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The Weddell Sea

It was past midnight when Europa reached the shores of Paulet Island, where we anchored for the rest of the night, as the plans are to land this morning. For several times the anchor dragged on the foul grip offered by the loose volcanic seafloor, under un-forecasted gusting winds up to 35kn. But we could make it until the morning, when the variable winds and swell appeared to be good enough to try for a landing. Since miles before reaching it, the Paulet volcano reveals its pyramid shape. With a diameter of 1.5 km it is dwarfed by the larger and ice covered Joinville, Dundee and D’Urville Islands, but rivals them with its beauty and distinguished character. Same as Danger Islands, Paulet was named by James Clark Ross on his 1839-43 voyage. Its name honours Captain George Paulet of the Royal Navy. But a most attractive historical background of the island came from the Nordenskjold expedition of 1901-04. Being known as a not rough landing, this morning the winds picked up and as the guides scouted the landing site it became clear that there would be nothing dry or calm about the landing. Another dry suit job for the guides brought the voyage crew to dry land, a beach shared with thousands upon thousands of Adélie Penguins and the occasional Weddell seal. As most part of the island is a protected area with only one allowed
path, all of us walked together along the beach. Actually the island is classified as an Important Bird Area due to its large, more than 100.000 couples strong, Adélie penguin rookery and a large colony of breeding Antarctic shags, with chicks present today. Wilson’s storm-petrels and snow petrels nest here too, amongst the red coloured volcanic rocks. A colour that is the result of the oxidation of the many minerals in the volcanic rocks by the gases released in the final phase of eruption. Slowly making our way down the beach in the bone chilling cold, along the penguin jam-packed shores, soon we reach the area where the historical sites are located, belonging to the Swedish Expedition at the beginning of the 19hundreds. Nordenskjold’s ship, Antarctic, was crushed and sunk by the ice 25 miles
east of Paulet island on 12 February 1903. After 14 nights camping on ice floes, and a six hour row, the 20 crew reached the island safely. The legendary Carl Anton Larsen, from whom we heard before as a relevant figure on the historical background of our trip, was captain of the ship. The marooned party set about over-wintering by building a rock hut with the abundant and excellent volcanic slate, insulated by guano and mud, sail cloth and seal skins. Its structure is still clearly evident with the separate sleeping and kitchen areas, and one can appreciate their dimensions: Sleep room = 7.3. x 6.7m; 2.4m high in the centre and 1.2m at the sides; kitchen = 3 x 3.7m. No longer home to humans, several penguins have made the remains their nesting ground. The only casualty of the group during the over-wintering was Ole Wennersgard, aged 22. He is buried in a raised grave which can’t be accessed at this time because it is in the middle of the Adélie colony. A short walk inland from the hut, we climb a small hill from which a beautiful crater lake opens up. Still frozen with some open water channels it hosted yet more Adélie penguins that happily posed for all the photos being taken by the voyage crew and guides alike. Edging the lake we ascended to a gap between penguin crowded hills, from where another fantastic view opened in front of us. Below us we enjoy the vista of the long beach and a large melt lake also partially frozen, surrounded by yet another countless amount of nesting Adélie penguins. Carefully navigating our way down to the beach over the volcanic rock, we arrive back to the beach where the winds have now died down slightly, to make for an easier yet adventurous pick up. Meanwhile Europa heaves anchor and starts her way deeper into the Weddell Sea, steering to Devil Island and Cape Well-met, the scene of another epic moment in the Nordenskjold saga. On that epic story of Antarctic struggle and survival, there ended up being three expeditionary that were stranded in Hope Bay, while Nordenskjold himself and his men had to spend a second winter in Snow Hill Island, and we have seen the remains left behind by the third cast away group in Paulet Island. In Cape Well Met the three men that overwintered at Hope Bay
literally walked into Nordenskjold’s sledging party, exploring the Prince Gustav Channel on 12 October 1903. To get there, still the whole afternoon of sailing lay ahead of us. And indeed, between lunch and coffee time a fair breeze of about 20kn started blowing from the passage that represents the connection of the Bransfield Strait (on the West side of Antarctic Peninsula) to the Weddell Sea, between mainland and the large D’Urville, Joinville and Dundee Islands. Under increasing winds and taking good advantage of the un-precedented ice-free waters on the area, crew climbs aloft to loose the gaskets of the Top Sails and Dekzwabber, setting them straight away and stopping our engines. What a great feeling, having some good proper sailing in the mythical Weddell Sea, home for so many stories and adventures from the early times of the Antarctic Exploration to nowadays. 25 to 30kn of N-ly wind pull us for the rest of the afternoon towards the northern shores of Vega Island, where Devil is located. Enjoying the sailing, Captain and Bosun have time enough to check on the main deck one of the damaged staysails that was unbent a couple of days ago. While our guides present in the Library the items that will be auctioned after diner, as today the great South Georgia auction will take place in the evening. A fun but at the same time useful way to raise some necessary funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust, to keep going with their environmental and conservation projects in the island.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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