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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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Antarctic bathing

Posted: 2015-07-16 23:24:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, 472 words (permalink)

Hot bath next to the cold Antarctic sea.
Hot bath next to the cold Antarctic sea.
A luxurious way to finish a day of hiking is to enjoy a hot bath. That's what we did on Deception Island after walking around the volcanic landscapes near Telefon Bay and visiting the huge Chinstrap penguin colony at Baily Head in the afternoon.

We came back to the ship for dinner and a short briefing as usual before all landings, then picked up our towels and headed back out on the deck. The crew was busy transporting everybody to the land with the zodiacs. On the beach just next to the sea water, steam was rising from the dark volcanic sand.

Zodiacs brought us from the ship to the land.
Zodiacs brought us from the ship to the land.
We got our ride in the second group of two zodiacs and when we arrived the fastest ones were already digging a hole in the sand. Surprisingly fast a long narrow pool was ready and filling up with nice, hot bathing water. Clothes off, hop in!

We had heard that the bath might be anything between chilly 15 and burning hot 70 degrees celsius, but we were lucky and had about 40°C, perfect for relaxing the muscles. Our pool wasn't very deep so we had to roll around a bit to keep the temperature constant on all sides of our bodies, but everybody fitted in and it was warm enough.

A dip in the Antarctic ocean was naturally a part of the full experience. That was easy to do, just get up from the hot pool, walk a few meters and the icy sea water was right there ready to embrace anyone who dared. A quick swim and back to the thermal bath, bliss!

Bark Europa at night.
Bark Europa at night.
Glen wanted to document his Antarctic swim and handed out his camera to Eduardo. Into the icy water, back to the hot pool, happy and warm again. "Oh no, the photo is really bad, you look like a ghost. You'll have to do it again!" What wouldn't a man do for a good photo — switch the flash on and back to the sea. Another swim, relaxing in the hot pool, how's it now? "Oh no, also this photo is bad, you look like a ghost again! I guess you'll have to do it again..." There was a burst of laughter from everybody around Glen who still didn't get his photo. But no worries man, you have enough friends who witnessed that you did your swim, even two times! :-)

After an hour of bathing we got out of the pool and filled it again with sand to look like we had never been there. Getting dressed in the cold evening breeze was quite chilly, but after we had our clothes on it was better again. Back at the ship the warm deckhouse and hot chocolate were waiting for us.

Penguins, seals, lots of penguins

Posted: 2015-07-13 21:45:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
When we woke up and climbed up on the deck on the sixth day after leaving Ushuaia, we saw a landscape of rock, snow and ice with a row of penguins at the nearest shore. It was the Yankee Harbor at South Shetland islands, where we had arrived late previous night when it was already dark. We were at anchor and there were almost no waves so our seasickness was quickly gone. After breakfast and a short briefing by our guides Jordi and Eduardo, the zodiacs were launched and we were ready for our first landing.

Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
As soon as we stepped on land, we were surrounded by more animals we had ever seen in any zoo — and here they were all in their natural surroundings. One of our first tasks was to learn how to deal with slightly aggressive fur seals. Here's the tactic: don't run, stop and raise your hands, try to look as big and dangerous as possible. That was enough to stop the attacks, after all the seals just wanted to guard their own space on the beach and were not otherwise interested in us. Most of the seals were calmly scratching themselves, sleeping or busy with other activities.

A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
We enjoyed watching gentoo penguins going in and out of water, marching around and lying in the snow in various positions. It was late in the season and many had already left the colony, but there were still many adults and almost grown up chicks around. We also saw one chinstrap penguin in the middle of all the gentoos, a leopard seal and a Weddell seal. The cruel side of nature was also present: some penguins had not made it and were lying dead and frozen on the ground. Two skuas were having a feast on one of the bodies.

Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
We came back to the ship for lunch, carefully cleaning and desinfecting our boots which was the standard procedure before and after each landing. The aim was to avoid introducing any foreign organic material in the Antarctic, and to avoid spreading diseases between different landing sites. During our lunch, the captain turned on the engines to move the ship to Fort Point, the site of our second landing of the day.

A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
At Fort Point there were again lots of wildlife, mostly gentoo penguins and fur seals but also some chinstrap penguins and one solitary macaroni penguin. Our guides told us that Fort Point was one of the less frequented landing sites, perhaps therefore the penguins were coming even closer to us than at Yankee Harbor. As a general rule we were instructed to keep 5 meters distance to all animals, but sometimes they came closer to us. We climbed up the hill away from the shore to a "nunatak" a steep and high rock with a glacier flowing around it. From the nunatak we had a gorgeous view down to the peninsula. On one side of it, countless ice pieces were being washed to the shore, a clear indication that the water temperature was very close to the freezing point.

Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
The following day we visited Deception island, which is actually the remains of a large ancient volcano. In a big eruption the main crater collapsed and sank, so the the island is like a giant horse shoe with a narrow entrance to the big sheltered bay in the middle. Some fresh snow had recently fallen on the dark volcanic ash, which made the landscape full of different patterns of black and white. During our first landing we walked around one of the side craters and admired the views. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy, on a sunny day the scenery would have been even more spectacular.

Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
The second landing was a few kilometers walk over the rim to a point called Baily Head. On the top of the ridge we could see the shape of the island and the entrance through which we had entered the caldera. On the other side of the ridge near the sea, the snowy slopes were looking like they were dirty.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
As we came closer it became apparent that the "dirt" was tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins. Many of them were moulting, renewing their fur which they do every year. We spent quite a while watching and listening to the constant chatter of the penguins before heading back the same way we came. Thanks to Jordi we had a chance to take a look at the penguins through a 600 mm lens, 960 mm film equivalent when mounted to our camera.

Before returning to the ship we still had time to visit the ruins of an old whaling station, consisting of slowly rusting big tanks which had been used to store whale oil and a group of more or less collapsed wooden houses. After that it was time for dinner and a special evening activity, which will be described in the next post.

First time on open sea

Posted: 2015-07-09 22:34:00, Categories: Travel, Chile, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
We sailed out from Ushuaia in the morning of February 28th in beautiful, sunny weather. It was surprisingly windstill, especially in the morning. Later during the day a light breeze came from the west, the captain turned the engine off and we were moving quietly like sailing ships are designed to do, with just the wind pushing us forwards. We were on the Bark Europa, a hundred year old tall ship which sails to interesting destinations around the world.

Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Almost right away after departure started the first training sessions, to make us voyage crew instead of just passengers. One of our duties was to take turns at the lookout on the front deck, watching the sea in front and reporting small boats, icebergs or any other obstacles the ship might risk hitting. We learned how to steer the ship to a compass direction given by the captain and how to handle ropes when setting up or taking down sails. We even put on harnesses and climbed up to the mast, learning where to attach the safety line when working up there.

Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
During the whole day and afternoon we stayed in the Beagle Channel, a relatively narrow passage leading out from Ushuaia to the Atlantic. Mostly we saw cliffs and mountains but there were also the town of Puerto Williams and a few smaller settlements on the south side. Many different birds, mainly albatrosses and petrels, were flying around the ship and in the evening a group of dolphins came to greet us. It was a pleasure to watch them dive under the ship and jump in the air on both sides very close to us.

Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Little by little the canal became wider, at the mouth of it were a few islands and then we were out in the open sea. It was the beginning of the Drake Passage between the southern tip of Chile and South Shetland islands, which are located a couple of hundred kilometers north of the Antarctic mainland. For Sandra and me it was the first time on a real ocean passage, with no land to see for several days.

Sailing in moderate wind.
Sailing in moderate wind.
The wind was relatively light but there was a continuous flow of relatively large waves, or swell as it is called, coming from the west. The waves were not sharp so they didn't strongly hit the sides or splash any water overboard, but made the ship rock back and forth, and roll from side to side. The wind itself came from a different direction, which made the movements seemingly random. There was no easy way of seeing in which direction and how deep the ship will bow at any given time, even when being outside and watching the waves. Inside it was of course still worse and within a few hours we both felt the first signs of seasickness.

Our beds on the Bark Europa.
Our beds on the Bark Europa.
During the following three days we struggled with being seasick, trying to still take part in the activities as much as we could. We took medication which helped a bit, but more important was to pay attention on what to do and not to do. Easiest was to lay in bed, as there the body doesn't try to be in control of the movements. Second best was to be outside and look at the waves or the horizon, and to sit in the deckhouse with large windows was mostly okay. Worst was to read a book or to do anything else which required looking down. The most difficult activities which we couldn't avoid were getting dressed in the cabin and using the bathroom. Nevertheless, we survived and even managed to attend to almost all the interesting lectures about wildlife and practical exercises about handling the sails, led by the permanent crew of the ship.

Practising climbing up the mast.
Practising climbing up the mast.
On the second and third day the wind picked up in speed and turned so that it was coming from more or less the same direction than the swell. It was still relatively light for the infamous Drake passage but a strong good wind for sailing. The waves became higher and water was running from side to side over the main deck. That was normal and nothing to fear about, the ship was taking the waves beautifully and felt secure. And although it was at times more tilted sideways than on the first day, the movements were more predictable. In short, it was behaving like a good sailing ship should. We still had an uneasy feeling in our stomachs but were slowly getting used to it.

On the fourth day of crossing the Drake passage the wind first turned to come from the south and later calmed down. The crew took down the sails with the help of us, the voyage crew (that's how the paying guests are called on Bark Europa) and the captain started the engine first time since Beagle Canal, if not counting the man overboard drill on the previous day. Not long afterwards we saw the first iceberg, a huge block of ice rising to a height of about 100 meters above the surface, and nobody knows how deep below it. Only a few miles further south were the first rocks belonging to the South Shetland islands, our first destination.

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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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