On Monday, March 7 the expedition crews’ log read: Portal Point (continental landing). Latitude 64º 30´S, Longitude 61º 46´W. AM temperature: -1°C, wind: 2 knots SW. “Agustín woke us up early in the morning with some nice music and smiles appeared in everyone’s faces as we sighted the Antarctic continent for the first time in the Gerlache Strait under a heavy fog. After a big breakfast to be prepared for cold climate we were ready for our first excursion of the day.”
Portal Point in Charlotte Bay, a truly spectacular spot on the Antarctic Peninsula, is a narrow point in the northeastern part of the Reclus Peninsula, on the west coast of Graham Land. Laying at the northern entrance of the Gerlache Strait on the continental side it would be our first landing on the continent of Antarctica. In 1956 a refuge hut was built on the point by the British, enabling them to use a nearby snow slope to the Polar Plateau as a gateway up onto the peninsula plateau.
Our journey to the mainland involved an hour-long iceberg tour. Due to the oxygen content in the ice many had brilliant, luminous blue streaks. It was quite eerie as we approached – the ice actually seemed to be glowing, beckoning to us.
A cool wet landing on the beach put us on Portal Point. Once again, thank goodness for the Wellies! We landed adjacent to a hill then took off up from the beach to a higher vantage point. Our first steps on the Antarctic continent had to be careful ones as staying on the path was key to our safety to avoid crevasses and snow overhangs that had been well marked by our guides. Our higher vantage point yielded panoramic views of still water, remnants of the British hut and Crabeater seals in the distance on the ice floes.
It was snowing quite heavily by now and if the truth be known, I love this weather. It would not have been an authentic experience for me if there had not been snow and cold. It was suggested we make snow angels at the top of the hill. I hadn’t done that since I was a little kid and saw no reason why I should do it now. What a dick eh? I was excited just knowing we had now walked on the official continent of Antarctica, not just the archipelago.
One of the greatest things about this trip was that I found myself constantly learning things; about wildlife, icebergs, global warming and a whole lot of general things. For instance, while we waited on the rocks for the zodiacs to usher us back to the ship Agustin and Pablo were pouring water from buckets on the snow-covered rocks. I would have thought that would make matters much worse but as long as you walked there before the water froze it provided much surer and safer footing.
The zodiac trip back to the ship was wet and wild – and damn cold! Fortunately it was also very fast. Everyone turned their heads toward the back in a failed attempt to avoid the cold snow in their faces. As we drifted in to the back of the ship I looked at the driver and gave him a hearty thumbs up and a rousing, “Good job!” I only wish I could have said it in Spanish.
After lunch, we enjoyed a zodiac cruise of Foyn Harbour. The “Scotts” went first at 2PM and we, the “Amudsens”, followed at 4. My cynical nature took over as I looked out the lounge windows and saw it was still snowing and visibility was poor. I thought the weather would cause the adventure to fall short of spectacular but was proven wrong.
Foyn Harbour is an anchorage between Nansen and Enterprise islands named by whalers after the whaling factory ship Svend Foyn, which was moored there during 1921-22. We were up close and personal with the shoreline so visibility was not an issue. The bonus, in my mind, was we were with Agustin, the expedition leader. He is extremely knowledgeable and simply a lot of fun.
We meandered amongst some small islands covered with very high snow cliffs until we came upon the wreck of the whaling ship Governoren, a Norwegian whaling ship. Just nine days after the wreck of Shackleton’s ship the Endurance, on January 27, 1915, the Governoren was at sea just 800 miles away performing her duties as a floating whaling factory. Once a whale was harpooned it was brought onboard for flensing, the removal of blubber and separation of all other useable parts. The ship had the capability of rendering entire whales into oil and other valuable commodities. It could produce and store more than 22,000 gallons of whale oil.
During the end of mission celebration a lamp was knocked off a table below deck and the ship caught fire. Thousands of gallons of whale oil on board fueled the fire causing it to quickly grow out of control. The captain deliberately set the ship aground and the entire crew of 85 was able to escape. None of the crew members were injured by the fire and were all rescued by another whaling vessel. However, thousands of gallons of whale oil were lost in the process. That must translate to an Exxon Valdez-like catastrophe somewhere along the line.
Today the rusting remains of the Governoren lies with leftover wooden flensing boats and old whale oil barrels reminding us of the ship’s long history and a symbol of the commercial and natural intersection of Antarctica’s rich history.
It also turned out to be a perfect day for wildlife. In addition to penguins, terns had reclaimed the wreck as their own but other colonies were sighted, along with some Antarctic cormorants. A male Crabeater seal lounged on a small ice floe not seeming to care in any way that we were right there.
But the most amazing sights was probably that of the crevasses inside the towering cliffs, snow and ice looking pristine. It was easy to see how these were the devastating peril that they are. Deep to the point of no return, some of them were also essentially closed at the top, thereby hidden from view until it was too late and some unsuspecting explorer or animal broke through the snow on top and disappeared into the abyss. As horrible and tragic that possibility was they were also hypnotically beautiful. The sharp cut edges piercing through the multiple layers of packed snow and ice were highlighted by the oxygenated blue glow and it became like a motor vehicle accident on the side of the highway – it was difficult, no impossible, to turn your head away.
As we approached the rear of the ship to board I couldn’t help think, “See folks, this is no luxury cruise.” To me it looked more like a drug running ship trying to escape than anything else but that was how we got here and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Copyright © 2016 Eric Whitehead