January 15, 2013 – Wilhelmina Bay, Cuverville Island
Posted on January 16th, 2013
Temperature: 33° F
Wind speed: 5-15 knots
Cloud cover: 50-100%
We awoke to spectacular Antarctic scenery all around us, with mountain peaks rising up through ice as far as the eye could see. ‘Le Boreal’ was in the famed Gerlache Strait, named for Adrien de Gerlache who led the Belgica expedition in this area in 1897-1899. Soon the ship angled south into Wilhelmina Bay, passing Nansen Island and then Brooklyn Island, the northern point of which coincidentally is named Hobbs Point (the same as the surname of our expedition leader).
This part of the bay was completely sheltered from the wind, and as such had a perfectly glassy sea surface. Sound also travels great distances under these still conditions, which made it possible for us to hear the blows of four humpback whales that were feeding deeper into the bay. Once on board the Zodiacs, many of us had the chance to get closer to these magnificent creatures. Two of the humpbacks began logging at the surface resting, giving us such good looks we could even see their lungs expand with each inhalation.
The bay also was home to a number of minke whales, which made several passes close to the Zodiacs. Gorgeous blue and white glaciers stretched down to the sea all around us, and we even witnessed several avalanches of snow pouring down steep rock faces.
Back on ‘Le Boreal,’ many of us ate lunch outside on the pool deck under the glorious sunshine. Meanwhile, Captain Etienne Garcia maneuvered the ship back out into the Gerlache Strait and finally over to Cuverville Island, the site of our afternoon landing. This bell-curve shaped island is one of the most verdant places in all of Antarctica, its steep slopes covered with mosses and lichen.
The gentoo penguins at Cuverville have received a lot of visitors over the years, so the nearly 5,000 breeding pairs tend to be downright welcoming and quite the opposite of skittish. We watched their behavior closely, noticing how the gentoos constantly add stones to their rock pile nests while attempting to steal stones from the nests of others. While this hilarious show was going on, skuas patrolled overhead in case the skirmishes over stones presented an opportunity for them to snatch a tiny unguarded chick.
Naturalist Russ Manning led a hike high up above the landing beach, so we could get a view over the iceberg-scattered sea to the mountains and glaciers beyond. Before heading back to the ship, we were taken on a short Zodiac ride around the bay, where water-sculpted icebergs and a snoozing leopard seal on an ice floe were highlights.
Back on the ship, we all met up for the evening recap, during which geologist Kitty Coley spoke about the science of discovering meteorites in Antarctica, and ornithologist Patricia Silva had us laughing with her study of “Red Jacket Albatrosses.”
After dinner, ‘Le Boreal’ approached the northern entrance to the legendary Lemaire Channel, often aptly referred to as “Kodak Alley” for its spectacular scenery. This 7-mile-long and one-mile-wide channel separates Booth Island from the Antarctic continent with dramatic, towering snow-covered mountains lining the route on both sides. Under a dramatic Antarctic sunset, we gathered out on deck to watch as Captain Etienne Garcia maneuvered the ship through this narrow passage.
– Rich Pagen, Naturalist