Ushuaia ~ 8th December 2019
With great excitement I find myself back in Ushuaia, southern Patagonia, about to embark on a month in Antarctica with A&K, not having done so since 2017.
The SA Airlink official in Pietermaritzburg at 5.45am wanted to try and book my luggage through to Ushuaia – I said NO as I required my bag in Buenos Aires, so she promptly booked my luggage through to Sao Paulo in Brazil, for reasons known only to herself. When I went back to her explaining the serious mistake, the official said it was too late – luggage was loaded. Anyway, the kind hostess on the SAA flight from ORT to Sao Paulo moved me to an empty row of 4 seats, where I was able to stretch out and get some sleep, which was most appreciated. In Sao Paulo I then had to check into Brazil, just to recover my luggage. Immigration/Customs/Security – recover luggage, check luggage back in at the LATAM desk – Security/Customs/Immigration. For anyone wondering about a gainful way of spending time in transit, this is NOT to be recommended.
On a positive note, the power of the human spirit never fails to amaze me. Folks noticing my difficulties with walking and my crutch have consistently tried to make Life easier. LATAM organised wheelchair assistance, and seats closer to the front of the plane. Our flight into BA landed at 12.10am. By the time I had cleared Immigration/Customs and recovered my luggage, then travelled into the city, it was 1.45am. BA was still abuzz with activity and people at this time, which was wonderful to see. At the hotel, the fellow at Reception was stunned when I asked him to call my room and check that I was awake at 3.10 am for a 3.30am transfer to the airport (for a 5.20am flight to Ushuaia). When I came down to Reception at 3.20am, the dear fellow made me a cup of coffee ‘on the house’. It was necessary and enormously appreciated.
I met my old friend, and Assistant Expedition Leader JJ from Costa Rica, at the airport in BA. He was called aside by the Customs Police as we were boarding to open his bags. Turns out he had two huge bottles of Tomato Sauce in his luggage intended for a celebrity family travelling with us in Antarctica. JJ was allowed to keep the sauce, and we landed into Ushuaia where it is 5 degrees and very windy. The kind folks at the hotel arranged an early check-in, as the hotels hereabouts are absolutely bursting at this time of year. More than 90% of the visitors to Antarctica in the short 3-month season travel through Ushuaia.
It is simply wonderful to be back down here, about to get on a ship and cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica.
Today the expedition team met up to discuss embarkation plans, and first cruise itinerary. It is wonderful seeing folks who have become good friends, and meeting folk I have not worked with previously. The intellectual horsepower within this team is staggering, along with their combined experience, that I really am extremely fortunate to be amongst them. A degree in Agriculture qualifies me very poorly to be lecturing on Antarctic expeditions! There is also a film crew onboard documenting the voyage and team, commemorating A&K’s 30th anniversary in expedition cruising. We enjoyed a fantastic buffet dinner at the Arakur Hotel, high above the town of Ushuaia, before a 40-minute bus trip back to our hotel on the extreme western edge of town. There are 5 expedition ships alongside the pier – tomorrow is going to be a crazy day as we all turn our vessel around, and head back out with new guests.
The rich and varied tapestry of our 2019 year continues to be woven…
9th December 2019
After an absolutely glorious morning in Ushuaia yesterday, the channel water looking like a mirror, Russ and I were fortunate enough to spot a Patagonian Fox at the hotel. Looking much like the English Fox, but a more uniform grey/brown in colour. I admired its pluck as it trotted down the street driving every dog in the neighbourhood berserk, but they were all behind fences!
As always at the start of the season, it was a crazy day, as we received many boxes onto the ship, then distributed parkas, waterproof boots, trousers, backpacks and water bottles to cabins. I sorted out the library books, whilst the ship was being re-supplied with fuel, food, liquor and dry goods. There were 7 ships in port (we have NEVER seen this before) and the short quayside was a hive of activity. By afternoon, there was low cloud, rain and a strong wind. The National Geographic Explorer had a very difficult time trying to leave as the wind kept blowing her back against the quay. After suffering some serious scratches in her pristine dark blue paintwork, the bow was tied to the quay and with full power and rear bow thrusters, the ship was moved to 45 degrees to the quay. The forward bow thrusters were then used to assist getting the bow free once the ropes were untied. I think the Officers breathed a collective sigh of relief when she finally moved off safely down the Beagle Channel. We were thankfully on the other side of the quay so the wind assisted our departure.
The excitement of guests embarking on their first trip to Antarctica never ceases to inspire me, and reminds me of the privilege it is to visit these incredible places.
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the largest ocean current on Earth, and flows around Antarctica in a clockwise direction, completely unimpeded by any landmass. It is funnelled between South America and the Antarctic Continent, creating the wildest ocean crossing on Earth, known as the Drake Passage. This crossing of 800km, supposedly initially named by Drake in 1573, but discovered by Hoces in 1525, is infamous for ships. We exited the sanctuary of the Beagle Channel into the Drake around midnight, to face 20-25 foot waves, and Beaufort force 7 winds (25-30 knots), with intermittent huge troughs in the ocean surface. To say it was a rough night would be an understatement. This usually quiet, fast, comfortable ship creaked and groaned; her 11 000 ton mass rendered impotent by the raging ocean.
Morning brought no respite. Dining areas abandoned, the ship more like a graveyard. Some guests looked so forlorn that I am sure had I offered them the option of getting off, they would have taken it. Some say this is the tax to visit Antarctica. Guests hoping for a rough Drake Crossing are certainly getting their money’s worth. Quite often waves are crashing over windows and balconies on Deck 3. Despite the ship’s movement we exchanged parkas and boots for guests feeling they wanted a better fit, and two lectures were presented.
By 2pm the ocean has calmed somewhat, and there are many guests at lunch. I think they are hungry, not having had a morsel all morning? In the evening, the Captain’s Welcome cocktail party and dinner took place. Interesting to hear that our Captain was born on a tea plantation in Ethiopia, moved to France aged 5, and has worked at sea since leaving school. Captain at age 30. Antarctica his favourite destination.
On Crystal Symphony in June, I was given a dentist’s bib chain by a fellow speaker, Jay Wolff. Extremely useful for securing a napkin around my neck, especially wearing a clean white shirt and suit. Well, I had hardly secured my napkin, when the Staff Captain who I have worked with before, arrived at our table with 5 fellow French Officers to tease me about the bloody chain! The team thought it was hilarious. I wondering what my comeback is going to be…
The hilarity continued when Matt Messina expressed reluctance to sample the delicious suckling pig – he loves all living creatures. With a dead pan face, I suggested there was an apple in the mouth, and a plum in the other end, which he was welcome to. Poor Matt took me seriously whilst the table collapsed laughing.
After an extremely rough night, and morning, there is still considerable roll on the ocean and most guests are exhausted. Everyone, staff included, are hoping for a good night’s rest tonight.
The ocean calmed further during the night, and today has been a fine day at sea. Guests seem to have got the hang of the Wi-Fi, and the need to log out, keeping their door key cards away from their phones and importantly the difference between fore and aft, starboard and port. The Zodiac briefing was conducted during the morning, along with IAATO’s guidelines for visiting Antarctica.
At lunchtime, the first iceberg larger than the ship was spotted, earning Mr Hewitt a bottle of champagne. The Captain kindly circled the massive iceberg a number of times, and with whales blowing regularly it really was a special welcome to the South Shetland Islands.
We are now well into the Antarctic Convergence Zone, where the water and air temperature has dropped a good 5 degrees. Warm, saltier water flowing southward meets cold, less saline water flowing northwards, and these two water masses mix, sink and flow northward. The cold water supports vast concentrations of sea life, hence the birdlife, whales, seals and fish hereabouts.
I am writing these lines passing through Nelson Strait in the South Shetland Islands, with low cloud, land masses very close to ship covered in snow and ice, and snow flakes dropping gently onto the ship. Considering the distance of 800km between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula, the fact that we are here in well under 48 hours, despite the very rough seas, gives some indication of the speed and stability of Le Lyrial. On a vessel like this it is absolutely impossible to imagine the discomfort and deprivations of passengers on ships in days gone by. Roald Amundsen spoke about the ‘mustard’ within Scott’s ship, all over the table, living area, beds, etc. that came as a result of the horse urine pouring through the floorboards from the horses stabled above! No warm bathing or washing facilities. Clothing only washed in salt water – fresh water was far too valuable for the washing of clothes. Men, bedding and clothing were damp for the duration of their voyages, and with that commensurately cold. Limeys derived from the ration of lime juice allocated to ward off scurvy. Nightly reading required lying on your side with a candle balanced on the side of your face. Woe betide you if you fell asleep! The Golden Age of Exploration surely a misnomer in terms?
By contrast we enjoyed a drink during a lively Recap and Precap session in the warm, dry Theatre. Expedition Leader Marco Favero from Argentina, but born in Venice and assures us he can pole a gondola whilst serenading the passengers, outlined plans for a Continental landing in the morning at Brown Bluff in the Antarctic Sound.
Antarctica continued ~ 17th December 2019
Yesterday morning found us taking a Zodiac cruise off Enterprise Island, commemorating the enterprise of whalers who made anchorage at the south side of the island during the years 1915 -1930. Humpback Whales provided a magnificent display very close to the Zodiacs, including bubble-net feeding, tail-slapping and fin-waving. As always with whales, frustrating to photograph from water level, and I enjoyed watching the guests as much as I enjoyed watching the Cetaceans. Thankfully the beasts presented their flukes very regularly, much to our guests’ delight. We then moved into Foyn Harbour to view the wreck of the Gouvernoren factory whaling ship. This ship apparently had 80 000 gallons of whale oil onboard at the end of the season, when the whalers were enjoying some merriment and anticipated bonuses. Well the ship caught fire, and the men immediately ran her aground close to shore and began to salvage as much oil as possible. The bow, along with some chains and remains of water boats (used to collect fresh water/ice for the steam engines) remind us of Man’s occupation of Antarctica. Antarctic Terns now use the wreck for breeding purposes.
During the afternoon, we landed on George’s Point, Ronge’ Island, named after Madame de Ronge’, a major contributor to Adrien de Gerlache’s Belgian Antarctic Expedition which overwintered involuntarily in 1897/98. It was low tide, so the Zodiacs had to carefully negotiate a channel to shore, then we helped guests over rocks to the snow line. Sadly the snow was deep, so many guests struggled to walk to the penguin colony. I spent time speaking to Peter, a retired pineapple farmer from Queensland, Australia. He told me that a jockey often used to come and pick pineapples dressed in a wetsuit, to lose weight for the Saturday racing! Picking pineapples in Queensland heat in a wetsuit beggars belief. There was a lone Weddell Seal, which moved one whisker during the 4-hour landing. Marco told the guests with a dead pan face that that was a sign the batteries were flat, and needed to be changed.
A&K hosted their Marco Polo cocktail party for guests who regularly travel with them. The food was magnificent, including caviar and foie gras. The evening was spent in Wilhelmina Bay, famous for its whales, and this night did not disappoint. There were Humpback Whales in profusion, calm seas and great excitement on all observation decks. This compensated for the disappointment of not making it south to the Lemaire Channel.
Casual observers may not know that there is a “booking system” regarding Antarctica which opens in July, and all the operators frantically try to book their slots according to their planned itineraries. This system hopefully eliminates two ships clashing at the same landing site, that one does not see too many other ships whilst in Antarctica, but that other ships are nearby should there be an emergency. We have seen a fair number of other vessels, including a private ship yesterday, painted in very unusual black and white stripes. How this will all play out with more expedition ships being built, but no new landing sites being established, remains to be seen? The factors regarding the booking of landing sites are many and complex – time of day for sun, tide, wind, time of season, breeding time of resident wildlife, etc. Guests may believe we just show up.
This morning I was fortunate to join Rich Pagen for back-to-back Zodiac tours in Cierva Cove. We had a lively group of guests on both tours, and pushed our way through brash ice, looking at majestic icebergs and surrounding mountains. A Humpback Whale showed itself some way off, and pineapple farmer Peter suggested it would show up next a long way away. Well, we turned off the motor, and served champagne. Next thing, the behemoth surfaces very close to our Zodiac and cruises by on the surface about 10 meters away, checking us out very carefully. I could hear a collective inhalation, much as one gets around dangerous wildlife, but silence otherwise. It was a case of perfect positioning and timing, and a quite unforgettable moment for all of us. I got some photos on my phone where the whale more than fills the frame. We had some champagne left, which Rich and I speculated enjoying after the cruises. Eight hours between the bottle and the throttle.. Upon our return to the ship, the bottles were all taken from us, so we insisted that the second group drink all the champagne, claiming that our success was judged by how much champagne they consumed! Whilst enjoying the champagne, a Minke Whale surfaced three times very close to the Zodiac. These whales are usually seen briefly before disappearing, so this was particularly special. I shared some information about crevasses, snowfields, snow bridges and the dangers of traversing these regions, whilst Rich covered matters of natural history.
The last landing for this Classic Antarctica voyage took place at Mikkelson Harbour, in the Palmer Archipelago. The beach is strewn with whale bones which the guests found of great interest, narrated by Matt Messina. A young Weddell Seal won the cuteness prize hands down, with a face and movements much like a Labrador puppy. Some mature seals further away on the snow displayed small movements, indicating their batteries do not require changing just yet. Nobody wanted to leave, the realisation dawning that their voyage is almost over. The film crew who have been recording a special video for the 30th anniversary of A&K’s expedition cruising were getting their last interviews done, with some apparently camera shy members of the team.
It has been an extraordinary week, from a rough Drake Crossing, to 5 windless, sunny, gorgeous days in the Antarctic Peninsula. The guests, I fear, are almost shell-shocked that it is over. The days have seemingly merged into one exquisite Life memory, and the ship is already steaming north back towards Ushuaia. Life jackets have been returned. Tomorrow boots and waterproof trousers will be returned. I am up first on the lecture schedule with Shackleton.
For me personally, being back in Antarctica, on this team, with guests like these is just fantastic, as I continue to strive for the uttermost of my Life’s set prize…
End of first Antarctic voyage this season ~ 19th December 2019
It seems that almost as fast as it began, our first Antarctic voyage is over and we find ourselves back in Ushuaia.
This 9-day trip comprises two days travel across the infamous Drake Passage, 5 days in Antarctica and two days travel back to Ushuaia 800km away. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) stipulate that ships carrying more than 200 passengers may not land at most sites in the Peninsula, and those carrying 200 passengers or less may only land 100 passengers at a time. This means that all landings are carried out twice, our 170 guests divided into two groups of 85, and leaves us options to bring some crew ashore.
The crew love any opportunity to get off the ship, it is wonderful to see. This particular cruise has been extraordinary in terms of 5 days without Antarctica’s 4-letter word W-I-N-D!
It has made landings and Zodiac operations a complete cinch. The sunshine however has burnt many guests and staff alike. Eight to ten hours out in the Antarctic air can be demanding on the epidermis.
To celebrate A&K’s 30th year in expedition cruising, we have had a film crew onboard, filming all aspects of an Antarctic journey, interviewing the team members, interviewing guests and importantly filming each of us doing our respective jobs. The company called “Where Next” is owned by an American who has cycled from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Patagonia, and based in Bogota’ Columbia. Crew comprises three Colombians, and two ladies from the A&K office in Chicago. They have been an absolute delight to have around, and interact with. I don’t envy them the job of editing the extensive footage they have shot over the past 9 days, but certain the end product is going to be magnificent. Some team members are camera shy and have tried every trick imaginable to evade an interview, but on a ship you can only run, you cannot hide! Each and every one of them has been interviewed and found it was a far more painless experience than they initially imagined.
Passengers have returned their life jackets, bog boots and waterproof pants. There have been a multitude of lectures during these sea days crossing a calm Drake Passage. I spoke about Shackleton yesterday, and Amundsen today. One guest asked about the fellow who died from eating dog’s liver, so I was drawn into a mini lecture about Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz. Thankfully my lectures have been very well received. The film crew filmed part of my Shackleton talk, and afterwards said it couldn’t possibly be called a talk – it was a performance! They particularly liked my Rob Caskie white shirts. One guest mentioned that he would appreciate seeing me deliver a talk with a bit more enthusiasm. I knew he was joking, but brought this up at the start of my Amundsen talk, saying I had taken tranquilisers to calm me then Red Bull to perk me up a little, and hoped I’d make it to the end of the talk. At the end of the talk, I asked him how I had done – he said I was much improved. It brought the house down. The Q&A session was lively, and so Reed Sherer (Geologist) and John Wright (long-standing British Antarctic Survey member) joined me on stage to assist with questions.
On this voyage we have a Captain we have not worked with before, and what a delight Captain Colaris has turned out to be. After years as Maritime Pilot, he has returned to captain expedition ships, as Antarctica is his favourite place on Earth. I realised he was exceptional when we encountered our first large iceberg and he circled the iceberg at close quarters, turning this 11 000 ton ship almost as one would a Mini Cooper in a car park.
As whales and Orcas appeared, his approach and movements of the ship have been sublime. Yesterday we ran close to a group of 6 intrepid rowers who are attempting to row between Cape Horn and the Peninsula (865km) in 21 days. Their craft looked much like Pete van Kets’s ‘Nyamazela’ used to row across the Atlantic, just a little larger. They have a small ship in support, but the levels of cold, discomfort, deprivation and exhaustion beggar belief. There are many fearless, fit, focused folk out there! The boat was literally bobbing around like a cork, at times looking as if it were going backwards.
As a fine bonus to our planned itinerary, the Captain made such good time across a calm Drake, that he took us to Cape Horn early this morning. This wild and wonderful place with such mystical power in maritime lore, where the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic Oceans meet. Its dangers for ships hastened the construction of the Panama Canal.
Tomorrow is a frenetic day in Ushuaia as we turn the ship around. All these guests will be off by 9am. Resupply with fuel, fresh food, liquor, dry goods whilst black water is taken off along with rubbish. We will be distributing backpacks, boots, Parkas and waterproof trousers by size to all the cabins, before new guests embark at 3pm. At 6pm we will have the mandatory lifeboat drill, drop lines and sail away back down the Beagle Channel.
In the very short Antarctic summer season, the show goes on…