Antarctic Discovery: Palmer's Bicentennial Expedition, Jan 16 - 30, 2020

Antarctic Discovery: Palmer's Bicentennial Expedition, Jan 16 - 30, 2020
February 2020

Saturday, January 18, 2020: Ushuaia, Argentina

The adventure begins! After an early morning flight from Buenos Aires to the scenic port city of Ushuaia, we eagerly boarded the elegant ‘Le Lyrial,’ our home-away-from-home for the next two weeks and one of the most comfortable ships on the seas today. We enjoyed the opportunity to unwind after a day of travel, gathering in the lounge for a glass of champagne or taking in the sweeping views of the Beagle Channel from our staterooms. In the evening, our expedition staff hosted a 'welcome aboard' orientation, where we heard from our Expedition Leader, Marco Favero, Cruise Director, Paul Carter, and Expedition Directo,r Suzana Machado D'Olivera. We also had the chance to hear from Alex, Glenn, and Steve from the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum, which has conceived this journey to recognize the Bicentennial anniversary of Nathanial Palmer's discoveries on and around Antarctica.

Following an overview of what to expect onboard, our expedition team took the stage to introduce themselves: from university professors to climate researchers, ornithologists, and British Antarctic Survey veterans, the A&K team is diverse, knowledgeable, and backed by over a hundred seasons of cumulative experience in the polar regions! This evening, after dinner, we enjoyed looking out as the misty fjords of South America slowly begin to fade towards the horizon. Those of us on deck were treated to views of our first wildlife; albatross, blue-eyed shags, and giant petrels go by!

Saturday, January 19, 2020: At Sea

Today, ‘Le Lyrial’ cruised swiftly from the tip of South America towards the Antarctic peninsula. With light winds and blue skies, a variety of seabirds visited the ship as we sailed South. Black-browed albatross, blue petrels and southern giant petrels made close approaches as they rode the slipstream of the ship.

Today also kicked off the beginning of our lecture series, and we had a chance to hear from some of our expert guides. Bob Burton, one of our historians and a particularly storied individual who has been involved in many years of Antarctic research, began with a topical lecture on the early explorers of the Antarctic. Later in the morning, we also heard from our marine mammologist, Larry Hobbs, who offered a much-anticipated talk on the Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean. We all were excited to look for whales during our time in Antarctica, and Larry offered insight into the variety of species we could encounter. Once we were closer to the peninsula, we hoped to see humpback whales and maybe even killer whales! Further offshore, we may catch glimpses of fin, blue, sperm and right whales. We were excited to keep our eyes peeled for these magnificent animals, which are only recently making a recovery from several centuries of intensive whaling.

After lunch, we continued our lecture series with our historian Richard Wolak, who provided a detailed synopsis of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, a Russian explorer who is likely the first person ever to set eyes on the Antarctic continent. Bellingshausen is famous for interaction with Nathaniel Palmer, the 'hero' of our voyage; the two met just West of the Antarctic peninsula and compared voyage information and there is still some dispute over it. Finally, we heard from our photo coach Richard Harker, who briefed us on what to expect in Antarctica as it relates to photography. Richard has spent many seasons photographing in Antarctica and shares a few of his secrets to returning from this trip with excellent Antarctic photos.    

Monday, January 20, 2020: At Sea

We awoke to more smooth sailing as ‘Le Lyrial’ steamed under calm skies on its southbound transit through the Drake Passage. It was markedly colder today than it had been the last several days, as during the evening we crossed over the Polar Front, an ecological boundary that divides frigid Antarctica from the milder sub-Antarctic climate. Our lecture series continued in the morning with another fascinating lecture from our ornithologist, Patri Silva. Patri gave us an overview of the many penguin species in the world and highlighted the specific penguins that we would hope to encounter on this voyage. Later in the morning, we also participated in a mandatory briefing that comes from IAATO, the regulatory body that oversees Antarctic tourism. We learned how to behave in an extremely sensitive environment such as Antarctica, as well as what we should expect ashore and in the zodiacs.

In the afternoon, we were treated to several more lectures from our knowledgeable staff. Our historian, Bob Burton, once more took the stage to deliver a fascinating lecture on two English explorers: Edward Bransfield and William Smith. Both were early explorers in the peninsula region, and William Smith is the first person documented who stepped foot on what is now considered the Antarctic mainland! Our guest lecturer and historian Glenn Gordenier followed Bob's talk with one of his own, and this time we had the chance to learn more about Nathaniel Palmer himself — his life, his home town of Stonington, and the triumphs and travails of his career. It was a great opportunity to round out this historical figure as a living, breathing person and learn more about his world. We finished the evening in anticipation of the adventure to come.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020: Antarctica Wildlife

This morning we awoke to the breathtaking scenery of the Antarctic peninsula. All around us loomed the glacier-capped mountains and rocky shorelines of the White Continent, and we watched in awe as our first icebergs came into view. We eagerly anticipate our first morning ashore on Porquais - Pas Island — after breakfast, our zodiacs deposited us on a small spit of land known as Bongrain Point. Here we were greeted by an overwhelming abundance of penguin life! Hundreds of Adelie penguins, a small, brush-tailed penguin, made their home here among the rocky mountains of the island, and overhead, skuas and kelp gulls soared between their nests and the sea. It was a flurry of activity, and we enjoyed the opportunity to stop and take in the Antarctic wildlife and scenery. In the afternoon, ‘Le Lyrial’ repositioned further North, and we found ourselves amid ice and scenic, glacier-clad mountains in a narrow pass known as The Gullet. We once again boarded the zodiacs, this time for an hour-plus zodiac cruise among ice and a wide variety of seals. Here we had the chance to learn about the difference between glacial ice (freshwater ice formed as snow and deposited on land) and sea ice (formed as the ocean itself reaches its freezing point and ices over). Among all this ice, a healthy abundance of seals were present. In our zodiacs, many of us had the chance to see crabeater, weddell, and leopard seals — sometimes all floating together on the same iceberg! A few Adelie penguins showed up on the tour as well, and a few lucky zodiacs wre treated to a close approach by a humpback whale! It was a spectacular variety of Antarctic wildlife, and we returned to the ship ready for our evening recap and an early rest.        

Wednesday, January 22, 2020: Stonington Island & Jenny Island

This morning we arrive at our southernmost landing, on the small rock of Stonington Island. This is a particularly exciting stop for our history-minded contingent aboard, for Stonington is named after the home port of Nathaniel Palmer. Palmer’s expedition to the Antarctic continent may well have come past remote Stonington harbor in search of seals for exploitation. Today, Stonington is the site of two historic bases: one British and one American. At the American base, we have the chance to enter the old storehouse building, where our other historian Richard Wolak provides us with information on a collection of artefacts and introduces us to the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, which spent two winters at this site. The first two American women to overwinter in Antarctica spent their time at this base! The British “Base E,” just a few hundred feet away, provides us more opportunities to explore a base that was more recently used. Larger and more substantial, the British Base still shows signs of its previous inhabitants, who were here up until the 1970s. With food still in the storehouse and a kitchen, library, and bunkhouse all still intact, “Base E” provides us with a wonderful opportunity to imagine what life at a research station was like in this early period of year-round Antarctic research.

In the afternoon, 'Le Lyrial' repositions to Jenny Island, a small mountainous rock that juts out of the Northern section of Marguerite Bay. On the beach, several dozen elephant seals provide us with the opportunity to get quite close, and we observe them ‘wallowing’ — gathering together after the breeding season to slough their skin. These seals must undergo an annual moult in which they replace their entire outer layer of skin — this process allows them to rid the body of toxins and maintain a waterproof, UV-resistant coating of fur. Despite some challenging weather conditions, our zodiac drivers get us to and from the shore safe, sound and dry! We return to the ship at the end of the day ready for a long rest after a day full of adventure.

Thursday, January 23, 2020: Crystal Sound

This morning we awake to a view of Antarctica in one of its more brooding and dramatic moods. Mist rolls overhead and the dark peaks of the Antarctic peninsula are shrouded under low clouds. We’ve found ourselves anchored just off the coast of Detaille Island, and we board the zodiacs to explore this place further. Here at Detaille, the remains of British “Base W” are present, set tenuously on a tiny basalt rock. Green veins of peridot and olivine are visible along the shoreline, and we have over an hour to explore the coast in search of seals, penguins, and beautiful sculptural icebergs.

In the afternoon, 'Le Lyrial' repositions South into Lallemand Fjord, where thick bands of sea ice are visible on the horizon. We are eager to explore this new environment, and Captain Marchesseau expertly navigates our ship close into the thin pieces of sea ice. There are many crabeater seals scattered throughout the fjord — some are hauled out on ice floes, while others swim in small groups through the ocean. To take advantage of this incredible opportunity, we lower the zodiacs and are treated to a spectacular cruise in a wonderland of ice. Many more crabeater seals are visible on vast, scenic tracts of sea ice that have yet to melt from the previous year’s freeze. These seals are a real treat, providing us with close-up views and even at times playing directly under the zodiacs! Perhaps the biggest highlight for those in the first group is the presence of a single emperor penguin! These incredibly rare birds are rarely found far from dense sea ice, and typically only the young birds (who have strayed far from their home colonies) are visible this far North on the peninsula. Our afternoon proves to be an amazing opportunity for us to get close to some of Antarctica’s most iconic wildlife, and we return to the ship glowing with excitement from our day’s activities.

Friday, January 24, 2020: At Sea

Today we arrive at Palmer station (named, of course, after the hero of our journey Nathaniel B. Palmer) after a leisurely morning cruising North from Crystal Sound. Upon our arrival, we are boarded by the station manager, along with a team of scientists and support staff who have come to give a presentation on board. We learn that Palmer Station is supported by the US Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation, and is one of the three US research bases in Antarctica. It’s the site of a dazzling array of scientific studies; from long-term ecological monitoring to humpback whale photogrammetry studies and Adelie penguin health assessments. Additionally, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (along with Jim McClintock, a world-renowned climate scientist and long-time member of the Palmer Station team) has raised money towards a set of tags, to help the ornithologists at Palmer with their avian research. These tags will record information on the birds' location, temperature, and the depths at which they are feeding; data that will be critical for understanding how a changing climate will impact the lives of birds in the Antarctic.

After a quick lunch, we anxiously board the zodiacs and head ashore at Palmer, where we are welcomed by a local member of the support staff and given a tour of the station. The tour takes us around the perimeter of the station, and our guides identify the living quarters, the generator stations, and the laboratories and carpentry shops that help the station function as its own, nearly-independent entity. When needed, Palmer is supplied by the Laurence Gould, a US icebreaker that services the station regularly throughout the summer and winter months.

After our tour, we join the scientists and support staff in the Palmer station lounge for coffee and delicious brownies. It’s a real treat to be one of the few ships a year allowed to call in Palmer station, and we thoroughly enjoy meeting the men and women who are helping make a real difference in our world through their contributions to polar research.

Saturday, January 25, 2020: Neko Harbor

We begin our day in the beautifully scenic Errerra Channel, where we go ashore under clear skies and beautifully calm sea conditions. Humpback whales spout in the distance as our zodiac drivers navigate the loose icebergs to drop us off on Cuverville Island. Here, hundreds of Gentoo penguins nest among the rocky and moss-strewn outcrops. In the middle of summer, Gentoo parents (both male and female) are hurrying to take care of their chicks, which must be fully-fledged before winter arrives in just a few short months. Skuas constantly circle overhead, hoping to strike a meal of their own; during our visit, a few Gentoo chicks are lost to the skuas, who have their chicks to feed!

In the afternoon, we land at Neko Harbor, our first landing on the actual Antarctic continent. Here, Gentoo penguins nest on the rocky ledges overlooking an incredible scene of icebergs, glaciers, and mountains. These penguins, like those at Cuverville, sit on their nests while looking after their very large chicks, and we're afforded more close looks as these birds scurry about, coming to and from the colony. Also at Neko Harbor, we are offered the chance to hike up to a stunning overlook on Aandvord Bay, where we can look down upon our ship and out to the beautiful scenery beyond. As we reboard ‘Le Lyrial’  in the evening, we end our day flanked by icebergs beneath the spectacular vista of Anvers Island.

Sunday, January 26, 2020: Cierva Cove

This morning, we make land once again on the Antarctic continent, on a small spit of bare rock known as Portal Point. Here, the foundation of a small hut is visible near the landing site. Once, for a short time, the famous Antarctic explorer Wally Herbert called this hut home. Since then, however, it has been moved to Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where it now lives in a museum. Also ashore at Portal Point are several Weddell seals and even another lone bull Fur Seal! These seals are all here to moult, having just finished their breeding seasons, and one Weddell seal is quite comfortable with us getting close enough to see the beautiful markings on its coat.  

In the afternoon, we find ourselves at Cierva Cove, further North along the Antarctic peninsula. The scenic, low-lying islands and abundant wildlife of this beautiful place provide the perfect opportunity to drop our fleet of zodiacs and explore the area. Over an hour, our zodiac drivers and naturalists expertly navigate thick swatches of dramatic brash ice, and we are treated to some impressive displays of wildlife. Chinstrap penguins, another species of brush-tailed penguin, quickly dart past on their way to and from a nearby colony. Spectacular, luminous blue icebergs drift idly by, some providing a platform for resting leopard seals that are taking a break from foraging. A few zodiacs are treated to a special wildlife sighting when a group of humpback whales passes by! It's an excellent way to finish up our time along the Antarctic continent for this evening. ‘Le Lyrial’  heads North to the South Shetland Islands.

Monday, January 27, 2020: South Shetland

Today, we awake early to watch as ‘Le Lyrial’  approaches Deception Island. This island is so-named because while it appears mountainous and glacially-covered, it is actually 'doughnut-shaped,' with a protected inner harbor that is perfectly suited for ships looking to escape the harsh weather of the surrounding Southern Ocean. This is an exciting day for our contingent of historians here to celebrate Nathaniel Palmer's Bicentennial Expedition — Palmer himself is credited with discovering this harbor, which would go on to be one of the most important whaling stations in the entire Antarctic. As we go ashore, relics from this age of whaling are obvious; large metal boilers and storage tanks for oil, whale bones, water boats, and wooden houses are strewn about the beach, and we are all eager to explore these alien-looking artefacts from a time gone by. Some of us make it down the beach to a large, old hangar, which served an airstrip from which the first aerial surveys of the Antarctic Peninsula were launched. Others make it up to the rocky outcrop known today as 'Neptune's Window.’ This dramatic cut-out from the side of the island gives viewers a chance to look directly South towards the Antarctic mainland; according to lore, this is where Palmer took in his first views of the continent on a sunny, fog-less day.

Upon our return to the ship, we are treated to a special presentation by our guest lecturer, Alex Bulazel. A representative of the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum, Alex has brought from the museum collection a piece of history; Nathaniel Palmer's personal ditty box! These small boxes were carried by sailors, who would keep special items and personal remembrances during their time at sea. Palmer's box, beautifully inscribed with floral motifs and lined with rich red wool, is one of only two items that remain from his famous expedition aboard the ‘Hero.’ The other item, the voyage log, is kept in the US National Archives. This box is now the oldest surviving artefact to return to Antarctica, two centuries after ‘Hero's’  visit to the white continent. Alex is thrilled to provide us with the opportunity to see this artefact, and we relish the historical significance of this moment with our friends from the Mystic Seaport Museum.

In the afternoon, we go ashore for our final taste of the South Shetland Islands. The wind and waves whip and howl, but our expert zodiac pilots give us relatively comfortable passage to Yankee Harbor — so named, once again, for its discoverer and our protagonist, Nathaniel Palmer. Yankee harbor is a small, circular port protected from the oceans beyond by a thin strip of the gravel beach. This beach is, in fact, a glacial moraine; an accumulation of debris deposited by a glacier as it pushes towards the sea. A few human artefacts also dot this far-flung beach, and an old tri-pot (a large iron cauldron used for rendering blubber down for oil) can be seen along the rocky storm berm that stretches into the ocean. Yankee harbor also provides us more opportunities to see both Gentoo and chinstrap penguins and learn about the fascinating volcanic geology of the South Shetland region. We take our last looks at the Antarctic, reflecting on the amazing time we've had here, and board the zodiacs for a final time to take us back to the ship. Tonight, views of the Antarctic quietly slip away below the horizon, and we begin to feel the gentle rolling of ‘Le Lyrial’ as she steams North.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020: At Sea

Today, ‘Le Lyrial’  steams quietly through the gentle rolling swell of the Drake Passage. It's a chance for us to rest after a week of non-stop adventure on the Antarctic peninsula! As we sail North, our lecture series continues. In the morning, our geologist, Jason Hicks, provides us with a comprehensive overview of the dynamic world of ice. We can retrieve a tremendous amount of data from ice cores taken throughout the Antarctic and Greenland IceCaps, and Jason shows us through his presentation the millions of data points that have more or less recorded humanity's carbon footprint throughout the past few hundred years. After Jason's talk, we hear from scientist and climate ecology lecturer Jim McClintock, who provides us insight into the fascinating world of drug discovery in Antarctica. It turns out that the many invertebrate organisms that live in the frigid waters of the White Continent rely on chemical processes that can be applied to human medicine! Jim's talk opens our eyes to the fascinating confluence of the medical and ecological sciences and is a highlight for many.

In the afternoon, our lecture series continues with a talk by our photo coach, Richard Harker. Richard teaches us the basics of photo post-processing, and how to handle our photographs the way some of the great, early photographers would have. Using Ansel Adams as an example, Richard shows us how we can develop a workflow in the digital age that lets us turn our 'good' photos of Antarctica into truly stunning works of art that can be worthy of framing. Finally, in the afternoon, we hear from our history lecturer Richard Wolak, who offers a captivating retelling of his time Wintering over on an Antarctic Base. Very few people have spent a winter on Antarctica, and Richard's retelling of his time at the U.S. Scott-Amundsen Base at the South Pole in the 1970s was an absolute treat for us all. In the evening, Captain Marchesseau invites us all to join him once more in the theatre for a final farewell cocktail party. He says a few poignant words regarding our time at sea, and we also get to express our gratitude towards the entire crew of ‘Le Lyrial’   for making our journey so safe and comfortable.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020: Ushuaia

Today, ‘Le Lyrial’   swiftly approaches the Southern tip of South America, and we finally come full-circle in our journey. In the morning, our cruise director, Paul Carter, and Assistant Cruise Director, Sally Escanilla, host a disembarkation briefing, where we learn that to expect tomorrow as we make our way home from ‘Le Lyrial.’  The Abercrombie & Kent staff has made sure that the arrangements for our departure have all been taken care of, and our departure should be easy and comfortable. Early in the afternoon, our marine biologist, Larry Hobbs, offers a sobering talk on Sustainability. Human activity over the last few centuries has catapulted us far beyond what the planet and its resources can sustain, and Larry's talk brings to light the challenges we face today, from overpopulation to our reliance on fossil fuels and the steps we can take towards overcoming them as we move forward in history. All scientific and empirical evidence points to the fact that a dramatic paradigm shift is what's necessary to avoid economic, environmental and social collapse over the next century. Later in the evening, we gather one final time in the theatre to hear from our expedition staff at their 'final recap.' After some final comments from the team, we are treated to an incredible, motion-picture slideshow that has been shot and edited by our very own Richard 'Blackjack' Escanilla, a talented videographer as well as a naturalist and zodiac pilot. It's an emotional retelling of our epic journey, and we are quite moved as we make our way from the theatre to prepare for our arrival in Ushuaia. Soon enough, ‘Le Lyrial’ comes to her berth in the southernmost city in the world, where our journey first began. We enjoy the chance to get ashore and stretch our legs on terra firma, and many of us take the opportunity to go out and enjoy our final evening at some of the impressive restaurants that line the streets of this city.

Thursday, January 30, 2020: Final Farewell

Today marks the end of the incredible journey we have had in Antarctica. As we enjoy our last breakfast aboard ‘Le Lyrial,’  we reflect on the vast abundance of wildlife and scenery we have had the fortune of experiencing over the past 10 days. From icy whale-rich straits and channels to the historic huts and research bases, we have covered a tremendous amount of ground and have had the opportunity to share in an unforgettable, life-changing experience. Hopefully, this expedition has inspired us to go on with a stronger conservation ethic, and a drive to protect the wildlands around our home, wherever that may be. It's a bittersweet goodbye as the expedition staff bids us one final farewell and we board the buses that will take us further on to more adventure!