Day Six: November 25, 2013
By Sea, By Land, and By Air
Today was a day of many firsts for the cruise!
By Sea – Not long after midnight the ship crossed the boundary that defines entry into the Southern Ocean – the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). Unlike other ocean boundaries, the ACC meanders north and south and east and west with time, presenting a moving target for defining the northern extent of the Southern Ocean. However in our case, the ACC was clear and by 2:00 AM in a short period of time the ocean surface temperatures dropped by more than 40 C. This steep gradient in water temperature is created by the meeting of warm water from the South Atlantic Ocean with the cold water of the Southern Ocean.
In the early morning hours we also passed south of 600 South Latitude which puts us in the region governed by the international Antarctic Treaty. This region; including the ocean, the land, and the ice; is governed by a mutual agreement of 50 nations representing most of the world’s population. The Treaty , which is external to the United Nations, has effectively managed Antarctica on behalf of all humankind for more than 50 years. Antarctica is the only continent on Earth jointly managed through such a multi-national cooperation.
By Land – This morning also brought the first sighting of land in the over 1700 nautical miles the ship has traversed since we left Montevideo five days ago. The first promontory spotted by the bridge was the western tip of King George Island (KGI). While an island on the northern side of the Bransfield Strait, KGI can be considered our first sighting of Antarctica. KGI is home to many Antarctic scientific stations, since its relatively close proximity to South America provides ease of access. It is also the northernmost island of the South Shetlands island chain. It may come as a surprise that a commercial airline offers flights from Punta Arenas to KGI!
By Sea – AGAIN! – Almost as soon as land was sighted, as we continued to methodically plough our way south through the seas – whales were sighted! The whales included a pair of fin whales that crossed in front of the ship, followed by a siting of a pod of Minke whales, and to finish off the maritime show a pair of humpback whales, a mother and her calf, provided a traditional, synchronized breaching dance for us for several minutes as the ship passed them by. Many hundreds of whale photographs have now been safely recorded for posterity by our fellow guests!
By Air – Not to be outdone by the marine mammals, as we approached the South Shetlands the number of sea birds circling and diving around the ship continued to increase. The largest flocks were of cape petrels, but inter-mixed in the group were Antarctic petrels, and southern fulmars. At times, those on the fantail (stern) of the ship witnessed large numbers of birds spiralling far above the ship and then gliding seemly almost on the undulating surfaces of the ships wake. Once we were within sight of land, to our delight, these fellow travellers were constant companions!
While all of this action on the sea, land, and air was taking place; the enrichment program continued with lectures on the seals (Pinnipedia) of the Southern Ocean, the penguins of Antarctic and the history of exploration and mapping of the Antarctic Peninsula. This was supplemented by the first re-cap and briefing meeting that discussed logistics for the next two days of landings at Half Moon Bay and Esperanza Station, crossing the ACC, governance of Antarctica, the ill-fated first ever overwintering of the de Gerlach party in Antarctica, and a review of the birds and whales we had seen today.
The excitement was palpable and it must have kept people awake all night as some stayed up to see their first Antarctic sunrise and others were already in the observation deck by 5:30 AM to catch that first glimpse of land! Some passengers were probably also enticed to rise early by the potential to win Arnie Junior (stuffed penguin) to be awarded to the person who spotted the first iceberg! The first iceberg spotting occurred about 10:00 AM and later in the day a large iceberg in the middle of the Strait was enjoyed and photographed by all!
And if all of this was not enough for our first official day in Antarctica, there was a surprise announcement by the captain that we were going to sail into Deception Island. A day of scenic cruising along the South Shetland Islands was capped off with a view of one of the most spectacular settings along the Peninsula – inside the flooded caldera of an Antarctic volcano that was home to several historical whaling stations. The multi-coloured hillsides and of the rim of caldera can only be appreciated by seeing the grand and unique landscape that has been sculpted by some of the most violent forces on Earth.
The expedition staff was kept busy all day on several decks and at meals explaining the wide range of natural features that were encountered on this first day that we are officially in Antarctica! This day will long be remembered as the beginning of the adventure to come as we cruise further into Antarctica to be surprised and inspired by even grander vistas and sightings!
~ Dr. Chuck Kennicutt
Land ho! Guests gaze eagerly at their first Antarctic landscape.
Sailing past the rugged headland of Deception Island toward its caldera.
This volcanic pillar speaks to the island’s explosive past.
Guests brave the windy foredeck to watch Seabourn Quest depart the caldera.