The Girlache Strait extends from the northern end of the Wilhelm Archipelago and separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula. It was discovered in 1898 by Lt. Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the 1897-1899 Belgian Antarctic expedition. The crew included famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 was the first to reach the South Pole. Gerlache named the strait after his ship, the Belgica, the first ship to overwinter in the Antarctic. The name later was changed to honor the expedition leader himself.
For our last day in Antarctica, we made two excursions in the Girlache Strait on a beautifully clear and calm day. Our first stop was Neko Harbor, a spectacular basin with steeply-sloped snow-covered shores rising above ice-filled waters. The National Geographic Endurance plowed through huge pieces of ice to enter the harbor and made good use of its DP1 (dynamic position) system by stopping for the morning with the bow nearly on shore, just visible at right in the image above. (The DP system holds the boat’s position using the bow thrusters and the aft azipods, allowing “anchoring” very close to shore since no swing room is needed.)
A short zodiac ride brought us to shore, where we made our last hike of the trip up to a viewpoint over the harbor. After, we toured through the ice in the zodiacs. The Endurance carries Zodiac Milpro heavy-duty inflatables that can move through impressively large birgy bits.
Our final stop in Antarctica was beautiful Paradise Harbor, named by the early 20th-century whalers that operated in the area. Two research stations stand in the harbor, the Chile’s Gonzalez Videla Antarctic Base, that operated mainly from 1951-1958, and Argentina’s still-operational Almirante Brown Antarctic Base, that operated year-round starting from 1951 and summer only starting in 1984.
Several humpback whales were in the area, and we were lucky to get a close-up view to them, and other wildlife as we toured through the scenic bay in the zodiacs. For this trip, we boarded and disembarked the zodiacs at the stern of the Endurance, giving us a chance to see the zodiac garage and watch their custom roof-mounted traveling cranes in action.
Below are highlights from December 27th, 2022. Click any image for a larger view.
Left: The Girlache Strait, underlined in red, was our last stop on the continent. Right: Like most seldom-traveled places in the world, the charts of Neko Harbor, and Antarctica in general, don’t have much detail.
Near-perfect reflections in the water at the mouth of Neko Harbor.
Hiking up to the viewpoint at Neko Harbor, with the Endurance holding position close to shore via DP.
Looking west across Neko Harbor from the viewpoint with the Endurance visible at lower left.
The penguins make trails in the snow as they travel back and forth from their nesting sites to the water. The snowfall has been unusually heavy this year, so the penguin tracks are deep ruts in the snow.
Before we land, the Endurance crew lays out paths for us to follow that won’t interfere with the penguin trails. And they clean up after we leave, filling in any holes we’ve created when our boots sunk deep into the snow. Post holes left by a sloppy walker could trap a penguin if they fall in, because they can’t get back out.
The bow of the Endurance looks a bit like Dirona‘s did after we pushed through much thinner ice to reach Farsund.
The Zodiac Milpro heavy-duty inflatables the Endurance carries can move through impressively large birgy bits. At times, portions of the boat climbs out of the water as we push aside icebergs over six feet in diameter.
Weddell seal lounging on an ice floe
Left: The Endurance, barely visible at right, dwarfed by the mountains around Neko Harbor (click image for a larger view). Right: A snow waterfall just above the ship after a section of glacier calves off.
Left: The zodiacs needed to carve a path through the ice to return to the ship. Right: Enjoying lunch on deck in the sunshine. It was warm enough we didn’t even need to be under the heaters.
Left: The entrance to Paradise Harbor has the first navigation mark we’ve seen on while on the continent. Right: Chile’s closed Gonzalez Videla Antarctic Base operated mainly from 1951-1958 (click image for a larger view).
Enjoying a soak in the hot tub, left, and a drink on deck, while we wait for our turn to tour Paradise Harbor.
We boarded and disembarked from the zodiacs at the stern today, giving us an opportunity to walk through the garage where the kayaks and zodiacs are stored
One of several massive watertight doors around the garage, and a MAIB safety warning. MAIB is the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of the British Department of Transport. Their Safety Digest publication reports on accident and lessons learned as an educational tool to prevent future incidents and has had a major impact on our thoughts around safety at sea.
Boarding the zodiacs from the stern of the Endurance.
Argentina’s still-operational Almirante Brown Antarctic Base operated year-round starting from 1951 and summer only starting in 1984.
Nesting blue-eyed shags on the cliff at Paradise Harbor.
Humpback whale and Gentoo penguin in Paradise Harbor.
A small avalanche,right, on one of the steep cliffs around the shore.
The custom roof-mounted traveling cranes by Aukra Maritime of Norway allow rapid deployment and retrieval of the eight zodiacs stored near the waterline on the Endurance. This crane design consumes little space, while still supporting efficient operations..
Enjoying the view, and a can of Svalbard Brewery beer from our cabin’s fridge. We visited their brewery, the northern-most in the world, while in Svalbard. The Endurance travels to both polar regions and likely stocked up on the local brew while in Svalbard.
We brought heavy gloves and mittens for our excursions, but have been finding Black Diamond Midweight Softshell gloves coupled with HotHands hand warmers are perfect, even for sub-freezing temperatures. The softshell gloves allows much better dexterity than the heavier options, and even support touchscreen use. And at the end of the day, if we leave the hand warmers in the gloves, the continued heat production for their 10-hour heat duration will dry even fairly wet gloves.
A final view to the Antarctic continent before we depart north into the Drake Passage for Ushuaia. The weather is not looking as pleasant as it was for our southbound passage.