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South Georgia 2007

On board are Hamish, Kate, Helen (7), and Anna (5), and four guests who joined us in the Falkland Islands.

November 26

Ocean Harbour, 54 : 20 South 036 : 16 West

What a difference a day makes... the last report was yesterday morning ... we had a rainy windy day in Moltke yesterday ...

The highlight of the day for me was at dinner when a weanie (young elephant seal) came swimming around Seal ... it was swimming very awkwardly, with its head out of the water (just like Anna) trying to keep its face dry ... this is a seal who in a few months will be one of the most spectacular swimmers in the world ... adult elephant seals are able to make dives of 1800 meters .. that's more than a MILE below the surface... for up to two hours. It swam around the boat, looking up at us with its enormous black eyes and then headed back to shore with its head out of the water for quite a while, and then a boat length from us, it ducked its head under water and swam a bit more fluidly toward the shore. In a few months, that seal should be able to swim 4000 miles from land ....

That was the first weanie we've seen swimming, and then today we saw two more playing in the surf together.

I had my first night off last night as Russell and Cecilia cooked supper ... I curled up at the chart table with Pride and Prejudice ... great evening!

This morning we had an epic leaving Moltke ... the wind finally turned so we could make it around the next Cape, but as soon as it turned, it started funnelling in 60 knot williwaws into our anchorage. It was quite an effort to get the dinghy flipped and the engine below ... even taking the sailcover off took concentration. It was one of those mornings when you don't want anything to go wrong with the windlass or engine ... we had to motor into the wind to lift the anchor (you can't ask the windlass to move the boat forward in 60 knots ...), at the same time hacking kelp off the anchor chain. An easy job with three crew, but busy with two! I had to dart down below for my balaclava because my regular hat kept threatening to blow off my head. Nigel was sitting on the dinghy to keep it from lifting before we lashed it down, and his hat blew off ... I caught it before it went over the side.

The williwaws were piling up too close together to get even the fourth reef up, so we sailed under bare poles out of Royal Bay ... there was still a lot of ice about, but it was a bit easier to see this time as we were sailing down wind, so we weren't obliged to squint through goggles. Still, we needed attentive eyes outside and it was an impressive sight to see the waves piling up with their tops blowing off in spume downwind. We didn't have the motor on -- just the mast provided plenty of sailpower ...

After we gybed around we put out the staysail and continued under that. The williwaws settled down and we had a steady 45 knots, at times steady 50. We turned the motor back on and motorsailed upwind with the staysail, and then in a lull, we were able to get the fourth reef in the main up.

The GRIB forecast was for Southwesterlies, but we had westerlies now (it had been Southwest in the anchorage) ... we beat along into the wind, trying to make some ground to weather, but then the wind suddenly veered and took us aback ... Hamish had to gybe right around to get back to the apparent wind angle -- a massive header of 90 degrees, so now the wind was coming directly on the nose ... welcome to South Georgia ...

We tried motoring into it, and nearly as suddenly it dropped down to about 10 knots. We motored the rest of the way to Ocean Harbour, very very glad of Mr. Cummins the 115 HP diesel engine and that we weren't trying to do this with no engine like Tim and Pauline Carr. It was extremely frustrating to try to sail ... from 60 knots to 6, and through 180 degrees of different directions.

Instead of the spray pelting our faces and hats blowing off, we came into Ocean Harbour with no wind and bright sunshine. I quickly made lunch, and then everyone went ashore to enjoy the sunshine.

At one stage, I walked past Russell, who was having a nap, all in black rain gear. There was a weanie lying about 10 feet away from him. When I came back, Russell was still asleep, but the weanie had come right up next to him and fallen asleep! (The weanies often sleep lined up next to each other)

The beach at Ocean Harbour is a bit depressing because it's filled with whale bones and rusty detritus of whaling. Weanies are lying against whale vertebrae. Up in the hills, though, we could hear light mantled sooty albatrosses and Antarctic terns. The skuas are quietly sitting on the nest, and it takes a sharp eye to keep from disturbing them, as they sit brown in the brown moss and grass.

I headed up into the hills to collect Helen and Anna who were playing out of range of the fur seals, and saw a very immature elephant seal pup (still with its black pelage) sqwawking for milk and humping its way down the beach towards an injured male fur seal. It was behaving just like the elephant seal pups we saw a few weeks ago calling for milk. I watched, worried that the fur seal would bite it (they are beginning to fight hard - I'd just passed one with a torn out eye, and this one had deep gashes in it), but he just moved away as the elephant seal pup tried to nurse.

When I came back with Helen and Anna, we saw the same pup with a cow (the last cow on the beach) ... I hope she was its mother ... but just as it looked like the pup might get some milk, the beachmaster came up the beach and chased off the pup and mated with the cow. Poor pup. We didn't have the chance to see whether it got any milk at the end. At Moltke, there were quite a few empty skins with round heads left on the beach, and the odd starving pup, whose mother went back to sea before the pup was fat enough to survive its one or two month fast. The skuas and giant petrels start pecking at them long before they're dead, and it's horrible to see them injured and shivering with cold, just waiting to die.

There are reindeer in the hills here, but there are no calves yet.

Helen, Anna, and Kate on the beach

Helen, Anna, and Kate with elephant seals across the river

light mantled sooty albatross

light mantled sooty albatross

reindeers and calf

reindeer and calf

king penguin scratching

a king penguin scratches its head

weaned elephant seal

"Weanies have such beautiful eyes," said Anna

November 25

Moltke Harbour, 54 : 31 South 036 : 05 West

Yesterday was an absolutely magic day. One of the top days of my life. We had beautiful weather in an amazing place, and it was calm enough weather for the whole family to get off the boat at once (this is relatively rare; either Hamish or I usually stay aboard SEAL).

We went ashore and hiked up in the hills, with Helen and Anna following reindeer paths along the cliff edges. Hamish stayed on the hill top photographing light mantled sooty albatrosses. It's the first time I'd really had a chance to see them on this trip. They are breathtakingly beautiful. They were soaring around the cliff tops and screaming off downwind, but then when they came back upwind, they were going incredibly slowly, so we could get very good looks at them. One passed over Helen's head so closely that she heard the whoosh whoosh of the wings on the air. After we left, a pure white snow petrel came and flew with the sooties for a few seconds while Hamish watched.

We were hiking downwind fairly quickly, so I turned Helen and Anna around early for the slog back. But the idea of following in reindeer tracks amused them enough that they kept running even into the wind. Then we explored the river valley and found a large rock to sit next to. All four of us were sitting together watching the fast changing lenticular clouds when three gentoo penguins started walking towards us. We all froze, and the three penguins started almost running towards us and came right up to investigate us. None of us moved - even Helen and Anna were completely still - and the penguins stayed with us for quite a few minutes, turning their heads this way and that to get a good look at us (their eyes are quite far back on their heads, so in order to look straight at us, they have to turn their heads well back on their shoulders). Then they plodded on to their colony way up the hill.

Helen and Anna kept playing by the rock and Hamish went to take some more photographs, and I headed up the river valley. It was so bright that my eyes regretted not wearing my glacier glasses. I haven't been wearing them ashore, because the side leathers were cutting my peripheral vision and I couldn't see the fur seals well enough, so I have been wearing my city glasses, but they are not enough for a really sunny day here.

It was amazing to see the weanies (weaned elephant seal pups) so far up the river ... quite a few are congregated on the beach, but these pups' mothers must have been a bit more of loners who didn't want to be on the beach with all the male elephant seals. We were surprised to see that the elephant seals here are about a week behind in their schedule from those at St. Andrews Bay, which is a similar bay just six miles around the corner. In the other beaches we've visited, the cows have returned to the sea, but here, the males were still squabbling a bit and mating with the few remaining cows. The males were extremely thin - one beach master had folds of skin where there would formerly have been fat. There are quite a few dead pups on the beach, and three or four who are much too thin to survive. They're still alive, but the skuas have already begun pecking at them.

When I reached the head of the valley, a reindeer herd came down behind me. (The reindeer were introduced from the Arctic by the whalers a century ago as a food source.) I counted 46 adults and 28 tiny calves - close to newborn. My count on the calves may be low as they were incredibly hard to see against the scree (the calves are dark brown and the adults are a blonde brown). They came past me and I walked down the river behind them, but then I was stuck as I didn't want to frighten them and send them running down on to the beach, stampeding amongst the weanies and the penguins. I could see the flecks of Helen and Anna's red and orange jackets, and Hamish's yellow backpack across the field, and I knew Hamish would be wondering where I was. I guessed that reindeer can't see colors, so I wrapped my red fleece around my shoulders so Hamish could see me and curled up on the ground to watch the reindeer. I deeply regretted not having binoculars.

They must have seen someone else moving on the beach, because about 1/3 of the herd came running back at me. They don't seem to see colors because I was perfectly still and they all passed within 20 feet of me. It was marvelous to see the calves bounding along behind the adults - they were tiny, but still able to run very fast. The herd settled down and one mother and calf stopped 30 feet away from me. I was downwind of them, so they paid no attention to me and grazed away, with the calf alternately nursing and collapsing in a heap in the grass. Its mother seemed to pay absolutely no attention to it. The mother would wander off a bit, and then the baby scrambled to its feet and chased after her for another drink. I was sorry not to have a camera, but probably if I had moved to get a camera out they would have spooked anyway. The whole valley smells of reindeer ... it's strange to smell a terrestrial animal after weeks of smelling seals and penguins.

Finally they headed off and I could get up again. Helen, Anna, and I went down the beach together to where Hamish was waiting at the dinghy. "Weanies have such beautiful eyes," said Anna. It took us a long time to get to the dinghy as we wove around king penguins, fur seals, weanies, and a host of male elephant seals. All the elephant seals (even the smallest weanies) had flicked sand over their backs as sunscreen.

I went back to SEAL and made lamb curry, naan bread and saag paneer. Helen and Anna played wolf. Everyone else came back at about 8:30 ... and were still up at midnight looking at photos....

November 24

Molke Harbour 54 : 31 South 036 : 05 West

Absolutely vile weather this am (the 23rd - we had trouble posting our blog from Larsen; probably because of the high cliffs). Lots of wind and sleet. We are planning to head off around the corner this morning --

We had a good tour of Dryglaski Fjord yesterday at the peak of the day, and then came back around to anchor in the same spot in Larsen. It was not a good afternoon for wildlife watching ... Russell and Bob watched a movie, Nigel slept and Cecilia read ...

The pumpkin / cranberry cake was a huge success - we still have some goose eggs from a friend in Argentina. Our egg shell bin is starting to stink (fortunately it's sealed, so only I smell it ... The worse bit was when I found a rotten egg and had to cook it anyway to sterlize it... fortunately I was alone on the boat.)

Thanksgiving dinner was steak (rated venison for tradition).

Helen put the six popcorn kernels (to represent the extent of what the pilgrims had to eat on the first Thanksgiving) in a glass at the center of the table.

Helen and Anna are turning into serious night owls. They were up, Helen reading to Anna for hours after we went to bed. It actually suits us fine because they sleep through the morning time and we seldom have a chance to do anything with them until the afternoon anyway, so having them in a different time zone is fine!

Motor on, better get cracking.

.... (later) We headed out into the Dryglaski and put up the main with four reefs in it and were soon rewarded for our caution by a steady 45-50 knots, with the odd 60 knot gusts. We sailed around through Cooper Sound to Cooper Bay, and then, expecting williwaws on the northeast coast, decided to stop and flip the dinghy on the foredeck and put the engine down below. We anchored for lunch, surrounded by porpoising penguins.

Our reward for flipping the dinghy was of course, flat calm seas on the other side. We sailed to Gold Harbour and were able to get ashore for about an hour and a half before the wind started to build. Then we set off for Royal Bay (dinghy upright again), and then had forty knots on the nose, howling off the Ross Glacier (and wished the dinghy were upside down again).

It took three people on deck to keep watch for ice as the waves were breaking, and it was very hard to see the ice (some is bright white, some transparent, and some dirty grey and brown with bits of rock in it from the moraine).

The deck watch was rewarded with the sight of a 10-foot long jellyfish; the biggest we'd ever seen.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long day, we anchored in Moltke Harbor at the head of Royal Bay by 8:30 pm. We ate dinner with the boat spinning lazily on the anchor, so each moment had a new view out the windows - pink tinted snow covered mountains, sea (which looked suspiciously calm and unlike two hours earlier), grazing reindeer, penguins, grunting elephant seals, and the haunting call of the light mantled sooty albatross.

November 22

Larsen Harbour 54 : 50 South 036 : 01 West

Happy Thanksgiving ... we are not doing much in order to celebrate ... I had a couple of tins of chicken earmarked for "turkey" fricasse, but they were eaten on the passage! I am going to make pumpkin / cranberry bread and call that the Thanksgiving Meal.

We explored Larsen Harbor yesterday -- and even saw a leopard seal and a weddell seal, two new species for this trip. We'd been hoping to see weddell seals here, as they are here earlier in the year, but sometimes a few hang about a bit longer. At this point in the year, leopard seals are normally farther south, and this one looked as though it was moulting, but it's quite early for the moult, so we weren't sure if it was entirely well.

Most everyone motored up to the glacier in the dingy, and in the evening we could hear the tap-tap of cobblers (white chinned petrels) and the churring of Wilson's Storm Petrels. At happy hour we had a gam with Abel Tasman, with several of our number going to Abel Tasman, and several of their guests coming to Seal.

We had a good look for water, but the waterfalls were all frozen. In fact, it was so cold the snow was congealing on the surface of the harbor.

This morning, we ate our porridge and lifted the anchor and we're now in the midst of the Dryglaski Fjord, making a tour on Seal before the wind fills in tonight. We cruised under the edge of the cliff, still in 100 feet of water, watching blue eyed shags and pintados flit to their nests.

We found a perfect waterfall to take on water, but it looked as though the weather was about to deteriorate, so we didn't stop. We motored up to the head of the fjord and had tea, drifting with the motor off in front of the glacier.

November 21

Larsen Harbour 54 : 50 South 036 : 01 West

Not much to say today as I wrote so late yesterday afternoon ... it blew most of the afternoon, and then quieted down to flat calm for a gorgeous clear night. Everyone had a quiet afternoon reading and napping and revisiting thick digital camera manuals, and Helen and Anna helped me in the galley - we made peach cobbler, so we cut the crust into a chart of Cobbler's Cove ... I should have thought to make it while we were in there ... next time!

Abel Tasman came in a few hours after we did ... we'd been sharing Cooper Bay with them, although they are too deep draught to go into Albatross Cove.

By this morning, it was blowing SE, so we were very glad of our decision to thrash on yesterday. Our priority today is to look for some fresh water and make a dinghy cruise up to the glacier to see how much it has changed in the 19 years since Hamish was last in this harbor.

fur seal and pup

fur seal and newborn pup

elephant seal and skua

skua tormenting a bull elephant seal

fur seal and pup

fur seal protects her pup from a skua

dinghy cruise

an early morning dinghy cruise to see the chinstraps

gentoo penguins

gentoo penguins coming ashore

November 20

Larsen Harbour 54 : 50 South 036 : 01 West

After an early morning dinghy cruise to see the chinstrap penguins (we aren't allowed to land there as the colony is recovering from a bout of what may be avian cholera), the sun came out and it felt like the Med. It was warm and sunny and everyone went hiking and photographing. Helen and Anna and I climbed to a patch of tussac above the fur seals and they played for hours, while I had a nap in the sun.

Down on the beach, the first fur seal pup was born (not of first arriving female; she still hadn't pupped when we left). The elephant seal cows are completely gone now, and the males are sleeping on the beach. The weanies, young elephant seals, are sleeping and belching on the beach for the next couple of months. Cecilia saw a gentoo penguin walking up and down on top of some sleeping weanies without waking them.

Hamish watched a skua tormenting a wounded elephant seal. He had a slice on his head, and the skua kept nipping in to take chunks out of it, while the elephant seal roared and roared. The skua was completely unperturbed by the massive mouth and kept stealing pieces. Then it went over to have a go at the newborn fur seal, but its mother drove it off.

It was one of the best days so far for weather and photography, and the dinghy repair held up despite the fact we'd read the instructions on the glue and basically done every single step wrong - it was below 10 C, we didn't build up several coats of adhesive, we didn't wait the 20 minutes on the final coat (because it started to rain), etc. etc.

We've had to switch to salt water because we have used the water so quickly. Normally with eight people we get at least 7 days out of a tank, but we've been finishing them in 4-5 days .... everyone quite shocked by the idea of doing the dishwashing in salt water!! We can also take showers in hot salt water (which is actually quite pleasant as you can waste as much water as you like since it's salt ... at the end, half a litre of fresh water serves to get the salt off).

Sitting in the warm sun yesterday, Hamish said, "it feels a bit like borrowed time." The weather can change very quickly in South Georgia. When the sun flicked behind a cloud, it started to feel cold and sinister, and when it was warm and sunny, one had a false sense of security.

We left Cooper fairly early, and there wasn't a breath of wind. We motored out, and suddenly, the wind built and built. Pretty soon we had forty five knots of wind on the nose and four reefs in the main. At one point, we thought about turning around for Cooper, but there is a slight chance of Southeast wind tomorrow, which would make Cooper dangerous, and so we plugged on. It was quite a thrash, with waves pouring over the dinghy and against the windows, and icebergs and brash ice everywhere, so Hamish stayed on the helm with Nigel, Cecilia, and Bob taking it in turns to watch for ice. (We have a watch system during the day, so everyone has an hour on lookout duty). I drew the cushy job as navigator and honey biscuit provider to Anna who understands very well that food is the best cure for a queasy stomach. (I did get up on deck to put the fourth reef in in my wellies and hiking kit, which, while not nearly as waterproof as real foul weather gear, is much lighter and easier to be nimble.) Hamish very kindly throttled back as I was tidying up the reef lines after I gave him the signal that too much water was coming over me. (I stuck my tongue out at him after a big wave.)

Hamish spent the whole time on deck and just about froze, and the snow was building up on his ski goggles. We came into Larsen under radar as the snow and low cloud was so thick. Russell came on deck for his watch as we turned out of the seas to Larsen, and Hamish and I took down the main and anchored. Russell helped Hamish with the snubber and sailcover (to keep out the snow) while I made lunch. Apart from a few good williwaws, it's been quite tranquil here inside. The wind is due to build this afternoon, so we're expecting severe williwaws. (This is almost what turned us around, apart from the threat of SE in Cooper tomorrow.)

Earlier Entries from South Georgia 2007

November 14 - November 19

November 9 - November 13

October 5 - November 8

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Antarctica 2007 Blog