Sunday, 2 March 2008

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!

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