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Antarctica - Small Ship Expedition

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Apr 6th, 2007, 07:59 AM
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Antarctica - Small Ship Expedition

LAND SHAPED BY ICE
Our Journey to the Bottom of the Globe
December 27, 2006 — January 20, 2007

“Ice is the beginning of Antarctica and ice is its end…This is earthscape transfigured into icescape. Here is a world informed by ice: Ice that welds together a continent: ice on such a scale that it shapes and defines itself: ice that is both substance and style; ice that is both landscape and allegory.”

Stephen Pyne
The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica

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“Good Morning; Good Morning, one and all! We presently find ourselves at 64˚53’ South by 62˚52’ West. We are five nautical miles from our anchorage position in Paradise Bay. The air temperature is 4C or about 40F. Already this morning, we have seen Adélie and gentoo penguins, southern giant petrels, Cape petrels, and south polar skuas. We have clear blue skies, calm waters, and excellent visibility. Conditions look optimum for our zodiac cruise to Petzval Glacier and our continental landing at Almirante Brown Station. So, don your gear and meet us at the bow. Zodiac operations will commence in approximately 20 minutes.”

We woke up to similar words almost every day of our Antarctic journey. Admittedly, this call was usually to wake us for breakfast. On a couple of occasions, however, feeding our tummies did take a back seat to a beach landing or a zodiac cruise.

When the call was for a zodiac cruise or a landing, we needed every second of those 20 minutes to don our gear and make our way to the bow. Not because we had a long distance to traverse across the ship to get to the gangway, but because it took us about that much time to put on all of the clothing layers, the life jacket, the boots, the gloves, and the hat.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

A few days ago, as we were reminiscing about our trip, hubby came up with the perfect description of our experience: SHOCK & AWE. With that in mind, and knowing that there are no words, pictures, or videos that can do justice to the reality of what we experienced, let me start at the beginning and try to give you a small glimpse into what turned out to be the most fabulous adventure of our lives.

I am writing this for two different audiences — those who are planning a trip to Antarctica and want a lot of the nitty-gritty in terms of clothing, etc., and those who just want to read about the trip. Hopefully, the way I have organized this document will allow you to skip through to the parts you are interested in.

Next: IN THE BEGINNING
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:00 AM
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Although the idea of a trip to Antarctica was not born suddenly, to some of our friends and family it came as a surprise. Almost without exception, the first question from everyone was: “Why?” I tried hard to find a suitable answer; but never quite succeeded. Eventually, I borrowed the name of an early Antarctic exploration ship as my tongue-in-cheek response: “Pourquoi-pas? … Why not?”

After years of talking about it, we decided to make Antarctica a gift to ourselves for our 25th anniversary. We made the deposit on our cabin in early August 2005 — 17 months before our scheduled departure.

We were looking for a specific type of Antarctic trip, so there was a lot of research involved in making our decision. We did not want a “wave as you sail by” experience; we wanted a real expedition. We wanted the landings; the zodiac cruises in iceberg alleys; the penguins waddling nearby; the elephant seals wallowing on the beaches; the fur seals chasing us. We even wanted the sounds of penguins braying and the smell of guano. We wanted it all — the pleasant and the not so pleasant. We wanted to be immersed in the full experience, the Drake Passage notwithstanding.

A few factors played into our decision to travel with Quark Expeditions: (http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/)

* the size of the ship: the smaller the better since landings in Antarctica are restricted to no more than 100 people per landing

* the voyage itinerary and date: we wanted to include the Falkland Islands [or Islas Malvinas as the Argentineans prefer] and South Georgia, as well as the Peninsula, and we wanted to go during the height of the season to improve our chances for good weather and optimum wildlife sightings

* Quark’s reputation and experience in Antarctic expeditions, and their membership in IAATO [International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators]: this was important to us, because we wanted to travel with an environmentally-responsible organization

Some might think that our itinerary was not very sexy. After all, we visited places that have been visited by others who have journeyed south [25,167 people made landings during the 2005-2006 season]. We did consider an “Emperor Penguin Safari” aboard an ice breaker as well as a “Quest for the Antarctic Circle” itinerary. In the end, however, we felt that both those itineraries were too specific. In Antarctica’s infamously “fickle” weather, it was too much like putting all of our eggs in one basket; neither itinerary offered the variety we were looking for and the dates were much riskier as they were either very early or very late in the season.

With the trip now behind us, we know that we made the right decision. Our adventure turned out to be everything we expected and more. The variety of places and wildlife we saw was incredible. At the end of our voyage, one of our fellow-passengers said, “We’ve had the best weather, most landings, and most wildlife sightings on this trip of all my trips.” She ought to now — this was her 10th trip back to Antarctica despite her tendency to become seasick in even the gentlest swells.

NEXT: FLIGHTS & ACCOMMODATIONS
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:02 AM
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We booked the international flights ourselves using an internet consolidator. We were lucky and managed to get non-stop flights between Washington, DC and Buenos Aires (BsAs), Argentina. Although we were a little hesitant to purchase these tickets 10 months in advance, we ended up being thankful that we had done so. When I checked prices again a few months before our departure, the fares for coach-class tickets had gone up by about $2,000.

Aerolineas Argentinas has a lock on domestic routes. Options to get from BsAs to Ushuaia — “fin del mundo,” or the end of the earth, as is often promoted — are limited. The flights also book up fast during the short Antarctic travel season. That we were traveling around the Christmas and New Year holidays was an added factor. My research had revealed that booking our own flights would be a costly mistake. Receiving several good recommendations for a local travel agent in BsAs, I worked with Mayra who booked our roundtrip flights for 1/3rd the price I would have paid. She also assisted us with our one-night hotel stay in BsAs. After consulting us about our interests and likes/dislikes, she recommended the Art Hotel in the Recoleta neighborhood and booked the room for a better rate than was available on the Internet.

When embarking on a major trip, we always try to arrive at our trip departure point a few days ahead of time. This gives us time to do some exploring and sightseeing, with the added bonus of eliminating travel stress from any delays. This practice turned out to be a definite advantage on this trip — first one of our bags was “delayed,” and later, our flight to Ushuaia was impacted by a “work slow down.”

For our additional nights in Ushuaia, we booked the same hotel where Quark was putting us up the night before the voyage. We asked Quark to make the booking for those additional nights as the Hotel Los Nires, like most of the hotels in the region, was showing no vacancies on the web — again, a result of the Christmas and New Year holidays.

NEXT: THE SHIP
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:05 AM
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If there was one thing we knew for sure, it was that we wanted a small ship adventure. Although we considered a couple of 85-100 passenger ships, ultimately we picked the Professor Molchanov — maximum passenger capacity of 48. We did not consider ships that were any smaller — mostly because we wanted a “soft” adventure as we headed into areas about which early explorers warned: “Below 40 South there is no law, below 50 South there is no God.” True, the Professor looked a little worse for wear when we saw her in port for the first time, but considering the waters she plies, she looked pretty darn good.

The ship was built in Finland in 1982-83 for polar and oceanographic research. Its ice strengthened hull allows it to break through ice up to 3 ft [1 m] thick — sufficient for summer cruises. Registered in Murmansk, Russia, the ship is crewed by Russians experienced in polar expeditions — they were not in the least fazed by any of the ocean and weather conditions we encountered.

By our standards this was a very small ship indeed: 1,753 GRT [gross registered tons]; 263 ft [65 m] long; 42 ft [12.8 m] wide; 15 ft [4.5 m] draft. As a comparison, the last ship we were on was: 91,000 GRT; 965 ft [294 m] long; 105 ft [32 m] wide; 26 ft [8 m] draft.) To say that the Molchanov bobbed like a cork even in what the Russian crew considered to be “calm” conditions would not be an exaggeration. The only time we had little sense of movement was in protected channels where the water was flat calm. At no time, however, were we scared — not even when the ship rolled and all we could see from our Deck 5 porthole was either the sky or the ocean swells.

Public spaces

The Professor was built to be a workhorse, not a luxury vessel. We found the layout and furnishings, as expected, to be quite utilitarian.

The two dining rooms, one on either side of the ship, are located on Deck 3. While the lower level did offer relative stability in rough waters, being close to the bow negated that to a certain degree. These rooms are furnished with bench tables and swivel chairs mounted to the floor. Early in the trip, we figured out that the starboard dining room offered the best table — located in the back of the room, the bench seats here afforded a more stable dining experience when the ship was rolling. The position of the galley between the two dining rooms made for efficient meal service.

The bar/meeting room is to the aft on Deck 4. The seating is booth-style with low seatbacks. Though not ideal for lectures, it was the best available place on this small ship. It wasn’t unusual for people to be seated on the floor during the mandatory or popular briefings; sometimes just because it was the most stable part of the room in rough seas. The clinic — which we did not have to use — is on this deck as well.

The bridge, open to us except when the pilot was onboard for our Beagle Channel transits, is on Deck 6. It is a surprisingly spacious area considering the size of the ship. The officers on duty were willing to chat, explain charts, and answer questions. I was happy to see, however, that when sea/weather conditions called for it, they were all business and passengers respected their need to attend to their duties. We found the small, covered deck just behind the bridge to be a good place to enjoy the passing scenery.

We spent some time on the spacious flybridge, located just above the bridge, but preferred the stern on Deck 3 and the bow on Deck 4 — especially for photography. The only time these areas were off-limits to us were during zodiac operations and while the ship was dropping or weighing anchor. We found the stern deck to be ideal for photographing birds in flight; bracing ourselves against the slanting mast of a crane provided additional stability. I particularly appreciated the narrow platforms rimming the hull on the bow; they gave me a much needed step up to see over the side of the ship.

Cabins

All of the cabins on the Professor Molchanov are outside cabins. That is to say, they have a porthole — a working one at that. There are three suites, 12 twin cabins with private facilities, and several twin and triple cabins with shared facilities. Except for the suites and two of the twin cabins, all have bunk beds.

We booked a twin with private facilities on Deck 5. Although we were a little concerned that we might feel more of the ship’s movement on this topmost passenger deck, our experience was that the movement was only a bit stronger here than it was on Deck 3. We’re glad the agent at Quark suggested Deck 5 over Deck 4, where there was considerably more foot traffic — both inside and outside.

To say that our cabin was miniscule would not be an exaggeration. I really don’t think it was much more than 100 ft2 [9 m2]; about the size of my office at work. Despite its diminutive size, however, there was plenty of storage in the cabin for all of our gear. We were still finding unused drawer space even as we were getting ready to disembark! The size of the cabin actually worked to our advantage — especially when we encountered 30 ft [10 m] waves in the Drake Passage. There were plenty of handholds between the sofa at one end of the room and the facilities and the cabin door at the opposite end. We were able to safely make our way through the cabin even in the roughest seas; those in the suites were not so lucky!

At first, we found it a bit odd that there was no lock on the cabin door, but we quickly became accustomed to the lockless system. To our knowledge, nobody had a problem with theft of personal items. The purser offered to store valuables in her safe; I’m not sure how many people used her services. I never travel with valuable jewelry and we had only a small amount of cash with us, so we did not take her up on the offer. Initially, we kept our camera equipment and laptop stored in drawers and cabinets, but that quickly proved to be a real hassle. Eventually, we just left everything out, except when sea conditions called for things to be stowed.

Our cabin stewardess was a Russian lady with very limited English. She came twice a day. In the morning, she cleaned the cabin, replacing the bed linens every three days or so, refilled the soap and shampoo dispensers as necessary, etc. When she stopped by in the evenings, she replaced any additional towels as may be necessary, delivered the next day’s program, and left chocolates on the pillow. [Regarding towels; there were no washcloths in the bathrooms either in Ushuaia or on the ship. We bought a couple in Stanley; they’re now part of our adventure travel kit. I point this out so that you can bring your own if you use washcloths in your daily ablutions.]

On a side note, we learned during the trip that this is the last season Quark will be operating the Molchanov; the owners apparently want the ship back. In its place, Quark has acquired a newer expedition ship — slightly bigger, but still under 100 passengers. Quark still has a couple of small ships in inventory, but whether those ships will be used on longer itineraries remains to be seen.

NEXT: MEALS
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:06 AM
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All meals were open seating, allowing us to pick and choose our tables and tablemates. Inevitably, there were groups formed based on interests, but overall people did mix and mingle. The expedition staff joined us for our meals, providing a good opportunity to discuss their Antarctic experiences.

Breakfast was a buffet affair; lunch and dinner were table service. Appetizers and salads would already be on the table when we sat down. A tureen of soup — always delicious — was delivered to the table soon after we were seated. Whoever was closest, played “mother,” and ladled out the soup.

There were three main courses available for lunch and dinner. We made our selections the night before or at breakfast time, enabling the two chefs to cook the appropriate quantities and thus reduce waste. The choices were Ocean (seafood), Explorer (meat), and Antarctica (vegetarian). The waitress — one Russian lady was assigned to each dining room — verified our order during the soup course and served our preferred dish when everyone at the table was ready. The last course was dessert — more often than not, ice cream.

Overall, the meals were well-prepared, although there were a couple of dishes that didn’t quite meet our expectations. The head chef, Marco, was an interesting character. He marched to the beat of his own drummer and didn’t much care about anyone else’s opinion. And woe to anyone who asked for a deviation; he thought nothing of biting your head off if you requested something different or if you arrived before the meal was announced. [By the way, meal portions were very generous.]

Water and iced tea were always available during meals, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages could be ordered through the bartender who visited each table to take orders. A complimentary glass of the house wine, or alternative beverage, was included with dinner; extra drinks charged to the cabin. [The ship’s water was potable; bottled water was available for a price. We took a few bottles of water on board with us in Ushuaia, and later refilled them from the tap.]

Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, saltine biscuits, and tinned cookies were always available in the portside dining room, as was fresh fruit. Official tea time was at 4:00p each day — cakes, assorted pastries, and chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies were added to the buffet for this occasion.

For the duration of our trip, we enjoyed very crisp apples, juicy peaches and plums, perfectly ripened kiwis, and tons of bananas — although the latter were sometimes a little too ripe for my taste. One of the things that was a constant topic of conversation was the crispness of the greens used for salads. From the first to the last day, we enjoyed the crispiest greens and still wonder how the galley staff managed to maintain them for so long. After all, it’s not like we stopped at a grocery store every day! [The ship is provisioned in Ushuaia following each voyage.]

NEXT: MONEY MATTERS & THE EXPEDITION STAFF
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:06 AM
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Money Matters

The ship operated on a cashless system. A few days into the voyage, we provided a credit card imprint to the purser. All shipboard purchases, be they beverages, gift shop items, or laundry services, were put on a running tab, which we settled on the last day of the voyage. Cash was accepted to settle the charges at that time or you could leave the charges on the credit card.

Tips for the ship’s crew were settled on the last day of the voyage as well. The recommended amount: $9/person/day. We charged our tips to the credit card.

There were no tips for the expedition staff.

The Expedition Staff

An international cadre of specialists made up our expedition staff. In addition to Jonas, our leader and man-of-all-trades, we had a geologist/glaciologist (Robert), an ornithologist (Nigel), and a historian (Mariano). All were highly experienced in their respective topics and did a great job of furthering our Antarctic education. Robert and Nigel had worked at research stations in Antarctica and had colorful stories from those days to add to their repertoire of briefings. Quark’s medical director (Dr Dan) sailed with us as our onboard physician; he was kept busy dispensing seasickness meds and ministering to those who had accidents on rough sea days [cracked ribs, tumbles, and the like]. As well, we had a media artist (Hanne) on board to document our voyage.

The staff’s continuing enthusiasm for Antarctica played a very important role in our enjoyment of the voyage. They weren’t jaded after years of traveling to the Antarctic, and it was refreshing to see them enjoying the voyage every bit as much as first timers like us.

NEXT: WEATHER
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:07 AM
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I have nothing to compare to, but from what I read before the trip and from what I heard from both the expedition team and repeat visitors, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather and sea conditions.

We had a few rough days at sea, but nothing like it could have been. The worst seas we encountered were during the transit from Ushuaia to the Falklands — force 8 gale; and during the crossing of the Drake Passage — 30 ft [10 m] waves one night. [A ship that returned to Ushuaia a few days after us experienced 50-80 ft (15-24 m) waves in the Drake.]

The staff rated the initial hours of our Drake crossing a 4 out of 10, and later upped that to a 7.5 out of 10 when the waves were at their highest. After two days of rocking in the Drake Passage, everyone was looking forward to the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel. It wasn’t to be. The channel threw us an unexpected curve, causing us to arrive in Ushuaia around 7:00a on the 18th, rather than in the wee hours of the morning. The freak storm that made for a rocky transit through the channel surprised even the expedition staff and the ship’s crew; they rated the transit a 10 out of 10.

Speaking of rough seas, Dr Dan dispensed seasickness meds of varying strengths [I believe the meds were free, but am not positive]; we took our own remedies with us and did not require his services. We used the Scopolamine patch when the seas were at their worst. On a few days, I used Dramamine instead, which worked fine, but I am sure that it would not have afforded the same protection as the patch when I needed it the most. We did not use any meds in coastal waters and around the Peninsula.
The worst side-effect of the patch was dry mouth, which did not seem to be alleviated much by increasing our liquid intake. I may have had a slight case of blurry vision as well, or it might have just been that I need to change the prescription for my reading glasses . In any event, it was not a noticeable nuisance. We did not have the dizziness or other side effects that people have mentioned as being especially bothersome. [I have since heard that there is a pill version of the patch, called Scopace, which makes it easier to manipulate the dosage if the side effects are especially bad.]

Yes; it was cold during the voyage, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Although we had a couple of “nippy” days, the temperatures were never as bad as we thought they were going to be. It was coldest when the wind was blowing. Even then, it wasn’t half bad if you bundled up. We had temperatures in the 50F [10C] range in the Falklands. The rest of the time, it was in the 40F [4.5C] range, with a few days in the low 30F [-1C] range.

The fickle weather of the southerly latitudes was in evidence on several days. We’d wake up to overcast skies, which would be replaced by blue skies and puffy, white clouds in short order. Most of the time, the clear skies stayed with us for the remainder of the day, but on a few occasions the overcast moved back in.

We experienced the worst of the winds on South Georgia Island, where a katabatic wind caused our plans for landing at St Andrews Bay to be canceled. On our last day in the Peninsula region, we were forced to cancel our last two zodiac operations due to high winds and big swells; later that day, we had enough snow for someone to make a miniature snowman. Aside from a few drizzles and some light flurries here and there, we had mostly dry weather throughout the voyage.

By the way, we used high-SPF sunblock at all times — even when the sun was in hiding. The thinning ozone layer in these latitudes makes the protection even more important than usual. Since I am fair-skinned, I used SPF 50, which was probably overkill; most people were using lower SPF products. Still, I came back with a nice bronze coloring that prompted friends to ask if I went to the tropics instead of Antarctica. Also, we used balm with SPF protection for our lips; it served to protect our lips from the sun as well as from chapping in the dry air of the southerly latitudes. [The dryness of the air wreaks havoc on the skin; I used twice as much moisturizer and body lotion as I normally do. Even hubby resorted to using a facial moisturizer, which he never does at home.]

NEXT: CLOTHING & GEAR
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:09 AM
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First, a few words about packing. Much as we would have liked to, we were not able to travel with just carry-on luggage — too much photography equipment to carry on. We each checked a large and a small duffel bag. We could have easily fit into three pieces, but there was a method to our madness. Essentially, the extra space in our bags allowed us to not only pack souvenirs, but also the very bulky — and by the end of the trip, stinky — parkas provided by Quark. We were especially happy not to have to wear or carry those parkas on the trip back to the US.

We cross-packed the bags and made an inventory of the contents of each one in case we needed to file a claim or purchase replacement gear. Luckily, we were re-united with the one bag that went missing for a while and did not have to use our lists. We put our stuff for Ushuaia in one bag so that we would not have to unpack everything during our brief stay there.

Quark’s website provided us with excellent guidance in terms of what we would require for a comfortable expedition voyage. We took a little more than we needed, but we probably would have used those items under different circumstances. As it turns out, we did not need the wool tops we took to wear around the ship — it was too warm inside — and wore fewer layers on the landings since the weather was so cooperative.

Having two-to-three sets of everything was essential for laundry rotation. Laundry service was available on the ship [no self-serve washing machines], but they did not iron clothes. We did our own laundry in the sink in our cabin. We took a clothes line and some clothes pins with us and set up shop in the bathroom. We usually did our laundry just before going to bed and everything was dry by the next morning. So, despite the small size of the facilities, having clothes hanging on the line never became bothersome.

Landings — layers & hotties - Part 1

Innermost Layer: We each had two sets each of SmartWool and silk long johns. (https://www.smartwool.com/ & http://www.wintersilks.com). We loved the SmartWool sets — they kept us cozy and were lightweight enough to wear even around the ship (which was kept very, very warm). We wore the silk long johns under the SmartWool only on a couple of the coldest landings and were glad we had them with us. The silk long johns doubled as sleepwear and worked really well; except when the seas were particularly rough — no seatbelts in bed to keep you from slip-sliding around and the silk just increased the slippage factor by several magnitudes.

Layer 2: The next layer consisted of fleece pants and top — we each had two sets. We bought expedition-weight fleece, which proved to be fine, but we probably could have worn lighter weight fleece since the temperatures were reasonably warm. Having a particularly high body thermostat, Hubby sometimes skipped this layer. Best buy in this category was Arc’teryx fleece tops, one of which was windproof as well (http://www.arcteryx.com/).

Outer Pants: Next came the waterproof/windproof pants — absolutely essential. We each had two pairs; one lined and one unlined. We would have been fine with one pair each, but with multiple landings most days, it was great to have an extra pair to change into if the other one got really wet — as mine did when I kneeled down in the surf to get a picture of a particularly photogenic penguin. [Waterproof pants won’t protect you if your pants leg is facing out towards the incoming surf .] With the water often calm for zodiac operations, we didn’t have a big problem with spray from the waves [I have read that this is not the norm]. We did get drenched once when a wave broke on the back of our boat on the first zodiac cruise. The pants did their job; my first and second layers stayed dry.

The waterproof pants go over the boots, so they must be the proper length. Best buy for me was the petite models available from REI.

Outer Jacket: We had our own hooded rain jackets with us for the pre-cruise portion of our trip and wore these on deck sometimes. We did not have to bring a heavy, waterproof/windproof parka with us as Quark provided them as a gift [not all operators provide parkas]. The bright yellow parkas offered great protection from the elements, with a zip-in fleece liner for additional warmth. More often than not, we removed the liner and were comfortable with our own fleece layer underneath. The removable hood was also fleece-lined, and offered additional warmth in particularly cold/windy situations. I can vouch for the waterproof qualities of the parka; my inner layers remained dry when we were drenched on the Cape Rosa zodiac cruise. The many pockets of the parka were handy — especially the waterproof pockets — to store camera batteries, flashcards, etc.

Socks: Having heard horror stories about wet feet on landings, we took way too many pairs of socks for each of us. Two or three pairs of relatively thick wool socks and a couple of thin liner socks would have been sufficient. I quickly found out that with the wool insole [see boot section for more info] tempering the effects of the cold, a pair of wool socks worn over thin liner socks was more comfortable than two pairs of thick socks. I especially liked the liner socks that have the separate toes [feet gloves, if you will]. Our preferred brand of wool socks was SmartWool.

Little Hotties: (http://www.littlehottieswarmers.com/) We used toe warmers almost everyday of the trip. Could we have survived without them? Yes. Did they make us more comfortable standing around in cold temperatures? Absolutely. We placed the thin pad on the bottom of the liner sock before putting on the wool sock. My feet are always cold anyway, so these pads were a godsend for me, but even Hubby enjoyed the subtle warmth of the Hotties. I think the toe warmers were a better choice than full-size foot warmers. [We continued to use the Hotties after we returned from our trip and found ourselves in a deep freeze that lasted several weeks in the Washington, DC area. So, I’d say the Hotties were a great buy for us!]

Waterproof Boots: Another absolute essential. Quark’s loaner program was excellent since it meant we did not have to lug heavy boots in our bags [not all operators provide boots]. We were asked to provide boot sizes in advance, so we went to Wal-Mart and tried on the gumboots sold there with two pairs of heavy socks.

If your operator does provide boots, make sure you try them on well before the first landing. The boots left in the cabin for me were waaaayyyyyy too big. I was able to exchange them for another pair from the boot locker, but small sizes are hard to come by. If you do take your own boots, buy inexpensive ones. Trust me; you are not going to want to bring them back!

The only landing where we wore our own shoes was in Stanley where the zodiac took us to the public jetty. With few exceptions, all of our landings were in ankle- to calf-deep water. Jonas told us to “trust” the knee-high boots when getting in and out of zodiacs. He was right; we never had wet feet on landings. We were especially happy to be wearing the boots when some of us found ourselves mired in almost knee-deep muck on one occasion. While I would not have wanted to do any really strenuous hikes wearing the boots, they were comfortable enough on one-to-two hour treks across grass covered terrain and hard-packed sand beaches.

We took wool and gel insoles with us, putting first the wool insole and then the gel one in the boots. The wool helped insulate against the cold on ice and snow, and the gel insoles improved our comfort. [Wool insoles are readily available from Army/Navy Surplus stores and the like, and are very inexpensive. Gel insoles are available from most pharmacy and shoe stores.]

Head Covering: On our 2001 trip to Alaska, we bough qiviut watchman’s caps from the Musk Ox Farm (http://www.qiviut.com/). Qiviut is made from the underwool of musk oxen and is eight times warmer than lambswool. It’s also extremely lightweight. The only drawback to these caps is that they are not windproof. We wore our qiviut on calm days, but when it was particularly windy, we wore our Mountain HardWear GoreStopper caps instead. Admittedly, these windproof fleece hats were not very “chic,” but they stopped the cold wind from penetrating and kept our heads quite toasty. In the Falklands, Hubby surprised me with a wool headband — could not resist the penguin pattern. I used the headband on treks; it often got too warm to wear a cap. In especially nasty weather — rain, heavy snow, heavy winds — we supplemented our head covering with the fleece-lined hood of the parka.

Gloves: We each had bulky, waterproof gloves which were nice to wear when we were on the zodiac [we were asked to hold onto a rope along the pontoon for extra security; they did not have to ask us twice when the waters were choppy]. Unfortunately, it was a bear to put on the second glove once you had the first one on your hand. On landings and on deck, we wore fleece glo-mitts — gloves with the fingers cut off and a mitten-like cover that can be pulled over the fingers when necessary. Since these were not windproof, we supplemented them with thin liners that were excellent for both photography and dexterity. We had two sets of each glove for each of us. If I were to do it over again, I’d get a third set of these gloves and leave the bulky ones at home. [I’d carry an extra pair with me and switch them out on land if necessary.]

We took hand warmers with us, but seldom used them. That said, we found an alternative use for them; more on that later.

Life Jacket & Backpack: Other than the life jacket, which was provided by Quark, the last item we put on was a backpack. The life jackets were thin, inflatable ones; not as bulky as the standard life jackets that were assigned to us for use in a real emergency. Since we did not have anywhere to leave the life jackets once we landed and had to wear them for the duration of the activity, we appreciated having the light-weight ones. Although they looked flimsy, we had ample proof that they did work in an emergency — on two separate occasions, passengers who were hit full-on by a wave found themselves with inflated life jackets.

Totally waterproof backpacks are few and far in between, and very expensive. Instead, we bought the mid-size dry-bags used by kayakers; very inexpensive and very waterproof (http://tinyurl.com/7vd9f). We lined the bottom of the bag with thick bubble wrap and placed our extra fleece tops, gloves, socks, etc., on top of it. Although it was nice to know that we had spare things in case we needed them, we never had to use them — others made use of their spares. In our case, this stuff worked as extra cushioning so that we could use the bag to carry our cameras and lenses.

Sunglasses: We bought relatively inexpensive glasses from REI that provided excellent UV protection. The wraparound design reduced the glare from the snow and ice. Downside: the glasses fogged up quickly when we were all bundled up; de-fogging cloths would be a good addition to the eyeglass-care kit.

What We Didn’t Use: Overall, we did not have much with us that we did not use. We took Seirus neofleece comfort masques to protect our faces against windchill. Didn’t need them. We each had a turtle fur [not really; they were fleece] neck gaiter and a wool scarf. Didn’t need them, either; although I did use my gaiter a few times in lieu of securing the high-collar of my parka.

On the ship

While there were a few passengers who had “nice” outfits to wear to dinner and the two cocktail parties that were held, the majority of people simply made sure they “cleaned up well” and wore very casual clothing. Having dumped “nice” clothes in deference to airline weight restrictions, Hubby and I were amongst the latter.

They kept the public areas on the ship really, really warm. We had too many winter-weight tops and not enough summer-weight tops, having left them at home after we cut our time in BsAs from one week to one day. We solved our problem by buying some t-shirts from the ship’s gift shop. We had two pairs of pants each — jeans and khakis; they worked out very nicely.

On sea days, we wore SmartWool or silk long johns under our clothes in order to stay warm when we ran out on deck for a wildlife sighting or spent any length of time outside enjoying the scenery. On landing days, especially if the landings were relatively close together, we just kept our fleece layer on, sometimes replacing the top if it got particularly warm inside.

We took Croc footwear (http://www.crocs.com/) with us to wear around the ship. [I know; not the most elegant footwear available; but they worked for us.] This turned out to be an excellent idea as they were easy to slip on and off, gave us excellent traction on wet surfaces, and doubled as slippers and even shower clogs.

When we felt like “dressing up” our footwear, we wore our North Face trail running shoes, which use the boa lacing-system (http://tinyurl.com/3a49ak). No tying laces. Just put the shoes on, push in the button on the back and dial it to the desired tightness. To take them off, pull on the button, lift the tongue a little, and off come the shoes. The shoes are so easy to put on and take off that they came in very handy on the long flights to and from the US [excellent for those quick trips to the restroom in the middle of the night]. Since they are also waterproof and provide excellent traction on wet surfaces, these shoes fall into the best buy category.

NEXT: CAMERA & VIDEO EQUIPMENT
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:13 AM
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I won’t get into the detail of what camera/video equipment we took with us, since what you take will depend on your interests. I would, however, suggest a video camera in addition to a still camera to capture the grandeur of the scenery on a wider scale than can be done with a still camera.

If you are an avid photographer, make sure you take back-up equipment, and I don’t mean just extra batteries and whatever medium you use [film/flashcards]. Having a second camera, same brand/model, was a godsend for me when my first one was accidentally drenched and went to “camera heaven.” Hubby could continue to tape after his video camera got drenched, but could not re-play the footage. In hindsight, we should have switched to the backup video camera immediately — his camera was not always recording even when all indications were that it was. We lost quite a bit of footage, including a big glacier calving on our continental landing. At least we have my pictures to replace most of the lost footage.

Speaking of getting drenched, find a way to protect your equipment on zodiac cruises and in inclement weather both on and off the ship. Ziploc bags, even when zipped, will not suffice in a drenching. You might consider a waterproof casing [can be very expensive] or take a few disposable cameras designed for underwater photography. I had a professional rain cape, but it was too cumbersome to use with a telephoto lens — it would have been OK with a standard, non-zoom lens.

I used a monopod on all of the landings; Hubby used a tripod. We did not use these around the ship as we were often running from one side of the ship to the other to capture the wonders around us. As well, with the ship rolling and pitching while underway, keeping a camera that was attached to a monopod/tripod focused on the subject was a challenge. These stabilizing elements were especially useful in high-wind areas, such as albatross rookeries, where gusts were strong enough to topple us over.

Point of caution: if you want to go on some of the hikes that follow less-than-stable ground (such as scree slopes), make sure there is a place where you can leave any heavy, unwieldy equipment. In our case, there was no such place and we did not want to impose on fellow-passengers. We don’t feel cheated that we missed out on the two more strenuous walks, but it is a consideration if you have your heart set on doing them.

The old photographers’ adage about taking twice as much film as you think you will need applies to digital medium as well. I had 10 one-gig and 1 four-gig flashcards with me [I shoot Raw with high-resolution JPEG]. Since I was diligent about downloading my cards after every landing, I definitely had more cards than I needed. Hubby had 25 tapes between his two video cameras; we came back with 15 full tapes.

I took my ultra-light “travel” laptop with me for two reasons: to store my pictures so I could reuse the flashcards, and to write my journal. I did really well with the first reason, downloading the flashcards after every landing into a folder specific to that landing. I was lousy with the journaling since I did not want to spend time indoors to use the laptop. I ended up using small notepads to take notes, which will hopefully still make sense when I sit down to write my “Antarctica Tome.” [Here you thought this was the “tome!” ]

I also used the laptop to review and delete the pictures that I knew I did not want to keep. Since screen colors differ from one monitor to another, I did not use the laptop to do any photo editing, except to quickly check to see if a photo could be saved by adding/removing exposure, etc.

Being paranoid about losing my photographs, I took two portable hard drives with me. I know, overkill; but I felt better for taking them. The drives are ultra-light and powered by plugging into the laptop via a USB port; no need for a separate power source. A few people on the ship used iPods to back up photos.

Speaking of power sources. If you have a lot of electronics that need to be recharged at about the same time, take a multi-outlet extension cord with you. We had several outlets in the cabin [not the norm when traveling], but they weren’t in the most convenient locations and the extension cord came in handy.

If you have expensive photographic equipment, consider adding the items to your home insurance policy with a floater. In our case, insurance paid up for our camera losses. Another tip [for US citizens, although it might apply to other nationalities as well if the service is available in their countries]: get your electronics registered with US Customs. After hearing horror stories about people who could not prove origin of purchase being hassled when exiting some countries, we thought this was a prudent thing to do.

On a final note. I mentioned earlier an alternate use for the hand warmers. Here’s where they came in handy — to extend the life of batteries. Admittedly, we didn’t have outrageously cold temperatures, and it turns out that our equipment has excellent battery life. I seldom had to recharge the camera battery for any longer than it took me to download my photos, and I never had to replace a battery while on a landing or zodiac cruise. Some people were not so lucky, however, and found their cameras dying on them much too quickly. We gave them hand warmers to place in a pocket or inside a glove. This provided a cozy cocoon for their batteries and helped revive them after a few minutes.

NEXT: DAILY ROUTINE
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:14 AM
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There was a certain routine to our days. Actually two routines — sea days and landing days. Each night, a “proposed” agenda that outlined the activities for the next day was delivered to the cabin.

Days at sea

On sea days there was no wake up call. However, breakfast was still during set hours. All meals were usually served later than on landing days. As well, zodiac landings and cruises were replaced by lectures and documentary movies.

If the weather was nice, we spent a great deal of time on deck. If the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time on the bridge [it was nice to have an open bridge policy], reading in the bar [there was a nice selection of books on polar topics], or in the cabin [good time to catch a couple of winks or work on photographs]. Those who were particularly susceptible to the rolling of the ship, spent most of these days in bed.

Landing days / zodiac operations

Landing days started with a wake up call approximately 30 minutes before breakfast. Being of the “early to bed, early to rise variety” — although this was made more difficult by the longer days as we proceeded south — we were usually up an hour before the official wake up call. Our earliest call was 4:30a — most of the others were between 5:30a and 6:30a. These calls were made over the PA. In his call, Jonas provided the ship’s position, weather conditions, wildlife sightings made by the early-birders [excuse the pun ], and outlined the plans for the day. The latter was subject to weather conditions, and he was always careful to say “we aim for a landing at … .” We were exceptionally lucky and missed only one landing in South Georgia and the two activities planned for the last day of our visit in the Peninsula region. Nor were many adjustments needed to alter course or activities from what had been announced at the previous day’s recap meeting.

Meal times revolved around scheduled activities, which ranged from zodiac operations — either a beach landing or a zodiac cruise, or both — to ship’s cruises. In the latter case, the Russian crew was terrific about getting us close to glaciers and icebergs and navigating their way through brash ice.

When the landing announcement came, we donned our gear and went to turn our tags. Each passenger was assigned a number. Before going to the bow to disembark, we turned the numbered tag to read “off;” when we returned to the ship, we turned the tag back to the numbered side. Before the ship departed the anchorage site, a member of the expedition staff checked the board and announced over the PA any tags still in the “off” position, waiting by the board to verify that the tag was indeed turned by the person it was assigned to.

At the bow, we queued up on the leeward side. In groups of 10, we went down the gangway; a crewman and the zodiac driver assisted us into the zodiac. There was a specific method for boarding the zodiac. The crewman on the gangway would take our left elbow; we would then use the seaman’s grip [forearm to forearm; holding on to a gloved hand was not safe] to take hold of the zodiac driver’s arm, step on the pontoon, and then step down on the hard-bottom of the zodiac. [For the height-challenged, that last step might a light jump!] Jonas deemed us successful graduates of “zodiac boarding” class following the first two operations in the Falklands. After that, it was all a piece of cake.

We docked at a jetty in Stanley, in the Falklands. That was our only really “dry” landing. Our continental landing and our visit to Port Lockroy were achieved by driving the bow of the zodiac onto boulders on a high-beach. I suppose those would be considered “semi-dry” landings — we didn’t get splashed by the surf. All of the other landings, however, were wet landings, with the zodiac coming ashore at a beach.

Just as there was a process for embarking, there was a process for disembarking the zodiac. We slid along the pontoon to the bow, stopping just short of where the bow starts to rise; threw our leg over the pontoon, always out towards the water, not towards shore; stepped down — or in my case, hopped down — into the surf and walked ashore. The surf was ankle- to calf-high and the knee-high boots provided by Quark kept us dry. The expedition staff was always on hand to give us a helping hand in and out of the zodiac. Getting back in the zodiac was a bit more challenging for me — because of my short legs — but I managed each time without slipping or falling.

To get back on the ship, we reversed the zodiac boarding process, making sure to time our steps to the swells. Except when we did a zodiac cruise, the first order of business after re-boarding the ship was to wash our boots. There were large tubs of water, brushes, and picks on the bow, and we each took our turn, thoroughly scrubbing our boots to reduce the chances of cross-contamination from one landing to another.

Hubby and I took the added precaution of rinsing our boots and monopod/tripod in the cabin shower after scrubbing them in the tubs on deck. It didn’t take more than a couple of landings — especially after we trekked in the guano of penguin colonies — to appreciate not only the precautionary steps, but the loaner program as well. No way would I want to bring those boots back home after 20 days of visiting penguin colonies and seal haul-outs! After our first time walking in guano, Hubby and I took to swishing our feet around in the sea and scrubbing the soles of our boots against the rocks before re-boarding the zodiac. It made cleaning boots on deck a lot easier.

NEXT: THE TRIP
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:14 AM
  #11
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When we went to Africa in 2004, I said it would be a “once in a lifetime trip.” Not true; we’ve been bitten by the Africa bug, and will go back again. When we started planning our Antarctic journey, I said it would be a “once in a lifetime trip.” I really believed that — the distances are great, and so is the cost if you do the trip on a small ship. Well, I can honestly say that the Antarctica bug is just as strong as the Africa bug; we will make every effort to go back to the white continent sooner rather than later. After all, Antarctica is a huge continent, and we merely saw the tip of the iceberg [sorry; could not resist the pun]!

Despite my efforts to keep this brief, I know it’s going to be long — unfortunately, details have a way of getting the better of me. I’m not going to get into the particulars of all the wildlife we saw. Nor am I going to delve into the kind of historical data/trivia that turn my trip journals into encyclopedic endeavors. Instead, I’m going to try to give you a small glimpse into each sea day/landing/activity.

Welcome to Argentina

We flew out of Washington, DC on December 27. Our late-night flight was smooth as far as long flights go. Par for the course, I watched a movie, wrote in my journal, read my book, and squirmed in my seat for the duration of the 10-hour flight. I find it hard to sleep on airplanes anyway, and it didn’t help to have the only toddler on the flight squealing and kicking my seatback for almost the duration of the flight. I don’t blame the poor baby; but his parents — especially his dad — could have done more for the baby’s comfort, if not for the comfort of fellow-passengers. Hubby claims he did not sleep much, but being awake, I can prove otherwise.

We had a five-hour layover in BsAs, giving us plenty of time to go through passport control, collect our luggage, and transfer from the international airport to Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (AEP), the domestic airport. The line at passport control was long, but moved steadily. Then we hit a snag. One of our bags was missing. Other passengers on our flight were missing bags as well, but at least they had connected to the DC flight from other flights with short connection times. What was United’s excuse for misplacing a bag on a non-stop flight? We’re still waiting for that answer.

It took at least an hour before we were able to take our turn at the claim counter. We filled out the paperwork and were told we would have to pick up the bag from the Ushuaia airport ourselves. You see, United was not really responsible for getting the bag to us past BsAs since we were flying a different airline to Ushuaia — like we had a choice! “No problem,” we said after we were assured the bag would be on one of the many flights arriving in Ushuaia late on the 29th. We weren’t sailing until the 31st, so we were not too concerned. As it turns out, we did not get the bag until 9:00p on the 30th. Still, we were lucky since we had time for the bag to reach us. Many of the others with missing bags sailed out on the 29th and did not get their bags in time.

Claim papers in hand and Argentinean pesos tucked into our wallets [the bank had slightly better rates than the currency exchange booth], we eventually made it into the lobby. Although we were two hours behind schedule, the driver we had booked in advance was waiting with a smile on her face. Ana Luna, a young lady who lived in Florida for a while, came highly recommended and she did not disappoint. In fact, we so enjoyed her company on the way to AEP that we arranged for her to give us a BsAs city tour in addition to the other car services we had pre-arranged.

The drive to AEP was through heavy city traffic, but with the three hours we still had to spare, we were able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city relatively stress-free. An hour later, we were saying farewell to Ana and entering the hubbub of the domestic airport.

Before we left home, we received an email reminder from United Airlines to check in online — a relatively new concept for international flights. At that point, realizing we had less than 24 hours before our Ushuaia departure, we were able to check-in for our Aerolineas Argentinas flight as well. This was a blessing in disguise as it enabled us to by-pass the long check-in queues and go directly to the web check-in counter. We were prepared to pay for our extra bags — we’d been told one bag per person could be checked on domestic flights. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were at the web check-in counter or what, but we were pleasantly surprised when our three bags were accepted without comment. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we promptly thanked the agent and went on our way.

We weren’t too concerned when we did not see our flight on the departures board at that point. Nothing past 3:00p was listed, and our flight was scheduled for 3:35p. To quell our hunger, we found a café in the food court and sat down for a quick snack. It was around that time that we got the first inkling that there was trouble ahead. People were congregating around the overhead displays, shaking their heads in disgust, and walking away. Since all announcements were made in a rapid-fire Spanish that we were not equipped to understand, we joined the crowd to check out the monitors for ourselves. What?! Our flight was delayed until 5:00p. In the next blink of the eye, that changed to 6:00p; then to 9:00p. Ours wasn’t the only flight with a problem, however; all of the others were showing long delays too.

Finishing our meal in record time, we returned to the check-in counter to make inquiries. “The tower is on strike,” we were told. In the next breath, “Not to worry, the flight will definitely leave tonight, we’re just not sure when.” It turns out, it was more of a “work slow down” and not a total strike. Heaving a heavy-hearted sigh of relief, we collected our complimentary meal coupons and returned to the upper level of the terminal. There were several people from our United flight — all headed on Antarctic voyages the next day — who shared our pain, although in their case the stress level was much higher. Finding empty seats at the far end of the departures salon, we put a bit of distance between us and the protestors who were banging on counters and chanting slogans to display their displeasure with the delays, and settled down for a long wait. By then, having been on the go for about 24 hours, I was swaying in place and having a difficult time keeping my eyelids open. Taking advantage of the empty seats, I stretched out and took a catnap. Hubby, who had slept on the flight from DC and later enjoyed a couple of cappuccinos with lunch, stood guard over our bags.

When it finally came time to board our flight, there was no announcement. Someone noticed that a gate assignment was posted and suddenly there was an exodus towards the other end of the departures salon. Following the crowd to the gate, we were the last to queue up. Our position at the end of the line worked to our advantage, however. When a gate change was posted shortly thereafter, all we had to do was turn around to be first in line at the new gate.

We were transported to the plane by a shuttle bus and were amongst the first to board. Hubby was able to change his aisle seat with the gentleman who had the seat next to mine and we sat together on this leg of our long trip. If there was a silver lining to the nighttime departure, it was that it enabled us to see the twinkling lights of BsAs laid out beneath us when we took off for the nearly four-hour flight to Ushuaia. By the time we landed in Ushuaia it was almost 1:00a on December 29. The airport was far from empty; several other “delayed” flights had landed just minutes ahead of our plane. We managed to grab our bags and snag one of the few cabs relatively quickly.

A wild ride, which we came to find out is the norm for taxi drivers in Argentina, put us at Hotel Los Nires, about 2 miles [3.2 km] or so from the airport. Check in was quick and painless, and by 2:00a we were tucked into bed in a room that was swelteringly warm. Little did we know then that we could have opened the windows to get some relief. Oh well; after 32 hours of being on the go, we were too tired to care. Besides, we were finally at “fin del mundo” and in a couple of days we’d be heading further south.

NEXT: THE TRIP - Two Days in Ushuaia
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:15 AM
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Two days in Ushuaia

Most people would probably not have appreciated staying at Hotel Los Nires — 3+ miles [5 km] from downtown. We enjoyed it. It was wonderful to wake up to the grand view of the Beagle Channel and the Chilean Andes that first morning in town. It was even better the next morning when the sun was out in full glory.

Although we had researched things to do in Ushuaia, we had left our plans fluid so as to pick and choose activities based on what the weather dictated. As it turns out, it wasn’t the weather, but the missing bag that determined the way we spent our two days before joining our Quark group.

December 29: Knowing there was no chance the missing bag would show up until late in the day, we had breakfast at the hotel, donned our gear, and decided to stretch our legs. The sights and sounds of the area called out to us, and we took a meandering route that eventually deposited us on Avenida San Martin, the main street in downtown Ushuaia. On the way, we pretty much experienced every possible combination of weather from sunshine to hail, with a bit of rain and snow thrown in for variety. Dressed in layers that we could add or remove as necessary, we didn’t care one whit about what Mother Nature was throwing our way.

No one should go to Argentina and return without eating empanadas [meat turnovers]. On the recommendation of the hotel clerk, we enjoyed a simple, but tasty lunch at El Turco. [Our basic Spanish was not sufficient to understand how this place, which has no connections to Turks, got its name.] Then, before returning to the hotel, we shopped for toiletries — doing so was part of our strategy to overcome airline weight restrictions.

Not content with lazing around the hotel, however, we deposited the shopping bags in our room and returned downtown via the hotel shuttle. We window-shopped on Avenida San Martin — OK, we did some real shopping, too; checked out the ships in port — there were six or seven ships sailing for the Antarctic all in port that day; and enjoyed a delicious hot chocolate drink at Chocolate Artesanal — real chocolate melted in milk; none of this stuff made with cocoa. By the time we arrived at Museo Maritimo at the far end of town, we had only an hour left before our dinner reservations. So, we put off the museum until the next day and walked through the residential neighborhoods to arrive at Kaupé Restaurant just in time for our 8:00p reservation (http://www.kaupe.com.ar).

I had made advance reservations at this restaurant on the recommendation of Mrs Adamidis [her husband captained the ship on our 2003 TransAtlantic crossing]. This guaranteed us a table by the window, with a view of the Beagle Channel and the port. Mrs Vivian, the owner’s wife, was our hostess and took excellent care of us. Our seafood meal, fresh from the channel, was one of the tastiest ever, concluding with dessert that was very light and fluffy; I’m sure the calories were still there!

Unfortunately, our wonderful day did not conclude on a positive note — luggage-wise. There was no sign of any bags at the airport. “Probably tomorrow night,” was the response from the clerk at the counter.

December 30: The day dawned bright and full of sunshine. Clouds moved in later in the day, but that was a blessing as the cover provided some level of protection from the sun’s rays. It was quite warm — if you can call 60F [15C] weather “warm” in the middle of summer.

After making contact with United Airlines and learning that the bag would definitely be arriving that evening, we took another walk into town. I didn’t think it was possible, but we dallied even longer this time around, removing layer after layer of clothing as the morning progressed and the temperature rose. We spent a considerable amount of time visiting the municipal cemetery en route. I know; an odd place to spend time, but the above-ground crypts were interesting to see. Some were simple, white-washed structures; others were a bit more elaborate, like miniature houses with lace curtains in the windows and glass doors.

Lunch was jamón y queso tostado [toasted ham and cheese sandwich] at Tante Sara, a café on Avenida San Martin. As we ate our simple meal, we were struck by the number of people who seemed to spend endless hours at these busy eateries with just a cup of coffee or a pastry order. Looking around, I was impressed to see people writing in journals — an effort that I was failing at dismally.

We spent much of the afternoon on the water. After checking out the many Beagle Channel boat tours — on vessels ranging from small sailing boats to fairly big catamarans — we settled on the Barracuda, the first boat to start offering channel cruises. The sun was warm and the boat traveled slowly enough that it was comfortable sitting topside. Even though the clouds moved in shortly after we sailed from the dock, it worked to our advantage by cutting the glare on the water. We enjoyed our three-hour cruise, which took us to a sea lion and shag [cormorant] colony where we had our first experience of South American wildlife. A stop at the lighthouse, which is Ushuaia’s symbol, concluded the outbound leg of our boat trip. On the return journey, we made ourselves comfortable in the small dining salon, where Hubby enjoyed a café con leche [coffee with milk] and I had a terrific hot chocolate drink laced with cognac and crema.

As we walked up the hill from the port to Museo Maritimo, the sun came out again, giving us beautiful blue skies under which to finish our sightseeing. Ushuaia started out as a penal colony, so I guess it’s no surprise that they have a museum in the old prison. A portion of the prison has been retained as is; it can be seen, but not toured. In another wing of the prison, each cell houses a different exhibit, with topics ranging from the history of Ushuaia to the early Antarctic explorers. In one courtyard, there is an old lighthouse and the remains of an old ship; in another courtyard, we found an engine and a train car dating back to the time when the old prisoner train was converted into tourist transport.

Again, the day had flown by with little awareness on our part. Having the sun shining high on the horizon well into the late hours of the night skewed our internal clock. Scratching plans for a nice, relaxing dinner, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at another café before heading to the airport around 9:00p. We were smiling when we left. Hubby’s bag had arrived, and although the contents were in no way critical to our trip, it was nice to be reunited with it. There were several other bags lined up behind the counter; some of them we recognized as belonging to people who had already set sail for the Antarctic.

In our room a short while later, we confirmed the contents of the bag, reorganized our luggage in preparation for the next day, and finally fell into a deep sleep. All that exercise and fresh air made for a good night’s rest.

NEXT: THE TRIP - Joining Quark
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:16 AM
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January 31 — joining Quark

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego: Our third and final day in Ushuaia was the first day of our Quark voyage. After taking one last walk along the shores of the Beagle Channel, we joined our fellow-passengers on a short bus tour of Tierra del Fuego [Land of Fire] National Park. Our guide was very knowledgeable and regaled us with tidbits of information throughout the tour.

We had heard much about the beauty of the park before we arrived in Argentina. Unfortunately, the tour did little to whet our appetite for a return visit. I know we did the park a disservice by visiting it for the first time on a tour bus, but circumstances got in the way of doing anything more than that. I’m sure the gloomy, overcast morning played into our feelings as well. At least we had a chance to walk a couple of the shorter trails before we left the park.

We concluded this portion of our day with an “asado” [barbecue] lunch at a restaurant on the shores of the Beagle Channel. While we were filling our salad plates at the buffet, the servers placed mini-grills of barbecued lamb, sausages, and chicken on the table — one grill for every four people or so. I’m probably not the best person to comment on the lunch; I am not much of a red meat eater. I enjoyed some of the barbecued chicken, but would have been better off ordering the vegetarian option. Hubby enjoyed the meal, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Our tour concluded outside the port. We were given an hour or so in town and our first order of business was to turn towards the docks to look for our ship. There it was! Nestled in front of the Marco Polo, a 22,000 GRT ship capable of carrying 800 passengers [restricted to approx. 400 on this itinerary], our 1,753 GRT Professor Molchanov looked like a child seeking comfort in the shelter of its parent. Hubby and I looked at each other, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. After all, the last ship we had sailed on was 91,000 GRT. “We’re going to be bobbing like a cork when we get into choppy waters,” I said. We grinned and turned to walk up the hill to Avenida San Martin for one last hot chocolate drink before sailaway.

Embarkation & Sailaway: Around 4:00 pm, we rejoined our group for the two-minute ride through the gates of the port. We could have walked faster, but since we were loaded down with camera gear, it was easier to ride the bus. First through the checkpoint, we made our way to the gangway under bright, sunny skies; Jonas, our expedition leader, was waiting to greet us. At the top of the gangway, Nigel, who turned out to be our ornithologist, collected our passports and handed us off to Robert, who we later learned was our geologist for the trip. Since we embarked on Deck 4, we had just the one short flight of stairs up to Deck 5 and an even shorter walk down the narrow hallway to our cabin. After Robert left us, we turned to each other, grinned and said, in unison, “Here we go!”

It didn’t take long to get acquainted with our cabin — we pretty much took in all there was to see by first looking left: two bunks, a sofa, a porthole, a desk, and two narrow closets; and then looking right: the facilities in a little cubicle. No problem; that left us more time to check out the outside decks. Our cabin was the last one in the series of cabins on Deck 5. It was especially nice to have the door to the outside deck within a few steps of our cabin. For most of the trip, we kept both doors open — always good to get the fresh air off the ocean, and easy access for any wildlife calls. The little cubby-hole between the outer deck wall and the tender offered a protected area, which we used throughout the voyage to get a breath of fresh air without having to don our gear. This part of the deck was almost like a private veranda for us; an unexpected bonus.

The first of many announcements that Jonas would be making during the voyage was at 4:30p, inviting us to the bar for introductions. The get-together was just long enough to fill the gap between embarkation and sailaway, and shortly we were all back on deck again.

As I stood on the flybridge and watched the mooring lines being thrown off, I was reminded of a Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Headed into parts of the world unknown to us, we would be doing just that — exploring … dreaming … and discovering.

On the previous days, every ship we saw sailing out of port was blessed with sunshine. We were no exception. Under blue skies, we wished each other “bon voyage” as the ship moved down the Beagle Channel. In the flat calm waters, the movement of the ship went unnoticed; a circumstance that was to change shortly after midnight. Blissfully unaware of our future, however, we stayed on deck until it was time for the muster drill at 5:30p.

The muster drill started with a PowerPoint presentation in the bar, which we were quickly coming to understand would be doubling as the lecture room. Jonas reviewed in detail all of the emergency procedures before releasing us to our cabins for the drill. A few moments later, seven short blasts of the ship’s horn, followed by one long blast, prodded everyone into action. Hoping to never hear the horn in response to a real emergency, we donned our life jackets and joined our fellow passengers at the portside tender. At least in a real emergency, we would not have far to travel as the tender was right outside the deck door across from our cabin. For the first time in our cruising experience, we actually boarded the lifeboat and sat ourselves down on one of the 40 “butt outlines” painted on the wooden benches rimming the boat. It didn’t take long to realize just how cozy it would be inside the boat in the event of a real emergency. The overriding question was: “Ahem! How do we go about taking care of business in the middle of the open ocean with no onboard facilities?” Suffice to say, men would have an easier time than women.

With the muster drill concluded, we returned our life jackets to the cabin and went up to the flybridge to enjoy the sparkling sunshine as the ship continued to sail down the Beagle Channel. The air was crystal clear with just a hint of breeze to keep the Quark flag gently flapping in the wind. It was delightfully warm, prompting us to return our extra layers to the cabin in short order. The calm air meant few birds, although a snowy sheathbill, described by Nigel as an “ugly bird,” kept us company for a while. Unfazed by the humans around it, the sheathbill walked around the deck, peering into nooks and crannies, and pecking at shoelaces if anyone sat down long enough.

The master of the ship, Captain Evgeny Baturkin, made a brief appearance during the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, said a few words in English that was much better than our Russian, raised a toast to the ship and all who sail on her, and quickly made his exit. We were to find out that he was pretty much a ghost-like figure around the ship. We seldom encountered him unless we happened to be on the bridge when he was on duty.

Dinner was eaten in the calm waters of the Beagle — with advance knowledge of what was awaiting us just outside the channel, Captain Baturkin anchored in calm waters until after midnight. We skipped the evening’s screening of March of the Penguins — we had watched it for the third time just before leaving home. Instead, we used the time until midnight to unpack and settle into the cabin. Shortly before midnight, we joined everyone in the bar; the party was already well underway! We stayed long enough past midnight to toast the new year and the beginning of our adventure before retiring for the evening. Yeah, I know — party poopers!

Even as we were preparing for bed, we heard the anchor being raised. It was a reminder to take seasickness precautions as suggested in the daily program. One of us did! The other one decided to be “macho” and lived to regret that decision the next day; but only for a short while!

NEXT: THE TRIP - Crossing to the Falkland Islands
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:16 AM
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January 1 — crossing the Scotia Sea to the Falkland Islands

Whoa! What happened to the calm sailing conditions we went to bed with? When we headed to breakfast at 8:00a, it was to a mostly empty dining room that became less and less occupied as more passengers made hasty exits. Dr Dan was very popular throughout the day as the ocean conditions became choppier with each passing minute. On the bridge, Sasha, the officer on duty, told us that we were sailing into a force 8 gale that was worse than usual because of the way the waves were coming at us. “No problem,” he said in his heavily accented English, “we have no water on deck; yet!”

Finding a good seat in the bar for Nigel’s lecture, Wildlife of the Falklands, was not too difficult at 9:00a; it was even easier to find a seat for Mariano’s lecture, A Historical Overview of the Falklands, two hours later. By the time Robert’s lecture, Geology of the Falklands, rolled around in the afternoon, there was more expedition staff in the room than passengers. I admit; we missed this lecture as well — the rolling ship lulled me into an unanticipated nap while I was keeping Hubby company as he waited for the seasickness patch to take effect. We were up and about in time for afternoon tea, joining a select few who were also on their feet. It wasn’t our fault that we did not go to the mandatory IAATO and zodiac briefing — with so few passengers able to attend, Jonas postponed it to the next morning.

Perhaps Andre should have served the special drink of the day, Storm Warning, the night before!

NEXT: THE TRIP - West Falklands
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:17 AM
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January 2 — West Falklands

The day of our first landing dawned overcast, but didn’t stay that way for long. According to the crew and staff, the ocean conditions were calm. Many of the passengers disagreed with that assessment, but medications were working their magic and we had a full house for all meals.

Before we could land, however, we had to receive the mandatory briefings that were postponed from the day before. This caused a “bit” of grumbling — not because the information was not important, but because the wake up call had to be pushed up to 5:30a to fit the briefings in before the landing.

To quote Sir Francis Drake, we were certainly not “…in hast to end the day …” on this or any other day of our voyage. But we definitely wanted to hasten the start of this day — the day of our first landings. When Jonas ended his briefing with “Don your gear and meet us at the bow in 20 minutes,” the bar emptied out very quickly. Twenty minutes later, waddling in layers and boots, we were on the bow. In our yellow “Quark” parkas, we all looked alike and had to look for distinguishing features to recognize each other.

New Island: Once used as a base for whaling, and later sheep farming, this island is now a nature reserve. It is privately owned; just one tiny settlement [Jonas said the owners recently established a trust to oversee the operations of the reserve]. Passing by the wreck of the Protector III, an old sealing vessel that was beached in South Harbor in 1969, we made a wet landing on a narrow beach. We were greeted by the two owners of the island, a small flock of upland geese, and a couple of dolphin gulls, and made to feel quite welcome before proceeding to hike across the island to a mixed rookery. I think we walked about a mile or so over gently sloping, grass covered land. In fact, vehicle tires had created a path that made the walk quite easy.

On this landing we sat with black-browed albatrosses, rockhopper penguins, and blue-eyed shags. I use “sit with” figuratively as I saw very few people actually sitting — just a bit too much guano on the nearby rocks! When we arrived at the rookery, we were blown off our feet. And I don’t mean that just figuratively, although our first encounter with wildlife in such numbers was quite an experience in and of itself.

Albatrosses are not known for being good flyers. An odd thing to say about birds that spend their lives flying around the Southern Ocean, returning to land only briefly to breed. But it is true; they are gliders. To glide, they need strong winds. The wind was definitely strong in the cliffs; quite a change from the calm conditions where we made land in South Harbor. It was all we could do to not fall flat on our butts when the wind gusted suddenly. We managed regardless and had a very enjoyable couple of hours with birds capable of flight and those that were not.

I had heard two things about bird and penguin colonies. One: they would be noisy; and this one was no exception, although it did not seem exceptionally loud to me. Two: the guano — poop — smell would be overwhelming. Well, I was quite underwhelmed by the smell. I thought perhaps it was because we were at a particularly windy spot. Later, however, even at calm landing sites I wasn’t overly bothered by the smell; I would get a whiff of it every so often, but the smell would dissipate quickly. There were a couple of times when we could briefly smell the guano as the ship approached its anchorage off an island, but not once did I find the smell too obnoxious to tolerate. Maybe I was just smart enough to position myself upwind!

True to their name, the rockhopper penguins hop to get around the rocky landscape where they nest. It was hilarious to watch them hopping their way up from the beach far below to nests high in the steep, rocky hillsides. At the same time, we all found ourselves respecting the penguins for their tenacity and ability to live under such conditions.

All of the bird species here had chicks in the downy stage. The penguin chicks, huddled together in crèches, were the most visible. They were in constant motion, with the chicks on the outer edges of the crèche vying to make their way into the sheltered inner sanctum. One set of penguins were particularly funny. It seemed to me that there were two separate families, one with an adult and one chick, and another with an adult and two chicks. The chicks had their heads bent, as though in apology, while the adults looked like they had been meting out punishment. In another family group, one mischievous chick kept pecking at its sibling’s flipper; eventually, the parent bent down towards it, as though to tell the chick to stop picking on its sibling. Nearby, another penguin chick was disciplined with pecks from a nesting blue-eyed shag that was trying to protect its own chick.

The albatross and shag chicks were more difficult to see as most of them were hidden beneath a parent on nest duty. We were granted a few peeks when the adults lifted themselves up to stretch their wings and feed the chicks. We also saw some albatrosses enhancing their nests and a couple displaying courtship rituals.

We could have stayed on New Island all day, writing all kinds of stories about the animal behavior around us. After a couple of hours, however, it was time to head back to the ship to continue onto our next destination.

Carcass Island: No; the site of our second landing wasn’t named for the remains of dead animals. It was actually named for HMS Carcass, which visited the island in the late 18th century. Why a ship would have such a name is still a mystery to me; I haven’t had time to research it.

We landed on a beautiful white-sand beach in Dyke Bay that stretched quite a distance in a crescent shape. The tussock grasses rimming the beach swayed in the breeze, adding a sense of vibrancy to what seemed like a deserted island. [Tussock (or tussac) grass: compact tufts of grass or sedge that are tightly woven together; can grow as tall as 8 ft (2.5 m).] With blue skies and puffy white clouds above, it was a very scenic landing location and I could have stayed on the beach all afternoon. It wasn’t to be. As soon as we landed, we started walking to Leopard Beach on the other side of the island; about a mile or so away. It was a delightful trek over flat, grass-covered land dotted with tussock clumps in every direction. The “carrot” luring those who needed additional enticement was Magellanic penguins; the second species of our trip.

We first encountered the penguins on the grassland as we neared Leopard Beach, but they dispersed as fast as their short legs could carry them. Disappointed, we turned to check out the scenery only to have smiles light up our faces; more penguins were on the beach. They were swimming and doing what penguins seem to do best — nothing. Unlike the colony on New Island, we saw no chicks here. Magellanic penguins burrow in the ground, so the chicks were probably in hiding. The penguins that were out and about, however, provided all the entertainment we needed.

It was interesting to observe a sort of herd mentality as the penguins moved about. They would gather in large groups at the edge of the beach; look around; wait a bit; and look around some more. Then one penguin would make a dash for the water, and all the others would follow. After swimming a bit — this group did not venture too far from shore — one of them would head back to the beach and the others would follow, shaking flippers left and right as they walked to higher ground. Safety in numbers seemed to be their motto. Probably a good dictum to follow; some of our fellow-passengers said they saw a leopard seal catching a penguin a little further up the beach, but neither animal was anywhere to be seen by the time we arrived on the scene.

“OK; I can stay here all afternoon,” I thought, as I enjoyed the Magellanics from my position kneeling on the beach. Nope; there were other plans. After landing us, the ship had repositioned to the opposite end of the island. If we wanted to get back on the ship, we had to trek. [Actually, they did operate zodiac shuttles, but we opted to walk.] Trekking over and around tussock grass and climbing over and under a couple of fences, we walked uphill and downhill, waded through a couple of shallow streams, and stopped frequently to take photographs of the landscape and the wildlife, which included penguins, a Falkland Island thrush, and a trio of striated caracara [prey birds belonging to the hawk family] to name a few.

Enjoying the trek very much, we dallied along the way and were amongst the last to arrive at our final destination: “tea and scones” with the owners of the island, the McGills. Actually, it turned out to be more than just scones. The McGills had laid out a tremendous spread of freshly baked cookies, cakes, and scones for their guests. Alas, we did not have time to wet our whistle, but we made sure to partake of the delicious pastries before boarding the last zodiac.

We were accompanied back to the ship by beautiful Commerson’s dolphins that stuck around to entertain us with their porpoising. Once we were on the ship, they had us running from port to starboard and back, as delighted as little kids in a toy shop. After riding our bow wave for a while, the dolphins finally disappeared from sight. This was our cue to return to the cabin, unload our gear, and head to the bar for the first of many daily recaps during which the expedition staff reviewed the day’s activities and briefed us on the plans for the next day.

NEXT: THE TRIP - East Falkland Island
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:18 AM
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January 3 (morning) — East Falkland Island

We spent the first half of this day in and around Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. This was the only landing where we wore our own shoes. We were also able to wander around without our zodiac life jackets — we left them lined up on the benches at the public jetty. Since the jetty is in front of the visitor center, we had time to shop for pins for my collection and use the facilities before our scheduled wildlife trip.

Gypsy Cove: Although Hubby was excited at the prospect of shopping in the Falklands, the lure of penguins had him joining me for the bus trip to Gypsy Cove to see Magellanic penguins, blue-eyed shags, and night herons. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the herons and Nigel was at a loss to explain where they had disappeared to in the few weeks since his last visit when the rookery was alive and well. We did see plenty of blue eyed shags, some feeding their chicks, and plenty of Magellanic penguins.

The ride to Gypsy Cove took maybe 15 minutes. The bus deposited us at the head of the trail leading to an overlook of Yorke Bay and the beach below. As we had noted the day before, the penguins seemed to have no fear of us, and stood calmly by the burrows on either side of the trail. We were not able to go down to the beautiful white-sand beach of Yorke Bay to see the penguins that were frolicking down there. The beach was apparently mined during the war with Argentina. Although the authorities believe it has been cleared of all land mines, they are not willing to risk allowing anyone on the beach. The restriction has worked in favor of the penguins. Being too light to set the mines off, they have apparently flourished over the years. Our big thrill at Gypsy Cove was the burrow alongside the trail where we saw an adult penguin standing guard over two chicks that were peering out at us with curiosity gleaming in their eyes.

Stanley: Unfortunately, our time at Gypsy Cove was cut short by a group of passengers who were bored with wildlife and wanted to visit the museum and shops in tow. So, we boarded the bus and returned to Stanley. The bus driver was kind enough to drop us off at the museum, located a mile or so out of town. While museums are often very interesting places, we are not fond of spending too much time in them. We took a cursory look around the place and then started walking back into town. Knowing that he wanted to browse the stores, I encouraged Hubby to walk ahead; before long he was but a dot on the horizon.

At a much more leisurely pace, stopping often to smell the flowers and photograph the seabirds dive bombing along the trail [they weren’t really; they were just gliding on the air currents], I eventually made my way to the two icons of Stanley — the cathedral and the whalebone arch. Meeting up with Hubby shortly thereafter was not difficult even though we had made no arrangements for a meeting spot — all of the downtown shops are near the public jetty. Heading to the Falkland Knitwear store (www.falklandknitwear.com), I looked at the woolen goods Hubby had pre-selected. As usual, he had done a good job and we bought what he had picked out. Bonus gifts for me: a wool headband and a pair of penguin earrings. I can’t complain!

NEXT: THE TRIP - En Route to South Georgia Island
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:18 AM
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January 3 (afternoon) thru January 5 — en route to South Georgia Island

Even as we sat down to lunch after our Stanley visit, Professor Molchanov was weighing anchor for the next leg of our journey — 870 miles [1,390 km] to South Georgia Island (SGI). The ship started to roll gently and several people waved goodbye as they abruptly left the dining room, emerging only after our 2½ days at sea were over. Not even sighting Shag Rocks on January 5 was enough to draw them out. They were only interested in rocks they could land on — unless you’re a bird, you can’t land on these steep, jagged rocks which reach up from the ocean floor to serve as a bird rookery in the middle of no man’s ocean.

The ocean/weather conditions for the crossing weren’t too bad. We were often graced with blue skies. The winds were relatively strong, but this brought out the seabirds, so we did not mind. We forgot any weather related discomforts when we caught our first glimpse of the wandering albatrosses gliding on the updrafts.

In 1912, Robert Cushman Murphy, an American ornithologist, traveled as a naturalist aboard one of the last Yankee whaling ships. He documented his voyage in Logbook for Grace, which he wrote so that he could share the trip with his new bride. His quote about the wanderers has been cited far and wide: “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.”

Before seeing these great seabirds for myself, I had wondered what would move someone to make such a grandiose statement. Now, having been struck speechless by the majesty of the wanderers in flight, I’m surprised Murphy had the presence of mind to utter any words at all.

Our time at sea flew by almost as fast as our landing days in the Falklands. We were kept busy with lectures, documentaries, and movies — when we could pull ourselves off the deck and go inside. We were entertained by penguins and seals porpoising near the ship; tantalized by whales blowing in the distance and diving before we could get more than a glimpse of a fin or a fluke; awed by the grace of wanderers with wing spans reaching 12 ft [3.5-4 m]. A couple of lucky people photographed whales surfacing alongside the ship; the rest of us stored the sight in our memory banks.

The Molchanov Shop opened for business for a couple of hours one day, bringing passengers down in droves. Not even those passengers who had retreated to their cabins for the days at sea were immune to the siren call of shopping. The shop did a couple of hours of brisk business before closing — until the next segment at sea. We’re now the proud owners of a couple of fleece jackets and summer-weight tops that will remind us of this trip each time we wear them.

NEXT: THE TRIP - A Day of Exciting Landings & Breaking Waves
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:19 AM
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January 6 — a day of exciting landings & breaking waves

We arrived at SGI under overcast skies. The weather was pretty usual for the area; fickle, that is. We experienced everything from overcast and fog to bright blue skies and puffy white clouds — all within the span of a few hours. Admittedly, it would have been nice to see the tidewater glaciers that tumble down from the mountains to the ocean under better conditions. No complaints, however; it could have been worse, and we could have missed them in a complete white-out had a blizzard been blowing. [Besides, it’s not like we didn’t have opportunities to view glaciers in better weather later in our voyage.]

King Haakon Bay: When we made our landing at King Haakon Bay, the sky was gray and it drizzled for the duration of our visit with elephant and fur seals. The “liquid sunshine,” to put a happy face on the weather, was not enough to make us uncomfortably wet; it was more of a nuisance factor.

A lone king penguin on the beach garnered a lot of attention since it was our first sighting of the species. Later, we found a few more penguins molting on the other side of a small creek. Knowing we would have other opportunities to spend time with the king penguins, Hubby and I spent most of our time with the seals.

There were no “beach masters” amongst the elephant seals as the mating season was long over and they had since gone to sea, along with many of the cows and younger bulls. Those seals that were still around were waiting to finish their molt. They were very placid and let us get quite close to them.
There were very few adult fur seals on the beach — not necessarily a bad thing as these animals are very territorial and have a reputation for chasing visitors. This is obviously an inherited trait. Many of the immatures and pups — and there were a considerable number of them — were not averse to chasing anyone who ventured nearby. Hubby got a small taste of this experience, but was alert enough to move out of the way before things became too confrontational. I later heard that there were a few people who were not so lucky; they experienced the full brunt of the chase, but I don’t think anyone was bitten.

Cape Rosa: Our day continued with a zodiac cruise to Cave Cove at nearby Cape Rosa later in the morning. Shackleton obviously survived the waters of Cape Rosa, the spit of land at the entrance to King Haakon Bay where he first landed after the grueling small-boat trip from Elephant Island some 800 miles [1,280 km] away. And so did we — survive the brief visit, that is, into the cove where we were tossed about in relatively turbulent waters. I wish I could say the same about our cameras! It wasn’t the tumultuous “Cape Rosa Washing Machine,” a strong eddy in the reefs that got us; it was a rogue wave that broke on the back of our zodiac. Even though the cameras were inside zippered bags, that didn’t stop them from getting drenched. Later, my camera functioned for a day before biting the bullet. Hubby’s video camera seemed to be recording, but the playback feature was kaput. After we returned home, we found out that the camera had not been recording consistently. I guess we’ll just have to go back to re-record the missing footage . At least we both had spare cameras, so it wasn’t a total disaster — except that I was pretty much restricted to a single lens at any given time.

We saw our first giant icebergs shortly after the ship started to sail towards our next landing spot. They were some distance away, but bear mentioning since they were the first bergs of the trip.

Elsehul: After rounding Bird Island, we arrived at Elsehul on the northwestern tip of SGI. Once bitten, twice shy — we did not take our cameras on the afternoon zodiac cruise in the bay. Wouldn’t you know it; the water was as flat as could be! Our mental visuals of albatrosses; king, macaroni, and gentoo penguins; blue-eyed shags; and elephant and fur seals will have to suffice.

NEXT: THE TRIP - Wildlife & History
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:20 AM
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January 7 — wildlife & history

Salisbury Plain: Traveling past gigantic tidewater glaciers, we arrived at Salisbury Plain in the wee hours of the morning. The excitement level was very high for this visit to the second largest king penguin colony in the world. Even those who had groaned and mumbled about the 4:30a wake-up call were on deck for the 5:00a landing.

Admittedly the estimate of 125,000 breeding pairs is just that — an estimate. The number Nigel gave us did not include the chicks that were running about, looking for a parent to feed them. Nor did it include the birds that were not of breeding age or those that had not “gotten lucky.” After seeing the colony, I would not challenge Nigel’s number, however. In fact, I would add another 100,000 to it and probably still fall short of the actual number of birds at Salisbury Plain.

We landed into the company of king penguins and the ever-present fur seals. Carefully making our way around the fur seals, we walked about a mile across the grass-covered plain to the main colony and the guano muck. My only regret is that we were unable to walk up the hill to see the colony from the top down — the scree slope was too unstable, and more importantly, the majority of the nesting penguins were on the high slopes. As impressive as the scene was from our vantage point, with black and white and brown dots reaching all the way to the horizon, it must have been breathtaking from high up — just imagine: a sea of penguins flowing down to the ocean.

We spent about three hours here in the company of adults and chicks. The Oakum Boys, chicks that were still wearing their full coats, were adorable fluff balls. As for those who were in the process of molting — well, let’s just say they were less than cute. In fact, they looked downright alien. [Oakum Boys: nickname given to king penguin chicks by early whalers because they resembled oakum, the material used to caulk ships. Oakum was made by shredding old rope and mixing it with tar.]

The penguins were certainly not shy about coming up to us; especially the curious young who looked up at us with wonderment in their eyes. Some penguins just stood around being penguins. Others waddled around; a few with particularly funny gaits making us laugh outright. There were still others that were lying down on their tummies; some using the tussock grass for cushioning rather than lying in the guano-mud muck that was everywhere. We were privileged to see several penguins on the edge of the colony that were still incubating their eggs on their feet; we gave them space, not wanting to be the cause of an abandoned egg.

This landing was a highlight on a trip full of highlights, and it was with truly heavy hearts that we heeded the calls to return to the ship.

Prion Island: We were on the ship just long enough to grab a bite of breakfast while the ship re-positioned to Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. Since this island is the nesting place of wandering albatrosses, and very few ships are allowed to stop here, we were quite excited about this landing.

This was the only landing on which we had to follow a designated path — a stream gully — and pretty much hike up single file, with birds and fur seals on either side of us. It’s a good thing there was plenty of tussock grass to aid us along the way. If not for being able to use the clumps of tussock to steady ourselves as we freed stuck boots, some of us might still be mired in knee-high muck. I’d just as soon put out of my mind what that muck consisted of. Suffice it to say; it wasn’t pleasant.

Being able to spend time with the wanderers was worth the steep, mucky climb, however. The birds were sitting on their nests, their heads buried in their feathers. Every once in a while, one of them would get up to stretch, showing us the full span of its wings — wow! I sat with one wanderer for a while. Eventually, the bird lifted itself up, vigorously shook itself, looked at me, bowed its head toward the egg that was now visible, and then looked at me again. It was almost like the wanderer was making sure that I had seen the egg before it settled back down to nesting duties. A wonderful experience.

Mixed in with the wanderers were also nesting southern giant petrels, which added color to an otherwise all-white colony of birds. On a hilltop quite a distance away, we glimpsed a gentoo penguin colony. I hope they had a relatively easy path to follow; the colony was quite a bit ways up from the beach.

We regret neither the muck, nor the lightly falling snow that lasted for the duration of our visit. Nor do we regret having to dodge the fur seals that were hiding in the tussock grass on either side of the trail. We especially do not regret the two seals that did their best to dissuade us from leaving. With one positioned ahead of us, and one in the middle of our group, it certainly did seem like they wanted to continue to enjoy our company . In reality, they were trying to chase us away. Hubby, in his not-so-gleaming white boots, led the charge and was our savior, ably assisted by a fellow-passenger who found himself getting acquainted with a slippery boulder a little more closely than he would like to have.

Since returning from our trip, I have learned that Prion Island will be closed to visitors at the end of this year’s season [probably March 2007]. The reason: to build a boardwalk and overlook platforms. I can appreciate that visitors throughout the years have probably done damage to the environment; especially if they did not travel with an eco-friendly operator. And, I applaud efforts to minimize the impact of tourism on the flora and fauna. Yet, I can’t help but feel saddened that such an “unnatural” solution is being put in place. Personally, I’d rather see the island made off limits to landings instead. In light of this news, I feel particularly privileged to have seen Prion Island in a fully-natural state.

Fortuna Bay: Plans for our landing at Fortuna Bay had to be altered slightly when heavy fog rolled in to obscure the mountain tops from view. Much to the regret of the hikers, the trek that would have recreated the last part of Shackleton’s march across SGI had to be canceled due to poor visibility. Having planned to stay with the wildlife on the beach, the change in plans did not impact us.

On a rocky beach trimmed with tussock grass just a few yards up from shore, we were greeted by elephant and fur seals, and king penguins. Some of the seals were amongst the tussock grass, looking like boulders rather than live beings until they shifted to a more comfortable position or snorted to get some of the salt water out of their systems.

We spent a considerable amount of time at a small body of water located below a tussock-covered hill just beyond the reach of the surf. The area was dotted with fur seals as far up as the eye could see; just like on Prion Island. Seals don’t have a particularly easy time moving about on land, so I imagine the ones on the high slopes were those animals that had lost the fight for prime beach property. We were entertained for quite some time by the antics of the seal pups; they seemed to enjoy vigorously baiting each other. There was quite a bit of mock-fighting and practice-charging; the latter was perhaps to hone their skills for when the next unwary visitors come ashore.

Further down the beach, we found king penguins and spent some time with them as well. There were penguins in the water, porpoising for what looked like the shear joy of the activity, but the majority of the colony seemed to be waiting for their molt to be completed. They did not move about much; perhaps because molting is a painful process — or so I’ve read.

We glimpsed reindeer in the hills, but made no attempt to reach them. Reindeer are an introduced species and we preferred to spend our time with the natives, so to speak.

Leith Harbour & Stromness Harbour: Our activity-filled day concluded with a zodiac cruise that took in two former whaling stations. More historical in nature, these cruises gave us a respite from the overwhelming numbers of animals we’d been seeing. Still, there were enough penguins, shags, and seals to add a bit of vivacity to the broken down, rusting remnants of the stations. The overcast skies and lightly falling snow gave the outing an appropriately somber feeling. Stromness, in particular, was a significant visit for us as it was here that Shackleton ended his trek, arriving at the station manager’s house after a harrowing voyage across the open ocean, followed by a strenuous hike over the then-unmapped interior of the island.

Imagine this: you sail into Antarctic waters on a ship called Endurance, fully intending to make a cross-continent sledging journey; your ship becomes a prisoner in the pack ice and eight months later sinks, leaving you stranded on floes that are breaking up beneath your feet; you camp on the ice floes for about five months until Elephant Island is sighted, signaling a chance to make land; you put to sea in boats that are little more than lifeboats and land on Elephant Island; after a few days, you leave most of the ship’s crew behind and sail some 800 miles [1,280 km] across one of the roughest waters in the world to a speck of land called South Georgia Island; you realize you’re on the wrong side of the island and hike across uncharted, glacier-covered land without proper climbing equipment; finally, you arrive at the door of someone who should know you, but who faces you with such a blank look that you have to say: “Don’t you know me? My name is Shackleton.”

That little synopsis lasted 21 months from the time Shackleton left London in 1914. And it didn’t end there; it took him another 4½ months to rescue the rest of the crew left behind on Elephant Island. Everyone survived!

The story of the Endurance has got to be one of the most amazing stories of Antarctic Exploration. We were privileged to experience just a small portion of the story through our visits to various sites that are interwoven in that saga. [To read more about Shackleton’s Endurance Voyage, click here: http://www.south-pole.com/p0000098.htm]

I am thrilled that the whaling operations are long over, but seeing the decaying stations in what is an otherwise beautiful and unblemished landscape was really heartrending. The whole scene was an odd juxtaposition against the grandeur of the landscape in which it was set. Apparently the dismantling and/or restoration of these stations is a political can of worms: SGI is British territory; the stations were built by the Norwegians and operated by an international crew that often worked for the Argentineans. Perhaps one day the problem will be resolved. In the meantime, we tried to maintain the 650-ft [200 m] approach restriction; the distance was a bit difficult to sustain when viewing the stations from the zodiacs. You see, in addition to all the decaying wood and jagged pieces of rusting iron, there’s a lot of asbestos in these stations!

NEXT: THE TRIP - Winds & Swells; Glaciers & History
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Apr 6th, 2007, 08:20 AM
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January 8 — winds & swells; glaciers & history

This was the morning of our greatest disappointment of the entire voyage. We were aiming to land at St Andrews Bay, the site of the world’s largest king penguin colony with an estimated 500,000 animals. Even as we were donning our gear, a sudden katabatic wind off the nearby glaciers wreaked havoc with those plans. The incredibly strong wind lessened to a small degree by the time we arrived at an alternate location in Royal Bay, but it was still too dangerous for zodiac operations.

Although we were disappointed, we looked for and found the silver lining — we’d been able to land at Salisbury Plain the day before and had spent time with hundreds of thousands of king penguins. Staying on deck, we allowed our sorrows to be drowned by the seabirds that were out in large numbers thanks to the high winds and the mind-bogglingly immense glaciers that we passed one after another. [Jonas did his best to get us into St Andrews the next day, but other ships were scheduled to be there; understandably, no one was willing to give up their time. C’est la vie!]

Nordenskjöld Glacier: As we neared the glacier at the head of Cumberland East Bay, any disappointment that might have lingered from the morning gave way completely in the face of Mother Nature’s greatness. There was nothing to give us perspective during the ship’s cruise of the glacier and it was one of the few times when we wished there was another vessel nearby so that we could gain a better sense of the size of this river of ice. We stood speechless, looking at the glacier; it seemed to go on forever and ever. The beautiful weather that replaced the morning overcast was a blessing that added to our enjoyment of the indescribable scenery. The wind died down to nothing as the captain continued the approach to the face of the glacier. Although we heard the occasional snap, crackle, and pop of Nordenskjöld’s ice, it did not calve. As though taking pity on us, a hanging glacier to our starboard gave us a calving a bit later. It wasn’t the big one we were all thirsting to see, but not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, camera shutters clicked away until the last remnants of ice fell into the water and the captain turned the ship around for our next landing.

Grytviken: We were not the only ship visiting Grytviken. A Royal Navy ship — part of the British Antarctic Survey, I believe — was already at anchor. Those on shore leave were returning to their ship, however, so we had the island to ourselves.

We started our landing by congregating at the cemetery for a toast to the “Boss” — Shackleton. After a few words from Mariano, we gave a vodka toast — what else would you expect on a Russian flagged ship! We then scattered in various directions, each following the beat of his own drummer. After spending a few minutes with the natives — in this case, a small number of elephant seals, and king and gentoo penguins — Hubby and I headed into the restored whaling station of Grytviken that now serves as a museum and provides an opportunity for shopping. We wandered around the station, seeing up close the rusting hulls of the whaling ships and the giant tanks that used to be filled with oil rendered from the blubber of thousands of whales slaughtered here in the heyday of the whaling industry. Between 1904 and 1965, 175,000+ whales met their demise in and around the waters of SGI alone. [Number of whales killed in Antarctic waters between 1904-1978: 1,432,862.] After peeking into the small white church that stands in stark contrast to the bloody history of the whaling station, we browsed the museum and did a bit of shopping before returning to the ship.

Bratwurst on Deck: Our day was not over, however. It is traditional to have a barbecue on deck while in Antarctic waters. Although we were not quite at the Peninsula yet, we were below the Convergence (http://tinyurl.com/2zqw64). Thus, we qualified.

It wasn’t too cold when we went out on the stern deck and joined fellow passengers at one of the two available tables. Those who came down later, balanced plates and glasses and ate standing up. Mulled wine was served to warm us up and nearby was a tub of beer and other beverages on ice. Steaming hot soup was the first course and was much appreciated as the temperature continued to dip rapidly. At least there was no wind to add to the chill factor. The side dishes were served buffet-style, and a variety of meats were barbecued on charcoal grills set up on deck. I was surprised that the aroma of grilled meat wafting on the air did not attract skuas and other scavengers. Obviously, the birds of Grytviken have better manners than those in our neck of the woods!

In an effort to stay warm, some of the passengers danced to the Russian music that was being played over the loudspeaker. After a while, however, not even energetic dancing could keep the cold at bay. Eventually everyone retired to their cabins or to the warmth of the bar, thus ending another excellent day of the voyage.

NEXT: THE TRIP - Farewell SGI
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