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Antarctica » Antarctica » South Shetland Islands
December 2nd 2019
Published: March 29th 2020
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Dear Friends and Family,

I hope this update finds you all well. Due to the recent self isolation policy for Covid-19, I have had time to finish my travel blog. I hope this reminds you of better times. Stay safe.

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My journey to Antarctica began with a family vacation to South America. I left my family to relax in the hot weather of Buenos Aires, and caught a plane down to Ushuaia. All went smoothly and I checked into my hotel the day before my Antarctica Expedition with Quark Adventures. This gave me plenty of time to head to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park for hiking. A local mini-van dropped me at one end of the park in Zaratiegui Bay. From there I was told it’s a four hour trek along the coast, past Lapataia Bay to Alakush lodge. There was lots of birdlife – hawks, gulls, songbirds, woodpeckers and parrots. Fortunately, the trek only took two hours at a brisk pace, so I had the opportunity to hike up to the Argentina / Chile border along Lago Roca. After everyone else had been picked up and the last two girls got a taxi, my mini-van finally showed up to bring me back to town. I had a roommate, Nathan from Kentucky, for the hotel stay. We headed out to get food but all the nice restaurants were booked up, so we tried the local Irish – the Dublin Pub. It was perfect for all the locals and low brow travellers were there. We learned that some backpackers showed up in town without an expedition ticket and could get a half price ticket if there was space left. But they might wait a couple weeks to get a spot. We also met Livia who was the only traveller I spoke to on the trip that had taken the overland route from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia by bus. She said it was the longest bumpiest ride of her life.

The next day, we dropped our backpacks off for the ship and had a bit more time to tour around town. I saw our ship in harbour – the Ocean Adventurer – which would be our home for the next ten days. We were picked up at the hotel later that day and I met one of my new best friends for the trip - Dana. It was really exciting coming aboard, joining the welcome reception and looking out at the city from the top deck. I met my roommates, Ron and Tony. Tony had been travelling the world for over 15 months and had lots of stories to tell. He became another great mate on the trip! There was just enough time after dinner to sit in the hot tub and watch the sunset. Then a bit of star gazing with new friends before bedtime.

The Drake Passage between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is known as some of the roughest waters of the world. Many expeditions encounter the ‘Drake Shake’ that overcomes any seasickness medication and leaves guests and crew almost immobile for two days. We got lucky with the ‘Drake Lake’ – calm waters on the crossing. The weather forecast had storms on the horizon, so we made all haste to the protection of the South Shetland Islands. This meant we arrived a half day before expected and allowed us a bonus stop. Most of our time en route was spent in seminars learning amount Antarctica history, wildlife, photography and ice, and meeting the rest of the guests and crew. I told the story of leaving my family up in Buenos Aires at least a dozen times to different people. We spotted fin whales and many types of albatross and petrels on the crossing. There was a competition to spot the first iceberg of the expedition and who low and behold, who would win that competition – Me! The expedition leader, Solan, was on the bridge deck to confirm. At dinner that night, he presented me with a bottle of wine, lots of souvenirs and ship wide recognition that made me semi-famous in the first couple days. I met Rachel at the champagne reception that evening, and she would round out our Antarctica family (Dana, Tony, Rachel and I). I signed up on the wait list for the camping trip but thought there was little chance of people dropping out and then winning the lottery for the spot – oh well. I met lots more guests including Sammy, Mandy, Nishat, Andy, Maor, Larissa, Pascale, David and Loredana – the last two were planning to travel for two years from Ushuaia all the way to Alaska in a camper van that they had fitted out and sent over from Germany.

As we got close to our bonus stop of Deception Island, we saw penguins swimming by the ship. I was spending a lot of time on the top deck to see humpback whales, penguins and the entrance to Whaler’s Bay – Neptune’s Bellows. It was time for our first landing at the old whaling station at Deception Island. We got all geared up and took zodiacs over to shore. Every day on the trip, we would get a zodiac tour around to look for wildlife and a shore landing, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, as weather and ice allowed. We saw chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins and a weddell seal on shore. We hiked up to Neptune’s Window to look out over the cliffs and ocean. We were so lucky to have this bonus stop – a great introduction to Antarctica!

We headed to Buls Bay at Brabant Island. There were ice bergs and glaciers everywhere now. Our zodiac ride today took us straight through broken up pack ice. We spotted a fur seal and more penguins on the ice. The winds picked up and so they told us to stay where we were while they brought the ship around to pick us up. Tony got a call in our room – he had won the camping lottery. So, two from our group were in. Keep my fingers crossed. I went up to the bridge to watch our charted progress to Arctowski Peninsula. We could see gentoo penguin colonies on the shore. Our afternoon shore landing was cancelled but we did get out in the zodiacs to see a humpback whale and calf, lots of penguins, and a lone fur seal on an iceberg. The time on the ship was spent playing board games with my new friends, watching the scenery slide by and telling travel stories with all my new friends. At dinner time, I found out I was the second person to win the camping lottery – high fives and hugs! This meant I was going to get to sleep outside in Antarctica. I had to curb my enthusiasm when I saw Rachel as she was still on the wait list. Just before they told us it was time to take our sleeping bags and gear to shore for camping, they announced three more people had dropped out and one of the winners was Rachel. Our group was complete. The four of us were on the first zodiac over to the island in Leith Cove at Paradise Bay. There was lots of hooping and hollering. We were all feeling punch drunk in the Antarctica fresh air. We set up our sleeping bags and took a lot of silly photos of us trying to squeeze / wriggle in to and under the various layers. We didn’t get much sleep that night. There was the occasional booms, as ice cleaved off the glacier and fell into the ocean just a couple hundred meters form us. The sun barely dips below the horizon, so it never really go that dark. There was no wind, so the cove was a perfect mirror of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. Very pretty. At 6 am, we packed up our gear and bid farewell to our island and penguins, heading back to the ship.

Once we were on board, the Ocean Adventurer set off for the Gerlache Straight towards the Lemaire Channel. This channel is only a couple hundred meters across and often impassible, so we were lucky to squeeze through with no icebergs blocking the way. We spotted some minke whales and then penguins on ice bergs. After lunch, we had a landing at Petermann Island where we could hike from the Argentine hut, through the gentoo penguin colony up the hill to see the view. There was a site were three brooding animals lived in harmony – gentoo penguins, adelie penguins and Antarctic cormorants. We also saw a snow petrel, Antarctic tern and a brown skua. On our zodiac trip, we saw a crabeater seal with some penguins on the same iceberg. After we returned back to the ship and were chatting in the lounge, we heard the anchor pull up and the ship started to move. We just assumed that everyone was on board and we were heading to the next stop. But then we noticed boats out the window. We barely saw another ship during the whole trip, so we went to look. For some reason there were zodiacs still in the water. Then we saw that the pack ice had frozen and the route to the landing was blocked. Some guest and staff were still stuck at the landing and the zodiacs could not get to them. The crew reassured us that they had a plan and told us to go enjoy the outdoor BBQ on the deck. The ship was moving to keep the pack ice broken up in the vicinity of the landing site. Two zodiacs were able to get out through the ice and bring the guests back to the ship, but the staff were still stuck. The captain used the prop wash from the ship to break up more of the ice and two zodiacs got through to shore and rescued the staff. It made you think how quickly conditions could change and how dangerous Antarctica is. With everyone safe aboard the ship, we could enjoy our roast pig and mulled wine and tell tall tales of our narrow escape from the ice. This is likely the most southern point I will ever reach in my life. That evening was one of the greatest sunsets I have ever seen – orange, red, pink. It lasted over three hours. Enough time to join everyone in the overcrowded hot tub, then talk and drink the night away.

I woke up late after our night of debauchery. I had to rush to get ready for the landing. Today, we were to land on the Antarctic Peninsula mainland at Portal Point. We had the opportunity to walk up two hills there and sea seals, penguins and cormorants. We took the zodiac out to see some fabulous sea ice, with one berg that had ice blades and another with a deep blue cave. Due to our emergency rescue yesterday, they had postponed the polar plunge – so today was the big day! We get to jump in freezing cold water in the Southern Ocean. Tony and I raced to get ready so we could be front of the line. Ron opted to watch from above. The staff turned it into a party with music pumping, Lawritz (Lawrence) dressed up as a penguin and post jump vodka shots were handed out. The water was very cold, but everyone survived! I went straight up to the hot tub after. After lunch, I spent time with Katy and Loredana updating journals and trading life stories with Anne.

Our zodiac tour today found some humpback whales, more penguins and an elephant seal. Then we climbed up the hill at Pavelar Point to see the gentoo penguin colony. Tony, Dana and Rachel arrived from kayaking and we took a group photo at the peak. Andy and I caught the last zodiac back from the landing – we went with Matt and Marla to check out an unusual seal that could have been a ross seal (very rare) but ended up being a large weddel seal. The rest of the day was a blur of socialising with the regular gang and Larissa, Mackenzie, Cassie, Nishat, Katy, Pascale, Sammy, et al. I signed up for the expensive one-time kayaking trip the next day – figuring, when would I ever have an opportunity like this again. While I enjoyed it, I am pleased I was not doing it every day of the expedition. Ron and Nishat joined me. We set off from the landing point on Useful Island, paddled between ice bergs and got up close views of penguins jumping in the water, and made it all the way around the island. From the landing point, we hiked up the hill from a view of Andvord Bay. The last Antarctica day always has a great sushi lunch according to Lawrence and he was right. I was working on my journal, when it was announced that orca whales had been spotted. I ran up to the top deck. There was a pod of at least eight whales swimming towards the ship, so we changed direction and followed them. The orcas were swimming all around us, playing with the ice bergs and keeping the youngest orca at a safe distance. We watched them for a good half hour before turning the ship around to resume our journey north.

It was time for our final excursion, Matt took us out on a zodiac through the Melchior islands. We saw a leopard seal and lots of fur seals. At dinner, I reserved our group a table and we celebrated U.S. Thanksgiving. Tony ate three dinners and dessert. Tony, Rachel and I purchased Dave’s (the ship’s photographer) book and all signed it to give to Dana for her birthday the next day. A little reminder of our time together in Antarctica. One of the most unusual things on the trip happened that evening. At the end of the expedition, they have a charity auction with all proceeds going to the Penguin Watch foundation. I was completely unaware of the importance of some of the items to the guests. It started out normally, with people bidding small amounts on mugs and souvenirs and such. Then the expedition flag came up and started right away at $250. Over the next 15 minutes, it rose to $1,500 and finally sold for $2,100. The hand painted chart was also sold to an expensive bid. I think everyone was in a bit of shock after that. The drinks started flowing, we figured out how to hook up tunes on the ship’s sound system and suddenly we had a dance party on our hands. Of course, I was dancing away in the middle of the throng. I had too much red wine and bowed out gracefully (?) around 3 am.

We continued our long voyage back to South America the next day. I needed a bit of alone time out on the deck. I watched us round Cape Horn and came back up later to watch dolphins swim with the ship. I went around and collected contact information from everyone to share with the group. We downloaded our photos to share on the ship’s computer. There was an impromptu ice cream party out on deck with Anne, Mandy, Cassie, John, Honey and Ron. We saw a minke whale breaching off the port side. The Captain gave a recap of the voyage and farewell cocktails. At dinner, the staff had a fun thank you parade. Tony saved Dana, Rachel and I a table for our last dinner together. Tony still had three bottles of wine left over form the previous night, but I decided to stick to beer. We arrived at the Beagle Channel where our pilot ship picked us up. The music and dancing started up again, a mirror of the previous night. Sammy had a sad moment that we would all soon go our own ways but told me that it gave him great hope to see me enjoying life not so differently from a young man. While I don’t think of myself as ‘not a young man’, I knew that Sammy was genuine and not as worried about passing beyond his ‘youth’.

And finally, it was disembarkation day. Some people had to take off right away for the airport. Rachel, Tony, Dana and I stuck together and said our goodbyes to Katy, Mandy, Nishat, Caroline, Sami, and Anne. We walked to the tourist center and met up with another group from the ship waiting for flights. We got to see David and Loredana’s customised van. They still had months of travel ahead of them. Hopefully they will come visit me in Vancouver. Tony, Dana and I caught a taxi to the airport. We all checked in and headed up. Of course, we bump into half our friends still at the airport and have to do goodbyes all over again. It seemed a quick flight back to Buenos Aires and then an uber to Palmero. I was a bit early so surprised Ann and Riley who had survived ten days in Buenos Aires by themselves. I gave Riley his leopard seal stuffy and caught them both up on my trip.

A really special adventure from the scenery to the wildlife to the people that affect your life in ways you didn’t expect.

Cheers, Richard


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