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Published: March 2nd 2010
We are back out in the open ocean again crossing the Scotia Sea from South Georgia to Paulet Island, Antaractica - hopefully we'll be there in 2 days but that depends on pack ice conditions in the Weddell Sea.
Luckily the post-storm swells are calming down and soon we have mirror smooth seas. The ship is surrounded by the now familiar albatrosses and petrels and we have a few new comers including southern fulmars, blue petrels and pure white snow petrels. Some of the new species are so exciting that we get a 06:30 wake up call for Kerguelen petrels one day followed by a 04:30 wake up call for Antarctic petrels the next day - remember we are on a ship full of bird watchers! On most trips 2 or 3 Antarctic petrels would be spotted but in one day we saw 473 which is unheard off. The possible explanation is the eerie white glow on the horizon or ice blink as its technically known. It's caused by sunlight reflecting off the pack ice onto the undersides of the clouds and its presence indicates we are close to the edge of the pack ice where the Antarctic petrels are
our 1st iceberg
it was much bigger then it looks in the photo
quite at home. Its great fun crashing through the loose pack ice, riding up on enormous floes and trying to predict where they will split apart and let us through. Large patches of sea-ice seem to appear out of nowhere and after 30 minutes of crashing through to the other side they disappear and we are back in open sea. Gradually, however, the pack ice gets denser and we cant crash through it any more. We're travelling along the edge of the ice but its pushing our course further north - the direct route to Paulet is all iced up so we will have to go the long way round i.e. another day at sea.
But its not all bad news; we wanted to find pack ice, its one of our reasons for being here. Our route from South Georgia to Antarctica skirts the Weddell Sea and allows us to spend time in the Weddell Sea Emperor penguin spotting. There are several Emperor penguin colonies way inland on the solid pack ice (you need a nuclear powered ice-breaker and a helicopter to visit them - expensive!) but if you are really lucky you will spot an emperor bobbing around
on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea and that's what we are looking for. The expedition staff are on 24hour watch and as we sit down to lunch on the third day the announcement comes over the tannoy “emperor penguin” - soup bowls are abandoned and there is an immediate rush to the outer decks with far more urgency than if the message had been “abandon ship”. Of-course by now we have steamed past the penguin and the captain is busy turning the ship around and trying to find it again. After several tense minutes, wondering if it had been a mirage, the penguin is re-spotted and becomes the focus of all the lenses on board, even the Russian crew come out to look. Very fittingly we are treated to a showing of Happy Feet that evening - its amazing how well the personalities of the animated characters match the personalities of the ones we have seen for real..
Our other constant companions now are icebergs. The first one was spotted on the afternoon of day 2 way off on the horizon a whole 9 miles away. It was the most beautiful shape and colour - like a
piece of art with multi-coloured blue stripes swirling through it. Even the most experienced ice-berg watchers agreed it was of the most beautiful they had ever seen. To provide some scale two chinstrap penguins are busy clambering up one of its slope. They are momentarily distracted, as we sail past, and one very comically slides, backwards, all they way back down to the bottom while the other looks on with a 'what are you doing now' expression.
From then on the ice-berg have been getting bigger and bigger and bigger. There are some big ice-shelves in the Weddell Sea which have given rise to the enormous tabular ice-bergs we are seeing with their straight sides and flat tops - like they have been sliced off with a cheese wire. Some we sail past are over a mile long and tower above the ship. We go past so many of them its hard to believe there's any ice left in Antarctica.
To help us appreciate what we are seeing and experiencing we are offered lectures by the expedition team whilst we are out at sea. In one we learn about Otto Nordenskjold and the 1901-1904 Swedish Antarctic Expedition, its
an amazing story and over the next few days its going to take on a whole new significance for us - so much so that the lecture is repeated at the end of our exploration ofthe Weddell Sea. There's a summary below if you're interested.
Its now the end of the 3rd day at sea and we are entering the Antarctic sound to approaching Paulet Island from the north. Hopefully it will be ice-free and we will wake up looking at land tomorrow.
Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901 - 1904 lead by Otto Nordenskjold
The expedition set sail in the ship, Antarctica, captained by Carl Larsen. After a summer of scientific investigations the ship went back north leaving Nordenskjold and 5 others, including an Argentinian, to overwinter on Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea. The following spring the ship returned to pick them up but pack ice was blocking the Antarctic Sound and the direct route to the island. So a 3 man team was dropped at Hope Bay to sled the 200 miles to the overwintering party at Snow Hill while the ship tried an alternative indirect route to see if that was ice
free. It wasn't, there was pack ice everywhere and the ship became stuck and eventually sank near Paulet Island. The 20 man crew made it to the island and prepared to sit out the winter there. Meanwhile the sled team made it to Vega Island but then, ironically, came up against open water which they couldn't cross Given all the open water they assumed that the ship had got through and they returned to Hope Bay to wait for the ship to pick them up. Of-course the ship didn't return as it had sunk so they also made ready to sit out the winter. So now there were 3 scattered groups overwintering in stone huts at Snow Hill, Paulet Island and Hope Bay (take note - this is important).
Next spring the 3 men at Hope Bay set out for Snow Hill again. Meanwhile the Snow Hill group were off on one of their regular exploration missions. Both groups ended up heading for Vega Island where they bumped into each other - in this vast, mountainous, ice filled landscape they bumped into each other!! They returned to the Snow Hill camp.
On Paulet Island, Captain Larsen and 5
of the crew set off for Hope Bay in a lifeboat. They arrived to find a note saying 'gone to Snow Hill' so they also set off for Snow Hill. Meanwhile the Argentinians (remember there was 1 Argentine crew member) mounted a rescue mission and sent a ship, the Uruguay, down to Snow Hill. Luckily there was not much pack ice that year and the ship arrived safely at Snow Hill Island and immediately bumped into 2 of the overwintering group out on another expedition. They lead the rescuers back to the main camp and started to make preparations to leave the next day.
A few hours later the Paulet Island lifeboat group arrived - one day later and the rescue party would have already departed and nobody would have known that Larsen and his crew were on Paulet Island. So now the whole expedition team is re-united (bar one chap who died of a heart condition and is burred on Paulet Island) and the Uruguay takes them safely back to Argentina.
PS - Captain Larsen, was the man who founded the whaling station at Grytivken, South Georgia, where we were a few days ago. He chose the
site when he visited in 1902 as part of this expedition - its all very incestuous .
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