Sunday, January 25, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 25 Jan 2009

Water finds its own level Since last we wrote, water has come and gone, winds have changed, and the Antarctic snows and ice have settled. Deception Island was deceptive as usual: those who have experienced the South Shetland Islands will understand that in this northern archipelago of Antarctica, if there is going to be tough, strange and unpredictable weather, then that's where you will find it. Our entry through Neptune's Bellows - the narrow opening into the centre of the still-active volcano - was impressive as usual: the volcanic organ pipes on the shear rock cliffs, Neptune's windows that overlook those who dare to enter, all make for a special experience. Entering Whales Bay, which opens in the southeastern corner of the main volcanic cauldron, is where the Norwegians first established a whaling station to process blubber and products, a testament to the thousands of peaceful mammals taken in Antarctic waters. To date (the end of the whaling era, we hope) there have been an estimated 1.1-million whales taken in Antarctic waters. The remains of the disused station still raise their ugly heads, even though nature has tried to remove and hide past sins. The volcano, which is still active, is forecast to erupt again in the not-too-distant future ... When? Only God knows. It last erupted in 1967 and again in 1969; spewing millions of tons of molten lava and fine volcanic gravel over the island and Antarctic territories within the region; reshaping and hiding its ugly scars, a face lift not quite completed. Time will tell when it finishes the job. Our time there in Deception was excellent: walks on shore, to Neptune's Windows, amongst the whaling station and disused aircraft hangars from the secret British World War II operations in the 1940's ... and four of our team of adventures couldn't go past without having a shoreline heated bath in the waters warmed from the volcano. With weather stable in the morning, shore activities were easy and relaxed. The afternoon though started the wheels of change and the weather deteriorated; snow and winds started to make our anchor position dubious, and by evening dinner time the skipper was on edge -- the forecast had been for it to remain more easterly, but now it was swinging into the southeast and placing us in a vulnerable position parallel and close to the beach. By 2100 it had swung more and we softly touched the bottom of the sandy bay. 'No real problem there, but move we had to. We shifted about 3/4 of a nautical mile to the southern section of Whalers Bay where we were positioned better for the southerly winds. By 2300 we had anchored securely after three attempts, and the crew went back to bed. By 2340 the winds had swung and again we touched bottom: the deep ocean floor rises so fast that you can only anchor close to the beaches there. By this time I had had enough of Deception Island and her games; she was telling us we were no longer welcome, the message was loud and clear. We motored through Neptune's Bellows as the skies to the west showed us the orange-golden rays of the setting sun. The lumpy sea from the day's winds made for a motion more like a jack hammer working on a road re-build program, and there were some uncomfortable looking faces which slipped off to bed as a few of us manned the boat for the nighttime passage 105nm to the next destination. Daylight rose fully and delivered one of Antarctica's very special sunny days. Light winds from a fair direction made it possible to motor sail along the Gerlache Strait and the mood from previous low cloudy days and snowfalls melted from the minds of all onboard. Lunch on deck in the sun, with clothing layers being removed, proved that Antarctica is not always brutal. We sailed and motored our miles towards Nansen North Island - also referred to as Enterprise Island - where there is a safe anchorage, well-used by former whalers and sealers on its eastern shoreline. The afternoon was a special one and God and his creatures were happy. Around 4pm we sighted whales in the straits not far from where we were. With everyone on deck it appeared these huge mammals were like us relaxing and enjoying the day. We slipped a little closer to see if they would like to say 'Hello' and to our joy we experienced one of the most breath-taking displays of animal inquisitiveness that I have seen in these waters. Three Humpback whales all close together decided that they liked Xplore (understandably so) so they played and circled us, popping up and having a long look at the green hull and the funny looking tiny people lined along the decks. You could hear the sound of the camera motor drives humming as people's fingers pushed harder on the buttons - hoping their cameras would take more pictures and capture the golden 'money shot'. As Antarctica whale experiences go, had we left these waters that day without seeing another animal, everyone would have been happy: you could not have experienced a closer encounter. Onwards we slid along the Gerlache and Enterprise Island started to make itself visible. Navigating in Antarctica is a game of show and tell: what seems close is far away, as the clarity of light and the total whiteness makes it virtually impossible to recognise many islands, objects and bearings. The cove, protected from virtually all conditions, has the luxury of a beached whaling supply ship which had caught on fire in the area. The skipper, not prepared to sink in the icy Antarctic waters, drove the ship onto the shores of the cove and saved the entire crew. Now it is a virtual marina dock which yachts often tie alongside, giving protection and an easy place to be able to relax from the always uncertainty of changing conditions. We stay and begin to play, more news to come. ~ Stephen PHOTOS: RICHARD LARONDE

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