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.

Our Antarctic itinerary

I want to start with an overview that hits the highlights of the trip, so here is where we went and a little bit about each place.


We set sail on a Monday night, sailing out of Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America. It takes two full days to cross the Drake, so we weren’t expected to reach Antarctica until Thursday morning.
We spent the time on the Drake going to lectures–on history, wildlife, the ice–and preparing for our landings by learning zodiac loading procedures, doing bio-security checks (vacuuming off all outerwear and backpacks that we would be taking onto land), and getting our parkas and waterproof boots.

We also had our first sightings of icebergs and wildlife. In fact we sailed right into a feeding frenzy, with whales and seals and penguins everywhere around us, chasing each other.


The first iceberg!

six orcas next to our boat in antarctica

I count at least six orcas in this image.

And then sometime overnight after the second full day at sea, we reached the Antarctic peninsula and anchored in spot to await our first landing.


First landing! I walked out onto deck before breakfast to this:
This was the first time I cried. I don’t want to be dramatic about this, but, you guys, I was seriously overwhelmed with how amazing it all was.

There was a large gentoo penguin rookery here, with lots of chicks and lots of molting penguins. (They lose all their feathers and grow new ones, and during this time they cannot go into water to get food, so they sit in one spot to conserve energy. It takes about two weeks to complete the molting process.)


These two sites are right next to each other, so we were ferried between them on zodiac without having to return to the ship in between. On Damoy Point we hiked up a glacier. Just as we reached the top, the clouds parted and the sun came out and we had blue skies!

penguin hikes with us in antarctica

A penguin joined us on our hike.

This is Port Lockroy as seen from Damoy Point. This is where there’s a gift shop, museum, and post office. I mailed some postcards from here that may get here in a month or two.
At Port Lockroy, penguins were everywhere, and the chicks were especially curious about us.


After dinner, we sailed through this ridiculously scenic narrow channel. The ice was right there!
And as if the scenery weren’t enough, a minke whale came out to play!
Seriously, what a first day.


At about 8:45am this morning, we crossed the circle. We were all out on deck to celebrate as they counted down the approach. “Fifteen minutes to crossing!” “Five minutes!” “One minute!” And then they counted down 10…9…8…. And, you guys, I cried again.
The moment that we crossed the circle, the captain blew the ship’s horn and everyone cheered.
Then there was a circle crossing ceremony that involved the staff in costume, all except for Alex, the expedition leader, who is seen here kneeling before them. He had sea water poured over his head, he had to kiss a (stuffed animal) krill, and then he had penguin poop (face paint) smeared on his forehead. After this, they invited all of us to participate, too.


We were unable to do the landing they had hoped to do this day, because we couldn’t reach it through all the ice. So instead we did some scenic cruising in zodiacs. The ice was incredible, the skies were blue, and the zodiacs allowed us to get up pretty close to wildlife.

A bunch of crabeater seals on iceberg in Antarctica

Crabeater seals, which don’t actually eat crabs. They eat krill, just like everything else in Antarctica.


Our ship, the Sea Adventurer, in the distance


The site of an old British research station, the ice was incredible here. We were far enough south (still south of the circle at this point) that there weren’t many penguins (only two that we spotted this morning) but there were lots of seals. I mostly couldn’t get over the blue of the ice.


This was, we believed, an abandoned base, but when the Quark team pulled up in their zodiac to scout out the landing site, they discovered a group of Chileans living there. No one had occupied this base in 14 years. The Chileans were surprised to see us but were very welcoming. They were there to do repairs to the base and get it ready to be used as a research station again. They had been there since November and we were the first people to stop there. Quark gave them a couple crates full of fresh produce, which they hadn’t had since November.

Here we saw dozens (maybe hundreds) of fur seals, as well as some elephant seals.
You can see how elephant seals got their name. These weren’t even full-grown adult seals. They will still probably double in size. What.

That night after dinner we sailed right into an Antarctic hurricane, which turned out to be way rougher than our Drake crossings.
I didn’t even get photos of the biggest waves, because I was trying to protect my camera when those hit.


We spent most of this day repositioning further north. Ice slowed us down so we weren’t able to make the afternoon landing they’d been hoping for, but after dinner we landed at Petermann Island.
Mostly we saw gentoo penguins (the ones with the white earmuffs and orange beaks, on the right) but there were a few Adelies here (on the left, with the solid black heads). The Adelie penguin might be my favorite, because they look so striking with their bright blue eyes against the black.

penguin feeding its chick in antarctica

Penguins feed their young by eating krill and then regurgitating it into their chicks’ mouths. Mmmm.

Sea Adventurer anchored at Petermann Island

The Sea Adventurer

It was mostly cloudy while we were at Petermann Island, and just in the last few minutes before it was time to go back to the ship the light took on this beautiful glowing quality.


This was a split landing–half time on land, half time on a zodiac cruise.
I had no idea that penguins leap in and out of the water as they swim. We saw this many times on this trip.
These penguins are headed into the water. They like to enter the water in groups, in case there are predators waiting.
The zodiac cruise took us through a maze of icebergs. Do you see the waterfall coming off this one?

Double iceberg arch in Antarctica

Double arch! What does it mean??



As we headed here this afternoon, we came across a few humpback whales that swam around the bow of our ship for a while.
They were right there.

Then we dropped anchor at Useful Island, the site the team had chosen for our polar plunge.
This was our view from the ship as we leaped from the ship into the icy Antarctic waters.


Our one and only continental landing! (As opposed to islands.) We had tried for two other landings on the actual continent but those had fallen through because of ice/weather. Third and final attempt was a success! It was mostly cloudy but we still had some amazing light as the sun dropped lower in the sky.


Sailing into the caldera of an active volcano! The two sites we visited at Deception Island were completely different than anywhere else we went. They are still ice, but covered in volcanic ash.
First we sailed through the narrow entrance to the caldera, called Neptune’s Bellows, which is only 750 feet wide and tricky to navigate.

Our first landing here was at the site of an Argentinian base.
We did a hike up to the top of a glacier, where we hoped to be able to look down to a rookery of over 50,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins. However, it was very foggy, and our visibility was eventually reduced to near zero, so we were unable to see the penguins.


During lunch, we repositioned to the other side of the caldera, and then had our last landing of the trip. Here we were able to hike to the rim of some craters, which were pretty impressive.
And then as we were headed back to the beach to board the zodiacs and go back to the ship, two chinstrap penguins swam up out of the water and hopped onto the beach.
They were very curious about us, and even when we would move away, they would waddle closer and walk among us. It was a very exciting end to the last landing.


And then we were sailing back toward South America. Two more days at sea, filled with more lectures and lots of chances to talk and share photos with each other. We had a very smooth crossing and made such good time we had time to detour past Cape Horn.


And then we were back, and our incredible adventure to the bottom of the world came to an end. A truly amazing trip.

How this is going to work

iceberg in antarcticaMy plan is to start by posting an overview of the whole trip, and then I’ll begin writing more detailed posts about each day after that. I’m also working on a gallery of some of my favorite images that will be separate from any blog posts.

Here’s the extremely brief summary.

We spent two days sailing the Drake to reach Antarctica. I felt a little queasy the first morning, popped a phenergan that took about 45 minutes to kick in, and I felt totally fine once it did. SO GLAD for the phenergan.

We spent six days doing landings. We made ten landings in those six days. The goal was at least two landings per day, and one day we had three scheduled, but everything is dependent on the weather and the ice, and several times Antarctica changed our plans for us. I cannot say enough good things about Quark and the expedition team. They are truly experts in their fields and they really run an amazing expedition. The times that we couldn’t do our scheduled landings, they found other things–different landing sites (in a more sheltered bay, for example, where the water wasn’t as rough) or zodiac cruises (when there was too much ice for us to reach our intended landing that afternoon)–for us to do instead.

There were penguins. Seals. Whales. MORE whales. We sailed through a feeding frenzy one day, with a bunch of orcas chasing seals and penguins all around our ship. More penguins. Icebergs of every shape. They were like clouds–you could make out shapes and faces and animals and objects from them–and they were more shades of blue than you think look real.

One night we sailed through a hurricane. Our Drake crossings were relatively calm (for the Drake). The hurricane definitely rocked the boat more than the Drake did. Jeff got some GoPro footage before they requested people not go out on the decks. (Hahaha–most people were smart enough not to, but there were a handful of us out there with cameras.)

We sailed below the Antarctic Circle. (Debate: Do you call it “below” or “above”? I say below because it’s at the bottom of the world; I’d call it “above” the Arctic Circle. But Allen said “above” because the latitude is higher.) So, anyway, we CROSSED the Antarctic Circle. And then we kept going. We sailed farther south than any ship has gone this season. There is less wildlife that far south, and a lot more ice, so we couldn’t have gone much farther anyway. There was a little ceremony when we crossed the circle. I’ll write more about that later.

We did the polar plunge. (Well, 36 of us did.) The water was a balmy 3 degrees Celcius. Which Google tells me is 37 degrees F, which is about 9 degrees warmer than what we expected.

And then we spent two more days sailing back across the Drake. Smoothest crossing they’ve had this season, and we made such good time we got to detour past Cape Horn, which was an unexpected bonus.

Random observations:

I felt like we spent a lot of time putting on and taking off clothes on this trip. It truly is not as cold as you think (everyone said this and I was like, how can that be when everyone’s in all these clothes? and yet now I’m saying it too), but there is wind, and the weather can change fast, so you have to be prepared for anything. We always took extra clothes on land with us in our backpacks, but we never ended up needing them. I brought more layers than I needed. But you need the wind & waterproof stuff even outside on deck, but of course inside the ship it’s plenty warm so you don’t need all the heavy clothes. So, lots of on and off and back on.

The ship carried a little over 100 passengers, which seemed like a good size. It was enough people that you had plenty of people to socialize with and could easily find people you meshed with, and it was easy to befriend people because you were all in close contact fairly regularly. At the end of the trip they put together an email exchange list so we could all share emails with each other (if you wanted to…the majority of people participated) so we can keep in touch.

I’ll be back soon with a more detailed summary that includes each landing and photos.

I’m back!

Gentoo penguin who looks like he's hitchhiking

“The hitchhiker”

We are back, and it was amazing.

I do not even know where to begin. Words will never be able to do the trip–or the place–justice, but over the coming weeks, I’m going to try to convey something of what the experience was like for me. It may take me a few days (or weeks), because I have to wrap my head around how to get started sharing pictures and stories.

I’ll be back soon; in the meantime, if there are any specific things you want to hear about, let me know!

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