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Published: December 27th 2007
Day 0-1: Ushuaia: Gateway to Antarctica
Our Antarctica trip has been booked for a good few months, but we've had little time to think about it what with travelling around Argentina. Until now. As the plane left El Calafate airport and crossed Tierra del Fuego towards the world's most southern city, Ushuaia, the excitement started building. There's plenty to see and do in Ushuaia but we decided to postpone all that until after Antarctica, when we would be spending another 6 days here. That first night we stayed in Hotel Albatross, a 4 star hotel included as part of our trip, and the first 4 star hotel in Argentina, giving us a nice break from all the hostels. The following morning we met up with our fellow passengers for the first time over breakfast. We weren't boarding until 4 pm but Quark had organised a day out for us in Tierra del Fuego National park, and lunch at a restaurant in Ushuaia. This all passed fine, but it wasn't till 4 pm when we boarded the ship that we really feel like the journey was beginning.
We were welcomed on board the Lyubov Orlova by the crew and expedition staff
Rocky Drake Passage
We had a difficult time crossing the infamous Drake Passage. The boat rocked up and down and from side ot side for almost 2 days.
and shown to our cabin and given time to explore the ship. That evening we had a welcome briefing from the expedition team, attended the captain's cocktail party, and went for our welcome dinner. "Welcome feast" is a more accurate description of our meal as we had a 5 or 6 course meal. Little did I know that every meal to come would be that big. Day 2-3: The fun begins on the Drake Passage
The Drake Passage is a rite of passage for every Antarctic passenger. It's one of the roughest seas in the world. A huge volume of water surrounds the Antarctic continent and is carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar current around the continent. The Drake Passage is the narrowest point between Antarctica and any other continent, hence the very rough seas. We entered the Drake at about midnight on our first day on the ship, though Dr. Phil, the ship's doctor, had forewarned us that the crossing might be tough so many people took their sea-sickness tablets well in advance. I've never suffered from sea-sickness in the past, but then again I've never crossed anything like the Drake. It was very difficult to sleep both from
Seeing our first Iceberg was a great experience.
the excitement of being on board and from the rocking to and fro of the ship. It reminded me of being on a pirate-ship at funfairs. A pirate ship that didn't stop. Not surprisingly, there were many empty chairs at breakfast the next morning.
The long crossing of the Drake gave us a chance to meet other passengers. There were 110 of us on board, mostly from the USA, but all from what would be called first world countries. The only South Americans on board were in the crew. It was a good mix, ranging in age from 10 to 80, with an average of somewhere around 45 I'd guess. We spent much of our time and became good friends with Mike and Margo from UK, and Sabine & Benis from Germany.
The captain and all his staff were Russian, as were most of the dining room staff. Our expedition staff consisted of an expedition leader and deputy, a historian, an ornithologist, a glaciologist, a marine biologist and a couple of zodiac drivers. The Drake crossing was also a good time to meet the experts as most lectures took place in this time. The ornithologist, Nigel, in particular
I am King
How this "geographically challenged penguin", as our ornithologist described him, ended up in the South Shetlands was something of a mystery.
was a good speaker and having spent seven summers and four winters on Antarctic bases, he had many interesting anecdotes.
On the afternoon of Day 3 the seas became much calmer as we neared the end of the Drake Passage. We spotted our first icebergs, tabular bergs which, our glaciologist informed us, had broken off from the Ross Sea ice-shelf. After what happened to Explorer last month everyone was a bit worried about ice, but when we saw these bergs it was the beauty more than the potential danger that impressed itself on our minds! We left the Drake much to everyone's relief and soon spotted our first Antarctica lands in the form of the South Shetland Islands. Our expedition staff announced there would be a landing later that evening, and the sense of anticipation at dinner was palpable.
Our landings were done on small boats called zodiacs which are designed for fast and efficient travel through the Antarctic seas. What a sight greeted us as we approached Barrientos Island: a whole colony of gentoo penguins. One of the things I was most looking forward to on our trip was seeing penguins and what a sight it was.
I think this one is a Kelp Gull.
Penguins everywhere! The two species on Barrientos are gentoos and chinstraps, and they were everywhere. But an even bigger surprise awaited us after we came ashore. In the middle of the gentoo colony was a solitary King penguin, easily recognisable by his lovely colour and his height. The nearest King Penguin colony is in South Georgia so how this guy got here is a bit of a mystery. We later learned from Nigel, the expedition's ornithologist, that this was the first King he had ever seen in the South Shetland Islands. What a privilege! We took photos as if penguins were going out of fashion, little knowing that we'd see thousands of them in the days to come. The landing lasted 3 hours and we stayed out till the very last zodiac. On the trip back to the boat we caught a quick glimpse of a leopard seal on an ice-berg. Seeing all this wildlife in just a couple of hours was so exciting and just too much to take in!
On a more serious note, many of the passengers seemed to have ignored the advice about keeping a 5 metre distance from the penguins and not walking in
After my Polar Plunge
A few seconds later I was turning blue with the cold!
their paths. These paths are used to connect the nests to the sea, and by blocking them, or walking in them you can scare the penguins, make the paths too steep to walk in, or even put the chicks in danger. One passenger just stood in the path waiting for the penguin to walk to him. Another lady used the path to climb a hill. We had been warned not to do this in our pre-landing lecture so what exactly was going on in these people's minds is a mystery to me. I noticed the paths on the island were in a bit of a state after we left and I wondered had we left too much of a mess. Though I later learned that many of the staff would stay behind to fix up these paths once the passengers had left. I really think more warnings should have been given to those passengers. Day 4: South Shetland Islands and Deception Island
Our second landing the following morning was also in the South Shetlands on Half Moon Island, named for its crescent shape. The island is home to a large number of chin-strap penguins, many of whom were waiting
The chinstraps are very inquisitive. They take their time returning to their nests and will often stare at you for a long time.
close to our landing spot, as if to welcome us. All penguins are great but the chin straps are especially cute. Like most penguins they spend a lot of time hopping and sliding, but the chinstraps seem to fall over more than the others. They are also very inquisitive and will often stop and just stare into space. Half Moon Island was also home to many other Antarctic birds such as Antarctic Petrels and Kelp Gulls, and thanks to Nigel's excellent lecture we were getting good at spotting these. Just before we left Nigel spotted a Macaroni penguin, rarely seen in these parts. It was right in the middle of a cliff top gentoo colony, so we couldn't get too close. But that meant we'd seen four penguin species in only two landings.
Our afternoon trip saw us land in Deception Island, a volcanic island, whose crater forms a harbour. The entrance is very narrow and it's a difficult enough place to land. The sea was very rough so it wasn't until the last minute that the landing was announced. On a previous trip the Orlova had grounded in this very harbour so it was great that they chose
Penguin caught by a Leopard Seal
Penguin lovers look away! One unfortunate gentoo penguin didn't make it back to land. If you look closely you can see the gentoo in the jaws of the leopard seal.
to go ahead with the landing.
By travelling to Antarctica we were joining a very exclusive club. Though the number of visitors is increasing it's by far the least visited continent and from looking at the numbers I would estimate fewer than 250,000 have visited. Another exclusive club is the seven continents club and quark had organised a photo for all those travellers on the expedition who had reached their seventh. I didn't qualify as I still haven't been east of Bulgaria though that afternoon on Deception Island I did join an even more exclusive club: the Polar Plunge club, consisting of those who have swam in Antarctic waters. Occasionally the waters around Deception Island are heated by volcanic springs. Not on this day. However, the idea of going in the water had already been planted in our minds so many people were prepared. I was wearing thermals, 5 layers on top including a parka, 3 pairs of socks plus hat, scarf and gloves - so it wasn't warm out! I quickly undressed and ran as fast as I could to the water, jumped in and thought this wasn't too bad. Then the cold hit and I got out
This agressive leopard seal didn't like us on his territory. He attacked the boat and chased us until we'd left his area. Leopard Seals look clumsy on land but they move incredibly fast in the water.
of there as quickly as possible. Quark even gave us a certificate recognising our achievement or perhaps questioning our sanity! Day 5: Danco Island and the mainland
Later that evening we left Deception and crossed towards the Antarctic Peninsula via the Bransfield Strait. This was worse than the Drake Passage crossing and I did come close to sea-sickness. By 4 am it had all calmed down and the following morning we were in the calm waters off the peninsula. Our landing was on tiny Danco Island where I had the chance to climb my first Antarctic mountain. It was more of a hill really but still it felt great to reach the summit. Not too many had made the summit and I remember walking a short distance away to find a quiet spot to listen to the silence of Antarctica. No people, no penguins, no sounds, nothing except the ice and the glaciers. It's the silence of Antarctica that's very special and I think this is probably my favourite memory.
Down at the shore things were a little noisier as an aggressive leopard seal was patrolling the water. We tobogganed down the mountain and arrived just in time
Attending a penguin convention!
to see a horrible though spectacular site. A gentoo penguin was in the water trying to get ashore. Right behind him was the leopard seal. The poor penguin had little option but to jump on the ledge but it was too high for him and he was caught in the jaws of the seal. Watching nature in action isn't always a happy experience! This leopard seal was very aggressive and chased all the zodiacs out of his territory. Our zodiac drivers warned us not to dip hands in the water!
Our first three landings had been on islands but that afternoon we landed on the mainland proper when we visited Almirante Brown, an old Argentinian base. We climbed another peak from where we had excellent views around the area. We also had more chance to toboggan down this mountain. Great fun! A perfect day was rounded off that evening when we had a barbecue out on deck - something of a tradition on Antarctica cruises. Day 6:Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island & Port Lockroy
Cruises are often thought of as relaxing but we'd barely had a minute to ourselves so far. And so it continued today as we were
awoken at 6am for breakfast. The early call was so we could observe the Lemaire channel, one of the finest sights in the peninsula. We entered the channel at 7am and it was a indeed a beautiful spot. There was a landing in Petermann island inside the channel where we saw a small colony of Adelie penguins. This was also our furhtest point south. We had reached just over 65 degrees meaning we were about 40 miles short of the Antarctic Circle and 1580 north of the South Pole.
Later that day we landed in the most visited sight in Antarctica. Port Lockroy, a former British base, where there is a museum, a post office and a gift shop. The place is run by three Brits who spend four months down here every summer. As ships call in almost every day they do get busy. Port Lockroy looked quite romantic in the snow, and I started thinking about applying for a job next summer. The staff came on board the Orlova that evening for dinner and gave a talk about the island and its importance in Antarctic history. Day 7: Neko Harbour, whale watching and a final zodiac
Asado on Deck
One of the highlights of our cruise was the barbecue on deck. In the picture is Martin, one of the five chefs on board.
Our last day on the Antarctic Peninsula brought us the one thing we'd been missing - blue skies and sunshine! Antarctica looks great in any season but when the sun comes out it's especially beautiful. Our landing lasted three hours yet we did little more than climb a hill and just gaze at the views. Snow capped mountains, glaciers, penguins everywhere, topped off with blue skies and sunshine - it doesn't get better than this.
In the afternoon instead of doing another landing we went whale spotting and followed a pair of humpback whales near the Melkior Channel. This was far better than the previous whale watching we'd done in Peninsula Valdes. For some reason whales are attracted to the big ships so they spend a long time circling.
The day ended with a cruise around the Melkior Islands after dinner. We were on the last cruise out at 10.30 pm and the conditions were perfect. Late evening in Antarctica is always nice as the falling sun leaves lovely colours in the sky. We still had two more days on the seas but this felt like the end in many ways as we would be crossing the
convergence later that night and leaving Antarctica behind. Life Aboard Ship
The main reason for going to Antarctica is to see the wildlife and do the landings but another enjoyable aspect to our trip was cruising on the ship. The Orlova is a relatively small vessel but despite having 105 passengers, crew, and an expedition team it never felt too crowded. Once on the peninsula most of our time was spent on landings but there was still time for a daily debrief every evening when our expedition leader would say a few words, and each of the specialists would speak.
Crossing and recrossing the Drake Passage took 4 days and there were no landings for this so we had up to 4 lectures a day. I went to most of these and learned about subjects as diverse as the Antarctic Treaty, Marine Biology, Plate Tectonics and, of course, penguins. Our best speaker was Nigel Melius, the ornithologist. His informative lectures were well attended, but his best skill was in transferring his interest in birds onto us. On our return across the Drake I spent a lot of time out on deck with binoculars, camera and guide-book trying
It's quite surprising to find a museum and post office in Antarctica. The penguins seem to like the hut as they build their nests all around it.
to spot the birds. And it worked as I was the first to spot a Wandering Albatross on Day 9. Other than attending lectures we watched movies with an Antarctic theme (Shackleton, Happy Feet, March of the Penguins) and played a lot of UNO. Final Thoughts
On our trip we were told Antarctica is the highest, coldest, driest and windiest continent. Its also the quietest and in my opinion the most beautiful (it can only be described with superlatives). If I had the skill I'd be able to describe Antarctica in far fewer words. It's difficult to get across just how beautiful a place it is. To understand it you really have to see it yourself. Our 10 days on the white continent were fantastic and I'll never forget it. We have 8.5 months of travel left in Latin America but I can't imagine we'll see anything to top this.
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