Day 18 - Cierva Cove, The Antarctic Peninsula...the last day
This was it. This was the last morning I would wake up looking upon the glory and majesty of Antarctica. The last morning where I would be greeted on deck by icebergs, glaciers, snow-covered islands and landmasses. The last morning I would look up at the sky and not see any contrails from man.
The view from Deck 5-Aft looking into Cierva Cove
The sight that greeted Damo and I as we stood on the Deck 5-Aft was white and blue heaven. Icebergs, sea ice, fast ice, mini-bergs, snow, snow-capped mountains and snow-covered land surrounded us. It was a glorious, yet freezing, morning with no wind. It was frankly quite ridiculous. As we stood supping our coffee and brushing the biscuit crumbs off our fleeces, there was no need for any words to be exchanged. The vista was breathtaking. Then, the unmistakable sound of a whale taking a breath broke the silence. A quick scan off the stern revealed the leviathan to us. Well, a mini-leviathan. The characteristic arched back of a Humpback Whale, a juvenile, emerged from the icy waters again, taking a breath and diving. It did this for the entire morning we were there, albeit keeping a good distance from the Zodiacs and the ship. What a welcome to Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula.
A juvenile Humpback Whale surfaces amongst the icebergs and sea fast ice.
The area was just covered with sea ice and icebergs. A massive glacier spilled down to the sea, with a face that was over 100 feet high. The icebergs that calved from this glacier were, to me, enormous. The scale of the scene was so difficult to take in. A scout Zodiac zipping across the sea and light sea ice, going past some icebergs, did put a scale on the vista we were looking out on. Once we were out on the water, seeing the ship against some of the 'bergs were really put into context. The different colours of the 'bergs were quite amazing. From pure whites to off-white to blue to being totally transparent. Very small chunks of floating ice that rise only about 1 meter/3 feet out of the water are called "growlers". When trapped air escapes as the iceberg melts, it sometimes makes a sound like the growl of an animal, and that's how growlers got their name. Some of these growlers are transparent (called black growlers) and are a serious threat to shipping lanes where icebergs or growlers occur, as they are very difficult to see. The Cove was simply covered with growlers and black growlers. It was tricky navigating through them in the Zodiac.
The next thing on the agenda was to land and set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. For that, we headed around to Base Primavera, an Argentinian base on the peninsula. Each Zodiac took it in turns to land, have a photograph taken with the flag and then back on the Zodiac again for further cruising around Cierva Cove. I was fortunate to be on the Zodiac with Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Jim and a couple of other passengers. It was great to be piloted around by Paul. His eye for a photograph was just amazing to see in action as he pointed the Zodiac in the right place, using the light and reflections from the sea and 'bergs. Cristina was also incredible to watch in action, swapping cameras and using different focal length lenses and different perspectives for particular situations. It was a brilliant learning experience from a photography standpoint. In case you are wondering, I did set foot on the peninsula and the photograph below is proof! There were about a dozen Weddell Seals hauled out in well-worn dips in the ice there. It was great to see them so close and they did not pay us any attention at all save for a fleeting glance. A South Polar Skua was also lounging around, waiting for any scraps that surrounded the seals.
Paul Nicklen, Cheli Larsen and Cristina Mittermeier
A rare photograph of me, and an even rarer one of me standing on the Antarctic Peninsula (with thanks to Jim Wilson for taking the photograph).
After the stop off, we headed back to the ship to have lunch. Paul took us by some seriously impressive icebergs, some of which were close to flipping over, which would be quite dangerous to be near if it happened. We also swept by a Chinstrap Penguin colony high up the slope near Primavera Base. The penguin highways were clearly visible through the snow and ice. It is amazing how these birds survive down here and how they manage to walk up those slopes. Very impressive. Antarctic Imperial Shags balanced precariously on top of unstable icebergs, while Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and both Brown and South Polar Skuas patrolled the area for an easy meal. "Danger" Dave Riordan then gave a fine example of daredevil Zodiac driving while sitting in a kayak...
After lunch, we headed off across the Gerlache Straits to Mikkelsen Harbour on the south side of Trinity Island, and the smaller D'Hainaut Island which is found in the middle of the harbour and home to a small Argentinian refuge and a series of Gentoo Penguin colonies. We passed some massive icebergs on our transit across the Straits, as well as one of the only ships we encountered on our trip in these waters. This was one of the Russian-owned cruise ships, meandering through those massive icebergs. Having to gaze across another ship was almost an affront to our perceived isolation and expedition-esque journey. There were very few birds on this crossing, the odd Wilson's Storm Petrel and Southern Giant Petrel. A White-chinned Petrel or two was the best there, while a couple of Snow Petrels flew past as well. I spent some time just leaning against the hull of the ship, taking it all in. The realisation that we would be on our way later that evening was beginning to sink in.
Once the Gerlache Strait was traversed, we arrived at D'Hainaut Island, which is home to Weddell Seals and Gentoo Penguins. The typical raiders of South Polar and Brown Skuas, Southern Giant Petrels and Kelp Gulls, and the enigmatic Snowy Sheathbill were also present. A handful of Adelie Penguins, looking suitably lost, were near the landing area. The nearest breeding colony of Adelie's was quite a ways away, so we were not sure what they were doing there. Maybe they were spreading out and looking for new breeding areas. Only time will tell, I guess. This little island was very easy to walk around, despite the hilly terrain. There were Gentoo colonies dotted all around. It was lovely to just stroll around, take in the vista and breathe in the odour of penguin pooh for the final time this trip. The weather was glorious, with blue sky, little cloud and no wind. It was a fitting end to what had been a trip of a lifetime. I had loved every second of it. I could not take enough in. I was knackered but exhilarated all at the same time.
As we walked back down the slope to the landing area, we were greeting once again by the slumber party that had congregated there; a couple of Weddell Seals and the five Adelie Penguins. A Brown Skua had joined the party, its bill dripping dark red blood from its latest snack, a penguin egg. Kelp Gulls scooted by, saying their goodbyes and the Giant Petrels zoomed over our heads like the Nazgûl about to strike terror into everything below. I made sure to savour the last moments ashore on Antarctica, and sat down on the snow-covered hill with the bones of slaughtered whales for company, watching a large Elephant Seal snooze on the rocky shoreline, and a Snowy Sheathbill picking its way around it. As I was implored by our great leader Cheli Larsen to "get in the bloody Zodiac", I rubbed some Antarctic dirt into my de-gloved hands and said goodbye to the most amazing place I have ever visited.
It was with a really heavy heart that I stepped foot in the Zodiac for the last time. When we bounced off the pontoon of the Zodiac and on to the splash deck of the ship, I washed my boots as normal in the biocidal wash for the final time and we set sail once more. We were heading into the Bransfield Strait, named after the man who is credited as being the first person to see Antarctica and who was born and raised a mere 20 miles from my home. Once clear of the Bransfield Strait, it was a 2 day journey to Ushuaia across the dreaded Drake Passage...
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