Almirante Brown: An Englishman in Argentina

This was to be our last morning on land. I was filled with trepidation.

This would be my goodbye to this fragile wilderness and hello to my fragile health.

My health was fragile as we were to cross the Drake Passage after the landing.

William Brown is anathema. He was born in the 18th century in Ireland, emigrated to Philadelphia with his family as a nine year old and lost his father soon after to yellow fever. He was offered a job as a cabin boy on a steamer and worked his way up to captain. He was pressganged into fighting for the British in the Napoleonic wars. He then established and fought battles around Argentina and is an Argentinian national hero, and popularly regarded as the founder of the Argentinian navy. Then the Argentinians named a research base after him on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Vavilov with ice blowing in

The Vavilov with ice blowing in at Paradise Harbour

I often wonder how the passage of world history would have changed if it were not for the Irish that stood up to the English and the United Kingdom. Is say this because of one of my great grandparents who was Irish and who came out to South Africa to support the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War.

Paradise Harbour is a beautiful natural bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. The mouth is not too narrow but steep mountains rise up from all sides, with glaciers reaching the see in the valleys. We landed at Base Brown, and Argentinian Scientific base that was not occupied. A colony of Gentoo penguins were breeding in and around the buildings. The base had suffered a serious fire when one of the Argentinian doctor who was conscripted into military service set he base alight when a service ship did not have space to take him home after his due service. He and his team were forced to camp in tents till the next ship a few months later. The base has ugly debris in its center.

Glacier mouth in black water

Glacier mouth in black water

Most of the Vavilov’s passengers fanned around the base and up the hill to the highest point. The came tobogganing down on their backsides, whooping in excitement. Reece, her boyfriend, proposed to the ship’s doctor, Sarah, on top of the hill. There were loud whoops of joy and congratulations as the messages were relayed down the slope to the base.

The peace of Paradise harbour

The peace of Paradise harbour

I stood alone absorbing the peace and grandeur of the place. The stillness away from the passengers was intense, broken by occasional glacier calving. The sea in areas was black and reflected the glacier faces like a mirror.

Blue….

Blue….

I looked back on the sturdy Vavilov moored in the bay. It was small, but I knew I would be safe in the Drake crossing. I was just scared I would be sick. Then the bay filled with ice as the wind changed.  The winds were only supposed to pick up later in the afternoon. Back on board Boris announced that we would be making a dash for the Drake on account of some serious weather that was coming.

Oh, boy. My heart sank!

Norwegian grave stone: hidden but not forgotten….

Norwegian grave stone: hidden but not forgotten….

Ocean Notes Day 16

Ocean Notes Day 16

 

A Scintillating Afternoon in Cierva Cove

Humpback Diving in front of a glacier wall

Humpback Diving in front of a glacier wall

After lunch we entered Cierva Cove. The Vavilov moored in the bay.

We lined up eagerly on the gangway. The northern sky was a foreboding grey yet filled with texture.

Humpback whales were swimming in front of giant icebergs.

Nothing can prepare you for the beauty and peace of this land at the bottom of the world. The ice masses intrigue. From steel blue to pure white, geometric and haphazard, the shapes appear in front of your eyes and fall away as the next more beautiful piece appears.

Near a giant iceberg we slowed the zodiac and had humpback whales diving in front of us. Their deep sigh near us as they breathed out resonated somewhere in my soul. I have felt their breath before in False Bay in the Cape, but here in this wilderness I was truly honoured.

The most beautiful sight on earth?

The most beautiful sight on earth?

 

We followed another whale, then another, trying to frame the big tail as it dripped water first against a glacier face, then an iceberg and finally a black cliff. Taking pictures in the freezing cold and poor light from a kneeling position in a zodiac is not easy, but the experience was worth just being there, even without a camera.

Penguins prints in the ice

Penguins prints in the ice

 

We left the whales and made our way to the western edge of the bay, to look at giant icebergs. Along the way we saw smaller more interesting shapes and shades. We had penguins on the ice, a small group on a massive slab. Then two on a smaller block. Suddenly they became three as one flew onto the ice from the water. Penguins transform in water as pure swimming machines to land on ice  as  clumsy clowns. The transition is instant.

 

Chinstrap penguin porpoising

Chinstrap penguin porpoising

It started snowing and we headed back. We were far from the ship and were thinking up excuses for Boris, the expedition leader, to explain the delay:

 

Giant icebergs in front of a Giant Continent

Giant Icebergs in front of a Giant Continent

“Tell him we had a puncture” piped up one voice.

“No, tell him a whale breached right next to us and we nearly sank” said another.

As we joked and squinted through the sea spray and snow three Minke whales breached right next to us a few times, feeding. It was a beautiful and inspiring sight.

Back on board the Vavilov we celebrated with a whisky on glacier ice. As we steamed out of Cierva Cove we had humpback whales circle feeding on either side of the ship. The lounge erupted like a rowdy football crowd, with each side cheering as their whales breached.

 

Floating penguin troop on a n iceberg

Floating penguin troop on an iceberg

Truly, a spectacular sight.

I have no idea why we still hunt whales. Nor do I understand why we are systematically destroying our fragile earth?

Three pairs of happy feet

Three pairs of happy feet

My Travels: Gentoos Being Born

Gentoo Chicks

Gentoo Chicks

The Vavilov had sailed on the north of the South Shetland Islands because thick ice prevented us entering the Antarctic Sound.

Now we had turned and were sailing in the channel between the islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

On ether side of the ship rose towering black cliffed mountains with thick glaciers cutting the valleys right to the sea.

Inquisitive land birds: the Gentoo penguin

Inquisitive land birds: the Gentoo penguin

After a fresh smoothie from Amanda and breakfast we landed at Mikkelsen Harbour, facing the great continent. The ice and snow shone bright white in the sun, under a blue sky with small cumulus clouds dotting the horizon.

We landed amongst the debris of whalebones, geometric vertebra lying like toys in the gravel and ice blocks. I lay down to compose pictures with the ice shapes and the Gentoo Penguins came to investigate me. They were inquisitive, like short-necked giraffes; dreamy eyes stretching forward to see what was lying on the ground.

After a while I climbed a short hill to the other side of the bay, where the weathered red container structure of an Argentinian base scarred the rocky promontory. Before reaching the Gentoo colony at the base, I played around with penguins on snow highways and then moved to the colony. From there we had sight of a long highway coming straight at us down the slope, but somehow the pictures were not working.

Lost in a penguin highway

Lost in a penguin highway

Another sunny morning in the Antarctic

Another sunny morning in the Antarctic

There was a lot of excitement around the base. The penguins were not feeding but roosting on their eggs. Movement was limited. Then slowly one would bend down and nudge the speckled white egg as the chick breached the shell and came to life. We saw a few at various stages of birth. Time seemed to stand still as these noisy garrulous ungainly on land birds shifted up and moved back to allow the egg to crack and the young chick to hatch.

We had to rush back to catch the last zodiac to the ship, passing another Gentoo on the beach that was pecking at the remains of one of his kin.

On deck the sun remained low and it got much colder. The kitchen staff had put barrels on the stern and had prepared a braai (a South African barbeque). The smells were incongruous for me and as the meat came off the grill it froze to the plate in my hand. I was warm initially from the activity on Mikkelsen Harbour and did not take all my outer gear to the braai and froze. I found a protected spot and stood chatting to Luis who guides for Rock Jumper birding tours and also Suricato in South America.

As lunch wound down and people snacked on the fresh profiteroles for desert, the sky became grey and we set sail for Cervia Bay. Between the

peninsula and us we spotted 5 Orcas, about 1 kilometer off the starboard. What excitement on the ship.

Family of Orcas

Family of Orcas

 

This way, then that way

This way, then that way

 

Ocean Notes Day 14

Ocean Notes Day 14

Ocean Notes Day 15

Ocean Notes Day 15

My Travels: Halfmoon Island before Full Moon and Deception on the Vavilov

Chinstraps on a highway

Chinstraps on a highway

Penguin Highways

Penguins on snow highways. That was one of the photographs I wanted to capture, Today was the day.

After three days at sea it was exciting to be doing an excursion again. This morning we would be landing on Halfmoon Island, with three big Chinstrap Penguin Colonies, and perhaps one or two Macaroni penguins.

It was like being in grade school again. We were all very excited. Waterproof bags were shouldered with camera kit and after breakfast we loaded onto the zodiacs and landed near the wreck of an old rowing boat.

There were no seals here, just snow ice, penguin highways and penguins. I stepped of the contour highway that passed the first colony on my right. You have to step off to give the penguins right of way. I was on my knees gazing at the sheer beauty of the colony nestled on rocks stained red with regurgitated feed against a backdrop of black peaks shouldering above the white ice.

A colony on the rocky in majestic surroundings

A colony on the rocky in majestic surroundings

After a while I flopped exhausted onto my back and gazed up at the blue grey sky. Everyone passed me on foot and looked down at this crazy snowman. But I was so happy. And tired. I was exhausted by being bunk bound for so many days and not eating. But this was the new me on ice and snow.

I moved to a saddle where a few people were sitting. It was a great position as from our left we could see the penguins walking towards us along a contour, and from our right we could see the clean penguins coming up from the sea, cresting in the s-shaped path.

We made our way along the beach to another colony where we say the macaroni Penguin and many

Reaching for the sky: Chinstrap penguins

Reaching for the sky: Chinstrap penguins

young Chinstraps. We could see across the bay to glaciers carving their way through mountains reaching the sea.

It was wonderful and invigorating to be on solid land again, even if it was covered with ice. The outing broke three days of sailing and being ship bound. It was good to get back to the Vavilov and have a hot lunch.

The topic at lunch was the visit to Deception Island and the Polar Plunge. Before the trip I had thought about the raw beauty of the continent I was to see, of the explorers of the last century and of the amazing wildlife spectacles I would witness. But I had no idea that people made a thing of swimming in the icy waters. I first saw this the morning before we left when I was doing some research on the small ship I had seen from the helicopter. But I knew I would want to do something crazy like that and soon I would be.

Deception Island: Whaler's Bay - the safest harbour in the Antarctic

Deception Island: Whaler’s Bay – the safest harbour in the Antarctic 

Deception Island

Entering Whaler's Bay

Entering Whaler’s Bay

We entered Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island through a narrow gorge. More tension showed on the Russian crews’ faces. About as much tension as on the faces of the rest of us who would be doing the swim. We landed in a Mad Max world of the remains of a whaling station. This was destroyed not only by the severe climate but also by a volcanic eruption in 1970. Yes, we were in the crater of an active volcano. The air temperature was -2 °C and the water surface temperature was 2 °C but close to zero  a few centimetres below the surface. It had snowed heavily here two weeks before, and although thick snow lay on the slopes, the beach was dry with dust from the heat of the volcano. I took my gloves off and could not feel any warmth. Come to think of it, my feet were not warm either!

Marius, Steven, Johan and I walked around the bay, up onto a hill and had a relaxing afternoon of fun photography. It is important to do that in photography, because if you do not have fun your pictures die a slow death. It always amazes me how photography ( or any creative pursuit) is just like life. Best to enjoy it.

Ira Meyer (left) and me in full kit before the swim.

Ira Meyer (left) and me in full kit before the swim.

Then we met at the water’s edge for the swim. I joined the girls who would be swimming with me: Angela, Danielle and Alex.  The truth be told I could not sneak a peak at them in their bikinis because my eyes were watering.  There is only one way to do the Polar Plunge. Strip and run into the water. You have to submerge your head to qualify. I did

No looking -we just ran into the water!

No looking -we just ran into the water!

that and came up with a mouthful of sulphurous volcanic gravel.

Back on land everything froze. The wind had picked up. It was difficult to dress: numb fingers would not pull zippers, my face and head were locked in a grimace, trying to breathe but there was no warm air. I do not recall any of the pain of entering the water or submerging. Nor trying to run out onto the dry gravel. But the drying and dressing part was excruciating.

After what seemed like a full moon rise we clambered aboard the zodiac and saw whales breaching between the Vavilov and the beach. On board I had a hot shower (I declined the invitation to the sauna with the girls on account of me still searching for my manhood) but took my bottle of whisky from duty free that had not been touched for two weeks up to the bar and celebrated.

I was Polar One. Angela Polar Two. Danielle Polar Three. And Alex was Polar Four. We were crazy enough to have gone for a swim in midsummer in the Antarctic waters.

I was so happy. What a fantastic day on and about the Vavilov!

Thanks to Johan Slazus for the pictures of the Plunge.

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Certificate of Insanity!

Certificate of Insanity!

Ocean Notes Day 14

Ocean Notes Day 14