Monday, 31 March 2008

A Dot in the Pacific

Rapa Nui is the definition of remote. Over 3600km from mainland South America and over 2000km from its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn Island (Population 50), it exists on the margins. Its enigmatic history is fascinating and its modern existence is precariously dependent on the thousands of tourists that visit from mainland via Santiago or on the cruise ships that swing by en route across the Pacific. As a Chilean dependency, it is supported by the central government and, as such, has all the facilities you would expect to see in a frontier town: a hospital, bank, post office, satellite communications centre, etc. However, all its cultural references derive from Polynesia: Rapa Nui language is 80% the same as Maori and the song and dance take cues from Hawaii, Tahiti and Micronesia. It is thought that the island may have been originally settled both East and West and this is evident by looking at the physical characteristics of the people. Although Polynesian in appearance they are distinctly taller and more slender than their Western Polynesian cousins. When Thor Heyerdahl was conducting research in the 1950s he heard stories of there having been two distinct ethnic groups on the island with one displaying Caucasian characteristics such as red hair and pale skin.

Although almost 163 square kilometres in area, over 90% of the c.3800 people that call Rapa Nui home live in the few square kilometres of the main town, Hanga Roa. The island is formed of three extinct volcanos and is triangular in shape. At its highest point it is just over 500m high and the landscape undulates with grassy hills cut through with the remnants of a volcanic landscape: lava tunnels, basalt rock faces and showers of tuff (compacted volcanic ash). Most of the coastline either consists of steep sided basalt cliffs or rocky shore, the legacy of lava flows now being eroded by the pounding waves that roll in, uninterrupted over thousands of kilometres of open ocean. Only one pair of white sandy beaches exist on the North side of the island but these are certainly the epitome of the Pacific island beach idyll; gently curving coconut palms and tufts of coarse grass giving way to fine, silver sand.

It is not, however, the physical geography or remoteness that makes Rapa Nui so famous, but the unique Moai. These giant, monolithic sculptures stand guard over the island and need to been seen to be believed. At one location on the South East coast a line of fifteen Moai stand on their ceremonial platform (Ahu), gazing in towards the island. Rectangular in structure, with angular facial features, recessed eye sockets and bulging bellies they cut an imposing shadow against the sunrise. Originally, it is thought that they had oval eyes make of white coral and jet black obsidian, however only one now remains, reconstructed at Ahu Ko Te Riku. No one knows for sure why the Moai were carved or how they were moved from their nursery at Rano Raraku, however, it is thought that they were used for ancestor worship before the introduction of the birdman cult. This cult centred around an annual ceremony that saw young men of each tribe competing to return the first egg from the Sooty Tern rookery on Motu Nui. They had to descend a steep cliff before swimming the shark infested waters to the island a kilometre of so off shore. There they would wait until the first egg could be found before swimming back to the mainland to become the venerated ‘birdman’.

Modern day Rapa Nui seems to be indicative of many of the Polynesian island in its battle to retain cultural distinctness whilst balancing the comforts and trappings of modern life. Cars abound on the island although few seem to be driven outside of Hanga Roa. The islanders all work in tourist related activities either in guest houses, hotels, restaurants or tour agencies. However, there is still a strong sense of cultural identity with the local language still used in preference to Spanish. The islanders sing and dance for the tourists but you get the impression that they would do so even if they weren’t getting paid to do it. On the flip side, however, all the pitfalls of island communities abound.

After several months on the mainland it has been great to see an entirely different place. We are so far removed from South America here that you may as well be in Asia or Africa. The four days that we have spent here have been relaxing and fascinating and have given us a taste of the South Pacific. I would love to see more of the islands further West in Micronesia and Melanesia but that will have to wait for another trip. For now, we will take the memories of this unique island back to Santiago and on to Argentina. In a few days we will be heading for Mendoza to celebrate Sarah’s birthday in the vineyards of Western Argentina. We are approaching the one month countdown to returning but still have a lot to see on the final leg of our South American odyssey.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Apathetic cruising and a vanishing culture

It is probably testament to what we have done over the last six weeks that the Navimag seemed underwhelming. On the face of it, three days cruising through the Patagonian fjord land should be something to really savour. However, after hitting the heights of Antarctica and Whale Sound the Navimag seemed a little pedestrian.

The Navimag is a ferry that runs the route once a week between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (and vice versa). The ferry weaves its way through small channels between the mainland and the island archipelago. It carries a 150 strong contingent of international backpackers and a cargo of sheep and cattle (that after three days squeezed into trucks smell ripe). We had been warned that the food was lacklustre and to take plenty of wine onboard to fuel the quiet hours. As it happened, the food was actually pretty decent and the bar wasn’t as expensive as you might imagine with a captive clientèle. The ferry runs a series of lectures and films to explain the route and the Kaweshkar people. However, with my broken Spanish and their broken English the films and lectures became more of a burden than an education. As a consequence, we had plenty of time to catch up on backdated blog entries and photo editing that had taken a back seat whilst we were enjoying Patagonia.

One interesting element of the three days was a brief stop in the hamlet of Puerto Eden. This small village of a couple of hundred inhabitants is only accessible by boat and is home to the last dozen or so fully indigenous Kaweshkar people. The Kaweshkar have inhabited the Patagonian fjord land for several thousand years and until the 1950s followed a nomadic way of life, in small family units diving for shellfish and hunting sea lions. They would spend 80% of their life in canoes and designed them such that they could keep a fire running constantly within the canoe. They wore only loose sea lion skins and swam naked in the icy waters for up to an hour at a time diving for mussels and scallops. These people were as hardy as they come. Nowadays there are only 12 or so pure bred Kaweshkar living in a small township within Puerto Eden. They are no longer nomadic and like many aboriginal groups have fallen foul of the temptations of alcohol. Western culture has overwhelmed this small group to the extent that there is only one surviving person that speaks their native tongue. It is sad to see but unfortunately it seems inevitable that the Kaweshkar will go the same way as the Ona and Yamani people in Tierra del Fuego.

We are now in a small town above Puerto Montt called Puerto Varas. This are os known as the Chilean Lake district for obvious reasons. The town itself is like a diluted version of a Swiss or German mountain resort. Every corner seems to play host to a Strüdel maker or chocolatier and the houses have a distinctly Alpine feel. Tomorrow we will be making our way back across the border to Bariloche in Argentina before crossing back a few days later to Pucon. We are due to get to Santiago on the 25th in time for our flight to Easter Island on the 26th. Both of us are very excited about seeing La Isla de Pasqua. In the meantime, Happy Easter to everyone at home. Have a great few days off!

The Uncloaked Towers

Most visitors arrive in Puerto Natales on day one and by 7am on day two are on their way to the W trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. Sarah is officially done with trekking. The W trek was off the agenda and he circuit (the 5 day extended version) was never even a topic for discussion. With two weeks to pass before our ferry up to Puerto Montt we decided to do something a little different and after much canvassing around town settled on our trip to Whale Sound and a Land Rover supported trip into the park. The quid pro quo for not trekking was a temporary lifting of the moratorium on bikes.

As with the rest of Patagonia, the weather in TdP National Park is fickle to say the least. Mid-summer snows and gale force winds are a matter of course in this part of the world and many a trekker will complete the five day W trek without seeing the Paine Massif as it is often blanketed in cloud. We must have been making deposits into our Karma bank over the last couple of months as we were blessed with a cloudless view of the entire massif on our second night of the trip.

Everything about our trip was faultless as Pablo and Mariano had organised the ideal itinerary, provided the best equipment, cooked the finest asados and accommodated every variation that we asked for. After three months patiently waiting to get back on a bike I was eager to spend as much time as possible on the bike. After a 30km morning riding on the corrugated surfaces of the road I was so badly bruised and saddle sore that I had to peddle entirely out of the saddle for the 20 km ride in the afternoon. I felt like a kid who had been craving sweets for so long that I had gorged myself and felt so sick that I couldn’t even look at another cola cube. Luckily we had Pablo’s fantastic Land Rover Defender 110 to support us all the way and our planned riding trip turned into more of an off-road driving excursion. With the constant wind dropping off the Southern Patagonian Ice field it was so much nicer to be viewing the mountains from the protection of the vehicle than battling into a biting headwind on the bike.

The much photographed landscape of the TdP massif is captivating and surprisingly compact. Although relatively small in relation to the vast expanse of the Patagonian landscape it is capricious in the way that it changes as you move around from one viewpoint to the next. From one angle all three of the towers are visible but only a kilometre down the road they are hidden but a new vista opens up of the Fortress and the Horn. Even if you stay in one place the mood of the range can change in minutes as venticular clouds emerge and disappear. The changing light highlights different parts of the massif and casts dark shadows into the valleys that are cut into the lower level of sedimentary rock. As we awoke on the third day in our camp on the Southern shore of Lago Pehoe the entire massif was enveloped in cloud. However, after breakfast the mantle of cloud has lifted and only ethereal wisps of cloud remained giving the mountains a more mysterious character.

It would have been remiss to visit Chilean Patagonia without exploring the National Park and the breathtaking spectacle of the massif did not disappoint. As was the case with Tierra del Fuego, I would love to visit the park in winter to see a different aspect of its personality. As we make our way North over the next few days we will be closing a chapter of our travels that I had high hopes for. Every aspect of Patagonia has exceeded those expectations and I am left wanting more. In fact, whilst down here I read a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s biography by Nicholas Shakespere and a quote from it seemed to encapsulate my feelings about Patagonia:

“You have to have some sort of magic circle to which you belong. It’s not necessarily where you were born or where you were brought up. It’s somewhere you identify with, to which you always happen to go’s what Proust calls ‘the soil on which I still may build’”.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Crashing Ice and Fleeting Rainbows

The milky blue waters of whale sound were several degrees colder than the Straits as the melt water gushed from the base of the glacier. Long slivers of brash ice drift on the current towards the mouth of the fjord. As we made our way in the kayak towards the terminal face of the glacier we saw what looked like a waterfall on the central nunatak that separates the two sides of the face. This waterfall was actually a huge shower of ice caused by a large section of ice high on the face calving off and pulverising on its descent to the fjord. Every few minutes there would be another crack and thunderous rumble as another section of the face parted company with the glacier. This glacier is in retreat, as are many others. The tell-tale signs of the retreat are plain to see in the rock faces that surround the face. Indeed, the central nunatak was recently entirely encased within the ice of the glacier. However, as the ice retreats these orphan rocks are left, scraped clean by the erosive power of the ice, as future islands in the fjord. The most recently uncovered rock is easily distinguishable by the absence of lichen that over a couple years will change the colour of the rock from orange to a dusky red or green.

Being so close to such an active glacier is an astonishing and belittling experience. As we paddled closer our guide Jem made his way over to the other side of the fjord. As he got closer to the glacier the perspective of the size of the face became more apparent. He became an infinitesimal dot under the towering face of ice. The sections of ice that were calving were the size of a eight story building but, from a distance, looked insignificant. Scale is so deceptive in Patagonia as everything is so vast. There are so many fjords, sounds, channels and islands here that few are ever visited. The archipelago west of Tierra del Fuego is so remote and the weather conditions so unpredictable that few visitors deign to travel here. This isolation is itself a huge attraction as you feel like you are one of the privileged few to experience the landscape that is one of the last true wildernesses.

After an al fresco lunch on a beach we made our way down a small adjoining fjord with towering mountains on either side. After negotiating the eddies and currents created by the turning tide at the mouth of the fjord we had a wind assisted paddle down the southern shoreline. The mountains tumble so precipitously into the water that we had to crane our necks back to see the peaks. Overhead we were lucky enough to see the unusual sight of two of the largest birds flying together. There are few places other than Patagonian archipelago that you can see albatross and condors flying together.

On our return to the Zodiac we could see the waves of showers as they rolled down the valley towards us. Every shower was accompanied by a rainbow as the low slung sun refracted through the approaching curtain of rain. In fact rainbows were the one constant over our stay in the archipelago as the weather changes so fast; clouds and showers roll in rapidly on the ever present wind and disperse as quickly.

Silent Giants

A flash of the white belly, flippers splayed and a hulking body in suspended animation portends a calamitous clap as the humpback returns to the surface of the bay. As we sat down to our breakfast Sarah caught the first breach out of the corner of her eye and soon everyone crowded around the doors awaiting a repeat show. In this case lightning did strike twice as the whales treated us to a repeat of the first pyrotechnic show. A few minutes passed with little more than a flash of dorsal fin and then it became obvious that they were heading for the bay. The humpbacks are known to swim right into the bay, barely 10 metres from the shoreline, to rub against the kelp and rocks; presumably scratching an itch. In this case, a pod of three humpbacks followed by a retinue of dozens of sea lions, swam right into the shore and lodged in the kelp for a several minutes before turning and hugging the shoreline past the camp. This kind of encounter with whales is a real privilege and one that we could only get at a place like Isla Carlos III.

The morning was spent kayaking out to Rupert Island a couple of kilometres off the south camp. As we rounded the sea lion colony at the headland the silence was broken by a chorus of barking and wailing and the splash of several hundred sea lions simultaneously staggering to the water and diving into the kelp. Within the seconds the first heads began to pop above the surface around us, bulging eyes staring before disappearing again. Young pups performed their acrobatics all around us diving and somersaulting for fun. After a couple of minutes watching the spectacle we could feel something strange under the kayak, looking over the side I could see an effervescence as bubbles burst on the surface. A pair of young males were under the kayak blowing bubbles for fun before swimming back to investigate the rudder.

After lunch the wind and waves had grown enough to take kayaking off the agenda so we decided to head out in the Zodiac with Juan to try and find some whales that he had not yet had the chance to collect skins samples from. Over the course of the next three or four hours we followed several pods including a pair that he had not yet sampled. In order to take the sample we had to approach the whales from behind and get within ten metres or so of the fluke. As we approached he would take aim with the crossbow loaded with a hollow bolt that, as the dorsal disappeared, he would fire into the muscle. The whole exercise took less than a couple of minutes, but required incredibly precise driving from the skipper who had to find the perfect balance between speed and discretion to avoid the whales taking fright and diving.

As the sun began to set we decided to head out for a final paddle in the now calm waters of the bay. Followed by our usual escort of sea lions we headed around to the north shore of the island. Most of the whales had now moved further out into the Straits but as we turned for home we came across a pair of whales less than a couple of metres off shore. Slowly paddling in their direction we awaited their re-surfacing (always a random event as they often change direction in a dive). Then, barely fifteen metres off the bow the first whale surfaced. Seeing and smelling the blow from a kayak gave us a completely different perspective as we were that much closer to the surface and the kayak is entirely silent. Paddling just fast enough to track them we finally saw them arch their backs in preparation for a dive, before the fluke appeared silently, trailing a shower of sea water, then disappeared without a sound below the surface.

We had seen humpbacks at a distance in Antarctica but the encounters at Isla Carlos III were spellbinding. The sheer quantity and proximity in the marine park is something rare indeed.

Chile's Maritime Garden of Eden

Rounding the headland of Cabo Froward, the most southerly point of the South American continental land mass, the waves steepened and the wind whipped spray off the crests into the Zodiac. The waves came in sets of 10 or 12 with the last in the series larger than the rest, destined to break over the bow as we plunged in the trough that preceded it. Two hours previously we were standing on the shore, 5 km north of San Isidro Lighthouse, wondering why we were wearing full survival flotation suits and orange oilskins. However, sat shivering with two hours remaining to Isla Carlos III I was wondering why we didn’t have full dry suits like Jem, our kayak guide.

The further west we got in the Straits of Magellan the higher the mountains became, some topped with glaciers and all covered in a thick blanket of native vegetation. San Isidro Lighthouse marked the final permanent habitation and ahead of us lay virgin wilderness, a haven for marine mammals and seabirds. For the five hours that we plowed into the westerly wind we were kept constant company by Black Browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrels and Imperial Cormorants. The petrels and albatross skimmed the frothing surface of the water gliding from peak to trough with effortless inflections of their wing tips.

As we approached the Southern edge of Isla Rupert we caught sight o
f a commotion on the water; a congregation of birds and sea lions jumping,flapping and diving in a frenzy of wings and flippers. As we got closer the tell-tale blow of a humpback emerged from the centre of the melee and then a giant head emerged, mottled white with calcification and barnacles. Slowly the moth closed and the head retreated back into the foaming waters as the dorsal fin of its partner broke the surface. For five minutes we floated spellbound as maybe two hundred sea lions gorged on the shoal of herring trapped by the whales. The albatross and petrels bobbed on the surface scavenging the detritus left in the aftermath of the chaotic commotion.

The scientific research station on Isla Carlos III is located on the eastern edge of the island looking out over the marine reserve that is the summer feeding grounds for dozens of humpbacks and several giant colonies of sea lions. Each year the humpbacks swing by the Straits of Magellan on their way back from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the breeding grounds in the warm waters of Colombia and Panama. Juan, the resident whale expert, has been busy over the last few years tracking their movements and taking skin biopsies for DNA testing to establish sex and lineage. Each humpback stays an average of three weeks in the reserve and is identifiable by the shape and markings of the dorsal fin and fluke. Juan has spent so much time with the whales that he can instantly identify each whale by name and number with only the slightest glance of a distant dorsal fin.

The camp, nestling into the hillside rising from the shore, is made up of a series of interconnected boardwalks linking platforms that support heavy geodesic domes that are the sleeping quarters for the scientists and guests. On the largest platform, set aside from the domes, is a dining tent with large glass sliding doors and windows that provide sweeping views of the bay from the dining table. Further north still, on the tip of the headland, is an observation hut that is used to spot the whales and study behaviour. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic spot for a camp, floating above the ferns and red trumpet flowers of the copihue. As night fell the bay sheltered bay began to calm as the wind reduced to a soft breeze in the lea of the island. A blanket of silence fell on the camp as we prepared for dinner the only sound was the intermittent blow of the whales lazily breathing between dives.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Delving into history

Our next two days on the peninsula dealt us a mixed bag of cloud, snow, wind and rain, but always accompanied by an irresistible combination of unique landscape, flora and fauna. After a couple of days gorging on jaw dropping ice fields and penguin colonies teeming with Gentoos, Adelies and Chinstraps, the following days took on a more historical complexion. On the route over we had heard a series of lectures on the heroic and often tragic history of Antarctica. From the early days of exploration and discovery, through the ‘gold rush’ of commercial whaling, there are numerous stories of hardship, sacrifice, heroism and bravery. As we stopped off at Wordie Hut and Deception Island some of these stories began to come to life as the remnants of that era lay abandoned or in suspended animation.

Hut at what is now known as the Ukranian Vernadsky research station is a time capsule that transports one back to the age of tinned ox toungue, metal capped jars of marmite and hand written coal manifests. As I wandered around the now abandoned hut I got a real feel for what it must have been like to over-winter in Antarctica during the immediate post-war period. The instruments: helioscopes, radio transmitters, barometers and slide rules stand on the desk that would have played host to the resident meteorologist. The living room lies untouched with a bookshelf full of Evelyn Waugh, Neville Shute and Graham Greene, all propped up with a bust of Nat King Cole.

The entrance to Deception Island, the caldera of one of three active volcanoes on Antarctica, is guarded by the sheer cliffs known locally as Neptune’s Bellows. As we passed carefully though the narrow entrance, it became immediately obvious why this was used by whalers as a safe haven to weather out storms and butcher their catch. On the beach the remnants of this ear and the later British research station were scattered all around. Water boats, used by the whalers to store their fresh water, lay partially buried and partially open to the elements; but ultimately
intact. A graveyard of broken oil barrels is testament to the haste with which the whalers abandoned their outpost when land based whaling was shunned in favour of factory ships. At the other end of the beach large oil tanks and crumbling huts, used by the British as a supply depot during Operation Tamarin, stand rusting and disused. Just wandering around this open air museum is a humbling experience as one tries to understand what it must have been like to earn a living in this most extreme of workplaces.

The sight of Deception Island was abandoned after eruptions in 1967 and 1969 caused many of the buildings to be buried under volcanic ash and landslides. Poignantly, two graves still remain of whalers who passed away whilst on the island. The sacrifices made are difficult to imagine now, in an era when few careers pose real hardship and the accoutrements of travel make life in the Antarctic more comfortable. The ‘heroic era’ is neatly summarised for me in a poem (introduced to us by our on board historian) that was recited by Douglas Mawson as he battled his way back to the coast after a disastrous and tragic journey of which he was the sole survivor. This poem was also a favourite of Shakelton who had an open, written dialogue with the author, Robert Service, throughout his career in the Antarctic. For me it sums up the psychology of the period; one that is anathema to most of us today.

The Quitter

Robert W. Service (1912)

When you're lost in the Wild, and you're scared as a child,

And Death looks you bang in the eye,

And you're sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle

To cock your revolver and . . . die.

But the Code of a Man says: "Fight all you can,"

And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow . . .

It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

"You're sick of the game!" Well, now that’s a shame.
You're young and you're brave and you're bright.

"You've had a raw deal!" I know — but don't squeal,

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,

So don't be a piker, old pard!

Just draw on your grit, it’s so easy to quit.

It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you're beaten — and die;

It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;

But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —

Why that’s the best game of them all!

And though you come out of each grueling bout,

All broken and battered and scarred,

Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,

It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

A cornucopia of snow and ice

The dark morning cloud cover lay as heavy as a blanket over Paradise Bay as we made passage towards the Argentinean research base on the mainland. Inky black clouds obscured the mountains behind Almirante Brown and stretched right across the bay to the glaciated range on Anvers Island. However, as we began to make our way up the short slope behind the research station, small chinks began to appear as the wind dispersed the cloud. Within twenty minutes we had glimpses of the Anvers Massif as the sun reflected off its icy slopes. The natural drama of the Antarctic Peninsula is heightened by the unpredictability of the weather and the snow and ice fields that stretch from the high mountain peaks right down to the sea.

After a short visit to Almirante Brown, we began our journey down the Gerlache Straits towards the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage often strewn with brash ice from the constantly carving glaciers that tumble down the sea cliffs. The Gerlache Straits, named after the Belgian explorer Adrian de Gerlache, separate Anvers and Brabant Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. Both sides of the channel rise precipitously from the sea to high snow fields above. Giant glaciers bulldoze their way down the slopes depositing large glacial bergs into the waters of the straits, glinting blue as the sun refracts through the air purged ice.

By the time we had reached the entrance to the Lemaire Channel, the clouds had scattered to the far side of the mountains bathing the entire area in liquid sunshine. Entering the channel stirred up images from Jules Verne with Captain Nemo guiding his vessel through the fantasy lands to an unknown world beyond. Barely a few hundred metres across at its narrowest point, with the enormous glaciers of the mainland to one side and the hanging glaciers of Booth Island to the other, the Lemaire Channel is often referred to as ‘Kodak Gap’ for its breathtaking beauty. As we slowly made our way through the ice, we approached a small sailing yacht with a bowman high in the rigging spotting for the helmsman to avoid the unseen ‘growlers’ lurking below the surface that could be lethal to a vessel of its size.

After the thrill of passing through the Gerlache Straits almost any afternoon activity would have been anticlimactic, however the afternoon zodiac cruise proved to be a real highlight of the trip. Within the space of ninety minutes we saw the most spectacular icebergs imaginable, caught sight of a pod of Minke Whales and tracked a Leopard Seal on the hunt. Iceberg Alley is aptly named as it serves as a checkpoint for many of the glacial icebergs drifting north along the coast of the peninsula. In the late afternoon calm the clouds began to close over us as the sun dropped back towards the horizon. As it began to approach the mountain tops of Anvers Island, the sky took on a creamy yellow cast and the clouds darkened to a dusky magenta.

The fickle weather conditions of Antarctica would inevitably conspire to dish us up with another helping of wind and rain, but as the sun set over the magical cornucopia of ice and snow we knew that we would have this day to treasure come what may.

First sight of land

After the rough and tumble of Drake’s passage the relative calm of the sheltered coastal waters of Enterprise Island were a welcome relief. Our first two nights a sea only allowed sporadic sleep as the waves tossed us to and fro and the walls of the cabin creaked and groaned around us. With no swell to speak of and a weakening low pressure system dampening the winds we were afforded our first full night’s sleep. We were up early to the dulcet tones of Stephen, our expedition leader, calling his usual refrain:

“Gooood Morning! Good morning it’s 7am and we are currently cruising towards Enterprise Island at a steady 12 knots. The weather outside is overcast and two degrees centigrade. The wind is blowing at between 15 and 20 knots from the west with the occasional snow shower. Breakfast will be served in half an hour. Good Morning!”

Our first full day in Antarctica saw us take two excursions: the first, a zodiac cruise around Foyn Harbour and the second a shore landing on Cuverville Island to see a Gentoo penguin colony. After a morning of briefings and safety demonstrations we finally arrived at the site of the first excursion, Enterprise Island. Named after the enterprising whalers that made this a base for operations in the Gerlache straights it contained a number of artifacts from the whaling era including the wreck of a factory ship, scuttled in the 1920s in order to save its cargo of whale oil. It is testament to the value of their cargo that, when a fire broke out on the ship, they preferred to intentionally run the ship aground to save the cargo than save the ship. As the snow blew horizontally across the face of the Polaris we made our way down the gangway to board the zodiacs for the first time. Before visiting the wreck we circled round the shoreline, weaving in and out of small bergy bits (that is a technical word for an iceberg bigger than 5m but less than 15m and 1m above the really!). As we turned the corner a pair of crabeater seals broke the surface, nostrils flared, before dipping back below the surface. It was a real thrill to see our first seals at such close quarters, their pelt slick and shiny in the icy water, bulging eyes blinking slowly. After slowly cruising around the bay for an hour the rusty hulk of the ‘Governer’ emerged from the snow speckled sky, it’s pock marked and ferric red hull standing ten metres proud of the surface. The carcass of the ship, long since stripped of it fittings, is now home to a small colony of antarctic terns. The terns taking it in turns to swoop low over the ‘Spirit of Sydney’ a small charter yacht moored on the lee-side for protection.

Over the course of the afternoon we slowly made our way south to our second destination for the day, Cuverville Island. Named after a vice-admiral in the French navy on accord of it’s shape (that of a french admiral’s hat) it sits in the Errera channel and plays host to a large rookery of Gentoo Penguins. With over four thousand breeding pairs on the rookery the first thing that strikes you is the smell of the guano. Stained pink by the presence of krill in their diet, guano gives a strange hue to the colony and can be a real assault on the senses. The chicks are constantly calling out to the steady stream of penguins making their way from the shore, up the beach to with the promise of food. A small group of us climbed a slope behind the colony to get a broader perspective of the rookery and were rewarded with scintillating views across the island and the Errera channel. It is only from a vantage point like that that you can get a perspective on how small the boat is in the relation to the landscape. Every so often a loud crack would be sent across the bay as crevasses collapsed on the glacier or large chunks of the terminal face carved off into the sea. After two hours on the shore we were ready to return to the ship, but not before a thorough brushing of the boots and onboard disinfectant to make sure that we were not transferring infections between sites.

Our first visits left us eager for more and hoping for better weather. With the Gerlache Straits and the Lemaire channel came the promise of outstanding glaciers, towering sea cliffs and dramatic blue icebergs...fingers crossed for good weather!