Drake Passage and Antarctic Experience
February 4, 2023 – enroute the Antarctic Peninsula via the Drake Passage
The ship did depart Ushuaia and continued easterly down the Beagle Channel towards the southeastern tip of South America. The seas were initially calm, but by 0800 we were in the Drake Passage proper. The Drake Passage is notorious for strong westerly winds and large seas. There are no landmasses further south except for Antarctica, so nothing to impede the wind and seas. The water depth averages 11,000 feet. The body of water is named after Sir Francis Drake, but he never actually crossed the passage. We passed 30 miles abeam of Cape Horn about 0930.
Entering the open ocean, the seas increased, along with winds of more than 40 knots. There was a large westerly swell averaging 5 meters, with at times an occasional 10 meter swell, with wind driven seas of 4+ meters. Theses conditions persisted until late afternoon when the winds decreased, but the large swell persisted overnight. The ship’s stabilizers really got a workout since the wind and seas were just aft of the starboard beam.
February 5, 2023 – Approaching the Antarctic Peninsula
The swells decreased somewhat overnight and at 0430 we crossed 60 degrees South and the Antarctic convergence zone. At about 1230 we entered Nelson Strait and proceeded into Eduardo Frei Montalvo Station on King George Island to pick up polar jackets (Courtesy of Seabourn Venture) for those guests still without jackets. Snow squalls greeted our arrival at the anchorage. By 1900 we were complete with that stop and began the overnight voyage to Portal Point, our destination for the next day. Traveling in the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, in most areas there is a 10 knot speed limit to help protect numerous Humpback Whales, which are feeding on the rich krill here during the Antarctic summer.
Eduardo Frei Station
February 6, 2023 – Portal Point, Antarctic Peninsula
Portal Point received it’s name since it is named as the gateway to a overland route to the Antarctic Plateau. In 1956, a hut was established here by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. Arriving at 0800, it took the expedition team a while to sort out zodiac problems and identify suitable locations for kayaking. Portal Point is located on the Antarctic Peninsula itself, our only chance to actually step on the Antarctic continent. Nonetheless, we finally started going ashore and Patrick started his first kayak excursion this trip. The weather was a little windy and choppy, with very little wildlife, but we did see a glacier calving while in the kayaks. There were no penguins, but there were both Weddell and Crab Eater seals, as well as Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls and Skuas.
Weddell Seal, Portal Point
Crabeater Seal, Portal Point
The weather deteriorated enough (and since the ship was 2-3 miles from the landing sites) that the final kayaking excursion was cancelled and it was a wet ride from shore back to the ship. However, everyone who wanted to go ashore was given the opportunity, including some of the crew.
This is not the furthest south we will go, however we are now at 64 degrees 30 minutes south latitude.
February 7, 2023 – Melchior Bay
We entered Melchior Bay, formed by a group of islands known as the Melchior Islands and the site of an inactive Argentina research station. The bay was reasonably protected from the wind and swells we had experienced overnight.
Peaceful waters in Melchior Bay
Inactive Argentine Research Station, Melchior Bay
Fur Seal scratching with his flipper, Melchior Bay
Patrick was once again on an early morning kayak excursion, where we saw one solitary Chinstrap Penguin, a number of fur seals, Blue Eyed Shags, Kelp Gulls and Antarctic Terns. The afternoon zodiac excursion was underwhelming, cruising along the opposite shoreline from our kayaking route, with few wildlife sightings except for fur seals, and two Weddell seals.
February 8, 2023 – Cuverville Island
Cuverville Island is in Errera Channel and is home to the largest single colony of Gentoo Penguins in Antarctica, some 6500 breeding pairs. The island was discovered by the Belgium Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899 led by Adrien de Gerlache who named it after a French vice admiral, J.M.A. Cavelier de Cuverville. The island has been designated an important Bird Area by Bird Life International. Other birds such as Imperial Shags and Southern Giant Petrels also nest here.
Weather is predicted to be windy, so there was to be a early and shortened day when the wind arrived. However, operations started at 0700, when the wind was light. Patrick was in the first group for kayaking, which started from a beach below a small Gentoo Penguin colony on Ronge Island, at 64 degrees 40 minutes south latitude. The excursion started by following the shore of Ronge Island and then heading east towards Cuverville Island through massive floating bergs and past a Danish sailboat anchored in the lee of Cuverville Island. Our route then went around Shipwreck Island, with a derelict small boat and a number of seabirds such as Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, and even a few Gentoo Penguins, as well a several fur seals.
Kayaking at Cuverville Island
There are massive chains still draped around the small island, left over from before WW1 and used by the Norwegian whale factory ships before the market for whale oil collapsed after the discovery of synthetic oil and chemicals after WW1. The whale oil was a component used in making Nitroglycerin.
We then paddled around some small bergs and practiced paddling in brash ice, taking some time to sit quietly in our kayaks and meditate on the experience and the location before recovering into the Zodiac for a wet ride back to the ship.
The wind had started to increase, but Patrick changed out of the dry suit into the antarctic parkas, boots and waterproof pants and headed back to Cuverville Island for a brief closeup look at the Gentoo Penguins with a number of large gray puffy chicks. After about 20 minutes the wind really increased and at 1015 we were all recalled to the ship and all further shore operations were cancelled, since the wind was now gusting to 50 knots and the seas were building quickly. After a really wet ride, we returned safely to the ship and watched as the expedition team gathered up the rest of the guests from both the beach and the kayak excursion. It took another 120 minutes, with winds now gusting to 70 knots, to get all the guests back on board and all the zodiacs and kayaks recovered.
Gentoo Penguin and chick
We steamed slowly north out of Errera Channel into Gerlache Strait, destination unknown for the time being.
At the 1830 recap briefing the new destination of Hope Bay on Antarctic Sound at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula was announced. Hope Bay has a large Adelie Penguin colony which we saw briefly in 2016, before katabatic winds suddenly began gusting to 50+ knots in the space of just a few minutes, and all the zodiacs were recalled.
The wind and seas continued to be unfavorable all night as we steamed northeast in Bransfield Strait past King George Island.
Thursday, Feb 9, 2023 – At Sea
Our hopes for zodiac excursions and kayaking at Hope Bay were dashed since the weather had not improved as expected and waiting for improvements would have affected the timing of our planned stop at South Georgia Island. Visibility was poor, it was raining, winds and seas were well beyond the operational limits for shore operations, so the Captain and Expedition Leader made the call about 0800 to turn around and head for scenic cruising around Elephant Island, famous for it’s role in Shackleton’s voyage as the island on which the majority of his crew waited while Shackleton sailed to South Georgia to mount a rescue operation.
Heading to Elephant Island we passed a number of impressive tabular icebergs.