Trapped in ice, back in the spring

At 4.22am on 9th February we crossed the Antarctic Circle. Five hours later I thought that I would need to send the message home “Trapped in ice, back in the spring”. We were surrounded by pack ice in Crystal Sound. When we had turned and headed back north we had found that the wind had blown a line of large icebergs against the edge of the pack ice forming a near impenetrable wall. Many of these bergs were bigger than our ship. We could see the rough open sea and the spray from the waves breaking on the icebergs, but could not reach it, being trapped in a white and blue stillness in the company of crabeater seals and penguins. This was one of many highpoints of a journey that introduced us to pink snow, blue ice, fluffy penguins, whales and seals.

We had flown from London to Buenos Aires and then down to Ushuaia where they proudly proclaim “USHUAIA fin del mundo principio de todo” – “USHUAIA end of the world beginning of everything”  Here we joined our ship, the icebreaker Polar Star, so as to cross Drake Passage and head for the Antarctic Peninsular.

Two days later our first landing was on Half Moon Island where I soon discovered that if a rock growled at me it was a fur seal and best given a wide berth. The island was also home to a colony of Chinstrap Penguins. They were a revelation to me. Seeing penguins in their hundreds (or thousands) in their natural habitat opened my eyes. If I had made a 200 metre climb up a steep hill my sense of achievement would be tempered by turning a corner and seeing that a penguin had beaten me to it! If I was lying on the ground two feet away from one which I was trying to photograph I would turn and find another one was about to tap me on the shoulder. If I saw a youngster chasing an adult down the beach and nearly into the surf I would realise that this was the young penguin’s fitness training – the adults were coercing the young into activity by refusing to provide food until they had chased across the beach.

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Three days after being trapped in the pack ice (which we broke out from after several attempts) we spent the morning in the peaceful surroundings of Neko Harbour. Ironically it is named after a whaling ship but is now a calm place with mountains looming up out of the mist and penguins frolicking in the water. There was no noise apart from the occasional cry of a penguin or the crash of another lump falling off the glacier. Even the odd Zodiac inflatable dinghy pottering amongst the icebergs didn’t disturb the peace. The Polar Star moored across the bay was reflected in the still water. We then headed north up the Gerlache Strait where a humpback whale was seen in the distance.

Because there were several whales in the area it was decided to let the ship drift and we would go out in the Zodiacs. It was almost a flat calm with a bit of mist so that we couldn’t see the horizon as we headed towards the point where the whales had last been spotted. A short way out we cut engines and listened. Pfffh. The sound of a whale blow. It was a lone humpback “logging” on the surface. We watched. He ignored us and then dived. As he dived he arched his back before flicking his tail out of the water. We had a great view of his tail flukes as he disappeared into the depths. Where he had dived he left a ‘footprint’ on the water – a patch of calm sea.

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Incredibly when this huge whale resurfaced he took a good look at us from one side, dipped under the Zodiac and then inspected us from the other side. He then dived a little more than a Zodiac’s length away from us. Then we found a group of three humpbacks who were surfacing together and diving together.  We had been out for several hours but it felt like minutes. The Polar Star was nowhere in sight. The sea was flat, the whales were still surfacing, blowing, logging and diving, and the mist was obscuring the horizon. However if we listened carefully we could hear the thud thud of her diesels in the distance so were able to make our way back to the Polar Star and eventually back across Drake Passage and home.

And if you were wondering about the pink snow there is an algae which grows in the snow and gives it a pink or green colour.

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