Antarctica-my last continent


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Published: February 5th 2020
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DInner on first night in UshuaiaDInner on first night in UshuaiaDInner on first night in Ushuaia

King crab-one crab more than enough for 2 people
We have just returned from Antarctica which is our 7th and last continent. (Also my 104th country as per Century Club classifications) Our trip was supposed to start from Salt Spring on Jan 3d but projected wind conditions on the Georgia Strait give us pause about the ferry so we left on the 2nd and did a few touristy things in Vancouver. As usual it was raining and our visit to Granville Island and Gastown included umbrellas.

Our Air Canada flight departed YVR at 1030 AM on the 4th, putting us into Toronto at 1802. The big news is that Air Canada got two more best airline/good service awards (they have their own awards department filled with imaginative people who probably trained with Sarah Huckabee Sanders) It was a five hour flight from Vancouver and the award winning service made time fly. After a fun filled 5 hour wait in the Toronto Airport (where seating is being phased out), we embarked on a full Boeing 777 -300. As a side note Jan got to assist with a cardiac arrest situation at a nearby gate area in the airport before we left.

The flight to Buenos Aires comes with a
Interesting sign Interesting sign Interesting sign

On the wall in the crab restaurant
stop and annoying deplaning event in Santiago, Chile. The scheduled arrival in BA is at 1430 (the next day) I was able to sleep a bit on the plane and also watched an interesting movie (The Grand Budapest Hotel) For this trip I took only one paper book had quite a few ebooks on my IPad.

In some fairness to Air Canada, this was not the worst flight we have ever taken. It is worth noting that they provided free liquor and 2 complimentary meals on this flight but the food was mediocre. Someday we will learn why Air Canada treats out of country passengers better than domestic customers.

Arriving at foreign airports typically involves running a gauntlet of taxi touts and transportation entrepreneurs, many of whom are not proficient in English. Getting to your hotel can be an expensive adventure. However there is now a new service called Welcome which allows you to prebook and prepay your taxi with an English speaking driver who meets you at the arrivals exit with a sign. He already knows where you want to go and the system is pretty seamless. We used Welcome 4 times on this trip and it
Steam locomotiveSteam locomotiveSteam locomotive

Train at the end of the world
is excellent.In BA our hotel was the UP Recoleta and it was a long ride from the airport. This was a Sunday and there were lots of families having picnics in the freeway ditches???

Our challenge for the rest of the day was to stay awake so after a quick shower, we toured the neighbourhood. Dinner was pizza and beer. Prices were reasonable but Argentina apparently has an inflation rate of 59.2%. Any Argentine currency you retain after the trip can only be used as toilet paper.

The next day our Welcome driver picked us up at 0700 for a short ride to the Jorge Newbury domestic airport. We still have 3000 kilometres to go and will arrive at Ushuia at 1430. Luckily we had arrived at the airport 2 hours before departure and it was barely enough.

In Ushuia, the plan was to spend 2 nights at an Airbnb and then transfer to the Quark Expeditions Hotel (The Albatross) for the last night before departure. The Airbnb was located up a quite steep hill about 6 blocks from the main shopping street and our taxi driver had a lot of trouble finding it. The lack of
Flightless steamer ducksFlightless steamer ducksFlightless steamer ducks

on the waterfront in Ushuaia
taxi driver familiarity may have been a sign that this was not a well known venue. Billed as a loft apartment, this was not a place for people challenged by stairs. The bedroom was located on the top floor with a steep climb to get down to the bathroom. An additional quirk was the 4 foot ceiling in the bedroom. However I have stayed in worse places and we had a good sleep the first night.

The next day we booked the Terra del Fuego National Park tour including the highly promoted "end of the world" steam train ride. We had to dash down the hill at 7.00 AM to the Albatross Hotel to meet our travelling friends (Brian and Annie) and catch the tour bus at 7.30. The pickup time turned out be a lie as the real time was actually 8.00. We finally set off in a fairly full bus loaded with a mixture of Spanish and English speaking tourists. The accompanying guide gave us a very complete description of what was being seen right outside the bus window. Tourist bus rides and guide narratives are usually excruciating and this was no exception.

We arrived at
Meat restaurantMeat restaurantMeat restaurant

huge portions
the train station in due course and the event quickly deteriorated. It soon became apparent that the level of disorganization associated with this tour was staggering. The voucher we thought gave us admission to the park tour and the train turned out to be only an access form for the incredibly long lineup to get the real documents (and pay the separate not included park fee) There were about 4 busloads of people all joining in the fun at the same time. After an hour of lineup surfing and with vouchers in hand , it was time to join yet another lineup to catch the train to Park HQ where our bus would be waiting.

This highly promoted train is apparently a re-creation of the convict train which took prisoners out to the prison that was constructed here in the distant past. It runs back and forth on a 3 mile narrow gauge track with power being supplied by mini steam locomotives. The train reaches speeds as high as 10 miles an hour and has a stop at a waterfall for souvenir shopping and the chance to buy photos that were taken back at the main station. After about
Deck 5Deck 5Deck 5

Here we are starting across the strait
an hour of non-stop excitement we arrived at the end of track staging point where our guide was waiting with the bus. Then it was on to the perhaps the dustiest road I have ever seen. This park gets a lot of visitors and vehicular traffic and in the dry season the roads are extremely dusty. Apparently there is a move afoot to pave everything but lots of people want to leave it natural. If you like sandstorms this tour may be for you.

We continued with the pain and suffering until 2.00 and then things came to a merciful end back in Ushuia-all for only $140.00 per couple. The afternoon entertainment involved shopping plus a search for a restaurant for dinner.

The four of us decided on the El Diejo Marino which was reported to specialize in giant king crabs. By 7.00 PM there were huge lineups outside the premises including a highly entertaining group of Russians and some other Antarctica refugees. However we did not make the first sitting and were given numbered cards for the next round.

We ended up waiting in a nearby bar for our 8.00 o'clock appointment. When we finally got
One of our first icebergsOne of our first icebergsOne of our first icebergs

Amazing ice sculptures
to our table, the service was fast and efficient. The excellent crab special including a seafood appetizer and beer/wine came to about $50/couple-estimated cost on Salt Spring or Vancouver would be $150... After the meal we trudged back up the hill in the rain to the Airbnb hovel.

The next day (Wednesday January 8, 2020) was hotel transfer day and involved a walk down the steep hill in the rain towing our luggage. We had breakfast on the way and then deposited our luggage in the Albatross Hotel. My next task was to test the ATM system and the first 2 banks treated my card offering with disdain. I finally settled on an HSBC which was apparently on a quest to extract maximum fees from tourists. I got 2000 Argentine pesos (about $40 CAD) by making a contribution of about $13 to HSBC shareholders.

In the afternoon, I braved the gale force winds and intense rain to do the harbour front bird walk. I managed 15 species in about 2 hours.

Quark did a short orientation in the evening and provided our luggage tags for tomorrow.

Our dinner this evening involved meat and lots of it.
crab eater sealcrab eater sealcrab eater seal

They don't eat crabs
Meat oriented restaurants all have a massive wood burning BBQ as per the picture. Portion control is not something they do here. In another restaurant we saw a prime rib offering for one person which probably weighed 3 pounds.

On Thursday Jan 9th, luggage deposit was at 0945, checkout at 10.00 and ship boarding at 1600. By the time we finally loaded on to the transfer bus our knowledge of Ushuia was complete. The bus took us for a short ride out on to the pier and deposited us beside the gangway. We were then welcomed aboard by the ships crew and expedition staff and efficiently checked into our rooms. We had booked a suite which was actually 2 joined rooms each with a bathroom. After checking out the room and unpacking there was a first meeting in the main theatre. We also got to do a lifeboat drill. The expedition staff are virtually all from Canada.

We had been apprehensively watching the wave height predictions for the past few days but it appeared we were going to have a relatively easy 2 day crossing of the Drake Passage to Antarctica. Jan had organized the medical preparations and
Penguin colonyPenguin colonyPenguin colony

I think these were gentoos
we both installed seasickness patches about 12 hours before the start of the cruise. Another important tactic is to keep a full stomach so we enjoyed the first night buffet style prime rib dinner. There will be 6 food opportunities per day.

We had an excellent sleep which may have been aided by the gentle rolling of the ship in the waves. The breakfast buffet confirmed the resolve of the food service department to keep us from getting seasick. Apparently there were a few people who got sick but the wave height was probably only about 10 feet and pretty gentle. It also seemed to diminish during the day.

Quark staff provided us with a number of interesting presentations (in between the huge meals) including Antarctica history and Marine Biology in the morning. In the afternoon we each got our expedition parkas which are a brilliant yellow colour. They may not that useful for elk hunting but they seem to be wind and water proof as well as being warm. On our way back home we will be spending more time in Buenos Aires which has a current temperature of +30C-probably wont need the parkas there...We also got
Humpback whale Humpback whale Humpback whale

We were pretty close to this one
loaner muck boots which have to be returned. There is a major focus on not taking any biological material off the ship to Antarctica so we had a clothing inspection and cleaning event. We will also be dipping our boots in disinfectant on exit and entry to/from the ship. The highlight of the day (for me) was the ornithology presentation (not including penguins) by Dylan.

The meal program has now switched to a la carte ordering off a menu and the feature was seafood. There are two dining rooms. The main dining room holds about 150 people and can be a bit noisy. There is also a first come first served quiet small 3d floor model with private sections and a view. We have developed a strategy to deploy a representative to establish table property rights in the 3d floor dining room for future dinners.

Day two on the Drake (Saturday Jan 11/20) opened early after another great sleep. I tried bird spotting off the back deck before helping Jan get up for breakfast. We had a presentation on icebergs and glaciers which was quite interesting. Jan signed up for kayaking (only 18 spots and they filled up
another colonyanother colonyanother colony

They are all pretty tame
early) and she went to a compulsory orientation and dry suit fitting. I decided to go the alternative paddling session which was also full so I went on a waiting list. The deal is $295 USF for one 1.5 hour session on a sit on top double kayak. I subsequently made the accepted list but decided to forego the excitement.

The next to last session of the day was "Penguins and lots of them" We then went out on the rear deck and saw a few petrels and albatrosses.

The final session of each day which runs to just before dinner at 1930 is what is described as a recap. They go over the days activities and give us a idea of what is in store for the next day. Our designated table property rights person slid out the door about 1920 and staked our claim to the prime spot in the small dining room. Tonight we had pork tenderloin/pork belly which was excellent. After a hard day of mostly eating we turned in at 10.00. I am getting a lot of reading done and having no internet is a welcome change. There is a well stocked lending
view from mountaintopview from mountaintopview from mountaintop

these climbs were great- 75% of the passengers made it to the top
library.

Our ship seems ideally suited for the task at hand. Here are some details:

Staff and Crew 144.

Guests 189.

Length 124 meters.

Breadth (Beam) 16 meters.

Draft 4.9 meters.

Propulsion 2 Wichmann Engines, 7375 horsepower.

Ice Class 1D.

Cruising Speed 15.5 knots

The ship has stabilizers which are wings which extend along the side so the ship doesn't roll much in heavy weather.

Sunday the 12th of January is our first day in Antarctica. We arrived at about 5.00 AM and immediately started seeing huge icebergs, skuas (predatory birds) and the odd humpback whale. I was up on deck early and then went to the bridge to watch the captain steer us through the Lamar Channel-very interesting. We saw a group of gentoo penguins on an iceberg. I am now at 26 bird species for the trip.

The ship continued on and set anchor near the Yalour Islands on the Antarctica peninsula. This will be our first Zodiac landing and will take place after breakfast. I am in group one. Each group has about 44 people but ours will typically have only 32 because the kayakers
scenic cavescenic cavescenic cave

important to keep your distance as big pieces can slough off and crash into the water
are all in group one. They will go separately. The typical zodiac load is 10 people plus the guide. We bundle up in the parkas, mandatory waterproof pants, waterproof gloves, tuques etc.

There is a well communicated protocol for how to act in the zodiac including photography etiquette. The guides will try to navigate sideways to a photographic subject (like a seal) and the near side 5 are supposed to kneel down allowing the outside 5 to stand up so everyone gets a good picture opportunity. However on our first zodiac trip we had 2 people, focusing on their future stardom as wildlife photographers ignored the protocol and give us numerous chances to photograph the backs of their parkas. In spite of these annoyances we had a spectacular first tour seeing 1000s of adelie penguins amid the scenic icebergs. Jan had a great first morning in the kayak group. Future trips will include an assessment of which zodiac the view hog photographers are are selecting.

After 1 1/2 hours in the zodiac, we returned to the ship for the usual "modest" lunch. After lunch the plan is to cruise for another 1 1/2 hours plus visit a research
showy sheathbillshowy sheathbillshowy sheathbill

They eat penguin poop
station which used to be British but is now Ukrainian. (Vernadsky Station) We also saw crab eater seals, weddel seals, blue eyed cormorants, snowy sheathbills and south polar skuas. I am now at 28 bird species.

Upon our return to the ship we had a recap session with snacks and champagne. Our dinner table strategy continued to work. The lamb shank special could have fed an entire village.

The next (January 13/20) we crossed the Antarctica circle at 7.00 AM which was celebrated with more champagne on deck. I am getting a cold so sat out this mornings zodiac ride and kayaking was cancelled due to waves. In the afternoon we cruised back towards Peterman Island which we will visit tomorrow. For added excitement today I got a buzz haircut and did weights.

Our third day of excursions started with 0900 launch and a 2 hour cruise. (Fluid management is all important as the zodiacs do not have washrooms) We are starting to see a lot of humpback whales. They are here to feed on small shrimp like creatures known as krill. This is also an important food for penguins. The wildlife sightings are amazing but many
Crew encouraged passengers to come up on the bridgeCrew encouraged passengers to come up on the bridgeCrew encouraged passengers to come up on the bridge

Very interesting watching navigate through the icefields
of us are even more taken with the spectacular icebergs. In the afternoon we saw even more whales with some right beside the zodiacs.

This was a rainy cold day and the evening meal program was an on deck barbecue. Food was great but not many lasted very long out on the deck. This was also the night for the all important crazy hat contest. Annie finished second with a very creative offering.

Day four was one of the best as we started doing combination land and zodiac tours with the land portion involving a steep climb of about 200 meters past a new penguin species colony (chinstrap penguins) The descent was a bit slippery and it was quite helpful to have a ski pole.

We then did a zodiac cruise with a Russian pilot in command of the zodiac and saw a big group of HB whales close to the boat plus a large leopard seal. We were off the ship for over 3 hours so there was quite a rush for bathrooms upon our return to the ship.

After the usual world class lunch we went out for a zodiac tour and the icebergs
Jan in the kayakJan in the kayakJan in the kayak

She was out at least 10 times
were the best yet. We also saw gentoo penguins, skuas and lots of antarctica terns. A lady from the UK did a swan dive on to some rocks on one of the paths so I took an early ride back to the ship with her and her husband. A number of us hit the bar for beers. This was a double kayak session day for Jan. Our table strategy continued to be successful and tonight we had Red Snapper for dinner. The night program was a presentation on skiing across Baffin Island.

The next day (Jan 16th) dawned (there is no dawn as it is light 24 hours per day) at 0630 with a 25 knot wind event. My morning routine includes a hot shower, antihistamines, some oregano oil , a vitamin C tablet and orange juice (my cold is not getting better) Kayaking is off today due the winds and high waves but the zodiacs cant be stopped.Off we went to Danco Island and did a superb 300 metre climb.

After lunch the cruise to Paradise Harbour took quite a while. There is an Argentine research base there and the research season was just underway. We landed
sleeping sealssleeping sealssleeping seals

They seemed pretty relaxed
at their dock and did another steep 170 meter high climb. The subsequent zodiac tour was in quite rough seas along spectacular ice walls and big icebergs. Just when we think the ice views are the best ever , we see even more spectacular views.

Dinner was the usual gourmet extravaganza with lots of wine. Tonight was "happy camper night" as 60 stalwarts are heading off the ship after dinner to camp out on the ice.A significant number of the guests have never seen snow... The remainder of the guest roster got the opportunity for popcorn and a Ben Stiller movie. Attendance was sparse with quite a few early exits as the movie's fatuousness became apparent.

Friday Jan 17th is our second last day of shore excursions.We got the 0630 wakeup call and landed at Neko Harbour after breakfast for another enervating 250 meter climb. These climbs (in my opinion) provide a valuable offset to an otherwise rather sedentary experience. I cant imagine a tour on one of those massive cruise ships where the shore excursions are mainly for shopping. The small boat size is also excellent. I was in Juneau once when a cruise ship came in
Sailing ship from EstoniaSailing ship from EstoniaSailing ship from Estonia

Crossing the Drake takes a week by sailing ship
with 5000 guests....

In the afternoon after a long ship ride we stopped at Enterprise Island and did a zodiac tour which included a visit to a 100 year old ship wreck. Enterprise Island was a whaling site back in the day. Originally the ships came down from Norway and England and processed the whales on shore. Oil rendered from blubber was a prime product and the processed oil was pumped from the on shore processing plants to the holds in the ships. The industry subsequently evolved and ships were developed with the capacity to process the whales on board. The ship wreck was a steam ship which did on ship processing and apparently had oil from 3000 whales in its holds. A crewman tipped over a lamp and the oil caught fire eventually sinking the ship. The crew apparently escaped unscathed although the fate of the lamp tipper is unknown.

Lots more birds were seen on this tour terns, skuas, penguins, cormorants and petrels.We also saw 3 kinds of seals. We had a rough, cold and wet zodiac ride back to the ship at 1815 and immediately went for a healing single malt in the bar.
hallway to our roomhallway to our roomhallway to our room

Interesting walk when waves are high

I did not have a great sleep before our last excursion day so I took the morning off. We are in Whalers Bay which is a huge bay formed by an ancient volcano. There is an abandoned whaling station on shore which can easily seen from our anchored ship. This location is in the South Shetland Islands. We have one more stop before we start back across the strait.

After lunch I revived enough to go on the last zodiac tour which was in Half Moon Bay. This is the site of yet another research station (Argentina) There is a Antarctica treaty which was signed in 1961. According to Mathew Teller, writing for the BBC news ,there seems to be a race to establish research stations as a means to bolster territorial claims in advance of treaty expiration in 2048. There were 68 bases in place as of 2014. See the following excerpt from the article:

"Science drives human investigation in Antarctica today, yet there's a reason why geologists often take centre-stage. Governments really want to know what's under the ice. Whisper the word: oil. Some predictions suggest the amount of oil in Antarctica could be 200 billion
seabird seabird seabird

on lookout
barrels, far more than Kuwait or Abu Dhabi.

Antarctic oil is extremely difficult and, at the moment, prohibitively expensive to extract - but it's impossible to predict what the global economy will look like in 2048, when the protocol banning Antarctic prospecting comes up for renewal. By that stage, an energy-hungry world could be desperate.

The Antarctic Treaty has put all territorial claims into abeyance, but that hasn't stopped rule-bending. The best way to get a toehold on what may lie beneath is to act as if you own the place"

In any case, we landed on the shore near the Argentine base and did a bit of a hike. There are lots of birds as well as three kinds of seals. (crab eater, fur and leopard) Apparently the fur seals are fairly unpredictable so our guides warned us not to get too close. There were several walking routes on this landing and we unfortunately chose the one less travelled. The people on the busy route were able to see a macaroni penguin which was the fourth penguin species of the trip.

When it was time to return, we had an excellent rough and wet zodiac
see the penguiin highwaysee the penguiin highwaysee the penguiin highway

The natives are restless
ride around to the back of the island with 4-5 foot waves in places. The zodiacs are great boats and our drivers definitely know what they are doing. After seeing lots of wildlife and birds we returned to the ship and the cocktail hour in the bar. After weighing anchor, our ship started heading out to the strait. During dinner, the wave action started to pick up, foreshadowing a rougher night on the seas than we had coming to Antarctica.

Lots of rolling in the night and the for first time I was starting to notice a bit of nausea. I had decided not to use the patch and quickly took a seasick pill which worked. The rest of our group were using the patch and they were fine. Navigating down the hallways was bit of a challenge and the rolling was more pronounced on the higher decks. I think we were getting wave heights of close to 20 feet, which apparently is nothing vis a vis what the Drake Channel can do when it really gets going...The rolling of the ship does not impact on sleeping and reading is also fine. This is our second last day on the boat and we had some really great presentations about whales, ice and the aurora.

Quark is a big supporter of a "Penguin Lifelines" and they held a charity auction to raise funds for research. This was a pretty successful event raising about $7000 USF for the cause. Two noteworthy items-steer the ship for 30 minutes went for $750 and a chart with wildlife drawings went for $2550. This was a Ducks Unlimited dinner on steroids.

Dinner tonight was chicken accompanied by the usual vat of wine. Meals are the best and the worst-great food but too much of it. Vows are being made to adopt a very severe and restricted lifestyle upon return to home.

Monday Jan 20/20 -It seems that the seasick prevention pill I took yesterday eliminated my cold?

The sea is still quite rough. Speaking of rough we have been reading the gratuity guidelines sheet and it appears that Quark would like each passenger to assume responsibility for $800 of their salary budget. This is a program that seems to have been exported from the USA to the rest of the world. It is based on paying very low wages and then
The territorial map-The territorial map-The territorial map-

-none of it seems real
extorting customers to make up the difference. Here is a list of some of the countries where tipping is not customary and may even be considered as an insult: Japan,China,Korea,Hong Kong,Switzerland,Australia,Belgium and Denmark. In my view the service industry should either pay a decent wage ( the best option) or add a mandatory (and fully disclosed in advance 10% service charge) Tips are billed as a reward for good service which is what customers kind of hope they will be getting as a matter of course with the chosen business. Not many places tell you to ask for a 20% refund if the service and/or food is really poor...

Today was our last day on the ship and we had a few more great sessions with the guide staff including a preview of the photos and a recap of the voyage. We also got some stats on the makeup of the ship roster. There are 301 people which is apparently 3 below capacity. We have 100 USA citizens (virtually all of them passengers) , 60 from the Philippines (staff) and 27 Canadians (mostly staff) as well as people from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Austria and the UK. Our excellent chef is from Wales and the captain is from England.

To close off the voyage we had champaign again, appetizers and a brief speech from the captain. Dinner was beef wellington accompanied by the bottomless wine bottle. Research is being conducted as to whether lots of wine offsets the rolling of the vessel as you navigate the narrow hallways back to the rooms... Tonight everyone had to do packing before bed as we are scheduled to leave the ship by 8.00 AM. A major challenge is how to jam the polar parka into an already full suitcase (we did it)

Our ship made it into Ushuia harbour right on time with the Beagle Channel being calm as usual. After a last breakfast and farewells to all, we came off the ship at 8.00 AM and did the receiving line thing with the expedition staff. The ship will turn around at 4.00 PM with a whole new set of guests (apparently all from China) Had we known about the tight schedule we would have flown out to Buenos Aires on the day of arrival, thus avoiding a somewhat wasted day in Ushuia. However we did get to have one last dinner (sea bass) with Brian and Annie.

The next day we started the long trek home with an early morning flight to Buenos Aires where we spent the rest of the day touring the Recoleta. This is a prosperous part of the city which reminds of us of London. One highlight was the Recoleta Cemetery which is the final resting place for the elite of Argentina including Eva Peron.

We had more time the next day as our flight back to Canada did not leave until 1630. Once again we were on Air Canada who served up the most disgusting food offerings ever seen on an airline-their staff are lucky they don't depend on tips. We managed to make all our connections with our luggage so that was positive. Here is the travel itinerary to get home: (14 hour flight to Toronto via Santiago,2 hour layover in Toronto, 5 hour flight to Vancouver, Skytrain to Bridgeport, bus to Tsawwassen ferry terminal, ferry to Swartz Bay ferry terminal, ferry to Fulford Harbour, bus to Ganges and car ride with neighbour up to house)

It was a wonderful trip but it was also good to be home. Diets
our list of  landings                                                                    ports of csll                                                                                       our list of  landings                                                                    ports of csll                                                                                       our list of landings ports of csll

Marked on the main map in the lounge each day
start immediately along with a liquor fast.


Additional photos below
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watching out for leopard seals


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