We enjoyed Ushuaia and its surroundings whilst waiting for the Polar Pioneer to arrive and take us off on an Antarctic Adventure. We had arrived days early, there was no way we were missing this trip with a delay on the road.
The 16th January finally arrived and an excited Rachel looked out the window at 5.30am to see Polar Pioneer moving slowly across the water to dock, where she was dwarfed by the other cruise ships. This ship, with only 52 passengers, 18 Russian crew, 9 expedition guides and a reputation for adventure, had come highly recommended. The boat, built in the 80’s, had been a Russian listening station, apparently for identifying submarines.
We boarded at 4pm and following a safety briefing, pulled away from the dock to head east along the Beagle Channel, before turning south to cross the Drake Passage. The early evening had 52 passengers on the bow and the flying bridge, watching birds with a backdrop of snowy peaks. We had the grizzly view of three Skuas chasing a lapwing (a land bird) off-shore and drowning it.... That's their dinner sorted.
The first adventure was crossing the Drake Passage, wind and high seas - this is the Southern Ocean. Luckily we do not suffer from seasickness, others were less fortunate. The attendance at meals quickly reduced to about 60 percent as the the ship's doctor attended to the poorly. Added to this, two expedition staff were confined to their cabin with flu.
One of the great things about the ship was its Open Bridge policy and whenever possible all exterior decks were accessible. The Russian crew were brilliant throughout. During the next 18 days, when not indoors, we would be wrapped up in 4 or 5 layers of clothing, on the lookout for wildlife and icebergs - it's bloody cold around that southern ice brick. When you hit a certain point South, you are suddenly aware that you are now living in the freezer compartment...
After some days crossing the Drake Passage, we finally sighted the South Shetland Isles and moved on to Enterprise Island, off the west coast of Graham Land. It was snowing and we were surrounded by icebergs. Amazing. It was time for our first trip on the Zodiacs to ride amongst the icebergs and see the wreck of the Governoren, a whaling factory ship. In January 1915, 8 days after Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance became icebound in the Weddell Sea, the Governoren, some 800 miles away, caught fire - probably quite a burn as it was full of whale oil. All crew survived and the wreck, in a safe anchorage became a haven for yachts to tie alongside and a tourist attraction.
It was great fun out on the water.
Later we arrived off Cuverville Island and landed to visit the Gentoo penguin colony. There we saw Gentoos with their chicks and penguin highways in the snow. Amazing to see adults heading into the water to hunt and others return unceremoniously bashing onto the shore, before waddling off to feed chicks. You'd think it sensible to nest in easy reach of the water, but the earlier they nest, the greater their chance of survival, and those rocky outpoints, up to half a mile from the water, lose their snow first.
Next was the Lemaire Channel, a strait between the mainland’s Graham Land and Booth Island. The ship moved up the channel, with us surrounded by ice floes, slowly cutting through or bumping aside ice to reach the point for another Zodiac trip. We had plenty of glaciers, cliffs, bergy bits and growlers to view and spent our time spotting seals and penguins on the floes. We even caught sight of our first Chinstrap penguins, these little fellas seemed to pop up in random places, time and again. To get some sense of the journey, Jim Cundy, a fellow passenger took and shared these time-lapse videos of the journey into and out of the channel.
Into the Zodiac and out amongst the ice and the Iceberg Graveyard. We spotted Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard seals along with penguins and even managed to stand on an ice floe. Best thing for me was seeing Leopard Seals - they look pretty mean - no wonder penguins look nervous when about to jump in the water. As the wind came up, the ice-pack closed-in and from being relatively easy to navigate, we started bumping and bashing about in it. Back aboard Polar Pioneer, the ship easily cut through the closing ice. Watching from the stern, the penguins were chasing, taking advantage of the clear water channel cut by the ship.
That evening, we were given a choice of a late Zodiac cruise or a landing with hike up to a memorial cross. It was very cold and the weather miserable, so we chose the cruise. It turned out to be the right choice as we got to see lots of penguins, lining up high on the cliffs indecisively deciding whether to plunge off into the water. We also saw lots of seals, including a Leopard seal, due reason for a penguin’s hesitancy. Some of the hikers didn't have such a fun experience - being trapped for a while on land as the ice packed in once again.
The following day we visited Brown Station, one of the Argentinian summer research stations. There we walked past a small penguin colony and hiked up a hill through deep snow to a beautiful viewpoint. We could see whales surfacing in the bay. It was a pretty steep hill, so it was a fun slide down.
In Skontorp Cove we spent time in the Zodiacs, this time watching humpback whales feeding. Then on to Portal Point where moved amongst the icebergs and found an ice arch. We then headed towards huge icebergs a little further off shore.
On to Astrolabe Island and the Dragon’s teeth, where we visited a colony of Chinstrap penguins, watched sheathbills scavenging, spotted fur seals playing in the surf and on the beach, cruised amongst bergy bits and came across a Leopard seal relaxing on the ice. Finally, we landed on Gourdin Island, off the northern tip of the Antarctica Peninsula. The area was Penguin Central, with Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelies sharing the space. The place was buzzing with life – birds scavenging, penguins entering/exiting the water and curious furry penguin chicks waddling around insearch of mum and food. Standing on the beach, a Crabeater seal suddenly launched itself ashore, scattering a few of our party. The seal just relaxed and ignored the surroundings.
Throughout all these little excursions, we saw every form of iceberg, from small to giant and came across lots of birds - Skuas, Giant Southern, Cape & Wilsons Storm Petrels, Sheathbills, Wandering & Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Cormorants and Penguins (to name but a few).
It was time to head away from the Antarctic mainland peninsula and cruise to Elephant Island. The weather hadn't been too kind to us, but as we moved north along the peninsula, the visibility improved and we had fantastic views looking back at the Antarctica Peninsula Ice Sheet. We also passed some of the biggest icebergs of our trip, including following close along the length of one, which measured some 21 kilometres.
Elephant Island is where, in 1916, the Endurance crew awaited rescue. To complete this rescue their leader, Ernest Shackleton, and a small party sailed in a small (unsuitable) wooden boat, the James Caird, some 800 miles to South Georgia and then crossed the uncharted island in the hope of finding the whaling stations. Well he achieved the almost impossible and the rest is history.
Well we arrived at Wild Point (named after Frank Wild), a small rocky beach in the shadow of a glacier. That crew survived months in this spot - I would never have survived a sunny afternoon. Beautiful, wild and stunningly bleak with little cover from the elements. There is a memorial bust on the beach to honour Captain Luis Pardo of the Chilean rescue boat Yelcho. We headed off in the Zodiacs, but there was no possibility of a landing due to the rough conditions, so we motored off the point and watched the nearby glacier calve. It was a little misty and miserable so, to perk up the day, it was time for a swim - the Polar Plunge. I'll do anything for a free sambuca.