The White Continent
Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
124Trip End Nov 30, 2011
On Saturday I was a little restless. We had seen the ship dock the night before, been kicked out of our hotel room at 10am, our bags had been taken off in a van soon afterwards, and we were still not allowed to board until 4pm. There was nothing to do in Ushuaia as most of the shops and restaurants were closed for New Year’s Day - I just wanted to get on the ship and go!
We were not allowed to wander through the port to board the ship, so at 4pm 128 people congregated in the car park just outside the gates in order to catch a bus for the very short ride to the ship. Once onboard we were quickly allocated our cabins, and Andrew and I were delighted to see that we had been upgraded! Thank you Gap Adventures! The ship was bought by the company in 2008 and given a $13 million refit so everything was all spangly and new looking, and our cabin was far nicer than 99% of the hotels we have stayed in! When we originally looked into booking the trip we had only been able to afford a category 2 cabin which had a porthole, but at the time of booking there was a big sale on so we could afford a category 3 cabin which came with a window! But now with our upgrade we were going up in the world, literally - up one floor on the ship and with the bonus of a door sized window, out of which I would spend hours gazing at the ocean, icebergs, landscape, and wildlife.
We were quickly summoned to the lounge for a short introduction and safety briefing, followed by a SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) drill which took us up to the lifeboats. It was the first time I’ve ever seen inside a lifeboat (and hopefully the last) and we were told not to ask about the toilet facilities in the lifeboats… So of course that got me wondering! Andrew and I stayed up on deck afterwards to watch our departure, and shortly after 6pm the last rope was cast off and we were on our way. The adventure had begun.
Shortly after our voyage down the Beagle Canal had begun, we were back in the lounge for our meeting with Julio (our Expedition Leader) and the rest of the team – 11 in total. After this there was just enough time to unpack (I was very excited about not having to move for 10 days!) before dinner. At dinner, we joined a lovely Danish couple (Morten and Kristina) on a table, from where we could look at the beautiful scenery - Argentina on our port side, and Chile on our starboard side. The onboard doctor had mentioned in his introduction that apart from the obvious issues being onboard a ship, he had to hospitalise someone a few weeks previously for overeating - and it was soon apparent why! We had a 4 course dinner which was excellent, and was more food in one meal than Andrew and I have been used to eating in a whole day!
After dinner I went up on deck to watch the sunset over the Beagle Canal, during which time I saw the 'hit and run’ departure of our Argentinean pilot who had been onboard since Ushuaia. The pilot ship approached, hit the side of the ship, the pilot jumped aboard and they were gone! No ropes, nothing. So now we were on our own and about to head into the open water of the Drake Passage.
I had always been apprehensive about the Drake Passage- you either get ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’. The ocean currents around Antarctica move in an easterly direction and all of the water has to funnel through the relatively narrow opening (500km) of the Drake Passage, hence the water can get very turbulent. We took our sea sickness pills before bedtime and then headed off to sleep…
The swells increased notably during the night with a fair amount of rocking and rolling going on. Luckily Andrew and I felt fine, and were summoned to breakfast at 8am by Josie (the hotel manager) on the intercom wishing us her trademark ‘Bon Appétit’. Breakfast was a buffet and there was so much to choose from we didn’t know where to start. You name it, they had it!
I had downloaded several new books on to my Kindle, and a few films on to the laptop prior to the trip as we were expecting to have a lot of free time during the crossings. The Expedition team had other ideas however. Throughout Sunday we went to lectures on Antarctic Geography, Ernest Shackleton and Penguinology 101! By the time they were finished, we were back in the lounge for the Captain’s Cocktails, and to finally meet him - he had been a little busy the previous evening! Despite the absence of a few people during the day and a few seasickness injections being administered by the doctor, the Captain told us that this was as smooth a crossing as we could hope for through the Drake Passage, and we were making excellent progress. We would be spotting land at lunchtime the next day….
After another hearty breakfast on Monday morning, we assembled in the lounge for mandatory briefings on the IAATO guidelines (in short how to behave in Antarctica) and expedition protocol (the tag system and zodiacs). From there we went to the Mud Room to get our boots – which included fur linings for the girls! Only one word can describe this process - chaos! Andrew and I were in the last group to go and be fitted, so whilst he had no problems getting boots, it was a different story for me. There were very few boots left so after trying on various pairs I ended up taking the fur linings out of one pair and putting them in the smallest pair of men’s boots. I was quite happy with this as they were more roomy and comfortable, and the boots came up higher which meant even less chance of getting wet feet!
I realised we were approaching land as I spotted penguins porpoising out of the cabin window. I grabbed the camera and headed up on to the deck for my first view of Antarctica - a misty landscape made up of many islands. We had finally reached the South Shetlands. I’ve never been to the Shetland Islands off Scotland but from pictures I have seen I imagine them to be very similar to the ones here. Rocky outcrops with jagged peaks and quite breathtaking scenery. The islands were not fully covered in snow and ice as I had expected, but there was still some around that had not melted in the summer ‘heat’.
After lunch we moored just off Barrientos Island (part of the Aitcho Islands), our first landing site in Antarctica. We all descended to the Mud Room to get kitted up ready to go. For me this was three layers of Icebreaker tops and a fleece, thermal trousers and tracksuit bottoms, and then over the top my waterproof jacket and the infamous $5,000 waterproof trousers (finally getting some use!). With the furry boots, scarf, hat and gloves I was ready to go! The doctor checked we all had our hats, gloves and life vests on, and after dunking our boots in disinfectant we were loaded on to the zodiacs, 12 people at a time, to be taken to the beach. We had been told in our penguin lecture that the most photographed penguin is always the closest one on the beach as people get out of the zodiac on their first landing. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to do this, but once there it was a different story. Yes my first photograph of a penguin was indeed that one right next to our zodiac! After a minute or so of clicking away, I looked around and saw that there were penguins literally everywhere. On the beach, in the water, scurrying up and down the snow, sitting on nests, high up on the hills. Everywhere!
The penguins we were going to see were all about a foot high. They have no predators on land, and with relatively little human interaction, they have absolutely no fear of us. They just carried on with their daily business, occasionally stopping to look at us, and the thing we all seemed to find the hardest was maintaining a 5 metre distance from them! There were Gentoo penguins nesting just above the high water mark with furry chicks a little more than 3 weeks old. Up on the hill were Chinstrap penguins with even younger chicks – they had to wait longer for the ice on the hill to melt before they could make their nests, hence the younger chicks. Everywhere we looked there was something happening - we saw a Skua snatch a baby Chinstrap from its nest which in turn was taken from the Skua by a Giant Petrel, Gentoo penguins stealing each other’s rocks to build up their own nests, and chicks being fed regurgitated krill by their parents. It was amazing just to be able to sit on a rock and watch them all. Heading back down the beach we also saw two juvenile Elephant seals sleeping on the sand, and a mummified Crabeater seal that had probably been preserved under winter snows for several years. The three hours on the island flew by, and it seemed no time at all before we were being herded back to the zodiacs and being told not to worry, we’d see plenty more penguins in the next few days!
Back onboard we had a recap session before dinner to discuss with Julio and the Expedition team what we had seen and share some of our funny stories and experiences. After another wonderful dinner, we headed back into the lounge for some photo tips from Frank, the penguin expert. He had some incredible photos to show us so I just hoped I could take a few good ones in the coming days…
During the ‘night’ (I don’t think it got dark at all) we navigated down the Bransfield Strait to moor off Cuverville Island, the home of over 4,000 pairs of nesting Gentoo penguins, and our next landing site. With the dulcet tones of Julio waking us up over the intercom system on Tuesday morning, we headed off to breakfast shortly afterwards and then to the Mud Room to don all of our gear for our visit. On arrival at Cuverville, most of us decided to climb to the top of the dome to see the breathtaking views of the surrounding area. Unfortunately the views were not visible for long as the mist was rolling in. On the way back down Andrew was anxious to toboggan down the hill (I was left holding the camera equipment), albeit head first! Apparently it was a lot of fun! Once we were back down at the beach we were able to spend a bit of time amongst the penguins, most of who were sitting on their nests or going about their daily routines. There were no chicks to be seen here unfortunately due to the unusually large amount of snow that had fallen late in the winter. Penguins need bare rock in order to lay their eggs so these ones had to wait longer than usual for the snow to melt. This means that their chance of success with chicks this year is not great, as the eggs will hatch late and there will be a shorter time available for fledging before the cold weather sets in and the penguins must leave. Very sad, but it’s nature.
Back onboard we were treated to al fresco dining for lunch - a wonderful barbecue on deck whilst sailing down the Errera Channel. The views were incredible and there were icebergs everywhere! For me it was perfect - breathtaking scenery whilst eating my favourite dessert - crumble (any flavour welcome)!
The landing that afternoon was, for many, the most special. It was our only continental landing - the only time we would actually set foot on the true Antarctic continent. Once again we were called by groups to go to the Mud Room and get ready for our visit to Neko Harbour. Lots of us made the trek up to the top of the ridge for a breathtaking view of the bay, where we also saw a shooter (glacial ice breaking off below the surface of the water) and several avalanches. Andrew once again slid head first down the hill, and I was left to make a more sedate descent with the camera! We had some time to sit in the snow, relax and take in our surroundings - watching more avalanches, Gentoo penguins and Weddell seals. There used to be an Argentinean refugio here, but it was destroyed in a storm a few years ago and now the Gentoos have commandeered the remains as part of their rookery!
Early on Wednesday morning we crossed the Lemaire Channel – one of the most scenic areas along the Antarctic Peninsula but frequently covered in pack ice. In some ways we were lucky as we were able to navigate it (the first time this season) but unfortunately we were unable to appreciate the scenery as the 3,000m high mountains were covered in fog. The Ice Captain (in addition to the Captain) was able to maneuver around all of the icebergs and remaining pack ice, and just after breakfast we arrived at Petermann Island, the southern-most point of our voyage (65 deg, 10 mins south) and our best chance of seeing Adelie penguins.
We had a lot more freedom to roam on Petermann Island than any of our previous landing sites - we just had to remember to stay 5 metres away from the penguins. Andrew and I decided to head off in a different direction to most and went to explore the Gentoo rookery around the refugio first, passing a Weddell seal on the way that was sleeping the morning away in the snow. From there we headed off up the hill to see some of the smaller rookeries, and were rewarded with stunning scenery of the bay behind which was full of icebergs. There was only one other person around so it was very peaceful and we were able to observe the penguins there undisturbed. The only drawback was that as we headed down to see the Adelie penguins we decided to take a shortcut across the hillside which unknowingly took us passed a pair of nesting Skuas. I had been told on our first landing that Skuas can be quite aggressive, and if they feel threatened then both adults leave the nest to attack. So we were quite happily trudging through the snow, which was actually quite deep on this island, and the next thing I know is a bird is flying straight at my head. Skuas can knock people out, so with a racing heart I made a very rapid retreat, still being circled and swooped over, and decided that the long way down was probably the best option. Close encounters with penguins are great, Skuas not so much. By the time we got to the Adelie penguins, most people had started to head back to the ship so we were able to take our time and sit on the rocks watching them. There were also a few Gentoos here, and a pair of Chinstraps - very uncommon to see all three types together - especially as this is the first time Chinstraps have been spotted nesting on Petermann Island. Our penguin expert, Frank, was later able to tell us that this sighting has extended the breeding range of the Chinstrap penguin by 40 miles.
During lunch we made a short navigation to Pleneau Island which we were going to explore by zodiac. Andrew and I were very pleased to be in the first group as it gave us the rest of the afternoon to have a sauna and relax! As it turned out we were also on the luckiest ship, as not only did we have a lovely ride around the sculptured ice work, we also spotted a Leopard seal relaxing on the pack ice, as well as one in the water, and two Crabeater seals - more wildlife than anyone else.
With everyone back on board it was time to turn around and head north, back through the Lemaire Channel. Unfortunately there was still some fog around, but we were able to see more than we had during the morning, with the added bonus of a Leopard seal and a couple of Humpback whales. From there the Captain navigated through the very narrow and less used Peltier Channel to Port Lockroy where we moored overnight.
Port Lockroy was a British base and is now home to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The base has been preserved as a museum and gift shop, and from November to March is manned by five volunteers who welcome visitors, stamp the mail posted in the world’s most southerly post box and monitor the Gentoo penguins as part of a programme to investigate the impact of tourism. I could easily see myself doing this!
The base can only take 60 people at a time so on Thursday morning we had to be split into two groups. Half would go to the base whilst the others went to Jugla Point to see the penguins, and then we would swap. Julio decided the best way to do this was to load up the zodiacs and then as we left tell the driver where to take us. I couldn’t quite see the need for this as we were all going to go to both places, but I guess it provided some amusement to the crew seeing our faces when we found out where we were going!
Our zodiac headed to Jugla Point, and I was really sad to hear people saying as we disembarked that they had seen enough penguins - granted they are everywhere, and even I had stopped taking as many photos by this stage (I did have hundreds if not thousands), but they are absolutely fascinating creatures and I could quite happily sit and watch them for hours. Once again we were lucky enough to find Gentoos, Chinstraps and even some Adelies, the latter of which are not usually found this far north as they prefer colder temperatures.
A little while later we were back in the zodiacs for the changeover, and we headed to Port Lockroy. There were Gentoos everywhere, but this time I was more impressed to see the Union Jack flying high above the island. What I was not so happy to see a few minutes later, nor were the staff, was an Asian guy posing next to the British base sign completely naked! He was quickly told to cover up as it was inappropriate, and the rest of us were left asking why would you do that?
The gift shop was unsurprisingly packed with people wanting to buy souvenirs, and I came away quite lightly compared to some. I imagine it would have been a different story if I didn’t have to carry everything with me for a year! Andrew and I had written our postcards the night before so we only needed to buy the stamps. I was a little disappointed to see that the currency used was US dollars and not pounds, but I guess it is the easiest and most commonly used. After posting our cards we explored the museum where we could see old cans of food and equipment in the kitchen and living areas, as well as painted pictures of Marilyn Monroe in the sleeping quarters. You could really begin to imagine what life was like here. The base was closed in 1962 and was unused until 1997 when a huge renovation was done to preserve the base and open it up for people to visit.
I had been expecting to see a lot of whales when we came down to Antarctica so was quite disappointed at this stage that we had only seen a couple of Humpbacks anywhere near the ship, and a lot of blowholes in the distance. The Expedition staff must have felt the same as they decided that on Thursday afternoon instead of making a landing we would head to Dallman Bay and go whale watching. No-one could have imagined what was in store for us. No sooner had we finished lunch than some Orca were spotted. Everybody rushed out on deck and a little like the penguins, it seemed that everywhere you looked there were Orca - our experts reckon there were about a hundred. They seemed to be in groups, feeding quite near the surface, and were completely unphased by our presence. Some of them were only a few metres off the ship, and in time were swimming under and around it. Not long after we arrived we spotted a group of Orca chasing a poor porpoising penguin that had nowhere to go. The shore was quite a way off and there were no icebergs big enough for him to take refuge on so he had to keep swimming. It was only a matter of time before he started to tire, and the Orcas moved in. After playing with the penguin for a few minutes and dismantling it, the poor penguin was no more. The experts had never witnessed this sort of behaviour by Orca at such a close distance, and came to the conclusion that the Orca were teaching their young how to hunt.
It wasn’t long before we saw another penguin ‘bullet swimming’- as fast as it could in any direction, being closely followed by the Orca. This was "Swim for Your Life’ part 2! There were many shouts on deck of “Go, penguin, go" but unfortunately this one quickly followed the same fate as the first. This time the Skuas, Giant Petrels and Storm Petrels had gathered to get any bits of meat and oil that were left floating on the surface.
Incredibly “Swim for Your Life” part 3 soon began, and this was the most amazing one of all. The penguin could obviously see the ship and was looking at it for refuge. It was swimming around and under it, obviously looking for somewhere to jump on, but the ship was too high. I’m not sure whether any of you saw the YouTube clip that circulated a year or two ago of Orca chasing a penguin which then decided to jump aboard a zodiac full of tourists for safety. If so, our penguin man Frank was on that zodiac when it happened. He was adamant that if we had put down a zodiac next to the ship then the penguin would have jumped into it. Not so lucky this time our little friend, he had nowhere to go. But on he went, from one side to the other, closely followed by the Orca, and by us on deck. Every time we thought he had gone he reappeared, porpoising on the surface with the Orca in hot pursuit. Penguins are obviously a lot smaller and can change direction much quicker than an Orca so we were all riveted to the chase going on below us. This time we didn’t get to witness the end, if indeed there was one- I’d like to believe that the penguin got away… But after an hour and a half of this show it was time to go to Dallmann Bay for our whale watching!
Unsurprisingly nothing could live up to what we had just witnessed, but we did see some Humpbacks as soon as we entered the bay. We were fortunate to have a mother and calf swim right beside the ship to check us out but they didn’t hang around, and then we were able to watch a Humpback breach about 5 times. Many blows were seen around the ship, but unfortunately none very close.
We were incredibly lucky to have witnessed what we did with the Orca as it certainly doesn’t happen very often. In the twenty years that one of the team has been coming to Antarctica he said that this is only the second or third time he has seen an event like this, and never this close - we were truly spoilt!
During the night we navigated north towards Deception Island and were awoken at 5am on Friday morning on our approach to Neptune’s Bellows. This is the narrow entrance into the caldera of Deception Island, and is named because of the strong winds that often funnel through here. This morning was no exception as I went up on deck to watch us pass through and was almost blown away in the process! The Bellows is less than 500 metres wide and has several obstructions such as a submarine rock pinnacle and a wreck which both necessitate precise navigation. I stayed to watch our safe passage through, and then quickly headed back inside to warm up!
Our first landing of the day (at 6am no less) was at Whalers Bay, one of the largest whaling stations in Antarctica from 1911-1931 and afterwards a British army base. We made the trek across the beach and up to Neptune’s Window to look out over the Bransfield Strait and to see the birds nesting in the very steep cliffs. There was also a wonderful view of Deception Island itself, which is normally covered in cloud. We were also able to wander around the remnants of its past such as old oil tanks, water ships, an aeroplane hanger and dilapidated buildings. The last volcanic eruption was in 1969 and it partially destroyed and buried the buildings and jetty. This is still a tectonically active area and the sea temperature is supposed to be warmer here than in the rest of Antarctica!
We were back onboard for breakfast, after which we made another landing, this time at Telefon Bay. This is a few miles further into the caldera, and is actually the site of a secondary crater of the volcano. We walked up to the ring of the crater for some dramatic views down into its depths.
Just before lunch we made our way out of Deception Island, through Neptune’s Bellows again. The weather was a lot brighter and less windy this time which made me wish I hadn’t jumped out of bed at 5am to go and see them first time!
We were navigating towards Half Moon Island, our last landing in Antarctica, where there was one last treat left for us - a Macaroni penguin (our fifth species of penguin). These are the ones with the funny yellow hair, and are not normally found in this area. However, this one lone penguin has paired with a Chinstrap penguin and lives happily within the colony, albeit with an identity crisis I expect. This pair of penguins will not be able to produce offspring, but each year they still go through the same process as every other pair, making their nest and sitting on it, but without any eggs. Our walk up to the rookery was slightly hampered by the Chinstrap penguin version of the M25 - penguin after penguin just kept on coming along the path so in the end we had to find an alternative route through the rocks to get there, and were rewarded with a look at the Macaroni. I would have been very disappointed if he had been out at sea feeding during our visit!
On our way back to the zodiacs we came across a Weddell seal on the snow, and a Fur seal on the rocky shoreline (our fifth species of seal). It was very hard to leave the shore and go back to the ship - just a few more minutes, please! But finally it was time to go as we had to head north and start our voyage back across the Drake Passage.
At our evening briefing that night we were given a talk by our Ice Captain, who is also the Head of Marine Operations at GAP, about the refit of the M/S Expedition. I was very surprised to learn that she had been a car ferry in the Baltic for 22 years, and was bought by GAP in 2008 to replace their ship which had sunk in Antarctica!
Once again Andrew and I took our seasickness pills before bedtime and despite a few good rolls in the night, we both slept very well. Saturday dawned a little grey and overcast and the wind was picking up. After a visit to the deck for a breath of fresh air we were back in the lounge for most of the day, enjoying very informative lectures on Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole; Frank’s work setting up the polar section at Sea World in San Diego back in the 1970s; the Antarctic Treaty and its future; and the effects of long line fishing on seabirds such as the Albatross. Obviously there wasn’t much to see that day, except for the vast ocean, and with a reasonably calm Drake Passage we were making good time.
During the course of Saturday night however we started to experience some ‘Drake Shake’. Anything that wasn’t safely stowed started flying around the ship and there was a lot of rocking and rolling going on.
On Sunday morning we had hoped to approach Cape Horn which would have been a wonderful end to the trip. However, as conditions had deteriorated during the night bringing large swells, 23 miles off the Cape the Captain made the decision to abort the attempt to approach it. The wind was blowing 40 knots and the waves were up to 12 metres so we were forced to turn eastwards and headed for the Beagle Canal, and hopefully a smoother passage. The table decorations had been removed in the restaurant, the cups had no saucers and the tablecloths were wet in order to stop everything sliding around. The chairs had been chained to the floor all week so they weren’t going anywhere, but I wondered just how long it would be before someone ended up wearing their food!
Sunday was probably the most relaxed day we had on our trip. After breakfast we had some time to pack and relax for a bit before we went on a tour of the very noisy engine room. It was interesting, but I feel sorry for the poor engineers stuck down there all day - its hot, noisy and there are no windows out of which to look at the magnificent Antarctic scenery - they could be anywhere in the world!
Soon after lunch we entered the protected waters of the Beagle Canal and the ship regained stability. Andrew and I headed off to the sauna, just to make sure we had thawed out totally after our icy experience, and then headed to the lounge for the ship’s auction, all proceeds going to the Save the Albatross Campaign. Unfortunately there were only five things being auctioned off – a crew baseball cap and t-shirt; the chef’s recipe for chocolate pudding and a bottle of Antarctic glacial water; a copy of Frank’s bird book and some of his photographs which had been laminated; the M/S Expedition flag from the bow of the ship, and a wonderful illustrated chart of our voyage.
If you are reading this properly you will have detected the word ‘flag’ in the previous paragraph. Funnily enough when we went into the auction neither Andrew nor I had any intention of bidding on the items for the usual reasons of saving money, and well, we’d have to carry it! I was very surprised therefore when Andrew started the bidding on the flag (I’d like to think he was being romantic!), but it was actually me that ended it! As so many countries have a claim on Antarctica there is no actual flag for the continent, so I decided that the flag from our voyage was probably the closest I was going to get. It was signed by the Captain and the Expedition team, and rest assured this is one flag that will not be appearing on my classroom ceiling!
We docked in Ushuaia just after 6pm, after which Julio and the staff invited us to the lounge to watch a photographic journey of our trip, followed by the Captain’s farewell and cocktails, and then dinner, fantastic as always. Morten, Kristina, Andrew and I headed to the bar after dinner to enjoy a couple of drinks and watch the karaoke. It was a lot of fun and there was a great atmosphere, but I was a little sad knowing that our journey had come to an end.
Why Antarctica? Answering the question now is easy. It is simply the most incredible place I have ever been. It’s all the words I mentioned at the start - different, remote, unique, vast, relatively untouched, icebergs, penguins and so much more. It is a land full of contrasts with amazing wildlife, history, geography and above all, penguin power!
We were told that no-one goes to the Antarctic just once - I can’t wait for my next chance.
Next stop is back to civilization, Ushuaia, and then onto El Calafate.
Photos to come at a later date. I have to sort through 3,515 to find the best!