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Antarctica

Leaving Antarctica

Chilean Base, Antarctica

This morning, we're supposed to leave the ship. Sad, I know. I got up and went to the lounge, and was amazed to see almost whiteout conditions. It was snowing! I knew that we had a confirmed flight time, so I was confused and maybe a bit excited that we might get some extra time out here. But within about 20 minutes, the snow stopped falling and visibility returned to the point we could see all of the surrounding mountains again.
We ate our last of the fabulous breakfasts on board, and headed back to the lounge, where everybody waited with all of their stuff. It was snowing again, and we were back in the whiteout.
Low Visibility

Low Visibility


Some of us enjoyed playing in the snow. There was enough that somebody had built a snowman or snow penguin- it was a bit hard to tell.
Snowpenguin

Snowpenguin


Several folks tossed snowballs at each other. A few people built up an arsenal to throw at the expedition staff as they brought their zodiaks around to gather the luggage. One of the staff pulled out her oar and was hitting the snowballs baseball-style with a very good hit rate.
2loading the luggage

2loading the luggage


Eventually we got notice that both planes were off the ground in Punta Arenas. The folks who were coming to take our places on the ship and go on their own amazing adventure would arrive shortly and our fun would end. We geared up and climbed into the zodiaks one last time.
We reversed the journey through the Chilean base to the airfield, boarded the plane, and returned to civilization.

Because they plan for events like what we experienced trying to get to Antarctica, we have a night and another day in Punta Arenas.
We had dinner at a restaurant called The Beagle. The decorations there are insanely artistic. You definitely feel like you're on some sort of historic boat or site. The portions were huge and the food was good as well. I can recommend it.
Beagle

Beagle


The rest of the evening, we spent getting resettled in and dealing with sorting our luggage back out.

Posted by spsadventures 02:11 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

Seals and infinite penguins

South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Last night, we headed back for open water in order to get closer to the South Shetlland Islands and our stops for today. I could definitely feel the boat rocking much more than it has been since the first night, but everybody seemed more used to it and I wasn't as unstable on my feet.
As usual, I was the first person up and in the lounge, even after showering and doing a bit more laundry. Around 7, the sea view turned into land, and the boat seemed to be slowing a bit and rocking slightly less.
In the distance, I could see what appeared to be shear whitish cliffs. Either they're snow-covered rock, or dirty ice, I'm not sure.

Lunchtime update:
The sea was rougher than it's been so far, but calmer than they expected it to be.
They dropped us off on the beach, pretty much right in the midst of a pile of seals. That's why its called Elephant Point, because there are tons (literally) of elephant seals.
Pile 'O Seals

Pile 'O Seals


According to the marine biologist, most of the seals were juvenile males. Generally, they were taking in sun on the beach. The biologist's term "rock sausages" was pretty apt. However, periodically, some would lump along the beach, moving to another location. Their movements reminded me of a breakdancer doing the worm more than anything else. Execpt that these are huge blubbery animals, so mentally, I was say "galump galump" in my head whenever they moved.
2Galumping along

2Galumping along


The noises they made sounded much more like farts. The whole beach was full of these sounds, occasionally punctuated by some yelling that sounded somewhat like Chewbacca.
Neck fighting

Neck fighting


Some of the yelling happened when they were practicing their fighting. Two next to each other would stick their heads up and sort of smash their necks together, like a couple who couldn't quite figure out how to cuddle properly. Then, they'd go back to chilling peacefully like nothing happened.
The seals mostly left each other space, but some would pile up on top of each other, maybe for warmth. However, for the little ones, this is apparently dangerous. We saw several baby seal skeletons rotting away on the beach. The biologist suggested that they were probably squished to death by bigger seals. squished seal remains

squished seal remains


We also saw a penguin skeleton. Elephant seals do not eat penguins, so there was actually a penguin colony right up the beach from the seals. Sometimes, the penguins would waddle through a bunch of sunbathing seals, paying no more attention to the seals than if they were rocks. The seals ignored the penguins in turn.
bird skeleton

bird skeleton


In addition to the remnants of animals we could see, there were several whale bone pieces scattered about. The spine bones could easily be mistaken for a fossilized log. One of the rib bones stretched about 5 meters along the beach and made a reasonable bench. These bones were all so huge. They probably arrived to the beach long ago, when this was a whaling station. The only real remnants of the actual station are a pile of ribs in a pile of stones that used to form the walls of a shelter. But the whaling legacy is scattered about the whole beach.
bones on the beach

bones on the beach


Sections of the beach were scattered with small feathers, as well as the bones I previously mentioned. This is because several non-penguin birds also make this island their home. Or it might be from the penguins, I'm not sure. The flying birds flew overhead, looking for food, zooming in and out of eyesight. One species sort of looked like a pteradactlFeathers

Feathers

. Another looked like tiny seals with wings.
This island also contained some interesting plant-life. I think these are lichens or spores or mold or moss of some kind.
Lichens?

Lichens?


On the way back to the ship, our kodiak driver noticed a bunch of Wilson Kestrels (tiny little black and white birds) skimming the tops of the waves in a certain area. He drove use over to see what they were all excited about.
it turned out to be a leopard seal eating a baby seal of another species, and the kestrels were gathering around like vultures, grabbing whatever scraps they could. We watched the sea surface and descend for a while, before returning to the ship.
I have to say that I'm pretty impressed by this crew. They all have their specialties, but they also all have a wide variety of knowledge outside their specialty. Our driver was Cam, the geologist, but he knew enough about bird behavior to find us the leopard seal. I've heard history questions answered by the biologists, animal questions answered by the mountain guides, and Ali, the leader, seems to just know everything about everything. And of course, they all can drive the zodaks, give lectures on their topics, and take amazing pictures with their arms-length telephoto lenses.
birds overhead

birds overhead


Update:
For this afternoon's activity, we split into 2 groups. There is a rule about how many people can be at a site at a time, and Ali has done a great job of managing that. Usually, there are some people out in kayaks, some who stay aboard, and then the people on land get staggered timing or sent to different sites so that we stay within the limits. This afternoon, there was only one option, so we went in two groups.
While we waited for the first group to come back, we watched a documentary about the Extreme Ice Project and packed. I can't believe that our time here is almost up. That's so sad. I certainly don't feel like I missed out on anything, but I also could totally see more.
We got into the zodiaks and approached the point. About halfway there, the smell of guano already started to hit us. This island is home to over 100,000 Chinstrap Penguins. That's a lot of guano.
Beach of Penguins

Beach of Penguins


We landed, and quickly got away from the zodiaks, as there was some amount of waves here, and nobody wanted to fall in. The beach was filled with penguins. To the side of the landing site was a penguin super-highway filled with thousands of penguins making their ways to the sea for food or making their way back to their nests to feed their babies. This was not a foot-wide track in the snow with intermittent usage like some of the ones we'd seen. This was meters wide, and constantly in use in both directions. (Penguins drive on the American side of the road, not the British, at least here.)
Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway


Just sitting on the beach and watching the penguin traffic would have been a sufficiently entertaining and exhilarating activity, but we got to go on a hike.
This island is more north than some of the others we saw, and it is covered in guano, so it was actually quite green. Tiny little moss-like plants covered a lot of the rocks here. And apparently it grows fast enough that we are allowed to hike through it a bit. The green gives the island a completely different feel from everywhere else we'd been so far. And because the island was somewhat bowl-shaped, we had a great view up the sides to see the thousands upon thousands of penguins everywhere. Penguins Penguins Everywhere

Penguins Penguins Everywhere

Wherever you looked, the green and gray hills were spotted with the black and white of penguins. This was nature as mother nature intended. This is what the first people to and here must have seen. This is just amazing.
In addition to the endless penguins, skuas and perhaps other penguin-predator birds (I'm not so great at bird identification) swirled the air, just waiting to pick off a momentarily unprotected egg or baby. We saw a lot of chicks, so they just needed patience and a good eye, and I'm sure they got good meals.Penguins overlooking Penguins

Penguins overlooking Penguins


After the hike with breathtaking views, we slowly made our way back to the beach, just amused by all of the penguin antiics and waddling.
At the beach, we got into our lines to load up the zodiaks, and a few curious penguins approached us. While there are legal distances that we must keep away from the wildlife, and the crew stresses that and reminds us, if we are still and the animals come to us, that is allowed (at least for penguins). We stood still enough that one penguin came within 2 meters of us. We could see the texture of the feathers, all of the drops of water, the unique shape of its feet. It was just so unreal.
Then, it was time to load up the boats and return to the ship.
The last visit for the day was an on-boat visit to Deception Island, an active volcano caldera. The volcano did not erupt while we were in there.
We did see all of the historical items left behind from whaling and more modern days though. It conntains an abandoned airplane hangar amongst other buildings. And off course there were a few seals on shore as well.
And that was the last site. There were some evening activities that recapped our trip and thanked the crew, but the rest of the time, we would travel back to the pickup point. The views were still stunning though. Just watching the ice flow past the ship was amazing. Just that scenery alone makes the trip worth it.
Deception Island

Deception Island


Really, it does. This place is true pristine nature. People frequently ask me where is the prettiest place I've ever been. Move over Flam (Norway), you're a distant second now. People frequently ask me where is the most unique/different place I've ever been. Move over Kotzebue, Alaska, you're no longer number one. People often ask me what is the most fun thing I've ever done on a trip. While I'll always fondly remember that time we hiked the Great Wall, the hikes here are just something else. When people ask for trip recommendations, this is it. Everything here has been utterly amazing and indescribable, although I've tried my best to bring it to you.
Seriously, if you have the option, come! This travel group was a lot of adult families.
But there really is no upper age limit, just a slight physical limit. If you can walk short distances over uneven terrain (or a rocking boat), and can board/get out of the zodiak once, you can do this trip, but stay on the boat, and see the most amazing scenery of your lifetime. (Zodiak boarding involves stepping through water to sit on the side of the zodiak and swing your legs over. Then, at the boat you have to stand on a stair, on the side of the boat, and then onto ganglan that is moving relative to the boat. But, at all times, regardless of your mobility, people are holding on to you an helping you. At least one person on this trip uses a cane for distances, but was able to do this the once it took to get on the boat.) If you can get into and out of the zodiaks multiple times per day, you can also see the most amazing wildlife, even if you can't walk far from the beaches. Seriously, at many of our landing sites, if you set up a camera on a rock and just randomly took pictures every so often, you would still end up with amazing wildlife photos, the areas are just so packed with it. And of course, if you can handle the zodiaks, and walk (however slowly) for a few km and up some small inclines, you can see everything and have the most amazing trip ever.
There is however, a lower limit. While the trip is certainly fun for kids, they have to be of an age where they can respect rules without always pushing them and have to be able to control themselves. One family on this trip had 4 kids ranging from about 10 to 16, and some may have been a bit too young. This is not a place where "kids can be kids" all of the time. Constantly singing to yourself or making loud noises and scaring away the wildlife is not ok. It stresses, them, but also takes away from other people's experiences. Getting too close to the wildlife can also stress it, especially if you're standing where they want to be and blocking them from getting to their food source. Nobody wants to be the reason a penguin doesn't eat and dies. Plus, there are sensitive places where they tell us not to go, either for our own safety or the safety of nature. Of course, it wasn't just the kids that sometimes struggled with boundaries.
In any case, you might make sure that your kids are quiet and mature before you bring them on this kind of trip.

Posted by spsadventures 02:06 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

More penguins! More ice! More seals!

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica

This morning, the wakeup call came early- 6:15, although I was already in the bathroom at that time. We came out to see the ship pass through the Lemaire Channel passage. It's stunning (as all of the Antarctic is), but it's supposed to be extra stunning because the mountains on the side of the passage are higher than the passage is wide. Also, it's filled with ice. To be fair, the lack of perspective makes it hard to tell how tall the mountains are, even though the clouds swallow them up. And it's hard to tell how wide the passage is because it's filled with ice chunks that could be as small as a foot or as large as a building, but I couldn't tell until we were right up next to them which size any iceberg was.
View from boat

View from boat


Lemaire Channel

Lemaire Channel


Lunchtime update:
Even before the landing, we saw tons of animals and beautiful sea.
Sea Ice

Sea Ice


The morning started with a Peterman Island landing. In addition to some sort of small abandoned building, Peterman Island is home to both Gentoo Penguins and Adelie Penguins. We saw them all.
Peterman Island building

Peterman Island building


Great View

Great View


The area we saw first had the two types of penguins mixed, but I didn't know at first. I jut saw a penguin that looked just liked the Gentoos we saw yesterday and couldn't figure out what made the Adelies so different. Then, I realized that I was looking at a Gentoo, so of course it looked the same. The next one over was an Adelie though. These don't have the white spots around their eyes. Their faces are all black.
Gentoos

Gentoos


Gentoos and Adelies

Gentoos and Adelies


Several penguins sat on nests, and a few were guarding chicks! The chicks are gray and fluffier than the parents. They'll change colors later. Again, just watching them go about their regular business is mesmerizing.
Penguin with chick

Penguin with chick


After a while, we tore ourselves away and headed back to the landing site, where nobody else was. It took us a while, as we had to give right-of-way to several penguins who were taking their time crossing our path. It's awesome to see them cross paths, because they sometimes get so close.
We sat on the rocks to observe them quietly. We sat as still and quietly as possible, just enjoying the glacial stream running through the rocks. A few penguins came up very close to us- one was less than two meters away, just cleaning itself and fixing its feathers. Another gave us a great view of it going for a swim. The water is so crystal-clear that only the ripples affected the view of the penguin under water. We had them all to ourselves for a bit, and it was amazing.
Seal Chillin' as Penguins Waddle By

Seal Chillin' as Penguins Waddle By


Penguin

Penguin


Penguin

Penguin


Penguin with Chick

Penguin with Chick


The other amazing thing we saw was an iceberg breaking up. It was a small one, so there wasn't a lot of danger, but we heard the thunderous noise, and saw the berg start rotating in the water to resettle into a new position based on the new weight distribution.
When it was time to leave the island and head to the zodiak cruise, we headed straight for a leopard seal. The seal was sunning itself on a piece of ice, sitting so still I asked if it was dead. But then it moved its head, and we could see a grin on its face that reminded me of our cat's face when she sits in the sun.
Seal

Seal


We enjoyed the scenery some more. Here, the ice is much thicker than it was yesterday. The various pieces come in a wide array of shapes and colors, as well as sizes. Really, it's like a modern art sculpture gallery made by nature. The coolest one we saw had a hole in it, so that it formed a sort of arch over the sea. Another cool one had been eroded by the water and then turned on its side so that you could see the erosion line reaching to the sky. And one had started forming little icicles so that it looked like a cave with stalactites and stalcmites in it.
Cool Ice

Cool Ice


Cool Ice

Cool Ice


We saw another seal- this time a Crabeater seal. Again, it was just sunning itself on some ice.
Seal

Seal


As we headed back to the boat, the sun came out. The Antarctic is bright when it's cloudy. With the sun out, sunglasses with good UV protection are a MUST. It's virtually impossible to look at anything without them because your eyes hurt so much. However, the shadows created by the mountains contrasting with the super-bright white snow is such an amazing sight, you just have to see.
Lunch today is an outdoor barbecue. We had burgers, salads, all sorts of grilled meats, and our first taste of their famous curry. I was told they're great, and they are, as is all of the Indian food aboard. (As is almost all of the food aboard.)
Again, we needed a nap. The sun and cold and hiking really take a lot out of me.

Evening update:
This afternoon's activity was pretty much all on land. We stopped where Charcot stopped over a hundred years ago. I was excited to see the rock pile he made.
The trail to the left split 3 ways, and I thought I was taking the leftmost one to the history guy. Instead, I ended up back at the penguin colony.
Gentoo with Chick

Gentoo with Chick


There were several chicks there, so I stayed and watched the penguins a bit, but then I asked for directions to the historical path. It was supposed to be on the right before the landing site. I got back to the landing site without seeing the flag. I turned around and saw the flag way off to the side.
Keeping the flag in my vision, I made my way back up the hill and over to the site. I was the first one there, and the guys who arrived later made the same comment I did- the flag was too far from the main path and it was hard to find. They redid the path, and more people came.
The end of the path had a great view, but the rock pile wasn't so exciting. This was the first guide who didn't spread his enthusiasm like a highly infectious disease. It was still cool, just not mind-blowing like everything else.
Charcot's Hut

Charcot's Hut


The rock pile (cairn) was in the shape of a small hut. Charcot's men built this in order to take meteorological measurements and to observe the penguins. It's still mostly standing so long after.
Scenery

Scenery


Back on the main path, I had a great view of the "Iceberg Graveyard," a sea full of slowly melting icebergs. They were all sorts of exciting colors and shapes..
I returned to the landing site and went to the right, up the rope path. I slipped and fell down a bit, but it was still really fun to climb the rope up the steep snow slope.
At the end of the path, we reached another rock pile. This one is not a shelter, but it was used in more modern times for science. This one had amazing views, but I didn't have enough time to linger as we had to get back to the ship. There we so many options of what to do at this site, that nobody got to do all of them.View of second rock pile from first

View of second rock pile from first


The beach here is generally a bit rocky, and our zodiak got stuck on a rock. We had to unload some people while others moved to the far end of the boat and bounced in order to free it. I was standing in the shallows and taking a picture of the whole process when my camera ended up in the water. I really should have been using my scuba camera since my feet were in the water, but I had just gotten so used to it being ok to use my regular camera. In any case, I just hope that my memory card didn't get corrupted. I'll be using my scuba camera or phone for everything tomorrow, apparently.
Bouncing the boat

Bouncing the boat


Back on the ship, we had another debriefing where we learned a bit about how the icebergs we saw today get their various colors. We had another fabulous dinner. And tonight's "entertainment" was a lecture on penguins. Also, the gift shop was open.
The lecture was interesting and informative, but I had to catch the end of it from my room because I was so tired from the day. In our rooms, we have tvs with 4 channels. One is a non-stop live stream of the lounge, so when there are debriefings or lectures, you can catch them in your room. Also, you can spy on all the folks making coffee. Another channel is a nonstop commercial for other Quark trips. Some of them are quite interesting to watch, and they definitely make me want to sell a kidney and go on another trip. The third channel had been playing Blackfish (a documentary about captve Orcas) on a loop for the first 2 days, and is now playing a documentary about melting polar ice. And the last channel plays weird movies (Amelie was on loop before. Today we got the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
If you happen to somehow not be exhausted by the fun daily activities, have finished the movie loops, talked to whoever is in the lounge at the time, and are still looking for something else to do, the library here is quite good as well. I think they have every book ever written about either pole, as well as travel books related to the ports they start at, polar animal books, geology books, and some novels. If reading isn't for you, they also have a ton of board games. You can't get any sort of bored here.

Posted by spsadventures 02:01 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

Whales and seals and penguins, oh my

Orne Harbor, Antarctica

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.

Lunchtime update:
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.
Stunning Scenery

Stunning Scenery


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.Orcas

Orcas


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.
Hike for Later

Hike for Later

Beauty

Beauty


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.
Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale


Don't Break the Ice Board Game

Don't Break the Ice Board Game


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.
Seal

Seal


Seal

Seal


We passed a non-penguin bird colony perched on some rocks.
Non-Penguin birds

Non-Penguin birds


And of course the penguins!
Penguins

Penguins


Orcas and Penguins

Orcas and Penguins


We saw whole groups of them swimming around, porpoising, playing. They got so close to us!
Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap Penguins


Swimming Penguins

Swimming Penguins

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.
Marching Chinstrap

Marching Chinstrap


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.
Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway


We sat at the top and watched the penguins until it was time to descend.
Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap Penguins


Nesting Penguin

Nesting Penguin


Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap Penguins


Nesting Penguin

Nesting Penguin


Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo Penguins


Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo Penguins


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.
Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap Penguins


Amazing Perspective

Amazing Perspective


Beauty

Beauty


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.

Evening update:
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.
Iceberg

Iceberg


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.
Seals

Seals


Then, we suddenly saw more humpback whales.
Fluke

Fluke


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.
Whale

Whale


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.
Fluke

Fluke


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.
Iceberg

Iceberg


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.
Penguin Hiking

Penguin Hiking


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.
Nesting Gentoo

Nesting Gentoo


Gentoo eating snow

Gentoo eating snow


Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguin


Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo Penguins


Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguin


Gentoo with Egg

Gentoo with Egg


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.
Diving Penguins

Diving Penguins


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.
My Polar Plunge

My Polar Plunge


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.
Dropping the Ball

Dropping the Ball

Posted by spsadventures 01:59 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

Finally Antarctica

South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

When we woke, the plan was to be ready at 10:45. Then, they cancelled the flight and told us to be packed for a hotel change at noon. A bit later, they started calling everybody to tell us all to get down to the lobby ASAP so that we could leave for the airport at 11:30.
Let's hope that yesterday was like a fire drill where we all learned the process, and today we will all be prepared to do the real thing quickly.
Boarding #2

Boarding #2


Everything went smoothly and as planned at the airport, we took off, and were again served a uniform meal that wouldn't fit the dietary restrictions of most religions, vegetarianism, gluten-free, nut-free, or a heart-healthy diet.
This time, though, we landed in Antarctica!!!! I am now in the 7-continent club!
Landing

Landing


The landing area isn't like anywhere I've been before. It's basically a large-rock gravel field about the size of a football field. The plane comes in and stops really quickly, as there isn't exactly a ton of space. We alit and moved aside for the other folks to land. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures, since this is a Chilean military installation. (Military only to support the scientists, as for any other reason isn't allowed on the continent.)
When everybody had arrived, we walked about a mile on an area of cleared-off dirt in order to get to the beach with the zodiacs (small motored pontoon boats that they use to transfer us from the boat to the shore and vice-versa.) On the way, we saw our first penguins! They were just hanging out on an area of the beach not so far from where we were.
We climbed into the zodiaks and headed to the ship! We were all wet by the time we arrived, but we arrived safely. The whole process was a great test of our winter gear and its waterproofness. A few people discovered that their pants weren't as waterproof as advertised. I discovered that while the material in my gloves is waterproof, one of the seams in the left glove was not. Fortunately, we have some extra gloves, and the boat store has a few pants people can buy.
(In case touching the sea on our Punta Arenas walk didn't count as the Southern Ocean, this certainly does and I've now touched all of the oceans as well.)
A whale came very close to another one of the zodiaks, but I didn't get to see that as we were checking into our room at that time.
After everybody was aboard, they pulled us together for a briefing. We heard about the safety procedures, met the staff, and learned what was going on tonight and tomorrow. Shortly after, we had a safety drill where everybody had to meet at their muster stations and go to their lifeboat.
It was mandatory, but some people felt too seasick to attend. They were found and attended. This program had us fly over the Drake Passage (the flight that had issues.)
The Drake Passaage has some of the worst seas anywhere. The winds regularly get to hurricane speed and beyond. The waves are incredibly high and choppy. Before this trip, a friend told me that 100% of the people on his trip got seasick on the Drake. During dinner, one of the staff told me that even some of the staff get sick on the Drake, and once, the winds were so bad that the crew even stayed in their quarters and people slept on the floor because they kept getting tossed out of bed.
I did not get seasick per say. My stomach felt fine. But, my balance was so far off that I felt like a reeling drunk. I grabbed every chair, every handrail, and every wall on my way everywhere. Enough people were feeling it that the dining hall was noticeably empty. But, enough people were ok that there was semi-normal service.
At some point during dinner, the boat calmed down. I don't know if we just got to the other side of the South Georgia Islands, so the seas were more protected, if the wind died down, or what, but we could feel the difference.
The scenery meanwhile, is almost impossible to describe, but I'll try. The ocean runs on to the horizon in some places, and in others, it hits ice-covered land. The land seems mostly white, with some black sticking out here and there. At some points, you feel like you're looking at the best-quality black-and-white photo ever taken due to the general lack of color. But the birds flying around remind you that this seascape is real.
"Sunset" is just before midnight and "sunrise" is about 2 in the morning, so the light is constant. It just sort of gets grayer for a while and brighter during the day as the clouds aren't allowing us to see the sun- just its scattered reflection everywhere.View from our room at night

View from our room at night

Posted by spsadventures 01:57 Archived in Antarctica Comments (0)

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