(Day 63 – 74)
23.01.2010 - 03.02.2010 -5 °C
Because of the extraordinary nature of this trip, and also because this blog serves as a travel journal first and foremost for us; this post will be longer than the others as we would like to document each of these fantastic days. Only a few pictures will be shown on this page but you can view more of our great photos here..
The first two days were spent in Ushuaia, getting our rental gear for our trip and just walking through town getting last minute things for the trip of a lifetime. We will write about it too in a few days as we spend 3 days there upon our return.
Day 1 – Embarkation
Today (25th Jan) is the day we go to Antarctica. It seems unreal that we’re going to such a faraway place. We try on our rental gear, buy our postcards, and amble through Ushuaia throughout the day just wishing the hours away so we can finally board. Boarding time is between 4h & 5h; and at 3h30 we are already at the pier, and so are some of our fellow passengers met in the hotel the night before.
Thankfully we’ll have many travellers in our age group – easily half of the 40 odd passengers. The excitement is at its peak as everyone talks louder than the other. Most of us were booked on different departure dates and ships, which were cancelled like ours was. So we share the same experience already which helps the bonding process!
Finally we board and from the top deck we watch Ushuaia disappear as we set off on the Beagle Channel. During the next few hours we attend a welcome speech, a safety drill and have drinks in the little cosy bar area. The Aussies in our group are starting
Australia Day pre-celebrations for the following day, but some of us decide not to follow as the number one rule to avoid sea-sickness is “no alcohol”.
Our little group forms almost immediately and consists of Karina, Cato & Ben (Aussies), Kate (British), Adrian (Canadian). We also chat to other lovely people at meals and in between, but I won’t go on listing all of their names!
After a nice evening of getting to know each other we all go to bed at around 01h am.
Day 2 – The Drake Passage
The entire ship gets woken up at 4am. No, there hasn’t been a whale sighting. It’s the boat that is swaying so dramatically from side to side that it wakes us up. There are objects being knocked off from the tables, chairs falling down etc etc. Martin and I have bunk beds and at some point I thought he would also be falling to the ground!
Its official, we’re crossing the Drake Passage – some of the worst and roughest seas in the world! We had actually started the crossing at about 12h the night before, but it was smooth to start with. Experiencing this lying down is one thing, but waking up and having to go through the motions with all the rocking is quite another.. It goes well for me as far as the shower, getting dressed and making it to the dining room for breakfast with “one hand for me and one hand for the ship!”. At this point the sea-sickness hits home and I do a u-turn and head straight back to my cabin for a lie-down. Martin is fine and attends various lectures. And about this he says that its great to have several professionals in their fields on board as part of the crew. They give some very informative lectures about the places, animals and climate we will encounter along the way. However I cannot get up to attend these and sleep for most of the morning. This is after having taken sea-sickness pills and wearing acupuncture bracelets too.. I manage to get up for lunch, then back to bed, then up to the bridge, then back to bed etc.
Day 3 – The Drake Passage continued & The Shetland Islands’ “Half Moon Island”
This morning we wake up after a better night and I reckon this must be it: I’ll be fine now. Sadly mistaken, the same charade starts all over again but this time I am determined to force my body to get better. It’s ok to sleep now as there is nothing to see but things will change when we arrive in Antarctica so I absolutely HAVE to get this sea-sickness business out of the way! Martin brings me biscuits and drags me to the bridge. The bridge is a great place to be. Its cold (which I find helps hugely) and you can see the swell and move with it. Not much looking at the horizon as it is very foggy but it just helps being there. I start feeling better gradually and even though some areas of the ship are just too deep and stuffy for me to go to for the moment, I am at least not sleeping anymore.
According to one of the lecturers Julio, this is “Mr Drake” when he’s happy – so a 6 out of 12 on the Beaufort scale of sailing conditions (12 being a hurricane!). We all feel very silly as we are sea-sick with a Happy Mr Drake.. Imagine when he is angry..
Soon after lunch we enter calmer waters and are able to do some bird/whale watching from the bridge. We see some little penguins swimming in the swell (so so far from land), some Black-Browed and Grey-Headed Albatross birds. Some even see the spray of a whale but neither Martin nor I were able to see it fast enough. We hope there’ll be many more! Close to 4h we finally spot our first Iceberg (which was “tabular”: cube like – flat top) and spirits are high again. It helps that the sea is calmer and the thought of doing a Zodiac (rubber-duck boat) landing a bit later is very exciting.
After an early dinner, we set off to our cabins to pile on all the gear – many many layers! Then we go off on deck to board the Zodiac after disinfecting our waterproof boots (this is to avoid bringing bacteria to the island and also gets done when arriving back on board to prevent us from taking any potential infection from one island to the next).
The Zodiac ride is short and soon we are on land! The feeling is unbeatable – finally some non-moving ground, coupled with the excitement of seeing the hundreds of “Chinstrap” and “Gentoo” penguins waiting for us. We try to stay calm and not disturb them but they are truly hilarious little creatures and soon they are observing us almost as much as we are them! We then head up back to the ship for some cheese and wine, and end up spending the rest of the evening in the bar until a fairly late hour!
Day 4 – First Antarctic landing at “Brown Bluff” and later on “Devil Island”
Today we wake up to the calmest waters so far. I have my first proper breakfast and with that a feeling of a great day to come. We are all back to our normal selves and it feels fantastic. After breakfast the daily schedule has our first landing of the day shown as “Brown Bluff” which is ON the Antarctic Peninsula. This is it – we have officially made it to Antarctica and to our 5th Continent. We think this is great but a whole lot of our fellow travellers are celebrating their 7th!! We will get there eventually, and will reach our 6th by the end of our trip.
Brown Bluff was covered in “Adelie” and “Gentoo” penguins this morning, and also a lovely Fur Seals waiting for us on the landing stage. We observed them for a while then went up a small ridge off Brown Bluff “Mountain” for a hike to get a better view point on the snowfield on the other side. We are now right in the middle of Iceberg country and these are everywhere you look in all colours and sizes. Between the birds, penguins and icebergs we are kept busy on Brown Bluff.
We return to the ship and after our little disinfection routine, we settle for a nice lunch.
The surprise that this afternoon has in store for us is simply amazing.
We’re going through an area of Ice shelves, and spot some Crabeater, Antarctic Fur Seals lounging on them – they are the first we see. Some of us are gathered in the bridge to get a better view and at the same time, do some bird viewing when suddenly our Whale expert, Jared, spots a POD of Orcas (Killer Whales)!! The announcement gets made and the entire content of the vessel is suddenly crammed on the bridge and at the bow of the ship. The excitement is palpable and the cameras are clicking away. Our Expedition leader Chris is fantastic and with the help of the Captain, they turn the boat around a few times so that we can follow them. Martin is on his highest High so far (we all know his fascination with sharks, whales and the like), so are all the Expedition team, staff and just about anyone on board who is free!
Soon the bridge is not good enough so we rush to the bow to be closest to the Orcas. Martin gets some great shots as they crossed the front right under his lens. These killers whales are a Type B, slightly smaller than the Type A, most common ones, and have a smaller dorsal fin. They also have a slight yellow tinge due to the diatoms on the animal skin.
After we leave the Orcas, we head on to Devil Island for our second landing of the day. More views of the beautiful polar scenery and on land a colony of Adelie penguins with all their chicks. Watching their interaction is like a comedy show, the chicks are constantly chasing their mothers for food and it’s quite funny to watch as they’re almost as big as their Moms already! Their size doesn’t stop a Brown Skua (Bird) to come down and grab a chick right before our eyes and take it away for dinner. Quite sad to witness but it is all part of nature.
The adolescent penguins are also often seen practicing putting nests together, gathering them stone by stone. I say ‘practicing’ because breeding season is already past and they are learning how to nest as it is part of the courtship process.
On the way back to the vessel, a large Iceberg split with a thundering noise right next to our zodiac and half just sank to the sea. The waves it created were unreal and our experienced zodiac driver, Scoby, swiftly got us out of there to avoid being rocked any further. What a sight!
After today’s daily recap with the expedition team and briefing for the next day, the evening went quietly, all of us exhausted by such an eventful day.
Day 5 – Paulet Island and Antarctic Sound
This part of Antarctica is well known for its huge tabular icebergs which break from the Larsen ice shelf and drift into the Weddell Sea. Tabbies (), as we now call them, are only found in Antarctica.
Today we are meant to go to Snowhill Island but there is so much ice in our path that we have had to move to plan B: Paulet Island. This is where in 1903, Nordenskjolds ship Antarctic (which had been crushed by the Weddell Sea pack ice for weeks) finally sank 40km east of Paulet. The story says that 20 men sledged for 14 days to reach the island, then built a small hut to wait for rescue, where all but one survived.
After a small hike uphill, we can see a huge frozen lake where hundreds of penguins are walking around it. From above they looked just like humans going round an ice-rink!
Here we also see a Southern Giant Petrel feeding and ripping apart a penguin.
Later in the afternoon we come across a small ice floe which has 2 juvenile Emperor Penguins. These Emperors are about half the size of fully grown adults and aren’t as distinctive in colour yet. By next year they would be fully grown. We were extremely lucky to find Emperors, as they hardly ever been seen this far North before and the experts haven’t seen them for many seasons, needless to say, it was great to see them.
We arrive at our afternoon destination in the Active Sound. Here we launch the Zodiacs and ride through the floe ice. After some driving around, our zodiac driver and guide, Julio, tells us we can step out onto an iceberg for a few photo shots. I don’t think I can describe our excitement in words! Here we are in the middle of the sea jumping onto an iceberg! We are all overwhelmed with excitement and each take a turn. Once on there, there are Penguin/ Seal dances, high fives, fits of laughter and photos galore. So much fun.
On the same Zodiac expedition, just slightly later we come across our first Leopard Seal on the ice, a HUGE beast happily sleeping in the sun. Martin manages to get onto the ice with the seal which is about 8 meters away, what an amazing and exhilarating experience, one that he says he just can’t explain as there were no borders, boats or barriers between him and this animal.
After a great day out seeing the Leopard seal and even more juvenile Emperors on the ice we get back on board the ship and have a BBQ on the deck with the ship wedged into the pack ice and some great views around. What a unique idea, having a BBQ outside on the deck with mulled wine and good food. The food was lovely; the crew had Russian music blaring and got us all on the dance floor. Kate and John (He is part of the Expedition team too) even did a little bird dance for us and we are still laughing about it. Party in Antarctica – say no more!! A great way to end another magical day.
Day 6 – Bernardo O’Higgins Chilean base & Zodiac cruising in the Bransfield Strait
Today we woke up whilst cruising through some more amazing iceberg scenery. Huge tabular icebergs as high as the ship and close to 1 km long with amazing shades of blue both on top and under the water.
We had our second landing on the Antarctic Peninsular to visit a Chilean navy base, Bernardo O’Higgins which was very interesting.
After another delicious lunch, we went up to the bridge and Martin spotted two Humpback whales close to the ship and raised everyone’s attention. Great sighting as they were the first proper whale sightings of our trip (we glimpsed sight of a few Minke whales along the way but they don’t show much more than a fin and are very elusive). The whales spent a lot of time on the surface; they weren’t feeding as during the day krill moves deeper into the ocean and it is at night that they come closer to the surface making it easer to feed then. So the ones we saw could have just been resting. It was so impressive to see the whales so close, fluking with their tail in the air as they dive deeper.
Later in the afternoon we sailed into the Bransfield Strait. We jumped into the Zodiacs and cruised around the bay searching for seals and other wildlife for about 2 hours. We came across several sleepy Leopard Seals on the floe ice, Weddell and Fur Seals, as well as numerous Chinstrap Penguins. Another great day in Antarctica!
Day 7 – South Shetlands: Deception Island and Hannah Point
This morning we woke up at 5am for our first landing of the day at Bailey’s head (on Deception Island). It was early, but once on deck it felt more like 9am as the sun rises very early in the South during summer, and sets very late.
Deception Island has the largest Chinstrap Penguin colony of Antarctica and 2nd largest in the world, they are settled in a large amphitheatre with thousands of penguins screaming and squawking. The smell of guano is overwhelming, as it was in most places penguins were found!
We’ve been told hundreds of times whilst on this trip, to keep our distance from the animals, about 5 meters from penguins and 10m from seals.
This is to avoid scaring & disturbing the animals in their natural environment by making them feel trapped if surrounded. They have little paths on which they go up and down, which our expedition team calls “Penguin highway”; so when they are passing through we are instructed to wait for them to be done before we can cut across. The funny thing is, as you wait for them to go, they sometimes just stand right there and stare at us too
After this landing we had another one after breakfast which consisted of sailing to the other side of the island through a passage called “Neptune’s Bellows”. This is to enter the caldera of Deception Island to a place called Whalers Bay. Whaler’s Bay was a former whaling station which was abandoned due to an eruption on the island.
After looking at all the relics of what was left of the few houses on the station, littered with old whale bones, we went for a swim in the Antarctic sea!!
Another very powerful highlight of this trip! Taking all our layers of clothes off in temperatures close to (if not below) zero wasn’t much fun and we knew it would get worse once in the water. It is of course freezing cold and because the bay is within an active volcano, the water near the surface was warmer than below (just a few mm at the surface!!). This helped slightly, but the shock of how cold that water will remain in our memories for a long time I think! When you leave the water it isn’t better either – that’s when you get the cold wind on your cold body and the sensation of pins & needles lasted at least 10 minutes! Thank goodness the ship wasn’t far and the “swimmers” got priority back on board. Sauna and hot shower time followed immediately! What a laugh though, we are so pleased we did it.
Our final landing of the day (and sadly of our trip) was at Hannah Point. Unfortunately when we arrived the winds had picked up and our landing was nearly called off, if it weren’t for the Elephant Seas on land and the possibility of seeing Macaroni Penguins, we probably wouldn’t have gone ashore.
The ride to shore was indeed the roughest one we’d taken so far – reminding us of just how good we’ve had it all along). Many of us got completely soaked (thank goodness for the waterproof gear!). We were all very pleased we had made it though, as those where the two species we hadn’t seen yet. Macaroni’s however, are not usually seen this far South, and the 4 we saw are the only ones there and sat “incognito” in the middle of a Chistrap penguin colony. Again what a treat!
Once back on board we were treated to a delicious hot chocolate with rum in it!
The evening ended with an “Antarctica quiz” in the bar.
Day 8 – The Drake Passage
Here we go again.. This time, Martin and I got some sea-sickness patches from the Dr on board. You stick it behind your ear and it’s meant to last 3 days. So far so good!
Today is a day for lectures from each of the expedition team on their field of expertise. The lectures were renamed by Kate as “Story-Telling Time” as the lecture room is deep down in the boat, dark and a bit stuffy, and is a great environment for falling asleep! This morning we had a recap on the penguins we’d seen, this afternoon will cover whales, seals etc, and finally a talk on Shackelton in the late afternoon. Story-Telling Time is not compulsory and you can choose to attend or not. It seems a lot of people have not bothered getting out of bed today as the boat sways from side to side, so attendance could be low.
Day 9 – The Drake, Diego Ramirez & Cape Horn
Our final day at sea. It’s really sad that it’s coming to an end already; it’s been such an amazing trip. The whole trip has felt like a dream, so peaceful and beautiful scenery. Steph and I will find it really hard to get back into the backpacking lifestyle again..
We had hoped to land on Diego Ramirez, the southernmost limit of the Americas, but unfortunately the Chilean base there wouldn’t allow us on land. We did however, sail around the island looking at bird life, in particular, the Grey-Headed Albatross as well as some Rockhopper Penguins on the cliffs and in the water.
We also see some Peale’s dolphins riding the boats bow waves which was a nice surprise for the last bit of our journey.
Later in the afternoon we near the infamous Cape Horn before the final stretch back to Ushuaia.
We have a delicious farewell dinner tonight and meet in the bar for some drinks afterwards. The Drake has been like a lake today, so much so that when we lie down to sleep we can barely feel movement.
This was the trip of a lifetime. It was worth going through sea-sickness for this. As it is at the moment we are like in a little protected cocoon and all of us are dreading returning to reality! The intimacy of the boat, the friendliness of the crew, the people we have met, the daily excursions and various landing – everything was just a fantastic experience and way above our expectations. The animal sightings were especially incredible – seeing many species we were not meant to in these waters!
As one of the Expedition team members said, Antarctica is probably the only place (along with the Arctic I guess) where Men have not put their mark yet. Kind of gives you a glimpse of how it must have been in the rest of the world all those years ago before the human race took over, and especially sad to think that so many of the animals we have seen are struggling due to global warming and human interventions.
If you can make it (and afford it), we very strongly recommend it!
Steph’s High Points of the trip:
- Following the pod of Orcas
- Standing on a iceberg
- Swimming in the cold sea
Martin’s High Points of the trip:
- Most definitely, the Killer Whales
- Standing on the ice with the Leopard Seal so close, I just love those seals.