Entering the Weddell Sea: the ice thickens

We had a quiet night at Brown Bluff before heaving anchor at 0600 to head south into the Weddell Sea, where Shackleton became caught in the ice over winter. Europa passed through the narrow Fridtjof Sound: it is not always passable for ice but that morning the bergs were far apart. It was a stunning sunrise with glorious light reflected from the sea and ice.

Many beautiful icebergs surrounded us as we continued across Erebus and Terror Gulf. The area is named after the two ships used Sir James Ross used for exploring in 1843. (Fridtjorf was the Swedish ship dispatched to search for Nordenskjold, but the Argentinian Uruguay got there first.) We had to motor much of the way as there were 20-30 knot headwinds. Such southerlies make it very cold: it was -6°C out of the wind and some crew members (much more experienced than me in such conditions) estimated it at -20°C on the bows in the wind. Yes: that’s where we stand watch looking for dangerous bits of ice. It was extremely chilly up there and I was wearing the full panoply of cold weather gear a lot of the time. 

The ice started to thicken and when we arrived at our projected anchorage on the north side of Devil’s Island it was cluttered with bergs and brash ice. Instead we moved around to the south side, in the wee channel between Devil’s Island and Vega. It was not somewhere Europa had anchored before and felt gloriously sheltered. In fact, when the tide changed in the evening lots of smaller bergs came drifting in and it was a busy anchor watch looking out for them.

Before then we had an exciting landing. Devil’s Island is only about a mile long and quite narrow, with a summit at each end. Maybe it was named for looking like a little pair of horns. The scouting zodiac found a place among the ice where we could scramble ashore over the rocks (this picture being a still from another go pro movie returning to the boat) and then up a steep little pipe in the cliff to reach the lava plateau above. We had a lovely view of Europa with the glaciers of Vega behind her before walking across the saddle between the summits to contemplate the glorious vista of the sea and Peninsula coast on the far side.

In the breeding season, Devil’s Island is home hundreds of Adelie penguins, but only a few remained now, basking in the glorious sunshine along the water’s edge. There were a lot of dead chicks scattered about too. Adelies have two chicks a year and often one is smaller and just can’t get enough nourishment, or isn’t fit to leave when the migration starts and starves when the parents leave. Antarctica puts ‘survival of the fittest’ right in your face.

We were lucky to have an absolutely beautiful day with bright sunshine and clear skies. Some of us climbed one or both of the summits, to be rewarded with distant views of an orca pod and some crabeater seals resting on icefloes. I chose instead to stay on the saddle and experiment with filters and taking pictures. Later we all gathered again at our landing place, clambered back into the zodiacs and returned aboard. Despite the ice around us, sometimes clattering on the hull, we had high hopes of reaching Snow Hill in the morning. Jordi told he had spent the last eight years trying to get there but being turned back by the ice. Now it was our turn to try.

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