Commonwealth Bay Antarctic Diary

9th December 2005– Hobart

Svetaeva let go her bowlines and headed down D'Entrecasteux Channel towards Tasmania's east coast bound for Deep Antarctica. All 80 passengers were welcomed aboard by 20 expedition staff and 41 Russian crew and sat down to a tasty lunch before heading off with great anticipation. Loaded with 2 helicopters and 8 Zodiacs the ships first port of call is in 2-3 days at the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. We can’t wait for the adventure to unfold!

13th – 14th December 2005 – Macquarie Island

After a few days cruising in the Southern Ocean, thankfully still calm after our departure from Hobart, early this morning we awoke to see the mist covered peaks of Macquarie Island. From the start we were startled by the variety and abundance of wildlife on this remote wonderland. King Penguins bobbed up beside the ship and all around the Zodiacs as we made our way ashore to be greeted by the resident scientists from the small Australian base. The morning walks were simply breathtaking and it was easy for all to see the reasons why Macquarie has been designated a World Heritage site. We meandered through bog covered tussock slopes, where massive male elephant seals slumbered and Gentoo Penguins reared their chicks. Then out on to the wild and windy beaches where Skuas and Giant Petrels glided over our heads while the smaller doe-eyed seal pups had our cameras working overtime.

A hearty lunch back on board as we upped anchor and Svetaeva took us to Sandy Bay, where we were to spend the entire afternoon, as well as the next morning, basking in one of nature’s finest displays. The beaches were covered with thousands of King and endemic Royal Penguins and we all enjoyed the opportunity to spend hours wandering the beach at our own pace, watching with delight the comings and goings of this busy little bay. Some of us simply sat down in the sand to take it all in and were rewarded with curious penguins and the odd young seal approaching boldly as if to introduce themselves to us. Others walked up the steep hill to check out one of the largest Royal colonies on the island, a site that challenged the senses in every way with the noise (and smell!) of tens of thousands of Royal’s and their chicks causing us to simply shake our heads in astonishment.

Before leaving Macquarie, we had an unforgettable Zodiac cruise at Lusitania Bay, where hundreds of thousands of King Penguins stretch out for over a mile along a crowded beach simply bursting with energy. It was an awesome scene, the afternoon sun making it especially easy to watch the King’s ‘flying’ underneath our boats as they zigzagged back and forth to get a better look at the strangers. We now set sail for the continent proper, where we expect to cross the Antarctic Convergence on the morning of the 15th. The iceberg sweep has been set up, causing constant debate among expeditioners as to the exact date and time we will see our first real iceberg, an event that will signal the beginning of our icy adventure as we set course for Commonwealth Bay and Mawson’s Hut.

16th December 2005 - Commonwealth Bay

The weather Gods continue to shine on our expedition with the northerly winds past Macquarie Island bringing us to the continent one day ahead of schedule. A large pod of Orcas surfaced near the ship in the calm waters and shortly after two Minke whales cruised gracefully by - the perfect introduction to Antarctic wildlife!

 

Slowly but surely the immense ice cap came into view through the mist and from the bow and the bridge our expeditioners watched the roofline of Mawson's Huts emerge among the rocky outcrops and so too the memorial cross dedicated to Mawson's fallen comrades, Ninnis and Mertz. Thankfully Commonwealth Bay's legendary katabatic winds were not blowing so the decision was made to get into the Zodiacs as quick as we could and attempt a landing.

 

We needn't have worried as it turned out. As soon as we stepped ashore for our first landing on the continent the fog lifted and the sky turned blue - unbelievable! We walked up to the main Hut in absolute awe, astonished at how this simple wooden structure could still be standing after ninety years of extreme weather. Amid the stunning beauty of the surrounding ice cliffs were basking Weddell seals and a plethora of Adelie's, sliding right past us on their bellies. Our team of Heritage Carpenters unpacked and set up camp, ready to start the important task of securing the huts roof and clearing the inside of ice and snow. We spent hours in the vicinity of the huts, taking it all in at a relaxed pace. Some climbed up the gentle slope due south of the hut, the starting point for the exploratory sledging journeys undertaken by Mawson and his men. Relics from the expedition could be seen scattered around the hut, prompting us to imagine what life would have been like for the 18 brave souls, some of whom stayed in Commonwealth Bay for two years.

 

Back on the boat the dining room was abuzz with conversation after a terrific day in Antarctica. We all felt that it truly was a privilege to step ashore at Commonwealth Bay, a place very few people had ever visited and an absolute icon of the Heroic Age of polar exploration.

18th December 2005 – Cape Jules

Today was a day that displayed the full scope of the unpredictable Antarctic weather. Katabatic winds roared down the polar plateau causing Svetaeva to drag her anchor. It was quickly decided to move westwards in search of calmer waters. Word came over the intercom that the weather had cleared and after a lunch of traditional Russian borscht, the Zodiacs were loaded and we headed toward Cape Jules - a place never previously visited by Aurora. And what a jewel this cape proved to be! The ice cap stretched majestically in three directions as far as the eye could see with lively groups of Adelie’s dotted around the gentle slopes and electric blue icebergs out in the bay. Hours were spent wandering the surrounds of this incredibly beautiful piece of heaven. Some chose a more active approach to explore their surroundings, with a couple of brave souls hiking up the slope of the ice cap until they became small specs in the distance - giving us some much needed scale to make sense of the vastness. Meanwhile, some of the kids (and a fair few adults pretending to be kids!) mimicked the belly slides of the Adelie’s and slid down the snow hills screaming with excitement.

Monday, 19th December 2005 – South Magnetic Pole

We had our first taste of pack ice today and we loved it! Svetaeva performed very well in the thick ice with many expeditioners joining the snow petrels watching the action from the bow of the ship. We crunched our way through to our main goal of the day, reaching the South Magnetic Pole in the early afternoon. The pole is now situated in the Southern Ocean - a vastly different location from when Douglas Mawson and Edgeworth David reached it on 16th January 1909. Along the way we encountered numerous crabeater seals basking on the ice and met our first emperor penguins.

20th December 2005

We awoke to a perfect, still morning, anchored near the French base of Dumont D'Urville, surrounded by icebergs that had calved off the Astrolabe Glacier. We all piled into the Zodiacs for an exhilarating cruise among the icebergs. Massive tabular bergs, spectacular blue-green pieces of ice of all shapes and sizes, carved by wind and water that took our breath away. After lunch we assembled for our very first helicopter rides and soon the two choppers were working overtime, flying expeditioners high above countless icebergs with an adrenalin-charged low pass over the ice cap. Seeing the frozen continent from the air is a totally different experience and has us hoping the weather will give us another chance at it over the coming days.

21st December 2005 – Dumont D’Urville

Woke up today to a calm sea and monstrous tabular icebergs. We explored the French base and some of the locals took us on an ornithological tour where we learnt more about the Adelie penguins and snow petrels that abound around the rocky environs of the base. One of the highlights of the day was during a Zodiac cruise when a group of fully-grown Emperor penguin chicks were discovered in their final stages of moulting huddled together right next to the shoreline. They cautiously approached our little boats and soon we were eye to eye with these delightful creatures and amid the stunned silence, it seemed as if they were admiring us, as much as we were admiring them.

 

22nd December 2005

Sublime conditions again - we just can't believe our luck! Our Ice Captain Alexander guided Svetaeva beautifully through the thick ice, our hull pushing noisily against the heavy pack. As we approached the fast ice connected to the continent, the Captain 'parked' the ship, the gangway was lowered and we walked out on to the frozen sea and into what seemed like some kind of winter play-park. On one side sat a massive tabular iceberg locked immobile, while on the other side smaller icebergs beckoned us and many soon answered the call. We walked across the white carpet of snow and clambered around the bergs with glee. Meanwhile, the helicopters were back in action, taking expeditioners on a thrilling ride over a blue chasmed glacier and landing far up the slope of the polar plateau. As the helicopters departed we were left on the plateau with just the silence and overwhelming beauty to keep us company.

 

Friday, 23rd December 2005

After an exhilarating few days, a quiet morning on board was welcome as whitecaps began to dance on the ocean.

Our historian Syd Kirkby gave an informative lecture on Mawson's 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, getting us in the mood for our plan to attempt another landing at Commonwealth Bay again tomorrow.

By the afternoon the wind had died down and we landed near Port Martin at a beautiful little spot with crystal clear water surrounded by ice, penguins and seals. A large group followed our expedition leader Greg some 3 kilometres up on to the polar plateau, where we looked back at stunning views of the Antarctic coastline. It was a good chance to stretch the legs and also helped us put the vast distances into perspective when told we would need to walk another 200 kilometres to reach the top of the plateau!

 

24th December 2005 – Commonwealth Bay

Overnight we travelled to Commonwealth Bay and at breakfast an air of anticipation passed through the ship as we heard the news that the wind had increased to speeds of up to 40 knots! The katabatic winds screamed down from the plateau, the choppy waters making it impossible to even contemplate our main task for the day, to pick up our team of four heritage carpenters from Mawson's Hut.

Most of us waited patiently on the bridge, monitoring the wind and water conditions like we had been at sea for years. For a short time the wind died down to a level where it was safe to put two Zodiacs ashore and after negotiating heavy waves and winds, the four workmen were bought back to the ship.

But the day was not yet over! It was hoped the conditions would settle even further to allow the rest of us to return and see inside the hut. As we waited and waited our prospects seemed to diminish rapidly. Then, miraculously, the wind began to ease and after dinner we put on our warmest clothes and landed at Boat Harbour for the second time this trip. We each had a chance to step inside this iconic piece of Australian history that so few have had the privilege to see. It was a very emotional and overwhelming experience. We could see the eighteen bunks (initialled and dated) of the expedition members, Hurley's tiny dark room, Mawson's small cabin and little reminders of everyday life inside the hut, such as books and biscuit tins. We did not return to the ship until after midnight.

CHRISTMAS DAY

25th December 2005

It was the ultimate of white Christmases today with Svetaeva cruising amongst the pack ice in blustery conditions. Once again we found a great spot to park the ship and we all spilled out onto the ice where snow fights and champagne complimented each other beautifully!

Santa had made an appearance earlier that morning where everyone received a present, thanks to a passenger Kris Kringle and again on the ice Santa came out to play even though he was a long long way from his home in the North Pole. A huge Christmas feast was held mid afternoon with our chefs producing a meal to remember - soup, king prawns, roast turkey, ham and traditional plum pudding. Absent friends and family were toasted aplenty and the meal was finished off with specialty Swiss biscuits - the same brand bought down by Swiss expedition member Xavier Mertz as a treat for the Commonwealth Bay party of 1912.

26th December 2005 – Mertz Glacier

Fifty-knot winds today, Antarctica was unleashing her fury on us for the first time. However, shelter was sought and found in the lee of the Mertz glacier tongue, where we had time to gaze out from the bridge upon a windswept panorama as the wind continued to hammer us. Our tempestuous final day on the continent gave us reason to consider just how incredibly lucky we have been with the weather and landings to date.

27th-30th December 2005

 

The ice did not want to let us go without a fight as we headed north toward our next destination - the Auckland Islands. It stayed with us for some time. Calm conditions for the first full day at sea, which was followed by some relatively rough weather over the next few days. However, it seems that most of us have our sea legs now and life on board is filled with many activities. In between various lectures and enjoying our filling meals, many relaxed up on the bridge or out of the wind on the stern of the ship, watching the albatross and prion's glide silently over the waves. Some of us have been taking it easy reading books or playing card games, while others have watched DVD's or grabbed the odd siesta to recharge the batteries.

31st December 2005 – Auckland Islands

The welcome sight of emerald green hills covered in mist greeted us as the Auckland Islands came into view. We spent the morning cruising up the east coast of these magnificent islands accompanied by many seabirds gliding off our bow. We anchored at an old whaling settlement, where we walked through a lush forest of sub-Antarctic trees covered in moss, ferns and lichen. Some of the Hooker sea lions we encountered were not too keen on our visit but we managed to pass these wary gatekeepers without incident! Back in the Zodiacs, we sped across to Enderby Island, following the curve of a perfect rainbow that seemed to form a halo around Svetaeva.

Exploding with wildlife, Enderby put on a magnificent show for us as we cruised by cliffs filled with nesting cormorants, skuas, albatross and a real treat - excellent viewings of the endemic yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest penguin in the world. Along the beach we watched the antics of breeding Hooker sea lions, many swam right up to our boats to check us out. A drink or three was had that night in the bar to bring in the New Year and celebrate a perfect ending to 2005.

 

1st January 2006 – Snares Islands

Cruising overnight to our final destination, the Snares Island group, we fully expected our incredibly lucky run with the weather to finish after Greg told us he had never managed to Zodiac cruise the Snares group due to bad weather on each of his previous visits. The weather Gods continued to smile on us, providing calm conditions as we approached these remote specks in the mighty Southern Ocean. Our very last activity for the entire expedition was one to remember with close encounters of a huge variety of birds, including the endemic Snares penguin. A superb way to finish off the voyage.

It was with sadness that we charged our glasses in the presence of our two Russian captains to say thank you to them and our sturdy ship for the last time as we sail tonight into the ice free world of reality that is Bluff, New Zealand.