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Sail The Antarctic Peninsula on a Tall Ship Expedition

All of Bark Europa's Polar Expeditions explore the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The shortest voyage is 22 days but that still gives you about 2 weeks actually amongst the islands and mountainous mainland. On the longer expeditions there is a chance to sail in the Weddell Sea on the wilder Eastern side of the Peninsula.

The Antarctic Peninsula does not disappoint. An extension of the Andes Mountain range, the spires, tumbling glaciers, calving ice cliffs would be spectacular enough on their own, but combine it with the clear Antarctic weather, penguins, leopard and fur seals and humpback whales and you have a photographers and wildlife lovers dream. What makes these 22 day Antarctic Expeditions so so different is that you are working crew on a tall ship. Steering the ship outdoors and hauling on blocks and tackles in snow, sun and katabatic winds adds a sense of realism and connection with polar explorers that also made their way through the icebergs on a square rigger. 

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Why we love this sailing ground

Patagonia, Cape Horn & Drakes Passage

Between steep green mountains with snow- covered peaks, we sail through the Beagle Channel under square sail if we find the prevailing westerly winds. During the evening we leave the Beagle Channel and head southwards along the sheltered coast of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire).

The crossing of the Drake Passage is approximately 450NM from the lighthouse on Cape Horn to the first land in Antarctica so on a sailing ship it takes 3-4 days.. The seas around Cape Horn have the reputation to be stormy but in between the lows they are calm. The wind varies from southwest to northwest; it should, therefore, be possible to have a good crossing under sail. Cape petrels, White-chinned petrels and Albatrosses are our companions. Albatrosses are well equipped for a permanent stay at sea. Their territory is the open ocean. During the crossing everybody can help the crew to steer, set, shorten, take away and stow sails.

Cape Horn astern of us on Bark Europa
Cape Horn astern of us on Bark Europa

Icebergs Ahead!

As we sail south, the likelihood of seeing icebergs increases. Large ice plateaus are visible on the radar, but sometimes smaller ones are not; we keep a good lookout so that we avoid them. Fortunately, the nights are short in the latitudes of 59° to 61° south. It is amazing when we see the brilliant white shapes of the floating icebergs on the horizon. They are huge, and very high! This is the first sign that we are really approaching the great white mass of Antarctica! We hope that we can drop our anchor in the evening in the sheltered bay of the Barrientos Island.

Europa amongst big icebergs
Europa amongst big icebergs

South Shetland - Aitcho, Yankee Harbour or Hannah Point

Everywhere around the ship we see penguins jumping out of the water. The crew will take us ashore with the dinghies. We share the beach with Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. They walk with us up to the other side of the mountain where we find many Elephant seals. The Aitcho Islands are not completely covered by the ice cap. In the colourful patches of moss, Giant petrels and Antarctic skuas make their nests.

Sailing the next morning for another South Shetland Island in the chain,the chance of spotting a Humpback whale increases. Everywhere around us penguins give a show on floating ice. If there is enough time, we will sail to Edinburgh Hill, a rock that rises straight out of the water. Close up, we can see that it is made of basalt, solidified magma from the centre of a volcano. Pressure from inside the earth pushed the plug to this height, but so far the volcano has not  erupted. When we sail into Yankee Harbour it looks as if we are sailing in between two handmade piers. They are, however, the work of Mother Nature herself. A rookery of Gentoo penguins crowds the beach. Occasionally we see a Weddell seal or a Fur seal. Hannah Point is a peninsula on the  southeast coast of Livingston Island and is a veritable kingdom of animal life. Bird watchers can find nests of American sheathbills, Giant petrels, Skuas, etc. We also look for the Macaroni penguin; we might have the opportunity to meet a lost one. For today the final destination depends on various circumstances.

Sailing down the coast of Livingston Island, Antarctica
Sailing down the coast of Livingston Island, Antarctica

Deception Island, Hot Springs and Bailey Head

Further south, on latitude 63° south, looms Deception Island, a ring-shaped island with an extensive internal crater. The EUROPA will sail through a small opening called ‘Neptunes Bellows’ into the volcanic crater and will drop anchor in Whalers Bay, near the ruins of a whaling station. Latterly the buildings where used as a base for research work, but in 1969/70 several stations were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There is still volcanic activity in this area. You can walk to ‘Neptune’s Window’ and enjoy the magnificent view where the rim of the crater steeply goes back to the sea. It’s also an impressive panorama to look back into the crater.

A couple of miles further into the crater we sail to Pendulum Cove where thermal currents rise.Depending on the tide, those who so wish may bathe in geothermally warmed waters.

Bailey Head on Deception Island. Chinstraps breeding in the thousands
Bailey Head on Deception Island. Chinstraps breeding in the thousands

Good Open Sailing in Bransfield Strait to Trinity Island

We leave Deception’s crater and set course south, leaving the South Shetland Islands astern. We drop anchor between Spert Island and Trinity Island and visit the beautiful ice scenery of small and large icebergs. Our trip in the dinghies takes us through a landscape of ice that is truly out of this world. The colours and shapes are stunning: overhangs with crystal clear icicles, ice-palaces that could have been created by Gaudí, massive gateways and open-air ballrooms. In some spots a piercing blue light shines through the ice and the water looks turquoise. It is an impressive world created by extreme changes of temperature, sculpted by water and wind. Sometimes we are lucky and will see a Leopard seal.

Narrow Fjords, Nekko Harbor & Mainland Antarctica

(Enterpris Island) or Cuverville Island Around this peninsula, whales search for krill in sheltered bays. The sight of whales feeding on krill is truly spectacular. On a previous expedition we saw the world’s largest animal here, the blue whale, which can reach more than 30m. We will visit Enterprise Island, Gouvernøren Harbour. The bay is named after the whaler, the “Gouvernøren”, which was wrecked here in 1916. The 25m bow of the ship still rises out of the water. Breeding Antarctic terns now use the wreck. Cuverville Island is special because of the red and green mosses and is the home to skuas, Dominican gulls with chicks and some 4,800 pairs of gentoo penguins.

The early birds heave anchor and we go further south to Paradise Harbour or Neko Harbour. Here, huge, impressive glaciers of many shades of blue and white surround us. High cliffs of ice rise out of the sea. We hear the ice crack and see huge chunks of ice breaking off. Sometimes a wall of ice, tens of metres high, slowly tumbles down and when this huge mass large hits the sea it sends a wave rolling under our ship. Being in the middle of this awe-inspiring natural wilderness is indescribable! Here we can visit the solid rock of the Antarctic continent

Trinity Island and stranded icebergs
Trinity Island and stranded icebergs

Argentine Islands, Lemaire Channel & Russian Research Stations

A long, popular day lies ahead of us. We head for “Kodak Crack”, the Lemaire Channel. 1,000m high mountains tower over the small channel. On ice shelves around us lie Crab-eater seals. Most people want to be on deck, filming or taking photographs of these beautiful sights.

We enter Penola Strait. This stretch might be blocked by ice, and we will find it hard to force a way through, zigzagging round the icebergs and growlers. The ice conditions might completely block our passage further south towards the Argentine Islands. If the ice allows our passage, we will enter the archipelago towards the end of the day. We carefully thread our way between rocks and islets to our anchorage. We anchor at latitude 65° south, the southernmost point of our voyage.

This evening we plan to visit the former British base ‘Faraday’, now a Ukrainian research station called ‘Vernadsky’. One of the research assistants gives us a tour round and tells us about their work.

Petermann Island 

We find a way out of the Argentine Islands, and anchor near Petermann Island a few hours later. For the first time we are near a breeding colony of Adelie penguins. The behaviour of these penguins, busy with feeding their hungry chicks, is different from that of the others we have seen. Neighbouring penguins wait until they see the feeding chick disappear half-way up the parent’s bill, then quickly steal small stones from the neighbour’s nest to build up and protect their own nest better. Skuas fly above the rookery and take every chance to snatch a penguin chick when the parents leave it unprotected. This island is a strong reminder of the French explorer Charcot, who spent the whole winter here on his ship the “Pourquoi Pas” (Why not) in 1909. The ship, a similar size to EUROPA, was moored in Port Circumcision (so named because the harbour was first discovered on January 1st 1909, the Catholic celebration of the circumcision of Christ). To make sure that large icebergs couldn’t enter the bay during the winter and damage the ship, the crew stretched cables and chains across the mouth of the bay.

Historic Base Port Lockroy has a post office
Historic Base Port Lockroy has a post office

Port Lockroy - The Penguin Post Office

Through Lemaire Channel and Peltier Channel, we reach the Bay of Port Lockroy. We watch blue-eyed shags ashore and in between the rocks, feeding their chicks. There has been a station here since 1944, and the area was declared a monument in the Antarctic Treaty of 1995. It is the oldest existing British station in Antarctica. During the Antarctic summers three British people take care of this base. We will go ashore to visit the station. There we can buy postcards and stamps and send them from the most southerly post office in the world. Sometimes it will take a few months for a letter to arrive in Europe. Ashore we see many Gentoo penguins. Leopard seals are often here, waiting for penguins to enter the water. For these speedy animals it is easy to catch one. Afterwards they lie around on the ice, digesting their last penguin feast.

Dorian Bay & Melchior Islands - Look out for Orca

Close to Port Lockroy, on the other side of a beautiful icecap, we arrive in Dorian Bay. In the past, this icecap was used as a landing strip for small aeroplanes during the beginning of the summer season. We can’t cross it on foot; it might look like a beautiful, white plain of snow but often there are deep crevasses spanned by snow bridges, some strong enough to carry a man’s weight, some weak. Next to the ice cap we see Jabet Peak. The icecap stretches from high up near the mountain’s peak, reaching out into the sea, a massive, white tongue of snow. You will enjoy the magnificent view of the bay as you walk around. You will see Gentoo penguins and occasionally a Weddell seal.

Late in the afternoon we leave and sail through the Schollaert Channel towards the Melchior Islands. On previous voyages we were sometimes lucky enough to see a pod of Killer whale’s come alongside to bid us farewell. Several large females with young came unbelievably close to the ship,  distinguishable as female by the shape of their fin. They kept us company for so long that we had more than enough time to film them and take photographs of them against a beautiful backdrop.

Towards Cape Horn

Enjoy the Southern Ocean now you have your sea legs. Perhaps climb the rigging in the Drakes Passage so you can impress your friends back home.

 

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Albatrosses as your companion on the windy days in the Drakes Passage
Albatrosses as your companion on the windy days in the Drakes Passage

Bark Europa has been exploring the Southern Ocean and Antarctic for over 10 years.She has a big professional crew of 14 and about 40  guest crew. You really don't need any sailing experience but the more you get involved in the sailing, the more epic the adventure.

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