antarctica, and some joshua tree too! travel blog

New posting from Friday 12/14: the only highlight of our third day of landings in Antarctica was the morning landing. The plan was to head to Neko Harbour and spend some time snowshoeing up the 50-meter hill for some scenery and, of course, penguins. In fact when I arose at 7:00am we were still intransit in the middle of the Gerlach Strait and the winds were blowing at 40 knots. I thought sure we weren’t going to have any landings, but by the time they got into the safety of the harbour it was relatively calm. However, the area between the ship’s “parking place” and the landing point was full of floating ice, so the Zodiacs needed to do some fast maneuvering to snake their way though. I was ready in time to be on the first Zodiac and I followed the guide up the hill (without snowshoes; I think they made a mistake in judgement there because it was quite slippery) and down the other side. But we stopped before we could complete the loop because the rest of the path would have taken us too close to the penguins (there’s a 5-meter buffer we’re supposed to honor). So we trekked on back up to the top and hung out there for a few minutes, a group of about 20 of us. It was really the only place to go on this landing – no other path was open – but there was a ‘treat’ waiting for us (some would characterize it otherwise!).

They’d promised us the opportunity to do a polar plunge – jump into the Antarctic Sea – after the afternoon landing at Danco Island. Given the weather forecast for fog and snow there, they announced in the morning that we “might” do it at Neko Harbour instead, so be prepared. I dutifully put on my swimsuit under all of my polar gear and sure enough, the opportunity presented itself. I would guess probably 1/3 of the ship’s passengers did the plunge. I’ve never done one before but you only live once – and it was soooooooo darn cold! The water temperature had to be 32 degrees or maybe even colder, since salt water freezes at 28 degrees. According to the video one of my shipmates took for me, I was in the water for 30 seconds, which included a full-body dunk. (Some people were just getting their lower halves wet.) It was so cold my gonads traveled up my body in search of heat and haven’t come down since. I may have to join the local men’s choir. My toes took the longest to come back; I was back on the ship and changing into civilian clothes before they let me know they were still there. (I was afraid to look down at them.) And I’d actually kept one pair of socks on during the plunge because I was worried about my tender feet and the sharp rocks.

Anyway I warmed up enough for delicious lunch (pasta that was almost authentic!) and settled in to see if we’d have an afternoon landing. Annnnnnnd......we didn’t. By the time we’ve reached Danco Island (as I write this) the wind is blowing 30 knots and it’s snowing so they scrapped the landing plan and decided to get an earlier start towards the South Shetland Islands, our next potential landing area. I believe the plan is to land us in the morning at Deception Island where there is another Antarctic Base. Hopefully that happens but I have no idea what the weather forecast is for crossing the Drake Passage. As I think I noted in a previous blog posting, the last trip was battered by 10-14 meter (33-46 foot) waves on their way back so I’m sure they’re mindful of the extra time it might take to bring us back to port in Ushuaia.

In talking with one of the guides who has worked for a couple of the other major adventure-cruise lines down here (e.g., Nat’l Geo, Quark) they said Oceanwide Expeditions takes more calculated risks than the others do. We’ve done some landings in conditions that the other lines would have canceled, and it’s all worked out well for us. So personally, I like that about this company because I’m in it for the adventure. And I will surely use them the next time I do this up in the Arctic. This particular ship sails these seas in the Southern Hemisphere summer and then goes up to Svalbard / Spitzbergen area for a few months in the Northern Hemisphere summer. Quite often with the same crew and same set of guides. Who are all, by the way, very good – even a few with doctorates in their field. (Everyone has a specialty – biology, geology, ice science, etc.)

On another topic, one reader asked me about how the transfer works between the ship and the Zodiac inflatable boats. Each boat can hold 12 people plus the driver, but they load them up with just 10. So when it’s time to load up passengers, they build a temporary gangway from deck 4 down to the water level, approximately 25 steps or so, with a landing at the bottom. Then the driver pulls the Zodiac up to the landing, ties it up with the help of a crew member standing down there, and then we traipse on down the stairs to load one by one. If the seas are at all rough then we aren’t even going out on the Zodiacs since they’re not made for those conditions. The Zodiacs aren’t tremendously comfortable, but we’re not on them for very long. Mostly they’re for transport between ship and shore, although we’ve had a couple of short Zodiac tours too.

And one thing the expedition leader and guides do before any outing is, they go out first to land and assess the conditions of the site itself as well as the ride out there. For example, today’s landing had a large amount of floating ice between us and the shore, so they had to sort of pick out a route to get there which also avoided the glacier, keeping at least 300 meters away from where it meets the water. That’s because when it calves (a big chunk of itself collapses) it produces a big wave – which the Zodiacs could probably handle, but not the big chunks of ice that might come with that wave! They also set trails and trail markers for where we can and can’t go. So they do a lot of prep work before they ever let us out there.

OK so that’s all the news for today, not a lot, so I’ll take this opportunity to talk about a couple of things before I close. First, clearly I’ve not been entirely positive about the 30+ schoolboys on board (ages 15-17); quite often they’ve been a bit disruptive during the land-based activities and going off-trail, or consuming large noisy parts of the lounge so it’s hard to have a quiet conversation with someone. But having said that, there’s one thing I’ve been impressed with. I think early on, they were instructed not to clique-up at mealtimes but to scatter around and eat and talk with the rest of the passengers. And I’ve found them to be quite good at conversation with people that are a) adults and b) strangers. A couple of them sat down with myself and Andrea (my Swiss dining partner; we sit together a lot because she actually laughs at my jokes) on the second night of the voyage and we talked so long after dinner that they had to kick us out of the dining room so they could clear and set the last table. And it wasn’t just banal chatting, we were actually talking about a lot of different topics: careers and what it was like in Australia, etc. I think some of their comfort level is one of those boarding school “polish” things they teach ‘em but anyway the point is, it’s a skill that many people don’t develop as young people and it’ll serve them well in the future. These two have sat down with us several times since and we seem to have developed a bit of a bond. It’s a good thing, so I don’t want it to seem that having them aboard’s been all bad......just sometimes, hey, they’re teenage boys.

One other topic I’d heard about from our expedition leader. She told me that there is a ban on extraction of natural resources in Antarctica that expires in 2041. If the 28 consulting countries in the Antarctic Treaty (or maybe it’s all 52 members) vote to change that, then oil drilling and mining will start in this pristine and vital place. Something like 70% of all the world’s freshwater is stored in the Antarctic ice sheet, which also provides reflection of the sun’s rays (albedo) to help keep the planet cool. So any disruption to this continent could cause disastrous unintended consequences. China has already developed large maps of potential oil deposits in case the treaty expires or is modified, so it’s clearly a concern......

That’s it – thanks for reading. And as I close this posting, the winds have increased outside to 55 knots (I think that’s about 63mph) and the place is rockin’ and rollin’. I went outside just to experience it, and it’s snowing and the snow was physically hurting my skin. Even I’M gonna stay inside this afternoon!

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