¡¡¡Antarctica!!! Part1 - Crossing the Drake Passage & the South Shetland Islands

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February 26th 2007
Published: September 15th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

"Antarctica is a separate world. One can feel its presence in the approaches, sailing south from more temperate climes. Standing on deck, one may follow the reeling albatross, feel the drop in temperature, the bite of the wind and the motion of the waves. Yet it is the presence of ice, from the first occasional fragments, escalating in shape, form and frequency, and finally dominating all else, that brings assurance of arrival in Antarctica" Mark Jones, Wild Ice.

We wake up to rain today, typical! We can´t even see down the Beagle Channel - all the mountains are covered in mist. Which is actually quite annoying as our hotel is in a great location on the edge of the channel. We decide not to join our Antarctic tour group on its visit to the local national park as we think they won´t be able to see anything and will only go to the tea shop! On top of everything I'm feeling quite rough with a cold and cough thing that degenerates over the next couple of days but I refuse to let it ruin anything (oh I'm so stoic!!).

We head into Ushuaia where we visit the maritime and prison museum. Its interesting, with an exhibit on Antarctica, just to get us in the mood for it! Its set in the old prison in the town, so we wander around for awhile. It has lots of stuff on ships and models of old ships like the Beagle. Its also has stories of prisoners who were sent here and the crimes they have committed.

We catch a taxi back to the Tolkeyen hotel for our group lunch! Claire (who is a vegetarian) has decided to stay in town which in hindsight was probably a good idea as lunch consists of huge quantities of meat from the Parilla! This is our first chance to get a look at the rest of the passengers. The vast majority of passengers are over 50 & there are some really old people who we wonder if they will be able to get on the small boats (looking around it reminded me of a scene from the film Cocoon K)! We sit with a nice couple (Mark and Jackie) and make polite conversation! Eventually we get back on the bus into town, we´re given a couple of hours free in Ushuaia before we have to board the boat. We´re really excited and get our first view of the boat, the Sarpik Ittuk. Its a squat little blue and white thing but looks cute compared to the rest of the boats in the harbour as its much smaller than them. We meet up with Claire and go off to buy some goodies for the trip (as we´ve been told that everything will be expensive on the boat) - chocolate, copious amounts of wine, a bottle of whisky and crackers in case we´re sea sick and can´t eat anything! A good combination of stuff eh?? We´ve been told that we can walk to the ship or get back on the bus and be driven there. We decided to walk the short distance. Trust me, it really was a short distance, about 150 metres. Most people have chosen to get on the bus which seems ridiculous as its so close. We´re really not sure how these people will cope on the ice if they can´t walk the short distance along the pier!!! We board the boat at 4pm in the spitting rain and stop for photos of us boarding. We´re so excited but we have
Claire & Andrea on our first Zodiac rideClaire & Andrea on our first Zodiac rideClaire & Andrea on our first Zodiac ride

Look how excited Andrea looks (bless)!
to queue to hand our passports so have to wait to explore the ship.

Finally we´re shown to our cabin. Its huge, the biggest on the boat. There are 4 beds, one of the upper bunks is folded up. Kate has agreed to have the upper bunk (because I have the longest legs! K) and I have the one underneath. It feels like Claire is in another cabin entirely as its so huge! Her bed is on the other side of the room with a desk between us. We´ve got a large window which is great. Its also en-suite and there are 2 wardrobes! We have a debate as to what to do next. Claire wants to unpack and Kate wants to explore! In the end we unpack very quickly (you need to secure everything in preparation for the dreaded Drake Passage, where we cross the raging Southern Ocean). We run around the boat like lunatics as we´re so excited. Its a nice boat with an aft saloon, which is also the library. Its got large windows so the views will be great as we´re sailing. There is also a panoramic lounge at the top of the boat with a bar and also large windows for the view.

We head to the panoramic lounge for afternoon tea (a regular occurrence). We have a group meeting where we´re introduced to the expedition staff and the captain and some crew. We´re told the safety features of the ship and given a brief outline as to what to expect over the next few days especially the crossing of the Drake Passage. We also see the doctor for some sea sickness medication, extremely strong stuff that makes us very drowsy! The expedition team consist of Laurie (the leader), Rob (the young apprentice/assistant leader), Santiago (bird expert), Roger (ice and geography expert), Victoria (histoty expert as well as other things!!!), Emily (zodiac dirver), Susie (marine biologist), Phil from head office) and Andrew & Imelda (artisits in residences).

We harass the hotel managers to our parkas. Luckily he has received an order for them so he presents us with these huge yellow jackets. Claire is jealous so also wants one - she returns it later the next day (because it was too extravagant a souvenir)! They´re great - really warm and make fantastic souvenirs. I´m sure we´ll look good back home in these bright jackets!

We have a welcome cocktail party later that day and then the welcome dinner. We sit with Roger, one of the expedition staff, a specialist in geography and geology. He is very happy for some British company and its good to quiz him about what we can expect! A consistent theme for dinner is soup, followed by a salad buffet. The main course is either fish, veggie or meat. Of course then followed by desert. With complimentary wine By this stage, we´re starting to suspect that we did not need to buy any goodies or the 5 bottles of wine either!

The Sarpik leaves Ushuaia at 5pm. We´ve been outside to watch the manoeuvres. It sails down the Beagle Channel and we´re afforded magnificent views of green islands on either side. We´ve also picked up a pilot who has to guide us out of the channel. He leaves the ship at 11pm. We go on deck to watch him as they drop a ladder over the edge of the boat. We don´t stop but slow down as a small tug approaches along side. The pilot climbs down the ladder and jumps onto the smaller boat - its pretty dangerous! (Tom Cruise eat your heart out! K).

We finally leave the Beagle Channel and head into the dreaded Drake Passage. We´ve heard terrible things about this part of the journey. We´ve bumped into people who say that everyone on their boat was sick as the waves are so bad! It takes 2 days to cross the passage. We don´t go to bed very late as we want to try and get a good nights sleep. That doesn´t happen! You can feel the swell and rolling movement of the boat as soon as we enter the passage. None of sleep at all well as we are tossed about in our beds. You get pushed from one end of the bed to the other and it doesn´t make any difference what you do, even holding on you are still violently rocked! I actually feel like I´m getting friction burns from the duvet! At one point we wake up and just sit around chatting as there is no point in tyring to sleep. The wine bottles in the cupboard are rolling around making a lot of noise so we have to secure them! We´re treated
We´re here!!!We´re here!!!We´re here!!!

Do you like our new coats?
to 6 meter waves! As you walk along the corridors on the boat there are sick bags stuck everywhere in case you need them, luckily we don´t but plenty seem to disappear during the day! K

The next morning everyone is looking pretty tired. There are quite a few people missing from breakfast. However, breakfast is a grand affair, with cereals and toast and a full fry up. The bacon is especially good - its one of those foods that we´re really missed! We stuff our faces and then have a little lie down!

We wander to the panorama lounge to watch a David Attenborough presents - Life in the Freezer. Getting there is no easy feat as the boat is rocking all over the place. The motto for the Drake Passage is always have one hand free at least, "One hand for the boat".

We also have a history lecture from Victoria (another Brit from the expedition staff). Its an introduction to Antarctica and is very interesting.

Its still rough outside but we manage to go on deck for some fresh air and visit the bridge to have a nose at what happens there! We constantly seem to eat from lunch to afternoon tea to dinner! We also try to squeeze in a few naps as we´re pretty tired. In the evening we watch a movie about penguins and head to bed.

We must be getting used to the waves as we sleep slightly better. We´re all quite lucky as we don´t suffer from sea sickness, but the drugs are powerful and we all feel very sleepy from them. The next day we have a couple more lectures from the expedition staff. We attend one on Ice given by Roger & one by Santiago on penguins - but we have to leave halfway through as we´re falling asleep because off the drugs!

In the afternoon we´re supposed to have an art class but this is cancelled as we have made very good time across the Drake Passage so it looks like we´re going to have an unexpected landing in the South Shetland Islands. We have to attend a safety talk on how to wear our life jackets and how we have to enter and exit the zodiacs (small inflatable boats that will take us to the islands) and also about how close we can get to the penguins. At the end of the talk I am presented with a bottle of Champagne for winning the guess the of the first Iceberg sighting competition ( 11.45am that day), it´s nice to win but we´re actually quite horrified at winning more booze as we have no idea when we´re going to drink it! K

We´re really excited about our first trip. The passengers are split into 2 groups, 36 people in each. We´re in the Gentoo group and are in the second group to board the zodiacs. We have a boot fitting where we are given fleece lined wellies.

We head back to our rooms and layer up - 2 pairs of thermals trousers and then waterproof trousers. We also wear the thermal top and then a fleece and then the big yellow jacket and life vest. Feeling a bit claustrophobic with all these layers we head down to the boot room to put on the wellies and then queue up to get on a zodiac. Its a quick affair to get on the zodiacs with only 10 people on each. We´re given an hour boat ride around some rocks in the South Shetlands. We see our first leopard seal sticking its head out of the water to have a look at us. Its not as cold as we expected it to be but we haven´t reached the actual continent yet. The sun is starting to set as we head to one of the Aitcho Islands. We land here and are told where we can walk. There is a huge colony of chin-strap penguins here. We´re quite nervous as to where we can walk as we don´t want to disturb the birds too much. They are so sweet and called chin straps for the line of black feathers that goes under their chin. I think they look like they are wearing pith helmets and are heading off to war! We´re on the island for an hour and wander about exploring it. The penguins are incredibly noisy and they stink. Everywhere we walk we are steeping in penguin poo! The sun sets over some rocks and we sit and watch it and the penguins. Its an appropriate way to start our trip.

We arrive back at the boat feeling exhilarated. We´re treated to more gourmet food and have a few drinks in the aft saloon before heading to bed.

The next day is spent at the South Shetlands. We´re woken at 7am by Laurie. He the team leader for the expedition staff - he´s originally from Scotland but lives in the far North of Canada now. He´s a fascinating man that has completed lots of different expeditions and lived with the Inuits for a long time, learning their language. Every morning we´re woken by his smooth soft voice (I like a Scottish accent!) and given a quote of the day. These get gradually cheesier as the days progress!

We have breakfast (more bacon!) and then suit up. This morning we board the zodiacs first. We´re taken to Hannah Point and again told what we can do and what we can see. We´re expected to be closely watched and restricted to a small area, but in fact you´re given free reign. You´re expected to respect the environment and only go where you´ve been told you can but it means that you don´t feel like you are being herded about and stuck in a group of 72 people. In fact it feels free and all the stops are generally on large pieces of land so you don´t feel like there are lots of people there. We land at the beach and walk up a slope. There are colonies of chinstrap penguins here, again squawking at us. There are also a few Gentoo penguins here but certainly more chinstraps than Gentoos. We decide to do the walk along the beach first. We´ve been told to stay off the high ground as there are nesting petrels there, which will dive bomb us if we get too close! We walk along the cliff side and head down to the beach where there is a group of resting elephant seals, so called for their elephant like nose. They are huge and can weigh over a tonne in weight. There are about 8 of them, all sleeping on top of each other trying to maintain body warmth. They are fascinating to watch. Every now and again they reshuffle their position and growl at each other. They also stink and they belch and fart constantly! In fact they are very funny to watch, (but not too close)! K

We wander further along the beach and stop to watch the antics of some
Gigantic Elephant seals on the beachGigantic Elephant seals on the beachGigantic Elephant seals on the beach

I can smell them from here
Gentoo penguins on some ice. There are some fossils for us to investigate and then we walk back the way we have come. There are 2 macaroni penguins hiding amongst the chinstraps so we had back to look at them. We sit and watch the penguins for a bit and look at the views out to sea. We finally have to go back to the ship but we´ve had a great morning.

Throughout lunch we sail through the South Shetlands. They are full of jagged mountains and magnificent glaciers - it makes for a stunning sight. We sail to Deception Island where we have to sail though the spectacularly narrow Neptune´s Bellow into the caldera. We´re out on deck to watch this, its not too scary until we can see a shipwrecked boat to one side, where it previously hit the rocks! Deception Island is the largest of 3 recently active volcanic centres in the South Shetlands. Its ring shaped and 9 miles in diameter. The centre is the caldera of an ancient volcano - effectively the hollow of a blown out volcano.

We catch the zodiac over to the beach. We´re led by Laurie along the beach where we hike to the top of a hill - to a point called the nipple! Its actually quite a difficult climb to over 250 metres when your wearing so many layers you start to swelter at the slightest effort but it was lovely to crunch through snow! Some parts are steep and icy and make for an interesting climb. A couple of the old people have attempted the climb and I´m quite impressed with them. We finally make it to the top with fantastic views of other islands and glaciers in the distance. On the way back down we decide its easier to slide down through the snow. Its good fun. However I bend over a little bit later and realise that I´ve managed to rip my water poof trousers. Ooops, especially as they are expensive. Kate has also ripped hers and so have a few other people who have had the same idea as us!

We walk back along the beach to dilapidated buildings. The area is know as Whalers Bay as it was used by whalers at the turn of the 20th century. There are dilapidated buildings and huge rusting boilers. You can walk into one of the boilers and sing - it makes you sound like an opera singer (supposedly!). Its strange to think that people lived here for so long. There is also an old British base here but it was abandoned in the 1960´s after a mudflow destroyed some of the buildings. Whaling around the South Shetlands and the Antarctic peninsula has depleted the stock to such an extent that only 5% of the original population now remains.

The zodiacs took us back to the boat where we had another huge evening meal. We sat in the Aft Saloon drinking wine & watching the sunset as we sailed on to the Antarctic continent ....

Additional photos below
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22nd March 2007

Looks Good!!!!
Well girls it looks and sounds a bloody fantastic trip, no wonder you said it was a special place to visit

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