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Snowhill Island and starting our way North

Snowhill Island and starting our way North. Anchor overnight at Devil island. 

By 07:00 AM we were approaching Snow Hill Island with the landing site coming into view. There was growing excitement on the poop deck as we started to believe we would make it there, not always the case in the iced-up and wild Weddell Sea. As we head further to the southsightings of large tabular icebergs become more common due to large calving’s of the ice shelves such as the Larsen and the Filchner’s, releasing those huge tabulars into the Weddel Sea gyre system. This current transportswater and ice north and west up the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Sea ice is also transported up the coastline and gets caught between the islands that we are exploring, but we experienced during our days here a surprising lack of it.Where the sea surface temperature is below -1.8°C sea ice begins to form. The Weddell Sea gyre transporting sea and glacier ice, combined with the ferocious winds of the Weddell Sea lead in the past to low chances of success when it comes to reaching Snow Hill Island. As a result, we did not want to get our hopes up too early in the morning as we made our way between the ice scattered across the Admiral Sound, between Snow Hill and James Ross Islands 

Before 08:00 AM we had the anchor down and we were settled amongst the icebergs off the north west coast of Snow Hill Island. We could see Nordenskjölds Hut from deck, a small black building perched on a raised area of ground near the coastline with the steep cliffs then flat plateau behind. There were queues at the breakfast buffet this morning as we enjoyed a special breakfast which Judith, Sasha and Amel, in the galley, had treated us to: pancakes!  

The hut is of historical relevance due to the Swedish Expedition of 1901-03 lead by Otto Nordenskjöld. The expedition left Gothenburg in mid-October 1901 with ambitions of leaving a team of 6 men to overwinter at in the Weddell Sea and explore the area, mapping the winding coastlines, making scientific observations and observing the geology. This expedition hoped to contribute to the growing evidence for plate tectonics and to add detail to the ever-improving map of the Antarctic Peninsula. The captain of the ship which was chosen for this expedition was Carl Anton Larsen: an experienced Norwegian whaler with a passion for exploration and recent experience (1893-94) in exploring the northern Weddell Sea area, as well as a past of exploring the Arctic regions. 

By January 1902 the men had sailed via Buenos Aires and the South Shetland Islands and were now trying to make it deep into the Weddell Sea on board their ship, the Antarctic. At 66°S their southwards progress was halted due to the dense ice and their limited coal and supplies pushed them to turn north again in search of a good overwintering site. On 12th February 1902 they reached a rocky shoreline on the northwest of Snow Hill Island which would become their home for what they thought would be just the coming winter. They built their prefabricated hut on an elevated area. After the Antarctic left, the 6 men left to overwinter, finished the construction of the hut and added some homely finishing touches. Unfortunately, the damp environment caused condensation and mildew to form on the walls, ruining all their efforts to make this into a comfortable homely environment. The condensation dripped to the floor, freezing in mounds of ice consuming their gear.  

Nordenkjold ambitious plan was to explore new land east and west of the Antarctic Peninsula: to go as far south as possible in the Weddell Sea, stay with five other staff to overwinter, continue work the next summer, and be picked up before the second winter. In the meantime, the ship would ferry various staff to Tierra del Fuego, Staten Island and South Georgia to pursue other projects. 

John Harrison. “Forgotten Footprints” 

The six men staying in this hut included Nordenskjöld; José Sobral from the Argentinian Navy; Andres Bodman, a meteorologist and hydrographer; Ole Jonassen, a sailor chosen for his experience in the Arctic; Ekelof, a Doctor and Akerlundh, an 18 year old sailor. They were accompanied by eight dogs and the equipment to survive the winter and carry out the first sledding exploration journeys in Antarctica, planned for the following spring. The site was of chosen in part due to fossiliferous sedimentary rocks. These were formed on marine shelfs, deltaic and estuarine settings, which can be inferred by the abundance of ammonites and belemnites we saw whilst ashore. The hut provided a good base for the men but was exposed to stormy weather and low temperatures which cause significant damage to the small boats they had.  

It was late the following summer that they realised the Antarctic must have got into difficulties and was not coming to collect them so they must endure another winter in the hut together.  

 … why wasn’t the ice melting, and where was the Antarctic? On 9 January Jonassen climbed a hill and looked around. It was a melancholy panorama of densely packed ice with little water. On 18 February 1903, the sea froze, and they knew they were trapped for another year. 

John Harrison. “Forgotten Footprints”  

They used their time well to carry out scientific observations and explore the surrounding areas including Snow Hill, Seymour, James Ross and Vega Islands. Finally, by the spring, in October 1903, they were reunited with three others from their Swedish Expedition by a miraculous coincidence. They brought the news that the Antarctic had not been able to reach Snow Hill Island due to the dense ice, so the three men were sent by foot instead. The now nine men spent nearly a month together in the Nordenskjöld Hut on Snow Hill Island before relief finally arrived on 8th November 1903.   

The historical significance to this hut makes the landing special in a different way from the landings that we have been on so far. We imagined spending 2 winters here, enduring the wind and the cold before we jumped back into our zodiacs and headed back to Europa for warm drinks and to dry out. Whilst ashore we walked up to a high point behind the hut with panoramic views across to James Rossand Cockburn Islands with the Europa in the foreground, dwarfed among the icebergs. In the rocks beneath our feet there were many ammonites, well preserved in the sedimentary rocks which we walked over. We could also see what looked like wall structures high on the cliffs to the north of us. There are dykes, formed by the intrusion of lava into fractures in the sedimentary rocks. The lava cools in sheets forming resistant wall like structures which sand proud, protruding out from the soft sedimentary rock which has been weathered away from around them.  

The hut itself was simple but felt well-constructed, a place where, with the stove on and six people sharing stories of the day’s work, we could image it being a cosy atmosphere. The information boards outside the hut showed photos which made us feel grateful of the top-quality sailing gear we were standing in which contrasted the soot covered, simple clothing of Nordenskjöld’s men. Today the hut is maintained by an Argentinian heritage conservation program.  

The landing site was scattered with large blocks of ice and the sunlight was occasionally breaking through the clouds, perfect for photographs, spiced up by Weddell seals snoozing here and there. The fine muddy beach had large pools where the sediment around the base of ice bergs had been dragged away on the falling tide.  

Back on board,the boot cleaning was a cold affair as we tried to grip the tiny paperclips to clean between the tread on our boots and squeeze the buckles to undo ourlifejackets. The red virkon buckets had frozen icicles around the rim, indicating the low temperatures.  

After a warm lunch, we met in the deckhouse for an update on what’s to come. We were now heading north again towards Devil Island and the wind had picked up to a strong 40 knots. The plans are constantly evolving and must be shaped differently as new forecasts came in and new possibilities arise.   

Throughout the afternoon on our way to Devil Island, we had to weave between the icebergs. The crew worked together with an ice watch posted on the foredeck and someone at the helm,on a winding course. Some large tabular bergs. Some small. Some smooth. Some jagged.  

Whilst we were out enjoying the icy scenery and the true Antarctic weather, our Mate Ninja asked for us to brace sharp on port tack. Together we heaved, 2-6-heave, 2-6-heave, encouraging one another in this bitterly cold wind to keep gripping the icy ropes until we had the starboard braces tight and the yards braced around.  

After coffee time, Jordi and Beth offered a maps session where we discussed the places we have visited and took the time to look at the Arctic, Antarctic map to put our journey into some perspective and get an introduction to the ocean currents, glacial history, polar differences and historical significance of the area we are exploring. 

After dinner we dropped anchor tucked in behind Devil Island. To our delight the wind eased and it turned into an unexpected peaceful evening, quite a contrast from the gusty afternoon. In this shallow area we are out of reach from the largest icebergs at least, which draw greater draught than Europa.  

Another night where we will sleep well after plenty of fresh air and learning in this ever changing and curiosity inspiring landscape.  

Beth & Jordi 

Written by:
Beth & Jordi | Expedition Guide + Expedition Leader

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