The Seal Reports
Cape Horn 2007
See Steve Colgate's Offshore Sailing School website for the log of our January trip in Tierra del Fuego
Our guests kept a blog as well ... read it at Antarctica2007
4 March 2007 - "We've arrived at Caleta Martial after a slow sail past Cape Horn ... not the most dramatic, but since an unheard of 3 of our number are Real Cape Horners (having rounded the Horn without stopping, sailing from Rio to Wellington), it was lovely to just ghost past, drink champagne and enjoy the moment.
"Everyone is ashore running on the beach ... I'm aboard tending the heater (we don't leave the diesel heater on when we leave the boat) and I'm supposed to be cooking dinner, but since the water is seriously hot, I might take the luxury of the first one in the shower instead.
"I think it may have been the easiest Drake Passage we've ever had. Full main and jib nearly the entire way ..."
3 March 2007 (Drake Passage, 26 miles to Cape Horn) "Cape Horn in sight. We're sailing again after a night of motoring in very light winds. Jib poled out and Cape Horn appearing under the pole ... There's a wandering albatross and a gray headed albatross flying near the boat and a Pintado Petrel humming past right next to the boat, but far less bird life than we remember from previous years. The Wandering Albatross nesting population has halved in the last 30 years in South Georgia, which is the primary breeding site. They are under continual threat from longline fishing ... an albatross is killed every five minutes by a longline fishing boat - that's 100,000 a year, which is a far bigger hit than the species can possibly survive.
"The sad thing is, it is relatively easy to stop killing the albatross by sinking the fishing lines as they leave the boat. In last year's legal fishery around South Georgia, with observers on every boat, not a single albatross was taken by the South Georgia licensed boats. The problem is the poachers who are hard to find in the vast Southern Ocean and several South American countries have not adopted the policies to protect the albatross in their licensed fisheries, even though sinking the lines is quite a cheap and simple solution, which doesn't affect the fish catch in any way.
"When a Wandering Albatross is killed by a fishing line, there can be a three-fold effect. Females are killed in far higher numbers than males because of their fishing range tends to take them into more heavily fished areas than the males. If there is a chick on the nest, the chick will die, because one parent can't possibly feed the enormous chicks (they reach the size of an adult before fledging and fishing on their own). Wandering Albatross used to mate for life, but even though that may be changing, with more females dying than males, it will be enormously difficult for the species to survive.
"Last season, Ellen MacArthur tried to raise the profile of the threat to the Wandering Albatross, and spent two weeks working with Sally Poncet who has been studying the albatrosses in South Georgia since the 70s, but even Ellen MacArthur's name hasn't managed to attract enough attention to the plight of the albatrosses. I watched one interview she gave where the interviewer said basically, who cares; they're not as cute as dolphins ... to people looking at photos of them on land, sure they look like big seagulls, but no one who has ever seen them soar past a boat in the Southern Ocean would agree.
"Their wing span can be greater than 3 meters - Seal's breadth is only 4.9 meters - and they soar effortlessly past us as we struggle through the Southern Ocean, they use the winds to their advantage, only coming to land when the winds are weak and won't support their flight. Their range is extraordinary ... one albatross was tracked by GPS and covered 25,000 miles in 9 weeks ... their average speed is 55 km/hr ... much of the time they travel at more than 85 km / hr ... we always feel privileged when they slow down to circle the boat ... Seal is travelling at 12.2 km / hr right now ... our top speed is about 20 km / hr on our Dacron wings.
"We haven't seen any old Wandering Albatrosses on this trip ... they are easily distinguishable from the immatures and younger adults which have far more brown/black on their upper wings. My understanding of it is that black wings are more "costly" to produce but are much tougher ... so worthwhile for an immature albatross still learning to negotiate 50 knot winds, whereas the old albatross have entirely white wings ... their flying skill is so great, that there is no longer any need for black feathers.
"Wandering Albatrosses were almost driven to extinction early in the century by sealers clubbing them for food, but they largely recovered from that until the toothfish fisheries moved into the Southern Ocean.
"Between us, we've sailed several 100,000 miles in the Southern Ocean .... Hamish has made 15 trips to Antarctica, and several to South Georgia, and he's done deliveries between Cape Horn and New Zealand and South Africa; I've put in 4 trips to Antarctica and one to South Georgia and covered the other side from Sydney to Cape Town ... Simon [has] sailed through the Southern Ocean twice the wrong way [against the wind], and Kiki and Stu have circumnavigated once and Kate O'Connell has sailed from Sydney to Cape Town. We're all quite proud of the miles we've done in the Southern Ocean ... they weren't easy miles. It is no wonder then, that we feel so much about these birds that soar past us with such ease, and can accomplish all our miles put together in a single season in the Furious Fifties. If they're given the chance, they live for more than 60 years in this Southern Ocean we dare dabble in."
See Hamish's albatrass photos (click on "South Georgia Albatrosses Slide Show")
2 March 2007 (Drake Passage) "meandering along in very light winds ... 5 knots or so with 10 knots of apparent wind. motored much of last night as wind went completely calm. good to be sailing again, if not very fast. Typical! The wind was fine [yesterday evening], so I ran the charging motor for an hour to top up the batteries before nightfall, when the wind stopped and we had to turn the main engine on anyway about fifteen minutes after stopping the charging motor!
"All the Christmas cake has been consumed (a friend of ours introduced us to Christmas cake as the best night watch snack, so I made some in Antarctica over the Refleks heater). On to flapjack, which I have hidden from the marauding hordes..."
2 March 2007 (Drake Passage) "Sailing along at 8.2 knots ... 26 knots of wind ... perfect. good night last night with quite a few snow squalls. we left Melchior [Island] at midday yesterday, and could see the mountains of Brabant and Anvers and Smith Island all the way until sunset. Anvers and Brabant glowed gold pink in the sunset ... passed by a cruise ship in the middle of the night ... it was so lit up in the early evening that we could see it when it was still more than 24 miles away ..."
1 March 2007 (Melchior Islands) "we had an amazing day yesterday -- bright clear skies when we set off and then snow all afternoon. We're now snug in Melchior, after a pancake breakfast, and we're now doing the last minute things to get ready to head off for Cape Horn ... lexan storm boards are going on the windows, last minute things are being stored and we'll plan to head off about midday."
28 Feb 2007 (Dorian Cove) -- "more leopard seal watching ... then we had the leopard seal watching us which was a bit alarming ... We had taken the engine off the dinghy so we could haul it up on the beach well above the leopard seal line, so we were paddling into the shore when a wake appeared on the surface behind us .... we paddled much more quickly into the beach than ever before.... It was a good seal spotting day - there was a female elephant seal hauled up on the rocks, and after a while a Weddell Seal came up, slowly over the rocks, to find a snow patch where it could sleep amongst the penguins.
"We're off to Melchior Islands today; planning to leave tomorrow morning for the Drake."
27 Feb 2007 (Dorian Cove) -- "We watched a leopard seal hunting for hours yesterday. It would come into the shallows and hump up its back to look like a rock and wait for a penguin to come in. Once the penguins were nervous, it moved to another side of the cove and try the trick there. The other behavior we haven't seen is penguins ganging up on skuas and giant petrels. Yesterday a gang of penguins ran a skua off their patch and this morning I watched a dozen penguins chase a giant petrel around their snow patch ... they didn't give up until the giant petrel retreated to the rocks.
"Later: the raised saloon paid off ... we actually saw the leopard seal pick up a penguin (sad to see all its fellows turn their backs on the sea and look away while the seal backed off with the penguin). He stayed underwater for about five minutes, before surfacing on his way out of the bay ... he seems to take it around the other side of the point to do the skinning ... perhaps he is trying not to alarm the other penguins? He moved to the same site yesterday for his meal."
26 Feb 2007 (Dorian Cove) -- "We came into Port Lockroy and ... went ashore to see the museum (and the gift shop!) Rick was there with his girlfriend and two others who had done the whole season ... they were shattered. Last year they had 10,000 visitors; this year they had 16,000. They've done an amazing job restoring the hut ... even to the old wool thermals hanging over the old (non used) stove, and Rick put on 1950s music on the wind up gramophone.... Everyone enjoyed seeing the penguins so close up - IAATO recommendations are to stay 5 meters away from any wildlife, but here the penguin colony is right on the path going up to the hut, and the colony is totally accustomed to humans.... We could see the chicks (which are huge now) feeding right close up, and then they ran right between us, with the chick chasing the parent around the rocks trying to get more food.
"We went back to the boat for dinner and pisco sours in honor of Simon's birthday ... and woke at 6 [a.m.] to find the ice packing in around the boat. It was so still that the ice didn't chink against the hull as it usually does -- the glacier behind Port Lockroy is calving at an enormous rate and the ice was all the sludge from ice falls, so it was able to get into us.... We can't drive the dinghy through tight ice, so we had to launch the dinghy on top of the ice and then pull forward on the shore line to clear water and then walk around the cove to release our stern lines. Good rousing way to start the morning."
25 Feb 2007 (Dannebrog Islands) -- "We motored up here from Mutton yesterday without a breath of wind ... as soon as we reached Penola Strait, we were back into the land of humpbacks. I was quite excited because we came upon a humpback and calf who had dark tops on their pectoral fins. Typically, Atlantic humpbacks have almost all white fins and Pacific humpbacks have black tops and white underside.... Then we met up with a boat with whale researchers on board who are doing tagging and biopsies of all the whales to see where they go in the winter.... Their transmitters will be on for 100 days or so, so hopefully they'll have an idea by then whether there are many different populations down here....
"Shortly after that, we met up with a leopard seal, which did lazy acrobatics around the boat for almost half an hour, including porpoising almost completely out of the water many times. We then came into the Dannebrog Islands. Simon sat on the spreaders and looked for rocks, and we sneaked in to a channel between the islands ... When we'd been down here before, these islands were more heavily ice capped, and so no [yachts] came out here because there weren't enough rocks showing [to fasten the] shore lines. We managed to find four pretty good rocks in our cove (it's hard to find good rocks to tie to when an area has been heavily glaciated, because the glacier polishes them all leaving nothing to hold a rock strop.)"
23 Feb 2007, (Mutton Cove) "We'd hoped to take on water [yesterday], but it was the coldest morning so far.... another one of the crystal clear days with all the surrounding water glittering with icebergs. By noon, the rivulet had started again, so Hamish and Simon set up the hoses and we filled the tanks while eating lunch on deck and then during the early afternoon ... Kiki was reading on deck - not a usual sight in the Antarctic - and [the crew] went tobogganing, using the rock strop bag as a toboggan. When the water was full, we took in the shore lines and motored about five miles off to Mutton Cove.... It's sleeting/ snowing now, and we're planning to watch [a video] Irving Johnson Around Cape Horn today."
22 Feb 2007, 66:01S 65:24W (Flounder Island) - "We had a long motor through a fair amount of ice and bright sunshine yesterday. Stu helmed some of the way in shorts! I even passed an hour or so on deck in a t-shirt, which I've certainly never managed before in Antarctica. We have definitely entered a new environment down here ... we have left the Gentoo penguins behind and moved into the land of the Adelie penguins. There is generally less wildlife around here, though we saw a leopard seal sharing an ice flow with five Crabeater seals and three Humpbacks. Having just seen a leopard seal dragging a crabeater carcass around, I was surprised to see them all sleeping so peacefully.
"This is my [Kate's] farthest south ... great to be coming into new territory. We arrived at the anchorage and first moored up with an anchor and a stern line while we set up rock strops ... once they were ready, we let go the stern line and got rid of the anchor, so we're now moored up with just four lines ashore ... we were reluctant to leave the anchor out where an iceberg might sit on top of it. Ice is streaming past the anchorage at a great rate, but relatively little has come into our nook."
20 Feb 2007, (Vernasky, Argentine Islands) -- "We had an amazing morning of penguin viewing at Pleneau ... We always say to people that the best way to view penguins is to go find a comfortable spot and sit down and wait for them to approach... Kate O'Connell took it a step farther and lay down on a rock and didn't move a muscle for about half an hour. Three penguin chicks (quite big now ... they are as big as their parents but still fluffy or a mix of fluffy and swimming feathers) came over to inspect her - one even tried to jump on her back! After lunch we headed off for Vernadsky, as it is the snuggest spot around and we are expecting to get some highish winds tonight. This is the ex British base Faraday, which the Ukranians bought from BAS for one pound. Today we'll stay here and explore Wordie Hut which is set up as a museum and probably head farther south tomorrow."
19 Feb 2007 (Hovgaard / Pleneau) -- "motoring through lots of ice yesterday and a fine view of Cape Renard .... Lots of seals and a minke whale viewing. We met Gary & Kirsten here on Wandering Albatross ... and they came around for a gin and tonic (made with 10,000 year old ice). We haven't yet found a good place to take on water, and our water supply is horribly chlorinated ... so every night we collect a saucepan full of ice which melts in time for our morning yerba mate and tea."
18 Feb 2007 (Waterboat Point) -- "Everyone went dinghy cruising in the morning, and then we went off to the beach at Cuverville to see the gentoo penguins and a few whale bones, including a massive vertebrae - not sure what species it might have been. We're now moored up with three lines ashore next to a Chilean base. The cove is filled with gentoo penguins, and a few of us climbed up to the spreaders to watch the penguins swimming past the boat ... it's amazing to see the contrast between penguins waddling on shore, and the speed and grace they have flying through the water."
17 Feb 2007 (Cuverville Island) -- "yesterday started off with Wilson's Storm Petrels dancing on the water, then a session with a leopard seal swimming with a crabeater seal carcass, [and] lunch at an ice fall ... [Then,] out in the Gerlache, we met up with a humpback whale ... after about 20 minutes he was joined by two others ... they spent an hour and a quarter swimming around the boat, showing off all their abilities. It was magic. we got down on the scoot and they were inches away, sticking their great heads just off the boat.... they took turns swimming under the boat, rightside up, and then upside down.... They spy hopped up so their eyes were just below the surface to get a look at us, and once one rolled to get his eye completely out of the water. They flapped their pectorals in the air, arched their tails in the air, all just feet from the boat. They had an amazing awareness of where the boat was - never nudged it once, though they were swimming under it and around it, sometimes at high speed."
16 Feb 2007 -- "Gorgeous day yesterday ... blue skies, warm, no wind at all. It took us 10 hours to motor the 40 miles down here, as we spent at least half that time drifting around with the engine off watching whales, penguins, seals, and icebergs.... we cut through a channel we've never been through before with lots of bits of ice about, and came down to Enterprise Island and tied up to a wrecked whale boat. We almost didn't recognize the cove from the outside because the melt back has been so severe here in the last six years. One of the best bits was coming upon a crabeater seal sitting on an iceberg. He slept through our arrival but perked up when a leopard seal came over to check out his iceberg - I've never seen such a wide awake crabeater! The leopard seal swam off, and then a fur seal jumped up on the iceberg and joined the crabeater for a bit, and then swam off. A few minutes later, another crabeater turned up, jumped on the iceberg and bounded around so much that the iceberg flipped over and tossed both crabeaters in the water."
In January Seal made her first trip to Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel ... see Steve Colgate's Offshore Sailing School for the log.