Antarctica Part 3: Landfall on Paulet Island

Dawn tints the glacier-covered peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula during a 2009 voyage aboard the M/V Professor Molchanov.

February 2009 Antarctic journey follows the footsteps of early Scandinavian explorers

By Bob Berwyn

South of the Antarctic Convergence zone, the sea is still. The ship slows to maneuver between giant ice floes in the Antarctic Sound. We awaken to a magical world of icebergs tinged lipstick-pink and tangerine-orange by a spectacular Antarctic sunrise. Only a few passengers are awake and perched on the bow of the Molchanov to watch a group of penguins arch through the water like mini-dolphins. They’re powerful swimmers, using their wings to propel themselves under water with flying motions.

“They’re trying to fly,” says  expedition leader Jan Belgers. Even though the birds gave up the sky for the deep sea eons ago, they still have some genetic memory of what it must be like to soar through the air, Belgers explains.

Later, we spot a pod of orcas cruising between the fantastically sculpted bergs. Leopard seals lounge on flat floes, looking fat and happy after feasting on this year’s crop of penguin chicks.

A group of guides from the M/V Professor Molchanov stands on the guano-covered shore of Paulet Island, watching as one of the ship's Zodiacs speeds back out to sea.

Paulet Island

Our first landing in Antarctica is on Paulet Island, a small circular chunk of volcanic rock that’s home to a major adelie penguin colony during the Austral spring and early summer. In early March (late summer in the southern hemisphere) the penguins are mostly gone but the remains of their rookery, in the form of pungent pink guano, was still evident. The acrid smell wafts across the water as we approach the shore in Zodiacs and getting across the beach to the uplands involved a hike through the smelly turf.

A few straggling adelies remained, along with dozens of fur seals lounging on ice floes and along the beach, along with a group of blue-eyed shags, the only members of the cormorant family to venture to Antarctica proper.

Paulet Island played a role in early explorations of Antarctica we learn while hiking to the remains of a stone hut that served as shelter for Captain Carl Anton Larsen and the crew of his ship, the Antarctic. Larsen, a whaler, was exploring the region in 1903 when his ship was trapped and crushed in the ice offshore, leading to one of the many epic stories of polar survival. Part of Larsen’s party traveled over the ice by sledge seeking rescue. Eventually, all the men but one were rescued by an Argentine vessel. A simple wooden cross set back from the beach marks the grave of Ole Kristian Wennersgaard, a 22-year-old sailor who died on the island in pursuit of science and exploration.

A battle-scarred Weddell seal rests on the shore of Dundee Island, where early explorer Lincoln Ellsworth started the first-ever complete trans-Antarctic flight.

Dundee Island

Although more and more people are visiting Antarctica these days (up to 40,000 annually), it’s still a remote tourism location compared to other hot spots on the global travel circuit. Our second stop is at  Petrel Cove along the shore of Dundee Island. It’s part of a group of islands known collectively as Graham Land, closer to South America than any other part of Antarctica. It was named by Scottish whalers in 1893 and served as the take-off point for American pilot Lincoln Ellsworth when he made the first trans-Antarctic flight in 1935.

When we got back to Summit County, I did some research on Petrel Cove to try and find out how many people have been there. A list shows that, during the past 15 years, only two commercial trips with a total of 107 visitors have landed at the remote site.

A few metal buildings, painted rust-red, are left over from an Argentinian settlement. Although it was supposedly a science station, our expedition leaders dismissively calls it a political site, established to help the South American country bolster territorial claims in Antarctica.

Under existing international law, the continent belongs to nobody and is managed for the purposes of scientific research through a consultative process. Still, several countries, including the United States, maintain that they have the right to exercise those claims in the future. With potential for vast reserves of precious resources, including offshore oil and gas, some observers think it’s only a matter of time before some countries try to assert some level of sovereignty.

Hundreds of fur seals, along with a few Weddell seals, lounge on a broad beach covered with red seaweed. Clumps of miniature icebergs melt in the warm days of late summer. A large glacier on the island appears to be in retreat, crumbling at our feet. It feels like just a few days since the last ice age ended.

A pair of Gentoos squabbles over a pebble at Brown Bluff.

Brown Bluff, ice arches and Deception Island landing

Setting foot on mainland Antarctica is a big step for some of the Molchanov’s passengers, who are visiting their seventh, and final, continent. The basalt rocks at Brown Bluff are part of an unusual geologic formation called a Tuya, formed when a volcano erupts beneath a continental ice sheet. Whether it’s our seventh continent or not, we all agree it’s the most spectacular site so far. Ice floes fill the bay for as far as we can see, and the curved beach is densely populated by friendly gentoo penguins and ornery fur seals, who protect their turf by grunting and lunging awkwardly when a tourist wanders too close.

The next day we visit Deception Island, anchoring in a small cove near the crumbling ruins of a whaling station. The bay is almost completely encircled by glacier-draped ridges, with only a half-mile wide opening to the sea. It’s one of the few places in the world where an ocean-going vessel can sail into a flooded caldera, the collapsed center of a volcano. The ice on the slopes is colored black with the ash and soot of the most recent eruption which was just a few decades ago. Geologists keep a close watch on the island to monitor for potential eruptions in the future.

Leigh Wadden walks along the shore of the flooded caldera of Deception Island.

The rotting sheds and rusted metal tanks that once stored whale oil are grim reminders of a not-so-distant past, when men slaughtered tens of thousands of the giant mammals at sea, then dragged them to the stations to be rendered for oil, flayed for meat and carved up for their by-products, including baleen to make combs and corsets. Thankfully, Antarctic waters have been designated as a refuge for whales. Several species that were hunted to near extinction are making a comeback.

We hike up to the rim of the caldera and across the ash-covered glacier to reach a chinstrap penguin colony at Bailey Head. On moss-covered ground, improbably distant from the sea, thousands of the birds are molting. In some places, the feathers have piled so deep it reminds us of drifts of snow back in our hometown of Frisco, Colorado. We’re amazed that the waddling birds can climb this far up a steep mountainside. At first glance, they look like precariously balanced bowling pins, but on closer observation, we see that they’re sure-footed and steady walkers.

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Continued next week …


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