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Erebus and Terror Gulf Exploration Vega Island Landing and cruising in Fridtjof Sound

Flat calm conditions helped us during dusk to keep on our way South into the Erebus and Terror Gulf. Bands of brash and sea ice made for slowing down and even stopping our engines and drift during the darkest hours, just to resume our way with the first lights. But about 04:30AM, a wide expand of pack ice stretched in front of us. Looking too thick to reach any further South destination in time for any activity and having in mind the famous changeable conditions of the ice pack and weather in the area, is decided to turn around and head towards the neighbour southern shores of Vega Island. Like this we have achieved our southernmost point of the trip at the position of 63º 59.44´S; 056º 43.47’ W. At breakfast time Europa idle her engines amongst the icebergs and chunks of multi-year sea ice that pepper the coasts South of Vega. Belonging to what is called the James Ross Island group, lays in the Erebus and Terror Gulf with its 17nm in length and 6nm in width. Again, as many other features in those seas, it was named by Dr. Otto Nordenskjöld in his 1901-04 expedition, apparently for the ship Vega used by his uncle, Baron A.E. Nordenskjöld, in making the first voyage through the Northeast Passage, 1878-79. As we approach its spectacular coasts, the large James Ross island towers at our Port side, while Vega shows its ice filled coasts and glacier fronts at our Starboard. The channel separating both, Herbert Sound was first sighted by Capt. James Clark Ross on January 6h 1843 but thought to be a broad embayment. It was Nordenskjöld who properly charted it about 60 years later. Finding our way through it clogged once more, soon our Captain and guides look for an alternative landing site close to where we can reach by the end of breakfast time. The splendid southern coast of Vega Island offers fantastic chances to explore the several rocky beaches laying between high cliffs and glacier fronts. Without delay a scout zodiac is sent to check out our chances to land. They steer looking for leads between bergy bits and sheets of sea ice towards a nunatak that opens to the shoreline, elegantly standing between the glaciers located between the orange cliffs of the high Mahogany Bluff and Cape Gordon, the jagged 330m high headland at the Eastmost tip of the island. The easy and calm landing beach and the striking beauty of the site soon makes for a quick briefing where Sarah explains the change of plans for the morning and urges all to get ready to embark the zodiacs. As soon as the first people is making their way ashore, a pod of numerous Humpback whales seems to appear out of nowhere. Not really bothered about the Europa presence in the area, start lounge feeding all around us, offering a breath-taking spectacle. The Weddell Sea represents the feeding grounds for the Humpback population that breeds in the warm waters of the Atlantic Brazilian coasts, in comparison with the population that can usually be seen in the Western Peninsula and South Shetland Islands, which migrate straight north to the tropical Pacific Ocean shores of Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and even Panama. However, recent research tracking some of the whale movements in the feeding grounds using GPS transmitters, had shown that there is actuall some interchange of individuals between both groups while looking for nourishment in those high latitudes. And stepping ashore we could all see the reason why they are around this area. Amongst the basaltic pebbles and trapped in the small pools on the bergy bits stranded ashore, Krill has been beached during the low tide. Excellent time of the day to visit this place as countless lumps of thick multiyear sea ice, small icebergs of any kind, size and shades of white and blue lay at the beach, creating a sort of icy maze along the coastline. Following it, a group of us leaded by Jordi head towards the proximity of the calving glacier front that limit the landing beach on its Western side. In the meantime, Sarah and Richard climb up the lower slopes at the moraines surrounding the pointy and spectacular nunatak. The short but rather steep climb goes over loose volcanic terrain. This area belongs to what is geologically classified as the James Ross Island Volcanic Group (ranging from 20 million of years ago to recent is age), together with Brown Bluff and the closeby Devil Island. Here a close look reveals dipping beds of volcanic ash exposed all along the bottoms of island cliffs. With dark hard basalt fragments in it, this rock qualifies ass tuff bresccia. Many of the basalt fragments show plentiful holes that once contained volcanic gasses. The configuration of the coast suggests that after a first volcanic activity, there was an erosive period providing the base on which other tanned ash deposits were laid. Later, basalt flows covered the yellowish ash. Not a place used by penguins, instead we found many Fur seals snoozing, sometimes easily confused by rocks as their coloration matches perfectly the surroundings here. In the meantime, our Mate Finn positions the ship a bit further in what seems to be a clearer space between the ice while waiting for us to return. The whales kept feeding in small groups scattered around the Europa, and even when we embark after the landing, we all had some time to take some good shots of them. But soon Europa is on her way again, making her way through the ice towards our next planned destination. Distant about 12nm from our position, and nested at the center of a small bay indenting the northern coast of Vega, we find Devil Island. Home for a large Adelie penguin colony located at the saddle between its two low summits. But sailing the short distance to reach its coasts proved to be easier said than done. For the first couple of hours our mates Merle and Finn drive the ship amongst the ice floes, assisted by crew members perched up in the rig to achieve a better view of the surroundings and the ice conditions. Steering on that conditions, we leave at our Port side the spectacular Vertigo cliffs with their vertical rock walls that rise up to 200m straight from the sea surface, stretching along almost the entirely northern coast of Vega Island. But just about 3nm before arriving to Devil, the ice had been piling up against its coasts impeding further attempts to proceed forward. Time to turn around and head north, the Weddell Sea seems to be closing up for
good, freezing its waters until next summer. But not all was finished yet on that dismal sea of the earth. Three hours of quite difficult
steering through the ice brought us to the southern mouth of Fridtjof Sound, the same narrow channel we used a few days ago as access point to Erebus and Terror Gulf. There, the topography of the sea bottom plus the constriction created by the sound itself act as a funnel for winds and currents, but also trap rather large number of icebergs. As we reach the area, our guides saw a great opportunity to launch the boats and cruise for a while between them. Not thinking twice about it, soon we were all called to board, while the Europa finds a good position over, however fighting strong currents and the drifting ice. Cruising until just before dinner time, we approach small and large icebergs, from old pieces that have been floating around for a long time, carved by the waters and waves in different fashions, to huge tabular icebergs broken down from the large Antarctic ice-shelves, the closest one being the Larsen Ice shelf, located further into the Weddell sea. Those clearly show the layering of snow and ice that year after year accumulate over the continent.
Once finished with our afternoon outing, Europa keeps going on her way through Fridjof Sound, now with the current pushing us at 7.5kn with just a touch of our engines on, to keep steerage through the icy waters. Soon we got out to the wider Antarctic Sound, where we plan to spend the night. All an all, from the early morning experiencing unexpected turn of events that left us with a great day full of real Antarctic experiences.

Geschreven door:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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