The moment you’ve all been waiting for. Well, the moment Laynni and my mom have been waiting for anyway. So, in the last entry I rambled somewhat incoherently from topic to topic, focusing mainly on life aboard the Sea Spirit, especially all the perks, benefits and preposterously large meals we ate three or more times daily. Now for the highlights, the memories, the very best of Antarctica, according to me. All neatly organized into one convenient Top 10 list, the ubiquitous fallback of every lazy writer.
Top 10 Highlights of our Antarctic Expedition* * I thought it through and decided, quite astutely I believe, that using the word “expedition” instead of “cruise” not only is a more accurate description of the experience but also makes the whole undertaking sound more adventurous and exciting, mainly by putting more emphasis on the active side of the excursions, and less on buffet-style meals and cabin slippers.
Seabirds were the first wildlife we encountered as many followed us right from Ushuaia right on across the Drake Passage. Not that I can say with any certainty that the birds circling our boat in a dazzling kaleidoscope of grace and weird cawing once we reached the peninsula were the same as those doing, well, exactly the same thing 1,000 kilometres back. For all I know they were tagging out for a new set every 100 kilometres or so once they got their fill of minnows, krill and the ego-boost of having a few dozen cameras aimed at them at all times.
Either way, we are far from being “bird people” (we are likewise never going to be mistaken for “wine people” or “gerbil race people”. “Brick of cheese people”, maybe.), and as a result never paid enough attention during Liliana’s bird lectures and hence can’t go into great detail as to all the different species, variations and feather groups (??) we witnessed during our time in the deep icy south. But that’s not to say we didn’t find them interesting, fascinating at times, and pleasantly distracting when all that frozen whiteness started to become overwhelming. The one bird that I think we all remember was the skua (Which type of skua? Can’t rightly say.) because of their naughty little habit of patiently circling, circling, on the lookout for penguin chicks, spotting some, picking out a favourite, then going right ahead and trying to eat it.
9. Polar Plunge
This would probably come in higher on the list if I had actually done it, but since only Laynni braved the freezing water while I took photos from the deck above, warm and comfortable in my parka and long johns, well, it didn’t seem quite as momentous for me. Oh, yeah, in case you aren’t familiar with the Polar Plunge, it is the catchy name they’ve given to the practice of people stripping down to their bathing suits in near 0C temperatures and proceeding to, voluntarily I might add, jump into the near freezing water, gasping, sputtering, swearing in mumbled half-groans, then using uncooperatively seized-up limbs to scramble out as fast as possible back into the near freezing air.
Their reward – a celebratory soak in the jacuzzi, some admittedly cool photos, and not being universally considered a pussy, like certain others. I stand by my decision.
Crabeater seals, Weddell, seals, leopard seals, fur seals and, what the hell, I’m going to go ahead and lump sea lions in here as well. My blog, my fauna classification system. They are all quite a bit bigger than I expected, especially the sea lions, they are all impressively sleek and graceful in the water, and all pretty much wallow around like grunting, farting invalids while on land (once again, especially the sea lions). One of the highlights was following a leopard seal in a zodiac, another was the Weddell seal sunning itself on the ice near Base Brown that for all the world seemed to be waving at us when we finally holstered our cameras and started to move on. Hard to say how many parts of that fin would have remained standing if only he had a greater degree of manual dexterity.
Sort of a crazy experience. Loaded into a zodiac at 9 pm, buzzing away from the ship still in full light of day, only to be unceremoniously dumped off at tiny featureless Leith Island covered in several feet of snow and surrounded on three sides by looming mountains with spectacular glaciers clinging to the steep slopes like mashed potatoes clinging desperately to plate upended over the trash.
Then we all stood around for a while, not really sure what to do next, then we went to bed.
It was an incredibly calm, peaceful night without a breath of wind. Or a hint of darkness, for that matter. That far south in January the sun never fully sets, just kind of dims slightly, sort of the way my eyes do when I’m nearing the end of a case of beer. Just the odd feeling of being surrounded by snow and sky, and every so often the sound of a glacier calving, tonnes of frozen snow crashing into the water somewhere in the distance. In the end we slept pretty well, although we were up by 6 am and on our way back to the ship by 6:30, so we really only got a few hours of real sleep, something Laynni still maintains is responsible for the way her minor head cold suddenly morphed from slight bother to crippling affliction, something I found extremely inconvenient over the next few days when trying to ensure she didn’t breathe on me, touch anything I might touch, or cough with her lips parted. And all that pained moaning didn’t help my mood much either.
Although the majority of our landings were sort of similar – rocky beach, patches of melting snow stubbornly hanging on next to small patches of sparse, stringy grass stubbornly taking advantage of the miniscule Antarctic “summer”, penguins to the left of me, penguins to the right, possibly a seal or two, and usually at least one hill to fool ourselves into thinking we just worked off “second dessert” – they were all still endlessly fascinating thanks to the ever-erratic behaviour of the penguins, the constantly shifting scenery and the way the chicks seemed to be at completely different stages of development on every landing (tiny and screechy, larger and mischievous, unhatched, currently hatching, as big as their parents but still fuzzy and grey like a stuffed animal, a dung-covered stuffed animal).
One of the best just happened to be our very first landing, at Half Moon Island, where Laynni and I hung back and ended up with an entire penguin rookery to ourselves, quietly enjoying the sunny afternoon as we sat next to a “penguin highway”, watching those eager, clumsy little fools stumble back and forth between the water and their nests.
And a few of the landings were completely different. Particularly Deception Island, where we cruised into the water-filled crater of a collapsed volcano through the narrow rocky gap of Neptune’s Bellows, and spent time on the eerily steamy, sulfurous, volcanic ash beach of Whaler’s Bay amid the abandoned infrastructure of mass whale harvests, wind-swept and sun-bleached whale skeletons and the grim ghosts of filthy sailors past (turns out scurvy smells a little like deviled eggs and cardboard).
We also visited a couple of inhabited stations – Port Lockroy, where we toured a perfectly preserved former base and somehow ended up getting our closest view of a mother penguin and her chicks of the entire trip, all while standing in line for the gift shop, and Palmer Station, a working U.S. scientific base where a hazardous waste disposal expert showed us important things like the equipment shed, the jacuzzi and, of course, the gift shop, then we were given a piece of brownie and shown a bucket of krill before being sent on our merry way.
At Neko Harbor we climbed a large hill then gave a Brazilian a serious snowball beatdown, his very first, and on Mikkelson Island an American woman managed to get herself stuck in snow up to her thigh, then writhed around for a bit before eventually deciding it was a lost cause and just looking around blankly. In the end, a couple guys dug her out with their hands and she clomped off without a word.
At first there were just a handful of minke whales off in the distance from the deck of the ship, then we started seeing a few humpbacks a little closer, close enough to see their famous flukes when they dove down with their tails in the air, then eventually we tracked down some orcas, which drew quite a crowd to the railings despite being rather inconveniently timed at 6:45 am. Still, they put on quite a show, an entire pod of 6 or 7 gliding, blowing and diving in unison just a few hundred metres off “starboard” (one of the many sailing terms I am now using in regular conversation, along with measuring speed in “knots”, referring to Laynni as my “petty officer”, using “devil seam” to describe the back of my skinny jeans, and “balls to four” when either describing the midnight to 4am watch or looking for something randomly funny to blurt loudly while getting a massage).
Later, while on a zodiac cruise of Cierva Cove we spotted, stalked and ultimately anticipated a huge humpback sufficiently to have him surface immediately beside us, then dive and pass completely under our zodiac, then eventually find us so uninteresting that he simply fell asleep about 20 metres away. We then watched, enthralled, as he floated silently nearby, motionless but for a sudden blowhole spurt every couple minutes (causing gasps of excitement similar to those heard when the guy with the fireplace poker gets involved on holiday telecasts of the yule log fire). In the end we were forced to take the hint and drive away, thrilled with the experience, yet humbled by his insulting lack of interest.
But the crowning glory of our whale experience didn’t come until the afternoon of our last day before heading back across the Drake, when Cheli and our venerable captain, who’s name escapes me (Rodrigo? Yuri? Bob? Can’t say for sure), successfully tracked another pod of orcas, and were able to get right up in their business (respectfully, of course), as they were far too preoccupied to care about us. What, you ask, could be so important that a group of proud, independent orca whales would be willing to completely ignore a huge ship with a hundred people gawking from its decks? Well, the general consensus is that they were feeding on another whale, probably a minke (based on the size, and the luxurious fur stole one of the orcas was wearing), and they spent nearly two hours circling, diving, eating, breathing, circling, diving, eating, breathing, etc.
while scraps of blubber floating to the surface attracted an entire flock of hungry seabirds and one industrious expedition leader in a zodiac armed only with a video camera and a healthy dose of Kiwi courage.
As with any group excursion, the people you share it with are a huge part of the experience. And while there were certainly people from all different walks of life, different parts of the world and different tax brackets, we all had at least one thing in common – a dry irritating cough. Well, that, and a desire to experience Antarctica. The ship was too large to get to know everyone aboard, but wide open meal seating and more or less random zodiac groupings meant we did meet a pretty good chunk of our fellow passengers, and made a lot of great friends. After ten days of virtually cohabitating, both drunk and sober for a change, it was really hard to say goodbye after we made it back to Ushuaia and all slowly dispersed in different directions.Against all odds, the friendly couple across the hall from us turned out to be from Melfort, which was strange enough, but as it happens Laynni and Marian actually sort of knew each other from back when Laynni worked for the health district in Melfort. Small world.
For the most part, everyone was very polite to their fellow passengers and respectful of the natural surroundings, with a few exceptions here and there. It seems to be human nature that some people always need to push it just a little bit past the line or, in one woman’s case, just walk right out into the middle of a penguin rookery like she owned it, or maybe had acquired a special pass entitling her to one wildly inappropriate foray into a forbidden area per day, like rookeries, bird nesting areas or the engine crew’s shower.
The expedition staff was consistently outstanding – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, omni-present. They did a great job of spotting wildlife for us, keeping us under control during landings and initiating late night dance parties in the lounge. All in all, an excellent group of people, and lots of great new friends sure to follow our standard travel friend timeline: keep in touch regularly over the next couple months, with contact slowly dwindling to an annual happy birthday message on Facebook, and finally culminating several years from now in them reluctantly agreeing to provide us with a place to stay on our way through their city, a couple hours of awkwardly recounting some vague, distant memories, with the entire affair eventually being salvaged through the magic of excessive alcohol consumption.
3. Zodiac Cruising
In reality, the zodiac cruises overlapped with a lot of the other categories. Chasing down a sleeping whale, following a leopard seal, enjoying the magnificent scenery, etc. But they are still worth mentioning on their own because they were responsible for a few of the very best moments of the entire trip. Even though I discussed the cruise around Cierva Cove in the context of the sleeping whale, the real highlight of that morning was all the surreal time we spent touring the dark, placid waters getting up close and personal with hundreds of different variations of icebergs, in all shapes, sizes and colours. Well, really just a subtle variety of ice blues, but still…
Then there was our final outing of the journey, a cruise somewhat underwhelmingly promoted by Cheli as “of great geological interest”, having “some unique rock formations”. About as scintillating a description as calling the Super Bowl a sprightly gathering of likeminded individuals. But then she piqued our interest by also calling it a treat for the expedition staff, as a “zodiac cruise for zodiac drivers”. We soon saw why. Open, exposed ocean quickly gave way to some of the most unusual and incredible steep, rugged islands I’ve ever seen (and don’t forget, I’ve seen my share of South Saskatchewan River sandbars).
Lined by sheer cliffs, surrounded by brilliant white icebergs in all states of erosion and creased by narrow crevasses and gloomy tunnels that made for some exhilarating zodiac routes. A phenomenal, and refreshingly unusual, way to top off our time on the peninsula.
Pleneau Bay (also known as Iceberg Alley, in honour of John C. Iceberg, I believe), got us in nice and tight with a ludicrous variety of spectacular icebergs, in more shapes, sizes and clarities than a Dungeons & Dragons dice display.
And, of course, our absolute favourite part of Antarctica, the afternoon we spent cruising Paradise Bay. A large group of friends gathered together on the same zodiac under stunningly bright, sunny skies, and for once not a breath of wind to disturb the surface of the dark, iceberg-ridden waters, made for a couple of incredible hours floating among the ice, watching massive chunks of glaciers calving into the still waters, hearing them a few seconds later, and being mesmerized by the crystal clear reflections as they doubled up every view like it was 2 for 1 Tuesday in Antarctica and we were stocking up on views for the ride home.
If for no other reason than sheer numbers the penguins have to be high on the list. Sure, their inane squabbling left some question as to their overall intelligence, and they sure as hell smelled the joint up, but their incessant fidgeting and ungainly movements were endlessly entertaining. With one island filled with restless, aggressive Adélies and their comely little brush cuts, two different sets of clumsy little chinstraps hopping through the snow in distinctive and unwieldy fashion while sporting little penguin versions of the douchebag beard, and more curious gentoos than suicidally-depressed elves in an underground Keebler factory, there was never a dull moment, penguin-wise.
We were even shocked and lucky enough to see one shabby, molting Emperor penguin looking a little lost and homesick, and understandably so, considering he was about 1,000 kilometres from where he was supposed to be, and why this was the first Emperor sighting for almost everyone on the ship, staff included. As for penguins in general, it was constantly shocking to see how fast and agile they were in the water, only to emerge on land stumbling and awkward like a toddler on a popsicle high. We were lucky enough to be in Antarctica right in the middle of hatching season, meaning that between all the various landings we saw the whole gamut from a parent protectively keeping a promising pair of eggs warm while testily trying to keep the bored spouses of their neighbours from stealing rocks off their nest, to large downy gentoos, and every size in between, including a few unforgettable moments when we stood just a few metres away as a slimy, mewling little chick rather slowly and ineffectually fought its way out of his shell to greet the world (and at least half a dozen speechless humans).
One of my favourite moments of the entire trip took place in Iceberg Alley as we were slowly circling a large ice floe that was covered in at least a dozen seals, including a leopard seal, probably the penguin’s most dangerous predator. While watching all the lazing seals suddenly we spotted a plucky little gentoo penguin make his way kicking and splashing out of the water and up onto the ice. Then, even though he could have swam around to the other side of the ice in less than 30 seconds, he instead chose, rather bizarrely, to slowly waddle all the way across the ice, close to 100 metres in all, taking several tense, nail-biting minutes to weave his way around, through and right under the noses of these creatures renowned for their penguin-destroying abilities, before finally, and unreasonably calmly, diving back into the water on the far side. It defied all logic, like he was suffering a pledge hazing, or was just hoping to be torn to bits in a bloody blaze of glory just so his ex, Veronica, would realize just how lost she was without him, after all.
No question the highlight of the trip for us. And, while we fully expected to see a lot of wildlife, a lot of icebergs, and occasional glaciers, we were completely unprepared for just how consistently staggering the views would be.
From the time we reached the peninsula about halfway through our second day at sea, we were almost constantly surrounded by stunning mountains, shocking ice formations and riveting shades of blue, white and black (as in black ice, highly compacted ice floes created by the compressing weight of glaciers, not to be confused with the crime-fighting African-American zamboni driver of the same name starring in a new animated series on Fox).
For those of you that have seen the photos you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those of you that haven’t, picture the Canadian arctic with soaring mountains and penguins instead of Inuit driving snowmobiles. Or the Caribbean with icebergs dotted with seals instead of palm-fringed islands covered with drug dealers. Or snow, picture lots and lots of snow.
So, there you have it. Antarctica, right up there among the best trips we’ve done. Rugged, raw and wild. If only the polar bears hadn’t already swam north for the summer…
Also, for a specific review of the boat itself you can see this post on the Trip Advisor Antarctica forum: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g1-i12337-k7182975-Antarctica_Expedition_Review_Sea_Spirit_with_Quark-Antarctic_Adventures.html