Position: 54° 48’.6 S – 068° 17’.9 W
Wind: SW 3
Air Temperature: +15
The day had finally come: it was time to board the good ship Ortelius for our expedition to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica to search for Emperor Penguins! Some of us had booked the trip years ago and had plans cancelled due to a certain pandemic (which we will not mention again!) so it was incredibly exciting that the wait was over. It was a beautiful, sunny day as we arrived at the port in Ushuaia with calm, glassy waters. The Expedition Team and Hotel Staff had helpfully brought our luggage aboard and taken it to our cabins earlier in the day. All that remained was for us to take a few photos of Ortelius, the ship that would be our home for the next eleven days, before heading up the gangway.
We were warmly welcomed by all the crew and staff who assisted us in finding our cabins. We had a little time to explore the ship and get our bearings and grab a coffee and some pineapple cake in the bar. Once everyone was onboard it was time for the mandatory ship safety briefing. From Expedition Leader Adam, Chief Officer Per and Cadet Nathan. We were given all the information we needed such as moving safely around the ship, the things we could and could not do, and how to put on our emergency life jackets. Having learned this, it was then time for an abandon ship drill so after hearing the seven short and one long blast of the ship’s horn we went to our cabins, got our lifejackets, and went to our muster stations (either the restaurant or bar). Then we were led to our lifeboats so we would know where to go in case of a real emergency.
After the drill we headed back to the lecture room where Hotel Manager Stephen and Assistant Hotel Manager Thijs gave a welcome briefing, helping to explain how life would be on the ship over the coming days. With briefing formalities concluded, it was time to join Captain Ernesto Barria in the bar to raise a glass in celebration of the voyage. Cheers everyone! Then it was time for our first evening meal, with a delicious buffet selection provided by Chef Heinz and his galley team served by our friendly dining room staff. After dinner we were given our muck boots which we would use for going ashore; comfortable but also, very importantly, waterproof for our wet zodiac landings!
As the evening went on excitement grew for the arrival of the helicopters which would be essential for visiting the Emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill Island. Time passed as some final documentation was approved for the helicopters to fly out from Puerto Williams to join us. Just as the light was fading, first one, then two, then finally three helicopters, expertly flown by their highly skilled pilots, landed on board Ortelius. It was completely dark when the last one touched down at 23:01. The first two, callsigns CUS and CHV had their blades removed and were put in the hanger. The last one, CHQ was secured on the helideck. Everyone was delighted and relieved – now we could continue our journey south! After a long day of travel for most of us it was time for bed to get some rest before the first day of the infamous Drake Passage tomorrow. We hoped the seas and winds would be kind to us!
Day 2: At Sea – Drake Passage
Position: 56’ 50’.0 S – 065°12’.4 W
Wind: WSW 4
Weather: Broken cloud, sunny
Air Temperature: +11
Without a doubt most of us had a wonderful and calm first nights’ sleep in our comfortable bunks as we started our way South. We awoke to find that Ortelius was making rapid progress across what the crew and staff call a “Drake Lake”. To experience the most notorious body of water in the World in such a quiet and gentle mood is a wonderful way to get our sea legs, although a couple of us may have been secretly hoping to experience the famed high seas. The sun shone down from a near cloudless sky, illuminating a very placid Drake Passage as our Expedition Leader Adam’s good morning announcement told us that the outside air temperature was still a balmy 12° Celsius. Plentiful sea birds soared around the vessel, including the largest of them all, the Wandering Albatross.
After a delicious breakfast, ornithologist Regis gave his talk called ‘The Fabulous World of Seabirds’ giving us a wealth of information about these magnificent creatures, from the tiny storm petrels to the enormous albatrosses.
To protect the biodiversity in Antarctica and to avoid the introduction of any invasive plants or animals, the visitor and biosecurity guidelines which allow us to set foot on land are very strict. Therefore, we were required to come to the lecture room for the mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefing later in the morning.
After another beautiful meal for lunch, marine mammal specialist Hazel spoke about the whales and dolphins we could see during our journey. The remainder of the afternoon was spent by many on the outer decks where the sun was still shining, and many birds were following in our wake.
As the day’s activities drew to a close, we had our first Recap in the bar. Expedition Leader Adam gave us an outline of the plans for tomorrow, then Sara used a clever interactive prop to show us the different wingspans of birds. Bill encouraged everyone to engage mindfully with the amazing natural world: looking, seeing, thinking, doing! Then it was time for dinner (there was certainly no risk of us going hungry on this trip), and Hotel Manager Stephen’s distinctive Irish tones were heard inviting us to the restaurant for our “dining pleasure”. Afterwards we enjoyed some relaxing quiet time or a sociable drink in the bar with fellow guests before heading to bed.
Day 3: At Sea – Drake Passage
Position: 61°05’.5 S – 060°39’.8 W
Wind: NW 8
Air Temperature: +5
A ripple of excitement spread through-out the ship first thing as word got around that during the night, we had passed two major Antarctic milestones. Firstly, we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the biological boundary of the South Polar Region. This is a zone where cold Antarctic waters meet more temperate northern waters and is shown on nautical charts as a mean position because it tends to fluctuate back and forth by several tens of miles. The most noticeable thing for us was a drop in temperature, and a reduction in bird life around the ship. Then we crossed the 60th parallel of latitude, which marks the geographical boundary of Antarctica. We were now officially in Antarctica!!!!!
But how lucky can you get? After leaving Ushuaia we experienced an evening of superb weather. In the Drake Passage we fully expected more onerous conditions for our first day crossing. But it was not to be… ‘Old Man Drake’ was in a good mood. We had a very easy first day, therefore we expected today to be tougher. Again, it was not to be…Ortelius slid easily through the waves all morning, in gently moderate conditions, making excellent progress towards Antarctica and the Emperor penguins waiting for us.
Expedition Leader Adam delivered a mandatory briefing first thing in the morning. He introduced the 6-man Air Team (3 pilots, 3 engineers) from Chilean company ‘DAP Helicopteros’ to the assembled guests, then focused on the Helicopter operations in minute detail. Understandably there was a heavy emphasis placed on things like safe approach to the aircraft, and attention to personal equipment and operational safety details. This was followed by the standard Zodiac operation briefing which was clearly illustrated by an excellent series of photographs.
After lunch, guests were called by deck, for a meticulous biosecurity check to ensure no seed contamination of the landscape during our proposed landings. This was overseen by the guide team in the lecture hall. At the same time groups were invited to the helideck to be given an introduction by the Air Team to the aircraft. In small groups of either 4 or 5, guests were aided to board and exit the helicopters and were taught how to correctly fasten the colour coded safety belts. Excitement steadily mounted all afternoon as it was clear that the dream of many to fly to the penguins was starting to turn into a reality.
The waves were mounting in relation to the excitement. By recap wind speed was gusting to 60 knots at times and the gauge recorded Force 11. This was Antarctic weather, now much colder and the ship had a lively movement while pushing her way through a heavy swell. The bird of the day was undoubtedly the gorgeous Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, which graced us with the presence through-out the day. At times there was as many as 5 of these solitary birds around the ship. They rode the winds with elegance and ease, leaving us in complete awe of their incredible beauty and masterful flying.
At Recap our Expedition Leader outlined the plans for the next day followed by our resident funny Frenchman giving a visual guide to the seabirds seen during our crossing. Our Icelandic guide Bjarne then explained the historical origins of the Drake Passage, just as guests became distracted by the first sight of Antarctica through the lounge bar windows. Everyone flocked outside for photographs of the snow-covered landscape of the South Shetland Islands before heading off for dinner.
It was an early to bed night as the programme indicated a 4.30 start in the morning!!!! We were about to hit the ground running to maximise the next day. Plan A was the beautiful penguin covered landscape of Brown Bluff, then to astonish everyone completely, a landing on Paulet Island in the afternoon.
Day 4: Antarctic Sound, Devil Island & scenic flights
Position: 63°48’.3 S – 057°16’.3 W
Wind: W 7
Weather: Partly cloudy, sunny
Air Temperature: +4
Plan A for today was a 4:30am wake up call for a pre-breakfast landing at Brown Bluff, but the windiest continent on the planet was true to form and scuppered this plan! The winds were forecast to be a light 15 knots, but the actual wind this morning was gusting up to over 90 knots. This was way beyond the safe parameters for operations which meant it was not possible to go ashore at Brown Bluff as scheduled. Captain Ernesto and his bridge team, Expedition Leader Adam and Assistant Leader Sara set about making another plan whilst guests enjoyed a bit more sleep. A wake-up call came later that morning, at a more sociable hour(!) This was followed by Hotel Manager Stephen announcing the breakfast buffet was open, so we made our way to the dining room and awaited further information regarding the plans for the day.
Thankfully, an alternative landing site was booked for the morning: Devil Island. We were excited to be going ashore here to see the large Adèlie penguin breeding colony of approximately 8,000 pairs! The hike across the saddle of the island (between the two peaks at either end which make it look like devil horns, hence the name) wasn’t easy but the view that awaited us the other side was worth the effort. If was a beautiful day with stunning scenery as a backdrop to the amusing antics of the Adèlie penguins. They certainly have a comical, almost erratic energy about them compared to other more relaxed penguin species!
Many of them were incubating eggs and a few even had small chicks which was lovely to see. A few broken eggshells were visible proof that not all the penguins had been successful in their efforts; Antarctic Skuas perched nearby the colony, looking out for the opportunity to swoop in take another egg, or even a chick, as a meal. Unfortunately, whilst conditions may have looked lovely ashore the winds increased with gusts in excess of 55 knots at the ship, which resulted in a full recall of all personnel ashore by Captain Ernesto Barria. Sadly, this meant we had to leave Devil Island and return to Ortelius as soon as possible.
With everyone back on board just before midday, it was soon time for lunch. But what would we do after that? What was the plan for the afternoon? An announcement was made for a fantastic surprise activity: we would be going on a scenic helicopter ride! We dutifully waited over the course of the afternoon for our cabin number to be called. When it was our turn to go, we went up to the bar, prepared our lifejackets for the flight and were checked off the ship. Then we took to the skies! What an incredible experience this was. Breath-taking scenery unrolled before our eyes as the highly skilled DAP pilots took us for a 20-minute flight.
For some people, this was their first ever time in a helicopter: this will surely take some beating! Everyone returned to Ortelius with beaming smiles after this magnificent experience. The wildlife highlight of the afternoon was spotting an Emperor Penguin on an iceberg near the ship. Some people also spotted them far below from the helicopter during their scenic flight. Everyone agreed it had been an unforgettable afternoon and we all talked excitedly about our experience. Today’s helicopter flight was also the perfect preparation for tomorrow’s planned activity… weather conditions permitting!
Day 5: Snow Hill Island Emperor Penguins
Position: 64°14’.2 S – 057°05’.3 W
Wind: NNW 5
Weather: Broken cloud
Air Temperature: +5
And wind and weather conditions were perfect for today’s plans! The lead expedition team were up at 4 am already, to check on the weather and helicopter flying conditions and to try and locate the Emperor penguin colony from the air if the pilots deemed the weather conditions safe for flying. When the rest of the team were woken at 5 am and the official wake-up call for everyone else came shortly after, we knew that the search for the Emperors of Snow Hill had been successful. The hotel team put pastries, juices and fruit up in the bar, while most members of the expedition team were the first to embark on the helicopter flight to Snow Hill Island with all equipment to set up the emergency shelters and flag the safest route across the sea ice to the penguin colony.
The conditions were exactly as needed; the wind speed was minimal and patches of blue amidst a beautiful, cloudy sky promised wonderful conditions. The energy onboard Ortelius was full of excitement and anticipation. Around 6:30 am the first cabins were called to come up to the bar in preparation for flight. We had a good practice session yesterday, so everyone knew what to expect. We were informed that the flight to the landing site would take about 10 minutes, after which we’d have to walk approximately 1 kilometre to the colony itself. Finally, shortly before 7 am the first helicopter with guests took off! And not long after, the second and third helicopter departed also. For a short while one of the helicopters was taken out of operation due to some technical issues, but this was quickly resolved by the brilliant DAP engineers. Everyone onboard was flown out before lunch time, across a breath-taking white desert landscape with the sun breaking through.
On Snow Hill Island the morning turned out glorious. Being able to walk on this massive blanket of frozen sea water was special enough in itself. The light conditions and the colours of the ice were spectacular, with turquoise areas of meltwater amidst the large expanse of white. Large icebergs locked into the sea ice, stood out like giant sculptures. Little groups of Emperor penguins moved back and forth on their bellies, keeping us company along the flagged trail, and the final sight of the penguin colony itself was more than we could have hoped for. The beautiful, fluffy grey chicks together with their parents, so well-known from photographs, documentaries and movies endeared all of us. What a memorable encounter with the elusive Emperor!
Everyone was given an hour at the penguin colony before returning to the helicopter landing site, to ensure that every single person was able to make it outside and back to the ship in case of potential weather changes. Which turned out to be the exact case a couple of hours later. While the last group of people were still enjoying the magnificent sight and sounds of the Emperor colony, the expedition team received news from the ship that the barometric pressure had plunged dramatically and wind speed around the ship changed from below 10 knots to gusts up in the 80’s. The helicopters that were on their way to the ship with guests were forced to return to the landing site on the sea ice and shut down. Also, at the landing site the wind started picking up, so the second shelter was set up for people to find some cover in while waiting out “the storm”. Despite the wind, the sun was still shining, and little groups of Emperors kept visiting to entertain us with their curiosity towards the brightly coloured big birds, flapping tents and funny two-legged beings.
After a lot of communication back and forth with the bridge team on the ship and decision making amongst the pilots, a couple of flights managed to return more people to the Ortelius. But as the conditions around the ship kept fluctuating severely, the helicopters unfortunately had to turn back to the landing site once more. Rumours started circulating about a potential overnight stay on the sea ice in the emergency shelters if winds wouldn’t die down. Some welcomed the adventurous prospect of a night under the Antarctic sky surrounded by the calls of penguins, and seals under the ice. But as we received the final “go-ahead”, the last of the guests, the expedition team and all safety equipment took to the sky one more time and left the Emperor penguins of Snow Hill Island to reclaim their white territory.
Back on board the Ortelius the mood was ecstatic, and the expedition team was welcomed back with applause after more than 12 hours spent on the ice. After a very short recap with the preliminary plan for tomorrow, everyone was grateful for another beautiful meal made and served by the wonderful galley and hotel team.
Full bellies, a warm bed and early sleep had never been so welcome before. What a fantastic day! Would we all dream about ‘Happy Feet’ tonight?
Day 6: Erebus and Terror Gulf & Antarctic Sound
Position: 63°47’.7 S – 056°32’.6 W
Wind: N 4
Air Temperature: +1
Guests awoke to different morning weather from the excellent conditions of yesterday. It was apparent that the weather had changed dramatically. Moisture bearing clouds billowed menacingly over the high ground, the sea was rough and studded with ice floes with the wind was gusting and freezing cold at around 60 knots. Nothing really to discuss, helicopters could not fly in such conditions, as safety is always paramount, and after the delights of yesterday’s experience, we would not have enjoyed being at the Emperor Penguin colony in such unpleasant conditions.
Plan B was put into operation. Ortelius set a course for Brown Bluff in Antarctic Sound, and Hella delivered a highly informative lecture on Sea Ice and its ecological importance. We also utilised the time to edit the thousands of photographs taken yesterday and fill in diaries with an account of our epic adventure on the ice. Regis followed with another interesting and humorous as usual lecture later in the morning relating to Emperor Penguins and the amazing lives they lead on the ice.
Just before lunch Ortelius started punching her way through a vast area of broken drift ice, while bound for our next proposed landing site at Brown Bluff. Those of us who ventured on deck were in no doubt that conditions had changed greatly from yesterday, the plus 40 knots of wind had a severe edge to it and the wind chill factor was considerable. Beautiful Snow Petrels graced us with their presence, circling the ship and delighting everyone with their aerial prowess. These delightful “angels of the ice” stayed with us for several hours, giving an almost ghostly appearance as the danced across the icy seascape. Well-equipped and hardy souls stayed out on deck for a respectable amount of time whilst others sensibly relaxed indoors.
At 14.30 Bill delivered an informative and highly entertaining lecture on “Ortelius…the secret places on the vessel”. First a presentation about the history, construction of the ship and its ice class rating then the dining room, kitchen and catering logistics.
Whilst the afternoon had turned out sunny the wind continued to blow steadily in excess of 40 knots and at times gusting to 70. As we closed in on the iceberg studded and glacier enclosed coastline of Brown Bluff it took little imagination to realise that given the conditions a landing or Zodiac cruise at this spectacular location would not, could not, happen. A pulsing white line along the shoreline indicated a heavily laden ‘bergy-bit’ swell crashing on to the beach. And then there was the ferocious katabatic winds that tore down off the high ground, whipping the surface of the sea into a whirling frenzy. Guests began to appreciate the problems of high latitude adventure travel organisation as they now had first-hand experience of how the weather dictated and controlled Polar expedition cruising.
Captain Ernesto masterfully cruised Ortelius around several of the large icebergs in the area to give everyone a truly memorable aesthetic experience. The light was fantastic. The weather bracing and unforgettable. At recap Adam outlined the programme for the next day… Sarah, Regis, Hazel and Bill answered a variety of new passenger questions from the ‘question box’.
Dinner was followed by a surprise announcement… we were to try a landing at Brown Bluff as the strong wind had reduced and the sea state was flatter. The expedition team launched a couple of Zodiacs to scout the landing area. It quickly became apparent that the heavy breaking swell on the ‘bergy bit’ covered rocky shoreline precluded any safe landing with guests. Cancellation was ordered, everyone stood down and returned to editing their Emperor Penguin photographs. An adventurous day…which highlighted the dynamic nature of Antarctic weather!
Day 7: Duse Bay & Hope Bay
Position: 63°23’.7 S – 057°00’.9 W
Wind: N 7
Weather: Overcast, snow showers
Air Temperature: +1
In the early morning, whilst we were still tucked up in our beds, the Expedition team were up on the Bridge in discussions with Captain Ernesto and the Helicopter Team to assess conditions for a proposed scenic flight and continental landing in the area of Duse Bay: this was Plan A. Plan B was a continental landing via zodiacs. Unfortunately, the wind conditions were beyond operational limits for both plans so Expedition Leader Adam announced during the wake-up call that we were heading for an area called Hope Bay. The name of the place at least gave us optimism!
Today the entire Antarctic Peninsula was being battered by hurricane force winds meaning our options for finding a sheltered spot were limited. As we sailed through Antarctic Sound we marvelled at colossal icebergs and enjoyed the stunning landscape of snow-covered peaks. It was hard to find the words to describe the colours, textures and shapes of the icebergs and it was difficult to capture their beauty in a photograph. For keen birders, a white morph Southern Giant Petrel was the highlight of the morning.
After breakfast, with a fair way still to go to reach Hope Bay, Expedition Guide Allan gave his lecture regarding the Swedish South Polar Expedition of 1901-03 led by Otto Nordenskjold. This incredible story of survival is overshadowed by those of other explorers of the same era who are better known, but it certainly deserves the same recognition.
Later that morning we arrived at Hope Bay and conditions were initially favourable for a zodiac cruise along the shoreline followed by a brief continental landing. In terms of our feathered friends, Adèlie Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, Snowy Sheathbill and Snow Petrel were seen. A Crabeater seal and numerous Weddell seals were observed hauled out resting.
Within a short period of time the wind began to pick up; waves got higher and there was a lot of spray. The bridge called all Zodiac Drivers over the radio to say operations were cancelled. Although some people were understandably disappointed not to make it ashore, in terms of safety we simply could not continue. By the time the last zodiac was back ‘on the hook’ to be brought back on to the ship the wind was gusting up to 54 knots. We waited in the vicinity for the next couple of hours hoping conditions would improve but unfortunately, they did not so we had to continue our journey and start heading Northwards.
Over the course of the afternoon, we enjoyed some lectures from the Expedition Team. Firstly, Expedition Guide Hazel gave her talk regarding Antarctic krill, encouraging guests to appreciate these animals which play a very important role in the Southern Ocean food chain. This was followed by Expedition Leader Adam giving a presentation about the life of the legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.
As we left the shelter of Antarctic Sound, we ventured out into a very rough Bransfield Strait, the body of water that separates the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. The strong winds were waiting to meet us there, with the bridge equipment recording 76 knots of wind at 17:30pm. Following the evening recap, it was time for our BBQ dinner. Owing to the conditions we had to eat inside, but nevertheless everyone enjoyed the delicious food provided and the music playing in the dining room added to the upbeat atmosphere of the evening (for those of us not feeling the ill-effects of the rough seas).
Day 8: Deception Island & cruising South Shetland Islands
Position: 62°45’.3 S – 066°00’.2 W
Wind: SE 6
Weather: Broken cloud
Air Temperature: +2
To make the most of our final day in Antarctica, we were awoken at 05:45 am by Adam as we approached Deception Island in the South Shetland archipelago. He urged us to come to the bridge and outer decks at 06:00 am to witness our transit through the very narrow, spectacular passage called ‘Neptune Bellows’, into Deception’s flooded caldera. The volcano of the island is still active, and geothermal activity is still present inside the caldera. Sea water temperatures of 70°C (150°F) have been recorded. Just before 7 am all expedition staff were ready to receive us at the landing site of Whaler’s Bay, where we were able to spend most part of the early morning. Bleached whale bones, rusted oil tanks, and other artifacts from 20th-century whaling remain on the volcanic, black-sand beach, along with old buildings from a British scientific station evacuated after the 1969 eruption.
Due to the geothermal activity right below the surface in the shallow areas, the smell of sulfur was strongly present and together with the dropping tide the steam from hot pockets of water was rising off the beach, giving the surroundings an eerie feel. Along the long stretch of black, volcanic beach we were able to find large patches of krill, which are often seen here in the shallows, fried by the higher water temperature. Some Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins were sighted, and a Fur seal was seen at the far end of the beach. Everyone was able to go for a long walk and head up to the viewpoint at Neptune’s Window, looking out on the Bransfield Strait. For those hardy souls amongst us, it was possible to do the polar plunge from the beach before heading back to the Ortelius. Once we were all back onboard, there was a few hours sailing time to our anticipated afternoon location, Half Moon Island.
As soon as we sailed through Neptune Bellows out in the Bransfield Strait we encountered several Humpback whales and Fin whales, the latter being the second largest animal on the planet, which is not a very common sight this early in the season and in this area.
As we approached Half Moon Island after lunch time, it became soon clear that the unpredictability of the Antarctic weather would once more be in control of plans. Winds gusting to 50 knots prevented us from even approaching the area. The rest of the afternoon turned into expedition mode, as we passed several potential landing sites hoping to get ashore one last time. While en-route, expedition guide Bjarni gave a short lecture telling us more about the intriguing history of Deception Island.
The skies cleared for a time, revealing spectacular lenticular clouds. While pretty to look at, they indicate very high winds at altitude. Unfortunately, the wind continued in force at sea level as well, and all of the locations where we had hoped to do a final landing before starting our journey across the Drake Passage, sadly turned out to be too exposed for any activity. So, Ortelius turned North as we started our journey through the English Strait towards the Drake Passage, while Bill gave a very interesting lecture on the meaning of the sea in paintings.
Day 9: At Sea – Drake Passage
Position: 59°59’.3 S – 061°44’.5 W
Wind: NW 8
Weather: Broken cloud, sunny
Air Temperature: +2
Gradually becoming conscious after a deep long sleep, we savoured the rocking of the vessel as we lay securely tucked in under our duvets in a warm horizontal position. That great feeling of weightlessness as we hovered for a second in our bunks at the top of each wave then thrust downwards for the next second into the mattress. Great!!!!! Standing up was however a very different prospect, as we had no option but to test our core strength, balancing to the steady movement of Ortelius as we pulled on trousers and attempted to tie our shoelaces. We were in the famed Drake Passage for sure, beginning our long 2 day crossing to Ushuaia.
With the outer decks closed, a visit to the bridge to stare out at the vastness of the wild Southern Ocean was a must. Instruments indicated a steady force 9 gale outside as the wind speed was registering around 45 /46 knots. The swell was a reasonable size and the vessel travelling at 8 to 9 knots rose gently over each wave. No smashing and banging as the captain, forever considerate of his guests, perfectly controlled the speed for maximum comfort.
It was apparent however during breakfast and the morning lectures that many guests chose to remain in their cabins. On we went, Ortelius pitching fore and aft and rolling gently starboard to port and port to starboard, monotonously…up and down…side to side…up and down…side to side!
The horizon was a fuzzy line, the endless grey vista broken occasionally by a distant plume or two of spray as we passed near whales. Birds wheeled gracefully as usual around the superstructure to keep our bird fancying photographers happy. ‘We are but nothing in the vastness of nature’…the words of Bill during his lecture were so apt today. A day of reflection on the voyage, looking, seeing, thinking…. contented contemplation, photograph sorting, address sharing, knowledge that South America lay ahead…and of course, consuming more excellent Ortelius meals.
Hella delivered a short talk which included the importance of whale numbers to carbon capture, and Regis followed with an interesting lecture on ‘Human impact in Polar Regions’. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the latter was the account of how scientists and researchers were using image transmitting cameras fitted to Albatrosses to ‘spy’ on fishing vessels to ensure their compliance with fishing area regulations.
The highlight of the day was an afternoon showing of the extremely powerful ‘Happy Feet’ movie… superb computer-generated artwork, highly entertaining but with a powerful message which was totally apposite given the recent experiences of us all in Antarctica…it complimented and reinforced the guide lectures of Hella, Sara and Hazel.
The weather remained typical for the Drake Passage, while the vessel maintained a lively motion. Ortelius ploughed steadily on during the early evening at the slightly increased speed of 10 knots towards Ushuaia. The atmosphere on board was very relaxed…that is until word came from the bridge that we were to encounter heavy weather around midnight and again during the afternoon of the next day!!!! The crew visited cabins on the lower decks to secure the storm covers over portholes. The ship emptied after dinner as guests retired to their cabins to face the storm in a comfortable horizontal position in their bunks. This ‘Oceanwide Expedition adventure voyage’ continued to provide excitement at every stage.
Day 10: At Sea – Drake Passage
Position: 56°18’.3 S – 065°16’.9 W
Wind: NW 8
Weather: Broken cloud, bright
Air Temperature: +6
We awoke to find that Ortelius was making sound progress north across a moody Drake Passage. It was every bit a “Drake Shake” in the eyes of the experienced crew and expedition staff. Having toughed it out through one gale-force storm after another during the voyage, it seemed that the relentless Southern Ocean weather would give us a rough ride until the end. Every now and then the sun shone through the partly broken cloud, illuminating an angry Drake Passage and casting beautiful rainbows across the storm-tossed sea. The good morning announcement told us that the outside air temperature had risen considerably from 24 hours prior, confirming that we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence and returned to a more temperate region. The great continent of South America beckoned, as thoughts turned to going home.
After a relaxed breakfast – for those able to make it – we were invited to join Hazel in the bar for her lecture entitled “From Worship to Whaling”. For the small and enthusiastic crowd in attendance, Hazel gave a fascinating overview of the high regard in which whales and dolphins have been held throughout the ages. Most notable was Hazel’s love and concern for these remarkable creatures which bring so much joy to so many people. Her enthusiasm for the subject has shone bright throughout the voyage.
For those who ventured to the bridge, the ship was in company with the usual bird life for the region and latitudes – petrels, prions, shearwaters, and of course a variety of albatrosses. Any albatross in its stormy element is a sight to behold, but the masterful and elegant Wandering Albatross with its 3.5 metre wingspan left onlookers completely awestruck. Occasionally an equally grand and magnificent Southern Royal Albatross would show up, presenting birding enthusiasts with the challenge of distinguishing the subtle differences between the two. The ease with which these remarkable ‘marathon birds’ roam the wind-swept ocean is so humbling. They are completely at home riding the wild winds of the deep south. The stronger it blows, the better it is for them. The love and respect for these incredible birds is hard to put into words, especially when we consider the mariner’s legend that every albatross carries the soul of a sailor lost at sea. It is the bird of good omen for all who work upon the oceans of the World. The words of English poet Samuel Taylor-Coleridge (1772-1834), from his epic work ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were so fitting……
At length did cross an Albatross, through the fog it came. As if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name.
At 11:30 in the bar some of the Expedition Team did a joint presentation about the Citizen Science Program, and how we could help. Having visited one of the most pristine environments on Earth, many of us were heading home with thoughts on how we could do our bit to protect it. Lunch followed soon after, with Hotel Manager Stephen inviting us to join him and his team for our ‘dining pleasure’.
By early afternoon the chart plotter on the bridge showed that we were abreast of Cape Horn. It somehow seemed appropriate that while in the neighbourhood of ‘‘The Horn‘‘, the one place that has struck fear into the hearts of Mariners for centuries, we were battling our way through heavy weather. Ortelius pitched and rolled her way on towards the more sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel, as preparations for disembarkation quietly progressed below decks.
At 14:00 in the Lecture Hall we were invited to enjoy the animated movie ‘Happy Feet 2’, the sequel to yesterday’s showing. It is extraordinary how factual these films are, sending out clear and relevant natural history and conservation messages. The light entertainment value was also superb. At 16:00 Sara hosted a pub style quiz in the bar with questions relating to the voyage. Teams varied from 2-6 people, and some were very creative with their team names. Great fun was had by all.
Land Ho! At around 16:45 observers on the bridge picked up the feint outline of land dead ahead of the ship. It was a wonderful and welcome sight for weary eyes after two days toughing it out in the Drake Passage. The bridge officers spoke of being in more sheltered waters at the entrance to the Beagle Channel by dinner time. That was sweet music to many ears!
At 18:15 we gathered in the bar for Captain’s Farewell Cocktails, and a viewing of the expedition slideshow produced by staff member Regis Perdriat. This exciting reminder of a memorable journey was later available for all to save to mobile devices, once we had enjoyed our final dinner onboard Ortelius. The day closed with a magical sunset as we made our way up the Beagle Channel, with the welcome sensation of a motionless deck beneath our feet.
Day 11: Disembarkation, Ushuaia
Position: 54°48’.6 S – 068°17’.8 W
Wind: NW 5
Weather: Broken cloud, sunny
Air Temperature: +12
We arrived at the Pilot Station in the Beagle Channel at 01:00 and docked in Ushuaia just after 06:00. Ortelius had successfully completed her second Antarctic voyage for the 2022/23 season! The crew and Expedition Team handled all the luggage on to the dock, and at 08:00 it was time for disembarkation. The voyage was over, and it was time to go our separate ways. Fond farewells were exchanged on the dock, as our band of intrepid adventurers dispersed and began the long journey home.