NOTE - THE FOLLOWING VIDEOS/PHOTOS ARE NOT MINE (STILL 8GB TO UPLOAD), THEY BELONG TO FELLOW PASSENGERS
The White Continent. The driest, coldest, most isolated and purest place on the earth. The definition of wilderness. A place that remained virtually unknown and impenetrable to man until recently, Antarctica is a land that inspires fear, elicits wonder, and encourages adventure. Volcanoes and mountains of ice, rising out of the frigid sea both forbid entry and coaxes the foolhardy. Just over a century ago, the continent's propensity for savage and unpredictable weather meant death for the few brave enough to attempt to penetrate the coast for the pole. Modern technology and knowledge has managed to reduce this disadvantage, but visitors remain largely at the whim of capricious and ferocious weather patterns. It remains largely untrodden by humans, and is probably the last true frontier on our planet. What adventure trip would be complete without a visit to such a land?
I admit that Antarctica wasn't the first destination I thought of when planning this trip. But having come so far, it would be silly to forgo such an opportunity. About a year ago I had booked a November departure, but back in May was told that a large group had essentially booked out the whole cruise. I was told that I would enjoy a different cruise more. And so on the 9th of December, I walked from the hostel down to the port of Ushuaia, bag full of the limited clothes that I have, and heart full of hope. I cleared the customs/ security point, and laid eyes on the M/V Ushuaia - the vessel that would take me to Antarctica, and home for the next 12 days.
But it wouldn't be just my home - I would be travelling with about 120 other passengers and crew. When I got on board to find my room and get settled in, I had a pleasant surprise. I had feared that I would be the youngest passenger by 30 years (mainly due to the cost - Antarctica isn't cheap), but the lounge was filled with people of all ages. All in all, 14 countries were represented, from Slovenia and Israel to the obligatory contingent of Aussies, Americans and Brits. Although we came from every corner of the globe (and walk of life), we were united in our shared sense of adventure - this was not going to be a luxury Caribbean cruise.
We got settled in, and congregated in the lounge/bar for the welcome address and safety drill. The safety drill was quick, but is extremely important - more than a few ships have sunk in these waters, and simply jumping overboard is not an option. In Antarctic waters, survival time is measured in minutes - hypothermia and unconsciousness are real dangers in subzero waters. Thankfully, the lifeboats on board are completely enclosed and equipped with a motor, EPIRB and enough food and water to last a week, along with seasickness meds. Which would be vital if you're lost on the Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage lies between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula and is notorious - it's likely the roughest sea in the world. For confirmation (and a bit of a queasy feeling), check the videos below. Seriously - watch them, and ask yourself whether you'd go on a trip like this. 14m swells are not unheard of here, and ships bound for Antarctica face 2 days each way of this, abeam of (at right angles to) the ship. Some companies offer an option to fly by helicopter to the ship once in the sheltered waters, but this option is beyond the budget of mere mortals. I had mentally prepped for days of rolling around, and was hesitantly looking forward to rough seas.
Nothing. It was as flat as a pond (on the rare occasion it's like this, it's jokingly called the drake lake) - I've taken baths with bigger waves. I felt like a soldier who climbs out of the trenches to charge the enemy, only to find out they had packed up and gone hours ago. It was by no means a river cruise, but sailing from Panama to Colombia was far rougher. Over the next few days, I entertained myself by reading a book on the race to the pole, and went to some of the lectures given by the staff.
The first real sight was a giant tabular iceberg, floating further north than any other that the staff could remember. The colours were amazing, and like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was around this time that a pod of Fin whales surfaced near the boat. At over 27m long, Fin whales are the second largest creature on the planet, and one of the fastest - capable of short bursts of up to 48km/hr (or faster than Usain Bolt)! A truly impressive creature, and only a taste of what was to come.
The next day we sighted land, and a second group of whales, this time a pod of humpbacks, breaching the ocean's surface and spectacularly splashing down. But that would not be the highlight of the day - that would belong to the penguins at Robert Point, our first landing.
Penguins are funny creatures - they're undoubtedly cute, and the main animal attraction of any Antarctic visit. But they're not particularly clever birds, nor are they graceful on land. It is a remarkable contrast watching these creatures swim effortlessly through the water, only to struggle on land with obstacles such as pebbles or holes in the snow. Their lack of intelligence or terrestrial ability only makes them more endearing - I defy anyone not to smile when watching a video of a penguin falling over in the snow. For wild animals, they are remarkably tame and comfortable with human interaction. Tour operators to the Antarctic impose a 5 metre distance rule, which the penguins themselves break. For example, I sat down on a rock, only to be joined later by an inquisitive Gentoo. The same can't be said for the Elephant seal - not that they were fleeing from us, but that they don't really do much at all. An open eye, or a raised head is about all a non predator could reasonably expect from a napping seal. Another creature with far greater abilities while underwater.
The next day we made land at Brown Bluff, the first of several continental landings. I had brought my helmet along (jokingly for the Drake Passage), and Izzy's plate - I'm counting it as a landing for Izzy. Photos duly taken, glacier climbed, and more wildlife spotted, we headed east for the Weddell sea.
The Weddell sea is famous for icebergs, and a swift circular current - dangerous conditions to say the least. When we got to the entrance of the sea, our hearts fell - it was nothing but ice, as far as the eye could see. Nevertheless, we got into the Zodiacs, and went for a brief trip through the floes. We were looking for a floe strong enough to walk around on, when the call came back on the radio to get back to the ship, and fast - the current was bringing the ice together, essentially trapping us in the ice. We hurried back, only to see that one Zodiac had gotten stuck in the ice, and was rapidly disappearing into the Weddell sea. It was rescue time.
We all got on board (grabbing a hot chocolate from the bar!) and watched the captain expertly navigate the ice strengthened Ushuaia towards the zodiac, cutting a path through the ice (and scaring a seal and a few penguins in the process). To navigate a 3000 tonne ship to within a metre of an inflatable boat requires a level of skill that is well and truly beyond me. Once the rescued were on board we could all laugh about it, but it must have been a bit scary out there, drifting away from the ship. A truly sobering reminder of the power of the weather and ice out here.
The next few landings all went smoothly, with some fun and games in the ample snow (my igloo and snowball building skills need a bit of work...). Far more interesting were the channels we navigated through in between landings - the Gerlache strait, and Neumayer channel, both awe inspiring places.
The next morning we visited Port Lockroy station, an old British research station that has subsequently been retrofitted and turned into a museum on life in the Antarctic. It was compelling stuff - from the recipe for seal brain, to the photos of the visit by HMS Britannia (the vessel of the Royal family!). There was even a small gift shop full of one of a kind souvenirs. The funds raised supported preservation efforts both there and at the historical Scott hut in NZ territory (not to be confused with the US base at the south pole). I bought some xmas presents for the family, and unbelievably was able to pay with a credit card - I dare someone to get a more impressive credit card charge! I posted a few postcards there as well - due to be delivered in about 3 months!
After yet another landing, everyone assembled at the bow, dressed in our best (in my case, clean) and warmest clothes for an Antarctic wedding. I think Jesse and Erin were onto something - a wedding without the hassle, in a mystical land. Although I've never seen a wedding with quite so many cameras! Everything went fantastically, both groom and bride said yes, and then it was time for the reception - Argentine asado followed by a massive party. The drinking (rum with 200 yr old glacial ice!) and dancing went on well into the night. Probably too long into the night, judging by my headache in the morning.
The next morning we visited another research station, this time the Ukrainian run Vernadsky base. Formerly the British base responsible for the discovery of the hole in the Ozone layer, Vernadsky was bought by the government of Ukraine, who were eager to conduct research in the Antarctic. The research (mainly concerning fluctuations in the level of ozone present in the atmosphere) is critical, but Vernadsky is famous for less academic reasons - they make their own vodka, and sell it at the southernmost bar in the world! I had a shot or two - vodka isn't my favourite drink, but they serve a fine drop at the Vernadsky bar. The wait for a taxi can be a bit long though... I also sent a few more postcards, but these will probably take a while - the staff take them to Ukraine when their stint is over, and post them from there. Expected time of arrival? Christmas... 2013.
The next day will simply be referred to as whale day. We saw some penguins and other wildlife/ sights, but the highlight was definitely the playful Minke whales. After determining we weren't going to hunt them, they became very friendly, and got very close. Like rocking the Zodiacs close. Unbelievable.
The last day of landings included one of the big ticket items, as far as I was concerned: Deception island. An active volcano in the South Shetland islands, Deception island was once home to a large whaling operation due to it's protected waters. As we passed through Neptune's Bellows (where the rim of the volcanic crater had eroded, flooding the volcano with water), the remnants of the whalers shacks stood out on the black ash that passed for a frigid beach. We walked around the buildings, including an abandoned airstrip that was used by the British for surveillance flights. But the main attraction was definitely the beach - we were here to swim.
When the water is at low tide, the volcanic rocks warm the water to the point where it is quite comfortable to bathe. The critical point there was "low tide". We had arrived at high tide - the water was 0 +/-1 degree Celsius - not comfortable. But screw it, we were going in anyway. The expressions of those who went in first didn't fill me with confidence - the artwork "The Scream" come to mind. But I hadn't come all this way to back out now, and in I went. The first few steps were cold, then my legs went numb, then I dove under and received the most painful headache I've ever experienced. A few more seconds, and I was trying to run to shore. I say trying because my legs, like everything else, had gone completely numb and wasn't working properly.
I don't claim to be the brightest individual, but even by my standards going in for a second time was stupid. I took my camera in (waterproof and freeze proof) and recorded a video, but as soon as I touched the water I forgot about the film, and concentrated on surviving. Exiting the water on the second time, the expedition leaders pointed out that they had found a small pool of warm water 2 metres from where we had swam. Talk about bad timing. But I ran in and defrosted my toes - Pure bliss.
We got back on board (one unlucky group got a dodgy Zodiac whose engine died on the way to the ship - not what you want after an Antarctic swim!) and chewed through the hot water supply on board with showers all round. My feet were so numb that when I stubbed my toe taking off my boots, I didn't even feel it. Antarctic swim - been there, done that, never doing it again.
After our last landing, we turned back towards Ushuaia. Again the crossing was pretty smooth, although there were a few waves which claimed a few casualties (less than half of the passengers came for lunch one day)! Once back in the sheltered waters of the Beagle channel, we had the captains dinner and another party, although everybody was a little too tired to really do anything. The morning after, we pulled into port and disembarked into Ushuaia, lives changed forever.
To anyone even remotely thinking about doing this trip - DO IT. The whole trip was amazing, the crew and staff were awesome, and my fellow passengers about the best people you could hope to travel with. Some tips - make sure the boat you're on is small, as rules only allow 100 people at a time on land (on the Ushuaia, it meant all 84 passengers and up to 16 staff could land at once). A big ship means less landings, less wildlife and less fun. Also, make sure the company is IAATO affiliated - you can then be sure of an environmentally responsible trip. And finally, try to get a trip with experienced staff - the Ushuaia's staff were able to answer all my questions, and able to go places others couldn't (Vernadsky doesn't sell their vodka to just anybody).