Antarctic Tour: Cruising Neko Harbour and Cancelled Landings

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale 

20 January 2012

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Iceberg wrangling Zodiac drivers endeavor to "herd" this berg away from the ship's gangway. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim's View: The Ortelius had spent the night where she had anchored yesterday evening until 2 a.m. when she had to change positions due to moving icebergs. This morning’s 6 a.m. Zodiac cruises were delayed due to small ice floes parking themselves at the foot of the gangway. Zodiacs were enlisted to push them out of the way – sort of like rounding up Antarctic cows! 

I did eventually push off with nine Zodiac cruisers for a two and a half hour trip amid some of nature’s most indescribably beauty – presented in water carved ice in hues of blue and white with occasional streaks of brown and black. No two bergs are alike and each beckoned us forward. The blue ice ranged from aquamarine swimming pools to deep navy blue which spoke of the density of the ice – nature’s calling card from water trapped in glaciers many years ago. 

After the ice, I concentrated on seals and we soon joined several other Zodiacs watching a Leopard Seal basking on a floe. These three-meter long seals have an appetite for penguins, fish, krill, and Crabeater Seal pups but so many times their eyes imply that they’d like to try some Zodiac or human fingers. Their mouth seems to arc into a perennial smile while their eyes always seem to be watching, regardless of where we were in relation to it. I wouldn’t like to be a penguin in these waters. 

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"Blue Ice" (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

We cruised further into the bay and found thicker ice and an ever growing number of Crabeater Seals. Thought to number between 40 and 70 million, these are the most abundant pinnipeds in the world. We got a sense of how common they are when we started to count up to 50 in view at any given time. The krill must be thick here since Crabeaters eat krill, not crabs as their name would imply. Many of the seals allowed close approach although we were careful to keep the appropriate minimum distance. Their dense brown fur wrinkled beautifully when they stretched or twisted which indicated the amount of fat necessary for these animals to survive when they dive deep into the Antarctic water. 

At 10 a.m., we headed back to the ship to continue our journey south. We navigated through Paradise Bay where we had Zodiac cruised on previous trips and then to the Gerlache and the entrance to the LeMaire Channel. This stretch of water is known for its narrow passage and awe-inspiring natural beauty. We weren’t disappointed. We looked ahead and saw loose pack ice but we knew it was navigable. We entered into what would be sheer paradise for the next hour and a half. The ice thickened and we soon saw many loafing Crabeater Seals and the occasional Leopard Seal. The sound of the ship’s hull breaking through the ice was haunting, but certainly matched the mood of the moment. 

At the southern end of the passage the ice became much thicker and leads were few. It was readily apparent that we couldn’t do our scheduled landing at Petermann Island. We saw the landing site and saw the penguins waiting for us but the only way we could get there was by walking – no, out of the question – that would have been two steps forward and then into the icy water. Ted and Hugh hatched an alternate plan, which turned into one of the most memorable evening landings in my years of visiting the great white south. We headed north back through the LeMaire Channel (a bonus – two LeMaire passages in brilliant weather) and then slightly west and south to the southwest side of Booth Island. We had visited here twice before but had always accessed the island from the east. 

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The entrance to the LeMaire Channel. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

I scrambled ashore and headed to the penguin colony – my task was to find the best photo ops for nesting Chinstraps and Adelies amid the multitude of Gentoos. Booth Island is one of very few locations where all three brushtail penguins – Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap, breed. It was fairly easy to locate the right spot, but the walk through the two-foot deep snow was difficult. I shouldn’t have eaten dessert before the landing! The lighting was phenomenal. Everyone who eventually arrived at the spot had nothing but huge smiles – we knew that we were witnesses to some of the best weather that the Antarctic could deliver. We stayed as long as we could – the sun slowly setting and painting an even more vivid picture with oranges and reds cascading across the evening sky. We finally had to return to the ship at 11 p.m. – the end of a very long and glorious Antarctic day. 

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(Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Ann's View: There was a whirlwind of activity for the passengers today, starting with a landing before breakfast. We were off into the Zodiacs before 6 a.m. to get close and personal with icebergs, and possibly some of the wildlife. While those who hadn’t yet set foot on the Antarctic continent, landing was a priority; for the rest of us, blue ice was the draw. We cruised around Neko Harbour for about two and a half hours, weighing down our cameras with the pixels of thousands of photographs. 

The Zodiac that I was in didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but others reported up to three Leopard Seals and dozens of Crabeater Seals.  The excitement of some of the passengers’ seventh continental landing proved a bit much for one person on board who managed to hit his head on a doorframe while rushing into a hallway. Dropped flat on his back as his feet kept going while his head stopped, he became the subject of a few photos and breakfast conversation. It’s a good thing the Ortelius has a doctor on staff! (The passenger is fine, if a little embarrassed and sore.)  

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Crabeater Seals were among the most common wildlife as we cruised about Neko Harbour. This species is the most abundant pinniped on Earth. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

During breakfast, the Ortelius got underway to our southernmost location, Peterman Island. The route would take us through the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage of intensely beautiful scenery, both above and below the ship. Sea ice had only recently broken up, so we were surrounded by floes of all different shapes and sizes. The sun came out and provided stunning views of the surrounding mountains, still deep in snow.  

As we continued south, it became clear that a landing at Peterman wasn’t going to be possible. We would have needed Zodiacs with skis to traverse the distance between the ship and the shore. The sea ice was thick, although broken up, but there was barely enough room for a penguin to swim, let alone push ten boats ashore. So we did the logical thing—turned around and went through the Lemaire Channel again, heading north to Booth Island and the only landing site where all of the bristletail penguins share a colony. 

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Thickening ice shelved a planned landing at Peterman Island. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

The afternoon’s entertainment included watching several of the Russian crew go for a little swim off the gangway. The water is -2 C, so a little swim is actually a bit of an exaggeration. It was really just a plunge into the ocean, and then an assisted return to the gangway and back to the warmth of the ship. Hats off to the crew who made this brave, if somewhat foolish, dip in the southern ocean! Brrrrr!  

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There are "polar bear" swims and then there's just plain crazy. Our Russian crew members bailed off the boat into Antarctic waters that were -2C (28F). BRR... (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

The landing at Booth Island took place after dinner, so we were off the ship in the early morning and again until after sunset. The sun sets around 11 p.m., but it doesn’t get dark at all through the night. The climb to the colony was our first on snow, and the warning of the day was to not leave “postholes”—deep divots where we sunk into the snow—as these could potentially trap a penguin. As promised, we were able see Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins on nests, and my first Chinstrap chicks. The sun was going down towards the end of this landing, and the colors on the snow and the sky were fantastic. Many more pixels were heavy-laden by the time we returned to the ship.

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Hi!

Were the Russian crewmembers celebrating Theophany?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/theophany-2012-orthodox-epiphany-photos_n_1219137.html

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I don’t know, but they were sure celebrating the warmth inside the ship after their swims!

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