We continued our cruise of the Antarctic going to St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia Island, which, according to our expedition team is “just the most amazing place in the world,” probably because of the largest King Penguin and Elephant Seal concentration in the area.. How many penguins? 200,000 breeding pairs and 100,000 chicks in various stages of development.. Yep, a half million penguins just waiting to be photographed Penguins as far as the eye could see and even further. And, yes, you could smell them before you could see them. There is such a trusting sweetness in encountering a penguin. They seem to have no fear of humans and if you remain quiet and still they will approach you. Any sudden moves will cause a flutter of feathers and a quick, if waddling, retreat to a safer distance.
A wonderful aspect of cruising the Antarctic region is that you are always among the wildlife. You cannot find a sky empty of birds, there were always petrels, skuas or albatross to be seen. The seas were alive with shoals of foraging penguins and torpedo-like leopard and crab eater seals patrolling the shorelines. And, sometimes, pods of Humpback and Southern Right Whales could be heard in the distance.
The Drygalski Fjord was next. Filled with glaciers and surrounded by tall peaks, this is, perhaps the only place on earth where you can reach out one arm to the old super continent of Gondwana, and the other arm to the new world. It was astonishing peaceful and beautiful.
When Captain Cook sailed to South Georgia in 1775 he believed he had found a headland of the mythical continent Terra Australis Incognita, when he realized that he had only discovered another island he named the southern end Cape Disappointment.
From South Georgia we would continue south/southeast to South Orkney Island and a stop at Base Orcadas, a meteorologic and seismic research station operated by the Argentinian navy. Base Orcadas had not welcomed a ship in eleven months and a particularly welcome visitor was the chef from our ship who brought crates of fresh vegetables and fresh eggs to the station crew. South Orkney was our first taste of “real” Antarctic weather, high winds, a significant amount o snow falling and s severe drop in temperature. I loved it! It felt like Antarctica and my day dreams of forging through polar conditions came to fruition. Fortunately, they were not long lived. We were welcomed into the research station and feted with tea and pastries, as well as an opportunity to buy souvenirs such as patches to sew on jackets, maps and other bits of memorabilia.
The most memorable member of the welcoming committee at Base Orcadas was a lone Adelie penguin who followed us like a faithful puppy from one location to another frequently entertaining us with tobogganing moments of locomotion and standing still long enough for a productive photo session.
Back aboard the Fram we were greeted and treated to a hot chocolate with a shot of rum to chase away the Antarctic shivers and then we settled into the Panorama lounge to watch an incoming storm blossom into hurricane strength. We watched, in comfort as snow and high winds increased eventually topping the Beaufort Scale. But the Fram sailed as confidently and serenely as a duck on a mill pond under the well-seasoned command of Captain Rune Andreassen.
We were now sailing ever further south and planned to cruise by Elephant Island, we cruised by but weather conditions prevented a good view of the island made famous as the home to 22 members of Shackelton’s ill-fated 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. For four and a half months these men struggled to survive on one of the most remote and desolate islands in the world, struggling to survive in over turned lifeboats as they awaited rescue.
From here we would sail to the Antarctic Peninsula, and for the first time be able to actually set foot on the Antarctic continent. Adventure awaits us!