Saturday 23 December – heading home
The thunderstorm was kind enough to stop in time for us to sleep and we both slept well. We made the most of our late afternoon flight departure by having a more leisurely breakfast time and got ourselves ready in time to check out by noon.
The car came to get us at 12.45 and we had a pretty good run to the international airport (right one today!). We are now in the Salon Condor and have had a bit of lunch and a drink before we board the flight to Amsterdam. We will be boarding in about 40 minutes or so.
It’s a positively cold 21 degrees today, perfect for us but the locals are probably feeling the cold. It’s the first time we have seen grey cloud in BA.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in BA and in Ushuaia and were completely blown away by Antarctica. We’ve talked about maybe returning one day, as we loved it so much, but if the weather is more inclement on a return trip, we think we may decide it was better the first time, so maybe we should keep safe the sights, sounds and memories we have gathered. We will be eternally grateful that we were able to visit that most special place. If you know anyone who wants to go, tell them to do it! They won’t regret it.
Merry Christmas to all of you when it comes.
Friday 22 December – return to civilisation
Well, we made the disembarkation deadline, reluctantly. We went around saying goodbyes to some of the passengers who we’ve been chatting to the most and then the call came for us to leave the ship. The expedition team were all out on the quayside and we shook hands, hugged and said farewells and thank yous to them all in turn. We felt pretty sad and saddest of all when it came to saying goodbye to Susan, the expedition leader. She hugged us and said she hoped we’d had a good time and that she’d see us again. Then she came on the bus and said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, good morning’ one last time. That’s how she started all her wake up calls and we all laughed to hear her say it again.
The flight from Ushuaia seemed slightly confused about its timing, varying from 11.30 to 11.50, but we finally boarded and headed for what we thought was going to be BA’s domestic airport. Imagine our surprise to find we’d actually landed at the international airport! There had been no announcement in English that we were going to land elsewhere and Bev headed off to find someone to check what was going on. The answer was that he had no idea why we had landed at the international airport! A complaint letter is being drafted…
We contacted the company who were collecting us and luckily news of the diversion had reached them so our driver was already en route to our new location to pick us up. We then had a long trek back to the hotel as everyone is coming or going for the holidays. You can tell how out of touch we have become because it took us at least two minutes to realise the holiday was actually Christmas!
It was strange to see buildings, roads and so many people after our recent surroundings, but it was nice to see green. It is very warm here and even our driver made a comment about how hot he thought the city was today. Quite a shock from the chilly temperatures of Antarctica.
We got to the hotel around 6p.m. and settled in before heading out for a very nice meal and a glass of wine. We have checked in online for our homeward bound flight tomorrow and intend to spend the morning relaxing at the hotel. We are currently experiencing a strong storm in BA with lightening and thunder and heavy rain; perhaps this might cool the temperatures for tomorrow.
Thursday 21 December – back in Ushuaia
Days at sea generally mean no wake up call as there’s no deadline to be ready for a landing, but this morning Susan made an announcement at about 8a.m. to tell us that last night we had experienced a force 9 to 10 storm and winds of about 60 knots an hour and 7 metre waves. That certainly explains the amount of severe rolling we experienced. We both managed a bit of sleep, but the sensation of your bed doing a circular action means sleep is hard to come by so we, like pretty much everyone else on board, are tired today. CJ didn’t sleep much as he was being mesmerised by the movement of the ship; one minute you were up, the next leaning precariously over to one side – thank goodness for the mattress wedges, they kept us in place at least.
Susan also told us that this is the longest day of the year, so we have had two longest days this year, one in each hemisphere, and no shortest one.
We went round Cape Horn at about 9a.m. this morning. We can apparently now have our ears pierced! Since leaving Drake Passage the sea is much calmer, the sun is shining and everyone looks much cheerier.
Scott gave us some information about Cape Horn and we then watched a film about a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn. It looked horrendous! Until the Panama Canal was built, ships had no option but to round Cape Horn. Many were lost and Cape Horn is the second biggest ship graveyard in the world. Bay of Biscay or the North Sea is the largest ship graveyard if you need to know. 400-500 ships a year would go round the Cape. It’s so difficult to navigate because of the huge current at the Cape where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet.
Kat gave us a disembarkation briefing so we all know what we need to do tomorrow. It will be an early start as suitcases need to be outside our cabin by 7a.m. We have a fairly early flight so will be first to disembark at 8a.m. and get a transfer to the airport. So packing to follow the Antarctic Quiz!
We didn’t disgrace ourselves in the quiz, but neither did we excel. It was another learning experience, so all good!
The trial of packing was more challenging as we now have expedition parkas to fit into our already overloaded suitcases. We have both packed too much, but this may be partly due to the fact that we were so incredibly lucky with the weather and didn’t need to change our waterproof trousers because they didn’t get dirty.
We have just completed our evaluation forms which were glowing and contained some constructive feedback too. The whole crew and expedition staff have been outstanding and have contributed to making this a truly fabulous holiday. It’s going to feel strange to be back on terra firma and to see a town and city again.
We cruised at a leisurely pace back along the Beagle Channel toward Ushuaia this evening whilst being entertained by our lovely crew. We were all called for our last (boo), briefing in the lounge and were handed glasses of champagne and nibbles to toast a very successful trip – it was quite emotional. Susan Adie ran through the amazing things, places and animals that we’d seen on our journey and introduced the Captain who, in turn, asked the fantastic back of house individuals that support this cruise behind the scenes to show themselves and receive a rapturous applause from the guests. We applauded the housekeeping staff, catering, bar staff and expedition leaders, and of course Susan for her daily and sometimes hourly planning and organising. She’s a bit of a cold and stern fish but has the success of the trip at heart.
The hospitality manager ran through some stats for our journey. She told us, amongst other things, that 3240 eggs and 200 kilos of rice have been consumed and 700 toilet rolls used!
We had a very amusing song from Katherine and an auction from Osi, which raised over $5,500 for the Planeterra charity that G Adventures support. Off to dinner and then back to the Polar Bear Bar to hear Katherine singing and playing guitar whilst Kevin, the birder, sang an MS Expedition version of Hotel California and Yellow Submarine very badly and danced with some of the guests who didn’t seem to mind!
We have just snuck out to pack and get ready for a very early start tomorrow and the journey back to BA.
Wednesday 20th December – back at sea
Last night’s excitement of the penguins costume competition and the live staff band meant we were both out like a light, even though the ship rolled and rocked all night. This morning is grey and overcast with rather scary looking seas. Today and tomorrow will be ‘at sea days’ and to break up the crossing, the staff hold lectures and workshops covering all sorts of topics. After a slightly unsteady waddle around the breakfast bar, we headed to the lounge for a lecture given by Scott on Scott and Amundsen’s race for the south pole and the dreadful conditions the men and animals had to endure. It has been very interesting to hear how Scott has been severely criticised for his poorly planned attempt at the pole and how he has been vilified by some who thought he was the wrong person to be given the job of polar explorer. As a result, he lost his life and the lives of the people who went with him. This lack of preparedness was something we weren’t really aware of before we came here.
Whist the ship rocked and rolled across the Drake Passage, we attended John’s talks on seals and learned about the different types that we’d seen, and others that were found in the Arctic and South Georgia. We learned about the difference between the two main groups of ‘true seals’ and ‘eared seals’, how they breed, what they eat, and how their numbers are fluctuating across the world.
After a very nice lunch, we headed outside into the rough weather to get access to the bridge as MS Expedition is one of a very few ships that have an open bridge. We were very impressed by the bits of equipment and number of knobs and dials that the captain and his crew have to get to gris with, but less impressed by the first officer who was on his four hour watch and was unfriendly; quite the opposite to the Russian captain who must have been asleep when we visited.
We are now back in our cabin, resting and beginning to pack what we can before the main packing day tomorrow. We learned that if all goes to plan, we will disembark in Ushuaia at around 8:00am on 21st and by 4:00pm the same day, she will be getting ready to sail off on another adventure with new guests. The turnaround time is really short.
We attended two more lectures this afternoon, one given by Ozi on Women in Antarctica and the other by Scott on Shackleton’s 1914 expedition. Both were very interesting. Also interesting was seeing how they managed to stay standing as the ship rolled. Conditions worsened in the late afternoon and Susan talked about the forecast being completely wrong. We have apparently hit the tail end of a storm and are in an area of very low pressure.
Dinner was an experience tonight. The waiters still came out carrying large trays on one shoulder but they had to check and balance themselves and hold on when they could. The wind has strengthened again and things went flying in the dining room. There were loud crashes from the kitchen too. Some people left as they were feeling unwell and we left before pudding too. Luckily we have taken Kwells so aren’t feeling too bad. We will definitely be taking another dose later.
The staff were called away during dinner, no doubt for a discussion with Susan, and soon an announcement was made that the Antarctic quiz planned for tonight is being postponed, and Katherine’s set in the Polar Bear bar has gone the same way. The outer decks are out of bounds as there’s a lot of spray on deck and Susan has advised us all to stay flat. We are apparently heading for Cape Horn which seems like a bad idea given its notoriety, but we will be in the lee side of the weather system that is currently causing the ship to bounce around so it is the safest course.
Let’s hope we manage to sleep tonight.
Tuesday 19th December – Deception Island and Half Moon Bay
We woke to overcast and grey skies having had a night of slight rolling seas. We both had bad nights so are felling a bit jaded today, but hopefully the sight of a group of waddling chinstraps will perk us up. Breakfast was the usual huge affair of fresh fruit, muesli, pastries plus cooked and baked items. So with fat tums we headed out on deck to watch the gloomy scenery float past as we headed into Deception Island, so named as the weather here is changeable and tricky to predict.
The captain navigated the relatively narrow entrance, called Neptune’s Bellows, to the caldera that is at the centre of Deception Island. This is an area of volcanic activity with reports that “we are due another eruption soon”! Having landed in our zodiac, it’s clear that there is constant evidence of hot springs and underground volcanic action as the air has a slight whiff of sulphur about it and steam rises from the edge of the beach. We have been asked to stay close to the water’s edge as there are lots of artefacts about that record this island being part of a huge whaling industry that ran from 1911 until the drop in whale oil prices saw the station being abandoned in 1931 and used for other purposes including as a British meteorological station from 1944. The beach is black with volcanic ash and debris from eruptions and also littered with brick, metal and timber fragments from old buildings and the machinery involved in processing tens of thousands of poor whales.
We decided that the gloomy and grey weather was fitting for the scene in front of us, known as Whaler’s Bay. Huge rusting boilers and massive oil tanks that would have held thousands of gallons of whale oil lie abandoned, marking a dreadful time in the world’s history of our regard for the animal kingdom. We were provided with stories about how men could walk from one end of the bay to the other across the carcasses of whales and how the bottom of the caldera is littered with the bones of tens of thousands of whales. So sad.
We had a long walk down the black beach toward a high point called Neptune’s Window that looks out over the southernmost point of Drake Passage. We could hear Arctic Terns and Petrels calling. It was chilly, but not cold and we were soon peeling layers off. For a little while we were being guided along the beach by a waddling chinstrap who comically seemed to be keen that we kept up, stopping and turning his head to make sure our group was keeping up and not straying off the path. He was very sweet.
Marcello did his usual of keeping us informed about the wildlife in the area, the history of the whaling station and anything else he thought might interest us; including showing us a single krill that he picked up from the beach and explained how critical they are to the diet of penguins, seals and whales, and how they are being fished by the Chinese and Russians in unimaginable quantities, threatening the existence of the wildlife that rely on it.
As we headed back to the zodiac station, mad people were taking part in the Polar Plunge, where you strip down and dive into the freezing waters, leap out and then somehow get dressed again! We decided against it, surprisingly. We headed off toward a group of crumbling sheds and then on to a corrugated tin shed that was used by the British from 1944 until 1967 when a volcanic eruption meant that the base had to be abandoned.
So back on board and after another amazing, three course lunch, we’ve set sail for Half Moon Bay where we are promised another, although it’s our last, landing on Antarctica.
The skies cleared as we sailed towards Half Moon Bay and we arrived in bright sunshine at a place of snowy peaks, rocky outcrops and a colony of chinstrap penguins. We did a zodiac cruise first of all, getting a fabulous low down view of the island, a landing beach of the chinstraps and then, unexpectedly, a sighting of a humpback whale. Scott, the zodiac driver, followed the whale’s path and we saw it come to the surface numerous times and do some fantastic tail splashes. The last occasion we saw it, we were just a few metres from it. It was very special. Scott was being radioed to go to the landing site so we had to give up our travels with a whale and have our turn on land.
The beach for this landing was stoney, with snow on the higher ground. There was an empty, for now, Argentinian research station. We’ve been told there’s a three way tussle for Antarctica between the UK, Argentina and Chile. Apparently it was ‘given’ to Argentina via a Papal Bull several centuries ago, but since then the Antarctic Treaty has been signed saying it belongs to no-one. The Treaty ends in 2042 so we could have fun and games at that point. Wouldn’t it be good if we could all agrees to renew the Treaty and continue to let this most special place belong to no-one?
We climbed past quite a few groups of chinstraps, slipping and sliding our way up to the top of Half Moon Bay to get a hilltop view of Livingstone Island and a sighting of a sole Macaroni penguin who’s been coming here for several years. It’s apparently had no luck mating with a chinstrap but that doesn’t put him or her off coming back each year. The main group of chinstraps were very vocal and quite whiffy! We heard them calling when a few were swimming when we were on the water and Bev was encouraging them to pipe down in case the whale heard them.
Finally it was time to leave and we climbed very reluctantly and with a good deal of emotion back into the zodiac for our final trip back to the ship. It’s not the end of our holiday, but it is the end of our time in this abundantly beautiful landscape with wonderful creatures and we consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have been able to come here.
We attempted to cheer ourselves up by having a cocktail of the day and listening to more fascinating facts from the expedition staff. Susan told us Drake Passage is due to be a bit bumpy and then said that could change which didn’t fill us with joy. We have more lectures in the next couple of days so hopefully we will feel well enough to learn more then.
Tonight we had a South American buffet during which an engagement was celebrated. The happy couple was serenaded by some of the crew with a rendition of ‘Going to the chapel’ and we all clapped and cheered. Next up is dress like a penguin night and then the crew band, called the Monkey Eating Eagles is going to perform. We’ve been told we shouldn’t miss them so will go to take a look. We are both exhausted though so will attempt to get to sleep before too long.
Monday 18 December – Port Lockroy and Paradise Bay
We made breakfast on time today, thanks to Susan’s wake up call. It was another beautiful, sunny and clear day but there was a bit of wind in evidence.
Overnight we had voyaged through Bismarck Strait and arrived close to Goudier Island on which Base A, Port Lockroy, or the penguin Post Office, is based. The base commander came to talk to us about the base and said how lucky we were with the weather as they have had blizzards for the last 4 weeks. There are 4 staff at the base and they work for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. The Trust looks after 6 sites in Antarctica and does education work in the UK. The staff stay at Port Lockroy for 4 months and do maintenance of the buildings plus look after the museum and run the post office.
The staff live in shared accommodation in a Nissan hut. There’s no running water and electricity comes from solar panels, plus a small generator that runs the post office till.
They have a population of Gentoo penguins at the base. At the last count a few weeks ago, there were 555 nests and 966 eggs, which is a bit up on last year. Susan said yesterday that the presence of humans deters Skuas so the penguin population is doing well. The base commander said they had their first chick sighting yesterday!
We were split into two groups today. Half went to Jougla Point first where we saw more Gentoos, did a small hike and walked on newly frozen ice. It’s just across from Port Lockroy and very beautiful.
Then we visited Port Lockroy and had a quick look around the museum, called Bransfield House. It’s been set up as it was in the 1950s. The base has been used as a whaling station and more recently as a research station. We had a quick stop at the post office as we wanted to buy postcards and stamps to send home and then it was back on the last zodiac to the ship. This is the only time we have felt rushed as we would have liked more time at Port Lockroy. They had another boat coming in later so we had to go.
We did manage to see more Gentoos though. They nest right under and next to the post office so you have to keep a close eye out for penguins crossing nearby. It was a lovely visit.
The next stop had been scheduled to be Dornay Point but the wind had picked up and it was deemed too rough to land so we pushed on to Paradise Bay. A well named bay, surrounded by stunning glaciers in a horseshoe shape. There’s an Argentinian base there, not staffed at present. It’s called Brown Base, named after the Irish William Brown who we learned about in BA, who founded the Argentinian navy.
We did a lovely walk half way up the hill, past more Gentoos, and sat on a rock staring at the incredibly beautiful scenery. Some of the group went higher up the hill to another viewing point but we were happy where we were. The snow was quite soft and we both had incidences of sinking into it. We don’t know how deep it was but CJ’s leg went in up to his groin and there was still snow beneath.
We watched a Skua come to worry the penguins and it managed to take one egg. The temptation to chase it away is huge but we know we have to let nature take its course. Marcello told CJ that if penguins lose an egg they can, within a certain time frame, lay another. If they lose their eggs outside that time frame they abandon the nest and have to wait until the following year to try again.
The final outing of the day was a zodiac cruise to see some glaciers up close. We stopped to see a leopard and crab eater seal lying on snow doing nothing, as usual, before moving on to see arches in glaciers, crevasses at least 20 metres high and some gorgeous iceberg formations.
Tonight’s briefing was a bit sad as it was the last about going on expeditions. We are heading North back towards the South Shetlands. Tomorrow sounds as though it will be another fantastic one, weather permitting. It has become cloudier this evening so we will see what the morning brings.
The briefing included information about G Adventures charitable work and we have been invited to buy raffle tickets. There was also an auction for a towel to commemorate the Polar Plunge that is likely to happen tomorrow. Someone bid $1000 for it which made Ozi, the staff member running the auction, cry. Amazing!
Sunday 17 September – Lemaire Channel
We almost missed breakfast this morning. We forgot that timings had been altered slightly to take account of the horrendously early pick up of the people who decided to camp last night on the ice. They were to be woken at 5:30am and brought back to catch up on sleep as the local penguins don’t quieten down for campers!
So we rushed through breakfast as the lovely restaurant staff cleared up around us and we then headed out on deck to stand in awe at the amazing landscape and clear blue skies that had arrived for us overnight. The scenery is truly breathtaking. There are no words that can truly describe the majestic, snowy, steep, craggy mountains that dive headlong into the clear, flat, blue waters here. We cruised at a leisurely speed and watched the ever changing landscape drift past. Everyone was on deck. There was almost no wind, no swell and mirror-like, reflecting water that casts the most incredible reflections. If you chose the right spot, the temperature was almost warm!
We both spent hours just staring at the ice that was crushed by MS Expedition as we cruised past, or the glacier topped hills and mountains that continually changed en route.
Captain Push Push, as he is named as he manages to push ice out of the way, skilfully navigated through the ever narrowing Lemaire Channel towards a very narrow gap between the mountains, only to be foiled by a large gathering of bergs that to us seemed enormous. So at about 12:30 we had to stop all engines and turn round and head in a northerly direction, back up the Lemaire Channel. We turned left at a point that allowed us access to the other side of the channel near Booth Island where we eventually dropped anchor and got ready for this afternoon’s zodiac cruises, which were going to take us through the ice fields in our penguin groups. We have become expert at the thermalling, coating and life vesting now and can be ready to don our wellies and welly liners at the drop of a penguin’s hat. We had been warned that we might be out in the zodiac for a couple of hours, so should dress warm (note, not warmly), and so we did. We applied all the layers we could muster and ended up so incredibly warm that Bev thought she might self combust whilst waiting in the queue for the zodiac.
Well the waiting was well worth it. This could be the best day so far. Kevin, our driver, swooshed us through the ice fields, dodging the largest bits of floating ice whilst pointing out a variety of interesting things which included a sole leopard seal, a group of crab eater seals, arctic terns, lots of Gentoo penguins porpoising and the mark left in a rock at Port Charcot by one of the many polar explorers that we’d never heard of. This time we learned about Jean-Baptiste Charcot, a French explorer who landed here in 1903. He was responsible for mapping about 1250 miles of Antarctica and discovered that the Peninsula is part of the continent. Captain Cook called him ‘a Polar gentleman’.
Back on board we checked our hundreds of photos from the day’s adventures and CJ managed a Brown-Browed Albatross, the cocktail of the day, or 2 to be precise. There is constant tea, coffee and water available and when we return from a landing or excursion there’s always food available, like do it yourself toasted sandwiches, cake and biscuits. The kitchen staff produce miracles on a daily basis.
Tonight’s miracle was a BBQ out on deck! They had so many tables of food, plus tables for us all to eat at, mulled wine and music to boot. It was remarkable and tasty. The only thing is that even on a beautiful, still and sunny day, it’s still a BBQ in Antarctica and the food gets cold pretty quickly!
Just when we thought we had had the perfect day, an announcement came over the tannoy that a group of humpback whales were right in front of the ship. The captain slowed right down and we were able to watch them bubble netting, when they blow bubbles under the water and then come up to the surface. There were multiple surfacings and plenty of tail shots. They stayed for about half an hour – it was a magical sight.
Saturday 16 September – Neko Bay and Danco Island
We were woken at 7am this morning by an announcement via the speaker system in the headboard of our beds. Susan gave us the run down for the day which would include a briefing at 9:30. Breakfast was a variety of things as usual and really well organised and laid out. We have been really pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and the range of menu choices for us.
Overnight we arrived in the Antarctic Peninsula! The scenery is just stunning, with pure white snowy mountains and blue white icebergs all around as we chug past. We sailed into Neko Bay off Andvord Bay where we stayed for the morning’s trek and zodiac activities. There are kayaks being made ready for those that have signed up, and photography cruises, again for people who have signed up and want to accompany Shayne, the ship’s photographer on a zodiac cruise.
As we are part of the Adelie group, we go last today to the Mud Room as we were first yesterday. This gave us time to rehearse our dressing routine, plus we managed to pack things more logically. CJ has decided to wear fewer thermals as he’s been surprisingly warm. So when the Adelie were called; down to the Mud Room we went to get ready for the zodiac. We managed to go the wrong way and ended up retracing our steps, but we eventually found it, got all our gear on and climbed aboard a zodiac. The sea was really calm today and getting on and off the zodiac was easier and drier than yesterday.
The landing expedition was harder work however. Conditions were really icy and one route was to a steep viewing point. Bev made it part way up but fell several times on the way up and on the way down. No harm done and it was actually quite comical. She was cheered by the fact that even the penguins were finding it tricky going and they also had a few stumbles. They have the advantage of sliding on their tummies however. We saw some Gentoo penguins and a sleeping Weddell seal, plus fabulous snowy, towering glaciers. We heard quite a few ‘calvings’ occurring but didn’t see one happening. They can cause a powerful reaction, with mini tidal waves reaching our landing beach so we were warned to move away from the beach as soon as we landed.
We were back on board in time for lunch, during which the ship moved to Danco Island. More incredible scenery and we moved past really big icebergs and smaller pieces of floating ice. The anchor was dropped but then had to be moved a couple of times as ice encroached and prevented the zodiacs from being launched. We were in the mud room ready to board a zodiac on the second occasion and had to wait about 20 minutes whilst a new position was found. It was worth waiting though as Danco Island provided even more spectacular views and more opportunities to see Gentoos nesting. We got very close to several groups nesting and watched individuals selecting stones for their nest, chasing others away who tried to steal stones and others making the long walk to and from the beach. There was a good amount of time to sit and take in their activities, revel in the magnificent scenery and just contemplate the wonder of this remote place.
We finished our expedition by having a zodiac cruise to visit some icebergs up close. We were even allowed to touch one. The shapes, textures and colours were beautiful.
Yet again we have had lovely weather. It’s really not been very cold at all and it’s been dry so far. We have both ended up with sunburnt faces, caught out by the reflection of the sun on the snow even though it’s been cloudy. We will remedy that tomorrow.
Back on board, we had a cup of tea and reviewed today’s crop of photos. We have taken hundreds already – selecting ones to keep is going to be very tricky.
Susan told us that the plan for tomorrow is to get to the Lemaire Channel. The latest forecast showed that the southern end was 100% ice so we may not be able to get through as she hopes, but we won’t know until we try.
We had dinner with John, who we met on the first night, and a guy called Martin who works for G Adventures. CJ shared his free bottle of wine prize with them and we had a good talk with Martin about life as a G Adventure employee, what else they do and various ship-related things.
The campers have just left ship to camp overnight on Danco Island. Susan told them they can expect noisy neighbours as the penguins keep going all night. We are feeling very tired after the day’s exertions so are pleased to have a comfy, quiet place to lay our heads.
Friday 15 December – South Shetland Islands
We both had a much better night’s sleep, helped perhaps by making use of the wedges so we didn’t move around so much in the bed. We were told this morning that the wind dropped quite a bit during the night, from 40 to about 10 knots.
After breakfast we had a mandatory briefing on IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) and zodiac guidelines. Yet more emphasis on leaving Antarctica pristine and not disturbing the animals. CJ seems to think the latter doesn’t apply to him and keeps planning where and when he can pick up a penguin.
The morning continued in an exciting fashion as we had to through bio security to make sure we didn’t take anything unwanted on to Antarctica, and get our boots for landings. We also signed up for a zodiac group – we are Adelies.
Fittingly, we saw penguins ‘porpoising’ past the ship several times during the day. They move really quickly and look so tiny in the vast ocean.
Susan told us we passed into Antarctica (60 degrees South) at about midnight, as predicted, and that we should make it to King George Island by lunchtime. It looked a bit doubtful for a landing from our point of view as it was sleeting quite a bit and quite cloudy. However, the staff boat went out just after lunch and we were on!
We will probably get a bit faster at getting kitted out to board a zodiac. Our first time was quite slow and it can get hot with so many layers on, plus having to fit a lifejacket and boots, but we somehow managed it eventually and joined the line to board the zodiac. On the way out of and back into the ship, we have to disinfect our boots to prevent cross-contamination, and swipe our ID badges. There is also boot washing to be done on the return leg.
Getting into the zodiac is also an acquired skill, particularly when there is a swell as the zodiac moves up and down a fair bit. Susan warned us all that we would get wet at some point as all the landings are into water. You have to grab the arm of the sailor on the gangplank and in the zodiac, step into the boat and shuffle along to your allocated place. You have to swing your legs seaward to get out.
Anyway, all the preparation was well worth it and we landed at Turret Point where we were met by what looked like a small welcoming party of Chinstrap penguins. We couldn’t believe our luck, but it just got better and better as we saw Adelie and Gentoo penguins too, plus elephant seals and birds like great petrels and Skuas. The elephant seals were just laying around, some making most unpleasant grunting sounds. They seemed oblivious to our presence, probably because the staff had marked a route that didn’t make them feel threatened.
We have been told many times that we have to leave at least 5 metres distance between us and penguins. It became clear today that no-one had told the penguins that! They were quite prepared to walk up to us and at one point, where we made a clear path for them to come through, they promptly sat in the space we’d made! It was magical to see them in their natural habitat, just doing what they need and want to do. The scenery was stunning too and the weather was actually calm and relatively warm. Everyone was shedding layers of clothing. No doubt there will be days when we need every layer, but we were incredibly lucky to have such a calm first landing and even luckier to see so much wildlife.
The staff think this is the only time we will see Adelies as their numbers are dropping in the other areas we’ll visit, but there are places in the Ross Sea where they are doing really well.
We got a good long time to explore the marked route but eventually it was time to head back to the ship. Back on board, we had a cup of tea followed by a cocktail to celebrate our first landing. That led in to today’s review and briefing, during which the prizes for the competitions were announced. CJ won the leopard seal competition and a bottle of wine as his prize!
There have been a couple of sightings of humpback whales, but they’ve been quite distant so far. CJ did spot a tail fin coming out fo the water this evening though.
We went past an enormous, beautiful iceberg just as dinner was ending and everyone was up on deck to get photos of that. There was a group of penguins hitching a ride on it.
We are on the move again now as we are going to the Peninsula proper tomorrow and have to head there overnight. With luck, we will get to make 2 landings.
A really fantastic day!
Thursday 14 December – at sea in the Drake Passage
We didn’t have a good night as the forecast for 40 knot winds proved to be accurate and there was a fair amount of rolling. The beds come with an extra invention from the chief engineer, bolsters that you put between the mattress and the bed base so that you don’t fall out! We hadn’t put them in before we went to sleep but probably should have.
So here we are in the Drake Passage. The weather is improving and we currently have sunshine and blue skies, with a fresh but not too strong wind.
Neither of us are feeling at our brightest as we didn’t sleep much at all last night, but the lectures have kept us interested and awake. So far we have had a lecture on birds of the Southern Atlantic, photography, how to spot which seabird is which and penguins. The identification of seabirds is quite an art, but photographing them as they fly close to the ship is a whole other level of skill. Bev is pleased that penguins don’t fly or she may come home with no photos of birds! So far we have been accompanied by Brown Browed Albatross, various types of petrels and prions. No sightings of whales or porpoise yet.
Breakfast and lunch were buffets, with a really amazing range of food for both meals. We don’t know how they manage to produce so much, good quality food from the galley. No one has yet mastered walking along the length of the ship without veering off as a swell rolls the boat. It’s pretty impossible, especially when you are trying to get back to your table with a bowl of soup in one hand.
Before all meal times we are asked to sanitise our hands as the risk of spreading tummy illness is quite high on a ship.
We get our cabin refreshed twice a day! Our steward is called Alben and he is a member of the housekeeping team. The housekeeping crew are currently putting up a Christmas tree which is causing much hilarity for them. There is an electronic map in reception, and so far we appear to be about halfway to the Peninsula.
There is a review and briefing session each evening. Tonight we were told that we have made good progress and crossed the Antarctic convergence at about 3p.m. today. We are expecting to cross the political boundary of Antarctica (60 degrees South) at midnight tonight. Passing the convergence means the water temperature is no 2 degrees and likely to get colder as we go South. Weather permitting, we may arrive at the South Shetland Islands tomorrow lunchtime and have time for a landing! That caused great excitement! We were also told that Drake Passage is pretty calm and the conditions we’ve had rate at about 2 on a 10 point scale where 10 is truly awful.
We are getting our first wake up call tomorrow, because of the possibility of a landing, as we have to undergo mandatory training regarding zodiac procedures. We went to see the mud room today. It’s really well organised and currently very clean. Will it stay looking like that once we’ve had our first zodiac trip?
We sat with different people at dinner tonight. The Brits we sat with last night and the ones tonight have also booked with Audley. How many more are there on board who have done the same we wonder?
After dinner we went to the Polar Bear bar to hear one of the expedition staff sing. She sang classic songs from famous people and has a nice voice. Her set was interrupted by the first sighting of a Wandering Albatross (WA). The crew are running competitions as to when we will see the first WA, the first leopard seal and the 1st iceberg bigger than the ship. The prize is a bottle of wine. Needless to say neither of us have won the WA prize.
Wednesday 13 December – boarding MS Expedition
We boarded our home for the next 9 nights at about 4p.m. The organisation is really excellent – we were each given a lanyard with our name and cabin number on, which also has info about which hook is ours in the mud room (where we will go to get kitted out and board the zodiacs). Our cases were outside our cabin waiting for us.
The ship is more luxurious than we thought it would be and our cabin is actually pretty large. We think we may have had an upgrade we were expecting a round porthole window but have a large rectangular one instead. The beds are comfortable to lie on, though staying in them is a challenge when the sea starts to roll!
Our first meeting was to undertake an evacuation drill. We had to collect our lifejackets from the cabin and proceed to the main lounge for a safety talk followed by the drill. We were also shown survival suits and told how many days’ worth of food and drink the lifeboats carry (10). They still do women and children first for evacuations which surprised us a bit.
We moved onto jollier things after that, with an introduction from the expedition leader, Susan Adie, who talked about the expedition and introduced us to the people who will do the lecture programme, drive the zodiacs, feed and water us etc. Then the Russian captain, Sergei, came to say hello. He’s been going to Antarctica for about 25 years. He was hilarious! He took great pleasure in telling us how excellent the ship is, that she had 5 new engines last year and that she goes fast! Whilst he was talking, glasses of champagne were handed round and we ended with a toast to our expedition. It was really well done.
There is clearly a lot of expert knowledge on board. Susan Adie has had a cove in Antarctica named after her, which doesn’t happen to just anybody. One of the most notable features is how experienced the experts are in Antarctica and how much they love it as they keep coming back. Many of them told us what an incredible time we are going to have.
Susan ran through where they hope to be able to take us, ice permitting, and ran through a weather forecast for the Drake Passage part of our journey. It’s forecast to have 40mph winds calming to 20 to 30 which is standard for these waters. She was careful to say conditions can change though.
Susan also told us that there are 17 different nationalities on board (passengers).
We set sail at 6p.m. on the dot, on a beautiful evening. The Beagle Channel was calm and very picturesque. We managed to do most of our unpacking before dinner at 7.30p.m. We had a very nice three course meal, served at communal tables so we got to know a few other passengers over dinner.
After dinner it was the Parka Party, where everyone had to try on a parka ready for our trip. After that we retired to bed.
A quick farewell to Ushuaia
Having stocked up with more pesos, we headed towards the local attraction of a historic prison which is also home to a maritime museo but decided against the £24 per person entry fee.
We have spotted the G Adventures meeting point and said Ola to our ship.
Whilst out Bev made friends with a couple of penguins!
Another interesting sight is the long evening light here. The sky is still bright at 9 pm. We’re not sure how late the sun stays up last night as we went to bed before we saw it finally dim.
Boots, bags and kit
Well, if we weren’t excited before we are now. We have dropped our cases in the hotel lobby with our name tags attached, and everyone around us is blogging, emailing and checking equipment ready for this afternoon’s departure on the ship. Some have brought very impressive cameras and very long lenses and others are dressed in very hi-tech clothing.
The range of accents is interesting. Lots of Brits, a smattering of Ozzy, lots of American, and Spanish. Age range is broad, but most seem to be our age, mid-20s!
Hopefully more later.
Greetings from the end of the world
We had an 8a.m. transfer from the hotel to the domestic airport this morning. Check in was slightly confusing as you have to join either a South or North queue with Aerolingas Argentinas and we chose one that showed both North and South but turned out to be North! We have helped the Argentinian economy quite a bit by having excess luggage which we had to pay for, but better that than be cold in Antarctica.
The domestic airport is right next to the River Plate. It’s 60kms wide at that point so too wide to see Uruguay on the other side. Our main observation was that it was really whiffy!
The flight left about 10 minutes late and was fine. The descent into Ushuaia was lovely, with snow capped mountains all around and glimpses of the ocean.
We were met by a rep from G Adventures who organise the cruise to Antarctica and transferred to our hotel. This was our first chance to see some of the other people who will be our companions from tomorrow. Most are Brits, but there’s one Aussie and someone from Switzerland. The other expedition members are staying at different hotels so we won’t see everyone until tomorrow when we board.
The Albatross Hotel is clean and comfortable and perfectly pitched to get us used to not having luxury living over the next 10 nights. We have ventured into Ushuaia and it’s a nice enough town, stuffed full of hiking shops, cafes and restaurants. The town folk look more like native Argentines than the people of BA who are largely descended from immigrants. They remind us a bit of Inuit people.
CJ would like everyone to know that it’s warm in Ushuaia! We’re not talking BA temperatures, but it’s about 13 degrees and sunny, a lot better than we were expecting. Now, just so that you all get the pronunciation correct, Ushuaia is pronounced “Oosh-wire”. Now you know.
The end of the world in the post title is because many places in Ushuaia make reference to that phrase. It is the world’s most southerly city so they deserve the name. Even the lift company for the hotel’s lifts is called Ascensores Fin De Mondo!
We have to go to a session with G Adventures soon, to hand in last minute medical forms and ask any questions we may have. Then it will be time to eat and get our heads down to prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s excitement.
Please note, we are very unlikely to be able to publish blogs and photos once we leave Ushuaia. If we get any satellite coverage, we’ll send a quick email to say that we are OK, but it will more than likely be when we get back to BA that we can upload photos and blog posts. It’s perfectly normal to have very limited ability to stay in touch when heading to and from Antarctica so don’t worry please!
Thank you for all your comments to date. We are fine and enjoying hearing from you.
Opera, art and cafe life
We had a small lie in this morning as it’s an early start for our flight tomorrow and Bev didn’t have the best of nights last night. We still managed to be out at about 10 as we wanted to join the 11a.m. tour in English at the Teatro Colon. We navigated the Subte like pros and made it in time for the tour.
An enthusiastic young woman conducted the tour. In some ways it must be an easy job as the opera house is just beautiful and you’d have to be incredibly hard to please if you didn’t enjoy the visit. In other ways it’s a hard job as there were people on the tour who clearly knew about the opera house and opera who asked quite detailed questions. To her credit, the guide knew all the answers.
The Freemasons were, yet again, behind the building of the Teatro, which goes some way to explaining the sumptuousness of the building’s interiors. It’s full of Italian marble, French draperies and furnishings, and hand-laid mosaic tiles from – Stoke on Trent! It took 3 architects to finish the building as the 1st died from pneumonia, the 2nd was shot by his butler when the architect went home early and found the butler ‘with’ his wife and the 3rd finally completed the job. It took 18 years to complete.
The acoustics are what really make the Teatro an outstanding venue for opera buffs. It was ranked 1st in the world for opera performances in terms of the acoustic quality by researchers (who were not Argentinian nor paid for by the Teatro!) One of our party was a real opera buff and when we went into the main auditorium he went to the front to “test the acoustics”. He sang something pretty famous and was, luckily, surprisingly good; he got a round of applause.
After the Teatro, we decided to head for one of the oldest and original cafes in BA, Cafe Tortoni. First opened in 1858, it has retained its brown, timber panelled look. The waiters are dressed in traditional outfits and the food is not bad either. We had a bit of lunch and set off to visit MALBA, an art museum dedicated to Latin American art. It wasn’t to our taste unfortunately, but we had a nice afternoon tea there. Our journey back to the hotel took in the Palermo gardens. Unfortunately CJ’s navigation meant we went a little further south than we should have, (and this time it wasn’t because he’d forgotten that we’re in the southern hemisphere), but back at the hotel we packed ready for our early start tomorrow and a late night tonight as it’s Tango Show night.
We’ve just returned from the Tango Show and, well it was certainly a mixed bag and probably not something we would rush to see again. The dancing was amazing, the food was pretty average, and the music and singing was a little too Spanish for our taste. However, we’re glad we went as it will be a lasting memory of Buenos Aires for us. And where better to see tango than in the place it was born?
So tomorrow we catch our flight to a much colder Ushuaia and we hope to be able to blog more then.
The sights of BA
We both slept really well and were feeling refreshed for our half day tour of the main city sights. Our guide, Diego, arrived very promptly and Victor, the driver, whisked us off to start the tour. We started with a drive around a very select area, one of the few in the city where there are houses as opposed to apartments. There are small sentry boxes along the roads as about 20 years ago there was a number of kidnappings with people being held for ransom. Needless to say, this is where the footballers and celebrities live. We drove past what used to be Maradona’s former home. We had a good natured exchange about his handball skills!
A brief stop to see a statue of Evita in the grounds of what used to be the presidential home, a drive past some of the embassies, all in lovely buildings, and then on to Recoleta Cemetery. This is a five hectare site full of mausoleums of wealthy and famous BA families. It is like a small town with mausoleums laid out in ‘streets’. Each mausoleum is private property and the families have to pay maintenance and keep their space looking smart. Problems can arise when families can no longer afford to maintain their plot or there are no family members left. In such cases, the management of the cemetery can un-inter the graves and resell the plot!
Evita is now buried at Recoleta cemetery. She has been moved a couple of times as her husband moved her from her first grave when he was ousted from power and then her body was kidnapped and taken to Italy where it remained for 19 years. Evita’s is one of the few plots that constantly has flowers on it. The Duarte (her family name) mausoleum is quite imposing but is by no means the grandest. As you will see from the photos, some families really take their final resting place incredibly seriously. It was a fascinating tour.
We then went to Plaza de Mayo where the presidential offices (La Casa Rosada) and the cathedral are sited. The Casa Rosada is so called because it is pink and it was from the balcony here that Evita (and Juan) Peron spoke to the people. We saw film of Evita doing that at the museum yesterday. Plaza de Mayo is the scene of weekly protests by the ‘mothers of the disappeared’; children who were forcibly adopted by the state when the Junta killed those who rose up to oppose them in the 1980s. At least 500 children are thought to have been taken away. Because of improvements in technology, children can now be reunited with birth mothers by DNA testing. 121 children have been reunited so far. This is happening right now as these people who were the children taken away are still only in their 40s.
The cathedral was most notable for the mausoleum of San Martin, the founder of Argentina. He sounds like an amazing human being and liberated Argentina, Peru and Chile from the Spanish. Argentina became an independent country on 9 July 1816 and San Martin is everyone’s hero. His mausoleum sits literally just outside the external wall of the cathedral because the Freemasons controlled the city at the point the cathedral was built and didn’t allow his tomb to sit within the cathedral site, but did permit it to be just outside! Madness.
We next headed to the southern edge of BA, an area known as La Boca, right by the old port. It is sited next to San Telmo which was the first populated part of BA and used to be where the rich citizens of BA lived until an outbreak of yellow fever occurred. The rich moved further north when the outbreak happened and the immigrants working on the docks moved in to the empty houses. As the area grew, the workers started to build homes closer to the port with whatever materials they could find, including corrugated iron, and painted them with supplies from the docks. The results are still to be seen today and La Boca is a vibrant but poor area of the city. It’s where the tango was created; humble beginnings that made tango a dance to be ashamed of. It only became respected when it had been accepted in Europe, largely due to Carlos Gardel, a tango singer, who travelled abroad and made people aware of the power of the dance and the music.
La Boca is also home to Boca Juniors for whom Maradona and Messi played. Messi is apparently from La Boca and has vowed to come back to the club to end his football career. Diego told us that La Boca is fine in the day but even citizens from other parts of BA don’t go there at night. It has the feel of an area that will one day be up and coming, as many of its inhabitants see the benefits of the tourists and find work through tourism, and are trying to persuade those who want to earn a quick buck by robbing someone of their Rolex or smart camera, to do something more positive with their life. We loved it.
Our tour ended in San Telmo market, an enormous flea market stretching block upon block to the centre of the city. We said a fond farewell to the excellent Diego who has been a deep mine of information, a passionate Porteno, and a really lovely man, and found a food emporium offering a huge variety of cuisines. We settled for crepes and then set off back to the city centre where we braved the Subte (subway) for the first time.
We had hoped to join a tour of the theatre but there’s a performance on tonight so the tours were cancelled. We will try tomorrow. So we moved on to visit El Ateneo, an enormous bookshop sited in a former theatre. The Guardian described it as the 2nd most beautiful bookshop in the world, and it is astonishing (please see photos). We sat on what would have been the stage to have drink and a rest before heading back to the Subte for our return to the hotel.
Today has been sunny and hot, but there’s been more breeze so it hasn’t been as overwhelming as yesterday. We were very glad of the car for the tour this morning though as we wouldn’t have been able to see so many of the main sights by ourselves.
Dinner tonight was at a restaurant called the Green Bamboo, a pseudo Vietnamese place. The food was very good and there was a good range of cocktails to choose from too. The music, however, left much to be desired; it was indescribably awful!
Evita in the heat
Casa Sur Palermo, our home for all of our four nights in BA, is a nice, modern hotel in an area known as Palermo Hollywood. Palermo is the overall district which sub-divides into Soho and Hollywood. We have a very comfortable room with air con, a feature we are already grateful for as BA is incredibly hot. Apologies as we know there are temperatures to make you shiver at home; we have ones able to make us keel over!
Having had our complimentary drink, we were shown to our room where we negotiated the unpacking of our suitcases as minimally as possible to unearth the clothes we brought for BA whilst trying not to disturb the mountains of clothes for Antarctica.
We struck out for one of Palermo’s green spaces and were immediately overwhelmed by the intense heat. It must be at least 35 degrees C and, with barely a breeze, that makes any movement a challenge if you are wimps like us. We made it to a bank and then had to find a place to eat and drink pronto. We concluded that the park would have to wait until it cooled down and hailed a taxi to the Museo Evita. Thank goodness for indoor spaces!
Evita really is regarded as a national treasure here. We didn’t know much about her until we started to read a bit about Argentina for our holiday. We still only know a tiny amount, but her work for social justice seems rightly very highly regarded and the museum, unsurprisingly, portrays her as an all round good egg.
It was still baking when we left the museum so we took another cab back to the hotel to recharge our batteries. Although we are not in central BA, we are surprised that it seems quite quiet for a Saturday. Maybe the ‘Portenos’, as the residents of BA are known, also think it’s too hot to be out. Another oddity is that no one seems to sound their horns in cars unlike a lot of other major cities. We wonder if it’s illegal to do so.
Our next big decision is where to eat tonight. We are, yet again, a big disappointment to the locals in that we won’t be partaking of Argentina’s most famous food, beef. Our guide almost managed to hide his astonishment that we are veggies! CJ has found several veggie places and we know we can eat Italian all over BA so when we are alert enough to consider our options, we will head out and see what we can find.
One thing we were hoping wasn’t true which turned out to be a BA fact is that no one even thinks about eating in the evening until well after 8pm and most Portenos wouldn’t dream of eating until much later than that. So our plans on eating at a local Vege restaurant early so we could get an early night we’re dashed. We did eventually find Bio, a vegan place that had some odd and interesting food. We are up early tomorrow as we have our guided city tour, so we’ll catch up then. Looks like it’s going to be another hot day tomorrow, so hopefully we will be ok.
Buenos Aires (BA): a first look
We are here, but first a word of praise for KLM who were really good. Our flight was smooth and the food was probably the best we’ve ever had in the air.
Our BA guide is called Diego and thankfully he speaks very good English and didn’t seem surprised that we’d arrived an hour and a half late. The international airport is 35 km from the city but we had a smooth and pretty traffic free ride to the hotel, with Diego giving us lots of information en route. We are now sitting in the lounge having a complimentary drink and waiting to go to our room. So far, we like Buenos Aires. It’s about 27dC with blue skies here; we are certainly not dressed for the weather.
We have a lot to explore over the next few days and happy to hear that our half day city tour starts at a reasonable 9am tomorrow as we are used to Audley organising things that start hideously early. We should see most of the main sights, so more of that tomorrow.
Antarctica is a place of extremes. To illustrate its enormity, and to give you something to read whilst you wait for us to set foot on the ice, here are are a few fascinating polar facts that you may find as mind expanding as we do:
13,829,430 km2 5,339,543 miles2
1.4 times bigger than the USA
58 times bigger than the UK
1.8 times bigger than Australia
(0.32% of total) 44,890 km2 17,330 miles2
Largest Ice Shelves:
Ross ice shelf: (about the size of France) 510,680 km2 197,974 miles2
Ronne-Filchner ice shelf: (about the size of Spain) 439,920 km2 169,850 miles2
Transantarctic Mountain chain, length: 3,300 km 2,050 miles
Highest 3 mountains:
Mt. Vinson – 4,892 m / 16,050 ft (sometimes called “Vinson Massif”)
Mt. Tyree – 4,852 m / 15,918 ft
Mt. Shinn – 4,661 m / 15,292 ft
Antarctica has 70% of all the world’s freshwater frozen as ice – and 90% of all of the world’s ice.
Mean: 1,829 m / 6,000 ft
Mean thickness East Antarctica: 2,226 m / 7,300 ft
Mean thickness West Antarctica: 1,306 m / 4,285 ft
Maximum ice thickness: 4,776 m / 15,670ft
If you would like to know more things that you may need for your next pub quiz, here’s a link to a web site that has all sorts of other strange facts about Antarctica.