Antarctic Cruise Part 3: Antarctica

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January 22nd 2016
Published: January 25th 2016
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The Antarctic Peninsula

Continued from Part 2...

Day 11:

Today is another full day at sea. South Georgia is quite a ways from mainland Antarctica, but the plan is to stop at the South Orkney Islands tomorrow. We sleep in till 10:30 and it feels amazing. After three straight days of waking up by 6:00 AM this is a much needed sleep-in day. It’s quite cloudy today and visibility isn’t so great so we use the day to go through pictures and read and whatnot. As I am reading Unbroken, the story of Louie Zamparini, I finally have some time to think about the Japanese treatment of POWs in WW2. It was disgusting, violating every international law for prisoners of war. I tell Nimarta that what the Nazis did was so horrible that people seem to forget about the war in the Pacific, and how awful that was too. But then I think about today, 70 years later, and everyone from these countries gets along as if nothing ever happened. Three of our new friends on the ship are German. We don’t talk about those things. We can’t blame the current generation for their father’s and grandfather’s mistakes. And that’s the way it should be.

During lunch we approach a monolithic iceberg. The crew measures it at 14 miles by 7 miles. That is one big chunk of ice! It’s on our left side and we spend nearly an hour and a half passing it. It is a sign that we are nearing Antarctic waters. Soon there will be icebergs everywhere. It’s also starting to get a lot colder outside. I walk outside for a minute in my sweatshirt and the wind blasts me and chills me to the bone. I can’t even imagine winter down here.

In the afternoon we are treated to a lecture about penguins from one of the passengers, who has written two books on penguins and is apparently obsessed with them. This guy is Israeli but has lived in Dallas for like 40 years. He still has a thick Israeli accent though, and we debate if he actually lives in Texas or not… Wherever he lives or however he makes his money (he has told us previously that “money is not an issue for me”) he does know quite a bit about penguins. He has travelled the southern hemisphere to see all 17 species of penguins. One thing I find interesting is he says that when the king penguin stretches his neck out at you it is actually a sign of aggression. He says they fight all the time and if we were actually in the colony itself we would see tons of fights. I only saw a few on South Georgia, but it seems logical.

After the lecture on penguins the Scottish crewmember, Bill, gives another talk on whaling in the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s another good look into how awful the lives were of these whalers. He tells us to imagine having to be outside on the deck right now for 12 hours straight (it’s firkin freeing right now) steering the boat and looking out for icebergs that could sink your little wooden boat at any minute. It sounds pretty terrible. Not as terrible as killing 60,000 blue whales, but pretty terrible.

Before dinner we are told that the plan for tomorrow is to land at the South Orkney Islands. The forecast is looking good and the staff is hopeful that everything will work out. They haven’t been to South Orkney in three years, as the weather is usually not suitable for landings. South Orkney is special because it is the first time we will see Antarctica. As defined by international law any land below 60 Degrees South is Antarctica. The island is a ways off the mainland and not actually part of the continent of Antarctica, but politically speaking it is Antarctica!

Day 12:

We make incredibly good cruising time and by the time we wake up we are almost at South Orkney. The skies are overcast but the clouds are high, allowing us to see the island and its snow and ice covered black mountains. The sea is incredibly calm too. Just after breakfast they make the announcement that we will be landing today on Antarctica! There is a small Argentinian research base on a flat part of the island and we will land there and get a tour by the staff. As we approach the island the ship has to fight its way through icebergs. The sea is full of ice now. It’s very early in summer so most of the ice has not melted yet. Little back figures dot some of the white and blue icebergs. Penguins!

We arrive on shore at about 11:00. We won’t have much time here, but really there is not much to explore, as the flat region is small and everything else is unforgiving ice covered mountain. The Argentinian researchers meets us as we exit the zodiacs. To my surprise, not a single one of them speaks any English. Luckily we have a few people on the cruise who speak Spanish and they act as translators. They tell us that this island has been occupied by this Argentine research base since 1905, when it was handed over from Scotland. They seem really proud of the fact that this place is run by Argentina and repeat it multiple times. Sounds like somebody is still a little bitter about the Falklands!

We get to check out a little museum and shop but other than that there is nothing to see inside the little buildings. The ground is covered in snow, save for a little bit of area that the snow has melted. It’s not a soft snow though, it’s an icy snow. Here on the beach we see our first adelie penguins. They look very similar to the gentoo but are all black and white. Seeing the black and white penguins makes me realize that everything here is black and white. There is no color other than the manmade buildings and the occasional blue iceberg. The mountains are black and grey. Even the water is grey, unlike the blue water we have been seeing most of the trip. Everything else is solid white. It’s completely overcast but sunglasses are still needed, as any sun that breaks through the clouds reflects off the white ground and burns your eyes. We see one gentoo penguin mixed in with the adelie and it gives some natural orange color to the landscape.

There are also a few random chinstrap penguins scattered about the shores of the island. These guys look very similar to adelies but they have a black line under their chin that looks like a chinstrap beard. They are also completely black and white, matching the barren landscape. This now means that we have seen every penguin that we have expected to see on this trip. The mighty emperor penguin is rarely seen by tourists, as they are not on the west side of the peninsula. There is always a chance we could run into one though.

There isn’t much else to do on this island – nowhere to walk – so I take in the scenery for a bit by sitting on the rocks in front of the penguins, icebergs and black mountains in the background. When the wind is not blowing it really isn’t that cold. It’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not freezing. I couldn’t imagine being here in winter, but for right now this isn’t too bad. The penguins waddle along the coast and soon it’s time to head back to the ship for lunch, our first landing in Antarctica complete.

As the ship cruises out of the way we stand on the bow and watch the icebergs float by. There seems to be a lot more ice now than there was this morning. Our expedition leader tells us that these icebergs drift with the winds and now that the wind has picked up it has blocked the path we used on the way in. So we have to meander around a few new bergs as we make our way out of the bay. Penguins are swimming in the water all around us as we cruise along. They seem to like being next to the boat. Maybe it’s a little game they play? Who knows, but they seem to be enjoying it.

A nap is in store for the afternoon and when we awake we notice that we still see land. This isn’t a new island but rather still South Orkney. We must be going really slow, right? If only that was the case. At dinner the captain comes down to explain to us what’s going on. We started heading southeast from South Orkney only to get blocked by some major ice. So instead of slowly passing through the ice they decided it was quicker to go all the way back around the island to the other side and head to the peninsula that way. So the land we seeing is the same land we saw this morning. We are going back around the island. Everyone is a bit taken back by this news. This is a major setback to our Antarctica Peninsula plans. All we can hope for is a fast moving pace through the sea tomorrow.

A headache has grounded me for the night. This is one of the driest places on earth and I have found that I am not drinking enough water. I get dehydrated very easily and dehydration for me always leads to headaches. To add to the headache it’s a bumpy night on the Southern Ocean. Sleep doesn’t come easily tonight and I notice that for the first time all trip the skies never go completely black. There is a mild twilight I can see through the windows even at 1:00 AM. We are really getting far south now.

Day 13:

We sleep in late and skip breakfast, which is OK since I’m not hungry at all, probably from the dehydration. There is a quick talk about Antarctica in the morning and one of the staff members goes over some interesting facts about the white continent. It’s crazy to think, but the highest mountain on Antarctica is nearly 17,000 feet. That’s higher than anything in the US outside of Alaska! It’s a very mountainous continent, but most of it is covered in a sheet of ice nearly 2000 meters thick, so only the really high mountains are visible. The mountain range that holds these really high peaks is in the center of the continent, however, so we won’t be able to see these. A second mountain range forms the peninsula, so this is what we will see.

Today is another full day at sea. With yesterday’s setback we are not scheduled to reach the mainland till tomorrow afternoon now. Time for a nice, relaxing day of resting. If only the seas would cooperate. The winds are very high today and the sea is the choppiest it has been the whole cruise. Walking on the ship is difficult in these conditions, but watching people stumble around provides some comic relief. We head up to the bridge to watch the waves crashing by. The ship is really bumping now. As the hull comes crashing down onto the water the water sprayed up from either side, sometime directly onto the front deck. No one is dumb enough to be outside in this. If someone was out on the front deck now they would probably be tossed overboard.

The choppy waters continue throughout the afternoon. The captain tells us that the winds ahead should be better and the sea should calm. This does happen eventually, but not until just before dinner time. It was a rough afternoon so we are thankful to eat dinner in more stable conditions. I get the salmon for dinner, but I can immediately tell it’s Atlantic salmon. After two years of eating king salmon from New Zealand (similar to Alaskan) the Atlantic counterpart is just not the same. I guess I have officially become a salmon snob now. All we are gonna get in the Netherlands is Atlantic salmon, though. Damn.

After dinner we hang out in the bar for a bit. Sunset is very late tonight and at around 10:00 we start to see some colors in the sky. At this latitude the sun takes a really long time to set. Tonight it will just go below the horizon for a bit before rising again. The sunset colors are a mix of red, orange, and yellow over a small patch of grey cloud son the horizon. It’s the first real sunset we have had the entire trip (it’s usually so cloudy). We hope this nice sunset will bring us good weather for tomorrow, when we hope to set foot on the Antarctic continent!

Day 14:

We skip breakfast again and decide to sleep in. This may be our new thing. By the time I get outside at 10:30 the sun is shining and I can see land. This land isn’t the mainland yet, it’s still one of the islands. But it’s really close to the mainland. Soon we will be able to see the Antarctic continent! As we sail on the skies get even clearer. Our guides tell us that this is pretty special. One of the German guides, Sandra, has been to Antarctica several times and only seen blue skies once. The expedition leader tells whoever is praying to the weather guards to keep up the prayers.

Coming through the channel the ship has to slow down due to all the icebergs and sea ice. After lunch we go out to the front deck and we finally see Antarctica! We have been on this boat nearly two weeks now and the cultivation of our amazing journey is right in front of us. Even though we have set foot on South Orkney, which is politically speaking part of Antarctica, you can’t say you have been to Antarctica unless you set foot on the mainland. And that is the plan for this afternoon.

As we cruise towards a place called Brown Bluff we pass little icebergs covered with penguins. We also see tons on penguins swimming in the water. It’s hard to put a definitive on the species but they are most likely adelie, since the guides have told us that Brown Bluff has a big colony of adelie penguins. Soon we are dropping anchor and getting ready to land at the northern tip of Antarctica. Once again we are on the first zodiac to hit the sea. The water is unbelievably calm. There is not a single ripple in the sea, not a single gust of wind. The sky is mostly blue now as well, giving us sunny views of the mountains. It’s really not even that cold either. For Antarctica, this is pretty much as good as the weather gets. We consider ourselves fortunate.

As we exit the zodiac we celebrate our landing on Antarctica. While this may not be our 7th continent (still need to do Africa) this is by far the most difficult continent to conquer. Not a whole lot of people get to say they have been to Antarctica. The International Antarctic Tourism Department says approximately 30,000 people a year take cruises to Antarctica but not all of them get to set foot on land. Still, 30,000 people a year is not that many, when you consider that more than 30,000 people a day exit planes in Tokyo or Bangkok or New York. We feel very blessed to be here on this barren land, far from civilization, a place that nature still dominates and won’t relinquish control to humans.

Now, you may be thinking that we are landing on a giant sheet of ice. Well that’s not the case. While most of Antarctica is covered in ice (like 99%) there are some rocky beaches that are accessible by small boat. So that’s where we are now, a small rocky beach between two giant ice fields. Brown Bluff is actually the name of the mountain right in front of us now. It’s a dormant volcano and the top of the mountain is flat, like a plateau, clearly the result of a volcanic eruption some million years ago or so. And the mountain even has some color. Brick red and, obviously, brown, make up the side of the volcano. It’s a stark contrast to the solely black and white we saw at South Orkney. Take away the snow and ice and you’d think you were somewhere in the American Southwest – if the southwest had thousands of penguins.

There is a huge adelie penguin colony here. We can see it in the distance, not too far away. There are also some breeding gentoos nearby. Gentoos don’t do huge colonies, they just do small villages. Adelies and gentoos are very similar so they mix together quite a bit. The way to tell them apart is that the gentoo has an orange beak. Penguins are wandering around everywhere on the beach and in the hills. They are not too taken back by our presence but seem to be making extra calls, maybe to warn their friends that we are coming. The adelie penguins seem to run when they move, unlike all the other penguins we see who walk incredibly awkwardly.

As we approach the colony we see the extent of this massive cluster of penguins. It’s not quite the king penguin colony at St. Andrew’s Bay, but there must be at least 100,000-150,000 adelie penguins here. Little black and white dots (penguins) extend as far as the eye can see. We can’t walk through them so we will have to observe them from the edge of the colony here. It’s baby season and just about every pair of penguins has a chick, sometimes two. This is more baby penguins than we have seen anywhere else so far. It’s like going to a one-year-old’s birthday party.

After observing the colony for a while we decide to turn our attention to the rocks on the beach, where many groups of stragglers are chilling, either on their way back from a swim or on their way out to swim. The sea is full of penguins jumping in and out of the water. We find a dry spot on a rock and sit down to observe the penguins. Right away we are greeted with lots of activity. The penguins hop from rock to rock and stare us down when they hop onto our rock. Then they jump in the water and go out to sea, or if they are on their way back, the hop off to the beach. The ones on their way back from swimming are the funniest. They move through the water so fast that when they jump onto a rock (or an iceberg) it’s just one solid motion, like they are swimming through the air. And this is what happens constantly in front of us. We see some movement in the water then all of a sudden a little penguin is staring us down, shaking off the water from his body. It happens so fast you barely have time to react. One of them scurries on just as soon as he jumps out of the water and we find his motions particularly hilarious. I have a good video of it if anyone would like to see it.

After being entertained by the penguins on the rocks for a bit we head back to the colony to see if anything is going on now. It’s more of the same – hooting and hollering and mom’s feeding babies – but I do see my very first egg. One of the penguins stands up a straight and I see a little yellow egg under her. It’s just for a moment and then she lays back down on her belly. This is when I realize that all the penguins lying on their bellies are most likely incubating eggs. The ones with chicks do not lie on their bellies. After two weeks on this cruise I’m basically a penguin expert now.

Nimarta wants to hang around and take pictures of baby penguins but I am intrigued by some of the ice to the left of where we landed on the beach, so I head off on my own and scramble across some volcanic rocks to a little beach with a glacier melting right beside me. Though I’m not really sure if it’s a glacier or not. Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, but does that make it a glacier? Something to check on. Either way, I pass the end of the melting ice and see a mountain of ice before me. Ahead on the ice mountain are three wandering albatrosses, the largest species of albatross. There are a few random penguins scattered about the ice as well. This is more what I was picturing Antarctica to be like – penguins on ice!

I know that trying to go up this ice mountain would be incredibly stupid, so I don’t even try. I do walk up it for about 5 steps just to get a good picture, but turn around before getting to where the ice is deep. I say ice, but it’s really more like icy snow here. One wrong step and you could fall in a crevasse and get stuck. This is one of the reasons why they don’t want you wandering off on your own here. I see a few penguins crossing the ice mountain but I leave the hiking to them. Down on the rocks by the shore there are some crabeater seals. They are bigger than fur seals, but smaller than elephant seals, and they don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about me being there. I pass the seals to get a view of what I came over here to see. There is a cove completely formed by a giant ice wall. The cliff must be 40-50 meters high. It is rounded to form a nice cove and shine in the sunlight with a hint of blue. It’s quite a spectacular sight and I am glad that I wandered off to find this beautiful area.

Back at the landing site I grab an earlier boat back than Nimarta, who is still taking pictures of penguins. You cannot urinate on Antarctica – only in actual bathrooms at occupied bases – so if you have to pee you have to go back to the ship. I have to go pretty bad, but I can hold it a while. I’m still on the second to last zodiac back to the ship, so I’m not really missing anything. When Nimarta comes back and takes her boots off a wave of water pours out. “What the hell happened!?” I ask. Apparently she tried to come find me on the other side of the rocks but tried to walk around the rocks instead of over them and got into water a bit too deep for her boots. Her feet and boots are soaked through. Whoops.

Dinner is delayed a bit as we got to the mainland a bit later than anticipated. At around 8:00 the sun comes shining through the windows of the restaurant. Tonight may be the shortest night we have on the whole cruise. We are pretty far south now, about 63 degrees, only 3 degrees of longitude (about 200 miles) from the Antarctic Circle. So image somewhere near Denali National Park in Alaska for a comparison. Plus it’s only 8 days after the summer solstice. The moral of the story is that it’s not going to get dark tonight. The sun will set but the skies will never go dark, as a twilight will last for about an hour or two at the wee hours of the morning. I am in the bar till about 11:30 and before going to the room I go out on deck. The skies are a mix of blue and red/yellow from the sunset. It’s still daylight.

Day 15:

Today we wake up in the South Shetland Islands. These are some Antarctic Islands just off the coast of the peninsula. The cruise has chosen to go here instead of heading further down the peninsula because apparently landings are difficult on the peninsula, and from where we were yesterday, there is nowhere accessible to land for nearly 200 miles down the coast. That, and they consider these islands more beautiful and better for wildlife. Once again, we are in Antarctica, but we are not really on the continent. Whatever the case, I pop outside for a view and it is nothing short of amazing. We are at a place called Half Moon Bay, and there is land all around us, just one little inlet allowing the ship to pass. It seems like even more of a half moon. Rugged mountains and ice dot the landscape. We even have more sunlight this morning. Our luck with the weather down here has really been amazing.

We decide to finally have breakfast today and afterwards we prepare to go ashore. There is a colony of chinstrap penguins here, the only ones we have not seen in numbers yet. Contrary to most landings, we are on the very last zodiac to hit the water this morning, thanks to the sunglasses fiasco (that’s a whole other story!). But we still will have plenty of time to walk around and explore. Some chinstraps greet us as we land on a black pebbled beach. There is a snow covered hill right behind the beach and we head up there for a view of the mountains beyond. It’s a gorgeous view across another body of water to jagged black and white mountain peaks. The chinstrap penguins in the foreground provide scale and contrast for our pictures.

Instead of heading to the penguin colony today we first decide to wander the other way to get some good views and check out some random Weddle seals. There is a little path carved into the snow for people to walk on. If you go off path you may end up stepping down through two feet of snow. It’s impossible to tell how deep the snow is (again, it’s very hard, icy snow) so with each step you just hope it’s compact enough to hold your weight. Down by the shore again we can see icy mountains just in front of us on the next island over. Many peaks are visible, but there must be some hidden under the ice. While I’m standing watching the seals I notice a large piece of driftwood to my left. But wait a minute, this is Antarctica, there are no trees here. Where the hell did a piece of driftwood come from? Then I realize it’s not a log at all; it’s a whale bone. It looks like a log, even so much that it has what seems to be bark peeling off of it. Apparently this is just how the bones decay. I am standing on a huge jaw bone from a whale, species unknown. It’s hard to fathom just how big these creatures are.

Back up the hill we head for the penguin colony. By now it is starting to get hot. The sun is blaring down, reflecting off the snow, and there is no wind at all. It’s like a nice summer day in Wellington. I have already shed my big coat and with just a T-shirt and a long-sleeve polyester shirt I am starting to sweat. I decide to take the polyester shirt off and now I am just wearing a T-shirt in Antarctica. And it feels damn good! We ditch out backpack and jackets and decide to head to the penguin colony with nothing weighing us down.

The chinstrap penguins apparently like rocks. The landscape here is composed of medium-sized boulders that come together to form dramatic rock sculptures. And the penguins are all over this place, sitting on eggs or nesting baby chicks. They hoot and holler, as all penguins do, but don’t seem too bothered by us. We climb up a little rocky hill and get a good view of the sea and the ship. But all of a sudden the weather starts to turn. The sun is now completely blocked by clouds and the wind has started to blow. So much for my T-shirt idea. It’s still not too bad, but a jacket would be nice right about now to protect me from the wind. Luckily for me our time is nearly up and we have to head back to the landing spot. But not before we spot the lone macaroni penguin. Why this guy is here in the middle of a giant chinstrap colony nobody knows. We theorize that he got lost as a child and was raised by chinstraps. So maybe he is accepted as one of the chinstraps. His spikey yellow hair sure sets him apart in the crowd, though.

The jacket that made me so hot earlier feels good as my arms are finally protected from the wind, which has picked up considerably. We take the last zodiac back to the ship in time for a little rest before lunch. This afternoon the plan is to land on Deception Island. This is a small volcanic caldera that formed a ring-shaped island with an eruption a few hundred years ago (or something like that). It has been used as a whaling station, a scientific research center, and an airport, but it currently used as nothing but a tourist attraction. With nearly 20,000 visitors a year this is the most visited of all the places in Antarctica. It is not known for its penguins, but rather for its volcanic landscape and geothermal activity. Here the water can either be freezing cold (normal) or hot from the geothermal forces. It’s just a matter of what’s happening when you visit. Here we are given the chance to go for the Polar Plunge, not knowing beforehand just how cold or hot it is going to be. We figure we may never get this chance again so let’s go for it!

The ship sails into the caldera just before 4:00 and we are in the zodiacs by 4:20. It’s a strikingly different landscape from this morning. There are no jagged peaks, just gradual mountains slightly covered in ice, clearly due to the volcanic activity. As we approach the shore we smell the sulfur. The beach is smoking – it reminds me of Yellowstone or Rotorua. There are no boiling lakes but the water flowing into the sea is incredibly hot. Even the first little bit of sea water on the beach is hot. Just after that, though, the water becomes nearly freezing again. The guides tell us that the water is most likely around 2 degrees Celsius. Going in this water is gonna be damn cold. That is for later, though. For now it’s off to a little crack in the mountains called Neptune’s Saddle.

We pass a few chinstrap penguins on the beach as we walk along. I wasn’t expecting to see any penguins here due to the volcanic activity, not exactly the best place for raising chicks. There are no breeding pairs here, but some stragglers have found their way here and are chilling on the beach. They don’t look concerned by the fact that the ground below them is nearly boiling hot. This beach is a bit different than most beaches we have been on so far. This one actually has sand. It’s black, volcanic sand, as you would expect, but sand nonetheless. We spot a few Weddle seals chilling on a snow patch on our way up to the ridge.

It’s a little hike but we are rewarded with great views when we get there. From here we can see the mainland. The peninsula is in the distance. We have been told that you can see it from here on clear days. Most people, however, do not get to see it since it’s usually so cloudy. We really have been lucky with the weather. We can see icy mountains across the water. We will head that way tomorrow, but for now we just enjoy the view. Right below us is a little cove that has a little black sand beach. It looks like some sort of secluded private beach. If only the water wasn’t so damn cold!

Back at the landing spot it’s time for the Polar Plunge! A young English couple is the first in. It looks damn cold. A few more take the plunge and then it’s our turn. Stripped down to my shorts it’s really not cold at all. I feel remarkably content. This is mainly because there is no wind and the sun is shining – a rare occurrence in Antarctica. Either way, this feels pretty damn good. Nimarta and I grab hands and go running into the water. After the first step the freezing sensation is hard to ignore. I have never felt anything like this before. I have taken ice baths for injuries but this is something else. I get down to my neck in the water and the chilling sensation has already set in. I can only handle a few seconds before running back to the shore and sitting in the hot geothermal water at the ocean’s edge. Good god that was cold. I cannot imagine falling off a boat into the ocean here. I have never felt anything so cold in my life! It is exhilarating though. Nimarta enjoys it so much she goes in two more times and the fourth time makes me go in again to get better pictures. It’s even colder the second time. It was fun to do, but never again!

We wave goodbye to Deception Island knowing that we only have one more chance to set foot on Antarctica tomorrow. The trip is coming to an end and it’s beginning to get a bit sad. As glad as I will be to finally get off this boat and out of this little cabin I still want the cruise to be longer, to see more things. We have seen and experienced so much in the last two weeks, but this place leaves you wanting more. The sun doesn’t really set tonight. The ship stops for a while around 10:00 because there are some whales nearby. We see whales every day but this is the closest one has been to the ship, maybe 30 meters off the starboard side. There are a few other swimming about and everyone runs outside to take pictures. The water is so still that you can almost see the whale through the water. There is no wind whatsoever, a rare thing in this part of the world. The sun is obscured by clouds but it is still incredibly light out. I haven’t seen anything like this since a few summers ago in Alaska. I like it.

Day 16:

New Year’s Eve gets off to a good start. It is very sunny and the blue skies mean excellent visibility. We are at Trinity Island, just off the peninsula. This is the farthest south we will go, and therefore the furthest south I have ever been. Like I said it’s very sunny, but we finally get a sense of Antarctic weather with the wind. It is quite cold this morning and the wind is whipping. It’s not too strong so we are able to load the zodiacs with no problems. They can only take half of us ashore here at a time, so we will only get an hour or so on land. Apparently there is not much space to walk around so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

We are on the first zodiac again and we set foot on Antarctica for the last time. There are hundreds of gentoo penguins here, along with an old red building with an Argentine flag painted on it and some ruins of old oil barrels. Some of the penguins have made their nests around the old barrels. It’s sort of disturbing. The area we are at is covered in penguin poop. It stains the snow red. As mentioned before, gentoos live in small gatherings instead of one big colony. As this island is covered in a thick layer of hard snow they have created paths between their “villages.” I deem them “Gentoo Highways.” The paths are like little trenches in the snow where the snow has been compacted and stained red with poo. As I look around the penguins are constantly travelling down the highways.

There are also two Weddle seals hanging out by the shore. These Weddle seals don’t seem to do anything, though. The fur and elephant seals on South Georgia were much more interesting. The wind is really starting to pick up now. This is more like what Antarctica is supposed to feel like. Not T-shirt weather! I have two layers of gloves on and my fingers are still cold. I can’t imagine how cold it would feel without the sun, which shines down on us and reflects off the snow. We have been so lucky with the weather on this trip. The guides say they have never had a trip like this before. It’s nice to feel some real Antarctic weather for a change, I suppose.

Before we know it our hour on the island is over. They were planning on taking us on a zodiac cruise but now that the wind has picked up that has been cancelled and they need to get us back to the ship so the other group can have their landing. And just like that we say goodbye to Antarctica. The next time we will set foot on land will be back in Ushuaia. We didn’t spend too long on the frozen continent but it was enough to fall in love with the place and experience it in all its majesty. It is truly a unique place.

Back on the ship we watch as we meander through icebergs and islands on our way out to the Drake Passage, which will take us back to Argentina. This is the last chance we will have to view Antarctica from the ship so we spend some time outside saying our final goodbyes. This may be the last time we ever see Antarctica. If not, it will be quite a long time before we return. And who knows, it may not look the same in the future.

After lunch we decide a long nap is needed. It’s New Year’s Eve and if we are gonna make it to midnight we will need some more sleep. Before we lay down I place a liter of Beagle Red (craft beer from Ushuaia) outside to chill. Three hours later I go outside to find a nice cold bottle of beer. Who needs refrigerators when you are in Antarctica!? We toast to 2015 in our room and share the liter of beer before the daily recap at 6:00. The New Year’s celebration will actually be at 10:00 tonight. They do this because most of the ship is of the older generation and they probably won’t be up at midnight. That, and since we are on a boat they figure they can pick any time zone to celebrate with.

New Year’s Eve dinner is nothing too special but we get an extra soup and another big package of Austrian chocolate. They are really trying to fatten us up. And they have been successful. I have gained at least 10 pounds on this trip, most likely more. This is what happens when you combine buffet meals, desserts, and no opportunity to do any exercise at all. Time for the starvation diet when we get back to South America!

After dinner we have a glass of wine in the room then go up to the bar for the celebration. They have decorated the bar in New Year’s decorations and they have champagne toasts ready. We even get to keep the champagne glass, as it’s embroidered with “Happy New Year mv Ortelius 2015/2016.” Not sure what we will do with it the rest of the trip but it’s a cool gift. The clock strikes 10:00 and it is our official Ortelius New Year’s! Everyone cheers and hugs and downs their champagne. What a way to ring in the new year, on a boat in the middle of the Southern Ocean just north or Antarctica!

2015 was a big year for us. Not only did we get married, but we left New Zealand to travel for four months before moving to the Netherlands for a new job. We saw friends and family that we hadn’t seen in years. We drove all around New Zealand and Australia and saw some amazing places and natural wonders. We started 2015 in Las Vegas and now we finish it off in Antarctica. It’s a fitting way to end the best year of our lives so far, though we know the best is yet to come. We have plenty of things to look forward to in 2016 and it is off to a good start.

Up in the bar it is pretty dead by 11:00. Good thing they did the celebration early. We want to stay till the actual New Year in our time zone, though. The staff has their own little party downstairs that we are not invited to. It’s just eight of us – our usual group we hang out with on the ship – left now. Just before midnight we decide to go outside and spend New Year’s at the bow of the ship. It’s not too cold. We pose for some pictures and at midnight sharp the Captain honks the horn for us, as he can clearly see us on the ship. It’s kind of dark but not totally dark. It’s the first NYE I have had with a little bit of natural light, that’s for sure We cheer and celebrate again the official New Year’s for where we are in the world. 2016 is officially here. Back at the bar we play a few games before calling it a night. The first day of 2016 will begin with a hangover.

Day 17:

Sure enough, New Year’s Day starts with a hangover. I drank quite a bit and Nimarta drank enough to have a decent headache. Luckily there is nothing to do on the ship today. There are a few lectures planned that we can miss. We finally rise just before noon to get ready for lunch. Eating feels good but we are both still exhausted. After lunch it’s right back to bed for a nap. We watch and episode of Fargo and pass out. This is how are days are now after heavy drinking now that we are 31. We just can’t do it anymore unless we have the entire day to waste the next day. Luckily today falls into that category. We lay around all afternoon then I go upstairs for the daily recap, which is more of a question and answer session today. Some of the questions and answers are pretty funny and it goes on a bit past 7:00. Then just like that it is dinner time. A day wasted lying in bed. It felt good to just lay around doing nothing though!

I’m still not feeling too hot after dinner so I retire back to the room to lay in bed. Nimarta goes up to the bar for a bit but doesn’t last too long. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Day 18:

It’s our last day on the ship. It’s been well over two weeks now and this cabin is starting to feel like home. I have never spent this long in the same room before (with the exception of my own house obviously). I think the most I have ever spent in a single hotel room or guesthouse is one week. Even driving around Australia we didn’t spend this many nights sleeping in the van. It feels weird that we have to pack all our stuff up today. Tonight is our last night. It will be an emotional goodbye to Ortelius and the crew.

I decide to finally get some breakfast today but Nimarta sleeps in. There isn’t a whole lot going on today either. There are a few lectures and we have to settle our bar bill and return our boots and things like that. Mostly we will just have to pack up and be ready to go tomorrow. It’s foggy as hell outside so there is nothing to see. They wanted to cruise by Cape Horn, the very southern tip of South America today, but if conditions remain like this there will be no point, as we cannot get off the ship there and there is absolutely no visibility today.

By lunchtime the weather has improved and they tell us we are nearing Cape Horn. This is a famous place because back before the Panama Canal every ship going from ocean to ocean had to sail around here. Needless to say there were plenty of wrecks. It’s actually just a series of islands that make up a national park in Chile. For some reason the Chilean government doesn’t let you get within 12 miles of the islands, but they grant us three miles for today. It wouldn’t have really mattered anyways, as the clouds have come back in force and we can barely see land at all. It was a nice thought.

From here we head north back towards the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia. We hand in our boots and life jackets, settle our bar tab, which was not much compared to the young British couple who ran up an 800 Euro tab. At 6:30 everyone gathers in the bar for the Captain’s last toast. He doesn’t say much, but he says that this is usually the time where he is explaining to everyone about how he can’t control the weather in the Southern Ocean and apologizing for not being able to go everywhere he wanted to go. But this time there is nothing to apologize for. The trip went as perfect as any Antarctic cruise has ever gone. We only missed out on a landing once, and that was because there were too many fur seals on the beach. We had a few zodiac cruises cut short, but I’m not too concerned about that.

Day 19:

Breakfast is our last meal onboard the Ortelius. We got delayed bit overnight but we are now approaching Ushuaia. Civilization is calling. We step off the ship just before 9:00, saying our goodbyes to the crew and thanking them for an amazing journey. We didn’t know what to expect when we boarded this ship 19 days ago but it’s safe to say that whatever expectations we had they were surely exceeded. A lot of this was probably do to the incredibly lucky weather we got, but a big thanks is needed for Oceanwide Expeditions and their staff and crew.

Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic Islands are truly special places. There is nothing else like this in the world. Similar landscapes dot the Arctic Ocean, but the wildlife is vastly different. Polar bears and penguins cannot coexist. Being able to experience these places has left us feeling very lucky and blessed. As I’ve mentioned, only about 30,000 tourists come to Antarctica a year, and far less to South Georgia Island. This is something that Nimarta and I have always wanted to do, even before we met, and the sense of accomplishment from doing it is remarkable.

I cannot say enough about our experience on this cruise. For an avid traveler and someone with a sense of adventure it is the perfect vacation. Of course, it is expensive and requires considerable saving and most likely sacrificing other things. But we feel confident that it is worth it. It is possible to go to Antarctica for about $4000, but we highly recommend the whole South Georgia cruise. This is something that will live on in our memories as probably the most interesting and fascinating thing we have ever done, definitely at the top of all our vacation experiences. We hope to be able to return to the White Continent one day, maybe in retirement. We just hope it hasn’t all melted away by that time :P


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