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 5: Zodiac cruise

After we had sailed south of the circle, we were hoping to do a landing at Detaille Island, but there turned out to be too much ice to reach it. So instead, we dropped anchor near there in Crystal Sound and did some scenic cruising in the zodiacs after brunch.

We spent about an hour and a half cruising around among the ice and the wildlife. The weather was perfect, with blue skies and very little wind.
Inside the zodiac. Adrian the bird expert was driving it, and you can see his camera is out and sitting on his bag next to him. That’s how I knew it was safe to get out my camera.
Arches in the ice look really cool, but they aren’t safe to sail under because they could collapse at any time.
Quark had hired this French videographer, Hugo, to record some promo videos during our expedition. By the end of the trip, he had already put together a first cut of his video, and they showed it to us on the last night. It was awesome! It will eventually be online.
He got to go out in his own zodiac to get the footage he wanted.


Our ship and some other zodiacs in the distance



Fur seal, looking to me a lot like a wet rat



Crabeater seals, which aren’t found much farther north than this

Whales will come up to pieces of ice like this and try to knock the seal (or seals) off by diving under one edge of the ice and coming up to rock it. We didn’t witness this on this trip, but the guides told us they’d seen a group of whales work together for quite a while to rock a seal off the ice. (And sometimes the seal still manages to get away.)


Cauliflower iceberg?

We were able to get pretty close in our zodiacs…I shot these seals with my 24-70mm lens, not the long telephoto.
Approaching the ship at the end of the zodiac cruise. You can see the zodiac ahead of us unloading.
We’d been hoping to sail through a very narrow channel called the Gullet that afternoon. Alex had told us the night before that they’d been unable to see the area from the satellite photos from the past week because it had been cloudy, so they weren’t sure how much ice there was. He’d warned that there was a good chance that it would be choked with ice and we wouldn’t be able to get through, but we were going to try anyway.

And as it turned out, once we got there, there was, in fact, too much ice. We were still heading further south, but now we had to go out and around some islands, so we did not have an afternoon landing this day while we were repositioning.

When he made this announcement over the PA system, I was a little relieved, actually, because I was so freaking exhausted; I just wanted a nap. (But I didn’t want to miss anything! It was so hard to decide to sleep!) We had a light lunch at 2 in the afternoon, and then I headed to my cabin to sleep. Allen was in there resting, too, and as I stripped down to just one layer of long underwear, I said to him, “Since I’m taking all this off, something exciting is bound to happen outside.” Sure enough, about a minute after I’d crawled under the covers, Alex came over the PA system to announce that we were about to pass by a particularly impressive iceberg that we would not want to miss, and in fact the captain was going to circle around it 360 degrees so we could get the best possible views. I said, “I KNEW IT!” But I stayed in bed. I hated to miss it but I was so, so tired.

I basically slept the rest of the night. I woke up and went to dinner but after dinner I went right back to bed and slept until the morning wake-up call. I don’t know what was happening on the rest of the ship, but I needed that sleep.

The next day…the farthest point south we would go. But first…I think I’ll write about how the zodiacs worked.

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 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!!!

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.