Who Am I?
After two years working in the Middle East I have money in the bank and itchy feet. I'm on a mission to visit every continent in the world and experience as much as possible while I am there.
An adventure to the frozen continent
I woke again at 4:30am but this time there was snow falling outside my window. Overnight we had passed the invisible line denoting the 60th parallel south (latitude) and had officially entered into Antarctic waters. This line was designated by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, an agreement between the 12 countries present in Antarctica at that time to maintain the country as a peaceful scientific preserve, free of sovereign claims and military activity.
At 8:30am we were enthusiastically encouraged to head to the port side of the boat as the staff members on the Bridge had spotted our first iceberg. Far off in the distance, enveloped by fog and falling snow, was a massive tabular iceberg (chatacterised by a flat top and straight sides), drifting aimlessly along in the Southern Ocean. At dinner the night before, Boris had announced that there would be a prize for the person who guessed the closest GPS coordinates for our first sighting so we were all keen to find out who had won.
Throughout the morning we were ushered into the mud room in small groups to take part in the vacuum party. Attendance at this party was mandatory for all passengers before we were allowed off the boat on our first shore landing. The purpose of the party was simple, all external items of clothing were to be thoroughly inspected for presence of foreign matter not native to Antarctica, such as grass seeds and sand particles. These would be vacuumed up and safely stored out of harm’s way so as to not introduce any non-native species into Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem.
After we had all freed ourselves from the guilt of ecological disaster, we gathered in the presentation room to hear Daisy and David explain the fundamentals of photo composition and how to create interesting photos in the Antarctic landscape. As we glided through the South Shetland Islands toward our first excursion destination, we were all eager to put their theories into practice.
At lunch time the discussion was lively, with the announcement of two birthdays on board on the auspicious date of 11.11.11, and that for another member, the morning snow fall was the first he had ever seen (hailing from Western Australia, it is understandable really). Mike, one of the birthday boys, was treated to another surprise by winning the iceberg sighting pool and was handed a nice bottle of South Australian wine, which was no doubt enjoyed later that evening.
As we waited for the ship to arrive and set anchor at our first landing site, Half Moon Island, I went up to the Bridge and fell into a discussion with Dave about Antarctic meteorology and low pressure systems. I had noticed on the daily weather maps that lay in the Navigation Room that there was a constant line of low pressure systems battering the Antarctic Peninsula, one of which we were currently passing through, hence the persistent snow fall. I’d also gotten used to seeing the live weather and location data being fed through to monitors in the Lounge and the Bridge, so I was interested in hearing from Dave, our resident meteorological expert, about what made the Antarctic weather so unique.
Now, it might seem a little geeky of me to be interested in weather cycles but I’ll advise you now that by the end of the trip, everybody on board the boat knew significantly more about barometric pressure and why we prefer the highs over lows. I’ll write more about the weather in the next day’s post, as on our first day we had only just experienced the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) when it came to what Antarctica could serve up.
By now we had finally set anchor at Half Moon Island and our kayaking guides had announced that conditions were suitable for our first outing. About 20 mins before we had to be ready on the gang way I put on a few layers of thermals and went down to the mud room to put on my dry suit. It would take a few outings before we were all accustomed to getting our gear on, so we all helped each other struggle into our dry suits and lined up out on the deck in order to keep cool. Thick layers of thermals, a water-tight dry suit and a heated boat do not mix well.
We loaded onto two zodiacs, one pulling the 11 kayaks we were about to use, and were driven into the safe waters of the sheltered bay. It was the first time any of us had entered a kayak in the freezing waters of Antarctica so it took quite a long time before we were all in our kayaks and ready to paddle around. I had agreed to using a double kayak with Jane and after a shaky start, we eventually got into a rhythm of turning and paddling that had us feeling pretty confident. I had decided to carry my waterproof camera and had attached it to my life vest. We paddled around for a while, being guided by Nathan along the shore, where we saw our first Gentoo penguins and watched the skiers setting up their gear and disappearing up the mountain.
In our meeting on the ship we had all agreed that we would like to paddle for a while and then join the shore excursion and see the colony of Chinstrap penguins that covered one side of the island. We paddled over to the landing site and got out of our kayaks and climbed the small hill up to the penguin rookery. I really couldn’t have imagined what it was like to see penguins in such numbers for the first time. There were hundreds of Chinstrap penguins covering the hill, patiently waiting for the snow to melt and the rocks below to be revealed so that they could make their nests for the summer.
We followed the well-trodden path through the snow to the end of the island’s crescent where Simon eagerly pointed out the single Macaroni penguin amongst the sea of Chinstraps. This little guy has been seen at this same breeding site for 7-8 years and had obviously completely forgotten that he was not a Chinstrap and was probably wondering why all the lovely Chinstrap girls were not the least interested in him and his fantastic yellow crest.
After a few minutes of watching and photo taking we were ushered back to the shore as it was time for us to leave. On our way back over the hill, our track was suddenly cut off by a young Weddell Seal. The small group of us who had been cut off stopped and took some photos while we worked out how to proceed. We had been briefed the day before by Boris on the proper landing procedure and he had specifically mentioned that we were not to stray off the paths made by the crew at each site, and we were not to get within 3 metres of any wildlife. As our path was currently blocked by a very curious young seal we were faced with a dilemma, we needed to break one of those rules. Since disturbing the animals would be considered a much greater sin in the Antarctic rule of law, we forged a new track around the seal at an appropriate distance and then rushed back to the shore with stories of our unexpected encounter.
Back on board the Ioffe, we were encouraged to visit the lounge for Happy Hour, where Andy and Rose had whipped up some frozen strawberry daiquiris and fresh pots of coffee, to go with the trays of delicious freshly baked cookies from the kitchen. At dinner time we were treated to a birthday celebration, with cakes and a special delivery for each of the birthday boys. Ed was treated to a kiss from a penguin, or at least his partner in a penguin suit, and Mike to a kiss from Santa, who was not his wife in a Santa suit.
After dinner we were again encouraged to head out onto the deck to enjoy a boat cruise into Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island. As it’s name suggests, this bay was the site of an early 1900s whaling operation and the now silent remains sat frozen in time on the water’s edge. Close by sat an abandoned aircraft hangar, next to a long, flat area of black gravel that was used as a landing strip for supply planes back in the mid 1900s when the British Antarctic Survey set up a base as the site.
Through the fading light and the falling snow, the monochrome landscape looked like we were peering through an old photo into the past. The dry air and sub-freezing temperatures preserve the old buildings remarkably well, however, the smoldering volcano below had been slowly reclaiming them into its volcanic sands.
The Captain slowly turned us around and expertly navigated back through the narrow entrance, known as Neptune’s Bellows. Those of us still out on deck got to experience why this island is considered one of the safest harbours in Antarctica when we were suddenly hit with the driving blizzard winds out in the open water. We retreated back into the warmth of the lounge and chatted for a while over hot chocolates and glasses of wine while the snow began falling in pieces so large it looked like torn up cotton wool.
Today’s Set: Antarctica – Day 4