Antarctica: Day 1: D-Day
I have looked forward to today – 12 March 2010 – for so long. Ten days of cruising around Antarctica. It’s hard to believe it has finally arrived.
120 of us board buses to Ushuaia port where our GAP Adventures ship, MS Expedition, waits. We are the last to board because of our obsession with taking photos.
Last night our group met and mingled, chatting anxiously about seasick pills and the unthinkable. One woman made a toast. “Bon voyage! Hope we make it back.” (Nervous laughter.)
The Drake Passage is one of the roughest sea crossings in the world. The last GAP tour was so rough (14m swell) that even the chefs got sick and couldn’t cook. I have more seasick pills in my backpack than clothes.
On board we are summoned to the ‘muster room’ by leader, Chris, and introduced to the 55 crew who hurry away to prepare the five course meal we are about to devour. After two months of hostels and surviving on bread, ham and cheese, this is pure luxury. They even have a turn down service and straighten the shoes in our lovely cabin.
It is now 10pm. By 11pm we will be hitting the Drake but the boat is already rocking so we must be through the Beagle Channel. About now we will drop off our Argentinean ‘pilot’ who is on board to guide our ship out of Argentina into international waters. Apparently this happens on every boat leaving and arriving into a port globally.
Tomorrow we have lectures all day on birds, marine biology and ice formations. But the question on everyone’s lips is – will I get seasick?
Antarctica: Day 2 – the Drake Passage
Our crossing of the Drake Passage is surprisingly calm, so calm in fact that we are ahead of schedule and will get an extra landing in tomorrow at the Aitchos Islands – specifically Barriantos Island.
After gorging myself at the buffet breakfast, I wonder if I should have packed diet pills instead of seasick ones. I attempt a run on the treadmill, which produces an interesting dynamic, but I get more exercise chasing the weights that are rolling around the gym.
We make use of the straight sailing time to learn about sea birds, whales, the history of Antarctic explorers and about Antarctica itself.
There are plenty of birds around – albatrosses, fulmers and petrels as well as dolphins.
At the end of the day we 'muster up' to go over our itinerary for the next day and debrief on the wildlife we've seen. The itinerary isn’t planned more than a day ahead because the conditions can rapidly change.
So after another five course dinner, we opt for an early night. There is a competition on to spot the first iceberg and I want to be up early to win it.
Antarctica: Day 3 – our first landing
Nothing could prepare me for the sights of today.
I get up just before dawn to watch the sunrise. It is 3 degrees on the front deck, colder with the wind chill. I don’t care because I have the deck to myself and the sun is about to rise. The skies are clear.
The ship's photographer eventually joins me and we shiver together through the dawn. Having just bought a DSLR I'm like a limpit on his shoulder, picking up tips wherever I can.
We spot passengers disappearing into the bridge, where the captain steers the ship. MS Expedition has an open bridge so anyone can enter the captain’s quarters. He definitely has the best view and, more importantly, it's warm!
I'm a second too slow on the iceberg spotting but it is magnificent. 85% of an iceberg is submerged and this one is enormous so I can only imagine its whole size.
After lunch we muster in the mud room in wet and cold weather gear for our first landing on Barriantos Island within the Aitchos archipelago. Small rubber speed boats called zodiacs take us to shore. They open up a side door of the ship and we step down to the zodiacs which is no easy feat when there’s a swell.
We land as close to the beach as possible but still have to wade through knee high water in our boots. There are swarms of penguins – Gentoo and Chinstrap. They are comical and cute, unbelievably tame and curious, coming right up to nibble at our boots. They have no predators here other than leopard seals so they have no fear. Some are feeding their chicks. Others are clustered together for their annual moult - a particularly stressful time for them because they lose their waterproof coat and can’t go into the sea to feed. So they are cold, tired and hungry.
But they still look beautiful.
Further along the beach, amongst the thousands of penguins, we spot four types of seals – fur, Weddell, leopard and the ‘jabba the hut-like’ elephant seal. My Flabber is ghasted. It is wildlife in its own surroundings, raw and stunning. It is untouched and it regularly crosses my mind that I am disturbing something so pristine. So I feel a bit uncomfortable.
There are giant whale bones washed up on the beach after the whaling days a hundred years ago. There is an old mast from a whaling ship, which had probably fallen victim to getting stuck in pack ice.
A leopard seal catches a penguin and plays with it before killing it. I'm mortified. We move past the killing melee as slowly as possible but the giant seal is more interested in us. It follows us on the boat so the driver kills the engine. He briefly disappears, popping up out of the water next to Geezer and I on the boat. He snorts and then dips back into the water. He swims after us again but eventually loses interest. I've been holding my breath the whole time.
We have a debrief before dinner and there is a distinct buzz in the room. When Chris asks how our day was, everyone cheers. He looks pleased.
Tomorrow we head further south to Melchior and Danco islands.
Antarctica: Day 4 – the best day of my life?
I saw true beauty today. It took my breath away. Untouched and serene – the truest beauty that nature has to offer. Nature that I will never set eyes on again. Maybe. They say Antarctica is addictive and I understand why. This place has an unimaginable magic about it. That a documentary or photographs or a travel blog won’t do justice.
Today the weather has turned and we wake to snow, rising swells and gusty winds. It isn’t looking good for a ‘zodiac cruise’ – our first of the tour. But the expedition team eventually manoeuvre the ship around Melchior Island so we can get off.
The swell makes jumping into the zodiacs difficult and the staff are strict with their instructions. Do exactly as you are told. Accept help by a seaman if offered. Once on the zodiac we are free to cruise about the icebergs in the chop.
I love boats and being in this tiny rubber zodiac on the big swell makes me giggle. Up and down in the chop. Up and down. I feel like ya-hooing amongst the bobbing icebergs (and I think I do more than once).
We cruise around icebergs that look like skateboard ramps. Colour combinations of whites and the mintiest blues – the freshest, purist blue you can think of. And then you see a bit that is a beautiful sky blue. The water is clear and blue too. It reminds me of mouthwash. Swirling around these icebergs.
The glaciers look fragile as if they are about to slide all the way down the mountain into the sea. And some of them have so that we have these icebergs to cruise around.
I take so many photos but the pictures I’m most concerned about are the ones in my mind. I am hoping that I will never forget a single second of this. Because it is so good.
A Weddle seal pops up to say hello. It jumps on and off the rocks as if putting on a show just for us. The wildlife here is so curious about us and our boats.
Reluctantly, after an hour and a quarter, we head back to the ship. The ride back is just as choppy and exciting. Getting back on the ship is our next challenge because the swell has risen further. But I get back on the boat with the help of the three able seaman and I walk to my cabin with a smile the size of China. Oh wow!
We devour lunch and prepare to set foot on Danco Island, which is covered in snow and ice. There is virtually no wind, visibility is good. It is quiet and calm. My feet get wet but I don’t care. We hike up a hill and arrive at a summit that overlooks the bay.
The island is covered in Gentoo penguins. And there are two humpback whales just milling around in the bay. There are many floating icebergs and in amongst them is our ship, which looks more like a toy from where we are.
But the surrounding mountains and glaciers are truly breathtaking. The entire landscape is majestic. I think everyone is a bit stunned.
When we are back on the ship, several people are just standing on the deck in awe. An Irish guy, Kieran, is listening to his ipod and I wonder what music would match this view. As if hearing my thoughts he puts his headphones in my ears. It’s Enya. I burst out laughing. Ah yep OK.
Tomorrow we have permission to land at one of the only winter manned stations in the Antarctic. Most research stations here are only manned in summer. It is a Ukrainian station with a homemade vodka bar. It’s St Patricks Day and the Irish are all excited and fidgety about it.
For the first time we have anchored for the night and the ship has turned off its engines. It’s gone quiet, almost as if it wants us to reflect on today’s magic. The silence is deafening but lovely. And I can’t wait to close my eyes to see those pictures again.