Day 8: Humpbacks and the polar plunge

After lunch this day, as we sailed to our next destination, we encountered a bunch of humpback whales that swam all around the front of our ship, like they were playing with us. For at least 15 or 20 minutes they swam and jumped, over and over, showing off their beautiful tails. It was totally incredible.
How you spot a whale: blow. Different whales, according to our whale expert, Jimmy, have different types of blow, so you (well, HE) can identify the type of whale just from the blow.


A bunch of happy passengers

Some of the whales were THIS CLOSE to our ship. Remember Tom, who I told you takes as many pictures as I do? That’s him practically on top of the whale. AMAZING.
And the sun finally came out!

Then we reached Useful Island, which the team had chosen for the site of our polar plunge. (How do they choose? I do not know. The previous two days Alex had mentioned that we might do it that day, but for whatever reason, it got postponed both times. I thought if we kept putting it off we were going to have to polar plunge in the Drake, but luckily, we found a good spot this day.)

Alex announced over the PA that it was time and to come on down to the gangway as soon as you were ready. The water was a balmy 3 degrees Celsius—about 37 F—which was warmer than I was expecting. The outside air was about the same.

Jeff, Allen & I left the cabin at different times, as soon as we each were dressed in our swimsuits, and thus we ended up in totally different places in line. The gangway is not very large, so people lined up in the order they arrived, snaking down the hallway and leaving room for the drenched folks who had already jumped to walk past us.


Line of people waiting their turn for the polar plunge

Vodka shots when you got back on after your jump. (That’s Absolut Sea Cruise Edition Vodka. Google tells me this special edition bottle is available on various Caribbean cruises. Antarctica, too, apparently.)
The view as we jumped.
Allen & Jeff going in. One of the Quark team was positioned in a zodiac where he could photograph us as we jumped. Jeff wore his GoPro. I’ll post his video later.
A fellow passenger who was up on deck took this shot of my jump.

They sent us down one person at a time on the gangplank. Jeet (the doctor) was at the door of the ship. There were two guys at the bottom of the plank. One fastened a harness on me. And then I said, “So I just jump? Like, whenever I’m ready?” The hardest part for me was the moment before…making the decision to actually jump. But then I did it, and I yelled out, and I jumped in. What struck me wasn’t even the cold, it was the salt.

I jumped in, came up, immediately turned around and started trying to figure out how to get out. It was over pretty fast (I’ve seen the video Jeff took) but it felt longer.
Came back up the gangplank, someone handed me a towel and then a shot of vodka. Overall, not as bad as I thought it would be.

All in all, 36 of the 117 passengers on our trip did the polar plunge. Two of the guys went to the back of the line and did it a second time.

After this, we showered, had the recap and dinner, and then did a landing on the actual continent after dinner…which was one of my favorite landings of all. (But it’s hard to rate them, really, because every single one of them was amazing.)

Day 8: Port Charcot

This morning we were hoping for an early morning landing at Cape Tuxen before breakfast. This was our first attempt at a continental landing, but it was not to be. It was too stormy and the water too rough to land there. Alex came on the PA for our 6am wake-up call with the news that we couldn’t do that landing after all, so we could all go back to sleep.

Instead, we repositioned to a more protected area where we would be able to land safely. After breakfast, we did a split-landing—half time on land at Port Charcot, half time on a zodiac cruise. Allen, Jeff & I were in the land-first group.
This is probably my favorite photo from the entire trip. (If I had to choose just one.)
Taking photos from the ship as we wait for our zodiac group to be called
Hey, seals.
Getting some GoPro footage
This was a private French yacht with a team on board who were filming underwater wildlife. Snorkeling in Antarctica is serious bzness.
I did not know until this trip that penguins jump out of the water like this as they swim! We saw this many times, and every time it was just as fun to watch.
It was snowing lightly this morning.
Penguins like to enter the water in groups, in case there’s a predator waiting.
Penguin highway…white means coming, black means going.

And then it was time to hop in a zodiac for a cruise through some spectacular ice.
There’s a waterfall coming off this one…see it?
More of the awesome jumping penguins
And even more penguins.
Double arch!!
Look at all the seals swimming together.
Then we came upon this seal chilling on a hunk of ice. We cruised right by him, very slowly.
He was mildly curious about us.
And then it was time to go back on the ship. Next up…humpback whales and the polar plunge!

Day 7: Petermann Island

Seventh day on the ship. We are now halfway through our landing days. We’ve had three days in Antarctica; we’ve got three more to go.

We were coming back north from the circle, with two excursions planned for the day—one in the afternoon and one after dinner. We started the morning with an 8am breakfast, followed by a lecture on ice and the Southern Ocean in the main lounge.

Then we had a short briefing at 11:30, where Alex informed us that because our ship had been slowed down by ice we weren’t going to be able to make our hoped-for afternoon landing in Penola Strait. Instead, the team put together a couple more lectures for us to attend. One was on one team member’s experience living at the South Pole.

This evening they had a BBQ planned, which was supposed to be held outside on the deck. But the weather didn’t cooperate, so we had our BBQ in the dining room where we had all our other meals.

Then after dinner, it was time for our landing on Petermann Island. There was the option for a zodiac cruise only, which they said was the best chance of seeing leopard seals trying to catch penguin chicks. Sounded cool but I chose the landing, as did Jeff & Allen. They started loading the zodiacs at about 7:30pm.
We finally managed to get a photo of the three of us together.
There were tons of gentoo penguins with a few Adelies mixed in.
The ice was pretty slushy in some areas. The green color is algae.
Some of the slush was a few inches deep. Good thing those boots are waterproof!
Penguin parents regurgitate krill for their young.
Another hiker penguin
This was the view from the top of that path. See the seal playing in the water?
More penguin chicks eating from their parents’ beaks.
The red is caused by snow algae. This is also sometimes called watermelon snow.
Circle of life
Penguins are super flexible.
Finally around 9:30pm it was time to head back to the ship, although I could’ve stayed on land for hours more. The next day we were going to try for three landings, with the first being before breakfast at 6am. Time to get some sleep.

Day 6: Hurricane

This day, our third day of landings, was the farthest south we would go, at 67 degrees, 51 minutes south (the location of Horseshoe Island that we’d visited in the morning).

After we landed at Carvajal, we were heading north again to hit some of the more common landing sites and where there would be more penguins again. (And who doesn’t want more penguins?)

But at dinner that night, the water started getting rough. At first most of us didn’t think much of it, but gradually, throughout the meal, the waves got higher and higher. Dishes were sliding around. A lot. Sometimes entirely off the table. These waves were bigger and rougher than what we’d experienced on the (admittedly calm) Drake.

We experienced 100mph winds and 30+ foot swells. You could barely stand up on the ship, we were rocking and rolling so much. You had to hold on to a wall to remain upright. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t feel seasick (the rocking felt different than it had on the Drake) but I didn’t want to take any chances, so I went ahead and took a phenergan to be safe.

I went out to the top deck to get a couple photos of the waves crashing over the bow of the ship.
Some of the biggest waves covered the bow of the ship completely, and some crashed over the top deck where I was standing. (I turned my back and tried to protect the camera as much as possible during those. A waterproof camera would’ve been useful here, too!) It was windy and wet and I didn’t stay out there very long.

Jeff took the GoPro out and got this video of one of the bigger waves. At some point Alex came over the PA system to let us know that it was, in fact, a hurricane.

This happened to be February 14, Valentine’s Day, and Quark had a Valentine’s social planned for the evening in the lounge.
I’m not sure how well attended this was…I opted to skip it and get a shower and some sleep. Showering on a ship during a hurricane is a bit of an undertaking, but I managed by holding on to the bar and bracing myself against the wall. And then the crazy waves and phenergan rocked me right to sleep as we sailed north again in search of penguins.

Day 6: Seals and some surprised Chileans

The seals may have been surprised, too, come to think of it.

After lunch, we prepared to visit Carvajal, a former British Antarctic Survey station that was transferred to Chile in 1984. It hadn’t been used in 14 years, though, so the expedition team had no reason to expect it would be manned now. Alex explained how part of his job is to make contact with manned stations the day before we hope to land there, to make sure they’re okay with having us as visitors and so they are expecting us.
But this day, since they thought it was vacant, the Quark team went ahead in their zodiacs to scope out the landing site ahead of bringing the passengers up, as usual, and they were surprised to find a group of about 10 Chileans working there. The Chileans were also pretty surprised to see them, since no one else had stopped there this season. (I can’t remember if they said they’d seen any other ships go by or not, but for sure none had stopped.) They were there to do repairs and maintenance on the buildings to get them ready to use as a research station again.

Despite having no advance notice, and possibly because they hadn’t seen other people since they got there in November, they were very welcoming towards us.
Here’s the spot where we landed. This was the rough landing spot I mentioned the other day…the zodiac was bobbing up and down by a foot or so in the water and we had to step out onto some large rocks and climb up a few big wet rocks. The Quark team and the Chileans stationed themselves along the path to give us a hand if we needed it. You can also see the bags (in the foreground here) where we put our lifejackets once we were on land.
Fur seals everywhere! Dozens of them!
What we looked like taking photos of them all.
The first elephant seal we’d seen. They open their mouths not to yawn but to bare their teeth, just so you know.
The blue bins stored a variety of things, including human waste. Even the people living on Antarctica must bring everything out with them.
The are the largest seals (in fact this one isn’t even a full-grown adult–he will likely still double in size), and their name refers to their trunk-like noses. Although it totally fits their massive size, too.

Parasites live in their noses for their whole lives, so they always have what looks like a runny nose as they try to expel them.
The hikers heading up a glacier.
More elephant seals at the base of the glacier. This was quite a ways from the water. I was pretty impressed that these seals can move well enough on land to get this far inland.
At the top of the glacier, remnants of a plane crash.
There’s the baby again with the others.
Dozens more fur seals were hanging out at the base of the glacier.
After this landing, we were back on the ship having our daily re-cap in the main lounge when suddenly one of the team brought in the Chileans!
They had wanted a tour of our ship. Everyone gave them a very warm welcome (there was lots of clapping and cheering), and one of them gave a short speech in Spanish (which was translated for us) thanking us for visiting. Several people wanted to take photos with them. Quark also gave them a couple crates of fresh produce, which they hadn’t had since November.

And then we had dinner and sailed into a hurricane. I’ll make that a separate post, since this is already so long.