Anchoring during the night at Right Whale Bay.
Snow showers hit our course early in the morning, while 25kn of West-South-West winds blow. Along the day the wind eases down leaving behind some sunny spells amongst the cloudy grey skies. But with visibility still good enough to have the first glimpse of the South Georgia northern coasts already after lunch. A jagged shoreline over 25nm away.
The readings of the surface water temperature give a number as low as just slightly over 3ºC, clear confirmation that we sail into the Antarctic Cold waters, leaving behind the more temperate Sub-Antarctic area.
South Georgia, despite laying between latitudes between the 53’s degrees south and the 54’s, which in continental South America correspond still with the southern Patagonian latitudes, is south of the Polar Front or Antarctic Convergence area. A combination of relatively low latitudes and cold waters makes the island such a unique place.
An area preferred by Humpback whales as their feeding grounds. Their population is been increasing and recovering from the hard times they had during the height of the whaling Antarctic era in the first half of the 20th Century, furthermore, the waters surrounding South Georgia have been declared as whale sanctuaries, a protection figure that helps for the rise on their numbers.
As we sail by, there they dive showing their flukes or slapping the water with their long pectoral fins and tails. This particular population of Humpbacks migrates during the Southern hemisphere winter to the warmer tropical and subtropical waters of the Brazilian Coast. There they mate, breed, and give birth to their calves. Here is their feeding ground.
With the Top sails set and the main Course for half of the day, taking away the course in the afternoon and later on starting one of our engines, we approach the Northwest coasts of South Georgia where we plan to drop anchor at some point during the night.
Last day too for cleaning our gear, working on the biosecurity of all equipment we plan to bring ashore, and getting everything ready for tomorrow’s planned activities on the island. What would that be? Well, we are in a corner of the world where the swells and winds dictate the schedule and nothing is for granted.
Remote lands under harsh weather and seas are said to have been first spotted by Americo Vespucci all the way back in 1505. Anyway, the first official sighting dates from 1675. The first ever footsteps left behind ashore had to wait still a hundred years further in time when the famed Captain Cook took possession of the island for Great Britain.
English despite his name, Antoine de la Roche, has seen land here in a storm exactly one hundred years before in 1675. Arriving at la Roche’s coordinates he had taken, Cook found only fog. It cleared next day to reveal an iceberg, which in the mild latitude of 54ºS suggested high and cold land was close by. It was first seen by Midshipman Willis, who was known for his heavy drinking, and possibly only on deck to relieve his bladder. The off-lying island he saw is named for him and soon there was more, a long run of coast, with high icy mountains towering into the clouds, separated by steep glaciers. Cook wrote: ‘Not a tree or shrub was to be seen, not even enough to make a toothpick. I landed in three different places and took possession of the country in His Majesty’s name under a discharge of small arms.’
From humble origins, he became a legendary seaman and explorer. It was during his second expedition in search of the mythical Antarctica that he charted and named South Georgia when it was unknown if this lands were part of a southern continent. Once sure he trotted and mapped an island, he set course once more on his quest, which despite reaching high southern latitudes never succeeded.
A ditch-digger’s son becomes one of the greatest navigators of his own age, or any other age, and is sent out three times to look for the one land he does not believe exists.
The same island shores were in sight when we sailed this evening and night amongst low clouds and misty conditions, while decisions were taken about where to go, where would be the better place to begin our visits, always having a good look at the wind forecasts and possibilities for sheltering from them.
Reaching South Georgia is worth it. It is like traveling to the fabled land of Prester John, the mythical kingdom in the Southern Ocean, a place rather like the Scottish Highlands but with glaciers. If you are fortunate enough to arrive with a break in the clouds, you are greeted with a vista of mountains and ice, shrieking flocks of sea birds, pods of dolphins, and, among the floating mats of seaweed, harems of seals.
1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica
With the Westerly winds blowing hard, to maximize our chances for tomorrow getting off the ship, late at night Europa drops anchor at the scenic Right Whale Bay. Hopefully, in the morning the meteorological conditions will be good enough here.