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Madder Cliffs (Joinville Island) and Brown Bluff

Old glacier bergy bits and young sheets of single-year sea ice growl against Europa’s classical steel riveted hull. Large icebergs leave narrow passages in between, then drifting pack ice bands surround areas of open waters. Captain and Mate skilfully steer and navigate here overnight, leaving behind Paulet Island and the rough coasts of Dundee, heading towards the western tip of Joinville, Cape Kinnes. This is where the morning landing is planned. This conspicuous headland is named after Robert Kinnes, Dundee shipowner and merchant who equipped the whaling ships ActiveBaleenDiana, and Polar Star for their Antarctic voyage 1892-93. Next to it lays a picturesque small inlet surrounded by the vertical glacial fronts of the ice cap that covers most of the island, which takes the same name. But the area is also known as Suspiros Bay, the name proposed by Captain Emilio L. Díaz, commander of the Argentine Antarctic Task Force (1951-52). Translated as “sight bay” it alludes to the difficulties encountered in anchoring here. Framing the cape and the embayment, and climbing up to over 300m in height, the impressive Madder Cliffs. They rise steeply from the sea to about 305 metres They were surveyed by the Falkland Islands Dependencies in 1953–54. The name, given in 1956 by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee, is descriptive of the red color of the rocks, madder being a red vegetable pigment. 

Just at their foot, there is a narrow channel between the coastal rocks, offering an ideal place where the rubber boats can put us ashore. The spot supports a large breeding colony of about 20.000 pairs of Adélie penguins which nest on exposed knolls and ridges above the narrow beach. In smaller numbers, some Gentoos use the lower slopes too as a breeding area.  

The reduced space along the shoreline makes for the group to start climbing over the snowfields straight away, aiming first for a saddle between the mountains overlooking the glacier that flows at the northern side of the cliffs. Precipitous rock walls give a great perspective of the landscape from atop. Across the Antarctic Sound is visible the Antarctic Peninsula, at the distance and tucked amongst some of its mountains the red buildings of the Base Esperanza stand up from the barren and glaciated landscape. 

The Station was inaugurated in December 1952 and since has been manned by Argentinian Personnel. They are accompanied during the summer months by countless Adelie and Gentoo penguins. The research they are committed to is related to glaciology, seismology, oceanography, coastal ecology, biology, geology, and limnology, while all the logistic support is organized by Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. While scientists usually stay at Esperanza during summer, the rest spend the whole year here, including some officer’s families with kids. 

The base has an Argentine civil registry where births and weddings are recorded. And even since 1953, 8 babies had been born there being the first Antarctic truly citizens in the world.   

With all the people working and living here for so long, schoolteachers, doctors, nurses, and dentists are part of the yearly crew as well. 

There as well is where lays the stone hut built in January 1903 by Andersson, Duse, and Grunden, the marooned members of the Swedish South Polar Expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld. They spent 8 months here after failing their attempt to bring the bad news to Nordenksjold party at Snowhill Island about losing their ship, the Antarctic, crashed by the ice.  

The ship that carried them on such adventures and was lost in those waters gives name to the sound that separates the Peninsula from the Joinville Island Group. After the landing, making our way during the afternoon across it, we reached Brown Bluff. Here an evening landing was in the plans. 

Towering above our anchorage, and surrounded by vast glaciers, the rust-coloured steep cliffs that give name to this place. The erosion over the volcanic rocks around has left behind a 3km long beach, providing good nesting ground for a large colony of both Adelie and Gentoo penguins.  

With just a few icebergs and bergy bits scattered over the coastline, the calm waters and windless situation made for an easy landfall here on the Antarctic Continent itself. 

A walk to the southern side of the beach followed the time spent amongst the penguin rookeries. With the group split in two, some walked along the coastline and others climbed up the moraine next to the bluff. This more adventurous hike heads over snow patches and loose sediments and rocks to a vantage viewpoint. 

The scenery is amazing, with the large orange-coloured cliffs at our side and down below the gently sloping surface of a large tidewater glacier. 

From here the unique geology of the area reveals a past of vulcanism that occurred during the Miocene (younger than 20 million years) in many areas happening beneath the glaciers and ice caps, which gives some quite special rock structures. Clastic volcanic boulders, layers of ash, and good a display of pillow lavas come in succession during our walk. 

Now, between us and the glacier is just a short steep downhill way. Carefully we descended over the old moraine that in some areas still holds ice under the rocks and sediments. Down below soon we set foot straight onto the ice. The glacier actually offers a good and solid ground for wandering about for a while and approaching its impressive calving front from the beach. 

With all that a good couple of hours had passed, now was the time to embark again, heave anchor, and set course to the open waters towards the South Shetland Islands. A few hours of sailing and getting off the Antarctic Sound left us late at night in the surprisingly windless and calm Bransfield Strait. 

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Leader

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