Corin Anderson (magellanic) wrote,
Corin Anderson

Port Lockroy & Useful Island

Friday, January 20, 2012
We awoke at our anchorage in Port Lockroy to find calm seas in the protected harbor. Two small yachts were also at anchor, either private yachts or small charters. After breakfast two staffers from Port Lockroy museum came on board for a quick briefing about their site. Port Lockroy was established as Base A by the British in 1944 to keep an eye on German naval activity around Cape Horn. After the war it ran a research program in meteorology and atmospheric sciences, including some studies of the ionosphere. The base was abandoned in the 60s but restored in the 90s and opened as a museum. The building now houses 1950s period equipment, rations, and living quarters. The accommodations were compact but not uncomfortable, so near as I could tell. Even today in the 32F weather, the indoors were obviously more pleasant than the outdoors. Melinda and I toured the museum, wrote some postcards, bought a few souvenirs, and were on our way.

When the British established Base A, it was on just a rock of an island along the waterway. Since then, Gentoo penguins have moved in, and the rock is now home to a colony of several hundred birds. They don’t seem to mind humans much; some of their nests are directly beneath the walkway into the museum. We split time at this landing between Lockroy and Jougla Island, because the museum allows only 60 people on their island at a time; it’s not big enough for more. Jougla has a bunch of Gentoos, as do most islands down here it seems, and a mostly complete whale skeleton, assembled by Jacques Cousteau. The skeleton is mostly complete but not correct in any sense, because although the important bones are in place they’re from several different types of whales, using just what bones were found nearby. Kate, a naturalist on staff, explained lots of key parts of the skeleton, and Melinda listened with great interest. I shot a bit of video and took some photos.

The weather in the morning was fine where we were, but it’s not looking so good elsewhere. In truth we’ve done most things we’d want to do on the peninsula – we’ve seen Adelies, Gentoos, seals, etc. We haven’t seen a Chinstrap colony yet, and Ted’s looking for ways to get that checked off. Our landings tomorrow and Sunday would show us Chinstraps, but seeing some down here would be neat, too. We sail through Peltier Channel then Neumayer Channel, bringing us around in a circle. I think this path was as much about buying time for Ted as it was for anything. We eventually decide to head to a tiny island, Useful Island, for a landing. Rumor has that there’s a small Chinstrap colony on this island.

While channel surfing we spot a few other ships; we’re not alone on the Peninsula. Bigger ships than the Ortelius sail these waters on cruises from Ushuaia in order to take passengers “to the Antarctic.” It’s not unlike sailing Alaska’s Inside Passage, except that one gets to “go to Antarctica.” One ship we see is the Azamara Journey, which holds 500-600 passengers. We can see it from a distance, and our bridge soon fills with comments like “what a terrible way to cruise”, “why would anyone ever take that ship?”, and even a hurrah that those ships may be banned next year as a result of a change in the IAATO agreement (the change bans vessels from using certain heavy fuels, which these larger ships generally do). The sentiments expressed make me think less of those sharing them, because they’re from a close-minded perspective, that traveling in that manner is only stupid and ill-conceived, and that our trip and vessel is the only smart way to go. I’m disappointed that so many people whom I’ve thought of as smart and interesting share such a narrow view, but I guess I’m generalizing too much from only a few people who do say things. I’m sure not everyone feels this way, and I do press a bit to defend big-ship cruising, noting that, for some people, it’s the _only_ way they may be able to visit Antarctica. Should they not be accommodated in visiting the seventh continent unless they want to do so from a zodiac each day? Anyway. Later in the evening there’s a discussion around who’ll be bathing in the geothermally warmed shoals at a landing site on Sunday. I think briefly about the inconsistent views here – the core of ecology safaris is the wildlife, yet digging a hole in the sand to sit in warmed sea water is solely a novelty.

Melinda and I take a nap in the afternoon as we head to Useful Island. About 20 minutes into the nap Ted announces that they’re seeing orcas around the ship; Melinda and I think briefly about heading out but pass. We have orcas on the Pacific coast, and for just a few killer whales in the water I don’t think it’s worth getting up. We wake up around 4p and find that we’re not to the destination yet. Apparently for the past 45 minutes we’ve been meandering as about 50 orcas swarmed the ship, rolling over, swimming near the ship, going beneath it, etc. Melinda and I head to the bridge just as it’s all over. Oops. Seemingly everyone else on the ship thinks this was just the best orca experience ever, better than the humpbacks we saw a few days ago. I’d have liked to have seen this scene, but I don’t regret missing it; it’s a bit too late to do anything about it. I _was_ pretty tired, and we _do_ have orcas relatively close to San Francisco (unlike the penguins and icebergs which are much further away). I learn later in the evening that a few other people also slept through the killer whale party; I’m glad it wasn’t just me.

We arrive at Useful Island around 4:30 (no, I don’t know why it’s called Useful Island; seems no one knows), and the staff heads out to scout the site. Only one person has landed here before, and only once, so there’s some uncertainty. Melinda and I quickly suit up and find ourselves about 20 people back in line. That’s fine. We pack light because we know it’s going to be a brief landing when we do get out – dinner’s on at 7:30. We chat with Roy, Jacquie, Vicky, and Tom Meyers while we’re in queue, and it seems like it’s a long time we’re in the queue. We hear a few announcements. First, that the staff is still scouting and it’ll be 10 minutes yet. Later, that the chinstrap colony isn’t accessible but that we’ll land anyway. (Over dinner I learn that the path to the chinstraps would go through 3’ snow that readily collapses under one’s weight – carving a path would have been too difficult.) Also, that the landing is for only 45 minutes, on account of the delayed schedule. Several people leave the line at this point, as now the landing is effectively to see only more Gentoos and for less than an hour. But Melinda and I stay, and we’re on the second zodiac that heads out.

When we queued up, the seas were flat calm but I could see a closing storm; by the time we board the zodiac that storm arrives. The winds pick up a bit and a bit of snow falls. We rush to the landing site, and riding the zodiac is just like riding a galloping horse. It helps that I’m in the bow, too. The wind is a chill against my face, but I like it. Victor and Vicky are opposite me on the boat, and Vic is having a great time as well. We reach the landing site, but the swell has picked up making the landing somewhat tricky. The landing is on large boulders, not a beach, so leaving the zodiac would mean stepping on rocks that have 1m swell. We dally for one or two minutes while the staff discusses and then concludes: we’re not going to land after all. So close to the island but no. Instead, we’ll zodiac cruise for a bit – we’re out here anyway, might as well take some photos. In the end four zodiacs came out (with about 8 passengers each), but leaving perhaps 30 people on the ship without the outing.

And a pity for those on the ship, because the zodiac cruise turned out to be a lot of fun. The winds did calm a bit while we were out, but then the snow picked up to balance it off. We saw Gentoos and a few Chinstraps on Useful from the water, we saw penguins jumping in and out of the water, we saw them on ice flows, and we saw them on a nearby rock. The water was reasonably calm, with swell at less than one foot, and my camera system today worked pretty well: only the long lens, and with the strap shortened to half its usual length so the camera sits beneath my jacket – no need for a dry bag or backpack. We’re out for 45-60 minutes, and I shoot a few hundred photos, a lot on the high-speed drive while penguins are porpoising through the water. Rod, our driver, suggests that we tell everyone that the cruise was really terrible and unfun – or, more seriously, that we shouldn’t say how wonderful it was, because many people on the ship didn’t get the chance to go.

After dinner I checked out the bridge – nothing going on much up there, except that we’re sailing until the wee hours of the morning. The target is Cierva Cove, where we’ll attempt zodiac cruising in the morning before an expeditionary afternoon. The bow and higher decks have a thin veneer of snow over them as it’s actively snowing as we sail through; we’re going at 13.6 knots over ground (but, I suspect that’s with help from a current). The barometer has been falling for much of afternoon; I don’t have high hopes for good weather later. At the end-of-dinner briefing Ted mentioned there’s a weak system moving toward us; we’ll just see what we can do over the next few days.

More and more people are mentioning that we have only two more days of landings and that the trip is near the end. I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those people to point out the nearing of the end – no need to remind others of it. And I’ve been avoiding thinking much about what I need to do when I get home, other than generally my tasks for the first days back. I don’t want any stress from work or home to distract me from the rest of this trip, and I think I can manage that.

After my trip to the bridge I visited the lounge and found Vic, Vicky, Roy, Jackie, Marissa, and Therese sharing a bottle of wine. I joined them at their invitation, and we amused ourselves with jokes and such. Nothing memorable, really just situational humor, but fun to visit with people. Other people came through the lounge, and we waved them in to join. I left the group a bit after 10p after it was at a dozen or so people.
Tags: travel
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