Classic Antarctica Trip Log (6 - 18 Jan, 2018) - Thursday, Jan 11

Thursday, January 11: Dallman Bay and Cuverville Island
January 2018

Last night at recap, expedition leader Agustin encouraged us to go to bed thinking ‘blue skies, blue skies’. And it worked. When curtains were drawn back this morning, the skies were blue, the sun was shining on a calm sea and the ice-covered mountains surrounding Dallman Bay were glistening brightly. What a morning for a Zodiac cruise! There were no complaints at the early start. ‘Le Lyrial’ had been circling in Dallman Bay overnight and, over breakfast, she closed on the Melchior Islands where we would have the Zodiac cruise.

Although the islands had been discovered by the German whaler Eduard Dallman in 1874, Jean-Baptiste Charcot named them for Vice Admiral Melchior of the French Navy. Much later the Argentines built a small station on the main island but it is not occupied at the moment.

Bob Burton gave us a lecture on ‘The Antarctic Treaty: Success and Co-operation’. The governance of the continent of Antarctica, one-sixth of the world's landmass, is an important subject for all visitors. It is amazing that there has never been any serious conflict during an age in which the rest of the world has been beset with serious conflicts. Bob showed how territorial claims were made even when it was found that it was a frigid landmass. From overlapping claims by Argentina, Britain and Chile came the need for a solution to the governance of the continent. Then, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, 12 nations established research stations in Antarctica. From their good co-operation emerged the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 and the continent is now ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Bob showed how the Treaty system works to regulate activities in Antarctica, from fishing, through mineral extraction (which is banned) to tourism, and, unlikely as it may seem, so many nations are able to achieve consensus.

Our afternoon landing was on Cuverville Island in the scenic Errera Channel. This is a small island that is little more than a steep hill with a fringe of flat ground where we land on a rocky beach. At the end of the beach and on the slopes behind there were small colonies of gentoo penguins (distinguished by their orange beaks and the white patches over their ears). These birds had large chicks of about three weeks old. It was delightful to watch the chicks begging and receiving meals from their parents – something often seen on television which cannot convey the true charm of the scene.

Cuverville Island was once the site of a small station where researchers studied the effects of visitors on penguins and other forms of wildlife. They had an ‘electronic’ eggs which they put under nesting penguins so they could monitor their heartbeat without disturbing them. The results showed that, if people approach slowly and stand quietly not too close, the penguins are not significantly disturbed.

While some of us were content to watch the penguins, many climbed the steep hill to get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. It was a trudge through the snow but this avoided the dense swards of moss and lichen which make Cuverville Island one of the most verdant spots in Antarctica.

On the way back to the ship, the zodiacs took us on a tour of the icebergs stranded in the bay and to ice floes where some crabeater seals were basking. These seals can be identified by their silvery coats and small heads with narrow snouts. Some of them bore huge scars on their bodies. These were made when they were attacked by leopard seals when they were young. The exception was a leopard seal. The species has a reputation for ferocity and frequently eats young seals and penguins but, like the crabeater seal, it eats large quantities of the shrimp-like krill.

That could have been the end of the day’s excitements but after dinner there was an announcement from the bridge orcas had been sighted. The ship reduced speed to a crawl so we slowly approached what turned out to be 20-25 orcas, split into small groups. Viewing conditions were perfect: bright evening light falling onto a glassy sea and the whales coming as close as 50 yards of the ship. We could easily see the distinct white patch behind the eye and the pale ‘saddle’ behind the dorsal fin, as well as the tall fins of the adult males. The small groups were moving slowly in no particular direction, perhaps they were simply enjoying the evening too! There were also some humpback whales ‘lunge-feeding’ – erupting vertically with their mouths open. Normally this would have been the center of attraction but they could not compete with the orca families.

Today we fell under the spell of the Antarctic – its scenery, wildlife and atmosphere but, as Ernest Shackleton wrote in 1908: ‘Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic’.

Click Here to read ' Friday, January 12: Brown Station and Neko Harbour'