Orne Harbor, Antarctica
12/31/2017 - 12/31/2017
This morning, everyone was doing much better. I awoke early, and found that this ship was designed with details in mind.
The shower, although small, has a choice of heads and a very good temperature control that allows you to set it and it will stay at your ideal temperature every time you turn it on (unless you move it). The bathroom has towel warmers (which can also be used to dry wet gear). And one of the mirrors is edged with a heater so that it isn't foggy, even when you step out of the shower.
The hallways in the ship are lined with handrails, which helped tremendously last night. One deck has a semi-enclosed viewing area so that you get a clear view, but don't have to brave all of the cold. The others have great viewing areas as well.
For us early-risers, they set out pastries and drinks in the lounge. I suppose most people will wake to the call at 7:15, but for us crazies who woke without an alarm, showered, and were ready to go before 6:30, we won't starve while waiting for full breakfast.
Today's plan is to have crossed the Bransfield Strait so that we can stop at Orne Harbor for a hike and some penguins, then continue on to Cuverville Island for more penguins.
As I was typing this, one guy pointed out the window to some whales! I've seen my first flippers and dorsal fins in the Antarctic.
OMG this trip is amazing. Sell one of your kids if you have to, but find a way to come. Also, sorry if the pictures seem excessive. I culled them and still have too many amazing ones. It's not that I'm a good photographer, it's the amazingness of Antarctica.
The captain pulled us slowly into the harbor so that we paced a whale pod. We got to watch the orcas play, eat, and swim around for like 10 minutes.
The harbor itself has water calm enough that you can see a (somewhat distorted) reflection of the mountains surrounding it. The mountains blend in with the clouds, and at least one of them is covered in a glacier that we'll hike later.
They updated the plans so that we started with a zodiak cruise. We were able to get really close to some humpback whales. We watched them in their feeding frenzy close to the surface. We saw tons of fins, and some of them even came up so we could see their sides. At least one was a calf still being cared for by its mother. The trip was already worth it, and we were just getting started.
On the way to the landing site, we passed a seal enjoying some sun up on a small iceberg. He played around and waved a bit, curious to see us.
We passed a non-penguin bird colony perched on some rocks.
And of course the penguins!
We saw whole groups of them swimming around, porpoising, playing. They got so close to us!
Then, we landed on the continent, near a glacier, and hopped out of the zodiak. We got our requisite picture taken with the "Antarctica flag" to say that we'd been on the continental landmass, and kept hiking. The hike was steep, but they gave us hiking poles, which helped a lot.
Because we were hiking on a glacier with lots of crevasses, we stuck exactly to the path the mountain guide had marked. We heard the sound of thunder at one point, which means that somewhere, a glacier is cracking. It provided additional motivation to stay on the path.
The top of the hike brought us to dozens of chinstrap penguins. Several sat on nests. Others waddled around. Several threw up their heads and shouted. The colony was actually quite loud at times.
We saw at least one newly hatched chick. We saw several penguins using a "Penguin Highway" to travel about. Some couples were expressing their love to each other.
We sat at the top and watched the penguins until it was time to descend.
Now, you may think that it would be fun to slide down such a large hill. 1- there's the danger of going off-path into a crevasse. 2- there's the danger of bumping into something hard. 3- sliding down makes the path too slippery for the rest of the group. So, when I started to slip, I was not as thrilled as you might think. I only descended a few meters on my bottom, but that was enough for me.
Even at the bottom of the hill, we saw more penguins. I was mesmerized by a pair who were doing some sort of mating dance. They would move in time with each other and mirror the actions of their partner.
We got back into the zodiaks and returned to the ship for lunch.
I was ravenous! But I think that the food would have been delicious even had I not been. Plus, it was all clearly labeled, including dietary restriction labels (gluten-free, dairy, etc). The service here is amazing!
I thought that it would be wise to take a short nap and watch as the captain moved us to the next site. I passed out and only awoke when they started making the announcements to let us know what the plans are and what order were heading out in the zodiaks.
We took the zodiak out to see some more whales and icebergs. It was so surreal.
Light flurries fell from the sky, but the visibility was such that we could still see on forever. The ocean was so calm that it felt like a lake. So here we are, at this lake at the end of the world. The walls of ice are some distance away, but we there are no trees or people or buildings to give us a sense of perspective. They could be relatively close icebergs not much taller than a person, or far away icebergs as big as a mountain.
The walls of mountain are so high that the peaks are lost in the clouds. Or maybe the clouds are so low that they swallow the tops of hills- again, without perspective, it's hard to know.
The zodiak steered towards another serene unreal area. On the way, we saw some seals, but they didn't seem happy to see us, so we steered away.
Then, we suddenly saw more humpback whales.
The whales would surface and show off their dorsal fins. Some even fluked and we saw the whole tail. Then, they descended back into the deep, leaving only their "footprint"- a calm circle of water- behind.
While we are not allowed to drive too close to them, we are allowed to cut the engine and sit as they come investigate us. With the engine off, our zodiak driver squeaked the rubber of the pontoon and one of the whales came swimming right near the boat. It was incredible! They are huuuuge.
And of course, we saw plenty of penguins playing and porpoising in the water as well.
Personally, I loved the icebergs. Some were an incredible shade of blue. On one, we could see where the water had eroded (melted?) away different parts of it in nice lines.
When our zodiak time was up, we landed on Cuverville Island, home of thousands of Gentoo penguins. The beach was packed with penguins, and the nearby sea hosted dozens of them. We walked along the "people trail" on the beach to arrive at a rocky area where many make their nests. But on the way, we got stopped.
Penguins have their own highways that bring them from their nests to the sea. They always have the right of way, and we are required to stay far enough away from them so that they are comfortable. So, when a penguin stops at the crossroad between our path and the penguin highway, we wait. And observe. And wait. And hope that the penguin will come closer, because we are allowed to just stand still and they can approach us.
I was fortunate in that several came close to me while I was just standing there. But also just fortunate to be able to watch their antics. One pair of penguins was doing some sort of love dance with their heads. Many penguins would periodically lift their heads and just let out a big holler. I saw a penguin carrying a rock in its beak. We saw lots of penguins sitting or sleeping on nests. And one penguin captured my attention for sure.
He suddenly started flapping like crazy, like nobody told him penguins can't fly and he was trying to fly away. When he realized he couldn't fly, he just started running all over the place, back and forth. The other penguins generally weren't paying attention to him, but he seemed to think the sky was falling the way he was running and flapping about. Or maybe he had just eaten the equivalent of penguin speed.
We were able to indirectly witness the variety of Gentoo diet. They aren't picky eaters and their variously-colored guano is evidence of this. The entire area is pretty covered in it, causing a huge reek that you never really get used to. But it's worth it to see the penguins up-close and personal.
When we got back on the boat, we made sure to clean our boots and pants extra-well, beyond the legal requirements for non-contamination. I do not want that smell in my room all night.
A hot cocoa break warmed us up before they announced that it was time to take the plunge. We changed into our swimsuits and rushed down to the zodiak loading area. I'm going to admit that I'm a bit jaded. I've polar bear plunged in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania for the Special Olympics fundraiser many, many times. While this one was totally different, I didn't get the same adrenaline rush that first-time plungers got.
It was still a ton of fun, it just wasn't the adrenaline rush it's supposed to be. They lined us up so that we could safely plunge one at a time. I showed up in all my warm clothes and only took them off last minute. The perhaps less-experienced plungers showed up in just a robe or their swim gear, and started freezing before they even got into the water. Just before your turn, they harnessed you in, so that they could pull you out, if needed. After the person before you came up the ladder, you descended a metal ladder (much colder and more heat-pulling than a sandy beach) onto the platform. From here, you jump in (not run). It only takes a second to get in, a second to swim back to the platform, and a second for them to help you up the ladder, at which point you immediately enter a heated building and are very shortly in your room. While more of an instant shock, and you get our whole head under, it's actually less freezing than running in, wading around, splashing, running out, and making your way through the cold to a changing tent.
Next on the schedule was the daily briefing. I love the passion that the staff bring to these. There's a lady on staff who is a penguin expert and you can tell how much she loves penguins from how she talks about them. (Actually, we also spent quite a bit of the afternoon watching penguins near her, and heard all about their mating, how scientists research them, beak identification, and more.) Tom is the whale guy, and you can tell how much he loves whales from his presentation. (My favorite line, paraphrased: "I like penguins. They're good nutrition for whales.") Everybody here is so enthusiastic that you can't help but loving what they're loving.
The only odd part is that they kept saying what an amazing first day we had here. I was so confused. Hadn't we already been here for several? It certainly felt that way. It actually felt like maybe a week, but I knew our trip wasn't that long. But no, this is our first day here. We just saw and did so much (2 zodiak cruises, 2 landings, a hike, 2 kinds of penguins, the continent, an island, a nap in between, and a variety of polar landscapes) that it just feels that way.
Before dinner, we sat up on one of the decks and just let it snow on us as we watched the scenery slip by. With civilization so far away and everybody else eating, it seemed like we were the only ones in the world. We had the ocean all to ourselves.
Dinner was good, as usual. We did a bit of sink laundry, and while the official clothesline in the shower isn't really long enough, the towel warmers and hairdryer helped us get everything into a manageable state.
We joined the new year's eve festivities just before midnight. The people who were still awake were drinking and playing old party games in the lounge. "Pass the orange using just your chin" was happening when we walked in, and then they switched to arctic animal charades. Everybody moved to the deck of the ship for champagne and a countdown. The staff "dropped" a "ball" (buoy) as we counted them into the new year. They shot off emergency flares. The pictures of these are great as it was plenty bright outside, even at midnight. No additional lighting was needed. The midnight sun was enough.