13.11.2010 - 24.11.2010
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually no it was just the best of times but writing this did feel like writing a novel. I apologise about the length of the blog but hopefully you find it as entertaining to read as I found it to do and write.
The next day was a mixture of impatience and excitement as we were finally off to Antarctica but we would have to wait until 4pm however to board the boat and then a further two more hours before we would leave the port. The waiting time before the boat did give us time to stock up on some thermal socks however after talking with a girl who had recently returned about how warm we would be in two pairs of socks, her answer of being cold in six pairs had us rethinking our policy if only to err on the side of caution. <After trip verdict: The verdict two pairs of thermal socks was overkill, but one pair and a normal pair perfect>. The time spent at port then served as a good opportunity to get settled into our cabin and meet some of the people we would be sharing the next one and a half weeks with.
Dauntingly every speaker in our welcome/introductory speeches mentioned the Drake Passage, discussing at length its ability at turning strong stomachs weak and making weak stomachs sing. As we took off from port we were all excited about the adventure in front of us but weary and slightly nervous about the path to get there. The Drake Passage takes about two days to cross and saw us take in a variety of different content specific lectures that gave us but a taste (or should that be a tease) of what was to come. Luckily we had great weather going through the passage keeping the swells under control allowing me to enjoy the excellent food on offer between viewing and taking photos of the sea birds that were curiously following our journey.
After two long days, and I mean long days with sunlight running about 20 hours here of looking at ocean, a few birds and waiting for sunsets (about 10pm!) we finally saw the end of the Drake passage. Much like animals at the end of winter, passengers came out of hibernation from the decks below and we started to see people that we didn’t even know were on the boat! With the passage passed we still had a bit under a day’s travel to get to our first stop, needing to pass through the so called mini Drake Passage…….they forgot to mention this in the lectures. Still luck was still with us and with more ideal weather we arrived early, well early enough to see the realization of a couple of days of anticipation in the form of a landing at Barrientos island. The meaning of the islands name has long since been lost however this doesn’t stop it from being a great nesting ground for two types of penguins, the obviously named Chin Strap Penguin and the Gentoo Penguin distinguishable by its bright orange beak.
Finally making it onto land was amazing and despite the expectation, no sea legs were evident and we were left to roam (within reason) on the island that they had set up their rookeries on. Amazingly once on shore we were feeling surprisingly warm thanks to the near 10 degree day we had and the fact that we had all rugged up to the max in anticipation. <For future landings I found that thermal shirt and jacket was more than enough and left my fleece behind>. The penguins here are quite curious as they are yet to experience humans as a predator and are more than willing to break the 5m rule and have a bit of a gawk at the odd two legged creatures with flashing gadgets. I guess in some ways we are just as interesting for them to see as they are for us! Right at the moment we are on cusp of breeding season so they are busy scavenging or stealing rocks (whichever works) to build their nests in preparation. Combined with this there is the opportunity to see them in their mating ritual and for some of the more advanced ones the opportunity to see breeding. It was really amazing to walk amongst them and whilst they are extremely photogenic it is hard for your first impression not to be the smell that they leave behind. It was a tad on the ripe side so to speak! All in all it was a great first landing and gave us a good taste of what was to follow.
Today was our first full day of activities and we were in luck as weather wise yet another incredible day greeted us, we started with a zodiac cruise amongst the ice sculptures to see some of the amazing shapes that have been carved out. Our zodiacs were little rubber motorized dingys that were transformed into ice breakers, or atleast ice pushers as we set out amongst the ice, dodging the bigger blocks but going straight over the smaller ones. There really is just ice everywhere here, it might sound obvious as we were in Antarctica but it’s really quite something to see first hand.
The cruise took us up and around one of the famous shipwrecks down here, “the Governon” a Norwegian whaling boat that succumbed to the mighty ocean during the first world war. This giant ship has long since lost its man-made abilities and these days is merely part of the environment with icebergs growing in and around it and plenty of sea birds taking advantage of its high points to build their nests. The wonderful thing here is that the water is just so ridiculously clear here and we could see right through the surface to the decks that had been sunk. This also allows you to see exactly what is underneath the iceberg you are cruising amongst and the sight is simply spectacular.
Looking up on to the continent we could see some amazing glaciers that completely filled in the valley amongst the mountain ranges and were completely dominant but for the odd avalanche that broke up the pristine coverage. Every now and again you could hear a massive crack as a giant piece of ice let go and took off down the hill. The environment here is so raw and untouched that it is really is just a perfect reminder of how beautiful nature can be when left to its own devices.
On this boat trip we also had the opportunity to see some remarkable wildlife including both Arctic and Antarctic terns. The arctic terns whilst not commonly seen here do make their way down from the Arctic for summer making the longest migration of any recorded sea bird. We also managed to see some Crab-eater and Weddell seals close up that just happened to be lazing on the icebergs and strangely enough have faces like a dog and cat respectively! This was our first look at the seals and they are quite strange and shy little creatures that were very cautious of our presence and nowhere near as friendly as the penguins. We also had our first look at penguins playing in the water diving in and around the boat, diving out of the water while they took a breath and generally being entertaining. The prize for the strangest thing we saw today though would have to go to the dead jellyfish that whilst floating looked liked something extremely questionable in the water!
With everyone tired after our first excursion we retreated back to the boat for lunch and a light nap, only to be woken up by an announcement of killer whales (Orcas) off the side of the boat. As the boat turned around we rushed out there to see these giant creatures in their natural habitat and we were greeted with a huge surprise. What initially seemed like one or two grew into a pod of between 10 and 20 whales that wwere simply majestic to watch. Our onboard wildlife expert remarked that this was the most that she had ever seen at one time and indeed on one trip. Always nice when you get a “never seen that before” moment and given this was the first full day, we raised our expectations. These enormous creatures were happy to indulge us and came right up close to the boat to provide a good chance for a photo shoot before heading off into their vast ocean once again. I was really lucky this time and managed to get some good video footage of the whales as came out of the water little more than 15m away. After about 10 minutes of whale chasey we turned the boat back towards our destination, but happy with our half hour detour.
That afternoon saw storms build up around us promising an interesting excursion but in what is a strange but tremendous effect they receded as we entered paradise bay, aptly named for it was both very calm and beautiful. This place was littered once again with Crab-eater and Weddell seals as well as the ever present cormorant nests. The penguins here are Once again the glaciers here are remarkable and simply indescribable with the amazing amount of white snow and ice just awesome. In fact the whole place here and Antarctica in general is extremely photogenic. To finish off the afternoon we stopped off at an old research station and this was the moment we had all been waiting for, we would finally set foot on Antarctica. With our first steps here you can tell you are somewhere special and everyone was ecstatic to finally be here, it had been worth every penny. The research station has long since been abandoned with the penguins well and truly in control now. We must have spent about half an hour merely watching the funny little creatures playing around, sliding around on their bellies and flirting with each other. It’s really nice to see the penguins sliding around so much because if they don’t they appear quite dirty and certainly less photogenic. It’s really amazing to see how unphased they are about our presence and simply carry on about their daily duties whatever they may be. Illustrating this perfectly is the fact that if you lie or even kneel down and wait they will walk right up to you just to try and figure you out, providing the perfect opportunity for a photo of a cute inquisitive penguin.
Fittingly to conclude our first visit to the continent we climbed to a high point to take some photos, evidence that we had indeed been there, if for significance only as it looked very similar to the other islands we had landed on. We then finished off our excursion with a snowball fight amongst about 20 of us that had the staff ultimately confused, concerned and then ultimately involved! Returning to our boat we were greeted with the first snow of the voyage as well, a beautiful sight but something tells me that the weather can’t stay perfect forever.
Today we were off to visit the southernmost point of our journey, Vernadsky, a Ukrainian scientific base that had been purchased off the English for a solid pound during the 90’s. The English had decided it was cheaper to sell it to them than it was to dismantle the place! To get there though we had a bit of an adventure passing through the narrowest point of our trip a 500m wide passage where we had to hug the wall on one side where it was 300m deep, really both amazing and daunting to be that close to the ice wall.
We finally got a taste of how harsh the weather on this continent can be with our route blocked off by persistent sea ice (that has simply refused to melt since winter) and as a result our landing was delayed by about an hour and a half as we navigated to the opposite side of the island. This method of approach is unfavourable as it left ourselves open to the viscous breezes coming off the Drake, however luck was once again with us and these breezes were thankfully non-existent today. With the winds absent we were finally able to make our landing much to our relief.
It was really interesting to see how the guys lived here and they were also very excited to have us there as we were the first new people they had seen since there supply ship left them eight months ago. The guys here have a weird but great sense of humour with the walls covered in palm trees, an in case of emergency window with bread inside, a general anesthetic sign in the medical room with a hammer under it, signposts to every major city with their distances and the “V” in Vernadsky made by the peace symbol. They have set their laboratory up and are the first country to really start to study the effects and activity of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. The highlight of this trip however for many people was the opportunity to taste some home made Ukrainian vodka that was available and I managed to get a great before, during and after of swainy’s first swig of the moonshine! The vodka was actually slightly smoother than we all expected and three shots formed part of a solid breakfast for the day.
The afternoon excursion was out to Petersan island to check out our third and probably final type of penguin, the Adelie penguin. Here amongst the ever present gentoo penguins they were here as well as some very lost chin strap penguins in the middle of a gentoo colony. The penguins here did what they do best, entertain you very well and we must have spent about 15 minutes watching one cheeky little guy leave his nest on a long trail to steal from another nest only to return and then repeat. Really quite amusing watching him sneak up the hill and then run back down it with his crown jewel a pebble for the nest that his female was left to guard. I also got a great video of two young penguins trying to make a baby but with their inexperience choosing a sloped location. Now to do this requires the male to stand on top of the female, as you can imagine this requires a fair amount of balance. Moments into the act he fell off which was funny in itself but he then proceeded to trip over his own feet pushing her further down the hill. It was fair to say that this killed the moment and she made a hasty exit only for him to spend the next few minutes chasing after her with no luck.
We then attempted to make some tracks for the penguins up to the highpoint to give them a head start on their penguin highways. Here we trekked up to a point where you could see both sides of the island as well as a rather impressive glacier formation. Here there also happened to be a four foot ledge that gave us the opportunity to do some great photos jumping into the snow below.
Getting back we decided to take advantage of the great weather and jumped straight on a zodiac cruise around the icebergs which started off well with us spotting some minke whales. Minke’s are however much shier than their killer whale cousins and quickly retreated to deeper water despite our best efforts to watch them. We then headed off to where one of the groups had spotted a rarely seen leopard seal basking on an iceberg. Once we reached it however we found that there was another one there playing in the water as well. This was really quite cool but only served to whet our appetite for what was to follow as our boat driver spotted something off in the distance bobbing on the water. It turned out to be yet another leopard seal that would occupy the remainder of our boat trip as he and another that decided to join him put on a remarkable show for us. They must have spent about 20 minutes swimming and stalking the boat, swimming right up close to the edge before diving underneath it and turning so that you could so clearly see the spots on its body. They then proceeded to dive into the water and bob back out showing their faces and crocodile along with nothing but their nostrils and their eyes out of the water trying to figure out what to do about the boat. It was amazing to have one of the great killers of the ocean less than three feet away from us and hard to describe just how majestic it looked as it played alongside the boat. Between us we got some amazing video of what is surely one of the highlights of the trip thus far and we were extremely grateful to our boat driver!
The incredible thing is that a few of us have remarked on how each day at the moment seems to be getting better and better. Today however set the standard very high for the next couple of days! Though I still hold out hope of getting a food chain shot, something eating something else, which may perhaps top today’s seal show.
The excursion this morning was an adventure out to a British scientific base, well sort of anyway. The base has long since been abandoned by people and is currently being successfully squatted by a local penguin colony. The 1500 or so penguins have certainly made a home out of the place and seem a little confused and curious about us as we “invaded” their home. Here more than anywhere else they seem to have no concept of how close to get and they will come almost close enough o shake your hand and greet you! Still they here not only to observe but to also entertain and they did so as they returned to their daily activities. Some of the more entertaining moment included some great games of chasey going on and the penguins using our tracks as a bit of a slip and slide!
The other residents here are the volunteers who are tasked with turning the base into a museum showing the early way of life for the continental science pioneers. For this season the base is completely female which is something a little different down here but also great to see. It also possibly explains the presence of a Chilean navy ship off the port! The girls however were loving it and had taken the opportunity to join them for an asado the night before as a break from their usual meals based largely on canned goods. The first job the girls had when they arrived was to find the base – literally as the snowy winter had well and truly left its mark. They spent almost a week digging out the old headquarters and the path to shore allowing the boats to come in – hard work indeed and not exactly what they were expecting I think. They appeared to have settled in well though and had come to terms with their penguin co-tennants but were having slightly more difficulty with their petrel housemates who continually knock on the roof at night.
With the volunteers taking up residence in new facilities the original base is being very much left in the way it was found. This included a kitchen full of various types of canned goods and sleeping quarters that could only be described as basic. The girls here got a surprise the day before as they started stripping back the paint they found some artwork that the guys had done that was really quite well done. The base was interesting to walk around however it was slightly disappointing to see a very typical gift shop that offered really nothing original merely the same stuff found everywhere, along with british prices. Atleast the profits from the shop go towards supporting the restoration of the base
The afternoon saw our good luck finally come to an end with our landing cancelled due to the bay being completely iced in. To counteract this we took a zodiac cruise down “iceberg alley” apparently one of the most scenic locations here for ice formations. Everyone was pretty happy with the substitution as so far the zodiac cruises had been a real goldmine for seeing the animals in their natural environment.
This cruise was no different with close up views of the incredible (I know I use this world a lot but it really just needs to be said that often!) ice structures covered in sunshine. Structures that have long sing since fallen off the glaciers and relied on the elements to carve them into whatever they wish. Really pretty and interesting to see what nature can come up with when man is essentially removed from the equation. The views of the icebergs were broken up with sightings of the snow petrels, birds that are rare to see and can only be seen at this time of the year.
The trip then descended into a bit of chaos as one guide launched a snowball at our boat, it was then on for young and old! One boat, nicknamed “the swiss” tried their best to stay out of it but didn’t do as well as they hoped. We then took the opportunity to rearm and stock up having a huge arsenal of snow at our disposal, we then went hunting, it was at this point the rest of the boats ran away – Victory!
Having got the snowball fight out of the way we continued with the ridiculous theme and three of us decided to lift a rather large piece of ice onto our ship. I’d like to explain why we did this, and to top it off it almost ended in an unscheduled swim but still it was there and had to be done. So we did it. We did get some strange looks as returned to the boat with the giant piece on board. The happy news for us was that we were able to load the ice onto the boat and that became the bar ice for the next couple of days!
Before getting onto the boat however we had one last surprise, another quick detour to spend a few minutes checking out a pod of orcas that just happened to be swimming by. I know I say it a lot but its simply amazing to see these creatures in their natural habitat and to be so close given the incredible expanse of sea that is around us.
Today was the day that we had all been waiting for, well to be honest everyday was the day we had been waiting for but this day was special again. Today we would visit the aptly named Deception island, an island formed by the active volcano within the ocean that is also one of the safest bays in the region. The volcano is still mildly active resulting in geothermal heating and therefore nice warm sand to walk on to counteract the relatively cold feel of the winds coming off the many glaciers present. This island would give us the opportunity to go swimming in Antartica, one opportunity that is simply too good to pass up!
Getting into the bay was a bit of a challenge however with the ship once again having to ride the ice wall as the large channel was blocked by huge rocks under the ocean. The bay here is incredibly picturesque, however it was slightly difficult to see with thanks to the rain and the clouds that were hanging around persistently. Whilst this was horrible weather for photos it was however perfect weather for our upcoming swim as the rain and clouds kept the wind away, and this is what promised to be the biggest issue we faced, well that and the near zero water temperature.
The bay started off as a very popular whaling colony and indeed still has the signs of a processing plant that existed there between the two world wars. Some of the cooler remains included dinghy boats, storage tanks and a ship hull lifter that that have been completely destroyed by the eruption during the 60’s. The plant here was abandoned once the price of whale oil dropped and the last sign of life here was the british army who put a base here during the second world war when they went down there looking for the germans. Fair to say they weren’t masters of hide and seek during that time!
We started off our adventure on the island by climbing up to neptunes window, a gentle little climb to a open spot in the rocks that provided our last opportunity to see the Antarctica peninsula on the other side. Sadly this just wasn’t to be as the overcast conditions made this impossible. Still inside the protected bay we did however have a fantastic view of the ship in the bay with the many glaciers in the background.
Finally the moment had arrived and we trekked back down to have our swim in the cold waters of Antarctica. With the island heated by the volcano the first metre or so of the water was actually quite warm but as soon as you pass a certain point the water reverts back to spanner water. The swim was nice (short but nice) and not nearly as bad as people were expecting. Once out of the water the idea was to remove as much water as you could from yourself and get some dry clothes on and get back to the boat. The crew helped us out a lot by having towels ready for us and after a few photos we were all really happy, with the possible exception of a Japanese guy that just didn’t seem to enjoy it and was literally screaming in the water. After some quick photos we returned to the boat, a shot of whiskey to warm us up and a nice warm shower.
This afternoon would be our final landing at the easily identified half moon island where the weather had really gone pear shaped, however this is probably more like normal for the continent. Whilst this was disappointing it was about time we really experienced the weather down here as it is most of the time with the wind blowing a gale and snow coming in sideways!
Here we had one final look at the gentoo and chin strap penguins as well as an unsuccessful game of where’s wally, an attempt to see some macaroni penguins that nest. These would have been our fourth different type of penguin but it was pretty difficult in the think falling snow and sleet to spot the couple of black and white things that looked slightly different to the hundreds of other black and white things here! Still it was great to see once again and with the cameras well and truly away now with regards to penguins its nice to sit back and just watch them. We did have an amusing crossroads situation that could have done with some traffic lights as we waited for them and they waited for us with both looking confused as to who should go first!
With the weather getting worse we headed back to the boat via the zodiacs that were getting tested by a few decent size waves. Despite the waves making the embarkation a little bit challenging we got onto the boat safely and said goodbye to Antarctica, atleast for this trip. With one eye on the amazing experiences that we had just had, we couldn’t help but have one eye on the Drake passage in front of us with the continually worsening weather likely to make in pretty hairy!
With the journey back the only thing between us and the mainland I spent most of the next two days hibernating in the cabin. This was due mostly to the notoriously bad Drake Passage and what one crew member (who was in his 10th year no less) described as the worst conditions he had been through. With swells that reached up over 10m, the boat pitching 45 degrees and crosswinds of over 120km/h (only because this is where the gauge stopped) the 1-12 scale they use to rate the storm conditions sat at 11 for the majority of the trip back. This made meal times a partial attendance event and in a lot of cases an event on a time limit for most people including myself. Despite feeling worse for wear most of the time I only succumbed once but was largely anti social.
The storm however did give us the opportunity to stand in the bridge and see what the crew were dealing with. This was incredible watching our giant boat getting thrown around dare I say like a cork in the ocean! Still this was a great spot to watch it form and actually was the place I felt the least queasy. After completing the passage we arrived once again in calmer waters allowing everybody to come out for one last occasion. A party that lasted well into the night, somewhere around the 5am seems to be the popular number and left us struggling to get out of bed for breakfast and off the ship by 7am the next morning.
This was a truly amazing experience and the best of so many incredible things I have done travelling. This was worth the money so many times over and the ship, crew and people onboard were amazing. One of the rare opportunities that you have to see an incredible almost untouched paradise on earth, I’d like to think it won’t be my last trip there but its hard to predict these things with so many great places left to go.
Now the short and sweet paragraph of how I went about getting down there. It really is easier than you could possibly imagine as once you get to Ushuaia you have any number of travel agents that able to take you right through all your last minute options, the boats, dates and prices available. They release these prices quite early on and about a month in advance so there really isn’t much need to plan ahead unless you are restricted by dates. We waited a week in Ushuaia to do some things first but in contrast one guy arrived the day before walked out of the casino that night, into a travel agent that morning and was on a boat later that afternoon. Great story!