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Weddell Sea

Lying to the less-visited east of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea spends much of the year completely frozen over with sea ice. Even in the summer months, the passage of ships is often restricted by the ice-choked waters. It was here in January 1915 that Shackleton’s ship the Endurance became trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The men escaped to uninhabited Elephant Island before some of them rowed a small boat to South Georgia to get help. One year and seven months after their ship had become trapped, every one of Shackleton’s men were saved. The Endurance was eventually crushed by the icy jaws which it held it so fast.

Today, it is the icy beauty and remoteness of the Weddell Sea which draws visitors to its inhospitable waters. Soaring cliffs of ice take on a bluish hue in sunlight, their flat tops hinting at the vastness of the white continent which lies behind. As sections break off, huge tabular icebergs are born; the Weddell Sea is veritable iceberg ‘factory’ creating ever-changing scenery of jaw-dropping beauty. These gargantuan behemoths glide slowly and silently through the water for years, gradually melting down to a tiny piece of ice before completely becoming part of the ocean that transported them for so long.

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Despite the harsh conditions, the Weddell Sea is rich in marine life. Taking advantage of the summer bounty, emperor penguins come to the area to breed. Snow Hill Island is home to large emperor penguin rookery, its contours providing relative shelter against the raging winds which regularly blow. Adult emperors can be seen swimming in the water and resting on the ice floes. The world’s largest penguin species endeared itself to viewers in the film ‘March of the Penguins’ with its battles against the elements and endless dedication to its precious offspring.

The Weddell Sea also supports large populations of marine mammals including the Weddell seal – named after the same sea captain – James Weddell – whose name was given to the sea. James Weddell sailed here in 1823 and reached 74° south – the first person to do so. Crabeater and leopard seals also inhabit the area as do several species of whale. Minke, humpback and Southern right whales can often be seen ploughing through the waves as they come up to breathe.

Weddell Sea Q&A

The Weddell Sea spends much of the year completely frozen over with sea ice. Even in the summer months, the passage of ships is often restricted by the ice-choked waters. It was here in January 1915 that Shackleton’s ship the Endurance became trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The area is much less-visited than the west side of the peninsula, so we asked some of the Expedition’s leaders to give us some insight into what draws adventurous travellers to this ‘iceberg factory’.
 
 
What makes this area different to other parts of Antarctica?
The Weddell Sea is remote and less frequented by travellers. It's a sea that is bounded by land, allowing sea ice and icebergs to last for decades. This part of Antarctica offers great photographic opportunities for those interested in ice. It is renowned for its impressive tabular icebergs, which makes the scenery vastly different from the western side of the peninsula. 
 
 Is the wildlife different on this side of the peninsula?
In general, there is more wildlife on the western side, but it's entirely unpredictable. The Weddell Sea is the only place that Emperor penguins breed this far north and in the peninsula. The Weddell side offers the same type of wildlife, but is less abundant in terms of numbers.
 
 
How likely are you to see Emperor penguins here?
There are always possibilities. However, they nest deep into the fast sea ice which our vessel just can’t penetrate - only scientific vessels can reach these parts. When you travel to this area, the Expedition’s crew will always be on the look-out for Emperors coming from their colony to the sea to feed. We even had a spotting of one on the Western side once, a juvenile – which was pretty exciting!
 
Do we try to visit Snowhill Island and how likely is a landing there?
We attempt to visit Snowhill Island where there is a large Emperor Penguin rookery, but it’s very unlikely we would ever be able to land due to the thick sea ice.
 
What landing sites do we attempt to visit?
Brown Bluff, Paulet Island, Devil Island, Dundee Island and Joinville Island, are all sites where we hope to land - but remember it is not about how many landings we make, it is about the quality of the experience we have. The ship is a perfect platform for viewing icebergs and whales. Also, the Zodiacs are a perfect way to explore the fantastic icescapes and for getting up close to the whales and seals. It’s best to keep an open mind - a one landing day, combined with a ship cruise or Zodiac cruise, could be the most memorable day of your life!
 
Does ice play a bigger role on the Weddell side in terms of landing sites, compared to other voyages in Antarctica?
No, it is the same no matter where you are. You can get iced out on the west side and you can get iced out on the east side - it depends on the conditions of the season. 
 
 How does the ship navigate the thick ice in these parts?
The same way it does when the ice is not so thick - experienced bridge officers, slow speed, use of radar and by watching the weather.
 


 

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