Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Antarctic Chill

I almost didn't go. It was a big expense and I had just gone through the costly delay in Punta Arenas, which itself would have paid for the Antarctica cruise. My downfall was reading Ernest Shackleton's memoir "South" on my Kindle. Just like your 4th grade teacher used to tell you, "reading can make history come alive". I then moved on to other Antarctic explorers, like Scott and Amundsen - it truly was the last continent on Earth left to explore and it had not changed much since they were there.

By that time, I was emotionally committed, so the value of the trip kept increasing as the price stayed the same. I had to go. My experience in Patagonia had been "good", but I was fairly certain that I would not be down this way again anytime soon. This was a opportunity not to miss.

All the cruises to the white continent leave from Ushuaia, Argentina. I had shopped around, but the season was coming to a close - the weather was changing and the penguin chicks would soon be old enough to leave their hatcheries for the open water, so I had to choose from the ships that had mid-February departure dates. I chose the Antarctic Dream.

When I say cruise, I don't mean onboard casinos, poolside lounge chairs, or climbing walls. Our cruise of 55 passengers was aboard a refurbished 1957 ship originally built for the Chilean Navy for the purpose of servicing the country's scientific bases in Antarctica. She was a true battle-axe reinforced for heavy ice, but proved plenty comfortable for our purposes.

It is hard to sum up the experience of visiting Antarctica, but in this case, absolutely a trip of a lifetime within a trip of a lifetime. The combination of unobstructed wildlife, historical adventure, and being the world’s premier sculpture park make it one of the most unique places on Earth. I had high expectations, and was not disappointed in the least.

Below is the ten-day itinerary and link to the video that coincides with it:

18 Feb 2010, Ushuaia 54º 48’S, 68º18.1’ W, Departure

The Antarctic Dream was docked alongside the pier in Ushuaia waiting for everyone to embark and start our journey to the Antarctic Peninsula. We boarded and started getting familiar with our new home for the next ten days to come. We participated on our first briefing introducing the expedition staff and the ship’s crew and we sailed just after 6pm. We watched Ushuaia from the outer decks at departure, our last view of civilization for ten days. After that we met for the safety drill and joined our new friends for a welcome cocktail and our first dinner onboard. We sailed the Beagle Channel and around 11pm the Argentinean pilot disembarked and we were underway towards the Drake Passage.

19 Feb 2010 – Drake Passage, Day at Sea

The weather conditions on our first day on the Drake Passage were very good. Throughout the day we had presentations on the natural history of the creatures we are most likely to see during our crossing of the Drake and at the Antarctic Peninsula as well as one introduction to Antarctica.

20 Feb 2010 – Drake Passage and South Shetland Islands

Our crossing of the Drake Passage continued smoothly. We started the morning with lectures on penguins and mammals, and we were briefed on the IAATO regulations and landing etiquette.

21 Feb 2010 – South Shetland Islands, Aitcho Is. 62º32´S, 59º47´W (Tº: -5ºC) , Half Moon is. 62º36´S, 59º55´W (Tº: -3ºC)

Our first landing! The morning was very cold. We disembarked on Barrientos Island, one of the Aitcho islands. During the visit we walked a short distance along the beach and had excellent views of Gentoo penguins sitting on their nests, guarding the chicks. We also saw a few busy Chinstrap penguins going to their nests, located on the higher side of the island. We continued walking on sand, snow and mud to reach the higher side of Aitcho, where we visited an elephant seal’s wallow, where they stay together while they moult their fur, helping each other keep warm. During lunch time the ship repositioned at Half Moon, an area formerly used by sealers, where the Argentinean base Cámara stands today. The Captain skilfully manoeuvred the ship into the bay and soon the zodiacs were on the water to start taking us ashore. We walked along the island until we reached a Chinstrap colony, and we spotted a group of Antarctic Fur seals basking on the beach. We returned aboard and sailed South on the Bransfield Strait.

22 Feb 2010 – Gerlache Strait, Neko Harbour 64º50´S, 62º33´W (Tº: 4ºC), Dorian Bay, Wiencke I. 64º49´S, 63º30´W (Tº: 5ºC)

In the morning we sailed towards Andvord Bay for Neko Harbour. Our intention was to set foot on the Antarctic continent. We started with a hike to a viewpoint, were we enjoyed a view of the whole bay, with its high mountains and glaciers. Then we slid down. At the landing site, the hotel staff was waiting for us with champagne, so we made a toast to our continental landing. Then we sailed to Wiencke Island, and we landed after lunch. The weather in the afternoon was very nice and clear. We climbed the hill, and we had a beautiful view of Dorian Bay, Goudier I., and Jougla Point.

23 Feb 2010 – Lemaire Channel, Petermann is. 65º10´S, 64º10`W (Tº: 6ºC), Pleneau 65º06´S, 64º02´W (Tº: 1ºC)

This morning we sailed through the Lemaire Channel aiming for our southernmost point of the expedition. We started the day with a visit to Petermann Island. Nesting on the island there were Blue-eyed shags, a small colony of Adelie penguins and the southernmost colony of Gentoo penguins. For the afternoon we went on another zodiac cruise, around Pleneau Island, and we enjoyed the beauty of the icebergs. We went further into the bay and found Leopard, Weddell and Crabeater seals, as well as Minke whales very close to the Zodiacs. The icebergs grounded in the vicinity of Pleneau had all sort of shapes and colours, each one a unique sculpture. We returned to the ship and prepared to abandon the Lemaire channel, this time returning north, and after dinner we anchored at Port Lockroy.

24 Feb 2010 – Gerlache Strait, Goudier Is. Jougla P. 64º49´S, 63º30´W (Tº: -2ºC; 7ºC), Dallmann Bay 64º20´S, 62º55´W (Tº: 1ºC; 10ºC)

In the morning, the weather conditions were not good for landing, so the captain decided to cancel the visit to Port Lockroy. So, we continued our trip northwards to Dallmann Bay. The weather at Paradise Bay was better, so we could visit the Chilean base Gonzalez Videla. There, we sent postcards and visited the photographic museum and the base’s buildings. In the afternoon, we entered Dallmann Bay in search of wildlife. The Captain cruised slowly into the bay allowing us to have great views of the seals resting on the ice floes. Then the sun appeared and it was the perfect time to enjoy the magic of Antarctica. We found Humpback and Minke Whales, and a big pod of Orcas.

25 Feb 2010 – South Shetland Islands, Deception Island 62º57´S, 60º38´W (-3ºC; 6ºC)

In the morning, we navigated through “Neptune’s Bellows” into the caldera of an active volcano: Deception Island. Once inside we could see the bay, the conditions were good, so we landed in Pendulum Cove. After a nice walk along the beach, most of us swam in the steaming waters. We sailed away from Deception and at 5pm we exited by the Nelson Strait into the Drake Passage. As soon as we left from the South Shetland Islands we found a nice Drake Passage

25 Jan 2010 – Drake Passage At Sea

In the morning, the Drake conditions were quite good and we could observe birds like giant and cape petrels, wandering albatrosses and others. We continued with the lectures of Antarctic history and the discovery of Penguins.

26 Jan 2010 – Drake Passage – Beagle Channel At Sea

During the night the waves weren´t so mellow. The day continued with some improvements as we approached the Beagle Channel.The Antarctic Dream finally entered the Beagle Channel. In the afternoon we enjoyed the presentation of the final log and a slideshow that the expedition staff prepared. The conditions were excellent,making possible for everyone to fully enjoy our last dinner onboard and get prepared for our disembarkation the following day in Ushuaia.

Antarctic Chill Video

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