Antarctic Peninsula Mainland

By Stewart_Campbell / 25 July 2023

Antarctic Peninsula Mainland

Part 3 of a series from the owner and manager of Expeditions Online, who travelled on our Antarctica Small Ship Expedition earlier this year. In the series Stewart documents the voyage and explores what is a typical experience on a Classic Antarctica cruise itinerary to the Antarctic Peninsula, with reflections on the advantages of small ship travel.

A Voyage to Antarctica Part 3: Mainland!

After the previous day’s adventures in the South Shetland Islands, we were all looking forward to the next milestone – a landing on the Antarctic mainland. Overnight we have crossed over the Bransfield Strait and into the mountain-lined and icy waters of the Gerlache Strait. Good morning mainland Antarctica!  Humpback whales in their dozens accompany our arrival along the western side of the Antarctica Peninsula. Excitement builds as we spot blows both in the distance and then close by the ship. 

The Antarctic Peninsula mainland is the northernmost tip of Antarctica. Stretching towards South America, it serves as a bridge between the vast icy continent to the south and the warmer subantarctic islands. Despite its proximity to the Antarctic Circle, the peninsula experiences relatively milder temperatures compared to the continent's interior, making it more habitable for certain wildlife and plant species. Glaciers, ice shelves, and towering snow-capped peaks dominate the landscape, creating a striking contrast with the deep blue waters of surrounding fjords and bays. 

Our mainland landing this morning will be on the mainland at Portal Point, which is the site of an old British Station. Surrounded by massive glaciers and icebergs dotting the bay, Portal Point lies on the Reclus Peninsula and was named by the British Antarctic Survey after they built a hut at this site in 1956 enabling them to use a nearby snow slope as a gateway up onto the polar plateau. The hut was occupied between 1956 and 1958, with research conducted on geology and surveying the region. 


Ashore on to a rocky platform and thick snow ledge, a few fur seals rested around, as well as a Weddell Seal. Other wildlife included blue-eyed cormorants and Wilson’s storm petrels. A short climb up the hill revealed incredibly scenic surroundings with mountains, crevassed glaciers and glacial tongues which extended right down to sea level. Heavy snow this past season, including some fresh snow overnight, created a truly pristine landscape. At one edge of the point, we climb down to reach the former foundations of the British hut. The building was dismantled in 1997 and taken to the Falkland Islands where it is now an exhibit in the museum at Stanley.

While most people are very happy to take their first wander on the Antarctic continent and soak in the magical scenery, the kayaker group set out to enjoy the icy waters and simultaneously a small group of budding amateur scientists participated Citizen Science program, trawling the waters in the Zodiacs to measure phytoplankton concentrations.  Fresh-faced and happy after a successful morning, we return to the ship for another delicious lunch.


The afternoon brought the first ‘plan B’ expedition change (one always should expect the unexpected on an Antarctica cruise) due to the many whale sightings during the morning at the entrance to Charlotte Bay. Instead of making another landing, our leader decided to head further into the Bay for an extended Zodiac cruise and look for some ‘opportunities’. The Captain of the Ocean Nova commences a very slow cruise into the depths of the Bay, its protected and glassy waters studded with icebergs large and small and brash ice from the glaciers which soar up all around. The scenery is truly breath-taking, but soon there is even better to come…  Amongst the ice we spot what looks like a large log – which reveals itself to be a sleeping whale! It floats gently at the surface, bobbing ever so slightly. We observe while the ‘log’ breaths out every minute or so, then resuming its rest. We leave it be and head onwards, towards tails and spouts visible in the distance. It seems we have the perfect opportunity to launch Zodiacs and head out to explore for more whales, so everyone rushes inside to get ready while the boats are prepared. 


The humpback whale is one of the most iconic and charismatic species of cetaceans in the world. One of the larger species of baleen whales, they reach lengths of up to 15 meters) and weigh around 30-40 tons. They have a distinct body shape characterized by long pectoral fins, which can be up to a third of their body length, and a pronounced hump on their back before the dorsal fin, from which their name is derived. Their mesmerizing and acrobatic behaviour sets them apart from other whales. Humpbacks are known for their spectacular breaching, where they leap out of the water and crash back down with a resounding splash. They also engage in tail slapping, flipper slapping, and spy hopping (raising their heads out of the water to look around). Towards the end of the summer is an especially good time to observe them too, so we are lucky to be here at the right time. 


And what a Zodiac cruise it becomes!  For over an hour we cruise around icebergs sighting whale after whale, and all the boats have special encounters that seem to surpass each other.  Whales swimming next to the Zodiacs, whales engage in lunge feeding to filter out the rich swarms of krill - which were clearly visible in the frigid waters, whales playfully flapping their enormous flippers - and all this culminating with an incredible spy hopping display, literally right next to our Zodiacs. To eyeball these giant animals at water level really gives one a different perspective! As we returned to the ship, we encountered a Minke whale swimming directly underneath us. The sleek and fast Minke whale is much smaller than a humpback, but it certainly did not look that small close-up and easily dwarfed our Zodiac.


As if all the excitement of the afternoon was not enough, the expedition team offer everyone the chance to make a Polar Plunge before dinner! The brave and the foolhardy all line up on deck 3 in their swimming costumes, ready to step out onto the gangway, only this time not into a Zodiac but directly into the zero-degree waters!  Much laughter and amusement was had by all, with great photo opportunities for everyone else. Happy conversations and stories continue long after dinner – even as more whales are seen outside. A great day – and tomorrow we are planning to be in Paradise…


Early morning dawns and the ship has made its way further south to what is one of the most famous places in Antarctica - Paradise Harbour. This secluded bay was named by whalers because it was such a protected anchorage. It is also the site of an Argentine station Almirante Brown, a year-round station until a fire destroyed it in 1983. The crew were rescued by personnel from the American Palmer Station. Gentoo penguins and Snowy sheathbills nest in among the rebuilt buildings and Cape Petrels and Blue-eyed shags can be seen on the spectacular, surrounding cliffs. 


With the remnant of Covid restrictions still in place, we are not permitted to land at the station itself but head out on a Zodiac cruise. The stunning Petzval Glacier fills Paradise Bay’s calm waters with ice floes – and the awe-inspiring scenery really makes one appreciate the name of the place.  Another amazing Zodiac excursion it became, with yet more whales as well as close encounters with Weddell and Leopard seals, several swimming around and around our boats. Vivid blue icebergs surround us almost everywhere – and massive mountains surround the entire bay. It is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. 


The fast-moving glaciers in this part of Antarctica captivate the eye with their jagged, crevassed forms and steep edges. These colossal ice rivers are generated by heavy snows in the higher mountains, compressing to ice and carving their way through rugged landscapes. Their movement can be surprisingly rapid, with speeds reaching several meters per day during peak periods. As they surge forward, these glaciers reshape the land, leaving behind striking valleys and fjords in their wake and generating new icebergs.


In the afternoon we sail a short distance to Danco Island, a small and steep land mass that lies in middle of the Errera Channel. The island was discovered by Gerlache’s Belgica expedition of 1897-99. Danco was also home to the British Antarctic Survey’s ‘Station O’ that was removed in 2004. This small rocky island has vertical cliffs rising 200 meters with spectacular views of the heavily crevassed glaciers of the mainland. The island is home to 1600 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins which nest from just above sea level to the summit.  


As soon as we are ashore, we are greeted by the sight of several fluffy gentoo chicks gathered on the rocky beach. Several are surprisingly small for this late summer period – apparently this season had an unusually heavy snow cover and many of the penguins were forced to restart their breeding cycle, resulting in underdeveloped chicks for this time of year. In just a month they need to be all fully developed and fledged, ready to head back to sea. Danco is a wonderful island since it offers everyone the chance to really stretch their legs and climb up the snowy slopes to observe and photograph different parts of the gentoo colony. From the summit we can see the ship looking tiny in the distance – and even smaller are our intrepid kayakers, out exploring icebergs and the waters of the channel. 


To celebrate our days in mainland Antarctica, this evening the ships hotel team puts on a special BBQ dinner, outside on the decks, so we can make the most of the special scenery and beautiful evening low light. Donned up in parkas and fuelled by hot, mulled wine the cold is not an issue at all and happy conversations buzz! Everyone has by now well and truly entered the ‘Antarctic bubble’ and any stress or reality of life back home has ceased to exist. What an experience to travel with a small group like this, where we have all been able to share the same excursions and wildlife encounters, without splitting up into groups like the larger ships must. We still have another day to go – and tomorrow we are hoping to visit another special and famous place of Antarctica – Deception Island volcano!

To be continued in Part 4…


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