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Moments in Antarctica

Yesterday at 8 o’clocky meeting, Eric had informed us that we were in a zone squeezed between two weather systems. A high pressure system to the north and a low to the south. The area between them does not follow a set trend but it can happen either to get no wind at all, or lots of wind. So again, it was another mystery in terms of the weather where we had to await the morning to see what was blowing. 

Throughout the night, the crew had been taking the ship round the Tabarin Peninsula, past Cape Green and Cape Burd, and into Duse Bay. Named on Nordenskjöld’s Swedish Expedition in 1901-03, which counted with 29 men that ended upsplit into three separate parties. Thegroup of three men stranded at Hope Bay; Gunnar Anderssen, Duse and Grunden, travelled south passing what is now Duse Bay, towards Snow Hill Island.

As we began to emerge out on deck from a good night’s sleep in our cabins, we were energised by the orange glow as the sun rose over the snow laden peaks and the scattered icebergs. We had made good time through the night due to there not being any impassable or dense ice, therefore the port watch turned the engines off and had some time drifting early in the morning. By 0620 they stared up the engines again to make our way the last 5 nm towards View Point. The sea was calm with only force 3 to 4 of wind as we headed across the Duse Bay towards our destination. 

View Point is a promontory jutting eastwards into Duse Bayindenting the south of Trinity Peninsula, making this part of the Antarctic continent. In the past we have cruised Duse Bay on board Europa, however, this would be the first time to go ashore. On the chart we could see that there is an Argentinian and a Chilean hut located on the rocky headlands. Like many of the places in this area, it was during the Nordenskjöld expedition that this headland was named - a place where the three men from the Hope Bay party enjoyed the views from, after their unexpected winter in Antarctica, struggling to survive. And with a name like View Point, we could only assume that the views of the glacier, the peninsula’s cloud-capped mountains and the ice strewn channels, would be worth visiting.  

With the wind from the northwest, we approached the headland and slowly made our way along the coastline towards the promontory with the Chilean hut, checking out the shoreline as we went. There was a convenient bay to the south of the hut, which provided an anchorage close to the shore, perfect for our planned exploration morning  

After the 08:00h briefing, the guides took a zodiac to explore the nearby coastline and assess the area for appropriate landing sites. It was looking positive as we could all see lots of exposed rock at reasonably low gradient; good terrane for hiking up to a vantage point. The conditions were calm in this small, well protected bay.  

A landing site was decided upon and it was time to don our layers and life jackets ready for exploring the terrain ashore. From the shoreline nearest the ship, we made our way up to a saddle amongst hills. The wind began to increase slightly as we made our way up the slope to a high point marked by a mushroom shaped rock where the base had been eroded by the strong winds. As soon as we made it up to the ridgeline the wind blew strongly in our faces, coming from the northwest off the glaciers that sprawl across the Antarctic Peninsula. Northerly winds had been forecast however, it seemed although the strength was exaggerated by the katabatic effect, where the cool dense air flows down with great speed from the higher glaciated ground.  

Having spoken of the characteristic red-brown volcanic rocks of Brown Bluff yesterday, we had started to take note of what is beneath our feet as we walked. This time, the dark black rocks appeared platy in texture where they had been flattened by the pressure of layers of muds, silts and sands accumulating above. This gives very different fracture orientations compared to volcanic rocks. The layers of the sediment are permeable to water so it creeps in during times when the temperature is above freezing. When the temperature drops and the water freezes, it expands and causes the rocks to fracture in parallel sheets which are often still laid adjacent to each other as no subsequent force has moved them. The rocks we saw here are part of the View Point Formation and were formed during the Carboniferous period, a long time prior to any of the volcanic rocks we have seen so far. 

From the high point we had to use a solid stance to keep ourselves stable in these strong winds reaching us at the tops of the hills. We made our way down to the valley and walked towards a small lake that we found inland. The lake was partly frozen over. We could see the gusts coming over the area which was not frozen, creating small ripples which lapped up against the windward shore, freezing into a small ridgeline of ice. From here we continued up to the crest of the hillside and along to the high point overlooking the small bay in which Europa was at anchor. 

We could see the winds funnelling down the gully off the land and into the bay with Europa. Although the conditions were fine now, it was time to start heading back to the landing site before the winds picked up much more. We passed by a second lake then followed a small frozen stream on our way downhillto the beach. Time to go back to the ship.

After handing out lifejackets, foul weather gear and boots to dry, it was time for a coffee on deck for many while we enjoyed being back in the comfort of our home, Europa. At 12:40 some humpback whales were spotted close by on starboard side. We had now rounded Beak Island and were drawing closer to Devil Island, which is nestled into a bay on the north side of Vega Island. Yet another spot very significant during the 1901-03 Nordenskjöld expedition as it was here that two of the three isolated parties were camping. The men from the Hope Bay party decided that before moving on they would spend the next few days exploring the immediate vicinity, in particular “a well-marked, dark and prominent headland which attracted my [Nordenskjöld’s] attention each time I looked in its direction”. While Grunden cared to his frostbitten feet, Duse and Andersson spent this extra time on cartography and geology. It was these additional days that resulted in the coincidental meeting with the party form Snow Hill Island. The men decided that night, 12th October 1903, that they would call this headland above where they camped on the sea ice, Cape Well Met. This cape overlooks Devil Island on its west side.  

After a lovely lunch in the warmth of the ship, it was time to layer up again and rebuild enthusiasm for a landing at Devil Island. Port watch dropped the anchor just off the coastline where the landing site. After working together to launch grey, the guides went ashore to scout out the landing site. They took longer than expected. They had been using the zodiac to push blocks of ice from blocking the only small bay in which we could land on this south east coastline of Devil Island. The guides contemplated other possible sites but the steep cliffs that lined the bottom 4 metres of the slopes made a tantalizing barrier that was not passable. The ice blocks were mainly grounded making it impossible to move most of them too. Eventually they had to give in to the ice conditions and return to Europa. Many had already retired to the warmth of the deckhouse with a cookie and coffee at hand after an exciting morning. But of course, there was a deck of eager people with lifejackets on. Unfortunately, we could not get ashore safely this afternoon. Zodiacs back on board. Ladders and painters up. Tri sail away, which had been set to keep us more steady and into wind while anchored. 

On our way once more to be back in more open water. The wind again blew strong as we moved round past the northeast cape of Vega Island.

In easing conditions, we could all enjoy the evening light going down on the ice filled valleys between the mountainous landscape with beautiful lenticular clouds accumulating like stacks of pancakes in the skies above. These form where the air is pushed up over the high peaks and condenses into these flat clouds, like a wave of air condensing as it hits a cold barrier higher up. Occasional fur seals were seen from the main deck as we peered out to the big sea cliffs lining the coastline of Vega Island. By dinner at 1900 the sun had just set. The skies were pink. There was music and warmth in the deckhouse as we sorted photos and discussed stories from another day in the wild Weddell Sea.  


Photo by Jordi Plana Morales

Written by:
Beth Hitchcock | Expedition Guide

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