Departure for Ushuaia Day 1~ 11th December 2022
Buenos Aires is often referred to as the Paris of the South. Indeed it is a beautiful, bustling, friendly city, where we enjoyed optional activities prior to flying southwards to Ushuaia. City tours and Tango dancing were very popular indeed. The Hyatt Hotel is world-class and presented a wonderful base for guests who have flown in from various parts of the world. Antarctica is a dream destination for most, and so it was with much excitement that we rose early today for the transfer to Ezeiza airport, for the flight down to Ushuaia. Flight times are usually around 3 hours (Argentina is a large country), but can vary by as much as 50 minutes depending on the prevailing winds. The approach into Ushuaia, the Southernmost City in the World, is breathtaking beyond words. Snow-capped peaks as far as the eye can see, then large bodies of water comprising the Beagle Channel.
The Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan to the north, and the open ocean Drake Passage to the south are the three navigable passages around South America, between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Beagle Channel is about 240km (150m) long and 5km (3m)wide at its narrowest point. The journey from Ushuaia down the Beagle Channel to the Drake Passage takes around 6 hours. The largest settlements on the channel are Ushuaia in Argentina and Port Williams in Chile. The channel is named after HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern parts of South America from 1826-1830. During the Beagle’s second voyage under the command of FitzRoy, Charles Darwin was onboard as self-funding supernumerary, and amateur naturalist. On 29 January 1833, Darwin wrote “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow”. Patagonia really is a land of mountains, forest and water-both salt and fresh.
The imposing Arakur Hotel stands sentry over Ushuaia, rather like a cosmic power point riveted to the mountainside. Buses transferred us to the hotel from the airport, for a wonderful buffet-style luncheon. At the Arakur we were met by very friendly A&K staff (Patri and Agustin) who gave out room key cards for use once we boarded Le Lyrial. There is very little flat land hereabouts, so the homes and buildings are engineered for sloping ground, with steep rooves that snow slides off easily. No typical outdoor living areas, since the climate here is cold and windy almost year-round. Many horses are tied up, grazing on grass between the abundant trees.
Buses transferred us to Le Lyrial, one of a number of ships at the quayside, including her sister ship Le Austral. These beautiful, purpose-built expedition ships are owned by French company Ponant. Le Lyrial is chartered by A&K for the season. The quay was a hive of activity, with window washing, rebunkering fuel, crew change overs, restocking fresh supplies and liquor. We got to the ship, looking more like a huge luxury yacht in her grey and white livery around 3.45pm. Staff and the A&K Expedition Team welcomed us onboard, our luggage preceding us to our cabins. The Team received the season’s goods onboard during the morning. We then had to distribute parkas, backpacks, boots, waterproof trousers, waterbottles and the like to the cabins, by size ordered previously. For many this is their first cruise, so the excitement levels were very high, guests exploring the vessel, drinking champagne and greeting one another. A student in Professor James McClintock’s (climatologist) group rushed over the greet me since he is also wearing shorts. The mandatory safety at sea lifeboat drill and evacuation procedures were attended to. Guests looking very amusing in their bright orange life jackets, hoping they will never be necessary.
At 7pm the Cruise Director Paul Carter shared various aspects of life onboard Le Lyrial, such as laundry, the sensitive vacuum lavatory system, and the Internet. The latter two perhaps not as user-friendly as the uninitiated may hope…
Tomorrow morning a catamaran tour has been arranged to see Magellanic Penguins and the resident Sea Lions. Guests not choosing to do the catamaran tour may stay onboard, or explore Ushuaia. After which we are to proceed to the White Continent so many of us have dreamed about for years. Dinner was magnificent, especially given the most charming of circumstances. By 9.30pm I was properly exhausted. It was a pleasure to strip (I find interior of ship warm), open my balcony door to let cold air in and attempt to write a short blog. God willing I shall do so daily for remainder of the season.
Ushuaia Bay and departure for Antarctica ~ 12 December 2022
Today, more than ever, the words from Hemingway “The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean” are more appropriate than ever. I shall explain why in a subsequent blog. George Bernard Shaw who most considered obnoxious famously commented that Hemingway never wrote anything that had Shaw reaching for a dictionary. Churchill, never a GBS fan was invited by Shaw to opening night of Shaw’s show. Bring a friend if you have any, added Shaw. Churchill said he couldn’t possibly make the first night. He said he would come on the second night, if there was one. Acerbic tongues at their best.
Early morning heralded rain, but the forecast was correct and the weather improved rapidly. At 8.30am a large catamaran docked across the quay from Le Lyrial, chartered exclusively for A&K guests. On a calm sea we rushed aboard to enjoy this additional tour. A plethora of bird species delighted those keen on feathered matters, including Magellanic Penguins and Black-browed Albatross. The prevailing salt-laden winds have created trees which bend awkwardly in that direction. Ushuaia literally translated means Bay facing West, and south-westerly winds blow powerfully in the area. Remains of well-built buildings, sheds and corals are all that remain of a farming venture on the north shore of the Beagle Channel which sadly never flourished. The vessel approached closely Bird Island, where we enjoyed close range views of Imperial Cormorants with chicks, Austral Thrushes, Kelp Geese and Dolphin Gulls. The photographic opportunities were splendid, given blue skies, some cloud, absolutely no wind AND a lighthouse. Sea Lion Island presented many Sea Lions (originally named), the large males looking much like lions with their enormous necks, manes and Mastiff-like faces. Coffee, croissants and other snacks were offered onboard, and a glorious morning was enjoyed by all out on an unusually calm, sunny Ushuaia Bay.
Lunch was a sumptuous seafood-themed affair, whilst the Officers and Crew prepared Le Lyrial for departure. By 2.30pm we cast our lines, and set off down the Beagle Channel for Antarctica. The ship is sleek, fast, quiet and unusually comfortable.
Ornithologist Patri Silva presented a wonderful lecture on Seabirds of the Southern Ocean. After 37 years of studying birds of the region, her knowledge and enthusiasm is unsurpassed.Most guests immediately wanted to get out on deck to see and identify the creatures Patri had presented so expertly.
Photo Coach Renato Granieri was up next, giving guests the basics of photography, how to prepare equipment for use in Antarctica and the importance of over exposing in these white, snowy environments. Renato is Italian and very slightly built. On the catamaran, I mentioned that we were grateful for his bright yellow jacket, otherwise he looked like a bar code. Thankfully the guests (and Renato) found that hilarious. Clearly the climate of Antarctica is starkly different from his sunny Sardinia. He warned all that he is often difficult to identify onshore, since only his eyes are exposed.
A very enjoyable, humorous session was held in the Theatre, where the Expedition Team introduced themselves individually. Russ Manning, who has a mop of hair resembling a thatched hut on a Pacific Island after a hurricane, brought the house down by saying he never wants to be an Expedition Leader, referring to both Marco (EL) and Chris (AEL) who are completely bald! Patri reiterated the comments on climate change, saying that 37 years ago she looked like Julia Roberts. Climate change has literally seen her melt away! We celebrated Falklander Pete Clement’s birthday. All in all, a fantastic day onboard and off, as the Le Lyrial now steams across the infamous Drake Passage, which hitherto is calm.
The infamous Drake Passage ~ 13th December 2022
We are crossing an unusually benign, calm Drake Passage. The Drake is considered the roughest ocean crossing in the world. The Circumpolar Current squeezing wind and water through the funnel-shaped corridor between South America and Antarctica producing waves and conditions unique to this body of water – about 900km. The Captain maintains the calmest in his extensive memory. Our progress is such that we hope to make a landing in the Antarctic Sound tomorrow.
The first lecture of the day’s program was Mike Hamill’s introduction, “Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean.” He started with a fascinating overview of the evolution of whales from land-living ancestors. The two main types are the toothed whales (which include dolphins and porpoises) and the baleen whales that sieve their food of krill and fish from the water with baleen or whalebone plates. Mike spoke about these creatures as if he knew them personally, and related the amazing life histories of these fascinating giant animals, including the enormous Blue Whale, the Humpback Whale (the one we are most likely to see at close quarters) and the Orca (Killer Whale), which is one of Antarctica’s true top predators. He then turned to the seals, which we will encounter when we go ashore or see dozing on ice floes. These include Elephant, Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard Seals, all of which swim with their hind flippers. He shared that we may also see fur seals, the eared seals related to sea lions that swim with their fore flippers. Antarctic Fur Seals have hinged pelvises, which makes them extremely mobile on land, and potentially aggressive/dangerous.
Considering the terms often used in an attempt to describe the proportions of the mighty Blue Whale, consider this. In 1928, a Blue Whale killed on South Georgia was systematically cut up and weighed at Grytviken station. This animal measured 27 meters in length – fairly average, considering the longest Blue Whale on record here measured 34 meters. The jawbone length was 6,95 meters, the flukes 5,90 meters. In terms of weight, the blubber weighed 25 651 kg, meat 56 444 kg, bone 22 280 kg, tongue 3 158 kg, heart 631 kg, intestines 1 600 kg, and blood 8 000 kg. The animal was measured 30 hours after death. Since most of the whale was used for food in one form or another, legislation dictated that the animal be processed within 33 hours of death. The backbone alone weighed in at 10 230 kg. From a creature weighing 122 004 kg, 27 708 kg of oil were rendered. In front of the museum in Grytviken is a mighty tail hook weighing 1 500kg, designed to pull whales weighing more than 100 tons onto the deck of the factory ships. Some biologists refer to Grytviken as the Auschwitz for the whales – such was Man’s greed and thoughtlessness.
Expedition Staff kindly delivered life jackets to our cabins in preparation for tomorrow’s shore landing in Antarctic Sound. Prof James McClintock gave a sobering lecture on the effects of climate change on Antarctica. From Adelie Penguins being wiped out by regular snow storms and subsequent melting water, to the presence of hitherto unknown King Crabs. The average temperature has risen one degree Centigrade per decade over the past 60 years. Glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates; massive ice sheets surrounding the peninsula have broken out in increasing frequency; and the annual sea ice has been reduced some 40%, both in terms of extent and duration. Jim’s book “Lost Antarctica” is a gift to all of the A&K guests onboard.
Marco presented the IAATO guidelines regarding protocols and behaviour in Antarctica, whilst Suzana dealt with the procedures involving the Zodiacs. She encouraged guests to abide by the guidelines, to avoid a vast amount of paperwork for A&K, and a ruined trip for the guest! Keep one’s butt in contact with the pontoon, and slide forward and aft.
I presented a talk on “The Norwegian who took the Prize” whilst many onboard watched Argentina triumph 3-0 over Croatia, in their World Cup semi-final. Amundsen is so poorly known throughout the world, that guests were delighted to learn more about this extraordinary Polar explorer. My stick, shorts and branded shirt attracted much attention, and my story was thankfully very well received.
In the evening, we put on our party clothes and gathered in the theater for a Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party hosted by Captain Duroussy. The Captain reminded us that this calm Drake Crossing is THE calmest he has ever experienced. We will probably not be so fortunate on the return voyage…The captain introduced us to some of the ship’s officers and staff, gave a short speech of welcome and assured us of his intention to make this a memorable cruise. We will arrive in the Antarctic Sound tomorrow, entering the archipelago through Nelson Strait or English Strait; surely places to be avoided by a Frenchman, he said! The Antarctic Sound is named after Swede Nordenskjold’s ship Antarctic. The most incredible survival story in its own right is Nordenskjold’s. Google Paulet Island, Snow Hill Island and Cape Well Met, should you be interested.
The reception was followed by a superb gala dinner notable for its magnificent menu and a buzz of conversation as we developed new friendships. I joined two ladies from Los Angeles and Colorado (mother-in-law/daughter-in-law) plus a young student form Birmingham University, Alabama (one of McClintock’s students). Taking it all in as we looked around, one thing was not lost on us: this is not the sort of luxury living that one associates with expeditions to the Antarctic! The Spartan conditions of the early expeditions, along with their clothing and dietary deficiencies are indeed very difficult to conceive surrounded as we find ourselves in such luxury. The waiter kept refilling my glass with ‘Partly Cloudy’ to the point that I excused myself early (the younger lady already gone to bed with sea-sickness), and carefully aimed my way down the corridor to try and compile a sensible blog. Life at sea has its challenges…