Day 4, evening: The Lemaire Channel

It is STILL our first day actually in Antarctica, and we’re not done yet. Around 9pm, we were approaching the Lemaire Channel, a narrow channel that’s 7 miles long and a little less than a mile wide at its narrowest point.
Everyone was outside on the decks, cameras in hand, as we approached the entrance. The entrance is between those two mountains in the photo below.
It was sailing through here that we saw a huge chunk of glacier calve, falling into the water.
At some point, the Quark team brought out hot chocolate with Bailey’s for everyone, but I didn’t get any photos of that.
And then the most incredible part–a minke whale breaching, which, according to Jimmy the whale guy, is extremely rare.
And then he did it a second time!
Icebergs were like clouds, in that you could always see shapes & objects in them. I thought this one looked like a soft-serve ice cream cone.
It took about an hour or so to sail the whole length of the channel, and by the end the light was fading.
Around 10pm I went inside the ship and spent some time downloading my memory cards from the day. I couldn’t believe that we’d been there just one day so far…we’d already done and seen so much. It felt like much longer. (And I was, by the way, really, really tired.) Totally epic first day.

Next up in the morning…crossing the Antarctic Circle.

Day 4, afternoon: Two landings in one

For the afternoon landings, we had another choice to make. We could do a landing at Port Lockroy only, a landing at both Damoy Point and Port Lockroy, or a landing with a long hike at Damoy Point, followed by a shorter visit to Port Lockroy. The two sites are right next to each other. Port Lockroy is on a very small island–it includes a gift shop, a small museum, and a post office. Because it’s so small, they had to control the crowds so all 100+ of us weren’t there at the same time.


My uncle (looking up and waving here) headed out on a zodiac.


Jeff in his gear for our zodiac ride. The blue life vest apparently inflates automatically upon hitting the water. We never saw this in action, luckily.

The afternoon started out very foggy. Jeff & I had chosen to do the hike at Damoy Point, so we started there.
A fur seal was hanging out near our landing point.
It started to clear up a little as we got to the top of the glacier we were hiking on.


This is Tom, who takes even more pictures than I do.

The fog started to lift just in time for everyone to take photos before starting back down.
You can see the line of yellow penguins at Port Lockroy…they are non-native but still pretty interesting. This is looking down from the glacier on Damoy Point.
I took a picture of white.
Back at the bottom of the glacier was an old hut that was built in 1973 but hasn’t been used since 1993. It still contains scientific equipment and various artifacts.
Back outside I came across this egg as I hiked back toward the landing site.
A penguin headed toward our path.
But instead of crossing the path, he turned and started to hike with us!
By the time I got back to the zodiac boarding site, there was actual blue sky showing.
We were then ferried by zodiac over to Port Lockroy.
Remember the rule about staying at least 5 meters away from penguins? This island is so small and there are so many penguins that it’s not possible to do that here. But there are footpaths from the landing spot up to the building, so you pretty much just stay on those and try not to disturb any penguins too much.
The museum, gift shop, and post office are inside this building.
Mailing a letter at the post office. It takes 6-8 weeks for them to arrive.

You can also get your passport stamped here. It’s just for fun, of course, since Antarctica is not a country, but who doesn’t want a penguin in their passport?? Since Quark was holding our passports, they handled having them stamped for us. (And they’d provided a signup sheet where you could indicate if you did not want yours stamped.)
Leave your bag on the path, it gets snuggled by a penguin chick.
And then it was time to get back on the zodiac and head back to the ship.

It was nearly 7pm by the time we got back to the ship, and the day wasn’t over. We still had the re-cap, dinner, and sailing through the Lemaire Channel on tap for the night.

Camera gear

This is as good a time as any to talk about the camera gear that I brought with me. Taking photos is a huge part of my enjoyment of an experience and one of the things I most looked forward to about this trip.

So here’s what I brought with me and how I used it.

Nikon D750
Nikon D600
16-35mm f/4.0
35mm f/1.4
24-70mm f/2.8
80-400mm f/4.5-5.6
Fuji x100s

spare batteries
rain covers
dry bags
polarizing filter
SD cards
Macbook Air
2x portable hard drives
microfiber lens cleaning cloths
2x Black Rapid straps

This setup worked pretty well. For landings, I put the long lens on one and used a wide-angle on the other one. I switched it up between the super-wide and the 24-70mm for the wide one. The 35mm f/1.4 (which is one of my most used lenses, generally) I used only inside the ship, and before and after the trip.

To carry them to land, I put each camera + lens combo inside a dry bag, then put the dry bags in my backpack. I wore my two camera straps (which are cross-body straps) over my parka, then put on my lifejacket, then my backpack. On the zodiacs, you had to remove your backpack and keep it at your feet. Once on land, I’d take the cameras out of the dry bags and hook them onto my straps, and I was ready to shoot.

Me wearing two cameras in antarctica

Me wearing two cameras on Carvajal. You can see one camera and two straps; the second camera was being used to take the photo.

What I would do differently: I wish I’d brought a small waterproof point-and-shoot camera. (I was looking at the Nikon 1 AW1 before we left, but didn’t buy it.) Partly for taking pics on the zodiacs–where you were very likely to get spray or even full on splashes except on the very specific zodiac cruises, where you were moving slower and the whole point was to take photos. But for going to/from shore, we sometimes went through some amazing ice, and I generally didn’t want to risk getting the camera wet. (I did take it out a couple of times, but I also got completely drenched one day from behind–not while I had a camera out–and I was like, well, I guess that’s why you wear waterproof clothes! The splash hit me and went over my head onto the people across from me. So mostly it was too risky, I felt.) (Someone asked Alex, the expedition leader, before our first landing, “How waterproof do our backpacks need to be?” and he said, “As far as I’m concerned, it either IS or it ISN’T waterproof.” LOL.)

Also I wish I’d had a waterproof camera just for taking photos of immediately before/after loading and unloading. Because I like to document everything. And I did manage to get some photos of these moments a couple of times, but it would’ve been easier if I’d had a little camera that I could just slip into a pocket and not have to worry about keeping dry. (Because my Nikons were each in their own dry bag inside my backpack for zodiac rides, and the loading area was too small and cramped and things happened too fast to try to shoot and then put it away before it was my turn to load.)

I wiped them down with a damp washcloth several times, because they did both get a lot of spray at a few points. I had plastic rain covers for them, which worked ok. I used them in snow/light rain and during the hurricane when I was shooting on deck even though I could barely remain standing up.

I always had spare batteries in an inside fleece pocket (to keep them warm) but I never had any problems with cold draining the batteries. Probably b/c it wasn’t actually that cold.

I expected to see lots of amazing camera gear on this trip, but amazingly, only a few other people had DSLRs with pro lenses. People joked about the fact that I carried two cameras. And the first time I busted out the 80-400mm, as we sailed through the Beagle Channel out of Ushuaia, someone joked, “She wants to be the first one to photograph Antarctica.” HA!

But I’ll also say that you didn’t need DSLRs and pro lenses to get amazing photos. Sometimes I looked at the awesome photos people were getting from their tiny p&s cameras and I was like, “Why am I lugging all this around again??” But all in all I was happy with my setup.

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!!!

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