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Stop, sit down and look around

Posted: 2015-09-30 23:22:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 707 words (permalink)

Sandra relaxing at Ocean Harbour.
Sandra relaxing at Ocean Harbour.
With limited number of days in an exciting region, it's easy to end up in a continuous rush of walking, changing lenses, taking more photos and trying not to miss anything worth seeing. Wisely, our guide Eduardo reminded us also to stop, put the camera down, look around and appreciate being in such a unique place.

A fur seal bathing in a sweetwater pool.
A fur seal bathing in a sweetwater pool.
An excellent chance to do that was at Ocean's Harbor, a sheltered bay with an old ship wreck slowly rusting near the shore. There were animals around but no large busy colonies of penguins or seals. We didn't have any walk led by the guides, just the usual transfer to the shore by zodiacs and a time to be picked up at the same spot. As expected, people spread in different directions in small groups or alone.

Cormorants nesting in a ship wreck.
Cormorants nesting in a ship wreck.
It was a warm, sunny day, almost no wind. We walked first along the beach and then climbed a little bit up the hillside. There we sat down on the grass and observed the bay from above. Next to us was a small creek with tiny pools where the water stopped on its way down to the sea. A solitary fur seal was swimming in one of the pools, rolling around and clearly enjoying the bath. Cormorants were nesting in the ship wreck which already had grass growing on the deck. In the background, the sun was setting behind the mountains, whose shadow covered more and more of the bay as the evening approached. On the way back to the pick up point, we saw a couple of South Georgia pintails, the only duck species living on the island.

A macaroni penguin jumping from a rock.
A macaroni penguin jumping from a rock.
Another new species for us were the macaroni penguins, which we could see during two landings. The funniest place to observe them was at a rocky shore near Cobbler's Cove, where they were coming out from the sea and climbing towards their colony. Wingless as penguins are, they couldn't simply fly over the cliffs like other birds. Jumping from rock to rock and zigzagging to find a passable route, they made their way across the tricky terrain.

View at St. Andrew's Bay. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
View at St. Andrew's Bay. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Our last big penguin colony was at St. Andrew's Bay, a postcard view of high snow-capped mountains, glaciers and a river flowing to the sea between green grass fields and tens of thousands of king penguins. Nearby at Gold Harbour the same afternoon we were still surrounded by lots of action and sounds, including a large and smelly bunch of elephant seals spreading sand over each other and plenty of snowy sheathbills, one of the smaller bird species, bathing in the freshwater pools. Then we headed to the south-east corner of the island, where we anchored in a small bay inside the Drygalski fjord.

Helen and Sandra wading through tussock grass.
Helen and Sandra wading through tussock grass.
Around midnight we woke up to a loud bang. During the night, a strong katabatic wind had developed and just blown us off the anchor against underwater rocks. The ship wasn't damaged, but some tricky maneuvering was needed. The captain turned on the engines and navigated us out of the fjord in the darkness, between icebergs. Still in the morning, a strong wind was blowing and prevented us of doing the planned cruise inside the fjord. Instead, we went to see our last macaroni penguins in Cooper Bay, wading between some of the tallest patches of tussock grass we had seen.

Bark Europa with icebergs in the background.
Bark Europa with icebergs in the background.
Day by day on both Antarctica and South Georgia we got more used to all the animals around us, but never became bored to observe them. It was simply wonderful to be able to see all of them so close in their natural environment, unlike in any other place we had earlier been to. Penguins remained our favourites, they were simply so cute and funny that it was hard to resist not to give one of them a hug. When the days were up and we started sailing east on March 25th, it was a slightly melancholic moment to say good bye to this very special corner of our planet.

Whalers and explorers

Posted: 2015-09-17 22:58:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 752 words (permalink)

The old whaler "Petrel" at Grytviken, South Georgia.
The old whaler "Petrel" at Grytviken, South Georgia.
South Georgia has not always been the kind of nature sanctuary we were visiting. It used to be seal hunting grounds at the end of the 18th and during the 19th century, and a hub of the whaling industry until 1960s. Especially from the whaling period there are many old buildings and other constructions. They are nowadays slowly disintegrating due to lack of maintenance, but will most likely remain for hundreds of years. Now under protection, seal populations have recovered well from near extinction. Whales have a much longer breeding cycle and are still a rare sight in South Georgian waters.

Sarah giving us a tour at the South Georgia Museum.
Sarah giving us a tour at the South Georgia Museum.
Due to the facilities which were manned all year round, South Georgia was also an important starting point for Antarctic exploration. Explorers would come in with their ships and get supplies for the last time before sailing south towards the unknown. The most famous of them was Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose heritage is kept alive on the island by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. The Trust also maintains a whaling museum and runs various projects in order to preserve the historical sites and to protect the wildlife on the island.

Raising a toast on Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave.
Raising a toast on Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave.
We started our Museum visit by landing next to the graveyard in Grytviken bay, where Shackleton and his fellow explorer Frank Wild are buried amongst the whalers who lived and worked on the site. According to traditions, the ship barkeeper Andy held a short speech and we all raised a toast of whisky at Shackleton's grave. Then we continued towards the whaling station remains and the museum building, guided by Sarah, the museum director.

Whaling station machinery in open air.
Whaling station machinery in open air.
Due to removal of asbestos and other security concerns, most of the whaling station buildings have been dismantled, leaving the huge kettles, engines and other parts of the processing lines exposed to the elements of the nature. Although nowadays standing still, the slowly rusting pieces of heavy machinery and the old whaling ship wrecks at the shore are a powerful reminder of a bloody chapter in the history of the island.

Replica of the James Caird, Shackleton's vessel on his famous journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.
Replica of the James Caird.
Inside the museum the atmosphere was warmer, presenting the more human side of the story. There we could see how the whalers lived, as well as to learn more about explorers connected to South Georgia and about the nature of the island. One particularly fascinating exhibit was the replica of James Caird, the lifeboat with which Shackleton sailed 800 nautical miles over stormy seas to South Georgia in order to rescue himself and his men almost a hundred years ago. Having just sailed the same route on a much larger ship helped to imagine how it had been in a small boat, in rougher weather and almost without supplies.

Seals return to where they and whales have been slaughtered before.
Seals return to where they and whales have been slaughtered before.
After a too short visit in the museum, quickly popping in the souvenir shop and mailing some post cards at the post office, we returned to Bark Europa for an evening barbecue. Also the museum staff, scientists and South Georgia government employees working at Grytviken were invited, giving us a chance to chat with them and get to know how they live on the island. As on Antarctica, almost all are there only for the summer season, only a few remain through the winter.

Helen practising the use of a sextant.
Helen practising the use of a sextant.
Not only South Georgia, but the whole experience of travelling on the Bark Europa is partly a pilgrimage following the footsteps of early explorers. Their travels and discoveries are remembered, and the ship route include visits on sites of historical importance. On this trip, we visited several sites where the Nordenskjöld expedition had been during 1902-1904 and walked a part of Shackleton's famous crossing of South Georgia in 1916. During the lectures, we also heard about earlier sailing expeditions to find routes across the oceans and around the world since the middle ages, about Nansen's polar explorations and about Amundsen's and Scott's race to the South Pole.

Nowadays satellite imagery, the global positioning system (GPS) and other technologies have completely changed the way we travel and look at the world. Bark Europa is equipped with modern navigation devices too, but we also get a chance to learn how to figure out our position using dead reckoning and the sextant, how to measure the speed of the ship using traditional methods and how to navigate using the stars.

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.

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