Our Antarctica Adventure
Day 1 – The Antarctica Fear
Day 1 and we were due to report for our Antarctica Base Camp Expedition at 4pm in Ushuaia. I have a very normal fear of boats, so although I was very excited to be in the Antarctica, I was petrified of getting on the boat, particularly given the rough seas that the Drakes Passage is known for. The day was spent fretting about it until we boarded.
Ocean Expeditions boat, MV Plantius was the cause of my fear. We boarded and were shown to our cabin. An upgrade – yay! So from a twin, porthole room to a superior room with a double bed and a sofa. Luxury indeed.
We boarded at 4pm. Safety first, we had to do a lifeboat drill, not something that was good for my nerves. The huge orange lifeboats conjured up Captain Phillips recollections – I needed a stiff drink! Second there was time for a health and safety chat.
Finally, the drink came with our captain, a Russian, who’s accent gave us a recollection of many James Bond films but who brought with him champers so I was happy. We were treated to a three course meal, sitting with our new friends Rachael and David from London, Cath and Helen from Tasmania.
The on-board doctor gave us the opportunity to have seasickness patches from the on-board doctor, which we took. We had a relatively early night and I remained very anxious about what lay ahead in Drakes Passage.
Days 2 & 3 – Drakes Lake
Bright and early wake up call by Andrew, our Expedition Leader and off we went to breakfast. We would get used to Andrew’s dulcet Australian voice waking us up every morning through the public announcement system in the room. Today is a day of information sessions and seasickness!
We were really lucky with the seas as it was as calm as a lake so very few people were actually ill. The patches though made us very tired so people were sleeping everywhere! We had an initial talk from Andrew about the trip and then went into the individual activities. We chose the MV Plancius trip because it is a base camp, so there are a lot of onshore activities and there are fewer people, only 116 at full capacity.
Our First Animals
The crew gave talks on all things Antarctica; marine mammals, camping on the ice, mountaineering, photography and kayaking. I think that we are going to have a lot of fun trying out the activities and I will be forced to be adventurous.
During the day people spied different animals either from the deck or the panoramic bar / lounge area. There were fin whales in the morning, macaroni penguins (punk penguins) in the afternoon and many seabirds, including the giant (and it is giant) petrel, the cape petrel (so pretty) and the scary looking wandering albatross.
We were fed a LOT of food, with Greg believing that it staved off seasickness we tucked in. A highlight of the trip was meeting our fellow Antarctica explorers.
There are a lot of really interesting people on-board, from Alan and Dorothy from Colorado in their late 60s who have travelled extensively and have so many stories to tell, to Elizabeth from Sydney who at 72 years old still did every activity on offer (an inspiration!), Harry a 20-something from Texas who is a pretty cool dude and a demon Go-Pro operator and Georgina a Brit living in Eritrea who runs up mountains for fun!
We managed to find our core group, as everyone does, which consists of Paul from Colorado, Christina from California who both work in Switzerland, Maeve-Ann and Luke from Ireland but living in Sydney and the two of us. I think alcohol and humour brought us together and we quickly became regulars at the bar having a lot of fun together and with Cherry the bar manager.
The next day brought talks on Antarctica plants (there are only two!), seals, sea birds and penguins – did you know that in terms of population on the earth, humans are first, rats are second and seals are third! Who knew?
Marijke’s talk on marine mammals included sound bites of whales, which really don’t sound as you’d expect them too.
Andrew told us the do’s and don’ts of landings on Antarctica so that we have the minimum impact that is possible whilst being on a large cruise boat. The very interesting thing for me was the penguin highways. The penguins make their way from their nesting areas to the sea for fishing on the same route so if humans obstruct these highways by making deep holes with their feet for instance, it can be very disorientating for the penguins.
Our other briefing was how to get in and out of the zodiac boats, I’m a tad concerned with my utter clumsiness that I am going to fallout into the very cold ocean, let’s hope not eh?
The sea remained very calm and we were treated to Peales dolphins jumping around the ship. We arrived in the Antarctica earlier than predicted due to the great weather that we have had and tomorrow is the big day! Antarctica time!
Day 4 – Our First Antarctica Landing
Today started bright and early and we had breakfast before landing on Cuverville Island. I don’t remember the last time I was this excited – perhaps when swimming with turtles, I’m not sure, but I’m excited!!!
Our first shore landing and we were greeted by lots of Gentoo penguins, swimming, waddling about and nesting on their eggs. Everyone was so excited it was just incredible to get up close and personal with this cute (albeit smelly) creatures. We also saw Atlantic Terns, which are very pretty; Skua birds, which aren’t so pretty and steal the penguin eggs. After spending a couple hours observing the penguins we came back for lunch.
The afternoon brought us to Danco Island and we are actually camping here for the night after being picked for the first group. We saw more Gentoo penguins and loved watching them swim and hop. I hadn’t realised that they jump out of the water and are like dolphins when they swim but this became the photo to get over the 11 days.
Greg and I didn’t get any snow shoes but decided to walk to the top of the mountain anyway, a little tough going on the way up as we sank down with every step but fun on the way down as we slid down whilst making “weeeeeee” noises. The top of the mountain had another Gentoo penguin colony nesting and I discovered that these are the clever ones as it is warmer at the top of the mountain so their chicks have a better chance of survival as they hatch earlier.
The time back on the boat brought me my first whale spot, out of our cabin window, a humpback whale surfaced. My voice rose several octaves as my excitement boiled over. The whale was huge and very close. A good spot.
Sleeping on Antarctica
So……..camping. We left the boat after dinner at 8.30pm and took a zodiac back over to another part of Dorking Island. It was so beautiful there. We were joined by around 6 inquisitive Gentoo penguins who looked at us like we were mad (I think that they have a point). There were also around 6 Weddell seals who had a little swim around the island before sleeping relatively close to us.
We had to dig our “beds”, which Nacho, the Camping Guide, fondly called “graves”. He’s hilarious! The digging took around an hour in total but wasn’t too strenuous. We then had to get our bivvy bag, two sleeping bags and sleeping inner bag together, whilst trying not to get them wet. This wasn’t an easy task so Greg and I watched what everyone else did then copied the ones that seemed to get on the best.
The weather was amazing and the clouds made the view just picture perfect. A stunning, stunning, stunning setting. We joined some of our fellow campers for a chat and a look at the seals before getting into “bed”. It was surprisingly warm inside, but as the sun doesn’t really set it is quite unnerving that it stays light. I struggled to get to sleep but then seemed to sleep for around 4 hours. Greg recorded me sleeping in case I denied getting any.
On the other hand, Greg, slept a total of 30 minutes, got up at 3am and took himself off for a walk. On the walk he managed to capture some beautiful scenes in the peaceful morning but also dropped his sunglasses so he had to climb back up the hill to retrieve them – d’oh.
Nacho woke us at 4.30am to put away our gear and fill in our holes back in so that penguins don’t get stuck inside. Everyone was tired but elated by the calming and overwhelming experience.
Day 5 – The Actual Antarctica
Almirante Brown Station
After our early morning wake up call, we struggled through the day, particularly Greg who had not slept at all. Luckily for us the Antarctica keeps providing things to keep us awake and interested.
We went ashore initially at Almirante Brown Station, which is an Argentine unmanned station. Antarctica remains a controversial continent with many countries staking their claims to it. This station for example does nothing but the Argentinians keep it to enhance their stake on this part of the continent.
We were quite zombie like so just walked along, took some photographs and watched the penguins and seals. We then did a zodiac cruise around the beautiful Paradise Bay and managed to see nesting blue eyed cormorants, a male leopard seal taking a break on an iceberg and lots of swimming and jumping penguins. It was a lot of fun!
The next shore landing was at Stony Point, which is on the actual Antarctica, rather than an island as previous landings have been. Hence the actual Antarctica title. It was beautiful. We snowshoed up to the top and our guide, Beau, asked us to sit down and spend 10 minutes in silence without taking photographs etc.
Wow, it was beautiful, hearing the icebergs collapsing, avalanches and just taking in the magnitude of the scenery. It’s hard to describe what it’s like; the scale is just unbelievable.
Whilst waiting for the zodiac cruise, we spotted a Chinstrap penguin landing on the beach. It was so exciting to see a different type of penguin. This one is so funny looking like a man dressed up in black tie.
Next up an an epic zodiac cruise with Andrew, who took us out for ages searching for whales. We saw some Crab Eater seals but no whales unfortunately. It was just beautiful though. We even saw one of the islands with ski marks on them, which must have been made by some pretty lucky adventurous types.
We were so lucky to have Andrew as our zodiac driver, he was having a ball so that rubbed off on all of us too. The bay is called Paradise Bay and it certainly lives up to its name, the icebergs were simply stunning. I think I’m in love with this continent.
That night was barbecue night with free alcohol. Definitely the way to get to meet everyone. The crew were generous with their handouts of bottles of beer and wine and many people had a lot of fun.
Day 6 – Mountaineers!
So today we climbed up a glacier on Antarctica, cool huh! We landed at Neko Harbour and it’s fair to say that I was hungover and apprehensive about the climb. The weather has changed today so it’s pretty windy and cold. The mountaineers were split into two groups, one led by Mal (our group) and one led by Cube.
The wind was really a hindrance and at times it felt like I was going to be blown into the air Mary Poppins style. There were also a lot of crevasses to transverse and I was trying pretty hard not to fall down one.
Unfortunately, Kyle in the other group actually fell down one – it was deep deep deep. He was very calm and tranquil about it; I’d have screamed my head off! Later both Cube and Mal fell into crevasses too but luckily not as deep as Kyle so they could rescue themselves. Greg absolutely loved the mountaineering, it was his favourite activity. He was smiling his head off for hours afterwards.
That afternoon we landed at Waterboat Point at the Chilean Gonzalez Videla station. This station is manned by around 8 members of the Chilean armed forces and around 1,000 Gentoo penguins! Andrew issued a “poop” warning as we got off the zodiac and boy was there a lot of poop. As I waded through the stinking poop I was glad that my boots and trousers were borrowed as I think I would have had to burn them if they were my own!
Poop Island (as I have now renamed it!) did have a great surprise for us though, a leucistic penguin sitting on her nest. This penguin is a blonde colour, seemingly an albino but apparently it isn’t otherwise it’s eyes wouldn’t be black. Greg was particularly pleased with this sighting as he has been rather jealous of Paul’s amazing photographs of jumping penguins. He nudged me and said “haha Paul won’t have a picture of this one”. Later on, Paul and I decided to play a joke on Greg by airdropping Greg’s photo and Paul claiming that he took it from the boat deck. Greg looked a tad despondent. He will find out about this joke when he proof reads this blog. Oh Greg, what a card you married! (Ed comment: I KNEW he didn’t have a real picture of it! Ha!).
Not wishing to lose a captive audience the Chilean’s had set up a shop and sold postcards and stamps. The cost for buying a postcard was US$10 and US$15 to post. We are hoping to stop at Port Lockroy, a British station with a post office and I’m sure that the Brits won’t charge that much.
Another plentiful dinner followed with great company. I will name check Simone, Michelle, Tracey, Juan, Amanda and Vicki as more lovely people that we met. It appears that all the cool guys go to the Antarctica!
We ended up having a very late night with the group of 6 plus Bruce our photography guide. Much, much merriment was had and we were rewarded for our late night with the most stunning sunrise with pink skies and mirror reflections. I went out and took the most amazing photos that everyone then copied….and I have subsequently seen that Bruce has sold a copy of his version online and I’m pretty sure I haven’t got a finder’s fee! We’ve made friends for life tonight.
Day 7 – Friends and Neighbours
With very sore heads, we stayed in bed. Maeve-Ann was the only one that made it onto the zodiacs at Port Charcot; the Irish are a hardy bunch! Luke made it too, but he’d gone to bed around 2am so he didn’t get too many extra points for that.
The morning announcements were pretty unwelcome. I wanted to kill a kayaker who didn’t turn up on time causing the kayak leader, Louise, to repeatedly call “good morning friends and neighbours” over the PA system. Grrrrrrrrr, not amused!
Greg and I got up for lunch. The afternoon adventure was at Dorian Bay, landing at Damoy Point. A snowshoe hike took us to more Gentoo’s, Waddell seals and an air strip previously used by the British during World War II. The airstrip was on top of the mountain in the snow. It must have been a very impressive approach in
We managed to see a couple Adelie penguins, a Wadell seal and a couple Minke whales. I can see why the crew keep leaving their homes to come to do these expeditions.
I’m still absolutely loving the penguins. They are so funny, stealing each other’s’ nesting stones and waddling about. It just never get old! There was one particular penguin that had nested in a box. All the other penguins were really jealous. I would like to see more different types now though, so I’m hoping for more Chinstraps, Adelies and maybe even a Macaroni.
Day 8 – Kayaking the Antarctica
It’s Christmas Eve. We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed in the bay that is home to Port Lockroy, so named by the French Polar explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot.
It’s our turn to be friends and neighbours today, so the kayaking beckons. I felt a little apprehensive that I’d end up capsized but also very excited as I’ve loved kayaking whenever I done it. We put on our kayaking gear (with the wet suit the wrong way around we were later to find out!), and headed down to the deck. We managed to get all of the kayaks off in just a few minutes, the group of us seemed to have a good system going and were keen to become the Louise’s favourite group.
After the kayaks were lowered we jumped into the zodiac and moved a little way from the ship. I was pretty nervous about getting out of the zodiac into the kayak, in case I fell into the sea but it was easy peasy. Everyone in the kayaks and we paddled around the Wienke Island getting up close and personal to seals, jumping penguins and nesting blue eyed cormorants. We also did some ice ramming, which was really fun.
I loved the experience, we had to put our paddles through surface ice. The whole experience was really calming. I felt small in the beauty and scale of the mountains and icebergs around it. A surreal and spiritual experience. This is the fourth time that I have kayaked and I’ve loved it every time so maybe this should be a new hobby. I just need to train Juno to sit at the back of the kayak and not jump off after birds.
We exited the kayaks at Port Lockroy, home of the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. Greg and I were very excited, with the British flag and post office. We had lots of “proud to be British” moments, particularly finding out that to post a postcard costs US$1.50, whereas the Chileans were charging a whopping US$10. There was also much less penguin poop and a nice organised walkway. We supported the Trust by purchasing a couple of items, the only non-essential purchases of our trip then walked around the museum.
There were a number of 1950s pin up paintings of stars like Diana Dors and Jane Russell, which were amusing together with lots of old tins of food. It was interesting to see how people would have stayed here and I can’t help but feel that they must have had very high boredom thresholds. Maybe the internet generation would struggle more…..…..I know that I would. We posted off a couple of postcards and returned to ship.
We were due to visit another bay that afternoon, but over lunch an announcement came over to say that there were two humpback whales feeding next to the boat. We were in the George Passage. I grabbed my camera and coat and ran outside to the nearest back deck.
Yet again the whales alluded me, whilst everyone on the front deck was getting a full on show, I was surrounded by empty sea. I was pretty bummed out. But, fear not, for the next two hours the boat was surrounded by over 20 feeding humpback whales. It was incredible.
The whales were bubble feeding, where they send up bubbles that makes the krill gather in the middle and then they come up with their mouths open to gobble it all up. The gulls were having a great time and indicated where the whales would come up by landing on the surface to pick up excess krill. It was absolutely mind blowing.
Greg and I took turns photographing as it was very windy and very cold so our photography hands were getting extremely cold. Just to watch them, so close at times was just the quintessential Antarctica moment. So beautiful, big and humbling. Thank you humpbacks for an experience we’ll never forget.
That evening we celebrated Christmas, it’s a Dutch ship. Greg was a bit miffed at the choice of beef rather than turkey but I’m not sure that Ushuaia would have been an ideal loading base for turkey.
Declan and Karl, from Blythe UK, organised a sing song where we had the first verse of Silent Night sang in each language on the ship. It was absolutely brilliant. The Russian contingent flowed into a national song and were very entertaining. Hearing Silent Night also in Chinese, German, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, English, Spanish, Filipino was just fabulous.
The party went on way past midnight with everyone in Christmas mood. We had a really fun night with our group, and we took ourselves off to bed in the early hours.
These photos were stolen from our new friends.
Day 9 – More Animals of the Antarctica
It’s Christmaaaaaasssssss (sang in a Noddy Holder style). Christmas Day in Antarctica and what a treat of a day it was. We woke up, worse for wear or perhaps still a bit drunk as shown by Greg when our cleaner, Ferdinand, came into the room and we were still asleep. He backed out apologising with Greg shouting after him, “it’s ok, Merry Christmas” in an over excited (drunk) voice.
Today in the morning we had a stop at Half Moon Island. Maeve-Ann and I had a pact to do the polar plunge together and today was the day! We went ashore and Andrew told us there were some penguin chicks, 3 days old so off we went to see the baby Chinstraps. The place was a tad stinky for a hangover day, but the chicks made up for it.
We also found a Macaroni penguin that seemed to have gotten lost amongst the Chinstraps, which was a little sad. I hope that he finds his own kind soon. The Macaroni penguin looks like a punk rocker penguin, well cool!
Then, guess what, it started snowing! A white Christmas. You honestly couldn’t make this stuff up. What incredible experiences. There was no more putting it off, polar plunge time was here. Maeve-Ann and I stripped off to our bikinis and strolled into the sea! Once my legs had made it in I suddenly realised that I couldn’t really feel them and at that point, Maeve-Ann dived in and I dunked! It was then a quick run back to shore. You will be shocked to learn that it was cold! I had thought that the worst bit would be getting dry on shore but it was actually fine. My body kicked in and warmed me up, back onto the zodiac and to the ship for a hot shower. I’m so glad that I did it!
The Last Landing
We had lunch, and I had a snooze, then onto Robert Island. Sadly, this was our last shore landing, but we got lots of different animals – yay! There were so many elephant seals everywhere on shore. They were exceptionally noisy and playful, more so that the other seals that we have seen. They were enormous too! Hopefully our photos capture it.
We also found a nesting Giant Petrel, which we needed to keep our distance from so it wouldn’t get spooked.
The penguins on the island were Chinstraps, Gentoos and Adelie and we were again treated to some chicks. The chicks here were around 3 weeks old and were very funny, trying to climb over rocks, trying to fly, pecking the elephant seals that were sleeping amongst them. How cute for our last day.
Last Night in Antarctica
We were back on the zodiac for a last trip back to the ship. We had an early dinner, so that the crew could have their Christmas Party and our gang of 6 tried to re-enact a family Christmas back in our relative homes. It seems to be the same the world over so we started bickering and arguing, eating too much (really 3 crème brulees Paul?!?), and telling each other that we loved each other!
We had a subdued night and I was tucked up by 10.30pm. Tomorrow we start to head back to Ushuaia. It’s funny as it feels like we are going home but we still have a month before we can see friends and family. We managed to receive a video of Juno opening presents and send a photo of us on Antarctica today but it dosn’t seem nearly enough and we are both a little homesick.
Days 10 – 11 – The Journey Back from the Antarctica
Boxing Day and we enter Nelson Straight on our way back through Drakes Passage to Ushuaia. Everyone is nervous due to the news that there is likely to be a storm coming up behind us. I think that we are all hoping that we will miss it, but who knows. I’m glad that my nerves have subsided a bit, but hoping that they don’t come back with a rough passage. We were treated to a lie-in and a leisurely day.
Louise, the kayaking guide, gave a talk on the whaling industry that operated from 1905 to 1960 in the Antarctica. The talk was very interesting and quite emotive. There was an added personal touch as Louise’s great grandfather was a Whaling Manager with the first Norwegin ships in the Antarctica. This was after the northern seas had been depleted of its whales by overfishing.
I feel that I should repeat some of the numbers that were given to us as they are pretty shocking; by 1912 nearly 11,000 whales had been killed, by 1926 this increased to 40,000 per year, over the 60 years that whales were hunted in the Antarctica over 450,000 whales were killed, which accounted for around 95% of the whale population.
I’m glad that since the 1960s whaling has been almost abolished but having seen the beautiful creatures in their home seas, I’m mortified that Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to murder these unique animals. Louise told us that the sight of around 20 whales around the ship that we were treated to on Christmas Day was exceptionally unusual as the whales remember that ships kill their family members. This is getting better year after year as new generations come through and the population recover.
Drakes Passage Again!
We saw our final mammals when some absolutely stunning Dusky dolphins played around the ship for hours. They are extremely pretty dolphins.
Drakes Passage was actually quite calm, a little rocking and rolling in the evenings but not as bad as it could have been. There have been some awesome photographers on board, but the show was left to onboard professional photographer Bruce Robinson and fellow guest Harry to end the journey with incredible slide and video shows. I, and many of my fellow passengers had a lump in my throat that nearly spilled over into real tears. You can find Bruce’s beautiful photographs to buy here and the uber talented Harry’s YouTube channel here. Go take a look……
Paul and Greg stole the ship’s penguin suit to give everyone a dance off treat that included the Hammer dance and the caterpillar (or worm if you’re American apparently). It’s amazing how great Greg still is at the caterpillar given he’s not done it for over 25 years. He managed to impress everyone. (FAKE NEWS)
Day 12 – The Sad Goodbyes
We disembarked after breakfast and there were many sad goodbyes. To reach the end of this incredible experience, made even more so by the friends and neighbours that we shared it with. A group of us are even planning a reunion tour in the Arctic.
Going to the Antarctica is not a budget option, but boy it is worth every penny. Memories of a lifetime, of 10 lifetimes.
This blog was probably the hardest to write as it just does not do our journey the justice that it deserves. If you want to leave us any comments or ask questions please do so below.