Sunday, 17 February 2013


I still can't believe it's true but, yes, we went to Antarctica. Although we'd always known it was possible to go there from Tierra del Fuego we certainly hadn't planned anything in advance. So what happened? A last minute deal we couldn't turn down, of course. But let me start from where I left off last time.

Chris and I left Punta Arenas early in the morning and drove east of the city to catch a ferry across to Tierra del Fuego. The wind was blowing wildly and both of us fought to suppress our nervousness as we stared out at the churning sea from our spot in the queue of cars waiting to be loaded onto the vessel. Before we could change our minds we were ushered onto the ferry and told to take a seat in the passenger lounge for the crossing. We left the port and immediately the ferry began pitching in the waves, causing me to have terrible flashbacks to the Ilha do Mel crossing. Only this time it was broad daylight and I could watch the giant swells and rollers from a sea-water blurred window. Little did I know what was in store for me just a few days later. Luckily it was a quick passage and we were soon back on the road.

Gravel road, unfortunately. We made our way slowly southeast, passing rolling hills of dusty scrubland. I have to admit that it was not what I'd expected. Ushuaia was supposed to be beautiful so I'd mistakenly assumed that would be true of the entire island. A few hours later we made it to the Chilean border control - Ushuaia is in the Argentinean part of Tierra del Fuego but the ferry is on the Chilean side. We crossed without any problems and arrived at the Argentinean control station a few minutes later. We were surprised to find ourselves on paved roads from then on. Usually it's Chile with the good road infrastructure but maybe they spent their budget on the ferry crossing. 

Along with the roads, the scenery improved drastically as we got closer to Ushuaia. Great rocky peaks towered over verdant slopes and sinewy sapphire and jade rivers. This was the first stretch of road that I drove. First time behind the wheel in 11 months. Eep! It all went well and soon enough we were in lovely Ushuaia, one of the southernmost cities in the world. And it was beautiful after all. 

We hadn't made a reservation anywhere and that proved to be a bit of an oversight. The city was bustling, full of tourists from all over the world. We ended up having to split our 2-night stay between two different hostels. Annoying but it was our own fault for not planning ahead.

After our first night we packed our gear back into The Kangaroo and drove west to the National Park for the morning. We did some short hikes but weren't overly enamoured with the place. It's not that it wasn't scenic - it was just a bit overrun with other tourists and fell short of what we'd come to expect from National Parks in Patagonia. We'd planned to spend the day there but headed back to the city after lunch.

Proof we reached the end of Ruta Nacional 3.
Evidently, that's 17,848 km from somewhere in Alaska....

Parque Nac. Tierra del Fuego.

While parking at our new hostel, a sign in the window of the travel agency across the street caught our eye. It was advertising a last minute deal to Antarctica. We decided it couldn't hurt to ask for the details. A few minutes later we were chatting with Daniella, the English-speaking travel agent, who told us that the next departure was the next day at 4 pm. After getting some more information we began to really consider the idea. We left the office promising to see if we could sort some things out and make a decision later in the afternoon. Buzzing with excitement, we checked into our hostel and began the frenzied process of figuring out whether we actually could do the trip. And did we want to? Antarctica was certainly alluring but Daniella had been very honest about how unpleasant we could expect the 2-day crossing of the Drake Passage to be. ... Despite being wary of the latter we were more than a little spellbound by the very idea of going to Antarctica. A few hours later we'd dealt with all the logistical issues (i.e. getting an extension on our car rental and booking buses/flights to ensure we could make it back to Santiago in time for our flight home) and eagerly completed the paperwork to sign up for the expedition. 

We finished just in time to make it to the information session at a nearby hotel. It turned out to be of little substance but it did give us the opportunity to gather first impressions of some of the 101 others who would be sharing our voyage. As expected there were a lot of gray-haired folks but there were also several young people. Inevitably,  a few crankpots stood out and we hoped they wouldn't have too much of an impact on our experience.

The next morning we ran last minute errands like getting Chris more motion sickness pills and picking up snacks for the trip. We could hardly wait for 3 pm to roll around so we could make our way down to the pier. Soon enough we were there, getting our first glimpse of our ship: the impressive ice-class Sea Adventurer. Our expedition would be run by Quark Expeditions, a well-respected polar tourism company with head offices in Canada.

We walked up the long gangway to the ship, made our way down the lower deck, dropped our things in our room, and then went to a meeting in the fore-lounge for introductions and a briefing. Our expedition leader was the distinguished Laurie Dexter. A Scotsman by birth, Laurie has lived in the Northwest Territories for the past 40 years where he has learned the Inuit language and survival skills. The list of awards and accolades associated with Laurie is long and prestigious - the man even has an Order of Canada! He is also an extreme athlete, having completed several ultra-marathons (e.g. 100 km in 8 hours, 200+ km in 24 hours, 600 km in 6 days, and 10 marathons in 10 days; seriously). Laurie has also skied from Canada to Russia through the North Pole. Okay, are you impressed? Cuz we sure were.

Looking back at Ushuaia shortly after boarding the Sea Adventurer.
The rest of the expedition staff were comprised of experts (or at least extensive dabblers) in the areas of ornithology, marine biology, geology, glaciology, and Antarctic history. Some of the staff were there solely for the more menial tasks such as driving the zodiacs (pontoon boats) but many did double duty as drivers and lecturers. We were surprised that a lot of them hailed from our homeland. There were also several Americans, a Kiwi, and a Brit. After introductions were complete we were told that new regulations meant the ship could not detach from the pier until we'd completed a safety info session and a lifeboat drill so that's what we did first. Then we endured a minor delay on account of some crazy winds blowing through the Beagle Channel. Not an uncommon event and really just a small inconvenience. But the waiting time wreaked havoc on my already tense nerves. Staring over the deck rail at the waves I fought the growing urge to abandon ship and return to solid ground.

Good choice. This last-minute excursion was easily one of the highlights of our entire trip and most definitely one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

I don't think it would serve to give a play-by-play of the rest of the expedition but I will mention some highlights and then leave it to Chris's photos to show what I couldn't possibly do justice describing with words.

The Drake Passage - known for having some of the roughest seas in the world, we were wise to fear the 2-day crossing that would bring us to and from Antarctica. There was no doubt about when we emerged from the shelter of the Beagle Channel the night of our departure. The ship began to sway and pitch mercilessly around midnight and didn't stop for the next two days. Some of the staff said it wasn' t nearly as bad as they've seen it but we still found it pretty crazy. Chris loaded up on motion sickness pills (the ship's doctor provided some stronger options than dramamine) and laid low in his bunk more or less the entire 2 days. He was better on the way back but still didn't take any risks. I didn't feel sick but had decided to take the pills as a precaution on the way down. For that reason I found myself particularly drowsy the first day and stopped taking the pills that night. In reality, my nerves were my worst enemy overall. That said, I actually got kind of used to the motion after a while and even came to trust the ship despite the gigantic waves that surrounded us, often submerging the bow or dipping our porthole underwater.... It was a scary experience but well worth it in the end.

The view from our porthole during the drake passage. Yes, we are underwater in the middle shot.

First Sight of Land - late in the evening after our second day at sea, Laurie announced over the PA that land was in sight. I still get goosebumps when I remember the sensation of seeing those first ghostly shapes looming in the distance. The sky was slate gray above us but the horizon was glowing white, illuminating the rocky outlines of the islands nearest the northern tip of Antarctica's peninsula. It was eerily quiet and the ocean had relaxed considerably. Passing by those first pieces of barren black stone was utterly surreal. We'd reached Antarctica!!

First sight of land after the 2-day crossing of the nightmarish Drake Passage.

First Landing - what a thrill to take our first steps on Antarctica! In fact, our first landing was on a small island off the peninsula but still technically part of Antarctica. Our first glimpses of the terrain had caught me by surprise. It was very different than I'd expected. I knew there would be a lot of glaciers and snow but I didn't expect the land to have such contour or to have so many exposed peaks. It was beautiful in a completely unique way. Anyway, back to the first landing - after a quick zodiac trip we stepped out onto a shore occupied by a large Gentoo Penguin colony. It was just an unreal feeling being there among those beautiful (and hilariously awkward) creatures.

First encounters with Gentoo penguins.

Some penguins are too lazy to walk down to the beach to gather pebbles, so they just steal from others.

Zodiac cruises around icebergs and glacier faces - we saw lots of ice cliffs and icebergs during our visits to the Perito Moreno and Grey glaciers but neither of those experiences compare with the cruises we took in Antarctica. We were able to get so close to icebergs of every shape and size. More than once our guides spotted seals lounging on the ice. We explored bays lined with multiple glaciers and stared up at ice cliffs hundreds of meters high. Mind blowing.

Penguins! - I already mentioned our first encounter with penguins but there were many more during our expedition. We visited mostly Gentoo colonies but also got to see Adelie and Chinstrap penguins. We were there during their mating season so all the colonies were busy building up their rookeries - this involved scouring the beach for suitable pebbles to make a sort of nest on the snow or bare rock. Some penguins would just steal from others and we saw some heated spats as a result. We did see a few eggs being incubated but it was too early for chicks. I swear I could never get tired of watching penguins waddle around, going about their business. So adorable! I also couldn't believe just how much life there was on that frozen continent. Besides the penguins there were dozens of species of marine birds including petrels, shags, skua, and enormous albatros. Amazing!

Gentoos and the Sea Adventurer.

Left: Gentoo, Top Right: Adelie, Bottom Right: Chinstrap

Skuas - they like to eat penguin eggs.

Polar Plunge - one afternoon we were granted the opportunity to jump into the Antarctic Ocean. The water temperature that day was a chilly 2 degrees above zero. Brrrrr. Now, some of you may remember that I have a ridiculous phobia of underwater "things". I desperately wanted to participate but wasn't sure I wanted to risk chickening out once I was standing there shivering on the metal zodiac-loading deck. I managed to talk Chris into doing it and had resolved myself to take photos in his place. Then I gave my head a shake and decided it would only be a few moments in the water so I'd better just suck it up. I put on my swimsuit and joined Chris in the surprisingly long lineup of people preparing to brave the frigid waters. Eventually it was my turn. I made my way down the metal staircase wondering what the hell I was thinking. Two crewmen were on the platform and they fitted a harness around me - a precaution in case you go into shock in the water. As soon as they let me go, I jumped. I didn't want to give myself time to think about it. I just leaped and the next moment I was submerged in the salty icewater. Aiyiiiiiiiiii! So cold so cold so cold! I think I jumped out faster than I went in. I nearly ran away with the harness I was so eager to get back to the ship and grab a towel. Oh, and the complimentary shot of vodka! Scary, freezing cold, crazy but I did it! Chris too. He's now jumped into both the Arctic and the Antarctic oceans.

Vernadsky Research Station
Visiting Vernadsky Research Station - we had the extremely fortunate luck to be the first ship able to access a small Ukrainian research station located on Isla Galindez at the northern end of Grandider Channel. The station had been iced in since March and the team hadn't seen anyone outside their group of 12 since then. Chris and I were extra lucky and got to be on the first zodiac after the expedition staff. Those Ukrainians were so excited to see us it was hilarious. Flattering too. I can't imagine what that sort of isolation would feel like. Our group's host was Sasha, the station's meteorologist and official bartender. That's right - bartender. Vernadsky station used to be operated by the Brits and they built a pub. Of course they did. It's called Faraday Bar after the original name of the station. Another interesting factoid about the station is that it was one of the first to detect and report the damage to the ozone layer over Antarctica. Super neat! We had a great time touring the facility and even enjoyed a shot of their homemade vodka in the bar. They also have a post office where we were able to mail some postcards from Antarctica. Technically they will get picked up by the Ukrainian supply ship and be mailed from eastern Europe to their final destinations but the postmark and stamps are all Antarctican (is that a word?). 

Weather - I have to acknowledge the weather. We had amazing weather. Sunshine and mild temperatures. Very little wind. Totally not Antarctica. The staff couldn't believe how lucky we were. The experience would undoubtedly have been incredible regardless of the weather but it surely didn't hurt that we got to enjoy such fantastic conditions. On one particular day we hiked up several hundred meters to the top of a small mountain. It was so warm that we all took off our parkas and basked in the sunshine, taking in the glorious scenery around us but somehow not quite believing we were on the coldest continent of the planet.

View from the bridge.

Food and Friends - now I know neither of those things are really exclusive to Antarctica but there's no question that both significantly enhanced the trip. The food on the ship was absolutely fantastic. I swear we both gained about 10 pounds. Well maybe not Chris since he ate next to nothing for 4 of the 10 days. But I did for sure. The staff were unbelievable as well. Impeccable service and so friendly. We also met some great people from all over the world and had a great time getting to know them over the course of the expedition. We definitely hope to maintain those friendships into the future. And not just because it gives us people to visit in lots of other countries.  :P  One specific combination of both food and friends deserves a special mention - one night, while we were passing through the incredibly gorgeous Lemaire Channel, we got to have a BBQ on the back deck of the ship. It was so much fun. There we were, surrounded by marvelous Antarctic scenery, chowing down on delicious barbecued meat and several tasty side dishes, listening to tropical beats and drinking spicy mulled wine in our parkas. Unbelievable.

Ken - our boisterous fellow Edmontonian.

A bit of fun on some fast ice. We also had a game of soccer!

Photo credit: Tim Cools.

I know I haven't captured everything but those are some of my favorite memories from the trip. We have no regrets about spending the extra money or diverting from our original itinerary to take part in this cruise. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience. I think I ended my Galapagos blog with some strong encouragement to go there. Same goes for Antarctica. Your experience will likely be different than ours but I assure you it will be well worth the trip!

Textures of Antarctica.