A Travellerspoint blog

Antarctica

ANTARCTICA

Life in the freezer!

all seasons in one day -5 °C
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Some interesting facts that you may not know about Antarctica...

1. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on earth.
2. The lowest ever temperature recorded on earth was in Antarctica. It was negative 89.6 °C
3. It has not rained in the dry valleys of Antarctica for at least 2 million years.
4. The ice on Antarctica is up to 4km thick and if Antarctica's ice sheets melted, the worlds oceans would rise by 60 to 65 metres
5. Antarctica has 90% of all the ice on the planet and between 60 and 70% of all of the world's fresh water.

This was always going to be the highlight of our whole trip. Its not cheap but the opportunity to go down to Antarctica is something that you can’t pass up!

We got down to Ushuaia after passing yet another 28 hours on a bus. The southernmost city in the world has lots of activity going on with some good walking, penguins and glaciers in the area. Also it is obviously the launching point for Antarctica trips, which was what we were there for. After trekking for a few days in El Chalten, we just spent our time in Ushuaia getting some last minute clothes and supplies sorted out.

So at 4pm on the 30th November we walked down to the transfer point and got out to the MS Explorer. She would be our home for the next 12 days. We were shown to our room and we got our first good surprise of the trip... Hello Upgrade. Somehow we managed to score an upgrade into one of the 4 suites on board. We had a queen bedroom, separate lounge room and a steam power shower in the bathroom. Not bad considering we had booked into one of the twin rooms thinking that we would have had bunks. The boat was way more luxurious than we were expecting on the whole anyway! Plus after letting our service lady know that it was our honeymoon, we got a little something extra

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There was the mandatory safety briefing and exercise drill before we were introduced to the expedition team. Dinner followed soon after and with this first meal we realised that we were going to be in for a gluttonous 12 days!! The food was exceptional. Some meals were buffet style and others were 4 course meals. During this time we left Ushuaia and started our Antarctica adventure for real.

Rather than doing a day by day account, I will break the trip into different parts that made this trip so amazing.

THE DRAKE PASSAGE
Leaving Ushuaia there is 800km of open sea to navigate before getting to the South Shetland Islands of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic circumpolar current forces a huge amount of water through a relatively small gap between the two continents. This creates what are known as the roughest seas in the world. It would take us 2 full days to clear the seas. We had average conditions on our crossings (not calm but not a full on storm) and yet it was still pretty brutal. We left the calmer waters around Cape Horn late in the evening, so most people were asleep by then, but by breakfast time, there were a few casualties of The Drake. I was one of these, despite having sea sickness tablets, i kept throwing them up so i spent the entire first day in bed. The upgraded room was already paying off! I finally got up for dinner but that didn’t stay down for long so i ended up asking the resident doctor for a sea sickness patch that goes behind your ear and lasts for 72hours. This was much better as you can’t throw it up like the tablets. I was back to 100% by the second day of the crossing. On the return crossing, i made sure i got another patch before hitting the rougher seas.

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Leaving Ushuaia

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The sunset over calm waters leaving Ushuaia

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Rough Seas on the way (Photo courtesy of expedition crew)

There isn’t much to see outside except for lots of sea birds following the boats wake. Whales are common too, however we didn’t spot many on our particular crossings in either direction. (Note from Tanya – If you were not laid up in bed sea sick you could get out on the deck and enjoy the numerous birds and the few whales that we did see) Instead, the expedition crew do a great job of keeping everyone busy with many lectures throughout the day. We had Kevin, the bird man, John the Whale and Seal man, Alex the geologist and Scott the historian who gave fascinating lectures on the animals that we would be seeing, the geology of the area and accounts of the early explorers to the Antarctic. I never missed a lecture by Alex or Scott as i found these to always be really interesting.

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View out our window

THE FRIENDS
Crossing the drake gave everyone plenty of time to chat and meet the other people on the boat. There were a total of 129 guests and we talked with quite a lot of people over the entire expedition. We spent most of our time with Erika and Carl from Canberra Australia, Chantelle and Ben from Canada and Neil from Scotland. Between lectures, landings and sleeping we passed plenty of time playing cards, playing darts and sharing our meals with these guys. It was great fun and by the end of the trip it was sad saying bye to them after sharing so many good times over the 12 days.

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Hot chocolate with our cruising buddies

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Zodiac cruising with Carl and Erika

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Ben and Chantelle off on a kayak

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Final meal

THE LANDINGS

We got down to the South Shetland Islands late on the 2nd December after 28hrs of sailing. This meant that with the late sunsets (sunset at 11:30pm and sunrise at 1am – But it was still light between those hours too) we could make our first landing of the trip. After this most days had a similar pattern. Wake for breakfast, have a morning landing somewhere, back to the ship for lunch, have an afternoon landing, back for dinner and evening drinks and partying. Sometimes the weather meant that we couldn’t get off the boat and a lecture or film was put on. Other times it restricted us to just having a zodiac cruise rather than making a landing. It was always good fun, and as soon as the message came across the speaker that we would be making a landing or a zodiac cruise, the boat came alive with activity with everyone getting suited up.

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The Mud room where we got dressed in our wet weather gear for a landing

5 people (including Ben and Chantelle) had paid extra for Kayaking and they had the option to get the kayaks out if conditions were suitable while the rest of us did the landing or cruise. This needs to be booked before the boat leaves Ushuaia however most people on board were not aware of this. There was also an option to do a nights camping on the ice which again needed to be booked before departure. 30 people had signed up to do this and we would have liked to have done both but unfortunately we were not informed of this until we spoke to people on the boat. With the camping, the weather needs to be suitable and unfortunately for the people on our boat, on the designated nights, the weather was horrible, so they missed out.

When we were leaving the boat, the transport was always in one of the zodiacs. The expedition staff were also zodiac drivers in addition to their other jobs as lecturers or facilitators. The Zodiacs got us close to ice, animals and land.

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THE ANIMALS
Probably what Antarctica is mostly associated with in people’s minds are the animals and in particular the penguins. As penguins are only found in the south (like Polar Bears are only found in the north) we got to see 3 of the 5 species that spend their time in Antarctica proper. The Chinstrap (with a distinctive looking chinstrap), the Gentoo and the Adelie were found at different landing sites. At most landing sites one of the three species were dominating the area, but more often than not there was also the odd one or two ‘lost’ penguins of another species. They always looked a little confused and always seemed to be the most inquisitive. They would come up to us a lot more as if to say ‘hey, you’re not like them either, are you lost too’

We saw so many penguins over the time that by the end of the trip when we were making landings, we kind of just walked past them to get to see something else. They did provide plenty of opportunities for photographs, and they definitely have a photographic cuteness to them! Here are just some of our favourites from the hundreds of photos that we have of penguins.

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The Chinstrap Penguin

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The Gentoo Penguin

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The Adelie Penguin

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SO cute

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Proving that Penguins can fly

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Taking in the sunset

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Sex Positions... Penguin Style

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The harsh truth to survival in Antarctica – a penguin egg is a Skua’s dinner

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Penguin tracks

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The other common mammals that spend their time down in these waters are the seals. We were lucky enough to spot a number of the different species. The Crab-eater, Weddel, Elephant and Leopard Seals were ticked off our list. The crab-eater and leopard seals prefer ice floats and we had some great close encounters with them while on some zodiac cruises. The Weddel and Elephant seals prefer land more than the ice so we got to see these on a few of the landings.

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The Crab-eater Seal

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The Weddel Seal

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The Elephant Seal

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The Leopard Seal

The encounter that we had with the leopard seal in the photos below was especially great. We were on a zodiac when one of the guests in our zodiac said to the driver that he spotted a seal in the distance. Sure enough after cruising over, this Leopard Seal was just having a snooze on a bit of ice and didn’t really care that we were within a few meters of it. We had a good 10 minutes with it before our zodiac driver called it in to the rest of the boats. The Leopard Seal is the apex predator down here. It eats a lot of krill, but it does enjoy the taste of a penguin or two and other baby seals. As it was laid there on the ice it was yawning away and it was easy to see why this thing is the apex predator. The teeth were impressive and the size of its mouth when it was wide open... Wow!!!

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Open Wide

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Wider

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Even wider

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The penguins are the most famous birds down here, but their flying cousins are also out in force. Many of them relying on the penguin colonies for food and survival down here

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The bad boy of Antarctica – the Skua

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THE ICE
Antarctica is as much about the ice as anything else. Massive, imposing, beautiful, delicate... almost any word can be used to describe it. The glaciers running off of the mountains, the unique shapes of the floating icebergs in the bays, the enormity of the sea icebergs, the snow covered land and the thin sea ice. It is like nowhere else on the globe.

The zodiac cruises through the bays filled with icebergs would get us so close that we could see the way that the currents and air bubbles give each chuck of ice a different shape. The snow on the land also made a great ice slide for us to mess around in for a while.

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The pack ice

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The other ship gives you some idea of the size of this iceberg

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So many glaciers

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THE PLACES

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Half Moon Island
Our first landing was luckily on the second day at sea. We made good time and with the sun setting at 11:30pm each day, we managed to have a quick landing at half moon island. Shaped more like a new moon, it was really calm being protected from the winds. The sky was clear apart from the odd cloud which was brightly lit up from the low sun. There was a chinstrap penguin colony high on some rocks that gave us our first encounter with the birds.

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First views of the Antarctic Islands

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Sunset in the Antarctic

Deception Island
A favourite hangout of whalers back in the day, Deception Island is a volcanic caldera that has a small opening in it that has let sea water fill the inside of the caldera. It gives great shelter from the elements. Our intended stop was Whalers Bay where the remains of an old whaling station are, however the sea ice had all congregated in the bay, meaning we wouldn’t be able to land there. Instead we went to the far side of the island to land at Telefon bay. We saw our first couple of seals resting on some of the pack ice as we cruised into the island too, a Crab-eater and a Leopard Seal.

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The small inlet into the centre of the island

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The Crab-eater

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The leopard seal with its distinctively large head

When we got off the boat into the zodiacs we had the chance to cruise around the pack ice that stretched about a mile out from the shore line. It was about a metre thick so fine to handle us walking around on it. To make it better the sun was also out and it was a really nice day by Antarctic standards.

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After the zodiac cruise we landed on the beach and took a walk round the active volcanic part of the island. The views with the weather being so nice were great.

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Deception island was also the location for our Polar Plunge! With the expedition team deciding to stay in the bay for the afternoon we got back in the zodiacs after lunch. The normal spot where they do the plunge at Whalers Bay has got thermal sands. The benefit of this is not that it heats up the water, but rather it stops your feet going numb so that if you run over the sharp volcanic rock you can feel your feet cutting open... The water was a balmy 1.5 degrees... NEGATIVE! Sea water freezes at negative 1.8 degrees. Around 60 to 70 people on board ended up going in for the plunge which is quite a high number according to the staff. To say that it was cold is not adequate enough. It was so cold that the moment you ran into the water your feet were numb. After a run, dive and then quicker run back, my whole body was tingling from the cold and my legs had no feeling in them at all. Tanya was happy to take photo’s as she struggles even just getting in a swimming pool.

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Sizing up those waters

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Could not run back quick enough

On the way out of the bay, the pack ice had floated out to block our exit from the island. Our boat didn’t have a problem breaking its way through the ice to get back to open water.

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Credit to Ben for this awesome video from the bow of the boat

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Baily Head – the biggest chinstrap colony in Antarctica.

Port Lockroy & Lemaire
We cruised through the Neumeyer Chennel in the morning heading for Port Lockroy. As we were now into the proper Antarctic Peninsula, the views were stunning cruising though this tight channel with the massive mountains either side covered in glaciers and lots of floating icebergs.

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We then got in to the sheltered bay of Port Lockroy. An old British base that was part of the claim to the continent, it has a post office and is now a museum of life in an old Antarctic research base. The Gentoo penguins here make good use of the station to give them dry ground for building their nests out of stones. Most of them had an egg or two and the Skua’s and other birds were hassling the outer birds to try and get their eggs.

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Penguin with its egg

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We then headed south and entered the Lemaire after lunch, a very narrow but deep channel between the peninsula and Booth Island. At seven miles long, chocked with pack ice and icebergs, and less than half a mile wide in places it was stunning, with ice, glaciers and rock on both sides and mountains disappearing into the clouds. Our aim was to land on Petermann Island, but ice blocked the coast so we headed further south until more dense pack ice prevented us from going any further. This proved to be our furthest south at 65° 11’ S, and with strong winds gusting up to 50 knots we headed back north.

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Paradise Harbour
Paradise harbour was our first landing on the actual Antarctic Continent. In a sheltered bay with massive broken mountains that are covered in steep glaciers. There was the Argentine base of Almirante Brown which was vacant apart from the raised Argentine flag. We climbed a small hill above the base for some spectacular views before having our first ice slide back down to the zodiacs.

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Antarctica at last!!

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We did a zodiac cruise around the bay and the ice of the area was spectacular with the calm waters reflecting the ice and mountains making the scenery even more imposing.

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Danco Island
An afternoon landing site, the weather had got a bit ugly for this particular one. Rugged up in the warm clothes we walked to the surprisingly high summit of the island which is almost all covered in snow. Surprisingly, the summit is where the Gentoo penguin colony can get some bare ground. It’s incredible how far they walk from the water up to this rookery spot. It took us and our big human legs a good 20 minutes to reach the top. Another ice slide was the quickest way back down the slope

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Neko Harbour
Another great spot for a stop off as the mainland harbour had still waters, littered with many icebergs with the backdrop of massive carving glaciers from the towering mountains. On the landing there were more Gentoo Penguins and the biggest walk yet. Another ice slide down and this one was a good one. With a steep slope and bump halfway down it wasn’t for the feint hearted. After getting some air over the bump and sliding down on my nose rather than my chest, I had a cut up nose to show for it. More zodiac cruising followed and the scenery was just as spectacular as the prior days.

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Ice Sliders

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Mikklesen Harbour & Cierva Cove
Our landing here started off cloudy but then turned into a brilliant day! The clouds lifted and we had some great encounters with penguins and seals basking in the sun. The Weddel penguin got up onto the shore and entertained the crowd as it found the best position to fall asleep on the snow without worrying about us stood a few feet away!

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The zodiac cruise afterwards was the one where we had the amazing time watching the leopard seal on an ice float mentioned above in the animals section.

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In the afternoon we had some good zodiac cruising in Cierva Cove. More penguins, seals and sunshine.

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Giving the captain some time off to enjoy the sun, said I would take the wheel for a while...

Arctowski Station King George Island
The site of the Polish research station, we stopped in to have a look at their base and the island. The site of many whalers back in the whaling days, the beach was littered with so many whale bones. The bones of 1 whale had been arranged back into proper position and this gives you a better idea of just how big these secretive creatures are! There was an Adelie penguin rookery on the island and a group of young elephant seals wallowing on the beach.

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THE RETURN
That ended our time in Antarctica with bad weather spoiling any more fun. Instead we made an early start into the voyage back to Ushuaia. A good final night on the boat back in Ushuaia port was had by all. It only seemed like a few days before that we were heading off and now it had come to an end.

We managed to meet up with Joe and Hafsha from Mendoza who were starting their Antarctica trip that afternoon. As we were enjoying dinner at the hostel with Ben and Chantelle, we could see the boat pulling out of dock setting off with a new load of passengers about to have the time of their life...

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Waiting to set sail again

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Awesome, Breathtaking, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious... no superlative can describe this place accurately. The images of the ice, the animals and the landscapes will be memories for a lifetime. It was always going to be the highlight of our trip and it lived up to this expectation completely.

Tanya – What an adventure. There really was so much for us to do - between, lectures, hikes, seeing the wildlife, and scooting down hills on our backsides (or frontsides) we found just enough time to relax and over-eat. Best honeymoon treat by far!!!

Posted by dbgomes 18:05 Archived in Antarctica Tagged antarctica round_the_world Comments (3)

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