Days 10-12: Return to South America

These last three days get combined into one post, because now we’re just heading back to South America, and there’s nothing to prepare for, except the inevitable end of the trip. Having to cross the Drake again gives you a couple days to sort of decompress from the excitement of Antarctica and prepare mentally to reenter the civilized world.

On day 10, our first day back on the Drake, there was no wake up call. (Nowhere to be except on the ship!) Then there were a couple of presentations in the lounge—including one by Laurie who gave his account of skiing across the Arctic Ocean from Canada via the North Pole in 91 days. This guy is totally amazing, and I’m going to tell you even more amazing things about him soon. Jimmy talked about orcas; the geologist talked about weather systems in Antarctica.

There was a “wild west” themed party in the lounge that night. Some people got very creative with costumes.

On day 11, we were still on the Drake. This morning they had a couple more presentations, one of which was about the other polar trips Quark does. (Not a sales presentation at all…just one of the team leaders talking about all the cool stuff they do and see.) Jimmy talked about whales again (there is a lot to know about whales).

And then, Alex let us know that we were making really good time (it was, they said, the smoothest Drake crossing they’d had all season—I still took phenergan to be safe) and that had allowed us to cross quickly enough to be able to detour over to Cape Horn. This was historically one of the most dangerous routes to sail for ships, as they sailed around South America. Now they can avoid it by using the Panama Canal, so most people do not sail this route anymore other than for the challenge. (Several round-the-world races go this way, according to Wikipedia.)

We sailed within three miles of it.

It was still windy enough on deck to need the yellow parkas.

We turned in our rubber boots this day, placing them outside our cabins before lunch so they could be picked up.

That afternoon they showed another movie in the lounge—this one called “Around Cape Horn,” depicting the voyage of the Peking around the Horn in 1929. This guy actually shot video of the trip, and he narrates the video in this movie. And it is harrowing!!


Alex held a disembarkation briefing to explain the procedures, and we had our final recap. Then we were invited to a Captain’s Farewell Cocktails in the lounge that evening before dinner.

After cocktails, we all went into the dining room for the farewell dinner, where the entire crew of kitchen staff came out and paraded around the room clapping and cheering, and then were introduced to us so we could recognize them for all of their hard work. They really did an incredible job.

We crossed the Drake so quickly we were going to arrive early, so first they said we would anchor for the night outside the Beagle Channel and sail in to Ushuaia in the early morning, but then they told us that they wanted to do some maintenance work on the ship and that having it in one place for 12 whole hours was a luxury they didn’t often get, so we would go ahead and sail into Ushuaia that evening.

I was already in bed nearly asleep when we dropped anchor…I think it was probably around 11pm. It was weird to not feel the engines running!

In the morning (day 12), we were to place our checked luggage in the hallway to be picked up and taken off the ship. We ate our last breakfast in the dining room, and then it was time to say goodbye.

Some people were going directly to the airport, and some of us were going to local hotels. Allen was flying home that morning, and they called the airport people first, so we said goodbye outside the cabin, and he left for the shuttle to the airport. Jeff & I went upstairs and sat in the lounge to wait to be called.

I had heard of people rolling their parkas up into basketballs, so this is what we did with ours, too. It was not easy to get them stuffed up this small! These also got us a lot of weird looks and questions from customs officials. (“What are those yellow things??”)

When they called us, we picked up our passports at reception and headed out.
Once on the pier, we had to ID our luggage to be put onto a shuttle. (Remember how we had to arrive on the pier by shuttle? Same for departure.) The shuttle dropped us off at a taxi stand a block from the pier.

We had a hotel only a couple blocks away, so we walked up to it, only to find two other passengers from our trip arriving at the same time as us for the same hotel.

The hotel had an amazing fourth floor deck where we could hang out and use the wifi. It was around 8:30 in the morning when we got there. The four of us set up shop with our laptops and iPads and phones and started reconnecting with the world. We had gorgeous views, snacks, and internet. It was from here that I finally began to post photos to Facebook, which I had been dying to do.

We left the hotel deck and wandered around town for a while around lunchtime, eating at a little deli we came across. We spent more time on the deck in the afternoon, when I spotted this large cruise ship that had come in. It dwarfs the smaller ships!

Ushuaia is hilly.



Ushuaia at dusk

The next morning we took a cab to the airport, where we ran into several other people from our ship, all on the same flight to Buenos Aires we were on. In BA, we all parted ways as we headed off to various cities and countries around the world.

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!