residents, is full of photographs, skeletons and other relics and displays that illustrate the once extensive whaling industry on this island. When the whaling station, founded by Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen in 1904, closed in 1965, more than 54,000 whales had been killed and processed there for oil, meat, meal and other by-products.

Discovery Investigations expedition scientists also worked here, collecting food samples and internal organs from 1,683 whales that gave essential information on the animals’ diet, growth rate, age of maturity, gestation and breeding rate.

Many of us took the opportunity to send postcards home from the museum’s post office-cum-souvenir shop, realizing, of course, that we would probably arrive before the postcards.

An ice sea

Several hours south of South Georgia is St. Andrews Bay, home to an even larger colony of King penguins than the one on Salisbury Plain, making it the largest such colony in the world. When we disembarked from the zodiacs on the shingle beach we were relieved to see no sign of Antarctic fur seals. There was, however, a multitude of southern elephant seals, their larger but more placid relatives.

We encountered pack ice as the ship made its way toward the South Orkneys. From horizon to horizon, the ocean was full of heaving ice floes with icebergs of all sizes scattered among them. A lesser ship would have had to turn back, but for our icebreaker, these chunks of ice one or two metres thick were no problem.

Among the pack ice we saw the big tabular (flat) icebergs that calve from the massive ice shelves that fringe the Antarctic continent. Typical of Antarctica, they are rare in northern seas. Ice shelves are formed by several glaciers that coalesce into a broad floating expanse of ice that becomes trapped in an embayment formed by mountains descending to the sea, or offshore islands that act as similar pinning points for the advancing ice. The Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves cover areas as big as France. Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen began their historic treks toward the South Pole on the famous Ross Ice Shelf (alias the Great Ice Barrier).

One morning we awoke to find that the ship was no longer moving, apparently stuck in a vast field of ice. It was not supposed to be like this in early December, not even close to the South Orkneys, which are unreachable by all ships but icebreakers for eight months of the year. The unusually heavy ice evidently reflected the coldness of the preceding winter, which had brought storms to Patagonia and intense cold to Antarctica.

The ship’s staff descended to see if the thick, apparently solid ice was safe to walk on. Flags and paddles were used to mark unsafe areas, and everybody assembled on the ice. The strange expanse of whiteness stretched far into the distance. A few snow petrels, imperial shags and kelp bulls flew overhead while Adelie penguins propelled themselves over the ice on their stomachs, leaving distinctive tracks in the snow.

Could one really walk from here to Antarctica? It certainly appeared possible, but no one was going to try. This adventure of walking on the ice of the frozen Scotia Sea was going to be the high point of our voyage.

We got back on board and the Dranitsyn got up steam, turned about crunching the ice in spectacular style, and headed back along the path of broken ice it had blazed the day before. Passengers in the bow or on the bridge revelled as the icebreaker’s three engines generated 24,000hp to smash its way through ice three to four metres thick. After several hours of icebreaking, the Dranitsyn reemerged into the open sea.

Looking for a volcano

As we were not to repeat Shackleton’s experience of becoming icebound on the Endurance, we headed for the forbidding, little-visited Elephant Island, where there is not a single patch of level ground. We were lucky; it was a mild day and we were able to go ashore in zodiacs at Cape Lookout, where we saw Chinstrap and Gentoo penguin colonies, and elephant seals snoozing or playing in the water. Above loomed a threatening hanging glacier which we were warned to keep well clear of. Surging waves ensured an exciting return to the Dranitsyn. We climbed aboard, wet and cold after having enjoyed a truly enthralling experience.

Since Elephant Island’s discovery in 1820, most of the few landings there had been made by sealers prepared to risk their lives for a few extra seal skins. Further round the coast and not visible to us was Cape Wild, from where Schackleton sailed in the James Caird on his epic voyage to South Georgia and where the remaining 22 members of his expedition lived for 105 days.

When we landed on Livingston Island, we could see Deception Island and the very keen-sighted could also see the mountain ridge forming the backbone of Trinity land and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in the far distance. On Hannah Point we spent time sitting beside the many small rookeries of nesting Chinstrap penguins to observe these little Antarctic icons’ behaviour.

We watched with awe as the Dranitsyn threaded its way through Neptune’s Bellows, an extremely narrow passage into the flooded caldera (a collapsed volcano that forms a large interior basin) of Deception Island. The rocks were stained a deep red, caused, we were told, by the oxidizing effects of hot steam on iron-rich minerals.

Deception is a ring-shaped island 13 km wide about 16 km south of Livingston Island. During the past century there have been a number of minor eruptions, the most recent ones in 1967, 1969 and 1970, which destroyed the British and Chilean bases, and forced the evacuation of the Argentine base.

The objective of our visit to this caldera was to swim in the warm waters of Pendulum Cove, heated by the plug of still-molten magma more than 1.5 km below. Water from the sea and melting snow flows down through the porous ash and is heated to around 50║C, emanating in the form of hot springs. The water is like a warm bath, and those who braved the cold wind to get in and loll about, loathed having to get out and hurriedly dry off and dress. Their reward was a cup of hot spiced wine before a hot shower or sauna on board the Dranitsyn.

Antarctic bases

Our next landings were on Cuverville Island, with the biggest Gentoo penguin rookery in Antarctica, and Neko Harbour on the Antarctic continent itself.

Early in the morning, the Dranitsyn anchored in Paradise Bay, which is almost completed ringed with ice-capped peaks that soar several thousand metres into the air. Most of the shoreline comprises ice cliffs or the fronts of fractured glaciers. The distinctive red buildings of the Argentine Almirante Brown base, unoccupied for the past three years, loomed ahead. Just passing the station we passed a cliff face with an imperial shag colony where small chicks were to be seen. Further on, mosses and lichens grow profusely. We glide among icebergs and high ice walls that fortunately do not calve as we pass.

Nearby, a green copper malachite deposit staining a high cliff walls reminds us that Antarctica has at least some mineral wealth. Should the current five-year moratorium on mining not be renewed, we fervently hope that exploitation of these minerals never becomes economical, because it would ruin Paradise Bay, truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Port Lockroy, discovered by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot in 1904 and named after a politician who had supported his first expedition, has an interesting history with many visible memorials from the whaling period in which it was an important anchorage. The base itself was beautifully restored in 1962 here we were given a warm welcome by Ken Back and Jim Fox, two conservators of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and the British Antarctic Survey. Here too there is a post office from which to send postcards.

As we enjoyed an outdoor barbecue, it was hard to take our eyes off the scenery as the sun sank lower but never below the horizon. Behind the British base, wreaths of clouds wrapped themselves silkily around the Wall Range. Mount William was visible from foot to summit and only the uppermost slopes of towering Mount Franšais were hidden.

Our next exciting view was the Lemaire Channel, also known as ‘Kodak Gap’ because it is one of the most photogenic, spectacular landmarks on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Dranitsyn dropped anchor at the end of the Lemaire off Hovgaard Island in PlÚneau Bay, named after French photographer Paul PlÚneau. Here icebergs are made of ice in all its infinite varieties, from large cavernous bergs to tiny lumps of brash crackling as its melts around you. Blue keels, caves and cracks, cups and scoops, all sorts of fluting and striations — we had never dreamed that this substance could assume so many shapes and forms. We saw crabeater seals on an ice floe that were wary of us but tolerated our presence.

With our last iceberg forming a magnificent arch, we returned to the ship numbed by the cold and stunned by the beauty of what we had seen.

Quark’s last cruise this season departed from Ushuaia on February 21. Several other exciting departures are scheduled for 2001/2, including an incredible expedition to visit Emperor penguin colonies, Marguerite Bay and the Weddell Sea. For further information, call 4806-6326, e-mail or visit