Port Lockroy, Neumayer Channel and Mikkelsen Harbour

Port Lockroy
Monday, Feb 3rd

We wake up anchored at Port Lockroy, which is the location of a historic British research station on a very small Island, called Goudier Island. In the morning one of the four women from the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, who are stationed here for the summer, gives us an introduction to the station and the historical buildings there. We are then split into smaller groups and we are in the group that first visits the Gentoo penguin colony on nearby Jougla Point. In addition to the penguins, this colony has a lot of breeding cormorants. However, the most interesting thing is a huge whale skeleton. Some of the rib bones are about 2 meters long and the head is much larger than a person. They think this skeleton is a leftover from the early commercial whaling days, when whales were still processed on land.

During the 20th century until 1964 it is estimated that commercial whaling took out 2.1 million whales from Antarctic waters. This is a huge number, which has absolutely decimated whale numbers across the world. While some species like the Humpbacks are making a strong comeback, numbers of other species, in particular Blue and Fin Whales, still remain in single percentage digits from their pre-industrial whaling days. The main commercial whaling nations here in Antarctica were the US, Britain and Norway. They used exploding harpoons, which killed the whales instantly. The advanced industrial whaling fleets were able to catch and process a whale completely (into meat, blubber and oil) within one hour.

Afterwards we take the Zodiac over to the old research station on Goudier Island. This turns out to be really fascinating. The station was operational from 1944 until 1962, and it has been completely restored to how it was during those times, including the cans of food and a recipe for seal brain omelet in the kitchen, posters of pinup girls from the 1950s in the toilet, and all of the scientific instruments which were used mainly for Ionosphere research. The station is now maintained by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. They also have a post office, where we mail our postcards, and a small gift shop, where we shop for souvenirs.

                 The southernmost post office in the world

                   Seal Brain Omelette Recipe

Through the Neumayer Channel into the Gerlache Straight
While we have lunch back on the ship, we start moving through the Neumayer Channel out into the Gerlache Straight, and then the afternoon of whales begins. There were several presentations scheduled, but everything, including the daily wrap up, had to be cancelled, since we spent the entire afternoon until dinner standing on deck and watching whales. It started with several groups of humpbacks, who were all around the ship, and we get great shots of their tail fins coming out of the water. At one stage three of them become really curious and get within meters of the ship. The water is so clear that we can even see them underwater. One of the whales keeps turning sideways in order to look at us, and at one stage he even breaches high out of the water right next to the boat, but neither of us was fast enough to get a shot of that. The captain steers the ship very carefully, following the whales and they keep popping up on either side of the ship for several hours.

After a couple of hours of humpback watching we suddenly hear the announcement that there is a large group of killer whales nearby. We soon see a family of lots of killer whales. We think there are about 15, but one of the researchers later tells us that he knows this family and there are about 25 whales in the group. We have two killer whale researchers from the US Fishery Department on board, who so far had spent their entire time on the bridge staring through their binoculars all day long, but they now jump into action. One of the Zodiacs is lowered and they start following the whales. Their goal is to tag one of them with a satellite receiver. They have a large crossbow and they are trying to get close enough to the whales in order to shoot the arrow with the receiver into the one of the whales' dorsal fin. We watch all of this from the deck, which is very exciting. At one stage the whales get so close that they brush up against the Zodiac, and we see the researcher take a perfect shot and attach the receiver right in the middle of the dorsal fin of one of the adult females in the group.

After all of this, right when we plan to sit in the lounge and start editing all of our photos, several other Humpbacks appear very close to the ship and so we spent the next couple of hours out on deck and on the bridge again trying to get the perfect shot.

After dinner we spend the rest of the evening going through and editing our thousands of whale pictures (yes, literally thousands, due to the excessive use of the burst mode setting).


Mikkelsen Harbour

Tuesday, Feb 4th

We made our way further up North during the night and ended up at Mikkelsen Harbor on Trinity Island. The weather is quite bad today, it’s about 0 degrees and snowing, but since the water is quite calm, we are lucky to get another sea kayaking outing today. We sign up to be in the first group and go out at 9:15. It is beautiful out there, and it feels great to get some exercise. There is quite a lot of ice in the bay, which we have to navigate through with our kayak. Jen is already quite nervous, because the expedition leader had announced that the polar plunge will take place at noon today.

After kayaking, we have our last land excursion for this trip. We are dropped off at Mikkelsen Harbor, which has a Gentoo colony on it. There are also a couple of Weddell seals lying near the beach, and there is a huge number of whale bones strewn across. Mike, one of the naturalists, explains to us that this means these bones are from whaling before 1920, because in the 1920s whalers stopped land based processing, and moved to whole whale processing on sea, which was faster and much more efficient.

           Old whaling vessel and whale bones            A sleepy crabeater seal            Penguins doing the polar plunge

Back on board of the Explorer, we get ready for the long awaited and long dreaded polar plunge. We put on our bathing suits and bathrobes and make our way down to the mud room. They have loud techno music playing today (presumably in order to psych us up for it), and Patrick, the hotel manager, has Swedish Schnapps and Hot Chocolate waiting for us for afterwards. There are about 40 people ready to take the plunge. They have set up two Zodiacs and the platform they usually use for kayaking. We all line up and one after the other jump off the side of the Zodiac into the freezing cold southern ocean and are immediately pulled out onto the platform. There are about 7 or 8 people in front of us, and the most frightening thing is the look of sheer terror in each of their faces when they come out of the water. No one is smiling. Jen goes first, and I jump right after her. It is quite a shock to the system, but you get out so quickly again that it is really not that painful, but it feels incredibly exhilarating. The adrenalin and Swedish Schnapps warm us up pretty quickly, except for our feet, which stay numb for some time afterwards. There are a even a couple of people who jump in twice.

After lunch the ship makes her way across the Bransfield Strait back towards the South Shetlands Islands. In the afternoon Professor Paul Berkman finally gets to give his lecture on the Antarctic Treaty, which had been interrupted by whale sightings twice before. It’s a very interesting presentation. 

After dinner we have one more bit of excitement, when the ship picks up a researcher from Cape Shirreff on Livingston Island. They had dropped off this research scientist a few weeks ago, who is doing research on leopard seals by attaching critter cams to their backs in order to study their behavior under water. We were actually planning to pick him up last week on our way down, but the weather was too bad for a Zodiac landing, so the guy had to spend another week in the island. Therefore he sounded very happy and excited over the communication system, when the captain told him that the conditions were good enough to get the Zodiac out to him.The ocean was still pretty rough though, and it looked like they were struggling to get the Zodiac in and out of the water. Through the binoculars we saw 5 people standing on the beach in the distance near the research station. After the successful retrieval of the leopard seal researcher, the captain set a straight course at full speed to Ushuaia.

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