Setting foot on Peter 1 Øy – a very remote peri-Antarctic island off Antarctica’s Western Coast

“We will be starting with Zodiac groups 3, 4 and 5. When they get back, it will be groups 6, 7 and 8, then 9, 1 and 2. I cannot guarantee that we will be able to get you all to shore safely, and if conditions change, we will have to stop the zodiacs” said Shane, rather prophetically as it turned out. This time luck was with me – I was in Zodiac group 5, a semi-random group of 12 of us on the KK, and co-incidentally, in the last of five Zodiacs on the first trip heading out to Peter 1 Øy (or island), a very remote peri-Antarctic island, some 450km from the  mainland on the rarely visited est coast of Antarctica. In fact the Bellinghausen/Amundsen Seas that it is situated between are so rarely sailed across that we are the only passenger boat going near Peter 1 island this year.

10 short minutes later, having skimmed across the surface of the freezing water between the Kapitan Khlebnikov and the shore, dodging icebergs by the dozen, we were landing at the shore of Antarctica’s Peter 1 Oy. Originally discovered by the Russian explorer Fabian Bellinghausen in 1821, it wasn’t until 1929, some 108 years later, that the first person set foot on its shores. This Norwegian landing party were whalers, looking for suitable places to establish whaling stations along the west Antarctic coast, and claimed it in the name of the Norwegian king. Their hopes of Peter 1 becoming a useful whaling base were soon abandoned though, as the coastline is extremely precipitous and landing is rarely possible.

We were soon to discover this for ourselves. The most favoured landing point was out of action due to fast-moving pack ice blocking the entrance in a Zodiac-munching way. So we were landing at a second choice – under a very precipitous cliff, with large ice cornices complete with a heavy arsenal of volcanic “bombs” towering above a very small stony beach. The plan was to beach the Zodiac at the shoreline, each person then gets off on one side of the Zodiac, walks around the bow on the beach and get back into the Zodiac again on the far side. Thus being able to claim that they were one of a very small number of folks who have set foot on the island. Of course a few chose to wander further – most of us wanted a picture to prove we we’d set foot on the land. Some went further and wandered several metres away from the boat and started to set up tripod… seemingly oblivious to the intermittent rain of small stones and pieces of ice – which could so easily become house-sized blocks at any time, and that would rather spoil the party… permanently.

All too soon we were back on the zodiac heading back to the KK via an icy passage near the Tsarporten – a natural arch. Groups 6, 7 and 8 were not so lucky. The pack ice was shifting fast here too, and although most of them got to shore ok (the last Zodiac driver out heeded the acquired wisdom of the first and turned back early), they discovered that heading back to the KK was a rather different matter. A rather fraught time was had on the bridge for the best part of an hour while the crew with binoculars did their best to help guide the Zodiacs into clearer water and back to the ship. Strangely enough, this seemed to decide the fate of the rest of the groups – no more attempts would be made today. Four Zodiac near misses with the pack ice were four too many. Shane did try to get those who missed out on the Zodiac trip out there in the helicopters, but the staff reconnaissance flight was nearly engulfed by a white-out coming in from the far side of the island, and the pilots sensibly deemed it unsafe to continue. So I am now one of only 850 folks to have set foot on this, one of the most remote and rarely visited of Antarctic islands, (the total apparently stood at 800 before half of us managed to land).

Other than a very rare Ross Seal coming to lunch, (more about that in the next blog) the rest of the week passed rather uneventfully with the Quark staff breaking up the monotony (for some) of passing through pack ice with a variety of lectures and films. And we discovered first-hand why the Phantom Coast got its name – it’s an even rarer occasion that landings are possible here than on Peter 1 island. With pack ice frozen fast to the shoreline for 300 nautical miles out, even getting a glimpse of the coastline wasn’t possible – much less a landing on Siple Island – the proposed landing site. And this of course is why it’s known as the Phantom Coast. Sailors have long known it must exist, but actually seeing it is so rare that accurate navigational charts of it still don’t really exist.

So its now been 6 days without a landing on Antarctic ground, and folks are getting a bit fractious. I don’t think anyone expected the weather to be so against us (we’ve not seen the sun since Peter 1 either), but everyone’s really looking forward to getting to the Ross Ice Shelf now, and praying for good enough weather to allow the helicopters to fly and land us back on Antarctic ground – whether that’s ice-shelf or land!