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5. Soaring Over The Drake

To King George Island

sunny 32 °F
View Five Million Penguins and Me on paulej4's travel map.

Breakfast at seven; luggage in place by eight; at the door by nine. Our flight is cleared--at least the night before. Excitement prevails. The weather can delay this leg for hours or days and we--certainly the Russell Luck again--are scheduled in the most auspicious slot possible. Our two-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Argentina, to King George Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is aboard a high-wing, four-engine BAE 146 semi-STOL (Short Takeoff & Landing) aircraft, offering seating for 71 passengers in either preferred and economy seating; preferred seats appear to be the same as economy seats but the middle seat is left unoccupied. This flight to Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin Airport allows me to save two to three days of sailing each way on the often very rough Drake Channel to reach King George Island.

OurPlane.JPGThis flight is melancholy at best and morbid at least when I acknowledge that five days ago, that Chilean Air Force Hercules C-130 carrying 38 passengers and crew disappeared along this same route. Three days ago, searchers discovered some scraps of floating wreckage that they are virtually certain came from that airplane.


We, of course, are safe. Our flight is routine with nothing to see beneath us save cloud cover. One interesting point of note is that aboard our flight we all wear our Antarctic gear: parkas, waterproof winter pants and, of course, boots. Mine were delivered to my room last night. Why? Because when we deplane we are on a runway with no terminal. SingleFile.JPGLanding.JPGWe hike single file to the waters edge--about a mile--and board Zodiacs for our ship. We're on an active runway so we must be careful. Talk about being thrown into the pool; that is us.

The Drake Channel (for Sir Francis Drake)—usually referred to as simply “The Drake,” lies between the southernmost tip of South America—Cape Horn—and the South Shetland Islands. The Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean collide here mixing cold and warm seas creating huge currents and swells urged on by strong winds. The weather changes abruptly at a moment’s notice. It has been called “the most dangerous sea in the world” and it takes two or possibly more days aboard ship to cross its 600-mile girth.

My research showed early on that it is usually “The Drake Shake” but other times “The Drake Lake.” Journals posted by travelers describe the view from their cabin windows as being similar to looking at the water inside a front-loading washing machine with waves crashing into their windows and dining room rules requiring that plates and glasses must be “held at all times.” I read that cruise ship DJs are prone to play “Rock the Boat” for any travelers hearty enough to make it to the upper deck’s lounges. That is exactly what I opted to avoid by skipping the whole thing and flying over it.


These “Rock the Boat” lyrics made me think that taking two days down and two days back with that possibility indicate that a flight was the better way to do this.

So I'd like to know where, you got the notion
Said I'd like to know where, you got the notion
(To rock the boat), don't rock the boat baby,
don't tip the boat over

My more youthful readers should simply ask Alexa or Google to play the song or watch it on YouTube where the original 1974 Hues Corporation hit lives on. Note the line: "Your arms have held me safe from a rollin' sea..." B4's arms are far away; I decided to soar aloft rather than take a "ship on the ocean..."

Another thing to keep in mind is that bigger more stable ships don’t ply these waters—the cruise ships here tend to be smaller, many of them of the “expedition” variety. The smaller the vessel the greater the turbulence passengers experience. Luxury line Silversea takes 144 people across on the “Explorer” or 254 aboard “Silver Cloud.” That doesn’t sound like the kind of luxury experience my luxury partner would find appealing.
On the other end of the scale, Celebrity Cruise Lines does take its nearly 3,000 passenger “Eclipse” across--it was just here but didn't sail south--as does Princess Cruise Lines with “The Coral Princess” which carries 2,000 intrepid adventurers. The problem is that the idea here is to make landfall in Antarctica rather than just catching glimpses from aboard ship; large ships don’t make Zodiac trips to the ice—only small ships are equipped to do that.

My guess is—I have no personal experience here—that there is much less sea sickness among those who paid less on Princess or Celebrity large ships and much more stomach churning among those who paid through the nose on Silversea aboard small ships. But it has to be the luck of the draw—do you get the “Shake” or the “Lake?” But remember, either way, it is an investment of two days of nothing to see at sea. I’m flying so that I can maximize my Zodiac time.

Landing at King George Island, it is important to remember that this is not Antarctica; it is still 75 miles away.


Rather, the island is either a part of Argentina or Chile or the U.K. (depending upon how much of a fight each wants to wage against the others) and the largest of the group of South Shetland Islands. But we pose--me and also Dianne and Lauren--with the Antarctica Flag anyway.

Sixteen research stations (sponsored by Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, Spain, South Korea, Peru, Poland, Russia, Uruguay and the U.S.) are located here in a region that is closed by ice from early April until about now—early December—and where the average temperature for eight months of the year is below freezing. These islands are 80% snow-and/or ice-covered even during summer when temperatures skyrocket to nearly 35 degrees.

f52ba210-1edb-11ea-8ad8-6ba6f19b3bdc.pngThe research conducted here is focused on biology, ecology, geology and paleontology (fossils). The main things to see here are Russia’s Bellingshausen station, Chile’s Frei Station and, perhaps, Trinity Church. The place is remote as witnessed by taking a look at the map.

RussianChurch.JPGTrinity Church is a picturesque if tiny structure, one of eight churches on—or near—the continent. Capable of accommodating up to 30 Russian Orthodox worshippers, this wooden traditional Russian style structure peeks—or peaks—almost fifty feet into the frigid sky. It was built in Russia, dismantled, shipped here and reassembled to be consecrated in 2004. Among the resident priests’ tasks is “praying for the souls of the 64 Russians who have died here.”

A bit over a year ago, Bellingshausen Station, here since 1968, was the scene of an attempted murder. According to the New York Post, “a Russian scientist, Sergey Savitsky, reportedly snapped and allegedly tried to stab a colleague, Oleg Beloguzov, to death because the victim kept giving away the endings of books. Officials said that while the reading dispute was the final straw, the close confinement in the camp on remote Antarctica played a role in fueling the attack.” The newspaper called it the coldest cold case ever.

Less than 700 feet away is Chile’s Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva, or Frei Station. Surrounding that are a hospital, a school, a bank and a small market to serve the summertime population of 150 and wintertime smaller heartier group of about 80 humans.

It reminds me of my visit to Arctic Svalbard’s Ny-Aalesund, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world—10,000 miles north of here—in June of this year. If you missed that blog, find it at https://RussellArctic.travellerspoint.com or go to RussRaff.com where all of our recent blogs are now housed for the amusement of anyone with too much time on their hands.

That Svalbard trip, mostly about polar bears, should contrast wonderfully with this one which is mostly about penguins. I'll have accolades for our ship but that will have to wait for a later post. Our Zodiac is undermined by penguins swimming faster than I thought possible beneath us; then porpoising to breathe and diving again. The waters are mirror smooth; the temperature is just about 32 degrees. We are welcomed aboard ship and I am escorted to a stateroom worry of a five or six star line. I have tons of room and everything looks and feels brand new.

There is a safety briefing, a lifeboat practice with lifejackets and all the rest. That is followed by a cocktail party where the Captain, Andre Rodenko introduces his senior staff. Next comes the exhibition staff. For the 71 of us, there are 16 of them. They hail from Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Chile, Germany, Tasmania, England and the U.S. All seem warm and friendly and young and handsome/beautiful. At dinner later on I sit with three of them and my now life-buddies Dianne and Lauren and the conversation is golden.

PenguinsPorpoising.JPGClearSailing.JPGGlassySmoothSeas.JPGBerg.JPGSunsetAlmost.JPGThere are whales off the starboard side, penguins swimming and icebergs looming. The water, as I have said, is mirror smooth--the crew can't get over how flat the sea is and how lucky we are to be riding upon it. Frankly, it is bliss. The cold air is more pure than any from which I have ever drawn breath. The beginning of this expedition is sublime. You ought to see it.

Posted by paulej4 17:42 Archived in Antarctica

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You are my idol ???????? Stay safe - can’t wait to hear the stories.

by Jim Pruett

I love this, Paul. Such vicarious adventure

by Theresa

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