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Published: January 13th 2010
Ship Antarctic Dream in Neko Harbour
You can find the pictures that go along with this story at my Flickr site
A few weeks before I got to Ushuaia, I finally got around to looking at what there was to do here. The big thing I found that people to from Ushuaia was Antarctica tours. Why not? The first winter I spent in Ecuador, I went to the Galapagos Islands because they were relatively close. After a bit of an internet search, I came up with the name of a travel agent who came recommended by other bike travellers. Alicia Petiet found a last-minute deal for me on a boat leaving on December 28. Here are my notes from the trip:
Dec 28, 54 Degrees South
I boarded the boat “Antarctic Dream” from the dock in Ushuaia about 5 PM. My first impressions were that it was a nice ship, good woodwork, decorations, furnishings. A crew member greeted me on board and took my luggage to my room, 118, which was down one level from the entrance. I met my room-mate Mark, a freelance journalist. Mark was originally from Wales, but was living and working in Buenos Aires. I´d guess he was about 27. A short time later we were invited to a safety talk and drill in the passenger lounge. By the attendance at the drill, I guessed the boat was only about half-full of passengers, around 40. By this time we were on our way down the Beagle Channel heading for the Drake Passage and a two-day crossing to get to Antarctica. Following the safety drill was supper, my first meal on-board. I was impressed: linen table clothes and napkins, appetizers, salad, salmon main course, and desert. I met a few people at dinner: Matt, a financial analyst from Australia, Gerry, a lawyer from Boston and his Russian wife and daughter. Amusingly, his wife and daughter spoke Russian to each other, but Gerry doesn´t understand any of it! By this time I was well into my first Dramamine pill for sea sickness, and left for bed as I was feeling pretty sleepy.
December 29, 58 Degrees South
Had a good nights´ sleep, the Drake so far has not been to rough. During the Drake Crossing we have been occupying our time with lectures on birds, wildlife, and Antarctic history. I amuse myself by attending lectures in Spanish to see how much I get from them. With the slide projector and pictures, I was actually able to do not too badly as the context of the discussion was fairly evident. I even asked a question in Spanish at one lecture about the presence of petrified trees in Antarctica as they have in the Canadian Arctic (the answer was that they have fossilized evidence of leaves, but little evidence of the actual trees themselves).
The boat is making a steady 12 knots speed according to a GPS readout at the front of the boat in what they call the “passenger bridge”. It is just below the real bridge, where passengers are also welcome to visit any any time. Once we were out of the Beagle Channel, the boat set a course of 151 degrees that would not change for two days as we steamed towards the Nelson Straight in the South Shetland Islands. During the day I watched a few Albatrosses soaring over the waves close to the boat. During supper, I saw about 7 whales spouting close to the boat, but was not able to identify the type. We later found that the whales seen in that area were usually Humpback or Fin Whales. Later in the evening I looked through the ship´s library of books and started reading a recent John Grisham book that I had not yet seen, and stayed up until after midnight before turning off the light.
December 30, 60 Degrees South
Sometime overnight (6 AM it turned out) we crossed the “Antarctic Convergence” which is the separation between the warmer Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (at about 5 degrees) and the Antarctic waters (about 2 degrees). It was explained to us in one of the lectures the day before that this would also bring more wildlife as the convergence stirs up feed towards the surface. It was evident that there were more birds around.
About 4 PM we sighted land, the South Shetland Islands. I went up to the passenger bridge to see the approaching land from the front of the boat and found about 8 staff members talking on their cell phones. Apparently there is one cell tower on the Islands where an airport services the many research stations that exist along the Antarctic Peninsula. The boat is only in range of the tower for about 15 minutes. I was lucky that I still had a phone chip for the Chilean cell company that owns the tower, and I was at least able to leave a voice mail for Mariette as she was not in. We pulled around to the south of the Shetlands and came up to Discovery Bay on Greenwich Island. After supper we took a Zodiac ride around the bay to see the edge of various glaciers where they ran into the ocean, and a few seals and penguins on the ice. We arrived back to the boat after 10 PM and it was still quite light out.
December 31, New Years Eve 2010, 62 Degrees South
The boat had remained in Discovery Bay overnight until about 6:30 AM, when we got underway to our goal for the morning outing, Aicho Island. It was snowing as we boarded the Zodiacs to head to shore, where we saw colonies of Gentoo Penguins, with a few Chinstrap and Adelie penguins as well. After we returned to the boat for lunch, it repositioned us to Yankee Bay. I thought what a strange and alien place it is down here, it could be another planet. In Yankee Bay, we saw some evidence of the old sealing trade. Sealers used the bay for anchorage and rendering the blubber into oil. Just outside the bay we saw two fin whales.
New Year´s Eve supper started with two courses of appetizers, and the usual salad, main course, and desert; all exquisitely prepared. I continue to be impressed at the quality and presentation of the food served on the boat. Supper ran late, and we sat around and talked until the champagne was poured for the countdown to 2010. We enjoyed the moment, and ran outside to sample the snowstorm going on out there. It was about 1:30 when I got to bed, and it was still quite light out outside. It really didn´t get dark anymore at this latitude.
January 1, 2010. 63 Degrees South
The weather turned a little better for us on New Year´s day, the sun poked through occasionally. Our first visit was Cuverville Island where we saw (surprise) more penguins. Absolutely unbelievable scenery with the mix of sun and cloud, and constantly changing light on the mountains, glaciers, and ice in the harbour. It was interesting watching the dynamics of a penguin colony. They are very territorial birds, and have their nests arranged in what I would call just beyond beak-snapping distance apart. I watched a penguin who got caught between three nests and a rock wall. He had to wait for quite a while until the nesting birds lost interest in pecking at him, then he made a run for it, still incurring their wrath, but probably less so as he caught most of them off-guard.
While we were aboard ship for lunch, it repositioned through the Errera Channel, into the Andvord Bay, then into Neko Harbour (S64 52.45 W62 26.18). We climbed up quite high to a viewpoint over the bay, and spent quite a bit of time enjoying the sun and the view before descending and watching more Gentoo Penguins. It was quite a start to the New Year, with stepping onto the Antarctic Continent for the first time at Neko Harbour, and enjoying some amazing scenery and sunny weather. New Year´s Day, 2010 will be one I will remember for a long time..
January 2, 65 Degrees South
We travelled overnight and entered the Lemaire Channel about 7 AM on our way to Petermann Island, (S65 10.77 W64 07.61) which would be our furthest point south on this trip. A French explorer, Charcot, wintered on Petermann Island in 1909. Today there is an Argentine refuge there with a memorial nearby remembering three British Antarctic Survey members who died crossing the ice in 1989.
My friend Henry Wyatt, a retired ophthalmologist, spent a few years in Antarctica in the 1950´s as a doctor with the British Antarctic Survey. He told me of a few things to look out for on my trip, including Una´s Tits. This is an unusual mountain that officially has another name which is seldom used. On the way south through the Lemaire Channel, they were socked in with cloud, but Una relented on the way north and showed us her stuff. The peaks are named for a former secretary in the governor's office in Stanley, Falkland Islands. After leaving Petermann Island, we headed north to Port Lockroy for the night.
January 3, 64 Degrees South
Port Lockroy (S 64 49 30 W63 29 40) is an old British Antarctic Survey research station that today is operated as probably the only tourist base in South America. Lockroy was named after a French politician who helped Charcot find funding for his expedition. The port was later used by Norwegian whalers, and there are whale bones still evident from this time. Someone has neatly arranged some bones into a skeleton shape for tourist pictures. The British Antarctic Survey (and their predecessor) maintained the base from 1944 to 1962.
Port Lockroy now is maintained by a historical society in the UK that staffs the base during the Austral summer who greet many tour boats with a bit of history about the base and sell souvenirs to help offset their costs. They also run a post office and will sell you postcards, stamps, and will mail them. The mail takes a tortuous route back through the Falkland Islands to the UK from where it will go on to the final destination.
One of the goals I set for my trip to Antarctica was to have a drink of Malt Scotch with a chunk of ancient ice. I had a bottle of Glenlivet stashed in my bags patiently waiting for this occurrence. Finding a malt whiskey has not been easy in my travels thus far, and was pleased to finally find one in a duty-free shop in Ushuaia. While cruising around the bays around Port Lockroy, the crew retrieved a big block of perfectly clear ice and brought it on board the ship, where it was placed on the bar with a ring of whiskey bottles around it. I don´t know if the whiskey tasted any better, but the novelty of being able to do it was really my goal.
January 4, 62 Degrees South
We arrived at Deception Island the night before and overnighted in the bay (Pendulum Cove) that is a flooded volcanic cauldron. The island is still active geothermically, and presents an opportunity to swim in warm waters where they flow into the sea. Unfortunately, our visit to the warm waters was cancelled due to high winds and snow. Earlier in the day we did do a shore landing and hiked up to the rim of a crater from the last eruption on the island about 30 years ago. We left Deception Island and headed north along the south side of the Shetland Islands, towards Nelson Straight, where we would head north across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia.
January 5-7, Drake Passage
The Drake was not as kind going home as it was for our trip down, with heavy seas. With my inclination towards motion sickness, I kept myself drugged up with Dramamine and the sedative affect it has on me kept me snoozing for most of the way back. The second night of the crossing I found it even hard to stay in bed, finding myself waking up at night and grabbing hold of something to stop me from falling out. Stuff was left strewn all over the floor of our cabin room, not much point in picking it up. Many of the passengers were conspicuously absent from meals. I was impressed how the food service was able to continue, and how the crew could still carry big trays of food to the tables with the rough conditions. In my drugged and dozy state, I had no trouble with motion sickness. We arrived back at the entrance to the Beagle Channel on the evening of January 6 and had to wait for the pilot required by Argentine law to see us back to Ushuaia. The pilot arrived at 2 AM and continued on to arrive at Ushuaia at 7 AM on January 7.
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