Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Taking the Antarctic Dream Part 1.

Our day of departure came not nearly soon enough as a mixture of anticipation and dread had me on edge. Finally, at 4 pm on Feb 25, 2012 we were allowed to board. The ship from the outside looked weather worn but healthy. We walked through Argentinean customs, since officially we were leaving Argentina but the inspection of luggage or passport control was very lax.
After getting on board we were assigned our cabin and the reception clerk kept our passports in storage for future landings in Antarctica. The check-in was efficient enough, the crew all smiles and with the help of a crew member we stowed the one large suitcase we had under the bed in our assigned cabin No. 120, one flight of stairs down from main deck.
Our room had a porthole window to the outside world. The decoration was practical, the facilities clean but showing the signs of age.

The ship itself was a converted ice breaker built in 1960 in Amsterdam for the Chilean Navy. It has since been refurbished twice. Double hulled, 83 meters (274 feet) long, 12 meters (39 feet) wide, with a draft of 4.6 meters (15 feet), it flew the flag of Panama. Total Capacity was for 84 passengers and we had 76 on board plus crew members, expedition crew (who also gave lectures) and a physician. The ship could run at 10 to 12 knots (15 miles per hour) all day using a diesel electric engine. Most of the crew was from Chile which is also the headquarters of the owners. The ship was sound, albeit its age of over 50 years showed, never mind the revamps it had.

At 6 pm more or less, we set sail and the first thing we had on board was the mandatory Emergency Drill.
A roll call ensured all passengers attended. Donning our life vests we went to our stations and the evacuation procedure was explained. This whole exercise was a serious matter to the crew. Safety was their main concern.

After an introduction of themselves and a Welcome speech from the Captain and First Officers,
a complimentary glass of champagne was given to us along with some particulars such as meal times, timing of the excursions, length of time to reach our destinations, etc. we settled in.

We chugged along the Beagle Channel towards the open sea which we reached during the night. I slept well that first night, even though the ship rocked and the cabin had an odd damp smell to it. I could hear the bilge pump kick in and the propeller shaft noise was loud and banging someplace against some metal. Sleeping through it all was good. Carol was not that lucky, her sensitive hearing kept her awake most of the night. Only adding earplugs helped her find some needed rest around 3 am.

At 7:30 am, the theme music from Star Wars on the PA system with an announcement of breakfast at 8 am got us started on day two.
We were on the open sea, the ship rolling from side to side and bobbing up and down all at the same time. Looking out the windows in the dining room area we saw nothing but ocean and just a hint of white caps but the weather was really not that bad.

Sure it was cold if you stepped out on deck to take some pictures and the wind blew fairly hard but it really was a ´quiet´ ride. We spent this first day just hanging around, taking in the newness of our surroundings, broken up with a lecture on Seabirds at 10 am and at 3:00 we saw the first installment of the BBC movie series “The Frozen Planet” that would be continued throughout our trip. We met some of the people during breakfast and they were truly an International mix. We had Swedes, Argentineans, Spanish, German, Swiss, Dutch, Belgians, New Zealanders, Brits, Estonians, Americans, Canadians, French and more, but I cannot recall them right now.

One of the first questions is always, “What country do you come from”? On the first day, another of the main questions was “What did you pay for this trip”? And wow, was I in for a surprise. All prices were dependent on what cabin one slept in and the prices varied tremendously. Remember we paid US Dollars 3990 each. Here are the prices other passengers paid. The Belgian guy paid Euro 16500 each (21,780 US $). Yes, you read right, but he did have a large cabin with 6 or 7 windows. The Dutch paid something like 8000 Euro for each person. Etc. Some others paid as low as 5000 Euros but we met not one person who paid as little as Carol and I did. We all ate the same food, attended the same outings, had access to the same places like anyone else and were treated by the crew the same way. We only slept in different rooms.

The oldest passenger on the cruise was a gentleman from Barcelona, Spain at age 83 who never left the ship. The youngest passenger was maybe 24 or so. It was a mix of people, the most common language spoken was Spanish followed by English. Well, while the passengers spoke good English the Expedition Crew seemed to have problems with the English language. Although it was not as bad as I feared, it was still bad enough to miss some of the PA announcements or some parts of the lectures.

Our lectures were Antarctic specific, pointing out birds we might see, mammals we might encounter, or explaining life in the sea below us. Some history was explained but was not very detailed.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was the most talked about explorer on our voyage. He was part of Scott’s Discovery Expedition that reached the South Pole in 1911. Scott was 35 days behind Amundsen so was not the first to the Pole. Shackleton became ill with scurvy so returned to England early but the rest of the team did not make it back from Antarctica. Shackleton’s later near disaster in 1914-15 in attempting to cross the continent took center stage during our journey. The main bird discussed was the penguin. The bird everybody wanted to see was the Wandering Albatross because of its huge wing span of three and a half meters.

All lectures were interesting albeit with proper, fluid English it would have been much better.

We sailed through day one, heading due south.

Day 2 gave us some taste of what the sea around us could be like. When I say taste, it was more of a tease, because the roughness of the seas on a scale from 1 to 12 reached a meager 4. Yet some people got ill from just this little increase in motion on our ship. The mood was anxious and the question arose as if from little kids, “Are we there yet”?

It takes a good 48 hours to cross the Drake Passage. We were extremely lucky, we had perfect weather. Hardly any winds to rock the ship, hardly heavy weaves to bounce us around. Sure we had to hold on whenever we walked inside the ship, sure we were even restricted from going outside during heavy rains that made the decks too slippery for walking but all in all it was a good crossing.

Unfortunately, our first Zodiac landings scheduled for day 3 to the Aitcho Islands and another to Astrolabe Island were cancelled due to winds over 30 knots per hour (35 miles hour). Bummer, some folks really got mad at this but safety is the prime concern of the crew.

So we continued on all day until we reached Danco Island on day 4.
Our embarkation into small Zodiacs was well rehearsed and efficient enough. We had to clean and disinfect our rubber boots before and after each Zodiac outing in order to not track guano onto the ship or foreign material onto the land.
We all wore bright orange life vests, we all received a warm orange jacket to wear. My jacket did not fit well; it was too small but I was glad to have it.

We had our first encounter with a colony of Gentoo Penguins.
Phew, you could smell the colony before we even landed on Danco Island. Those not so large birds are the most common penguins in Antarctica. We met only the late bloomers in this colony.
March is the time when the penguins start to return to the sea, having finished their breeding and molting cycle which starts in early November. Yet what we saw was still a huge area of just penguins.

We were instructed to not touch the animals, to not walk too fast or in jerky movements and to not come too close to them. It was ok if they approached us but it was not ok to approach them. The ground around us was still frozen, full of snow in some patches even this late in their summer already.

Most penguins just stood there, literally waiting to grow up. Many of the birds we saw were young birds, their parents out in the water hunting for food.
Many were shedding their downy fluff (molting) to grow feathers. This growth of a new coat takes about 2 weeks and drains the birds of a lot of energy, so standing still (or lying down)
is the best way to conserve their valuable resources. Preening themselves, waiting or even sleeping while exposed to the winds, the cold and us, the gawking tourists, they waited.

It must be a proven way of life for them; Gentoo Penguins as they are today have been around for the last 3 million years. Old Gentoo skeletons from the Gondwana time, believed to be some 50 million years old, have been found. This species has profoundly adapted to life in cold climates. Most come back to the spot they were born, preferring to build their nests on high ground. The nests are built by piling manageable sized rocks to form a dry spot beyond any ice or water that might cool down the eggs or later the chicks. Usually two eggs are laid by the female. Their diet is red krill and small fish so proximity to the ocean is important. But Gentoo have been found to nest a mile or more inland. Walking with their peculiar gait they manage to travel inland, yet once in water they are very fast. They can swim at speeds of between 15 to 40 km/hr. These birds spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land in order to breed. So we were lucky to see them at all.

We saw many Gentoo while on our ship, fishing in the waters nearby. But now I stand so close to them,
I can see them feed their young, fight for their precious nesting rocks and squabble over the right of way. Naturally cameras click all around me. The stink however permeates our noses, the residue of their lunches or breakfasts having been processed and expelled all over the place really stinks. We step through washes of mostly red guano; we watch raw Nature. We watch the birds in their normal environment.
A look across the bay, across the waters has penguins coming and going on a constant basis. In the water, out of the water, in the water, out of the water, on and on it goes.

The Gentoo waddle slowly to the edge of the ocean but once in the water they turn into small, black and white torpedoes diving for food. The constant chatter of the young calling for food drives the parents on. It is a marvel to behold. None of the birds seem to have any fear of people. Some folks even got attacked or were harmlessly bitten when they came too close to a nest.
The defense of the birds is so ingrained; they peck at anything close to their nest.

Returning to the Mother Ship for a lunch was good but while having lunch the ship moved on and we, right after lunch took a tour around the Bay in the Zodiacs. The purpose was to spot Leopard, Crabeater and Weddel seals in this spot called “Paradise Bay”, known for those species. Naturally we ran into
Humpback Whales instead and saw no seals at all. The whales, a group of maybe four, were close to our Zodiacs and almost within touching distance; simply spectacular.

Back to the Ship for a warm up with a cup of hot chocolate and then out again to visit an outpost of the Chilean Military. This time, while we disembarked, a huge Leopard Seal swam right around and under our Zodiac. This fellow was almost as long as our boat. Aggressive as they are, he tried to bite the propeller just after we stopped. This seal was huge. He was patrolling the shore line waiting for penguins to come close enough to him. Penguins are his main diet and since the Chilean Military station is in between two large rookeries, he had plenty of penguins to chase and eat.

Chile, under the guise of research, stations military personnel to have an established presence should the Antarctic Treaty expire. This way they will keep their territorial claim against Argentina, who has a base not far away from here. The old fight for ‘land’ is a left over from the land disputes between those two countries that created past animosity.

The six men stationed there were happy to see us, the cook on our ship even baked them a cake and gave them some fresh vegetables since those are delicacies on this station far away from the rest of the world. Their tour of duty runs in 6 month intervals and their supplies are normally flown in and dropped from a plane. To see cruise ships, to have them stop for a chat is a treat for the fellows at this base.

For me it was a special treat to visit this spot. This Military base is on the continent of Antarctica, not on an Island. So, these were my first footsteps on Antarctica. Yippee!

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