Jan 23, 2013 - National Geographic Explorer
South of the Antarctic Circle and Detaille Island
Sometime in the very early morning our vessel, the National Geographic Explorer, crossed the imaginary line ringing the bottom of the planet, the Antarctic Circle. By 0330hrs when this author awoke we had reached 66°53’ South latitude. Having navigated into the surreal world of pack ice and iceberg strewn seas with the glacial-capped mountains ringing the shores of Crystal Sound, we were certainly in for quite a start to the day. The very first rays of the Antarctic summer sun graced the snow and ice of the peaks bathing them in alpenglow. As the morning drew on the setting would evolve with each passing minute. Banks of fog, at times surrounding us, ebbed and flowed around the sound enhancing to the drama unfolding. The lucky few that witnessed the entire first act of the day were also graced with glimpses of one of the world’s most beautiful and unique birds, the Snow Petrel. This all white seabird can only be seen in a setting such as this. By 0630hrs the decks of our fine ship were beginning to stir with more awe struck souls, each taking in the spectacle in their own way. None however could ignore the fact that we were truly in a special and amazing place.
After reaching our furthest point south we turned the bow back towards of the north and set out for Detaille Island. With the shifting banks of fog providing an added element of mystique to this ice and seascape we navigated through the pack ice where at times our bow bulb would fracture the larger flows, which makes for a thrilling show. A few seals were spotted hauled out on the ice flows including one very off-course Southern Elephant seal yearling. The space in between the flows and smaller brash was filled in with grease ice. This jigsaw like configuration of dinner-plate sized newly formed ice is the early stages of the pack ice freezing in and perhaps a sign that the Antarctic summer is nearing an end.
Detaille Island and the historic British Base “W” that still stands there has a fascinating past and our ship and her crew have a connection with the people working there to restore this abandoned former research base and headquarters. About ten days ago we had dropped off three workers for the British Antarctic Heritage Trust set on restoring the base’s crumbing foundation and cataloguing the hundreds of artifacts left there after it was abandoned in 1959. Surprisingly well preserved, the building and its contents serve as a reminder of time when mankind worked in a different manner and in a different environment. If one tried hard enough or had the place to oneself for long enough you could almost step back in time and find yourself surrounded by those pioneers. No doubt judging from the amount of jarred up sweet pickles in the pantry you could smell and taste the past.
We took on our three friends from the trust to treat them to a nice hot lunch and more importantly hot showers and laundry. It’s likely we will return to visit them and serve as their transport off the island and out of Antarctica before the winter freezes them in much like their countrymen experienced 54 years ago.
All in a day’s exploration.