Antarctica with G Adventures
July 10, 2015
Although there are a number of organizations that do Antarctica cruises, only a handful of operators own and operate their own ships.
I prefer the concept of an integrated tour with a support staff who are geographically well-informed, and are knowledgeable and sensitive regarding environmental issues.
Although none of the small-ship Antarctica cruises are inexpensive, my research narrowed the choice to G-Adventures or National Geographic, with G-Adventures appearing to offer a better value.
When I was getting ready to book our Antarctica trip I was especially impressed with the description and photos of their ship. You can check out their glossy brochure on-line at www.gadventures.com/expedition.
"The G Expedition provides an intimate small-ship cruising experience. Completely refurbished in 2009, she boasts spacious cabins, each featuring ocean-facing windows or portholes and private en-suite facilities. Large common areas and observation decks provide panoramic views of the distinctive landscapes of some of the world's most remote regions. "
For some reason, the word "refurbished" caught my attention and apparently jogged my memory, prompting me to do a little research.
I only had to search as far as my own archives: www.traveladventurejournal.com/2008 where on January 7th, 2008, I wrote the following:
"Cruising isn't generally what I would consider to be 'adventure' travel. Of course, if you were aboard the MS Explorer, a small adventure cruise ship that recently hit submerged ice and sank in Antarctica, you might disagree. You can check it out at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21935099"
As it turns out, the reason for having a completely refurbished ship is that the Expedition replaced the Explorer.
Now with all due respect, Bruce Poon Tip, who owns G-Adventures (and still runs the show) devoted an entire chapter in his book Looptail to this calamity, and he described in detail how he managed to avoid a disastrous outcome.
So I do feel confident that this will be a safe adventure, and I expect seasickness to be our only major challenge!
Counting the days to December 5th!
End of the World!
December 4, 2015
After nearly a year of counting the days, we are down to just one!
In only a few hours our group will be off to Buenos Aires, then Ushuaia, the town nicknamed the End of the World.
Ushuaia is at the southernmost tip of South America, and is the starting point for our voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula.
If all goes well, we should get there late Sunday afternoon -- only a five hour time difference -- so no major jet lag to worry about.
In addition to Teresa and our three adult children, Christopher, Brandon and Katie, we are also traveling with our friends Carol and Laura. You may recall that Carol, our artist-in-residence at South Lake Tahoe, joined us four years ago on our Asia discovery adventure. Carol is also a superb journalist -- she wrote much of this blog back then -- and is planning on doing it again!
Laura is our tech whiz. Although she is an experienced world traveler, this is her first time joining us. Normally she lives and breathes computers, but on this adventure she is looking forward to cutting the cord -- well, trying, anyway!
We'll have a satellite Internet link from Antarctica, but I don't know how much bandwidth we'll have available. Carol and I will be updating the blog regularly and hopefully we can get at least some of it uploaded.
We'll be in Ushuaia for the first two days -- this will give us some time to acclimate -- and we also plan to do some hiking in Tierra del Fuego, a national park that's a short drive from the town. We'll meet up with our G Adventures group Tuesday evening and board the MS Expedition the next day.
The first two days at sea will take us five hundred miles across Drake Passage, named for the English sea captain Sir Francis Drake. This voyage has been described variously as "treacherous", "brutal" and "unpredictable". Our first landfall will be at the South Shetland Islands and then on to the Antarctic Peninsula.
I'll try to post again Sunday evening or Monday, after we get to Ushuaia.
December 6, 2015
It was a thirty-six hour journey including stopovers!
Fortunately, it all went smoothly.
We departed San Francisco early Saturday morning, getting into Miami in the late afternoon.
By 7:30 PM there was a crowd gathered around our departure gate in the international terminal. It felt chaotic and it seemed like we were the only passengers speaking English. At 8:15, ten minutes past our scheduled departure time, there was still no boarding announcement.
Finally, about 8:30, a small group of well-dressed individuals, who turned out to be our flight crew, appeared at the gate and marched through the crowd.
Boarding seemed ready to begin.
Just then, Teresa heard my name being called, so I quickly headed to the gate counter where I was asked to show that we’d all paid the Argentina “reciprocity” fee. I had -- $160 per person – it’s a tit-for-tat tax on Americans in retaliation for the US government charging Argentineans the same amount for a US visa. (They should call it a “retaliation” fee!)
I returned to our place in the boarding line which started to move. But as soon as I got to the front of the line, another agent asked to see our reciprocity papers. Again. I could see that the crowd behind me was restless, so I tried to rush, and as I pulled them out, all of my papers flew all over the place! Sh*t!
What a relief it was to finally settle into my seat!
Nearly ten hours later, we entered the packed immigration hall at Buenos Aires airport – the international one. The lines zigzagged back and forth across nearly the entire width of the arena-sized hall! I felt like I was waiting to board a Disney ride!
An hour and a half later we entered the baggage claim area where I counted at least a dozen carousels spinning in circles and no indication as to which one might have our bags. So we methodically criss-crossed the breadth of the room examining the moving bags on each carousel to see where they’d come from, until we finally found our bags resting in a space between two halted carousels.
Good news! All eight check bags had made it!
Nearly two hours had passed when we finally emerged from the terminal, where two taxis whisked us nearly twenty miles across Buenos Aires. But it was well after noon by the time we got to our gate at the domestic airport.
Once on the plane I collapsed into my assigned seat, exhausted, then struggled (to no avail) to remain awake until the plane took off. I dropped off to sleep then jerked awake when we left the ground! I finally availed myself of several cups of coffee when it was offered.
Nearly four more hours had passed when we began our descent into Ushuaia. As we broke through the clouds, a magnificent view of snow-capped peaks overlooking the white-capped expanse of the ocean materialized in the distance!
After checking into our hotel, we cleaned up, then marshaled our adrenaline and set out to find dinner. Although it was nearly 8 PM, the sun was still high in the sky!
Teresa found the seafood restaurant that her taxi driver had recommended, and after celebrating our arrival with a round of drinks, we feasted on three enormous crabs, each at least eighteen inches in diameter, that had been alive and well a mere thirty minutes earlier!
It was getting dark when we stopped for ice cream on the way back to the hotel, after 11 PM.
Just before midnight my head hit the pillow, and I quickly faded into a deep sleep.
First Week - The Antarctic Peninsula
posted December 13, 2015
Sunday evening – December 6
Posted by Carol
The sound of shears snipping and snapping through thick crab leg shells provides a staccato accompaniment to our exclamations of joy and awe at the size of the chunks of crab meat being pulled from cracked shells, the meat so sweet… Did we begin with dessert? This experience is a first… we could eat this very same menu item every night! And so goes our meal, well-documented with ample photographs, until we amble out the door and head back to the hotel.
How long has it been since the last pillow lay under my head? I awakened at 8:30 Friday morning and it is now Sunday at midnight including five hours time difference – 63. 5 hours since I last lay horizontal. And so I do…
December 7 to December 11
Posted by Carol
Monday - December 7
Breakfast in the dining room: a chance to pick up and send e-mails and meet up with the rest of our group. Plan for the day? Hang out in Ushuaia.
We walk the length of San Martin (the main drag ) to the grocery store, then decide to continue on to the rotary where we’d seen the tall Ushuaia sign on our way from the airport.
We head across the town then make the center of the rotary our temporary home as cars, buses, taxes and trucks roll around us. Out come the selfie sticks -- selfies mixed with photos of each other, with quick jaunts across the roadway to position ourselves just so, in juxtaposition to the signage. At the base of the sign, flowers have been planted as butterfly wings, and all take equal footing as subject matter.
Heading back, walking through local streets, front yard flower gardens wow us with color and size, presenting bright orange poppies the size of dinner plates, that smile back at us.
Hmm! Dinner plates… time for lunch!
We choose the Irish pub on the corner but have to wait 45+ minutes to be served. The offerings are adequate if only to bridge us to our next meat meal tonight.
Brandon has been safely delivered to Ushuaia from his Patagonia tour and connects with us at our hotel . He walks with us up the hill and helps to locate the cute country house style housing the Placeres restaurant. Our waitress Sophie offers up menus and two wines are selected, reds. One label reads Latitude 33 - it’s the best! And the meal: huge platters of meat including lamb, beef, pork and chicken are set before us. Very tasty, a little tough, but all satisfactory. We notice the wine here is priced better than at the grocery store so we do some research and determine that we can come back tomorrow just to buy wine -- wine to go at the same low price. Okay!!
The ice cream shop across the street has become our daily hangout and the Dulce de Leche has become our favorite. Once, maybe twice a day? Too many? Not! Teresa and I had made a clandestine stop earlier, unknown by all until now. It’s back to the ice cream shop again though Teresa and I publicly decline to partake.
Tuesday - December 8
Up and at’em! We are off to Tierra del Fuego National Park for an Argentine-style hike.
After breakfast we are at the taxi stand across from the hotel, negotiating for two taxis to take us to the park. One of the drivers, Diego, takes charge and offers us a deal, pulling Evan into the equation, and we pile in to their taxis.
Some 30 minutes later we pass through the entrance, pay the fee, then exit the vehicles at Roco Lake. Brrr! The constant polar express wind is frigid and cuts right through all layers of our clothing, so it’s back into the taxis and we are delivered instead to the museum/ trailhead, where Christopher adds a sweatshirt layer at the gift shop.
We begin a popular hike that passes through the forest and leads to the shore of the Beagle Channel. It’s listed at 5 miles in length and 4 hours in duration and we get ready for a grand treat. A well-marked trail with wooden footsteps at its steepest leads us to sea-shell covered beaches, thick forests and flowering meadows. We rest on broken concrete foundations, remnants of ?? . We climb a windy bluff making our way through fine mist and dodge driving rain between bursts of sunshine.
We hop, skip, and jump, moving along at a good clip and before we know it, we spot a few cars peeking through the trees and we are at our destination, our meet-up point by a pier, where Diego and Evan will retrieve us.
Alas, this isolated spot is also known for having the furthest, most southern post office in the world. Indeed, situated on a singular dock sits a tiny building where one can mail a letter and acquire a passport stamp from the Extremo sur Americano station. Voila! Been there, done that! It’s cold now, rainy and windy – we’ve been on our feet for 3.5 hours and ready for some warmth – it’s a quick drive back to our hotel, the Albatros.
Teresa tries to make a reservation at El Viejo Marino where we’d enjoyed crab the night before last. Alas, they are closed today but are kind enough to recommend another seafood restaurant, Freddy’s. It’s a bit more touristy and a bit more $$$. Unfortunately it’s already fully booked but Teresa pulls off the impossible, a reservation for the seven of us. Brandon and I decide to share a crab -- our waiter pulls it out of the tank and we pose with our live crab, then it’s the boiling cauldron treatment, and we are well cared for overall!
Back on the street again and back to the hotel. The tour itinerary starts tomorrow and we must pack again – we finally hit the pillows at 11:45 PM.
Wednesday - December 9
Bags in the lobby by 9 AM, breakfast then checkout at 10, picking up boarding passes for the Expedition at 2 PM, getting to the meeting point at the wharf by 3:15. Soon enough!
We walk the main street to the grocery store for some last minute shopping. It feels much colder today and much to our surprise, a fast moving blizzard suddenly blows through -- even the shopkeepers are in awe!
Today, finally, after a four day holiday weekend, the stores are all open! (Was it a celebration of the Virgin Mary?) Penguins are jumping into our bags today – stone penguins, glass penguins, paper penguins, stuffed penguins -- it’s penguin heaven!
For our last lunch in Ushuaia, where do we choose to go? El Viego Marino of course! Three giant crabs serve all seven of us quite well. And we say goodbye to Melissa, our now familiar waitress.
A quick stop to pick up our day packs from the hotel lobby and we are off on a new adventure in the southern seas.
The port bus is loaded, 126 on our tour, and we are now in the hands of G Adventures. The bus takes us through the customs gate and down the length of the pier past several other ships, including several cruise and container ships, and even the National Geographic Explorer moored next to our ship.
Up the gangplank past a table of laptops, pictures snapped, then we head down to our rooms. Ten full nights without having to pack or unpack. Yay!
Life on the ship is all new: Places to explore, people to meet, things to learn. At some point we learn that we are lucky to be leaving port tonight as the two prior Expedition cruises had been cancelled! Apparently the engine has been replaced but instead of three weeks, it took three months.
Orientation in the Discovery Lounge at 5:30, muster drill at 6:30, dinner at 7:30, then we set sail at 8:30! Are we unpacked yet? Hardly!
Dinner is a diner’s delight, artistically presented, plentiful and attended by all. Only during the second course does the engine fire up and we head out to sea.
Unpacking, and soon a self-guided tour, then a decision to hit the Polar Bear Bar where Blaise, the ship’s musician, is performing -- singing while playing guitar and harmonica. Half an hour later, it’s time for sleep.
The ship continues through the Beagle Channel and is expected to hit open ocean around midnight. We’ve been warned that when we enter Drake Passage, things might get a tad rough. I notice that many of the surfaces (tables and desks) are covered with foam drawer liners as a deterrent to slippery surfaces. (This should have been a clue.)
There is a suggestion that we tie down our belongings, but when we are shown the large wedge-shaped foam cushions and advised to place them beneath our mattresses to prevent rolling out of bed, things start to sound serious.
And roll we do, pitching us from head to toe and rocking side to side, sliding up and down the fifteen foot waves. When the waves hit broadside, the ship shudders convulsively (along with us)!
The banging, crashing, shuddering and rolling continues. At 2:34 AM a rogue wave slams the boat and pitches the book on my nightstand all the way across my room. (I find it wedged against the cabin door the next morning.) Eyeglasses, travel clocks, flashlights and other items also hit the floor.
This rock‘n roll party offers up only a couple hours of sleep with the promise of an identical experience tomorrow.
Water temp is 32°, air temp is 36° we learn the next morning.
Thursday - December 10
Today is a rough day in the open sea. A noticeably minimal number of passengers appear in public as the remainder cling to their beds, most under the drowsy influence of the “patch”. Five of our party of seven are affected. Due to so many absent guests being unable to attend the mandatory meetings, they are postponed until tomorrow.
There are several lectures in the Discovery Lounge provided by our experienced crew. We hear about whales and dolphins from Kirsten and then seabirds from Lyn. Then Scobie, an old salt who has been sailing the Arctic and Antarctic for forty-four years, offers up some great stories – apparently he’s an old Norwegian trickster.
Three more delicious meals, and after dinner we are offered a movie, Master and Commander with Russell Crowe. How appropriate! It’s about a British clipper ship at war with the French in 1805. Shortly after 11 pm, we head back to our rooms in anticipation of a sound sleep lulled by the rolling ocean.
Friday - December 11
An early start as the alarm chimes at 6:30 AM. Breakfast at 7:30 is buffet style – it’s now calm enough for passengers to walk through the dining room while safely carrying their plates.
Yummy, a full menu! At our table: Teresa, Katie, Marissa from Finland, Michelle from Melbourne, Jeff and his wife from Brisbane – Jeff turns 50 next weekend. Christopher and Brandon come, then go – not feeling well enough yet.
This morning is busy with zodiac and landing orientation, then vacuuming our backpacks, cleaning our walking sticks and boot fittings. We learn what is expected of us before we set foot on the Antarctic continent: rules, regulations, cautions, expectations, etc. Quite a procedure but meant to keep the land pristine, leaving no footprint – disinfectant to clean our boots and walking sticks, and vacuuming the Velcro closures on gloves and pants.
Sara, our group expedition leader, calls us by deck. We report to deck two for vacuuming then enter the “mud” room where we are fitted for boots. We are assigned hooks and spaces to store our parkas, poles and boots. One step closer to disembarking!
Time for our first buffet-style lunch, and we are all comfortable with whomever joins us at our table – all are our friends now – a full house suggests most are over their motion sickness. The food excels. We are told we will land this afternoon at Yankee Harbor (named by a Connecticut Yankee) in the South Shetland Islands.
Whoa! Wait a minute or three! We’re all rushing around in our room adding layer upon layer of pants, socks, shirts, etc., filling our parka pockets with cameras, binoculars and gloves, when Sara announces an update: The wind has picked up – it’s now 70 knots – the zodiacs can’t operate over 50 knots. Aw shucks!
So the ship continues into the harbor and we wait until a new reading can be taken. There are beautiful views of icebergs floating around the ship, misty waves crashing, and seabirds swooping down to the water’s surface.
Soon, we have our update – the wind has dropped to 5 knots – it’s a go! Back to our room to suit up, ready for some action! But then, no. Bah, humbug! The wind has picked up again and the waves are too high to launch – it’s just too dangerous! Despite our frustration, we understand… kind of...
Instead, we head to the upper deck and venture outside, where we endure horrific winds but view the most beautiful icebergs as they float by. Suddenly, someone spots a humpback whale! We try to take some pictures, but after removing our gloves the bitter cold precludes all but a brief camera encounter. Forty minutes outside – it’s more than enough with this fierce, icy wind.
Another quick change, a hot shower, then it’s time for the captain’s welcome in the lounge. (A passing thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice if they handed us a glass of champagne when we arrived“) Aha! Indeed, we do create our own reality! Champagne in hand, we take a seat in the lounge and are served delectable appetizers. Our Ukrainian captain is introduced – likewise the entire executive crew. We learn our ship is well appointed with cabin and wait staff mostly from the Philippines.
Dinner follows with entrée selections of salmon, lamb and vegetarian burritos. At first I can’t make a decision but then I find that I can double up and order half salmon and half lamb. Louie, our waiter, has some great ideas when it comes time for dessert – he has already made me a special ice cream sundae consisting of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and a cookie. And there’s tiramisu too – a bonus!
Back in the lounge, we learn more about the early exploration of Antarctica. A video is shown that focuses on the different backgrounds of Scott and Shackleton and then describes how a rivalry between the two developed.
Hard to keep the ol’ eyelids open so it’s off to bed by 10:30 with the hope of a zodiac landing in the morning at Cierva Cove.
Saturday - December 12
Posted by Scott
It’s been a frustrating few days – constant high winds, upwards of 70+ miles per hour, as Carol has described. The seas crossing Drake passage were rough, and despite the seasickness patches there were a few missed meals and a lot of time spent hunkered down in our cabins.
Although everyone now feels well, the persistent wind is causing huge swells, leading to the cancellation of several shore excursions, both yesterday and today. Although we’ve seen some remarkable landscapes, everyone is becoming restless. To their credit, the staff have tried to keep us occupied with a variety of lectures and presentations about the Antarctic environment and ecology, and there is musical entertainment in the evening.
After two more failed attempts at shore excursions today, there is a widespread sense of frustration. Hopefully, tomorrow will be our lucky day! Everyone has their fingers crossed!
December 14, 2015
Sunday - December 13
Posted by Scott
After yesterday’s failed landing at Portal Point, we all held our collective breath for an opportunity to get off the ship. We slowly sailed south as the number and size of the icebergs steadily increased.
Fortunately, by mid-morning, the winds seemed to be subsiding and a plan was announced for a shore excursion after lunch. The ship anchored in Neku Harbor, and as we waited, the wind died down and the ocean surface became almost glassy.
Shortly after 1 PM, we headed to the mud room, donned our waterproof gear and parkas, and boarded the zodiacs for the ride to shore. The sky had cleared and was now a dazzling blue color with puffy white clouds, and we could feel the air warming.
We disembarked along a rocky shoreline just beneath a layer of melting ice, and when we mounted the ridge, an enormous penguin rookery came into view. It was stunning – one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen. Thousands of penguins nesting in the foreground against a spectacular backdrop of mountains and ocean!
The incessant chattering of the penguins seemed to be cyclical, first rising to a crescendo, the trailing off, then repeating, and the pungent smell of guano was pervasive.
The penguins, so awkward on land as they hobbled along, were incredibly graceful and nimble when they hit the water, appearing to swim like fast-moving fish, repeatedly propelling themselves in and out of the water.
I observed well-worn penguin trails leading from the water to the nesting areas -- the penguins looked like skiers ascending on a tow bar!
After returning to the ship, there was an early dinner to allow the campers time to prepare themselves for a night on the ice. It was a perfect evening for this, with the sun overhead and the sea calm.
About fifty or so campers filled four zodiacs, and I watched from the upper bow as they headed for shore. Off in the distance I could see them scrambling over the ice, setting up their tents.
I spent the rest of the evening on the top deck watching the sun set, an exceedingly slow process, and by midnight, in broad daylight, I realized there would be no nightfall. I finally returned to my empty cabin and sealed the porthole around 1 AM. I think the constant daylight was keeping me awake as I kept thinking of more things to do!
At about 6:20 AM, my cabin door sprung open and Christopher and Brandon staggered in. Wordlessly, they slipped into the darkened room and into their bunks.
Apparently, a lack of darkness can be very disruptive to one’s internal clock.
posted December 15, 2015
December 12 to 14
posted by Carol
Saturday - December 12
Following an early breakfast at 7:30 we are ready to head out on the inflatables. The seas are rough though, and it’s no surprise when Sara announces shortly after that we will not be leaving the ship. (Are we on plan B or C now?) We head up to Discovery Lounge for a presentation by Ossie on the political history of Antarctica.
I.P.Y.: This is the International Polar Year Treaty signed during 1882 and 1883 which created 14 international stations in Antarctica. A second treaty was signed in 1932 and 1933. The third and most recent treaty includes the participation of 61 nations, and was signed on December 1, 1951. The pact is intended to preserve this, the last frontier, to ensure pure scientific research, and also to protect the Earth including its oceans, poles, weather and climate. Peacefully!
Apparently, France had a less than pure interpretation of this treaty when it built a landing strip, connecting three small islands and creating an airplane tarmac. To their dismay, a nearby iceberg calved, creating a tsunami shortly after completion, destroying the landing strip which was rendered useless!
After the presentation we watch a BBC documentary, Frozen Planet: The End of the Earth. We view with wonder onscreen what we want to be seeing as we sit anchored in Cierva Cove with an Antarctic blizzard raging outside.
Lunch reigns. There are personalized omelets and we can also make our own sundaes for dessert. Laura starts with dessert and confesses it’s her modus operandi. Other accompaniments are bread pudding with butter sauce, and layered cake pudding.
Saskia, one of the tour leaders, joins us as we watch the icebergs increase in number. Brilliant aquamarine colors intrigue us as we see glacial ice emerging from within and beneath these bergs. Time to step outside for a few photos. An exceptional iceberg at starboard is identified – look for the arch – it is spectacular - a selfie moment. Done, and we rush back inside as the 50 knot winds are simply too much to tolerate outside on the bridge.
Around 1:30 we are advised of plan C: The anchor is raised and we head south into Gerlache Strait on our way toward Paradise Harbor. ETA: 4:30 to 5:30 PM. When we arrive, there will be a zodiac tour in Bryde Channel. It will be nice to offload after 3 days onboard!
There’s now a briefing for the campers – sixty have signed up to sleep overnight in tents on the ice. Facilities are discussed, including the possibility of a snow wall instead of tents if it’s too windy.
Back on the bridge, the captain steers us into a narrow channel that leads to Paradise Harbor. Teresa, as it turns out, is on the bridge visiting with the captain as this is occurring, and witnesses the snap decisions he must make. The ship needs to get past a large ice floe and he must figure out how to safely proceed. (I don’t suppose the crab eater seal resting on the small berg to our starboard can offer a better strategy!) We enter the channel and are taken to a magical place surrounded by towering ice-covered peaks, as icebergs of various shapes, sizes and color float by. Breathtaking!
There is an announcement that humpback whales have been spotted, and Sara (the expedition leader) invites us to brave the fierce winds on the top deck to enjoy some spectacular views. With such an icy wind, taking pictures is challenging – treacherous to say the least – with a real risk for frostbite. A numbing minute or so with uncovered hands while framing a shot requires ten minutes of vigorous warming to regain their sensation. Some good shots are missed by necessity. The wind gusts heighten the challenge and we hang on to the railing for support.
The ship finds its balance in the protected bay and the crew begins to lower the stack of zodiacs into the water. We will be taking a cruise around the bay as soon as we are safely anchored. We scurry to our cabin and unearth the pile of clothing we will need, and the ladies magically turn our svelte bodies into versions of the Pillsbury dough boy.
Fifteen minutes later, we are ready – it’s 6:20 PM as we wait for our group “Crean” to be called. (Named for Thomas Crean, Shacketon’s second officer.) A few minutes go by and I sense there’s a problem. Sure enough, Sara announces the swells have worsened and our excursion is canceled. We give each other the eye, then begin the process of unzipping, untying and undoing. It will be at least another day until we set foot on our seventh continent and can view a penguin up close.
There is dinner followed by singing and dancing in the Polar Bear Bar.
Sunday - December 13
Up before the alarm and ready for breakfast at 7:30. We are to be the first group ashore today and must be ready for the 8:45 zodiac trip across Andvord Bay into Neko Harbor (approximately seven miles south of the Errera Channel.) We are told that Neko Harbor is named for the floating whale ship “Neko” which operated in this bay during 1911-12 and again in 1923-24. This will be a mainland landing and is home to approximately 500 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins.
Back in our cabin, we are again slipping into our layers and readying ourselves for a frigid adventure. Just before 9 we are called to the mud room to suit up. The doors to the mud room are flung open and we get to the task of double socks, boots, parkas, life preservers, gloves. A shore team has left to prep for our arrival. We wait/weight. We can see that the wind and the waves are picking up.
“Ladies and gentlemen” we hear, and know what’s coming next: The landing is cancelled. The shore crew makes their way back with considerable difficulty. Tricky weather. Boots off, everything else follows, and we find ourselves back in our cabin. What can we do but wait?
Announcement at 10 AM -- we are heading out of the channel. Lunch at noon then another landing will be attempted at Georges Point that lies on the northern tip of Rongé Island where Gerlache Strait meets the Errera Channel. It is one of a few places we will see chinstrap penguins – we are told there are 400 breeding pairs of chinstraps as well as 1700 Gentoo penguins. Be ready for an early afternoon landing. Oh, we are ready!
After lunch, Sara announces all is a go. It’s a balmy 40º air temperature and the sea is like glass. We layer up once again then head to the mud room. First, the kayak group – twenty have signed up and form a circle around the perimeter as they each hold their paddles upright – American Gothic with pitchforks! Then they are off and its our turn. We swish our boots in disinfectant, swipe our cards to note our exit, then are directed down portable aluminum steps to the zodiac. We are off!
Freedom! Cabin fever is medicated. The fresh air hits our faces as we fly across open water surrounded by the surrealistic landscape of giant ice sculptures. How can it get better than this? We pass by an iceberg “graveyard” which is a shallow area between the islands where the icebergs get stuck and are pushed up on to the land. The shape of these ice sculptures is spectacular and beneath the surface they emit a piercing blue color.
Laura flashes a “7” with her fingers as the moment of anticipation is upon us. We are about to step on the seventh continent. The zodiac lands at the designated spot and is pulled onto the rocks. Hands reach out and we are off loaded onto Ronge island. My first step on to Antarctica and the adventure begins!
We walk among the rocks not far from the penguin rookeries, then follow a trail of sorts that leads us up the snowy mountain to even better views of the nesting birds. I have a surrealistic impression of the early explorers coming to shore in a foreign land.
As our mother ship sits anchored in the harbor I can see a trail of kayaks floating through the water. Pristine white mountains fill the horizon and are met with misty clouds that seem to have no beginning or end. There are thousands of nesting penguins sitting, standing and walking among us. Their calls blend with the crisp air. The scale in indefinable as I ponder all 360 degrees of this miraculous scene. Four hours to wander as I wish. The air temperature is a balmy 40° and time seems to stand still. The experience is mesmerizing… except for the pervasive stink of penguin guano!
It’s a leisurely ride back to the ship – first a quick shower then dinner is served.
Later, another segment of BBC’s Frozen Earth documentary is featured in the lounge. Although it’s well past 10 PM, it’s bright outside and many passengers head for the bridge . The anchor is dropped and I watch the ice floes gently float by.
Suddenly an usually large ice floe drives straight into the ship and becomes entangled with the anchor, twisting it as it tries to break free. There is scurrying on the bridge and the captain orders the anchor pulled, freeing the ice floe.
Monday - December 14
The ship has moved through the Neumayer channel during the night and we are anchored at Damoy Point. Each group will have an hour excursion by zodiac to look for wildlife and view the icebergs close up. There is a former British research station located here at Port Lockeroy, abandoned in 1962, that we will visit later.
After lunch, we are taken by zodiac to the station, now a museum, which is located on a small island. Upon landing, we follow a snow path to the original building that once housed the scientists. The museum is funded by tourist dollars and a small, functioning post office. Yes, we can send postcards from Antarctica for only a dollar for a stamp. Mail eventually make its way to the Falkland Islands where it enters the British postal system. There is a guest book that lists all of the places visitors hail from. I buy a map of Antarctica for $20, a glass penguin fob for $10, and a stamp for $1. Outside the museum, I observe the penguins that are clustered nearby as they waddle around, nest their eggs and squabble over pebbles. So endearing!
As I step into the large pan of disinfectant, I hear a staff person mention an outdoor barbeque on the rear deck. Indeed, dinner is being served on the deck just outside the Polar Bear Bar, where smoking grills are laden with ribs, chicken, burgers and sausages. Umbrellas cover plastic chairs and tables, and there is even faux foliage. And a bar has been set up for making ice cream sundaes. The only thing missing from this California outdoor barbeque is warm air. The air temperature is freezing, our plates are icy, and the food immediately gets cold, as do we. After a few minutes we end up inside next to the hot mulled wine bar – way more comfortable!
Turns out we are in the best seats to hear Blaise play, as the evening entertainment begins. Red wine, guitar and harmonica, and the Folsom Prison Blues play on in a great Johnny Cash rendition.
I step outside to take a photo of a nearby ship that is sharing our bay – I head up by the bridge and I’m alone. The ship is moving through brash ice and I watch the patches of ice separated by the bow, moving right and left. The ship silently glides across the glassy surface as the many icebergs float by. It is a majestic yet humbling vista. I stand in this world of frozen beauty and consider the improbability of it all.
posted December 16, 2015
December 14 - Monday
Posted by Scott
We bade farewell to Rongé Island with its massive population of gentoo penguins. From Neku Harbor we proceeded further south through Neumayer Channel to Port Lockeroy. Located on Goudier Island, it is the location of Base A, a former British research station (until 1962), and now a museum and popular stop for Antarctic adventurers.
We set out in our zodiac around 2 PM, motoring close to the shore which was still covered with a layer of thick ice extending out into the ocean for several hundred yards. The zodiac proceeded slowly through a mass of mostly smaller icebergs, and through the clear water, up close, we could see the underside of icebergs which were at least triple the mass of the visible tip. We also saw penguins zipping by underwater not far from us.
The zodiac stopped next to a large mass of ice still attached to the shore and we disembarked on to the deep snow cover. It was a great spot for some family photos with both glaciers and mountains in the background.
Later, in the early evening, the zodiacs took turns delivering groups to Base A, where we were able to tour the research facility, now a museum and post office. An old coal-burning stove (for heat), recipes for cooking seal liver and brain, an old hand-cranked Victrola, a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II circa 1956, and a workshop stocked with tools, were among the highlights. There was also a small gift shop. What I found most unusual was that the gift shop accepted Visa and MasterCard, here in the middle-of-nowhere!
Oddly, there was also a penguin rookery adjacent to the buildings, and the penguins, who were clearly accustomed to visitors here, didn’t seem fazed in the least by our presence, approaching within a few feet of us!
Returning to the ship, we had a late barbeque dinner outdoors on the aft deck – chicken, ribs, salmon, corn. It was cold but the view from our table made it well worth it, at least until the food on our plates started to freeze and we were forced inside to finish our meal.
posted December 17, 2015
December 16 & 17
Posted by Scott
Wednesday - December 16
I lay awake last night, fretting.
Four days in, and we’ve only had one shore excursion, if you exclude the brief stop at Port Lockeroy.
Frankly, I’d expected more, much more, although I can’t deny that that the views from the ship have been spectacular.
But travel is really all about expectations.
With high expectations, the odds of being disappointed are much greater.
With low expectations, one can only be pleasantly surprised.
I’ll admit that my expectations for this adventure have been very, very high.
I’ve been planning this trip for a full year, choosing the best time of the year, the winter solstice, to visit Antarctica. I should add that it is premium pricing in December, and higher prices contribute to higher expectations.
FOMO: Shorthand for “fear of missing out”.
When we were in Ecuador last spring, with all the activities that were offered – rafting, rappelling, zip lining, etc., the conversation at one point turned to FOMO.
I’d never heard this phrase before, but it certainly resonated. I think I’ve always experienced a certain level of anxiety (and fear) that I might inadvertently forgo something exciting, important, perhaps life-changing… or whatever!
Its kind of an ill-defined concern that gnaws at the back of one’s mind.
The feeling gets worse if the potential missed opportunity is an unusual event.
So I resolved last night to try to think positive.
I was feeling upbeat as I poured myself some coffee this morning. A shore excursion was announced and I was really looking forward to it – Paulette Island, a volcanic island with a large population of Adelie penguins. At last, some more time on shore -- an opportunity to see a different species of penguin and perhaps other wildlife.
I waited patiently as the first groups disembarked. They would have an hour on shore then our group would be called to disembark.
While waiting for the announcement, I wandered over the “gear” shop – it’s only open for a short time after meals. I found several items I thought were pretty cool, all emblazoned with the G logo: a baseball cap, a buff, and a zip-up fleece jacket.
Pleased with my very practical purchases (“souvenirs”), I headed back to my cabin to wait.
Finally, about 10:30, out group was called and we quickly headed to the mud room where we donned all our gear and waited to board our zodiac. Suddenly Sara, the expedition leader, a mere fifteen minutes after calling us down, announced that there was “too much pack ice” and our excursion was cancelled. Half the passengers had already gone out and now the rest were out of luck. I was crestfallen! My FOMO was now real!
I returned to the bow, frustrated and fuming and watched the others return from their excursion. Whatever the reasons, this pattern of last minute shore cancellations has become upsetting!
I mulled over what has been occurring: Over promising and under delivering – it’s not a good value proposition.
The ship set out for Brown Bluff, the next planned stop, but I became very guarded in my expectations. The rug has been pulled out from under me too many times.
We arrived at around 3 PM and our group was the first called to the mudroom. There was no wind and the water was calm. What could go wrong?, I thought to myself. As soon as we arrived onshore, I reminded myself that we needed to get a family photo – there just hasn’t been an opportunity so far to do this.
Several hundred yards north of our drop off point, I could see a huge population of nesting Adelie penguins. There was also a path up the side of the mountain where I followed Teresa and Brandon. The view from the top was spectacular and I took many photos.
Later, I made my way over to the Adelie penguin rookery. It was enormous – there must have been more than a thousand bird. Some of the nesting penguins had eggs hidden beneath them, and several had tiny chicks.
A little later I searched for my family, determined to get them together for a family photo, but I was unable to track them down by the time we had to leave. Frustrated I returned to the ship wondering if we would have any more shore landings. The itinerary calls for us to return north to the South Shetland Islands. Will we have better luck this time?
Once again I fretted as I lay in bed that night. I began to feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts about this trip -- it just doesn’t feel like we’ve done much, and tomorrow is our last full day before we head back to Ushuaia.
Thursday - December 17
When I got up this morning, the ship was sailing in Whaler’s Bay, a former volcanic caldera that is encircled by Deception Island. The itinerary called for a shore landing, but within minutes Sara announced that the swells were too great – another excursion cancelled! My mood became progressively gloomier as the day progressed. All these cancelled outings. Is this truly safety related? Is the crew being overcautious? My level of confidence in their decision making process is near zero!
We left Deception Island and the ship headed to the Aitcho Islands, where we have been promised a polar bear swim for those hardy souls who are willing. But will it really happen?
The ship dropped anchor just off Barriento Island. There was a fierce, icy-cold wind and the swells were huge. I thought for sure that Sara would cancel – the weather certainly seemed no less worse than the other cancelled excursions.
But the shore landing proceeded – perhaps I’m being cynical but it seems that if the final shore excursion had been cancelled there would likely have been howls of protest.
I was finally able to get several nice family photos before we split up to explore Barriento Island, which has a large population of nesting Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins.
There was a short zodiac ride that brought us to an adjacent island where we spotted several young male elephant seals sunning on the beach. Atop an adjacent towering cliff there were nests of Giant Petrils – these birds, with their huge wingspans, were gracefully soaring above us. Going and coming, the water was so rough and the wind so fierce that I was completely soaked. T hank goodness for my waterproof gear!
When we returned to the main island, the polar bear plunge was underway. Defying common sense and succumbing to peer pressure (no doubt), Teresa, Brandon, Katie and Laura stripped off their parkas, boots and gloves, then disregarding the howling wind, made a mad dash into the roiling surf while I recorded a video of their insanity.
Back on the beach they were turning blue as they attempted to get their clothing back on. Clearly they were numb from the cold and Christopher struggled to help them get dressed. Finally, in frustration, they grabbed all their gear and jumped on to the waiting zodiac which made a bee-line for the ship. Once in the mud room they headed straight to the sauna in an excited but shivering frenzy!
During a recap after dinner we were advised that we would be departing shortly for Ushuaia via the Drake Passage. Apparently the available weather information was showing a severe storm into which we would likely be sailing during the night. Better get out the patches!
posted December 26, 2015
December 18th to 23rd
Posted by Scott
Saturday and Sunday - December 19 and 20
The ship had set sail for Ushuaia Friday evening, December 18th, and at the outset, Drake Passage was relatively calm. However, sometime during the night we hit a storm and the ship really began to shake and roll. I'd taken some Dramamine and this didn't seem to bother me while I mostly slept through the night.
But in the morning I began to sense the onset of seasickness and finally capitulated, placing a patch behind my ear. Throughout the day, in addition to some fine dining, there were a series of interpretative programs that helped pass the time, and in the evening there was a recap of the day's progress across Drake Passage.
Apparently, the ship, whose engines had been replaced just prior to our voyage, had been capable of moving at a much faster clip than it had in the past, and by early Sunday afternoon we were approaching Beagle Channel. The scenery had changed and we were surrounded on either side by mountains -- I headed outside for a look, but didn't last long as the wind was still fierce and icy. By late afternoon we were quickly approaching Ushuaia and the ship suddenly came to a halt, anchoring in the channel for several hours. No reason was given, but I think we had arrived too early and there was no port space yet available.
We finally docked in Ushuaia shortly after dinner, and I was finally able to secure an Internet connection -- it had been more than a week since I had been able to upload my notes.
I tried without success to get us checked in for our 9:10 AM flight. Since we weren't checked in I figured we'd have to be first off the ship. As I recalled, the taxi had taken only 15 minutes from the airport.
I headed over to the Polar Bear Bar where Blaise was playing his last set. At about 11:30 PM he called it a night, then announced he'd obtained a dozen tickets to see the 12:15 AM showing of the new Star Wars movie in Ushuaia. A group of (mostly) younger people, including Katie, joined him and raced off into the town!
We disembarked Sunday morning, December 20, shortly before 8 AM. We'd been first to disembark but our group was clearly anxious about making our early flight. We were put on a large bus even though there were only seven of us and three others, and it seemed like the driver was certainly taking his time!
We finally made it to the airport at 8:30 with little time to spare. Fortunately the check-in and security lines were short and we were all relieved when we got to the gate just as boarding had started.
The heat of Buenos Aires was something of a shock as we made our way by taxi into the city center. I'd chosen the Dazzler Hotel Maipu for it's central location, not far from the Plaza de Mayo.
I'd read that the San Telmo antique and craft market would be in full swing Sunday afternoon, so as soon as we got checked in, we headed toward Calle Florida, a blocks-long, pedestrian only shopping mall that (I hoped) would lead us to the market.
The market was indeed in full swing and packed with tourists and Portenos alike. (I quickly learned that residents of Buenos Aires call themselves Portenos!) There were countless stalls extending (it seemed) to the horizon, selling all kinds of things, although there didn't seem to be much in the way of food offerings.
We spent the next few hours wandering through the displays of crafts, "antiques", colorful clothing and assorted knickknacks -- by 5 PM we were tired and hungry but the market showed no signs of winding down! We stopped for a bite to eat at a crowded restaurant offering takeout sandwiches, but lacking adequate Spanish skills, we had trouble figuring out the offerings. I knew "pollo" meant chicken so we ended up with wood-fired grilled chicken tucked inside a large crusty loaf which seemed to temper our hunger pangs.
Later in the evening, Teresa ventured beyond our hotel and found a highly recommended pizza restaurant nearby. She conversed with the owner then brought a menu (in English) back to the hotel for us to peruse. It looked good, so we all headed there. To her surprise, the place was packed: "It was totally empty an hour ago! she exclaimed.
Back at the hotel, after stuffing ourselves with pizza and salad, Laura went online and researched tango shows for the following evening. We learned from the concierge that while we'd been on the ship, a new president had taken office and had immediately devalued the peso by 30%. He said that prices were in flux and we wouldn't be able to know the cost or make a reservation until morning.
Monday, December 21: Buenos Aires
It was late morning by the time we'd decided which tango performance to book. We chose to pass on the dinner and show combination, and reserved seats for the 10 PM show at the highly recommended venue, Esquina Carlos Gardel.
We spent the next few hours walking Buenos Aires. We first headed to the Cementario de la Recoleta, which according to Lonely Planet, is Buenos Aires "number one attraction". (What does it say about a city whose cemetery is the prime attraction?) It's full of mausoleums, crypts and sarcophagi, and resembles a small town -- very weird! We located Evita Peron's grave in the Duarte family mausoleum and were impressed by its obscurity (despite her fame).
We wandered through the Plaza San Martin -- again, according to Lonely Planet, this plaza was designed by the French landscape architect, Thays, to honor Jose de San Martin, the leader of the fight for independence from Spain. (Apparently the elites of Buenos Aires have been preoccupied for several centuries with copying French architecture and design.)
We strolled down the Avenida 9 de Julio, an impressively broad boulevard modeled after the Champs-Elysées in Paris. I guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery!
After a late lunch at Rodi Bar, a quaint but very busy bistro-style restaurant in the Recoleta district, Teresa, Brandon, Katie and I took a taxi to La Boca, a barrio (working class district) known for its street art. We strolled down El Caminito with its colorful buildings painted with strange scenes and even stranger-looking caricatures.
Around 9 PM we were picked up at the hotel and taken to Esquina Carlos Gardel, a refurbished art deco dance theater, where we watched a magnificent ninety minute show highlighting the artistry of the tango, the uniquely Argentinean dance form:
Tuesday, December 22: The Estancia (Ranch)
We arrived at Estancia El Ombu following a tortuous two hour journey through a torrential rainstorm that washed out the main road to the ranch. This 700 acre working ranch is located about 10 kilometers outside the town of San Antonio de Areco, itself about sixty miles north of Buenos Aires.
With the access road washed out, we piled into one of the ranch's four wheel drive trucks for the final leg of the journey -- this was truly a hair-raising adventure with gasps and cheers as we plunged through the muck into the knee-high lake that covered the road, barely able to see through the mud-covered front windshield, as the truck skidded from side to side!
As I've mentioned before, it's often the unplanned and unexpected that proves to be the most interesting!
When we finally arrived, a bit shaken, we were warmly welcomed by Diego, the owner's son, who served us wine, cold beer and a platter of freshly made empanadas. We relaxed under the covered veranda of the mansion as we savored the aroma of the meat being grilled for lunch.
When it was ready, the meal was served continuously for more than an hour, and was highlighted by the presentation of huge platters of sliced beef and chicken. Each time I set my cutlery on my plate and decided I was done, another eye-popping platter of meat would appear, and I would be obliged to eat some more!
Unfortunately (for me), about an hour following lunch, the horses were saddled and we all headed out for a jaunt around the ranch. As my horse trotted briskly along, I could feel the contents of my stomach bouncing up and down like it was full of ping-pong balls.
In the late afternoon we lounged by the pool, where we were served pastries and drinks -- the sky had cleared and it was now warm and humid.
It was just getting dark when we heard the clanging of the dinner bell! Another meal! Eeek!
Wednesday - December 23
After an early breakfast we saddled up the horses and headed back onto the trail. Teresa, Carol and Katie chose to stay behind and relax on the veranda. We rode for nearly two hours and I was impressed to see several herds of cattle as well as crops, including corn and beans.
I had originally planned an afternoon visit to the town of San Antonio de Areco, but the road was still in rough shape and Diego invited us to stay for lunch instead. He offered each of us a choice between a simple lunch of salad and empanadas, or a full meal with heaping platters of grilled beef.
We departed the ranch shortly after 4 PM. I'd arranged a hotel by the airport so we'd be nearby for our 8 AM departure in the morning. The traffic was very heavy as we made our way back to Buenos Aires, then out to the international airport, and it was after 7 PM when we arrived.
I recalled the long lines we'd encountered at the airport when we'd first arrived in Buenos Aires, so I figured we should play it safe and get there early. I'd been unable to get us checked in online, so we all agreed that it would be best to have the hotel shuttle take us out to the airport at 4:45 AM.
Thursday - December 24
Somewhat bleary-eyed, we got to the airport early enough to avoid the crowds, and we were at the gate just before 7 AM. Our flight to Lima was uneventful, however the connecting flight to Los Angeles was delayed without explanation, and we departed more than ninety minutes late.
Nearly ten hours later we touched down in LA, with only an hour to collect our bags, get through customs and immigration, exit the international terminal, make our way to the domestic terminal, go through security and get to our gate in time for a 9 PM departure.
It was a frantic free-for-all as we raced between the terminals. With only minutes to spare, the gate agents were anxiously awaiting our arrival, having been notified that we were on our way.
As soon as we dashed on board, the airplane's door slammed shut behind us.
It was 2 AM Christmas morning when we pulled into our driveway.