Drop!, ok, one shackle on deck. Leave the brake open. Here it runs again. Now two shackles in the water!
The anchor goes down over the rocky seafloor of the southern coasts of Barrientos Island.
Stay tackle haul away! Yard tackle take the slack. More on the Stay tackle! Now pull on the Yard tackle. Ok. Take a turn. Ease slowly.
The zodiacs are prepared and lowered into the water, ready to shuttle us ashore.
We have arrived.
Early in the morning the jagged rocks and islets of the English Strait come to sight. With the Drake lying behind, the South Shetlands will be our area of operations for the next few days. Europa passes by the Three Piglets, Chaos Reef, Cheshire Rock, Asses Ears, Burro Peaks, Fort William, Monica, Passage and Bowler Rocks. She is making her way between Robert and Greenwich Islands. Sure the same harsh scenery that William Smith had in 1819 when his ship ventured that further south. By then desolate lands, he was the first one to report the discoveries. Nowadays, still inhospitable as it is, the very same area is regarded as the gate to Antarctica for many of the visitor’s ships that operate here.
Sightseeing in the morning for a couple of hours before heading straight for anchoring and landing, was welcomed after our few days at sea, getting off the watch system and preparing the ship for the new stage of the trip, more focused on going ashore and visit the Antarctic Peninsula.
Buildings at sight standing on that corner or the other, tell us too about Polar Stations that had been set up, none of them operative at this moment in the English Strait. Though talking in general about the South Shetlands, they host more of the active Antarctic Bases than everywhere else in the continent.
The ship approaches Aitcho Islands while sightseeing Negra Point, the dark rocky hill tugged amongst the glaciers that cover Robert Island, a few icebergs scattered around, and large glacier fronts. And by Lunchtime, she rounds the cliffs at the southeastern coasts of Cecilia Island and reaches her anchorage at Barrientos. Here she plans to stay the rest of the day and evening, giving us the possibility for a couple of activities ashore.
And so we went. First stepping onto the easier terrain of the Southeastern tip of the island, where the hiking is easy and countless Gentoo penguins nest among the scattered vertebrae, jaws, and skulls at the appropriately named Whalebone beach. A remarkable place for a good start of our Antarctic program, with a nice variety of flora and fauna. Up the hills, Chinstrap penguins gather their rookeries, while Gents prefer to be more dispersed over the easier slopes and flats. Giant petrels fly around on their comings and goings from the ocean but are also always attentive to see if they can catch a penguin chick or egg. But the ones succeeding in the hunt were the Skuas. On several occasions they try, keep trying, and were actually quite effective in stealing the already quite grown-up penguin chicks, now that they can’t fit anymore under the parent’s bellies for protection.
We walked through a very different scenery after dinner when the boats dropped us at the western shores of Barrientos.
Here and there Weddell seals take a rest along the beach, but the most impressive ones are the several Southern elephant seal wallows that we came across. These groups are usually at the northwestern end of the island, piling up here now that they are in their moulting time. Gentoo penguins climb up and down the hills over their well-marked highways and Wilson storm petrels fly back and forth their nests on the scree slopes at the foot of the conspicuous basal cliffs.
Not just the diversity of wildlife makes for a fantastic landing but also the landscape. This part of Barrientos is characterized by the extensive moss beds that carpet the ground all around a distinctive freshwater pond, and the conspicuous basalt steeple next to it. All framed on one side by tall cliffs and on the other by the craggy rocks and islets of the English Strait, which opens to the Drake Passage.
And being located just very close to these rough open waters, litter and garbage easily drift to these beaches. That explains why around the area we can find some plastics, bottles, buoys, ropes, and wood.
With the sunlight dimming as the sun was getting low on the horizon, the light and the weather became unbeatable. What started as a drizzle and snowy evening turned out into a beautiful Antarctic sunset over one of the most amazing sceneries of the South Shetlands.