Understanding the Gem at the Bottom of the World.
the legendary continent beyond the southern tip of a crowded world, still beckons and thrills. This white land has never been inhabited, and while researchers return every summer, few stay through the winter. For the small-boat adventurer, the season lasts about three months—December, January, and February. Getting there can be a challenge. Between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula stretch 600 miles of Drake Passage, swept frequently by extreme weather systems spinning unimpeded around the globe between longitude 50 south and longitude 60 south.
Forewarned, we watched weather trends in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America and the supply port for yachts, as well as cruise ships, bound for Antarctica. The harbor had already been closed to shipping twice due to high winds when at last we escaped southward to Puerto Williams, a Chilean Navy base. Our voyage approved by the navy, we bounced out into the steep chop of a westerly gale in Beagle Channel.
The anchorage in Bahia Lientur on Isla Wollaston looked really good that evening. Then, just before midnight, the rachas (williwaws)—the sudden gusts of wind coming down from the mountains—changed direction and Whale Song, our 94-foot expedition yacht, began a slow slide downwind. Our monster windlass sounded unusually short of breath pulling up the chain. As we moved to a new spot, our spotlight showed that we had gained another anchor—a large rusty Admiralty anchor was locked in a tight embrace with ours. Since Whale Song carries two anchors, both on 800 feet of chain, we dropped the port anchor. In the morning light I used a heavy line looped from the bow over this antique, slacked our chain and our anchor slipped free. Winching up the loop brought our treasure high under the bow where it looked even larger covered with all kinds of algae, sea lettuce, mystery seaweeds, starfish, and myriad crabs.
Grant Wilson, Whale Song’s owner, thought this anchor a great adornment for his lawn at home, and though its 1,000-pound heft would not have been a challenge for our davit, the extra weight on the bow seemed like a bad idea with the Southern Ocean ahead of us. Consulting the Chilean Wollaston Prefectura Naval solved the problem—they concurred with our assessment, and we released the antique anchor in deep waters north of Cape Horn.
During three days of powering up and down the long and gentle swells of Drake Passage, the most excitement came from royal albatrosses gliding out of the fog as we crossed longitude 60 south and entered colder seas. The landfall on King George Island in the South Shetlands—the outliers of the Antarctic Peninsula—was a gray outline of shore under thick, low clouds. On the south side of the Fildes Peninsula emerged some buildings—a prominent structure of joined containers painted vicious blue—turned out to be the chapel at the Chilean base, Teniente Marsh. On a hill nearby stood a totally different house of worship—an Orthodox Russian church built of weathered planks, complete with three turreted onion towers—the sign of the Russian Bellingshausen Base. A helicopter weighted with fuel drums in a net bag made deafening runs to the shore from an orange supply ship. Here, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, my wife, Nancy, noticed a good signal on her cell phone, dialed her mother, and got her voicemail. Technology!
The skies over Deception Island, a defunct center of the whaling industry, were blessedly quiet. As we navigated Neptune’s Bellows—the narrow channel to Port Foster, a circular caldera of a self-destructed volcano—we were seemingly within arm’s length of the burgundy red cliffs. Yet we had to keep close to them. Ravn Rock, in the middle of the approach, reaches up within 8½ feet of the surface, which is exactly the draft of Whale Song. Cape petrels, the pintados of whalers, wheeled overhead and dotted the craggy pinnacles above. Snow flurries began as we dropped anchor near the beach in Whalers Bay. Snowflakes floated across the landscape of large rusty boilers, crumbling sheds, hulks of weathered, double-ended whale boats and crosses leaning over graves, lending the scene a mood fit for some sad away-from-home Christmas tale. Chinstrap penguins, however, cared not a hoot about the bloody past and whale slaughter— they came running up as we landed. To examine us closely they turned their heads sideways as if saying, “I’m not that interested; you are just like one of us, only four times taller.”
At anchor a few miles into the caldera, off Pendulum Cove, we could see vapor rising over warm pools. Some of our crew stripped down and rolled in the lukewarm water like so many white, uhh… dolphins. Farther inland I explored the hillside, which gradually swept up to snowfields, fire-red rocks poking out here and there. What looked like black sand was solid ice covered with volcanic dust. Still a volcanic hotspot, Deception Island has erupted 10 times since 1800, with countless tremors in between eruptions. In 1967, an eruption rose up in a monstrous mushroom cloud, according to our friend, an ice pilot who was serving on a Chilean Navy vessel at the time. Their ship lay a-hull while their helicopter saved personnel from the Chilean and British stations.
When the sunshine peeled off the low overcast, the 1,800foot Mount Pond came into view. At this sign of good weather we weighed anchor. Deception has one of the largest rookeries of chinstrap penguins, most of them on the highlands of the eastern outer coast. There, once again, the ice cap looked like cliffs of black ice. In one place, water jetted under great pressure,
apparently out of a solid wall. By the latest count, some 50,000 chinstrap pairs gather there, despite an overall decline in numbers. Whale Song finally settled at anchor south of Baily Head by rock pinnacles named Sewing-Machine Needles. Here, too, chinstraps lined all accessible ridges under a vertical wall of either rock or black ice—we couldn’t tell while standing far away on the black sand beach.
As that island of hellish color and history dropped behind us, we realized what a world of white mountains lay ahead. On Hoseason Island, an immaculate peak dominated the anchorage. The southwest wind came after midnight, schussing down the heights in a howl so that while heading south in the morning Whale Song hugged the steep white shore. In open sea under blue sky the wind dropped, yet the sea heaved up and down, lumped into conflicting peaks. Turbulent seas sent geysers of spray on passing pinnacled icebergs. On one of them a gang of penguins had decided to take a rest. They would catch a surging wave, surf up the ice, then try to cling to the glass-smooth ice surface as the water receded. Now we better understood their huge, muscular feet with claws fit for a bear. The 30-knot southwesterly returned near Brabant Island—the jagged mountains, some over 8,000 feet, accelerated that day’s generally moderate breezes. Heavy spray drummed on the pilothouse windows framing the peaks that tumbled from the clouds and threw them downwind like rags— hurricane-force winds ruled up there.
With Gerlach Strait astern, the sea flattened in Neumayer Channel. The soaring peaks, now closer to the boat, rose in a crescendo of white, still ripping the clouds to shreds. All was calm in the Port Lockroy anchorage with the old British station now acting as a museum with the earth’s southernmost post office for cruise ships. Gentoo penguins crowding around clearly thought humans a welcome diversion. The scenery here could only be Antarctic: Whale Song swung to anchor under a snow-white ice cap topped by a 4,642-foot peak, while across the channel on Anvers Island, the white cone rose 6,000 feet. To starboard, a range of saw-tooth black basalt “nunataks” dominated the skyline.
The parade of black peaks pushing through white ice bordered our serpentine course through the ice growlers of Peltier Channel. At Cape Renard, thick ice barred its way into Le Maire Strait. I thought of following a small Russian cruise ship that pushed through ahead. Whale Song has an ice-class hull and propellers, but the two stabilizers sticking out from the bottom were no match for half-submerged growlers. We had to reroute northward, and the same day Whale Song arrived off the U.S. Palmer Station. The calving resident glacier choked the main bay. The dockmaster, who had just received a forecast of gale-force winds, advised mooring in the creek right by the station. Our drums of long mooring lines came into play—two went onto the shore ahead and two on the rocks astern. When the wind came, a river of ice streamed to the open sea clear of the cozy creek. The station gave us a tour of various projects, sent an invitation to lunch, and opened the store where we loaded up on Palmer Station fleece hoodies.
Dreaming of the Arctic Circle at longitude 66° 33’ south, the Whale Song explorers powered out bravely into a snowy morning ocean. Although the wind eased to 15 knots, the sea was rough and massive icebergs appeared like ghosts in poor visibility. High on nervous tension, we somehow worked inside the Argentine Islands and began a long search for a place to anchor. The beautiful collection of grand, though unfriendly, bergs plugged up all possible spots. In the end, we managed to squeeze into Skua Creek. In this narrow slot we couldn’t really put out enough scope and test our anchors in reverse. One shore was steep, smooth ice, with nothing to hold our mooring warps. So for extra insurance, using our smaller dinghy, we stuck our
huge, yet portable, aluminum Fortress anchor in a shallow bottom crevice off the bow. The stern warps went onto the rocks astern. While the gale that had been forcasted never came to test our setup, the crew’s stamina was tested later during a morning visit to Vernadsky Station, a couple of creeks away. In “the southernmost bar in the world” our hosts uncorked enough homemade vodka for several toasts to the friendship of the U.S. and Ukraine in maintaining this project. Then, that iceberg at the entrance capsized. Our tender had to go ahead to check the depth over an ice spur clearly visible in the water. Skua Creek was a thrill.
With the ice to the south thicker than our vessel’s capabilities, we headed north along the mainland, the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice of Le Maire Channel cleared in this corridor leading through enormous coal-black basalt peaks so steep that neither snow nor ice could cling to them. Soon after, the channel williwaws arrived, whipping water into rising twisters. Port Lockroy beckoned once more. We powered right under the glacier’s wall to keep in smoother water, but the squalls still pounced on the boat. Twice the anchor had to come up when we dragged—a muscle-building job for the person who had to flake the 5/8-inch chain in the chain locker. A lucky third attempt brought congratulations from a sailboat at anchor nearby: They had already done this four times and were happy to be spectators.
Our visit to Paradise Bay—clearly a misnomer—ended up as a mission of mercy. The Chilean base, González Videla, was out of drinking water—the supply ship had been delayed. A few thousand penguins along with a century’s worth of their droppings covered the nearby ice field—forget melting that ice. Plus the Antarctic Treaty bans open fires. Equipped with two watermakers, we produced 400 gallons for the station before the wind arrived again, the anchor began slipping on heavy kelp, and a couple of resident bergs aimed straight for Whale Song.
There is one chance in these waters to actually tie the boat alongside—not to a wharf, by any means, but to the wreck of a whaling vessel, the Governøren. Whale Song powered north along the rugged Danco Coast. While watching a distant sailboat beating across Andvord Bay we got another bagful of williwaws streaming from the ice cap of Forbidden Plateau. At Enterprise Island, though, the wreck of the Governøren rested in calm water. Running warps on the slanting deck was a bit like rock climbing. But once moored, Whale Song couldn’t drag, so there was no need for an anchor watch—a welcome change from routine. On this peaceful evening we counted our fuel stocks against distances ahead—in Antarctica larger yachts have no chance to top up. All aboard agreed to head north again and in a few days see how much longer we could cruise.
Moderate winds came from the west, and a noticeable fair current helped some, too. Livingston Island appeared clearly ahead. Though it rises to 5,500 feet, we almost missed it in the heavy fog on our way south. At close quarters it unfolded such dramatic mountains that Whale Song soon turned to Half Moon Island anchorage and found a friendly teetotal reception powered with mighty espressos at the Argentine Cámara Base. A beach led to rocky steeples where chinstraps tended big downy chicks. Across the water two blindingly bright glaciers rose to a tremendous peak. According to one world-class climber who had made it to the top, Livingston Island had “the worst weather [they] ever experienced!”
BEYOND TERROR GULF
And the weather surely came the next day just as we decided our fuel could last through a visit to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Three humpbacks, repeatedly breaching, kept the same easterly heading for a while as heavy water began flying
in a steady 40-knot gale out of a cloudless sky. We turned tail to King George Island. The island is rich in scientific endeavor, Chilean, Russian, Argentine, Korean, Chinese Great Wall, Peruvian Macchu Picchu. Entering Admiralty Bay first came the Polish Arctowski, and the anchor went down off the Brazilians in Copacabana. The snout of an ice cap right off the bow reduced some wind but kept dropping large chunks. A few times I had to turn on the engines to swing out of the way of heavier growlers. Anchored in 150 feet, we had enough chain out to allow this trick.
Our last dream wish aimed at penetrating into Erebus and Terror Gulf, a northern part of the Weddell Sea. Powering south toward Antarctic Sound, Whale Song wove a zigzagged course among increasingly massive icebergs, the shapes varying from skyscrapers toppled on their sides, sometimes in pairs, to vast tubular bergs that would diminish nuclear aircraft carriers to bathtub toys. And there were even bergs formed into dry-docks of ice. Reaching a strange red rock phenomenon called Brown Bluff stopped us for a couple of days. Over 2,000 feet high, Brown Bluff is an extinct volcano termed a “tuya;” its flat top was created when the eruption burst through heavy ice cover. The shape and red hues of Brown Bluff were never before seen in Antarctica.
The bluff towered over thousands of Adélie penguins, many chicks in molt. On one chunk of grounded ice dozed a satiated leopard seal, its lips still bloody after chomping on some luckless penguins. Tidewater glaciers stretched out on either side of the red monolith; a few thousand penguins kept busy on shore while higher up nested cape petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, and kelp gulls. From dawn through midnight dusk, troops of Adélies hurried out to sea, porpoising through the anchorage.
Erebus and Terror Gulf commemorates the two ships of James Clark Ross, who explored most of the coastal waters of Antarctica—in the 1840s and totally under sail. For the ice-class, steel Whale Song, however, it didn’t take long to get stuck. Only a few narrow leads wound among thick floes while farther ahead the ice thickened into small bergs. Although the forecast for sunny-calm to prevail a while longer in Drake’s Passage, I was concerned about Whale Song’s ultimate stability, because she was now light on fuel. For a little assurance I flooded some empty tanks with fresh water, and we headed north through the iceberg alley of Bransfield Strait. With 24 hours of summer daylight, our watch would spot ice for at least two days north of the South Shetland Islands. Our luck held in variable light winds, and the “Drake Lake” never stirred up in anger. In the fading light under a bright moon, with a comet hightailing across the sky, Cape Horn came into sight—a spectacular end to an exciting three weeks of an Antarctic cruise.
Summer in Antarctica uncovers some of her sercrets.