December 08, 2012 GMT
Antarctica - Part 1

Sorry we have skipped ahead with our blog, but because we experienced so much in such a short period of time we wanted to get it down while it was still fresh in our memories. We will do a backtrack/catch-up here is Antarctica Part 1......

Day One Monday 26th November It is the day we leave for Antarctica, we are pretty excited but also a little nervous as neither of us has ever been on a boat trip of this length before and certainly never on waters like the infamous Drake Passage, renowned as the roughest stretch of ocean in the world.

It is raining and overcast when we get up, what are we going to do until our 4.00pm boarding? This problem is solved when Mariano tells us we can stay in the Cabana all day if we like and he will take us to the Port. We pack up the bike and ourselves and leave for down town Ushuaia at 2.00 pm with our beautiful luggage. We left the panniers attached to the bike with our helmets and other bike stuff stored at the Cabana, so we just used reusable shopping bags to carry our gear to the ship, we must have looked like classy passengers!

Our beautiful Louis Vuitton Luggage, lucky we are not on a posh ship.

The bike tucked away in the garden at Ona Shin Cabanas

After lunch and a few beers we head to the port, deal with a very laid back customs and board the beautiful little ship “Polar Pioneer” that is to become our home and haven for the next 10 days.

Boarding the Polar Pioneer

The air of excitement is palpable among our fellow passengers, and the Aurora staff and Russian crew are certainly welcoming. We settle ourselves into our cabin (we have been upgraded to a private cabin with bathroom, woohoo!!) and meet on the bridge to get our first briefing which is a little dubious - the Port is closed due to the extra high winds and there is a storm building out in the Drake Passage, a decision will be made later that night as to whether we will cross or not, that is if we can get out of the Port. No time is wasted though and we have our life boat drill right up front while waiting for the Port to re-open. This was actually quite a bit of fun.

Life Boat Drill

Life Boat Drill

After a fantastic dinner the wind drops a little and we eventually do leave the Port a little later than planned at 8.30 pm and a decision is made just after midnight that we will indeed tackle the Drake Passage tonight. Don our expedition leader tells us to make sure everything in the cabins is put away or batoned down, that seasickness medication is at the ready, it will be an interesting crossing and we should be brave! Oh Shit! He was dead right, storm force winds (higher than gale force) gusting up to 50 knots and what the experienced sailors on board described as “moderate to high seas”, meaning 7 metre waves breaking over the bow with white-water occasionally breaking over the bridge on deck 6. However the staff tell us they have endured much worse conditions especially on the crossings to the South Georgia Islands. At least things weren't flying around the cabins they tell us???? Well maybe, but in our cabin the few things we hadn't secured were thrown on the floor and were rolling all around, the cabin curtains were swinging from vertical to 45 degrees and back again and we could regularly see waves wash past out deck 5 porthole. But I guess it could have been worse?

Day Two Tuesday 27th November 2012 We were tossed around for the next 36 hours, with only a handful of people making breakfast and lunch the next day. Having said that, the staff were fantastic, Dr John making the rounds of the cabins, handing out drugs of all descriptions and bringing people food. Both Skill and I are susceptible to seasickness and were worried about it before we left, but compared to most people we faired OK. We stayed in our bunks for the first day, I managed to make dinner, Skill stayed in his bunk so I brought back some food, which we managed to keep down, just. Moving about the ship, up and down stairs is quite a task in these conditions with both hands definitely required to hold onto the railings. Talk about a baptism of fire!!!!

Day Three Wednesday 28th November That night the rough ride continued, sleep is nigh impossible. If you don't brace yourself in the bunk you slide up, down and around on the bed. I am watching the clock from my bunk, it is 4.07 am as our little ship is being buffeted around on the sea, we seem to be pitching, lurching, rolling,......forwards, backwards, side to side, forwards, backwards, side to side. As I am thinking “Oh My Goodness, what have we done, is this what it's going to be like for the whole journey?”, the Polar Pioneer gives another lurch forwards, backwards, then if by some miracle there is no side to side motion and we seem to be suddenly travelling through much calmer waters.

Later in the morning just as I am leaving the cabin, we get Don's wake up call for the morning “Whales!” As I am only a flight of steps from the bridge I gingerly make my way up on my newly acquired sea legs and get to watch the antics of these majestic creatures. I cannot wipe the smile off my face, I got off pretty lightly on the seasickness front, I am on my way to Antarctica and I have seen whales before breakfast. How did I get to be so lucky????? Skill is not quite so enthused he is still in bed and feeling pretty ordinary, he doesn't make breakfast so that makes 2 days with only a few dried biscuits and small piece of chicken.

After I consume a huge breakfast an action packed day on board emerged, Martin (The ship's photographer) introduced photography to those who can actually take a photo without putting their glove over the front of the lens or having the horizon on a 45 degree angle, I guess I should have listened more intently. We also got our daily housekeeping and routine briefings, how to enter and exit the zodiacs, the all important tagging on/off system, the need for environmental vigilance including the need to vacuum our outer clothing today and disinfect our gumboots daily. Finally we are kitted out with our most important on shore fashion accessories, “The Gumboot”. By this time Skill is feeling a tad better but is still unable to make lunch.

In the early evening we both go to the bar for drinks where there are newly emerged faces, seasickness is well and truly on the decline. We are a diverse group aged from 23 to 70+ from all walks of life and socio economic backgrounds, mainly Aussies and Kiwis, but also Polish, Austrian, Canadian, American, British and Russian. Everyone seems happy and excited, with the prospect of what is to come. We are welcomed by Terry, (Hotel Manager and Barman) Don and Captain Yuri (our Russian Captain). There is a genuine feeling of fondness and mutual respect between the ship's crew and Aurora staff, a feeling of family that seems to pervade the ship. It becomes perfectly obvious from this tall, quietly spoken man that we are in the safest of hands, a very comforting thought as we retire after dinner that night, Skill's first meal in a couple of days.

Day 4 Thursday 29th November Because we have taken so long to cross the Drake Passage in the storm (travelling at a reduced 7 – 8 knots instead of the usual 10 – 12 knots) we are running behind schedule and Don and Captain Yuri are working continually to maximise our time in Antarctica and to allow as many landings as possible, these guys really go the extra mile. Low cloud surrounds the ship and then icebergs slowly appear on the horizon.

Our first Iceberg sighting

Our first Iceberg with penguins on it.

We gather on the bridge patiently waiting for our first glimpse of Antarctica and just after 10.30am Hydruga Rocks emerges through the low cloud. No time is wasted, zodiacs are in the water (manned by all the staff including our resident doctor and the diminutive Maggie - Assistant Tour Manager) and we make our first Antarctica Landing. We will let the photos do the talking

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Our first landing on Hydruga Rocks

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Chinstrap Penguins - The perfect pair.

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Chinstrap Penguin - Hello little fella

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Even more Chinstrap Penguins

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Yep its snowing - Lan sitting in the snow watching penguins

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Poohy Penguins

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Chilled out Penguin

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Left, Right Lone Penguin march

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Gentoo Penguin

After lunch and a short transit, zodiacs are back in calmer waters and we visit Portal Point on the Antarctic continent and cruise around the magnificent icebergs. It is at times like this I have to pinch myself, is this really me here in this indescribably beautiful place. Although these photos are great they do not do this magic place justice.

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Going to Portal Point

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Lan in the Zodiac

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Lan & Skill standing on the Antarctic continent

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Portal Point panorama

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Cruising the Icebergs

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More Iceberg sculptures

Day 5 Friday 30th November After another overnight transit, it is a beautiful morning of calm icy waters and an amazing sky. Zodiacs are once again in the water early and we explore Curverville Island and watch in sheer joy at the antics of the gentoo penguins.

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How we get the zodiacs in the water

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Curverville Island Beauty

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Curverville Island

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Cruising the Icebergs

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Icebergs with icicles

Terry picks up an ice sculpture for the bar. Tasted great in my G&T later that night.

Back on the ship and we spend the afternoon on the bow in near still glorious sunny/overcast conditions as we cruise through the Gerlache Strait, Butler Passage, and the narrow ice packed Lemaire Chanel.

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Gerlache Passage

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Giant Petrel

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Lemaire Channel Entrance

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On the front deck of Polar Pioneer

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Lemaire Channel Reflections

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Ice in the Lemaire Channel

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Cruising the Lemaire Channel, no wonder this place is known as kodak alley

We do a predinner cruise near Petermann Island

Cruising away from Polar Pioneer

Crabeater Seal

Weddell Seal

Then after dinner it is back out in the zodiacs where we land on Petermann Island. These photos are taken at 11.00 pm at night.

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Gentoo Penguins

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What??? More Penguins!

Penguins and Memorial

Abandoned Argentinian Base Hut

Skill and I sit quietly on a rock trying to take it all in. I say to him “You know we have been so lucky to see all the places in the world that we have, but I think that right here, right now is the most beautiful place I have ever seen” He agrees, then our moment of philosophical pondering is over as we realise our feet and hands are frozen. Time to get back to the ship.

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Our sheltering Haven, the beautiful Polar Pioneer

But wait, there's more...... stay tuned for Antarctica Part 2 coming soon!

Posted by John Skillington at December 08, 2012 02:35 AM GMT

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