Landings at Elephant Point and Hannah Point
The great and fast crossing of the famed Drake Passage have brought us to the spectacular southern shores of the impressive Livingston Island.
At midnight while still sailing to approach our destination, the sea watches for all Voyage Crew were ended, to allow for a good rest before starting with the activities ashore planned to start in the morning and onwards for the next few days. Landings that are scheduled to begin at Livingston Island.
Livingston stretches for 38 miles and its wider crossing is of 20 miles. Mount Friesland, its highest peak climbs up to over 1800 metres above the sea and its completely covered by glaciers. The fantastic weather that lasted for the whole day allowed for spectacular views of its shores, glaciers and the high mountains that crown the island.
Early in the morning, the Europa finish her approach right to an anchorage east of one of the few rocky headlands that protrudes off the glaciated island, the so called Elephant Point. Soon everything is ready for our first attempt to land and stretch our legs on our first Antarctic landfall, which consists mainly on an ice-free promontory where there is a square black rock, forming the southernmost point of the West half of Livingston Island. Glacial moraines form high hills at the background of several rocky outcrops and a large beach lays at their bottom.
The whole of the island and specially those southern coasts were well known to sealers as early as 1820, not much later from when the South Shetlands were discovered. And indeed, the gentle landscape is home for large numbers of Elephant seals, now just resting and moulting their short fur in preparations for the months to come that they spend at sea until their next breeding cycle will start next spring. In the past hey were appreciated for their blubber, from which to render the much valuable oil. The old reports also talk about the abundance of Fur seals, quickly hunted for their fur to almost their extinction in just a handful of seasons of heavy sealing. Today some use the area as resting and feeding place after finishing the breeding season. Nowadays, their breeding grounds are actually located at South Georgia, with just a small number of them reproducing in the South Shetlands.
As evidence of the hunt that took place here, a well preserved sealing hut still can be seen at the foot of a cliff close to shore. Parties of a few men were left here and there for a few days or even weeks from their vessels, all along different places rich on seals. The job was to kill and skin as many as they could before being picked up again to fill the cargo holds. To live ashore they used caves, makeshift wooden shelters and rock shacks, some of them still remaining.
Also a relatively large number of Gentoo penguins use Elephant Point for nesting, and atop the rocky hills several Giant petrels rear their chicks here as well.
Scattered all along the landing site, whalebones remain as witness of yet another bloody period that followed the sealing. Attracted by the tells of large number of whales in the area, soon the whalers made their appearance too in Antarctica.
Walking along and soaking into such an interesting site we spent a phenomenal morning before heaving anchor and reposition the ship barely a handful of miles eastwards to the next cape sticking out of the glaciers that cover the rest of the coast, Hannah Point. Named after the sealer Hannah of Liverpool, which visited the South Shetland Islands and was wrecked here on 25th of December, 1820, it is considered by many as an area that offers a good overview of what can be seen in the surroundings; Antarctica in a nutshell.
The great visibility of many miles around, allow for views of the mountainous interior of Livingston Island as well as of the neighbour Deception Island, about 30nm further south.
The rocky Hannah offers good grounds and shelter for a Gentoo penguin rookery that shares the terrain with Chinstrap penguins, both nesting here in big numbers. A good look between this latter ones revealed the presence of a single Macaroni penguin, easy recognisable for the distinctive yellow feathers that dress up its head. Often a very few of them can be seen at Hannah, probably been blown away from their home at South Georgia and started nesting here already years ago. Season after season they seem to be returning. Up the hills Giant petrels are still busy feeding their large chicks. Amongst penguins, seagulls and petrels, Elephant seals wallow in moulting groups atop a characteristic knoll.
The large amount of wildlife all around makes for applying different rules than other sites, and here the first part of the hike must be split in small groups to minimise the disturbance to the inhabitants of such an outstanding place.
Once the most crowded area is left behind, a large beach extends until the ice and moraines of Verila Glacier. This length of coast is named after John Walker, Master of the sealer John of London, who visited the South Shetland Islands in 1820-21, describing and mapping many of their features to be later on incorporated in the official first charts of the area. It offers a wonderful continuation of the landing, where heaps of Elephant seals aggregate during the moulting season. On a setup of boulders that have collapsed from the upper cliffs to the beach, the geologists working in the surroundings have put together a good array of rock specimens and several plant fossils. They can actually be found in the few sedimentary layers that still remain here and there after being intruded by the basalts and volcanic material associated with the vulcanism between the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula along the Bransfield Strait. Weather and timings made for an extension of the landing, and we all continued walking up the moraines of the neighbour glacier. Up there a vantage point offered great views of its crevassed surface, its ice cliffs falling to the sea and all the spectacular surroundings.
Close to dinnertime, everybody was back on board after a wonderful first Antarctic experience. The Europa remained anchored until past midnight, when the anchor is heaved and using her engines she makes way towards her next destination. The famed Deception Island.