Crossing the Last Frontier
by Jerome Konen
Antarctica – the white continent which beckons scientists and explorers. A landscape unlike this world and myths of the extreme captivated the author and prompted a diving expedition.
9 February - leaving the end of the world S54ºo 48.63’ W68º 18.75’: Our voyage to Antarctica starts in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, the most southern town in the world. It’s February, summer on the southern hemisphere. Our group of five experienced divers, meet our skippers/ hosts onboard the Kotick, a 15m schooner. We stow more than 600kg of gear and equipment. Through the pretty and calm Beagle Channel we reach the open ocean, and continue along Cape Horn, an area feared by all sailors because of frequent heavy storms and strong currents. Here at the southern most end of South America, the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean collide. The fate of so many ships were sealed here. We’re travelling 1000 km through the notorious Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, our final destination.
13 February 2005 – Enduring the Drake Passage S 62° 51.15’ W 64° 42.54’ I am rudely awakened by another violent storm. We’ve had several days of severe conditions with enormous waves smashing over deck and wind speeds over 55 knots. We are forced to strike sails, continuing exclusively on engine power. A few hours later, suddenly a loud bang and dense smoke in the cabin. Engine trouble? We are lucky, the exhaust tube has exploded; due to the heavy and continuous tilt position of the boat. The repair is a welcome change. At day’s end the snow capped basalt mountains and glaciers of Brabant and Anvers Island rise above the horizon. This marks the end of Drake Passage after four long days.
17 February – Heaven and Hell S 64° 49.67’ W 63° 29.61’ 1:30 am. An iceberg has hit the stern and is pushing our vessel dangerously close to the rocky shore. The evening before, we had attached ropes to rocks on the shore, both from the stern and the bow, a great foresight against storm damage we thought but now the lines may prove fatal. In the darkness of the night, facing a freezing wind and raging waves, we managed to get into the dinghy and try in vain to untie the lines from the shore. We have to cut them, then followed by a last dramatic manoeuvre we turn the boat away from the deadly shore.
We’re anchoring again, but a dangerously close ice floe appears out of the darkness, hitting us violently starboard. The anchor has been dropped, the wind pushing the boat in an extreme tilt position, the keel of the boat touching the ground – a desperate situation. Finally, after two hours being close to the point of exhaustion, we manage to lift the keel and get out of this terrible situation.
Morning and the Antarctic landscape reveals a glitter of frozen beauty, breathtaking scenery. The British Port Lockroy Station on Goudier Island was built right into a Gentoo Penguin rookery. The main duties here are to maintain and to conserve the base built in 1944 and now designated as a Historic Monument giving an idea about Antarctic research in the past. Between the museum and souvenir shop they run a rudimentary post office.
The shore opposite the station is littered with whale skeletons and densely populated by countless Gentoo penguins, blue-eyed shags, and Imperial cormorants that nest on the rocks. Our first dive takes us to a similar whale skeleton underwater in the shallow part of the bay. Here in the freezing water of the Antarctica, the dive time is limited to about 30 minutes due to the pain and the numbness of your fingers.
21 February 2005 – And the Wind goes on S 65° 04.09’ W 64° 01.96’ We reach the dream bay of Port Charcot. This evening should be very special as we’ve received an invitation from the legendary two-master Tara, once the sailing boat of Jean-Louis Etienne and later Sir Peter Blake. But the weather is veering fast in Antarctica. It had been days since we slept as the roaring winds and squalls were the reason to change anchoring grounds all the time.
23 February 2005 – Leopard Seal attack S 65° 06.39’ W 64° 04.62’ The sea life along Pléneau Island is remarkably coloured and varied. Sea urchins, big red starfishes, sponges and huge isopods strew the sea ground. More rarely spread are nudibranchs crawling over the rocky seabed and in shallow water I see several Antarctic spiny plunder fishes. A curious solitary leopard seal appears along the boat. Although attacks by leopard seals on humans have been documented, we are looking forward to diving and snorkelling with this top predator of the Antarctic waters.
Leopard seals are named after their spotted coat. They are fearsome hunters with a large almost reptilian like head and strong jaws. Their main sources of food are penguins, krill and even other seal species. Typically at the end of summer season, they will lie and wait on an ice ledge, pouncing on the first juvenile penguin to dive into the water. I slowly slide into the icy water, avoiding chasing the animal away. Immediately, the leopard seal comes closer. I can distinguish its slender streamlined body with long flippers; built apparently for speed and power. For a while the animal seems to enjoy my presence but the situation turns rapidly in a complete reversal. The closer the encounter with the seal, the more it seems to be stressed. Then suddenly, the leopard seal attacks. In a last desperate move, my camera housing helps me to keep a safe distance from this seal’s formidable jaws, long canines, well suited for grabbing prey. Time to break off and get back to the boat.
25 February 2005 – Challenging footage S 65° 06.39’ W 64° 04.62’ Filming Gentoo penguins underwater turns out to be a challenge. The first attempt fails – the penguins returning from their foraging trip to sea avoid divers in shallow water, they abruptly change direction and bolt en masse for the shore at a different spot. Once out of the water, like a common ritual, they shake their head first; preen themselves before walking to their hungry impatiently waiting chicks.
27 February 2005 – Fascinating World of Ice S 65° 06.73’ W 64° 01.05’ With the first morning light, we leave Pléneau Island. We pass through a labyrinth of ice; an endless variety of shapes, sizes and shades of blueness. Icebergs are constantly evolving, their shape continuously sculptured by sea and wind erosion letting them unpredictably roll over.
We slowly cruise into the southern entrance of the Lemaire Channel, one of the most impressive ice-choked waterways in Antarctica. The passage is only a few hundred metres and flanked straight into the sea by snow covered sheer cliffs of 1000m rising on both sides into the misty air. Every bend of the channel reveals a more fascinating view.
2 March 2005 – Lasting Impressions S 63° 52.83’ W 63° 33.34’ Sporadic ice floes on the horizon accompanied by a feeling of sorrow are signalling our departure from the frozen land. I am leaving a place so stunningly beautiful and pristine, different from any other on Earth – lasting impressions of a mysterious untamed place that will be very difficult to put into words.
In the Drake Passage, the sea gets rough again. As usual, stormy weather ahead and waves slap continuously over our deck. Then, around Cape Horn, the sea is calming down, albatrosses and petrels escort our return to Ushuaia. I feel like I am returning from a completely different planet, an untouched and virgin land and I have just seen a tiny fraction of it.
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