Day 12 - Moltke Harbour and Drygalski Fjord

April 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The morning of the 12th day of the trip was rougher than normal. This was evidenced by the appearance of sick bags on the handrails throughout the ship and the bigger roll of the ship as I partook in a game of pinball with the walls of the ship's corridors. After carefully getting my coffee (and biscuits) onto its usual spot at Deck 4 Aft prior to breakfast, I set about checking to see what was around. What was noticeable was the apparent drop in temperatures. It was frickin' freezing. The sea spray was freezing on the deck of the ship and icicles were being formed along the railings. This was the coldest yet. Time went by and soon it was necessary to grab breakfast prior to our morning excursion to Moltke Harbour. I quickly made a beeline for the dining room for a massive mug of hot coffee and the Chef's Special omelette. 


Sea spray freezes on the railings of the MV Sea Spirit as we headed further south

MC000765 glacierMC000765 glacier

One of the many glaciers scattered along the coast of South Georgia.

Having warmed up during breakfast, I headed back up on deck for more punishment thrills and adrenaline rushes in the bitterly cold wind. The usual species were making themselves obvious as we steamed towards Moltke Harbour, our port of call for the morning. Pintado, Antarctic Prions, Blue Petrels, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatross, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Wilson's and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, White-chinned Petrels and Northern Giant Petrels. A single Common Diving Petrel was a highlight from the deck. With snow falling as we approached Moltke Harbour, a pair of Snow Petrels appeared out of the blizzard and circled the ship for a time. What a rush!!! I was running inside looking for one of the passengers, a legend of a man called Ritch, who hails from Hawaii. He was determined to see Snow Petrel, so I was delighted to point them out to him. 

MC000612 PintadoMC000612 Pintado

Pintado or Cape Petrel or Cape Pigeon floats over the surface of the Southern Ocean. I love these birds. 

MC000622 Snow PetrelMC000622 Snow Petrel

Snow Petrels through the their element. MC000650 Snow PetrelMC000650 Snow Petrel

Snow Petrel MC000685 Wilsons PetrelMC000685 Wilsons Petrel

Wilson's Storm Petrel MC000854 Antarctic PrionMC000854 Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prions

MC000910 Antarctic PetrelMC000910 Antarctic Petrel

Antarctic Prion MC000942 Blue PetrelMC000942 Blue Petrel

Blue Petrel MC000900 Antarctic and Blue PetrelMC000900 Antarctic and Blue Petrel

Antarctic Prion (left) and Blue Petrel (right). Easy to distinguish these species from each other by the pattern/colouring on the undertail and uppertail feathers. DSCF1191DSCF1191

Moltke could smell the Fur Seals from here! Some rare blue sky peeking through the cloud.

When we reached Moltke Harbour, the smell of the Fur Seals was very obvious on the wind. It was also soon apparent to those of us out on deck that there was no way we were going to land Zodiacs here. It was just too rough. The wave heights were too big at the back of the ship where we would get into the Zodiacs. And this was soon confirmed over the tannoy when a recon team went to suss out the landing. Time to drive on. It was the first time that a landing/Zodiac tour had been cancelled on the trip. Quite incredible really, when one considers where we were and the conditions that usually prevail. We were very lucky in that regard. However, I think some passengers looked slightly relieved as it was very, very cold out there. As Moltke Harbour was out of bounds, we headed for Dyrgalski Fjord earlier than planned. We were not sure if it was going to be possible to access the Fjord as it had a tendency to be ice-bound due to ice shed from the Risting Glacier, which sits at the end of the Fjord, and from sea ice coming up from the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. The birds continued to appear. My first Chinstrap Penguins of the trip were seen porpoising out of the increasingly rougher seas, and Albatrosses swept along in total control, accompanied by Prions and Petrels. 

MC001079 BP BBAMC001079 BP BBA

A Blue Petrel following a Black-browed Albatross in worsening conditions   MC001102 Penguin porpoiseMC001102 Penguin porpoise

A Gentoo Penguin porpoises behind 3 Chinstrap first Chinstraps of the trip! Antarctic Prion and Blue Petrel are in the background.   MC001112 Grey-headed AlbatrossMC001112 Grey-headed Albatross

Grey-headed Albatross

Soon the icebergs started appearing as well. My jaw dropped when I saw my first. I have seen plenty of sea ice before in northern Japan during the winter months, together with frozen harbours, but I had never seen an iceberg before. This was epic. We really were heading towards Antarctic waters now. The richness and depth of the wildlife we had experienced so far from Ushuaia to St. Andrew's Bay, was suddenly being usurped and replaced by the bleak and barren landscape of south-east South Georgia being brushed by a massive tabular iceberg from Antarctica. Things were changing on the horizon. 

DSCF1214DSCF1214 MC001103 Iceberg landMC001103 Iceberg land A massive tabular iceberg, probably from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, floats past our boat and the south-east corner of South Georgia. A Light-mantled Sooty Albatross heads towards it, while Antarctic Prions glide below. 

MC001124 Iceberg petrelsMC001124 Iceberg petrels Antarctic Prion and Cape Petrels fly past the iceberg.

MC001118 IcebergMC001118 Iceberg MC001143 IcebergMC001143 Iceberg As we entered Drygalski Fjord, we were greeted with snow-covered sheer cliffs and Snow Petrels. Thankfully, we were not greeted with pack ice and icebergs! Drygalski Fjord is a bay 1 mile (1.6 km) wide which recedes northwestwards 7 miles (11 km), entered immediately north of Nattriss Head along the southeast coast of South Georgia. The sheerness of the cliff faces, the size and scale of the place was so difficult to grasp. Trying to portray this in images is even more difficult. This was becoming a common theme throughout the trip! It was also the first time that many, if not all, of the expedition crew were going to tour in and around Drygalski Fjord on a Zodiac, so the excitement in all was palpable. The team were itching to get out on the water and have a look at the Risting Glacier, explore the nooks and crannies, and just see what was out there. The water was not too rough but the air was freezing. Snow was constantly falling, albeit not too heavily. It really added to the scene and atmosphere though. 

DSCF1227DSCF1227 DSCF1235DSCF1235 The entrance to Drygalski Fjord MC001174 Snow PetrelMC001174 Snow Petrel Snow Petrel in the snow MC__0582 DrygalskiMC__0582 Drygalski

National Geographic Photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier take the first Zodiac out to test the waters of Drygalski Fjord. 

What we did not expect to see as we puttered around on the Zodiacs was a feeding flock of about 40-50 Snow Petrels. I was in a Zodiac with Dave "Danger Dave" Riordan (great guy), whose family originally came from Cork and Italy! Dave brought us gently towards the feeding flock. They were calling and bickering on the water, as well as roosting up on the brash ice that had broken off the Risting Glacier found at the end of the Fjord. They were truly mesmerising, sitting on the cobalt blue waters. Another aspect of the fjord was the colour of the water. It was the richest of blue, and most mineral-rich sea water I have ever seen.

MC001218 Snow PetrelMC001218 Snow Petrel MC001276 Snow PetrelMC001276 Snow Petrel MC001282 Snow PetrelMC001282 Snow Petrel MC001344 Snow PetrelMC001344 Snow Petrel MC001353 Snow PetrelMC001353 Snow Petrel MC001361 Snow PetrelMC001361 Snow Petrel MC001364MC001364 MC001371 Snow PetrelMC001371 Snow Petrel MC001379 Snow Petrel portMC001379 Snow Petrel port MC__0601 DrygalskiMC__0601 Drygalski MC001456 Snow PetrelMC001456 Snow Petrel MC001479 Snow PetrelMC001479 Snow Petrel MC001501 Snow petrelsMC001501 Snow petrels MC001511 Snow PetrelsMC001511 Snow Petrels

After leaving the Snow Petrels to do their thing, we toured around the Fjord, listening to the glacier creak, groan and moan. The cracks were loud and echoed around the Fjord, signalling a potential calving event at the front of the glacier. On one occasion an event occurred after such a crack and it was such a wonderful thing to witness, seeing a massive chunk of ice fall away into the sea from the face of the glacier. The Antarctic Terns, Snow Petrels and Pintado also feed along the front of the Risting Glacier, where the meltwater cascades into the sea. The Risting Glacier is 4.5 nautical miles long, lying north of Jenkins Glacier and flowing southeast into the head of Drygalski Fjord. 

MC001388 Snow Petrel glacierMC001388 Snow Petrel glacier MC001392 Antarctic Terns PintadoMC001392 Antarctic Terns Pintado MC001421 Snow Petrel iceMC001421 Snow Petrel ice MC__0640 DrygalskiMC__0640 Drygalski

The face of the Risting Glacier.  MC__0645 DamoMC__0645 Damo

Damian Caniglia ( at the bow of the Zodiac being driven by Emma, leading his photographic tour group around the fjord. Great guy.  MC001546 PintadoMC001546 Pintado

Pintado (Cape Petrel) MC__0697 DrygalskiMC__0697 Drygalski

The face of the Risting Glacier, with the MV Sea Spirit there for scale. A Zodiac can be seen on the left, with a few more near the front of the glacier. 

MC__0718 DrygalskiMC__0718 Drygalski

The blue glacial ice floating in the blue glacial waters.

A handful of Gentoo Penguins were dotted around, looking lost and forlorn. Brown Skuas and Kelp Gulls also quartered the skies looking for food. A handful of Antarctic Fur Seals were hauled up along the steep edges. But it was a few Weddell Seals, our first of the trip, that got the most attention. Although they are the most numerous seal in Antarctic waters, we only saw a dozen at best. We casually drove around, seeing some more Weddell Seals, Brown Skuas and a couple of King Penguins, also looking a bit lost on the steep-sided shoreline. Dave skilfully navigated the glacial ice in the water, being careful not to get too carried away as we sped over some brash ice. The sound of the ice off the base of the Zodiac was a bit unnerving! Great fun though. South Georgian Shags also hung around the rocks and scree. It was so quiet. When the engine was turned off, the quietness of the place was overwhelming. The snow kept falling and we were finally called to shore. It was time to leave one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. 

MC__0671 DrygalskiMC__0671 Drygalski MC001573 Wedell SealMC001573 Wedell Seal

Weddell Seal  MC001630 Antarctic TernMC001630 Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern MC001646 GentooMC001646 Gentoo

Gentoo Penguin

MC__0745 DrygalskiMC__0745 Drygalski MC__1078 Damo, Nicklen and PeterMC__1078 Damo, Nicklen and Peter

Paul Nicklen drives the Zodiac in the background, while my cousin Peter Wilson drives the Zodiac in the foreground. It was quite cold now, having been out on the sea for 3-4 hrous in the snow and facing the wind coming off the Glacier. We did get some hot chocoloate and Bailey's delivered via Zodaic though! That was a nice touch.

This was, hands down, the best and most moving of experiences on my trip. I think the knowledge that we were leaving behind the mind-boggling mass of wildlife on South Georgia and heading towards the desolate and sparse Antarctic continent added to it. Dyrgalski Fjord gave an idea of what it would be like but the beauty and peacefulness I felt in the Fjord will stay with me forever. 


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