It has been a dream for a long time to visit the southern continent, Antarctica. We decided to fly across the Drake Passage rather than sail it. Drake Passage can be one of the roughest and unpredictable patches of water in the world. The term coined is Drake’s shake or Drake’s lake. Rather than spend 2 days “enjoying” the experience we chose to spend 2 hours flying. Our trip started with a good omen when we arrived in Punta Arenas, a rainbow. We chose Quark expeditions to handle the flights and cruise. After getting kitted out in polar expedition gear we looked like yellow penguins and headed to the airport. Our plane left on time and was a smooth ride, landing at a Chilean research station, Frei Station, at King Georges Island, one of the South Shetland Islands just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We marched past the other yellow penguins waiting to leave and headed to the zodiacs that would take us on our journey to the seventh continent. Our ship was the Ocean Adventurer, a 130 passenger ship that was an ice class 1A ship, meaning it was of the icebreaker class of ships. The ship was very nicely appointed and the food and drinks were great. The expedition crew lead by Ali did a great job of keeping us informed of the plans for the day and had backup plans if the weather did not cooperate.
While our first landing on Ross Island was canceled due to high seas and weather we did make landfall on the continent at Portal Point the next day after sailing across Bransfield Strait. We zodiac to shore and hiked around in the falling snow. While we saw a lot of snow and ice during the rest of the trip, it was a generally sunny, cloudless sky with temperatures starting in the low 30’s and highs in the 50’s. While we landed with our polar gear we quickly stripped to our shirts in the sun and the heat. We saw lots of penguin colonies, seals and whales on our trip. There were 3 different type of penguins we visited, Gentoo, Adela, and Chinstrap. While we tried to stay the 3m distance, they would walk right up to us wondering what kind of penguin was this. It was hatching time, so we saw lots of chicks of all sizes being taken care of by their parents. Their behavior was fun to watch, from feeding chicks, stealing rocks from other nests, to harassing seals, these little birds seem to have no fear. While we were on a zodiac cruise we saw two seals, leopard and crabeater lying next to each other on an iceflow. This is unusual since Leopard seals eat juvenile crabeater seals and penguins, then a penguin jumps on to the iceflow and starts harassing both the seals by squawking and parading back and forth and fanning its wings. This goes on for about 20 minutes. The penguin seems to tire of this and jumps back into the water. Then comes back in about 5 minutes with a friend. Then they both start harassing the seals. These little guys have no fear. We would see waddles of penguins porpoising thorough the waves while they were feeding on Krill.
With the brilliant sun and sky we enjoyed our landings and cruises around the bays. The scenery is so majestic and huge it fools the eyes unless you have a point of reference. You might think an iceberg is only 60 feet high, then a zodiac cruises by and you realize it is actually a couple of hundred feet tall. We saw humpback whales and orcas. Curious humpbacks would swim right up to our skiffs. It was their feeding season since the Krill were at their peak. Whales, penguins, and seals all eat krill which is the basis of the Antarctic food chain. It is even harvested by fishing ships and converted to food for farm raised fish. This is one of the reasons for the decline of penguin populations in the Antarctic.
While seals are amazingly agile in water, but on land not so much. We saw a lot of seals resting on land as they were molting in the summer. They would heave their bulk along the beach 6 or 8 feet and then rest for 10 minutes before they would do it again. We saw Leopard, Crabeater (which only eat Krill), elephant, and a single rare fur seal during our trip. We even had a barbeque on the back deck with a suckling pig one sunny day when we were cruising the Lemaire Channel and a day later sailed into an active volcano caldara at Deception Island before visiting a colony of 50,000+ chinstrap penguins on the day before we were scheduled to leave.
Before we boarded I noticed there was a small rainbow in the sunset bidding us goodbye. When we were on land we realized that the time aboard a small ship has given us sea legs. We slightly weaved as we walked down streets. In about 3 days we recovered our land legs and could walk in a straight line again. A really new experience for us. Our trip to Antarctica was fantastic, truly a trip of the lifetime and lots of good stories.
Enjoy the photos.