65° 08' 20 S 64° 00' 63 W
The Lemaire Channel is one of the top tourist destinations in Antarctica, comparatively protected the waters are often still. However, its location means it is equally often impassable due to the icebergs accumulating in the Channel and remaining for weeks or months due to the calm waters and narrow width.
Named for Charles Lemaire by Adrien de Gerlache, expedition leader of the Belgica of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, it is approximately eleven kilometres long and at its narrowest, a mere 1,600 meters wide.
We passed through the Channel twice, once on route to the Antarctic Circle and once on the way back home. For our first passage, our official wake-up call, by Lauren Farmer, our expedition leader, was due at 05:45, but I was keen to be out on the deck and secure a spot to see the Channel and get some photos. I was not the only one with this idea. Quite a few of the 116 passengers had the same thought and were out on the bow of the boat well before our 'official' meeting time.
It was pitch black approaching the Channel. We stood on deck well before sunrise with a thick cloud cover above us. My 100-400mm lens strapped to my old 1D struggled to find a balance between sharpness, light and ISO. Slowly, oh so slowly, the sunlight filtered through the clouds and started to light the Channel. Rock and ice towered on both sides, still shrouded in mist. Small icebergs dotted the Channel, or at least things I considered icebergs at this early stage of my exposure to the worlds final continent.
Sunrise over Lemaire was our first sight of Antarctica and the ice and mountains that define it. It is majestic. The water is dark, and the ice a remarkable snowy white. Black rock stands tall where the mainland and the islands are found, with snow climbing it in bands.
On top of the ice, a penguin highway stood, deep lines in the snow, worn through where colonies of penguins walk in each other's footsteps, creating pathways to the water.
After traversing the length of the Channel, at the very end, we saw our first actual iceberg, a mountain of ice floating in the dark waters. Occasionally, the blood, snow, red algae were seen on the ridgelines. The hot weather that had hit the Antarctic Continent over the past few months causing unprecedented blooms.
Darting past the ship along our journey, a family of penguins became our first Antarctic visitors of the morning, the small birds porpoising through the water with speed and grace you'd never expect from seeing them on land. Then, as we reached the end of the Channel, two Humpback Whales made a brief appearance, their tails showing bright against the snow before they submerged and disappeared.
A week or more later, on our return, we were able to do something truly remarkable, something we only afterwards appreciated for how unique it was. We were able to take a zodiac through the length of the Lemaire. One of our guides later told us he would be boasting about this for a decade. No one he knows has been able to do this, and it was rare enough to traverse the Lemaire.
The sky was a bright, vibrant blue, and the water was crystal. Our 11 zodiacs set out in a procession from the MV Expedition, keeping each other in sight but keeping our distance as well. Unknown to us at the time, each zodiac was part of a group of three, with one holding food, one shelter and another extra fuel. If disaster had struck, we were ready.
As we passed into the start of the Channel, we had the telltale fins of Minke whales behind us briefly before we turned a corner and saw an incredible sight. On a steep rock face, a colony of Gentoo Penguins is climbing near-vertical slopes to reach their nests at the top of a hill but playing in the Lemaire waters.
No doubt this steep climb was worth it for the protection it gave from Leopard Seals, though the ever-present Skua were no less threatening.
Despite this, penguins played in the water at the base of their colony.
Simon, our photographer in residence's advice, came back to me once again, and I ensured I caught our ship, or a zodiac in the shot from time to time to give a sense of scale to the scenery as it passed along the Channel while we explored.
The mountains and cliffs tower about you, and the narrowness of the Channel casts long shadows. Occasionally, algae or guano stains the snow, bringing strange colours to an otherwise white, blue and black landscape.
The peculiarity of light means brings luminous, almost neon blues to crevices in the ice, the pressure creating clear ice from snow and a longer wavelength of blue light brings an almost unreal spectacle.
Behind the Channel, in the distance, Antarctica's tallest mountain, Mount Francis, the fifth tallest mountain in Antarctica, and just behind the Channel (or before depending on your perspective) was once Cape Renard Towers, and now more colloquially, Una's Tits. They were named for the secretary of the Governor of what is now the British Antarctic Survey. They are sometimes, in a more formal setting, called Una Peaks.
The final stretch in the zodiac, around the northern tip of the Channel, was icy as the sun began to set and the waves began to rise. But, by the end, we were all glad to be back on board.