Antarctic Cruise Part 1: Ushuaia to Falkland Islands

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January 16th 2016
Published: January 16th 2016
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Cruise Part 1

Ushuaia to Falkland Islands

Day 1:

It’s embarkation day. We have been in Ushuaia about 4 days now and we are ready to get out of here. It’s a decent place – easily walkable with plenty of shops and restaurants – but not the kind of place you want to spend more than a few days. We have walked all over the city multiple times and it is starting to get repetitive. The taxi arrives at our hotel to take us to the port just before 4:00. Antarctica here we come!

Our ship is named the Ortelius. It holds up to 117 passengers and 49 crew. It was originally a Polish arctic research vessel that has since been renovated into a cruise ship. But this is not the kind of cruise ship you have been on before. There is no casino, no pool, no karaoke bar. As you might imagine with less than 200 people on board the ship is pretty small. There are six levels with one dining area and one bar area. The rest of the space is made up of passenger and crew cabins. It is an Arctic and Antarctic cruise ship. It won’t be very luxurious but we are not going to the Antarctic for luxury!

We snap a few pictures of the ship before boarding. We are met by our crew who are all from different places in Europe. As it’s a Dutch company running our cruise there a quite a few Dutch crew members. There are also crew from Austria, Germany, the UK, and France. The greet us and welcome us aboard our home for the next 18 days. I have never spent more than a week in a bed that was not at my house so this will be a new experience for me.

Aboard the ship we try to pull the honeymoon card to see if we can get a free upgrade, but all the higher level rooms are full. There will be no upgrade for us. That’s OK though, as we are pleasantly surprised with the size of our room. It’s far bigger than the cabin I stayed in on my Caribbean cruise a few years ago. Plenty of space for pushups and squats! The only thing is we will have to sleep in separate beds. They are just twin beds, and not quite big enough for the both of us. But hey, isn’t that the key to any happy marriage – separate beds!?

5:30 is orientation time. The head crew members introduce themselves and we are given a basic safety orientation. There will be specific landing safety orientations later. This one is the common sense one (hold on to handrails when boat is moving, how to put life jacket on, etc). Afterwards there is an abandon ship drill we go through. We get our life jackets out of our rooms and dress in warm clothing and head to the bar on Level 6, which is the emergency meeting point. The Asians start taking selfies of themselves in the life jackets. I start to wonder if they’d do the same if this was not just a drill.

By now the ship is moving. We wave goodbye to Ushuaia and cruise down the Beagle Channel. Argentina is to our left and Chile is to our right. Straight ahead is the Southern Ocean, where we will spend the next 18 days of our lives. Our first stop is the Falkland Islands, the only permanently inhabited location we will stop at. We have two days around the Falklands before cruising for two straight days to South Georgia Island, the crown Jewel of Southern Ocean cruises, where we will spend about 3-4 days before heading south to the Antarctic Peninsula for a few days on the frozen continent. This will be an experience nothing like anything we have ever faced before, but we are ready!

After the abandon ship drill we are treated to a welcome toast in the bar. Here the rest of the crew introduces themselves and talks about what they will be in charge of for the next 3 weeks. Some are biologists, some are bird watchers, others are just ordinary people with no special training that have awesome jobs. The champagne isn’t that good but can’t complain about free drinks. Dinner isn’t until 8:00 tonight so we head back to our room to unpack.

Dinner on the cruise is a sit-down meal with a few options, whereas breakfasts and lunches will be buffet style. Tonight only has two options but all other nights will have three options. I don’t have many expectations for the food on the cruise so I am pleasantly surprised when it is pretty good quality. We find ourselves at a table with a younger kid from San Francisco, a man from the Netherlands, and two older Australian guys. After some brief conversation it is immediately clear that the people on this cruise have done a lot of travelling. This isn’t the kind of trip you take if you don’t have much travel experience. The Australian guys have literally been everywhere and even the American has quit his job and is travelling for a year. You may think we do a lot of travelling but we are amateurs on this boat.

Dinner, I learn, is not BYO. We were hoping it would be but they say no. Guess we will have to drink the 10 bottles of wine we brought in our room! After dinner some people head up to the bar so we follow and have a seat at the bar and chat with another Dutch crewman. It’s still light out but we are starting to get tired. Sunset is about 10:10 PM down here and it’s not completely dark until about 11:00 so it’s still a bit light out when we get back to our cabin. Having spent a week in the Alaskan summer – which is far more north than we are south now – the light at night doesn’t bother me. We watch the end of Season 1 of Better Call Saul and turn in for the night.

Day 2:

Today we have no destination; we will be at sea all day. The ship doesn’t move very fast, only about 10 knots, so we are not really chewing up the miles. We should be at the Falklands pretty early tomorrow, but today all we will see is open sea. It’s overcast when we look out the window. We have realized that this is normal in this part of the world. The sun hardly ever shines on southern Argentina and the Falklands. It makes you wonder why people live there, but who am I to question? The good news is it’s not raining. And it’s really not that cold either. On deck the wind is strong as the boat moves through the ocean, but when the wind stops it’s not bad at all. It almost feels like a real summer.

Breakfast is at 8:00 AM and is a typical English breakfast. It’s pretty good and we end up sitting with another couple who recently got married back in June. They are English and have been on one big honeymoon ever since and have no plans to stop travelling. So looks like we’re not the only honeymooners on the cruise! At 10:00 AM there is a bird watching talk on the top deck. There is a big group of Northern Giant Petrels flying alongside the boat, as well as a few albatrosses. They glide past the ship then turn around after they pass the front and circle around to do it again. It’s like they are running laps around a track. I watch them for a while then get bored of their little game. Don’t they get bored too?

As mentioned before, this is not your typical cruise ship. There are not things to keep you occupied between landings. There are no shows or casinos. There is no piano bar or night club. There is one basic bar with three beer choices and a small assembly hall on the third level. To keep people busy the staff give talks on history, biology, and geography of the regions and places we will be. This morning’s lecture is about the history of the Falkland Islands, skipping the war, which we will be a separate talk.

The Falkland Islands are one of the only places in the world without a native population. Humans first arrived in the 1600s and it was an important stop on shipping routes right up until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. After that, ships didn’t need to sail around the southern tip of South America anymore. But the Falklands remained and sustained a population of about 3,000 people of mostly British decent, which is still retains today. Today, however, the main industries are fishing and tourism. Control of the Falklands is still a hot topic for Argentina, as they still insist they own it, although the British always have according to most records. Either way, we will be spending one day on some smaller islands in the chain and then one day in the town of Steward, the capital of the country.

After lunch there is word of some whales in the distance. The staff calls everyone to the front of the deck over the intercom. Whales are cool, but whale watching is quite boring, at least to me. You stare at an empty ocean for 20 minutes then for 2 seconds you see the tail or body of a whale before it dives down underwater for another 20 minutes. I see the whales but they are quite far off in the distance so I don’t stay outside the whole time to look for them a second time. Nimarta braves the cold and is able to get a few pictures of a humpback tail.

After we collect our boots we are given a briefing on how to board and exit the zodiacs. These are the boats that will take us to shore. The locations we are going do not have docks suitable to take ships the size of ours. So we have to load into small inflatable zodiacs off the coast and take them to the shore. It seems easy enough and I am not too worried about it. I will get to experience it tomorrow. The staff member also talks about the itinerary tomorrow. We will be getting off the boat around 8 AM to explore Carcass Island in northwest Falkland Islands. We will get to see all sorts of penguins and possibly some elephant seals. After lunch we will board the zodiacs again to get off at another small island where we will be free to wander for 3-4 hours or so. Here we may see our first king penguins!

Before dinner we are briefed on the types of animals we will see in the Falklands. It is all birds and sea mammals. Sounds like New Zealand with more penguins. Tomorrow will be a big day! I have some fresh fish for dinner and we discuss our day tomorrow. We hang out at the bar for a bit after dinner but decide to turn in early so that we will be ready for the adventure tomorrow. On our way back to the cabin one of the staff says they spotted a whale. Nimarta runs out to look but I’m over whales for today so I head back to the room to prepare for tomorrow. Bring on the penguins!

Day 3:

Breakfast is earlier this morning, as we are boarding the zodiacs at 8:00. They wake us up by intercom at 6:30. It’s a bit earlier than I’d like to get up on vacation but today is a big day. Looking out the window we can see the Falklands. It’s green and hilly. We hurry through breakfast and prepare to board the zodiacs to the island. We are on the third zodiac so we are one of the first to get to the island. The ride is smooth thanks to the lack of wind today. It’s also mostly sunny with scattered clouds. This is the best day we have had since we got to Ushuaia for sure.

As we near the shore I notice some little black dots on the beach. Penguins! Lots of them! The zodiac stops on the beach and we get out. A welcoming committee of magellinic penguins greets us on the shore. There are three large groups of them; one to our right, one to our left, and one on the hill to our right. Penguins like to hang out in groups. They curiously watch us as we shed our life jackets and take out our cameras. These guys are little, one of the smaller penguin species, but they are far bigger than the only penguins I’ve ever seen in the wild before (the little blue penguins in Wellington). And there are so many of them!

As much as I’d like to get right next to these guys I know I can’t. If you get too close you will spook them and they will run away. Sure enough this happens when one guy tries to get a close up picture. They scamper away and jump in the ocean. Since they can’t fly their natural escape route is to swim away, as they are incredible swimmers. They are funny when they run because the waddle like a fat guy with short legs. You almost want to root for them to go faster.

We have opted to do a leisurely 4 km hike to a homestay on the island. The whole island is owned by one family who has lived here forever. They are totally self-sufficient and live off the land and the money they get by charging cruise ships like ours to explore their island. We are now on a beach on the other side of the island and after some wandering around will walk a ridge back to the homestay, where apparently coffee and cakes will be waiting for us. After everyone has landed we break into a few groups to start the walk.

We first head up a little ridge and get a view of the other side of the island and the islands in the distance. And hundreds of penguins. This time, there are also gentoo penguins along with more magellinic. The gentoo clans are bigger. They are about the same size as the magellinic, maybe a bit bigger, but you can differentiate between the two quite easily because magellinic are completely black and white and the gentoos have orange beaks. On top of that, the magellinic penguins live underground in burrows and the gentoos stay above ground and build nests on the surface. I find it weird that the different species of penguins don’t hang out with each other. They are all segregated. Apparently penguins are still living in the 1950s!

On top of the plethora of penguins in front of us there are also Patagonian geese and many other species of small birds. The landscape is pretty damn nice itself. We watch the penguins for a while and then move on through some tussocks fields towards the homestay. There are beautiful views every way as we wind across the little ridge parallel to the shore. After not too long on the trail we reach the homestay. There are bright yellow flowers everywhere. It’s quite an attractive little place. If you can make it here you can book the homestay for as long as you are willing to pay. That would be cool for some rest and relaxation, but I’ll take the three hours on the island we have today.

Awaiting us at the main house is feast of cakes and cookies like you’d see at the Bellagio Buffet. We try as many things as we can without going overboard and everything is delicious. Almost everyone from the cruise has made it here by now and is enjoying the cakes and coffee. It is a good way to end a beautiful morning in the Falkland Islands. Just before noon we get back on the Zodiac to the ship, waving goodbye to penguins as we go.

Back on the boat we chow down on some meatballs for lunch with what is remaining of our appetites after the cakes. After a quick power nap it is time to get ready to make our second landing of the day on Saunders Island. This time we are on the first zodiac to leave the ship. Within a matter of minutes we are on the beach of the island staring at thousands of gentoo penguins. We have been told that there are colonies of rockhopper penguins and king penguins as well on this island. Apparently this is one of the best places to see penguins in the world (according to this dude who has been to Antarctica a million times and written a book on penguins).

As tempting as it is to wander throughout the colonies of gentoos the staff wants us to make our way up the hill to the rockhopper colonies first. From the pictures we have seen these guys look like badasses. They have red eyes and they always look angry in photos. They also have this yellow hair on their heads that makes them look like ‘50s gangsters. But as soon as we stumble upon a group of about 5000 of these guys we soon realize they are not badasses. They are tiny, the smallest of any of the species we will see on this trip. Instead of badass, they are adorable, and that’s not very badass. They are not much bigger than the little blue penguins we saw in Wellington. There are so many of them, though, and they are all hanging out together.

We stop for a while to watch the rockhoppers and take some pictures. They are called rockhoppers because they jump up and down rocks unlike other species of penguins. They live on this hill here, I suppose, a good ways up from the beach below. They hoot and holler just like all birds but their walk is pretty funny. They are not natural walkers, they look a lot better hopping. They fill the hillside and it makes a brilliant picture with the mountains and blue sky in the background. Below the sea is crashing into giant rocks. Even if there were no penguins this island would still be pretty cool. Some rockhoppers curiously stumble my way and stare me down, but none get within about a meter of me before they turn around and hop off. Some of them have little chicks that just hatched. It’s nesting season so babies are just starting to hatch. Unfortunately for the penguins, we get a good glimpse at the sub-Antarctic food chain when an eagle-like bird swoops down and snatches a baby rockhopper for lunch. It’s a tough life being a tiny penguin.

Continuing past the rockhoppers we encounter numerous colonies of albatrosses. As hard as it is to believe, these birds have the largest wing span of any bird (that can fly) at up to 2.2 meters. They are significantly bigger than any of the penguins we have seen so far. Many of them are nesting and we see little chicks everywhere. After a few albatross colonies we pass another rockhopper colony, except this one is more of a mix between penguins and albatross. There are also a few magellinic penguins lurking about for good measure. As I sit on a rock to observe one of the curious ones hops towards me and stops just short of a meter from me. For a minute he looks like he is going to hop all the way to me, but after a while of staring me down he decides I’m not worth his time and hops away. No rockhopper friends for me.

We continue down the ridge for a while longer and soon we are all alone with the albatrosses. None of the other people from our cruise have made it this far. It is nice down here. I would say quiet, but the albatrosses make the most annoying sound ever (think “the most annoying sound in the world” from Dumb and Dumber). The scenery is beautiful though, so we sit for a while and watch some albatrosses fight with their beaks. We try to figure out why they are fighting but it is a lost cause. Turning back, we pass the same colonies of albatrosses and rockhoppers as we head towards the beach.

Back down the mountain we see our first king penguins! These are the second largest species of penguin (after the emperor penguin) and they are considerably larger than all the other species we have seen so far. They are mixed in with the gentoo penguins who dominate them in numbers by about 10,000 to 20. It’s not a big king population but we will see more of them on South Georgia Island. They are cool to observe a little bit though. They gather in bunches and stick their beaks up to the sky and holler. It reminds me of a basketball team huddling and doing their team cheer before the game starts.

Passing the king penguins we head towards the beach through a maze of gentoos. It’s low tide and the beach is dotted with penguins everywhere. They are too numerous to count. On the beach it is all gentoo and magellinic, waddling here and there and everywhere in between. We stroll down the beach trying not to startle any of them. At one point we see a gathering of magellinic penguins at the edge of the sand. It looks like they are gearing up for something. Sure enough, they dart out all at once towards the water in one long single file line. It is hilarious. Some of them run on all fours, which I had no idea penguins could do. They are fast little bastards! They jump into the ocean and go for a swim. Maybe this is their afternoon ritual?

It seem like we just got out here but we have been on the island nearly four hours now and it is time to return to the ship for dinner. Our first day with penguins has been amazing and there is only more where that came from on South Georgia in a few days. Back on the ship we pour a couple glasses of wine before dinner to celebrate out first day on land. Tomorrow will be another day on land but it will be quite different as we will be in a town. The benefit of that: there will be beer!

Day 4:

Getting up is difficult this morning. It’s cloudy as hell and looking outside we can see that it’s raining pretty good. We haven’t reached our destination yet when we go to breakfast around 7:45. Soon enough we have dropped anchor, though, just outside of Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. About 2,500 people live here (only 3,000 in the entire country) and this is the hub of everything for this tiny little country of British dependence.

The water is really choppy and we get soaked on the zodiac ride. On shore, everyone stops by the visitor’s center to dry off and have a look around. I also use this opportunity to use the internet. My Dutch Rosetta Stone program has not been working so far on the boat as it apparently needs to reactivate and needs the internet to do that. We pay the $9 for an hour of internet and activate my program. The internet speed reminds me of the dial-up days of the late ‘90s. But who am I to complain – this is the only internet we will have the whole trip so we will take it.

By the time we leave the visitor’s center it has stopped raining. Unfortunately it is still as windy as a bad spring day in Wellington. The wind whips us from all direction and we decide a leisurely stroll around the city is not in the cards today. We head a block down to check out this famous church. It’s called the “Christ Church Cathedral” and it makes me think of the Christchurch Cathedral in downtown Christchurch that was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake. This one, however, is still standing strong. It’s nice inside, but I’m not that into churches so after a few pictures we head off. There are some giant whale bones forming an arch in front of the church and I find this pretty cool. Whales are so firkin big!

We hope to get the 11:30 zodiac back to the ship so it’s time to hit one of the pubs to try some local beer. The Globe Tavern is supposed to be open at 10:00 for us, but knocking on the door at 10:45 it is clear that no one is there. Big letdown. Luckily we manage to find some Falklands Beerworks beer at a little café on the waterfront. I was hoping to try the oyster stout but all they have is the Rock Hopper Blonde so I settle for that. It’s not bad, but blondes aren’t my favorite (clearly – I married a black haired girl :P). After the beer we head back to the ship to escape the wind and cold.

The afternoon consists of a series of naps. I have been sleeping well at night but Nimarta has been having issues sleeping so these naps are welcome to her. Plus it’s miserable outside so there is not much to see from the deck of the ship. Visibility is maybe a mile or two. Hopefully the next few days at sea will be a bit better so we can spend some time outside. Nimarta catches the tail end of a talk about the Falklands war that I sleep through (I already know what happens) and there is a little recap of what we saw on the islands yesterday before dinner. Dinner is roasted lamb leg and it’s my favorite meal so far on the ship. Three days and the food has been really good – far better than I expected! Tomorrow is a long day at sea, followed by another one, and then finally by four days on South Georgia Island. We better rest up!

....Continued in Part 2: South Georgia Island


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