Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Today we all converged on this southernmost Argentine city to meet our fellow travelers on our Antarctic adventure. There are roughly 75 of us, plus staff. In the evening we gathered for cocktails, dinner, and a few introductions in a room that afforded a splendid view of the Beagle Channel—our gateway to the Drake Passage and the southern continent.
Wednesday, January 24
Ushuaia, Argentina / Embark Island Sky
This morning, many of us chose to take a cruise to several islands in the Beagle for views of South American sea lions and nesting birds, such as cormorants, kelp gulls, and South American terns. A small, self-selected group of birders spent most of the day in Tierra del Fuego National Park and sites near town, where they were rewarded with nice views of the Magellanic snipe, spectacled duck, and black-necked swan. We all enjoyed a sizzling lunch at the park and took some nice walks through the southern beech forest prior to boarding our vessel in the afternoon. Once aboard, our Expedition Leader Dan Olsen and Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons did brief introductions and an orientation to our home away from home for the next week and a half. We sailed down the Beagle Channel and into the night bound for the Great White South.
Thursday, January 25
At some point in the wee hours we began to rock and roll, a sure sign that we had turned from the Beagle Channel into the Drake Passage proper. With dawn we could see the lumpy gray seas, which were very kind by Drake standards. We tested our seasick remedies as we developed our sea legs, navigating between the open decks for seabird viewing, the lounge for lectures and briefings, and the dining room for meals. Meanwhile, wandering albatross soared seemingly effortlessly around the ship, joined by many smaller black-browed albatross and myriad other species of petrels. The seabirds’ comfort on these windswept seas serves as a reminder that this is their home and we are merely visitors on this gray wild ocean.
Friday, January 26
Ice, ho! We spotted our first iceberg looming large on the horizon. The seas moderated today as we continued south and many more people were up and about. As we noted a significant drop in the water temperature we also crossed the Antarctic Convergence, that place where the cold northward flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warm waters of the South Atlantic. We were now biologically in the Antarctic. The captain diverted the ship in the afternoon so we could savor the sighting of two fin whales. By evening we were about two-thirds of the way through our 680-mile crossing to our first landing.
Saturday, January 27
Vernadsky Station / Yalour Islands
The day began with sunrise colors playing over the rugged mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula and islands all around us. We had arrived! Just after breakfast we donned our gear and climbed into the Zodiacs to get our first sampling of what the Southern Continent had to offer. This day afforded us our first views and smells of penguins—gentoos and Adelies with chicks, as well as a lone king well south of its usual habitat of South Georgia. Enormous icebergs littered the landscape, including huge arches, brilliant blue in color. The area around the Ukrainian research base, Vernadsky, was particularly rich with crabeater seals resting on bergie bits. We visited the station, as well as the historic British Wordie House. In the afternoon, we went ashore in the Yalour Islands while humpback whales cruised nearby.
Sunday, January 28
Antarctic Circle / Crystal Sound
The Antarctic Circle is that imaginary line on the planet defined by the austral winter solstice—where the sun does not rise for 24 hours and during summer solstice the sun does not set for 24 hours. The great British explorer Captain Cook was the first to cross that line in 1774. At dawn, we learned that our captain had to reroute the ship during the night due to ice and thick fog. Still, we pushed slowly, carefully south. Close to 9:30 AM, we did it—we officially crossed the Antarctic Circle at 66°33’47” S. After much toasting in the lounge, many went outside to throw snowballs, as several inches of wet, slushy snow had accumulated on deck. The conditions brought home the very real dangers early explorers in sailing ships had to contend with when probing these waters. Wind and poor visibility prevented us from making any landings; thus, it was a quiet day for lectures, reading, and contemplation of just where we were on the planet.
Monday, January 29
Port Charcot / Pleneau Bay / Petermann Island
Today we made two landings, important sites in the exploits of French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Our morning landing was at Port Charcot on Booth Island, where Charcot overwintered aboard his ship, Francais, during his 1903 - 05 expedition. Artifacts from that time still litter the beach, and many walked to the magnetic hut and/or climbed to the cairn built by expedition members. We also employed our trusty Zodiacs for scenic cruising among enormous icebergs, marveling at the myriad shapes and colors of the ice. The waters of Pleneau Bay also proved rich in crabeater seals, hauled out on the floes, and produced a leopard seal and a few minke whales. Our afternoon stop, Petermann Island, is where Charcot overwintered in the Pourquoi-Pas (Why Not?), during his 1908 - 10 explorations. We found gentoos, Adelies, and Antarctic imperial shags nesting here. After dinner, Captain Andrey Rudenko attempted to take the ship through the narrow Lemaire Channel, but an iceberg blocking most of the channel encouraged him to reconsider. As we turned around, all-white snowy petrels, creatures of the ice, dipped and soared around the ship.
Tuesday, January 30
Paradise Bay / Neko Harbour
Gently falling snow enhanced the atmosphere for our first continental landing of the trip in Paradise Bay. We went ashore at the Argentine station, Almirante Brown, home to snoozing researchers and many a gentoo penguin. We also had the opportunity to cruise in the Zodiacs. Everywhere we looked glaciers were spilling ice into the bay. Before lunch, an impressive number of “brave” (read: crazy) souls jumped into the frigid, ice choked, penguin festooned waters for the Polar Plunge. En route to our afternoon landing at Neko Harbour—our second continental landing of the day—we encountered a large pod of killer whales. The bridge team maneuvered to follow them. A pod is a family of whales, all closely related and led by an elder female. We spotted two males sporting tall dorsal fins and observed two young whales repeatedly breaching, as if playing. Few people will ever have the opportunity to see these animals so clearly and for such a long time. It was an experience—a gift—to be savored.
Wednesday, January 31
Deception Island / Half Moon Island
It’s not every day one can sail into an active volcano, but sure, let’s do it! We slipped through the narrow entrance called Neptune’s Bellows, into the flooded caldera of Deception Island to find the black volcanic sands white with snow. Once the site of extensive whaling and later research activity, we spent the morning exploring the collapsing buildings, the beach littered with artifacts, and the views from Neptune’s Window. The sky continued to brighten over the course of the day, so by the time we arrived at Half Moon Island, our last landing of the trip, the day was glorious. In the afternoon sunshine, we wandered the island free to take in the colony of chinstrap penguins, lone macaroni penguin, fur seals, mosses, glaciers, mountains, and clouds. By dinnertime this fabled southern land, rich with wonders and history, would be to our stern as we headed north into the Drake Passage.
Thursday, February 1
The Drake was kind as we steamed north hoping to avoid two weather systems that could make our crossing a lot more “interesting.” It was a day of lectures and deck time, reading and snoozing. Hourglass dolphins—open ocean animals—visited the ship late in the afternoon. Wandering and black-browed albatross flapped about the ship; they had to work, as the wind was so mild. But the wind and waves picked up late in the evening, giving some of us an authentic Drake experience of “flying” while in bed. Thankfully, this was short lived.
Friday, February 2
We awoke to calmer seas as we had made fabulous time crossing the Drake, and Cape Horn offered some protection from wind and waves. Dusky and Peale’s dolphins came in to bow ride for a while, and soon we were seeing sooty shearwaters and Magellanic penguins. We actually made such good time steaming north that we were able to anchor in the Beagle Channel, awaiting our pilot rendezvous. Between the packing, lectures, final recap, captain’s farewell cocktails and end-of-trip slide show, we stayed busy throughout the day. During dinner we came alongside in Ushuaia, from which we enjoyed a lovely sunset.
Saturday, February 3
Disembark / Ushuaia, Argentina
All adventures must come to an end to make way for new adventures. Today after breakfast we departed the Island Sky to make our individual ways home and beyond.