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Final Leg of South Georgia Journey
Posted on December 16, 2009

Lemaire Channel

December 11, 2009
Drake Passage, one day out of Ushuaia

By Dave Hahn

The final days along the Antarctic Peninsula were stunningly beautiful. True to our plan, the team got to make an actual landing on the continent at Neko Harbour. The “Harbour” part of the name would be in reference to a place for whaling ships to shelter back in the day. But there aren’t any harbor facilities like cranes or tugboats in Neko. Rather, it is a place of massive glaciers pouring into the sea from a ring of huge mountains.

Peter Hillary led the charge up a small snowy hillside from which the gang could sit and stare in awe at a hundred mountain flanks and ridges towering above Andvord Bay. There was utter silence and calm, shattered from time to time by the thunder of some great calving or tumbling of serac ice.

Back down at the shore, there were plenty of penguins and seals to photograph, but it was somewhere in this day that nearly everyone on the cruise stopped saying things like “Hey, there is a penguin!” since they’d become commonplace and normal. When Clelia II took us back out into the Gerlache Straits though, nobody was blasé about the pod of killer whales we got to see feeding in the magical evening light. The ship squeezed through the Neumayer Channel that night to a quiet anchorage, while the midnight sun turned overhead clouds fiery orange and red.

On December 8, the captain took Clelia down through the Lemaire Channel first thing in the morning. The fact that it was cold and shadowy didn’t keep people from congregating on the outer decks, shooting picture after picture of towering mountains and the confines of the narrow passage. Imagine riding a cruise ship through an icy Yosemite Valley and you’ll get the idea.

We spent the rest of what turned out to be our finest weather day visiting Petermann Island and Verndasky Base in the Argentine Isles. Petermann is home to several penguin species, and the Zodiac rides off her shores gave us close-up looks at several big penguin-loving leopard seals. We walked back and forth on Petermann as the sky got bluer and temperatures got warmer.

By the time we’d returned to the ship, it was high summer and time for a fine barbeque on the after-deck as we drifted with the ice in the Penola Straits, gazing across at Mounts Scott and Shackleton. The afternoon visit to the Ukrainian research station Vernadsky gave the team a chance to meet a few Antarctic residents and scientists. This was also our farthest south point for the entire trip at S 65˚ 15′, which we are plenty happy with for now.

The night of the 8th was spent cruising back toward Port Lockroy, an old British station, and our goal for the morning. Storms came in again overnight, complicating the Zodiac operations into the little museum/gift shop and post office of modern-day Port Lockroy on December 9. But we managed a visit anyway.

Deirdre Galbraith, Peter Hillary, and I were all happy that we’d seen the stunning scenery surrounding Lockroy on previous trips, because we definitely were not going to see it on this one. The snow was falling thick, hard and fast. Back on board Clelia II in the afternoon, there was finally the feeling that things were winding down in our three-week expedition. The ship’s crew were securing the Zodiacs and re-ballasting the ship for the Drake Passage as we made our way back up the Gerlache Strait, but Antarctica wasn’t done impressing us.

We encountered a pod of at least 30 killer whales, and the ship drifted with them for nearly an hour as they hunted a minke whale and generally ruled the seas. We could see and hear their blows and follow them with our cameras as they arced through the water close to the ship. We could watch in wide-eyed amazement as every now and then, one of the large alpha males breached and splashed for unknown reasons.

The passengers eventually retreated to “Drake-proof” the cabins, since swells of 8 meters were forecast for our crossing back to South America. It pays to tie everything down and stow the loose junk, e.g. cameras, laptops, books, etc., but while doing this I couldn’t resist looking out the windows for a few final random views of humpback whales and cloud-shrouded peaks.

Now, midway through the Drake, we’ve continued to educate and entertain one another, despite the big and rolling seas. Peter Hillary gave great talks about his hard visit to K2 in 1995 and his dad’s amazing life and times. Art Wolfe showed many of us the difference between a photographer (him) and a picture-taker (guys like me). And I told my own tall tales from a few far-off mountains. If we don’t encounter a rogue wave, we’ll likely make it into the protection of the Beagle Channel sometime tonight and be at the pier in Ushuaia by 6 a.m.

Author: - Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

  1. nmnaturalbeauty

    Dear Dave Hahn…thank you for sharing your trip…i can just imagine the beauty and mystical atomosphere of these places that you have portrayed to me…i hope some day to maybe be there right along side you to witness these amazing views…i want to feel the magnificence of this great earth too…you and all the adventurers of these blogs have inspired me…and the penguins too…and one lil question, if you have the time to answer…as i see the red jacketed peeps in the photo posted i wonder as to what types of people they are that take part in your guided trips? Thanks again for taking the time to share your life…

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