Category Archives: Antarctic Expedition 2011

Antarctic Expedition 2011

Ushuaia, back and back again

We were meant to fly to Buenos Aires on Sunday night, but our good karma
seems to have taken a day off. Our Aerolineas flight first is delayed, then
finally cancelled late at night due to technical difficulties. We retrieve
our checked-in luggage and are transferred to a hotel back in Ushuaia for
the night. In typical Aerolineas style information about our rescheduled
flight is vague and there is currently a distinct possibility of missing our
international connection in Buenos Aires. Sonja is at the airport trying to
get the group on an earlier flight out of Ushuaia. Stay tuned…..

Terra firma Tierra del Fuego

We’re back where it all began, in Ushuaia. Our expedition vessel, the MV Ushuaia docked early on Saturday morning in her name-giving town. A glorious early morning sun lit up very tired faces. The 52 hour in the Drake Passage battling a force 11 storm and last night’s Polar Night good-bye party have certainly taken their toll on our otherwise so energetic group. We are happy to be back on solid ground though many of us still walk with that lumbering wide-legged sailor’s gait. The ground still seems to be moving. We check into the hotel right next to the pier. After naps, laundry and a lengthy stint in coffee shops our group meets up for some course work discussion and data processing. Then the entire Students on Ice team heads off to a little gem of a restaurant right at the shores of the Beagle Channel. As we dig into tapas and chat about our amazing Antarctic adventure we watch the MV Ushuaia once again set sail for Antarctica. Many of us feel a pang of sadness as we watch our floating home away from home make her way east. We wave good bye and enjoy the last evening as Students on Ice Expedition team.

Drake Passage (56°S heading north) – There and back again

We had a pretty big proper storm last night, complete with 60+ knot winds and an average of 8m swells. In total, it took us 52 hours to cross the Drake Passage – the longest crossing for the M/V Ushuaia this season. While sleep deprived and bruised from the “Drake Shake”, most of us seem to be recovering very well this morning.

Throughout the day, in between eating solid foods other than crackers/biscuits, we attend our last lectures, workshops, and presentations. In our spare time, we begin preparing for Polar Night, this evening’s festivities. For the St Andrews crew this means generating a music video of sorts – think dance music meets Antarctic wildlife. I am told pre-production for the remix is scheduled to begin upon our return to Scotland.

The evening entertainment kicks off with a photo contest (with several St Andrews winners!), skits from each of the course groups, and climaxes with a boy band performance from the male Students on Ice staff. Strange what only 10 days at sea can do to the psyche.

As the party carries on into the early morning hours, suitcases begin to line the halls. Our luggage serves as a stark reminder that our time in Antarctica is now behind us, with our time at sea coming to a close as well. This has been the trip of a lifetime, and most of us will struggle to find words that can even remotely begin to describe our experiences. Our photos will not seem to do this place justice either, but we will try our best to continue to bring the White Continent to life for all of you.

Kathleen (MRes MMS)

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Drake Passage (60°S heading north)

Last night we experienced the rock’n roll of a rough Drake Passage, so most of us didn’t get much sleep. Breakfast sees many empty places, and a generally reduced appetite (except for a few hardy souls who still tuck into scrambled eggs, bacon and croissants). Several presentations are offered throughout the day and are met with varying levels of attendance and enthusiasm. The lounge resembles a big student camp with bodies sprawled on every couch and cups of tea being balanced precariously on tilting tables.

A few aahhhs and ooohhhs echo through the room when the ship rolls particularly violently in the heavy seas. Several dedicated team members clamber up to the bridge for hourly seabird counts, but even the seabirds don’t seem to like the wet weather much so few are spotted. We stare out across a grey wind-swept sea and watch big waves roll towards our bow, and occasionally crash over it with the spray washing over the bridge windows. Overall this is a quiet day with much needed downtime after the extremely busy, exciting schedule of our six activity-packed days in Antarctica.

(Sonja, teaching staff)

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Deception Island (62°59’S / 60°34’W) & Robert Point

I had to summon all that is left of me after at 5:30am after nearly a week of feeling the cold wind on my face, and slowly crawl towards the coffee urn. In the meantime the MV Ushuaia has just entered the caldera of Deception Island and drops anchor in Whaler’s Bay. A quick snack and we are in the Zodiacs and on our way to our history-riddled landing site.
Deception Island was a hub of activity during the whaling years with some of the oil tanks and boiler remains still visible on the beach. The American sealer Nathaniel Palmer purportedly stood in Neptune’s Window and caught first sight of the Antarctic Continent (the same honour is also claimed by the Russian Bellingshausen). On this day however he would have had to imagine the continent as there were low lying clouds hanging over the island. This combined with the black pebble beaches, geothermal steam along the shoreline and abandoned buildings give the island an eerie atmosphere.

A few curious skuas later and we are back on the boat and tucking into breakfast before psyching ourselves for our entrance to the Students on Ice Swim Team, where a swim in the Southern Ocean is all that is required to pass. Upon our arrival we are sadly informed of our misfortune that is the failure for the hot pool to heat! Elaborate plans for frolicking in the Southern Ocean are soon lost as we scamper as fast as we can into and out of the freezing waters with the wind nearing a gale. The pebbles scraping our frozen toes, we throw our clothes on in whatever order we find them and jump on the next Zodiac back to the ship.
A warm shower and cup of tea later, we are en route to Robert Island in search of Southern elephant seals.

These enormous beasties resemble giant slugs on the beach as they are scattered in between numerous nimble Antarctic fur seals. We are all in awe of these charming creatures as we watch them snort, sniff, snarl, sleep and scratch during their annual moult. Chilling winds are picking up and we head back to the vessel for our passage across the Drake Passage bound for Ushuaia.
It’s quickly clear to us that this is going to be a rougher crossing than the one we enjoyed on the way south. After dinner the Drake Shake begins to claim its victims one by one. With tomorrow expected to be far, far worse we head to bed and can only dread what lies ahead.

(James, SH student)

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Neko Harbour & Port Lockroy (64°49’S, 63°29’W – our southern-most point) & Wilhelmina Bay

We travelled roughly 22 km overnight from Paradise Bay to Neko Harbour. We awoke at first light in the wee hours of the morning to find ourselves surrounded by glaciers, icebergs and rocky outcrops. Our pre-breakfast landing found us once again on the Antarctic continent surrounded by Gentoo penguins. Three groups were formed to collect data on seal and penguin counts and penguin behaviour. Some of us had an incredible encounter with a Weddell seal while others observed feeding behaviour of parent penguins and chicks while overlooking a calving glacier.

After lunch and a scenic cruise through the Neumayer Channel, we arrived at Port Lockroy and Jougla Point (aka Guano Island). Once again we were counting penguins and practicing our observational and data collection techniques, only this time in the driving rain (that’s dedication!!). After the previous days of sunshine and blue skies we were back in British territory at Port Lockroy with the familiar rain and blustery winds. After a short souvenir stop and a bit of time travel in the Lockroy station museum, we were back on board headed north in the Gerlache Strait. In the evening we entered Wilhelmina Bay surrounded by humpback whales and blue skies.

The entire group remained on the bridge well through dinner (some of us gobbled some left over food out on deck, too keen to leave our lofty observation posts) to identify, count and document the plethora of marine mammals. A long day’s journey ended with two humpback whales crossing the bow at sunset, and the last humpback of the day fluked under a giant moon rising above snow-covered peaks. Life doesn’t get much better than this!

Amy (MRes MMS)

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Cuverville Island (64°41’S / 62°38’W) & Paradise Bay

I’m currently sitting inside the bridge of the MV Ushuaia, facing panoramic views of snow-covered mountains and sea, listening to Beethoven playing in the background as it begins to get dark. Reflecting on the amazing day makes this morning feel like ages ago.
After breakfast and some time on deck taking in the fantastic views of the continent, we jumped in the zodiacs and headed to Cuverville Island. It was a mountainous place with a rocky beach, home to a dispersed colony of Gentoo penguins. We broke into groups, some of us counting penguins, some observing their behaviour, and some counting seals. It was especially peaceful because the St. Andrews group got this island all to ourselves to take our surveys, while the rest of the students went to a similar island nearby. Someone noticed a leopard seal in the water nearby, and those near the beach got in the zodiac in time to witness it devouring a penguin! We then took a cruise in the zodiac around the area to admire the massive icebergs. I heard what sounded like a loud explosion, and turned in time to see a huge iceberg turning over and smashing back into the sea. The sheer force contained in the landscape here is overwhelming.

This afternoon, though, has been the highlight of the trip for me so far. Our ship anchored in the aptly named Paradise Bay, and we went out for a zodiac cruise. The water was glassy except for some icebergs in hues of bright blue and white, and all around were mountains and glaciers. We observed several crabeater seals which were sleeping on icebergs, explored around the glacier caves, and then headed over to the Argentinean Brown Base. There we walked up through deep snow to the peak of a steep cliff overlooking the bay. At the top, we had five minutes of silence. I sat towards the edge so that I could see no other people, and tried to take in the beauty and allow the reality of where I was on the globe to sink in. We descended via an exhilarating slide through the snow, which was a perfect finish for an incredible day in Antarctica!

Hannah (MRes MMS)

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Brown Bluff (63° 31’ S / 56° 51’ W)

In a nutshell today was unbelievable! We woke up anchored off Brown Bluff and made our first landing on the Antarctic Continent. Our group set out in three teams, one to count penguins, another pinnipeds and the last to monitor penguin behaviour. It was quite a surreal experience walking along a beach with the Adelie and Gentoo penguin traffic, having them less than a foot away while you dodge and step around Antarctic fur seals charging and barking. We surveyed the beaches and counted the seals and penguins and came up with a grand total of 450 Antarctic fur seals, 1,034 Gentoo, 78 Adelie and 2 chinstrap penguins. The big highlight for me was the two Weddell seals hauled out amongst the fur seals – absolutely fantastic animals.
After lunch back on the ship we resumed our routine observation positions on deck and continued with our sighting surveys. We spotted two humpback whales, some fur seals and two fine specimen of my favourite species, leopard seals, hauled out on some small ice floes. At this point I was over the moon with the day, but by far the best was yet to come. When anchored at Gourdin Island plans to do more land-based counts were changed. The coastline was shrouded in mist which created quite an eerie feeling. Soon the pungent fragrance of penguin guano whiffed across the water. We spotted some porpoising penguins, shortly followed by the surfacing of a leopard seal. The seal took a quick look at us, then dived before surfacing again in close proximity. The huge predator then passed about 3 feet under our little zodiac, just were Dominic and I were sitting. I was left speechless, too stunned by the size and confidence of the seal to even take a photo. This was easily one of my most incredible wildlife experiences ever. I couldn’t have asked for anymore. I was on cloud nine. We continued our zodiac tour and came closer to land where the rocky outcrops in the mist were dotted with the silhouettes of a few thousand penguins. Once close enough to land we spotted two Weddell seals hauled out – two amazing seal species just a few minutes apart!!! On the way back to the ship we spotted more porpoising and soon realised that three menacing-looking leopard seals were patrolling the sea. Soon enough one of the seals caught a penguin right in front of us and proceeded to skin and eat it in front of a captive audience of Students on Ice students and staff. I just couldn’t believe what I saw during the zodiac cruise. It still hasn’t settled in, I’m still in shock about being so close to the leopard seals and getting to see their sheer size and predatory behaviour.
Back on M/V Ushuaia Amy spotted two minke whales and we crossed paths with more fur seals and a humpback whale. After dinner the captain diverted the ship to sail by an enormous iceberg peppered with penguins (a few thousands or so…. We had stopped counting by then). As we approached, two humpbacks surfaced just in front of the vessel as did two fur seals. It was an incredible few minutes, seals, whales, penguins and a beautiful iceberg all at once. One humpback missed the vessel by no more than ten feet, definitely the closest I have come to any large whale. All in all, just an incredible day that I’ll never forget. The experience with the leopard seals was simply ineffable. Antarctica is a very special place!!!


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Drake Passage (59° 53′ S / 59° 45′ W)

7:30 in the morning, somewhere more than half-way between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. Our enthusiastic expedition leader, Geoff, wakes us up with a “Good morning Students on Ice”. The first thing we see through the window: rain. This is not a good sign, but here we are, what can we do? Dress up and have a nice breakfast.
After a lecture about how the penguins survive these long, cold days on the ice and a bit of their biology, we start our observation duties. The first survey group faces rolling waves, cold wind and grey clouds. Fortunately, the sea birds are always around the vessel to keep us entertained, and every hour we count them. This is a difficult task for us bird novices, but with a bit of practice and the help of the resident ornithologist, Santiago, we are learning to identify Cape petrels, White-chin petrels and various albatross species (or at least some of us do).
After nearly two hours without a blow, suddenly, I spot a head, a big rounded head in the waves, followed by back and fin. A Southern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon planifrons)! Like with a fire alarm, everyone gets spurred into action, we record the distance and angle to the animal, the group size, behaviour, bearing… We are so happy to finally find a marine mammal in this vast ocean!
The sun appears for a short while after lunch, and everyone (even if not on observation duty) is out on deck scanning the horizon for blows and bodies. And we find them as we approach the continental shelf of the South Shetland Islands! We log four groups of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and many Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) porpoising around the vessel. We also spot our first chinstrap penguins in the water.
While we’re having dinner, the sun finally re-appears and with it, the first outline of land: King George Island, and also our first iceberg! Most of the Students on Ice group get out on deck. Everyone is now excited to spot whales, seals and penguins.
We can all feel it, here we are, getting closer to our destination, to a place where none of us could ever imagine we would be, to the last continent!

Saludos! Raquel (MRes MMS)

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