Weeks 39 to 40 - Antartica 2006

Ushuaia Travel Blog

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Day 1 The Drake Lake. The calmest the crew had ever seen

Pre-Antartica Trip Trauma - Did we miss the boat?


A week before we were due to start our trip to Antartica we realised that we had still not heard from GAP (who we were going to be travelling with) as to whether all of our warm ski gear, that my Mum kindly sent to their office back in August, had arrived or otherwise.  Finally, we managed to get hold of the local office in Ushuaia (where the trip was to set sail from), the day before we arrived. They took the postal details and checked at customs for us.  We arrived at the GAP office the next day only to be told that it was not stuck in customs. Damn!  But the agent offered to take us to the post office the very next morning (we were departing in the afternoon) to see if they had it.  He also informed us that the local payment we had to make on board the ship HAD to be in US dollars. We only had Argentinian Pesos - double damn!  Even so, we had until 3:30pm on the day of departure (i.

First landing in Antartica. Didn´t know they had banks here...
e the following day) to sort it out - no worries (we hoped).


As promised, we arrived at the post office, handed over the details, they checked on the computer and , with great surprise and relief to ourselves, declared that, "YES", they had all our ski clothes.  Wicked, wicked, wicked!  The post master went to look for the parcel, but ominously was taking quite a while.  We were thinking that it must have been buried under a pile of boxes, hence the delay.  Next thing, the general manager of the post office came over to us with a book, a log of all parcels that have arrived at the post office, proving that they had indeed received our package two months ago - hurray!.  However, they only keep the parcels for two months and as it was not collected within that time frame, it had been shipped back to the UK ... two days before we arrived - NOOOOOOO!!!  It was absolute sod´s law.

Our first Antartic sunset (with iceburg)
  Language barriers prevented us from understanding why it had just stayed at the post office and was never shipped to the GAP office as addressed, but at least we had not lost all our ski gear. We just did not have anything warm for the Antartic - triple damn, damn, damn!


With only 4 hours before our ship was due to set sail, we set off on a marathon shopping spree around the shops and clothes hire companies of Ushuaia to find warm socks, gloves, hats, scarves, waterproof and windproof trousers, jackets and wellie boots. Oh, and hoped the bank could change a small fortune of Argentinian Pesos for US Dollars - it was absolutely manic! Fifteen minutes before we had to be at the port we were still in the hire shop having to make do with the only salapettes they had left.  Mine did not look very waterproof and James´ were too tight, but at this late stage we did not have much choice.  As James went to pay, we wer advised that they did not accept credit cards for the cost of hire or the extortionate deposit they required for the salapettes and wellie boots.  To compound matters James´ bank card (mine was stolen with the wallet in Mendoza) would not let us take anymore cash out as we had reached our limit the previous day (we were still within 24 hours of the previous transaction) - damn, damn, damn, damn (again)!  We had to get these waterproofs and wellies or we were going to be very, very wet in the Antartic.

Our first iceburg. It was huge, and they just got bigger!
  We prayed James' credit card would let us take cash out and with a mere 10 minutes to spare he went bombing around the banks. On the stroke of 15:30, James returned. We were now due at the port. He was very red faced but had the cash - hurray!!  We paid and ran for our lives down to the port.  We were completely and utterly stressed out. We had not eaten since 8am (it was now 15:35), which is never good news for me and there was the possibility that we may have missed our coach to the ship. Oh god, oh god!


Well, you will be pleased to know the coach was waiting for us, despite our lateness, and we clambered onto the bus with all of our bags, sweating, but very, very happy!


Our Antartica Trip - Yes we made the boat!


So we made the boat and set sail very happy with about 100 other people.

The amazing day! Just come a little closer pingu....
  James and I have been trying to decide how best to ´blog´ our time in Antartica.  It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most amazing thing we have done over the last nine months.  The problem is, it was soo good we just do not think that written words do it justice, you cannot see our faces to really understand how amazing it was.


So we have decided to do two things.  The first is to add the ship´s log to this blog so that you can see the detail of the things we did, the places and animals we saw.  However, it just does not show how we felt.  So the first part is from a day in my journal, which we have to point out, was the most fantastic day of the trip.  I had written it at the end of the day, when I was ´high´ on excitement.  So hopefully, this may give you an idea of how good it was.


Pam´s Journal


Sunday 26th November 2006

Day 4 • Antartica


"Having slept through the 3am (sunrise) wake up call I wondered if I may have missed the highlight of the day.

The amazing Day! How many Adelie penguins?!?
  I couldn´t have been more wrong.  In fact I´m not even sure I can put into words how unbelievably amazing, spectacular, fantastic and totally surreal today has actually been.  We went on deck this morning before breakfast to find a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, surrounded by snowy mountains to the left and Paulet Island to the right.  This island was our first, and potentially only landing of the day (weather dependant).  We zodiac´d across the crystal waters to find the island full of Adelie penguins all laying on their eggs.  James and I literally sat on the rocks for about an hour and a half just watching them.  It was superb to see the Mothers turning their eggs and sitting back on them, the Dads would keep collecting small rocks and put them on the nest to help keep the egg warm, and just generally observing them.  We did have an alteria motive for sitting so still - to get them close enough to us for great photos.  And they did not disappoint.  We can´t go nearer than 5 metres to them, but if they come closer to us, then that´s ok!  They literally came within touching distance before hopping off quite quickly.
The amazing day! Our little red ship has broken through the sea ice
  The other hilarious thing was watching them jump in and out of the water.  They seem to create a big gang at the waters edge, then they all start squawking really, really loudly before half of them jump in and the other half stay on the shore - its the funniest thing ever!  Before we left the island I got within 2 metres of a Weddell seal basking in the sun.  An amazing start to the day.


After lunch we were told that because the weather was still excellent and the ice was good (whatever that meant) we were going to head further south than we hoped with the intention of finding Emperor penguins.  Now the likelihood of this was slim to none but there´ll be plenty of icebergs on the way and boy, they were right.  We were literally sailing through a sea of sailing icebergs and flat ice, some of which had penguins on, which was ace.  The icebergs were enormous, some were up to four miles long.  I can´t actually put into words how beautiful it was, so I will just keep the picture in my mind.


Then just as things couldn´t get more amazing someone spotted an Emperor penguin on its own on the sea ice.

The amazing day! Need we write more.....
  The boat steered towards it but it was too far for me to really see it.  Before we could get close enough for a good view it jumps into the water, unsurprisingly, to get away from this enormous red boat coming towards it.  So I could say I had seen an Emperor penguin, but I hadn´t actually seen it.


But if things couldn´t get anymore perfect, within ten minutes another one was spotted and this one not only let our boat get right next to the sea ice it actually walked right over to the boat to check us out.  By this point, the battery on the video camera had died, but it was amazing to watch him and remember.  These penguins are huge.  Normal ones are just under knee high.  The Emperor is waist high - huge and soooooo beautiful.


Eventually, he gets bored of us and hops into the water.

The amazing day! "I´m on the FROZEN ANTARTIC SEA - woohoo, oops, must jump!"
  At this point the boat has started to break through the ice to move forward, which is an amazing sight in itself to see all the ice cracking like an earthquake right in front of your eyes, as the boat motors on.


So believe it or not, ten minutes after the last sighting, there´s another Emperor.  So the penguin that we will have almost no chance of finding, we see three - unbelievable!!!!


We continue sailing past the icebergs and breaking up the ice until we come head to head with what I can only describe as an ice desert.  There was literally miles and miles of frozen sea until a very distant, snowy mountain landscape.  So what does our captain do at this sight - charges the boat right into it until its too thick for our little red boat.

The amazing day! A desert of ice as far as we could see.
  It was soooo fantastically amazing to watch.  While were ´stranded´ we watch the seals and penguins on the ice and someone spots ANOTHER Emperor, but way, way, way off in the distance.


Next thing Aaron, our team leader, announces over the intercom that they are going to test the ice to see if it is safe for us to go on it.  WHAT! (amazing WHAT! not, are you kidding WHAT!).  So we wait with baited breath watching them batter the ice.  I am failing miserably not to get too excited, as we´d had a gazilllion disasters getting here and it´s all been tooo perfect since.  So we wait and watch.  Until we are told "yes" its all go, go, go! Arghhhhh!!!! (within the safety guidelines of course).  I´m almost wetting myself with excitement as we are about to go onto the FROZEN ANTARTIC SEA - how amazing!


Now people may say I´m being over excited, at the end of the its just ice, like being on a lake.

The amazing day! The Emporer penguin slowly waddles over to check us out. Just gorgeous.
  But imagine this, you step on the ice, turn around and behind you is an enormous red and white ship set a against a deep blue sky but is completely surrounded by ice, I mean completely, by nothing but ice.  Then you look ahead and its ice and snow for miles and miles (apart from obviously the entire boat party aswell).  So as you can appreciate, it was a very special part of our day.


And then, I can´t believe there could actually be anything more amazing to happen in one day, the Emperor penguin that was way, way off in the distance had now started walking towards us, and he just kept coming and coming until he is literally a few metres from the crowd.  I´ve convinced he stopped to pose for photos as he slowly waddled and paused along the length of the throng.  I moved, so I could get a better video shot, when he literally turned through a gap in the crowd towards me.  He got within centimeters of me before he side stepped around me, and gosh was he a beautiful sight to see up close.  All shimmery and sleek.  Just simple Chanel black and white with a flash or orange on his head.  I was completely gob smacked.  He then waddled on his merry way again.

The amazing day! See told you he was huge!


Then, and again I can´t believe I´m adding to this, three smaller penguins came sprinting over to us, it was hilarious.  They seemed so excited to see us.  They ran around us for a while before running off again - brilliant.  Sadly, we had to go back on board for dinner but not before we watched the captain crush lots of ice in a 3 point turn (James says 300 point turn) - very impressive, whilst watching the penguins running for their lives as our ship cracked their ice floats so our ship could get out to sea again (very funny, they all survived!)


I´m sure I´ve not properly done justice to the day we´ve just had.  It was so amazing it doesn´t feel real and I´m sure the remainder of the journey won´t be able to match today, but for me today was the highlight of our nine months of travelling.

The amazing day! 3 Adelie penguins come rushing over to check us out after the Emporer left.


Must go as James wants a neck massage.

p.s. according to our bird expert on board, in the 13 years she´s been coming to Antartica she has never seen an Emperor penguin approach people so closely.  We are very privileged indeed!"


So that was my journal entry for the day.  I´m still not convinced it did the Antartic justice, but hey, ho!


The next part is the ship´s log (as written by Anna Sutcliffe, the onboard ornithologist) which is a daily account of what we did, what we encountered and what we experienced, if you would like more details.

The amazing day! One Adelie close up.
  If you don´t have the time or the inclination, just scroll down to the last paragraph, aptly entitled ´The Grand Finale´.


Ship´s Log


Day 1 - Thursday, 23rd November - Departing from Ushuaia


“ Channel about 1 1/2 miles wide, hills on both sides above 2000 ft high….scenery very retired…any glaciers, uninhabited, beryl blue, most beautiful contrasted with snow….

Blue Ice!

Charles Darwin


All aboard for 16:00 hours and the holiday was beginning, eighty seven passengers all converging on Ushuaia from 21 nationalities. This is the gateway to Antarctica and by stepping on board the smartest and reddest ship on the jetty everyone was part the way to their Antarctic dream. All the luggage had arrived earlier and were already positioned in the cabins, fresh made sandwiches and orange juice was on hand to sooth weary travellers who in orderly fashion checked in and handed over their passports for the duration of the trip. Now officially on board, cabins were checked, bags counted, some started unpacking and others explored the ship in energetic groups - finding the lecture theatre, the coffee urn and hot water, the biscuits, Reception with the displays of information relevant to the first part of out Drake Passage - the whole of the ship from inside to the outside explored.

Another Zodiak landing - all aboard!
Before long Aaron Russ, our Expedition Leader introduced us to life onboard the ship and the Expedition Team: assistant expedition leader Sarah McElrea, shopkeeper Chris Srigley, naturalist Adam  Walleyn, zodiac specialist Oscar Westman, and the lecturers, Lance Morrissey for geology, Bill Merrilees for marine biology, David Saunders for history and Anna Sutcliffe on the birds.


As promptly as this briefing finished the ship started to leave the dock so all of us rushed on top decks to witness this momentous event. Our Explorer crew cast off the mooring ropes and loosed our last ties to Tierra Firma for our holiday to Antarctica. There were four expedition ships along side and three left at once - Professor Molchanov first and Grigoriy Mikheev at the same time as Explorer, the “Original expedition cruise ship”. With superior speed and efficiency our ‘Little Red Ship’ steamed ahead of them all down the Beagle Channel, thus speeding our arrival at the dreaded Drake Passage later on that evening.

Nice view. Port Lockroy.
The next item on the agenda was the Mandatory Lifeboat Drill which must be completed within 24 hours of sailing but taking no risks we did it within the first one hour and a half of the trip as we steamed majestically down the Beagle Channel.


Dinner began at 19:30 as we continued to steam passed the Nothofagus or southern beech forest clothing the mountainous sides of the channel. Black-browed albatrosses and giant Petrels soared around us, magellanic penguins porpoised past and blue-eyed shags South American terns and kelp gulls fed in feeding flocks of hundreds in patches all the way to the mouth of the Beagle and the entrance to the Drake Passage.


Day 2 , Friday, 24th November - At Sea across the Drake Passage


 “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free.

A Lepoard Seal on an ice float.
We were the the first that ever burst into that silent sea.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


By morning, we were well within the Drake Passage. The first day was laid out in enjoyable activity compartments, with seabird watching and whale spotting on the outer decks of the ship, lectures, socialising around the notice board and gentle socialising in the Front Lounge, access to good food and drinks particularly at meal times finally made the two day crossing across the Drake Passage go very quickly. The lecture schedule was kicked off including a talk from Anna, the bird expert, on the seabirds following the ship - these wanderers of the Southern Ocean are both superb fliers and so numerous and so varied in size that anyone who was not a seabird addict was by the end of the day. Intersperse that with sightings of whales and this ocean crossing which seemed so daunting in our imaginations was actually quite fun (for all except those that were seasick) … we were on a Drake lake - so calm and kind it was amazing! As giant petrels, black-browed albatrosses, prions and pintados continued to fly round and behind the ship the repetition and occasional burst of amazement at the size of a wandering albatross began to re-enforce our identification skills.

Let´s Swim. You first, you first. Go, Go, Go!!!
We would truly be seabird experts on our return home!


Day 3 - Saturday, 25th November - At Sea to Elephant Island


 "Below the 40th latitude there is no law, below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever.

Nice dip. All shiny and clean.

Kim Stanley Robinson


Many more passengers turned up to breakfast today. Interspersed with whale and seabird spotting was another talk absolutely essential to our being able to land on Antarctica. Aaron introduced us all to the rules that have been set by the voluntary organisation the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. We also had training in a new lifejacket and how to board and disembark from the ship and rubber Zodiac boats. The crossing of the Drake Passage had been so good that we had crossed in record time so we arrived at Elephant Island for two one hour cruises around the historic site and along the coast wildlife and glacier spotting. Location - Point Wild - 61o06’S 54o52’W.


Landing on this historic beach is no longer possible as the finer grade material has been washed away, but there is so much to see on this first cruise that it is difficult to know where to look first.

Last landing sight, Half Moon Island. Absolutely gorgeous setting. James doesn´t look bad either.....
Giant Petrels cruised as we, in groups of eight, marvelled at the crunch and bash of the brash ice against the sides of the zodiacs as we pushed in to see THE beach where Shackleton’s 22 men were stranded for 4 months. There was a bust of Captain Luis Pardo Villalon who rescued them all on August 30th, 1916 in his little ship the Yelcho. The bust was erected in 1987-88 by the 14th Chilean Antarctic Scientific Expedition.


The birds were good - Cape Petrels or Jackson Pollack painted pintado soared overhead, not now around the ship, but gliding around the breeding ledges, flocking picturesquely near the icebergs or settling in hundreds on the water. We will always remember our first sights of porpoising penguins plopping like lots of champagne corks out and into the water with minimum splash. We sat in the zodiacs as if we were at a busy motorway intersection - just watching and marvelling.


Our zodiacs nudged up against the rock on the outer cape of Point Wild where Chinstrap penguins were jumping in and out of the sea - such superbly smart birds.

A Chin Strap penguin. Guess how it got its name?
We also found Elephant, Weddell and Fur seals, mini avalanches, Skuas, Sheathbills and Kelp gulls. Each of us had our time and then it was back to the ship to continue South. The light was perfect as we left, lighting up the bergy bits, the icebergs and the blue chunk of ice just off Point Wild, even the impressive angular mountains and sweeping rivers of ice crumbling into the Southern sea glowed.


As we travelled the 11 miles from Cape Wild to Cape Valentine, Clarence Island was off to our left, it rapidly disappeared in the fog. As the cold enveloped the ship and snow started to fall we all went back inside for dinner - awesome.


Day 4 - Sunday, 26th November - Paulet and the Weddell Sea


“Big floes have little floes all around about ‘em

And all the little diatoms couldn’t do without ‘em

Forty million shrimplets feed upon the latter

And they make the penguins and the whales and seals much fatter”

Griffith Taylor


By 06:30 most passengers were awake and watching a snowy landscape unfurl.

The Drake Shake. Not so kind to us on the return journey.
We had by that time passed down the Bransfield Strait, through the Antarctic Sound named after the sunken boat linked with Nordenskjold the explorer [of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901-4] and not for Antarctica the continent itself. Our passsage then took us north into the Erebus and Terror [Captain James Clark Ross’s ships, 1839-43] Gulf in the Weddell Sea. We were heading for Paulet Island where Larsen, the captain of the Antarctic, and 20 of Nordenskjold’s men built themselves a hut with the flat stone slabs and managed to winter in fairly desperate conditions. We though had a positively blissful landing on this volcanic island. The sun shone, the colours of the volcanic ash were vibrant and the sounds and smells of approximately 100,000 pairs of Adelie Penguins plus a few hundred Antarctic Shags were vividly engraved in our memories. By 09:00 we were in the zodiacs and speeding ashore past sea ice and penguins over a blue sea to a beach with a volcanic cone high and clear above us of 1,158 feet or 350m high.


On the rough pebbly beach each zodiac full of passengers in turn was briefed before getting out and wandered off to the far ends of the seal and penguin beach where Adam was waiting or up to David at the hut and places beyond that overlooking the Crater lake.

But the sea birds are loving it. In this cse a Southern (Antartic) Fulmar.
Three whole hours to enjoy an almost overwhelming spectacle. All those penguins sitting on eggs, turning their eggs, defending their eggs and nests from the unwanted attentions of Sheathbills or Skuas. All those smart penguins some clean and others decidedly dirty and dedicated to being on the nest having been shot with excreta and regurgitate by neighbours over the several days that he or she has spent on the nest. Adelie Penguins parents share the responsibilities and may have paired the year before but the proportion of faithful pairs is quite low. Those penguins nesting on the ridge just above the beach were most likely to be inexperienced breeders as they are right on the periphery of the rookery, disturbed by predatory Skuas and Sheathbills, moved by seals and in a storm could easily be washed away.


At our furthest most point there was a deeply nasty black muddy pool giving us a flavour of what Paulet is like later in the year. The breeders in the thick of the rookery will be far more experienced and may well have tiny newly hatched chicks by the end of our trip to Antarctica as they will be the ones that started most promptly. By February again Paulet may be deserted! The single grave that you can see but not get at as it is surrounded by penguins was for Ole Wennersgaard who died 7 June 1903.



At this stage in the breeding cycle we are treated to a huge behaviour spectacle - stone thieving, threats, fights, bullying and flipper bashing and large groups of Adelie’s grunting at the edge of the sea waiting for the first of them to take the plunge. This behaviour indicates that leopard seals are about! One of the smiley faced Weddell’s had a leopard seal sized bite out of its flipper which the sheathbills were merrily pecking at and as we finished bringing passengers ashore one swam right next to Phillipino shoreman. Meanwhile up at the hut the enormity of the overwintering and the death of only one man was brought home to us all over the sea of seething penguins. Further up the slope was the partially iced over crater lake and the sweeping sides of the ash cone climbing to 1,156 feet, Wilson’s Storm petrels flew around the slopes and penguins also swam in the lake. The largest land animal on Antarctica was also found under the slabs of rocks - a dust grain sized flightless midge with a black shiney outer coat.


For many people three hours was not enough but still we had to leave and go on our next adventure south into the Weddell Sea.

Cape Petrel
The scenery was superb and  uintessentially Antarctic with massive icebergs of all sorts of shapes and sizes, tabular bergs only 5 or 6 miles by 2 miles long and then in between one year and multiyear ice with the occasional seals [crabeater and weddell] and penguins on them. Lunch passed and most people came up on deck again, it was quite warm on decks going with the wind so many hours were enjoyed - no one during this period had put enough sun protector on and everyone by the end of the day was glowing. Aaron finally explained that we were being treated to this superb ice store not just because you cannot see bergs like this anywhere else but because we were hunting for elusive emperor penguin which at this time of year is not in big groups but dispersed and feeding. Our aim was to search near Seymour Island and Snow Hill in Admiralty Sound and with the officer’s as well as Aaron and Adams’  sharp eyes we had a potential of seeing one!


Emperor Penguin sightings - at 18:15 one was seen quite close but it slipped into the water after 5 minutes, another that gave good displays for about 20 minutes but the ship crunched the sea ice by mistake and it plopped into the water leaving just a trail of silver bubbles. [the ship had problems with ice coming up behind us otherwise this would never normally have happened].

Half Moon Island - absolutely stunning!
Emperor Penguin diving into water, Weddell Sea. We headed for more open water and passing a distant group of two and another two singles.


Ahead of us in Admiralty Sound there was a sheet of sea fast ice as far as the eye could see to the islands and mountains of the Continent with Cockburn Island and Seymour to port and James Ross Island to Starboard we nudged right up into the ice.

Penguin tracks in the snow
With great care Oscar and Aaron, who are experienced in such things, walked out on to the ice to check its strength with ice axes and their body weight. After over 20 stops to test the ice the call was to get dressed and come on down!! We were warned not to flock together and thus have too much weight on one place but otherwise wander and enjoy the magic of walking on the frozen sea and experience what the Weddell sea is like in the winter. In the distance keen eyes could see a lone Emperor Penguin. So far away we could not initially tell what direction it was walking in but after the 20 minutes of ice excitement had worn off we realised that the determined waddler was actually rocking towards us. With great persistence through nearly an hour he or she arrived to a sea of quiet kneeling passenger humans all hardly daring to breath and each one thinking ‘come this way towards me you truly beautiful creature.’


Supreme Emperor Penguin sighting was at 64o09’S and 56o55’W north west of Cockburn and Seymour Islands and in the northern entrance to Admiralty Sound.


The rocking and rolling walk of this supreme penguin brought it right to the bows of our ship, where it stopped, called, weighed us up and then continued only slightly deviating from that line to choose a gap in the passenger worship queue. The lemon colouration of the ear patches was perfection, its down curved beak distinctive, its regal stance unforgettable. We spent 40 minutes on the ice with nearly 20 minutes with the Emperor that came visiting. The Emperor sauntered through our ranks and then walked on past us on an errand that could only be for him. We could now all breath and relax but the elation and thrill made many of us quite dizzy!! Later we all glowed in the bar, sunburnt but happy. And you know the  biggest lesson was that when ALL THE STAFF get their cameras out, you know that this is a special moment or wildlife event!! Don’t forget also the amazing 180 degree turn that the Captain effected to get us out of the ice quickly.


Day 5 - Monday 27 November - Brown Bluff and Kinnes Cove


 "An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time of your life."

Apsley Cherry Garrard


After an early breakfast and a relatively easy night mostly at anchor we leapt into zodiacs again by 08:30 and sped to our SEVENTH CONTINENT LANDING!!!! Twenty one people were doing their 7th continent, celebrations in variable style best known to themselves! Brown Bluff is a large, pebbly beach with a low-angled scree slope, sloping gently upwards to the base of a tall cliff, rising approximately 745 m or 2,225 feet up. The pebbles are predominantly of weathered, well rounded, vesicular basalt but some granites and quartz pebbles are present too. The volcanic pebbly beach was free of snow and we walked respectfully along to the 20,000 or so pairs of Adelie’s and up the beach to the fewer in number Gentoo penguins.


This place was like a layer cake - high above a massive cliff of layered volcanic debris glowed browns, yellows and gold colours, pintados, snow petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels were all nesting and bonding up there doing courtship flights and making a lot of noise if you could switch your brain to the events above. Further down on the scree slopes at the bottom of the cliffs gentoos nested with the kelp gulls taking up elevated positions to keep an eye on the egg yield or the penguins. Scattered amongst these were spectacular boulders of layered volcanic ash and tephra - each  differently coloured bright orange and grey crustose lichens - this is living sculpture carved by wild winds carrying chisels of ice and grit. The next layer down is the smooth boulders and pebbles of the beach with bright green alga growing in the meltwater fertilised muds, this is the penguin breeding plain below which is the edge of the water. What a performance along this section - just as at Paulet island the Adelie penguins were all waiting for the brave first penguin to dive in and then the masses followed. Penguins that were last stopped and nervously ran back up the beach a little way returning again to their vigil at the edge of the sea to wait and squawk. A leopard seal did cruise by the beach and another was seen at rest on an ice floe some way off. The last layer of this beach was the crackling and grumbling blocks of ice knocking up against the rock reefs offshore which the expedition staff struggled to keep clear of our landing place. What a treat to see all 80- plus passengers all sitting and watching, observing the 15 foot rule and receiving in return behaviour and photographs that will be the envy of their friends at home.


All too soon and we were on the move again - this time north to the other side of Antarctic Sound to Madder Cliffs and Kinnes Cove. Low and photogenic outcrops of rocks with a capping of snow verlipping the sea, loads of snow to wade through that were thigh deep but worth the challenge as the reward was a climb up to the top of the hill [300 feet or 100m plus] on the frost shattered moraine. What view over the perfect Antarctic Sound with its icebergs and fast wind lenticular clouds building overhead. This landing has superb views, gives a feeling of the enormity of the Antarctic continent spread out in front of you, an area full of snow and pristine whiteness, just like the glittering bellies of the smart Adelie penguins.


We were a little slow at leaving this site but one lesson was learnt to watch the meltwater stream areas; they are icey and very slippery - even the penguins would not walk over them with their crampon toes and non-slip soles to their feet. Martin found out the hard way rolling spectacularly and covering himself with meltwater, penguin poo and more unmentionable things. He did not smell so bad though and was let back on the ship to receive the attentions of the marvellous laundry department. Everything was ready by next morning at 07:30 at his cabin door!!! This was the night of the Captain’s Antarctic Dinner - what a fine choice as in the middle of the Drake not even half of us would be able to attend!!


Day 6 - Tuesday, 28th November - George’s Point and Point Lockroy


“All men dream but not equally.”

T. E Lawrence


A quick look outside through a port hole this morning would have sent most back to bed so only Jaap-Kees and Anna were there at 06:00ish to witness the grease ice all around the ship. Big flakes of snow were falling steadily and the ship was coated with thick dollops of white stuff that occasionally avalanched onto lower decks. The wake up call with the normal information of latitude and longitude as well as current weather conditions told of minus1oC and a sea temperature of minus 2oC. Little platelets of ice combined with the fluffy snow were  gathering round the ship parted only by pieces of ice, the hull of the ship and a quick slide of a minke whale’s dorsal fin off the portside of the ship.


After Aaron had announced the morning and the grease ice many others came out too - including our ‘snow-virgins’ Alec and Rinnie Stoltz from South Africa who had never seen snow falling out of the sky before in their whole lives. Visibility lifted for the landing at George’s Point on Ronge Island. All passengers were on shore in 30 minutes onto a round bouldered beach with superb lighter blocky patterns incised into the rocks. This is metamorphic rock with granite incised into it. Breaking the trail in deep soft snow to the chinstrap penguins and gentoos was very hard work but the superb views over to the Continent and out into the Gerlache Strait made it all worthwhile. Soon after we finished landings and the stragglers were poking around the beach looking at the whale bones a leopard Seal cruised passed the beach. Views over to Cuverville Island showed a mass of icebergs and one particuarly good one with a massive cave cut into it. Little peaks of very smelly penguin activity right up there on the hill tops with trudging paths for penguins coursing the slopes. There are about 1,700 pairs of gentoos here and 60 pairs of chinstraps. This is almost the most southerly site for chinstrap penguins as they are primarily sub-Antarctic breeders.


By 12:15 we were pulling up the anchor and off around Cuverville Island and into the Errera channel, past Danco island and then out into Andvord Bay which most of us sailed over during a quick lunch. 20 minutes later we were swinging into Paradise Harbour past the Chilean Gonzalez Videla base with several hundred gentoo penguins in residence as well as uninhabited little red tin clad huts. This is where two gentlemen named Bagshawe and Lester over wintered [1921-22] and studied the penguins camping under an upturned waterboat hence the other name of this of “Waterboat Point”. Paradise Bay or Harbour was named by the whalers for its beauty as they sheltered in here in days gone-by; it certainly lived up to its name with immaculate light on perfect snow slopes refreshed by the snow this morning. So white with lots of bergybits and nicely sculpted icebergs of white all the way through to aquamarine blue. In amongst the glaciers a small station of a small number of red huts became visible - this was the unoccupied Almirante Brown station built on the Antarctic continent [64o53’S 62o52’W] and run by the Argentinians until the mid 1990’s. The station is infamous for the Doctor who in 1984 decided that he did not want to over winter anymore so he burnt the station down [you can still see the charred walls today]. This back fired though as they made him stay and rebuild the huts over the next summer and winter thus extending his stay in Antarctica by over a year.


Loads of brash ice spotted the calm blue waters of the bay and still with soaring mountains on either side and rocky reefs we crossed over to and entered the southern end of the Neumayer Channel turning to starboard towards Port Lockroy. During this passage our guest lecturer on board Julie-Ann Liekhart gave us a thought provoking talk on her team of women who walked and power skied to the South Pole. She was the dietician managing to keep the energy and fitness on a healthy level so that each team member only lost 10lbs compared to Ranulph Fiennes and Robert Hudson who both lost over two stone and were in tatters and had to be bailed out by helicopter on their way to McMurdo. This subject was close to many of our hearts and we all seemed to have questions relating to diet and activity.


Port Lockroy was our most southerly point at 64o49’S 63o32’W. The light on Port Lockroy shone to perfection from 16:30-19:30 so while one group of people shopped til they dropped others back on the ship enjoyed the relatively quiet tour of the engine room with Tomas. Later on shore this group shopped and enjoyed Marilyn Monroe and enjoyed the truly excellent museum in Bransfield House - all of it a reminder of a not so distant past with food samples and packaging for Marmite, Scotts Porridge oats, Tate and Lyle sugar, sausages and meat loaf in tins. Alan who had been stationed at Port Lockroy in 1954 was in residence and he added an intrigueing slant to the displays and history of the island.


As dinner was called we waved goodbye to an increasingly shaded Base Station A and sailed north again out into the sunshine and the spectacular scenery of the Neumayer as we ate and marvelled at the massive peaks and superb lower snow slopes. Whales were not seen the whole day but the scenery was perfection! As if we were not tired after our exertions!! Our bouncy Assistant Expedition Leader Sarah had organised an Antarctic Quiz which lead to a lot of shouting and banter across the floor of the forward lounge. Bill and Lance regaled us with their different accents and their strange  pronunciations!! We sailed north in the night towards the Bransfield Strait and northwards to Deception Island.


Day 7 - Wednesday 29th November - Deception Island and Half Moon Island


In blizzard conditions we steamed into Whalers Bay, anchored and disembarked after breakfast onto a black sandy beach. Many walked straight up to Neptune’s Window with Lance and Bill but those that waited lost the opportunity as the snow came down again in thick flakes whirling in through the broken window panes and adding to the snowdrifts around the whale boiling tanks and inside Biscoe House, through the broken roofs and fuel silos resting at drunken rusty angles and down the chimney damaged corrugated iron roofing of the hangar. Wandering around the buildings is a sobering experience - some people enjoyed the history, others found the whole place depressing and oppressive like walking on and bathing in a whale morgue!! Yet there are good  things about the place - wonderful patterns of white snow on the creases and crevices of the slopes around us - should it be tidied up or not? Or left as nature has started to erase the signs of our presence?


Distinctive features of the beach were slightly cooked seaweed and animals like see-through jelly arrow worms, a few brittle stars and a cushion star. Waterboats used for collecting water from glaciers and piles of barrel staves that would have been barrels that once brought down flour and returned containing that hugely useful product whale oil. A skua blended perfectly with its surroundings sat perfectly solidly on her nest even though several people unwittingly nearly tripped over her near the graves and crosses of some of the whalers that lost their lives at this dark place.


Lance led the bathe suitably attired with Oscar’s swim trunks [somehow I think Lance’s ones at home are not quite so tight!]. 26 passengers followed and enjoyed the quite ridiculously warm pools dug for us by the male expedition staff. As rapidly as we dived in we changed and sped back to the ship where - oh bliss - was a delicious drink of hot chocolate laced with alcohol of our choosing! Yummy! Others chose double bliss and went to the sauna as well.


Over lunch and early afternoon we repositioned arriving at Half Moon Island by 14:30 after a stimulating talk from geologist Lance. Outside was a perfect glittering day one that would be remembered by both passengers on their last day leaving Antarctica and by the staff as being gorgeous. Just the right amount of snow contrasted with the greyscree, a whaling dory rotting gently on the beach surrounded by off-duty penguins and a fairly steep slope up to photogenic piled rocks and chinstraps all breeding hard and making a hell of a noise. To the north east Antarctic terns screamed and chirruped, kelp gulls occasionally let off a volley of calls and through the pass and down onto the beach opposite Livingstone Island were several Wilson’s Storm Petrels calling and flying back and fore. Over 3,300 pairs of Chinstraps breed here.


On the lower beach we found Weddell Seals, southern giant petrels and groups of offduty chinstraps. A walk along the beach revealed the basal discs of basket kelp and thousands of limpet shells, many covered in a calcareous alga called Lithothamnion Spp so that counting the numbers of annual rings was difficult if not impossible. Calcium prescipitates poorly in cold water and so any mollusc with a shell is slow growing. Big size could indicate an animal that is between 50-100 years old!!!! What a kelp gull mouthful!!! Along at the end kelp gulls were patrolling the rocks and blue-eyed shags collected huge beakfulls of kelp for their nests on the island point. The hill walk was incredibly beautiful and scenic towards the northern end of the island past the Argentine base Camara and up onto the shoulder of land above the bay with Greenwich Island behind.


Day 8 - Thursday, 30th November - Drake Passage


"I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross."

Robert Cushman Murphy


"…the bird that made the breeze to blow…"



On our first rocking and rolling day at sea we had a whale talk from Bill and then several broader educational topics were covered as a display and discussions as well as in a Save the Albatross talk by Adam. Staff also discussed some of GAP’s environmental ethics initiatives - reduced paper consumption, use of recycled,  nonchlorine- bleached paper, four stroke engines and organic and fair trade foods. Sue commented that today had given her a lot more things to worry about in her World and support than she ever realized! More  information for the Save the Albatross foundation can be accessed on the web at www.birdsaustralia.com.au. Environmentally friendly paper information can be found at www.rfu.org.


The sun came out and the seabird tally was added to by seeing several groups of whales including some lunge feeding humpbacks. More seabird photos and a chance to enjoy soaring flight again a subject close to Ralph’s heart with his designing of glider airplanes. Just before dinner Aaron came over the ‘big bong’ with an announcement that we had 20 knots of wind from the NE with a swell of about 2m - not much to write home about!! But at least the sun was out and the pictures showed some waves crashing over the bow!


Day 9 - Friday 1st December - Drake passage


As promised Aaron woke us up at 0555 to get us up to see the infamous Cabos Hornos - Cape Horn of  terrifying reputation. As we changed into our clothes and went on deck our resident bard was quoting the English translation of the beautiful poem on a monument at Cape Horn:


"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 in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind."

(Poem by Sara Vial, inscribed on the albatross sculpture at Cape Horn)


What a stunningly beautiful morning with golden light glancing off the Horn and different islands of the Cape and white capped waves with surfing dolphins. Sooty shearwaters, black-browed and grey headed albatrosses and giant petrels swooped around the ship what a spectacle! And then we turned and were making waves towards the shelter of the Beagle Channel and our pilot to take us to Ushuaia. Meanwhile we enjoyed our final trip recap and photo cd of the journey in the lecture hall. It was good to be back in the calm waters of the Beagle!


Before our final dinner onboard, we gather one last time in the lounge and for the Save the Albatross foundation, Oscar skilfully auctioned off several items. Some passengers enjoyed a night on the town, while others passed a quiet final night on board.


Day 10 - Saturday 2nd December • Ushuaia


"Happy he, who like Ulysses has made a great journey."

Joachim du Bellay


This trip has been beyond our dreams and expectations and will take many weeks for it all to sink in. Pictures rarely satisfy the images of a great trip the memories do - treasure them. And remember the importance of preserving this, one of the world’s last great wildernesses. Thank you for traveling with GAP Adventures. We look forward to seeing you again on board the Little Red Ship in a wilderness somewhere.


Ship’s Captain Kenth Grankvist and M/S Explorer Crew

Expedition Leader: Aaron Russ

Assistant Expedition Leader: Sarah McElrea

Expedition staff:

Bill Merilees (Marine Mammals)

Lance Morrissey (Geologist)

David Saunders (Historian)

Chris Srigley (Shop keeper and zodiac driver)

Anna Sutcliffe (Ornithologist)

Adam Walleyn (Naturalist and zodiac driver)

Oscar Westman (Zodiac specialist)


The Grand Finale


On our last night Simon, one of the other passengers, stood up and did a small speech to thank all the crew on board for making our trip so amazing.  I shall finish here, with the poem he read out by Edwin Mickleburgh, from Beyond the Forzen Sea. This 100% sums up how we feel about Antartica:


Antarctica left a restless longing in my heart,

Beckoning towards an incomprehensible perfection

For ever beyond the mortal man. 

Its overwhelming beauty touches one so deeply it is like a wound.”





gsoledade says:
Heyy! This blog is amazing!!! Congratulations! Excellent writing and wonderful photos!! This is a travel I wish I can do someday, maybe my most dreamed destination. Thank you for sharing it all with us!
Posted on: Sep 04, 2012
mountaingirl says:
Great blog, and the pictures are awesome!
Posted on: Oct 02, 2011
AndiPerullo says:
This is one of the most amazing blogs on travbuddy! You have experienced something that few people in this world will ever experience. How extraordinary!!! Thanks so much for the beautiful words and photos. :)
Posted on: Apr 24, 2007
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Nice view.  Port Lockroy.
Nice view. Port Lockroy.
A Lepoard Seal on an ice float.
A Lepoard Seal on an ice float.
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Let´s Swim. You first, you firs…
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Nice dip. All shiny and clean.
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Last landing sight, Half Moon Isl…
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A Chin Strap penguin. Guess how …
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The Drake Shake. Not so kind to …
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But the sea birds are loving it. …
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Half Moon Island - absolutely stu…
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Penguin tracks in the snow
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photo by: xander_van_hoof