What an incredible week.
As I walked to the pier and was directed past the ferry daytrip people to the cruise dock, all I could say over and over again was, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, I can’t believe I’m doing this…”
The cruise (MV Antarctic Dream) was quite luxurious, the staff amazing and enthusiastic, the food all three course meals, and the other passengers (some 60 or 70 of us) nearly all very well seasoned travelers. Though this wouldn’t have been the case with the last set of passengers the cruise had, I was the youngest in this group (the last group had two under-20s), but the demographics were quite widespread. Probably the strangest thing is that I met a Chinese father and daughter from Vancouver, Peter and Carla. Peter is a frequent customer of my dad’s restaurant, though they’ve never met! Small world. I ended up sharing a room with Chris fron Shenzhen, so yay for speaking Cantonese!
The first three days of the cruise were all for sailing through the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough journey. I took seasickness pills that the staff provided, which pretty much kept me sedated and knocked out for most of it. During my waking hours though, people exchanged travel stories. Most were several months into an extended trip – Arthur from Israel having bought and driven a motorcycle all the way from California to Argentina, several others doing a more “conventional” backpacking trip from Ecuador or Brazil or Colombia or maybe even some other continent. Some were taking career breaks – got laid off, quit their job, took sabbatical – while some were retired. It seems that many had bought last minute or didn’t originally intend to come to Antarctica, just like me. Only a minority were traveling only for this Antarctic cruise and/or booked in advance.
We also killed some time attending some interesting lectures about the wildlife and history of Antarctica. We learned about the different types of seals and birds – not just the penguins we were about to see, but also the petrels and albatrosses we were seeing over those three days, marine birds that were hundreds of miles from land, yet stay in the Drake Passage for long periods of time to feed.
We finally caught a glimpse of our first sign of the continent – icebergs! The first one is always the most special, no matter how it compares to everything else that follows (and objectively speaking, the ones that followed were absolutely spectacular). You see them in pictures and never quite fathom how enormous they are compared to you and whatever vessel you’re traveling in. Set in front of a late sunset (again, the sun sets but it never gets dark in the summer around Antarctica), I must’ve taken 100 pictures of just that one iceberg and the rainbow of colours on the water. Our first sighting of the South Shetland Islands followed, meaning we were well into Antarctic waters…and a humpback whale sighting followed that as well!
We finally had our first landing on Day 4, after having been provided parkas and boots the night before during a safety and rules briefing. A more uncommon landing for the crew, our first destination was Paulet Island, on the edge of the Weddell Sea (south side of the Antarctic Peninsula).
I woke up that day with the ship anchored several hundred meters from shore, and I will never forget the sight outside my window – small icebergs with penguins on it. A group of penguins swimming – they do this thing where they all jump out of the water in arc formations. And in the distance on land, what seemed to be just a ton of rocks…
When we got into the zodiacs (inflatable motor boats) and approached the shore, those rocks took shape, and they were moving. They were covering the shore, the hills, every conceivable surface of the island – 200,000 Adélie penguins. (Adèlie and emperor penguins are the only two species exclusive to Antarctica.)
The noise. The smell. Ack. But the sight! Our group was led through the sea of penguins, on a two and a half hour hike around the island. (Each of our 10 landings was about that length of time.) I think I can let the forthcoming photos speak for how adorable the whole exercise is. They waddle around, grab small rocks for their nests, fight each other occasionally, and run in and out of the water. Occasionally they’ll approach a curious human – they’re generally quite unafraid of us. In a sign of sights to come, there were more than a few dead penguins as well – skeletons left behind by feeding skuas.
Our second landing of the day was on the actual Antarctic continent: Brown Bluff. Another colony of Adélie penguins, though a little smaller. The main highlight though? Three baby penguins walked RIGHT up to my knees and just kinda tilted their heads in curious bemusement. Made my life right there.
Enjoying the penguins a little too much, I lagged behind the rest of the group, which let me talk to one of the crew members (Christina) at length about penguin behaviour while she was taking photos of the wildlife. 15 trips to Antarctica, and she never loses her enthusiasm. I learned a little about how baby penguins are fed (adults basically vomit mashed krill into their mouths, which is gross yet adorable somehow), and the differences apparent in each species. We noticed one chinstrap penguin waddling among the thousands of Adélies. They all get along just fine.
I sat down for awhile on the rocks to watch the penguins run around me, either heading to or from the water, or being chased by hungry chicks (seriously, with two chicks per family, they chase their parents around!). Then I had to run back to check out the glacier that everyone else was gawking at – oops! Apparently a giant chunk fell off, and I missed it. Oh well, the penguins were worth it. We saw a few seals as well – Antarctic fur seals (they’re sea lions), leopard seals, and Weddell seals.
We passed through some seriously incredible scenery on the cruise that night. Giant ice shelves the size of villages, impossibly azure waters due to the compact ice, the occasional whale, penguins and seals and seabirds… Now that’s Antarctica. The beauty and vastness is impossible to capture in photos.
Day 5, I tried to wake up for sunrise. (Lasse, from Denmark, mentioned that he was the only one up for sunrise the day before, and the view on the Weddell Sea was magnificent.) Cloudy. Also, we were on the wrong side of the mountains to see anything worthwhile anymore for sunrise. Oh well.
Our fist landing was Mikkelsen Island. This was a much smaller landing than the ones previous. A colony of gentoo penguins was living there, and they were largely sedentary, sitting at their nests guarding their chicks, ones that looked much younger than the ones we had seen yesterday. A whale skeleton was also present on the island, as were a few seals that started “singing”. As there wasn’t much walking to do, I sat down on the rocks listening to the sounds of distant glaciers crashing.
Our second landing (after a planned zodiac cruise was canceled due to weather) was Fort Lockroy. This is a British base where you can mail postcards. Having only four hours notice prior to this destination, I hadn’t started writing any of the 31 I bought…so I sat down and wrote them all in two and half hours. Heh.
Four ladies live at the British base for four months a year, joined by a male carpenter. The base there is very old and eerily preserved by the cold – products from decades and decades past sit on shelves in a makeshift museum, undamaged and preserved. Of course, the base is also surrounded by penguins.
We were also shuttled to a neighbouring island (Juagla Point)…which was a bit gross. As the weather turned and it became snowy, the fresh snow mixed into a slush of penguin guano and mud. There were also puddles of some green liquid…bile or algae? At least I had a cold at that point and couldn’t smell anything. Quite a few dead penguins on the island – some people witnessed a fresh kill by a skua. Cormorants lived on the island as well, but got along fine with the penguins. There was also a full size whale skeleton on the island, arranged by the ladies from Fort Lockroy.
Day 6 was a beautiful day, and we had stayed the night at Dorian Bay, right around the corner from Fort Lockroy. After all the fresh snow, we were guided up a very steep hill that had a great view of Lockroy and the bay…but really was just an opportunity for all of us to become kids and have a snowball fight in the snow, which had to be some metres deep! Going back down the hill was a blast too, a combination of rolling, running, sinking, and face planting.
Given the rules of the Antarctic treaty, Antarctica is not a country, nor does it belong to a country. Bases are allowed though, but land claims can be made (and not recognized). As such, I made my own little land claim…I call it Ivan Island! Wrote my name in the snow and all, and created a nice snow angel to solidify my one-square-metre territory in the world. Probably gone by now, but as long as no one else makes a claim, it’s still sort of “mine”… 😛
Our second stop was Spigot Peak, our second and final landing on the continent. It was an even higher climb in the snow, but we were rewarded with the chance to get up close and personal with a colony of chinstrap penguins. They live that far up (about 300 metres) because that’s where the snow melts first, so they can build their nests. It was absolutely amazing to watch them work so hard, waddling (or sliding on their bellies, though they did not seem to prefer it) all the way down the hill and back up again in a very long march for food for their young. They trip, but they get right back up.
A more eye-opening sight awaited – I witnessed a pair of skuas scout the colony, then swoop down towards one nest. The parent penguins tried to fight them off but they were helpless – one skua made off with a chick by the neck. The next thing we saw was the two skuas pecking at a flurry of feathers. 🙁 But hey, every animal here has to feed in all this desolation.
I find it amazing that so many creatures can survive in such harsh, unforgiving conditions. It’s cold, it’s windy, and there’s virtually no vegetation. And then you see several penguins stranded on a very high iceberg and you wonder how they got there or how they’ll get down. Or why a seal struggles so hard to push itself waaaaay up a hill to rest.
Day 7 was our last day of landings. We started off very very early – I witnessed the sunrise at 4 am, and we were awoken at 4:30 as we entered Neptune’s Bellows, the small gap in Deception Island (c-shaped, but very nearly closed like an o-shape, with a bay in the middle that drains to the ocean). This was the landing I had heard much about back in Ushuaia… We were going for a swim!
Deception Island is a volcanic one, and if you dig into the dark volcanic “soil” you reach some hot water. We first walked up a large, desolate hill – the colour of the rocks and the barren form of it reminded me heavily of my trip to Ladakh, India. The island is surrounded by a ring of mini mountains that shields the interior of the island from wind, but we walked up to the edge of a “window” to check out the steep cliffs on the exterior.
We then walked towards an old whaling settlement…which is where we went for a swim! I chickened out on a polar bear swim with Mickey and Catherine back in January in Vancouver…but I couldn’t pass this one up! So I went from my four layers (and parka) all the way to just my swim trunks! It wasn’t so bad since we were shielded from the wind. The ground, however, was very cold, even though it wasn’t ice or snow we were walking on. So I ran straight into the water and even dunked my head in…not too bad! The air was warmer than the water, and I was able to just wander around for 10 minutes to dry off, without having to put on any extra layers other than socks and boots. The claim about the water being warmed by the volcanic heat below though? Felt like a lie at that point!
Best part? I have a photo of me in my swim trunks (and boots at that point) standing beside a penguin. I’m the one that’s wet.
Our final landing was on Aitchoo Island, the only one we had seen thus far with any sort of vegetation – it was covered in very dry lichen. Chinstrap and gentoo penguins mingled, with some curious enough to approach us. (Two went very close to me, but I lost my balance and scared them off.) There were a ton of female elephant seals resting, and watching them sleep and snore very loudly was an endless source of entertainment. What looked like hundreds of tiny islands surrounded us, almost like Halong Bay in Vietnam, but with sharper features. In all, a wonderful close to our Antarctic experience.
It was time to say goodbye on Day 8! We disembarked via zodiac to Fielder’s Bay in King George Island – home to bases belonging to many countries. We landed right between Frei Base (Chile) and Beddingshausen (Russia and Germany). There’s even a Russian Orthodox church right on the hill there.
We walked to the airstrip, said our goodbyes to the crew, and passed the new batch of passengers. Off on a gravel runway, fly over an ice shelf, and back over the Drake Passage – goodbye Antarctica! I hope I can come back again someday. For now, I leave with a major tan (seriously, that endless sunlight), very dry skin, a bit of a cold, 2000 photos, new friends, and a ton of memories. This will be hard to top!
Arriving in Punta Arenas, Chile was a bit surreal – seeing trees again for one thing, and civilisation. We passed through customs in probably the least secure routine I’ve ever seen, just walking right through… Seeing “Antártica” on the arrivals board was quite cool though. After the goodbyes with our fellow cruise passengers, I split off with Courtney and Simon from San Francisco, and we’re off now towards Torres del Paine!