Sunday February 23rd to Wednesday March 5th
The highest, windiest, driest and coldest continent on earth.
How do we put this into words? There really is no way to describe the magnificence of Antarctica and the pictures don't do it justice either. And the trip wasn't just the scenery and wildlife -- we travelled on a phenomenal ship with a great crew and an expedition staff that had more experience and knowledge than we could imagine. This really is the highlight of what has already been a remarkable trip.
To go or not to go, that was the question. We really anguished over this. These cruises aren't cheap and this 11 day / 10 night trip would cost us more than 3 months travel budget. But, it was also our best opportunity to do this for less than half of what it would had we booked from London and flown down. The other problem was that there was more than one trip. Do we take the more expensive and longer trip (but cheaper on a per day basis) or the cheaper one and leave out the Falklands and South Georgia? Decisions, decisions, decisions. Will we regret blowing this money later when we have to go back to work earlier than planned? What to do? Well, the only things we've ever regretted are the things we didn't do ... LET'S GO! Less than 24 hours before sailing, we book the trip.
The Polar Star
This ship was built in Finland in 1969 for the Swedish navy and converted into a passenger ship in Canada in 2001. In 1969, at the height of the Cold War, Russian submarines were patrolling under the ice. Sweden wanted a way to go get them if they needed to, so they built the Njord (and 5 more like her). This is a Class 1 ice breaker (the highest rating) with a 34mm steel hull. It's really two ships in one, everything is duplicated. Most ships have two propellers, this one has four. Two are facing forwards giving the captain the ability to turn her is her own length, move sideways or chew through ice (they call it "four wheel drive mode"). It has four diesel engine powering eight generators and each of the four propeller has two motors on it. There are also four more auxilary generators for ship's power. All of this is split into two separate water and air tight engine rooms. (Think Russian torpedo through one of them and still being able to get away. It originally had cannons too). Your average supertanker has 10,000hp of power, the Polar Star has 12,000hp. Other than the newest nuclear icebreakers, this is one of the most powerful going. She can break 3 meter thick ice. And the conversion to a passenger ship is equally impressive. The cabins are big, comfortable and nicely decorated. The toilets are on a vacuum system like on airplanes and they don't smell !! (can you tell I'm a boat owner). The ship puts out no pollution. There's a sewage treatment plant on board so only clean water is expelled, everything else is pumped out at dock. Even the exhaust is scrubbed so there's no diesel smell. And, if that's not enough, the Chief Engineer displays as much pride in his ship as Scotty does of the Enterprise. ( Can you tell Pete was also very impressed with this boat).
4:00pm we board our ship. Buses arrive bringing the group from the Elderhostel. All their luggage is already in their rooms, we have ours on our backs. 5:30pm and the lines are loosed and we're heading down the famous Beagle Channel towards the Atlantic Ocean. To quote Charles Darwin,
"This channel is a most remarkable feature in the geography of this, or indeed of any other country, it may be compared to the valley of Loch Ness in Scotland, with its chain of lakes and friths".
It's not long until we hear, "Dinner is being served", over the PA. Shortly after we hear "Some of you may have noticed that we've turned around". One of the old folks is ill and we're turning back to Ushuaia to take them to hospital. Customs, immigration all that crap has to be repeated and we're in bed by the time we really get under way. This doesn't bode well...
The Drake Passage
"The Drake Passage", "Rounding the Horn", "The Southern Ocean", those words have sent chills of fear down the spines of many a sailor. The worst storms in the world. No land to stop them, they just go round and round and get bigger and bigger. 100ft high waves tossing huge ships around like a child's toy boat in a bathtub. How many ships are at the bottom of the ocean, down there, south of Tierra Del Fuego, beyond the end of the world? More importantly, how many passengers have tossed their lunch (and dinner and breakfast) attempting to cross this mighty stretch of ocean? Just how green will we be?
Day 2: Ha! Piece of cake! This is supposed to be nasty water? It's like a mill pond. Well, there were big (3m) but slow swells on the port quarter that gave the ship a long slow roll but even they calmed down later in the day. Meanwhile, the expedition staff give a series of excellent lectures about The Antarctic Treaty, seabirds, penguins, whales, geology, etc. They have incredible credentials -- one is a university professor, one walked from Russia to Canada across the north pole, one ran New Zealand's Antarctic program, etc., etc. One of them, who has been down here more times than he can count, speaking of the calm seas, says "It's NEVER like this". We also watched several videos - among them David Attenborough's "Life in the Freezer" series and Frank Hurley's footage of Shackelton's epic journey.
Day 3: Oops, spoke to soon. The Drake is starting to live up to it's reputation. It's blowing 8 or 9 on the beaufort scale (out of 12) and the waves are getting really rough. In the Observation Lounge people are sliding all over the place in their chairs. There are a few accidents but nothing serious. Some lectures are cancelled and we are advised to stay safely in our beds (read: "We don't want any broken hips or barf (vomit) in the public places").The captain orders the dead lights (shutters) be put on the Deck 3 windows so they don't get blown in (Kill joy! We were having fun watching the washing machine effect on our window). We go to the bridge (they have an open bridge policy) and the spray from the breaking waves is even being blown on the windows up here on deck 7. No salad bar for lunch because it's not possible to stand. It continues to build and our stomachs are on the edge but it is exciting. Why is it that we are here?
Despite the weather we see many seabirds. Peter and I are not great twitchers but even we were impressed by the great wandering albatross with it's 12 feet wingspan. By 8:45pm we eventually get into the lee of the South Shetland Islands and the seas calm down enough to serve dinner (no soup or salad though). We sight our first iceberg at 10:00pm, well, they spotted it on radar, crept up to it and we caught a glimpse of it in the beam of a powerful searchlight through the fog, rain and snow. It was 2km long!
Day 4: We wake up, the dead lights are still on our windows so we run outside. Breathtaking! It is so beautiful. Huge mountains with glaciers down to the sea and big blue icebergs, as the ship pushes through brash ice -- it is absolutely awesome. No way will the pictures to this justice. No way will we be able to describe the quiet calm, the crisp air, the imensity of it all. And this is just the first two minutes. As we pass through the Errera Channel and into Andovord Bay we see our first penguins (gentoo) and two humpback whales. We then have our first landing. The ship has 10 zodiacs and with only 80 passengers on board there's more than enough for everyone and therefore there's no real hanging around. We are so keen we're on the first zodiac. Even the old folks are amazingly spritely for their age, they're as excited as us.
We land on a small pebbly beach at Neko Harbour, actually on the Antarctic Continent - it's an emotional moment. We're really here! On Antarctica! A large colony of gentoo penguins are there to welcome us. We tread carefully and quietly watch these incredibly cute birds as they waddle around, sleep on their bellies, chase each other and the parents feed constantly hungry and fat chicks. However, as much as we love penguins and they are the cutest things ever, they really do smell, it's unbelievable. Of course, we would never say that to their faces :-) If only they had scratch and sniff cards.
Quote from Bernard Stonehouse : "I have often had the impression that, to penguins, man is just another penguin, ocassionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business".
We then climb a glacier (the expedition staff check for crevices) and at the top we sit and watch two avalanches tumble down on the mountain range opposite. To our right we hear a thundering noise as a huge blue glacier calves into the bay and on the left two humpback whales have come to check out the zodiacs. What a welcome to this incredible continent. We are like wide-eyed children.
We slide down the glacier on our bums. We hear one of the ladies comment "It's been years since I did that with my grandkids". The penguins must have thought "crazy humans". There's also an Argentine refuge here with emergency supplies in it. After almost 3 hours we reluctantly head back to the ship. Before and after all of our landings we have to step into a tray of disinfectant and our boots get hosed down by the crew. This is particularly needed where there are penguins - they really do crap a lot and you can't help but stand in it.
We pass through the Lemaire Channel (Kodak alley). It is a narrow channel with huge mountains on either side. It has the famous peaks named "Una's Tits" (Una was a barmaid from South Georgia during the whalers' days). We weren't sure which of the many peaks were the famous tits but Peter and the guys correctly guessed and the woman got it wrong. ( Jackie - I guess guys pay more attention to boobs than women do). However, they certainly were impressive.
Our afternoon landing was at Port Circumcision (don't ask) on Petermann Island. Here there were lots of gentoo and adelie penguins. The snow was also covered in a pink and green algae. Here there's a former British hut, now another Argentine refuge. There's also a memorial to three Brits who died here in the early 1980s. They got stuck by the weather and during the winter tried to cross the sea ice, it is assumed they fell in. We also sit and watch a huge weddell seal that's chilling out (no pun intended) on a smooth rock - it's snoring away. There's a more lively crabeater seal nearby.
Day 5: We cross the Antarctic Circle (66°33" south) at 6.30am in Crystal Sound. They estimate only 10,000 people have ever been this far south. We head further south but the ice is getting thicker. We stop to watch 3 humpback whales who've come to check us out. There's also crabeater and leopard seals lolling around on ice floes. We crunch through the ice and we get great views from the bow. Eventually though we can go no further, there's a huge ice shelf in our way. We try another channel but it's even thicker there. The furthest south we get is a little past 67°03". We can't do any of the intended landings, so we go out in the zodiacs, over the brash ice and get close to icebergs. We also get close to the seals on the floes and have a close encounter with a minke whale, it went right under our zodiac - fantastic. Then we get a chance to step onto a real live ice floe. This is a unique experience. When you step on to it you sink to your knees (which is a bit scary) but then you're on the hard ice. That is if you've picked the right type of ice floe, if not you're in big trouble. We share our ice floe with a couple of seals, who don't seem to mind that a few unfamiliar animals have joined them. (They estimate that fewer than 1000 people have stood on an ice floe south of the Antarctic Circle).
Back on board we have an outdoor BBQ. It was a magical night, the air is cold but still and the water is like glass. We're surrounded by huge mountains, glaciers, icebergs and witness a fantastic sunset. The highlight of the evening was when we had two unexpected guests join us - humpack whales right next to the ship. We finish the evening with a little nightcap, complete with glacier ice that we picked up whilst in the zodiacs - cheers.
Click here for Antarctica Travelog (Part 2)