Antarctica

Day 275: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 19th

The last day aboard the ship before docking back onto Ushuaia tomorrow morning. The Drake was actually not very bad, but we’re also not very good with ships either!!

There were actually quite a lot of activities, and after skipping breakfast/lunch, we both thought we needed to get out, and joined the fun. Exchanging pictures, Antarctica trivia, and chatting it up with everyone for one last time….. it was good times!

For dinner, everyone got around, and better yet, they had a carvery open with this massive piece of steak that was the first thing we’ve eaten since yesterday afternoon…. and was totally delicious! It also helps 100x that we were parked in the Beagle Channel and not bumping around the Drake anymore.

So that’s it…we go to bed, and when we wake up it’ll be allllll over. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but whenever we look back at our stay in the Antarctic, it was a magical memory full of strange landscapes, penguins being awesome, clouds inching above the horizon line draped across glaciers, and being in another world all together.

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Day 273: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 17th

Its extremely hard to believe, but today is the last day of our stay in the Antarctic! With our expedition slated to return to Ushuaia on the 20th, and needing about 2 days to cross the Drake Passage (not looking forward to this), we only have one last chance to disembark, and see this one last time.

And as a stroke of bad luck, the winds were too strong in the morning for us to disembark. So far, we’ve been EXTREMELY lucky as the ship has not experienced much weather driven changes, and that’s not common at all down here! We’ve heard expeditions making ABSOLUTELY ZERO landings onto the continent because of weather!We were lucky…. And it was quite crazy, standing outside on the deck as the captain tried several times to lay anchor, only to be blown away while dragging anchor. As much fun as it was standing in 60km winds, you only need to try it once before getting the fuck back into the warmth of the cabin and drink a hot cup of freshly grounded cappuccino…… oh my how spoiled we are.

So with the morning winds, we ditched our plans and started north again, and the expedition leader in a stroke of genius (or possibly as an attempt to squelch the complaints made by spoiled passengers), we made a second attempt at our first failed attempt, the coolest name for an island ever, Deception Island.

Deception Island: So cool, this place deserves its own description. An ACTIVE volcano that last erupted in 1960s with a side that collapsed and let in ocean water, it was used as a harbour, a whaling station and an (another) abandoned British base with an airplane hangar! If memory serves us correctly (thanks to Jim, the historian who made Antarctic history interesting), the first Antarctic flight was taken here in Deception Island!

Sailing through the narrow channel that takes us into Deception Island, it is a bit scary this being an active volcano, and the fact that we’re in Antarctica, means there’s little we can do if anything happens! Another first for us now, sailing into an active crater in a ship! The landing here is extremely different, as the landscape is mainly driven by the geology of the location, and the remains of human settlement are extremely visible as we reached the inside of the caldera. Everyone was excited about our last landing, and the fact that there is so much history surrounding the island, throwing on the fact that we missed it the last time we passed by, everyone was much more giddy than usual. Before we landed, our expedition leader made a special advisory about the fur seals that dot the shores. These guys are rather curious, territorial, and really massive. There’s no chance that you’ll outrun them on land on a rocky beach, and that sparks them into their predator mode, so we were told to stand firmly on our ground and tell them to talk to the hand while yelling “STOP!”. This would later be used to comical effect.

The moment you step ashore, the mists blanket you with the smell of sulphur (?), a constant reminder that yes, you’re in an active volcano. Making a small trench with your feet, warm water oozes out of the sands and the water from the waves are no longer -2C but warm to the touch. Then you think, you’re inside one massive pot of hot water, boiled by a volcano!!! The towering, corroded vats and the machinery used to extract whale bones lay there, haunting. The remnants of the British base lay close-by, and the airplane hangar dots the end of the possible ‘tourist’ area. No, humans aren’t meant to live in Antarctica, and this is about the last bit of reminder we needed. Turning right from the landing zone, a short walk up the inner wall of the crater, there’s a collapsed wall of the crater giving a great view back out into the Antarctic waters. We took it all in, feeling like a great explorer of sorts, except having suffered nothing detrimental to our body than serious sea-sickness (but the worst is yet to come).

Coming down the hill and attempting to return to the landing zone where the buildings were, we can see from afar some over-friendly seals as they scramble towards walking tourists. Whenever a group of tourists walked by, that one seal would stand up and chase after them until greeted with the hand and cries of STOP, at which point it would turn around undecidedly back onto its resting place. About 5-6 groups walked past, and from afar it was rather comical seeing that seal trying so hard to make some new friends? Then, it was our turn.

Alan walked first, leaving Jiajia behind him in the safety of his broad shoulders and muscular biceps. The seal, anxiously waiting at its resting spot for us to walk by, stood up and did a stare down with Alan from about 20m away. At that time, Alan looked behind him, and saw Jiajia still back at a safe distance, taking pictures! Before Alan can get back to her, the seal came hopping friskily towards him, mouth slightly open similar to a dog as it runs happily towards its owner. Unfortunately, after seeing two penguins getting destroyed, and standing there as a 600lb animal running after you with its mouth open in the middle of the Antarctic is, well, a bit scary!! Alan stood his ground, looked it right in the eye and with his arms out, stopped the animal in its track with about 2m before getting tackled by a 600lb seal. Alan continued on safely past the eager seal with Jiajia following shortly behind. She wanted to take a video, but failed at the last attempt and said “Hey! You should try it again!”. As cool/fun as it was, you really won’t want to do that twice in a day.

The other part of Deception Island is the history. Whalers left their machinery, and some remains of old whale bones as the machinery was used to extract oil from the bones themselves. The abandoned British base lays nearby, as they were rocked by the volcano twice and decided Deception Island should be left on its own? Human history, is what it is. The whole place was very photogenic, with misting clouds in the horizon, dark beach sand, the warm water ashore and abandoned buildings give off a feeling of being frozen in time.

Before we left, we visited a few penguins one last time, basking in their presence and just enjoying their comical actions, as two groups of penguins did a face-off, street gang style. These guys never ceases to amuse…..

Wallowing around until we were literally forced off the island by the expedition leaders, we boarded last Zodiac and zipped back towards the ship with the shores of Deception Island, and our last piece of ground we’ll set foot on in Antarctic.

Back aboard the ship, everyone’s in high spirits once again with St. Patrick’s Day kicking around the ship (No green beer, though). People gathered, shared stories and pictures of their eventful last day in the Antarctic, and conversations about the next leg of everyone’s journey went on. Some had to return home (suckers!), while a couple from the States were hopping onto a boat the next day for another cruise, this time an 18-day endeavour to the South Georgian Islands, and then back up to Uruguay!!!! That’s insane…. but they also manage to convince 6 other backpackers in the crowd to see if they had any last minute specials to join them!

As we sailed out of the Neptune’s Bellows, the 200m wide channel opening to Deception Island, we stood on the deck, and watched it all sail by. Watching as the island disappears behind the ship, it was a sad moment knowing that we’re leaving this continent for now….

And also the fact that having to sail back into the Drake Passage means it’ll be rough seas for TWO days….

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Day 272: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 16th

Graciously invited to the Vernadsky Research Base by the researchers on board, it was our first visit to a functioning research base! Built by the British, but operated now by Ukraine, it was a very interesting glimpse at current living conditions upon the continent. Because the British didn’t need its base anymore, but under the Antarctic Treaty they were required to dismantle everything. So to avoid the hassle, they sold the base at a meager price of £1 pound to Ukraine, and the coin now sits proudly…..in the middle of the bar!

The compound contains a large fuel tank, a mechanical/generator building, a small church, and a large research/living quarters building. The landscape was still similar to what we’ve seen in the Antarctic, with penguins dotting the area alongside the research station. The best part was the station symbol, using the peace symbol as a replacement for the V in Vernadsky, adding a touch of humour and lightheartedness despite living in the most remote and most hostile continent on Earth. Inside the living quarters it reminded Alan of the portables in school, with its narrow hallway and sheet metal construction. Each research had their own ‘thing’ going on in the rooms, and despite not having any women working at the base they actually had a ladies bathroom! Upstairs was more interesting, with a barebones kitchen (they seemed to like Heinz ketchup just as much), a post-office/souvenir shop where they’d send postcards for you (the pickup happens twice a year!), and more importantly, an extremely cozy bar!!!

A few shots of ‘artesanal’ vodka produced locally here in Antarctica with the glacier waters over thousands of years old!! The vodka was smooth and tasty, giving a bit of warmth to the body and a rush to the head. We also visited another abandoned British base, known as the Wordie House, which was a precursor to the base in Vernadsky.

Outside the base, something else was happening. A leopard seal, a vicious predator only matched by Orcas in these waters, managed to catch a penguin swimming otherwise happily along the shores. The worst part was that the seal didn’t seem hungry, but it went into its natural ‘predator’ mode, and played with its prey. Having grown a strong affection towards these cute birds, it was a disturbing sight nonetheless but just another day in nature. The seal would swim into the penguin from below, hold the penguin in its mouth and violently fling the poor bird up into the air, leaving splashes of blood and salt water in its trail. The poor penguin struggled aimlessly as its flippers/wings broke, leaving it swimming furiously in circles as the seal observed the bird for a few seconds of silence before rushing forward and throwing up another toss….. It was a grueling 30mins before the seal got bored, possibly a bit hungry, and FINALLY ate the penguin. From this point on, leopard seals started giving us the creeps… especially when it circles your rubber Zodiac, and it definitely did not help being shown pictures of a deflated Zodiac lying on the shores after a few leopard seals bite into the boat…..

The afternoon, we landed onto Petermann Island, which was another serene and tranquil Antarctic setting with some happy penguins running around. We were much happier this time as the penguins were back in their clumsy, cute nature on the ground and doing their funny penguin stuff. Unfortunately, out on the shores another leopard seal caught another penguin, and this time everybody was there to witness it. It was just a gruesome as this morning, but the seal was probably hungrier and toyed with the helpless bird much less….but a few gross pictures were taken….. It was also crazy as some of the fearless divers actually went in to snorkel along with their fancy cameras to try to capture the whole thing! They were about 7-8m away from the seal demolishing the penguin, but every time the diver got close the seal would swim away with its prey. It wasn’t too keen on sharing….

We did take some very nice landscape shots, too, as the scenery is just utterly breathtaking. Then again, when I look back, the image of a penguin being savagely destroyed by a seal lion still sits atop the top of the things I remember in the Antarctic.

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Day 271: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 15th

One added bonus as part of this excursion is that the ship will actually cross through the Antarctic circle of 66o33’44” instead of sailing only around the Antarctic peninsula that spouts out north towards Argentina where most of the ships actually land, and also where most early explorers actually did. And shortly after breakfast we were all around the lounge, champagne in hand to celebrate with a toast as the captain quietly spoke in his heavily accented English, “We have just crossed the polar circle.”!! And to add to the awesomeness of being in the Antarctic circle, a pair of humpback whales decided to give us a nice twirl and dance atop the surface!

Sailing further south for a couple of hours, we have been extremely lucky with the weather as it is the weather that dictates what we can or cannot do. The ice seemed to have cleared out from shore, and we disembarked onto Detaille Island, home to an abandoned British that was left behind in the 1950s. In fact they left so quickly in 1959 that everything remains the same as it was when they did leave, giving us an eerie glimpse of what life was like living in Antarctica back in the 50s. There were still cans of Nestle Instant Coffee, Heinz ketchup and liquor lying around! Lets just say, we can’t imagine it being a very happy time for the researchers! We, on the other hand, were rather happy as this was a very elusive location, as the crew mentioned stopping here maybe once or twice a season as the weather is usually too too bad here to

The island was really a neat experience, and close to the base there was a Weddell seal and a crabeater seal (they actually don’t eat crabs!) laying side by side, and that rarely happens!! The abandoned camp had a very eerie feeling to it, and being able to step back into time to the ‘heyday’ of Antarctic research, the hardships people had to endure in the name of science (but more likely, for territory) was another reminder how much the world has evolved a mere 60 years ago…. And as we drift around the Antarctic ocean and the world, we slowly lose our original sense of society and even more confident that nobody can be sure what will happen in another 60 years when we both reach the upper limits of current mortality expectations.

In the afternoon, as we were setting sail back north we witnessed a spectacle of the most ferocious predator in the Antarctic. It was hard to describe, but from the deck we could see numerous fins and blows from the Orcas, probably numbering a dozen or so wading in and out of the surface like a penguin. After some insightful explanation by the expedition team, we realized it was a group of Orcas hunting a whale by attacking in groups, forcing the whale below the surface and unable to breathe at the surface. It was extremely well orchestrated, and for the next 30minutes we spent circling the Orcas as they dipped up and down along the horizon in a steady rhythm. We only spotted traces of the whale when a fin stuck out of the water bringing up shots of blood, but was quickly wrestled back down by the Orcas. The alpha male Orca had a MASSIVE dorsal fin, showing everyone that he definitely is the boss around here. Not a usual sighting, and being fortunate enough to witness predation happening in nature is not to be expected often.

We retreat to our cabin, still bewildered about the things we visited and witnessed, and a bit humbled to be as comfortable as we were in a location that should be anything but.

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Day 270: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 14th

Waking up with our expedition leader kicking us to wake us up, it was another surreal day in Antarctica. As the night went on, it started snowing and we actually woke up with our face covered in snow…strange feeling. We packed our sleeping systems, hopped onto a zodiac and back onto the ship just in time for breakfast!

The morning disembarkment was at Almirante Brown, a disused Argentine base. A short hike up a crevassed hilltop, it was the first we saw snow!!! Atop the slippery and narrow rock that was at the hilltop, we snapped a few pictures and were on our way down. Climbing up wasn’t hard, but coming back down was the best as we put our bums to the snow and tobogganed down!!! It took a bit of trial and error but Alan figured out a suave way of sliding down quick, except Jiajia kept stopping and starting a traffic jam with her high-friction bum! A snow fight and a few snow angels later, you realize everyone is just as childish as we were no matter where you’re from and how old they were. We had quite a few other backpackers aboard the ship, and over the dozen or so days in such a special place (a ship with no outside communication!), a somewhat special ‘polar bond’ seemed to have emerged. Strangely enough, after our walk ashore we took a zodiac ride out in search for ice…despite being surrounded by it, you really can’t stop but appreciate how beautiful the icebergs are, and how the different shapes are formed.

The ship sailed through the Lemaire Channel as we saw some amazing icebergs in the aptly named Iceberg Graveyard. The skies were cloudy and snowing quite heavily, so the icebergs weren’t as illuminated and their images less ethereal than they are in real life.

The afternoon was spent playing with penguins in the snow at Port Charcoat… and we just can’t get enough of penguins!

MORE PENGUINS PLEASE!

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Day 271: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 15th

One added bonus as part of this excursion is that the ship will actually cross through the Antarctic circle of 66o33’44” instead of sailing only around the Antarctic peninsula that spouts out north towards Argentina where most of the ships actually land, and also where most early explorers actually did. And shortly after breakfast we were all around the lounge, champagne in hand to celebrate with a toast as the captain quietly spoke in his heavily accented English, “We have just crossed the polar circle.”!! And to add to the awesomeness of being in the Antarctic circle, a pair of humpback whales decided to give us a nice twirl and dance atop the surface!

Sailing further south for a couple of hours, we have been extremely lucky with the weather as it is the weather that dictates what we can or cannot do. The ice seemed to have cleared out from shore, and we disembarked onto Detaille Island, home to an abandoned British that was left behind in the 1950s. In fact they left so quickly in 1959 that everything remains the same as it was when they did leave, giving us an eerie glimpse of what life was like living in Antarctica back in the 50s. There were still cans of Nestle Instant Coffee, Heinz ketchup and liquor lying around! Lets just say, we can’t imagine it being a very happy time for the researchers! We, on the other hand, were rather happy as this was a very elusive location, as the crew mentioned stopping here maybe once or twice a season as the weather is usually too too bad here to

The island was really a neat experience, and close to the base there was a Weddell seal and a crabeater seal (they actually don’t eat crabs!) laying side by side, and that rarely happens!! The abandoned camp had a very eerie feeling to it, and being able to step back into time to the ‘heyday’ of Antarctic research, the hardships people had to endure in the name of science (but more likely, for territory) was another reminder how much the world has evolved a mere 60 years ago…. And as we drift around the Antarctic ocean and the world, we slowly lose our original sense of society and even more confident that nobody can be sure what will happen in another 60 years when we both reach the upper limits of current mortality expectations.

In the afternoon, as we were setting sail back north we witnessed a spectacle of the most ferocious predator in the Antarctic. It was hard to describe, but from the deck we could see numerous fins and blows from the Orcas, probably numbering a dozen or so wading in and out of the surface like a penguin. After some insightful explanation by the expedition team, we realized it was a group of Orcas hunting a whale by attacking in groups, forcing the whale below the surface and unable to breathe at the surface. It was extremely well orchestrated, and for the next 30minutes we spent circling the Orcas as they dipped up and down along the horizon in a steady rhythm. We only spotted traces of the whale when a fin stuck out of the water bringing up shots of blood, but was quickly wrestled back down by the Orcas. The alpha male Orca had a MASSIVE dorsal fin, showing everyone that he definitely is the boss around here. Not a usual sighting, and being fortunate enough to witness predation happening in nature is not to be expected often.

We retreat to our cabin, still bewildered about the things we visited and witnessed, and a bit humbled to be as comfortable as we were in a location that should be anything but.

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Day 269: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 13th

Yesterday evening, as we were preparing for a landing at Deception Island, the Antarctic weather got the best of us with 37knot (~66km) winds channeled through the island and pushing the boat off course and unable to dock inside. We were lucky enough to hit this spot on our way back, and we were EXTREMELY glad that we did…

Today was rather eventful for our landings.

Morning, we disembarked onto Cuverville Island for the always fun walks amongst penguins and icebergs. The landings are almost always cluttered with penguins despite most of them already leaving for the near approaching southern hemisphere winter. Nothing really ‘happens’, as the penguins are just living their life fending off albatross, molting their feathers, walking like clumsy birds, and just doing some crazy penguin things like climbing a glacier for no apparent reason.

The afternoon was probably the best all-out scenery we saw. The weather has been EXTREMELY great for us so far with low winds and SUNNY SKIES! It was not much colder than a mild winter day in Toronto, but the tranquility definitely beats the city. The ship docked inside a quiet harbour and the water was covered with an oily sheen (known as ‘grease ice’). Hiking up a small hill, you get a spectacular view looking back down onto the harbour with the Antarctic waters in front of you, and a gently sloping mountain behind you. The pictures can only give you a minor glimpse into what it would’ve been like, sitting atop that hill and looking onto a sight like that.

And before we headed back onto the boat, we and took a quick dip with our bathing suits. Yup…we can now claim that we’ve swam inside Antarctic waters! Standing out of the water with our bathing suits wasn’t bad, but once you get back out of the water you realize the air is actually warm! The water is a breezy -2C due to the high salt content, and the moment you dip your feet in you seriously second-guess your intelligence for doing this. It was SO COLD, but you don’t get instant-hypothermia like we imagined and we lived through.

Instead of heading back to our cabin after dinner, we got dressed for a little walk in the dark. Disembarking at Leith Cove where a leopard seal greeted us in the dark, we walked up to a safer spot and set up camp upon the snow. Yup, we can also now claim that we’ve camped on the Antarctic peninsula! And it wasn’t too cold, so we were camping with bivys and not tents, exposing us to the elements. The ship had all their gear prepared and sleeping with two sleeping pads, two sleeping bags and a bivy. Jiajia was extra-warm because she brought her own sleeping bag and was sleeping with THREE sleeping bags! Surprisingly, it wasn’t that cold?!?!?!

We slept darn well in our sleeping bags, looking up onto the cloudy skies as we ponder about what other strange events this continent has in store for us.

Note: There are a lot of pictures, but NONE of them are photoshop’d…..

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Day 268: m/v Plancius – Antarctica – Mar 12th

Disembarking at Half Moon Bay, so named for the crescent shape of the shoreline. Across the shore was an Argentine research station that was out of operation(?), but adds some life to the otherwise majestically frozen landscape. This time, fur sea were added to the mix, and these guys aren’t the cute friendly ones we saw back in the Galapagos, but they seem quite agitated so we walked far away from them.

Climbing upon a hill, a colony of chinstrap penguins stood around, pooing and gawking and being themselves. In the middle of the whole colony stood a single, macaroni penguin with its yellow hairs standing out. Why is he/she here, nobody knows, but its been here for a long time! A true identity crisis…..

As part of the cruise, other passengers are allowed an option to kayak, and another to scuba dive! Yes, scuba dive in the Antarctic ocean, where the waters aren’t frozen but a frigid -2C because of the salinity!!! And it was also the first day for the kayakers/divers to be able to head out for their excursions. Unfortunately, a tragic accident tainted the day as one of the divers suffered a fatality for reasons unknown…. and it really affected us personally as we had a nice dinner with the person the previous evening and even passed along a few words of encouragement before their group disembarked the boat as we ran into each other again in the hallway….. It was an extremely unfortunate accident and we send our condolences to the family.

This event, along with all the historic stories about explorers giving the ultimate sacrifice at their attempt in conquering the continent, serves as a reminder how inhospitable the white continent, and nature, really is. The world has really evolved to the point where we, just some regular tourists, can get a ticket and travel safely to and from Antarctica with three luxurious meals a day, varying lectures of interesting subjects, different afternoon snacks, and warmth in body and in soul.

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