January 17, 2006 GMT
The White Continent

The M/V Ushuaia is an ex-oceanographic survey ship with ice-breaking capabilities, and takes 65 passengers.

The hull at the bows is six inches thick with ribs every eight inches. Its top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed is 12 knots. But through the ice it creeps at 5 knots. The shore trips are in Zodiacs, with mostly "wet" landings, necessitating wellies and as much waterproof clothing as you can manage. My BMW suit proves to be excellent Antarctic wear, with only the addition of wellies, hat and lifejacket.

Antarctic Big Rules
1. Leave NOTHING behind except footprints (and then only where unavoidable).

2. Take NOTHING away except photographs and memories.

We cross the Drake Passage, through the Southern Ocean, from Cape Horn to the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. The swell is only two metres, so we cruise at 10 knots. There are albatrosses and petrels wheeling off the stern. We see our first iceberg, twice the size of the ship. Icebergs are almost never white; they range from deep blue to a jewel-like turquoise. And the water is so clear you can see clearly the 80% of their bulk beneath the water.

We anchor off Livingston Island (S 62 47.604 W060 33.700) and pile into the Zodiacs at 6am. There are Chinstrap penguin rookeries with the occasional Macaroni interloper; Macaroni penguins look completely bonkers - I mean, what's all that about? Look at them here (I couldn't get a digital pic, sorry).

After lunch it's off to Deception Island. This is an historic place and an active volcano. It was a British base (Base B) during WWII, and then British Antarctic Survey. We see Gentoo penguins (my favourite) and skuas feeding on krill on the shore. We have a teatime dip in the warm Antarctic waters rising from the volcano.

To Port Lockroy (S 64 41.418 W063 02.303) on Goudier Island to visit the old BAS base and which is now a museum and post office; then to Jougla Point for more penguins and elephant seals.

Penguins can usually be heard and smelt before they are seen; penguin poo is pink and very smelly, and they make a lot of noise (especially the Chinstraps).

Elephant seals break wind noisily and frequently from both ends (and it's sometimes difficult to tell which end is which).

After lunch we call at a US station, Palmer Base (S 64 46.259 W064 03.563) . All very American and squeaky clean, of course. Then across the bay to Torguenson Rookery to see the Adelie penguins. We watch an Antarctic skua steal an egg from one of the mothers; it takes the egg to a patch of snow where it can be made stable, then the mate joins it to break the shell and eat the contents. When they finish and fly off in search of pudding we lay a pen beside the remains to show scale and photograph them.

Antarctic animals have no fear of humans; in fact they are rather curious, wondering what these rather large and brightly-coloured creatures are. You can sit on the ground and before long be approached by a two-foot-high penguin who comes almost within arm's reach. Even sheathbills will approach that close.

At this latitude there's no darkness. The sun rises soon after 3am and doesn't set until nearly midnight. The moon doesn't set at all. The sunset tonight had everyone (including crew, kitchen staff and engineers) on deck until past midnight.

We anchor off Galindez Island (S 65 14.957 W064 13.624). This is the furthest south we go as the Ice Captain isn't happy about the pack ice.We are about 60 miles north of the Polar Circle here.

There is a Ukrainian base here, Vernadsky Station - another ex-BAS place. The Ukrainians are barking and have an unhealthy interest in ladies' underwear. They distill their own vodka from potato peelings (perfectly legal here), the price of which is $1 or a signed bra. I sacrifice some underwear (we've been forewarned) and with a "nazdrovie" knock back the first shot in one. Jolly nice it is too, and impresses the residents no end. We all agree we'd rather be stationed here than with the Americans. despite all their mod cons.

During lunch we start threading our way through the bergs and growlers in the Lemaire Channel, the Ice Captain switching eyes from binoculars to depth sounder to radar. There is an open bridge policy, and to be able to join the crew on the bridge at times like this is fascinating; they always find the time to explain and demonstrate the equipment. But in the Lemaire there is total silence from the passengers on the bridge as we crane to watch the ice in front of us and then round to the instrument displays. A deathly hush descends as we inch through the 300-metre gap at just 5 knots.

The water is so clear and still and cold that the reflections are perfect.

We anchor again, this time in Paradise Harbour. The Zodiac drivers take us on a cruise, close to bergs, stopping for photos, past calving glaciers, cutting the engines and drifting in the silence.

Back on the ship we're waiting for the last two Zodiacs to return, one containing the survival gear. Every time we go ashore there is a cargo of tents and survival equipment in the scout Zodiac, just in case of problems. No-one enlarged on these, but one can imagine. Sudden shout from the bridge; "whales to starboard". We look, and there is a Minke playing around the ship; word spreads and soon every last person on the ship is on deck with a camera. The whale nudges one of the Zodiacs, rolls over to show its white belly, turns and swims right under the
ship and surfaces on the other side. The show lasts for nearly an hour before the Captain decides he really must start the engines and get going.

We are at Neko Harbour (S 64 50.943 W062 32.415) on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Gentoo penguins have clearly-defined highways from their rookeries to the sea, with what appears to be a largely one-way system. Four of us sit and watch a glacier calving, preceded by the thunder of icefalls and followed by miniature tsunamis along the shore.

We watch the leopard seals eyeing the penguins hungrily as we return to the ship for a barbecue lunch on deck. The temperature is -5C.

At Cuverville Island I sit and watch the Gentoos clambering around me on the rocks, not noticing the rising tide. I'm lucky - one of the guides spots me and finds me a way through not-too-deep water and along the edge of the rookery.

The Argentinian base "Camara" is on Half Moon Island (S 62 35.455 W059 54.242). We see more Chinstraps and Gentoos and are entertained by the rather fetching Argentinian sailors.

At Aitcho Island there is thick fog. The Ice Captain ventures to within 400 metres of the shore, but although we can hear and smell the penguins there is nothing to be seen. Eventually we have to give up and retire to the bar for an Antarctic Mythical Creatures competition. Our team, a cosmopolitan bunch of middle-aged drinkers, comes last; but we have great fun.


We arrived in Ushuaia this morning after a smooth and speedy crossing. One of the campsite cats has discovered that my sheepskin seat cover provides a comfortable vantage point from which to survey her domain, and has apparently done so since I left.

The pix are arriving (slowly) with Phil and can be seen here. If you ever, ever get the
chance, go to Antarctica.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at January 17, 2006 04:01 PM GMT

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