Antarctic Peninsula – Devil Island & Brown Bluff

Today we got to visit Devil Island (in the James Ross Island Group) and Brown Bluff (northern Antarctica). Yes…after dreaming of this moment for so long, we finally got to step foot on the continent of Antarctica!!! But first, Devil Island which is home to an adelie penguin colony (15,000 pairs). We will always remember Devil Island for its spectacular views at the summit. What a glorious sight! Climbing up was a hot and sweaty affair but well worth the effort. Brown Bluff was memorable since this was the first time we actually stepped foot on the continent of Antarctica! Since our Brown Bluff explorations were limited to the base of the snowy slope, we jumped at the chance for some more zodiac cruising. Let’s just say the photos don’t do it any justice – the cruising was phenomenal and we will never forget the shades of blue icebergs that we circled around. Simply amazing. Another phenomenal day with the Cheesemans!

16 JAN: (Saturday: Devil Island & into the Antarctic Sound to Brown Bluff): Pancakes for breakfast…yes! Our first landing was at Devil Island which had never been a shore landing before. Our guidebook gave us a bit of information about the island, “Devil Island offers a panorama of Cape Well Met on Vega Island. This is where two of the stranded parties from Nordenskjold 1901-1904 Swedish expedition unexpectedly met on 12 Oct 1903 before their likewise unexpected rendezvous on 7 Nov 1903 with other members of their expedition and with the Uruguay, that had come to their rescue.”

The first zodiac was at 0730, and we were told that only the first 30 passengers would be allowed to go to shore, while everyone else would zodiac cruise. We didn’t make the first 30 cutoff, so we were zodiac cruising with Bruce as our driver. Thankfully, the zodiacs were limited to 8 per zodiac and they didn’t feel too crowded. We took a few photos and zoomed around the bay, until someone with eagle eyes noticed that Ross and Ted had reached the summit of Devil Island’s peak…amazing! We opted to go on shore first chance we could, and immediately went on the hike to the summit after the staff urged that the views were amazing. The hike was steep initially and on ice scree, and we were in our muck boots. Thankfully, Gail Cheeseman had warned us that we’d get very hot, so we had stripped down to the bare minimum at the landing zone. Still, we both were quite sweaty at the top, but it was worth it for the fantastic panorama atop Devil Island…very cool. For some reason, Robby was curious how Ted and Ross had climbed to the top and he contemplated following suit in his muck boots. It looked suicidal and he was chastised by everyone at the top, since it looked too dangerous. Becky swears she’ll be a young widow, especially when Robby becomes inordinately stubborn and refuses to listen to logic.

The zodiacs looked miniscule from up at the peak. Jessie from PA took our picture in front of Cape Well Met (which we loved…its Becky’s new desktop image), and than we headed back down, marveling at the wonderful weather. On the way down, it was obvious that some of the folks heading up hadn’t been given the same briefing as we had. They were attempting to summit on the iciest and most steep section of the scree, taking one step up and two steps back. Robby assisted Katharine Yang over the most difficult part, and than pointed her towards an easier path up. The icy scree looked really tempting, so we both decided to glissade down. Not a good choice! It was way too rocky and Robby ended up ripping a small hole in his waterproof pants.

Once at the base of Devil Island, we checked out the Adelie penguin colony. What immediately struck us as unusual were two nests that had eggs a few inches in front of a guarding penguin parent, but neither egg was being nested. Given the cold temperatures, we surmised both eggs had been abandoned and, subsequently, had frozen over. Yet the parents were still standing in the “nesting” position, as if they didn’t realize they were no longer sitting on the egg! It was very strange. Several of the larger Adelie chicks were already huddling in crèches, and the colony wasn’t as smelly as the Adelie colony we spent time with yesterday. Reluctantly, we had to load into the zodiacs at 1100, but we pushed it as far back as possible. Finally, at 1115, Ross told us if we didn’t get our butts into the zodiac immediately, we’d be walking back to the Polar Star. We soon saw what he meant. The water level had retreated dramatically, causing some of the zodiacs to bottom out in the extremely shallow water. In fact, Ted had climbed aboard our zodiac for a short ride, before being able to wade out towards Doug to assist him in getting his zodiac out of a shallow zone of the water.

Lunch was schnitzel and spaetzle…it was good. We also had yummy ice-cream for desert. A short after lunch nap was grabbed before our afternoon landing at Brown Bluff. Ted made an announcement at 1520 that we’d be landing at 1600, so we woke up and got dressed. Neither one of us needed to put in fresh hand or foot warmers, as the ones from this morning were still warm. Brown Bluff was the first time we landed on the continent of Antarctica, and it was significant because we had finally hit all 7 continents! Whoo hooo. Antarctica is the southernmost continent in the world and by far the most difficult (and costly) to get to. Surrounded by the Southern Ocean, a whopping 98% of the continent is covered by ice, which averages 1 mile in thickness. We were astounded to learn that Antarctica is considered a desert, with a precipitation yield of only 8 inches a year! In addition, Antarctica wins other superlatives…the coldest, driest, windiest, and highest elevation of all the continents. With the exception of staff and scientists at research stations scattered across the continent, humans have never inhabited this vast land. However, life flourishes in the form of krill which feeds whales, seals, and penguins, wildlife that we saw plenty of. Words cannot explain the emotions we feel when we think about this marvelous section of our planet.

Brown Bluff was the perfect introduction to the continent. We saw mostly Gentoos (although there were some Adelies roaming around), and we briefly listened to Hugh as he gave a brief lecture on the geology of Brown Bluff. There were skuas and kelp gulls nesting in the rocks, so we weren’t allowed to venture beyond the snowy slope. The beach was filled with grey gravel rocks, and the slope rose dramatically, with basalt lining the base, and brown cliffs dominating the top. Clouds starting moving in and we decided to zodiac cruise with Hugh after Anne Lucky fortuitously asked us if we were interested in joining her group. It ended up being the two of us, Anne and Paul Lucky, Vick and Vicky Cooper, and Phil Colla, plus Hugh Rose as our zodiac guide. What an awesome call it was to join in…it ended up being a magical zodiac ride. Hugh took us to a few blue icebergs and with the gray overcast, we all got some very nice shots. The highlight was getting some amazing Adelie penguins shots of them launching themselves as a group high off the ice-bergs. It was really cool to witness. We also ventured into a blue lagoon, complete with whimsical snow columns and spires, and the most amazing hue of blue ever imaginable. It was absolutely gorgeous and heart-achingly beautiful…the stuff of dreams. We were surprised to see a few small (golf-ball sized) jelly fish in the sea, as we were constantly looking up at the icebergs, rarely down into the water itself. The mystery of where the shags go during the day was solved…we saw one iceberg with dozens of shags just chilling and resting on it…that was neat as we had become accustomed to seeing penguins on bergs, but shags on bergs? Cool!

We started hearing radio traffic that the staff was adamant that the departure time of 1900 was going to be strictly enforced. So we rushed off to the beach to grab our gear and made a group pact that we wouldn’t tell any one else what a great time we had! We didn’t want to make our fellow passengers green with envy. Someone commented we would probably all display the same photo of the penguins flinging themselves off the iceberg, so our good time would be discovered during the group slide show and we all laughed, as it was probably true. After warming up with our daily hot chocolate treat in the Observation lounge, we enjoyed halibut steak for dinner, along with Becky’s favorite desert (crème caramel). One thing is for sure, you don’t go on a cruise to lose weight! We listened to Ted discuss tomorrow’s itinerary, and headed upstairs to listen to Craig discuss the Nordenskjold Expedition…it was fascinating and had occurred years before the Shackleton adventure. Afterwards, we had just enough time to review our photos for the day before crashing.

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