Antarctica in 3D
Waiting for 3d
So our Antarctic part of the season kicked off in Ushuaia on the 31st December, well was meant to. Our first trip was a 3D film project, trying to illustrate the changes due to global warming, and trying for the first time to chronicle Antarctica in three dimensions. The film guys flight was in fact delayed by 12 hours, so they turned up on the 1st January exhausted instead. This was to set the standard for the rest of the charter! After waiting for three days for a 3D underwater camera housing to turn up, including someone flying back up to Buenos Aries to try and persuade customs to release the housing, after talking to everyone in any kind of power position he had to admit defeat and found a flight back to Ushuaia letting us leave only a few days behind schedule.
Slow upwind Drake
Having been delayed and missing a perfect light wind weather window for the Drake Passage, we headed out down the Beagle Channel with 40 knots behind us. As soon as we found our way out into open water we were greeted with south westerlies, while not ideal they are not the worst that could happen either. With Skip (the boss) on board and in the watch system we started to plug into the wind, trying to make due south – sounds easy but our tacking angles aren’t too great and all we can really manage is going from reach to reach! Skip had done several (downwind) Whitbread races back in the 80’s, and it seems that this dictated the tactics for the crossing. If we wanted to have the wind forward of the beam, it had to be done while he was asleep or wasn’t watching! Running with the wind aft of the beam we ended up to the east of King George Island in the South Shetlands and facing an eighty mile bash upwind into 35 knots. It seemed that this could have been avoided to some extent but we were stuck with it struggling to make 6 knots motor sailing into the chop and breeze whilst avoiding brash ice in the semi dark.
When visibility lifted the next day came we were able to see Deception Island, our first stop and just before breakfast we dropped our anchor in the caldera of Whalers Bay. After inflating our zodiac and finding all of the camera equipment which had been safely stowed for the crossing, we dropped the guys off to suss out how things worked and to get some atmospheric shots of the old whaling base and chinstrap penguins emerging from the hot steam along the water’s edge. Many hours later, they were collected and after talking to them about their successes with the shooting we determined they were happy with the three minutes of footage from eight hours ashore! The next day we were greeted by favourable winds and so we headed out around the corner to Bailey’s Head, a site with one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies in the South Shetlands. We landed the guys and afterwards sat in the pilot house with a cup of tea, suddenly just metres from the boat there was a spume, and after much staring, we saw a pair of humpback whales cruising around us. Laura and I jumped into the zodiac and went off to try and find them, zooming off around a headland where we saw them heading. Failing to find the whales we scouted out a beach which we had been informed was a failsafe landing beach for Bailey’s Head, it was and we ended up using this to collect everyone as the beach where we had dropped off the camera equipment had built up a reasonable surge.
From Deception we headed south, once again to Enterprise Island where we tie onto the wreck of the Governoren, a burnt out hulk of a Norwegian whaling factory ship. From here the crew spent another day filming icebergs and other bits and pieces whilst we were left on board cleaning and cooking.
Base Brown and Skontorp Cove
After a night at Enterprise Island we a little further south to Cuverville Island where there is a colony of Gentoo penguins, I took two of the team in the zodiac to recce the beach site, and to look at the colony and see if there were any chicks yet as this was a shot they were wanting. Unfortunately there were none, but instead there were some beautiful icebergs blown in and slowly breaking up. After using Pelagic Australis to shoot some footage of this from we found some brash ice to film our bows forcing the way through.
Heading on for the night we slogged out another few miles through brash ice and snow on our way to Base Brown, an Argentine research base and usually a stop for our first walk on the Antarctic Peninsula (proper!).
After a good night sleep we took off our shore lines and headed out into Skontorp Cove in the southeast of Paradise Harbour, here the aim was to film the magnificent ice cliffs of the glacier reaching the water. Here the kayaks (which had been shipped down especially for the filming project) got their first of many outings paddling in ‘bergs and the glaciers.
We spent a few days at Port Lockroy, formerly British Base A from a 1950’s project, now a museum and a post office run by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, and the most popular tourist sight in Antarctica. Here we were joined by a cruise ship and the film team set up several time-lapses of people moving around the museum whilst they themselves took it in turns to dive on some of the whale bones in the lagoon behind the station. The water here is around 2°C with glaciers melting and calving into the lagoon, and as is typical with the glacial water it was slightly milky and at ten metres that meant that filming was hard work and unproductive. They next tried to film the underside of some of the icebergs which were floating close to us in the bay, again the milky water hindered natural light of the shots and so the director canned those efforts, despite the camera crew sure they could get the shots if they just used the underwater lights they had bought for that very reason.
With the film crew was our first time visiting Palmer Station on Anvers Island. This American scientific base was very different to Vernadsky (the Ukrainian base in the Argentine Islands) or the BAS stations we visit in South Georgia. The base itself has a much more serious feel to it; it is solely there for research and visiting it definitely felt like they were doing us a favour, despite the visit having been arranged months in advance and the film being made potentially raising more money for the research being carried out.
The base itself sat on a wide spit of rock emerging from a glacier, to the north side a bay with calving glaciers, to the south was the anchorage we used in a narrow creek which ran up to a glacier. Shortly after tying up the director went ashore with his cameramen to work out which shots they could get, mainly trying to cover research on the Peninsula as well as, to a lesser degree, humans using the area and how we cope. Shortly after they left the boat the tide changed and with it, the ice started to come! Soon there was a reasonable amount of brash ice all around us, with the occasional larger one thumping down the side of Pelagic Australis making Miles, Laura and I nervously jumped up to fend off each time, while Skip wasn’t bothered and said that was what the boat was built for!
The following day the film guys went ashore for their filming and with a new forecast bringing more wind than previously anticipated and from the opposite direction. Before this kicked in we span Pelagic Australis through 180° using only ropes to help us which proved an interesting but very cold couple of hours. After a cup of tea we headed over to the base as well for a tour, conducted by a dedicated tourism co-ordinator (on a base which discourages visits!); it was interesting seeing the set-up in contrast to our previous experiences. Every room in the base, itself a spacious facility for the 45 staff it houses, was kept unpleasantly warm despite being sub-zero outside, and with no natural light instead using halogen bulbs left permanently on one wonders about the contradictions of the research being conducted about how we have an effect on Antarctica whilst they are using vast amount of diesel and therefore emitting (the cause of global warming etc) greenhouse gases, not to mention warming the local environment by that seemingly insignificant amount. Even the water they use on base is not simple run-off or melted using the heat from somewhere else, they use a desalination plant instead, again using the generators rather than a more eco-friendly way.
French Passage and failing for Petermann and Vernadsky
A 270° image of the Penola Strait with ice surrounding us. On the left the Lemaire Channel to the north, the middle is to the south, and the right is out to sea towards the west.
After the guys had all of the footage that they required from Palmer we headed down towards the Lemaire Channel, hoping it had opened up more than a few days previously. On approach it was obvious that it was still chocked up with large pieces of ice as well as a constant carpet of first year ice. There is an alternative route south to the Lemaire Channel; it is to go to the outside of Booth Island and any subsequent islands until you can find a way into the Penola Strait. On this instance we headed past Booth, through a few brash belts with hard multi-year ice mixed in with the softer first year ice, past Hovgaard Island, finally entering the Penola through French Passage, an entrance to the south of Petermann Island where Charcot wintered on the vessel Porquoi Pas? in 1909. Here it still looked quite full of ice but Skip was determined to see the Adelie penguins which call the tiny Yalour Islands (in the middle of the Penola) their home. Unfortunately we were unable to make it all the way to the islands, we got about a quarter of the way there before the engine cooling system filled with slushy ice, restricting how much raw water was able to get to the engine to perform its duty. The engine was stopped for a short while to scoop out as much of the ice as possible before promptly heading back out towards the relative safety of French Passage and back north towards an anchorage named Pleneau just to the south of Booth Island and the Lemaire Channel.
Pleneau and Hovgaard, playing football on the sea ice and watching the sunset
We anchored in time for the film crew to head out and do a recce for the morning’s shots whilst we prepared dinner. After dinner it was shaping up to be a perfect sunset, so Miles, Laura and I headed to the nearest high point on Hovgaard Island to try and gain the best view. This was probably our first time ashore by ourselves of the trip which helped make it a special moment, together with the first time in the trip we had seen the setting sun lighting up the sky with wonderful oranges and pinks. The following morning the film crew headed off to get their shots of penguins in the small colony that resides on Pleneau Island. The other shot they managed to achieve was staged clip of Skip and the grip (the film worlds’ dogs-body) climbing up the virgin slope to view the perfect panorama of the west side of the Booth Island, panning around to see the ice choking the Penola Straits, and looking out over grounded tabular icebergs towards the sea, and coming back to the north and seeing the spectacular pool known as the Iceberg Graveyard to the yachts, this area collects tabular ‘bergs which are disintegrating contained by the rocky islands at the northern perimeter.
Whilst they were off shooting those left on board, the three of us and Shawn (the grip) investigated how solid the sheet of ice which stopped us tying in where usually we would have. It turned out that the sheet was about 20cm deep, plenty strong enough to walk on and being large and perfectly flat, we decided that it would be a perfect space to have a little kick-around on. We happened to have a football on board, and as luck would have it, it was a bright yellow and so easy to spot as it was flying towards you. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, partly just the freedom, partly in doing something so unexpected; it was one of my best memories of that trip and possibly of Antarctica so far. The ice wasn’t quite as solid as we had first thought though. As the morning progressed and the day warmed up we found our footsteps going through the snow, and starting to find the clear ice below, and disturbingly starting to fill up with water. With that it was time to head back to the boat and put back on our serious faces!!
Lockroy – leopard seals eating zodiacs
So, Antarctica again. It was an uneventful crossing so I will leave it at that, instead I will take you straight to Port Lockroy and the preparations for the clients’ expedition.
Just before dropping the climbers and whilst still in Lockroy we had just collected some ice for some drinks and had left the zodiac in the water for half an hour. Next time someone went outside the floats were looking a little flat and by the time it was lifted it was apparent that the tanks had been punctured. Upon inspection we saw that it was a leopard seal that had tried to eat the zodiac!! There were multiple bites in each float. Time to deflate this zodiac properly and inflate the spare one. After this incident as soon as the dinghy was finished with, even if it was to be used again half an hour later, we would lift it back out of the water and out of reach of a hungry mouth!
Dropping them off, Peltier’s Crack and the drag
We headed off to an anchorage on the south end of Doumer Island, in the Peltier Channel just south of Port Lockroy. Named Peltiers Crack by a former skipper of Pelagic Australis the anchorage is a little nook in which we could tuck in, seemingly securely. Here we enjoyed a lovely sunset, sat on the glacier with a beer in hand, close to perfection! The next day was a bit of a write off being sub-zero and snowing so we got on with some indoor jobs. The following day was glorious, brilliant blue skies and sunshine so we all three went for a walk over the hill and back to a penguin colony and an abandoned base. When we returned to the boat, we could see over the hill the mast at a strange angle so we hurried along. As we came down lower we could see that PA wasn’t where she was meant to be, where we had tied her in. We zodiac’d back to the boat and it was clear that she was on the beach bouncing up and down. Oops. Anyway, we found new rocks to tie onto and wound her off without any issue or damage caused. All good. We then went rapidly went back to Port Lockroy for safety!!
After giving the boat a thorough spring clean, we picked up the climbers. Meeting them on the beach with champagne they were rightly in a jubilant mood, they had become only the second group to ascend Mount Agamemnon, a mountain opposite Port Lockroy. One of our climbers, Diego (a mountain guide from the Italian Dolomites) also soloed the summit of Mount Francais, the highest peak on the northern Peninsula from a new route.