Thursday, 12 February 2015

Day 13 - Feb 9th & 10th – The Drake Passage

Well it had to happen, all good things come to an end and that includes our Antarctic adventure. We now make way towards the Drake Passage for our sail back to Ushuaia. The forecast is for calm weather for the first day with northerly winds building on the second day and then swinging west. They are not forecast to be high but we can still expect some swell.

Of course we are all hardened seadogs now and there is not one casualty of seasickness!
Over the couple of days we have presentations, movies, chill out time to catch up on reading, swap stories and memories of the past 12 days and celebrate another birthday! Happy Birthday Hayesy!

The crew also have a quiz of all things Antarctic which soon flushes out those who are competitive! Some of the Shackleton 100 gang (The Crean Team) did well coming in joint second. Well done us!

It's also time to settle up bills on the ship, start packing bags and generally prepare for heading back into civilization. Talk starts to turn to the fear of email and internet, the dreaded W word and all the other baggage of life in the rat race! Still, it had to end sometime so we have to be grateful for the experiences we've had, the sights we've seen and the people we've met along the way.

Before dinner on the 10th the ship's crew have arranged a certificate presentation to all passengers to mark the day and location we first set foot on the continent so nice keepsake for all.

We arrive back into the Beagle Channel by early evening and slowly cruise our way along. We cannot dock into Ushuaia until tomorrow morning so will anchor in the channel later.
Following a farewell dinner it's into the bar for drinks music and dancing. A nice end to the day…but there is one more surprise that lies in wait for us.

"Dolphins" comes the call from somewhere and before long we are out on deck in the darkness to witness a sight I will never forget. As the ship slowly moves through the water, a school of dolphins, maybe 8 or 10 in total are surfing back and forth across the bow of the ship, then diving away before turning back in to repeat. It's now totally dark outside but the phosphorescent in the water lights up the dolphins and their wakes they swim, creating glowing trails through the waters….I've never seen anything like it before. Maybe this is where sailors of old got the idea of mermaids. It's absolutely transfixing, so much so I don't even want to leave to get a camera in case I miss it. This spectacular show eventually ends and we make our way back inside. What a way to end!

Tomorrow we will land at Ushuaia and then fly northwards to Buenos Aires, back to civilization. We leave behind one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and start to think of family and friends back home.

It's been a fantastic trip with a great bunch of people!

Looking forward to next years adventure!

Day 12 – Feb 8th – The Antarctic Peninsula

Early start. This morning we are exploring Deception Island, an island that rises 1600 feet from the seabed with a submerged diameter of approx. 15 miles. The island forms a caldera in the centre that is about 6 miles in diameter with a depth of 585 feet. Around this caldera volcanic pumice stone slopes rise up with several smaller crates dotted around the islands. It presents a very desolate lunar type picture but is spectacular viewing.

The entrance into Deception Island is through a narrow gap in one of the crater walls. This entrance is approximately 200 feet wide but with a submerged rock about 2 metres below the surface the ship needs to navigate through a very narrow gap to access the caldera where we will do our landings.

For that reason the bridge is closed to access as the crew carry out this delicate navigation. The entry is scheduled for 7am as is a great sight to see as the ship slide through the entrance just several feet from the high wall on the starboard side of the entrance. There is evidence of some volcanic activity also with steam or gases leaking out through cracks into the air.

Once inside the caldera we travel to the northern end to a location called Telefon Bay, named after a whaler ship that was stranded there back in the late 19th century. En-route we pass Whalers Bay where the ruins of an old whaling stations are located. You can make out the old rusting whale oil rendering tanks as well as several of the housing buildings. The shore line is littered with the skeletons of whales that would have been processed here during the height of whale hunting in the late 19th and early 20th century.

To the south of the island there are two research stations built, one belonging to Spain, the other to Argentina.

Our plan is to land at Telefon Bay and hike to the top of one of the slopes to view some of the other craters. We then make our way up to a black glacier so called as a result of a combination of volcanic ash and ice that gives it a black appearance. Looping back we climb to another viewing point and then back down across the volcanic tundra towards the shore to head back to the ship.

As well as getting the opportunity to take in some of this amazing ancient landscape it's a great opportunity for stretching the legs!

Back on board we immediately relocate for the next landing…we are making our way to Pendulum Cove where believe it or not some people are opting to take a dip!
Zodiacs launched people start heading for shore. As we approach it is a hilarious sight with people stripped down out of all the weather proof gear to swim suits. Some people are running full speed into the water amid screams of shock as the cold water hits them, others are being more reserved and doing the little by little approach! "uhh ahh uhh aaaaaaaahhhhh", well you get the picture.

Soon The Shackleton 100 gang are on the beach and before long Jane, Geraldine, Jukka, Vincent, Flora, Donal and Rob (our adopted Aussie Irishman) are all in the freezing waters, tick that off the list! Polar Plunge completed! Well done all…I had to take the photos and video…otherwise I'd love to have been in there…no really!

Back on board and next on the agenda is a visit to Hannah Point and Walker Bay located further north again at Livingston Island. It's named after a sealing vessel Hannah of Liverpool which was wrecked on the site in 1820.

Our landing site is a small, steep faced beach about 50 metres wide which is home to Chinstrap and  Gentoo penguins, blue eyed shag, snowy sheathbill, kelp gull, pintado petrel and southern giant petrel.

As we approach shore we notice movement on the beach and realise that there are elephant seals landed. These are juvenile males but still huge beats all lying side by side on the beach. Of all the seal species these elephant seals are known to be the deepest divers, predating squid up to depths of 4 kms! Now that's a breath hold!

Further along the beach small pockets of penguins sit moulting their plumage as they are now 
starting the mature. In the sky around us kelp gulls and giant petrels effortlessly wheel and glide on the updrafts created by the gentle breeze that sweeps in across the water and up the steep walls.

Back along the beach and further inland there are deposits of fossils left by surveying geologists that are given close examination by most. Some of the passengers are geologists and we get some good insights into what we are looking at!

On the way back to the zodiacs we come across several fur seals too. These would have been hunted to near extinction in the past but now thankfully populations are on the increase.
So it's back to the ship with a gang of happy and hungry adventurers! Another great day in Paradise!

This is our last landing in Antarctica and this evening we start to sail towards the Drake so what better time to present The Shackleton 100 certificate and badge to all of our gang....very sought after don't you know ;-)

Day 11 - Feb 7th – The Antarctic Peninsula

We have motored further north overnight and arrive at Paradise Bay…and there has never been a more suitably named location! We are sitting in an enormous bay with massive sea cliffs to one side, sheer glacier faces to the other and dotted with icebergs. The scale and beauty of the place is astounding!

We cruise the bay by zodiac visiting Antarctic Cormorant nesting locations on the cliffs and getting as close as safely possible to the towering glacier fronts that flow down to the water's edge from the massive mountains.

We also pick up some "black" ice. This is glacial ice that has been so compressed over centuries if not thousands of years that all air has been removed so forming a solid block of ice. It's called black ice as its almost completely transparent in the water. We pick some up to use for drinks later on...thousand year ice? I'll have some of that!

After cruising the bay we stop to visit the Argentine owned Brown Base, named after Admiral William Brown. It's small station with a collection of buildings which are being restored. All around the base Gentoo penguins sit in huddles while skuas and snowy sheathbills look on waiting for an opportunity to scavenge.

Making our way through the buildings there is short climb up a snow covered hill to the rear. From here there are great views out over Paradise Bay. We work our way further up to the top of the hill and then, one by one, slide back down on our backsides, great fun all around!
Back up the hill to do it again for most…big kids!

In the afternoon we make way towards the Melchior Islands with a plan to land but we are running behind schedule so won't be arriving until later. After a problem with the zodiacs the landing is cancelled and instead we stay on board.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Day 10 - Feb 6th – The Antarctic Peninsula

6.30am "good morning Antarcticans, we are now approaching the Lemaire Channel"…our morning call to go out on deck and take in the spectacle of this beautiful location.

We are sailing south through a narrow channel, towering mountains to each side with massive glaciers hanging down to the water. Around us the blows of humpbacks whale can be heard. Groups of penguins are porpoising through the water. The light constantly changing and creating stunning new landscapes. 

People are busily taking photos and videos and little by little the cameras seem to be put away and people just gaze at the beauty around us. There are just some things a camera cannot capture. These are the moments in Antarctica that you take away just for you, the sights that will be burned into your memory and stay with you for the rest of your life. 

After breakfast we start to prepare for our first excursion of the day. We are now at our most southerly point of 65.15 degrees. This morning we will visit Wordie House and Vernadsky Research Station. Both are located on the Argentine Islands group.

It's a wet and windy day which makes for some adventurous zodiac riding but Humpback whales encounters on the way help to distract us! Amazing!

Wordie House is located on Winter Island and was formerly base F of the Tabarin Operation from the UK where Shackleton's geologist, James Wordie, installed what would be the first buildings of the station in the late 40's. Years later the new station was built in a better location and the Wordie House was kept as a historical site for the Antarctic Treaty System. 

The second part of our visit is to Vernadsky Station which is a Ukrainian station located on Galindez Island. It was once Faraday Station belonging to the UK and sold for the symbolic amount of £1.

This is the place where the Ozone Hole was first discovered along with another British station, Halley.

It's a fully functional research station and one of the researchers gives us a guided tour throughout. We finally end up in their common area which has a bar, the "most southerly bar in the world"! The bar was originally built by one of the British staff and is a great little spot. They distill their own vodka but unfortunately to the station birthday celebrations the night before there is none left! 

Despair not…one of the staff produces a bottle of whiskey from under the bar and it's not long before the sing song starts! We have found a right little spot here, way down at the bottom of the world! It's a very special time we spend here especially when Frank sings "The Little Pot Stove", a beautiful little song that was written on South Georgia. 

There were even a few tears shed…we really have reached a special location on the trip…and maybe there's a little regret there too that we will be turning to head back north today. Still a lot to see but nevertheless it is that point when we realise that the trip will be coming to an end.

We battle back through the weather to the ship again where lunch is consumed with gusto and stories are swapped about a great visit to the Argentine Islands.

This afternoon we start to sail north again and are scheduled to do a zodiac cruise at Pleneau Island. We take off into the bay in pretty windy weather with some light rain and cruise amongst the beached icebergs in search of leopard seals…and we find them…or maybe they found us.

One of the Zodiacs was taste tested by a leopard seal at one stage but no damage done…just some curiosity and maybe a bit of territory protection.

The icebergs are all shapes, sizes and colours, absolutely beautiful!

Back to the ship and after dinner we celebrate one of the gang, Jukkas, birthday…and we do it in style. Jukka produces a bottle of whiskey and after many toasts the sing song starts and continues into
the night…as does the whiskey! A most memorable evening. Happy Birthday Jukka!

And we have a big birthday tomorrow too…Flora is celebrating a landmark birthday…the party continues!

Day 9 - Feb 5 – The Antarctic Peninsula

We've now travelled further south to approx. 64.2 degrees. It was slow progress due to weather and fog last night so as a result we have a change of itinerary. Instead of a zodiac cruise in Foyn Harbour we are going to do a landing close to Two Hummocks Island at a location called Hydrurgga Rocks.

The rocks are home to Fur and Weddell seals, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins and Antarctic Cormorants. From the rocks we can look west to Two Hummocks Islands where huge glaciers hang from the mountains, the constants bangs and cracks as the glacier moves echoes across the water to us.

After observing the wildlife we made our way to the high side of the island to look over to Two Hummocks Island in the hope that we may get to observe the glaciers calving. For those of us that stayed we were rewarded with one calving event, always a great sight to see…the birth of another iceberg! 

The afternoon landing was scheduled for Cuverville Island but Antarctica had other plans for us. Three zodiac attempted to land, one being successful but within minutes the wind had increased to almost 50 knots so we were ordered to abort the landing and return to ship immediately.

It wasn't all bad though! Those of us waiting on the ship had a great display by a humpback whale tail thrashing about 50 metres. One of the zodiacs returning had a close up encounter with a whale too and came back on board full of excitement! 

Even with a landing cancelled it was still an excellent day and Antarctica showed us her many moods!

Tomorrow morning we are scheduled to sail through the Lemaire Channel at approximately 6.30 so it's an early night for most…there were the few late nighters…you know who you are ;-)…but sure we're on our holidays!

Day 8 - Feb 4th – The Antarctic Peninsula

We are now at 63.5 degrees south. Early start this morning for our first landing in Antarctica! Gourdin Island is the location and home to three species of penguin, Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap. Breakfast at 7am and then we are on the zodiacs and making our way to the island.

It's a beautiful sunny morning, just perfect for our first landing. We spend about 3 hours there moving between the different colonies observing the day to day life of these hardy little birds.

Happy feet fans will be glad to hear the location is full of little furry chicks, some with their parents, others in crèche groups being watched over by other adult penguins while their parents are out feeding in the surrounding waters. 

But of course this is not a cartoon! Reality soon kicks in as we observe a Skua attacking a young Gentoo chick, knocking it from a ledge and then killing it! It's tough to watch but that's life in the wild.

Back to the ship for some lunch. Half way through dessert and a call goes out "Orcas"! Bodies run by on the deck outside, pointing towards the bow the ship. There's a mad clamour as people run for cameras and jackets and make their way towards the bow. A pod of a least 6 Orca are feeding just 50 metres off the port side.

The cameras are clicking all around as we watch these magnificent creatures gracefully porpoising through the waters. It's a very special moment for everyone…as usual Antarctica is delivering!

We relocate to our second landing location for the day, Brown Bluff, located in the Antarctic Sound.

This is our first landing on the actual continent of Antarctica and for some it's their seventh continent so some boxes being ticked! 

The weather has changed from this morning and it's now snowing as we launch the zodiacs and head towards Brown Bluff. We get to experience another one of the many weathers of Antarctica…always beautiful though!

Our zodiacs approach the beach, sliding up onto the shingle. At last! The Shackleton100 adventurers have finally landed on Antarctica!

Walking this exposed beach, snow falling around us, grounded icebergs in the bay and towering mountains behind, you can't help your mind straying to Shackleton's story of Endurance.

We are now at our closest position to the Weddell Sea, where on this day in 1915 Shackleton and the rest of his men aboard Endurance, were beset in the ice. One year later they would be living on the sea ice in a ramshackle camp they had ironically called "Patience Camp". Penguin fried in seal blubber was the staple diet for them back then, thankfully we're being better fed. 

We spend some time visiting the penguin rookeries and then back to the ship. It's been a great day and there is a buzz around the ship as everyone swaps stories of their experiences. We're collecting some great memories and plenty of photographs so get ready friends and family at home…you'll be seeing them all!

Day 6 & 7 - Feb 2nd & 3rd – The Drake Passage

It's been a stormy night and there are some victims to prove it! We're down about 50% of the passengers due to seasickness and we are still in the shelter of Cape Horn but will be pushing out into the Drake after breakfast, purely practical reasons!

Sick bags are available in the corridors!

The captain had delayed entering the Drake earlier as wave heights of 10-12 metres where pushing through the Drake. Not a good place to be! As a result we are running six hours behind schedule but better that than riding through a storm that big.

We push on and within about an hour of breakfast finishing we start to feel the movement of the ship increase as we become more exposed.

We are rolling hard to the port side and then back to starboard due to the westerly swell hitting us, some of the rolls measured at 25 degrees. We are getting a good taste of the Drake Passage although
nothing compared to what it's capable of, but still we're not being given an easy ride. 

A presentation is arranged for the morning covering Antarctic birdlife but turnout is low as so many are confined to their cabins. It's tough but that's all part and parcel of these expedition voyages. 

Lunch is a quiet affair too and the doctor on board is kept busy helping people get the correct medication. For those who aren't affected by sickness it's an interesting ride with chairs tumbling and sliding…as well as people every now and then!

Outside on deck it's a precarious affair moving around but there is plenty of activity with seabirds escorting us on our voyage. Albatros, Giant Petrels and Wilson Storm Petrels are all aimlessly gliding
around us as our ship tosses and rolls it's way across the Drake. 

Dinner is a quiet affair too…but later we are kept amused with more presentations and a documentary about Shackleton. By midnight the ship is quiet as people take to their cabins to get some sleep. 

The following morning we are about 60 degrees south so progress has been slow…still about 24 hours of sailing left based on this rate of progress. Conditions are worsening slightly and the ship is
experiencing lots of movement but some people are starting to get their sea legs and are surfacing from their cabins. Lunchtime was a good indicator with the majority of the ship eating lunch.

We hit the peak of the storm swell during the afternoon but after a couple of hours it starts to subside again. The weather starts to clear and we make good progress. Expected arrival to the South Shetlands is now approx. 10pm.

By 5pm we are up on the top deck to do some whale watching and our first iceberg is spotted…we are getting close. The berg is on the horizon and getting bigger as we approach. We have several sightings of whales also...a taste of things to come.

Dinner is a busy affair so it looks like we have a full complement of passengers again. Excitement is starting to build as we approach Antarctica, just mere hours to go now, our long wait to get here nearly ended. After that crossing we certainly deserve it…but that makes it all the more rewarding…it shouldn't be an easy place to get to. We've spotted our first ice berg in the distance too.

But it's not long before we are passing right by it. Our very first iceberg...up close!

We've scheduled Frank Nugents documentary "Escape from Antarctica" for this evening and it's a packed lounge that show up to see it. 

In 1997 Frank was part of the team that attempted to recreate Shackleton's open boat journey and traverse of South Georgia in 1916. The documentary was filmed during the attempt and made for great viewing with a captivated audience. 

Shortly after, we arrived at the South Shetland Islands with a beautiful sunset and some stunning scenery. A great end to the day and it's just the beginning…