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Through Icebergs and Grey Skies

After a difficult start to a charter, the crew aboard Pelagic Australis finds beauty and excitement in their surroundings.

January 21, 2012
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Pelagic Australis Blog Jan 2012

???????????????????????????????????? Laura Parish, First Mate, Pelagic Australis

It’s been a difficult charter so far–starting with a delay for the guests, some ‘essential’ equipment that didn’t make it through customs in Buenos Aires, a four-and-a-half day upwind Drake Passage crossing, and then continuing with rain and snow and grey days, and so much ice in the channels down here in Antarctica that our playground is severely reduced. Our clients are a 3D film crew from Hollywood, aiming to make a 40-minute documentary about the change in Antarctica in 3D to be sold to museums and IMAX theaters around the world. It has been a challenge for them to get enough footage due to the precipitation, and we have spent many hours watching them clean and dry the mirrors and lenses again, and again, and again. The equipment is very elaborate and
delicate, and requires a long time to set up and calibrate and ‘black shade’ each day, so the guys are working really hard. We are trying to be patient, which is a challenge when something like a beautiful sunset is about to happen, and they can’t take advantage of it because they are fiddling around with the camera!

However, yesterday was a truly fantastic day. We had a 5 AM start in heavy snow to move the boat from the previous day’s location at the American science base Palmer Station to some islands further south. As we entered what we call the “Iceberg Graveyard,” we saw absolutely hundreds of Gentoo penguins swimming in the sea around us. There was a strong current presumably bringing krill into the area, and plenty of wildlife was taking advantage. The guys set up their camera, the snow stopped falling, and we spent a wonderful few hours driving round in circles filming penguins jumping out of the sea, onto tiny blocks of ice–and then falling off. Sometimes two would leap onto the same piece of ice and bat each other with their flippers before they both fell off. Another time, they were trying to leap onto piles of slush on the water, and just fell straight through feet first. It was hilarious!

Underneath the overhang of a huge iceberg, a leopard seal snaked its way back and forth in the clear blue water in their snake-like, sinister way. He waited menacingly for an opportunity to snatch some breakfast, but the penguins were taunting him–swimming in huge groups around him, then away, and he wasn’t taking the bait. He was still patiently waiting for his opportunity when we moved on, and I suddenly felt sorry for him–after all he has to eat.

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Our intention for the day was to get down to the Yalour Islands where there is a colony of Adelie penguins. We had heard from other boats down here that the LeMaire Channel and Penola Straights were completely blocked with ice, but Skip (who is onboard for a couple of months), insisted that it was worth trying to get down there. As we approached Penola Straights from French Passage, we could see that it was completely chocked with brash and broken-down sea ice. In between each piece of ice was thick slush, and as we entered it, the boat almost immediately ground to a halt. We ploughed through for a few hundred meters, and I went up the mast to the first spreaders to have a look for a clear patch. It wasn’t getting any thinner–in fact, ahead of us was
9/10ths ice, and we would have no chance of getting through that.

While I was up the mast, I noticed smoke coming from the exhaust–uh oh, the slush had blocked the strainer for the cooling water for the engine, and it was overheating. How ironic that something so cold can prevent the engine from cooling down! We had to stop. For a while, we thought we might get our very own Shackleton experience, but Miles is onboard and so the problem was quickly solved. No sooner was the engine switched off than he was in the engine room pulling lids off, clearing out the strainer, rodding out the salt water manifold, and allowing a good flow of water once again. The film crew set up the 3D camera on the bow, and when they were ready, we restarted the engine, turned round, and headed back for clear water. It was a great opportunity for us to get some shots, and Dave went to the top of the mast with my camera to prove that we really were ice-bound!

So our attempt for Yalour Islands failed, and we headed back up to Hovgaard and Pleneau Islands. When we arrived, this bay was over half-full of sea ice, but there was enough space for us, and some rocks to tie our lines in. So, we settled for the night. The film crew prepared their camera and equipment once again, and headed off to catch some penguins with their chicks, and we had a few hours to ourselves.

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The first thing was to test out the sea ice. We drove the dinghy up onto it, and it didn’t break so we figured it could hold our weight. We found the football from the depths of our storage onboard, and headed out for a run around–much needed after nearly three weeks without leaving the boat. The afternoon sun lit the whole place in the most incredible way, and once we had tired of football, we went up a hill to look down on an absolutely staggeringly beautiful view. At last, the opportunity to breath in this fantastic scenery in clear skies, light winds and warm sunshine.

Later on, after Miles’ delicious lamb curry, we headed out again to the top of the hill to watch the sunset. It was a real shame that the film crew wasn’t able to reassemble their gear in time, but Antarctica waits for no one! WOW, what a view. The red sky, the pink icebergs, the scale of the place reminded us of how lucky we are to be here, and how much we will miss it next year.

Now the crew are ashore here again, but grey skies threatening snow sit low above us. Another three days before we have to head back, and they really, really need some more sunshine–the forecast doesn’t look too bad, so fingers crossed.

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We hope all is well at home, and look forward to hearing any news

Lots of love,
Laura, Miles and Dave

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