Wednesday 25 January 2023
I got all excited this morning because I thought the ship was moving – but no such luck! We are still just opposite the Adelie penguin colony at Cape Bird in a somewhat clear patch of water but with sea ice as far as the eye can see and conditions have brought in more ice from the east. However the movement I felt was a southerly swell and the wind has risen to about 25knots from the south. It is -3C today. So we are going to sit in the same spot for the morning at least to see whether conditions will change enough to let us further into McMurdo Sound. We wait with bated breath to see what the morning’s onboard activities will be – I’m betting on a lecture or two but perhaps not another instalment of the documentary because it would be a shame to waste the sunshine sitting in a dark theatre.
We do indeed have a lecture. John tells us about Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (British National Antarctic Expedition 1907-09) where they achieved the closest approach to either pole, discovery and ascent of the Beardmore Glacier, first ascent of Mt Erebus – and much more. Afterwards we sit in the lounge watching the sea ice (and an occasional penguin). We hear that whilst the waters are clearing close in to Cape Bird there is a tabular iceberg that has appeared during the night and is moving quite rapidly – but in the wrong direction. It is heading south into McMurdo Sound, which is not what we want to hear.
Once we reach the open water, there is another announcement that we will attempt a zodiac landing at the Adelie colony. This time the Parakeet group get to go first so we will need to see what the conditions are like (changing rapidly) to determine whether the Penguin group will get to go too. Whilst I’m am somewhat ambivalent about visiting yet another penguin colony, I am very keen to set foot on Ross Island.
We have lunch and then by the time we are set to go on shore the wind has picked up markedly to 50knots, making it extremely challenging boarding the zodiacs and we get very wet on the trip in. On shore we can walk in both directions and we decide to go with the wind on our backs to start with. It is so windy that sometimes we can barely stand, the sand is picked up and whisked by us and I even saw a penguin being blown off its nest. We walk down to where there are some beautiful ice sculptures and stalactites where the ice comes down the cliff face. Despite us telling ourselves that we didn’t need any more Adelie penguin photos, we just can’t help ourselves – they are just the cutest little birds, so inquisitive and cheeky, always running and jumping in and out of the water and stopping to investigate you on the way. We are ever in hope of getting the perfect photo of one jumping in or out of the water and there are a lot of photos that will be deleted later on. We are so absorbed by activities at that end of the beach that we run out of time to walk to the other end where there is a hut. Thankfully the wind has dropped considerably before we have to head back to the ship.
After the last group go back to the ship, we make our way further around Cape Bird and then Aaron and Samuel head out in the zodiac to land near a headland and climb to the top so that they can look over into the Sound to see what the ice is doing. We start our briefing – Steve tells us about the penguin colony and his study (he has managed to visit 2 colonies on the cape and Aaron and Samuel are passing through the third and deputised to collect samples). Bryan then tells us about how the granite rocks come to be on the volcanic shores and about the ice cliffs. Aaron is back just in time with the fantastic news that the Sound has almost completely cleared of ice now! So we will head towards Cape Royd and Cape Evans (where Shackleton and Scott’s Huts are respectively).
Then there is another surprise: tonight we will have a barbeque up on deck so we all race down to put our warm gear on. The kitchen staff have outdone themselves with a spectacular spread to match the scenery. As we have our mulled cider and then eat out on the deck we realise that we are sitting looking at Mt Erebus in all its glory.
We are called together again for a briefing on the evening’s activities. We are planning to go first to Cape Evans (Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition Hut 1910-13) which is the furthest away but the Hut is closest to the landing site so we can get everyone ashore quickly. If conditions permit we will then move to Cape Royds (Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition Hut 1907-09). Both sites are Special Antarctic Protection Areas so we have to of course have a permit but also to follow all the conditions for entry, both biosecurity and to preserve the huts. There are limited numbers allowed in the area at any one time so we are divided into 4 groups rather than our original 2 (penguins and parakeets).
As we head further into McMurdo Sound we are absolutely amazed at how much change there has been in such a short time. The area that had been densely packed with ice only a few hours ago is now almost completely free of ice. We certainly feel for the early explorers and realise that the ice could just as easily come back into the area. As we head south Aaron says that we are going further into the sound so that they can see the edge of the fast ice to give them a better idea of what they are dealing with.
Before too long we can see Hut Point (site of Scott’s Discovery Expedition Hut 1901-1904), we can see both the ships that we saw yesterday and wind turbines and communications equipment on the hills – the US McMurdo Station is just around the corner. NZ’s Scott Base is another 3 miles further around. The ice will stop us going further in so the furthest south we get on our expedition is 77.44S.
Then we have a completely unexpected David Attenborough moment. We are watching thin sheets of ice that appear to be melting as well as breaking up and there a few huddles of penguins. There is a channel of water between this is and the more solid ice behind. We spot a group of orca making their way along the channel and ‘spy hopping’ to see what is going on around them. They work their way quite slowly across and we think they will be hunting the penguins. But then we see one come up through a patch in the broken ice, and then surface again just outside the ice in the open water. We watch in awe as small groups make their way through the ice out to the ocean. There is more to come. The group then breach all around the ship, up and down and all around. There is a group of 3 that includes a young one and they leap in unison completely out of the water just in front of us. There are minke whale blows in the distance as well. We really couldn’t ask for more. It is an unbelievable moment that we will all remember for the rest of our lives. We are so privileged.
With that detour we are now somewhat behind our original expectation of timing and it looks like it will be a long night. As we reach Cape Evans, Heidi outlines the group schedules: Seals go at midnight, followed by the ‘Midnight Photography Zodiac Cruise’, Penguins will go at 1.15, Albatross at 2.30 and Parakeets at 3.45am. To make the most of our time here, it is expected that we will then head to Cape Royd, have some breakfast and begin the next lot of landings. We can sleep on our 3 days at sea on the way home. Thank goodness for 24 hour daylight.
Day 1-2: Meeting and Departure
Day 3: The Snares
Day 4: Auckland Islands – Enderby Island
Day 5: At Sea
Day 6: Macquarie Island
Day 7: Macquarie Island
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: At Sea
Day 10: At Sea
Day 11: At Sea
Day 12: Cape Adare, Antarctica
Day 13: Possession Islands
Day 14: At Sea, Coulman Island
Day 15: At Sea
Day 16: At Sea
Day 17: At Sea, Ross Ice Shelf
Day 18: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 19: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 20: Cape Evans/Cape Royds
Day 21: At Sea
Day 22: At Sea
Day 23: At Sea
Day 24: At Sea
Day 25: At Sea
Day 26: At Sea/Campbell Island
Day 27: Final Day at Sea