part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4
Day 4 to 8 - March 7-11: Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands
The South Shetland Islands are a haven for wildlife. Vast penguin rookeries, beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals and Southern elephant seals make every day spent in this amazing island group unforgettable. Sailing through the narrow passage into the flooded caldera of Deception Island is truly amazing.
King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, features colonies of nesting Adélie and Chinstrap Penguins, Kelp Gulls, Blue-eyed Cormorants, Antarctic Terns and Southern Giant Petrels and is home to scientific bases of many different countries. Macaroni, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins as well as elephant seals await you at Livingston Island.
The Antarctic Peninsula’s remarkable history will provide you with a type of excitement often only associated with the early explorers. You will have plenty of time to explore its amazing scenery, a pristine wilderness of snow, ice, mountains and waterways, and an incredible wide variety of wildlife. Apart from penguins and seabirds you are very likely to see Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals as well as Minke, killer (orca) and humpback whales at close range.
We hope to navigate some of the most beautiful waterways (depending on the ice conditions): the Gerlache Strait, the Neumayer Channel, and the Lemaire Channel, the latter are narrow passages between towering rock faces and spectacular glaciers.
We plan to make at least two landings per day and possible landing sites may include: Paradise Bay is perhaps the most aptly named place in the world and we attempt a landing on the continent proper. After negotiating the iceberg-strewn waters of the Antarctic Sound, we hope to visit the bustling Adélie Penguin (over 100,000 pairs breed here) and Blue-eyed Cormorant colonies on Paulet Island. The Nordenskjöld expedition built a stone survival hut here in 1903. Today its ruins have been taken over by nesting penguins.
Further exploration may take you to Melchior Island, Cuverville Island, Portal Point, Neko Harbour, Pléneau Island and if ice conditions permit, to Petermann Island for a visit to the southernmost colony of Gentoo Penguins.
Day 4 - March 7
we were greeted as always with "good morning, antarcticans" over the loudspeaker, & a tinny rendition of a bad nora jones song. i slept great last night, as we'd figured out how to not under- or over-use the room heater. i dressed in my silk underlayer & jeans - two fewer things to change for the excursions today - & my usual other boat gear: fleece jacket with my fitted down coat open over it, & chucks. the boat's generally comfortable, but that's still chilly for me. breakfast was at 7:15am, & was the same as usual. we were all excited for our 9am departure to the continent of antarctica at portal point.
it was snowing all morning but wasn't too bad. i dressed in the giant list of everything, plus added the poncho over the top, i could barely move, but i was warm & relatively dry. we disinfected our boots in the usual way, then boarded the snowy zodiacs. i saw some amazing bright blue icebergs on the way, & our zodiac driver said they're not actually blue - they're transparent - but they look blue. it's like how clouds don't actually exist - they're just an optical illusion. :) it was a short trip out to the rocky face of antarctica proper, where we easily climbed ashore. the plan was to trek around the area for an hour or so, then go on a zodiac cruise around the icebergs to see them close-up. there were trails already stomped in the snow by our guides, & we could go anywhere within those boundaries; to venture out farther might result in instant & bloody discovery of an antarctic crevasse.
with the snow, i didn't take as many photos, but i think i snagged plenty to document the experience. there were a few penguins around, but mostly fur seals screwing around with each other, & so very much ice. i walked off by myself down a pre-stomped trail that no one else was going down, & was rewarded with a good ten minutes of silent antarctic contemplation. there were no animals close to this area, only lovely white landscape... so i raised a handful of snow to my mouth & ate; it tasted like the most perfect pure snowcone made of tiny ice crystals. a german woman caught me & laughed, making "yummy in my tummy" hand gestures, so i grinned & replied, "ich bin antarctica!" :) when i was alone again, i wrote LISH in the snow (with my finger, not pee), & felt very important indeed.
i kept walking, & took some video of the ocean's movement, & then the fur seals cavorting. playing? fighting? it didn't matter. i was fewer than ten meters from them &, even with my lousy vision, could see all their little whiskers. they kept flattening themselves to the snow, one at a time - it was really cute.
i boarded the zodiac for the iceberg tour just as the snow started picking up. the flakes had gone from 2mm when we started to 10mm or more, but i was still warm & relatively dry. i repeatedly knocked the snow off the folds in my poncho & tried to keep my gloves dry-ish, knowing we'd have to gear up again at 3:30pm for the 4pm tour of foyn harbour. (yes, it took 20-30 minutes to load all that shit on. no wonder it was so exhausting.) slowing the zodiacs to nothing at each iceberg, i got to stare extensively at the amazing architecture of icebergs, & learned about the water lines on them. icebergs occasionally make a giant cracking sound & flip over. i likened that to ice cubes in a beverage, how you'll sometimes hear them shuffle around & flip, just on a MUCH bigger scale, & the guide laughed. our one-armed new zealand guy (who was managing his camera far better than i was - let's call him More Able Than Able) saw the end of one particular iceberg first, & asked which american president it was... when the rest of us got there, it did indeed look rushmore-like.
back on board, after decontamination procedures, i hung my wet gear in the bathroom & left the rest on my bed. the foyn tour had us split into two groups, & i was glad to be in the second one - i wouldn't want to be in the group that has to gear up again right after lunch. i hung out in the lounge & talked tattoos with the obnoxious american travel-mate of the cute guy who looks like ryan reynolds & matt damon had a baby, & then overfed that baby by 15% its entire life while successfully encouraging it to be an out & proud gay adult. Obnoxican had seven or eight tattoos, but none larger than a silver dollar, & spoke confidently & with a lot of misconceptions about the art. of course i nosed in & corrected her, which fortunately she seemed to take on board. i told her, Ryan Damon, More Able Than Able, & Bones (MATA's wife), about the Grammy Memorial Tattoo project, to a large round of "awwww"s & proclamations that they also hoped to still be traveling on their own when they're 92. a group of antarctic travelers was the perfect audience for that story.
lunch started with a truly delicious potato & oregano soup with a bit of cream on top - all eight at my table liked it, but i was the only one able to identify the bits in it as potato. (where were their palates that they couldn't identify a potato?!) the main was mussels & rice with huge rings of fried calamari on top. beckie bit into a ring & laughed, & said she thought they were onion rings. i asked her what she thought the mussels looked like. a short german woman sitting with us side-eyed me & said, "zey look like mussels," & we laughed at her "responsible adult" response. i ate my well-endowed mussels & thought of james. lastly, they served us a little white cake with whipped cream frosting & peaches between the layers.
the trip around foyn harbour was an hour long & pretty quiet. we took the zodiacs out around some iceburgs & identified their green striping as algae, saw an old rowboat that had been grounded since ~1915, did an engineless 360° float-by of a fat crabeater seal (they don't eat crabs, by the way) lazing on an iceburg, & floated around & touched an old whaler ship that had long since gone to rust, also from ~1915. on the way back, we all lurched suddenly forward as our zodiac propeller hit a huge rock - turned out that though the guide had navigated through there safely just an hour ago, the tide had since gone out & we could see the rock floor of the harbour just a couple feet below us. he let us know that tides in the antarctic could be a difference of two or three meters.
back inside, i dried the snow off my camera, hung aj's waterproof pants & my poncho in the bathroom (the shower curtain hooks were C-shaped, which made a perfect place to toss a belt loop), & set joe's gloves by the heater. the furry edge of down coat #2 & the facial edges of my modified hood+scarf thing were damp but would dry in an hour or so without fuss; everything else went into the dry pile i'd started keeping in the four inch space between the end of my bed & the closet. it was only our second day taking excursions, but my roommates & i are already finding efficiencies in our antarctic wardrobe. :)
i hung out in the lounge & wrote while most of the passengers drank wine & gossiped... until someone called "WHALES!" & we all went running to that side of the boat. i'm happy to note that the ship wasn't fazed at all by having the grand majority of its passengers rush to starboard. 9_9 we did indeed spot orcas, which some of the spanish-speaking passengers were calling "antarctic dolphins"... which, i suppose, is technically true.
we met for a mini lecture on seals - i hadn't realized the crabeater seals, one of which i saw close-up today, were the ones with the kickass teeth. we received a briefing for tomorrow, then headed gratefully to dinner. an acorn squash soup (which again i had to identify for the table) was followed by a particularly good take on a cottage pie - layers of mashed potato & beef with hardboiled egg, & a sweet tomato sauce on top. the food was definitely improving as the trip went on. i had to ask about dessert, though - i knew it had strawberry sauce on top but the best i could guess for the main pudding was maybe rosewater yogurt? i asked my favorite of the waitstaff (she & her friend had asked me a lot of questions about my dreads when i first came on board, & they may yet show up at my cabin to receive a nape dread each), & she told me it's a typical spanish dessert, crema catalana. she promised to get me the recipe so i could make it at home.
they played another movie in the lounge that night (shockingly, something on the antarctic), but i bailed to go to bed early - the ship's wake-up call was coming at 6:30am, but my room was planning to get up at 6 so we could get the best spots on the bridge to watch our scenic entry into lemaire channel.
music: modest mouse, "summer"
music: robert schumann, kinderszenen opus 15
Day 5 - March 8
my alarm sounded at six, & boy was it a lot easier to get up early when a) there were two other people jumping out of bed, & 2) i didn't have to go to work. i dressed in about two thirds of my layers to go up to the bridge. outside, surrounding the bridge, was the "warmest" area outside the ship, where there was a waist-high solid wall that stopped most of the wind. from here, my bunkmates & i watched as our boat went past the glorious scenery of lemaire channel, peppered with seals laying on iceburgs, & both seals & penguins hopping through the water. the sun rose oddly - as overcast as it was, i couldn't see much of it, but there was an orange glow on a small slice of the horizon, & that glow grew broader as the morning grew later. it was quiet & beautiful & i did my best to stay in the moment of "i am in antarctica".
eventually i went onto the silent bridge (no talking is permitted except amongst the staff, since this is where they kill us into icebergs or not) to find classical music playing - symphonies i'd come to associate, thanks to popular entertainment in the united states, with "comedy of errors" & "haunted transylvanian evening"; seemed appropriate. we finally spotted the round hump of petermann island, our first stop today where the last colony of adélie penguins were found, & breakfast was called. (the context of "last" colony was that the rest of the adélies had already migrated away from antarctica, breeding season over.)
breakfast had a couple new items today: scrambled eggs with ham (which i'm not sure wasn't spam, but was tasty nonetheless), & pancakes made from the same eggy batter that made the dulce de leche waffle snacks the other day. i put orange marmalade on mine & then thought to steal an argentine honey packet for joe (foreign honey is his jam, har har) to thank him for the gloves loan. (i hoped to pick up another present for him back in ushuaia, since the gloves were really perfect & i'd've been screwed without them... but i at least had something for him.)
during decontamination before our first landing of the day, the ship doctor (who usually took down our assigned numbers before & after the zodiac rides) told us it was international women's day. i took a moment to consider that i should be home pegging a cutie to celebrate. ^_^
the smell of petermann island hit us before the zodiacs slowed: though the first landing on barrientos island was fishy from the penguins, it was much stronger here. really, it reminded me of being in a good jewish deli & ordering whitefish & pickled herring. it wasn't as appealing as a deli would've been, but i breathed deeply to desensitize myself & was fine. i was just glad it was a dry day, unlike the one previous.
there were two main paths to take on the island - to the right were the four or five adélie penguins remaining, staying put until they finished molting in 20-30 days, & straight ahead was more scenic views. there were tons of gentoo penguins in each direction, & they gave us about three hours to explore. i opted right first, & went a much longer distance than i'd normally want to hike, all to get a look at a penguin whose only real distinguishing characteristic was a white ring around its eye. & i did it & it was awesome. i also saw some fur seals playing - they're sea lions, not true seals, which i can now differentiate thanks to last night's mini lecture.
back on the path straight uphill from the boat, i climbed slowly & was actually able to unzip down coat #2. i ran into Frauline Pixie & pointed at how there was a decent drop into rocks not too far from us. she laughed & said that if i jump down there, & i "will be well conserved" since everyone takes such good care of antarctica. i found this idea hilarious, picturing future visitors carefully stepping wide of my body so as not to disturb its place in nature.
the views at the top were pretty stunning, & i took a ton of photos. the sun was just coming out in spots, & the nearly windless -1°C day felt almost balmy. with over an hour left before the zodiacs came for us, i sat in the snow for a half hour & watched crabeater seals loafing on an iceberg. leaving the summit area, i was able to photograph a huge brown seabird, an antarctic skua, as it picked at something or other.
towards the original path decision point, i came upon a bunch of people looking & laughing at something - there was an iceberg that was set at about a 30° angle into the water, & an exceptionally determined crabeater seal kept leaping up on it only to immediately slide back down. he was even waiting patiently for swells in the water so he could get farther up, but the whole iceberg was at 30° & it was just hopeless. every time he did it, it got funnier & funnier. i tried to get a video, but my battery died just after recording some of the iceberg alone (i found out the "time remaining" bars become inaccurate when it's this cold out), so that'll be in the pics below & you can just imagine a fat seal trying harder & harder to leap further & further up onto it & each time sliding dejectedly back into the sea.
apparently an iceberg had split & collapsed an hour before we were supposed to leave, & the waves it caused were still plaguing our zodiac drivers when we went to leave. it was fine, though i would've liked to've seen the iceburg crashing into the water. i was told it made a pretty good sound, but i didn't recall hearing anything from where i was on the island. on the zodiac back to the ship, we passed a huge iceberg i would've liked to photograph - it was shaped like a lowercase "h" with a big open area under an ice bridge. around the far side, towards the ushuaia, was a double hole - one within the other - that looked like an eye & was deep blue in the overcast light. i was glad i'd photographed other examples of how blue the ice here looks, but that one was a stunner.
lunch was zucchini soup, lentil stew with a beef sausage & hard boiled egg, & my favorite dessert so far: pear tart with a soft bottom crust & a thin, hard layer of vanilla icing on top. yum. i sat with Ryan Damon, a nameless austrian dude i'd never seen before, & the most beautiful man on board, Barely Discernible Brogue, from scotland. we four had a delightfully rich conversation, talking a lot about culture & our travels, but without the annoying oneupmanship so common to those see their travels primarily as points of braggadocio instead of learning & growth.
we geared up again for the afternoon trip to the wordie house & vernadsky station. i was in the zodiac sent to wordie first, while everyone else went to the station first. wordie was "base F" of some UK operation that dealt with geology. basically it's an historic site & i didn't really care that much, though the bookshelf was pretty cool. vernadsky station was only vaguely interesting to me too - honestly, i'm not that interested in the human aspects of antarctica, though vernadsky was where the ozone layer hole was discovered, & that's awesome science. sasha, the ukrainian guy who gave us our tour, had an succinct way of explaining the effects of the ozone hole: "you go outside, then your skin turn nice & red. tomorrow, your skin all go away." heh.
the station boasted some neat extras:
1. the southernmost bar in the world. the bar had a bunch of bras hanging against one wall - we were informed last night (in a really hilarious panoply by agustín, wherein he described [& mimed] the unknowable magic that all women can perform by somehow taking off a bra while otherwise staying clothed) that giving them a bra would net you a free shot of homemade vodka. beckie didn't want to give a bra, & i wasn't going to throw away $60 on a beverage i won't even drink, but she had a neon pink lace thong that she figured they'd accept just as happily. indeed they did; when i made it to that part of the tour, i saw them hanging on the wall.
2. the southernmost post office in the world. i had written a postcard for someone the night before, purchased on the ship, knowing that we were coming to this & that we might not have time to write them while there. however, i'd given mine to wil to carry, as i didn't have a pocket that would fit it. she'd gone ahead of me in line, & i figured i'd follow - but nope, off i went to wordie house first. when i got to the post office, i got sasha to translate for me & they actually let me look through the stack to make sure wil had sent it for me, which was very nice of them & probably illegal. :) i was about an inch of postcards later to the post office than wil had been, heh. they say it'll take about two months to arrive!
3. the southernmost gift shop in the world. here i picked up a present for aj, who loaned me the waterproof pants - i know he likes patches, but i didn't like any of the fabric ones they had (& certainly not $20US worth!), but i bought him a plastic patch that i did like.
we had two other tasks at vernadsky station: first, to leave one of our passengers there. sergei was not coming back with us - he was staying for a month to do some kind of science. ¡vaya con dios, sergei! & second, the station was able to stamp all our passports for us. it wasn't a real customs stamp, per se, since we didn't go through any customs to get to antarctica... but it's a really neat souvenir nonetheless, & one i found very thoughtful.
back on the zodiac, i was sitting across from a muscular german lady who had been using arm crutches on the entire tour. her crutches had been modified to have a flip-down set of spikes for walking in the snow. her comment as she boarded the zodiac: "oh! i must remember to make these less sharp, or we won't have enough air." i told her she's awesome, & she laughed.
at 7pm came our daily mini lecture, on the ozone layer this time (nearly all of which i remembered from high school, but the antarctic relevance was interesting), then the day's recap & prep for tomorrow. we were also told about a tiny port (size matters - wait for it) that we wouldn't be stopping at, but was right nearby petermann island: port circumcision. (that's not an autocorrect error!) it was so named because it was discovered on the day of jesus's circumcision. someday i hope to have a landmark named after my junk. *nods*
dinner was french onion soup, then a fettuccine alfredo with ham (which i was wary of at first, but turned out quite good once i pushed most of the sauce to the side - i kind of ate it upside down), & a cube of some kind of nice gelatin/mousse thing for dessert. i sat with Robin Williams's Smile, from new zealand, & two super crazy melbourne aussies, Horsey Beard & his wife Full Laugh. they're nearly married forty years, & they're both perfect for each other & were hilarious to be around. i haven't laughed so loudly at a dinner since well before i left for this trip. they were just my sort of people - shit givers. i loved it. :D
Day 6 - March 9
the wake-up call (featuring music from "indiana jones") came at 7:45 - luxuriously late. i half-dressed in my gear for a quick breakfast (including scrambled eggs with diced red peppers, perfectly ripe honeydew, plus peach marmalade for my croissant), since my group was in the first of two parties today for a zodiac cruise of pléneau bay, also known as "icebergs alley". i was happy to be in the second group last time, & happy to be in the first one this time - i liked to space out my gear-ups as much as possible since they were so tiring & i'm only little.
the iceberg tour was pretty great - i photographed a ton of giant blocks of ice, plus crabeater seals (which in a german accent always sounds like "crapeater") & i caught some penguins hopping past our boat. due to bad boat positioning, i missed the shot of the petrels walking on the water to eat from the surface, but they were still awesome to watch. our driver said they're known as "jesus birds". later, he pulled a small iceberg into the boat & we all touched it.
back on the ship, i camped a heater in the lounge & wrote while waiting for the second group to return. the weather was so mild (only -2°C) & windless that they brushed off the big barbecue grill & promised us proper argentine asada for lunch. they had beef, chicken, & two types of sausage, including blood sausage. the servers ran around to the tables with giant plates full of barbecue, offering "seal or penguin" (beef or chicken) or sausages. oddly, the guy who gave me a blood sausage seemed very hesitant to do so, & didn't even want to admit they were blood sausages. COMERÉ TU SANGRE, MOTHERFUCKER. when he came by later & saw i'd finished most of it, he was clearly pleased. they served a simple peaches & cream to finish, & that cream was like if ice cream were turned into whipped cream & i could've eaten a soup bowl of it.
at 3pm, we went off to port charcot & the gentoo penguins of booth island. it was snowing moderately, & i had my big blue poncho on, which everyone said made me look like a blue penguin. i was fine with that - everyone looked ridiculous in some way. :) on the zodiac, i always sat with my back facing our destination, so my only exposed skin (half my face) would stay warm. despite not watching, i found that i could tell when we were close to land by smell - each island had a not-unpleasant fishy scent. on land, we were told we could go uphill to a scenic lookout point, or to the right to a hut where they used to study magnetic radiation.
i opted for up, though i wasn't sure i'd bother going all the way since the fog was rolling in in earnest. as i topped the first tiny peak, ten meters or so from the shore, i saw one of the biologists standing in front of a group of people, with her back to them. she told me & the couple of folks who'd left my boat with me to stop, wait there. as i turned to see what she was looking at, i found i was only six meters from a very aggrieved-looking fur seal. the biologist was waving her arms around & making herself look big, as we'd been taught to do. a couple people behind her did the same. i raised my arms to help, & the sea lion snapped his head towards me like i'd surprised him. instead of being scared by this, he started booking full-out towards me. so i did what we were taught to do next: i spun & ran. pablo, one of the zodiac drivers & a pretty beefy guy, was nearby, so i put him between myself & the beast. he grabbed a couple of fist-sized rocks & started slamming them together over his head. the fur seal stopped about three meters from us & stared at us, mouth gaping, nervousness in his eyes. a bit more noise later &, thankfully, the seal wandered off. WELL THAT WAS FUN.
the drama over, i wandered about halfway up the hill before the climb became too taxing to make it worth how pretty the increasingly gray & overcast lookout point could possibly be. i sat my butt in the snow & just enjoyed the penguin-punctuated silence & snow & the magic of not being cold & the fact that i was sitting on an island in motherfucking antarctica. i probably stayed there a half hour, just watching the day get grayer & seeing the gentoos cavort, until i was spotted by agustín. he came running over, yelling "LEEESH!" in his argentine accent, & tackled me into the snow. ridiculous man. we made snow angels together for the absurdity of it, then i slid down the hill on my butt to get back to the path.
i made a minimum effort at heading towards the magnetic hut, but bailed before even getting a glimpse. (vernadsky had one too, stark white, which i did get a look at.) i was on the first zodiac back to the ship, all tuckered out for one day.
the night's mini lecture was on whales, & i harkened right back to fifth grade where we'd spent like half a year on the stupid things. (i have no special love for whales.) we received the briefing for the next day, as always - our next to last in antarctica. aww! dinner was lentil soup followed by a phenomenal piece of salmon with this lemon butter sauce that kind of made my head explode, served with slices of roma tomato that tasted like they were grown in someone's backyard. the dessert was fruit salad with a scoop of ice cream - the kitchen staff could only say the ice cream was "sweet candy" flavor, but it had caramel & coffee notes & was beautiful. Robin Williams's Smile joined me again & pretty much convinced me to visit fiji in the near future; The Silence also sat with us, but as he knew only about two words of english, no spanish, & no german, he didn't try to communicate much.
they were playing a movie up in the lounge, "fret not", which was filmed on the ushuaia! i expected it to be mediocre (an expectation later confirmed correct) but thought it'd be more fun to watch with friends & incessantly note that i was there, so i skipped & watched my own movie in my room as we headed back out through lemaire channel & to the gerlache strait overnight on smooth seas.