33 days away from the world

ANTARCTICA

January 2020

Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego

There are few cities on Earth whose name immediately resonates with adventure, remote and wilderness. Ushuaia is certainly one of them. For me, Ushuaia has been the place of short breaks, frantic pit stops between two cruises, too short to explore the city beyond avenue St Martin. I know every good internet cafés, the best supermarkets to avoid the crowds, and nothing beyond that. This year, I decided to take the time to explore the "real" Ushuaia. I rented an AirBnB for 8 days before embarking on the most unique polar cruise one can do: a semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica from Ushuaia to New Zealand, via the incredible Ross Sea. 

Ushuaia in January is reaching its peak tourist season. It is the middle of summer, but do not expect beach weather, it is the "fin del mundo" after all. In eights days of exploring the town and its surroundings, I got every type of weather you can hope for, from hail, rain, snow, to calm and sunny, but finding times without the infamous wind of Patagonia was proven difficult. 

 

The town, whose name means "at the back of the bay/cove", spreads SW-NE between the Beagle Canal and the Martial mountain range to the North. It does not take very long to find yourself lost in the forest of Nothofagus trees or at the top of a wind-swept mountain. After 8 days of hiking, working on my lectures, and meeting some of my great friends who are lucky to live in Ushuaia, Antarctica was calling.

ONBOARD MV ORTELIUS

On the 13th of January I could finally embark on the MV Ortelius, my home for the next 33 days. Embarkation days are always pretty hectic. After a quick meeting with my new colleagues, we were given 2H to buy our last provisions and come back to greet our passengers. 2H became 5 minutes, as truckloads of food had to be loaded manually on the ship. Good team workout, and best way to get to known our colleagues from the galley, hotel, and navigation. 

MV Ortelius is one year younger than me. It was built in 1989 in Poland exclusively for polar expedition cruising. Ice strenghtened, the ship travels to both the Arctic and Antarctica. It was acquired by Oceanwide in 2011 and has been sailing the world ever since. Many of my friends have worked on it as polar guides, it was my turn to join as their "glaciologist in residence" for one cruise only, but not any cruise, 33 days along the peninsula, the Amundsen Sea, the Bellingshausen Sea, and finally the Ross Sea.

The team I joined was by far the most experienced group I have ever been lucky to join. Many of them had already overwintered several times in Antarctica, done that Ross Sea cruise a handful of times, and were all absolute polar veterans. I was going to learn a lot from them.

After a couple of days at sea and the Drake passage behind us, we finally reach our first site, the incredible Lemaire channel and Vernadsky station. The day was beautiful, two of our guests got married on the ship while crossing the Lemaire, it all felt so magical.

PETER THE 1st ISLAND

 

This expedition cruise will make us cover a total of 6000 miles in 33 days. So we obviously have quite some distance to cover. Luckily, after our great stop on the peninsula, another crazy one is coming: Peter the Ist Island!

More people have been to space, than have managed to step on Peter the Ist. This volcanic island that belongs to the Norwegian claims in Antarctica, is about 450 km west of continental Antarctica and is almost completely covered by ice <3 . Its topography justifies the few visitors, the island is surrounded by ice and vertical cliffs. But we will try our best, take our ship as close to the island as we can and who knows, either take our zodiacs out or perhaps our big toys: the three helicopters we have on board? 

The island appeared late one afternoon. We were battling a fierce wind coming from the West, and sheltered far behind the island on the downwind side. After a good assessment of the situation we decided to attempt sightseeing flights for all our guests running through the night. The sunset was beautiful, there were whales around us, what a stunning evening.

The long traverse began. Bellingshausen Sea, Amundsen Sea, .. many days at sea to reach our main goal, the incredible Ross Sea. Sea days are by no mean boring days. There's always plenty to do on the ship, between lectures, equipment prep, and training we had our hands full. The great weather was following us, and I did not get sea sick once on this cruise which is really a first! I tried to spend most of my time on the outer decks, observing huge tabular icebergs passing by and the ever changing sky. What a great feeling to know we are the only ones there. While dozens of ships are stuck exploring every inch of the Peninsula, we are the only people on Earth witnessing this amazing natural spectacle.

Approaching the Ross sea wasn't easy. A thick band of sea ice was blocking the way to the Ross Sea. We got pretty stuck in it, and hope to catch a small lead free of ice, to avoid a huge detour that would have added another 4-5 days of sailing. Let me tell you after 9 days on a ship without getting out, we were all seriously hoping to catch that lead! 

We tried our best but got pretty stuck in the sea ice. So stuck that our Captain decided to take the big drone out (the heli) to get an overview of the situation and map out where the lead was. We did have satellite images, but internet was so weak that we only had images a few days old. I was lucky to be a part of that flight, and learnt a lot about "mapping sea ice for a ship" while flying super fast. And it worked! A few hours later our troubles were far behind us.

ROSS SEA

Until last year, I honestly had no idea that some cruise ships would take passengers all the way to the Ross Sea. But there I finally was. The day we got to the Ross Sea was pretty extraordinary. With the sea ice behind us, we got surrounded by huuuge tabular icebergs, a dark menacing sky. The whole atmosphere was eerie. This place was a completely different ball game.

The Ross sea was the biggest goal of our cruise, this is the place where we wanted to spend most of our time exploring. And we had so many insane places to visit. Places I had been dreaming of for a long time, places I have read about in books, been hypnotised by in geography books, .. from then on, it felt like being the character of one of my wildest dreams.

The first place we stopped by completely blew my mind. We aimed for one of the most famous locations in the area, that is forever associated to the exploration of the south pole: the Bay of Whales. First named by Shackleton during his Nimrod exploration, it was mostly used by Amundsen to get onto the Ross ice shelf, and established his base to prepare for the South Pole. The bay of Whales is a natural opening in the shelf, a perfect harbor. 

I woke up just past midnight, bumped into a couple of our most passionate passengers who were already on the outer decks. The light was incredible. The Bay of Whales was indeed full of whales that night. On the horizon we could see a thin golden line, that grew bigger and bigger. At about 2H, our expedition leader gently woke our passengers up, to announce that we would arrive soon. In front of us, a giant white wall was standing in our way: the Ross ice shelf. The moment was magical. We reached 78°S, the southernmost point I had ever reached, which is, funnily enough, the same latitude as Longyearbyen, except in the southern hemisphere.

This, for me, was already the highlight of the trip, the highlight of the year, probably one of the highlights of my entire life! Knowing that climate change is deeply affecting these fragile ice shelves, no matter how big they are, made it all very bittersweet. The Ross ice shelf seems ok for now, let's hope it stays in place for many many centuries to come.

After a quick nap, we spent the rest of the day sailing along the shelf, dreaming of Amundsen, his men and his dogs leaving Framheim for the unknown. Speaking of explorers, we aimed for another unbelievable adventure the next day. After hoping to do a sightseeing flight over the shelf or even a drop off, but had to cancel because of the Antarctic winds, we decided to pay a visit to Scott's hut at Cape Evans!

CAPE EVANS

Scott was Amundsen's big rival on the race to the south pole. He started his exploration not from the ice shelf like Amundsen, but from land, a place they called Cape Evans, at the entrance of Erebus Bay. The hut was built in 1910, hosting the headquarters of Scott's expedition. It is now a "Historic Site or Monument", preserved and stabilized by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Visiting Cape Evans is a step back in time. Everything in the cabin has been stabilized and put back the way it was during Scott's time.  It felt so real. The smells, the atmosphere, it's like the men are still around, working with the dogs, the horses, fixing the roof, and you are just exploring the cabin. Only a few people are allowed in the cabin at once. With the rest of the expedition team we got lucky to get in the hut before our passengers, and got handful of minutes there by ourselves. 

THE DRY VALLEYS

 

As if this cruise was not crazy enough, we decided to attempt a trip to the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. You know? The driest place on the driest continent, the largest ice free place of the continent. The place I have been dreaming of visiting for as long as I can remember. We woke up to an amazingly beautiful morning, so calm, surrounded by icebergs and sea ice in Mcmurdo sound. We tried to get as close to the dry valleys as possible but the fast ice became too thick. My heart exploded when I got called to join the reccee trip to Canada glacier. The flight was absolutely mind blowing. We rapidly entered into Taylor valley, after calling Mc Radio (from the US station of McMurdo) to inform them of our plans. 

That's when I noticed there was another helicopter right in front of us, a few hundreds of meters away. I wish Mc radio could have informed us of this big hazard but we had to find this out on our own! There were indeed another helicopter flying back and forth for the scientists working in the valley. 17 minutes later, we were landing by Canada glacier, about 13 km into Taylor valley. The glacier was huuuge with vertical cliffs all around, and a very distinct pattern that makes it a great analogue for glaciers on Mars, characterized by strong ablation and dust deposition. 

As soon as the helicopter landed, we took all the equipment out. Radios, tents, we had to be ready for anything, even being stranded there in case the weather would have turned for the worse. But another miracle happened, I was invited to fly again (!) this time to go even further into Taylor valley, all the way to Taylor glacier and its blood falls!!! How mad is that. Let me show you some pictures first, so you get a sense of the craziness.

The origin of the blood falls of Taylor glacier have been puzzling scientists for a very long time. We finally know where this red-brown color is coming from. It is obviously not blood, but brine coming from the base of the glacier. The water flows at negative temperatures because of its high salt content, and the color comes from iron oxidised when it comes in contact with air. Just total science porn as my friends would said.

This flight was a reccee flight for future trips. Perhaps in the next couple of years it will be possible to fly passengers over Taylor glacier and show them how unique this place is. We landed back next to Canada glacier and exploded with joy and happiness. This was probably one of the very best days of my life. 

For the rest of the day, I was happy to do the least interesting activity possible and help our team bring all our passengers on land. It is quite a tricky ballet, having 3 helicopters flying around, dropping and picking up passengers every 5 minutes. I helped opening and closing the doors of the helicopters, safely shuttling passengers to and fro the "heliport". 

What an amazing day that was. The next day started with pretty difficult conditions. We were still in Mcmurdo Sound, but this time the weather was proper murky. Really thick fog, sea ice everywhere, and crazy wind. Not easy to make decisions when the conditions are so difficult, but our expedition leader had a great idea: go and check out Mctown or McMurdo station! We were not invited to visit the station, but just seeing it from the ship was really special. We used the channel cut in the sea ice by the US icebreaker, and saw so much Nilas ice, the first step in the formation of sea ice. 

CAPE BIRD

But it was so windy. Everywhere we tried to go, the wind was too much for our zodiacs or our helicopters. Except... in a very small location around a place called Cape Bird! We arrived there in the late afternoon, the sun was shining, the cape was covered in penguins, what's not to like! We took all our passengers on land and let there have a good wander, felt so good to stretch our legs and be surrounded by penguins. About 30 of our passengers decided the conditions were optimal for a little swim!

CAPE HALLETT

The 2nd of February was a sea ice day. We moved from one patch of sea ice to another, but the sights were absolutely amazing. So many emperor penguins, so many orcas and icebergs, one of our very best sea days. We continued our slow migration north, and reached thick ice close to Cape Hallett. After careful assessment of the conditions, we decided to launch a sightseeing operation with our helicopters. Once again I joined the recce trip which was oh so amazing, and spent the rest of the day trying to find the elusive Ross seal (that we never saw) on the sea ice.

We had two days left in the Ross Sea. And one site we really wanted to tick off our list. The most difficult, the most technical: Cape Adare. This prominent cape on the northern tip of the Adare peninsula is super exposed to currents, winds, drifting sea ice. But the weather gods were back by our side for a great finish in the Ross Sea, and the forecast was perfect.

CAPE ADARE

This place is the largest adelie penguin rookery in the world, and the first place where a building was erected in Antarctica. So major keys at Cape Adare. We were ready for anything. And we got the warmest conditions we could have ever imagined. On the same day the warmest temperature ever got recorded on the peninsula, we were all melting in the Ross sea. It is pretty mind boggling to be around hundreds of thousands of penguins. We were on a mission to find a careful paths to the Borchgrevink hut, and we made it just in time before our passengers got dropped off. What an amazing day that was. So so happy we could land there. The hut was built in 1899, and was home to the first party to overwinter on the Antarctic continent.

We were all so heartbroken to leave the Ross sea after that. But just as our ship was heading North, a pod of whales came to bid us goodbye. The way back to New Zealand was going to take us 4 to 5 full days of sailing. We were a little bit ahead of time and made the most of the migration north by visiting as many islands as we could. First on our list: the elusive Balleny Islands.

THE BALLENY ISLANDS

The Balleny's are only a day away. We may/may not even see them, may or may not be able to approach them. So the expectations are pretty low. These small inhabited islands are exposed to strong winds, crazy currents, and drifting sea ice.Only so few people have managed to actually step foot on the. We aimed for Sturge and Buckle islands. That way we were onto a very special mission with Steve our biologist. Steve had been collecting penguin bones at different locations throughout the voyage. Analysing the bones provides information on the diet of the penguins, and can help reconstruct climate over hundreds or even thousands of years if such old bones can be found. 

The goal that day was to do the impossible: land on the islands and collect samples. We were a small party, Steve and I, and two lucky passengers that had won a raffle and an auction. The conditions were better than expected. There was little sea ice in the area, not too much wind, we attempted to take all our guests out for a zodiac cruise, in two rounds. The first round went well, and helped us to monitor the conditions, and we felt confident to be able to land and be picked up during the second round. 

Less than 100 people have landed on these islands, and we added 4 more to that list! We spent about 1.5 hours, running around trying hard to find bones that looked old.

NEW ZEALAND SUB-ANTARCTIC ISLANDS

The North was calling, and we resumed our sailing towards New Zealand. It took us another few days to reach Campbell Island, a beautiful NZ sub-Antarctic island at 52°S. We were not allowed to step on the island but had the best time taking our zodiacs out and exploring Beeman cove. It felt so good to see all that green around us! Our highlight was the "loneliest tree in the world", a Sitka Spruce planted there more than a 100 years ago.

The next islands we visited were the Snares, just one day away from our final destination. It was the best way to conclude this extraordinary voyage. We had the most beautiful zodiac cruise, spent long hours exploring every crack and caves we could find, and taking thousands of pictures of the Snares crested penguins and the albatrosses doing their courtship rituals.

This marks the end of this semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica! Time to plan some fieldwork in the same areas we visited :)

MORE INFOS!

You can find some of the best pictures of this story on my shop:

Antarctic Heritage Trust