Mina2 has a Whale Of a Time
Position: 64:41.253S 062:37.848W
Cuverville Island – Part 2
Date/Time : 9 January 2012. 2245 (10 Jan 0045 UTC)
We untied from the Governonen on Enterprise Island shortly after 1000 to make our way 30 miles south to the island of Cuverville. We were taking the picturesque route through Wilhelmina Bay. At the start of the passage we had a fair wind and enjoyed sailing along in a light breeze in flat waters. As we made our way down the Plata Passage the wind died, so sails in and engine on. Generally, on the peninsula, the winds are very light and one would reckon to motor almost everywhere – but at least it gives one more manoeuvrability and control when you get to the ice. And get to the ice we did.
When we saw our first large iceberg as we approached Deception, Venetia wanted to give it a 20-mile berth but, being the reckless old salt that I am, we skimmed it by a mere two miles. When we first started seeing the brash ice in the Plata Passage and the occasional growler (bigger than brash and certainly big enough to do damage) we tried to avoid the whole lot, weaving our way through. The ice got thicker, and occasionally we had to nudge our way through the brash. Within half an hour we were simply barging our way through the brash without a care in the world (although still weaving round the growlers). Rapid acclimatisation to the conditions and what Mina2 is capable of.
But we had some distractions along the way. When I came here in February on the recce, we had just 1 ½ days of sunshine in the 2 weeks we were down here. This place is spectacular in the shade but when the sun comes out it is mind-blowing. Yesterday was full on sun, and passing down the passage we were surrounded by 360 degree views of the most spectacular mountains, glaciers and icebergs all twinkling in the sun as we, on our very own Mina2, motored through this fairyland. With thunderous roars, avalanches cascaded down the mountains throwing clouds of powder snow into the air.
As if that was not enough spectacle, we saw a whale blow no further than 100 metres away and the tell-tale dorsal fin of a Minke whale. Immediately after there was a second Minke whale. We cut the engine and trickled along. The whales came closer and closer until they were right alongside the boat. We engaged the engine slowly to avoid some ice and the whales followed us, right beside us; right in front of us and even under us. They turned on their sides exposing their white flanks and looked at us through their beady eyes. They were playing with us and continued to do so for what was about an hour but seemed a lifetime. The water here is crystal clear and we could see every detail of their heads, bodies, fins and flukes. We all felt unbelievably privileged, and both of the lads have gigabytes of photos and videos for us to enjoy later.
As the whales finally departed, we passed an iceflow on which was snoozing a Leopard seal – the first we had seen. We stopped, went right up to the flow and took photos as it yawned its enormous yawn, its row of killer teeth glinting in the sun. Ewan not only seemingly knows someone on every boat in Antarctica, but he also knows almost every Leopard seal as well, having studied them in South Georgia for a number of years. This was not one Ewan knew but he, like all of us, was very excited at the sighting. However the one he really really wanted to see was a Crabeater seal as this was the only type of seal he had not seen before and was likely to be in the area. We at Mina2 Adventure Expeditions Ltd like to deliver and, twenty minutes later, deliver we did. There on a flow just in front of us was a big Crabeater who looked up at Ewan with his big soulful eyes as we slowly passed by. Ewan had a small orgasm – his day was complete.
We arrived at Cuverville at tea time. It is a small island at the top of the Errera Channel and is famous as being home to the largest colony of Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic peninsula. This was the first place where we have had to put down an anchor and then tie our stern to long ropes attached to rocks on the shore in this pretty anchorage which was full of grounded bergy bits. In total this took about an hour to get right before it was action stations again and everyone shot off in the dinghy to go ashore and visit the penguins. The Gentoos make their nests out of piles of little pebbles which they are constantly nicking from each other giving rise to periodic noisy punch-ups. On the lower slopes the penguins are sitting on eggs, whilst those who chose the high ground where the summer sun melted the snow earlier, they each have one or two fluffy little chicks which they sit on to protect them from the cold wind and the skuas which maraud the rookery in search for an easy meal of penguin chick. You could sit for hours just observing the interaction between the penguins.
It was late when the last of the shore parties returned and we had dinner. I had set an ice watch for the night (one hour on, four hours off) and we settled down for the night. Within minutes there was a slight crunching sound. I looked outside and found the tide flowing down the channel bringing lots of bergy bits with it. Although we were on the fringes of this bergy bit motorway, there were a sufficient number of outlyers that were heading towards us and which needed shoving out of the way before they crashed into us, to keep us busy. This was where my new ice poles came in. Bought in Ushuaia, these were thick three metre long wooden poles. Ideal for the job, we fended off the first of the biguns and there was a splintering sound. Not the gelcoat being cracked like an eggshell, but the first of the poles disintegrating in a shower of splinters. Manufacturing defect obviously, but not to worry, we always had the second one. Apply light pressure to the berg and …crack. They were both made of matchwood. Second line of defence is to get the dinghy down and simply push them out of the way. But we had a problem there as well. In the afternoon runs ashore we realised that the bearing on the dinghy propeller was beginning to slip – like a slipping clutch, its life expectancy was minutes. Bring out the spare propeller (I try to carry a spare of everything). We changed it and were in business once more. Peter has taken on the role of “Bergmeister” leaping like a Rapid Response Team into the dinghy to ram the bergs out of the way. I only managed about two hours sleep last night but by the morning the tide had slackened and the threat had gone.
“So what’s the plan for today Tim?” asked the as usual hyper-active Richard at breakfast time. “Well, we’re staying here for another day and I, for one, will be sleeping. You can do what you like. One thing you could consider would be simply spending a couple of hours or so sitting quietly and watching the interaction of the penguins”. Richard looked at me, mouth open, shocked. Richard has never sat still anywhere for more than five minutes, let alone two hours. So he and Venetia went off in the kayak for a vigorous two hour circumnavigation of Cuverville Island, whilst Peter and Ewan went off to explore in the dinghy. Whilst Peter and Ewan were out they came across a big ice cliff that was making ominous creaking noises. They were only 40 metres away when Ewan got out his video camera and turned it on just in time to see the whole front of the face crashing into the sea with a roar, flicking seals off their ice flows with the tsunami that followed.
Richard and Venetia, meanwhile, on their circumnavigation found themselves in pack ice and struggling. Well Richard, at the front, was struggling. He did have a suspicion that Venetia, in the back seat was simply lying back and letting Richard get on with it. Either way, they beat their way through, and not satisfied with that challenge, Richard went ashore for a bit of light mountaineering during which he cut his finger which required the attentions of the duty First Aider on his return. But all’s well.
I, who had been chilling on the boat, saw walking round the headland four men in bright red survival suits. Where the hell had they come from? They waved as they walked past and said that they came from the Chilean scientific base at Waterboat Point in Paradise Bay where we are hoping to go to tomorrow. “Can we come and visit you?” I shouted. “We will be there waiting for you” came the reply. “You will be very welcome”. So another adventure in store for tomorrow, but first we will have to see what the ice brings tonight, and whether we will get any sleep.