Saturday 28 November, 10.33am, the Drake Passage, on the way back to Ushuaia
All good things come to an end. We have completed our final day of landings, and now there's just two days at sea as we traverse the Drake Passage back up from the peninsula to Argentina. Even though we’ve still got a couple of days of presentations and the Captain’s Dinner on the last night to look forward to, it’s more or less all over bar the shouting now. People are beginning to swap email addresses and photos to keep in touch, and most are taking advantage of the opportunity to catch up on a bit of sleep. The ship’s never been so quiet.
Yesterday was amazing though – as last days go, it couldn’t have gone much better, it really couldn’t. We began with a Zodiac cruise around Booth Island to Port Charcot, where we saw a whole bunch of icebergs and more importantly, people got to see me looking massively stylish. Jacs let me paint my face with her zinc sunscreen stuff, which later turned out to be a mistake
when I burnt an A into my forehead, but at the time seemed like a fantastic idea. I was on David’s boat initially, which meant being stuck with Boring Bea, one of my mortal enemies following her immensely soporific talk last night. Seconds after I climbed aboard, she shushed me very loudly for laughing. (Cow. She really is magnificently dull; her talk last night could have been quite interesting, as she was speaking about her father, who was an explorer down here in the 30s, but instead she just rambled on with no clear structure or indeed, point. We missed an amazing sunset and an iceberg passing within feet of the ship to listen to Bea’s drivel – John Rodsted told me later that because he was stood near the door, he just crawled along the floor until he was in the hall and then ran out through the bridge and outside to get some snaps. Wish I’d thought of that. We agreed today that we should have said loudly "Oh, is that a whale spout?" when it started to get unbearable, because bam, everyone would be dashing for the windows. Instead we had to settle for Justin starting to clap during what could well have been a pause, swiftly followed by everybody else. It was a crowning moment of awesome for him – he was sat behind me and I knew as soon as I heard it who it was, but I couldn’t look at him because I was afraid I’d burst out laughing if I met his eyes.)
Anyway, David is a perfectly fine Zodiac driver, but I’d never managed to do a cruise with Flipper and had always wanted to, so when we got out into open water and our boat was full and Flipper’s was half empty, I eagerly volunteered to swap. It meant leaving Andrea and the Robertsons behind, but instead I was with Trish and this great little old American couple, Mona and Sonny, and Flipper of course, and finally I got away from Bea, so it was a no-brainer. And who could pass up the opportunity to scramble around in open water between two lashed-together Zodiacs!
So the icebergs were predictably beautiful, and we even brought a little bit home with us. If the Zodiac drivers can grab a smallish chunk of glacier ice from the sea, they bring it back with them to the ship and Hannah serves it up in the bar in people’s drinks – the glaciers are freshwater, so the ice is fine, even though the sea is salty. Unfortunately I’ve been on the vino all trip, so I haven’t had any, but I’m told it’s most excellent with a G&T or scotch. Anyway, Flipper wrestled not one but two lumps of ice from the water, which earned him the respect and adoration of his passengers.
Finally, just as we began to gradually steer back towards the ship (Flipper said he likes to stay out as long as possible, but he knew David and Woody would give him shit about it, so he had to behave), we ran into a pod of minke whales. Since Flip was hardly enthusiastic about heading back in the first place, he needed no encouragement to immediately manoeuvre us into their path, giving us quality photo ops but more importantly, a great chance to just see them swimming around. They’re beautiful. There have been many shouts from the bar and bridge about whales over the weeks, but the best you ever see is a few spouts. This was a proper sighting of proper whales, just a few metres away from us. It was unbelievable. I can’t help laughing at the videos I shot when I play them back, because all you hear is me going ultrasonic. I was so giddy.
Not a bad start to the day, all things considered, but we’d barely begun. Next up was a ship cruise through the Lemaire Channel before lunch. Named for Belgian explorer Charles Lemaire, the
channel is 11km long but at its narrowest point, just 800m wide. Sue said the last time she’d been to Antarctica, it had been way too rough to get anywhere near the Lemaire. Not so today – the water was so flat and calm we could actually see our reflections in the water below. It was like a mill pond, but unlike most mill ponds, it had great big dock off mountains on either side, some as high as 300m, and icebergs and little bergy bits bouncing against the hull of the ship. It’s hard to describe just what a wonderful experience it was, not just because of the beauty of the surroundings, but because I was down on the bow with a lot of my favourite people, including a few of the crew for once, which was really good. When I wasn’t taking pics or marvelling at everything, I was walking around gossiping with everyone, shooting little videos of my chats with my friends and generally having the most chilled
time. It doesn’t sound like anything much now I repeat it back, but it was one of my favourite times all trip. Everyone was friendly, everyone was enjoying the quiet and peace (even me), and we’re all now so comfortable with each other you could slip from group to group and be welcomed everywhere. We’ve been lucky in every respect on this trip, you know – the weather has been wonderful, but the mix of people is pretty special too.
After lunch, it was time for our final landing of the journey. There were lots of sad faces in the Mud Room as we pulled on our wellies for the final time, but also a bit of excitement – even at the end there would be something new to see, because this would be our first guaranteed site to find Adelie penguins, and have a proper look at them.
Petermann Island is very different looking to anywhere else we’ve been – there’s still heaps of snow and rocks, but the rocks were a smooth and attractive light gray colour, altogether different
to the usual jagged black stuff we’ve had. The weather was also exceptional for once – it was one of the rare trips where the application of sunscreen is more important than the application of layers, because the sun was blazing down on us and it was so warm that I had to start stripping off layers and throwing them in my bag. I was down to a t-shirt and leggings under my waterproofs by the time we got back to the ship.
The Adelies were absolutely adorable. Just off that one sighting, they are definitely my favourite penguins. The gentoos are little idiots. The kings are snooty and dignified. The rockhoppers and Macaronis are narky bruisers. But the Adelies are, if it’s possible to anthropomorphize them thus, the sarcastic indie kids of the penguin world. They are definitely some of the most attractive out there, with their startling white-blue eyes and pure black and white coats, and they are smaller than a lot of the penguins we’ve seen, too. But unlike the kings, which always prefer to waddle if possible, or the gentoos, which just bloody fall over all the time, the Adelies actually choose to toboggan. And my god, can they motor. They’re the first penguins I’ve seen make seriously
headway on their stomachs, and uphill, no less! I wondered what had made these strange diagonal tracks in the snow until I saw a pair of Adelies casually zooming uphill by digging in their flippers, and then I understood. They’re fantastic. And when they’re in their nesting site, they just hang out, looking like they know how beautiful they are but they don’t especially care, because they’re too busy chilling. They have a dignity the gentoos lack, but are unpretentious in a way that the kings have not yet mastered. And they’re definitely way more chilled than the crested penguins.
Maybe I’m going mad, and an excess of penguins has warped my brain, or maybe I’m just excited to see a new breed after what feels like a billion gentoo colonies (not that they’re not cute and all, but they are a bit daft), but I would have loved to spend more time checking out their little Adelie faces. Unfortunately, before we knew it, and just as I was chilling by the water with Jane and Justin, watching the kayakers paddle amongst the gentoos and wondering if I should take a walk back to the Adelies now or in a few minutes, Tony suddenly got a buzz on the radio saying it was time to skedaddle because the captain wanted to get underway by 4pm if we were going to make
good time on the Drake. The Drake Passage is notorious for bad crossings, so he wanted to give us maximum time to reach the Beagle Channel outside Ushuaia for our last sleep.
Grumbling and deliberately dragging our heels, much to the frustration of John and some of the other staff members, we reluctantly walked back across the island to the Zodiac landing spot. One last Adelie had pitched up there and posed for our final Antarctic photos, which everyone of course took advantage of. Even if you already had a hundred shots of Adelies, it was a good excuse not to get back on the boats; everyone was insisting that we had more time because the last boat wasn’t for another twenty minutes. Through increasingly gritted teeth, John pointed out that only ten people would fit on the last boat, and the rest of us would have to go on the next to last boat, the next but one to last boat etc. Sighing, we strapped on our lifejackets and climbed aboard.
Of course, if we’d known what the rest of the night had in store for us, we probably wouldn’t have been so crabby. After we showered and changed from Petermann Island, we were all sat in the bar (ha, like, where else) when the call came over the tannoy from the bridge that orca had been
spotted in the distance. We all ran through (the bar and the bridge are on the same deck) and huddled in the corner whispering frantically to each other as the usual, not-so-exciting spouts became gripping breaches and tail flips. The ship crept closer and closer as the captain slowed us down more and more, and the orca didn’t swim away – if anything, they seemed pleasantly intrigued by our arrival. I dithered for a couple of minutes because I was convinced that I would miss them if I tried to run down to the bow, where I could see Andrea and Justin. J had his camera out and was madly clicking away whilst leaning over the side, whilst Andrea stood beside him shivering in her tiny evening top and spilling her glass of red all over the deck.
Suddenly I made the decision, and bolted for the stairs, leaving Daphne, Sue and Karen behind. I ran down to deck three as fast as I could and was dashing towards the door when Cathy came bursting in from outside and we ran straight into each other. I was opening my mouth to say sorry when she grabbed me and yelled to everyone else in reception, “Come on! They’re outside!”
So that’s how I ended up stood just out of the reception door, hanging over the side with a bunch of the staff, and grabbing the Russian waitstaff who were shyly hanging back and pulling them forward to the rail. I think they’ve been told to be neither seen nor heard by the rest of us if they’re not working in the dining room – they always react with dismay if they disturb us, while we couldn’t care less. But this was no time for letting them be polite, this was a once in a lifetime spot, and we were having none of their timid reticence. The orca, which Jamie told us later were actually dwarf orca (slightly smaller and greyer than the ones you’d see in Sea World, though not as small and gray as Antarctic orca), were right next to the ship, a huge pod of them with at least twenty on the surface and probably three times as many below the waves. Idiotically, I left my camera in the bar when the excitement first started, so must now rely on the photographs of others to illustrate this entry, but in a way that made it better for me. Instead of watching it through a viewfinder, I was watching it with my eyes, and every second of it is completely engrained in my memory. I remember the feeling of the peeling paint beneath my hands as I gripped the rail. I remember hugging one of the Russian girls. I remember the grin on Andy’s face. I remember seeing my feet pound along the green deck as I ran along the side of the ship to the stern, following the animals. I remember Scott’s voice behind me, bleating that they
weren’t all orca, there was a minke whale in the distance and everyone ignoring him (he later turned out to be right, though). I remember clutching at Andrea in excitement as I reached the stern and feeling the goosebumps on her chilly arms under my fingertips. I remember calling out to everyone I passed, and seeing my own joy mirrored on their faces, because whether we were close friends or barely knew each other, everyone was involved in this amazing moment. I remember the sadness I felt watching them as they finally swam lazily away, a sadness that wasn’t just about saying goodbye to the orca but what they represented. And then I remember looking at Justin’s photos and squealing with the girls as we saw what good shots he’d taken of them.
I remember looking at Andrea and Daphne’s shining faces, and I remember thinking, I will remember this forever.