Audrey Writes Day 3 - March 1

Cheli gave the wake up call over the loudspeaker the next morning, March 1st, to inform us that the Ocean Endeavour was travelling through Lemaire Channel, and that if we weren't out on deck right now, then we should be. Ekke went up to the top deck at the front and stood there for ages, watching as the ship broke through the ice. It was cold, so I joined him a bit later, cozy in my yellow parka. The bow of the boat, usually closed to passengers, was opened up and offered more beautiful views with icebergs and glaciers all around. Just as we were going into a narrow part of the channel, people started pointing and getting excited. We looked and saw a wall of snow and ice falling into the sea about 500 metres in front of the ship - avalanche! So the ship slowed down and waited for the waves, caused by the falling ice chunks, to subside, before continuing through the channel. Some minke whales swam by in the distance, a magical sight in picturesque Lemaire Channel.

Entering the Lemaire Channel at dawn

Avalanche!


After breakfast the Zodiacs cruised out to an iceberg graveyard, Iceberg Alley, a bay where icebergs would get stuck for years. The shapes and colours were stunning, deep blues and greens when the sun hit them just right. Fellow passengers on kayaks and paddleboards could be seen enjoying the calm waters and bright sunshine while paddling about among the bobbing icebergs. After a wet landing on Peterman Island, the furthest south that we would reach on the cruise, we hiked over to a group of gentoo penguins who again displayed their playful penguin antics such as waddling, pecking and chasing. One of the ornithologists, Jim, pointed out a new species of penguin to us, a lone Adelie penguin, identifiable by the white circles around its eyes. It was great to finally see a different species of penguin after seeing thousands of gentoos. Jonathan Shackleton was also there on the pathway, and he warned us about the fur seals and how they could suddenly turn aggressive, so to give them a wide berth. They were really playful, and we watched as a couple of younger ones wrestled enthusiastically. Jonathan also pointed out Shackleton Mountain, named after the famous explorer, who was also his cousin, so I asked if I could take his photo with the mountain. Further along, another guide, Noah, warned us of a precarious cornice overhang of snow and sent us around it. Ekke stayed and chatted with Noah, watching a drone, brought with prior permission by a couple of passengers, fly around the island, taking videos. I walked up to a viewpoint, and it was so warm that people had shed their parkas and sweaters, with one fellow posing for photos with his shirt off. Global warming?

Passing by a penguin colony on the way to Iceberg Alley

Zodiac cruising through Iceberg Alley

Kayaking was an activity offered on the cruise, doesn't it look wonderful?


A gentoo penguin almost finished moulting

Sleepy fur seal

I'm not sure that the Antarctic is the place to learn standup paddelboarding

An Adelie penguin on Peterman Island

Jonathan Shackleton poses with Shackleton Mountain, named after his cousin Ernest

Audrey climbs further as Ekke stands with Noah, warning people not to approach the cornice

Wrestling fur seals


It was our lucky day for the Zodiac cruise that afternoon around Pléneau Island as we had Cheli, the Quark expedition leader, as our guide. Her commentary was always colourful, and combined with her New Zealand accent and great sense of humour, it made for a wonderful 2 1/2 hour cruise. Some crabeater seals were lounging on icebergs and then put on quite a show for us, slithering off the ice and climbing back on again. They bobbed and weaved around the Zodiacs, their heads popping up on one side or the other, looking like they were having fun entertaining us. We cruised into a little bay, weaving our way between icebergs and Cheli pointed out the letter 'F' for 'Francais', the name of a ship, carved into a rock. Further around the little cove we were treated to quite a spectacle when penguin after penguin porpoised through the water. It was unbelievable how high they leapt, and one by one they jumped out and up onto the rocky shore, waddling away. They looked way more elegant and graceful moving through the water than they did on the beach. Cheli gave us a special challenge: Who could spot the lone chinstrap penguin in the group of gentoos? Ekke did, and took some great photos. Cheli said that the gentoos were so numerous that they were like the 'rats' of Antarctica and were adapting to climate change, taking over other, less adaptable species' habitat.

Cruising around Pléneau Island


A crabeater seal takes a break

Closeup of a seal's paw


Playtime!

Crew from the ship "Francais" were here

Lots and lots of penguins

The penguins would gracefully glide through the water and then jump up on shore to waddle up the island

A lone chinstrap penguin among the thousands of gentoos

A raft (!) of penguins porpoising through the water

More playtime

Dinner that night was a barbeque on the deck with several varieties of meat, corn-on-the-cob, and beautiful glaciers in all directions. My Zinfandel wine kept naturally chilled in the cool Antarctic air as we just sat and took in the beauty all around us. Later, Jonathan Shackleton gave a talk about how he had been interviewed by an IMAX film company regarding the life of his cousin, Ernest Shackleton. A film about those adventures, 'Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure' was the result, which we got to watch, complete with popcorn. What a story: Shackleton's ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice on a trans-Antarctic expedition in 1914. Through his amazing leadership skills, he managed to keep his crew's morale up when the ship was trapped in the ice for 400 days and was eventually crushed by the sea ice. After floating on an ice floe, he eventually had his crew head out in the lifeboats on open water, finding Elephant Island where the only food sources were penguins and seals. Shackleton reinforced one boat with a roof and 6 of them sailed to South Georgia Island, 800 kilometres away. Because of a huge storm they could only land on the southern shore, and their boat was wrecked in the process. They walked for 3 days over glaciers and mountains to a whaling station, and, eventually, the rest of his crew was rescued. Amazing story.

Dinner with the most amazing view

YouTube video for Day 3 has a sunrise cruise through the Lemaire Channel, playful seals and penguins and cruising through Iceberg Alley.  Click here to see the video.


Ekke Writes Day 4 - March 2

Even though our Leopard group was up first for boarding the Zodiacs to tour around Cierva Cove we didn't need a wake up call since the cruise started at 9:00. Plenty of time to fill up at the breakfast buffet then. After getting our gear on (I will probably figure out how to put on the life vest on without assistance on the last day) we lined up to board the Zodiac. There were a few special groups on board including a tour group from India and one from Poland. The Polish group was in the Leopard group and we got to share a boat with them this time around. That of course meant extra work for Miko (one of the marine biologists on board) who had to explain things in two languages. It is difficult to describe the incredible natural beauty of the Antarctic and photos (ours anyway) don't do it justice. Cierva Cove was another one of those locations where the bright blue sky played to the advantage of the scenery. Whether it was the blue seemingly to glow from an iceberg or a bright white glacier glistening in the sun, Cierva Cove had it all. We were also treated to minke whales, sleeping humpback whales (they look like logs in the water), chinstrap penguins, a view of the Argentinian Primavera base and something rather a bit more rare. Grass. Miko found a rocky cliff face that had sprouted both of the two types of grass that grow in the Antarctic. With climate change it is expected that grass will become more common and in fact we are already seeing more grass than ever before.  

Enjoying the view of Cierva Cove before heading out in the Zodiacs


Out in the Zodiacs we were treated to spectacular whale sightings



Cute chinstrap penguin

A waddle of chinstrap penguins

An increasingly less rare sight in the Antarctic; grass


Argentinian Primavera Base


A humpback whale "logging" or sleeping

Back on the ship after our Zodiac cruise it was announced that the Polar Plunge would be happening this afternoon. This is where passengers willingly jump into the frigid Antarctic waters. Umm, voluntarily right? Fortunately for us there was a pool on board that was filled with sea water and heated. That sounded much more palatable if not as adventurous. We changed into swimming costumes, slipped into our robes and had a great dip in the pool. It was actually warmer than the pools we had been in recently. Followed by a few minutes in the sauna I suspect we were rather warmer than the Polar Plunge participants. Watching the plungers made for great fun though, especially the gasps as the jumpers hit the water.

Audrey looks ready for the Polar Plunge

The heated pool on board probably doesn't qualify us for the Polar Plunge certificates...

Our cabin neighbour and fellow Antarctic Cruises customer takes the Plunge

I doubt the Polar Plungers enjoyed the view

A raft of penguins swimming by the ship

To move faster they porpoise gracefully through the water

Thar she blows!

In the afternoon we sailed to Spert Island and boarded the Zodiacs once again to explore this amazing geological formation. This time we had Hadleigh (second in command of the expedition) as a guide and shared a boat with a French group who had extensive photo and video equipment. The deep canyons cut into the basalt were fun to explore in the Zodiacs though one had to watch the currents. As we were cutting through the island and around to the other side Hadleigh spotted a couple of leopard seals out of the corner of his eye and we went to investigate. The seals were relaxing on an ice floe and seemed tame enough. Though when a snowy sheathbill bird started walking around on the ice floe, right in front of these large carnivores with their sharp teeth, we didn't think that looked like a very good idea. The snowy sheathbill must have known better though as no harm came to it.

Spert Island seen from the Ocean Endeavour as we approach

Cruising the canyons of Spert Island in the Zodiacs


Entering the "Washing Machine", fortunately set on delicate cycle


Simply stunning

Must be a chinstrap penguin out all by itself

Looks like a pretty brave snowy sheathbill walking in front of a leopard seal




Ekke looks ready for a hot chocolate

The Ocean Endeavour started sailing north after we came back on board. Lots of people were out on deck, including a few of the expedition crew who helped us identify whales and birds. At 21:15 Noah, one of two ornithologists on board, gave an inspirational talk and slideshow on "The World's Biggest Year". He had taken a year off (why does that sound familiar?) to try and set a birdwatching record; the greatest number of species of birds spotted in a single year. He travelled around the world, visiting 41 countries and hooking up with birders, recording every species of bird he saw or heard. He spotted an amazing, world record 6,042 bird species but the stories that went with the world record attempt were the highlight of the show. At least to us non-birders.

Humpback whale off the stern on the port side

This snow petrel kept circling the Ocean Endeavour, entertaining us and Jimmy the ornithologist

A few penguins on the lower left of the iceberg

A rookery of penguins takes over this iceberg

YouTube video of Day 4 has sleeping whales, a chinstrap takes the plunge, we take a plunge, others taking the Polar Plunge and a ride through a washing machine.  Click here to watch it.


Audrey Writes Day 5 - March 3

The Ocean Endeavour cruised to Deception Island the next morning, March 3rd, the captain navigating through narrow Neptune's Bellows to Whaler's Bay. The island is one big volcanic caldera, filled with sea water with a break in the land wide enough for The Ocean Endeavour to sail through. Our Zodiac cruise took us out the narrow straight and around the outside of the island. As we looked up at Neptune's Window lookout, we spied a lone penguin sitting high on a cliff, moulting - it's amazing how high the penguins can climb. A helicopter flew by and there was a huge ruckus as hundreds of chinstrap penguins scrambled up a hill, alarmed at the noise. As the Zodiac cruised by the beach, we saw a new species of seal that we had not yet seen - elephant seals. The males of the species were absolutely enormous, yellowish-brown in colour, with a number of females all around, their harem. What an interesting-looking bunch, their distinctive long, curved snout resembling a - you guessed it - elephant's trunk.

Entering Deception Island through Neptune's Bellows can only be done in good weather

Out for a Zodiac cruise around Deception Island

Neptune's Window from the Zodiac

These poor penguins seemed terrified by a helicopter flying by

Elephant seals

A walk on the beach was more like a slog as it was covered with thick, black volcanic silt. Staying close to the water's edge gave us a bit more grip, but we had to watch that we didn't step on tiny jellyfish that had washed up onto the beach. We also gave the potentially aggressive fur seals a wide berth as they climbed up out of the water and playfully wrestled their way up the beach, oblivious to us strangers in yellow parkas. A steep hike up to Neptune's Window lookout afforded views of the volcanic caldera with three small volcanoes on one side and the Zodiacs cruising in the bay down below on the other. Remnants of the former 1900s Norwegian whaling station were everywhere, including whale bones which were, back in the day, processed by being crushed, the oil extracted by centrifugal force. Old metal buildings and rusting ship hulls also remained, and Jonathan Shackleton showed us photos of the former whaling station and British survey base that was abandoned when there was a volcanic eruption in 1967.

Walking on Deception Island through deep volcanic gravel

Interesting animal life washed up on shore

A seal relaxes on the remnants of a whaling boat

The Ocean Endeavour inside the semicircular Deception Island

???

Fur seals playing off shore

The eerie remnants of the whaling operations

After lunch, our afternoon excursion to Half Moon Island started with a walk up some rocky slopes, past some beautiful glaciers lit up by the spectacular sunshine. On our guide's walkie-talkie we had heard someone excitedly reporting that 'Kevin' had been spotted further up on the cliffs, and we wondered who Kevin was. It turns out that living among a colony of thousands of chinstrap penguins was a single macaroni penguin, christened with the name, 'Kevin' by the staff. We walked in the direction of a crowd of people that had formed on the hill, past some lazy Weddell seals to where they were gathered, all trying to get a glimpse of the special penguin. Jim, an ornithologist, gave instructions as to how to find Kevin, in his hilarious Irish brogue. He gave me some binoculars and eventually I saw the distinctive yellow tufts of feathers of the crested macaroni penguin sticking up among all the penguin heads. I officially declared it the cutest penguin species of them all. And the superzoom camera came in handy once again.

A different carving every day on the buffet

Hiking on Half Moon Island

Where's Kevin?

There he is!  The lone macaroni penguin amidst the chinstraps


On the hike back to the beach we got to experience another of those 'National Geographic' moments. A group of fellow passengers was looking up and pointing at something interesting going on up the rocky slope, and when we looked in that direction we saw some movement and realized it was a giant skua bird eating something. The word 'eating' is really an understatement as it was literally tearing apart another feathered creature with its beak and claws. There was no mistaking the black and white feathers of the prey, the body partway through the moulting process - it was a small chinstrap penguin. I didn't realize that penguins had such an enemy as the skua. Some baby skuas nearby had a good feast that day.

A skua takes down a penguin

Our Zodiac cruise with our guide, Franny, took us around Half Moon Island. On the walkie-talkie we heard that a leopard seal had been spotted here earlier, and, right on cue, a leopard seal swam by. The boat cruised by some huge glaciers including one shaped like a turtle's head, that was so precariously perched that it looked like it could calve off at any moment. We waited for a while, but there was no glacial calving to be seen. Further along we watched leopard seals sprawled out on the beach, resembling big slugs. One seal slithered off the beach and swam toward the Zodiac. I wondered how close it would get, so I filmed it, surprised that it got closer and closer, and at the last second it dove under the boat and out the other side. What a fantastic finale to the last Zodiac cruise of our trip, capped off with another amazing sunset that evening.

Cruising around Half Moon Island with Franny


As we cruise in the Zodiacs the next group tries to spot Kevin


That just looks so ready to fall into the water, but not while we were there

A leopard seal comes to investigate us

Krissy, wearing the penguin toque, must be worried that the leopard seal could make a mistake...

Oh, not another bunch of tourists...

Sunsets last forever in the Antarctic

The Day 5 YouTube video has Nepune's Bellows, a walk on Deception Island and a playful seal.  Click here to watch the video.

Ekke Writes Return across the Drake Passage

Turning north we crossed the 55th parallel, the zone where the colder Antarctic Circumpolar current mixes with the warmer waters to the north. To most people's relief the seas were much calmer on the return journey with swells of only two metres. This allowed us to at least pay attention to the onboard lectures. Lectures included the biology of whales, the human impacts of environmental change and the fascinating race to the south pole by onboard historian John. A charity auction in support of protecting the Antarctic showed that there were definitely some wealthy people on board. An evening presentation by fellow passenger and adventurer Mandip Singh Soin entitled "Tales of an Explorer: First Ascents in the Himalayas & Resisting the Thaw" was absolutely fascinating.  

Foglights pierce the darkness as we cross the Drake Passage northbound

The second day across the Drake Passage was similarly calm and by mid-morning Cape Horn was visible, along with shipping traffic. We didn't feel as isolated any more. There were a few more presentations but undoubtedly the highlight was "Shackleton: A Feckless Irishman Nearly Reaches the South Pole" presented by Ernest Shackleton's cousin Jonathan. To have Jonathan tell the story from a personal, family perspective really brought it to life. We entered the Beagle Channel that evening where we had the farewell dinner, exchanging information with our fellow adventurers, promising to stay in contact. In the morning we would wake up, back in Ushuaia and this most amazing voyage would be over. Certainly this was one of the most fantastic adventures we have ever done.

Land ho!  Cape Horn

It feels a little less isolated now that we are in the regular shipping lanes

The happy adventurers

Everyone is on deck for Cape Horn

The sculpture is a negative image of a petrel

Back in Ushuaia and our luggage is lined up on the dock