Antarctica, what's the big deal?
The last time I made it to South America and considered going to Antarctica, I was 27, on my own and not too long out of Scotland, so a bit more prepared for the cold and definitely more practical. I didn't go in the end as it was August and the dead of winter. This time round the discussion was initiated by 'The Man'. We discussed, he researched, I nodded (still have no idea what he said) and we were booked. As I didn't really listen I didn't really know what to expect or how cold it was going to be. Word to the wise listen before you agree, and remember Antarctica is going to cold. Leggings under waterproof trousers isn't going to cut it. Our travels to Antartica began on the dock of the Ushuaia on 23rd january and ended 1st february. The Ushuaia is a small ship, if a ship that can comfortably hold 83 passengers and 30 crew can be called small. But I'll let you decide.
Our ship is the small one.
A quick history lesson for those of you who are interested. Arctic comes from the Greek word 'arktikos', in reference to the northern constellation called Ursa Minor which include the Pole star marking the location of the North Pole, whereas 'antarktikos' means 'opposite to the Arctic' referring to the South Pole, located on this continent. Antarctica is the only continent without native-born population. Lesson over. :-)
The first two days of our journey were dedicated to crossing, and suffering, the'Drake Passage'. never a great one for fairground rides, a boat that will move with the waves in a see-saw motion was never going to be the best place for me. i hear those two days were packed with lectures and meals; breakfast (desayano), lunch (almuerzo), tea (is it not tea in every language?) and dinner (cena). I can't prove it, but I heard it from 'The Man'. I did see this though, (they're sick bags) and they were well used. Thankfully not by me.
So, what did we see when I was back on my feet? Water, sky, fog and then the South Shetland islands. I think they must share the same characteristics as their namesake in the north 'Shetland islands'; bleak, pea soup for that comes out of nowhere, damp, cold and with a wind that cuts through your bones. We did see our first penguins (or pinguinos as they call them here) on the South Shetlands. I've never been a fan of the penguins, and avoided them at the zoo, but after this trip penguins are my new heroes. living in their own poo, defending their chicks from predators and themselves fleeing from predators - we'll come to the last one later. These are Gentoo penguins, my favourite of the species.
Many hours were spent watching them build their nests, trying to impress the females by 'acquiring' stones from other nests. The squabbles between the affronted females and males could be heard throughout the colony. The shamefaced penguin would of course try again. Nothing like a trier. I also loved watching them trekking from the colony to the water, in order to clean the poo from their coats, they are after all very conscientious and clean. Insert pics of penguins We also saw the chin strap and Adelie penguins. The chin strap are fairly quiet, none of the personality of the Gentoo and the Adelie are extremely shy of people and move around on their stomachs. A lot of sliding down hills, even penguins know how to have fun.
We then went further south, landing on rocks, snow and ice, with numerous layers of padding. I tended to waddle onto land, similar to the penguins really. Though there were not enough layers for me and I even borrowed a layer from 'The Man'. I am not built for colder climes, as I keep asking 'how many black people have you seen here?'. In between landings we were stuffed with food, I gave up attending all 3 meals after day 3, though still waddled onto the zodiacs and not all the padding was clothes.
Let's talk zodiacs! I was worried about these as for those who know me I've fallen off a fair few boats - there was that time in the Mekong when the boat went one way, the land the other and me...straight in. Anyway, I didn't fall in and neither did my fellow passengers, thanks to our Zodiac drivers.[ For those of you looking for strong, tall, dark and handsome Argentinians Zodiac drivers on the Ushuaia are where you should start. ] they are very easy to get into and extremely sturdy and steady. We used the Zodiacs for all our landings, and even managed one long zodiac cruise and one short one, which allowed us to move between the icebergs and sidle up beside a factory ship shipwrecked against the rocks. A great way to travel!
This ship was used to process the carcasses of the whales producing oil that were used widely. Anything from soaps and perfumes to manufacturing.
We also landed in Palmer station, which is... An American run research station that is called the country club of the stations.
Our most southerly landing was Petermann Island, which is 64degrees south and 155km from the South Pole. I met a scientist called Tracie, last name unknown, who is researching Krill. Everything eats krill down here so they are very important to the ecosystem down here. Where there is an abundance of krill, you're bound to see many whales, as we did. One fellow passenger when told there was a whale, responded "again" In an almost bored tone.
We were truly spoilt by our numerous and continuous sightings. seeing the whales (bellanes) in their natural habitat was one of the highlights of the trip, and Orcas. Yes, we saw orcas, and they weren't just hanging out, they were there to kill. (A bot Dominic Monaghan but it was thrilling). There is a video I took of a group of Orcas hunting penguins and the poor whale who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No whales were harmed but quite a few penguins just didn't make it.
The entire crew were out taking pictures and watching this. It's not a common occurrence, and we believe that the female orcas were teaching their young to hunt. This is the day that I felt like David Attenborough.
The excitement also continued on the same day we landed on the continent, which was truly a privilege. Our one day of blue skies and sunshine. the weather down here is drier and therefore not so cold. To be able to walk around, watch the penguins and look out over the mountains knowing that you are walking where few have been (well in comparison to most places) and seeing the purity of the water, sky, ice and lack of human presence...an experience I shall remember for some time. This was really getting away from it all.
There really is not much else to say except Antarctica is a big deal. Not just for its size and openness, but where else do you have the chance to see animals that you rarely see outside of a zoo or that you only see on the tv play, feed and live in their natural habitat, and the towering walls of ice, giving you a sense of what the world was...before us. if you get the opportunity to go then do. Go with a small ship so that you get access to out of the way landings that the cruise ships cannot go. Also, take layers and a polar coat if you can. But most of all enjoy it, as it will be over before you know it.