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A boat journey to the French Antarctic Islands

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The Islands of Crozet, Kerguelen, Amsterdam and Saint Paul form the “Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises”. They are so rich in animal life that you feel in a lost world belonging to the past. Going there constitutes a journey of a lifetime.


Our scientific ship MARION DUFRESNE in Kerguelen Island
Our scientific ship MARION DUFRESNE in Kerguelen Island
The Antarctic continent belongs, in theory, to the entire Humankind and can not be exploited for commercial purposes, but the following seven countries have pretensions to it: Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and France. USA has the greatest scientific base in the Antarctica: McMurdo (a whole village with over one thousand people living permanently there), apart from Palmer in the Antarctica Peninsula, plus a third base in the Geographical South Pole. Russia has many bases, including one in the Magnetic South Pole. Italy, Spain, China, Brazil, Japan, India, Germany, and so on until forty countries, have also bases in the Antarctica. The Antarctic Islands have a different status and are officially owned by several countries. Since there are no airports in the French Austral and Antarctic Islands the unique way to travel to them is by the scientific ship MARION DUFRESNE, which sails from Reunion Island four times a year and accepts only 14 visitors in each voyage (those who have family members in the islands are given preference to book the places); the rest are scientists, maintenance personnel, cooks, etc. Indeed, they are very inaccessible islands, but it is worth to get there if you wish to observe the Antarctic animal’s life in their milieu, without being bothered by the humans. Apart from different kinds of penguins and seals you can watch sea elephants, sea leopards, whales, orcas, albatross, petrels, and many other birds. The whole journey took me 29 days with 28 nights. From Reunion to Crozet there are six days of navigation, then three more to Kerguelen, two more until Saint Paul, which is uninhabited by humans, and a few more hours to Amsterdam. Finally we returned to Reunion (six more days). Apart from Malagasies of Madagascar, who worked in the ship machines, downstairs, and rarely mixed with the French, the rest of the crew on the ship were all French, including visitors. I was the only “foreigner” in that Terra Incognita.

Favourite spots:
Black eyebrow baby albatross in the nest in Crozet Island
Black eyebrow baby albatross in the nest in Crozet Island
We were anxious to reach our first Island, Crozet, but the scientists of the Alfred Faure base were still more eager than us to meet new faces. The welcome was superlative: lots of food, drinks and sweets. We landed there through our 5 seats helicopter because there are no ports in the islands, only small piers for the zodiacs. The pilot was very careful to choose a no direct route from the boat to the island without over flying the numerous albatross nests. Crozet Island, apart from the colonies of penguins, is particular because of the albatross. The more characteristics are the black eyebrow ones, with a weight of about 5 kilos. When they open their wings they reach a width of two and a half metres. After the copious lunch we made a long trekking to their nests. The babies adopt an anchorite position in their nests and wait for weeks to their parents, without moving, even if it rains, snows or is very cold. Their parents have to fly sometimes very far away during days to bring food.

What's really great:
Sea elephant of Kerguelen with my friend Adrien (meteorologist)
Sea elephant of Kerguelen with my friend Adrien (meteorologist)
Kerguelen is, with much difference, greater than Crozet or Amsterdam Islands. Its surface is almost similar to Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact Kerguelen is an archipelago composed by 400 islands. The base is called Port aux Français (“Paf” in short) and is the most important in the French Antarctic Islands. I was so lucky to see a sea leopard near my refuge! Later I was told that they usually search for penguins close to the Antarctic continent and rarely in these islands. Before eating the penguins they play throwing them up in the air several times. Sea elephants are the more giant animals of Kerguelen Island; they measure up to six metres long. They are clumsy and crawl on earth, but in the ocean they can submerge reaching a depth of 1500 metres to look for food. I saw hundreds of them in the island lying lazily, sleeping, because they know that on earth they have no enemies. In the sea orcas are their main predator; an orca can swallow up a sea elephant weighing 3 tons.

Sights:
Baby seal sleeps with the mother in Amsterdam Island
Baby seal sleeps with the mother in Amsterdam Island
Amsterdam Island was first sighted in 1522 by the Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano (captain of the caravel Victoria after Magellan’s death in Philippines), when returning home during the first circumnavigation of the world in History. He could not disembark because of the bad weather conditions. Our Marion Dufresne too had difficulties reaching the island. The base there is called Martin de Vivies. The characteristic of Amsterdam are the seals; there are hundreds, thousands of them besides the base and walk around undisturbed. Although they do not fear the humans they do not allow to be touched by them. The males are two metres long and weigh about 165 kilos. They form harems of up to 15 females, and when they show sign of weakness immediately are challenged by a young exemplar to fight for the harem. Sometimes one of the two dies. They eat krill, calamari and fish, and recognize their children by touching their noses, in a way that reminds the Maori manner of New Zealand.

Accommodations:
Our refuge in Kerguelen Island was that barrack
Our refuge in Kerguelen Island was that barrack
While navigating we slept in the cabins of the boat. There were singles, doubles and triples, with bathroom inside, table, chairs, radio with music, but not TV or video. Everyday the Malagasies cleaned our rooms and changed the linen. Usually in the cruises there are all facilities for the tourists such as sauna, Jacuzzi, but MARION DUFRESNE was a scientific ship and the only ludic activity was a gymnasium. When there was storm we were forced to secure ourselves to the beds with the help of belts to avoid falling down. In the islands we had basic refuges, simple, but convenient, although some visitors preferred to sleep in the boat instead, and those with family members in the Islands could use the dormitory of the bases. We had to carry with us sleeping bags because it was very cold at night, and the refuges had not heaters. Toilets were in the nature, together with the sea elephants and penguins. For showers we waited until we got to the bases or to our boat.

Nightlife:
The lively cafeteria on board MARION DUFRESNE
The lively cafeteria on board MARION DUFRESNE
On board the MARION DUFRESNE we assisted every day to scientific conferences offered by the specialists travelling with us. They gave us lectures about the sea streams in the Antarctic Ocean, the climate changes, the tectonic plaques of our planet, the last theory about the Gondwana continent, the travelling icebergs, the sea pirates who board and rob the ships in the Malacca Passage, the illegal fishing boats, the cruel killing of the whales in the XXI century, etc. Apart from that we had every morning a video documental about the life of the Antarctic animals: penguins, whales, sea leopards and all kind of birds. And after dinner we watched films, mainly French, with actors such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Gerard Depardieu and Edith Piaf. After the movie we all went to the cafeteria for action. The nights with pleasant breeze we used to go out to the deck and walk to admire the starry firmament and the meteorites. Thanks to this routine one night we saw the Austral Dawn.

Hangouts:
One of the hibernators shows the number of his period in the Island
One of the hibernators shows the number of his period in the Island
The bases of Crozet, Kerguelen and Amsterdam have cafeterias with a sort of pub, a library and a cinema where the personnel members, known as hibernators, gather after dinner. In summer there are about 50 persons in each base, but in winter this number decreases to 20. Practically all hibernators are young, and spend periods from three months to one year in the islands. Many of them get addiction to that lonely and quite life and repeat the period, but others experiment psychological changes in their behaviour due to seeing everyday the same persons around. The “syndrome of Ker” (Kerguelen) makes friends forever after 3 months living together. Some shave their heads or paint their faces with gaudy colours. During the nights a few read books from the library, connect to Internet, play chess, billiard or darts while drinking beer. There are concerts performed by the members who know how to play the guitar, disco, dance, and also, sometimes, love romances with the few girls in the bases!

Other recommendations:
Rockhoppers/Macaroni Penguins in Saint Paul Island
Rockhoppers/Macaroni Penguins in Saint Paul Island
Saint Paul consists in a volcanic cone with a caldera, has a surface of 7 square kilometres and is located at 54 kilometres from Amsterdam Island. We stopped for a few hours to replace the food and medicines in a wooden refuge, as the maritime laws stipulate, just in case some sailing boat in trouble could need help or shelter. In Saint Paul, apart from seals, there are thousands of Rockhoppers penguins. They are called thus because they jump until the top of the hills, and are also known as crested penguins, or macaroni, for the brightly coloured feathers on their heads. At one time Rockhoppers and other penguins were hunted for their oil, but today are protected. They have a stature of about 60 centimetres and a weight of 4 kilos, while in Crozet and Kerguelen live the Royal penguin, with a size of 90 centimetres and a weight of 13 kilos. In the Antarctic continent lives the Emperor, the tallest of the 17 kind of penguins in the Antarctica, reaching a height of 120 centimetres.

Restaurants:
5 lobsters for my dinner!
5 lobsters for my dinner!
Food on board was delicious (everybody knows that French and Chinese cuisine are among the best of the world). On board the menu was fixed but diverse. For instance, for lunch we had as main course “Entrecote grille sauce Marchand de vin”, or “Legine (exquisite and rare fish!) sauce verge avec Melon Cantaloup”, and for dinner “Espadon sauce Combava avec Risotto de legumes”, or “Brochette Tandouri et sa garniture de feuillete strasbourgeois”. Before the dessert we were offered at least ten different sorts of French cheese, from all parts of France. Then followed “Corbeille de fruits” plus Bordeaux wine and coffee. In the islands we had lunch with the personnel of the bases (self service) and drank pastis as aperitif, and for dinner in the refuges a chef prepared us French delicatessen. We all preferred to eat lobsters mainly, day and night, without interruption, and each had a weight of 1 kilo. The last night in Amsterdam Island I ate the five lobsters of the picture during my dinner!

Published on Wednesday October 12th, 2005


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Tue, Oct 31 2006 - 05:01 AM rating by quikflikchiq

thank you for your report. it was very interesting to read and you have a friendly and chatty style of writing!

Sun, Mar 26 2006 - 11:47 AM rating by st.vincent

I opened this report thinking it would be about Reunion island as an old work colleague of mine came from Saint-Denis. But I find it is much much more, I guess I should have expected it from such a great explorer. Great adventure, great report, thanks

Sun, Jan 15 2006 - 07:08 AM rating by frenchfrog

Wow! Super report. I love to do that. Lots of info about local wildlife. Very well writen. Nice pictures also.

Sat, Jan 14 2006 - 10:30 AM rating by mj2004

The pictures are beautiful, there is such a wealth of species out there that we fail to explore - that sea elephant is incredible!

Wed, Oct 26 2005 - 10:56 PM rating by magsalex

Some great wildlife pics. Fascinating!

Thu, Oct 13 2005 - 09:14 AM rating by davidx

Each report of yours I read, I think it can't get better - but you have proved me wrong. Simply great.

Thu, Oct 13 2005 - 03:42 AM rating by gegeone

In a word, this is a great report. It answers a lot of questions I asked myself about the atmosphere on the TAAF stations and on their supply boat.

Wed, Oct 12 2005 - 08:27 PM rating by isaacmolina

good fotos of animals

Wed, Oct 12 2005 - 07:51 PM rating by eirekay

Jorge, this report is just wonderful. What a fantastic journey! Please remind me to never reincarnate as a penguin near a sea elephant - I don't like anything that plays with its food!
Eire

Wed, Oct 12 2005 - 12:34 PM rating by rangutan

Another top-class report, thus very difficult to find any improvements!
travel related: ***** best type of adventure where few have gone
originality: **** first hand experience with some personal views
style (of writing): ***** casual, easy, and great to read
grammar ***** almost perfect (1 error?)
length ***** just right, not too long, not short
use of GLOBO headings / format *** (see options in Forum)
usefull tips **** many
pictures ***** best, all applicable
tourist hub or remote place: ***** very very remote!
extras: *****nature rules there and is well represented in the report!
----------------------------------------------------------------------
AVERAGE: ( 4.6 ) *****
----------------------------------------------------------------------

Wed, Oct 12 2005 - 12:30 PM rating by gloriajames

hiya Jorge!
Another wonderful report! Loved it and the pic of the baby seal is so adorable! 5*!!!!!
Gloria

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