Happy New Year!
We decided to take a little break from overlanding and headed to Antarctica for Christmas. It was truly an incredible trip! A lot different than last year in Tucson among the cactus. I look back on the year and feel like we packed a lot in. It took us from Arizona all the way through Central America to Panama including a couple of countries that we never visited on our boat like Costa Rica & Nicaragua. A week of diving on Utila and then a little later, another one in Curacao while the truck was being shipped to Buenos Aires. It’s fun to keep scuba in our routine. A trip back to Florida & Vermont to see our loved ones and then continued our travel through a bit of Brazil and Chile and a bunch in Argentina. South America has been so much fun so far and we appreciate the beauty & more remote spaces here.
Being in Ushuaia already, it wasn’t going to get any easier for us & Ivan to make a trip to Antarctica. It felt like everyone we knew was going or had already been. We did a “classic cruise” to the Antarctic Peninsula of 11 days on a 195 passenger ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Built in 1982 in Poland, it originally carried cargo & vehicles and then was converted to a polar expedition ship years ago and it spends summer at either pole. The ship is rugged & strong. Cruise ships not being our thing, we weren’t sure what to expect but were told this one was very focused on getting off the ship as much as possible with a nice onboard experience so we went for it. And now that we’ve completed the journey, we would say it delivered all that it promised and more and we had such a fantastic time. I’ll include the blow by blow since otherwise I’ll forget what we did.
It all began with a night at the Wyndam in Ushuaia which we didn’t need but for everyone else who was flying in to Buenos Aires, a storm had just done a lot of damage there and it was barely enough buffer to get to the ship on time. We were glad to not have that stress and to have our homes with us. It would prove even more valuable at the end of the voyage. We stayed in the hotel room overnight and wished we’d just slept in the truck. It’s a lot nicer! But it was very close to a hike we wanted to do to a glacier the morning of departure day so it was beneficial for that.
The booking agent maintains a nice parking lot for guests so we were able to park our trucks there and then walk down to the waterfront to board the ship the next afternoon. That evening, we set sail so to speak down the Beagle Channel for the 2 1/2 day passage, passing by a couple of the places we’d camped and hiked days before. Our room had a porthole which was nice to look out of and added near 24 hour light to the room. I forgot to get a pic of it. We quickly got to know all of the decks on the ship. Incredible views from up there. By midnight, we’d be out past Cape Horn crossing the Drake Channel. The forecast was generally light and there was only going to be maybe a day of rougher seas.
The most common way to get to Antarctica as a regular person is by ship and if leaving from Ushuaia, making the Drake Channel crossing. It brought back a lot of memories for us of course and all of the pros of being on our own boat doing for ourselves whenever and whatever we wanted. There is something about our independence that we value more than anything. The thing is though, we can’t sail there on our own unless we got in to boating again and I’m not sure I even want to. So we kept this in mind as we were being waited on hand & foot and enjoyed this temporary experience. The expedition staff were talented beyond expectations and kept us busy over the whole trip including the crossing. They were such interesting people. There was a lot of info to cover for organization & explanation for how the touring days would go. We were issued foul weather gear & boots on loan, hats, buffs and a Kathmandu puffer (we loved that brand from NZ) to keep, a lifejacket and a locker to keep it all in. We had lectures on Antarctic wildlife & geology and prior expedition summaries from the guides which were really inspiring. The food was unbelievable in volume, really well presented and good. It is a human conundrum to have such a huge spread of food available nearly nonstop and try not to overdo to maintain your health and waistline. We used the exercise bikes and walked the decks frequently. The ship has an open bridge policy so we would go up often crossing the teak grates, sliding the varnished door into the cool blue ceiling quietness of the room with a great view. We got to know one of the able body seawomen Calina from Bulgaria who’s been on ships for over 20 years. For her and all of the 120 ancillary staff that make the ship and hotel work so smoothly, it is a hard job with a lot of hours and little free time. They hailed from Ukraine, Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia, Columbia and many other faraway places. When we asked Calina about how much fuel a trip like this would take, she casually said “about 6 or 7 truckloads”. Haha that’s a bunch of fuel!
“The Drake Lake” as they call it turned into a Drake Shake for just a little bit but nothing bad. None of us three had any problems with seasickness with small doses of meclizine. Trays of dishes were falling off counters, mugs were toppling over, the motion sickness bags were tucked in to various corners and some people took to their beds. But the funniest thing was watching everyone who was up & about all moving through the ship as it heaved and swayed. Everything goes on as normal except you just look like you’re totally plowed and make shaky wide turns. Comical. I love the 24 hour daylight and kept getting up in the night to look out the porthole.
On the second morning, I woke up to finally see a silver world of icebergs glowing under a beautiful gray sky at just south of 65 degrees south and the roll had stopped. We’d made great time and got further south than planned and….. we were in Antarctica!! We had arrived to Peterman Island and after breakfast we were ready to start exploring. It’s funny arriving to somewhere where you don’t have to check in to the country- because nobody owns Antarctica! Since we signed up for a half day of kayaking we would be going that morning rather than making a landing on the island (boohoo) but you have to swap one for the other. We were called first and got geared up to go. The clouds cleared off and we had a beautiful morning of paddling looking at birds, penguins, seals and ice bergs. Some ice bergs remind me of elaborate parade floats. They come in all shapes & sizes, different shades of blue & white depending on their density and often have wildlife sitting on them. It felt great to be out among them and it isn’t cold here, temps steady around 30 degrees most of the time.
Over lunch, the ship relocated to Pleneau Island and we took a zodiac ride for the afternoon. There are three main types of penguins down here and we started out seeing the Gentoo and the Adelie types followed by my favorite, the Chinstraps on other days. They are all nesting now and you can sometimes see the egg. They each have their own voices and their own preferences for nest sites, the chinstraps can really hop well and we loved seeing the “penguin highways” going way up the hillsides. Since they are mainly eating krill and they crap all over, some areas are stained pink but thankfully they clean themselves up in the water when they go to eat.
Did you know that Emperor penguin colonies (which we didn’t see because they live further south) can be identified from space by all the discolorization from crap on the snow?
We also signed up for camping on the snow and this first night, the winter solstice, was the night they chose to do it. They give you a bivvy sack, sleep pad and a warm sleeping bag and after dinner, they bring you out to a spot on the snow covered island to (not) sleep for the night. Right when we got there, there was a Weddell seal hauled out on the snow near our campsite and it was “singing”. Weddell seals are known for the crazy sounds they make like a radio being tuned, various gurgles and grunts, it’s really cool to listen to and watch and it’s not common that you get to hear them do it. We also witnessed a marriage proposal. Cute. Not exactly the same feel when you have to slip into your individual mummy bags afterward! But unforgettable still I’m sure. I’m partial to the mountaintop blueberry patch where Jon & I got engaged though. I loved hearing the penguins calling all night and the glaciers cracking like thunder. We had perfect weather- it was dead calm, the landscape was beautiful and then in the wee hours a gentle snowfall began. It’s a little hard to stay up as late as you’d want because it gets cold being on the snow and you want to get into your bag to get warm. It was nice to experience it and the fact that we had to get going early the next morning so that the ship could move was OK because we were feeling cold by that point and we hadn’t slept much and hey, another massive brekkie was waiting! We didn’t mind hopping into bed that next night either! By the way did I mention there were 60 people camped out on the ice that night? Much quieter than a hiking hut though.
So we started out day 2 a little tired but over breakfast we’d moved to the Winter Islands. There’s a Ukrainian research station there formerly owned by the British, sold to Ukraine for a pound. It was picturesque and colorful. There was too much ice for the landing site originally planned so we had a zodiac ride around instead which included a lot of beautiful cliffside penguin colonies and seals sleeping on the “fast ice”. These are stretches of flat ice that are held fast to land still and seals like to lay on them. The avian bird flu has reached Antarctica. In order to not hurt the penguins & seals we had to be really careful to wash our boots after each landing in a solution on board the ship. We also weren’t permitted to sit down or even crouch down to say, take a photo while on shore except for the camping night due to rules around avian flu. I learned that about 15 years ago you could not only lay on the snow but you could have baby penguins walk up onto your chest. Things have changed for sure and Antarctica is not as remote as it once was.
That afternoon, the ship took a cruise through the Lemaire Channel. Famous for its dramatic mountain scenery, penguins on ice bergs, bright blue glaciers and whales. The skies had turned clearer and blue and it was just amazing to be out on deck taking it all in. We just kept going from one side of the ship to another mesmerized by the backdrop. Then they parked the ship in a little cove and we put our robes on and got ready to do a polar plunge. Anyone who wants to do it goes down the gangway and jumps into the near freezing temp water for a few seconds on a tether in case you cramp up and can’t get back to the ladder on your own! Follow it up with a shot of vodka and you’ve now graduated. Well, we can all say it was a whole lot colder than the Arctic! And I’ve swam in some really cold stuff before. I think I finally met my match.
Day 3 was Christmas Eve and we moved to Neko Harbor. We went out in the zodiacs for the morning scouting for wildlife and just enjoying being out. We found the expedition guides to be really interesting and down to earth and we learned a lot about Antarctic life. On this zodiac trip, we headed up the harbor to flat calm water and watched humpbacks sleeping at the surface- they call it “logging”. Hadn’t witnessed that before. Its very peaceful to just sit and watch them sleep and hear their frequent blows.
In the afternoon, we traversed another beautiful channel under blue skies to Useful Island and we got to go ashore for a walk around and took another zodiac ride. This time we were watching chinstrap penguins. I love their rocky nests and how they gently place the rocks they’ve stolen from other nests into their own to reinforce it. It’s also really fun to just observe them walking around, walking right by you on their “penguin highway”, hopping over your path. There’s so much to photograph its overwhelming. And it’s very frustrating to not have a really good camera to capture it. We need to change that. The weather was absolutely beautiful and really great for photos. This penguin colony was right next to a skua bird colony. So the skuas like to steal the eggs from the nesting penguins. And they have all the time in the world to just keep trying until they grab one. We witnessed this and I felt so sad. The penguin couple is so dedicated to incubating these eggs and they really have no defense to block a bird from destroying all of their efforts.
That evening, the ship started moving again after all of the zodiacs had been hoisted up, we were all gathered in the lounge getting ready to have the daily recap done by the expedition leader. Then word came that orcas had been spotted off the bow. We were encouraged to get out on the decks to see them because they aren’t spotted that often. Well it turned out there was a huge pod of them and they were all around the ship. It was awesome. After a while, the sad and at the same time cool part was everyone realized that the orcas were hunting a humpback. We went up to the bridge for a bit to watch from there and the captain was at the wheel. I heard him saying he hoped it would use our ship for protection to take a break. It is such a mix of emotions because its fantastic to see so many orcas everywhere but then you are watching a whale which you really love seeing too, fight for its life right before your eyes. They were surrounding it, making it take repetitive dives, tiring it out, laying on its blowhole and you could tell it was getting weaker by the awkward splashing of its tail and the shallow dives at odd angles. It wouldn’t end well. After a while, we decided to let nature do it’s thing and we all went back inside to have a great dinner. Everything needs to eat. The ship had a varied library of books on Antarctica and I read a few. One of them had a quote from someone that says “Antarctica: First you fall in love with it and then it breaks your heart.”
But what a fantastic day. Orcas have been on our list for many years and to see not one but too many to count, well that is special.
On Christmas day, we did 2 awesome shore landings, the first on the mainland of the peninsula, Portal Point. The staff flag out snow routes that you can follow to walk up to high viewpoints often around penguin colonies. It was lightly snowing which felt so appropriate for the day and the ice bergs seemed to glow. After another big lunch, and a couple hour sail, we landed at Two Hummock Island. It has dramatic glaciers, and high viewpoints too but the real surprise was just offshore. There were about 50 humpbacks feeding. We took a zodiac ride and focused on about 6 of them in our little spot. They were bubble net feeding right next to us and coming up with their mouths wide open scooping krill. Unbelievable. Just one tail after another and then all the heads coming up. The light was so pretty, the backdrop of snow and ice and then these tails, what a sight. Our pics are crap but the memories are good. During the relatively short period of whaling in Antarctica, they estimate nearly 1.5 million whales were killed, the blue whale nearly to extinction.
Then it was time to head out back across the Drake Channel except this time the weather was going to be rough. They closed the outside decks, came into our room and closed our porthole (boohoo) and put away all the stemware. Well, we know how to bide our time in rough seas. It’s the price of a trip down here. And we just don’t feel the motion with a little bit of meclizine. It always amazed me what we could do underway and this remains the same. We had a nice 4 course dinner again and then funny entertainment & live music from the staff and passengers, mulled wine and a really good vibe. They even played CCR’s Bad Moon Rising song about the upcoming Drake Shake that we would have. If you know the lyrics it’s really funny. What a great day.
The seas built to 8 meters, we had 50 kt winds for a period and the ship was swaying but handled it really well. Some people we didn’t see for a couple of days. Others were eating dry toast or staring off into space in chairs by the window. We worked out, went to lectures, stepped outside to watch the waves, ate of course and hung out. The ship is short a bunch more dishes and mugs. It sort of cracks me up how the staff doesn’t even bat an eyelash to all that sliding around of dishes and people including themselves- its just a normal part of life crossing the Drake.
But I guess it was pretty stormy in Ushuaia too. The expedition leader started telling us about how the port was closed for a while, the catamarans that shuttle passengers off ships at anchor were grounded due to winds and a couple of ships went out into the Drake and turned around. And that we were going to be affected by all of that upon arrival. But since we left with a forecast for 5 meter seas and were already underway, we just continued. We are SO GLAD out trip wasn’t interrupted because I was worried about that. On our last night, the Captain spoke to us again for another champagne toast and he also had his chef come in and read a list of the totals of the food & resources the ship consumes on a cruise like this. Huge numbers! Then another fun open mic evening. That night, noboby slept well because we were sliding around in our beds. But hey, no night watch! Yay!
As expected, when we got to Ushuaia, we couldn’t disembark because everything was still backed up, the catamarans not running and it was too windy to pull into the dock space. The captain made a couple of attempts but couldn’t approach the dock before falling off because of the sidewinds. So instead of getting off the ship in the morning, we had to wait until 10pm. The staff gave more lectures. We worked out, we had 3 more meals- we even ate the welcome dinner that was prepared for the next round of passengers! Jon was remarking that isn’t it ironic that even though we aren’t on our boat anymore we were once again looking to shore wishing to be on it while all of the new passengers were looking out to the ship wishing they were on it!
Our much anticipated Antarctic adventure is now complete. We had a fantastic experience. The icy scenery that goes on forever, the wildlife and special encounters with orcas and whales, iconic views, the talented staff who are also just really fun people, the things we did together in the zodiacs and on shore. That landscape was all new and fun. Of course you come back all excited and think of what you would do differently the next time because I believe there will be a next time. I wish the trip could have less eating and more outside doing! Who needs 3 square meals a day when you could be out longer seeing what’s behind the next iceberg? Eating really cuts into the day and you can do it when you get home! Each session of doing stuff lasted about 2 1/2-3 hours, morning and afternoon which was great but could be longer for me! And now that we know we like Antarctica, we would try to stay longer. Maybe even a smaller boat? I’ve been told it doesn’t change the routine much. Not sure what the balance is. For now, we’ll enjoy the memories.
After a day of chores with Ivan and a museum in Ushuaia, we are back to our normal overlanding life, parked side by side. One thing about being on the ship is the engine never stops. Never. So now we have that silence once again and the birds wake us up in the morning. It’s time to start hiking again. And go hungry for a bit until our bodies realize the food fest is OVER!