Speechless in Antarctica

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Thu 17 Feb 2011 11:29

Date: 16 February 2011

Position: 64:49.4S 063:29.1W – Port Lockroy


Bloggers Note to Blogfans: I’ve tried to send a couple of blogs with pictures, and both have failed to get through by satphone. I’m mortified as it is impossible to describe in words some of the unbelievable things we’re seeing here. You’ll have to wait until I get back to broadband civilisation and I will post loads of piccies then. Sorry!


The mist slowly lifted as we cruised through Dallman Bay. All of a sudden we were surrounded by majestic mountains on all sides covered with snow. Glaciers come down to the cold waters edge ending in cliffs several hundred feet high of solid ice. Enormous chunks break away with a resounding crash and the ice breaks up into “bergy bits”. They are biggish and easy to see. It is the “growlers” that are more difficult. These are the bits that float a few inches above the surface. With 7/8ths below the surface, they could do serious damage if hit at speed, so a constant watch is held as we motor along.


All of a sudden there is a cry: “Whale – whale!!” On our port side about 200 metres away we see a blow of spume rising into the air as a whale blows. Then the distinctive small fin of a humpback. It’s back arches and its fluke rears into the air before it dives. But then there is another blow – and another – and another. We are amongst a pod of at least four of these enormous whales. It is humbling to be in the company of these awesome, magnificent mammals.


The whales are not the only distraction. Dozens of Gentoo penguins race past the boat, porpoising in and out of the water. Then a fur seal pops it head out of water to take an inquisitive look at us. The waters here are heaving with wonderful, exotic wildlife.


We entered Port Lockroy and anchored in 14 metres in the middle of the large bay, putting out an enormous anchor and 80 metres of chain. After what ended up as a challenging, exhilarating sail across Drake Passage, we have at last arrived in Antarctica and there’s not a dry eye in the house. But plenty of dry throats. No alcohol has been consumed for the last four days and there is something to celebrate. Dave gets the Zodiac rubber dinghy into the water and selects a block of clear glacier ice that’s floating past, heaves it into the Zodiac and brings it back to the boat for the G&T’s and whisky. An anchor nip to remember!


Port Lockroy was the first scientific research station to be established in Antarctica. Set up by the British in 1944 on Goudier island in the middle of the bay, the base was permanently manned until 1962 when it was closed. It is now an Historic Site turned into a fascinating museum, all the huts restored to how they would have been in the 1960’s complete with the original tins, bottles and boxes of food that were left here when the scientists left. It is manned during the summer months by a British Antarctic Heritage Trust team of four personable young ladies lead by Station Head Nicky.  The station is still (as it always was) a British Post Office and, rather surreally, post cards and stamps can be bought and posted in the souvenir shop that has a selection of mementos, most of which I ended up buying. Been there – got the T-shirt!


Port Lockroy is visited by virtually all yachts and cruise ships that make it over to Antarctica. Last year they had 47 yacht visits, about 30 of which would have been multiple visits by professional charter yachts like Pelagic Australis. So only about 15 private yachts brave the Drake Passage each year. Perhaps next year Mina2 might be one of them. Who knows.


The anchorage is without doubt the most stunningly beautiful I have ever been in. Surrounded by high mountains, crystal white except for patches of dark granite on the vertical cliff faces, glaciers edge their way down the steep slopes constantly grumbling and rumbling and ending at the waters edge from where they calve off enormous chunks, hundreds of years old, that crash into the water with a roar. The sky was almost clear and the sun, almost warm if you were out of the icy cold breeze, cast brilliant shadows on the ice cliffs.


We are only about a hundred miles from the  Antarctic Circle. A month ago it was mid-summer here and it never got dark. Now you get about three hours of darkness and as the sun went down we were treated to a spectacular sunset behind the Lockroy station. How I wish you could see the photos, but you’ll have to wait.


Early the following morning as I was lying cosily in my sleeping bag down below, the boat suddenly started rolling dramatically. I sprang up on deck to find Miles, Laura and Dave already there. An exceptionally large fall of ice into the harbour had caused a mini-tsunami and a large single wave was making its way out of the bay.


After breakfast, Dave launched the Zodiac and took us off, out of the bay and round to a point with a low granite ledge where we piled out onto the icy foreshore for a hike. We were not alone. There was a Gentoo penguin breeding colony all around us. The penguins were sitting on their nests of pebbles that they had laboriously constructed a few weeks before, cementing the whole lot together with their poo. The smell was overpowering. Nestled at their feet were little balls of fluff crying out for their breakfast of regurgitated krill that the doting parent would vomit into the tiny little beak. In the wild, survival starts on Day One, and interspersed amongst the nests were dark brown Antarctic skuas looking for one of the parents to be distracted long enough to grab a chick for a tasty snack.


The site was also shared by a couple of Fur seals (Sealions). Whilst the penguins took no notice of us as we wandered through them, the seals can be highly aggressive and they can move fast, roaring as they rush towards you. Laura’s eyes lit up. “Oh, we’re just about to be charged by a Fur seal. How cool is that!”. Laura is not one to be easily fazed. Go to YouTube and search for something like “BT Challenge 2000 Rough Weather” and you will see a clip of the racing yacht LG Flatron sailing in hurricane force winds during their round-the-world race. The pretty girl constantly being wiped clear off the deck  by enormous waves is Laura. She loved every minute of it. No wonder she considers a Drake Passage gale a walk in the park!


We walked through deep snow over a ridge and down to a little bay where there were a couple of huts, one British and one Argentine. These used to be shelters for scientists on field expeditions. Whilst no longer used for that purpose they remain unlocked and fully stocked with food and fire wood as an emergency refuge for anyone who might need it.