Before breakfast is early. Melinda and I had a brief conversation at 5:15 this morning about whether we would actually get up in time for the 6a landing or sleep in until breakfast at 9a. Waking early eventually won out, in large part out of concern we’d miss something really awesome at Neko Harbour if we slept in. Some people surely did sleep in, but most came out.
We chose landing over cruising again and spent some time on the beach at Neko. We walked in the other direction today, away rather than toward the glacier, and saw a seal and some more Gentoos. We had a bit of snow again this morning, and it was colder – the flakes were smaller. I tried to photograph some Gentoos in the shallow water near the shore, to show them flying in the water; we’ll see back home how well that turned out. We didn’t stay long on shore, though; not much new to see and we were a bit cold and tired. So we were on one of the first zodiacs back to the ship.
Breakfast was well attended, unsurprising given the hour, although Melinda chose to nap through breakfast to make up for the short sleep overnight. From breakfast on, we were ship cruising, first through Paradise Harbor and later through the Lemaire Channel. These waterways are interesting mostly because of the mountains around them: they’re tall, very tall, and the waterways narrow. We had fantastic weather for the day’s cruise – it was sunny and blue skies with scattered white clouds. The snow on the mountains would glisten in the sun next to the cloud shadows. I imagine this is what cruising through the Alps would feel like. Paradise Harbor also is the home of a Chilean research base and an Argentine research base. Chile had a vessel at its base, coming out to greet a passing yacht, and Argentina had staff at their base doing maintenance. Not urgent maintenance, apparently – the staff came out and photographed our passing boat.
Throughout the day we saw signs of humanity, a stark contrast to much of the past three weeks. We saw the two research bases, two yachts, a Chilean research boat, a British ice breaker, the HMS Protector, and a handful of navigational aids. The marine radio squawked periodically with messages between other ships or other people calling to us, including two people who called specifically looking for Ted. The community of Antarctic expedition leaders probably isn’t too large, so it’s not a surprise that they might know each other. From the radio conversations, there’s a vessel a day behind us on about the same itinerary and another vessel a day of ahead of us. We may think we’re all alone in these vast and frigid waters, but that’s not entirely true (and, probably for the better).
The plan for the afternoon is to ship cruise as described then land at Petermann Island, a tiny piece of land covered in penguins. The Lemaire Channel cruise is exciting because it’s mottled with pack ice, and as we reach Peterman Island the pack ice is thick in the surrounding water. The Ortelius has little trouble pushing its way through this ice, but the ship does have its limits. The ice around the island is more than the Ortelius can safely anchor in, it’s too thick to launch and drive zodiacs, but it’s too thin to simply walk over. So Petermann Island will remain a ship cruise, photo from afar target for us. We turn around in its waters and backtrack through the Lemaire. At this point we do reach our southernmost point in the trip: 65 deg 10’ 7” S. This point is about 105 miles north of the Antarctic circle.
I gather that we have many alternative plans for the afternoon, as I overhear Ted and Hugh and Ted and the Captain talking about them. We consider landing nearby at Booth, or at the Ukraine research base, but in the end we land at east side of Booth Island. It’s a bit of a cruise to backtrack to this point, but we’re there around 5:30, comfortably before supper. Cheesemans hasn’t landed here before so the staff heads out before dinner to scout the location. During part of the ship cruise earlier in the day I’ve taken a nap, and during pre-dinner scouting I rest more. We’ve been told we have a long day ahead of us.
Dinner takes forever, in part because we’re ready to land and in part because the kitchen really is slow tonight. Also, Melinda and I sit with a rather non-conversational bunch. We have two dining rooms, one with 10-seat tables and one with 4- and 6-seat tables; Melinda and I eat at the 10-seat table room. Everyone at our table is low-energy, and I’m sitting across from some people who don’t seem comfortable with conversational English. So I stare blanking at the opposite wall for a while; it’s been a long day of watching really tall mountains drift by.
Finally we get the evening plan. At 9p we’ll begin landing and zodiac cruising at Booth Island; pick one and you can’t swap during the evening. Sunset is around 11p and the skies are set for a great show (it’s around 32F, about no wind, and skies are scattered thin clouds). The island has chinstrap, Adelie, and Gentoo penguin colonies and is the only island where all three species nest together. Melinda and I choose to land, and we head up the snowy hillside to find the Chinstraps. We find many many Gentoos and about two dozen Chinstraps on nests. We even see some Chinstrap chicks in the nests, which is a treat. The island has a lot of snow, but it doesn’t stop the penguins from walking about. Consequently, the snow fields are criss-crossed by penguin tracks, either foot tracks and maybe dots where the flippers occasionally touch the snow, or belly toboggan paths with flipper marks where a penguin has pushed itself along. With the light low from the setting sun, many of these tracks photograph well- at least I think they ought to. Again, I’ll check this out when I’m back home.
The sun sets very slowly, and the light warms to a gold and orange color. I take a few photos, but I don’t find great compositions and color on the island, just those of the clouds in the sky. I chat with Zoe for a bit about photography; she bought her camera, lens, and computer just a week before the trip, so she’s learning a lot as the trip goes by. She’s shooting with a Canon 550D and the same 70-300mm zoom that I have.
I need better gloves if I want to do cold-weather photography. The Dakine gloves Melinda and I bought for the trip have liners and outer waterproof layers, and they’re good for the zodiac trips but the outer layers are too bulky for taking photos. I’ve taken to wearing the waterproof layer on the zodiacs and only the liners on land; I can operate my camera just fine wearing the liners only. But with a bit of wind the liners end up not quite as insulating as I need; my fingertips frequently were very cold. I headed back to the ship not a moment too soon – my fingers were pretty cold and stiff. They’re fine now, though.
Part of the scouting the staff did on the island was to lay out a path for walking through the snow. We were asked to not bushwhack because the snow is soft and deep, and a foot hole made up to our knees is big enough to capture a penguin and deep enough that it would be stuck there. So we stuck to walking in one human highway stamped out from among the dozens of penguin highways in the snow.
The sun eventually set, a bit past 11p, and we headed back to the ship. We’re moving now to Port Lockroy where we’ll drop anchor for the night. We’ll land at Port Lockroy in the morning and stay there until noon and spend the afternoon again in expedition mode (meaning, “we’ll see what we can do”). Port Lockroy is a British-controlled site and formerly a military outmost from the second world war. Now, it’s a museum, gift shop, and post office and is surrounded by Gentoo penguins. We’ll alternate between Port Lockroy and a landing at a nearby island, because Port Lockroy can accommodate only 50 people at a time, not our entire manifest. Melinda and I are aiming to be part of the first group in so we can be sure to send our postcards and visit the museum.