I think it is fair to say that we were not really ready for the cold, the biting cold, pervasive and persistent. And it wasn’t even freezing, at least not during the daytime. Everyone had brought warm(er)clothes but probably many, if not all, forgot to pack also a new mindset. Overall I believe that we had been somewhat naïve about the essence of this place: it is a hostile land even though it offers fairy views.

From the Falklands we sprinted for 600 miles to arrive at five in the nascent morning at far eastern end of Elephant Island. It may not ring many bells but this island was a witness to one of the greatest polar heroics of the early explorers. Twenty-five daring guys got stranded, the boat destroyed and Ernest Shackleton, the expedition leader, used a lifeboat and five men to row to South Georgia, 500 miles away, and returned, five months later, to save the others. We were lucky as we caught the place as the sun rose, and shone on rock and ice. A few sizeable icebergs emerged from the shadows, while ice and rock created idyllic images. The viewing conditions even allowed us to see the imposing Endurance Glacier across ten mile “mouth”.

Because we had an appointment with “real big icebergs” on the inside of the Antarctic Peninsula, we turned South after an hour for the next race. The following days icebergs would always be somewhere around us, sometimes pretty looking, at other times nasty. The spouts of accompanying whales kept me busier than the icebergs, changeable weather permitting. We entered the Antarctic Sound (at the very tip of the trunk, which is called Graham Land) just after noon. Once again the weather cooperated, the sun was everywhere.

Describing the visual and auditory experience that Antarctica offers, is a challenge that I have no intention of taking on. Even though they say that one picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand pictures cannot commence to convey Antarctica, not even the little patch that I would be visiting. In the end it is this enormous variety of physical and biological creation, which hits you continuously right up in your face, that makes the Antarctic wilderness into the grandiose attraction that it really is.

In the Sound we found gigantic icebergs, many tens of square miles apiece that were broken off the Ice shelve, floating gently but purposefully out to sea, We also discovered young penguins enjoying the sun basking and deep diving around floating ice SCHOTS, while their parents are still molting on the shores. And birds, and seals, and sea lions, and hanging glaciers and land glaciers, and people – in bases, and birds, and, and …

One thing we learned about penguins is that you always know when they are coming or going. Indeed when they are coming towards you, they always look white, when they are going they turn pitch black. That colorful black and white show is very evident when the seals or sea-lions are lurking, usually looking disinterested, in the neighborhood. We ended up all the way down to Esperanza Bay, which has been settled by Argentina. Settled is the right word because the first Antarctic (human) baby was born here on the 7th of January in 1978 and this base hosts families only.

From Antarctic Sound we sped up North again to Deception Island. By the time we arrived, just before sunset, the skies had clouded up and we were left to consume only the deception. Under cover of night, we steamed up to “my” area: the Belgian archipelago. That is not really what it is called officially but Belgian cities, provinces and explorers have given their name to many island, bays and straits.

The primary causes for this surprising state of affairs were the polar expeditions of Adrien de Gerlache, a noble and rich son of the city of Antwerp, in the late 19th century. Early in the morning we passed Brabant Island and then went on to Anvers Island; Anvers is the French name for Antwerp. (Until the end of the 20th century many “rich people” in the city spoke French, rather than Flemish, at home as well as in the executive rooms).

The idea today was to actually navigate the “Gerlache Straits” and visit a few picturesque bays that were strewn along the way. The weather would do its very best to show all its colors, except for full blue! Still Culverville Bay and Paradise Bay were pearls in the gallery of natural polar sculptures, even with nebulosity setting in. Although wonderful, it must be mentioned that icebergs in the narrow straits or in glacier-walled bays, project a different posture than they do in the open sea. It is definitely crowded at times, and deciding when to turn and how to turn a big ship requires careful observation, by ice watchers on the bridge, and, I am sure, excellent sonar equipment.

By early afternoon the wind suddenly picked up and we made out to the Bismarck Strait. That is a relatively wide thoroughfare along the southern shores of Anvers Island, albeit not free of drifting ice, in all shapes and sizes. After gusting up to 60kts, mixing in some snow for good measure, the icy, bone-chilling wind died down. But by then the bridge had decided to call it a day, as far as sightseeing was concerned. That would prove to have been a wise decision.

Indeed by six, full afternoon so to speak, we got a replay. Actually it was much worse. By dinner time we had escaped to the open ocean, where the waves averaged a very uncomfortable 15 to 20 feet, but where ice was no threat. Many tables were not as occupied as on an average night. The ferocious storm, the barometer had meanwhile plunged to 960mb, would take the foot off the throttle by three in the morning, just in time to catch a little bit of sleep before hitting “the Antarctic Road” again.

Our next target was Palmer Station, where we would pick up American researchers who would present on the ship about their work at the base, and then we continued down to the famous Lemaire Channel. (Lemaire, explorer in the Congo, was a friend of Gerlache). The weather improved very much in a very short time, typical Antarctic variability. And it would stay relatively sunny, with haze and little wind, until we would leave for our return to a hospitable world.

The scenery in this channel is breath taking and, on a good day, it is passable from North to South over its entire 7 mile length. At its narrowest point it is about one mile wide, and usually clogged with ice. I was actually surprised by the size of the icebergs that came out of the whited granite hole! And, pushed by a current estimated at 4 to 5kts, they were awe inspiring. Unfortunately our captain could not discover a safe way through the ice, and we turned around, to go and visit the alternative site, named Neumayer Bay (and Channel) where a British station, surrounded by loads of Gettoo penguins (and their predators, of course). Here again, with the sun illuminating the snow covered granite spires, there was no lack of the magic images that we had encountered all over the place, visibility allowing.

Apart from discovering this “extra-ordinary virginal environment, the US delegation brought us up to speed with some of the research that they conduct. With a summer occupation of 36 persons (and 16 in winter) Palmer is the smallest of three US bases in Antarctica. McMurdo, about 300 miles away, houses 1100 staff in the summer, and is the biggest station on Antarctic “soil”. The Palmer scientists focus on biology, in particular on the food chain, from mammalians all the way to the smallest plants. They have discovered viral beings that actually help plants to survive in the freezing waters, and have actively studied the “Icefish”. That is very outlandish species, and is unique in terms of blood color: it is white, because it lacks hemoglobin. The challenge is to figure out how the entire metabolism (oxygen transport) works.

As we left Palmer to go North again, I came to realize that no pictures no explanations can convey the immensity of this continent, because, in the end, they cannot convey the simultaneousness of all the elements that make Antarctica absolutely unique. You have to come here and undergo the influences of this beautiful and hostile environment.

Prinsendam, Day 41 – Monday Feb 14th, 2011

Swell and waves will be on our side while sailing to Tierra del Fuego, Fireland!