This morning we sailed round the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and anchored up next to Brown Bluff, the crevasse filled glacier that we are climbing today in our teams, where at last our feet will touch the Antarctic continent mainland. The day was glorious, with blue skies peeping through the clouds allowing the sun to beat down from time to time. We made it to the top, slipping and sliding a bit on the ice along the way and cautiously linked arms when we reached the crevasse, inching across as we peered down, careful to remain on the right side of the flags which marked out the safe path. As we reached the foot of the glacier again, mesmerised by the waddling penguins, we were taken by surprise as a strong (katabatic) wind suddenly whipped down the glacier. Some frantically chased down escaped gloves, while others were determined to keep filming the penguins as they battled to keep from falling over. The wind disappeared as swiftly as it arrived, but returned as soon as we had launched the zodiacs to go in search of whales. Sheltering behind an iceberg from the 40 mph winds in the choppy sea, waiting for the ship to reposition to allow us re-board safely, our driver, the ship historian Damien, regaled us with the incredible ‘rugged’ story of the Swedish expedition of Larsen, Anderson and Nordenskjöld, that were due to meet up in this region in late 1902, but spent almost a year trying to reach each other, separated by the harsh conditions, before being finally reunited. We have had a brief insight into what Nordenskjöld felt and recorded in his diary in this very place, “We were now sailing a sea across which none had hitherto voyaged. The weather had changed as if by magic; it seemed as though the Antarctic world repented of the inhospitable way in which it had received us the previous day, or, maybe, it merely wished to entice us deeper into its interior in order the more surely to annihilate us. At all events, we pressed onward, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown”, although we do have a warm welcoming ship and steamy hot chocolate to look forward to on our return….so we don’t feel so bad now! Back on board we sail back out through Antarctic Sound, captivated by the sheer size and number of icebergs we pass on the way, pieces of the Larson B ice shelf that started to collapse in 2002, and named after one of the previously mentioned Swedish explorers. It is expected that the remainder of this ice shelf, measuring 1,600 square kilometers that has been in existence for 10,000 years, will be gone by the end of the decade. We don’t need any more convincing of the effect of climate change. In the evening Rob tells us his story of how he eventually reached the South Pole on Jan 11 1986, overcoming the many obstacles and calamities that met him along the way and long after his return, including bankruptcy, politics, a sunken ship, and a promise to leave nothing behind. His lasting memento of this journey, are his eyes. No longer blue, but now changed to a light grey, from the months spent trekking under the hole in the ozone layer! His passion for Antarctica is relentless and tangible, and from what we have seen already of this magnificent place, it is clear we all may be getting hooked too.
Deception Island resembles a ring with the only entry to the inner bay, Port Foster, via the narrow opening, Neptune’s bellows. This morning we had a very early call at 6:20am to get us all up on the top deck to watch the ship skillfully navigating through. As part of IAATO, group size is limited to 100 on any landing point, so we are split into two groups, Orcas and Leopards. Us Leopards watch on in anticipation as the Orcas are zipped off first by Zodiac to land on one end of the island, as we wait for the boats to return to bring us off to another landing point in the other direction. Landing on Telefon bay, is like landing in another world. When you think of Antarctica, icy landscapes spring to mind, so it is surprising to see the extremes of volcano meet ice combined. The contrast of the stark black and whites with no vegetation in sight, gives it an eerie feel. We soon find our land legs after 3 days at sea and trek to the top of the volcano crater to take it all in, watched on by the seals lolling on the shore.
Back on the ship us ‘moderate and contemplative’ hikers bond over our crucible stories, while the more strenuous hikers head off again to land on Whalers bay, where the remains of the old Whaling industry can still be seen. When our turn comes, we are greeting not only by numerous seals, but also by a waddle of penguins (what a great word! I love they have two group terms, waddle when on land and raft when at sea). We take our time strolling round the old rusted whale oil tanks and buildings, observing the seals playing with each other, quite oblivious to the penguins wandering in between them. I give Laura a hand taking water samples (not only is she collecting local water stories from people on the trip for her H2you project, but is also collecting water, temperature and wind data for GLOBE http://www.globe.gov!) Rob joins us and instructs us to make the most of every moment on this trip, as many of us will never get the opportunity to return. He happily poses with us for a Saint Patrick’s Day photo with the Irish flag, in probably one of the few places in the world where there isn’t an Irish bar! On returning to the zodiac I was surprised by a seal, as he took run at me. Saved by the Quark staff making poses that look like they are about to perform the karate kid crane kick – arms stretched high above their heads, to make them appear bigger – he backs off and leaves us to return to the ship to explore another day.
I felt the rocking and rolling of the Drake Passage a bit more severely overnight and was awoken by the sound of the chair next door skidding around on the wooden floor. First talk this morning was on Whales, which ended abruptly when the cry ‘iceberg’ rang out and everyone rushed excitedly out on deck. As we sailed past our first iceberg, I was surprised at how blue it was – I had not been expecting that. Shortly after we spied our first glimpse of Antarctic land – the South Shetland Islands – and our first land in over a day and a half at sea. Glaciologist, Colin from Scotland, gave us some astonishing figures during his talk on ice sheets & glaciers. Antarctica is about 1.5 times the size of the USA and doubles in size between summer and winter when the sea around it freezes. It contains about 90% of the world’s ice which makes up 70% of the world’s fresh water, equivalent to a sea level rise of a staggering 60m if it all melted! Mind boggling!! We were told we would never look at a map of the world the same again after this trip….now I believe it.
Today at lunch I met Gloria, who works for Barefoot College based in Tilonia, India http://www.barefootcollege.org/, which gives development aid to communities, including training young grandmothers to maintain and repair solar panels installed in their community, as they firmly believe if you teach a woman, you teach many, as she will pass on the knowledge to her children and grandchildren – what a fantastic concept!
After lunch we had a briefing about going ashore, which is mandatory that we attend under IAATO, International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. IAATO, was set up in 1991 by private operators to the region, to ensure all travel to the continent is carried out in a safe and environmentally friendly manner. As there are now up to 30,000 visitors to Antarctica each year, stringent regulation is necessary to ensure that we don’t introduce any foreign invasive species once we step onshore. So we get out all our outer gear, bags, walking poles, anything that could come in contact with the land, and it is all meticulously inspected, picked at, vacuumed and wiped down before being given the okay to store it in the ‘Mudroom’ where we will suit and boot up before every trip. We are also instructed on the no go zone around penguins, 5m, and seals, 15-25m….although apparently they can come as close to us as they like. We cannot take anything from the land as mementos e.g. stone, bones, etc. and cannot leave anything behind…just footprints.
We had a more detailed insight into the Leadership on the Edge programme, where our first piece of homework is to think about our ‘crucible’ stories for the next session…challenging events in our lives that have made us stronger….looks like we will be getting to know one another very quickly! Next up is an introduction to ropes and some basic knots. Once we had just about mastered 3 basic knots we were roped together in our teams. We had a good laugh walking round the ship, attempting to avoid getting tangled up in other teams as they passed by. By evening we are anchored beside Deception Island, finally in calmer waters, where we will first set foot on Antarctic land tomorrow morning.
We are now in open water and sailing the 500 miles through the Drake Passage to Antarctica. All the activities today are optional as we are at the mercy of the Drake Passage as to how some people are feeling. The gods are looking down on us as we are told the sailing is one of the best they have had all season….with only 4-5m swells….although the few people confined to their bunks may disagree! We had several talks today from the excellent Quark staff, each of whom has their own specialist area, on penguins, glaciers and the history of Antarctica. We met some more fascinating and amazing people today, including 2 young 17 year old girls, Becky who backpacked by herself for 2 months around Costa Rica at the age of 15 and Jean who’s Dad has a company for Solar Panels that has been working with Rob planning for his next expedition to the South Pole using renewable energy only. We also met Maggie, a gentle, soft spoken young lady, who setup an NGO, http://lakotachildren.org, seven years ago when she was in high school for Native American young people and had brought along a young Native American girl on the trip with her, which was her first trip out of her State. What a place to go to on your first travels! There are several people on board who have been on previous 2041 expeditions to the Antarctic. They all seem to have had a profound experience from their last visit that completely changed their life and felt compelled to return. It makes me wonder what the effect will be on us. On top of all this today we also made our first visit to the bridge, where we are welcome to come and go as we please, unless the crew are undertaking special manoeuvres, and spot wildlife from the comfort and less windy area than the deck. We have now entered the Antarctic convergence zone where the cold waters from the south meet the warmer waters from the north making it a rich feeding ground, so the waters and sky are full of wildlife – petrels, albatross – with their enormous 3m wing span and we even saw our first Whale blows. The indicator that we have reached the convergence zone is a water temperature drop of 4 degrees. The onboard Quark biologist, Frenchman Fabrice, is the man to confirm this drop, from 6 to 2°C, as he has been regularly measuring the water temperature along the way for his research with his trusty water bucket and thermometer. We are now on the lookout for our first iceberg!
So after one final sunset we headed for the drake and left the Antarctic. One final treat in store, Type D Orcas, the 29th ever recorded sighting. The Antarctic kept giving. Rob challenged us all to enjoy the experience to the last and not go into travel home mode. This proved a challenge for those suffering with seasickness who were largely cabin bound.
I used the time getting to know a few of my fellow explorers better, taking advantage of the human resources onboard to explore some of the topics I had found most interesting during the lecture programme. In my blogs I have focused more on what I saw, which was genuinely breath taking at every turn. However, as we travelled back to Ushuaia I found myself reflecting more upon the people I had met, some of whom I found truly inspiring for their drive to change the world for the better. As we entered the Beagle Channel events were drawn to a close it a closing ceremony on deck and a final address from Rob, culminating in Invictus by W.E.Henley, which sticks in my mind.
An unforgettable expedition, to the most beautiful place I have ever been, with some of the most passionate people I have ever met. Once in a lifetime.
Morning at Neko. I can’t add to the image. A postcard, out of this world.
We hiked a glacier in the afternoon, Ian has uploaded a snap of the three of us with our Calon flag. A great moment to have a photo taken as a team, in front of the most incredible backdrop. At the top of the glacier we had a quiet moment to note down our final thoughts on the trip of a lifetime. On the trip I discovered I’m actually very uncomfortable with heights, which I didn’t let stop me. In between the waves of vertigo, I noted how lucky I felt and how thankful I was to have been to this remarkable place.
“Wakey, wakey” – the morning call from jumper to get up and experience the ship sailing through the Lamaire Channel. Unfortunately visibility was limited as a blizzard closed in and we were held on the boat before we could head out to Port Charcot.
Out iceberg spotting again in the morning, incredible colours and shapes. The theme of the day at Port Charcot was was teamwork, sticking together and helping your team mates up a steep rope climb to the Cairn that overlooks the port. The task was made all the more difficult by the blizzard. Although this didn’t seem to bother the local wildlife much… At the top, a rival team, waiting to defend the high ground in a snowball fight. All in great fun and a first for several explorers from the Middle East. Cold and wet we retreated to the ship for a hot chocolate.
The following day we headed to Peterman island in the morning. The day was about quiet reflection, alone along a flagged track, away from the team. Much clearer than the previous day the landscapes were stunning. Perhaps my favourite day so far, although I thought that every day. On the way back to the ship I missed my team, pottering around with the Penguins and was put in the last Zodiac. As it turns out, to my great fortune. On the journey we encountered three hump back whales, which followed us for 15 minutes, surfacing less than 5m from the boat before driving. Before this moment I had been more struck by the landscape than the wildlife, but the proximity of this encounter was truly remarkable.
In the afternoon we cruised down the Lemaire channel in the zodiacs. Bright blue glaciers poured into the sea, I took a few snaps but I just couldn’t get the colours to show up as I remember them. Bitterly cold, the first sea ices were starting to form and there was a real sense that winter was coming and it would soon be time for us to leave…
Rope skills and leadership exercises on the ice were the order of the day. I was voted as the best candidate to simulate crevasse rescue. Perhaps I was the most likely to find themselves in a crevasse, or just the biggest maybe? Truly stunning views, once again, far too special for me to articulate. A picture paints 1000 words…
First feet on the continent! After the efforts expended at Deception I woke up well under the weather and had to get Drs approval to get into a zodiac and out onto the water. I won the battle eventually and off I went, although I did sense my team kept their distance, fearing infection! I wasn’t disappointed for my efforts, Penguins, Humback Whales and Leopard Seals, all within minutes of departing the ship. We cruised around and then landed at the beach at Brown Bluff. The team hiked to the top of the glacier, I took a slightly shorter route and opted to spend some time on the beach with the Crab Eater Seals and the Penguins… After being surrounded by people for the past 4 days, the opportunity for some quiet reflection was appreciated. The vistas were stunning, from all angles, the mountains in the distance and ice shelves closer looked like a movie set, too dramatic to be real. We were among the final zodiacs to make land fall and my team came charging down from the glacier top. Katabatic winds had arrived, making conditions quite unsafe. Someone has fallen and cut their face, all unbeknown to me from my sheltered spot with the Gentoos. We were bundled back into the zodiacs for a choppy return to the ship, the water proofs came into their own as the waves crashed over our small boat. Hoisted in by a Russian sailors grip, we made back onto the ship safely but we had our first real taste of how conditions can change and danger can appear from apparently nowhere.
The winds prevented a second landing in the afternoon, so off we sailed down the Gerlache Straits to observe the tabular icebergs, huge chunks of freshwater ice that had broken off ice shelves and were now floating freely in the open water. The scale was staggering and although this can be a natural phenomenon, it brought home some thoughts of climate change and why we were here in the first place.
I should start by saying that I know I’m not articulate to do this experience justice, but I have tried and hopefully the images will provide greater context than my words ever could…
With the fear of God instilled about the legendary rough seas in the Drake Passage, I readied the sea sickness pills and prepared for a rough crossing. What I am pleased to report is that the drake was more of a lake this year. 2-4/10, depending who you asked. So once the cabins had been drake proofed (everything nailed down) we were free to enjoy the lectures provided, spend time on deck scanning the horizon for the first iceberg (a competition deservedly won by 11 year old Isabelle from Georgia, USA) and in my case, learning yoga (with great difficulty). Lectures were fantastic, covering everything from geology to history, leadership to climate change, preparing us to answer questions upon our return.
After around 36 hours on the Drake, we finally saw land, Deception Island. Grey and baron, shrouded in cloud and mist, a still active, partially collapsed volcano. We anchored up, focused on learning our rope skills and prepared for landfall the following day. “Wakey, wakes, eggs and bacey” a 6am wake up call from expedition co-ordinator “jumper”. We were up on deck to see the boat sail into Deception and drop anchor in the culdera.
We headed ashore for the first of two landings and began a hike. The most striking thing was the amount of fur seals and their indifference to our presence. I opted for the steeper hike, up a ridge overlooking the culdera. The winds picked up so I was glad to make it down…
The second landing was at the old abandoned whaling station, rather than spending time on the beach taking in the sights, I had opted for a “strenuous hike”… Big mistake, this was more than a 1000m ascent/descent in 2 hours. It took its toll but the view and sense of achievement was worth it in the end…