Heads or Tails – Turning Point

March 4, 2023

Danco Island – AM

We continued the journey up north to Danco Island that lies west of Graham Land. The island was first charted by Adrien de Gerlache during the Belgian Antarctic Expedition 1897-99 (Belgica) where he put together an ambitious team willy nilly to explore Antarctica as Belgium was losing it in the Congo. Their original plan was to go to Cape Adare towards Australia but they pivoted to the Antarctic Peninsula towards Graham Land.

Lt Emile Danco joined the party along with Roald Amundsen who got the polar bug at the age of 25 on this expedition. Amundsen mastered the art of survival in extreme circumstances that worked to his advantage when he surprised his supporters who thought he was heading to the North Pole in 1910. He pivoted to the South Pole and was determined to beat British Captain Robert Falcon Scott to it. Scott later froze to death because he did not cover the bases as well as Amundsen. Could the second con man on the ship be blamed for this? Frederik Cook.

American Captain Cook who’s “first attempt to discover the North Pole” in 1908 was discredited because he didn’t present enough “original navigational records”. Without instagram and tiktok to prove it, it was questionable. He was then involved in an oil start up fraud in the 1920s, went to jail and was successful in proving that documentation management is a survival skill. Amundsen assumed Cook or perhaps Robert Peary reached the North Pole in 1908 and 1909. He wanted to be the first to go somewhere. Avaricious, he did a 180 and turned south which drove an entire race rooting for Captain Scott bonkers.

So the “Madhouse” crew including Nansen the cat, who unlike his noble peace prize winning namesake, were totally unprepared for nature’s ruthless attitude. Cook and Amundsen doing the hunting, cooking and taking command of the ship when Gerlache and the rest were under the weather. It wasn’t just Cook and Amundsen’s go-getting attitude that contributed to their ability to leave behind a legacy, they avoided scurvy by eating penguins while the rest suffered from a lack of vitamin C. It hit Emile Danco hard. He died in June 1898 because of a heart problem according to Captain Cook who was also a doctor when the “Belgica” became prisoner to the packed ice from March to Jun 1898 crossing the Antarctic circle. They buried him in the sea. Meanwhile earth tilted away from the sun from May to July 1898. It was completely dark.

Losing Emile Danco was a big blow to Gerlache. They were friends, chose this vessel (Belgica) in Norway together and was one of the first recruits. He named the island we were cruising around with drifting souls underneath in his honor. The rest showed signs of exhaustion, hysteria and hallucination while winds and currents involuntarily drifted the Belgica in all directions for hundreds of kilometers. After Danco, Nansen the cat died despite forcing him to be friends with a real penguin. They slipped his dead body into the sea too. Anxiety pumped up about who’s spirit was next on the Reaper’s list.

Une Cat-astrophe! Months of fluctuated emotions in fierce conditions. They endured and had been whipped in a frenzy of ups and downs. One day they were hopeful and celebrating, the next – down and out until they were free at last in March 1899. They returned heroes to Antwerp 8 months later and continued with the “madhouse” behavior in other facets of their future lives. The polar bug is a real bug.

Fast forward to March 2023, weather conditions were all clear. We were given the green light to cruise around the coastline and polar plunge from the shores of Danco Island. As soon as we sat on the zodiac, the sky turned dark. The fog unforgiving and just before we spotted a couple of humpback fins floating on the surface, we were hit hard by snow that permeated the entire channel. The humpbacks were asleep, not again! We hung in there, coated in snow while what sounded like frequent volcanic eruptions echoed in the background. Chunks of ice were breaking off glaciers. Since the days of the Belgica, humpbacks have been sighted (Feb 1898) in the Errea Channel, I wonder if they were the same ones. Nope, humpbacks live for max 90 years.

We were engulfed in thick fog, it was persistent. Then, as if some supernatural force lifted a baton, the tempo for the next couple of hours in the entire channel was set. An ensemble of humpbacks woke up and put on a stunning and dramatic display right next to us during the storm. They lob tailed, breached a bunch, teamed up to bubble feed swimming in circles, diving in and blowing bubbles to capture their prey. Their mouths were open, pink gills on display. It was an out of this world experience and by far the richest.

We voted to sit through the storm, circle around the bay and shrugged off the idea of polar plunging. Meh. Inexperienced at handling camera equipment in wild weather, I tucked it away and used my i-phone. Some of the images are captures from long videos, and were deliberately left unedited.

Cuverville Island – PM

Cuverville Island was at the Northern end of the Errera Channel, named in honor of Leo Errera, a botanist, who among others, supported Gerlache when he sketched out the idea of an Antarctic Expedition and raised enough to set out to Cape Adare and then change his mind. As for Vice Admiral, Jules Cuverville, he was Chief of Staff of the French Navy from 1898-1899. I’m uncertain why Gerlache named an island after him. The dates coincide but that’s as far as I can get.

Despite the dense fog, some of us did a landing and walked around thousands of breeding Gentoo penguins spread around the rocky island touched up with mosses and lichens, the only greenery dotted around the continent. Half the guests ditched and cruised for hours. The humpbacks kept at it, surfaced, sprayed us with mucuous (maybe) and sea water on their blowholes as they exhaled and flipper slapped us good bye! Little did we know, it was going to be our last whale encounter in Antarctica.

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