Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

27 March 2010

Antarctica: Part 2

Day 5: St Patricks Day – a treat for the Irish. Temp: 0 degrees

Our ship sails south towards the peninsula of the Antarctic continent itself. As I step out on the deck pre-dawn, I wonder how the scenery could possibly be more beautiful than what we have already seen. But it is. Breathtakingly so. 

We are slowly drifting between enormous icebergs, in some places through pack ice, through the Lemaire Channel. Humpback whales are blowing, fluking their tails, rolling around and waving their fins high in the air. 

Penguins by their hundreds are diving in and out of the water and seals are lying all over the icebergs.

The channel itself is narrow with steep rocky cliffs either side. The pink and yellow hues of sunrise make the icebergs glitter like gold. 
Every single passenger is out on deck silently watching it unfold. Can this be real?

On the other side of the channel is, Vernadsky, the Ukraine research base where we will land. We zodiac to a hut near the base, Wordie House, which was used by the expedition team led by Ernest Shackleton, the Brit who came within 97 miles of the south pole in 1907 and had to turn back. The hut still has jars of marmite and cocoa powder on its shelves. 

We enter the research base where 12 Ukrainian men have just celebrated their 400th day at the station. Many of them have pictures of young families (and porn stars) and I wonder how they cope with being away for so long, a question soon answered when we are led to the bar where they brew their own vodka. We are each given a shot. It puts hairs on my chest. We send postcards from here and I scribble one to my family. **

Back on board, Geezer realises he has left a hiking boot at the research station. Thankfully someone retrieves it and we find it dangling in the mud room. 

The weather is so perfect that the crew set up a BBQ lunch on the rear deck so we can soak up the view while sailing back through the Lemaire Channel and whale spotting.

The afternoon excursion is a zodiac cruise around the icebergs near the Lemaire Channel. Dave, one of the younger zodiac drivers, spots a humpback whale and we observe him from a distance. The other boats get bored and leave but Dave persists so we sit and wait with the engine off. 

I whisper to Deb, our neighbour on the ship, that one of the crew told me to gently tap on the bottom of the boat and curious whales will come over. Coincidence or not, our magnificent humpback surfaces less than two metres from our boat. He is so close that I see the barnacles on his back and we can smell him. He stinks of fish. He flukes his tail ever so slightly in our direction. Eventually he submerges and we all grab each other wanting to scream but we must stay silent. 

Dave makes us promise not to tell the others on the ship because technically he should have called the other boats over. Had he done that the whale wouldn’t have come so close. Even Dave says that it’s the closest he has ever been to a whale. 

Back on the ship, our little group goes mental and Geezer and I decide it’s time to crack open our bottle of Dom Perignon. Deb gladly joins us. We sip our treats and toast Mother Nature.

Day 6: Landing on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Temp: 0 degrees 

Our first excursion today is to Neko Harbour. For some passengers, the landing will be their seventh continent.  The beach is covered with thousands of penguins and as we hike up the hill behind the beach, a glacier carves off a new iceberg. We can’t spend too much time here because our afternoon excursion is further away.

Chris advises us to be out on deck when we arrive at or next destination because it is spectacular. Wilhelmina Bay was a harbour popular among whaling ships a century ago because it is notorious for large numbers of whales. As we sail into the harbour, there are 30 to 40 humpback whales swimming in the bay in pairs. 

The crew decide that instead of zodiac cruising we will stay on the ship because the view is better. And the day definitely had to go to the scenery. The water is so calm that the reflection of the mountains and glaciers is clear. Out of the all the places we visit, this is my favourite. I never want to forget this.

The captain slowly rotates the ship around and around for several hours. It doesn’t matter which way the boat faces because everywhere you look it is surreal. 

In the distance a whale is sleeping. He wakes and moves gracefully towards us and around the ship. From the top deck we can see the entire animal. He is at least 20 metres long.

Reluctantly we leave this beautiful bay surrounded by whales. It is quite possibly the most incredible place on earth. 

Day 7: Swimming at Deception Island. Temp: 1 degree and snowing hard 

Our last stop is Deception Island which is an active volcano. The crater is visible above the surface of the water and it is the only active volcano in the world a ship can sail into. The weather is pretty crap and the visibility is poor. Because of its volcanic activity, the sand on the beach is sometimes heated. But not today. The water temperature is minus 1 degree. Not a good day for swimming. 

The island has a morbid history as a whaling station and some of the equipment, such as ‘whale digesters’, remains. Ugh! I find it disgusting after seeing all these beautiful creatures.

As we are wandering around the island, we hear screams and see people jumping in the water in their underpants. Geezer and I have our togs on underneath the five layers of thermals and clothes. 

Geezer goes in first, dives under the water, screams loudly and bolts back. While absolutely pissing myself laughing, I attempt to help him get dressed but he is so cold that it is painful, which makes me laugh even harder.

Then it’s my turn. I’ve taken one layer off and I’m frozen. I get colder and colder as I strip off. I throw my Can Too cap on for good luck, bolt down the beach and throw myself under the water. I turn around to run back and realise that I’m further out than I thought – past my waist and have to wade back through the water. 

The snow hits my skin and burns because it is so cold. I run up the beach on the black sand and snow as Geezer helps me get dressed. I instantly regret having laughed at him. My brain goes a bit funny and my feet have snap frozen. All I can think is pain, pain, pain and yell. The feeling has gone in my feet and I stumble to the zodiac looking like I've been dressed by a child. It takes about an hour of warming up in a sauna and shower before I feel normal. 

Our last stop of the day is meant to be Half Moon Island but the captain is concerned about bad weather in the Drake Passage so we have to leave early. We are warned that now is the time to take seasick pills and they are closing the port holes to protect the windows from the rough seas. It must be bad!

We can feel the swell slowly rising. Dinner in the dining room is a riot. Everyone staggers around while the ship is rolling.  

Day 8:  The real Drake Passage 

Breakfast is a complete comedy. I get out of my seat and the ship lurches to one side. A waitress catches me by my arm before I go flying across the room. 

By lunchtime the waves are about eight metres - after lunch they increase to ten - and Geezer and I are mesmerised by the walls of water coming towards the ship. Anything that isn’t latched to the floor goes flying. 

Lunch is even worse. Everything is being chucked up or chucked around the room. We all wonder how the chefs have served up another amazing buffet. 

Dinner ends up being sandwiches served in our room. That night no one really sleeps. People are thrown out of their beds and we learn that the swell is around 15 metres high with no gaps between the waves. It is slightly nerve wracking. Thank god I’m not seasick.  

Day 9: Leaving on a jet plane 

We wake to a much calmer sea and our last full day on the boat. I feel really sad. We can’t believe it is over. 

In the evening, the captain calls us for cocktails. He enters the muster room and everyone cheers. He has had a busy night. He introduces the 55 crew who are mostly Filipino and have all been absolutely wonderful. The loudest cheer goes to the barman. They break into song singing ‘leaving on a jet plane’. I stifle a sob.

The ship’s professional photographer has put together a movie of his favourite photos. Geezer features twice – his great photo up close with a penguin. It’s a nice way to end the cruise. 

We finish the tour by docking in Ushuaia and drinking too much.

We have sailed 1200 nautical miles or 3000km to see Mother Nature at her best. I worry that I will forget some or all of the trip which is why I’ve written so much about it and taken thousands of photos. But how do you forget a trip like that? All that magic. Surely not. I do know that every time I remember Antarctica, it will warm the cockles of my heart.

** The postcards that I sent from Vernadsky took over a year to reach Australia, possibly due to our ship being the last to visit the station. Each ship carries out mail but they may have had to wait till the next summer to send ours.


Coco said...

That sounds amazing!!! Reading it from my office desk makes me bit sad: be here at work while there is so much to see out there. Love your blog, keep writing! Coralie

Clare said...

Where are the thousands of photos though Kirky?! x x x