ANTARCTIC EXPOSURE: A review

December 15, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

“Do you get sea sick?”

“I don’t think so, I’ve survived many boat trips before this one and never had a problem. I’ve got a strong gut, I’ll be right.”

But I was most definitely not ‘right.’

The Drake Passage dealt us some incredible sea-torture for a continuous trip of around 40 hours each way. What crosses the Drake Passage, must cross it again to come back.

Tuesday 5 December:

We wake in the gorgeous Arakur hotel with a grand view over Ushuaia from every single window that faces east. It’s got lofty high ceilings, big thick chunky twin bed frames that are just so snug and solid. Chocolates on our pillows and a bathtub that has a view over the rest of the room.

We’ve decided to spend the morning in the pool, spa and sauna instead of going downtown (again) for yet another leisurely stoll. Things here have so much markup on them, it just wasn’t economical to buy much from the local area unless you really needed something.

We’re delayed by a day due to the 8 metre-tall waves in the Drake Passage and end up spending a night in the Ushuaia harbour, awaiting a better crossing report. By this time, most of us are pretty tired of seeing Ushuaia as we’ve either done our own exploration or have no desire to buy overpriced clothing and souvenirs.

Wednesday 6 December:

We’ve unpacked our bags for 10 days living out of our cabins, we’ve gotten used to the layout of the ship and now all we want to do is leave this harbour! After a night with a view of Ushuaia, we woke to find the city was covered in snow.

Alas it melted before a vast majority of my fellow passengers awoke to see it, but I was able to get my 200-500mm lens out for the first time and give it a go. I’m so pleased to report that it was beautiful and flawless, I’m so glad I chose this lens over other options.

Finally, after breakfast, the boat begins to leave the harbour. We’re going to start sailing even though the low pressure system that held us up last night, still hasn’t cleared. But as the expedition leader, Jan, reminds us, they’ve always got a Plan A and a Plan B. We’re headed for Harberton – the most southern farm in the Tierra Del Fuego region.

Itching to get some real photography started, I sought permission to break from the group and shoot some interesting objects that I had spied on the coastline around the settlement. I couldn’t figure out what the farmer was telling me they were.

“Barnos.” He says, clearly.

“Barn-aus?” I say

“Banos” he replies, smiles and walks away.

I’ll soon understand what these are on inspection.

Outhouses. A famous Loo with a View. The smell gave it away and I chose to keep my distance and keep shooting.

I’m sure he was quite amused by my willingness to take photos of his lavatories.

We get back on the boat after the excursion and proceed to familiarise ourselves with the undressing of all the layers.

Gloves and Beanies

Lifejacket

Red Jacket

Tshirt

Thermals

Socks

The red jacket is provided as part of the cruise package and it’s a doozy. I know I’m only going to get to wear it once, maybe twice at the peak of the Queensland winter. It’s so warm, packed with pockets and truly a great souvenir of the trip itself. How I’ll get it home is anyone’s guess. I’ve just got to hope that the smaller-domestic airlines are forgiving for one or two kilos overweight check-in luggage. We shall see.

That evening, we begin to cross the Drake Passage, and I realise with a sense of dread, that I am so woefully prepared for this journey.

Thursday 7th December

The perils of the Drake Passage don’t make themselves known immediately. They creep up on you and attack when you think that you’re doing okay. It begins during the daytime, at first, some occasional big waves. We scored cabin 336, which is up the front end of the boat, also one of the least stable places to be as there’s so much more sudden movement. The ups and downs I can deal with, it was the side to side, the water splashing the windows and the ship-tilting.

I found that lying down in bed was the only way to prevent my stomach evacuating itself. I felt dizzy and disoriented. I took one sea sickness tablet, but I’m uncertain if it really helped me.

I spend Wednesday afternoon and night in bed. It’s the only place that I can deal with the movement of the boat. Walking around is similar to the way you feel after several drinks, although this time there’s way more invisible potholes. Either this or the floor will jerk away from you, push you into a wall or cause you to face-plant the floor. Don’t even try to have a shower during the height of the movement, you’ll be tossed around like a ragdoll on spin cycle.

Thursday morning rolls around and I’m starving. The food here is amazing, but the sea sickness doesn’t let you forget that it’s in control. I sit down for breakfast but I don’t last long. The dining room is at sea-level and the jerky movements of the ship are even more noticeable than upstairs in the cabin. I ask the waiter for a sick bag, and promptly fill it up.

Everyone around me is staring. Not saying a thing, not doing a thing, just looking.

Yup, I’m the one that thought I could beat a little sea-sickness. I’m now that-person, the one that everyone looks at or treats with a certain annoying-delicacy as if I’m going to break at any moment.

I take the rest of my meal to-go and promptly leave the dining room in extreme embarrassment. I shower and climb back into bed. This is just how it’ll have to be until we get to calmer waters. There’s only another 24hrs maximum left of this, I can stay in the cabin for that long. But alas, guilt gets me up again.

I force myself to get up and walk around, get some fresh air and have some of the sweet biscuits at the tea station. These help a little, and there’s far less people staring at me and asking me if I need help to walk around the ship. I retreat back to my hiding hole and pass the time on my laptop.

At some point in the late PM/ Early AM we finish our crossing of the Drake Passage and enter the calmer waters of the South Shetlands.

Friday 8 December: Yankee Harbour

Waking up in these gentle waters was a blessing. I was finally able to eat a decent breakfast and walk around the boat without feeling like I was going to be playing dodgems with the walls. I said a virtual happy birthday to my mum (Happy Birthday Mum). Not having WiFi has been both a blessing and a curse. I can deal with a few days of offline, heck even a bit more, but everything considered, I’m beginning to get anxious about what’s happening at home.

But, it’s the first day of landings on the shore and the adjoining islands in the Antarctic region.  Today we’re at Yankee Harbour, and using our new knowledge of penguin and seal-etiquette, we climb aboard a zodiac to be taken to shore for what is an incredible day already; the sun is shining, the sky is clear and it’s just a perfect introduction to the white continent.

Moments before the zodiac lands on the shoreline, we hear the penguins (Gentoo) calling out on their nests. They’re climbing their penguin highways (paths they follow from rookery to ocean) and diving amongst the waves of the pebbled beach. They’re cute and clumsy, playful and funny. I spend hours photographing them and one sleepy seal lying on the frozen snow. There’s so many of them and they’re mostly sitting on their eggs. They steal rocks from other penguins nests to build their own, they randomly poop wherever they want and they walk like they’re wearing clown shoes.

The landscapes around the harbour are spectacular. Pristine white caps of glaciers surrounding us, pitched against intense blue sky. The occasional beam of sunlight caresses the curvatures of the glacier, highlighting subtle features. The photos are deliciously simple, an example of the amazing light.

As the time to go back to the ship approaches, a fog cloud rolls in and covers the surrounding mountains. It’s my first glimpse of how the weather down here works, and to summarise it quickly I’d say it’s swift and brutal.

Everyone’s on a pretty big high after the landing today, and I choose to go to bed not long after dinner. They’ve hyped us up saying that we’re going to do our night of camping on Saturday night. So as per anything we do on this journey, we’re briefed about this and given our sleeping bags, liners and bivvy bags.

Saturday 9 December: Useful Island + Neko Harbour

It’s an early landing and a short one due to weather. We’re at Useful Island, where there’s yet another penguin rookery, a cool view and lots of loosely-packed snow. The mountains surrounding the area are covered in heavy snow clouds, fog and can barely be seen. We learn how much fun it is to walk in loose snow, often falling through it up to our knees or higher. Moving around with a full camera bag and tripod proves cumbersome. After this excursion with the tripod, I re-evaluate how much I want to be lugging it around.

The ship then manoeuvres itself into position in Paradise Bay, drops anchor and again we’re treated with different scenery. In the late evening (which looks like late afternoon because of the extended days of sunlight) we’re whisked off to our camping spot at Leith Cove, a little island loosely connected to the mainland and surrounded by towering peaks. We dug our trenches for our sleeping arrangements, we have to be beneath the snow-wind line in order to get a comfortable night’s sleep. After the long day that we’ve had, I’m actually really tired. After shooting sunset at 11pm, I climb into the sleeping-bivvy bag arrangement which is more like a straight-jacket and begin to get some sleep. It’s surprisingly not that hard to get to sleep, all things considered, sleeping in a shallow “grave” of snow was a tad morbid, but was a bit of fun.

Sunday 10 December: Leith Cove + Wilhelmina Bay

When I wake, sunrise has already happened and there’s a snowstorm just beginning. Most of my fellow campers have already packed up and have filled in their sleeping bag holes and are down at the shoreline waiting for the zodiac to arrive to take them back to the ship. I pack up my things without wasting time and join the queue for the return to the ship.

I decide to brave on the day without a nap and not miss a single landing. I’m tired as I only got a very light sleep during camping. As stunning as it was, the desire for sleep is creeping in and the weather is starting to suggest that I get some zzz’s.

We’re doing a landing today at Brown Station, an abandoned Argentine research station. It’s quite picturesque, and I really love all the shots that I’ve gotten from this location. It was snowing heavily and it wasn’t difficult to really get a great image of the landscape. I’m fascinated by snow, I don’t think it’ll ever become boring for me.

The weather has closed in by now and our afternoon plans are simply to go and visit another bay to allow us to see a different type of harbour; one that is still filled with sheet sea ice with picturesque cracks through its structure. We can’t break through it, as we’re not an icebreaker, but instead, the catering crew throw us a BBQ on the back deck with views around this beautiful bay.

Finally finding my time to have a nap, I quietly slipped away to the cabin and curled up on my bed, waking only for dinner and to grab a green tea.

Monday 11 December: Brown Bluff + Sailed north towards south Shetland Islands

The weather was not kind to us today, and started out with sleet showers and -4 degrees as our daily maximum. Our expedition crew was hopeful that they’d be able to get a landing sorted for us at Brown Bluff, a towering volcanic mountain, stained brown and yellow by the natural formations and no doubt helped along by penguin guano.

Climbing into the Zodiacs had become a well-rehearsed ritual, loading the bags and making sure they’re secure between your feet so they don’t move around. The zodiac driver warned us that it’ll be a wet ride, so I made sure to secure my camera and lens on the BR strap and keep it tucked away from any stray water. As soon as the boat pulled away from the Marina at the back of the ship, one giant wave splashes over the side, sprays me in the face and water catches behind my sunglasses. I’ve never felt water so cold, so close to my face. IT was stuck there until we got to the shore and I could attempt to bring my face from numb to OK.

Brown Bluff’s visit was for seeing another type of Penguin we had not yet seen; the Adellies. Mostly all black aroud the head, they differ from the Gentoos also in the fact that the Adellies have hatched most of their eggs and were far more playful to photograph. We did this all the while being pelted with sleet and winds so intense you had to huddle together to preserve warmth when waiting for that zodiac back to the ship.

Given the weather was so terrible on our way down, our afternoon plans had been to see Gourdin island, but again, this plan had to be cancelled, the weather was not playing the game. Disappointed, we headed back towards the South Shetland islands once more in the hope we could make a landing on our final day in the Antarctic.

Tuesday 12 December: Arctowski station (Polish) research base + Half-moon Island

We awoke in a harbour not far from the Polish Research Station Arctowski, and spent the morning wandering around photographing penguins (bet you didn’t guess that) and seals (ahooo, again) all under the backdrop of lingering heavy clouds and blustery powdered snow wafting from the shore to the sea. I chose not to go inside the research station, the queue for this was too long and I was really only interested in the landscapes around. The beauty of the pictures speak for themselves, I still don’t think I’ll get sick of looking at penguins.

The final landing of the Antarctic voyage was spent at Half-moon Island. It’s a quiet little harbour with a multitude of penguin rookeries from different varieties all mixed in. Mostly, we were here to see the Chinstrap penguins, funny little guys that look like waiters with military hats. As this was an after-dinner landing, we got some sunset color and a chance to see the Antarctic region out with some of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve seen yet.

That evening, after an intense 5 days of photographing different elements of the Antarctic, our ship quietly slipped into the Drake Passage once more, to return us to Ushuaia. We knew what the passage was like the first time, but this time however, I’d scored some sea sickness patches from one of the expedition team, and so I was ready. Thankfully I did because the waves we had coming back were more intense than going down. It was like trying to sleep on a trampoline.

Wednesday 13th + Thursday 14th: Drake Passage, Beagle Channel and returning to Ushuaia

Our cabin was suffering the worst of being at the front of the ship, you could feel the motion of the ship ducking down a wave, and in bed, you’d get a moment of levitation until your body fell back down into the bed. It was usually then when the ship would rise again, and you’d sink a little deeper back into the bed.

Then the winds would kick in, and you’d be tossed from side to side like you’re a lamington being coated in coconut, the only real threat was falling out of bed. You’d time your movements so that if you’re getting out of bed, you wait for a moment where the ship isn’t tilted to one side and the threat of face-planting is at a minimum.

Oh the joys.

And now begins the next part of my trip, two weeks exploring El Chalten and Bariloche – some of the most amazing parts of Argentina’s Patagonian region.

 

 


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