A bright and early (and very brisk) start for all aboard today as we are due to set sail through the majestic Lemaire Channel at dawn. Passengers and crew alike are assembled outside on the deck at 6:30 am to be greeted by Una’s Peaks marking the dramatic entrance to Lemaire.
Carving our way through crumbled brash ice, we ease our way through the channel. Treated to a stunningly clear morning, the light feels perfect. Sheer mountains rising a thousand metres out of the water on either side tower over the Plancius as we push forwards.
Groups of crab-eater seals – mostly in groups of three and four – lounge on iced islands floating just below the ship and remain unmoved as we pass by.There is a brief glimpse of an ivory-white snow petrel from the back deck which is causing some excitement among the birders. Wilson’s storm petrels flutter around the edges of ice floes. Dark menacing forms of south polar and brown skuas flank the ship for most of the day and the odd distant giant petrel scours the surface of the sea.The channel is breathtaking; inconceivably steep black peaks decorated with giant, tumbling glacial waterfalls marked the path ahead as we glide through with steady pace. There is a reverent silence around me as everyone stands and marvels at the scene in front of them.
We break through the channel just before breakfast and by 9:00 am there are Zodiacs of passengers steaming towards Petermann Island for an exciting new landing adventure. We are greeted by throngs of incredibly curious young gentoo penguins again – brazen enough to nibble at our backpacks and life jackets as soon as we set foot on the island. We head slowly up the icy slope through the bustling crowd of Gentoos who were busy taking ice baths or sleeping on the path ahead. At the top of the island, Liz finds our main quarry – nine stunning Adelie penguins! Some are a little tatty in full moult while others are in sparkling black-and-white tuxedo plumage. We arrive right at the end of their short breeding season so we feel relatively lucky and grateful there are still some hanging around!
Our expedition leader Andrew leads the way on another trail around the island to a stunning viewpoint overlooking a cliff adorned with sheathbills and lounging Antarctic fur seals above a bay peppered with icebergs and humpback whales. Deep groans from the vast glaciers in the backdrop add a moody soundtrack to the colourful scene. Scott’s Peak soars above the island (at 1000m above sea level) and humpbacks surround the Plancius in the bay. The kayakers are lucky enough to have a very close encounter indeed with these boat-friendly giants!
Before we head back to ship it is time for the Polar Plunge. This is just what it sounds like – any willing volunteers are offered the chance of a chilly dip in Antarctic waters (today at -1 degree C) as a rite of passage. There was an astonishingly big turnout as people undress from their warm clothes and nervously jump in! The jumps are accompanied by screams, shouts, hollers and quick retreats into warm towels. “Invigorating”, “painful”, “necessary”, “ridiculous”, were some of the more polite words plungers use to describe their unique bath experience. Back on board, I meet an interesting passenger over a cup of tea. He’s an American truck driver who has travelled to over 190 countries on a budget in the last 10 years, and who is now getting to his last destinations on the list. He has not showered in 2 weeks, and his roommate onboard has complained several times to the crew members.
After a brilliant lecture from Andrew on glaciers, and from Bruce on photography, our final views from the deck are of a panorama of the Southern Ocean punctuated by nothing less than the silvery blows of 14 humpback whales. What a way to polish off the day! We are heading on further south where we all hope to cross the famous 66 degrees and 33 minutes south and so enter, the Antarctic Circle.