Graham Passage/ Foyn Harbour & the Governonen (Enterprise Island)/ Orne Harbour (FjordPhyto Citizen Science Project)/ Danco Island
An early morning wake-up call alerted all onboard to the exciting news that we were soon to start our voyage through Graham Passage. Named by Captain Skidsmo after his whale catcher Graham, who was the first to navigate the passage on March 20th, 1922, this section of water separates Murray Island from the west coast of Graham Land. Bleary-eyed, we stepped out onto Europa’s damp deck and into the drizzle that Captain Moritz promised us at the previous evening’s meeting – conditions much more in keeping with that of a true Antarctic summer’s day.
Our early awakening did not go unrewarded. In addition to the odd Weddell seal spotted hauled out on a nearby ice floe, we were also treated to a humpback whale encounter, where several individuals were observed swimming around nearby brash ice, their tail flukes breaking the glassy surface waters of the entrance to Graham Passage. Our encounter was short but sweet, and we were soon rounding the cliffs at the end of the passage and heading south.
Having made good time, we arrived by 0930 at Foyn Harbour. An anchorage on Enterprise Islands just north of Nansen. Foyn Harbour was named after renowned whaler Svend Foyn who invented the exploding harpoon in the 1860’s, amongst other technologies that revolutionised the whaling industry. His invention improved the efficiency of whaling and enabled the larger and faster rorquals to be hunted. Throughout the early decades of the 1900s when whaling was at its peak in Antarctica, Foyn Harbour on the eastern side of Enterprise Island was used extensively. The bollards for tying up boats can be seen along this coastline, a lasting relic of a bygone era.
Rising out of the water of Foyn Harbour is the rusty hull of the renowned whaling ship, the Gouvernoren. The largest whaling ship prior to the First World War, she was intentionally run aground by her captain in 1916 after catching fire. She has laid undisturbed for many years however in more recent years the Gouvernoren has become a known sheltered mooring, and indeed we were not her only visitor today; a small yacht and her crew had sought shelter alongside the wreck. The wreck of the Gouvernoren strikes a vivid contrast against the snow-capped mountains of her final resting place. Several of the voyage crew took the opportunity to don harnesses and climbed aloft to capture an image of Gouvernoren in this atmospheric setting.
Later in the morning, Ben announced that the Europa ‘shop’ was open for those voyage crew wishing to buy postcards. The deckhouse was then busy with people composing messages to loved ones and finding comical Antarctic quotes for colleges back home. When we make our journey north we hope to be able to send our greetings from the icy south via the southernmost post office, Port Lockroy. Meanwhile, Europa negotiated the ice-packed waters of the Wilhemina Bay, with icebergs regularly blocking her path.
The afternoon began with heavy snowfall and slippy conditions on deck. The mountains dramatically rose up into the moody clouds. Our plan to undertake a landing at Orne Harbour was thwarted by ice choking up the landing access. However, calmer conditions meant we were able to revisit our postponed Citizen Science activities and undertake the scientific sampling integral to the FjordPhyto project.
FjordPhyto is designed to investigate how the phytoplankton communities that form the base of the Antarctic food web are changing against a backdrop of glacial melt and climate change. Laden with six intrepid voyage crew (a.k.a. the sexy scientists!), two guides, and a plethora of scientific equipment, Blackie headed out from Europa to shallower waters. Those onboard successfully measured the water salinity, temperature, and depth, and water clarity using the CTD and Secchi disk, respectively. Samples to measure the amount of glacial meltwater, visualise phytoplankton, and analyse the genetic composition of the phytoplankton communities present were also taken. We hope the small part we played in this project will contribute to ongoing research and provide scientists with a better understanding of the phytoplankton communities that comprise the invisible forests of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.
We crossed our fingers for more favourable conditions for landing at our evening site of Danco Island in the Errera Channel. On first approach our chances of going ashore looked slim owed to several Gentoo penguins and their chicks nesting unusually close to the highwater line. However, we were all relieved to find clearer access further around the island to the east. Careful navigation between the large rounded boulders was required at this alternative landing site which also made for tricky disembarkation of the zodiacs and effective teamwork for returning lifejackets to the zodiacs. Danco Island is a mile long and lies in the southern part of the Errera Channel. Danco Island is comprised of a large ice field and several colonies of Gentoo Penguins. The island is named after the Belgian geophysicist, Emile Danco (1869-1898), who died onboard the Belgica during the Belgian Expedition under de Gerlache. We scaled the lofty heights of the ice field, trudging through snow and ice – a different experience to our hikes in the South Shetland Islands where we often experienced gravel as opposed to glacial conditions underfoot. Albeit some slippery conditions, we made it to the summit, where we were treated to the sights (and smells) of the resident Gentoo penguin colony, the glaciated landscape, and a panorama of the Errera Channel. The sounds of air being released from a balloon came from behind us as we trudged up the hill. We turned to see a humpack whale, clearly visible amoungs the ice bergs from our high vantage point. The crack of a large hanging glacier made us all stop in our path to watch the snow cascading down over the cliff face from far up in the mountains. Helped by a healthy downhill pace, we were back onboard Europa in time for some rest and relaxation, and reminiscing in the bar (plus a game of Catan). A long and adventure filled day on the peninsula!