Antarctica. Gerlache Strait.
Graham Passage. Enterprise Island/Gouvernoren Harbour. Wilhelmina Bay. One Harbour and Danco Island.
It was in 1915 when the 5459 gross tons Gouvernøren caught fire and wrecked while whaling in Antarctica. She was the more modern, sophisticated, and largest factory ship before the First World War working in the area.
Successful as she could be, during her first and only season operating here hunted and processed 544 whales. Next year, while already carrying 16615 oil barrels, she went up in flames and became a total loss. Her crew of 85 were all saved when the Captain intentionally beached her in a small cove on the East side of Enterprise Island. There she lays since, witness to how the times changed, how the priorities in Antarctica evolved, and of the change in the paradigm of understanding and using these rich and cold waters. For many years undisturbed, she sees now an increasing number of whales swimming along, feeding here during the Antarctic summer. She has become a preferred visit for many ships and zodiacs to cruise around the stunning area and pay a visit to her rusty iron hull.
The whaling era in the Western Antarctic Peninsula has passed, and now Humpbacks and Minkes reclaim their summer grounds. Many were spotted during the day, since the early morning when the ship made her way south through the Graham Passage, the glaciated and narrow channel that separates Bluff Island from the mainland on the West coast of Graham Land. Wilhelmina Bay was our next passage. Discovered and charted by Adrien de Gerlache aboard the bark Belgica during his expedition in 1897-99, he named it after Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands, (1890-1948).
Its breadth of 15nm is surrounded by the Antarctic Peninsula ice-covered high mountains, and numerous large icebergs drift in its waters.
The scenic small bay of Orne Harbour slowly came into sight. Nested amongst the rock cliffs, peaks, and tumbling glaciers of the Arctowsky Peninsula, it is barely a mile wide but offers a good chance to set foot on mainland Antarctica in a spectacular and picturesque setting.
The bare rocks at the shore lead to a snow slope. Atop, all around the jagged rocky outcrops Chinstrap penguins nest. A species that often chooses not the easiest terrain to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. Here they have quite a climb along some of their well-trodden highways back and forth from the coast down below. From up the ridge, the 285m high headland of Spigot Peak towers over our heads.
Skuas patrol the rookery and keep a sharp lookout perched atop rocks. It is a good time for them to hunt penguin chicks.
The fantastic panorama from up this saddle reveals the lower slopes of Anvers and Bravant Islands framing the Western side of the Gerlache Strait. Ronge Island with its high peaks is just in front of us. Between Range and the mainland extends the Errera Channel with its Couverville and Danco Islands.
There is where Europa heads next. Just a handful of miles away it will offer a nice opportunity to land again in the evening.
Danco is just a mile-long round island, covered by an ice field, but also home to several colonies of Gentoo penguins living in all the areas where the bare rocks are exposed, including the most daring pairs building their nests down at the beach just above the tideline. It would just take a storm or a large wave sweeping the shoreline after an iceberg calving to wash off their breeding efforts into the sea.
As with many other features in the area, the island was also found and roughly charted by the Belgium Expedition under Gerlache, who named it for his crew member Émile Danco, geophysicist, who died on board the Belgica during their journey.
Once more, climbing over snowfields to the top of the island offered great views of all the surroundings in the good weather and lowering light of the late evening.
📷 Arnoud Apituley