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Vernadsky at last

This morning started in a more leisurely manner with extended breakfast from 0700 to 0900. Again, something scrumptious and new from the galley - a sweet roll of deliciousness filled with banana and dusted with cinnamon sugar. Many grabbed a bite on their way out to the main deck, eager to see what the day had in store. The colour of the skies and the state of the sea govern our days around here. We have seen snow so dense you can hardly see the base of nearby mountains. Wind which howls around the rigging, pushing on Europa’s yards causing healing as if under sail. Growlers hardly distinguishable from the white caps which turn the dark Antarctic water white to match the mountains. The sun’s rays so strong that it leaves our faces pink even after our heavy suncream application. We have seen such a range of conditions as every explorer before us has also seen. And alike these men and woman who have surveyed these waters in decades gone by, we too are ruled by what weather is set upon us. Changing with each tick of the minute hand.  

Today on deck the air was biting cold. We congregated on starboard side where the bright sun was beginning to provide a positive change in temperature. Not something you could quite call warmth though. Our eyes were busy observing in every direction, enjoying the aesthetics of this continent which was now truly unveiled for the first time since reaching the Antarctic Peninsula mainland on this trip. The sun was reflecting off the north east facing glaciated slopes. Infilling the gaps between the heavily snow-laden peaks lay the pristine white rivers of ice, cascading down to the water's edge. There smooth appearance turned to chaos and disorganization as crevasse divided the surface apart revealing deep blues as we stared into the heart of the glacier.   

This morning Moritz, Gert and Terry had decided to make an attempt into the Argentine Islands via the western side. An iceberg in the middle of the eastern channel blocked our access via this route. However, a combination of the more favourable conditions and the consistency of the weather with the forecast, gave more hopeful prospects for accessing the Argentine Islands via the western channel today. Of course, though, there are no promises when it comes to plans around here! We had the weather following the forecast of light winds of 10 knots from the north west.

There was a full deck of happy faces. The sun light shining down on us. It reminded us of how the suns energy affects everyone’s mood and how it must have felt for de Gerlache and his men on the 21st July 1899 when the sun reappeared after they were the first to endure the Antarctic polar night.   

We made it into the bay in the centre of the Argentine Islands, Vernadsky station visible ahead, Winter Island on our starboard side and rocks named ‘the littlepigs’ on port. We launched the zodiacs all together before having a short briefing about the visit to Vernadsky. Laura also filled us in on the findings of our citizen science carried out in Orne Harbour on the 5th of February. This was positive news which Laura displayed beautifully with print outs of the CTD scans which showed temperature and salinity with depth. Our results showed a distinct change at about 6 metres depth. In addition, she had been probing around under the microscope in search of phytoplankton from our trawled water sample. The view of the types of phytoplankton that she observed were printed out and the environments they are typically found in.   

Out on deck gloves and hats were required to cover each bit of skin from exposure to the cold air. We headed off with our gift of fresh fruit, vegetables, and baked goods for the Vernadsky team prepared by our galley team. We arrived at the newly renovated landing jetty where Bogdan, the base commander, welcomed us. Some of the Vernadsky team were busy preparing to set off in zodiacs to carry out biological research further north. At the base, it was a busy working day as they went about their routines and were well into preparations for the end of the season in late March when there would be a large change in staff. The men at the station were happy to be there in the relative comfort of the station which contrasted their challenging circumstances back home in Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian station was handed over from the British on 6th February 1996 making last night their anniversary, prompting cheerful celebrations. The station occupants were welcoming and gave us an informative tour of their facilities. Although much of the equipment felt outdated, much of the readings that they take maintain consistency in data that has been collected since 1947 when Wordie House was built. The main area of science was meteorology which contributed to the discovery of the Ozone hole in 1984.The station had a homely feeling and was very warm considering how many layers we had on. 

The bar at Vernadsky feels like an old pub with memories covering the walls and ceiling: flags, photos, plaques. We crowded around the pool table to use the rubber stamps to record our visit on postcards. Souvenirs were purchased from the small shop too.

Out in the sunshine once more, we awaited zodiacs to return to the ship. Once back on board, we worked together to haul the zodiacs to the sloop deck. After each landing, everyone knew the routine very well now. Biosecurity in the dirty ‘pens’. Virkon in the clean zone. Help pull on the yard tackle and make noses displaying your effort. Pull on the yard tackle. Easing is a one-man job. Align the zodiac to the eyes on deck. At some point, it is time to dash to the deck house to fill a mug with a warm beverage.  

Once underway and navigating out the passage of the Argentine Islands, people emerged with harnesses on. Before long each mast had a squabble of people chattering, cheering each other beyond their comfort of heights and pointing to notable sights. The scenery was impressive in every direction. In the north, we could see the Lemaire Channel and the high mountains of Boothe Island and Cape Cloos on either side. South from here the headlands jutted out, each displaying towering mountains rising with different shapes, but all capped with a precarious white top. Some relaxed in the sun whilst others frantically tried to capture the moment on their cameras. The ship was alive as everyone indulged in the sights surrounding us.

As we headed south towards Berthelot Islands we passed by a leopard seal on the ice. Eyes widened and heads turned as everyone hopped up from their post-lunch coffees or naps. Before long we saw another seal on starboard side. This time it was slightly smaller and lighter in colour: a crabeater seal. As we move further south, we have been seeing more of the crabeater seals. We were particularly fortunate to see crabeaters hauled out in the South Shetland Islands at the beginning of this trip too. They are the most abundant seal species in the Southern Ocean, and the most numerous of all the world’s larger animals apart from humans. This comes as a surprise to many as we have only seen individuals and not large numbers either.  

We travelled southeast, parallel to Cape Tuxen peninsula until we were well embedded in Collins Bay at the foot of TroozGlacier. It is here that the Berthelot Islandslie and we explored during our afternoon landing in the sun.   

Half of us headed ashore to the western tip of the furthest east of the Berthelot Islands. We landed on a small rocky outcrop, adjacent to a line of growlers. Once ashore we were quick to get our cameras out and enjoy the hilarity and endearing-natured Adelie Penguins. Tobogganing around on their tummies, hopping from ledge to ledge, they very much ruled this rocky outcrop.   

Further up the slope were some seals hauled out. The weddellseals freckled grey and white body was well camouflaged on Berthelot’s intrusive rocks. Guarding another portion of this rocky island were some fur seals. They looked most content as they basked in the heat of the afternoon sun. We looked out from the high point of our rocky lump, towards the mountains of Cape Tuxen to the north. The peaks layered the horizon all the way to Cape Pérez and Darboux Island in the south with the hilltops of Takaki Promontory just visible on our southern horizon.

In the waters closer to the island, Blacky and Grey mazed between the large ice pieces accompanied by crabeater seals occasionally. The zodiacs made their way between a passage that separated Green Island from our landing island. Here the shallows have caught any passing icebergs, holding them in position as they slowly melt away, dripping off every overhang.   

Europa lay at the base of Lumiere Peak, of 1066 meters elevation, giving some form of perspective to these immense peaks. Her 35-meter-short masts belittled by the scene beyond. As we drew closer at the end of our landing, we made ourselves clean and donned our finest warm jackets in preparation for the night ahead.

We headed west out to open water, away from the dense brash that is delivered by the ever-moving conveyor belt of the Trooz Glacier. Further west we met tall tabular ice bergs, brought by the currents from further down the Antarctic Peninsula. In this area which marks the most southern extent of our journey, we are exposed to the Southern Ocean from the west, with no islands separating us from the drifting ice populating the southern icy waters.  

After enjoying the delicious creations from Fennardie, Cato and Ben in the galley we gathered on the poop deck as the skies lit orange. Finally, the ball of fire which had lit the mountain snow in shades of pink, dipped below the horizon.

Geschreven door:
Beth Hitchcock | Expedition Leader

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