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Published: February 11th 2009
Sunrise was about 3.20 a.m. local time and I awoke at four - Lisa shortly thereafter. Outside we were met with a stunning spectacle! We were entering the Gerlache Strait, named after the great Belgian Antarctica explorer Adrien Gerlache who discovered and mapped this part of the peninsula and offshore islands in 1898.
Brabant Island was on our starboard side and the Danco Coast of mainland Antarctica on port; everywhere snow and ice clung to the hills and the plateaus with hardly a bare piece of rock to be seen. Icebergs large and small, of every shape and colour, were scattered along our path as the bridge crew steered the Minerva skilfully between them. Apart from a few clouds hanging over the mountaintops, which climbed in places to over 2,000 metres, the sky was completely blue for the next several hours and the early morning light was spectacular.
This was the Antarctica we had almost - but not quite - anticipated, and the feelings inspired by our surroundings are difficult to put into words. The sheer scale and extent of it all - this ice covers an area of land much larger than Europe - is mind numbing. No
one has ever lived permanently on this landmass, or even close to it, and it was only discovered and explored in recent times - the area we spent the morning in has only been known to mankind for a hundred years, further south even less. And the sheer, stunning beauty of it all; the light, the colours, the textures all changing as the sun rose in the sky or as one turned one’s head in another direction.
After about five hours cruising we turned east between Lemaire and Bryde Islands into the aptly named Paradise Harbour. At one to two knots boat speed the Captain manoeuvred us between huge bergs, past the Chilean Videla research station to the old Argentinean Almirante Brown base where we boated to the rocks and set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time. We scrambled up onto a ridge, Lisa carved “Antarctica” into the hard, frozen snow and we planted our footprints next to these letters and took a photograph. She had waited many years to achieve her ambition of visiting the most remote landmass in the world, and was very excited.
Above the abandoned base buildings we walked part of
the way up a gently sloping snow-covered hill, just taking in our surroundings. The temperature was about 1°C, and with little or no wind it was not too cold. Although it had clouded over as we approached land, it was easy to see why Paradise Harbour was given its name by whalers a hundred years ago. Under blue skies it would be truly spectacular.
After about an hour ashore, Russ took us on a Zodiac cruise around a glacial cove at the eastern head of the bay where there were some interesting lichens, mineral-laden rock faces, huge glacial ice formations and glacial bergs. There was also a colony of nesting Antarctic Shags with their large fledgling chicks, and a very unperturbed Leopard Seal stretched out on some floating ice as if he had been hired by the crew to pose here for the passengers.
Back on the ship we bumped our way through the ice out of Paradise Harbour into more open water and headed west across Flandres Bay between Wiencke Island and Cape Renard. By mid-afternoon we started to enter the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage - just 1600m wide - that runs for a dozen kilometres
between the mountainous Booth Island and the Peninsula. If we thought our morning cruise along Gerlache Strait was dramatic, Lemaire Channel was set to take our breath away. The snow-capped peaks of Cape Renard mark the entry and the almost sheer mountain slopes of Booth protect the passage from the open sea. Extraordinary icy vistas unfolded, bergs glittered on the water, soft marshmallow clouds rolled over the peaks - and above it all the bluest of skies and the soft bright sunshine of the far south bathed this awesome place in a delicate light.
At the southern end of Lemaire we dropped anchor and embarked on what for me may be a highlight of our Antarctic visit - a Zodiac expedition into a spectacular area of strangely shaped bergs draped with glistening icicles, thin sea ice, and wildlife. Gentoo penguins make their nests on outcrops of bare rock - where they find the small pebbles for their nests is anyone’s guess. Another Leopard Seal posed for photos, and we managed to locate a Crabeater Seal (which eats krill, not crabs) asleep on a slab of floating ice. But for me the highlight was the myriad of weathered bergs -
every shape, dimension, texture and colour - that lay strewn around the bay. Again, words fail me in describing this sight.
Reluctantly we got back onto Minerva and showered and dressed for New Year’s Eve dinner. At 8.15 p.m. the Captain hauled anchor and we gingerly felt our way back into Lemaire Channel through bergy bits, growlers and sections of broken-up sea ice. Before going down for dinner I could not resist a walk around the deserted deck with the camera; although I was running out of superlatives the ice-strewn water made for stunning photographs in the evening sunlight.
We ate a celebratory dinner with Graham and Sue, Bill and Fran, and Milt and Gerry as we cruised back north through Lemaire. Afterwards Peter Burkhard, the Purser, played creditable piano in the Shackleton Bar, and Kevin Fitzgerald (an interesting and eclectic vet, comedian and sometime Rolling Stones roadie, and star of Animal Planet’s “Emergency Vets”) did a stand-up comedy routine in the Darwin Lounge. Unfortunately for Kevin, he was warming up to his routine when a school of Killer Whales was spotted heading towards the Minerva and everyone rushed to the starboard side to watch about a dozen
of them porpoising across the channel. Kevin gamely completed his act, the New Year was counted down, and we celebrated a fantastic end to 2008 and the start of 2009; who knew what that would bring. Shortly after midnight the sun officially set, although it never actually got dark since sunrise was at 02:39 ship’s time.Next ➤ ➤
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