Mina2 Visits Paradise and Then Has an Icy Night
Position: 64:49.43S 063:29.285W
Date: 13 January 2012.
We awoke yesterday morning to find that the freezing drizzling sleet had stopped and, against the forecasts, the sun was shining albeit intermittently. The light on the surrounding mountains, glaciers and icebergs was dazzling. In these conditions one place you have to see is Paradise Harbour from the high hill behind the Argentine Base Brown. It is truly one of the most beautiful and spectacular views in the world. It was the whalers who named this place in the early 20th century. Not a body of men known for their aesthetic sensibilities, but even they knew Paradise when they saw it.
It had been our intention to head straight for Port Lockroy but we quickly changed our plans and sailed the five miles across Paradise Harbour to Base Brown first. When leaving the anchorage at Water Boat Point we saw a particularly large, flat ice flow with dozens of penguins on it. More were turning up. The flat top of the floe was about two feet above the water and the penguins were launching themselves out of the water to try and get “ashore”. Some made it with a thump and waddled across the floe to join their mates. Others didn’t make it, managing to get one foot on the edge of the floe, before losing their balance and toppling back into the water with a splash. Cute and comical wasn’t in it.
As we arrived at the Argentine Base Brown at the southern end of Paradise Harbour we saw, coming out of the anchorage tucked behind the base, the familiar light blue hull of our old friends on Dawnbreaker. We hadn’t seen them since Ushuaia but had been in constant email communication with them, reporting each other’s positions for safety reasons and, for reasons of pleasure, we have been copying each other in on our blogs.
The one thing every yacht owner that comes this far wants as a memento is a photo of his yacht sailing against the backdrop of the Antarctic mountains. This was our chance. We pulled alongside Dawnbreaker and transferred Peter and Ewan, our cameramen; pulled away, hoisted our sails, and did a couple of sail pasts whilst Ewan and Peter clicked and videoed us.
Once done, both Dawnbreaker and Mina2 went round to the Argentine base to disembark our crews for a visit. Having walked round the buildings (Base Brown is not occupied this year – apparently there is something wrong with the generators) the crews trudged their way through the thigh high snow up the steep slope to the rocky bluff overlooking the whole of Paradise Harbour. Down below, I jilled around in Mina2 for an hour or so waiting for their return. Once they had taken in the majestic view their descent was rather quicker than their ascent as they tobogganed down the steep hill on their backsides. We then headed across the Gerlache Strait for the 24-mile passage to Port Lockroy going the slightly longer route down the Neumayer Channel just southeast of Anvers Island. I remember when I came down here last February on Pelagic Australis as a recce that the Neumayer Channel was stuffed full of whales and we had heard reports from other yachts that there were lots of them this year as well. But by the time we reached the channel, visibility was closing in and it had started snowing heavily. In the event, we saw no whales in this stretch at all.
We rounded the corner into Port Lockroy, a large bay in which, unusually in Antarctica, the water is shallow enough to anchor without tying in. We saw Podorange, a French expedition yacht that we knew, anchored in the far corner. We also saw that the entire bay was covered in thick brash ice, growlers and bergy bits. We nudged our way nervously through the ice, wincing a little every time we heard and felt the thump of ice hitting the slowly moving bow and scraping its way down the length of the hull. Eventually we picked a spot that looked as clear as anywhere and dropped the anchor. It was to be a busy night.
We set an anchor watch of two hours each. The problem with ice is that is constantly on the move. The wind will pick up from one direction and the ice heads towards you. You fend it off and it moves on. Then the wind shifts and the ice comes trundling back again. Meanwhile the boat is swinging around on its anchor and accelerating the speed of impact. Then the tide will change and you get another motorway of ice curling its way round the island in the middle, sometimes heading towards us but sometimes we escaped. So this was not an ice watch of sitting down below reading a book and occasionally popping one’s head out to have a look. It was pretty much constant fending off with our one remaining pole.
But whilst all this activity was taking place there were plenty of other distractions. Periodically there would be a groan; a crack like artillery fire and a large chunk of the ice wall at the end of the bay would come crashing into the sea with a roar, and a large wave would ripple across the bay. More ice to fend off.
On my watch there was a particularly large bergy bit, the size of a house, quite close by and thankfully not moving. But there was a crack; an enormous bit fell off and the rest of the berg capsized with a rush of water.
Then Venetia and I saw this enormous prehistoric looking head appear out of the water about 20 metres away. A Leopard seal was on the prowl for an early breakfast of penguin. The penguins (all Gentoos here) had been frolicking about the boat all night, swimming underneath us and then launching themselves with a plop onto a passing growler. But when the Leopard seal is on the prowl they all go into a frenzy and group together in one enormous flock, porpoising in and out of the water first one way then another. The Leopard seal has a neat way of preparing his meal. He’ll grab a penguin in his mouth and slit its skin open with its razor sharp teeth; a couple of vigorous whips of its head and the penguin is skinned and ready to swallow. All that’s left of the happy little penguin is its skin floating forlornly on the water.
Once the Leopard seal had eaten its fill it launched itself onto a iceflow barely 50 metres away and rolled over for a post-prandial snooze.
These words can only paint half a picture. As I’ve said before, this place and the experiences we are all having are, quite literally, indescribable.
Today, we have an important mission, for we are to present a tribute to Captain Lawrence Oates on the centenary of his death on behalf of the Royal Cruising Club to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, who run the old scientific base here in Lockroy as a museum. I’ll be telling you all about that later.