Published: December 22nd 2010December 4th 2010
As many of our readers know, Ushuaia was not the furthest southernly destination of our trip. That title would be reserved for Antarctica. We had organized a cruise (but we are using this term very loosely as one will learn later) before we had left Vancouver that would take us from Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands and then to the Antarctic Peninsula. As part of this trip was a night at the Hotel Albatross. The hotel was 4 stars, and therefore our nicest accomodation of the trip by far so we made the most of it and hung out there for most of the day.
The next day, we packed our bags and wandered around Ushuaia before getting on the bus which would take us to the ship. We started chatting to the couple next to us on the bus, Pat and Michael, and it just so happens that they would be in the cabin next to us on the ship as well. We told them that we were from vancouver and Michael's first question was "Do they still have that great nude beach there?" so we immediately knew that we were going to like our neighbours. We bussed to the harbour and then walked up the gangway and on to the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, the ship that would be our home for the next 10 days. The ship is a Russian research vessel which is operated by some companies during parts of the year for tourism purposes. That being said, there were still a couple of scientists on the vessel with us. Fortunately, the ship is ice-reinforced and extremely seaworthy (as we found out later on in our journey).
Our cabin itself was good. There were two berths and plenty of room for our stuff. We did have to share a bathroom, but it was only with one other cabin and they were the people we had met on the bus to the ship.
We went up to the bar for a bit to be introduced to some of the team who would be taking us to Antarctica. There were several Canadians among the staff including Alex (who is from Toronto and still does not like the Maple Laughs), Flipper (who has feet larger than Peter's, hence the name), and Christine who hailed from Galiano Island. We also met the leader of the team who was a Scot named Laurie but now resided in the Northwest Territories for some bizarre reason. He has done some amazing things including skiing across the North Pole, running 10 marathons in 10 days and he is a recipient of the Order of Canada. After meeting our crew, we knew that we would be in good hands.
We set sail in sunny weather and thus had amazing views of the snow-capped peaks in Ushuaia on the way out through the Beagle Channel. This would promptly change when we entered the Drake Passage the next day...
The Drake Passage is the body of water that separates South America from Antarctica. It takes the better part of two days to cross it. It is also one of the stormiest and harshest bodies of water in the world. To say the seas were rough would be an understatement. There were meals scheduled three times a day as well as several talks about the history and wildlife of Antarctica, but these would have been a lot more relevant if attendance was possible. Peter in particular had difficulty getting out of bed without feeling compelled to vomit and he spent the better part of the Drake Passage in bed. Valerie faired batter, but the second day in the seas got worse and she began to spend increasing amounts of time in the cabin as well. They did make it out on deck on occasion, and despite the weather, there were many birds falling the ship including Shear-waters and four different types of Albatross. Watching an Albatross fly is a treat as it never really flaps its wings and just uses something called dynamic lift to allow it to glide effortlessly over the waves. Due to the weather, we were overjoyed to see the South Shetland Islands, which are slightly north of Antarctica, and the protection from the elements that they afforded our ship. It was also soon after that when Valerie and Peter had there first glimpse of the Antarctic continent. The sun had come out and it was glistening of the snow-capped peaks and massive glaciers that would be our playground soon. The sea calmed down later that evening so we were able to eat dinner in the dining room. On the whole, the food would be fantastic for most of the journey with the exceptions of deserts which were generally quite poor for some reason. At dinner, all of the tables are large and people from different cabins end up sitting together. We were worried that we would be joined be loud and obnoxious people, as there were a few on the ship, but we were pleasantly surprised when we were joined by Sarah and Rebecca (who actually work for law firms in the Middle East, figuring out ways to make more money for their law firms, but prefer to say they are puppy-killers as it tends to be a less frowned-upon profession that their actual jobs), as well as Marc and Laura who were Aussie IT techs. They were all great people and we would become good friends as the journey continued. We went to bed that night with high hopes and excitement for the next day, our first actual day in Antarctica.
We were not disappointed. We had sailed into the Gerlache Strait and were flanked on one side by large islands and on the other by the Antarctica Peninsula. We were surrounded by towering, snow-covered peaks and massive sheets of ice. As we continued sailing, we headed towards the Lemaire Channel which is so scenic that it is nicknamed "The Kodak Gap" due to the amount of beautiful photos that can be taken through it. The Lemaire did not disappoint. The Channel is quite narrow so it feels that one is right up against the snowy mountains on either side. There water was extremely calm and there were icebergs floating in it. On one of them was A Leopard Seal, the top predator in the Antarctic, which is very streamlined and looks almost serpent-like as a result. We also had our first of many whale sightings of the trip, a Humpback Whale, paralleling us for a bit before disappearing in search of food. When we exited the Lemaire Channel, our plan was to head further south so we could visit the Ukrainian Research Station but the ice was too think further ahead so we dropped anchor in a bay, piled into our Antarctica outdoor gear (which included complimentary bright yellow jackets that could stop a bullet) and got into zodiacs which then cruised through the bay and around massive icebergs that had been eroded by the elements into all sorts of twisted shapes. After a while, the wind began to pick up a little bit and we had to return to the ship as the captain was worried that the impenetrable ice floes that had blocked our passage further south would be blown north and trap the ship. Fortunately, we were able to exit the area before we had any issues and we sailed north to Danco Island. There, we went ashore for our first landing. Danco Island involved a steep hike to the summit but it was worth it as it brought us our first contact with penguins, these oness being Gentoo Penguins. They had many colonies on the hill and there are little "penguin highways" that connect the various colonies to each other. There is one thing about penguins that the movies display accurately and that is that they are ridiculously awkward when the walk on land and are therefore extremely comical and cute. The thing that many people do not know is that penguins use their rookeries as a bathroom, so there is always a pungent aroma in the air when one stands downwind from a penguin colony. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed our first landing in Antarctica. That night, we had to participate in a ship to ship rescue of an injured man who was on an icebreaker called the Captain Khlebnikov. Our ship sent a zodiac over to the Khlebnikov and then brought the injured man back before hoisting the whole zodiac safely on to our ship. It was very interesting to watch the rescue as the conditions were somewhat windy. it also gave us an opportunity to see the midnight sun in the southern hemisphere for the first time.
The next day had us sailing through the Neumayer Channel to Damoy Point. There is an outpost where the people stationed there have created their own version of Monopoly on a piece of plywood and have a bottle of Jack Daniels with a large line on it that reads "If the whiskey is below this line, get more." We walked around the area, taking in more stunning mountains and many Gentoo rookeries. Sometimes the penguins walk along but fall forward as they are quite clumsy. Instead of righting themselves, they just decided to continue along their path but pushing themselves along on their stomachs. We were walking back to the zodiacs when we saw something in the water. We realized that is was a seal and thought that surely we were about to see a kill as there were many penguins swimming in the water. Nothing much happened for a while and the all of a sudden we saw the massive beast lumber awkwardly out of the water and on to land. There was a penguin just in front of the seal and surely, at any point, the seal would grab the penguin. The penguin knew better. He took one leisurely look at the penguin as if to say "you have got to be kidding me", waited for another five seconds and then waddled forward a couple of metres. It turns out that the seal was a Weddell Seal and that species does not eat penguins. Our afternoon excursion was to nearby Port Lockroy, which is operated by the British Antarctic Trust. They have refurbished the station and turned it into a museum, demonstrating what it was like in an Antarctic research station during the 1960s. There were paintings of actresses on the walls that a man stationed there had painted and there was even food including authentic (ie 50 year old) pemekin and formerly white and now grey mayonnaise. There were also many Gentoos around the station and a short zodiac ride away from it on Weinke Island were more Gentoos as well as two lounging Weddell Seals and a rib bone from a whale that had been killed during the height of the whaling industry in the region. That night at dinner, we were handed two bivouacs, sleeping bags and mats and told that two people had backed out so now there was space available for us to camp out in the ice in Antarctica for a night. We sailed into Paradise Bay, which had incredibly calm seas and pretty floating icebergs in it. It was also flanked by mountains with precipitous glaciers on their peaks. We grabbed our gear and headed to a small island called Dutch's Dome which would be our home for the night. After a bit of a hike to the top, which was quite difficult due to the lightly packed snow that caused us to sink in up to our knees, we set up camp. We were not in tents, as this would spoil the beauty of the surroundings so we were just in sleeping bags and bivouacs with nothing but the Antarctic night sky (which was light due to how far south we were) above us. There was a Crabeater seal on an ice floe nearby, and there were some penguins on another island. This, combined with the increasingly pink sky and the occasional avalanche coming down the mountains on the mainland made for an unforgettable night of camping.
After a few hours of sleep in -2 degree weather, we headed back to the ship and got ready for another excursion on the zodiacs. This time, we would be making landfall on the Peninsula, and thus setting fit on the continent proper. It would be Val's 5th continent and Peter's 7th. We landed at Almirante Brown Station, which is an Argentinian research station, and hiked up a steep hill which gave us postcard vies of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. From our vantage point at the top, we watched a massive avalanche hurtle down a mountain and crash into icebergs in the sea far below. After visiting more Gentoos, we headed out for a zodiac cruise amongst the floating sea ice. There were some really interesting icebergs including one that resembled a Chinese dragon due to some crazy erosion. We also cruised past large colonies of Imperial Cormorants that were nesting in the rock cliffs next to the sea. We got back on the ship and headed to another area further north. En route, we saw an iceberg that was taller and wider than the ship that had broken off an iceshelf and was now floating haphazardly. We also saw the Endeavour, which is a barque, much like the kinds that were used by early 20th century explorers in Antarctica, sail past. We continued on to Neko Harbour, which was another point on the Peninsula. We hiked up another hill and just as we summited it, we saw several massive pieces of ice calve of a glacier. These pieces of ice created large tidal waves and everyone had to get off the beach as they crashed ashore. On the way back to the ship, we past more Weddel Seals and a lone Chinstrap Penguin who seemed to be a little lost. Back on the ship, dinner was a barbecue which was held on the stern of the ship. The expedition team all wore funny hats and there was a lot of particularly bad dancing happening as well. It was probably due to the massive amounts of gluwein that were available to us. We also saw more whales from the deck including some Humpbacks and a Minke Whale. These went along with the Sei Whale (the third largest whale in the world) that we had seen a couple of days before.
Our first landing the next day was a bit of a bust. It was a continental landing at Spigot Peak (which does not look like a Spigot regardless of the angle one studies it from), and we were in the midst of a hike to a large colony of Chinstrap Penguins, but we had to turn around halfway up the hill because the snow was too slippery and people would most likely slide right down the hill and into the water below. When not done voluntarily, this is simply a foolish idea. We headed back down the hill to the boat and sailed to Cuverville Bay. En route, we saw a Leopard Seal and a Crabeater Seal on separate ice floes, as wel las another iceberg that was considerably larger than the ship. We went ashore to yet another colony of Gentoos. The one saving grace of penguins is that they are quite entertaining to watch, largely due to their clumsiness on land. As we mentioned earlier, they walk along little highways but they are narrow. As a result, when two penguins that are heading in opposite directions meet, they are at an impasse. They do one of two things. One: they awkwardly shuffle past each other or two: one penguin gives up and they both head off in the same direction. They are also quite funny when they fight with each other because they slap each other with their wings so all of a sudden, the stillness of Antarctica is shattered by "slap, slap, slap, slap, slap" as two more penguins fight it out. We also got to see two penguins go at it, which was "interesting", and let's leave it at that. Later on in the day, we cruised to Wilhelmina Bay to look for whales. We did see three Humpbacks and a Minke, but that was not the coolest part. The water on the Bay was as smooth as glass and the reflections of the mountains and the icebergs were incredible. We anchored in the bay and at this time, the "Polar Plunge" was held. This is when perfectly normal people have a moment of insanity and decided that it would be a good idea to plunge into the 0.22 degree Celsius waters of Antarctica. Valerie and Peter were two of these people who had their judgement clouded. We lined up on deck with the other 30 or so people who had decided to jump in and we patiently waited in turn on the wet, cold deck. We it came to be our turns, we each put on a life jacket, had a rope attached to our waist, walked down the gang plank, took one look at the dark, foreboding water, posed for photos and then dived in. Saying that the water was merely "cold" would be an understatement!!! There was an iceberg that floated past when Peter dived in and he swam out to it. When Valerie jumped in, she was one of the few people who managed to maintain a large smile while she was in the water. This may have been because her mouth was frozen in place? Unfortunately, both of us managed to injure ourselves. Valerie bruised a rib when she slipped on deck afterwards and Peter managed to dislocate his shoulder during his swim for the iceberg. After being attended to by the doctor, they both fine and made their way to the bow of the ship to enjoy some hot chocolate with the other jumpers yo relive our momentous plunges.
The next day we sailed to the South Shetland Islands, which are an archipelago slightly north of the Antarctic Continent. We landed at Barientos Island, which is one of the smaller islands in the group. It is formerly volcanic so thus consists of some jagged peak and rocky outcroppings. We walked across the island and we saw many colonies of Chinstrap Penguins. Finally, penguins that weren't Gentoos!!! That being said, there were many Gentoos present as well but it was a nice change. There were even some Gentoos hiding amongst Chinstraps and vice versa. As we continued our walk across the island, we came across both pink and green snow. These are cause by different types of algae and are very vibrant in appearance. We also saw a mummified Crabeater Seal. We climbed over a small summit and headed down to a wide peninsula that was covered with many molting elephant seals. We thought they were all mothers with babies, due to the vast size discrepancy, until the zoologist told us that they were in fact females with the much larger males. If you guys think little puppy dogs have big, sad eyes when the look at you, you cannot imagine what the eyes of a two tonne Elephant Seal look like. We also came across a Weddell Seal that was twitching. This was because he was asleep and dreaming. He was also singing in his sleep, something that is extremely rare to hear and virtually never heard unless the seal is in the water. There were also many pieces of wood scattered around from various shipwrecks as well as bones from dead whales including a rib bone that was probably 3-4 metres in length and must have belonged to a Blue Whale. Once back on board the ship, we bypassed Deception Island, unfortunately, and sailed to King George Island. We went ashore there to visit the Chinese Antarctic Research Station. It is a very modern facility that even includes a ping pong table and an indoor basketball court. It was built right next to the original research station, which consisted of severl shipping crates that had been welded together. It was quite the juxtaposition. On the way back to the ship, we stopped at a small spit of land where there were several Crabeater and Weddell seals, as well as Chinstraps and our first real look at another species of penguins called Adelies. They were our third penguin species of the trip and were probably the cutest. We then began our journey north, leaving Antarctica behind after five beautifully sunny days.
The return journey through the Drake Passage was worse than the way down. For some reason, the dining room was always the place that made people feel the most nauseas. It was also one of the more dangerous places and chairs, bottles and glasses, as well as people at times, frequently moved about the room out of control. As a result, we spent a lot of time in our cabin watching movies. The worst weather was to come on the first night in the Drake when we actually sailed through a hurricane. The winds were outrageous and the 15 metre swells were extremely treacherous so our boat had to turn into the wind and the captain spent the better part of the night steering the ship into every wave, just trying to maintain his position. The next morning brought somewhat calmer seas and we were able to sail ahead and reach the safety of the Beagle Channel where we had our last dinner on the ship and got to meet the talented captain of our vessel. The next morning, we disembarked early and then met up with Sarah, Rebecca, Marc and Laura for lunch in Ushuaia. We then all went out for Santa Clause deserts that were made out of meringues. It was a nice way to end our journey to Antarctica.
Bye for now,
Peter and Valerie
Things we learned in Antarctica:
-Toilets can have all sorts of colourful names including "Mr. Yum-Yum".
-A park ranger in El Chalten: "Do you know what the difference between El Chalten and Antarctica is? Penguins." He was wrong. There are seals in Antarctica as well.
-"There are two species of Penguins: White ones that walk towards you, and Black ones that walk away from you."
-Apparently, the best way to change a lightbulb is to put a man in the bucket of an excavator and lift him up to the light that needs to be changed.