The White Continent
As part of a two month trip to South America spanning late 2013 and the beginning of 2014, we were lucky enough to be able to travel on an expedition boat to the Antarctic Peninsula, and specifically the Weddell Sea area which is where Ernest Shackleton first found himself marooned before his long trip back to civilisation.
Our aim would be to cross the dreaded Drake Passage, explore the Weddell Sea area on the east side of the Antarctic peninsula for four days (home to huge tabular icebergs measuring kilometers across), then travel down part of the West Side of the Peninsula for a further six days before returning home. If you look at the image below, the Antarctic Peninsula is that finger that juts out towards South America.
It looks close on that map, but the gap between continents is actually divided by about a thousand kilometers of Ocean. After crossing, our plan would be to use inflatable dinghy's (known as Zodiac’s) to make landings on local islands, the Antarctic mainland itself, visit an Antarctic scientific research station, to explore nearby bays, and observe local wildlife: specifically Penguins, Seals, Whales, and Birdlife.
Now, anyone who knows anything about visiting Antarctica knows that to get there by boat, one normally has to brave the Southern Ocean and cross the Drake Passage, 1000 kilometers of open sea in what is generally considered the roughest patch of Ocean in the World. That is not to say that it is always a heavy crossing. Sometimes it can be relatively placid, known colloquially as the "Drake Lake". Of course, the other possibility is called as the "Drake Shake". Either way, you have to pay the "Drake Tax" to get over….. that means, making the effort of crossing to reap the reward of seeing Antarctica.
On the penultimate day before departure, Ursula and I went for a hike along the coast to the most Southernly mainland post office in the world (there's a lot of "most Southerly" in those parts!) and sent a postcard or two home after having a chat with the enigmatic proprietor who had had declared his post office as an independent country and could therefore legitimately stamp our passport.
The morning before departure we caught first sight of our ride, which had docked the night before. The M/V Ushuaia was its name. An old survey boat owned by the NOAA (The US Oceanographic Institute) which had been converted, now carrying 80 passengers. Ice strengthened, reliable, but without the latest technology that some of the boats have, such as gyroscopes which help maintain pitch and yaw and cut down on seasickness. Years before I had gotten seasick trying windsurfing on a completely flat calm reservoir, so the Drake passage should be a piece of cake! Truthfully, I prayed that my seasickness pills would work.
Such thoughts were not exactly far from my mind as we hauled our bags aboard and settled into our cabin, carefully chosen by me eight months before for its proximity to the boats centre of gravity and therefore more likely to be stable in rough seas…..
On the boat I kept a daily journal, starting the day before departure. I have added it below.
Journal: Antarctica Log Book
TEMPERATURE: 8 deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Calm
Cafe Tante Sara, Avenida St Martin, Ushuaia. Ushuaia surprisingly charming.
Sitting eating sandwiches in Ushuaia, 2 hours until we go to the dock and meet our boat, the "M/V USHUAIA", run under Antarrply. We saw it in the harbour already, looking a little small in comparison to the National Geographic boat next to it, but still fine.
A sense of anticipation, nerves, and excitement all mingled together. The Drake Passage awaits. Personally I'm happy to meet the Drake Lake rather than the Drake Shake but it is out of our hands. Lets See. Adventures indeed.
Signed Kevin Lock and Ursula Baumann.
Cake in the Cafe Tante Sara / Ushuaia Tourist Bus
POSITION: Beagle Channel, then Drake Passage
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Waves
WIND: Calmer Now.
44 Hours into crossing.
Was sick, needed injection into bum.
First six hours fine: navigating the Beagle Channel.
Slept well until 7am, all ok.
Up for breakfast, made one bite of toast then threw up on deck.
Prospect of another 40 hours of that alarming.
Injection helped but didn't completely solve.
Couldn't eat much, laying in bed and a lot of dozing helped.
Ursula mas o menos OK.
Couldn't attend lectures.
South Shetland Islands in four hours - YES!
Zodiac Briefing in one hour.
In bed to read Lonely Planet Antarctica now.
Writing this making me slightly sick again.
[EDIT: The above entry was clearly written while I was suffering from seasickness and that accounts for its stilted staccato style. I will always remember the point where I was overcome. Sitting in the lounge feeling awful, I tried to focus on looking out of the large bay window and focus on the horizon, as this had been recommended as a way to combat nausea.
Well, the horizon clearly hadn't gotten the memo because the extent of rolling meant that at times looking out the window all I could see was sky and then seconds later all I could see was Sea, with large waves rolling in towards us. I knew I would not last long but decided to try and get some air on deck as the boat pitched and yawed all over the place.
Outside I had to continuously hang on to the door to steady myself. I had a sick bag and filled it up almost immediately. Even this was not an easy task because I had to hold on the boat with one hand try to keep the bag open with the other and aim into it as we moved around. Steam poured out of the bag as it was hot and the temperature on deck was cold. I clearly recall thinking, that this being 8 hours into the Drake crossing and with 40 to go, that if I have to feel like this for the next 40 hours, I would be better off just throwing myself over the side! Luckily, the injection helped a good deal after an hour to prevent the worst of it.
A good analogy that came to mind during the trip: if you are an office worker, imagine sitting in your office and the whole building moving both up and down and side to side at the same time: like a massive bucking bronco ride!
Just how bad was our crossing in the context of Drake experiences? In all honesty, probably not very. I later asked the expedition crew about it and they said that it was about average or perhaps just a touch rougher than average. A six out of ten? Valeria told me that on her worst crossing, all crew were confined to their bunks, and any movement was done literally crawling on all fours. Augustin, the expedition leader, then pointed out a solid looking metal radiator with a very large dent in it, and recalled how on another bad crossing he saw a Chinese passenger roll the entire way across the lounge before smashing into it!]
POSITION: Close to Weddell Sea
TEMPERATURE: 0 Deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Overcast
Last night we arrived at the South Shetlands. King George V Island to the North, another to the South. We had crossed the Drake! :-)
Now conditions are calm, and I can enjoy my food. Have resolved not to drink alcohol though… we drank A LOT in Argentina so it is good to have a break. A good bottle of wine would certainly be tempting upon our return though… well, more than tempting, but what I want to avoid is tempting fate.
Overnight we crossed the so called mini Drake of the Brushfield Straight, though it was calm. This morning we made a ship tour through pack ice, or sea ice anyhow, to look at some large tabular icebergs.
In the afternoon, we made our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula… that means mainland Antarctica. Another continent may be crossed off. Taking the Zodiacs, like Navy Seals, was fun, and we saw hundreds of cute penguins up close, of the varieties Gentoo and Adelie. We also came across a sleeping Weddell Seal. A hint of Whale only - Yesterday. Maybe, hopefully, we will see more of them at some point.
Iceberg formations big and small are fascinating and also the rocks on the beach, many volcanic, were of shapes and types unfamiliar. We examined a porous looking volcanic rock… it was extremely heavy.
Tabular Drifting Iceberg, Bigger than the Island!
POSITION: Esperanza Research Station, Hope Bay, Madder Bluff - Antarctic Sound
TEMPERATURE: 1 Deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Calm and overcast / Partial Sun
Morning landing at Madder Bluff or Madder Cliffs on Joinville Island, a large island on the North side of Antarctic Sound, which is a channel 12km wide with the Antarctic Peninsula on either side.
Stupendously lovely scenery, we landed at an Adelie Penguin colony and climbed a surprisingly long, steep, high snow slope to about 250m up and about 2km inland. Gorgeous views and thousands of nice penguins that looked like they were there for skiing. GREAT!
In the afternoon we visited a research station - "Esperanza" owned by the Argentinians. They were military although not dressed as such. 80 people - one of only two stations in Antarctica that have families there too.
It has long been a dream of mine to visit such a station, since "The Thing" (a 1982 Science Fiction Horror directed by John Carpenter) is one of my favourites films and is set in such a place - I watched it just a month ago. Here though, not much research is done. It is mainly for geo-strategic purposes / land claims, although they do some geology. We had tea and posted postcards. Ursula had peach drink. The station guide tried to speak English and offered us breakfast instead of tea. Juani and El Phillipo made a first landing.
Alien Ship that we found trapped in the Ice.
POSITION: Antarctic Peninsula en route to Gerlache Strait
TEMPERATURE: -1 Deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Cold!
WIND: Variable, sometimes blowy but not bad
My reading list so far on this trip:
Biography of Einstein by the guy who wrote the Steve Jobs bio,
re-read of Jason Lewis's "The Expedition" (about a circumnavigation, not Antarctica,)
Shackleton’s 'Heart of the Antarctic'
Lonely Planet Argentina and Lonely Planet Antarctica
Manhunt, about the hunt for Bin Laden
I have two books to read next: Tony Blair Memoirs, with a Bill Bryson re-read of 'The Lost Continent'
Leaving the boat by Zodiac for the Antarctic Mainland
Pingu hides on a little berg.
Left Antarctic Sound, heading down the West side of the Peninsula. Landing at Gourdin Island, after 45 minute wait to board the Zodiac from the boat. All landings are on these 'Zodiacs' - big rubber boats like a Navy Seal might use. Saw a bunch of resting Weddell Seals, and a giant brown Petral (Bird) feasting on a dead (old age or sick) Weddell Seal. Luckily not too gory.
Planned first Zodiac cruise to fabulously name Astrolabe Island cancelled due to a bit of rough Sea. No one seemed to mind. Another brief whale sighting, and grand mountains appearing behind the coastal glaciers of the Peninsula tonight. [EDIT: Many of the mountains in Antarctica are spectacular, rising from the coast to 3000m or more. The interior plains of Antarctica sit at that elevation, making it the highest continent on Earth. Because it is so dry (because everything is frozen) it is also technically a Desert.]
Augustin's (along with Valeria, Luciana (Lucy), Pablo + Pablo) recaps are fun and funny, his impressions e.g. of rowing sound, made us laugh.
Time for dinner now!
Dinner with fellow guests
POSITION: Wilhamina Bay
TEMPERATURE: 5 Deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Calm / Sun
Cormorants (Little Volcano shaped nests made of kelp and guano (poo)).
Leopard Seal at landing point (looked bigger but thought was a Weddell, only found out later)
Lym from Malaysia showed us his injured toe. He had hurt it before the trip and it looked infected and in need of medical attention to me.
Travelling down the Peninsula again - it is incorrect to say "South" because now South would be into the land and the plateau towards the South Pole: it just "looks" South because you are going down stand thats how it appears on a map. I guess it's actually SSE at best - lunch now, soups always seem to be the starter.
Not so good carbonara that they called Alfredo (I should learn how to cook proper fettuccine alfredo at home!) [Edit: I did, but it’s a bit of a calorie bomb]
In the afternoon, Zodiac cruise around Foyn Harbour - whaling artefacts, a wreck from 1915 run aground after a fire, and whale bones clearly visible on the shallower parts of the ocean floor. We exited through Wilhamina Bay - stupendously awesome in it's own right - anywhere else in the populated world the bay would be a Unesco site or area of outstanding natural beauty. Here it was just a loose footnote in the grand landscape called Antarctica. I liked it though, and watched it intently for the whole ten minute trip back to the main boat.
Penguins nesting in Guano (their own excrement)
POSITION: Gerlache Strait
WEATHER CONDITIONS: ?
A day late, this entry. Especially due to party on board due to the Wedding that took place on the Ship yesterday between Alan (2nd Mate which means ship's assistant Captain, and Tamara, a nice member of the kitchen staff). Back to life on board, Captain has three mates. 1st Mate (a lady, we speculate no affairs), 2nd Mate Alan, and 3rd Mate who is the mini me of the Captain, right down to the stubble and aviator ray bans.
First landing Neko Bay, where icebergs often calve, but sadly we didn't see any calving. It reminded me though of Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, where we saw a lot of calving bergs. A great view though, and a gorgeous bay.
[EDIT: There's little in nature like a great calving Glacier. Imagine house sized chunks of ice shearing off a vertical cliff and smashing down into the water… it can be truly incredible]
Then Aitchoo Island. This was a Hydrographic Office - "H-O" and the Spanish pronunciation was Hay-Cho so the name Aitchoo stuck
The Wedding was to held in Paradise Bay with the Captain doing the marrying and some of the sailors dressed as Neptune and Mermaids. Quite an opportunity: going to a Wedding in Antarctica! It was great fun, with a nice party after and really nice Wedding Cake(s) which I really enjoyed, normally not being a fan of Marzipan.
Paradise bay was actually drab and dreary because of the overcast weather. It is considered by many to be the most picturesque bay in the Peninsula, and since Wilhamina Bay was so stunning, I can only conclude that the poor weather here today must have made all the difference.
Yesterday (the day this relates to) we also had an Asado (An Argentinian Barbecue, also called a Parilla, pronounced Par ee Ja). A parilla is the steakhouse type place where one has an Asado. Sitting on deck on a beautifully sunny bay, feasting on lovely fatty Chorizo, with pistachio and chocolate ice cream. Life is good!
Landing this afternoon was in fact at Useful Island, not Aitchoo.
Angry Skua (big bird) half attacked us.
Poem, Sara Vial, 1992:
I am the Albatross
that waits for you
At the end of the earth.
I am the forgotten soul
Of the dead sailors
Who crossed Cape Horn
from all the seas of the world
But they did not die in the furious waves
Today they fly on my
Wings to eternity
In the last trough of the
This was how dark it got in the middle of the night. So, not very!
POSITION: Deception Island
TEMPERATURE: Water Temperature Varied!
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Dry and Volcanic Steam
What did I do today? Oh the usual sort of things…. I took a swim in the Antarctic Sea, inside a flooded crater of a still active volcano - heated by underwater volcanic vents.
Later we were joined by two solitary, very lovely penguins, basking in the steaming shoreline of small volcanic rocks.
Our time here now is drawing to a close. A naturally very good one. We will have our last landing on Aitchoo Island (see previous day where I mistakenly said we had already landed there… we had not.
Tonight we will start again to go through the dreaded Drake Passage. The weather report says it will be ok - but even if it is like the time out, it's more than bothersome for little sensitive Kevin. We are going to see. Sense of perspective gained from the trip. Be positive, realise that living out your life based on other people's dogma - and by this I mean work - is a wrongful waste. I certainly hope that I can go back to Zürich and do things differently. We are going to see about that too [Edit: I went back with a broader sense of perspective and asked for some minor changes at work: in a matter of months I would be let go from that job, quite directly as a result of this!].
But that's for later. Now is for enjoying the moments, and this trip has had many amazing and unique moments.
What comes to mind as a first association is the feeling of Life in Antarctica, though it is a desolate place.
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Reasonable
WIND: Mostly Mild
Aitchoo Island yesterday marked our final landing. Bleakish light, like a final late day snowboarding run.
Elephant Seals, huge but apparently only half the size of some fully grown mature examples.
Then a walk across a frozen pond. More seals, a Weddell, and giant whale bones, HUGE Giant Snow Petrels (birds), nesting near by.
I very much had the feeling of life, like being parachuted into the middle of a very alive Island, a great finish to our landings, which have all been fascinating in their way.
Today the two French showed some pictures from their amazing cameras - the results were beyond beautiful. I suppose I will buy a DSLR myself perhaps? I have not been pleased with the quality of the camera that I brought on this trip.
According to the info I heard, each of their two biggest lenses cost $18,000 … that's each! They are fixed lens with 600mm. They keep themselves to themselves. He is an Air France Captain, she works in air traffic control.
Out on deck, I took a lot of pictures of the many birds that follow us over the Drake.
POSITION: Beagle Channel
TEMPERATURE: 5 Deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Good
Great to be here, back in the calm Beagle Channel.
Names and brief descriptions of some of our fellow crew members and expedition staff, recorded for posterity:
- Lym - Malaysian that was always taking pictures of his meals and saying "Is It?" at the end of most sentences. Often made us laugh.
- Mariana - Brazilian Doctor that we mistakenly called Eva for most of the trip. Oops!
- Helena and Lay Yin - very nice ladies from Los Angeles, who gave Ursula a reflexology lesson and ginger tea.
- Irene - Swiss gossip with good sense of humour who spoke English with a pronounced Irish accent after much time spent in Dublin.
- The French Couple with camera lenses as long as your arm. He an Air France Captain; she an air traffic controller (with a pale complexion to match).
- Hawky looking English Woman who complained about tipping in addition to generally complaining about other things, but was in the end just a bit prim and proper I think, and couldn’t overcome that.
- Shirley and Jane - very nice Asian American girls living in the Bay area of San Francisco.
- Pongpol - a now retired distinguished Thai Minister, and wildlife photographer, who filmed a great looking documentary for Thai TV while on board.
- Sue - rather mouthy Brit that sounded very Australian - formed a clique with Jens from Constance and two Canadians, Andrew the Australian and his sister.
- Guy - American who kept taking his clothes off in the snow, who had a fling with the Australian while on board.
- Kieran and his Indian friends and their medical graduate female friend (all nice people).
- Jorge, a very friendly and civilised, learned Argentinian, and his quieter friend. Lovely chaps.
- Sue, Steven, and an old wisened lady from China but who has lived in Sydney since 1959
The Expedition Leaders:
- Augustin (I found him hilarious), he got us all singing about the environment at one point, to the tune of O Sole Mio! Magical.
- Luciana (Tatooed, potentially has a soft spot for Augustin?)
- Valeria (Tango dancer)
- Pablo the Ornithologist
- Pablo’s mate, also called Pablo? A Drinker?
We are now sitting once again in the Beagle Channel, will anchor here shortly, and a pilot will navigate us back to Ushuaia after midnight. When waking up tomorrow, we will be back in port to disembark.
Spotted a school of dolphins guiding us in, jumping playfully off the bow.
POSITION: Praia do Forte, Brasil
TEMPERATURE: 32 deg C
WEATHER CONDITIONS: Blue Sky and Sunny
It is now 11 days since arriving back from Antarctica. Once again I must describe or at least allude to the romance of Ushuaia.
The whole last day there I felt it strongly. In the evening we went to the port to watch our boat leave for it's next trip, the "Christmas" Voyage. The final night before disembarking, the crew said how we were part of the family on the boat, and they had welcomed us into that….. I must say, in this case that felt and rang true.
Captain Osiroff, 20 years Navy Hydrographer, painter of the Argentine Navigation Beacon that we stood by on Useful Island.
Right now we find ourselves 5000 miles north in Brasil, and some memories are already fading. The last night in Ushuaia, we went for steak and wine at the Restaurant Estancia. That's the end of the good meat and wine on this trip as far as I am concerned!
Actually, even the fish here is not that good so far. But we have seen Sea Turtles, including some cute tiny ones in the Tamar Project here [a turtle sanctuary] and some fully grown ones in the Sea as well!
Crossing the Drake was an adventure and an achievement. One I'm also proud of and will never forget. Although I've done some great trips in my life, this is one of the few times that I felt compelled to keep a Journal of events, along with my trip to the Himalayas.
I hope that I have recorded a few moments that will rekindle memories and let me have Antarctic Dreams [indeed this was always the aim of this journal rather than for it to be for public consumption].
Finally, I also hope that I may one day soon sail there again, maybe even on board the M/V Ushuaia.