March 25th, 2013 | By admin | Filed in TRIPS
Flying to Antarctica
It wasn’t my first time in Antarctica. I’d been there before in 2007, when I boarded the Vavilov in Ushuaia, steeling my resolve for the next 48-60 hours of the legendary Drake Passage.
It wasn’t that bad - on the way there. The ocean was fairly flat, but the main issue was boredom. Sure, there were lectures and an opportunity to meet your fellow travellers, but outside, it was just grey – miles and miles of grey. Our of the 10-day program, more than 4 days were spent crossing the Drake.
The way home was a different story. We had 30-foot waves and, standing on the top deck, you could watch the bow all-but-disappear into the deep blue as we crashed into wave after wave. The dining room was a ghost town, and the few people that did make it to dinner had to contend with holding onto their plates so they wouldn’t end up on the floor. The staff did their best to make sure everyone who was laid out in their cabin was comfortable, but most just wanted the motion to stop.
Day 1: Punta Arenas
So I had the opportunity to join a new Fly-Cruise adventure to Antarctica this January onboard the Ocean Nova
, a ship I know well from previous expeditions. I arrived in Punta Arenas the day before and checked into the Hotel Rey Don Felipe, (http://www.hotelreydonfelipe.com/
) a quaint hotel, with excellent service. Dinner that evening was at La Pergola Restaurant at the historic the Hotel José Nogueira (http://www.hotelnogueira.com/restaurant/?lang=en ) under exceptional art painted by none other than Shackleton’s great (or is it Great-Great?) granddaughter.
Everyone was very excited for the morning to come – this was Christmas eve for the travel die-hards.
Day 2: Punta Arenas to Antarctica
The next day we woke early to join the flight from Punta Arenas to Frei Station (Chile’s most important base in Antarctica) aboard the BAE-146 jet. This 70-passenger jet is designed for short take off and landings and is perfect for the job at hand. Fog on the runway at Frei delayed our departure so instead we were taken for a tour of the town, including its impressive cemetery and it’s natural history museum. After lunch we moved to the airport , quickly got aboard, and had landed in Antarctica by 6pm.
We were greeted with temperatures hovering around freezing, with the last wisps of fog making our approach in Zodiac to the Ocean Nova a bit unreal. Coming aboard, we were welcomed by the friendly crew, and I was pleased to see some nice improvements to the décor of the ship – it still looks a little like it came from an Ikea catalog, but it is very well laid out and the staff is top-notch.
Dinner was delicious, we’ll-presented and soon followed by a nightcap in the Panorama lounge at the top of the ship. We were, indeed, in the Antarctic.
Day 3: The Weddell Sea
We awoke to brilliant sunshine as we edged into the Weddell Sea. Boarding the Zodiacs, we ventured out, along the frozen line of ice, in search of wildlife. The sea was mainly frozen with ice and stuck iceberg stretching out to the horizon. We encountered a few crabeater and leopard seals, who were mainly indifferent to our presence – allowing us some great opportunities for photos.
Relocating after lunch, we came to Brown Bluff, which was, as promised, brown. It was bright, sunny, and a pleasure to be out of deck, as you can see in the time lapse video.
This would be our first chance to stand on the Antarctic continent. Here we also had our first face-to-face meeting with the locals – the Adelie and Gentoo penguins. There were thousands of penguins here, going about their business as if we didn’t exist. There were times we actually had to get out of their way as they went about their very deliberate way. Also on the site were nesting Snow Petrels, but the penguins definitely stole the show. We had about 3 hours to spend with them, and many of us got an Antarctic tan – from chin to mid-forehead, minus the sunglasses, of course.
The evening brought a lecture on the early explorers, and the case for who really was the first to discover Antarctica – still a hotly contested subject it turns out!
Day 4: O’Higgins Station
During the night we re-cross Bransfield Strait, to tuck into the west side of the peninsula, and in the morning we find ourselves approaching O’Higgins Station. We were their first – and given that we were at the tail end of the season – most likely their last, expedition ship visit. The 42 staff at that base were mainly from Chile, but there were also some German and UK scientists, all working on products ranging from Climate Change to Penguin breeding. Our group was definitely a welcome distraction, with the base staff taking as many photos of us, as we were of them. We were treated to a guided tour, and were able to meet one-on-one with some of the scientists to discuss their work. Outside, the penguins continued to mill about.
Fog descended in the afternoon as we made our way to rugged Astrolabe Island. It was a lively Zodiac cruise with some new species – Chinstrap Penguins, Fur Seals, nesting Fulmars, Terns and Cape Petrels. Then we ate, then we drank, then we slept.
Day 5: Southernmost
The morning find us standing off of Orne Harbour, for another chance to set foot on the White Continent. The setting was dramatic, with a glacier at the end of the bay that seemed to reach up to the sky, making the Ocean Nova look very small. We hike up the ridge to a great aerial view, and smell the Chinstrap Penguins at the top before we actually lay eyes on them. The view from this point is amazing, and many of the way down slide on the snow – some for the first time in their lives.
Afternoon brings Cuverville Island and a walk on the beach among the Gentoo penguins and their young chicks. We have endless opportunities to photograph them and watch as the small chicks chase their parents (or any other Penguin for that matter) as they emerge from the water, looking for a taste of what they’ve caught.
Back to the ship and it’s our first close whale encounter – a small pod of Humpbacks has found the ship interesting and comes to check us out. We stand in the wind, smelling the evening’s bbq dinner from the upper deck, and are treated to many flukes and blows.
Dinner is served outside on the upper deck, with icebergs in the distance changing colours from gold to crimson in the waning light.
Day 6: Whaler’s Bay and Yankee Harbour
This morning we woke early to see the ship come through Neptune’s Bellows, a tricky navigation due to the shallow depth and narrow gap, and into the volcanic caldera of Deception Island. He we set foot on steaming sand, heated by caldera, which is which is quite warm to the touch. True to its name, this was once a great whaling station, with several nations represented at the turn of the past century. It was totally abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey after the 1967 eruption. We walk among the most complete ruins of whaling history in the Antarctica. The rustic rendering tanks and dilapidated old buildings are stark reminders of how hard work and life must have been from these early whalers. A brisk walk takes us up to Neptune’s Window for great views south towards the continent and back toward the bay.
A few hearty souls trip down to their bathing suits, or in some cases their underwear and tear off into the water for a polar dip before he head back to the ship for lunch. I did it last time I was here, so I figured I could let myself off – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, right?
After lunch we arrive at Yankee Harbour for a beach walk across the way from a large and frequently calving glacier. Here we find – you guessed it – penguins – but also a few skuas fighting over a set of penguin remains. There are also a number of fur seals up on the beach loudly playing together like a couple of puppies at the dog park.
In the evening we had a photo show of the trip and we sat with our fellow adventurers to rehash the trip. It had been an intense five days in one of the world’s most remote places, and we were all richer for having made the journey.
Day 7: Antarctica to Punta Arenas
We return to Frei Station on our last day and watch from the ship as the plane lands on the gravel runway, kicking up a cloud of dust. It’s what we previously imagined to be proper Antarctic weather outside, with a 30knot wind and sleet stinging our skin – quite unlike anything we actually experienced during our trip. We jump in to the Zodiacs one last time and head to the beach, walking the half mile or so up to the plane. We pass a bunch of the uninitiated – those who haven’t yet had their 7th
continent, and wave as we walk by – knowing they’re in for the adventure of their lives.
See more images below!