The morning we left for Antarctica found the four of us, me, Ann, Gordon and Eamo, out on the balcony of our hostel peering across to the harbour and trying to work out which of the boats that had arrived overnight might be ours. There was a large one which resembled a floating apartment block and a couple of others that frankly would have been at home in a bath tub. OK so we'd specifically chosen to go on a small boat but for me the reality of that in terms of size of boat vs big ocean with nasty rough waters was only just starting to hit....
We'd had a few days chilling out in Ushuaia before we left - I'd flown down from BA (a trip memorable only for the fact that I was glad to be on the plane after an 11th hour email from the airline to tell me that the airport had changed to one an hour away) and the others from El Calafate. Ushuaia itself was a bizarre mix of uber touristy centre, the main strip packed with expensive hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, surrounded by a seemingly deserted local frontier town. We managed
one day out - Ann, Eamo and I hooking up with another Brit, Rob, to go hiking in the Tierra del Fuego national park. The scenery was stunning - lake shore paths beside clear waters, forest tracks where the wind blowing through made the trees bend and make alarming cracking noises, bright red and black woodpeckers tapping away and a rather inquisitive lunch companion - a bird of prey with a huge beak and nasty looking talons that had obviously learnt the connection between humans and a free feed. The only bad thing about the hike was that it was supposed to be practise for the 6 days we´d soon be doing in Torres del Paine.... one day hiking with only a day pack and I was dead!
The start to our Antarctica trip didn't go quite as planned when before we'd even left port we were told that the main engine was broken and there'd be a 6 hour delay whilst they fixed it. To pass the time we set about exploring the boat, the Professor Multanovsky and eating - it was amazing how quickly we became used to 3 course meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.. except
of course when I was too sick to even get out of bed! I met my room mate, an American girl called Meredith and was v pleased to find that, unlike most of the rest of the boat who were fully paid up members of the blue rinse brigade, she was our age. And our cabin was nicer than most places I've stayed on this trip - crisp white sheets, bottles of mineral water and even chocolates on the bed!
I was asleep when we finally set sail so missed the Beagle channel, even if we did pass through by moonlight. The first few days of the trip were spent crossing the Drake Passage, the stretch between the tip of South America and the Antarctic waters, not that I actually saw much of it. 11 days on a boat for someone who literally gets sea sick in a bath tub was always going to be pushing it and even 3 different types of anti nausea tables didn't help much other than to turn me into a zombie who was fine as long as she didn't have to string a sentence together or move from a horizontal position! Meal times
quickly became a personal battle of will, with the goals being a) to make it to the dinning room and b) manage to sit through one course before making a dash back to my bunk. Anything else, like eating, was a bonus! I did manage a few forays from my bed though, up on deck for a bit of bird spotting (I never knew there were so many different types of albatross!) and to some of the lectures that were given.
It was during our third night at sea that we were rather rudely woken by being tossed in the air - seriously there was daylight between me and my bed. We'd hit a gale force 11 storm, classified as a 'violent storm' it basically equates to wind speeds of 103-117kmph and waves of up to 17m (in our case I think they were only about 12m but trust me, that was enough). The only rating above 11 is a 12.... a hurricane. So that was fun. Peering through our porthole we watched waves breaking above us, whilst up on the bridge there was a great view of waves crashing over the front of the boat. Whether we'd still
have hit the storm if we hadn't had the delay in leaving port I don´t know, but the outcome was we missed our first day of landings on the South Shetland Islands. Instead we passed the day 'sheltering' in a cove - as we rolled around on the swells and peered out through the pouring rain to the occasional glimpse of land in the distance it didn't feel too sheltered but apparently it was better than the alternative!!
Mid afternoon and we were all called down for another meeting - there was a decision to be made, to stay in the cove for the rest of the day and miss more landings tomorrow or head back out into the hopefully slightly abated storm and make a push for the peninsular. The latter meant more rough waters and although the captain wasn't happy he didn't think it unsafe. For most of us it was an easy decision, after all we hadn't come all this was to sit inside! So we were all sent back down to our cabins to storm proof them - i.e. pack everything away so we couldn't get hit by any shampoo missiles when it got rough.
And dinner that night we were informed was to be sandwiches - the sticky table mats that normally stopped our plates from sliding off the table when we hit a swell weren't deemed up to the job. And to be fair I think serving in those conditions would even have been above the amazing skills of the two Russian waitresses who somehow managed to walk in straight lines whilst carrying full soup terrines when the rest of us were staggering around grabing on to tables and walls for balance!
The next morning we woke up to another world - finally we´d reached the Antarctic peninsular. The sky was blue with fluffy white clouds, the sea a deep inky blue and to the side the white snowy peaks and black rock of the peninsular. Penguins swam, or rather jumped passed (swimming for them it seems also involves jumping over the water) whilst in the distance whales teased us with displays of fins, blowing spurts of spray high into the air and occasional tail flips. Icebergs dotted our path and we quickly got into the habit of searching every detail of them as we passed by for you never knew when
there might be a group of penguins diving off the back. Perhaps the most unusual sighting was a navy vessel, on it's way south to help another tour ship which had grounded.
We reached Neko harbour, the inlet where we would have our first landing, later that morning. One of the reasons we´d chose to go on a smaller ship is because on these tours only 100 people are allowed to land at once - with only about 50ish of us that wasn't a problem and a few zodiac trips later we were all in awe of the fact that we were actually standing on Antarctica. And we'd landed right in the middle of a huge Gentoo penguin colony. Because of our missed landing at the Shetlands we were only going to see two types of penguins, the Gentoos and the Adelies. The Gentoos were easily my favourite simply because they were so inquisitive! There are rules on how close you're allowed to approach them, but if they come to you, well, that's different. Just sitting on a rock or sometimes even standing still you'd soon see a friendly Gentoo or two make their way over to investigate what
this strange alien was. And they weren't adverse to pecking at your legs or feet to see how you responded either.
Gentoos typically lay two eggs into nests made from a roughly circular pile of stones. The stones are jealously guarded with ownership the subject of noisy disputes between individuals as they try to steal from each other. Parents share incubation duties, with the eggs hatching after 34 to 36 days and the chicks going out to sea at about 80 to 100 days. We found one parent sat on its nest guarding a very young chick that was born to late in the season to survive but most of the youngsters were by now like big fluff-balls - about the same size as their parents their coat was all fluffy and more of a grey colour whereas the adults had the distinctive black and white plumage. The fluff-balls were still reliant on their parents for food though and we watched on as one parent patiently regurgitated food for its impatient squawking child.
Leaving the colony behind we headed up to a viewpoint, slowly getting the hang of walking on crunchy ice in welly boots - I only
fell over twice which I was quite chuffed with! The views from the top were amazing - down to the penguin colony below, out to our boat moored in the harbour (which against the backdrop of snow and peaks looked even more like a bath tub boat). Peaceful and serene the only sounds were the occasionally crashing as more ice fell and hit the water below.
Next up, icebergs, seals and more penguins
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