ROSS SEA, THE BAY OF WHALES AND BALLENY ISLANDS, ANTARCTICA
'Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic- Amundsen'
With this simple telegram the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set the scene for what some historians have referred to as "The Race for the Pole". It was a race that Amundsen was to win easily ... largely due to his previous experience in the High Arctic and especially his reliance on dogs. Scott, his rival, is better known even though he perished on the way home. Every year a small number of Antarctic enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to Ross Island to visit Scott's huts and memorials. There are no relics or memorials in the Bay of Whales as Amundsen's hut which he called Framheim has long disappeared. On this special expedition we visit the Bay of Whales along with iconic historic and wildlife sites on Ross Island and the western coastline of the Ross Sea.
It is also appropriate that we attempt to visit the remote Balleny Islands. These islands were discovered in 1839 by British Sealer John Balleny. The second sighting was by Sir James Clark Ross in 1841and Robert Falcon Scott also called briefly at these islands in 1904. Subsequent visits to these islands have been rare. Apart from the obvious historic and geographical interest, this region has one of the highest concentrations of the Greater Snow Petrel Pagodroma nivea in Antarctica.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, one night hotel accommodation in a twin share room (inc. dinner/breakfast), all on board ship accommodation with meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Our ship - The Spirit of Enderby:
The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in March 2013 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew.
The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world.
Day 1—Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Port of Bluff
On an unusually warm afternoon, after an unusually warm morning spent visiting Invercargill’s Southland Museum and doing some last minute shopping (don’t forget your mittens), we left our hotel and went by coach to meet our ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy, where it cut a crisp blue and white figure amid the timber piles and aluminium smelter at the Port of Bluff. Forty-eight brave souls climbed the gangway and began exploring the ship that would be our home for the next 34 days. The general consensus was that no one knew Invercargill could be so hot, and, before leaving port, we decided to celebrate with a group steam bath in the lecture room as our Expedition Leader and founder of Heritage Expeditions, Rodney Russ, introduced the staff, explained basic safety procedures, and issued a harrowing warning about the dire consequences of flushing toilet paper. Perspiring in only the most fetching manner, we listened carefully as our Cruise Director Julia Mishina took us through some crucial information about life on the ship, including what time the bar would be open, and we met our international team of lecturers, Agnes Brenière, Samuel Blanc, Grigory (Grisha) Tsidulko, and Marcus Thomassen, our all-important all-star chefs Connor Arcus and Matt Crouch, our government observer Ceisha Poirot, and general minion, Maggie Shipstead.
After the harbour pilot came aboard at 1700, we struck out for the Southern Ocean, and most of us took to the outside decks to enjoy the breeze and sunshine. Later, regulations required that we take a quick break from the fresh air to don life vests and climb inside the lifeboats for a roll call. Suitably horrified by the close quarters in those little orange capsules, we adjourned to the bar to drink to freedom, and those on the bridge set our course for the Snares Islands. We then had our first taste of Connor and Matt’s sublime cooking, followed by a delicately smouldering sunset over Stewart Island before bedtime. All was well, until…just as everyone was nodding off, the ever-considerate Southern Ocean set the ship to rolling.
Day 2—Thursday, February 4, 2016
Six o’clock came too quickly or too slowly, depending on whom you asked. Many spent a sleepless night sliding up and down the bunks, and a few of our number were paid a visit by the seasickness fairy. The Southern Ocean was apparently unmoved by our desire to take a Zodiac cruise around the Snares, as a strong north-westerly wind made conditions impossible for launching the boats. A group of us watched from the bridge as dawn broke slowly through the fog and the craggy, spooky shapes of the islands materialized. Thousands of Sooty Shearwaters came streaming off the islands and rafted up in groups in the white-capped water before flying out to sea—an amazing sight.
As we left the Snares and set out for the Auckland Islands, we were blessed with seas that could have been much worse and even some sunshine. An escort of seabirds swooped around the ship. Down in the lecture room, Rodney gave an introduction to the history and biology of the Auckland Islands, including the astonishing fact that the crew of the Grafton and the crew of the Invercauld were wrecked on the main island at the same time without detecting one another’s presence. We went below again a bit later for our mandatory biosecurity briefing, and then conscientiously adjourned to the bar to do vacuum cleaner battle with any stowaway seeds that might have attached themselves to our outerwear. (The battle was made particularly epic by mounting seas and an increasingly rolly battlefield.) Mercifully, we arrived before dinner in the shelter of Erebus Cove and were able to eat and (more importantly) sleep at anchor in calm waters.
Day 3—Friday, February 5, 2016
The wind kicked up overnight, gusting as high as 40-50 knots in the early hours of the morning and sending whitecaps scudding across our safe harbour. Not to be deterred, we repositioned to Sandy Bay, launched the Zodiacs, and motored to shore amongst a frolicsome welcoming committee of swimming New Zealand Sea Lions. We landed on the beach and climbed up to the huts manned by DOC researchers, who were preparing to do a post-mortem on a female Sea Lion that had died during the night and now lay in state on the beach beneath an overturned wheelbarrow. (The wheelbarrow was to keep away eager-to-assist Skuas and Giant Petrels; cause of death was later determined to be shark attack.) Male Sea Lions chased groups of females around the beach and the grassy sward adjacent to the huts while Yellow-eyed Penguins peeped out of the bush and waddled up the beach.
Some of us opted for the long 12km walk around the periphery of the island, while others were content with a trip up the boardwalk to the very, very blustery western cliffs, which were being battered by massive seas. All had the opportunity to walk a little way along the cliff to see a nesting site of the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. One grey fluffball chick was visible gazing placidly out over the raging water, patiently awaiting the return of a parent with a belly full of regurgitated squid. The ‘long walkers’ had many a close encounter with Sea Lions, New Zealand Fur Seals, Yellow-eyed Penguins, Skuas and Giant Petrels. Other birds spotted included shags, cormorants, Southern Royal Albatross both on the nest and on the wing, Tomtits, Red Polls, Pippits, Dotterels, parakeets, and flightless teal. We traversed lovely grassy open spaces populated by snoozing Sea Lions and curious penguins, squished across spongy peat and moss, negotiating seemingly endless stretches of tussock grass that made us fall down, and, as a special treat, Rodney guided us through a tract of Rata forest. The sun broke through the clouds and light fell amongst the twisted trunks as we made our way along, highlighting the colours of the forest: the vibrant green of the stilbocarpa’s bowl-like leaves, the paler green of the moss that grew thickly on branches and the ground, the electric fuchsia filaments of the Rata trees’ fallen flowers where, in places, they carpeted the forest floor and filled the stilbocarpa bowls. Unusual woodland creatures — Yellow-eyed Penguins and New Zealand Sea Lions — watched as we passed. After a final long march into strong wind and through unhelpful tussock grass, the long walkers were zipped back to Shokalskiy and reunited with their fellow passengers with plenty of time to spare before the bar opened. We raised anchor and made the short trip down to Carnley Harbour in Auckland Island proper to enjoy dinner and a good night’s sleep in protected waters.
Day 4—Saturday, February 6, 2016
After breakfast, we headed out of our cozy harbour towards the open sea, passing amongst swirling clouds of Sooty Shearwaters. Once our course was set for Macquarie Island, about thirty-six hours’ sail away, the sea conditions turned out to be better than predicted, although there were still plenty of impressive swells for the wave watchers on the bridge. A quiet day passed on board as we caught up on sleep, read, ventured on deck for a bit of birding, and enjoyed, as always, the culinary offerings of Connor and Matt. In the afternoon, there was a screening of the documentary The Silent Calling, a history of the Australian Antarctic program. The film highlighted the difficulties of establishing bases in such a wildly inhospitable environment, offered the suggestion that Aussie polar scientists spend most of their time partying in silly costumes, and provided some interesting glimpses of pre-eradication Macquarie Island. After a record number of spills during a rocking and rolling cocktail hour, we had dinner (duck dumplings! profiteroles!) and settled in for our best attempt at sleeping at sea.
Day 5—Sunday, February 7, 2016
Another day dawned on the ever-dynamic Southern Ocean as we continued our course to the southwest. After breakfast we had the first of our staff lectures when Samuel talked about seabirds. Some characteristics shared by seabirds, we learned, are their long lifespans, low breeding success, pelagic lifestyles (spending >70% of time at sea), and the long distances they travel for food and/or migration. Otherwise, seabirds come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from the majestic great albatrosses to the tiny prions and Wilson’s Storm Petrels, and they exhibit varied behaviour in their nesting, feeding, and socializing. Grisha followed up with an introduction to the cetaceans of the southern hemisphere, taking us through many species of whales and dolphins, from the familiar (Humpback Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins) to the unusual (Southern Right Whale Dolphins, rare and varied beaked whales). Apart from a group of Dusky Dolphins spotted in Bluff, it’s been a cetacean-free trip so far, and we’re all anxious for the first sighting. After an Indian-inspired lunch in a dining room that felt at times like a malfunctioning carnival ride, many of us retreated to our cabins for a bit of horizontal recuperation, though those who ventured on deck were rewarded with visits from many curious seabirds (prions, Black-browed Albatross, Shy Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross —which, of course, we all now recognize thanks to Samuel). Periodic doses of sunshine turned the white-capped water a brilliant ultramarine. Macquarie Island came into sight around dinnertime and we anchored at Buckles Bay, our bow pointing towards the isthmus that is home to the scattered structures and fuel tanks of the Australian Antarctic station. After Rodney’s introduction to Macquarie, we went to sleep in sheltered waters, visions of King Penguins dancing in our heads.
Day 6—Monday, February 8, 2016
Macquarie Island runs on Australian Eastern time, so we had the advantage of an early start. Breakfast was at 7:00 ship’s time (5:00 local), followed by a briefing and then the next instalment of Biosecurity Vacuum Fest 2016. We welcomed the Macquarie rangers aboard and sailed for Sandy Bay. Despite a chilly rain, we all landed without a problem and, after a few instructions from Ranger Paul, were let loose to wander amongst thousands of King and Royal Penguins. A smallish contingent of moulting sub-adult Elephant Seals was also ashore along with quite a few ever-watchful, ever-hopeful Skuas and Giant Petrels. The tall and elegant King Penguins were delightfully inquisitive; those of us who plopped down on the charcoal-grey sand and sat still for a minute usually found ourselves surrounded by new friends who sometimes took a curious nibble at our boots or packs. Our roaming zone was defined by an enormous colony of Royal Penguins (shorter, rounder, and jauntier than the Kings, with rakish yellow feathers above the eyes) to the south and a colony of Kings to the north. In between was a rocky pool where penguins paddled and sub-adult male Elephant Seals alternately lazed around and practiced fighting by smashing their chests together, raising tails, and releasing some spectacular groans from their wide-open pink mouths. Near the end of our time ashore, the sun miraculously emerged from the mist, treating those remaining on the beach to beautiful light on the electric green hillsides, clear blue water, and brilliantly white penguin bellies.
After a late lunch and quick briefing, we relocated to Buckles Bay and, after landing, split into groups for a tour of the Australian station. Despite the occasional sand lashing from gusty winds, we all had a chance to see Gentoo and King Penguins, Elephants Seals snoozing amongst the tussock, the super cool amphibious Lark vehicles used to unload resupply ships, and the sinister digesters on the beach where sealers and oilers of the past boiled down huge numbers of animals. We also were treated to tea and scones in the station mess and climbed the two hundred step boardwalk up Razorback for a vista of the isthmus (in case the beach wasn’t windy enough). The wind made for an exciting transition from Zodiac to gangway, but we all got safely back on board thanks to Samuel and Connor’s skill at driving and heaving humans. After a late dinner to end an exhilarating day, we all collapsed into our bunks as the anchor was lifted and the course set for Antarctica.
Day 7—Tuesday, February 9, 2016
On the first day of the big crossing to Cape Adare, the Southern Ocean continued to give us substantial wind and seas. Conditions were too rough in the morning for lectures, so we all laid low and tried to make up for some of the sleep we’d missed overnight. The wave watchers on the bridge saw some massive swells sweeping up from behind the ship and some beautiful bursts of sunlight through the clouds. King Penguins were spotted swimming off the ship — a reminder of where we’d come from and also of the incredible distances travelled by Subantarctic animals.
In the afternoon, with a heavy mist typical of the Antarctic Convergence zone outside, we watched a brief documentary on the AUS$28 million rodent and rabbit eradication project on Macquarie Island. After the systematic dispersal of poison bait by helicopter eliminated the vast majority of pest animals, the project moved into its final phase as hunters with dogs scoured the island to make sure every last rabbit was gone. They lived in huts out on the island for 27 days at a time, returning to the station for only three or four days a month, and in two years, they found only fifteen rabbits. The project was declared a success in 2014.
At cocktail hour during the evening a competition was opened for which passenger could guess closest to the day and time we’d spot our first iceberg. We were approaching the ice, but the ice was also drifting towards us. After another delicious meal (beef bourguignon or fish pie) prepared by the ever-intrepid Connor and Matt in their teeter totter of a kitchen and a gorgeous sunset that even included a rainbow, we headed for bed on subsiding seas.
Day 8—Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Wednesday dawned less ferociously than Tuesday, and after breakfast the powers that be decided the time was right for some lectures. Samuel kicked things off with a talk about penguins. (Factoid: the deepest recorded dive by a penguin was an Emperor Penguin to 564m! Vocabulary word: when penguins slide and paddle along the snow on their stomachs it is called ‘tobogganing’.) Next up was the ever-illuminating Grisha, who explained how Arctic and Antarctic animals are adapted to thrive in cold climates. (Think fat and fur and also some remarkable behavioural strategies like the Emperor Penguins’ mass huddles). After lunch, Rodney gave an overview of the Antarctic Treaty with an emphasis on tourism, and then we commenced a screening of the first part (of seven!) of The Last Place on Earth, a dramatization of Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole. Sea conditions remained pleasant and the sky relatively blue throughout the day, and there were some magnificent pink fluffy clouds on display at sunset. Life at sea was treating us well.
Day 9—Thursday, February 11, 2016
We were awoken slightly earlier than usual by the dulcet tones of Rodney on the intercom, letting everybody know that our first iceberg had been sighted. As we emerged into the bright light of a blue sky morning, we were greeted by the sight of not one, not two, but three tabular icebergs off the starboard side. And what a sight! Astonishingly enormous and starkly beautiful, the icebergs showed new faces as we passed them, revealing sheer ice cliffs, spectacular caves and eroded towers.
Agnes gave a lecture on albatrosses: creatures of legend, fascinating wild animals and our frequent companions at sea. Our afternoon lecture ‘Amundsen: How and Why He Stole the Pole’ was courtesy of Marcus, who is on loan to us from the Fram Museum in Oslo. Marcus shared many photographs, drawings and lantern slides from the Amundsen South Pole expedition as well as videos of the Fram Museum’s recreations of life at the expedition’s camp, Framheim. It was difficult to fault the Norwegians’ planning and efficiency, although we were all be grateful not to have been one of their sled dogs. The gruelling quest towards the end of The Last Place on Earth continued in the late afternoon, followed by happy hour in the bar and another stellar dinner from Connor and Matt. This in turn was followed by a gentle (and ever later) sunset, followed by either peaceful sleep on the very slightly rocking ship or a contemplative wait for the expected very early morning crossing of a certain special line of latitude.
Day 10—Friday, February 12, 2016
A momentous event! Just before 1:00am, we crossed the Antarctic Circle, 66°34’S, the line below which the sun never sets in the southern summer. Very few people cross this line by ship, and a small crowd gathered on the bridge to mark the occasion. After a few more hours’ sleep, the occasion was marked again after breakfast with mulled wine in the bar/library as Rodney reminded us of the rich history of exploration in the region and administered the following vow:
“Having endured the privations of the Roaring Forties, the rigors of the Furious Fifties, and the ice-strewn waters of the Screaming Sixties to cross the Antarctic Circle, I pay homage to those early explorers who have not only shown the way but have demonstrated what it means to advocate for the continued protection of Antarctica and its wildlife. I promise I will, until I take my last expedition, advocate to everybody, even those who will not listen, the importance of the Antarctic and its wildlife.”
Later in the morning, those who had mentally committed to the privations and rigors of The Last Place on Earth retired to the lecture room for a screening of part three. Things were looking decidedly Antarctic out there today, as we travelled through a heavy mist and light snow for most of the day. A few Minke Whales made fleeting appearances, and two Humpbacks passed very close to the ship and were seen by those lucky enough to be on the bridge at the right moment. After lunch some retail therapy was available in the bar/library, as Julia opened the Sea Shop, and tempting wares were on offer. Everything from t-shirts to hand warmers to photo books to plush penguins was closely scrutinised.
Next on the agenda was a lecture/briefing by Rodney on the history of exploration in the Ross Sea (he knew we needed such a lesson when we expressed ignorance of Nobu Shirase, the leader of the 1912 Japanese expedition) followed by a general briefing on our plans, hopes and dreams for our time in Antarctica. The current ice map, which Rodney shared with us, looked decidedly light on ice, which will hopefully increase the odds of ticking off our wish list of landings in the Ross Sea. Nothing is for sure, but there is much to hope for and dream about during our last sleep at sea.
Day 11—Saturday, February 13, 2016
We were finally there! We actually, really and truly were now in Antarctica. After some rolling at night as we pushed through quite a bit of ice, we found almost miraculously excellent conditions for a landing on Ridley Beach, site of a hut from the 1899 Norwegian British Antarctic Expedition led by Carsten Borchgrevink and a ruined hut from Scott’s 1911-1914 Terra Nova expedition, as well as the world’s largest Adelie Penguin colony (although this time of year the population is not at its peak). Our landing site was amongst push ice and penguins, with a stunning view across the bay to Mt Minto, its summit wrapped in cloud. A tabular iceberg full of blue caves floated on the water. We all had a chance to photograph penguins and to venture inside the hut. Currently the artefacts left by the Borchgrevink expedition are in the care of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, as they are scheduled for restoration and will be returned at the end of the process, but with the aid of our torches we could see graffiti left on the bunk ceilings, including a beautiful ink portrait of a young woman’s profile.
After a nice long time on the beach and in the hut with mild temperatures and little wind, we returned to the ship and assembled a crack team of mountaineers who wished to climb the 350m ridge at Cape Adare itself and seek out the grave of Nicolai Hanson, a young biologist on the Borchgrenvik expedition. Rodney pointed out that Hanson must have had a sense of humour to make it his dying wish to be buried in such an inhospitable and difficult-to-access site (especially since he died in October), and as we climbed the very steep rock and snow, we were all grateful not to be dragging an occupied coffin along with us. Adelie Penguins turn out to be crack mountaineers themselves and would occasionally fall in with our queue as we ascended. We continued to pass groups of penguins camped out on the sheer and exposed slope almost all the way to the summit. Some mountains have timberlines, but ours had a penguin line, one witty climber pointed out; at the very top, there were no more penguins, just wheeling Skuas scolding us for trespassing.
Once all were reunited back aboard, we raised anchor and set a course for Possession Island, which was discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in January, 1841 along with its close neighbour, Foyn, landed upon, and claimed for Queen Victoria. The islands have special significance on this trip, as amongst our group are Ross’s great-great-grandson James Ross, his wife Sara and their niece Philippa (great-great-great Granddaughter of Sir James Clark Ross). Although conditions weren’t workable for a landing, as the sun dropped low behind conical Mt Herschel and cast a glow over the ice, Rodney and Samuel took the Rosses for a (freezing) sunset Zodiac cruise. Although the family wasn’t able to replicate their forebear’s landing, they did manage to scramble out onto an ice floe and unfurl the family crest for a photo op. We lingered for another hour to enjoy the gorgeous light and landscape and then set a course for the Bay of Whales.
Day 12—Sunday, February 14, 2016
Looking outside, you would never have known we were in Antarctic waters today. The sun shone in a blue sky, and the Ross Sea maintained a nearly flat calm. Only the occasional iceberg on the horizon and the decidedly chilly breeze on deck gave away our latitude. Lectures were plentiful (sadly, whales less so), and we heard an account of the life and Antarctic explorations of James Clark Ross from Samuel, learned the secrets of sea ice from Agnes (new vocabulary word: polynya, meaning ice hole, or an area of open water amid otherwise closed ice) and were educated by Grisha about the need for a Marine Protection Area in the Ross Sea and the process by which one might hopefully be established. The Rosses treated us all to a toast of New Zealand sparkling wine in the bar, which was a lovely occasion to celebrate the accomplishments of their illustrious ancestor and our trip in his wake thus far. Other amusements included a delicious lunch of chicken curry and the screening of part four of The Last Place on Earth. Groups of beautiful all-white Snow Petrels made appearances around the ship in the evening. They have become the favourites of the wildlife spotters on the bridge. Conditions remained smooth as we went to bed, heading ever southward in our sleep.
Day 13—Monday, February 15, 2016
At Sea, Arrival in the Bay of Whales
We started the day with two special talks from members of the Ross family. James Ross spoke about Sir James Clark Ross’s personality and family life, and Philippa Ross shared her passion for the protection of the Ross Sea and her work to establish a non-profit organisation dedicated to the health of the oceans. After lunch, Samuel spoke about icebergs and explained how they are formed and why we don’t go too close to them. (For those who missed it: because at any moment an iceberg might calve or topple over, possibly crushing us or possibly generating dangerous waves.) We also watched Ice Byrd, a film made shortly after Richard Byrd’s successful 1929 flight from his Ross Sea base, Little America, to the South Pole and back. Although the old-timey commentary bordered on the silly, the aerial footage taken by the expedition’s cinematographer was well worth a few overwrought similes. After two days of semi-miraculous weather, heavy fog closed in as we approached the Bay of Whales, so Rodney and the captain decided that we would remain ten or so miles away from the ice shelf overnight and hope for better visibility in the morning.
Day 14—Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Bay of Whales, At Sea
Our wake-up call came early this morning, as Rodney got on the P.A. at 5:40 to announce that we were underway again and heading into the Bay of Whales with hopes of setting a world record for the southernmost ship ever. Conditions on the bridge, he added, were “quite spectacular.” Indeed they were! A band of white light on the horizon separated low grey clouds from a dark sea. Mist rose off the water and loose ice floes clumped to starboard. The ship took on a white patina as frost collected on the decks and rigging. Those who ventured outside agreed that it was indeed cold out there. Snow Petrels glided around the ship as slowly, the Ross Ice Shelf rose into view. Soon we were close enough to get our first good look at the sheer face of the ice cliff and the brilliant hues of blue and aqua cut in with all the white. A small cluster of Adélie Penguins stood at the edge, and two more groups were visible in the distance. Carefully, carefully the captain nudged the bow southwards into the bay, inching closer and closer to the ice until the GPS read 78°43.971’S. A new world record! Thanks to the shape of the ice shelf, we were able to edge out the former southernmost ship, the yacht Arctic P, by a matter of metres. We had a very southerly breakfast, did one more loop to see if we could improve on our record (we couldn’t), and then headed back out to sea as the fog closed in again.
The rest of the day was spent fairly quietly, as most of us wanted to catch up on some sleep. Marcus gave a follow-up lecture to his first presentation on Amundsen with a more detailed account of life at Framheim. Incidentally, the section of ice where Framheim was built calved long ago, delivering the cleverly designed Norwegian camp to a last resting place somewhere on the ocean floor. The location of Framheim is, in fact, currently open water. There was also a screening of the documentary The Last Ocean, which makes a powerful argument against commercial fishing in the Ross Sea region (note to all: don’t buy ‘Antarctic Toothfish’ or ‘Chilean Sea Bass’) and advocates for the establishment of a Marine Protection Area, a goal that has so far sadly gone unrealized. The Last Place on Earth continued on. Those expeditioners still making the journey with Amundsen and Scott have certainly learned a thing or two about stamina! Calm seas for sleeping.
Day 15—Wednesday, February 17, 2016
At Sea, Arrival at McMurdo Sound
The bridge was the place to be today as we made our way along the Ross Ice Shelf towards McMurdo Sound. At times the shelf fell off the horizon and we could see only open water, but during the late morning we hugged it closely and took a good look. The scale of Antarctica boggles the mind. In the early afternoon, Marcus gave us a talk on Robert Falcon Scott’s controversial tragic-but-heroic 1910-1912 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, and it was a treat to see so many extraordinary photographs by expedition photographer Herbert Ponting. As we approached Cape Crozier, the faint outline of Mt Terror appeared, rising from Ross Island ahead and coming into crisper and crisper focus as the day progressed. The whale reconnaissance team on the bridge had an exciting moment when 3nd officer Dimitri spotted a large pod of Orca directly ahead. The first group passed well out to starboard; the second group split neatly around the bow, and those bundled up and standing outside up front were rewarded with a very close encounter. Our whale expert Grisha, out shooting ID photos with his long lens, estimated we saw approximately thirty individuals.
Later we passed Mt Erebus (with a thin tendril of smoke rising from its crater) and Cape Royds and in the evening, as the sun dipped toward conical Mt Discovery and the Transantarctic Mountains, we arrived at our anchorage just off McMurdo Station. The golden evening light was so beautiful that even the sprawling and unlovely American base looked . . . well, sprawling and unlovely, but in the most flattering possible light!
Day 16—Thursday, February 18, 2016
McMurdo Station, Scott Base
Base day! After an early start we landed in groups beside McMurdo’s ice pier and were met by our American hosts. We visited the National Science Foundation’s chalet-style headquarters (with a very nice deck looking out towards Mt Discovery), swung through the Crary Laboratory and the Chapel of the Snows, saw some of the meteorological and communications offices, had a cup of tea in a Quonset-hut-turned-coffee-shop-and-wine-bar, and, of course, hit the gift shop. After we had washed the dust of civilization off our boots, Connor and Matt treated us to a lunch of hot soup and chocolate chip muffins before we headed back to civilization again, this time to New Zealand’s Scott Base.
The kiwis were gracious enough to pick us up at the landing spot in vehicles and drive us over the saddle to their Antarctic home, an interconnected collection of buildings all painted a cheerful cucumber green. Our guides took us around outside, and we looked out over an endless-seeming sheet of ice and snow. Distant clumps of structures and vehicles marked the ice runways, and closer in were dozens of dark, inert lumps on the ice which turned out to be resting Weddell Seals. Inside, we toured various rooms in which science happens, a large storage space for field gear, the canteen and bar, and an extremely pleasant lounge overlooking the ice. After a pass through the shop, we returned to the ship for dinner.
Some suspense lingered as we went to sleep, since Rodney had given instructions to the crew to wake him if the wind dropped below five knots so that we might mount an expedition up Observation (Obs) Hill, a steep and barren volcanic cone at the far side of the station. Would the wind drop? Would we venture bravely out into the cold in the wee hours?
Day 17—Friday, February 19, 2016
No, the wind did not drop overnight, and, at anchor, we slept without interruption. We woke to brisk wind on a very cold morning, cold enough that ice began to form on the surface of the sea around the ship. In groups of eight, we landed at our now-familiar spot beside McMurdo’s ice pier and walked up the dirt road to Discovery Hut. The hut, which was of Australian design and has an overhanging veranda, was built by Scott’s 1902 expedition but was used mostly for storage and as a theatre rather than for accommodation. Later expeditions, including Shackleton’s Nimrod and Imperial Trans-Antarctic expeditions, took further advantage of the shelter. Given the hut’s relative accessibility, its artefacts have been somewhat picked over, but still there was much of interest inside. We all learned some new things, such as that on top of a mummified seal is not a good place to set one’s backpack and also that being outside on a windy -22°C day gets cold quickly. (This is something Scott and Shackleton and their men must have known very well, and a day like today can only deepen our respect for what they endured.) Most of us walked up to the nearby cross placed as a memorial to seaman George T. Vince, who slipped on an area known as 'Danger Slope', but few of us lingered. At the end of the morning, the staff did linger, however, on the freezing, misty sea when the Zodiac fuel line iced up. We stared longingly at the Shokalskiy (so close, yet so far) until Rodney, a snowman after driving Zodiacs all morning, fixed the problem and became our hero.
Lunch was a welcome opportunity to warm up and refuel before the long-awaited climb up Obs Hill. Some of those who raised their hands at the morning briefing found that their enthusiasm had frozen and cracked during the first landing, and attrition winnowed the numbers down to a hardy eleven plus staff. Rodney marched us through McMurdo at a good clip, and we scrambled more or less straight up the dusty, rocky 230m slope with few rest stops. From the summit, we took in a magnificent view of McMurdo, Scott Base, the ice shelf, the Transantarctic Mountains, and Shokalskiy at anchor in McMurdo Sound. We paused only long enough to snap a few photos before we began the scramble back down to the ship to join our compatriots for tea and (stronger) drinks that have never tasted so good.
We finished the day with a cruise along the ice shelf in hopes of encountering wildlife, although what we found was mostly new sea ice in various stages of formation. The sight was both beautiful and interesting: a perfect illustration of Agnes’s sea ice lecture, as we passed through frazzle into small and delicate pancake ice that resembled floating masses of translucent jellyfish to larger and more solid pancakes to young ice on its way to being next year’s sea ice. In areas, the pancake ice took on a yellowish-brownish tinge from the phytoplankton that grows on it and forms the basis for the Antarctic food chain. As we passed into open water, we headed for Cape Royds, where we would anchor and spend the night.
Day 18—Saturday, February 20, 2016
Cape Royds, Cape Evans
The weather gods smiled on Akademik Shokalskiy and its denizens this morning, a smile that translated into a 5:00am wake-up call from Rodney so we might take advantage of the perfect landing conditions. We came to shore on a flat sea and made our way up a gentle slope past a smattering of sunbathing Weddell Seals. Ice gave way to black lava rock and gravel as we continued uphill and over undulating terrain until we found ourselves looking down upon Ernest Shackleton’s hut from his 1908-1909 Nimrod expedition, nestled into a rocky hollow and kept company by Adélie Penguins and circling Skuas. Inside the hut, socks and trousers hang on lines, bunks are made with varying degrees of tidiness, and provisions line the shelves. It was easy to imagine Shackleton and his men clustered around the stove or resting in their bunks. Outside, we made the most of an extremely beautiful bluebird morning. The penguins agreed to be photographed, as did the Transantarctic Mountains across the water, and Mt Erebus even sent up a plume of smoke for us. After a long stay onshore, we returned to the ship for brunch and raised anchor to make our way the short nine miles to Cape Evans.
Refuelled with scrambled eggs and croissants thanks to Connor and Matt and briefed thanks to Rodney, we got back in the Zodiacs landed just a stone’s throw from Scott’s Terra Nova hut, and what an absolutely spectacular afternoon we were given. The sky remained blue; the wind remained non-existent; Mt Erebus kept sending up a steady plume of smoke; a Weddell Seal obligingly spent hours snoozing and posing for us just behind the hut; Adélie Penguins clustered on the hillsides, and four moulting Emperor Penguins held court on a high ridge. (Fortunately, they imposed no limits on the number of photographs they were willing to sit for.) Of course, the highlight of the visit was the hut itself, a haunting relic of Scott’s intrepid and stalwart party, long gone but still remembered. On such a stunning day, no one was in a hurry to get back to the ship, and everyone had ample time to explore the stables and living areas, shine torches into Ponting’s darkroom, examine the poignant wall decorations (dogs, horses, women), and imagine Scott sitting at his desk or lying in his bunk. The last stragglers returned to the ship after a solid four hours onshore and a very memorable day.
As we steamed away from Cape Evans, the water turned glassy flat, reflecting pink clouds and the white face of Mt Erebus, and we had another chance to marvel at the beauty and various shapes, sizes, and colours of pancake ice. We approached a very large and unusually positioned iceberg around the time most passengers were drifting off to bed, and those night owls who lasted until midnight were treated to a golden sunset over an icy sea.
Day 19—Sunday, February 21, 2016
Our lucky streak continued, here on the good ship Shokalskiy, and we had excellent conditions for another lovely morning ashore. (Not as excellent as yesterday, perhaps, but still gentle by Antarctic standards.) We landed at Cape Bird amid a colony of Adélie Penguins and downhill from a weather station and group of green huts belonging to the New Zealand Antarctic Program. The sky was overcast, the wind light, and most passengers enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the icy shore, taking in the penguin scene. This year’s remaining chicks, still downy, swarmed any passing adult hoping to be fed.
Other expeditioners (presumably those who didn’t mind being dive-bombed by Skuas) preferred the high road up along the glacial moraine. The far end of the beach opened onto a magnificent view of the glacier, and there were a few icebergs kicking around as well, crewed by Adélies. The big news was that a lone Emperor Penguin was hanging out on the beach. While we photographed our hearts out, it gazed out to sea, shuffled amongst the Adélies, and occasionally pointed its beak and called skyward. Unlike the slightly scruffy Emperors we saw yesterday, this one wasn’t moulting and we had ample opportunity to admire its sleek beauty.
We were at sea for the afternoon and early evening, arriving at Franklin Island around dinner time. Well-fortified by the chefs, we queued up again at the starboard gangway and set out in the Zodiacs for a night landing. Night, of course, in such a high latitude is relative, and from the time we landed until the last Zodiac out at 22:30, the island was bathed in golden light as the sun dipped towards (but not below) the horizon. Fresh snow covered Franklin’s beach and high ridge and long icicles dangled from the glaciered cliffs. We had yet another chance to visit with Adélie Penguins and Weddell Seals and another lone Emperor made the scene, surrounded by a crèche of hopeful, hungry Adélie chicks. The sight of so many chicks onshore this late in the season is increasingly poignant, as their chances of survival are increasingly small. But the opportunity to see the workings of nature (harsh as they may be) in a pristine environment is a privilege not soon forgotten.
Day 20—Monday, February 22, 2016
Terra Nova Bay
After a quiet morning at sea, we anchored in Terra Nova Bay not far from the new South Korean base, Jang Bogo, which was completed in 2014. The Koreans graciously agreed to host a visit, and when we went ashore in the early afternoon, we were met by the station’s doctor, Dr Kim, who would be part of the eleven man overwintering team accompanied by several Weddell Seals. He led us up a dirt-and-gravel road to the station’s main building, a bright blue, angular, highly modern-looking metal structure that he called the Antarctic bluebird. Our tour took us around the outside of the main building and power plant and we also saw two helicopters resting in the shadow of the spectacular Campbell Glacier and some small modular structures, also blue. A football goal stood nearby, partially buried in snow. Although we’d expected to be very cold on this landing, we found ourselves in the sunshine and well sheltered from the katabatic wind. As our guide led us up a hill towards a white tower built for atmospheric readings and our ultimate goal of a frozen lake where Skuas nest, some of us experienced the now foreign sensation of being too warm. We descended again and took a look at the Korean jetty and a dive Zodiac that was out on the water near the glacier before returning to our landing site and the ship.
The anchor was raised and we set out for Inexpressible Island, where Scott’s Northern Party was forced to overwinter in a snow cave. The conditions at Inexpressible are inexpressibly unpredictable, as very high katabatic winds can come up in a matter of minutes, with the potential to trap landing parties ashore. Though the wind dropped enough around 22:30 for Rodney to brief those who wanted to land, it came back up again before we could even put on our layers, rendering conditions too dangerous for a landing. The would-be landers convened on the bridge and were consoled by the site of a full moon skimming the tops of the northern foothills. We went to bed ready to try again at any hour if the wind dropped.
Day 21—Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Alas, the wind only continued to rise overnight, and by breakfast time we had to give up on the possibility of a landing at Inexpressible Island. (As patches of ice were forming on the water amongst the whitecaps, a few of us might have been secretly relieved to have stayed snug in our bunks anyway!) So we set off again, northbound, passing craggy Cape Washington and running alongside a gorgeous coastline of (surprise!) glaciers, icebergs, and snow covered mountains. Downstairs we watched the documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice by Anthony Powell (who was spotted hanging around the Scott Base gift shop when we visited and was pleased to sign DVDs), which offered insight into the experience of wintering over at McMurdo and Scott Base. Marcus gave us part one of a lecture on Shackleton, focusing on his role in the Royal Geographical Society’s Discovery expedition, led by Scott. Later in the afternoon Grisha gave a talk about sub-glacial lakes, a fascinating area of ongoing scientific inquiry that has teams from the UK, U.S., and Russia using various means to drill through kilometres of ice to get to hidden pockets of liquid water underneath. Throughout the day we passed through large expanses of pancake ice, and the view from the bridge was a mesmerizing vista of gelatinous-looking water undulating slowly with the swell. At times we passed quite close to the ice edge, and some lucky passengers spotted more Emperor Penguins and two Beaked Whales.
Day 22—Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Cape Hallett, Cape Adare
We all received an early wake-up call this morning, as Rodney wanted to alert us to some extreme natural beauty happening off the bow. Those who heeded the call found themselves gazing over a broken field of sea ice as sunrise made the snowy Transantarctic Mountains blush pink while a full moon hung above the peaks. We lingered for forty-five minutes until the Antarctic day had fully dawned (well, the ship lingered while some of us returned to bed) and then set a course for our old acquaintances, the Possession Islands.
Antarctica gave us another beautiful sunny day, optimal for watching the coastline pass from the bridge or deck. What was completely open water on our way down to the Bay of Whales eleven days ago is now interrupted in places by expanses of sea ice that runs the gamut from translucent pancakes to thick floes. As we pushed through the heaviest ice, watchers on the bow spotted Crabeater and Weddell Seals, Adélie and Emperor Penguins, and many traces left on the floes’ snowy tops by both: deep chutes made by scooting seals, penguin footprints with the marks of dragging tails between, and narrow chutes where penguins had tobogganed along on their bellies. We had hoped to make a second landing at Cape Adare, but the ice was too dense for us to even get close, let alone safely drive the Zodiacs. Since there were a few spectacular icebergs nearby, it was decided that we would cruise around them and take a closer look before saying our official goodbye to the continent. As we approached two large tabular icebergs, Grisha, standing at the bow, spotted the blows of a large group of Orca feeding near the ice. We approached slowly and were fortunate enough to have an extended encounter as some of the whales passed close alongside the ship and others, their dorsal fins making a circle above the water, demonstrated a feeding behaviour in which they corralled a group of fish and stunned them with tail slaps. After a slow loop around to give everyone a good look at these amazing animals, we left the whales to their business and set our course away from the Antarctic continent and towards the Balleny Islands.
Day 23—Thursday, February 25, 2016
At Sea, Arrival in the Ballenys
Today was a sea day, and we kept busy with lectures and screenings. Marcus started things off with a talk on Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, in which a new furthest south was set but hopes of reaching the pole had to be abandoned in favour of keeping the polar party (Shackleton and three other men) alive. The photos of the huts at Cape Royds and Hut Point have special meaning for us now that we’ve been inside them. Later in the morning we had a Ross Sea debrief. Rodney drew one of his excellent whiteboard maps for the occasion (the Ross Sea, with an inset of Ross Island), and looking at his rendering of our route and many landings, it was difficult not to feel a sense of accomplishment. We’ve been so lucky with sea and ice conditions, and the wish list we set out almost two weeks ago has been almost entirely ticked off. Agnes took us through the bird species we’d seen in the Ross Sea which included the South Polar Skua, Adélie Penguins, Emperor Penguins, Lesser and Greater Snow Petrels, Wilson’s Storm Petrel and the Southern Giant Petrel. Samuel then talked about Sir James Clark Ross and sea ice. Grisha presented an overview of the marine mammals we have encountered Crabeater and Weddell Seals, Minke, Humpback and Orca Whales and, for a lucky few, Arnoux’s Beaked Whale. Marcus then finished up with a whirlwind tour of the heroic era of exploration focusing on Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton.
After lunch it was movie time. First, we screened The Worst Journey in the World, a dramatization of the three-man mid-winter trek undertaken from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier in order to collect Emperor Penguin eggs and eloquently chronicled by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in a book of the same title. Next up was Solid Water, Liquid Rock, a documentary about Mt Erebus, although the screening was cut slightly short when a group of Humpback Whales appeared and drew most of us to the bridge or bow. By this time, Sturge Island, the southernmost in the Balleny group, was in view on the horizon, a forbidding mass of rock and ice. After dinner, we cruised up the eastern side of the island, admiring the overhanging ice cliffs and witnessing, at one point, an avalanche into the sea. As the waters around the Ballenys are poorly charted, the captain headed for deep water where we could safely drift during the night.
Day 24—Friday, February 26, 2016
Breakfast was at 6:30 this morning safely off of Sabrina Island, site of the only colony of Chinstrap Penguins in the Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean. There had been a bit of an ice situation in the wee hours, but Rodney and the captain sorted it out while the rest of us were in dreamland. We split into two groups for a Zodiac cruise out to Sabrina, a very rugged ice-covered volcanic protrusion where Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins stood on a snowy slope and Weddell Seals did their usual thing on the shore while Cape Petrels circled up near the top of a black spire. Despite snow, swell and ice, both groups got their chance to admire this harsh and rarely visited island and its inhabitants.
While lunch was being served, the staff made a quick reconnaissance mission to Borradaile Island to investigate the possibility of a landing. Ultimately, going ashore was ruled impractical, as it was a long, cold run to the island and the narrow beach was guarded not only by a belt of push ice but also by eleven Weddell Seals that we decided not to disturb. We exited the Antarctic in truly scenic fashion as we sailed along the west coast of Young Island, the northernmost of the Ballenys. Under a blue sky, cloud snagged on the island’s high ridge and poured down over a slope of rock and ice, revealing bits and pieces of cliffs and glaciers and forming a rainbow behind the ship. Orcas fed near the coast and we passed an iceberg so stunning that we doubled back to give it another look. A pointed crown of ice, its shallowly submerged middle glowing bright aquamarine and its summit was circled by a flock of Snow Petrels. Even the blasé Russian sailors were spotted out on the back deck having their photos taken against the magnificent backdrop. Then, as Cape Ellsworth fell behind the stern and we passed through a few final belts of push ice, dark clouds gathered on the horizon, a fittingly sombre sight as we left the Antarctic and set our course for Campbell Island.
Day 25—Saturday, February 27, 2016
It was an extremely quiet ship today as a sizeable swell was hitting us right on the beam and some of us were struggling to regain our sea legs. Conditions were unsuitable for lecturing, so we passed the time in our own ways: reading, perhaps, or catching up on sleep, or reflecting on our time in Antarctica, or begging the sea to stop moving around so much. (It didn’t listen.) Those heroes in the kitchen, Connor and Matt, put out three delicious meals despite the distinctly unhelpful motion of the ocean and the bar remained tended and attended despite the near impossibility of keeping a glass or bottle upright. The good news, as we moved into warmer waters, was the slow return of our seabird entourage. Today those keeping vigil in the bridge had had their first sightings of Black-browed and Wandering Albatross as well as Sooty Shearwaters, Giant Petrels and Antarctic Prions. There was also a morning sighting of rare Hourglass Dolphins, which briefly rode our bow wave before peeling off to attend to dolphin business. Otherwise, the day proceeded quietly as we made our way north through the Southern Ocean.
Day 26—Sunday, February 28, 2016
Those hoping for a better night’s sleep were, for the most part, disappointed, as we still had a good roll going on. But the mood on board (at least among those who emerged from their cabins) remained stalwart and cheerful. Although conditions were still a bit too washing machine-like downstairs for lectures, for those with stout constitutions there was a screening of Longitude, a mini-series based on the book by Dava Sobel about the development of a means to calculate longitude at sea. In the afternoon, we screened Blackfish, a powerful and disturbing documentary about Orca whales in captivity that triggered protests and eventually a policy change at the Sea World parks, which have announced their intention to phase out captive Orca programs. Bar time was well attended and offered only a few minor spills for excitement, and dinner was another feat of skill and daring by the chefs. The sea was slightly more cooperative around bedtime than on the past two nights, but we were still looking forward to a couple nights at anchor at Campbell.
Day 27—Monday, February 29, 2016
At Sea, Arrival at Campbell Island
Our last day at sea before Campbell Island dawned quite stormy, as heavy rain and occasional hail fell on a dark, white-capped sea. Two intrepid lecturers with excellent balance offered morning talks in the rocking and rolling auditorium: Marcus on the history and purpose of the Fram Museum in Oslo, and Grisha on the recovery and possible recolonization dynamics of the Gray Whale. After lunch the sun peeked out, and watchers on the bridge took in a scene of deep blue waves and streaming white foam against which the occasional passing albatross cut a clean silhouette. The officers on watch had opened one of the bridge’s front windows, and it felt like the height of decadence to lean against a warm radiator with a fresh sea breeze in our faces. Antarctic jackets were collected and thanked for their service. (Salt stains and the occasional whiff of penguin guano suggested they’d been put to good use.) The swell persisted right until the last minute, when we turned to port and entered the shelter of Perseverance Harbour. For those watching on the bridge, our arrival was an impressive piece of seamanship, as the night was very, very dark, the wind was high, and the island couldn’t be seen until we were right on top of it. But thanks to radar and GPS and good old Russian know-how we made a safe anchorage around 23:00 and fell into a good night’s sleep on beds that remained mercifully stable.
Day 28—Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The day began in a blustery way, here at Campbell Island, with whitecaps on the harbour and the occasional rain squall blowing through. Groups of Sooty Shearwaters were out on the wing and the water, as were gulls and albatrosses. Armed with miniature candy bars, juice boxes, and a will to succeed, a group of twenty five intrepid passengers plus Rodney, Maggie, and Ceisha put ashore at the dock at Beeman Cove to do ‘the long walk’. This was much more than a seven hour stroll over varied terrain and elevation, starting with some tussock and grassland, edging along a rocky inlet, climbing up onto a plateau of sphagnum moss and up still further to a cliff overlooking the rugged and gorgeous west coast. (A dry landing did not necessarily ensure a dry hike, and the long walkers negotiated many a gully that fell somewhere between the very muddy to the bottomless morass scale.) From the cliffs, the small, craggy isle of Dent (French for ‘tooth’ —it looks like a tooth) was visible. Southern Royal and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross glided overhead. We made our way along the cliffs through tussock grass and then down a stretch of trail Rodney described as “a wee bit overgrown” and necessitated clinging to tussocks and dracophyllum branches as we descended through a steep gully. We emerged onto the pebble beach of North West Bay (where a Sea Lion greeter was waiting) and settled down to have lunch in the sunshine. A Campbell Island Teal, a member of a flightless duck species endemic to the island group and once thought extinct, paddled in the shallows. More dramatic, blustery scenery awaited after lunch, and the route passed close to many nesting Southern Royal Albatross, a few of whom were kind enough to stand up and offer brief glimpses of their new, fluffy white chicks. After a few more ascents and one long final descent, we reached Camp Cove, site of the ‘world’s loneliest tree’ (a Sitka spruce planted in the early 1900's) and were picked up by Samuel and Connor.
Those who opted not to take the ‘long walk’ spent the morning Zodiac cruising Perseverance Harbour and after lunch made an ascent up a boardwalk through tussocks and dracophyllumand megaherbs to Col Lyall, a favourite nesting spot of Southern Royal Albatross. Some birds offered glimpses of their chicks as they preened and fed them, and others were observed soaring overhead and landing to gam. Gamming is essentially an albatross hangout session and is how younger birds find their eventual mates. While gamming, the birds might point their bills to the sky and call out, spread their wings, preen themselves and each other, clack their bills, and exhibit other nuanced behaviours that add up to an elaborate and charming dance. All were reunited aboard Shokalskiy for a delicious dinner and enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep at anchor.
Day 29—Wednesday, March 2, 2016
If yesterday began in a blustery way, today began in a misty one. We all laid low for the morning in hopes that the sky might clear. Those looking for stimulation had the option to watch a film about the massive effort that went into eradicating rats and mice from Campbell and another about the (related) story of the rediscovery of the Campbell Island Teal. The teal was, from the early 20th century, thought extinct due to predation on eggs and chicks by Norway rats, but in 1975 a small population was discovered on Dent Island, which had never been infested by rats. A portion of that population was removed for the purposes of captive breeding, and after the successful eradication of rodents from the main island, the teal was reintroduced there in 2004 and has been thriving ever since.
The fog lifted somewhat after lunch, and our three options were laid out: a steep climb up Mt Honey, the highest mountain on the island, a return visit to the boardwalk at Col Lyall, or cozy relaxation in the bar/library. Only four hardy souls plus Rodney and Maggie signed up for the Mt Honey attempt, and although fog made pushing for the summit a bit pointless, they were consoled by the opportunity to recline in the tussocks and watch a magnificent albatross show as fifty or sixty birds soared and gammed in groups of up to nine individuals. More soaring, gamming, and nesting was on display up Col Lyall, although the mist remained fairly heavy. The bar/library was certainly home to some tea-fuelled gamming as well, though precious little soaring. After dinner, we reluctantly left the shelter of Perseverance Harbour and set a course for a return visit to the Auckland Islands.
Day 30—Thursday, March 3, 2016
At Sea, Auckland Island
Sea conditions left something to be desired this morning, but those who attended the screening of the New Zealand television dramatization of the saga of the Grafton, which wrecked in Carnley Harbour on Auckland Island in January, 1864, felt we had little to complain about. The crew survived for nineteen months on the island under punishing conditions, at which point they gave up on rescue and decided to enlarge the ship’s dinghy and sail for New Zealand. Three men spent six harrowing days on stormy seas before reaching Stewart Island. They raised money and found a ship willing to take them back to retrieve their remaining two companions. Oddly enough, another ship, the Invercauld, was wrecked with nineteen survivors on Auckland Island at the same time the Grafton men were living ashore, but the two crews never encountered each other. Only three of the Invercauld’s nineteen survived long enough (one year and ten days) to be rescued by a passing Peruvian vessel. In the afternoon we came into the shelter of Port Ross, at the northern end of Auckland Island, within sight of our old friend Enderby Island. The day was warm and we went ashore at the site of the short-lived Hardwicke Settlement, established in 1849 as a British colony and whaling station and abandoned just over two years later. From the landing site, a boardwalk led up past what was once a castaway depot to a small and poignant cemetery containing the graves of a handful of settlers and mariners, including two infants and the second mate of the Invercauld. A different track led through the Rata forest to the Victoria tree, a twisted, moss-covered stump that bears a carved message that Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship HMCS Victoria had stopped to look for castaways in October, 1865 captained by Norman. Bellbirds serenaded us from the leafy canopy, and two Sea Lion pups tussled in a den under some ferns where their mother had left them. When time came for us to leave, several adult Sea Lions nosed and swam around the Zodiacs, sending us off.
A giddy scene ensued in the bar/library (more bar than library in this instance) as we had a special cocktail hour with signature drinks on offer and festive attire requested. The theme of the festive attire was something that reminded people of Antarctica. While, for most of us, the clothes we’ve been wearing for more than a month would do the trick, some standout passengers really took the bit and ran with it. Peter M adopted a figurative approach to a penguin costume with a dapper tuxedo, while Judith (the eventual prize winner) took a delightfully literal one. Sally and Josephine were lovely glossy black seals, and Dr Cam interpreted the Antarctic landscape with long black underwear, a white towel cape and a neon green balaclava. Rodney stepped in to offer a trivia challenge between rounds of drinks and to express disbelief at the few remaining gaps in our knowledge. General merriment ensued and carried over to dinner.
Day 31—Friday, March 4, 2016
Auckland Island, At Sea
We made another landing at Auckland Island this morning which was to be the final landing of the trip, and it was a good one. On calm waters and under a mild sun, we landed at Ranui Cove, site of a hut once occupied by our fearless expedition leader for three months but now only home to a few stray bottles and 1970’s newspapers. Bellbirds sang in the trees and a handful of female Sea Lions watched curiously from the shadows as we headed up a track through the Rata forest to a high lookout hut that was manned by coast-watchers throughout World War II. Just above the hut, on a hilltop clearing, we paused to bask in the sunshine and take in the panoramic view as Rodney turned in a slow circle and pointed out the various islands, peaks and points of interest.
We descended at our own pace. There was a bit of excitement when a Sea Lion cow unexpectedly charged Sara Ross, pinning her against a tree. She handled the startling situation with characteristic grace while government observer cum Sea Lion wrangler Ceisha stepped in, using her backpack as a shield, to gently dissuade the animal from biting anyone as the stragglers filed past. The Sea Lion almost certainly had pups stashed nearby and was only acting from protective instinct. We assume she was happy to see the last of us!
After lunch at anchor, we set off for an overnight sea journey and another try at the Snares. In the meantime, Rodney offered an informal talk on what goes into running Heritage Expeditions (keyword: permits) and also described the trips he runs in the Russian Far East, a part of the world that attracts few tourists (partly because it is difficult to access…again, keyword: permits) but offers extraordinary scenery, wildlife, and cultural encounters. Then it was time for bar, dinner, bed, and dreams of Polar Bears.
Day 32—Saturday, March 5, 2016
Snares, At Sea
We weren’t about to let a little mist and rain and a mounting swell stop us from snatching a close look at the Snares Islands. After a slight delay in hopes the cloud might lift, the first group was whisked away at 8:00 with Rodney, Grisha, and Agnes driving the Zodiacs. After enjoying a late breakfast, the second group followed at 9:30. Such a grey day lent the islands a mysterious, wild aura that was heightened by the massive numbers of seabirds circling in and out of the mist above the boats. After a quick passage alongside sheer cliffs densely occupied by nesting Buller’s Albatross, we were conveyed (excitingly!) through a tunnel in the rock and emerged into a protected cove. New Zealand Fur Seals watched us from the rocks as Sea Lions swam behind the boats. The islands are honeycombed with seabird nests, so no landings are allowed, but we cruised slowly through coves and shallows lined with the tree daisy species Olearia lyallii and Brachyglottis stewartiae and motored into several coastal caves. Everyone got a good look at groups of endemic Snares Crested Penguins as well as the endemic Snares Island Tomtit. Only the first group saw the islands’ endemic Fernbird, but everyone had the chance to get torrentially rained upon. As the swell kicked up, the second group was happy to see the Shokalskiysteaming towards them, and after one last leap from Zodiac to gangway, all were safely aboard for the final leg back to the South Island. The afternoon passed quietly as seas remained rough until we came into the lee of Stewart Island, which brought a welcome calming effect. We anchored at Lord’s River on the eastern side of Stewart Island for dinner, which coincided with a lovely sunset and then headed out once more into the night.
Day 33—Sunday, March 6, 2016
It was a beautiful final morning at sea. We had blue sky, warm temperatures, calm seas, avian companions, and even some Dusky Dolphins riding the bow wave. Jason Hosking, New Zealand Geographic’s Photographer of the Year who was with us on this voyage as his grand prize was provided by Heritage, offered us a look at some of his work down in the lecture room, including some stunning images of Tuis and Gannets, as well as landscapes and cultural shots and a sneak peek at his photos from this voyage. Samuel followed with a lecture on his experience spending fifteen months at the French Base Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica. He gave us an excellent insight into the camaraderie among those who wintered over, Samuel’s work with birds (including the Emperor Penguin), the extreme harshness of the climate and the beauty of the landscape.
After lunch, while everyone took turns visiting Julia in the office to pay that 35-day bar tab, a convention of hundreds albatrosses appeared. In the light winds, they mostly sat on the water, though some flew short stretches before settling again. A fishing boat was visible in the distance, but there was most likely something in the water (probably squid) for them to eat. Species spotted included Buller’s, Salvin’s, Shy, Southern and Northern Royal Albatrosses as well as Giant Petrels, Cape Pigeons, White-chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters. Although it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the beautiful afternoon outside, the sacrifice was worthwhile as we assembled for one last time in the lecture room. Rodney thanked the staff and passengers for their enthusiasm, their adventurous spirits and their willingness to get wet and cold whilst braving the Zodiacs and gangways. Everyone was united by a common desire to experience a part of the Antarctic that few will ever see and a curiosity about one of the world’s most remote places—its beauty, its harshness, its wildlife. He felt that spending five weeks together on a ship to experience this was a rare privilege.
A festive spirit prevailed in the bar and at dinner passengers and staff dusted off their best outfits (the ones without penguin guano), and Matt and Connor outdid themselves to concoct an eight course meal from diminished supplies. While we devoured the cheese course and a dessert buffet, a purple and pink sunset closed our last day at sea.
Day 34—Monday, March 7, 2016
The harbour pilot came aboard in the 6:00 darkness as we entered Christchurch’s Port of Lyttelton. One last breakfast was served as we came alongside at 7:00, and then we dispersed to pack up those pesky last odds and ends and McMurdo gift shop items now straining the seams of our duffels. After New Zealand Customs and biosecurity officers came on board, everyone filed dutifully through the bar/library, passports in hand, attested that boots were clean and no souvenirs had been collected from anywhere other than gift shops. At last the ship was cleared for entry; the Russian crew collected the luggage, and we filed down the gangway one last time, not to board Zodiacs but a waiting coach instead. We seized the opportunity for a group photo with Shokalskiy, and there were more than a few damp eyes as the staff lined up for goodbyes and the passengers filed onto the coach. Then it was over and our shipboard family scattered for distant destinations, armed with thousands of photos and videos to share with audiences (willing or not) of friends and family. The Shokalskiy would by the end of the day be emptied out and bound for her home port of Vladivostok. Meanwhile, albatrosses will continue to circle the Southern Ocean, the sea around Antarctica will freeze and the days there will grow shorter. The Emperor Penguins will return to breed and life on that harsh and distant continent will continue without any trace of us, as though we had never even been there at all, which is how it should be. Best wishes to everyone for all your future adventures.
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" I had such an amazing trip, one I thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But here I am 8 months later looking at travelling again to this amazing and wonderful part of the world.
Rodney and his team ensured the very best experiences were available through careful planning and excellent knowledge of the area and weather conditions. They were nothing short of exceptional in their care of passengers safety.
Thankyou once again for bringing my life dream to reality. "
" I have been home a week now from my expedition "In the Wake of Scott and Shackleton voyage" from the February 8th voyage.
I had a fantastic time and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There were several highlights, overall the calm seas and the great weather that was put on; the time saved because we were able to do the Ross sea in just a couple of days enabled us to sail to the Balleny Islands. Rodney kept on saying "You don't know how blessed you are", and he was so right. And also to experience the historic huts and especially to go into Scott's hut at Cape Evans where my grandfather had been in 1910 to 1913, and again in 1963. Overall, it was a trip of a lifetime and memories to last for ever.
I would like to thank you for your help, advise and assistance you gave me in the months leading up to my departure.
Thank you so much. "
" I can't express enough thanks to Heritage for providing a Wonderful, Wonderful Trip.
Well organised. The Staff, including the Galley Team (Great Food) and Russia Crew, were so 'User Friendly;. A Must, Must do trip. "
" Have to say that my expedition to the Sub-Antarctic Islands and the Ross Sea region was absolutely amazing. One could not have asked for better passengers, crew, hospitality staff and management.I take my hat off to Rodney Russ, Agnes, Sam, Katya, David, Eric, Trudie, chefs Bruce & Michael for their expertise, professionalism, being well organised and for their concern for every passenger. I recommend this expedition for anyone looking for some adventure, wildlife, comaradrie, knowledge of the Ross Sea region and the islands south of Bluff, NZ. "
" With the help of the expedition log that was written by David I made a very beautiful photo text book about the trip and it still lies at my coffee table and is regularly viewed by friends and family every time they visit.
" I thought the staff was very helpful and knowledgeable. Every effort was made to comply with the itinerary, weather not with standing! I especially enjoyed the lectures which I thought were very professional and I learnt a lot. Areas where I thought you could make improvements were more grab rails in the dining and bar facilities to prevent accidents in rough weather. Cooks and staff did a wonderful job with the meals but would have been superb if served on hot plates. Although the expedition team were helpful, I did think on walks, especially on the way back from Carnley Harbour and Cape Royds, that the leaders could have kept the group together so the slower walkers were not trailing so far behind. Overall it was an enjoyable experience and one I shall remember for years to come. I for one was delighted that we ended up in Lyttelton and Christchurch and offer my thanks to your staff at base who organised everything for us. "
" Hello Julie,
Thank you for your testimonial. It is wonderful to know how much you enjoyed your time on your recent voyage with us to Antarctica. As you will have experienced, the ocean and weather conditions can change rapidly when in the Southern Ocean, and the grab rails fitted around the ship are helpful in moving around the vessel safely. There are instances when the high sea conditions mean staff onboard advise passengers to take extra care in moving around the vessel, and to use this time to rest, read, edit images etc, ready for our next landings. We are pleased you enjoyed the expertise of the staff and the lecture series onboard. The staff are experienced in outdoor group management and maintain contact with each other via radio to ensure passengers are all accounted for. We like to give passengers as much freedom to experience each landing as our permit and time allows for, and are aware that some passengers move faster than others for various reasons, including fitness and special-interest groups such as birders - we have tight procedures to ensure all passengers are safe prior, during and after each landing. We hope you can join us on another Heritage Expeditions voyage in the future. "
" “Absolute grandeur and uniqueness of Antarctica was made more memorable by the fantastic atmosphere and ambience of the journey.” "
" “ nothing can compare with actually being there and seeing everything as it actually is”. "
" I choose this expedition to access the Ross Sea - allowing us to view Capatin Scott's and Shackleton's huts, to visit inexpressible Island where Scott's Norther party were marooned for a year, to carefully negotiate pack ice and cross the Antarctic Circle to reach 77° south and also visit New Zealand's stunning Subantarctic Islands. With the knowledge and genuine love of the geographic area in which Heritage Expeditions operate and its associated natural history, I have just returned from a the trip of a lifetime in New Zealand and to Antarctica and its Subantarctic Islands. "
" When Heritage say it's an Expedition they really do mean that the holiday is run in that spirit. Nathan our expedition leader always took the time to explain what was expected with weather and ice conditions so that we always felt part of the plans. They know the area so well that whatever nature produced there was always something new and enjoyable to experience. I really wasn't sure whether my son and I would have the chance to experience the wilderness and isolation of Antarctica - to have been able to do so is a testament to the way that Nathan and the team ran the trip. A trip of a lifetime for both my son and me from the start of the booking process through landing back in New Zealand. Thank you Heritage Expeditions. "
" Some wonderful memories, I would not hesitate to recommend it to a friend. "