Heads or Tails – Silence and the Seals

February 27, 2023

Melchior Island, Palmer Archipelago – AM

This morning, we anchored by a group of ice covered islands tinted in golden hue by the rising sun. Dalmann Bay, nearby. The bay was first discovered by the Germans in 1874 and named after Kapitan Eduard Dallmann, German expert whale consultant and polar explorer. He was commissioned to explore the Antarctic waters after the Arctic ran out of whales. En route, he discovered the Bismarck Strait and charted a few islands in the Palmer and Willhelm Archipelagos. During this voyage, although he sighted Melchior Islands, he kept his cool and left them nameless. They were re sighted by French Jean Baptiste Charcot in 1903-05 on his third French Expedition and named the larger island of the bunch Melchior Island in honor of VC Jules Melchior, born in 1844, a French Navy whose successes I fail to grasp. He did leave a family legacy of ocean explorers and protectors. Fast forward to 2023, his great grandson is Jean-Michelle Cousteau, an active environmentalist ranging from marine conservation to education via films and documentaries.

We set off on our zodiacs and sailed around Gamma Island where the Melchior Base is stationed. It’s one of the 13 Argentinian research stations in Antarctica. I’m guessing this was one of the seasonal ones or abandoned? It looked deserted except for a bunch of Antarctic Fur Seals on the rocky part of the island using their front flippers to sit up straight after a swim, head pointing to the sky, ears visible (only seals in Antarctica with visible ears) while others in deep sleep. Chinstraps penguins were scattered around rocks and snow stained with pink poop in the small narrow cove behind the base. 

As we meandered around Gamma towards the west in the less sheltered part of the sea, the wind picked up. We zoomed against the current, frigid temperatures causing pain to any exposed skin. Every now and then, we slowed down to marvel at the glacier ice on the islands, the rocky base covered in lichen and moss. We kept a safe distance in case of a calving that may trigger icebergs flipping over and huge waves. The cluster of islands that make up Melchior, are named after greek alphabets.

We circled around the narrow corridors in the cluster of Alpha, Beta, Theta and Kappa islands. Rocky islets, inhabited with a group of Antarctic fur seals scattered across. Sometimes, a solitary one poked its black head and pointed muzzle out of the water while blue eyed shags that I mistook for penguins were sitting on rocks. A Weddell Seal lying on the rocky base of one of the islands turned to look at us, unmoved. We sailed east towards the sparkly corridor in between Bremen and Omega Islands. Bremen Island was discovered 20 years ago during a zodiac ride. Along the way, we took a brief reprieve from the chilling wind for some seal watching. Two Fur seals with inflated chests barked at each other, leapt in and out of the water, rinsed themselves and repeated this play.

Snow covered islands appeared to be divided by an enormous mirror that split the landscape between sky and water. Tranquility disrupted by vibrations of our zodiac engines and human excitement when an Antarctic Fur Seal popped its head out and swam away. From a distance, we saw a sailing yacht moored against rocks while two of their passengers were kayaking. Did they actually cross the Drake on that yacht? After much investigation (post trip), some companies offer flying over the Drake and then boarding the yacht to explore. While I pondered, two words ” hot chocolate” buzzed in the background. What? Before it hit me, we landed on a tiny rocky islet in shallow waters and I was holding a warm mug of hot chocolate.

We moved on to the east of Melchior, south of an unknown island, away from the Greeks. One of the leaders pointed out a couple of Weddell Seals on islets outside the channel. We zoomed towards them, traded the tranquility for rough waters and wind chill to poke our camera lenses at them and giggle at the snotty one. We veered into the deep, farther away from the Plancicus until it didn’t seem right.

Anvers Island, Palmer Archipelago – PM

South of Melchior Islands, the captain dropped anchor across Anvers Island, also known as Antwerp Island, the largest island in the Palmer Archipelago. Adrien de Gerlache named it after he charted it during the Belgium Antarctic Expedition “Belgica” in 1898. Well known for a disastrous journey of a ship trapped in ice and poor leadership that influenced the writing of the “Madhouse at the End of the Earth”.

We set out on a four hour cruise around a small passage that revealed the most spectacular compilation of ice variations, some exposing aqua green ice, dark tips and shiny fragments, and headed towards a massive iceberg with a couple of Antarctic Fur Seals lounging around. Among them a pale one that makes up 1% of the fur seal population. It did not get on with the others, a bickering war took place while snow petrels were sat on the edge and blended with the ice. My slow reaction to exposure settings and a rocking zodiac ( just then huge chunks of ice split from a glacier nearby and crashed into the water) produced a ton of blurry images and first world problems.

We zigzagged around chunks of floating ice, ice sheets and bergy bits towards a solitary leopard seal swimming around one of the smaller bergs, somersaulting and diving in for minutes. Surrounded by mountains covered in densely packed snow, the sun shone through overcast skies and glistened off the ice everywhere. As the breeze picked up, concentrated chunks of ice were drifting away in a parallel line. We heard a humpback whale and a crab eater seal were in the vicinity, but we ran out of time.

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