A Travellerspoint blog

Antarctica

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.

BootsToRoom.JPG

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.

The_Hues_Corporation_in_1970.jpg

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.

9f482270-1eda-11ea-896b-e7dff70fff5c.JPG9ed2a450-1eda-11ea-896b-e7dff70fff5c.JPG

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 Comments (2)

6. Our First Landing?

Formally Dressed Welcoming Party

sunny 34 °F

This what will become our routine: Wake-up at 7:00 followed by breakfast at 7:30 followed by a Zodiac expedition at 9:00. This morning we are, after having sailed 143 nautical miles overnight, anchored in Mikkelsen Harbour on the south shore of Trinity Island which shields the peninsula from the Bellingshausen Sea. Your glass tabletop serves as a descriptor for the waters here. It is dead calm and peaceful beyond measure. Ice surrounds us. Silence is company to the crispness of Antarctic air.

KyaksAwait.JPGKayakersAweigh.JPGLaurenDianneKayaking.JPGIntrepid kayakers Lauren and Dianne depart before the remainder of our 71-person landing party. Those of us who Zodiac directly to the shore are welcomed by a Gentoo Penguin rookery guarded by a trio of dozing seals. Several nests are here, some with eggs at penguin feet; we did not see any chicks. Soon, they will hatch, but not today.SealsDozing.JPGEggGuarding.JPGPenguinsNesting.JPGPenguinNestBuilding.JPGPenguinAshore.JPGPenguinCalling.JPGPenguinsTalking.JPGPenguinsLooking.JPG

We are cautioned to remain 15 feet from penguins and to avoid their “highways” when they are on the move between their nests and the sea. Our landing site is marked by two skeletons: a long abandoned skiff and a long deceased whale.

SkeletonWhale.JPGSkeletonSkiff1.JPGThe silence is sharply broken by our 16-strong Chinese contingent whose cultural preference is for dialog, selfies, and a bit of mayhem. Over the din the occasional crack of ice from the far distant glaciers can be heard—if you’re lucky. One distant glacier calving event is observed but none of us is quick enough to capture it with anything other than eyes and ears.

MichelleHughCamo.JPGA pair of giant penguins—which turns out to actually be New Yorkers Michelle and Hugh—returned to the beach to fetch some stragglers.

587a3070-1f7c-11ea-8546-93cece4f13d5.JPGShipThroughBerg.JPGPenguinAlone.JPGBlueIce.JPGBergCycles.JPGlarge_WhaleTail.JPGWhaleTail2.JPG

BlackIceForDrinks.JPG57b24c90-1f7c-11ea-a82b-21c3e90b5ca0.JPG

After lunch back aboard Hebridean Sky, (she repositions slightly while we dine alfresco on Deck Five Aft) we again Zodiac, this time to Cierva Cove which is nestled onto the western side of the actual Antarctic Peninsula. For the record, was to be our first actual first footfall upon the actual continental mainland BUT there was no suitable landing spot. We cruised it.

We saw beautiful bergs, more penguins, a humpback and our Zodiac picked up a piece of black ice to bring back for cocktails tonight. Tate, our youngest cruiser actually plucked this bit out of the sea (his dad held his ankles).

All but 2% of Antarctica is covered by a 1.2 to 3-mile-thick sheet of ice. It is the coldest, driest and windiest place on this earth. The last source I read reported that the lowest temperature ever measured here was -135.8 degrees. Ninety percent of the planet’s freshwater ice (and seventy percent of the total amount of fresh water) is here. If the ice sheet melted, scientists say it would raise global sea level about 16 feet. That would swamp our condo in Florida.

The ice shelf, that amount of ice that extends beyond the landmass beneath, is about the size of France. In March of 2000 a chunk of it broke off. That chunk was roughly the mass of the state of Connecticut—170 miles long and 25 miles wide. Satellite measurements over the past 23 years show that the thickness of this shelf—which like a safety band holds the land-based ice in place, is rapidly decreasing. Many scientists say that may mean that Antarctica itself may soon begin to shrink at a dangerous pace.

There are two active volcanos here; one is far beneath the ice. I will, I understand, be near both of them and, given the events on White Island, New Zealand, this week, that will, I hope, cause us to give them a wide berth. I certainly won’t be taking a Zodiac to hike the caldera, of that you can be certain.

The Gamburtsev Mountain range here is 750 miles long with the highest peaks reaching to around 9,000 feet. Beneath the ice is the freshwater Lake Vostok…about the size of Lake Ontario. There are about 200 such bodies of unfrozen water below the ice. I have a hard time understanding exactly how an under-ice liquid lake can exist until I ponder the ice that freezes over the Great Lakes. Perhaps the principle is the same.

Until 1820, nobody knew Antarctica was even here. Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev aboard their ships, Vostok and Mirny, are said to be the first humans to lay eyes on it. They didn’t make landfall (or even icefall); that honor went to a team of Norwegians 75 years later in 1895. In January of 1979, Emile Marco Palma became the first baby born on the continent; only ten more babies have been born here since. Emile turns 41 next month.

Antarctica is a continent; not a country; no country legitimately lays claim to any part of it. Legally, it is a de facto “condominium”* governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System (50 nations); no military or mining activity can be conducted here, nor can any nuclear waste be stored here. Even so, various historical claims currently exist on Antarctica by France, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Germany, Argentina and Chile. Nothing is ever simple.

  • A condominium is defined as (1) the place where I live and (2) as a political territory over which multiple powers formally agree to share equal dominium and to exercise their rights jointly without dividing it into national zones. Besides Antarctica, the other geographic condominiums are Moselle (between Luxembourg and Germany), Pheasant Island (between France and Spain), Brčko (between Bosnia and Herzegovina) and The International Space Station. I’ve been to none of those.

No other place on earth borders four of the earth’s five oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans (the Arctic Ocean is the fifth).

And, of course, it is, along with the Arctic, the land of the midnight sun. While I am here, the sun only briefly sets--at around midnight--to quickly rise again around 2:20 am. While the sun is technically “set” for those two hours or so, it remains just beneath a twilight. Solar noon—the time the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, about 49 degrees—occurs around 1:15pm. Since 90 degrees would place the sun directly overhead, imagine that 49 degrees is just over halfway “up” the sky at mid-day. On the same date in Kansas City, at noon, the sun is at 28 degrees, just over a quarter of the way “up” the sky. Thought of another way, I’m in summer here while Kansas Citians are in mid-winter there. To confuse things even more, the average December temperature here ranges from a low of 31 degrees to an average high of 38 degrees. Back home, the December averages are 26 low and 44 high; both a bit colder and a bit warmer with an average day length that is much shorter: approximately 7:30am-5:00pm vs 2:20am-Midnight; very different. Sunscreen here is a must.

It is difficult to acclimate to such long hours of daylight. The North American body is accustomed to the sun setting and night falling. In the Arctic in our summer and in the Antarctic in our winter, that just doesn’t happen. So, when it is time for bed, the cue that we all follow—darkness—is missing. That makes bedtime seem arbitrary and uncertain. It is disorienting more than disconcerting.

large_ReflectionInMiddelsenHarbour.JPGOur daily recap occurs at 6:45 followed by dinner at 7:30. I suspect all aboard would agree: it was a perfect day in amazingly accommodating weather. When one can shoot a reflecting photo in these waters; well, that is remarkable.

Posted by paulej4 12:53 Archived in Antarctica Comments (1)

7. Morning Just Scraping By

Port Lockroy Beckons but will have to wait...

sunny 32 °F

As happens with men of a certain age, I was returning to the warmth of my bed at 3:55am when the noise of Hebridean Sky changed. The low hum she normally emitted audibly shifted to a louder and more pronounced mechanical hum, as if a large electric motor had been engaged. That humming sound was quickly joined by something even more pronounced and consistent. In the spirit of approaching Christmas, as “there arose such a clatter, I pulled back the shade to see what was the matter.” The new sound was a scraping noise, one caused by our entry into what I could ow see was an ice field. We were not breaking but certainly pushing ice from our path.

BowCamera.JPG

A new phase of our journey had commenced at this early hour. From the window of 336, I shot a quick video and also snapped a closeup of the bow camera on my cabin’s television screen. You can see for yourself what Hebridean Sky and yours truly had entered. By 4:15am, we had made our way through and entered more open water.

Hebridean Sky (sister ship to the Island Sky whom we passed last night around 9:00pm) had entered into the thickened Gerlache Strait near to Neko Harbor during her overnight run to Port Lockroy, Base A, UK Station, in Neumayer Channel. Port Lockroy is a natural harbor on the northwest shore of Wiencke Island, home to the most southerly operational post office on the planet. Discovered by France in 1904, it was home to a whaling operation from 1911 until 1931. The British set up military “Operation Tabarin Station A” here during World War II. Half the island is open to tourists; the other half is reserved for penguins.

This slushy field, blocking our way, needed conquering en route. I cannot resist: “We came, we saw, we…”

The noise and drama, perhaps unnoticed by those not lucky enough to possess an enlarged prostate and thereby been awake to have realized it, marked our entry into a new phase of this journey.

SisterIslandSky.JPG

This gives me an early morning opportunity to tell you a bit about our ship. The blue-hulled Hebridean Sky, an all-suite, ice-hardened expedition ship was built in 1992 (then named Sea Explorer). The vessel was refurbished in 2005 and again in 2016. The ship is owned by Noble Caledonia of Belgravia, London. For an air-cruise such as this one, primarily due to aircraft capacity, she can hold only 75 passengers—instead of her maximum capacity of 112 guests--in 59 suites divided into eight categories of accommodation. 336SittingArea.JPG336Bedroom.JPG336Toilet.JPGI have opted for a middle of the road cabin number 336, a “Sky Suite,” a 225 square-foot starboard-side “picture window suite.” Suites on decks five and six have balconies and are larger; up to 370 square feet. I don’t think a balcony is worth the money in this cold weather. All suites offer a sitting area two double beds which can be converted into a queen as mine is if desired. There are amply sized showers but no tubs. I need—and brought—a two pin American adaptor for the 110v plugs; there is an adaptor extension box with USB ports by the TV to use for charging this or that.

She is about a football field long and offers a fleet of 10 Zodiacs. That means she must have a crew that includes 10 “guides” to pilot those Zodiacs. (In the Arctic, the guides all carry rifles in case an unplanned encounter with a polar bear would ensue. Here, there are no threatening predators so there is no need for our guides to be armed.)

da502b00-1fda-11ea-a18c-43528f874f83.JPGChairChain.JPG

Public areas on the Hebridean Sky include The Club (bar and 24-hour coffee), The Library (books and games), The Lounge (lecture and a/v presentation space) and The Restaurant which offers open seating for tables of 8, 6, 4 or 2. (It was to the bar that Tate yesterday afternoon delivered his chunk of 20,000-year-old captured black ice of which a piece met it’s Maker in a nice glass of 12-year-old scotch to create for me what must be described as a 10,000 year old scotch and water)

There is no room service. There are 14 television channels and a beauty salon. Hebridean Sky can make up to 12.5 knots in open water (just under 15 miles per hour). With a draft of just under 17 feet, we can operate in shallow water. As an “Ice Class 1C” vessel, she can operate in ice of a thickness of between six to twelve inches but no more than that. She is capable of “pushing” (but not breaking) floating ice of a greater thickness should she need to. That was exactly what she was doing to bring me to my keyboard at this extraordinarily early hour.

DiningRoom.JPG

I would describe the ambiance here to be similar to what one might expect at a small hotel. Lauren, Dianne and I have, for our meals, glommed onto a prime six-top table in The Restaurant where we have been joined by a rotation of expedition crew and fellow guests offering us wide-ranging conversation and the opportunity to learn about the lives of young people who have opted for adventurous careers here on the underside of this blue planet. By the way, the name “Hebridean” refers to “of the Hebrides Islands” fifty of which are located off the northwest coast of Scotland and are called home by fewer than 30,000 souls. I think the Hebridean Sky would feel at home there.

The noise has abated as we are back in open water. I see that it is 5:00am as I finish this burst of words. A couple of more hours to sleep are available and I opt to claim them.

BergHorizon.JPGLaurenDianneOnIcyBowCU.JPGOur calendar for today is: 7:00 wake up call, 7:15 breakfast, 8:30 Port Lockroy briefing, and then our 9:00 landing at Port Lockroy/Jougla Point where I am to be off to snowshoe. But, calendars mean nothing on an expedition. We encounter more and more ice, slowing and altering our route. That is not a problem, however, as this process is both beautiful and fascinating. There is drama, noise, motion and activity at a highest level. It is, I suspect, every bit as fine an experience as that which had been planned for us.PaulOnIce.JPGd6f9fd80-200e-11ea-a85f-7736ed12f421.jpeg
DSC_0010.JPGLaurenDianneOnIcyBowCU.JPG
We alter our plan and head up Gerlache Strait in a different manner to head for Neko Harbor for an afternoon landing.

Posted by paulej4 06:20 Archived in Antarctica Comments (3)

8. Trip to Beautiful

It's official: My Seventh Continent

sunny 32 °F

FracturedSlope.JPGSnowfall.JPGHaving been all over the world, I consider myself as qualified as any to offer this opinion: Antarctica is the most beautiful place on our planet. I thought this southernmost spot would remind me of this summer’s Svalbard journey to the northernmost spot. They are wildly different. Here, the splendor of the place overwhelms you. It certainly is an unfair advantage for this place that the weather has been nothing short of spectacular.

LunchAlFrescoWide.JPGAfter a wonderful al fresco luncheon on Lido Deck 5 Aft, we were off via Zodiac to Neko Harbor for the first official landfall on the actual continent of Antarctica. We're on the peninsula but that is certainly a part of this vast continent that is bigger than the lower 48 states of the U.S.A. Our previous landfalls were technically on the South Shetland Islands. This, today, was the real thing: the mainland.

large_Paul7thContinent.JPG61cc8300-2065-11ea-9fb1-511639da0efc.JPGA flag was set up to commemorate the occasion. For me, I can now claim to have set foot on all 7 continents. Here, north of Port Lockroy where we could not land because of ice, a beach lay beneath glacier cliffs and behind ice chunks and under the care of more Gentoo Penguins. We are told that once landed, we should make our way up above the beach to at least the snowline. Why? Should a large piece of ice calve from a nearby glacier--and there are hundreds of those possibilities within easy eyesight--a "tsunami" wave would result that would swamp the beach. It is highly unlikely that such a thing would occur but it has happened resulting in a flipped Zodiac and some soggy expeditions.

PenguinGroomingBeakOpen.JPGOnce off the beach, the task ahead involved a hike up the side of the mountain to a lookout point where the harbor and the glacier terminus lie below. Not everyone made it all the way but I sure as hell did. As a matter of fact, I was in the first ten to “summit” our climb. Old guys rule.

PaulHiking.JPGPaulHikeSuccess.JPGShipBelowHike.JPGThe amazing weather made this a place where the parka came off, then the shell fell, gloves were removed, neck gators pocketed and still the heat produced from the combination of sun and exertion trekking up the hill to the lookout created not a global warming but a personal warming that called forth sweat in the freezing cold. I am wearing lots of sunscreen as everyone should.

After my descent, arriving back at the beach I opted for a side track to make way for a Gentoo traveling down to the water. They are a delight to watch.

Back aboard Hebridean Sky at 6:10 we heard the announcement that our special Antarctican Bar-B-Q would be held outside tonight with Czech Rock ‘n Roll Randy (don’t ask) providing entertainment. We are used to the cold by now; it was delightful.

We are warned to be prepared to hear an announcement before dark (midnight or so) that orcas have been spotted. That warning prompted me to keep my camera at the ready as I write this. A pod of 40 orcas is reported to be somewhere about. There is no guarantee here of anything at all; one takes what one is offered. But, an orca pod would be wonderful to see.

The day--impacted by unexpected wind-blown ice--did not go as planned. I am all the luckier for that.

Posted by paulej4 16:52 Archived in Antarctica Comments (3)

9. My House is a Van in Montana;

But it's in Alaska Now

overcast 32 °F

Low clouds offered us a different day as the sun was obliterated but Expedition Director Mike made it clear that we should “lather up” with sunscreen nonetheless.

LaurenModelingLifeJacket.JPG

After donning our stylish lifejackets—we wear them everywhere but can, on occasion, take them off for hikes ashore—was off with the first of two Zodiacs to Ronge Island for a snowshoe excursion. The windchill was greater than before on our voyage out but calm seas prevail so no spray complicated our trip. Arch.JPGWe passed by a beautiful arch berg en route to our penguin guarded destination.

Gentoos own the island which is small but high. Our harbor was inhospitable compared to early landings; we had to negotiate rocks in the water and could not beach the Zodiac as we had previously done. The Zodiacs—one of which was laden with snowshoeing gear—were drifting secured by anchor lines once we disembarked.

Boots.JPG

We wear boots and as long as we don’t step into water taller than their 18” height, there is no problem. Our disembarkation water depth was no more than a foot so all was well.

The snow on Ronge was crusty and contaminated with lots and lots and lots of frozen penguin poop. Walking involved locating a spot where it would seem that the crust would support the walker’s weight. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.

Bonus Video:

As we reached higher ground we paused to don our snowshoes. That made the walking much easier by a factor of four or five as our human feet became the size of duck feet, spreading the weight over more of the crust ensuring that sinking up to one’s knees was no longer a risk.

SkuaThreatening.JPGI

found the hike up the hill difficult and opted, about half-way up, to pause and commune with some penguins on their nests while the rest of our party continued to the peak. My stop offered up some drama between a penguin and a predatory bird who had taken up watch on the penguin nests hoping for a chance to poach an egg.

145cccb0-2114-11ea-9fdb-bf4be6769c56.JPG130d1b30-2114-11ea-9fdb-bf4be6769c56.JPG

The view was different due to the low grey cloud cover; not better or worse, perhaps best described as a bit eerie.

We were stuck aground on our departure from Ronge but after a bit of tugging this way and that we were free and sailed back, past the arched berg, to Hebridean Sky and another wonderful lunch. One of our expedition crew, Stella, during a conversation where we asked where home was, offered that she was from New Zealand but really was aboard ship most of the time so her home was described thusly: “My House is a Van in Montana; but it’s in Alaska now.” She is here with her other half Ewen and is living her dream. Conversations such as these are had only aboard expedition ships. To experience one, you must go on one.

1947e9e0-2113-11ea-9fdb-bf4be6769c56.JPG

After lunch, I noticed that head waiter Israel was serving ice cream. Six feet away I saw a bowl of luscious bananas. I asked Israel if he had any toppings. “Yes, we have whatever topping you might like.” I said I was thinking of making a banana split. “Sir, I will make it for you.” Israel peels a banana in the exact same way that a waiter in a Michelin star restaurant might bone a branzino. His elegant strokes removing the peel with knife and spoon, his deft slices bisecting the banana, the halves delicately lifted into an oblong bowl. But he was not finished. After dipping his scoop into warm water, he wafted ice cream; then he, reminding me of Pollock painting, splashed first this topping and then that. Never have I seen a presentation. At least since last night when sous chef Elle carved penguins and other animals from the rinds of fresh fruit. Hebridean Sky apologizes for nothing when it comes to style. The hotel staff is to be commended at every turn.

LaurenTakesCommand.JPG

While we ate, the crew motored us up the Gerlache Strait to a spot where we, rather than anchor, will engage in a manual process of “hovering” in the same spot while our expedition parties go ashore once more. That means the helmsman will be constantly adjusting our position so that we, in effect, remain stationary. It’s a bit tricky and they do it manually.

OrneOutMyWindow.JPG

This afternoon’s adventure is to Orne Harbour, technically our second continental landing. This is my first opportunity to leave the Gentoos behind and study the Chinstraps at their rookery. But a surprise is in store as we pass a small iceberg with a lone Adelie penguin perched on top. We circled the berg; he/she was alone and far from home nesting grounds.

HikingPath.JPG16c5b660-2114-11ea-9fdb-bf4be6769c56.JPG0dd029f0-2114-11ea-9fdb-bf4be6769c56.JPG

Continuing to shore we are quickly aware of the zig-zag hike that will be required for us to reach the rookery of the resident chinstraps. I grab a ski/climbing pole and get busy. All along the way, Lauren—who is in front of me—stops and turns. She hears cracks of thunder-like sound from the glacier across the bay. We look but see nothing. I think, somewhere in the back of her mind—of Dianne. She is out kayaking. A large falling chunk of glacier ice creates a wave. We had just discussed the swamping of boats by waves over lunch. I didn’t ask, but I think her heart was with Dianne and not on the task ahead of us.

Bonus Video:

Arriving at the top, passing our 16-strong Chinese contingent who were all, one by one, posing with the red flag of China, we made our way to the Chinstrap rookery. These penguins are smaller and their call is nothing like the Gentoo’s trumpet. Chinstraps sound more like blackbirds and call they did: predator skuas soared overhead looking for eggs. I spotted one skua with an egg in its beak streaking over a ridge. The Chinstraps raised holy hell, all the while focusing on their own treasures, progeny at risk. The Chinstraps have chosen high ground to breed and their daily trek for food is an arduous one. They scale the back side of this “hill” and, given how short each of their steps is, a Fitbit count would be impressive indeed. They go down to feed and come back up to mind their nest.

After my descent, I made my way back to Hebridean Sky to prepare for my polar plunge. It is what it sounds like. The older I get, the colder I get. I should have taken the plunge as a much younger man: I'm Salt Water Daffy.

Bonus Video:

Posted by paulej4 16:55 Archived in Antarctica Comments (1)

10. Small Step...

One Giant Leap for An Old Man

sunny 32 °F

ChinesePhotographer.JPG

A very nice Chinese woman approached me through an interpreter to let me know that she had taken a movie of my Polar Plunge. Here it is:

PaulAtDinner.JPG

For some reason she also had a taken a candid shot of me at dinner the night before we flew down here. The question would be: why? It cannot be that I was talking in too loud a voice because I cannot compete with the volume of Chinese speakers. In my best seminar leader and public speaker days, I couldn't produce that.

After dinner last night, Hebridean Sky encountered whales, whales and more whales. Greys and Killers abounded but none were close enough for great photography; that didn’t stop us though.WhaleTailBlue.JPGOrcas3.JPGOrcas1.JPGWhaleTailBye.JPGWhaleTailDripping.JPGOrcas2.JPGWhaleTailYellow.JPG

Up early on our final full day—6:15—we sailed from Bransfield Strait through Neptune’s Bellows before landing at Whaler’s Bay on the southeast side of Deception Island at 8:00.

KrillOnBeach.JPG

We are reminded that this is a volcanic caldera as we find thousands of cooked krill at the high water mark of the beach. From 1969 to 1969, the volcano was very active. It has been waiting to erupt again since then.

Deception Island was first charted by Bransfield and Smith in 1828. It was from here that the first sighting of the actual Antarctic Peninsula was made. In 1906, the Norwegians and Chileans placed a factory ship here to harvest whales. It is thought that 3,000 whales were taken by about 150 whalers who lived here. Whale oil prices plunged in 1931 and this station was put out of business. There was a landing strip here which was the origin point for the first flight—by a biplane—to the Peninsula.

The expedition herded us—like cats—in lines for our expedition group photograph and then we broke into groups. There were those who intended to explore the nearby settlement here, those that were kayaking and those who were hiking. I joined the latter group and we headed off across the lunar-like landscape to climb and climb and climb. Niko, our guide, paused at a divine lookout point after we had ascended approximately 100 meters; that was enough for me. Tate and Jake (10 and 15 years young) and their father seemed not the least bit winded. I needed to act my age and be satisfied with making it to this two-thirds point. PaulAtTop.JPGHikersBackDown.JPGHikersContinueOn.JPG

Along with two expedition crew and one other expeditioner—a guy from Qatar—we descended as the more intrepid of our party continued up. Niko said about another 100 meters of altitude but over much steeper terrain.

I was fortunate (The Russell Luck again) to head back down as, once we reached beach level, we were alerted to a leopard seal who had taken up residence. Initially thought to be a female giving birth, wiser heads informed us that it was indeed a male who seemed to be having an arousing dream. His many yawns were spectacular. His spots contribute to his name but his teeth give the moniker “Leopard” credibility.LeopardSealYawnBEST.JPGWhaleBonesZodiacLanding.JPGWhaleBoneBeached.JPG

Stepping over whale bones and the ruins of buildings long abandoned, we returned to the Zodiacs to make our way back to the ship for a noon lunch.

We have been delivered into weather than can only be described as exceptional. The entire cruise has offered us views that the expedition team find hard to recall from their previous trips. With the exception of one-half day, the sun has shown, the winds have been calm to moderate, the sea has been at peace with itself and the temperatures have warmed more than chilled us.

After lunch, one of our expedition guides, the easy-going and amiable AJ, offered up a “Pole to Pole” talk. He has the distinction of having skied to both poles, a remarkable achievement. Should you wish, you can support his next adventure to commemorate Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Check him out at liketobe.org

Scott died on the way back and AJ is setting up a proper memorial service, at his final resting place 120 miles from the Scott’s hut, close to the McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea, scheduled for January 17, 2022. He needs a hundred grand.

Our afternoon landing spot was to be Fort Point but fierce winds motivated a change to Half Moon Island. There, a sheltered bay offers a more peaceful opportunity. Even so, the kayakers were told that there was too much chop for them to go out. So we all, 71 of us, boarded Zodiacs to ferry us to the rocky beach. A Waddell Seal guarded our landing spot. Penguins stood sentry along the first rocky, then snowy, then rocky and then again snowy path toward a Chinstrap rookery. We passed some Gentoos along the way along with a group of nine more seals, all snoozing on cooling snow.

large_HungrySkua.JPGlarge_SealTonsils.JPGlarge_YawningSeal2.jpeg

The walk, while flat, was difficult and challenging. The reward at the end of that half-hour was that we were granted an audience with a large rookery. A brow skua hovered over Chinstrap nests, alert for a momentarily unguarded egg. A snowy sheathbill marched up the snowy hill snatching up bits of food (for snowy sheathbills, food is penguin droppings).

As we loitered, Chinstraps passed back and forth, marching from the sea to the top of the hill and back again. Most cared not a bit that we were gathered near their path. Occasionally an unruly tourist would approach rather than remain stationary and cause the penguins stress—but not often.

Our ride back to the ship was bumpy but not too much so. Hot showers await.

We have cocktails and a debriefing at 6:45, the voyage slideshow a part of that, followed by dinner at 7:30. And, of course, we bid the staff a fond farewell as did they to us.

ExhibitionStaff.JPG

MyDinnerWithAJ.JPG

We got to the dining room earlier than normal so that we could snatch up a table of eight. Dianne and Lauren and Bella and Eric and Jake and Tate and I have invited the aforementioned AJ to join us for dinner. He has great stories to tell. When you meet him—and I hope you do—you will be amazed at his adventures. His polar bear cub story is priceless.

Tonight, we pack, departing the Hebridean Sky tomorrow for the long, long journey home.

Posted by paulej4 06:47 Archived in Antarctica Comments (1)

11. Officially Bi-Polar

Arctic & Antarctic in 2019

overcast 32 °F

OurStops.JPG

Breakfast is from 7:30 until 9:00 but the wakeup call isn’t scheduled until 8:00 as we have an easy morning schedule. Our checked luggage needs to be out by 10:15; we board the Zodiacs at 11:00 for Bellingshausen Station. We wear all our expedition gear, including boots. Once we arrive at the Punta Arenas Airport (our flight is roughly scheduled for a 1:00pm departure) we take them off and put on our own shoes. The snow gear will have to stay on our bodies until we check into the hotel.

The Zodiac from Herbridean Sky to the beach is rougher than we have experienced all week. The weather for us has been, in the words of one of our expedition leaders, “in the top five out of more than a hundred expeditions,” he has experienced. But, today, it is changing. It is windy and that drives the waves up. As we land, Sophie (our skipper on this Zodiac) has to turn us around 180 degrees so that when we beach the stern of the Zodiac isn’t swamped. I was sitting next to her and just before it was my turn to “scooch” up the side of the boat and throw my legs overboard—there is a right and wrong way to do this—a wave hit and gave me my first dose of wet clothes. Nothing too bad, mind you, but rougher than we’ve seen all week.

459bb230-2332-11ea-aea3-87aeb73f0269.JPG

We shed our life jackets for the final time and stroll up the hill to the Russian Church and then make an obligatory stop in the Russian “gift shop.” My browsing was over in thirty seconds flat—I don’t need or want a Russian hat or t-shirt.

We gather to walk, single file, up the hill and (eventually) across the gravel runway to board our return charter flight. The “replacement” expeditioners who have just arrived on what is now to be our aircraft, hiked single file past us as we had done just a week before.

Today being December 19, it means that their return will be on December 24 so they will be unable to travel home prior to Christmas Day. Wondering who would accept such a schedule, I soon found the answer. Walking past us it becomes clear that the vast majority of this group are Chinese. That will change the dynamic of the ship from primarily English speaking to primarily Chinese speaking. Without the unbelievable weather and without the primary language aboard ship being my native tongue, I suspect the experience will be radically different. I am lucky beyond belief to have been with this group, during this week.

Consider the fact that, according to our flight attendant, out of 30 flights a month, 5 are unable to make the trip. They have a contingency plan and I am delighted that I don’t have to tell you about it because we didn’t have to avail ourselves of it.

For the record, Antarctica 21 is a first-class provider in all respects. If you are planning a journey to this part of the world, I recommend you choose them and the Hebridean Sky. The weather, however, is out of their control.

Upon arrival, I along with others discovered that our luggage was wet. We know what happened: the Zodiac trip from the ship to the beach was over rough water. Waves came over the bow or stern or sides and soaked our luggage. After all the praise I have had for Antarctica 21, I now have a suggestion. Buy some bungy cords and a tarp and cover our bags when you move them between ship and shore. Nobody wants to open their suitcase and find wet clothes inside. I fear that may be what happened to the luggage of the 72 people who went the other direction--to start their cruise today.

Uploading video to this blog became more and more problematic as we went along. That meant that some fun flicks were overlooked. I have posted a couple here as Post Scripts to the journey. Enjoy.

And, finally, just to show you that everything did not go off without a hitch, note that the scotch I had the other day was not the only thing on the rocks.

Posted by paulej4 04:23 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 7 of 7) Page [1]