Monday, February 29, 2016

Antarctica - touching the bottom of the world

  
      While kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam we met a fellow traveler who told us about going to Ushuaia, Argentina where the cruise ships leave for Antarctica. With some flexibility to your schedule it was often possible to pick up a last minute cruise to the Ice Continent for a steep discount if they are leaving with empty cabins. With low expectations we arrived in Ushuaia to see what might happen. To our joy we found there were two expedition ships leaving that week that had discounted cabins. Sarah and Gabriel at Freestyle Adventure Travel helped go through the trips available leaving in the next week.  The discounts were not quite as much as we hoped since many other people have discovered this trick so the supply and demand is not as favorable as it used to be. The trip was going to be a budget breaker but after discussing it we decided that since the trips were only going to become more expensive as the years went by (or even travel to Antarctica banned) and since we were returning to jobs in July that this was the time to do it. When we found out that one of the expeditions was called “Base Camp Antarctica” and offered ski mountaineering, mountaineering, kayaking, and camping out on the ice we were 100% sold on going. The highlight was ski mountaineering, so we raced around Ushuaia and found a teli and AT ski set up for the week but then were told 2 days before the trip left that they had made a mistake and that the ski mountaineering was full. This was very disappointing but there was so many other cool things to do that this feeling did not last long.
MV Ortelius - former Russian scientific vessel
 
      Getting to Antarctica by water means crossing the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest areas of sea in the world. In between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is the narrowest part of this ocean where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic. This area south of Cape Horn is called the Drake Passage and is renowned for horrible weather and huge waves. This was not to be the case with us. The crew called it the “Drake Lake”. Some of the crew had never seen the Drake Passage that smooth and on the return trip it was even flatter. Some people on the ship still became queasy but nothing like would normally have happened on the “Drake Shake”.
Sunrise on the "Drake Lake"           
              
      From the minute we reached Antarctica amazing things started to happen. As we were going down the Gerlache Strait we were greeted by a large pod of Humpback whales. Spray shooting up from the blowholes and tails were flashing all around.
Blowholes!!!             
Humpback whale tail
 
That day we also visited our first penguin colony. There we discovered that penguins make people happy. Their adorable look and silly antics just makes people laugh and smile. So much so that we thought there should be penguin psychiatric therapy. Depression would be immediately cured when surrounded by a colony of penguins and their chicks.
Thousands of Gentoo Penguins
Kathleen wanted to keep it       
Super goofy on land                 
          
      Over the next 5 days there would be many other opportunities to watch (and smell) penguins and seals. There were snow shoe hikes up several small hills to get better views of the areas. It did not take much of an elevations gain to get spectacular vistas of the surrounding bays, mountains, and glaciers. With no trees or other familiar objects to judge size from made perspectives really difficult to perceive. Things always looked much closer or farther than they actually were. 
View from above Brown's Station
View from Stoney Point              
Another Stoney Point view         
View above Neko Harbour         
 
Antarctica can be a meditative place to be. We would find a quiet corner of a beach and sit there and just listen. It was very quiet but full of noise with the water lapping the shore with ice clinking together, the sound of air bubbles popping out of the brash ice like a giant bowl of Rice Crispies, and the occasional thunder boom of an avalanche, glacier calving, iceberg breaking up, or just the sound of the glaciers moving.
A good place to meditate         
 
The weather continued to be much better then could have ever been expected with bright sunshine and blue skies. It was so nice that for dinner on the second night there was a BBQ on the helicopter landing deck on the back of the ship. I have never had a BBQ as seals on icebergs floated by.
Outdooor BBQ on the heli-deck
 

      We were able to do activities we had never thought possible to do in Antarctica. We signed up for the advanced mountaineering group so we were able to climb on some 50 degree ice and cross a glacier while roped up to get up to a ridgeline overlooking a place called Jougla Point.
Ice climbing on Jougla Point    
 
We were able to kayak in the Melchior Islands with seals swimming around us and icebergs floating by.
Kayaking in Melchior Islands  
Views from the kayak              
           
We even camped a night on the ice in bivy sacks and warm sleeping bags. There is nothing like waking up with a penguin waddling by your head.
Sleeping on the snow             
 
      The magic even continued on the trip back to Argentina. In the middle of the Drake Passage at the convergence zone where the cold water of the Southern Ocean meets the warmer water of the Pacific/Atlantic interface it was decided that it was calm enough to put the zodiacs in the water and to go on a cruise. The Captain had never done this before since it was never that calm. Even with the water as flat as it was it still was a challenge to get into the zodiacs. The gangway would alternate between being knee deep in water and then seconds later it would be a 2+ foot drop to reach the zodiac. It seemed like a bit of a liability risk but the crew was very experienced and skilled so everyone that wanted to go was loaded safely. The swells were still big enough that the waves would block sight of the ship at times.
Even calm the swells were big
 
Amazingly enough the boats came across a couple of Emperor Penguins swimming in the middle of the ocean. One of them let us get very close while it bleated and cried out. It sounded stressed but if it had wanted to swim away it could have without any problem.
Emperor Penguin at convergence zone in Drake Passage
 
Since the ship made such good time across the Drake due to the calm conditions we were also able to sail to Cape Horn and were able to steam past it going from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. It is something I have always read and dreamed about but never thought I would go by it on the water. Another life dream unexpectedly filled.
Cape Horn from 3 miles away
 
      It was a week and a half of being in a dream world. It had been a dream to go to these places and once there it had a dream like feel to it. The air is so clear from the lack of pollution and the dry air that vast distances can be seen. The light, clouds, water, and ice is constantly changing in appearance.
A constantly changing view  
 
Every 15 minutes the view would be completely different even if you were sitting in the same place. The sound of the wind, water, ice, and penguins has a hypnotizing effect. Both of us along with multiple other people we talked to were brought to tears at times by the magic of the place. We have only been back in Ushuaia for half a day and we already want to go back.

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