Day 4, morning: First landing!

I’m going to have to divide up the days now that we’re getting to the landings. It’s not that I have more to say, but I have way more photos to show.

On the morning of the fourth day, the boat was no longer rocking and rolling. When we woke up, there was almost no motion at all, because at some point in the night, we had dropped anchor at Cuverville Island. I got dressed and went out on deck to take it in.
It was foggy and you couldn’t see very far because of that, but you could see the crazy blue icebergs that were all around us. WE WERE HERE. This was what we had come for, why we had been willing to spend two days bobbing around the Drake Passage (calm as it was).

Breakfast was at 7am, followed immediately by our first zodiac rides to shore. For this landing, there were three options: a zodiac cruise around the bay, a landing, or a landing including a long hike. If you wanted to do the zodiac cruise or the long hike, you had to sign up on a sheet at reception so they could keep track of numbers. (We had done this the night before, after the re-cap where Alex had explained the choices.) All three of us chose to do the long hike, so after breakfast they called the long hikers first for the zodiacs, and we were off.
Laurie, the historian, led our hike (and would lead all the hikes on the other landings, as well). I was already impressed with his ability to tell a good story from his talks about the early explorers, but I did not yet know what an amazing athlete he is. I will come back to that later.


My uncle

I trailed the line, because, as usual, I kept stopping to take pictures.
The kayakers on their first kayak of the trip. Kayaking cost an additional fee, and each time we did a landing, weather permitting, the kayakers went out. They always had the choice to kayak or do the landing. I considered signing up but ultimately decided I wanted to do as many landings as possible.
We were still making our way up the hill, but the higher we went, the worse the visibility, and eventually, 420 feet up, we decided to call it quits. There wasn’t much point to going on because it was hard to see anything. The hill was steep, and the guides said it was safe to slide down it if we wanted to.
Sliding down the hill on their backs! That’s my uncle going down, and Jeff getting ready to (with the blue backpack). I did not slide, since I had two cameras on me that would’ve gotten full of snow.

Once we were back down, we had some time to hang out on the pebbly beach and observe the penguins.
You can see that the guy on the right is molting. They lose all their feathers and then grow new ones, which takes about two weeks. They mostly just sit in one spot for those two weeks, conserving energy since they can’t go in the water to find food during that time.
Second-to-last zodiac heading back to the ship. I got on the last one.

And then it was lunchtime and we were off to the next spot. We sailed through the Neumeyer Channel on our way to our afternoon landing sites.
Next up…Damoy Point and Port Lockroy.

Day 3: Getting closer

Still sailing along on the Drake, still taking phenergan, still thrilled out of my mind.
It was like the flight map on an airplane, except it was tracking our ship instead of a plane. This TV screen, which was just outside the main lounge, always showed where we were. This day, our second full day at sea, we were approaching the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica.

The wake-up call came at 6:30am this day. Breakfast was 7-8.

Then, instead of the geology and history lectures like the day before, our morning was filled with logistical things. First, we had a mandatory briefing about IAATO rules and zodiac procedures. This covered zodiac loading and unloading procedures, plus rules like no bringing food ashore, no approaching wildlife, and so on. People are not allowed to approach animals closer than 5 meters / 15 feet. (They can approach you, of course, and often did.)

We signed up for zodiac assignments. There were six zodiac groups, each named for explorers to Antarctica. Allen, Jeff, and I signed up with the Amundsen group. I’ll write more later about how the zodiacs worked.

They also did a bio-security briefing, where they explained the need for not introducing non-native species to Antarctica, or even tracking things from one landing site to the next. Each time we left the ship and then again as we came back on, we had to dip our boots in a cleaning solution, and also scrub off anything that had gotten on our clothes (say, like, penguin poop that you knelt or fell in–and that stuff was everywhere, so you were bound to get it on you at some point).
We were called to the lounge by deck level to bring our things to be vacuumed off. Any outerwear like pants and gloves plus backpacks that we would be bringing onto land had to be vacuumed.

This morning we also got our rubber boots. These were loaned to us by Quark, and they were awesome. They suggested trying them on with two pairs of socks, in case you needed them for warmth, but I only ever wore one pair of hiking/ski smartwool socks with mine, and my feet were always plenty warm and toasty.
They called us by deck level to get our boots. We tried them on to find the right size, and then they were ours to keep for the duration of the trip. They are waterproof, which was necessary because we had many wet landings, where you stepped out of the zodiac into water to walk up onto land.

After lunch, there was a talk on penguins, and then another history one about more Antarctic explorers.

During the afternoon we also saw our first icebergs!
We’d seen a few penguins swimming near the ship, too, which was cool. But then, during the nightly re-cap, suddenly Jimmy the whale guy came in and told Alex (the expedition leader, the one who does the re-caps) that there was a pod of orcas near the ship. We cut short the re-cap and everyone ran out onto deck.

They were everywhere. There were a couple different kinds of whales, there were seals, there were penguins. They were in every direction. People would ooh and aah pointing one way, and then suddenly you’d hear the same from another side. The whales were huge. Some of them came right up close to the ship.
Orcas work together to catch their prey, which is why they’re in groups of three here.

At our re-cap, Alex talked about what landings we would be doing the next day, what options we had for each one, and then told us that they anticipated crossing the circle the day after the next. The captain wanted to get as far south as possible first, and then we would turn around and come back and hit the landing sites that we’d missed on the way down. It would also be the crew’s first time crossing the circle this season, so they were excited about it as well.

After dinner this night, they showed a movie about Shackleton in the lounge, complete with popcorn. And thus ended the third day. Overnight we would be reaching Antarctica. In the morning…FIRST LANDING!!!

Day 2: The Drake Passage

Antarctica is a big land mass surrounded entirely by water. There is no land anywhere around the world at the latitudes of the Drake, so water (and wind) flows unimpeded. It’s known for being the roughest seas in the world.
The night before, Alex (the expedition leader) had shown us wind maps with the forecast for the next day on the Drake. It looked like it would be a fairly easy crossing. I’ve never been seasick before, so I wasn’t sure if I would have any issues, so I decided not to take anything the night before.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the rocking of the boat. I had a hard time falling back asleep, although I did sleep long enough to dream that we were on a bus to Antarctica but the bus driver kept stopping at random places, and I thought, “If she keeps stopping, we’ll never get there!”

At 7:30am, Alex woke us up over the PA system first by playing a song, then told us generally the plan for the day. The Drake was fairly calm, he said, and it should be even better the next day. On the docket for the day were a few lectures, which were all shown on the daily program, which was both posted in various places on the ship and broadcast on the TVs in our rooms.

Breakfast began at 8. (I will write more about how the meals worked and what the food was like in a separate post.) The Drake was calm! This was not a rough crossing! And yet I could not believe how much movement there was. Things were sliding around all over the place. You had to hold onto the handrails or the walls when you walked, and when you looked out the windows, you often saw only water or only sky, depending on which way the ship was tilting. Everyone was stumbling around like they were drunk.

Beans, potatoes or toast, and grapefruit, along with a club regular breakfast each morning.

Beans, potatoes or toast, and grapefruit, along with a club soda…my regular breakfast each morning.

The tables in the dining room were covered with the sticky material that I’ve seen in rug pads to hold down the tableware. (Brilliant.) Didn’t keep your silverware from sliding around on your plate, though.

The doctor, Jeet, was always available by phone if you needed him.

The doctor, Jeet, was always available by phone if you needed him.

They put out some handy bags in the hallways. I felt a little woozy, but I didn’t feel nauseated, so I thought I was doing ok.

The first lecture started at 9:30 in the main lounge. Jimmy the marine biologist (or “the whale guy,” as I came to think of him) was doing a presentation on whales. The main lounge was dark (the shades were pulled over the windows) and warm, and just about 10 minutes into his talk I had the feeling that if I didn’t leave the room I was going to pass out. I went out and sat in the chilly wind on the deck for a few minutes, and then I said, “Screw it,” and decided to take a pill.

I had gotten a prescription for phenergan before I left, just in case. My doctor warned that it makes you really drowsy. So I took one and went to lie down in my cabin. I put the TV on, because they broadcast the lectures from the lounge on one of the channels, but I fell asleep so fast I didn’t actually hear any of it. I slept right through the next lecture on ice, too, and finally woke up at lunchtime. I was still sleepy but I felt so much better. I hadn’t even realized how bad I’d felt that morning until I didn’t feel that bad anymore. SO GLAD for the phenergan.
There was another lecture in the afternoon on seabirds. The phenergan was making me super sleepy but I found that I could force myself to stay awake, so I managed to attend the bird lecture. Then I dozed for a bit in the lounge while waiting for the next lecture to start, this one by Laurie, the historian, about the discovery and early exploration of Antarctica.

At 5:30 we had our daily re-cap. It is funny that they called it a re-cap because the purpose of the meeting was for them to tell us about plans for the next day; we didn’t re-cap anything! But they called it a re-cap so I will call it a re-cap. This day there wasn’t a lot to report, because the next day was just another sea day. Alex showed us more wind charts to show that the Drake should continue to be “smooth.” (And I made a mental note to continue taking the phenergan.)

At 7pm, they hosted the Captain’s Cocktails in the lounge, and our ship captain gave a little speech, and we toasted the voyage.
And then it was dinnertime. And here came my biggest surprise of the day. This was February 10, my birthday, which I had basically not thought much about. The whole trip was so exciting I had too much other stuff on my mind. So you can imagine how completely surprised I was when after dinner, while we were waiting for dessert to be brought out, all of a sudden there were waiters behind me with a cake!
The whole room sang “Happy Birthday” to me, and then they took it away and sliced it up and served it to everyone at our table. (I actually don’t know if everyone else had cake, too, or what.) There was another guy on board who had the same birthday, so they brought out a cake for him next and we all sang to him.

I was super impressed with Quark on this. Jeff and Allen had nothing to do with this. Jeff told me later he had tried to tell someone that morning that it was my birthday and they told him, “Oh, we already know whose birthday it is.” LOL. And not only did they surprise me with this cake, but they knew where I was sitting in the dining room. (I mean, they did have my passport, so they could use that picture, I guess?) It was only the second night, so they hadn’t had much time to learn who we all were yet.

Anyway, most exciting birthday ever, and that really had nothing to do with the fact that it was my birthday.

The next day we were expected to cross the Antarctic Convergence–where the cold waters of the Antarctic meet the warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic, marking a total change in marine life–and have our first sightings of icebergs and Antarctic wildlife. EXCITING!

Day 1: Embarkation day

The detailed trip report starts now! I’ve already posted a bit about the days we spent in Ushuaia and the pre-expedition briefing at our hotel the night before, so I’m starting now with the day we boarded the ship.

All bags going to the ship were piled in the hotel lobby the morning that we were departing. (Except fragile items, because the luggage was picked up in a giant net by crane and dropped onto the ship. I kept my camera suitcase with me.)
And then they were loaded onto a bus to be driven down to the pier, and we had a few hours free to hang out in the city.


Taking photos of the docked ship

This is my uncle Allen. He’s my dad’s brother. He will turn 80 this year, and he’s in the best shape of basically anybody I know of any age. (Although after meeting some of the expedition team, I realized there are a few people out there who can give him a run for his money. But more about that later.)


Signs at the entrance to the pier

And then it was time to meet the bus. The buses met at a park just outside the entrance to the pier. It was literally just a few yards to walk, but for security reasons we had to enter by bus. The Quark team put up flags next to our meeting spot to help people find it.

At 4pm, we all piled into the buses, and they drove us about 2 minutes onto the pier. It took longer to get out of the parking lot than it did to get to the pier.

We walked onto the ship and immediately into the main lounge, where we were greeted by a setup of snacks (a beef soup, cucumber & tomato sandwiches, ham & cheese sandwiches, banana cake, cookies, coffee, tea, water, juice). To check in, we had to turn over our passports to the reception desk for the duration of the trip. (In case something happened, they’d all be together in one place with someone responsible for getting them off the ship so we weren’t stranded without documents.) As soon as we did, someone escorted us to our room, where our luggage had already been delivered.
They offered us brief tours of the ship. Jimmy the whale guy showed us the main areas of the ship.
The benches on the outside decks were tied up for the entire duration of the trip, not just the Drake Passage.
Back inside the main lounge, we had our first meeting, a welcome briefing where the staff introduced themselves, explained some basic info about how things work and how they communicate with us.

When Yvonne, the geologist, got up to speak, she said, “How many of you came on this trip to see rocks?!?”

When Jeet, the doctor, got up to speak, he told us, “I want you to wash your hands constantly. And when you aren’t washing your hands, I want you to be *thinking* about washing your hands.” There were hand sanitizer stations all over the ship as well.

They impressed upon us the fact that we would be 1000km from the nearest medical facility, and that even fairly minor medical issues could result in everyone’s trip being affected as the ship would have to sail to King George Island to evacuate by plane anyone who needed medical attention. Y’all, Antarctica is remote.

When Laurie, the historian, got up to speak, he didn’t even waste time telling us about himself. Instead he opened with a dramatic story about a sailor in Antarctica hearing ship calls in the middle of a foggy night, and realizing when the fog cleared in the morning that he was sitting between two warships. And then he said, “And if you want to know how that story ends, you’ll have to come to my talk tomorrow.”

Then we had a lifeboat drill, and then it was time for dinner.

Some photos leaving Ushuaia, sailing through the Beagle Channel. It takes a few hours to get out of the Beagle Channel. We were expected to hit open water around midnight.
And then at 9:30, we got our yellow Quark parkas. We had specified on a form ahead of time what size we thought we would need, but how it worked in reality was they set up stations in the lounge with each size that you could try on.
Once you decided which size you needed, you went to a designated station outside of the lounge and requested that size. They gave you one in the right size and marked you off the list. The parkas were ours to keep after the trip. They are very warm, completely waterproof, and have a zip-out fleece lining. (They are also very heavy and bulky.)

And that was the end of the first day. We were now sailing straight toward the Drake Passage, with just two days at sea between us and the seventh continent.