Antarctica, the Last Continent (Day 3) – We Reach Antarctica

This was our 2nd day into the Drake Passage & there wasn’t much lined up in terms of activities. There was to be the issue of rubber boots some time around noon followed by mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) & Zodiac (rubber dinghies) operations briefings to prepare for our arrival at Antarctica later in the day. That was when the real action was anticipated to begin.

I had slept better this night & woke up by 5.35 am. Vlad had been talking all night in his sleep. I looked outside the window & noticed the sea & horizon visible in faint twilight. Giving in to the temptation to do some photography I got out of bed, put on a fleece & a cap & walk out into the galley. Standing next to the heavy steel exit door I could feel the cold outside. Taking a deep breath I stepped out into the Antarctican climate to face the onslaught of the wind onto my face & bare hands. Undeterred I continued my odyssey further to the topmost deck only to scurry back to the warm confines of the ship & my cabin within a minute to save my hands from certain frostbite! An early morning video though was in the bag 🙂

Breakfast was scheduled at 8 am. After doing a round of laundry & freshening up I reached the dining hall by 8.15 am. Got a chance to interact with new co-passengers thanks to the concept of free seating. It was both enriching & pleasantly surprising to find people of all ages, nationalities ( I was later informed that there were passengers from 18 countries on board!) & backgrounds, students, couples, singletons, pensioners mixing freely & looking forward to this great adventure!

Breakfast was followed by the issue of rubber boots (sizes had already been taken the previous day) & then lunch at 12 pm.

At around 1 pm I got a chance to visit the Bridge again.

The Ushuaia’s radarscope

The radarscope showed that we were steering a heading of almost 159 degrees & doing a speed of 11.6 knots (that’s about 21.5 kmph). It also showed our position about a latitude of 62.5 degrees south which meant that we were only 4 degrees or 240 nautical miles (about 450 kms) away from the Antarctic Circle at 66.5 degrees south! Wow. My aviator & naval friends would understand the calculations 🙂

There was still a little spare time to sneak back to my cabin for a quick nap when I noticed this funny phenomena.

At 3 pm everyone gathered in the lounge for the mandatory IATO briefings & the zodiac operations. Martin, one of the guides, introduced everyone to the fragile ecology of Antarctica trying to make everyone understand the strict do’s & don’ts while cruising & stepping onshore. We also learnt about the tectonic plate movements & formation of the Antarctican landmass over the course of the last million years or so. This was followed by the issue of life jackets & instructions on the safety drills.

We were headed towards the South Shetland Islands, just off the main Antarctican peninsula.

The South Shetland Islands are a group of Antarctic islands with a total area of 3,687 square kilometres (1,424 sq mi). They lie about 120 kilometres (75 mi) north of the Antarctic Peninsula, The islands were discovered by the British mariner William Smith in 1819.

By the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, the islands’ sovereignty is neither recognized nor disputed by the signatories and they are free for use by any signatory for non-military purposes.

The islands have been claimed by the United Kingdom since 1908 and as part of the British Antarctic Territory since 1962. They are also claimed by the governments of Chile (since 1940, as part of the Antártica Chilena province) and by Argentina (since 1943, as part of Argentine AntarcticaTierra del Fuego Province).

Several countries maintain research stations on the islands. Most of them are situated on King George Island, benefitting from the airfield of the Chilean base Eduardo Frei.

There are sixteen research stations to date in different parts of the islands, with Chilean stations being the greatest in number.

Map of South Shetland Islands

Within this group our destination was a tiny island named ‘Half Moon’ which lay in the Mc Farlane Strait next to the bigger Livingston Island.

Soon Pablo (Expedition Team Leader) announced, to much cheering, that there were plans to do a shore landing at a Chinstrap penguins colony at the Half Moon Island. We all were now waiting with bated breaths to sight land, the first indicator that we had reached Antarctica. And it happened at 4.09 pm. The first visuals of the icy landscape took my breath away! The place looked so surreal! I hurriedly took pics & shot videos as if the icebergs would melt & disappear within moments. You can sense my excitement from my voice 🙂

 

5.15 pm. The Capt tried to anchor the ship but the winds proved to be too strong. So the Expedition Team decided to abandon plans for the shore landing & instead planned a zodiac cruise from a different location & a little later in the day. There was a marked look of disappointment on everyone’s face. The date with the penguins would have to wait for one more day. But Antarctica is all about flexibility. Everything here is dependent on weather & accordingly the Capt & the team of guides take the best decisions together about the location, time & planned activity with everything remaining ‘subject to prevailing weather conditions’ till the last moment.

The ship made its way through the Mc Farlane Strait to a suitable location from where the zodiacs would be launched for a cruise around the Livingston Island. Even cabin numbers (mine included) were in the first batch of zodiacs at 6 pm & the odd ones later at 7.30 pm. I was excited like a kid & dressed like an Eskimo.

We queued up at the zodiac boarding point & were helped to embark, 8 at a time. No sooner had the zodiac with its powerful motor taken off cutting the icy cold waters of the Antarctic that the wind started biting into my face. Very soon I could feel the cold through my three layers of clothing & 2 pairs of socks & realised that I was still not adequately clothed! Also, at least one hand was required to remain without the thick gloves to operate the camera & I managed to shoot some videos & take pics handling my Go Pro clumsily through just a pair of glove liners. Well, you could either take pics or remain comfortable – a photographer’s typical dilemma!

Our zodiac pilot Charlie took us around some beautiful scenery & a particularly huge & straight rock face called the Edinburgh Hill rising about 180 metres above sea level.

Edinburgh Hill, Livingston Island, Antarctica

 

The zodiac is dwarfed against the massive rock face

 

Charlie’s Angels 🙂

 

With Charlie, the man himself.

Our guide Malena, who accompanied us on the zodiac, pointed out the lichens that gave a green & blue colour to the ice at places & the different horizontal lines formed on the ice wall indicating the different seasons of accumulated ice.

The cruise was great but by half way through I was miserable with cold which was now cutting into my bones & I wanted to get back to the warm interiors of the ship which incidentally wasn’t visible anywhere. After what seems like an eternity Charlie began to make his way back & sped up the boat giving us all a nice spray of water. The zodiac rocked heartily on the waves & I couldn’t get my heavy gloves out of the sling bag which was hung on my back. My fingers, especially the ones on the right hand which were more exposed because of the requirement to handle the camera, were now almost numb.

As we neared the ship a close encounter with Ushuaia’s massive hull left me wonderstruck & thinking about the intensity of turbulence in the Drake Passage which had made it rock like a little boat earlier!

We finally reached the gangway & I hurried inside to my cabin & turned the heating on to max. My fingers felt like jelly & devoid of any sensation & I couldn’t open my life jacket buckle or muster the strength to get myself out of the rubber boots & finally managed both with great difficulty. In the bargain I learnt an important lesson – that I should wear an extra 4th layer for the zodiac cruises because of the high wind chill factor.

Dinner was delayed to 9 pm to accommodate the 2nd group of passengers who had left for the cruise at 7.30 pm. Dinner over, I returned to my cabin & changed into my nightclothes. There was no energy left to update the day’s journal but I took care to transfer the phone & Go Pro pics to the laptop to free up memory space for the next day’s adventures.

The day was called by 10.30 pm after having put an alarm for 6 am the next morning.

 

3 Comments

  1. Buddy…. you really are living life to the hilt. Absolute envy. But not a worry; will catch up in time…. cheers always.

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