Day 6: We wake to a still, calm and bright day, it's perfect. We head north through the ice to the Fish Islands. Here we land at Prospect Point on the Antarctic Continent. This is the site of a long abandoned British hut. The first team was here back in 1934. It looks like they left in a hurry - clothes, tins of food, books, utensils are lying around. Everything is damp and slimey and the paint is peeling from the ceiling. Near the hut is a mound of rusty tins and oildrums. There's also several mummified seals (skins and bones intact). Apparently seal meat was fed to the dogs (NB There are no dogs allowed in Antarctica now). We also encounter many adelie penguins and a fur seal. We drive around in the zodiacs for a while getting really close to some big blue icebergs and seals on ice floes.
Back on board we spend the afternoon charging through the ice and pushing huge icebergs out of the way. Some submerge and pop back up, others have huge chunks fall off, we whoop and cheer from the bow. The captain also deliberately catches a berg in the bow and drags it along. This helps push the others out of the way. This is a tough ship.
Day 7: We have an early morning landing in the Argentine Islands. We stop at Faraday, the former British base but now Ukrainian. It was sold to the Ukrainians back in 1996 for one pound. The Brits didn't have the money to keep the base operating and the rule is now that you can't abandon buildings, you have to remove everything. Therefore, it was easier to sell it. It's now called Vernadsky Base. The base commander welcomed us and gave us a tour. He explained that their research was mainly studying the upper atmosphere, including the ozone layer. The ozone layer is mostly studied in the winter months i.e. September and October when the "hole" appears. They have a machine called a Dobson's spectrometer and they measure the layer in Dobson units. A normal layer should be around 300 but it has dipped to 150 in the past. There appears to have been a slight recovery in recent years but scientists think this may be due to weather patterns. A lot is still not known about this. From our understanding it's not really a hole in the ozone layer but a thinning of the layer. At the base we can also send mail, although it will probably go via the Ukraine and take some time to arrive. In the base is also the famous Faraday bar, where women can get a free drink if they donate and sign their bra. Jackie says she's not got enough clothes as it is, so she bought a drink instead - what else but a shot of vodka. (There was a consignment of wood sent to the base back in the days of the Brits. It was not used as it was intended and they built the splendid Faraday bar. More than one person lost their job over this).
We then get back in a zodiac and visit the nearby Wordie House (Wordie was on Shackelton's team). This house, built in 1947, is now a museum and is very well preserved. There's lots of equipment inside and food, kitchen pots and pans, books and records. We even find an old tin of McEwan's sparkling beer from Edinburgh (McEwan's is still a lager/beer company in Scotland). Outside there are a few adelie penguins and then we sit and watch a weddell seal a few feet away. It's lying on it's side dozing. You can hear it breathing heavily and every now and again it opens its eyes just to check who's around. It's got a very cute face with long whiskers, which curl as they dry out.
In the afternoon we stop at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. The Brits established a spy base here during the second World War. It changed to science and research but closed in 1962. Now it is a museum (a very good one) with a post office cum gift shop. It is the 2nd most visited place in Antarctica. We asked about jobs here, there are only 2 people here for the whole of the summer - so maybe next year. Jackie was pleased as she was able to get a stamp commerating the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04. We also discovered that there's an Antarctic tartan, with a great story behind the design (see extra stuff below). Around the hut is a large, smelly and noisy colony of gentoo penuins (Peter did spot a single chinstrap penguin feeling very out of place). These guys and girls liked to peck at our legs, boots and gloves. We also had to watch out for jets of penguin crap. They sort of bend forward slightly and then a fast moving squirt of yuk comes out of their bum. It leaves long score marks on the ground (see the photos). It is funny to watch, as long as you're not within range. Nearby at Jougla Point on Wiencke Island we also see many whalebones and more cheeky gentoo penguins.
Whilst on the ship we watch as a leopard seal kills and eats a penguin. It holds it by the neck and thrashes it from side to side as it tries to get the skin off of it . There's blood and guts everywhere, it's pretty gruesome but amazing to watch. We couldn't believe when we saw the same seal do it a second time, this time we were closer in a zodiac. The leopard seal is the top predator down here. It even had a go at the zodiacs. (The Ukrainian scientists who were diving mentioned that they were very nervous of these guys). That night Jackie had the vegetarian dinner.
Day 8: We've headed north to the South Shetland Islands and the famous Deception Island. We pass through the very narrow entrance of Neptune's Bellows and turn right into Whaler's Bay. It's a dark, windy, stormy day and we get a little taste of the harsh Antarctic climate. However, we're well prepared and wrap up well, only our eyes are exposed. We land on the black volcanic beach and are greeted by many fur seals. We have to watch these guys and not get too close. They're pretty agile and can outrun a human. With their big teeth and bacteria filled mouths we stay well away.
This island has a long history of whaling. We can see the remains of the whaler's buildings and huge rusting whale oil drums (about 12 metres high). The British also had a spy base here in 1944 and then it changed to meteorolgical studies. Also there's a huge airplane hangar (with an old De Havilland Beaver nearby) and it was from here that Herbert Wilkins took the first powered flight in Antarctica. In the late 1960s there was a lot of volcanic activity and the Chileans (they were further north on the island) and the Brits left. The whaler's cemetery and the British hut were partially buried by a huge mud slide. We benefit from the volcanic activity by having a very hot (almost scalding) wallow in a beach pit that the staff have dug out for us. We then brave a quick dip in the icy Antarctic water - we must be mad.
In the afternoon our proposed landing site is a "no go" because of the wind. However, we casually pop into a nearby Chilean base on Greenwich Island. This was totally unplanned. The ship radioed them and within an hour of contact we were sitting in their base drinking coffee and touring the station (all 80 people plus some crew). They had two biologists there and they gave us a presentation on their research. They took as many photos of us and we did of them - they don't get many tourists here. The base was Arturo Prat and is the Chilean's oldest base, built in 1947. It is mainly manned by naval staff. They had a museum with photos of Shackelton and Endurance. It was the Chileans that helped Shackelton rescue his men from Elephant Island. This is what Antarctica is about, there are no country boundaries here and everyone helps and welcomes everyone else - if only the rest of the planet was like this.
Days 9 & 10 The Drake Passage II: We have a fantastically smooth two days back across the passage. Are we jammy or what?
There's plenty to keep us occupied. There's more fantastic lectures. One on the History of Whaling (1904-65). A Scottish company, Salvesen of Leith were the biggest whalers down here. Thankfully, the whaling has now stopped, well except for the Japanese who take some for "research" purposes and some pirate whalers. Then another lecture on Plate Tectonics. We also take an engine room tour - great stuff. Next is a 1929 film on rounding Cape Horn in a huge clipper called the "Peking" - very entertaining, especially the hilarious commentary. Later our Canadian expedition leader describes his venture with the Russians when they skied from Russia to Canada via the North Pole (1988) - not only a great physical feat but an impressive political achievement. We finish off with lectures on Amundsen, volcanoes, the two Poles and seabirds in danger.
On the 4th of March we sail by the Diego Ramirez Islands. These are the southernmost piece of land anywhere in the world, outside of the Antarctic itself. Then we are lucky enough to round the legendary Cape Horn. The weather is still kind to us and we get so close that we can see the buildings, the lighthouse and the famous albatross sculpture. Another emotional moment.
Quote from the albatross monument, Cape Horn by Sara Vial: "I am the albatross that awaits you at the end of the earth. I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors from all the seas of the earth who rounded Cape Horn, they did not die in the fury of the waves, but fly today on my wings towards eternity in the cry of the Antarctic Winds"
Day 11: We reach Ushuaia and very reluctantly disembark. There's much hugging and kissing and exchanging of email addresses.
Cheerio Polar Star.
There's some additonal info at the bottom re the Antarctic Treaty and Tartan. However, we'd like to leave you with another quote on Antarctica.
Roald Amundsen (the first man to reach the South Pole): "Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun, the lands look like a fairytale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed, wilder as any land on our globe, it lies, unseen and untrodden".
ANTARCTICA - WE WILL RETURN.
Peter & Jackie
Antarctic Treaty: This was created on the 1st December 1959 and entered into force on the 23rd June 1961. "It recognises that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord". The treaty outlines the protocol on environmental protection, the conservation of flora and fauna, marine mammals and regulation on mineral resource activity (i.e. there is none) and guidelines for scientists on their research. Forty five countries have ratified this treaty and over 40 years later this continent is still a place of peace, science and co-operation. Quite an achievement considering the usual politics and conflicts that go on between nations.
Antarctic Tartan: "...the colours of which are inspired by King penguins. The design of each sett is taken from Antarctic geography. The square of white at the centre represents the ice-covered continent and the light of the Antarctic summer. Within this, threads of pale blue represent the 0/360, 90, 180 and 270 degree lines of longitude and the point where they cross - the South Pole. Two bands of grey depict mountain ranges and exposed coastal rocks. Animals and simple plant life are found around Antarctica's coast so the colours that follow, orange, yellow, black and white represent not only penguins but also the wealth of other animal life on land and in the seas. Orange also represents the lichens encrusting the rocks. Pale blue and white depict the ice shelves, with a thick band of midnight blue for ocean deeps and dark winters. Each tartan sett is separated by a thin white band, representing the Antarctic Circle. Where bands of white cross over, the stars of the Southern Cross are depicted".
Click here for The Southern Cone Travelog