Blown off Madden Cliffs. Landing in the afternoon at Brown Bluff (Antarctic Peninsula)
After a few busy hours aloft and on deck, facing howling winds and freezing cold, the Europa crawled her way into the Antarctic Sound in the darkness. Under an incredibly starry sky and a beautiful moonrise, she fought against the strong gusts and high seas. With the difficult navigation, it took her until the early morning to reach the Southwest coasts of Joinville Island. The weather and waves didn’t abate and soon the decision was taken to keep on her way towards Blown Bluff in the Antarctic Peninsula, across the sound.
Eventhough this waterway that separates d'Urville, Joinville and Dundee islands from the mainland was first sighted during the French Antarctic Expedition 1837-40 led by Dumont D’Urville, it had to wait until 1902 to be proper explored and charted by the Swedish Expedition led by Nordenskjöld. They named it after their ship, which was lost during the next season (1903) in a neighbour area now called Erebus and Terror Gulf.
Though the sun was shining over clear skies, the sound didn’t give us a truce during the morning with its rough seas and blustery winds blowing strong from a Southeasterly direction.
Shrouds frosted over, slippery icy decks, frozen rope coils. Stormy blows sweeping the rig, often swell breaking along the starboard side of the ship and icy cold spray washing her decks.
Nowadays we are all equipped to endure this circumstances. Technically advanced waterproof foul-weather-gear over layers of thermal clothes, good sailing boots and warm gloves. Comfortable harnesses and safety lanyards to use aloft in shrouds, masts and yards fitted for a safe climb.
Cozy dry bunks, homely lounge, library and deckhouse. Well fed and reasonably rested. Still like that we find it hard to overcome the weather and keep going on with what have to be dealt-to both in the ship and ashore. Having a look at the early dates on which sealing, whaling and exploration ships ventured into those unknown high latitudes, aboard leaky wooden boats or for the first made iron ships, a recurrent question comes to our minds: How they managed? How could they make it? Often under-crewed, dressed on wool, cotton and primitive oilskins continuously wet. Living on crowded and unventilated accommodation holds where often seas broke-in when sailing on hard conditions. Risking their lives every time that climbing the rig was needed where safety was not granted. All while usually undernourished on a terrible diet of dry salted pork or horse meat, weevily old bread and freshwater kept on moulded barrels. Often with the ghost of scurvy hoovering above their heads.
But thanks to them trade was made between the old and the new world, economy kept running, seal skins and whale oil were marketed over the known world and civilisation advanced. New regions were discovered and the knowledge of the lands and oceans of our planet increased.
“They pushed into a trackless region of storms, fog, mists and rain; of strong and unknown currents; a wilderness of island; mountainous shores; deep waters and exposed anchorages. They sailed blind into the unknown and, sometimes, back again. Its hard to understate their bravery and determination, their sense of adventure and curiosity”
George Davison, president of the Geographical Society of the Pacific in 1901. Referring to Bering expedition in the Russian Arctic “Great Northern Expedition” 1733-1743
Antarctica played an important role one all that process, and studies on its biology and geology helped to understand the world we live in and its changes. The Antarctic Sound and Weddell Sea early exploring and scientific expeditions offered base grounds for modern glaciology and mind changing theories like the continental drift as described by Alfred Wegener.
The Europa entered today such and interesting area, with the plans to stay around for the next days, if weather, winds and ice allow. And indeed after the troubles she went through in the morning, later on in the afternoon she hold ground under two anchors at her scheduled destination. Still windy at Brown Bluff , the variable winds and easing gusts start to look promising to try a landfall. Right in front of her the spectacular orange volcanic cliffs fall to the sea from a ridge of over 3km in length. At its bottom a relatively small flat area is home for Gentoo and Adelie penguins, in a scenery surrounded by glacier fronts and a beach often filled with bergy bits.
Penguins share the space with Kelp gulls, Snowy sheathbills, Skuas, Giant and Snow petrels. Several Fur seals rest at the shoreline and and occasional Leopard seal patrol the coast in search for a good bite. But the geology here is of great interest too. The basalts and lava flows we see here were originated by an “englacial volcano” with eruptions underneath an ice cap and its posterior glacial and weather erosion. Those eruptions are part of the named James Ross Island Volcanic Group, ranging in age from the Miocene to present. Its original diameter is thought to have been about 12-15 kilometres, and probably formed by a single event. Here, the geological structures of the cliffs reveal a past of several lava flows, sure some of them under the pressure of the ice above. As a prove to that the beautiful pillow lavas that can be found during the landing and the volcanic clastic rocks that lay all around, with a lighter matrix embedding basalt boulders. The loose materials under our feet have been transported here in the past by the neighbour glaciers.
Landing at the beach takes skilled driving between the grounded ice and floating ice-floes in motion by the swell. Ubiquitous are the Gentoo chicks already fledged and ready to leave the rookeries, while their parents still undergo the moulting process. A couple of the Adelies linger around here and there, but with their breading cycle finishing earlier than the other species, most of them are already at sea until next nesting season.
As an extension of our hike, we make way over the smooth melting area of the closeby glacier until reaching its impressive calving front with its icy cliffs over the sea.
At sunset, the zodiacs picked us up and the Europa heaves anchor to start our way deeper into the Weddell Sea. For the next few days she approximately will follow the areas visited by the 1901-04 Swedish Antarctic Expedition and like that, she chose the Fridtjof Sound, the 6nm long and narrow channel leaving he Antarctic Peninsula at our Starboardside and Andersson and Jonassen Islands at our Port. Nighttime meets her amongst icebergs, luckily now over calm seas and just a slight breeze that will gradually increase overnight.