Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Antarctica : Our Experience of the Coldest Continent on Earth

A Few Hours on the Land of Ice: Antarctica


Almost halfway through our Southern Ocean crossing on board SV Infinity, we were lucky enough to step foot on the southernmost continent. AA was steering with Gabo when he noticed what we though was an iceberg but turned out to be land: ANTARCTICA!!!!



It took us all day from the moment we first saw land to reach Cape Adare. We enjoyed the view of black mountains covered with snow. The water surrounding us was filled with huge icebergs everywhere. It took a while to be able to go through all the ice blocks, but with a team up in the crow's nest and one on the bow, the Captain was able to manoeuvre the boat safely toward its anchorage spot in Robertson Bay.



On our way, while avoiding big ice chunks, somebody spotted some whales in the distance. We stopped everything we were doing and enjoyed a private show from the many killer whales that were busy feeding in the area. At first, they did not seem very interested by the boat, but as we were slowly getting closer to the beach, they came in to have a closer look. We even saw a mommy killer whale and her little baby.







Shortly after, while enjoying the magnificent views of the Antarctic continent, glaciers and icebergs, we saw a lone seal on his little piece of ice. We drove around him, getting very nice close up pictures. He seemed curious but not enough to actually move anything more than his head.




We approached land and anchored the boat close to Ridley Beach to go explore the area on foot. We could see many rookeries of Adelie penguins with our binoculars. We lowered the tender and everybody got ready. We had to split the group in three as we can't all fit in the smaller boat, and we needed people to stay on board in case the anchor would not stay in place.


When it was our turn, we sat in the dinghy and, beginners mistake, we let go of the boat before the engine was on. We started drifting immediately, while Clemens was still trying to get the engine started. We were fast getting away from Infinity and the engine was still not on, so eventually we had to start paddling, against pretty strong currents. The team left on board hurried to get some ropes ready in the water to help us reach the boat. We finally made it, taking turns to paddle. As soon as we grabbed the rope, we made our way faster towards Infinity. We got back on, changed gloves and anything else that was wet and went back in the tender, this time with a running engine to make it to land!

With the smaller boat, we landed on Ridley Beach. The beach was made of very dark rocks and also covered by ice. We jumped out of the dinghy as soon as we touched land, and tried to hold on to it so it would not leave with the waves. It took a few tries to bring the boat closer to the ice. We tried to attach a rope to a big chunk of ice, but it was not heavy enough, so we had to try again. It took a few trial and error, holding on to the boat, feet in the water before we could secure it.

One thing that we noticed as soon as we arrived on land, was the smell of penguin poo. A big seal watched us coming in, and it didn't seem too sure on how to react. After a few minutes of us being too humans (very loud excited sounds), it moved a few meters away. We landed right next to an Adelie penguins rookery. They looked at us, some of them moving their wings at us, but mostly, they couldn't care less about us.


Every few meters, there was another penguin group followed by another group and so on forever. We spent some time watching them and taking many pictures. We saw more lazy Weddell seals, countless Adelie penguins and some skuas, amongst other birds.


We walked around slowly, going towards the oldest building in Antarctica. We walked some more, meeting more penguins. One even came straight towards us and stopped a few feet away probably wondering what kind of creature we were. We stopped moving and after a moment, he walked right around Seb, smelling around, and kept going, not worried at all.





Our Captain found a different penguin in one of the group. It was a chinstrap penguin, by himself, hiding in a large group of Adelie penguins. Some penguins were walking in groups following each other and sliding on their bellies. It was awesome to watch!




The scenery was amazing; many icebergs, mountains, deserted land, blue water and even a colorful sunset in the distance. We enjoyed the area for a while but as soon as the sun disappeared it started to be much colder.





We made it back to Infinity, changed into dry and warm clothes and tried to process our day. There was a lot to take in, almost too much, like an overload of awesomeness. We were waiting for dinner to be ready, hanging out in our cabin and talking about our day, when we heard something about Sea Shepherd and heard some unknown voices. We went upstairs, and we had company!



The Sea Shepherd encounter


Who would expect to get visitors in this isolated part of the world, after being alone at sea for a month. Four guys from Sea Shepherds took their zodiac and came up to ask us to help them. They were trying to keep the Japanese whalers from killing as many whales as possible as part of their "research" program. The whalers are a group of harpoon ships and support vessels and one processing ship. The Sea Shepherds have three big ships and as soon as they get close to the whalers, the Japanese support vessels follow them to prevent them for taking any actions on the main ships. They wanted our help to act as a decoy, making the whalers follow us instead of them so they could get away from their tailing vessel.


We gladly accepted the mission and quickly went around to shut all the lights so the Japanese ship would not see us. The Steve Irwin came in the bay, followed five miles behind by the Japanese vessel. They shut all their lights coming in the bay so we could trick the Japanese into following our boat instead when we would turn our lights back on. We slowly made our way out of the bay, dodging ice bits and waited to see if the plan would work. The Japanese ship started following us going west. The Steve Irwin waited a little longer for all of us to be far enough so they would be undetectable on the radar and then would try to go around the cape and find the processing ship. As soon as the sun came out, the Japanese ship noticed their mistake. They must have been furious to have been following the wrong ship for part of the night!
  
They came rushing towards Infinity, double checking their mistake, and showing off their powerful engine by circling us, before storming off to find the Steve Irwin once again. They unfortunately caught up with them before they could escape. We were very sad that they missed their shot by about half-hour, but we have to admit this was a very funny adventure! (to read more about the Sea Shepherds and their missions in Antarctica or to read their account of our encounter visit:



After the Japanese realized their mistake, we returned to our anchorage spot in Ridley Beach so the last group of people could go ashore. Later in the day, the Steve Irwin came back towards us, unfortunately followed by the Japanese ship. We attached our boat to theirs and they transferred quite a lot of fuel to top up our tanks as their thank you for helping them. It was very funny to see everybody excited to meet new people, on both boats, as they too had been at sea for a long time. After the fuel transfer, we went out of the bay and south into the Ross Sea, hoping to reach a different anchorage in prevision of the storm that was coming up our way.


Sadly leaving this wonderful place


During the night, we had to speed through thick ice and slushy water. We then gave up finding the new anchorage location and decided to face the heavy winds in the open sea, far off coast. We headed East for a while until the winds where too strong and we then motored through the storm. We were motoring forward and were pushed backward by the winds and currents for a good part of this storm. For a change, we had to look behind us for icebergs. We had to make a reasonable decision and changed our original plans. We tried to go back to Ridley beach but this wasn't possible due to an excessive amount of ice in the bay. We had to give up and leave Antarctica to head East for Chile as we still had a long way ahead of us and the sea conditions were changing quickly.


After getting the first glimpse of Antarctica in company of Gabo, AA steered as we watched the continent disappear slowly and said our farewell to the frozen continent. We will be back one day, but until then, we are off to South America!



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