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Green and lively South Georgia

Posted: 2015-09-04 13:50:00, Categories: Travel, Hiking, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 548 words (permalink)

Our welcome to South Georgia by king penguins.
Our welcome to South Georgia by king penguins.
On March 19th, after eight nights and seven and a half days of sailing we arrived in South Georgia. Compared to the world of rocks, ice and snow in South Shetlands and Antarctica, it seemed like a green paradise. Far from tropical, it was still a harsh landscape with rocky mountains, glaciers and no trees, but the lower altitudes were covered with grass and moss, which gave the island a friendlier appearance.

Fur seals on the tussock grass.
Fur seals on the tussock grass.
Fur seal pups were playing in the water and on the beaches, or resting on top of patches of tussock grass. Penguins waddled in between, elephant seals lay in big groups and made burping sounds on the beaches, albatrosses, petrels and other sea birds flew around, all busy in their own activities. Overall, wildlife was even more abundant as it had been in Antarctica, and there were some new species and more youngsters to see. In Antarctica, the breeding season had already finished at this time of the year, but in slightly warmer South Georgia it was still going on.

A penguin highway.
A penguin highway.
We had a wonderful welcome by king penguins, who swam to our ship in large numbers curious to see who were coming for a visit. Shortly afterwards we had our first landing at Right Whale Bay and were able to observe them on land too. Unlike smaller penguins, king penguins live on the island all year around and don't all lay their eggs at the same time, so we were able to see their offspring in all stages of development. There were mothers taking care of tiny chicks and brown fluffy youngsters already walking around on their own, between thousands of bright white-orange-grey colored adults.

A king penguin mother with her chick.
A king penguin mother with her chick.
The following day at Salisbury Plain we visited an even larger king penguin colony and had our first experience of the terrain. Due to large swell we couldn't land at the main beach but had to search for a more protected spot around the corner. From there, it was a 2 km walk to the colony over tussock grass and along the beach. The grass, which looked like a green mat from the distance, consisted of big patches with mud in between. Seals were lurking in every direction, some of them still mothers feeding their pups, which made it a small challenge to find our way through. Sandra and I didn't mind, for us the walk to the colony and back was as interesting as the colony itself.

Sandra and Isabel having a quiet moment at a lake.
Sandra and Isabel having a quiet moment at a lake.
Our first day in South Georgia was cloudy and partly rainy, but during the following five days we were lucky and had sunny weather. The sunshine made the mosses on the ground shine in various shades of green and the landscapes were magnificent. We did a few hikes which brought us a couple of kilometers inland and to lookout points up to about 300 meters of altitude. Almost all the wildlife was concentrated near the sea, so it was quite a difference between the busy and noisy shores and the calm, quiet inland. We walked in a group but had many breaks and it was possible to sometimes stay a bit behind to enjoy the silence.

Towards South Georgia: Seasickness hits again

Posted: 2015-08-31 22:24:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 797 words (permalink)

Sailing on a typical cloudy day.
Sailing on a typical cloudy day.
After one week of wonderful landings in Antarctica, we started sailing towards South Georgia, a subantarctic island about 800 nautical miles north-east from the Antarctic Peninsula. The wind was against us, and Bark Europa like most old tall ships cannot sail in a very sharp angle against the wind. Therefore we headed first north-west and later turned eastwards towards our destination, catching a more favorable wind.

Some water on the deck, no need to worry.
Some water on the deck, no need to worry.
During the first day we had waves coming from several directions and the ship moved a lot, both back and forth and from side to side. It didn't take long before Sandra and I were seasick again. We were not alone — more than half of the people on board got sick, including several members of the crew.

Mariel and Adrian keeping the ship on course.
Mariel and Adrian keeping the ship on course.
Some more experienced sailors recommended not take any pills: it might be worse in the beginning but be over sooner. We followed their advice, hoping to get used to the movement in 1-3 days, as most of the people did. Unfortunately we both didn't, and struggled for the whole week until South Georgia. It was a challenge not only physically but psychologically, trying to keep the mood up and enjoy the otherwise exciting trip.

The Deckhouse on a quiet day.
The Deckhouse on a quiet day.
How is it then to be seasick? I would describe it as similar to having a stomach flu, but with a couple of differences. Firstly, seasickness doesn't take the feeling of hunger away. So you might throw up several times but still feel hungry and willing to eat. That is actually good, it's healthy to drink and try to eat something even if the food wouldn't stay inside, but it's a strange feeling. Secondly, the symptoms are very much dependent on what you do on the ship. General advice such as "go out, watch the waves, don't look down and read a book" is easy to give and to find, but eventually you have to experiment yourself to find out what you can do and which activities are better to avoid. The feedback comes quickly, it might be unpleasant but not deadly. ;-)

Sunrise at the lookout.
Sunrise at the lookout.
The program on Bark Europa doesn't let anyone become bored during the sailing days. Everyone is expected to take part in the watch system where the day is divided in three watches: 12 to 4, 4 to 8 and 8 to 12. During the Antarctica – South Georgia leg Sandra and I were in the 4 to 8 watch, which means that our daily working times were from 4 to 8 am and from 4 to 8 pm. Each four hours included usually 3 half an hour shifts of being either at the lookout (watching the sea in front of the ship and reporting any obstacles or potential dangers) or at the helm (steering the ship to a direction given by the captain). The rest of the time was being available to help on the deck — which might mean a lot of rope pulling on a busy day or night, or an opportunity to take it easy and socialize at the deckhouse when the wind is steady and there is less to do. Cleaning and cooking was taken care by the permanent crew, although we did some potato peeling and other minor tasks.

Celebrating Mark's birthday.
Celebrating Mark's birthday.
In addition to the watches and practical sailing lessons there was a very interesting educational program, consisting of lectures and documentaries about sailing, navigation, oceanography, history of polar exploration, polar ecosystems and wildlife in the polar regions. Each lecture was normally repeated at least once so that everybody got a chance to attend outside the hours of their watch. Our guides Jordi and Eduardo were both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their areas of speciality, which made the lectures a pleasure to follow. There were also a few extra lectures given by members of the voyage crew (passengers) who had something interesting to share, and more leisurely activities such as playing card games or watching a movie. And every day someone had a birthday it was celebrated together at dinner time.

Land in sight: South Georgia Right Whale Bay
Land in sight: South Georgia Right Whale Bay
We participated in the watches, lectures and activities as much as we could. The wind got more steady and our feeling a bit better towards the end of the passage, but after seven and a half days on sea we were happy to see the South Georgian coastline. Like in Antarctica, as soon as we arrived in the more protected waters, our seasickness was gone as soon as it had started. A new world of mountains, rocks, snow, ice and wildlife was waiting for us, but this time there was also a lot of green to see. We would soon land and have a chance to walk on the Tussock grass.

The end of the Antarctic summer

Posted: 2015-08-03 00:41:00, Categories: Travel, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 673 words (permalink)

Nordenskjöld expedition hut on the Paulet Island.
Nordenskjöld expedition hut on the Paulet Island.
It was almost mid March and the short and busy summer season in Antarctica was coming to its end. Most of the animals had already raised their offspring and left towards warmer regions. During our last two days near the Antarctic Peninsula we could feel the autumn, both in the quietness of the nature as in the changing weather.

Lake with penguin pee on the Paulet Island. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Lake with penguin pee on the Paulet Island. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
We landed on the small Paulet Island, still following the route of the Nordenskjöld expedition (also known as the Swedish Antarctic Expedition) 1901-1904. It was the first time in four years that the Bark Europa was able to do a landing there, having tried once every year. The snow at our landing site was coloured pink, from the guano of about a hundred thousand Adelie penguins which had nested there during the summer. Now they were almost all gone, with only a few penguins and other birds, some frozen carcasses and the smell left behind.

Antarctic autumn, Petrel Cove. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Antarctic autumn, Petrel Cove. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
We saw the basic stone hut which had been built by the members of the Nordenskjöld expedition in 1903 after their ship sank next to the island. It was quite amazing to think how they survived the harsh winter inside that small pile of rocks almost without supplies. We climbed up the hill, which opened us a view over the shore and a small freshwater lake. The lake was already frozen and the ice was yellow in color, due to a rather large concentration of penguin pee.

Honeymoon at Petrel Cove. Photo by Micke Söderström.
Honeymoon at Petrel Cove. Photo by Micke Söderström.
From Paulet Island we motored a short distance to Petrel Cove on the Dundee Island, named after the Argentine station "Petrel". The station consisted of bright red buildings just like Esperanza we had visited a few days earlier, but it was smaller and there weren't any people around. We heard that the station had been mostly unmanned already for many years. Once in a while some research is conducted or at least craftsmen are sent to do maintenance on the buildings.

View from the coast at Brown Bluff.
View from the coast at Brown Bluff.
We walked a bit around and between the buildings and headed then for a short walk on top of the snow covered glacier next to the base. During the walk the wind started picking up and quite soon we found ourselves inside a small snow storm. We joked about being on a honeymoon in such a cold, windy and desolate place, and asked our Swedish friend Micke to take a photo of us. After that we walked back to the shore and were transported to the ship as usual in the zodiacs, zig-zagging between blocks of ice floating in the sea.

Glacier reaching to the sea at Brown Bluff.
Glacier reaching to the sea at Brown Bluff.
Early following morning we sailed west to Brown Bluff for our last landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. The snowfall had stopped, wind had calmed down, and shortly after landing even the sun came out. Yippee, finally a landing with sunshine! At Brown Bluff there were still quite a few penguins and seals around, and there were also interesting geological formations to see. A massive brown and black coloured mountain dominated the landscape, and walking closer to it revealed various volcanic features such as pillow lava rocks lying on the ground and black stones embedded inside a brown wall.

Three gentoo penguins running up to the shore.
Three gentoo penguins running up to the shore.
Right next to the volcanic rocks a glacier was reaching out to the sea. The 20-30 meter high wall of ice at the waterfront and blocks of ice scattered on the beach looked spectacular in the sunlight. We got some of our best penguin photos just before boarding the zodiacs — the sun simply made everything look shinier and friendlier.

We would have loved to stay longer, but the sunny landing at Brown Bluff was a wonderful goodbye to Antarctica. After lunch we raised the anchor and started first motoring and then sailing north-east towards South Georgia, a subantarctic island about 800 nautical miles away.

Sunny whale watching on the Weddell Sea

Posted: 2015-07-27 23:51:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, 597 words (permalink)

Navigating through the ice.
Navigating through the ice.
Early Monday morning 9th of March we left Hope Bay, where we had visited the Argentinian base Esperanza on the previous day, and headed south to the Weddell Sea. The plan of the day was exploration, trying to come as south as the ice conditions would permit. We were partly following the route of the Nordenskjöld expedition of the years 1901-1903, which reached the Snow Hill Island about 60 miles south from Hope Bay.

Mate Elskarin searching a safe passage through the ice.
Mate Elskarin searching a safe passage through the ice.
There were many different types of ice floating around us, from small pieces of sea ice to huge icebergs originating from glaciers and ice shelves reaching from the continent to the sea. Our captain Eric and the mate Elskarin, with the help of the crew members sitting at a lookout point high up the mast, carefully navigated through the icy waters, avoiding all big blocks but sometimes pushing through some smaller pieces of ice.

A large tabular iceberg with some cracks.
A large tabular iceberg with some cracks.
Around midday we started seeing some patches of blue sky and in the afternoon the sun came out. That moment everybody had been waiting for and cheerful comments were heard all over the ship. The weather had been good enough to go on land at every planned site but it had always been cloudy since the middle of the Drake Passage where we had our last sunny day.

Beautiful ice landscape.
Beautiful ice landscape.
Sunlight made the whole landscape around us look even more spectacular, with icebergs shining in white and various shades of light blue against the dark blue sea. Many put on harnesses and climbed up in the masts to have a view from higher up. The wind was just a gentle breeze, making it safe to climb and take photos from the various lookout points the ship offered.

A humpback whale showing its tail.
A humpback whale showing its tail.
Occasionally we saw seals and penguins on top of the floating ice, resting and enjoying the sun. Later in the afternoon, whales came to greet the ship. A group of humpback whales blew fountains of air and water drops high into the air and showed us their massive bodies and white and yellow colored tails. Orcas were looking for seals to catch and came several times to the surface between dives. Our guide Jordi explained us how to distinguish between different species and between male and female whales based on the form of their fins.

Orcas (killer whales) hunting in the evening.
Orcas (killer whales) hunting in the evening.
There were several sightings of whales during the afternoon and evening, so we spent a lot of time outdoors wearing all our clothes to cope with the below zero temperatures. At the end of the day, after a zig-zag of searching and following ice free routes we reached the southernmost point of our voyage, about 63 degrees 44 minutes south, next to the 11 mile long tabular iceberg called B-15Y. It was actually a piece of B-15, the largest iceberg ever recorded, a gigantic mass of ice which had broken off from the Ross Ice Shelf on the other side of Antarctica 15 years earlier.

Part of the huge iceberg B-15Y, raising up to 50 meters above the sea.
Part of the huge iceberg B-15Y, raising up to 50 meters above the sea.
The sea was far too deep to anchor, so the captain let the ship drift in the open water near the iceberg. While having dinner the sunset shortly cast a red colour on a line of far away icebergs, which marked the end of the marvellous day. During the night, volunteers worked shifts on watching the radars in the wheelhouse and the ice outside, to ensure that we wouldn't be hitting anything large enough to damage the ship.

An Argentinian village on the Antarctic Peninsula

Posted: 2015-07-24 23:36:00, Categories: Travel, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 638 words (permalink)

Visiting the Argentinian base Esperanza.
Visiting the Argentinian base Esperanza.
From Deception Island our trip continued first slightly north to Livingston Island and then south towards the Antarctic mainland. There we visited the Argentinian base Esperanza, which was a small village of red houses including a school for children.

Moulting elephant seals at Hannah Point.
Moulting elephant seals at Hannah Point.
Hannah Point on the Livingston Island was our last landing on the South Shetland Islands. There, in addition to our daily dose of penguins and seabirds, we got to observe elephant seals, big, fat and cool creatures lying on the beach. They were moulting, which means renewing their skin, and during this period the seals simply lie several weeks on the shore waiting for the old skin to peel and the new one to grow. They don't move much, except throwing some sand over themselves and socializing with each other. The view, smell and sounds of a group of twenty elephant seals, each weighing up to four tons, was impressive.

Ship helm in the morning after snowfall.
Ship helm in the morning after snowfall.
From the South Shetlands we headed South-East, and after half a day and a night of sailing we arrived to the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic mainland. Our next destination was Esperanza, an Argentinian research and military base located at Hope Bay, close to the tip of the peninsula. The visit was organized so that we had a chance to see the base and the people at the base got a tour at the ship — both parties were excited about the opportunity.

View from Esperanza towards the sea.
View from Esperanza towards the sea.
Esperanza is one of the very few places in Antarctica which is not only occupied by scientists but whole families, who even bring their kids along. They spend generally one year at the base, including the Antarctic winter. Then almost the whole staff changes and new group of families comes for the next year. The site is led by the Argentinian military, but the atmosphere was friendly and informal, more like a village than a military base.

Inside the school, nice wall decorations.
Inside the school, nice wall decorations.
When we landed with our zodiacs at the shore, there were already many eager locals, including probably all the children living at the base, waiting for a ride to the ship. We helped them to put on life vests and board the zodiacs, and then followed our guide towards the group of about twenty red buildings. On the way we saw the remains of an old stone hut built in 1902 by the members of the Nordenskjöld expedition, nowadays inhabited by Gentoo penguins.

Sending a post card home.
Sending a post card home.
We visited the local museum, which presented the history of both the base and the Nordenskjöld expedition, and the school which was very cute and cozy. The tour ended at the village hall, a larger space used for all bigger gatherings, also functioning as a post office and a bar. We met some people living at the base, had a cup of tea and sent post cards to our relatives and friends. The communication possibilities included a mobile phone network, allowing us to surprise a few people with sms messages from Antarctica. Some even succeeded in checking emails using the wireless Internet.

Anchor watch at the wheelhouse.
Anchor watch at the wheelhouse.
We spent one night anchored at Hope Bay, and I volunteered for one of the two hour shifts of anchor watch. The tasks were to observe that the ship won't start drifting (it does happen sometimes!) and that no icebergs will be blown towards us by the wind. This time there was only a slight wind and the sea was calm, no need to wake up the captain. Outside on the deck I looked at the lights of the base and thought of how it would be to live there, whereas the inhabitants were probably watching our ship out of their windows and wondering about sailing across the ocean.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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