Heads or Tails – Legends of the snow

March 3, 2023

Yalour Islands – AM

We headed down south towards Yalour Island, a rocky low island dwarfed by towering peaks in the southern part of the Wilhelm archipelago. Jean Baptiste Charcot named it after Jorge Yalour, a lieutenant from the Argentinian Navy who along with Captain Julien Irizar rescued the “Antarctic” a Nordenskjöld (Swedish) expedition in November 1903. In Feb 1902, some of the crew members (1st crew) were dropped off on Snow Hill Island (on the east coat of the peninsula) to carry out scientific research. The team of researchers had a hunch they were iced up, severe winter gave it away..so they prepared to stay on land another winter and assumed their buds would come and fetch them.

In Nov 1902, chunks of relentless sea ice blocked the Antartic’s route to the Eastern side of the Peninsula from the west. Their plan to fetch the team on Snow Hill was called off so three members (2nd crew) disembarked and set off to Hope Bay hoping to go to Snow Hill by land. Plan aborted, they thought it was an overland trip. Sans Google maps and GPS, they didn’t know about the open water. Too late, the Antarctic left and sailed East into more packed ice and then did a “titanic”. The entire 20+ crew members + one cat survived crossing patches of ice and sea until they arrived at Paulet Island and built a stone hut. Now three groups missing.

In September 1903, the 2nd crew at Hope Bay were in survival mode and headed to Snow Hill. By chance some from the 1st group went out exploring and laid eyes on what they thought were penguins but it was their buds from the Antarctic.

Meanwhile, in Argentina. The Argentinian Navy’s ship, the Uruguay was undergoing an upgrade in preparation for a rescue mission with Captain Julien Irizar leading it. They reached Seymour Island in November 1903 and saw a boathook left on a cairn by the 1st crew. They found the 1st and 2nd crew a day later. What about the 20+ crew and cat? By happy chance some members from the 3rd party, one of them Captain Larsen who eventually settled in South Georgia after this episode approached the hut and they all jumped for joy. Maybe.

Finally, they steered the Uruguay to Paulet Island and rescued the remaining crew and cat. They spoke of their survival techniques that included rowing on rafts they assembled. building wooden huts and slaughtering seals and penguins for food and warmth. In the midst of all this, the team of experienced researchers secured their scientific discoveries, penguin fossils and prompted JB Charcot to call off his trip to the Arctic in 1903. The idea of rescuing them and discovering the unknown south was more appealing. Hence, The French Antarctic Expedition (1904-1907).

How is this even related to Yalour Islands on the west side of the Peninsula? No comprendo. The series of events took place on the east side of the Peninsula with brief references to Lieutenant Jorge Yalour.

We landed on the sloping rocky shore that led up to a carpet of snow, tainted in green and red algae hugging volcanic rocks. The topography varied across the size of this 2.8km island dotted with crater lakes, unique rocks and vegetation that would blow any geology buff away. It was too sophisticated for me to take in. I directed my attention to the Adelie Penguins instead and worked on capturing as many mugshots. Thousands of them all over the island were nesting, feeding their chicks, marching around, grunting and ruffling feathers. A few shabby looking ones molting. It appears that they become more irritable and sensitive when molting. I don’t blame them.

Time was up, we headed out for some whale action around the islands. Drifting ice floes and shattered pieces of ice were all around including an active leopard seal that plunged into the water from one of the ice floes. A bunch of ice floes away, two crab eaters were lounging on another ice floe but we cut the photoshoot short when we got the call that humpbacks were less than a mile away.

We zoomed towards them, made an abrupt stop close to a giant grey blubber floating on the surface. It was asleep. At which stage of the 30 minutes sleep window did we arrive? Patience. We hung around until it dove in, revealed a half hearted fluke then went back to sleep. Time was running out, the situation was bleak just like the weather that took a cloudy turn. Engines revved up, we rode up and over the waves in the direction of the wind towards the ship.

Argentine Islands – PM

Once again, we were on Charcot’s trail as we sailed around islands he sighted and named after Argentina because the “Uruguay”‘s rescue mission continued even after bringing the Swedish expedition back to Buenos Aires. In 1905, when JB Charcot’s Antarctic expedition was thought to be lost close to Adelaide Island, the Argentinian government sent the Uruguay to the rescue captained by Ismail Galindez who Charcot named the Galindez Island in his honor.

From the ship, we took off on the zodiac and drifted along the coastline of Galindez Island where the Vernasdsky Research Base’s green building stood out. It’s the Ukrainian Antarctic Research base named after Vladimir Vernadsky one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry and radiogeology. The station was first set up by UK in 1947 on Winter Island separated by a narrow channel from Galindez Island. Known as Station F (Farraday Station), they moved it to Galindez in the 70s. It was sold to the Ukrainians in 96 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ambitious Ukrainian scientists pleaded to continue their research and sent out circulations and appeals because “Russia declared itself the successor to all Antarctic Stations of the USSR”. They paid one pound for it.

It’s an active base; we dropped two young Ukrainian scientists who shared the journey with us on the Plancius until this day doing all kinds of whale research. I was keen to learn more about their research and the focus of their study. “Everything about the whale” they said. Okay then.

We sailed around the islands, huge chunks of ice all over the sea calved off glaciers in the background. We spotted a stretched out crab eater seal on one of the ice floes exposing major scars on its body. At first we thought it was black rock on the tip of the ice, we frequently mixed up with seals. This scar-y seal could have been attacked by leopard seals, orcas or other male crab eaters fighting to impress a female.

We carried on circling around chunks of white and transparent ice cubes and headed towards Wordie House on Winter Island where the UK station (Base F) was first set up in 1947 and then transferred to Galindez Island in 1954. Wordie House was named after Sir James Wordie, a Scottish geologist and Polar explorer who was on the Endurance with Shackleton when it was trapped and crushed in the Weddle Sea. In the 60s, some researchers occupied the hut until the weather cleared up, their possessions left intact.

I went in for a brief moment, felt queasy and walked out and up the steep hill behind the house. Jagged peaks towered over the bay scattered with chunks of ice and rocky islets lacking fins, tails or blows. Disappointed, we headed back to the ship and cruise up north to the Lemaire Channel. Spirits back up as we spent the evening admiring the calm, magnificent and silky smooth water reflection. Words can’t do it justice.

One response to “Heads or Tails – Legends of the snow

  1. I love how you balance history and personal experience with the photographs you took, Sarah. I suspect that the photographs will never be able to do justice to how this landscape must have imprinted itself on your soul.

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