Saturday, November 2, 2013

Day One back at Sea

By Larry, Sat Nov 2

We left Prion Island and Rosita Harbor yesterday morning and are now 24 hours into our sail back home. We sailed (and motor-sailed) along the rest of the North East coast but it got quite foggy and we couldn't more than a few boat lengths. We decided to go through the small cut at Bird Island. The waves were breaking white in the middle of the channel and we nearly backed out, but since Magnus had marked his track on the way through in calmer weather, we just stuck to that trail on the chart. Here in the south, the land and other features are never exactly placed on the chart. They are always a bit off as are the depths. So in a low visibility area, we have to be doubly careful running radar and charts to see the errors. But when it comes to close quarters there is no substitute for having been there in calm water and taken your own soundings for future reference. As we went through this narrows were able to see the land on both sides, but just barely. The sea state was worse than out side because there was a current charging through the narrows in the opposite way to the waves, making the waves steep and breaking. We made it through, saw a few more albatross soaring around the narrows and off we sailed, next stop Port Stanley in about 5 days.

The weather on our first day back at sea was 15-20 knots of wind nearly dead ahead, so I did a routing optimization based on our forecast and the boat speed for any point of sail and windspeed. It suggested we head a bit north of the straight-line distance. In fact in a sail of 750nm, the straight line distance is a misnomer, since it is really a great circle of the earth (defined by three points: the start, finish and the center of the earth's sphere). Where this plane defined by the three points cuts the surface of the globe is the great circle route or shortest distance. It appears to be curved to the south here by about 30nm from a straight line drawn on the map.

Luckily for now, the seas are down to only about 6-12 feet so we sail close to the wind or straight into it with our motor on for now. As soon as the wind comes back to about 70 degrees from the course we hope to achieve, then we can sail and turn off the motor. The forecast shows we are going to get 35-40 knots later in the trip and it will be blowing "straight from the pub door" to make a harder to get there. So for now we'll go straight along the great circle route until the wind is stronger.

We're each taking a 4 hour watch twice a day. We can really notice that the day has gotten about a hour longer since we sailed out. As we settle into our lives at sea, we see some penguins swimming and some fur seals sleeping with one fin up in the air and then when they hear us, they start flippering up and down over the surface like dolphins. The sun just came out and we're sailing in glorious conditions now.

Its time to get the next forecast file to see if there is anything to change in our routing. My job is to make sure we are in Stanley before Sat morning, Nov 9 since the planes only leave the Falklands once a week on Saturday afternoon.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Wandering Albatross Nesting on Prion Island

By Larry, Thurs Oct 31

Our last full day on South Georgia! It was another beautiful day of high pressure and we motored 4 hours against the wind with a magnificent view of the mountains and bays that we had seen or skied on the way south. We got some excellent pictures of the Fortuna Glacier and the Breakwind Ridge that we skied down and then Possession Bay and our exit off the Murray Snowfield. Our goal was the island called Prion which is one of the few known albatross nesting places. The big Wandering Albatross and many of its cousins like the Light Mantled Sooty Albatross come here to mate and fledge their young. They know Wanderers can live to more than 55 years old and start breeding when they are about 11 years old. They pair for life and take turns feeding their young. We were here at the end of the brooding period of about 11 months and the young Wanderers were everywhere on this small island. Their nests were spaced about every 50 to 100 feet near the top of the hill. They would turn into the 25 knot wind and spread their wings as if to fly, but they are not yet ready to fly – they are too heavy and have too much of the downy warm feathers on their bodies and leading edges of their wings. To unfold or refold their wings seems to take quite a long time and seems quite complicated. They are so long that they have to be careful not to get feathers stuck out of place. When they stretch their wings at about 9-12 feet its just amazing to see. Then swooping in, comes an adult Wanderer show us (and the fledglings) how its done. Just soaring on the wind currents, turning left, then right, then taking an updraft and diving down again, all without flapping its wings even once!

It's said that to feed the young albatross, the mother or father flies up to 5,000 miles and is gone for a couple weeks at a time. The books we have on board say that they have measured the energy expenditure of a Wanderer flying at sea and they are such efficient flyers that its no more energy to fly than to walk around on the grass at home. Luckily, the amount of albatross caught up in long-lining has drastically decreased in South Georgia and the rest of the Antarctic, but the mitigation measures need to be enacted and enforced in other fisheries further north in South America, Africa and India.

We motored into a nice harbor a few miles away in the shadow of the glaciers and had a nice last dinner on South Georgia in calm waters.

The weather forecast is for headwinds much of the time so we are planning to leave in the morning to catch a relatively calm period before the gales. The flights from Stanley are only once per week, so we don't want to miss them due to bad weather on the sea.


King Penguin Colony at Andrews Bay and Macaroni Penguins at Cobbler’s Bay

By Larry, Wed Oct 30

Today we went to the largest Penguin colony on the island. A rookery of about 300,000 King Penguins spread along a very wide St. Andrews Bay and the surrounding plain. We got off on the beach for a few hours and walked for miles through the Penguins. We saw all sorts of seals on the beach co-existing as they do with the penguins and petrels, and skuas. We saw the last of the reindeer herding further up from the beach. I could sit down on the beach and all the King Penguin chicks fully clothed in brown fluffy down, would walk right up to me, completely curious and unafraid. But if I did that near adults, they would walk slowly away! It was amazing to be in such a large colony and watch their interactions.

We then motored along the shore to Cobbler's Cove for the afternoon and evening. It is a beautiful, calm anchorage surrounded by hills on all sides. We climbed up the snow gully to the NW and over the top of the hill into the next bay. Many went on down the other side to see the Macaroni Penguins who were nesting in the hills. I stayed on top of the hill and watched the sooty albatross soaring and screeching along the large cliff above us. It was a relaxing afternoon, topped off by the ribs of one of our lambs for dinner that evening.


The Old Whaling Station at Grytviken

By Larry, Wed Oct 30

I seem to have lost a day or two. The day after the finish of the Shackleton Traverse we sailed into Grytviken and it was sunny and we were able to wash out our gear and dry it. Grytviken is the only whaling station we are allowed to explore. All the outer building shells have been removed and the equipment inside is now exposed to show how whales were processed. Whales were so plentiful here in 1900 that for the first five years, they never had to leave the little bay to catch a whale! We had dinner on board with Sarah and Pat Lurcock, who have been the government here for over 20 years and spend about 8 months a year on the island. Pat runs the fisheries and most other aspects of the government and Sarah has been working on the whaling museum in Grytviken. There are about a dozen scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who are stationed nearby.

In the morning, it was sunny and sort of warm, so we took a ski up behind Mt. Hodges. It was a bit slushy at first and then got very nice. We climbed to the col on the shoulder and a few people continued up on shaky rock to the top, while Cam, Gretchen and I had a great ski down.

When we got back to the boat, Sarah gave us a wonderful tour of the whaling station and explained how the whales were processed. In the early 1900s a law was passed to require all whalers to process the entire contents of the whale, rather than taking just the baleen and oil from the blubber. The whale catchers would come in with up to about 14 whales and they would pull them up the processing ramp or plan, one by one. As they were pulled up, the meat was cut off and pulled up the ramp to the left to the boiling pots which extracted oil from the meat. To the right a bit further up was where the blubber was chopped up and sent to the top of another set of boilers. Then the remaining bones were boiled down (they found out that 30% of the whale oil was in the bones). Whatever was left over was ground into fine meal for fertilizer. They would process 12-20 whales a day on one processing line when in full production. Over the 60 years they ran the station they more than took 100,000 whales and made 9 million barrels of oil (500 million gallons). The whales that were so plentiful when they set up business in the late 1800s and early 1900s were completely gone by the 1950s. When they left the whaling stations in 1964, they thought the whales would be back soon and so they left caretakers to keep the place ready for a return in a few years. Sarah said she had seen a two whales last year in the bay but it's a very infrequent sighting. We saw no whales so far on our journey here, whereas 13 years ago we saw dozens of whales on the Pacific side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After our tour of the whaling museum, we had a nice visit with Sue and Daniel at the BAS fishery labs. They are very proud of the work they have done to ensure the sustainability of the fishing in the area. I then stopped by Shackleton's grave where both he and Frank Wild, his right hand man are both buried. Shackleton died of a heart attack on shipboard in Grytviken in 1922 at the age of 47 at the start of a new expedition. Wild died in 1939 having been one of the most experienced people in the Antarctic exploration.


Monday, October 28, 2013

The End of the Shackleton Traverse – Fortuna Glacier and Stromness Col

by Larry, Sunday Oct 27

Yesterday we did 10 hours on skis and hiking, skiing up and down more than 6,000 vertical feet. Even though we were not able to do the Crean Glacier due to avalanche danger a few days ago, we decided to start from Fortuna Glacier where Shackleton inadvertently went before he figured out the right direction. We got on the beach at about 5:30am local time and put on our boots and skins and roped up. I was on Skip's rope this time with Cam. Julian, Amy, Georgio and Ed were on the second rope. We started up the Fortuna Glacier in clear, crisp weather with some low clouds coming in the bay as we climbed out of it. We were climbing up and around the ridge on the glacier to gain the ridge top from the backside. It gradually steepened for a while and then flattened into a wide snowfield below the Breakwind Ridge. It was the first time Skip had approached from this direction and it was not obvious which part of the rocky ridge was going to be the right place to cross over to find a skiable route down the other face. There were a number of crevasses on the way up that looked small at first, but I soon realized we were just very far away from them and they were actually quite large.

After about 2 and half hours of slogging we got to the top of the ridge at about 650 meters (2,100 feet) in the spot that Skip was sure was right. We changed to crampons for the last steep part and belayed up to the ridge. It was blowing harder and we were in a cloud, so not much time for glory shots. We belayed off the ridge top and down to a slightly flatter spot where we could change back to skis and take off the skins for the ski down. The first few turns were in low visibility and the surface was breakable crust. Then it opened up into a snowfield but we still had to be careful about where the crust was breaking on our turns. Some places that were wind crusted allowed us to make some decent turns. The run was beautiful with Fortuna Bay below us and the ridge on the other side of the bay rising above the clouds. If only the snow conditions matched the view! The snow got heavier and hard to ski but flowing down through the gullies was fantastic. It was important to have Skip point the way. It would be easy to go down a gully that ended in a cliff rather than a slope to the sea and have a long walk back uphill to find another gully.

We stopped for a short salami and cheese on some rocks. It was decent visibility and Georgio wisely said we might want to keep skiing. At which point a cloud reached up the gully and made the skiing a bit more difficult again. We made it down to within a few feet of sea level on the snow and had a very short walk out to the beach. We thought the next phase would be an easy walk. Then Skip said, yes we've got another 5 hours – first an hour's walk around the head of the bay, across the Konig Glacier outflow and then a hike/ski up to 300 meters again on the Stromness Col and a ski down into Stromness Bay. It was very tempting to want to go back to the boat after our first run up given it was cold and windy, but if Shackleton was doing this at the end of his 36 hour journey on little rations and after a 14 day torture in a 21 foot lifeboat across the Southern Ocean, what's a little discomfort to us. So off we went with Gretchen and Mike joining us.

The beach was full of groups of elephant seals and king penguins and we stopped for a while to watch a bull fighting off a probe from another male who wanted to challenge for the domination of the harem. They both stood up and growled at each other, shooting hot steamed air at each other, and then the bigger one bit the smaller one in the neck, the smaller one cowered and shrank back to the water's edge and slinked away. We then waded across the outflow. The approach most of us took was to find a shallow spot and wade tentatively across the river and hope we could link enough shallow spots to get across without getting our calf-high muck boots wet. Julian, Gretchen and Ed decided it would be better to go barefoot and walked through the freezing cold river with stoic resolve. It was lucky the river wasn't running any bigger.

We then started up the ridge on the other side. We walked up through the tussock grass and then the moss and a very thick green mat with an amazing capacity to soak up water coming down from the hills. I asked Julian if this was similar to Wales, to which he said it was quite similar to the large bogs that are huge reservoir of water and carbon in Wales.

We finally got to the snow line about halfway up to where I thought the col topped out and put on our ski boots, skis, skins and started trekking upwards on the soft snow. The wind was behind us and it was only lightly sprinkling at times. We got to the top and as often happens, there was another top and another before the real top. So up and up we went, past Crean Lake where Tom Crean fell in on Shackleton's journey. At the top, Shackleton and his team heard the 7am morning whistle at the Stromness whaling station and then they knew which way to get to safety.

We stopped for a short picnic at the top and had a really nice ski down. First, through a wide snowfield and then down a river gulley. We avoided the waterfall that Shackleton had to rope down and found a snow gulley that took us to the flat plain, an hour's walk into Stomness.

We were tired but happy to have done the route and had a much better idea of the impressive achievement of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean. It was 10 hours when we got to the Stromness whaling station. We sat on the beach and waited for as Pelagic Australis came into the harbor and picked us up. We motored around to Grytviken, past the abandoned whaling stations at Husvik and Leith, had a well-deserved dinner and went to bed, tired and happy.