Yachting to the Antarctic

December 1, 2012 — December 15, 2012

The Start of the Adventure

The Drake Lake

Crossing the Drake Passage Part 2

The Melchior Islands

Aussie Barbecue at Port Lochroy

The Best Day of Their Lives!!

Ukrainian Vodka at the Vernadsky Station

Kicking Back at Vernadsky Station

Minke Magic

Paradise

Iceberg Islands

Ice-locked Whales

This is a rare chance to follow the daily exploits of one of the world’s most experienced high latitudes sailor on an extended voyage to the magnificent Antarctic Peninsula. 

 "... The beauty of Antarctica changes your life. I can't wait to go back, it's the place I feel most comfortable in the world." - AUSTRALIS skipper, Ben Wallis 

Come back each day to read the next installment as Ben and a small group of voyagers are currently plying their way south to the Antarctic Peninsula in stunningly calm conditions, backed by the snow-capped mountains of Patagonia.  

On day one, passengers were treated to an encounter with Long-finned Pilot Whales, globe-headed super-dolphins that live in tightly bonded groups ... besides humans, they're one of the only species in the world that looks after the elderly in their family.   

Following a calm crossing of the Drake Passage, a reasonably rare occurance, the crew finally arrived in the Antartic to be greeted by Weddell Seals. They visited the Melchior Islands, a place that Ben describes as one of his most favourite places on Earth. By the following evening, the crew were enjoying an Aussie barbecue at Port Lockroy and watching Gentoo Penguins.

Day by day, the trip is unfolding. A week in and the guests are treated to an encounter with Minke Whales playing beside the boat while Gentoos model themselves against the serene mountain landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula.  

 Start of the Adventure

As the anticipation built on board, the SkipperĀ BenĀ advised us that we needed to head off to clear customs at 09:00. After all official business was signed off, we were free to go!!

We finished last minute jobs and shopping (all the essential like toothpaste and a bottle of rum), before heading back to the boat and casting the lines off. It was a picture perfect day to leave with blue skys and clear views showing us the way down the Beagle Channel. As we headed East down the Channel, Martin called, "There's 50 - 100 Pilot whales ahead of the boat".

What a great start to the trip. We stayed with the whales a short time before continuing on with our journey, with a few dolphins and seals also tagging along next to the boat as we headed south. As everyone settled into life aboard, we set out into open water and by 11:45 pm we were abeam of the Horn (Cape Horn) signifying the beginning of our Drake crossing!

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 The Drake Lake

The first night at sea was a calm one, as we settled into our bunks and got our sea legs. Many of the guests wanted to participate in watches for crossing the Drake, which gave everyone a decent rest in between their watch.

There were blue skys and calm seas, giving everyone lots of time for sleeping, movies and reading. We were met by two amazing Wandering Albatross on the first morning out, following the boat for the most part of the day, much to everyone's delight.

Many Wilson's storm petrels and a Light mantled Sooty Albatross also joined us over Day 2 and 3 of our journey South. It was incredible weather with not a breath of wind over 20 kts for the entire trip across the Drake. It really was the "Drake Lake".

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 Crossing the Drake Passage Part 2

As we edged closer to the Great White Continent, Humpback whales surfaced close to the boat...we were nearly there!

Meanwhile some of the guys onboard, Martin & Edgar were busy making bets as to who would see the first iceberg, what time they would see it, when we would first sight land, what time we would arrive & any other bets they could think of. Very serious business whilst on watch!

The crisp Southerly breeze outside was so cold, that it was freezing the spray on the handrails as it washed over the deck... We all sat inside the heated wheelhouse, watching and admiring it build, layer upon layer. With each layer, we were loving the wheelhouse more & more.

Finally, we spotted ice 120 miles from the closest island, which excited the crew, as it was another sign we were about to arrive.

Snow Petrels & Cape Pintado Petrels flew frantically around the boat as we made a dash for the finish line. Then at 22:00, after amazingly calm conditions for 3 days, we arrived in glorious sunshine to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was not a particularly fast crossing, but a very comfortable one.

As we motored into a safe little anchorage in the Melchior Islands, we saw 15 Weddell seals resting on the Winters' fast ice that still covered half of the bay. It felt good to be back!

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 The Melchior Islands

We arose to a perfect blue bird day with everyone keen to go out and explore the Melchior Islands.

Most people chose to use the kayaks, paddling over to the fast ice and enjoying the novelty of walking around on it, whilst getting a closer look at the Weddell seals. Antarctic turns and Kelp gulls made their presence known by calling out and circling the bay we were anchored in.

After a visit back to the boat for some lunch and to recharge the camera batteries, everyone headed out again for the afternoon, Zodiac cruising around icebergs and making landings on the various islands. Some even took advantage of the snow slopes, reliving their childhoods, by bum sliding down the hills.

As the day came to a close, we all enjoyed a few beers on deck and processed all the marvelous scenery we had witnessed on our first day. The bar had certainly been set very high.

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 Aussie Barbecue at Port Lochroy

Again we were met by yet another glorious day, as we lifted the anchor and headed out of the Melchior Islands.

The visibility allowed us to see the grandiosity of the mountain range from the outer archipelago across to the mainland continental Antarctica & the plateau behind. We cruised through the islands, passing a couple of small Gentoo penguin colonies and giving our cameras quite a workout.

As we ventured further South, weaving through the field of icebergs everyone was out on deck, only popping inside every so often to grab a cuppa. After passing through the Gerlache Straight and the Nuemeyer Channel, we anchored in Dorian Bay, so we could go ashore to check out the old refuge huts, the Gentoo penguins and stretch the legs.

With all back onboard we moved the boat around the corner to Port Lockroy and what better way to end the day than with a BBQ on the aft deck, watching the sun set over the mountains behind the anchorage. 

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 Day 7 - the best day of their lives!!

The spectacular vista at our anchorage in Port Lockroy and the warm sunshine drew us all out of our bunks early in the morning. What better way to start the day than with a big breakfast of bacon & eggs to give us all fuel for the morning’s activities!

A great place to paddle around in the kayaks, watching the Gentoo Penguins glide through the water and make there way to and from the scattered rookeries onshore at Jougla Point and Gourdier Island. Some admired the Blue Eyed Shags perched on their nests in amongst the many Gentoos sitting patiently on their own eggs.

After lunch, we were invited to visit Base A at Port Lockroy, where there is a Post Office and a very interesting museum, displaying many historical artifacts of the whaling days and other significant events that occurred in the area. Some of us got some retail therapy in the small shop and others wrote postcards to send home to loved ones before heading back to Australis.

We all decided to push on further South late in the afternoon, heading for the Lemaire Channel.

We were met by a pod of very curious Minke whales on the way, that swam around and under the boat for almost an hour. There were GoPro cameras everywhere trying to capture every moment of this awesome experience. One of the guests, Jim even kept his constantly attached to his forehead, so he could record every minute and relive it again and again.

After finally making it through the Lemaire, Ben carefully navigated the way through a huge iceberg graveyard, where many icebergs, the size of enormous buildings had run aground and would probably stay there until they melted. As everyone was on deck admiring the majestic ice, someone spotted a group of Crabeater seals feeding on krill under the icebergs.

There were plenty of birds around also, making a most of the krill feast. After finally passing through the graveyard, we found the entrance to our anchorage for the night at the back of Hovgaard Island.

The gang gathered around the dinner table with sun burnt faces and many commented that it had been the best day of their lives.

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 Day 8 - Ukrainian Vodka at the Vernadsky Station

Due to our normal anchorage at Hovgaard Island being iced in with Winter ice (fast sea ice), we had anchored in a little bay just outside and unfortunately dragged anchor during the night, so we woke to a bump.The boat had met with isolated rocks when the tide went out.

As the tide rose, we were afloat again, away from the rocks once more thankfully. Everyone had a late start due to the long day before. The weather Gods were still in our favour and some even enjoyed their morning coffee on deck in bare feet. Stefan recorded 13ºC on his thermometer outside- simply balmy!

The kayakers headed out shortly to photograph the Gentoo penguins on the ice & a few icebergs in the bay. John and Edgar stretched their legs onshore, enjoying the luxury of having one island per person, which is an incredible privilege in such a place.

After a yummy lunch of empanadas and beers, we headed off to take another look at the Iceberg graveyard again, before heading further South towards the Ukraine base Vernadsky. On route, we stopped to admire a spectacular arch in an iceberg, making several circumnavigations to ensure we all got the perfect shot.  We were again met by two pods of Minke whales, but this time they cruised straight past us, on the move to another location.

We sat down to dinner as the boat pulled into the anchorage at Vernadsky Station and the talk was of how many photos had been taken so far into the trip. The tally was up to at least 1300 and counting…  After a brief conversation on the radio with the guys on base, we were invited over for Saturday night drinks at their little bar, together with the people from the two other charter yachts anchored at the base.

We made our way over and were welcomed by 11 friendly Ukraine men that had been living at the base for 8 months, with some working down in Antarctica for multiple seasons. A brief tour was given to explain the science and meteorological work they do and then we were guided to the bar. We all enjoyed a few home made vodkas and games of billiards, whilst exchanging stories and learning about life in an Antarctic research station, before heading back to the boat after another long day.

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 Day 9 - Kicking back at Vernadsky Station

It was a slow start after the late night activities the night before at Vernadsky Station. Most people spent the morning downloading photos, catching up on journal writing and enjoying several cups of tea around the saloon round table.

After lunch, Jim and Martin headed out for a paddle, whilst John went for a walk behind Vernadsky Station to take a better look at the Great white continent and soak up the sunshine. The kayakers were given a bit of a fright, when an iceberg started to break up & roll over right next to them. Lucky Magnus was not far away in the Zodiac! 

It was a gentle reminder to the guys, just how quickly the environment changes down south. We were paid a visit by some of the men from Vernadsky Station in the afternoon and gave them the grand tour of Australis, before sharing a few beers and stories around the table. They finally bid us farewell, wishing us a great trip, before heading back to their base.

It was download time once again, turning the saloon into an internet café before dinner time. Salmon night brought a smile to everyone’s face and all the fish was devoured, before we kicked back for a night at the movies.

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 Minke Magic

It was an early start as we lifted the anchor and were off by 7am, to ensure that we made the most of another glorious day.

Our first stop was the Yalour Islands, where there is a large population of Adelie Penguins nesting there.  We ventured ashore, with sunscreen layered on thickly and everyone headed in different directions, to inspect the penguins. Due to the small number of our crew and there being so many small groups of penguins all over the island, we all had our own group to watch, which was a luxury.

It was hard to take a bad photo, with more blue skies as a backdrop and the mountains of the continent towering up behind the Adelie penguins sitting on their eggs.

After some time on the islands, we headed back to the boat to warm up with a cuppa and some breakfast, as some people had not had time to eat before we went ashore.

Just shortly after leaving the Yalour Islands we encountered more playful Minke whales in the Penola Straight and we all watched in amazement, as they swam underneath and with the boat once again. John and Magnus climbed up the mast and definitely got the money shots looking down at the bow of Australis, with a clear view of the whales either side. It wasn’t long before we had filled up our memory cards again!

Due to the fine weather, a nice hearty lunch of Minestrone Soup was served outside, on deck and enjoyed by all. We headed into Waddington Bay to look for Leopard seals, but unfortunately they were nowhere to be found, so we simply admired the stunning glaciers from the boat instead.

As we motored a little further south, we encountered some huge icebergs, which cracked and creaked, proving they are always on the move. Finally Martin spotted a Leopard seal behind a small iceberg. He disappeared before we could all have a good look at him, but we turned off the engine and could hear a Leopard Seal singing for the next 15 minutes, which was pretty special.

As it was almost dinnertime, we made our way back to Vernadsky Station to anchor there for the evening. We passed a few Weddell seals lying lazily on ice flows, as we steamed along and it was not long before we were all gathered around the saloon exchanging stories and enjoying a roast chicken dinner.

Another jammed packed day of new and exciting experiences had made us all rather tired, so it was not long before we all headed to our bunks for the night.

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 Paradise

The weather had definitely taken a slight turn and for the first time since arriving on the Peninsula, the sun did not greet us as we rose, making it a little more difficult to get out form under our doonas. Instead, there was low cloud and a significant drop in the temperature.  

Maybe now we would see some “true” Antarctic weather! The morning rituals of brewing coffee and shuffling in and out of the galley fixing breakfast was becoming like second nature for us all onboard. After lifting the anchor, we were heading back north again, towards Paradise Harbour.

The clouds lay low for most of the day, but allowed us glimpses of the peaks of some of the mountains as we headed towards the Lemaire Channel once again. The blues in the icebergs seemed to be more illuminated by the grey backdrop, giving us more great photo opportunities. We all darted out on deck to take a few snaps, then rushed back into the warm and cosy wheelhouse, warming up our fingers with a hot cup of tea.

Martin definitely got the award for standing outside the longest, as he seemed to be out on deck for most of the day, besides when he came back inside to grab another layer of clothing. We reached Paradise Harbour in the afternoon and anchored within earshot of Scontorp Glacier carving away.

Magnus took the guys out in the Zodiac to go and inspect the Argentine base, Almirante Brown, which is currently unmanned. Much to their delight, a huge iceberg in front of the base started to carve on one side, then the other, providing a great show for the crew watching from shore. It was a close call, but Magnus rescued the Zodiac from getting washed away with the wave that the ice carving created. Everyone arrived back to Australis looking a bit chilly, but nothing a few whiskies couldn’t fix!

There was much laughter around the dinner table, with cheeky banter between the guys about the days’ events. The grey weather surely hadn’t dampened the spirits onboard!

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 Iceberg Islands

Waking up to the noise of glaciers carving in the distance sure makes for a nice change to the normal alarm clock. We started the day with a slow leisurely cruise around the Scontorp Cove to get an up close and personal look at Skontorp Glacier. Many of us still wiping the sleep out of our eyes, stood on deck gazing up at the masses of ice towering over us.

It was a busy morning in Paradise Harbour, as we passed two cruise ships as we were heading out. There were some expressions of interest to visit Neko Harbour, so we made our way into Andvord Bay. Of course Neko Harbour ended up becoming a small attraction and everything else along the way caught our eye.

The day had started with a lot of cloud, but the sun was trying it’s hardest to come out. As we passed a Weddell seal, Crabeater seal and Chinstrap penguin hanging out on a small iceberg together, they seemed unbothered by one another or by us as we moved past them. Again, most of us favoured eating lunch out on deck, enjoying gazing out at the ice filled landscape and huge icebergs floating past the boat.

We counted six glaciers in total, where their tongues reached out into the end of Andvord Bay. Ben described it as, “watching rapids or rivers frozen in time”.

We reached Cuverville Island by early evening and some of the guys went ashore to go for pre-dinner hike up the hill. Stefan led the way and displayed his sharp mountaineering skills, as he scrambled up the island. All enjoyed a long bum slide back down the hill, before they radioed for a pick up.

Meanwhile, Edgar had been out with Magnus, photographing some icebergs and scenery around the island. Even though it was not the best anchorage for Australis, with icebergs drifting in and rubbing up against the hull, we decided to stay at Cuverville Island for the night before moving on to a new location the following day.

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 Ice-locked Whales

We survived the night without any iceberg dramas, which was a relief to the crew and so we decided to push on towards Enterprise Island. There was not a breath of wind, but the greyness from the previous days still hung around, making it challenging to see more than 40 metres ahead at times.

When the cloud lifted, we could see a bright band of yellow light in the distance illuminating the mountains in the direction we were heading.

As we steamed through the Gerlache Strait, Ben made the call, “Whales!” First there were two, then four, then many, many more. There were Humpbacks all around the boat, so close you could smell their pungent breath and see their tales as they dove down into the deep in the distance. We stayed with them for about 2 hours, taking a short break to have some lunch and warm up down below, before returning to the outer decks for more whale action.

As we got further into Wilhelmina Bay, we could see fast ice in the distance. On closer inspection, we realised that a lot of the bay was still filled with ice, so what better thing to do than pull Australis right up to the ice and hop off the boat to have a walk around! With careful foot placement, we followed Magnus’ lead and took the leap of faith from the boat onto the ice. It seemed quite firm, but after we all walked a short distance, the skipper decided it might be a good idea to done a life jacket, in case someone fell through the ice. What an adventure!

We wandered over the sea ice to check out some sleepy Weddell and Crabeater seals and listened intently to the groans of the ice underneath us, as it moved with the swell coming into the bay. Australis definitely showed some resemblance to Shackleton’s Endurance stuck in the ice! After our short walk on the fast ice, we wandered back and climbed onto the boat to warm up before Skye brought us some warm (potent) mulled wine, which was enjoyed by all.

Our initial plan to go to Enterprise Island from the south had to be changed, as the sea ice was blocking the Plata Passage, so we headed around Nansen Island to enter from the north. Finally we arrived at Enterprise Island and after carefully maneuvering the boat into the anchorage, we tied up alongside the shipwreck ‘Govenor’.

Unfortunately there was still a lot of ice in the bay behind the wreck and some nasty icebergs were uncomfortably close to the rudder, so Ben & Magnus spent the better part of the next 2 hours trying to break up and fend off the bergs, before turning in for the night.

Ah the joys of operating a yacht in Antarctica!        

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 A Snorkel Around the Wreck

All enjoyed a good night’s sleep, as we were tucked away nicely behind the ‘Governor’ at Enterprise Island. The only noise to be heard during the evening was from Antarctic Terns nesting on the wreck, which seemed to be constant.

We were greeted by the “red coats” whilst eating our breakfast and drinking our morning coffee, as a cruise ship had pulled into Enterprise and the passengers were Zodiac cruising, (all wearing matching jackets) around the wreck and us as well.

Jim, Martin and John chose to go exploring in the kayaks around the rocky outcrops and icebergs, whilst Stefan put on a dry suit to go for a dive off Australis and around the wreck.

It was another glorious day, pleasing us all, as we thought we had used all of our good weather tokens already! We sat in the cockpit outside, enjoying a roast vegetable risotto and all chatting about the morning’s activities.

The tall-masted sailing ship ‘Bark Europa’ paid us a visit in the afternoon, looking most impressive entering the bay and coming up close to the wreck. The afternoon was filled with more kayaking and snorkeling, this time it was Jim’s turn to hop in the water for a look at the Antarctic underwater world. A few of the crew displayed their various climbing techniques on the wreck, inspecting the rusty artifacts that had been preserved over the years.

Roast leg of lamb was on the menu for dinner, which bought a smile to the guys’ faces once again.

Shortly after we had finished our dessert, the dishes had been done and we were winding down for the evening, we started to get harassed by a few rather large icebergs that had floated into the anchorage. Then with an almighty thump, the fast ice behind the boat had detached itself from the shore and was pushing itself into our stern. So, the crew threw some warmer clothes on and cast off the lines in a flurry, as the ice was literally pushing us out.

We motored around for a while, before Ben made the call, we would anchor for the evening. By now it was 11pm and Ben seemed happier with the safety of the boat, so it was time to call it a day and get some sleep before anything else surprised us.

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 Fin Whales Abound

Just as we suspected, when we got up after the previous evenings’ events, all the fast ice that pushed us from our anchorage had completely moved out of the little bay. Luckily we had escaped the moving ice and got some sleep out on anchor.

We set off for Deception Island, which was approximately 100 nautical miles Northeast of Enterprise Island. Even though the guys had already made a continental landing at Paradise Harbour, some had forgotten to take a photo, so we took a quick detour to a spot just below Santos Peak on the Danco Coastline, in order to get that picture.

It was particularly chilly outside and the guys had to layer up, before going ashore. Once we had the evidence, it was time to move on, as we still had a lot of miles to cover for the day. We dodged and weaved around icebergs, as we passed through Hughes Bay and the northern end of the Gerlache Strait. Edgar pointed out particular icebergs along the way that looked photogenic and we headed for them, being sure to capture every angle.

Then, sometime after lunch Ben came downstairs and said we better come and have a look outside. There was a very impressive Leopard seal, lying on an ice flow. Finally, we got to see a Leopard seal! Everyone was so excited and we were able to motor past the seal several times, without disturbing him. He seemed to keep a very close eye on where we were at all times and even opened his mouth once or twice, displaying all of his teeth. This display truly showed the guys what all the talk was about when it came to this predator. After a short while we left the Leopard seal in peace and continued on into the ice field.

Slowly the ice around us became less and less as we moved further away from the Antarctic Peninsula and closer to civilization. It was a quiet afternoon onboard, with some catching up on sleep after all the excitement, journals being written and of course, countless photos being downloaded. The swell was evident as we hit the Bransfield Strait and Australis began to roll, sending a few to their bunks.

Just as we finished dinner, we were beckoned upstairs once again. What now?! We all rushed outside on deck and there were Fin whales everywhere. It was unbelievable. The second largest whale after the Blue whale and they were swimming alongside Australis! How lucky could we get???

The whales were so close to us that every time they blew, all their whale breath covered us, as well as the lenses on the many cameras. We all watched in complete awe of these huge beautiful creatures as they swam under the bow of the boat, displaying their white bellies and as they came up right alongside the boat. It was quite freezing outside, but no one seemed to care, not wanting to miss any of the whaleaction.

The whales stayed with us, or we stayed with them for at least an hour before they became spouts in the distance. It truly was overwhelming and not just for the guests, but for the crew as well. We reached the entrance of Deception Island just before mid night and cruised in through Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera of the volcano. All the crew were back up in the wheelhouse to witness our arrival into Whaler’s Bay and entering the bellows.

To our surprise, most of Port Foster was covered in fast ice, so we had to change our plans of anchoring at Telefon Bay and instead anchoring in front of the old whaling station. No one seemed to want to go to bed, even though it was almost 1am. It must have been a case of overstimulation and overexcitement, but presumably a natural reaction to all the wonders we had witnessed during the day.

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Comments

Add

Tere P. on December 12, 2012 about Yachting to the Antarctic

What a gift it is to be reading about your adventures down there! It brings so many great memories back of my time in Antarctica! I am so happy you guys are having such a fantastic time!

John B. on December 12, 2012 about Yachting to the Antarctic

looks like your having an awsome time dad (j brewster) hope you have had the chance to jump in for a dive. I know how much you were looking forward to that.

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