South Shetland Islands

Deception Island

Gently rolling in the swells as we pushed northward across the Bransfield Strait during the night, the Ocean Nova made its way back toward the South Shetland Islands. By early morning we were anchored off the entrance to Deception Island, formed by the flooded caldera of an active volcano. Once people had woken, we proceeded through the stark narrow gap, Neptune's Bellows, in the circular line of mountains and entered the caldera and the harbour of Port Foster. Ahead, on the far side of the old crater's rim, we could see several small cinder cones, evidence of more recent volcanic activity.

Deception Island through the port-hole

The cliffs of Neptune's Bellows - entrance to the caldera

Inside the caldera of Deception Island - sea ice and
active volcanic cone

The plan was to land at the end of the harbour, but the broad sheet of sea-ice put paid to that idea; instead, the Ocean Nova circled the sea-ice and, icebreaker-like, the captain rammed the ship several times into the plate of ice to wedge it firmly. The gang-way was then lowered and we all walked out - a la "Close Encounters" on to the firm flat surface of the sea-ice, an unexpected but greatly appreciated deviation from plan.

A salty channel in the sea-ice

The Ocean nova wedged in the sea-ice

View back to the ship across the sea-ice

Cross-country sking on the sea-ice of Deception Island

We crunched across this broad sheet of floating ice surrounded by the walls of a volcanic crater, inspecting the fine cracklines, shallow depressions, pressure mounds and sea holes of what at first glance seemed a completely flat surface.

On returning to the ship, I borrowed a pair of boots and cross-country skis to have quick ski - it was good to have a bit of harder physical exercise as the large servings of haute cuisine on this voyage were beginning to have an effect on the fit of my jeans.

On a pressure ridge - high point of the sea-ice

View across the sea-ice toward the opening to the ocean

Nostalgia for Uyuni

The Ocean Nova backs out of its sea-ice berth

One ship leaves - another arrives

Farewell to Deception Island
The captain began to get concerned about the sea-ice shifting, so we all headed up the landing platform and he backed the "Ocean Nova" out of its icy wedge to renegotiate the narrowing channel to the open water at the front of the harbour and then back out through the narrow gap of Neptune's Bellows. It was certainly time to leave as another cruise ship had just entered Port Foster; Antarctica was starting to get crowded!

Half Moon Island

From Deception Island, the ship headed north westward towards the other islands of the South Shetland chain. As it passed by Livingston Island, the sun broke through to shine on the long chain of peaks that reached up to 1700m, rugged yet smooth under their mantle of snow. Lunch was interrupted by an excited cry as one of the passengers spotted the blow of a humpback whale, so the captain turned the ship to enable us all to watch a pair of these gentle giants of the ocean feeding on the rich krill of these cold waters. I guess it was lunchtime for all creatures.

Thar she blows!

The rugged skyline of the Tangra Mountains on Livingstone Island

Humpback passing by the ship

Continuing on past the glistening white profile of the Livingstone Island, we eventually reached Moon Bay by mid-afternoon. This bay contained the crescent -shaped Half Moon Island, our next landing spot. The sun was winning the day and it was great to see the Antarctic landscape in a different light.

The chinstrap choir hits a high note

Landing on a stony beach, we trudged across the snow to watch the antics of socialising and nesting chinstrap penguins - cackling loudly, heads pointed skywards, stealing pebbles from each other's nest to add to their own, preening each other or just waddling, jumping and sliding between water's edge and rookery set amongst the dramatic rock outcrops of this island.

Weddell seal taking it easy

Blue-eyed cormorants and the odd kelp gulls had also called this place home and built their nests, while a pair of snowy sheathbills wandered about, almost invisible on the snow. Nearby, a threesome of Weddell seals lay disinterestedly in the snow alongside the stony beach.

The pale serenity of Half Moon Island

Tangra Mountains of Livingston Island from Half Moon Island

Chinstrap penguins - the one on the right is carrying a pebble for its nest

Snowy sheathbills - so camouflaged on the snow, so obvious on lichen covered rocks

Nesting kelp gull

Chinstrap sleeping on its basement nest

Higher up the steep hill, someone had started sliding down a snowshute - it seemed time for a little diversion, so I joined a group of passengers luging down the hillside, extending the shute further down the deep soft snow with each run. The penguins did it so why not us? It was plain old-fashioned fun and I could justify my rich cruise dinner tonight. Worn out from multiple climbs of the luge slope, I headed away from the crowds to find a large slope of untouched snow, looking over the channel to the snow-covered peaks of neighbouring Greenwich Island.

Cormorant fly-by with nesting material

Rocky shoreline - luge run to right of outcrop

The Halfmoon halfpipe
The peninsula viewed from the luge run

The rugged side of Half Moon Island

Chinstrap on the trot

Clouds swirl about the mountains of the Livingston Island interior

Iceberg drifting past the face of a glacier

The sun shone, the wind was still and I stopped and sat in the deep snow for twenty minutes or so, turning off my mind to let the atmosphere of this white wilderness seep gently in; the play of sunlight on ice and snow, the mystique of clouds swirling slowly about the nearby peaks, and above all the profound silence of Antarctica.

The face of a glacier

Gentoo penguin coming ashore

The soft white mantle on neighbouring Greenwich Island

Penguin tracks in the snow

The silence of snow

Time for a spot of meditation in the stilless of the South Shetlands

The Ocean Nova waiting for us in Moon Bay

It was a tired and happy group of people that returned to the boat from Halfmoon Island - yet again the Antarctic had shown a different side with new landscapes and new experiences. Yet there was a touch of sadness creeping in - tomorrow would be our final day of landings on this, the last continent.

Jubany Station

The engines changed pitch in the middle of the night as we pulled in to "Arctowski", the Polish Antarctic Research Station on King George Island, to pick up a couple of returning researchers. They then returned to full pitch and we continued on for two more hours before stopping in the tranquil waters of Maxwell Bay for the remainder of the night.

We awoke to look out on the bright orange-red huts of Jubany Research Station, an Argentine Base with German / Dutch scientific collaborators, beneath the immense rock castle of Cerro Tres Hermanos. Behind it and across the bay, snow-covered glaciers domed up to the high points of the island, almost burying the peak of the Florence Nunatak.

The red huts of Jubany Station dwarfed by the massive volcanic plug of Tres Hermanos

This morning's landing would involve a visit to the station, established in 1953, and a tour of their facilities which comprised staff quarters, laboratories, communications centre, hospital and even a tiny chapel. At the end of the tour, we joined some of the station staff for that good old Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony; sharing a mate of yerba with your friends.

The Florence Nunatak surrounded by the ice of
the Fourcade Glacier

Red huts of Jubany on the black rock shoreline

Reflections of Cerro Tres Hermanos

Here, for the first time we did not need to walk on snow, instead wandering along the black sand and pebble beach along the bay; first southward to trace the source of the loud and long burping sounds - a group of enormous slug-like elephant seals that had hauled up on the beach. Mostly juvenile males, several of them were engaging in chest-thumping play - good practice for when the time comes to decide who will be the beachmaster and ruler of the harem.

A cluster of elephant seals

The fur colour of the elephant seals varied from grey to tan

Juvenile elephant seals at play

We then wandered northward, past the odd resting skuas and a flock of juvenile kelp gulls, crossing the meltwaters that flowed from the iceshelf into the bay, before again returning to ship.

Strolling up the beach across meltwater streams

Flock of kelp gulls

A local and a visitor enjoying the sun

Elephant seal portrait

Iceberg drifting beneath 520m Mt Plymouth on Greenwich Island

Santiago, one of the expedition staff onboard, who had spent time at Jubany several years ago, was amazed at how much ice had been lost from the glaciers around the bay in just a few years. Everything that we were hearing implied that the Antarctic Peninsula of 50 years time will be very different from that of today.

Then it was back on board for a few hours of sailing back and then northward through the English Passage to the Aitcho Islands (=HO or Hydrographic Office), an incredible group of jagged outcrops and islets of volcanic origin. We had actually passed them on our way south six days ago, faint outlines in the fog and driving snow.

One of the starkly beautiful Aitcho Islands

Icebergs big and small in the English Passage

The sawtooth profile of the Aitcho Islands (nostalgia for Torres del Paine)

A massive tabular iceberg in the channel

What a difference a week makes - today the islands gleamed in the bright sunshine on a flat blue sea; it was a fitting place to stop for our last landing in this wonderful white wilderness, on Barrientos Island, one of the larger and more accessible members of the Aitcho Group.

Barrientos Island

We landed in a small cove on Barrientos Island to be greeted by a special treat. In amongst a colony of chinstrap penguins that we had expected stood one lone and imperious king penguin - a long way from its home in South Georgia Island - it rapidly became the world's most photographed penguin!

Chinstraps and gentoo defer to the king penguin

View over Barrientos to the glaciers and peaks of Greenwich Island

Colony of gentoo penguins on their guano-tinted nesting site

King penguin in haughty mood

From the cove, our expedition leader led us on a longish walk around the snow-covered shore, with its rookeries of brooding, squabbling, pebble-stealing, fish-smelling gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and up a long gentle slope to a reach the saddle that divides the island.

The pinkness of gentoo guano (note the one is sitting on two eggs)

One of these penguins is an impostor!

Portrait of a chinstrap penguin

Looking from Barrientos to Greenwich Island

Giant southern petrel in flight

When we reached the saddle, framed by tall basalt columns, we were greeted by a magnificent panorama of the western end of the island and the spires and rugged islets of the Aitcho Group.

Panorama of the western end of Barrientos Island

We climbed up to the top of a crag of fluted basalt columns to better appreciate this incredible landscape, spanning fom the islets around to the snowy peaks and smooth-profiled ice caps of much larger Greenwich Island.

Sitting on top of the world at Barrientos Island

Completing the 360° panorama, we could look across the white expanse of Barrientos to see huge tabular icebergs and a tiny blue ship floating in the channel behind us.

View back eastward toward the Ocean Nova moored near our landing cove

Iceberg in the English Passage

Underwater section appearing as the iceberg tilts

View from Barrientos to other islands of the Aitcho group

Elephant seal basking on a pile of seaweed

We then dropped down to the large flattish western end of the island that pushed out to sea along a shore lined with thick beds of washed up kelp; the perfect place for another group of sea elephants to haul out and rest as they shed their moulting skins. The shore was also littered with the spinal bones and ribs of a whale, but graced with the presence of another king penguin (apparently a rarity this far west) and a Weddell seal.

The second king penguin that lost its way

Sea elephant trumpeting

Whale vertebra

Weddell seal basking in the afternoon sun

We followed the shore around to a small hillock at the far end where giant southern petrels nested or soared elegantly above.

It was a wonderful last visit on shore and difficult to retrace our steps back over the saddle and back to the landing. We lingered to the very last before finally boarding the zodiac for our last trip back to the ship. It was time to go; the clouds were gathering, the wind was increasing and the Drake Passage was waiting.

Young elephant seal taking a dip

Now that was good joke!!

Heading back toward the saddle and home

A smaller gentoo colony

Soaring giant southern petrel

A curious view of an iceberg

Final farewells as we head back to ship

Nesting giant southern petrels

A colony of gentoos enjoying the afternoon sunshine

The clouds begin to return - time to go!

The sky had become somewhat more menacing

Portrait of a contented Weddell seal

The imperious king penguin - icon of the antarctic

All too soon we had weighed anchor and were underway, picking up the regulation complement of following sea-birds as we passed a series of giant tabular icebergs slowly drifting across the ocean swells. This time their presence was bittersweet, the last remnants of our Antarctic adventure slowly disappearing behind as we headed northward back to Ushuaia.