Pelagic Australis is in Paradise
Date: 17 February 2011
Position: 64:54.2S 062:51.9W – Paradise Harbour
Yesterday morning we weighed anchor for the 37 mile passage to Paradise Harbour on the mainland of Antarctica to the east of the Gerlache Strait. The brilliant sun of the previous day had gone and the decks of Pelagic Australis had a dusting of snow as we slowly piloted out of Port Lockroy, dodging all but the smallest lumps of ice. Ice is heavy stuff. Give or take, a cube a metre square weighs a ton, and only 1/8th of it is above the surface. A ton of hard stuff hitting your bow at 4 knots can make a serious dent, or could bend your propeller beyond repair, so any ice is treated with great caution.
As we motored south out of the Peltier channel, we saw a couple of Humpback whales blowing, and several Crabeater seals lying on iceflows having a snooze, lazily looking up to give us an inquisitive stare as we passed. Overhead skimmed a couple of Antarctic shags (also known as blue-eyed shags amongst other names). Antarctica is beautiful in the sunshine. But yesterday it was cloudy – raw-cold with a bit of sleet and snow. It was just as beautiful. Whatever the conditions (and, given the rapidity with which the weather can change here, I’m sure we’ve got lots of other weather conditions to look forward to) this surreal place is like a beautiful woman that changes from one exquisite gown into another.
Paradise Harbour was named by the whalers who came here at the end of the 19th century. Even those hardened men knew paradise when they saw it. Not a harbour as you would know it, but a large bay enclosed by mountain islands. Once inside you are completely surrounded by towering mountains, glaciers and enormous ice walls. We tied in in the southern bay of Base Brown, the Argentinian scientific research station. Almost always, you can’t simply swing to your anchor in Antarctica, but you have to tie long 100 metre ropes to rocks on the shore, often two from the bow and two from the stern. This process is long, rarely taking less than an hour to snug yourself in. After the usual excellent dinner on board, we noticed that a lot of ice was coming into the bay. This can create problems or damage if a large bit hits the boat or gets snagged in the mooring lines. So Miles decided that we would have to stand ice watches each of two hours. My watch was the easy one from 0600 to 0800, during which I was shoving car sized bits of ice away with a long pole.
The Antarctic peninsula is a re-emergence of the Andes, the spinal bone of mountains that runs the length of South America, so it is mountainous. And as with mountains in high or cold parts of the world they are covered with hundreds of feet of ice – snow that has been compacted over centuries. These glaciers then flow at a microscopic pace down the mountain valleys ending abruptly at the seas edge in ice walls hundreds of feet high. Sitting quietly at anchor, there is a constant rumbling like thunder and you can see enormous avalanches of snow tumbling down the steep cliffs high up on the mountain. Periodically there is a thunderous crash like artillery fire and an enormous chunk of ice falls away from the face of an ice cliff and crashes into the sea. An iceberg is born.
Leopard seals are the big predators round here (together with Orcas – Killer Whales – which we have yet to see). The Leopard seals have a set of vicious teeth. Their favourite snack is penguin. Apparently, they grab the penguin, slicing its skin with their teeth. A couple of whiplash shakes of its head and the penguin is completely skinned, and its body swallowed in one gulp. You can tell when a Leopard seal has been snacking from the penguin skins left floating on the water, a pathetic reminder of what seconds earlier had been a charming and comical bird.
Leopard seals are also inclined to try and snack on rubber dinghies, so the Zodiac is always lifted on deck overnight and is never left unattended in the water by the shore. Nor is Pelagic Australis ever left unattended. Someone always remains on board to fend off any heavy ice that approaches and to be prepared to pump up the spare dinghy to rescue the shore party if they get stranded. Lose your dinghy, and swimming back to the boat in these freezing waters isn’t an option!
Yesterday we got the Zodiac out and went round the headland to the Argentine scientific station, Base Brown where we were met by the station head, Carlos Bunge. Armed with our walking poles and gaiters, we climbed a steep hill behind the base where we got staggering views over Paradise Harbour. This cruising ground is largely through the islands lying off the mainland and Base Brown is one of the very few places where you can step onto the Antarctic mainland. Miles produced a bottle of champagne to celebrate our landing.
The professional charter yachts all have a book of “mud maps” of anchorages which they have constructed. The islands are poorly charted and these are essential aides to know where best to anchor and avoid the many uncharted rocks that lurk beneath the surface ready to rip your keel off. Like in the days of the early explorers, these volumes of hand constructed charts which have taken years of painstaking work to create are incredibly valuable to their owners and they are jealously guarded. In the afternoon, Dave and I went out in the Zodiac round to the small north bay at Base Brown so that I could have a go at creating my own mud map. Having sketched out the shape of the bay and noted where all the visible rocks are, we then went up and down in the Zodiac making a note of the depths. Great fun!
On the way back, Dave suggested we go and look at some beautiful ice caves carved into the ice cliff. We were approaching the ice cliff, pushing the Zodiac through the thick ice when there was an incredible roar and a vast chunk of the ice cliff, about the size of Wimbledon village crashed into the sea very close to the ice caves. A tsunami of water came rushing towards us but happily it had dissipated into a long swell by the time it got to us. We decided that perhaps a visit to the ice caves could be left for another day!
I really, really want you all to know how indescribably beautiful this extraordinary place is, but I have had difficulty in sending blogs with pics, so I will try and send the occasional pic as a separate blog.