Lemaire Channel

P-50709_lemarie1Christmas morning I was up and out by 5 AM. Dazzlingly bright sunshine and no wind greeted me when I hit the top deck. The sun had been up for several hours already, and seeing this sight, I found myself wishing I’d not slept at all. We’d begun our passage through the Lemaire Channel that morning.

Lemaire Channel is a strait off Antarctica, between Kiev Peninsula in the mainland’s Graham Land and Booth Island. Nicknamed “Kodak Gap” by some, it is one of the top tourist destinations in Antarctica; steep cliffs hem in the iceberg-filled passage, which is 6.8 miles long and just 1,700 yards wide at its narrowest point. I was outside on deck very early watching and photographing this amazing place as we slowly moved through the passage. The water was glassy smooth and reflected the deep blue nearly cloudless sky. Snow and glacier covered mountains plunged into the sea all around us.P-50717_lemarie3Icebergs were everywhere as we slowly cruised along. Some had groups of penguins moving about.P-50720_lemarie4On this morning it struck me just how monochromic most of what I’d seen so far has been. Everything is covered in deep snow and ice, with the exception of the occasional patch of rock. There is no soil really. The exception might be the beach landing on Deception Island a few days ago, but that was volcanic ash from past eruptions. Almost nothing grows here. Color is so subtle – pale shades of blue in ice and water, white and shades of grays, the earthy ochres of the sparse rock outcropping, and whatever color the water happens to be at the moment. But when the clouds break and sun shines, ice crevasses begin to glow an unearthly ancient blue and what look to be featureless expanses of snow and ice are coaxed into revealing amazing textures. It is a world transformed from the merely unbelievable to nearly indescribable.P-50725_lemarie5 P-50726_lemarie6 P-50731_lemarie7 P-50737_lemarie8Way off in the distance we began to hear a faint voice. What could this be? As we approached one particular iceberg, we could make out 3 small figures all dressed in red. Ho, Ho, Ho. Can you give us a lift? It was Santa and his helpers adrift on an iceberg! A zodiac was dispatched to pick them up, and once onboard, Santa held court in the main commons area of the ship, handing out gifts to the 30 or so children aboard. I have to say, management really takes care of these folks.P-50747_lemarie9 P-50762_lemarie11 P-50766_lemarie12I was still a little frustrated, having to miss the afternoon landing on Petermann Island. I’m not cleared until tomorrow. On Petermann, folks got to see nesting Adelie penguins and their chicks. These were seen nowhere else on this trip. Unfortunately we won’t be making landings again until we reach Cuverville Island along the Arctowski Peninsula in another day.P-50755_lemarie10 P-50790_lemarie16Later in the day the ship anchored off Petermann Island, which lies just south of the Lemaire Channel and to the southwest of Hovgaard Island in the Wilhelmina Archipelago. It was discovered by the Dallman expedition of 1873-1874 and named after August Petermann, a German geographer and supporter of polar exploration. On the beach near the cove is an Argentinian refuge hut, built in 1955. The hut is now surrounded by breeding penguins. Petermann Island is home to Adélie penguins (~500 breeding pairs), the most southerly colony of gentoo penguins (2,000 breeding pairs) and blue-eyed shags.

A cross stands as a memorial to three British Antarctic Survey scientists who disappeared in the early 1980s. They hiked across the pack ice for several miles in the hopes of climbing a nearby mountain. They were turned back by the weather and took refuge in this hut on Petermann Island.

There was (and is) food and water in the hut to last for at least fifty days, and the three scientists took up residence, while remaining in radio contact with their base, a mere 6 miles away, but impassible by ship or on foot due to poor ice conditions. After about 30 days, the men were not heard from again. Their station mates were able to reach the hut after about 50 days and the men were not to be found. It was clear that they had been at the hut. The rescuers found their journal, which indicated that the three men had taken off across the ice to get back to the station. They have not been heard from since.P-50770_lemarie13While residents were out exploring the memorial and penguin colonies on the island, I was for the final time, confined to the ship. Still, the long days we were experiencing now meant endless opportunities to make landscape (icescape?) images from the deck along the way. I spent as much time as possible doing that.P-50775_lemarie14 P-50782_lemarie15The original itinerary included points further south along the peninsula to Danco Coast, but unusually heavy sea ice meant the ship couldn’t get through, so we stayed in the area for the day before turning around and slowly making our way back the way we came. This time in the evening hours. Clouds had formed and settled low, making the light very cold and heavy feeling. Only an occasional bit of light could break through. The way out, while still amazing, was not quite so impressive.P-50797_lemarie17 P-50798_lemarie18 P-50799_lemarie19 P-50800_lemarie20 P-50805_lemarie21 P-50826_lemarie22P-50835_lemarie23There were only a few other ships seen our entire time around the peninsula. This one was a Chilean research vessel.P-50840_lemarie24Tomorrow we move to Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest Gentoo penguin rookeries in the region. I will be on this landing.

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