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I am in the process of changing our blogs of completed journeys into logs, so they read in chronological order -- Kate

Antarctica 2008

On board are Kate, Hamish, Tony, Coryn, Pam, Ron, Sheila, and Roger

19 February 2008 -- Caleta Margarita

SEAL is anchored tonight in a calm bay, Caleta Margarita, in the east end of the Beagle Channel off Navarino Island. Today is the second day of excellent weather and the second stop as we get used to the sailing routine. Preparations for passing Cape Horn and on to Crossing the Drake Passage are now complete. The windows are battened down (the glass windows are covered with lexan doubler windows) and the emergency briefing is finished. No one seasick yet ... so far. The sail from Puerto Williams today could not have been better. Smooth waters, little tide against us, bright sunshine and a steady N - NW wind that gradually headed us as we approached the end of the Beagle Canal.

The weather south of Cape Horn tonight is forecast to be forty to fifty knots with gusts to ninety knots, so we will wait for it to calm down. Tomorrow is expected to be better, with the weather increasing as we get closer to the Antarctic Peninsula.

To date, we have seen penguins, seals, cormorants, black browed albatross, giant petrels, kelp geese and rainbows.

-- Sheila and Tony

21 February 2008 -- Caleta Martial

We are anchored off a long sandy beach in Caleta Martial on Isla Herschel, about ten miles due north of Cape Horn. The barometer has dropped 12 millibars in the past 24 hours as an intensifying low passes to the South along the Drake Passage.

We left Caleta Margarita yesterday morning expecting a three - four day passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. The first fifty miles across Bahia Nassau started out with a fine downwind sail, wing and wing, making seven plus knots. Unfortunately the wind steadily shifted to the SW and strengthened and forecasts downloaded during the afternoon showed that if we kept going we would have to deal with head winds gusting 35-40 knots as we transitted the shallow waters south of Cape Horn. Rather than confront these conditions early in the trip, we decided to change course and sit out the next 24 hours in Caleta Martial.

It turned out to be a good call. All afternoon, the wind has been gusting 30 from the SW with driving rain. The forecast NW winds for tomorrow morning should give us a much easier time in the Drake Passage. All's well on board - good food, games of Scrabble, and lots of good chat.

-- Tony and Coryn

23 February 2008 -- at sea, 54:49S 65:32W

[A rough passage precluded blogging!]

24 February 2008 -- at sea, 63:69S 64:90W

Quiet day now .. wind coming more on the nose, but lessening considerably. About to pick up the GRIBS. It is considerably colder than it was yesterday ... what with the SW wind and wind more forward than it was.

After a passage of continual gale force winds and clouds, we had an amazing night last night ... clearish skies and extremely bright stars and moon. It was a pleasure to be helming. We kept watch on the radar for icebergs, but didn't see any.

25 February 2008 -- 64:19S 62:55W

We've arrived in the Melchior Islands... an amazing end to the passage ... we had almost continuous gale force winds from either the west or northwest the whole time, turning to SW and clearing this morning. It was a splendid landfall, first Mount Francais peeking through the clouds and then gradually the shape of Anvers and Brabant Islands coming clear. We sailed almost all the way in -- we'd made nearly the entire distance under sail apart from a few hours of motoring the first night -- probably a record for us! We built the dinghy while coming in and anchored and put two lines ashore and then had lunch in the cockpit.

We've now disinfecting gear and getting ready to go ashore for the first time. There are fur seals on the beach, but they are very sleepy and relaxed ... very unlike the ones we last saw in South Georgia.

26 February 2008 -- Melchior Islands -- 64:19 South, 62:55 West

We lie peacefully triangulated between anchor and two lines tied to shore across a sheltered passage between Omega and Eta Islands. All now in stark contrast to the very much larger Drake Passage, we have thankfully crossed. Enough said. The ride in to the Melchior Islands was stunning -- sunny skies, light winds behind us, deep, high but gentle swells to the sea and the most amazing ice bound mountain scenery unfolding before us as we rode in at 6-7 knots. Our Antarctic Peninsula travels now begin.

From a sailing perspective, the crossing of the Drake Passage couldn't have been better. The shifting west winds from the passing lows and fronts gave us a variety of sailing from wing and wing to close reach but the wind was always there and Seal had a great sail. The Drake lived up to its reputation of strong winds (30-45 knots), big seas, driving sleet and rain. Not much fun for those stricken with mal de mer, but a fast, three day passage. We were lucky. Huey was kind!

Pam's celebration of her birthday with a video of her kids singing happy birthday, birthday cake, candles, and Argentinian champagne and calm waters and NO seasickness. Great birthday.

The two hind legs of the port lamb have been consumed (there are two lambs hanging on the gantry, well salted on the passage).

-- Tony and Roger

gentoo penguin and chick

Gentoo Penguin and chick
© Hamish Laird (archive)

Ronge Island, Antarctica

Penguin rookery with Ronge Island in the background
© Hamish Laird (archive)

26 February 2008 -- Dorian Bay -- 64 : 49 South 063 : 30 West

For an Antarctic summer that has apparently been awful, we are lucky to awake to a second day of bright sun. Temps are about 40F / 4C.

Heading on south, our entry into the Schollart Strait is like entering into a Narnia story. The view ahead is a breathtaking world of mountains and glaciers rising on both sides of the strait, with the world behind disolving into a hazy mist of greys, closing off the world behind. (The haze was actually a Nwester that was following us.)

The ice bergs change and morph as you sail past them. Some look like Henry Moore sculptures. Distance is deceiving due to the extremely clear air and lack of usual scale, like trees. Mountains we guess to be 15 miles away are actually 35.

Four cruise ships, in a variety of sizes, head north, a sign of the growing tourism here.

Port Lockroy is our destination today. It's an old British WWII station cum research station, now a historic site. Pengins are everywhere in various states of molt. One fluffy chick comes and pecks inquisitively at Sheila's boot.

Anchored in a near-by bay, we feast on another wonderful meal produced by Kate, featuring BBQ'd Argentinian beef and wine. We watch the sun set on the local peaks and watch the penguins slowly climb the snow slope for the night.

Tomorrow, Vernadsky, (we hope ... ed.) but we never mention our ETA, which we have learned the gods consider a sign of human hubris.

-- Pam

27 February, Stella Creek, Argentine Islands

The morning started warm (for Antarctica) and calm, the water dead flat. The penguins ashore still standing idly around with an occasional hilarious waddle to a new position. Most of the party went ashore to be among them, and to explore two survival huts, one British, the Argentinian. Roger remained on board, given the rare opportunity to try a water color: a study in white on white and subtle shades of gray, turquoise, and neutral tint.

yacht seal sailing toward Lemaire channel, Antarctica

SEAL sailing toward the Lemaire Channel in the Antarctic Peninsula
©Hamish Laird

We began today's journey through mirror-flat water, gradually rippling up, passing through quite the most magical world. The sky cleared of cloud and we could not believe our luck as we motored and then sailed through narrow channels through towering and astonishingly beautiful white, black and white mountains, close by on either side: Neumayer Channel, Lemaire Channel, and Penola Strait to our destination tonight where we are tied up within the Argentine Islands. This is home to the original British research station 'Faraday" where the ozone hole was discovered. It is now operated by the Ukraine which carries on monitoring ozone, magnetic activity, and snow melt among other things. The good weather continues to advance south with us while the bad (60 knots of wind!) remains to the north. We're in the right place.

-- Roger

28 February 2008, Grandidier Channel

While we're having a terrific visit to Antarctica so far this season, and we couldn't ask for a better group aboard, helping out with everything, and in good humor all the time, this trip has not been all rosy. Too often we are seeing brutal examples of the effect of climate change on the peninsula. Hamish has been coming here steadily over the last twenty years, Kate for the last ten, and in each anchorage, we see examples of retreating glaciers and further melting. Great swaths of snow are now dirty with pink and green algae - bits of snow have always been tinted, but where there's been severe melting, the color is much darker, since the algae doesn't melt and simply becomes more concentrated. As the color darkens, melting accelerates, and when the dark rock is exposed, the glacial edges retreat even faster.

severe melting in Dorian Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

We saw severe melting in Dorian Bay - marked change from February 26 last year
© Hamish Laird

sea ice in Penola Strait 2000, Antarctic Peninsula

There was no sea ice like this in the summer of 2008
© Hamish Laird
(archive, Jan 2000)

This picture to the right shows Dorian Bay in 2008. Before 2000, when we came at this season of the year, this part of the beach was usually snow covered. This season has been unusually rainy ... at Port Lockroy we were told that the entire season had been wet, and that the pack ice had never formed up in its usual quantity this season. Krill survive the Antarctic winter by feeding on the algae that grows on the underside of the sea ice, and if the pack doesn't form, they have no food. Krill is the keystone species for this entire region. There are very few steps in the Antarctic food chain - even the biggest predators often eat krill as some percentage of their diet. Only the orcas don't partake directly - and they are only one step removed.

We met two underwater wildlife film makers yesterday and they had been filming leopard seals eating krill all season (they will switch to penguins when the young ones molt in the next few weeks and start to swim.)

Other observers have told us that the krill and wildlife is concentrated unusually far south this year. Seals and whales can move with ease between the regions, and change their range to suit annual conditions. But penguins are creatures of habit, and they return to the same colonies year after year. So, as long as the krill can survive, the seals and whales should be able to find them, but it will be harder for the penguins.

Fortunately, the penguins are doing well this season, at least at Port Lockroy. With the rain that they had in the past few months, they said they expected the population of chicks to be decimated, but the chicks have done quite well this year. (Chicks often die of exposure if they are rained on, as their down has evolved to cope with snow but not rain. But perhaps (and this is pure speculation), it was simply not cold enough to kill the chicks, even with all the rain).

Over all, it has grown steadily warmer on the peninsula over the last 20 years. We've expanded our range of anchorages, because the glaciers have retreated leaving behind bare rock where we can tie shore lines. There are normal seasonal variations in sea ice cover, and the time of the ice break up is largely dependant on spring storms, but the trend is clear.

-- Kate

28 February 2008, Grandidier Channel

I wrote the entry above this morning and then went to cook lunch. I realized I'd forgotten to pull a bottle of olive oil out of the bilge, and as any one who cooks on a yacht down here or in Tierra del Fuego will know, this is a big mistake: olive oil should be frozen solid in the bilge, and it normally takes a day or so at cabin temperature to thaw out. I pulled out the oil, and it was completely liquid. This in our uninsulated, unpainted aluminum bilge. It should be about 33 F / 0.5 C. We hauled up a bucket of sea water and measured it: 40 F / 4.5 C. This is a huge change from last year. The water here in the Grandidier Channel is warmer than the waters 400 miles farther north at Cape Horn. No wonder the ice is disappearing before our eyes.

-- Kate

humpback whale and yacht Seal

A humpback whale alongside Seal
© Hamish Laird (archive)

humpback whale and yacht Seal at the bow

A humpback whale alongside Seal
© Hamish Laird (archive)

28 February, Mutton Cove, 66 : 00 South 065 : 39 West

It's a day of change. We are doing what we call the "long portage" leaving the cruise boats and madding crowd behind. The day gradually turns from hazy to gray, but a pale robin's egg blue sky in the south continues to draw us forward.

The snow is deeper, the icebergs are huge, and there is no wind. We motor. It's colder.

What we don't have in scenery we get in humpback whales. One pair are particularly curious and they circle the boat, their white flippers showing sea green right by the boat.

Last night we were treated to a tour of the Ukranian Research station, Vernadsky - the whole lot purchased from the British in 1996 for 1.00 on the condition that they continue to monitor the ozone and other geo-physical experiments. The other research stations have a more biologically-centered focus, so their role in Antarctica is somewhat unique.

They "receive" us after nine pm and a young member of the thirteen-man team is given the job of giving us a tour. His English is much better than our Ukranian and we are able to understand the gist of what they are doing.

At the end of the tour, we retire to the bar, a leftover from the Brits with a fake Tudor beamed ceiling. We are served homemade vodka and some elegantly shaped bananas and oranges. It is done with great generosity and warmth and we are charmed.

Tonight, we are in Mutton Cove, a little hidey-hole with a few Adelie penguins. This has great sentimental value for Tony and Coryn for whom this was their turning around point when they sailed here on their yacht "Taonui" nearly ten years ago. Then, they had to push through ice to get here and awoke to five inches of snow on the deck. We shall see what morning brings for us. Tonight we are at 66 degrees south "and a titch" according to Tony. Tomorrow we hope to cross the Antarctic Circle.

-- Pam

29 February -- 66 : 59 South 067 : 23 West

It seems somehow appropriate that today - leap year's day - we crossed the Antarctic Circle. This is the line produced by the tilt of the Earth's axis, at which there is just one 24 hour period of sunlight in summer and one full day of night in winter. The event is celebrated by opening champagne precisely on passing latitude 66 deg 33 seconds. The "opening" is dramatic. Our skipper Hamish has mastered the art of deftly striking the neck and cork a sliding blow with an axe. The whole top of the neck, cork attached, flies off and lands on the pilot house, leaving a clean cut to the glass and dropped jaws on the spectators.

The sailing has not been dramatic. The wind "is behind" but not enough to move the boat much. The mountains of the peninsula stretch continuously in jagged procession as we motor through a gentle sea studded with weird, wonderful, and stately icebergs. A young minke whale is sighted. The engine is cut. We float while the great elegant mammal swims curiously around us, blowing, rising and diving in rhythmic arcs a few feet away. Humpbacks are known to investigate yachts like this. It is rarer behavior for minkes.

The retreat of ice in these parts is a frequent topic of conversation. Tony and Coryn fought through ice to get to Mutton Cove ten years ago, which was then covered with snowbanks in summer. Today both land and water is clear. The ice runway at Dorian Bay has melted considerably. Our route as plotted goes right by an ice piedmont or glacier shelf, yet the calving ice face is probably two miles away. Chart error or piedmont retreat?

We look into a potential anchorage at Detaille, an abandoned survey station and decide it to be too rough, so we make for open water, take the sails down and lie ahull. We float untethered for the night.

-- Roger

More from this voyage:

1-5 March

6-19 March

South Georgia 2007

November 27 - December 7

November 20 - November 26

November 14 - November 19

November 9 - November 13

October 5 - November 8

Blog Archives:

Antarctica 2007 Blog