Antarctica in Springtime: An Entirely Different Experience

Day 35, 2023 Grand South America and Antarctica

Friday, Nov. 10, 2023; Antarctica

Every tourist destination has its high and low seasons, and Antarctica is no exception. Throw in the changing weather that occurs in any season, and you never know what you will get.

During four and a half days here, we had some breaks in the low-lying clouds that gave us stunning views of the snowy mountains and gleaming icebergs, as I reported in my previous two blog posts. But by and large, the clouds were low with little visibility, and our exploration was limited by heavy early season sea ice.

Having been here once before in late January, I appreciate the opportunity to see the tip of this continent in two seasons. Early November is the best time to see large icebergs – and I’ve seen many, many more of them than on my previous trip. The snow is heavier on the land, as well.

I also am coming away with a much better appreciation of the foreboding seas and land that drew intrepid early explorers.

Today’s sail around Elephant Island provided just such an experience. This is the island where in 1916 Sir Ernest Shackleton left 22 crew members from the HMS Endurance and sailed off over 800 nautical miles to South Georgia Island seeking rescue. If you are not familiar with their story, a quick internet search will provide numerous books and movies about the amazing adventure. (Spoiler alert: They all survive.)

We could barely see Elephant Island through the clouds and mist for much of our passage, but expedition guides Iain Miller and Dr. Neil Gilbert kept us engaged with the story of the Endurance, doling out chapters every 20 minutes or so. When we could see more details, we were amazed that anyone could find a place to land on the rugged coast.

Fortunately, the cloud cover lifted enough that we could see Point Wild on the northeast coast, where Shackleton returned to rescue the crew.

By using my 60x zoom camera, and then magnifying that picture, I could make out the memorial placed on the spot, surrounded by a few penguins. Flocks of birds circled overhead.

With nothing left to see, we then turned north toward the Falkland Islands, where we will arrive on Sunday and – fingers crossed – find conditions will allow us to tender ashore. In 2020, we had no such luck.

Yesterday we hoped to find good and protected cruising in Admiralty Bay on King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. The approach was promising — the sun peeked out as we approached a large iceberg.

Instead, we found the worst winds of the cruise so far.

I had cautiously ventured out on the bow of deck 6 but only took a few steps before turning back. The wind felt strong enough to blow me overboard, and I was still in the shelter of the bulkhead.

As I left, I heard the staff captain ordering everyone inside. The winds were in excess of 70 knots (80 mph) and probably gusting higher. Instead of providing shelter from the winds, the bowl of the bay was accelerating them. We turned around and headed out before we could see much more than the Polish base station (one of three on the island) and Point Thomas Lighthouse. It is the most southern lighthouse in the world.

I spent the afternoon sheltered from the wind by the Lido pool, painting in my sketchbook while passengers participated in the “polar plunge” It was moved in from the outside Sea View Pool, which birds had taken over. That pool will need a good cleaning before passengers can swim there again.

My biggest disappointment of this trip, if I can call it that, is the dearth of wildlife sightings. We’ve only seen penguins from a distance, with the exception of those swimming along with us. I saw one whale surface and take a dive – showing its flake on the way down, but the only evidence of whales in my photographs is their faint spray.

I haven’t seen a single seal, although a few others have (see blog posts by Tim Bowman and Jeff Farschman). Not only is January a better season to see wildlife, but with less ice blocking the inlets and channels, large ships can get closer.

The biggest thrill has been the number of large icebergs, particularly huge tabular bergs that approach the size of our ship. These have table-like tops and sheer sides, having broken off in huge pieces from ice shelves. I find it mind boggling to realize that 80 percent of each one is below water.

We encountered hundreds of smaller bergs on their way to becoming bergy bits and growlers – descriptions of icebergs of diminishing sizes. Some are white, some have dirty streaks, and a few are brilliant blue.

They have myriad shapes, as they melt from below and overturn or break apart. Our captain and the ice pilot who joined us did a masterful job of navigating through the ice fields.

And now, we head out of the Southern Ocean and into the Atlantic, our third ocean of this voyage.