Arrival in Ushuaia at 830am was amazing. To fly in on a clear day over snow capped mountains and mirror flat water in the bay was something special. Walking out of the airport into cold weather was also a fairly new experience for us Queenslanders, who have had nothing but hot weather since we arrived in South America also. Straight to the hostel, dropped off the bags, paid for the night and then went for a walk to try and find a lastminute cruise to Antarctica. We went to a number of travel agents who all gave different information about availability and what boats were going where etc. We finally decided on one agent who was already helping two young guys, Alex and Augusto, get on the 'MS Expedition' (boat) that afternoon at 4pm. We decided given the price and the timing it would be great for us also. The agent was a bit inconsistent (and non-exsistant!) with his info and so we were very nervous about him scanning and emailing our credit card and passports to the head office in Canada. This is 1130am at this point, he had to wait for Canada to open, three hours difference. By this time another couple, Nelle and Adam had joined us and had also put in to go on the cruise. By 330pm we went back to the agent to pick up the voucher that Canada had sent down. Talk about lastminute!
The hostel was great and gave us credit for the two nights we need on our return. After talking to Sarah's Dad on skype we also found out that the cruise was crossing the Antarctic Circle, something this company does only twice a year, and also a cruise that costs a lot more than the ones that head just to the penisula. So we were happy. It also meant we were at sea a day longer than we thought. You start getting the idea about the lack of info we were getting from the travel agent.
A stash of red wine, a bottle of vodka and some chocolate and biscuits were purchased to avoid high prices on the boat...and some ´waterproof´ ski pants (which turned out not to be waterproof!)
So the six of us (Augusto, Alex, Nelle and Adam) got on the boat and it all turned out fine. Our room has two single beds (a good thing- wait for the reason) and an ensuite. Yes, picture of Polar Bear on the wall- and yes only in Arctic, but the ship does both ends, so alternate rooms have the different poles (explains the Polar Bear Bar onboard also). The ship was only refitted a year ago, so it is all new and clean. The reason they have a new boat is because the last one got stuck in the ice last year and sank...... no one died - so a good result!!!!!!! But a little concerning.
Sarah unpacking in our cabin- single beds were good when boat was rocking 45 degrees
So off we set at 6pm. There was a briefing that gave us a little more info and there was a real feeling of excitement on the boat amongst all of the passengers. Some people had booked this up to a year ago so were amazed that we had booked in only two hours prior!
The excitement did not last long for most... as we headed into the Drake Passage.
Drake Passage from the Bridge- 5 people out of bed at this stage
So we were told that about 1030pm we would move out of the Beagle Channel and into open sea where it might get a little rough. Most people were loaded up with sea sick tablets and got to bed early. Sleep was ok for me, Sarah not at all really. The boat was pretty rocky..... by the time we had the wake up call over the PA at 730am - having a shower, going to the toilet, getting dressed was all a little difficult and involved hitting a few walls! Sarah did not come to breakfast.
So breakfast was exciting. It was announced half way through breakfast that the outer decks were now closed, Adam and Nelle were responsible for that as they had fallen and slid half way across the stern deck with crew running to stop her going closer to the edge.
There were probably 50 people at most for breakfast. Numerous broken plates, glasses, stumbles, spillages etc. Then one larger lady rocked back in her chair, which are all chained to the floor, with the chain the only thing stopping her going backward, flailing arms and legs. Then the boat came back the other way and she smashed into the table forcing it into the next table, ripping the chairs out of their anchors and smashing Augusto against the wall with the far edge of the second table. She then ended up on her stomach sliding across the floor and into the wall herself, like an ice hockey player that had been taken out and slid face first into the wall. While that was going on there were all the other people who had fallen off chairs etc on the floor. When it is not you it is pretty funny!!
Each day there are two morning and two afternoon lectures on birds, whales, ice etc etc. The first morning lecture had about 15 people in it. After this they announced that lunch would be sandwiches served in the lounge, due to the breakfast incident. Prior to lunch I went up to the bridge (they have an open door policy). The safety officer told me that the waves were around 8 metres but they were building up and would get bigger throughout the afternoon (15m!). We were heading in almost the wrong direction to keep the boat into the waves, as he said in a dry russian accent 'we could get there faster, but I would have to turn side onto the waves then we would really rock and things would go everywhere down there.' Not sure if he realised things already were.
The only lecture had been the bird lecture and I ran into Heidi, the birdy bird, in the stern bar. It has a good view of the ocean and sky and on this stormy day we were lucky to have just about every sea bird she had talked about circling the ship including, Giant Petrels, Albatrose (both types, wanderers and the other..) and some other birds, she was quite excited about them. It was good as it was only the two of us so I got a little lecture and lots of pointing things out.
So then lunch in the lounge saw a smaller turn out again. They announced that all lectures were cancelled for the rest of the day and dinner would be sandwiches served to the cabins by the staff. So in the afternoon there were 5 of us in the lounge and that was it. True to the safety officer´s estimations the waves picked up, averaging at 12 metres and topping out at 15 metres. The boat was getting a lean of up to 45 degrees, which I can tell you feels like it is going over every time.
Sitting in the lounge it was really a matter of laughing every time we got hit by a really big one which essentially lifted you onto your feet and then flung you back into the chair. The young boys decided they should race from one side of the boat to the other in the lounge. Bolted down chairs and tables made great moguls. One ended up with a split nose. Fair to say I was the clever one for videoing it.
So night two- limited sleep again. But by 2am things settled down a bit. By morning it was reasonable, Sarah did not make it to breakfast but made a fleeting appearance at lunch, quick bite to eat and then a run back to the room. I saw the doctor and got her some harder drugs. They at least got her to sleep and removed the nausea. More lectures, which was good to break up the day, 35 mins on the exercise bike in the gym (felt like mountain biking as the boat still had a decent rock), filled up the day. The highlight was the pods of killer whales that just moved past the boat, about 10 whales in total in three pods. Came within 50 metres of the boat, absolutely amazing- just bobbing up and down like dolphins, but much bigger and much more obvious due to the black and white colouring.
The view from our porthole- rough
Dinner was good with the captains toast prior to dinner and an overview of the landings form the expedition leader. The standard and volume of food they pump out on the ship is sensational. So the need to do some simple exercise while we are still sea bound is critical to not suffer a serious blow out.
This morning there were icebergs floating past the ship which was pretty amazing.
We had now been on a moving boat since 6pm Tuesday 2 March. It was now Friday 5 March and the first land sighting will be at about midnight tonight. 78 hours of open water. At 1am we crossed the Antarctic Circle 66 33 39 which most of us slept through. Sarah had spent some of the morning on the bridge speaking with the captain. Who is very monotone, dry Russian humour was telling her that 'we will cross the Antarctic Circle where there is a red dotted line on the ocean and a blue dotted line in the sky. But I think we cross here (pointing at the map, between the dots), so you will not see them.'
We had our mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefing in the morning. We had to take our day packs and outer shell clothing and vacuum it all to make sure there are no seeds taken on land. Then later we had our zodiac briefing. Most of the passengers are now alive and the excitement started to build again as we prepare for landings and zodiac cruises below th Antarctic Circle.
On the morning of the third fourth day, Saturday, we awoke to towering white walls of snowcapped, Antarctic bedrock and glaciers jutting out into the bay, glowing blue in the cracks as if the light was coming from within them.
Zodiac- Souh of the Antarctic Circle- Hannusse Bay, Hanson Island
It was a very scenic breakfast surrounded by icebergs and amazing coast line that dwarfed the boat.
Cold Seas- MS Expedition
South of the Antarctic Circle
We had drifted down into Hannusse Bay and had come to a halt on the western side of Hansen Island. The morning consisted of a Zodiac cruise (1hour 15m mins) around Hannusse Bay where we got close to the coast.
Cold Zodiac Cruising- Hannusse Bay, Hanson Island
We saw fur seals on icebergs, lots of birds and came to appreciate that ice can be blue, white or clear, which appears black in the water.
Amazing Blue- Fish Islands
We wore thermals (top and bottom), t shirt, fleece, warm jacket, waterproof jacket, ski pants, two pairs of socks and gum boots, and still felt a bit of the cold.
Rugged up for outdoors
Lunch back on board and we motored North to Detailles Island. The hut on the island was British and used between 1954 and 1959. Still with oats, liquor, books, clothes, bedding etc in the hut. We landed on the island and were able to walk around.
Out of Service British Antarctica Survey Hut- Detaille Island
We saw a very large Crab Eater Seal right where we landed, he did not move the whole time but to look up once in a while. There were fur and leopard seals on the island and also some Adelie penguins. A snow ball fight with some of the boys let off a bit a steam after being stuck on the boat for so many days.
Crab Eater Seal- Detaille ISland
Back on the boat after three hours on shore, it was time for dinner after a luke warm shower. Dinner was delayed due to a pod of about 8 humpbacks playing off the side of the boat. This went on for about 30 minutes with tails being flipped up, fins being waved and toward the end some heads poked, which was them feeding. They cause a whirlpool, herding the fish together as a group, and then one comes up through the middle of it. After dinner we moved to the back deck and toasted champagne as we crossed over the Antarctic Circle for the last time heading north. Most people on the boat (including staff) have set records for getting the furthest south ever. 67 degrees South. Just indicates how lucky we have been to get on this cruise. This is the boat gang, but not the specific crossing toast...
The Lounge Gang
There was also a National Geographic photographer onboard on assignment here. He has been very willing to help others with cameras and tips. Fair to say my interest in taking photos has not led me into a conversation with him. But he did give a talk after diner and showed a couple of hundred of his photos from over the past 25 years and talked about his job, both the romantic (travelling the world), brain numbing (5 days for one frame) and heart breaking (two cleaned out homes by partners). But all in all it was interesting and we are hoping his trip makes the magazine so we have another memory of our cruise, footage may make the TV, Magazine or online... so a little exciting.
Overnight we sailed north and got out into some rough seas again. The rocking was as bad as the first day. Sarah again had a bad sleep. We awoke to a basic white out, well, maybe 100m visibility. A few large icebergs floating past the ship. We were slowed down by ice in the morning and got to our destination 20 minutes late. Straight out for a landing in the morning. Our first time on the Antarctic continent at a place called Prospect Point. There were penguins at much closer quarters at this location. They were moulting so we gave them a wide berth. A glacier came right down into the water next to the beach (rocks etc) and just after we arrived a large chunk sheared off and fell into the ocean. It was only small as it broke up and just made slushy ice on top of the water, but a pretty good wave (1 maybe 2 metres). I sat for about 20 minutes with the camera ready trying to get the next one. Happy to say I did but not as good a fall as the first one. On the zodiac back to the boat another fall occurred and our driver took us on a loop so that we could see the wave and stuff. It was very cool. It was one of the things that I wanted to see, it would be amazing to see a proper iceberg shear off a glacier as the wave and piece of ice would be huge.
The other great thing about the morning was that the clouds cleared and blue skies came out. More importantly we could see for the first time the extent of the peaks, which rose out of the bay to astonishing heights. It was really great to see this as it finally gave some indication of the continent beyond the beach where we landed. Until then the cloud, and fog had sat on the top of the first rise (150m or so).
Peak in the distance- Prospect Point
The afternoon entailled a Zodiac Cruise around the Fish Islands, wher we got some fantastic pics of beautiful blue icebergs, offset against the mean, grey, Antarctic sky and the dark, black, cold ocean. We had a great driver, Julio, and he asked if we wanted to walk on an iceberg - yes, please! So he pulled up and Seth hopped off, Julio drove away and Seth started to look a little worried.
Sethberg- no one before, no one after
We then all got a turn on different bergs, it was quite surreal.
Sarahberg- Fish Islands
In the evening Seth decided to embrace the travelling thing and shaved (well, a number 4) his hair off - no more $60 haircuts for him!
Seth Getting a buzz cut
The next day we continued North and stopped at a research base, it was Ukrainian, Vernadsky. It had previously been British, but sold to tUkrane in 1996 for 1 pound. There were all blokes and were quite happy to see a bunch of young girlies (most of the cruises are oldies!) - and infact our tour leader had used that as a teaser to get them to allow us on shore!
Vernadskiy Base, Ukraine
We sent a couple of postcards, which may or not go via Ukraine (they weren´t very talkative) - but will take 1-2 months. And got our passports stamped with Ukrainian/Antarctica stamps. Some also had a few home-distilled vodkas (at 10am!).
Vernadskiy Base, Ukraine- Post Office
In the afternoon, the weather was terrible, sideways rain, so our zodiac cruise wasn´t much fun at all! But it was proper Anarctica weather. We took one picture of the bridge iceberg and then went back to the ship, and the sauna.
London Bridge Iceberg- Pleneau Islands
In the evening, we cruised the Lemaire Channel, a famous(?), beautiful channel, only 0.5 mil wide and great icey mountains on either side. It was very scenic and the captain fif a very good job to steer it through the icey bits, especially as a lot of this area is uncharted and the captain (and ice captain) just use their experience and their own notes from previous trips!
Lemaire Passage- Iceberg Alley
On our second last ´land´ day, we went to Danco Island, which was like proper Antarctica, it was snowing and really good, powdery snow.
Geared up for snow- Danco Island
We landed amongst a million penguins and seals and then hiked up to the top of the hill, where we were promised 360 degrees views of the area, but it was a bit of white-out when we got there, so got 360 degrees of white, which in itself was quite nice! It was very cool walking up through thousands of penguins, with them sliding down on their bellies past us... the penguin highway.
Danco Island- Adelie Penguins
Adelies- Danco Island
At the top we built a snowman (well, snow duck!), the snow was like icing sugar and stuck really well, but our not-very-prepared-for-antarctica gloves meant it was a very painful process!
When we got back down we found out Adam had proposd to Nelle, which was very cute!
Snow duck on top of Danco Island
On our final morning we arrived at Deception Island. It is a culdera, a collapsed volcano (looks like a fortune cookie on a map). It is still active and there is steam coming off the beach. We walked around what seemed like a moon scape, with the remnants of a whalers station dotted around, it was a little spooky!
Deception Isalnd, Whalers Bay- from Neptunes Window looking in
The entrance into the culdera is only 150m wide and is called Neptune´s Bellows. About 200m from the entrance is a u shaped depression in the hill side and it is called Neptune´s Window.
Deception Island- Neptunes Bellows- Entrance into Culdera
Two of the passengers were married at Neptunes Window... well sort of .. the Expedition Leader was master of ceremonies, so I don´t think it is official, although on the last night of the cruise when they were giving out certificates for bits and pieces, they gave them a marrriage certificate, very funny.
After the wedding we walked back down to the old whaling station and had a look around, I can´t imagine orking down there in the freezing cold, chopping up whales - yuk!. Then of course it was time for a swim. Water temperature was -1 degrees celcius. Fair to say it was freezing! Getting undressed was bad enough in the wind but then hitting the water... we could not have imagined how cold it was. And it got deep really quickly so as we dived in and then turned to run out we realised we could not touch the bottom and had to swim back in the couple of metres, which I can tell you, is far enough. But great fun, and we can now say we have swum in Antarctica, along with 35 of the other passengers. Getting out of the water was also ridiculously cold, your fingers and toes really didn´t work, so it was straight back to the shio and the sauna!
That afternoon we went to Half Moon Island which is part of the South Shetlands. There was an elephant seal on the beach where we landed and lots of Chinstrap penguins. Chinstraps are the smallest of the penguins we saw and very cute, called for obvious reasons, they were also the most friendliest, or maybe just used to seeing people, so got very close to us.
Half Moon Island
Half Moon Island- Seth and Penguin
On the zodiac on the way back to the boat, the driver was the assistant expedition leader. A couple of nights ago we were having a few drinks and I (Seth) told him he was 'assistant TO the expedition leader' (The Office fans will get the joke). Fair to say he did not forget and proceeded to soak me by pointing the zodiac into waves. But it was our last outing, so we didn´t really care.
So, we were back on board for 2 days and 2 nights of crossing the Drake Passage, which was nowhere near as bad as the trip down. They continued with lectures and entertainment, but the excitment had kinda worn off!
We arrived back into Ushuaia at 8pm, but had to stay onboard for the last night, which makes a ´12 day´ cruise a bit sneaky.
The cruise was great and we saw every possible animal - penguins, seals, sea birds, whales and some fantastic scenery, it was great to go as far South as we did, as the area seemed so much more surreal and no trace of other people having been there. We made some good friends, although it was a bit weird bumping into people from the cruise around Ushuaia on the day after!
Sorry, for the mega-long blog entry - but we went to Antarctica, man!