Voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula

Voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula

Setting sail

My voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula departed Ushuaia in Southern Argentina on a partly overcast November afternoon. My ship carried just over 100 passengers, 16 expedition staff and 80 odd crew from all corners of the globe. As we sailed up the Beagle Channel the afternoon light softened, and the sun appeared. On our starboard side stretched the beech forested slopes of Chile. While on the port side the dramatic snow dusted mountain ranges of Terra del Fuego in Argentina.

View over Ushuaia on the day of departure
Looking over Ushuaia on the day of departure

As the evening progressed, we eased toward the Drake Passage. Which is synonymous as one of the most treacherous and dangerous bodies of water in the world. It has been described as either the ‘Drake Shake’ or the Drake lake’! Having not been on a cruise before I was hoping with every bone in my body for the latter.

Drake Passage

The reason why the Drake Passage can either be a ‘lake’ or a give you a good ‘shake’ is due to the fact is that it forms the narrowest gap between any mainland continent and Antarctica. It therefore has a vast volume of water travelling through what is essentially a bottleneck. It is estimated the speed of the flow of water is approximately 600 times the flow of the Amazon river. You then add high winds that come with storm fronts and eight metre plus seas can be generated, which is where you get the ‘Drake Shake’.

As it turned out on this voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, we experienced conditions closer to the ‘lake’ end of the spectrum. Which didn’t mean that I escaped feeling seasick! As the next day dawned it was reported that it was a great day for bird photography from the back of the boat. However, I decided being horizontal was the best option for me. I did emerge during the day to undertake the all-important biosecurity briefing and measures that we needed to adhere to. Which is critical to ensure unwanted plant species isn’t taken into this quite unique environment. The measures put in place included vacuuming our outer garments and packs to remove any errant seeds or dirt, and lessons for appropriate decontamination of boots when returning to the boat each day. 

Antarctic Convergence

In the early evening of our first day at sea we crossed over the Antarctic Convergence, or Polar Front. This is the point where we pass from the relatively warm sub-Antarctic waters of the Atlantic Ocean into to the cold Antarctic waters. Here the surface waters flow from east to west allowing the exchange of surface waters between the major oceans of the world.

Picture of Antarctic Circumpolar Current - from the Antarctic Cruising Guide  by P. Carey and C. Franklin - Fourth Edition
Photo credit: Antarctic Cruising Guide by P. Carey and C. Franklin – Fourth Edition

During this voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, I had a choice of lectures on history, environment, geology and wildlife. Which prepared me with much of what I needed to know to undertake my first landing. After two nights and a full day and a half of sailing, we arrived mid-afternoon at our first destination.

Deception Bay

The first destination was Deception Bay, which is a horseshoe shaped island, part of the South Shetland Islands. It is an active volcano that last erupted in 1970, the most recent significant seismic activity recorded in early 1992. On arrival we made our way through Neptune’s Bellows, which is a 500 metre wide channel surrounded by dramatic cliffs. Once through the Bellows we entered the caldera and anchored in Whalers Bay. We were called to the mud room to gear up and board a zodiac by our cabin location on the ship, either port or starboard. 

View of the island as we enter through Neptunes Bellows
Entering Neptunes Bellows

Once on the beach we removed our life jackets and I pulled out my camera backpack from my dry bag. Leaving the dry bag beside the life jackets I pulled out my two cameras and listened to the shore briefing. This included where I could and couldn’t walk, and environmental hazards to be aware of. Also, the departure time of the last zodiac, something I didn’t want to miss. 

Steam coming off the surface of the beach as Whalers Bay.
Whalers Bay beach looking south

What first struck me was the eerie hot and steamy mist coming of the black sand at the shoreline. Along the shoreline at the water’s edge were dead krill, cooked by the heat of the water. Apparently, this was the first time the expedition staff had seen this type of thermal activity here. Which became all the more eerie a number of days later when we heard of the eruption at White Island in New Zealand where a number of tourists died. Also, along the shoreline were a small number of Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins.

Chinstrap Penguins on the Beach at Whalers Bay.
Chinstrap Penguins

Dark History

Deception Bay has a dark history, as it was home to a whaling station between 1912 and 1931. Which is evidenced by some old whale bones and broken whale oil kegs on the southern end of the beach. Along with old buildings and boilers along the northern parts of the beach. For me the place had a sombre mood about it, with the remnants of the whaling factory a stark reminder of near decimation of members of this species.

Remnants of the Whaling Station on Deception Island
Remnants of the Whaling Station on Deception Island

For more images of Antarctica check out may gallery here

If you want some tips on what gear to take, check out my previous post here

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