First Landings - Hut Island and Cierva Cove

Hut Island (Mikkelsen Harbour)

Heading off for the first landing

Our first penguin encounter - a gentoo

Snowy sheathbill - the perfect camouflage

Portrait of a gentoo

The remains of a whaling boat

Penguins at home

Overnight the Ocean Nova had crossed Bransfield Strait to reach the shelter of Mikkelsen Harbour on the south side of Trinity Island. It was pleasant sleeping on a still vessel in the early morning. However, there was no time to sleep in - the ship was abuzz with the anticipation of our first landing - on Hut Island, a small islet in the Harbour containing a small hut once used as a research base and a colony of gentoo penguins. Looking out from the boat, we could see the moving black spots of the penguins on the snow, while in the background, the ice cliffs of Trinity blended into the Antarctic fog.

A bleak view across to the hut on Hut Island

Like an alien in an alien landscape

Soon we were attired in our warmest clothes and full wet weather gear; the side door of the ship opened out to a small landing platform and we clambered into the waiting zodiacs for the short trip across the choppy water and bobbing ice fragments to the island. It was good to be on terra firma, though in the soft deep snow that had fallen overnight it was more terra than firma.

View from the high point of Hut Island with the "Ocean Nova" in the background

The gentoos stood or lay about in small clusters, some half-covered in drifting snow, others waddling about to check out the strange intruders. Others took to the water, demonstrating their mastery of this element as they flashed through and over the water with impressive leaps, or just simply took a bath with a great deal of splashing. Above, the odd skua hovered above the penguin colony, while a pair of snowy sheathbills sat almost invisible on the snow in their white plumage.

The gentoo colony of Hut Island

Gentoos hunkering down in bad weather

As we wandered slowly around the island, taking in the bleak beauty about us, it began to snow again. We slowly circumnavigated the island, passing a pair of crab-eater seals that had hauled out and which barely deigned us with a passing glance.

The snow sets in

Penguin at full speed

Crab-eater seal taking a break

Gentoo taking a dip

The clouds finally lift to give us a view of the ice cliffs of Trinity Island

After an hour on shore, the snow gradually got heavier, the penguins began to huddle up and it was time to return to the ship. When all were back on board, we pulled anchor and set sail for Cierva Cove another 20 nautical miles to the south. This would be our first landing on the continent of Antarctica.

Cierva Cove (Antarctic Peninsula)

The iceberg-studded entry to Cierva Cove

Below the waterline the icebergs glowed blue in the sunlight

Cierva Cove icescape no. 1

The entry to Cierva Cove was spectacular; the snow had stopped falling and the sun broke out in parts to illuminate a feerique world of floating ice of all sizes, from tiny fragments to large wind and wave sculpted blocks to enormous tabular icebergs.

Some appeared brilliantly white, others gleamed blue and others appeared a dull cream or pale grey as the light above changed. Behind them the glacier-lined mountains of the peninsula rose steeply, framed by a dark and glowering sky.

Beneath a sunless sky the icebergs appeared more menacing

A cluster of massive snow-capped icebergs

Cierva cove icescape no. 2

The contrast between the menacing sky and sunlit icebergs was incredible

The ridgeline of Cierva Cove - continental Antarctica at last!

Zodiac navigating its way through the ice

Blue ice cliff

After lunch we boarded the zodiacs once again and picked our way through the sea-ice and bergy bits to reach the landing to the bright red huts of Primavera - an Argentine research station, still closed for the winter.

A strange mist envelopes the mountains of the Peninsula

The red huts of "Primavera" Station add the sole splash of colour

We had finally landed on the Antarctic Peninsula and stood on the rocks of our seventh continent! As we looked out across the iceberg dotted waters to our floating home, dwarfed by the snow and ice covered mountains behind it, the immensity and isolation of this part of the world struck home.

Primavera en Antarctica

Finally, the seventh and last continent!

Moss and grass - Antarctic climax vegetation

To the right of the station was another large gentoo penguin colony, while bright green mosses and small grass tussocks clung to the rocky knobs above the deep snow. This was an Antarctic climax plant community.

Penguin slides in the guano-tinted snow

View across the rocks, moss and penguins to the icebergs of Cierva Cove

The zodiacs head out to explore the world of icebergs

The tide line of a glacier

Some curiously eroded icebergs

The sun had disappeared, but visibility was still good and, after visiting the base, we climbed back into the zodiacs and, escorted by leaping squadrons of gentoos, slowly wended our way amongst the diversity of icebergs; their surfaces sun-dimpled and etched by waves, some sculpted into bizaare shapes, others forming pale blue grottos, others massive chiseled walls of opaque white ice covered with a thick layered blanket of snow, and yet others gleaming translucent blocks filled with bits of rock and grit. It was magical!

A towering pinnacle of ice about to fragment

The polished blue glass of a capsized iceberg

An escort of leaping gentoos

The blue ice grotto

A corridor of blue ice

Our return to the ship was none too soon. The skiing party had barely returned from their brief foray up to the ridge when the cloud descended and it started to rain. As the temperature dropped sharply, the rain turned to sleet and, as we set sail once again, a full blown snow-storm set in with thick flakes driving horizontally across the ship.

The skiers return from their expedition

The "Ocean Nova"

One last sculpture in electric blue

We had been fortunate in having a break in the weather at Cierva Cove, but now it was time for a lesson in the changeability and severity of the Antarctic weather. However, I must confess that we felt a bit like we were cheating, as we sat in our comfortable lounge chairs, drinking G and Ts, eating warm food and watching the blizzard through the double-thickness glass of the Ocean Nova's observation deck.