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Desolation Island, McFarlane Strait and a second landfall at Half Moon Island

During the early hours of the day, we got in sight of land, the rugged scenery of the northern coasts of Livingston Island, surrounded by rocky islets and shallows. Europa heads to the poorly charted waters of Desolation Island, where we plan our first landing in Antarctica right after breakfast. Desolation is loaded with stories from the early times of Antarctic discovery, in the first half of the 19th Century. The jagged scenery unfolding in front of us as we wake up for breakfast, with Europa already lying at anchor, can well be the same that Captain William Smith, on board the brig “Williams” discovered when the ship got blown off Cape Horn on her trading route towards the Chilean coasts. That represented the very first sight of Antarctic lands. But nobody believed him and his stories once he got back. To prove his case, on a subsequent trip, he re-traced his steps just to reach the same land again. The detour to re-find the land he accidentally came across in the previous 
trip took an extra time over the trading routes of about 6 weeks. A way to recover the investment was to take back seal furs, from the abundant Fur seals that were breeding in the area. By then, still there haven’t been an official voyage to take possession and claim the new lands, so Captain Shirreff, the British Representative in Chile and Navy Commander of the “HMS Andromeda”, put together a 
British Navy Expedition using the same vessel “Williams”. The ship was followed by numerous British and American sealing vessels that attained great success in the newly discovered lands.
William Smith returned several times to this area, even landing in Blythe Bay, the very same spot in Desolation Island where we set foot ashore this morning. Just there Europa sits ready for us to disembark and start our own exploration of this rugged island. On the 5th voyage of William Smith to Antarctica in 1821, while standing in the beach where we landed, he saw remains of the “San Telmo” shipwreck, a Spanish galleon abandoned in the Drake Passage, with broken rudder and de-masted trying to round the Horn (Sept 1819). He found her anchor as well, which he recovered. Quoting the book “Forgotten footprints. Lost stories in the discovery of Antarctica by John Harris… “a sign of hope, its wooden stock hooped with iron and bolted with copper. Some inner demon made him order its removal, to be made into a coffin. He said he would be buried in the anchor that had waited for him in the cold rocks at the end of the world”. Walking around the exact same spot, we found all scattered some timber, wooden planks and even a copper plate used to dress the wooden hulls of the old ships, witness of the frenzy hunting conducted here in the 19th Century. Sure some wood was also used to build temporary shelters for the sealers that were left in location for weeks at a row, to hunt and process blubber and seal pelts before being picked up again. Related 
with these activities, there is another interesting story about this beach. On its rocky shores a human skull was found next to primitive stone hut and simple stone and bone tools. That brought great excitement for the possibility of Antarctic natives arose. But subsequent studies revealed that the remains also date from to the early 19th century and the artifacts are known from cultures in Tierra del Fuego. The hut was one of those sealer’s shelters, and the skull was of a woman around 20 years old. One of the Patagonian natives whom sealers sometimes took on board for company in the cold Antarctic nights… Nowadays Desolation Island is seldom visited by people and has become home for several Chinstrap penguin colonies occupying many of the spectacular basalt outcrops sculpted by the winds and rough seas of the Drake Passage. Laying on eggs or recently hatched chicks they made for countless pictures as we walked around them. Many seals have returned to the island as well, and during our first landing four species of them could be seen. Elephant seals outnumber the few Fur seals hanging around, and just a solitary Crabeater was snoozing surrounded by numerous Weddells. The grey and cloudy weather from the morning soon became foggy and rainy, and after a couple of hours ashore on that forsaken but impressive land, we made our way back to the beach to be picked up by the zodiacs and soon resume our way, now leaving the northern coasts of Livingston to get in the channels between the South Shetland Islands. Our entrance gate to them was the Mc Farlane Strait, the narrow gap between Greenwich and Livingston Islands. This waterway is named after Captain Robert Mc Farlane, who participated in sealing expeditions in this area in 1820. The name appears already on an 1822 chart by Capt. George Powell, another British sealer that operated here. Heaving anchor, we leave Desolation Island and Hero Bay at our Starboard side. This relatively big inlet on the northern shores of Livingston Island is 17 mi wide between Cape Shirreff and Williams Point. It is named for the American sloop “Hero”, under Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer, 
which was one of the vessels of the sealing fleet which visited the South Shetland Islands in 1820-21. From there we meander our way around shallows and narrows to get into the channel between the islands, making our way to another of the South Shetlands, now Half Moon Island, a rocky, crescent shaped island sitting against a back drop of the towering glaciated peaks of Livingstone Island. On increasing winds and deteriorating weather, the zodiacs left us ashore for a couple of hours. Like many of the features of the area, Half Moon was discovered also by the sealers on 1821, who used it 
together with early whalers. From their activities remain ashore an old wooden dory that we had the chance to check before climbing a small hill to enjoy the views of the white peaks and tumbling glaciers on Livingstone Island, slowly disappearing in the fog and low clouds. Traversing the crest of the island, carefully choosing our route to stay clear of the penguin highways used by the chinstrap penguins to travel between the beach and their rockeries, we made our way to the opposite beach. Our first encounter with nesting chinstraps and newly hatched chicks provided an excellent photo opportunity. The skies soon became white and snow started falling gently, slowly covering the ground with a thin layer of pristine white. Finding a lonely Macaroni penguin resident on the island, was a 
highlight for many yet another excellent photo subject. As forecasted, the winds grew stronger when afternoon turned into evening, time for the group to return to the landing site and our zodiac 
pick up. On the return to the landing beach, an alternative route took us past another interesting historical artefact remaining from the early whaling era. Several metal bands, probably used to hold the oil wooden barrels could be seen scattered around the beach, giving another small insight to the islands gruelling hunting history. At the time our zodiacs arrived to pick us up and bring us back to 
Europa, snow was falling heavily, and winds had picked up enough to make for a rather wet zodiac adventure. Snow and wind were whipping our faces and cold water gushed in over the side of the zodiacs. All well, we arrived well back to the comfortable, warm and dry home at the Europa where a heart-warming meal was waiting for us. Under four shackles of chain in our anchor we spend the night notwithstanding snowy weather and gusting winds up to 30kn.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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margriet.  |  03-01-2019 13:12 uur

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