Of rough beauty and usually, under the moodiest of the weather, South Shetlands were the first Antarctic lands ever sighted. Controversial reports date it back all the way to 1598, when the Dutch merchant Dirck Gherritz, on board the Blidje Bootschap, was blown southwards of South America by a furious storm, reporting some lands at his return. Other un-orthodox account date from 1603, when Gabriel de Castilla in 1603, while sailing from Peru to the Straits of Magellan, was also blown south. But proper word and accepted documents had to wait until February 1819, when the merchant William Smith, as many others before, was blown south off Cape Horn, ending up at about 62ºS where William sighted land. It was on February 1819 that the English sealer and trader William Smith was blown off his route on board his bring the Williams while trying to round the Horn when far south he spotted land. Back at South America he reported this sighting, but nobody believed it. To assure his discovery he went south again four months later but was beset by ice, and returned unsuccessful. Yet again, undeterred, he set off once more, this time with the fortune in his side. He cruised north past Desolation, Greenwich, Robert and Nelson Islands, and set foot ashore at King George island, where he claimed the new discovered lands for his King and country.
A year later a British Navy Expedition was put together to investigate these new lands. Since they lay at an equivalent latitude of the Scottish Shetlands, they were named “South Shetland”. Captain Edward Bransfield with William Smith on board plus a crew of 43, sailed south from the Chilean city of Valparaiso, sighting Livingston Island on the 16th Jan 1820. Many other islands and passages were found during this trip, and their findings led to a large-scale commercial sealing and whaling in Antarctic waters. Many of their vessels ventured in the new and uncharted icy seas, discovering many sub-Antarctic and Antarctic places.
The South Shetland Islands, located at the same latitude that their sisters up in the northern hemisphere. But their idiosyncrasy, weather, ´wildlife, and history have a completely different baggage. Part of the legendary lands of the Southern Continent that many explorers set sail trying to find, they were not first seen by anybody until the beginning of the 19th Century.
It was on one little island of this archipelago where we chose to spend Christmas Eve and today’s morning. With a characteristic weather turn for this area, yesterday’s sunny afternoon and beautiful sunset have changed into a morning with heavy snowfall. Half Moon Island seemed to hide behind the mist and snow but the wind and sea conditions were good to set for a landing. Slow morning though, and difficult to wake up for the many that stayed up late last night and suddenly found themselves under the snow and grey weather.
Setting foot ashore brings us to yet another area to visit during this long trip, the Antarctic Islands of the South Shetlands. Behind lay the warm Montevideo, the surprising Falklands, the stunning and difficult South Georgia, and the legendary Weddell Sea.
Next to the landing site Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins rest at the rocky beach close to an abandoned wooden boat (dory) left here during the intense sealing and whaling times the area went through since 1821. Uphill from it, the first penguin rookeries, perched over picturesque rocky knobs. Chinstraps lay on their recently hatched chicks or some are still on the eggs, the snowfall starts covering them and the whole colony looks pretty quiet while braving the bad weather. Uphill and downhill a couple of times to check different small rookeries took us the time for half of the landing. Leaving the penguins behind the group headed towards the opposite side of the bay shaped as a half moon. There can be found the Argentinean summer Base “Teniente Camara”. Not occupied now, but it gave us an idea about how an Antarctic Station built in the 50’s looks. And there, some brave ones amongst us went for a polar plunge. Water at about 2.8ºC, snowfall, and a similar air temperature, are ingredients for making the Antarctic swim a short but always memorable experience.
The next spot to visit lay just a handful of miles away from Half Moon. Once back on board, dry and warm again, the ship heaves anchor and sets towards Fort Point, a dramatic rock point that projects to the sea from the glaciated East coasts of Greenwich. Soon the Europa rests ready for the afternoon activity at a picturesque spot framed by jagged cliffs and a large glacier front. The area is exposed to the open waters of the Bransfield Strait and its capricious weather conditions. Today though, the wind is light and the swell low. Nevertheless, the surge hit the rocky shore over growlers and bergy bits, making for not an easy landing to set foot at this fantastic spot. A relatively small area, offering a set of different experiences in a reduced space and a short walk.
The large glaciers tumbling down the slopes of Greenwich Island here reach the sea level, and between two of them stretches the boulder beach where to land. The head of the isthmus is crowned by the most spectacular and jagged basalt cliffs. At their foot thrive the Gentoo and a reduced number of the Chinstrap penguins.
The surroundings are of the most impressive and wild beauty, hardly matched by any other place in the South Shetlands.
An imposing vertical glacier front with the swell breaking at the narrow boulder beach beneath it was the next spot to visit. Walking over the icy slopes gives access to a distinctive Nunatak that characterizes this place. This rocky pointy rock shows itself as an island amid the ice field, here shows its lower part open to the beach, allowing a safe approach. From up there, the Fort Point magnificent panoramic view unfolds.
Yet another adventurous zodiac embarkation brought us on board, with a ship ready to start her way southwards along the coasts of Livingston Island towards Deception Island. But soon the windless situation that we enjoy today until now, was about to dramatically change. As soon as the Europa sticks her nose a bit offshore and turns around, she gets off the wind shadow of the island. She suddenly starts facing the seas and the weather against her. Steep waves, swell, and 40kn headwinds make for a slow progress, she pitches up and down with her two engines pushing and fighting against these conditions, on the other hand not rare in these waters of the Bransfield Strait.