2016 Antarctica Dive Trip Report
By Faith Ortins
To anyone who goes to the Antarctic, there is tremendous appeal, an unparalled combination of grandeur, beauty, vastness, loneliness and malevolence- all of which sound tremendously melodramatic-but which truthfully convey the actual feeling of Antarctica. Where else in the world are all of these descriptors actually true.
Captain T.L.M. Sunter
It is with great anticipation that our group of 30 divers and 4 non-divers arrived in Ushuaia to board the Oceanwide Expedition’s Plancius. We had traveled thousands of miles, traipsed dive gear across several continents, and prepared for years for our epic expedition in honor of the 100th Anniversary of Ernest Shackelton’s Trans Antarctic Expedition. Our 23 day expedition would span over 4000 nautical miles as we dove and explored the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Islands, South Sandwich Islands, Orkney Islands, Elephant Island, and finally, the continent of Antarctica.
As we gathered in the main observation lounge for warm welcomes from the Captain and crew, the energy in the room was palpable as we contemplated the adventure that awaited us as we truly prepared to travel to places no one has gone before.
Our first full day on board was a day at sea as we crossed to the Falklands. Calm seas made it easy for us to prepare our dive gear, attend dive briefings and learn the ship board routine.
It was a cloudy, drizzly morning in the Falklands today as we readied our dive gear for our first dive. The major goal of the first dive was to get our weighting checked out and verify the equipment is ready for the more harsh climates ahead. The sun came out as we loaded the zodiacs and the day just got better and better. Everyone did very well during the check out and we spent most of our time playing with loads of different crabs; spider crabs, rock crabs and perfectly camouflaged isopods hiding and mating in the sand and kelp. Yes, kelp in the Falklands. With the water temperature around 50 degrees F and all the kelp, we could have been in San Diego - all except for the penguins everywhere of course!
In the afternoon, we had another dive in a lush kelp forest as well as a hike on Saunders Island to see a rare Albatross colony and Rock Hopper Penguin colony. The island is also home to many Gentoo and Magellanic penguins. This time of year the fledglings are still being taken care of by their parents. It was amazing to see the adults feeding their chicks and, for the penguins, trying to make them learn to swim. It was pretty clear that the young penguins were not very keen on learning to swim. They would enthusiastically follow the adult to the waters edge but with the first splash of cold water on their faces, they would immediately turn around and go back to the beach. It was endlessly entertaining to watch the adults chase the chicks and try to get them to swim.
A fantastic full day in the Falklands on the 144th Birthday of Ernest Shackleton! Tomorrow we are heading to Port Stanley, also in the Falklands, before beginning the long crossing to South Georgia. Seas have been quite calm so far but the next crossing is traditionally a tough one! Please keep your fingers crossed for us ...
Crossing to South Georgia
We are beginning the long transit to South Georgia today. Seas are relatively calm with a light chop and an occasional 10' swell hitting us broadside. Plancius handles it very well so no worries there.
It is about 58 hours to South Georgia from the Falklands so we have some time to kill. We are enjoying the warm sunshine (about 50 degrees) and watching the albatross as they soar just over the waves. We also have a series of short presentations each day on various topics such as the history, geology and marine life of the Antarctic region. It is amazing how quickly the day goes by.
Everyone is very excited about South Georgia for divers and non-divers alike. This will be our first opportunity to dive with large quantities of penguins. We will be there for 4 days and the toughest decision we will need to make is to find a way to do as many dives as possible while still enjoying the fantastic land activities. I know I want to visit Shackelton's grave at Grytviken and make a toast in his honor. And of course, walk among the massive king penguin colony of 250,000 individuals at Salisbury Plain.
Yesterday was another bright and sunny day at sea. We are making good progress despite a significant swell across our beam. The albatross show off their soaring skills by darting in and out of the swells. Dolphin and Minke whales regularly swim by but they don't seem to want to play.
In between animal watching, it is a great time to talk with the rest of the expedition group, play games, try to embarrass each other … and when you run out of things to do, it is time to vacuum your outerwear. Yes, you read this correctly. In order to prevent the introduction of invasive species into a fragile ecosystem, we must clean all of our outer clothing before touching land in South Georgia. So the group activity of the day was a vacuum party! We even got a cool book about South Georgia as a reward.
Last night we crossed the Antarctica Convergence and are now officially in Antarctica waters. While we have not crossed the Polar Circle, the Convergence marks the mixing of water from the Southern Ocean and the South Atlantic and serves to isolate Antarctica biologically from the rest of the world. Water is cooling off. We can't wait to get in the water! King penguins and elephant seals ... here we come!
Update from South Georgia
Today was simply amazing. The day started with blue skies, warm temperatures and flat calm seas. The entire crew said they have never seen such a beautiful day in South Georgia. Our plan was to start with a land based exploration of a massive king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain. It is the largest colony in the world with over 250,000 breeding pairs in a very concentrated area.
We loaded the zodiacs and with the flat calm seas, it was an easy trip to the beach. At the beach we were greeted by dozens of baby southern fur seals and king penguins. We are supposed to keep at least 15' away from them but it was impossible as they kept approaching us. They were incredibly curious and playful.
As we walked along the beach toward the main part of the colony, we travelled among thousands of penguins and fur seals. Most of the fur seals were juveniles but every now and then we would see an adult supervising the young ones and bringing them to the water's edge to get them wet. Just this experience was amazing and well worth the trip but we had only scratched the surface.
As we walked closer to the main part of the colony, our senses were assaulted with the calls, sights and smells of hundreds of thousands of king penguins with their regal yellow/orange heads, white bellies and gray backs. The sight is impossible to describe and pictures do not do it justice. However, I think it is safe to say that all of us were rendered speechless by this wonder of nature and the serenity of the spot.
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, and safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
Ad placed in newspaper by Ernest Shackelton encouraging applicants for his Expedition.
Imagine if someone placed an ad like this today! Sometimes it seems like our species has lost its drive to explore and our willingness to take risks. However, the early 1900’s was the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, Roald Amundson had just reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911 and the quest to explore the vast frozen continent was still ongoing.
In 1914, Ernest Shackleton departed yet again for Antarctica with the goal to cross the continent. Unfortunately his voyage met with set back after set back, and in 1915, he was forced to abandon his ship, the Endurance, as it was encased in ice. Leaving the majority of his crew on barren Elephant Island in the Antarctica Peninsula, he and a few crew members left for South Georgia to get help. Crossing the Drake Passage, the roughest stretch of water in the world, in a 20' skiff, he landed on the southern side of South Georgia where he then had to climb over the mountain range to reach the whaling station at Stromness and then onto the main station at Grytviken. His quest to get help for his crew was successful as the remaining members of the Endurance crew were rescued in August 1916. Shackleton's passion for Antarctica never wavered and he once again travelled to South Georgia in January 5, 1922 where he unfortunately died from a heart attack before his quest to circumnavigate Antarctica could be realized. At his request, he was buried there facing south and his beloved Antarctica.
This epic story remains one of the most inspirational stories of courage and leadership in the face of adversity to this day so we were very excited to visit Grytviken and to honor the great explorer at his grave site. We gathered around his grave with toasts of whiskey; “the Boss’s” favorite.
“For scientific discovery, give me Scott, for swift and efficient travel, give me Amundson. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackelton.”
Sir Raymond Priestly
As we reflected on his story, it was impossible not to be moved to tears by his courage, leadership and passion for exploration. It was a powerful moment, and we all will forever remember the feeling that day as we stood in his shadow. We were all well aware that our beautiful ship with all its creature comforts and technology awaited us on our return from the island. However, for a short while, we felt as one with him.
From there, we toured the island to see the decaying instruments of the whaling industry as well as the museum and post office commemorating the tiny community's role in Antarctic exploration and whaling. While the station's role in slaughtering thousands of whales was horrific, the spirit of adventure exhibited by the men who worked there or gathered there before heading to the southern continent is truly impressive. As we gathered at beach to head back to the ship and the fantastic outdoor barbecue and dance party that awaited us, we all left feeling like we needed more time there. I know I will be back!
The day began under cloudy misty skies but flat calm seas and the constant barking of hundreds of southern fur seals awaited us. The joy and excitement of the juvenile fur seals as they frolicked in the water with us was only matched by our own. None of us could stop smiling as they swam all around us, nibbled on our fins and blew bubbles in our faces. No need to go deep here-indeed many of us snorkeled. I love South Georgia!
High winds are preventing our landing at Larsen Bay, so instead, we will do a short cruise up the Drygalski Fjords before heading to the South Sandwich Islands. It is another long cruise there, and this time to a place that incredibly few people have ever seen. No divers have ever been there and even scientists rarely visit this group of islands.
We are now sailing a sea across which none had hitherto voyaged. At all events, we pressed onward, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown.
While we approach the first island in the 11 island chain, the fog clears enough for our Captain to salute Leskov Island, named after a fellow Russian explorer. Our journey continues onward as we struggle to find calm enough waters for a landing or a dive despite the 40-70 knot winds. Regardless of the wind we were treated to a show by some breaching humpback whales as well as not one, not two but three Blue Whales! These massive animals allowed a great close up encounter as they cruised along and reminded us that even a rough day at sea can hold amazing surprises.
When you first see the South Sandwich Islands, you are struck by their isolation and stark geography. Shaped by volcanoes and ice, their terrain and lack of protection from the prevailing weather does not encourage exploration so it is not a surprise that so few people visited this group of islands. We are 5 days away from civilization and we truly feel the remoteness of our location. Even the crew and Captain seem affected by this and the energy level is high.
It is important to note that the diving here, and in most of the Antarctica Region, is truly exploration diving. The dive briefing does not contain details of the dive site as quite often no one has been there before. Or even if they have, the effects of the ice make the dive site unrecognizable from year to year. As we mentally prepare to explore new territory, we are humbled by the opportunity.
I am happy to announce that our intrepid group of divers successfully dove off of Saunders Island in the South Sandwich Island group. Strong surge and poor visibility did not deter our spirits as we became the first recreational divers to dive in the South Sandwich Islands.
And the surf on the beach did not prevent more than 70 people from our ship (divers and non-divers alike) from landing on the beach. Sharing the island with hundreds of thousands of Chinstrap penguins, Macaroni penguins, large and assertive Antarctic Fur seals and the lounging Elephant seals, we were all mesmerized by the majesty of this island with its amazing wildlife, steep terrain and volcanic black sand beaches. Given that less than 150 people have landed on the South Sandwich Islands in the past 16 years, this landing was truly historic! That night we enjoyed a toast to our success with the Captain and crew as we shared the thrill of breaking new ground.
We are leaving the South Sandwich Islands behind as we head to the South Orkney Islands. It will be a two day trip there so we are happy for the flat calm seas and sunny skies.
Epic day at sea yesterday! It appears the Humpback whales also are enjoying the beautiful conditions as they literally surrounded our ship this morning. Somewhere between 50-100 whales were visible at any one time. However, there were three in particular who seemed very attached to our ship. Our captain shut down the engines so we could ensure the whales' safety. They were so close there was no way to move the ship anyway. We could smell the blows and feel the shudder of their breath. The Captain and crew said they have never had the whales stay so close for so long! The grins on everyone’s faces are infectious as even our stoic Captain grins with the joy and wonder of a child. They stayed with us for over two magical hours. It was unbelievable!
As we approach the final week of our expedition, we wake to find that we have crossed the 60th degree parallel and are now officially in Antarctica. Coronation Island is covered with ice and icebergs abound in its waters. The scale of it is awe inspiring and I am reminded why I love this place so much. It is unfortunate that no picture can capture its majesty nor words describe its beauty. Antarctica must be experienced to be understood.
In the words of Ernest Shackelton:
Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can be hardly understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilization.
First, we dive and then we land on the island to interact with the fur seals and explore the glacier. As much as the scenery above water is a study in black and white, the underwater scene is full of color with sea stars, isopods, kelp and sea spiders. The contrast is part of its beauty.
Elephant Island February 29
Now we reach the final leg of Shackelton’s voyage as we dive on Elephant Island where his crew was marooned and later rescued 100 years ago. What a great dive with giant isopods and a leopard seal buzzing us as we exited the water. What a great sign as we hope for more close encounters with this apex predator.
This morning we had maybe the best day yet with fantastic visibility and LEOPARD SEALS! Yes, very inquisitive leopard seals. All the divers got up close and personal experiences with them as they darted among us showing off their swimming ability. It was truly amazing. We got at least 20 minutes with these incredible animals. This experience alone was worth the entire trip!
And that was only the beginning as we also stepped foot on the Antarctic continent as well as climbed on first icebergs. It is hard to believe our trip is almost over...none of us want to leave!
Hope Bay and Paulet Island
One of the most frequently asked questions about visiting Antarctica is, “Doesn't it get boring looking at ice all the time?” is also one of the easiest questions to answer … NO!
How can it be boring when it is always changing as the light dances across it or as the wind and water sculpt it into unique shapes? How can it be boring when you are underwater with the iceberg and can feel its incredible size and see the many small critters hiding in the nooks and crannies? How can it be boring when you get to climb on them and dive from them? Immediately you are a small child again feeling like you are king of the world!
You never get tired of the ice...
And now, after an amazing day on and under the ice, we ended our lunch abruptly as they announced sightings of Orcas. Actually over 100 Orcas surrounded us as far as the eye could see. Everywhere you looked, there were blows, dorsal fins, flukes and more from the Orcas, Minke whales and Fur seals. Just amazing! We topped it off with more ice and a great encounter with a curious Weddell Seal!
Our last day before crossing the Drake and returning to Ushuaia brought a couple of great opportunities. The chance to go ashore and visit an Argentinean station and to once again dive with Leopard seals! Not a bad combo! While the visibility was not as good as the earlier encounter, these huge animals made up for it in shear inquisitiveness. One was so interested in what our zodiac was made of she tried tasting it to see for herself. What an experience and a fantastic way to end the trip. But it is never truly the end as now it is time to relive our experiences with our video, pictures and stories. It is also time to plan our return to the poles. I don’t know how to explain it but there is something about traveling to the poles that permeates your soul. You must experience it to understand but forewarning … once addicted it is unquenchable.
“Twenty tears from now you will be more disappointed in the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Thank you to our photographers:
Amos Nachoum: Big Animal Expeditions
Jim Van Gogh