(Editor’s note: Parksville resident Ann Carroll Burgess, a naturalist for cruise ship passengers and a former member of the Society of American Travel Writers, recently returned from an expedition cruise of the Antarctic region. We offer our thanks to Burgess for sharing this story and photo with our readers.)
ANN CARROLL BURGESS
Special to The NEWS
We would be two of 30,000. Thirty-thousand visitors is the maximum number allowed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators to the Antarctic annually. Our journey began in the self-proclaimed city at the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. The southernmost city on the continent of South America was the point of departure for our expedition to the Antarctic. We follow in some of the steps, of the world’s greatest explorers and adventurers, Shackelton, Amundsen, Nansen and Cook.
Why Antarctica? I could say, “Because its there,” but that would not be reason enough to travel several thousand miles at a cost of several thousand dollars. No, it was the lure of seeing something magnificently different. To be inspired with awe. Antarctica would do just that.
Unlike the explorers of the heroic age of polar exploration our journey would be in comfort and style. Our ship of choice was the Fram of Norway’s Hurtigruten line. Fram, which means “forward” in Norwegian, was the name of Fridjof Nansen’s ship that journeyed to both the Arctic and Antarctic, bearing both Nansen and later Amundsen on bold journeys to frozen lands.
Allow me to tell you a little about our choice of ship.The Fram has been purpose built for expedition cruising with an ice-rated hull. It is a part of the fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company. Hurtigruten means “coastal express” in Norwegian and for years this was the line operated.
The overall concept of the passenger areas of the ship have been designed with interaction and conviviality in mind, comfortable chairs arranged around low tables invite conversation. The decor is “Scandinavian” in design with pale colours and modern lines. The cabins were, compact, but comfortable, with well-designed bathrooms.
Throughout the ship are items of decor that reinforce the Norwegian tradition of polar exploration with busts of Nansen, photographs of Amundsen and others. Most of the public rooms and lecture halls are named in tribute to this tradition.
The dining room and meals were well-prepared and varied. The dining room had floor to ceiling windows so you never had to worry about missing a moment of wildlife action and there were many that occurred during meal times.
Departing from Ushuaia we would navigate the Beagle channel to the South Atlantic Ocean and sail northeast to the Falkland Islands.
Our first port of call in the Falkland Islands was West Point Island, a farm, owned by the Napier family since 1879 and the location of a colony of several thousand majestic Black Browed Albatross and several hundred rough and tumble Rock Hopper Penguins all happily nesting together in tall tussock grass. The gasp-inducing climb to the viewing area was well worth the effort. Our efforts were later rewarded with a sumptuous tea provided by the owners before returning to our ship. The first cruise vessel to come to the Falklands stopped at West Point in 1968 and the Napiers naturally invited everyone in to tea and have been doing so ever since.
Second stop in the Falkland Islands was the capitol city of Stanley, a colourful seaside town that is rightfully proud of its history and participation in two world wars and more recently the Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina. From Stanley we were driven by 4 wheel drive vehicles to Bluff Cove Lagoon to view the King Penguin Colony. Bluff Cove is part of a 35,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch , owned by Hattie and Kevin Kilmartin. The Kilmartins raise perendale sheep, a merino cross, as well as allowing tour groups access to the Lagoon area, home to over 1,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins, a growing colony of breeding King Penguins and a constant stream of visiting Magellanic Penguins. Somehow the Kilmartin’s have also found time to create a small, but highly informative museum devoted to the pioneering days of the Falkland Islands, a cafe and gift shop.
To stand among King Penguins and observe these magnificent birds stroll in a stately fashion was a delightful experience. Like young and unruly children the Gentoo penguins waddled and romped among their royal brethren with abandon. Along the shores of the lagoon we also spotted Upland Geese, Pied Oystercatchers and Kelp Gulls.
Departing the Falklands we sailed due east, entering the South Atlantic Ocean, a vast expanse of ocean with no comforting islands nearby. Our only companions were black-browed Albatross that flew in close formation to our ship constantly dipping and diving in their relentless quest for food. Cape Petrels joined our escort squadron of Albatross and would seemingly remain with us for our entire journey.
We would cross the Antarctic Convergence en route to Grytviken, South Georgia and encounter our first tabular iceberg. These towering bergs, that appear to be the size of Prince Edward Island are awe-inspiring These mammoth icebergs are pieces that have broken free of an ice shelf and roam the Southern Ocean like barges cut loose from their moorings, beautiful but dangerous.
Our next stop was Grytviken, founded in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, was the first whaling station in Antarctic waters. South Georgia is probably best known as the island where Ernest Shackelton found rescue for his stranded expedition team caught in the pack ice of Elephant Island. Shackelton is buried in Grytviken, where it is tradition to visit his grave, toast his adventures and pour a tot of whiskey onto the grave.
Although no longer an active whaling station Grytviken is anything but abandoned. It is home to a British Antarctic research station for applied fisheries research. A handful of employees not only conduct research but keep a museum, gift shop and church open to visiting cruise ship passengers.
Grytviken, South Georgia was our first call in “Antarctica’ which meant we would have to comply with strict environmental regulations enforced by members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. The regulations are designed to prevent unintentional contamination of the land and water. For us it meant that our boots, backpacks and jackets needed to be vacuumed within an inch of their lives to detect any seed or spore hiding in pockets or on velcro patches. The guidelines appear to be working, Antarctica was the cleanest, most pristine place I have ever visited. It shows what we can achieve when we make an effort.
South Georgia Island is also an exemplary example of how lands can be cleared of invasive species. The South Georgia Heritage Trust has undertaken the eradication of rats on the island to help restore the South Georgia Pippit, an endemic sparrow-size songbird that can, once again, be found singing on South Georgia Island.
We would make our “landings,” using polar cirkel boats. These craft are specially designed for use in very cold and very rough seas, similar to a zodiac but with a tough polypropylene shell and high sides. They were quite easy to board, especially when clad in waterproof pants and jacket, high topped mudbooots and a three point life vest we would be required to keep on at all times when ashore. Not since I waddled off to elementary school in a snowsuit have I been so ungracefully attired. Add thick warm gloves, a hat and scarf and you are almost totally immobilized.
Our first encounter with fur seals was on the beach at Grytviken. This would be the moment that we would come to truly appreciate the training and skills of our expedition team, who escorted passengers while onshore. Not only did they present very professional lecture programs, they were also adept at loading and unloading passengers from the polar cirkel boats, assisting not so nimble guests over difficult terrain and were seemingly unfazed by potentially rampaging fur seals.The males are particularly territorial and will charge at tourists with great speed. However, a long stick pointed directly at their sensitive noses was an effective deterrent. Elephant seals, nearly twice the size of fur seals, lolled indolently on the beach, sometimes throwing sand over their bodies, but appeared to have no interest in the visiting tourists. And there were, of course, penguins, mostly Gentoos and Kings. The fur seals, elephant seals and penguins all appear to reside in harmony with each other. A galumphing fur seal will occasionally cause a group of penguins to scatter but for the most part it is a peaceful day at the beach for all.
Unexpectedly good weather allowed the Fram to launch the polar cirkel boats for an evening cruise of Hercules Bay an idyllic little cove that a small number of Macaroni penguins call home. The bay was filled with waterfalls, glaciers and penguins, both Macaroni and Gentoo.
Next it was onto Fortuna Bay, a haven for breeding fur seals. The colony was so active that many fur seal pups were being born as we strolled and photographed our way along the beach.
The pups struggle to keep erect, their heads bobbing like those on bobble-head dolls. To be among those so very trusting animals was in equal parts magical and endearing.
Stromness was next, another abandoned whaling station and ship repair facility on South Georgia Island. Stromness has all the requirements of a ghost town, abandoned buildings in various states of disrepair, street empty except for a handful of fur seals or the odd penguin, and winds whistling at high speeds. Interesting as a historical site, but not one of the most attractive places to visit.
St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia Island, which, according to our expedition team is “just the most amazing place in the world,” probably because of the largest King Penguin and Elephant Seal concentration in the area.. How many penguins? 200,000 breeding pairs and 100,000 chicks in various stages of development.. Yep, a half million penguins just waiting to be photographed Penguins as far as the eye could see and even further. And, yes, you could smell them before you could see them. There is such a trusting sweetness in encountering a penguin. They seem to have no fear of humans and if you remain quiet and still they will approach you. Any sudden moves will cause a flutter of feathers and a quick, if waddling, retreat to a safer distance.
A wonderful aspect of cruising the Antarctic region is that you are always among the wildlife. You cannot find a sky empty of birds, there were always petrels, skuas or albatross to be seen. The seas were alive with shoals of foraging penguins and torpedo-like leopard and crab eater seals patrolling the shorelines. And, sometimes, pods of Humpback and Southern Right Whales could be heard in the distance.
The Drygalski Fjord was next. Filled with glaciers and surrounded by tall peaks, this is, perhaps the only place on earth where you can reach out one arm to the old super continent of Gondwana, and the other arm to the new world. It was astonishing peaceful and beautiful.
When Captain Cook sailed to South Georgia in 1775 he believed he had found a headland of the mythical continent Terra Australis Incognita, when he realized that he had only discovered another island he named the southern end Cape Disappointment.
From South Georgia we would continue south/southeast to South Orkney Island and a stop at Base Orcadas, a meteorologic and seismic research station operated by the Argentinian navy. Base Orcadas had not welcomed a ship in eleven months and a particularly welcome visitor was the chef from our ship who brought crates of fresh vegetables and fresh eggs to the station crew. South Orkney was our first taste of “real” Antarctic weather, high winds, a significant amount o snow falling and s severe drop in temperature. I loved it! It felt like Antarctica and my day dreams of forging through polar conditions came to fruition. Fortunately, they were not long lived. We were welcomed into the research station and feted with tea and pastries, as well as an opportunity to buy souvenirs such as patches to sew on jackets, maps and other bits of memorabilia.
The most memorable member of the welcoming committee at Base Orcadas was a lone Adelie penguin who followed us like a faithful puppy from one location to another frequently entertaining us with tobogganing moments of locomotion and standing still long enough for a productive photo session.
Back aboard the Fram we were greeted and treated to a hot chocolate with a shot of rum to chase away the Antarctic shivers and then we settled into the Panorama lounge to watch an incoming storm blossom into hurricane strength. We watched, in comfort as snow and high winds increased eventually topping the Beaufort Scale. But the Fram sailed as confidently and serenely as a duck on a mill pond under the well-seasoned command of Captain Rune Andreassen.
We were now sailing ever further south and planned to cruise by Elephant Island, we cruised by but weather conditions prevented a good view of the island made famous as the home to 22 members of Shackelton’s ill-fated 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. For four and a half months these men struggled to survive on one of the most remote and desolate islands in the world, struggling to survive in over turned lifeboats as they awaited rescue.
At last we would arrive at the Antarctic Peninsula, making our first stop at Port Lockroy. This was on of two bases set up by the British in World War II to keep an eye on enemy shipping and destroy old fuel dumps. Abandoned in the 1950s, the base was restored in 1966 by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which operates a museum, post office and souvenir shop. The post office was made famous in the BBC documentary “Penguin Post Office. The gift shop is one of the largest and most diverse in the Antarctic region even offering “bespoke” Antarctic tartan scarves specially designed for the Trust. The Gentoo penguins use the area as breeding ground, sharing the space with the elegant Snowy Sheathbills.
Our landing at Port Lockroy reaffirmed our choice of ship for our expedition to the Antarctic as later in the day two of our polar cirkel boats became surrounded by pack ice and the Fram had to push in breaking up the ice to free the craft. Later that evening the Fram would use its ice-breaking capability to rescue passengers from another ship when their zodiac craft could not break the ice to pick them up from land. The Fram brought the 93 stranded passengers aboard and offered hot drinks and cookies until they could be returned to their own ship. The grateful passengers then asked to have the gift shop opened and proceeded to shop for mementos of their rescue ship.
The Antarctic Peninsula is a particularly scenic place laced with glacier-filled bays and startlingly high mountain peaks that remind you that the Antarctic, unlike the Arctic, is one of the highest places on the earth. We would spend the next two days exploring this area while sailing the Errera Channel, a scenic narrow waterway. The Errera Channel is where you will finds Danco and Cuverville Islands. Cuverville supports one of the largest Gentoo Penguin colonies. These medium size penguins prefer to nest high on the slopes surrounding a bay and they tramp “penguin highways” into the snow to make their daily transits to the water easier. As visitors we had to be careful not to harm these trails for the birds who are always accorded right-of-way.
Neko Harbor at the end of Andvord Bay is deep into the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea only 50 kilometres away. The bay is surrounded on all sides by the mountains and alpine glaciers of the peninsula and is filled with castellated icebergs and wildlife. This is one of the few places you can actually touch the continent of Antarctica. It does require hiking up a steep hillside to touch some of the exposed rocks. My husband undertook the climb, I figured I was already there being on the Antarctic Peninsula itself. And, I was having too much fun watching a determined and diligent Gentoo penguin steal rocks from his neighbours nests to add to his own. Pebbles are a highly prized commodity by penguins in the Antarctic as building materials for nests are scarce.
We concluded our visit to the Antarctic Peninsula with a day cruising Whilhemina Bay, a favourite spot of Humpback Whales in the Antarctic summer and we were not disappointed, a large pod arrived to keep us amused for several hours.
All to soon it was time to head north across the Drake Passage and our home port of Ushuaia. Our crossing conditions were smooth enough to call it the Drake Lake. The calm conditions persisted as we sailed past the islands of Cape Horn and re-entered the Beagle Channel. We returned to the “end of the world.” But, in fact it was just a beginning. A beginning of a better understanding of this little known continent, Antarctica.
— Ann Carroll Burgess is a naturalist lecturer aboard cruise ships in Alaska, the South Pacific and Australia, She is a former member of the American Society of Travel Writers and the Travel Journalists Guild. Ann resides with her husband Tom in Parksville. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.