Antarctic 2012

Summary: I will repeat what others have told me. If you get the chance to go to the Antarctic, then go. The crew on the ship told us that we were 'very unlucky' with the weather, yet I feel fortunate in all that we saw and did. The scenery was stunning, the penguins beguiling, and please believe me when I assure you that the icebergs and glaciers were, really, that shade of blue. However, when I go again it will be in early summer. I'm glad to have seen the moulting chicks, but in January I'd be able to see much younger chicks and Adelie penguins in force.

10 March

I actually slept well, which I rarely do on a flight. But, as I feared, the late start inconvenienced me. We were supposed to land at Madrid at 2.30pm, enough time for me to get to my 4pm flight to London. But I got into the newer terminal at 3.50pm, and signs warned me that it would take 26 minutes to get to the other terminal. So I got into the queue to get booked on to another 'plane.

A couple waiting with me got the last two seats on the 5.30pm flight, so I had to settle for the 7.35pm flight. As a result, I didn't get back to the hotel and to my car until 10pm. However, the difference in time zones helped me to stay awake during the drive home. I finally got home at 11.30pm, enough time to get a shower and brush my teeth before collapsing into bed. I really don't enjoy journeys home!

9 March

Our check in bags had to be packed and ready outside our cabins at 7am. I was taking the 8am shuttle from the ship to the airport. My flight wasn't until 1.33pm, but I didn't fancy trying to drag a case through Ushuaia for a couple of hours. So those of us on this flight spent time in the small cafe, many using the free wifi to check up on emails.

The flight passed without incident. At Buenos Aires airport I had more time to kill, so I had a beer and a burger with a fellow traveller. I made an early move to get through security and immigration, which was just as well as the process took over 90 minutes!

The 'plane was nearly 50 minutes late departing, finally going at 11.30pm, which I knew would cause problems in Madrid. But as there was nothing I could do about it I simply did my best to sleep away the twelve hour flight.

Last photos are here.

8 March

A rough night, lots of jouncing and shuddering. The expedition leader got us up at 7.15am to see Cape Horn. Well, more precisely, a grey blob against a grey sky. We sailed within several miles of this landmark, then turned east. Once the ship stopped fighting the wind the crossing became much calmer.

As we entered the Beagle Channel sea birds came to fly alongside the ship. Black browed albatross swooped over the waves, and shags flew past in groups. The skies remained mainly grey.

We had various speeches to mark the end of the voyage, and the staff entertained us to a variation on 'Leaving on Jet Plane' with the word 'Expedition' substituted for the last two. As soon as we docked an ambulance came to take Wendy to the local hospital. Joan went with her. The hospital confirmed that Wendy has a fractured neck of femur.

After dinner I continued to drink and to talk to various fellow travellers. A number of people went to shore but, as one of us stated, 'I can spend the rest of my life on shore. I want my last evening to be on the ship.' I also had a photo taken of me with the minature of Penderyn Whisky I'd brought with me to mark the end of the voyage-a bit of Wales at the end of the world!

Photos from today are here.

7 March

A long day at sea, crossing the Drake Passage. It was rougher than on the trip out, but not as bad as it can be (we've been told). We had a day full of lectures to keep us occupied, and I worked on photographs. 

Early afternoon the campers were asked to come for the 'tent folding party.' All the gear had dried out and we put it back in order for the next trip out. The only time I felt a bit seasick was during this time, as we were in an area without windows or fresh air. Once I got back to the cabin I recovered.

Joan continued to nurse Wendy. She's getting tired of lying down but there's little we can do for her on the ship. Once we get into port an ambulance will take her to the hospital in Ushuaia for care and checks.

Photos from today are here.

6 March

During the night we headed away from the Antarctic peninsula and back to the South Shetland islands. We were awakened (as the expedition leader had warned us last night) at 5.40am. That's when the ship sailed through Neptune's Bellows of Deception Island. It was a grey, still dark morning, and a spotlight was shone on the cliffs on the starboard side to assist the pilot.

We then went ashore. This was our opportunity to take an Antarctic swim, so I had put my swimming costume on under my warm clothing. The expedition leader had said that the men could go in naked because 'Believe me, when you come out of the water, there will be nothing to see anyway.' 

Because the penguins have now left the island all of us could go ashore at once. Most of the party headed towards the viewpoint called Neptune's Window. I looked at the mist pouring in and opted to go in the opposite direction. There are a large number of ruined buildings on the island. Some are left from the whaling industry, which operated here from 1912 to 1931. These include oil tanks, houses, and blubber processing tanks. The British built a base here during World War II. The island is actually the rim of a volcano, and we could occasionally smell sulfur. The volcano erupted most recently in 1970.

The reason for the swim here is that, sometimes, there is warm water from the geothermal activity. Sometimes. There are no promises.

After I'd taken a number of ruined building photos I returned to the beach. There I stripped off and waded my way into the water. It actually felt around the same temperature as the air. It was coming back out and getting changed that made me feel cold. All of us had decided that it was more important to be warm than decent, so we all stripped off wet swimming costumes to put on dry underwear and clothes.

Back on board I enjoyed a hot shower. Certificates of our swimming achievement are being prepared!

Joan didn't go on this shore trip, but we agreed to alternate for the last one so one of us could keep an eye on Wendy. Our afternoon landing was on Half Moon Island. The beach was full of young Fur seals who alternated napping with fighting. Whilst I was concentrating on getting photographs of the action I heard a 'Watch out!' A young Fur seal charged right past me, teeth flashing. I swallowed hard but he kept on going.

The island had a good number of Chinstrap penguins. As we'd noticed previously, unlike the Gentoo the Chinstrap penguins keep their distance from us humans. I used my long lens a lot to get my close ups. There were more Fur seals inland. 

I returned to the ship, and Joan went out for her turn. 

After we were on board, the ship headed out for the Drake Passage and the return to Ushuaia. 

Photos from Deception island are here.

Photos from Half Moon island are here.

5 March

Tried the Canon 5D Mark ii in the morning but still the same error message. Several people told me that salt water is much worse for cameras than fresh water. I've resigned myself to another claim on the house insurance and I took the 450D out for the day.

Of course, today would prove to be the best one for landscape photography. I had some serious tripod time and tried to accommodate myself to some limitations of the 450D. I'm used to a large, bright screen on the 5D so that I can check a photo and make the necessary adjustments to aperture and focal point before taking another shot. But the 450D view screen is a much more simple beast, and I didn't know how to bring up a histogram. So it was like shooting back in film days. I had to focus on my technique and hope that the results would be pleasing.

The skies had cleared for views back to the mainland. There were Gentoo and several Adelie penguins. And the light kept changing. I guessed on filter use and focal points, remembering also that long exposures and moving penguins don't mix! The one Adelie I concentrated on was a molting chick, and the feathers left on his head made him look as if he were sporting a mohican.

When we queued to get back on to the zodiacs a Gentoo came up and looked as if he wanted to join us. One of the staff told him, 'Only if you wear a life vest' which seemed to put him off. 

In the afternoon we landed at Jougla Point. This is at Port Lockroy at which, earlier in the season, a gift shop and a post office are run. The staff had packed up a few days before. So instead we went ashore to view more Gentoo and a (reassembled) whale skeleton. The penguins made nice poses in front of the mountains. It was too windy for tripod shots. And the mud was spectacular. We all came back covered with the stuff, and used the hand held showers in the mud room to wash it off. The penguins here were very friendly and curious.

I got back on board and, when I entered the cabin, I found the ship's doctor inside and an empty syringe on the desk. Wendy had slipped and fell on the slippery rocks near the landing area. A member of staff had held her from sliding further while the doctor and a stretcher party came over from the ship. The doctor believes that she's pulled a ligament in her groin and he'd given her a shot of morphine against the pain.  As a result she can't get out of bed and, sadly, for her and her sister the holiday is over. They had planned to go on to Peru, but now their travel insurance will have to get them home.

Photos from today are here.

4 March

A rough night. The ship headed across open water to get us back north and to avoid the ice. We returned to the Lemaire Channel in the morning, and were treated to sunshine and wonderful clouds swirling over the mountains of the mainland. Very windy, though, and when the ship turned you could be caught out on the wrong side. 

We went out for a wet and windy ride in the zodiacs along Graham Land. For a time our zodiacs followed a couple of young Leopard seals. We also admired the large glaciers and witnessed a small calving, fortunately at a distance. Some of the older ice was an almost unbelievable shade of blue. 

During lunch the wind picked up to 40 knots per hour, with gusts at 70 knots. We could see sea spray being whipped off the waves. I found a sheltered spot outside and got a few photos of the conditions. We had hoped to land at Petermann Island, but the conditions at that end of the Lemaire Channel wouldn't allow for that. So we went back down through the Channel again (!) to the southern end.

Another zodiac excursion, in wet and windy conditions. This time our driver took us away from the icebergs and we looked for wildlife. We saw four types of seals. Two Crabeaters on an ice floe, a Leopard seal in the water, a Fur seal and then a Weddell seal, each on land. We went up close to a small group of Antarctic shags who were sitting on a rock surrounded by water. There were also some Gentoo and Adelie penguins. 

It was sometime during the return trip that tragedy struck. I'm not certain if it were one sea spray too much, or the soaking we all endured on the way back to the ship (although the camera was in a pouch for the journey), but when we returned to the ship I discovered that my main camera, the Canon 5D Mark ii, was an unhappy beast. When I tried to take a photo the camera told me 'Error 30' and instructed to either turn it off and on again or replace the battery. I tried both remedies and neither helped. I placed the camera to dry out with a bag of silica gel and tried to console myself with the fact that I'd bought a second hand Canon 450D as a back up just in case of this very emergency. 

Today's photos are here.

3 March

We woke to be told that we'd crossed into the Antarctic Circle at 5:55am. It was slightly disappointing not to be awake for the event.

The day was spent at sea pushing further south. The weather became Antarctic--wind and snow blowing across the ship. In the afternoon several snowmen and a snow penguin were built. 

I spent much of the day catching up on my photographs. I try to process them on the laptop whilst travelling rather than face days of work when I get back home. I'm nearly up to date now.

Early afternoon our progress further south was halted by a thick blockage of ice. I went up to the bridge to witness our turn around to go north. The language used on the bridge was English, possibly due to the international mixture of the crew. We were allowed to wander freely but were asked not to block the windows used by the pilot.

In the evening we celebrated the crossing with a glass of sparkling wine. A piece of iceberg ice had been brought on board to be added to drinks upon request. To continue the celebrations my cabin mates and I had a bottle of wine with our dinner--an Argentinian merlot. We were rather giggly afterwards!

Photos are here.

2 March

We sailed through the Lemaire Channel in the morning. This has been nicknamed 'Kodak Gap' because of the stunning scenery, and even in the overcast conditions the mountains and glaciers on either side of the ship were lovely. I used my 16-35mm lens to get it all in. 

We anchored on the other side, and had a trip out in the zodiacs to admire the intricate shapes of the small icebergs. Wind, rain, and sea have carved them into various shapes. It was raining for the most part, and I had little opportunity to review my photos as we went along. It was aim, click, wipe lens, put camera lens down into bag until the next shot. At least the overcast conditions made it easier than if I'd been coping with sunshine on bright ice.

We saw several penguins swim past, and some seals. One seal stuck very close to the zodiac ahead of us and we accused them of not being willing to share!

In the afternoon we started to concentrate on the push for the Antarctic circle. We sailed all afternoon, entering thick ice at various points. The ship is ice-strengthened, not an ice breaker, so she took it slowly and steadily. We sailed past huge icebergs, were entertained by a leopard seal on an iceberg (he posed for several minutes whilst cameras snapped away) and, off in the far distance, we saw a solitary Emperor Penguin. Even the expedition staff have rarely seen them so this was quite exciting.

The thick ice proved very challenging over the late afternoon. During dinner the ship finally broke through to clear water, and everyone cheered. The captain came down from the bridge to accept our applause. We now hope to cross into the Antarctic Circle sometime during the night/early morning.

Photos from today are here.

1 March

I got very little sleep. This was not due to Gary's snoring, although it was rather spectacular. I just couldn't get comfortable. I was warm enough, but there seemed to be a lump of snow just under my hip which I couldn't do anything about. I also had my camera in the sleeping bag with me (so it wouldn't freeze overnight) so every time I turned over I had to move the camera with me. 

We got up at 5.20am and I used the loo. Then it was time to take down the tents and get back to the ship. We got in before breakfast and I enjoyed a shower before going up for coffee. Lots of coffee!

We sailed into Paradise Bay and had a trip around in zodiacs. The grey skies added to the feel of isolation and a sort of grim beauty. 

In the afternoon we landed at Gonzalez Videla Station. This is manned by a dozen men from the Chilean air force during the summer, and they seemed very happy to see us. The base is surrounded by mud and Gentoo penguins and, being a bit picky, I tried to photograph the cleaner birds. There were chicks of various ages. I put Gunther (my travelling dachshund) on a whale bone to get a photo of him. A Snowy Sheathbill flew over to have a look, and I quickly retrieved him before the bird thought of seeing whether dachshunds make a nice meal!

We got our passports stamped at the base. They had a small gift shop, and I bought a mug. The base stands on land which is part of the Antarctic Continent, so it was good to be able to make that landing and get another continent under my shoes. We also saw the Leucristic penguin, who is yellow-white but not an albino. One penguin used water from a hose pipe to take a shower, and I also watched parents being mobbed by hungry chicks.

Then it was back to the ship. The day's excitement wasn't over. Three Humpbacked whales entertained us for nearly an hour, rolling on their backs, waving flippers, and diving. I only went outside near the end for a few photos--it was cold out there!

I enjoyed sleeping in a nice warm cabin all the more after the night on the ice.

Photos from Paradise Bay here.

Photos from Gonzalez Videla Station and the whales are here.

29 February 

We had a beautiful trip down along the peninsula. The sun was diving between clouds and we passed icebergs of all shapes and sizes. We had hoped to go ashore on to the Antarctic peninsula, but ice had drifted ashore and blocked the landing site. I'm certain the penguin colony on that beach were relieved, if not perhaps to blame. 

So we moved on to Danco Island, on which we landed in the afternoon. We only had an hour on shore which wasn't enough for everything I wanted to photograph. Icicles had formed where the edge of the glacier met the beach. Bits of ice were scattered alongside dark boulders. Gentoo penguins waddled (and often slipped) on the snow. And the views into the bay were lovely. I did my best to capture something of everything, and used my travel tripod for the first time. These penguins kept at a greater distance, so my 100-400mm lens came into play.

All too soon we headed back to the ship. It was decided that we would be camping that night. We were reminded to be packed and ready at 7.45pm. The twenty eight of us who were going on shore (two dropped out) were allowed into dinner ten minutes early. I ate and drank sparingly--I didn't even have my evening beer. 

Snow started to fall while we waited. I wondered if the trip would be called off, but out we went. Gary and I had no natural partners with which to tent share, and as I've come to know him and his wife a bit I suggested he and I paired up. During the ride on the zodiacs a humpback whale decided to surface near us. The engine was stopped and we floated as s/he emerged several times nearby.

There was a colony of penguins and several Weddell seals near our camping site. As the light went we hurried to set up our tents and get our sleeping bags out. I used the tripod to take photos of the site until it was too dark for the camera to focus. Then I took a trip to 'Mr Yum Yum'--the plastic portable loo which had been set up a short distance from the camp site. The rule was that you took flag set on a pole with you to visit the loo, then brought it back again. so people knew when it was occupied. And, yes, it was exposed to the elements with only a small snow wall in an attempt at privacy.

Shortly after 10pm Gary and I crawled into our sleeping bags and tried to get comfortable for the night.

Photos here.

28 February

The good crossing continued. A competition was announced for the first spotting of an iceberg. At 11.50am this occurred. We all piled to windows to try to see the grey object in the grey fog. It was very hard to spot but people still went outside into the cold rain to get a photograph.

Earlier in the morning we had our zodiac briefing and went to the mud room to try on boots. I went for my usual European size 38. They fit with my thermal socks on, but I had a nasty surprise when I pulled on the right boot-it was wet inside! The boots were hung up to day, as was the sock.

We did indeed have a landing in the afternoon, to Aitcho Island. My cabin mates and I are in the 'Admundson' group and we were taken ashore first. The island was full of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. The former were by the shore. Nearly full grown chicks are moulting their baby down before they go to sea. Some were still begging for food from their parents, and indeed sometimes they chased parents across the hills in an attempt to get food. The Chinstrap penguins kept away, high up on the rocky hills. As we had been warned, the Gentoo chicks would come up and try to chew anything which dangled from our bags. It was hard not to step on them at times.

The smell was incredible, as was the projectile pooping. Some Skuas hovered around hopefully, as did Snowy Sheathbills. 

Although the rain had mostly let up, it was very windy, and I had to regularly wipe spray off my lens. I only took the camera and the 24-105mm lens to shore as the conditions would have made changing lens dangerous for the camera.

After dinner those of us who are camping out overnight had our briefing. We might do the camping tomorrow night, if the conditions are good. 

Photos from today are here.

27 February

The Drake Passage has turned out to be the Drake Lake. All day we've had very little swell and so very little boat motion. I don't think anyone has been seasick. I took a tablet in the morning but haven't bothered since.

The downside of an easy passage is a lack of bird life. We've seen a number of Black browed albatross following the boat. Otherwise it's been a visually empty sea. The sun came out in the afternoon and it was warm on deck--out of the wind.

We were kept amused by a number of lectures on animal life and the 'Race to the South Pole.' An Argentinian stout was on offer during 'happy hour' and in the interests of cultural awareness I had a pint. Later on we had the traditional drinks in the presence of the captain, namely sparkling wine. Unfortunately as I passed over my small Canon compact camera to Joan to take a photo of me we both misjudged who had hold of it. The camera landed on the lens and is now in-operative. Good thing I have three other cameras with me! I feel an insurance claim coming on.

The food continues to arrive in tasty and large quantities. There is a gym on board, should guilt finally overwhelm greed. 

Still rather tired from the trip over, so an early night. We're making such good progress through the Drake Passage that we might have a shore landing tomorrow afternoon. Hurrah!

Photos from today are here.

26 February

I tried to sleep in, but Argentinian time is three hours behind UK. So at 7.30am my body decided I couldn't possibly remain this lazy and it was time I got up. So I had breakfast and conversation with a number of fellow travellers. I shed the tripod and the back up camera body to the main bag, which was going to be transported to the ship for me. This reduced the weight on my back to around 9kg, because I didn't dare put in the rest of my camera equipment nor the laptop or iPad. It's no wonder I'm short--the weight of my camera backpack probably compresses my spine every time I heave it on again.

The weather was wet and English. So of course I didn't let it detain me. I walked down into the town and along the main shopping street. Many of the shops were shut (Sunday) but I found a fleece to replace one which is getting ragged, and a couple of items as presents. When I was in Ushuaia back in 2008 the UK pound was much stronger, so I did find everything more expensive this time around. However, in the interests of cultural awareness I still had a local beer in a cafe before going down to the bus for the short drive to the ship.

We boarded around 4pm. After being given our cabin numbers (and I was first in and bagged a bottom bunk, since which time I've tried to tell myself that I don't have to do guilt when I'm on holiday) we had a safety drill. This included looking inside one of the lifeboats. There seems to be plenty of storage areas marked 'food' and 'water' but nothing marked 'toilet'. I also met my two cabin mates, Wendy and Joan, a couple of sisters from Australia.

Dinner was at 7.30pm and took a couple of hours. I had yet more interesting people to talk to. One chap and I tried to explain the Eurovision Song Contest to a couple of innocents. Another dinner companion is writing a geography book for children, and he's taking photos of his two travelling animals (a dog and a duck) as illustrations. I'm trying not to be jealous of his book contract, as I've been taken photos of Gunther's travels for years. (He's the dachshund you'll find on other travels on this website.)

Afterwards I returned to the cabin to download photos and drink some of the whiskey I'd bought at the Madrid duty free. The expedition leader warned us that we'll be hitting the Drake Passage around 2am and urged us to take seasickness precautions, so for the first time in my life I'll be taking some seasickness tablets. 

Photos from today are here.

25 February

Urgh! What a day!

After the usual Argentinian breakfast of stiff croissants and strong coffee the hotel dropped me back to the international airport. I caught the bus to the domestic airport and arrived 90 minutes before my 11am flight. 

And hit utter chaos.

The airline's computer system had crashed earlier in the morning, so everyone was being checked in manually. The queues snaked through the check in area. There were very few announcements, so we kept trying to find out where we should go when. A number of us on the 11am flight found each other and huddled together for safety in numbers. We finally checked in at noon and went upstairs to departures.

This was even worse. Security were only letting through people booked on another airline (which had no software issues) but again there was no communication. At various times people started clapping and chanting, and I was quite concerned that the crowd would make a rush and there might be injuries. A rumour went around that our airline was facing a day's strike. Finally my flight was allowed through, and we got on to our 'plane. On which we then sat for 90 minutes. Finally, at 4.10pm, we took off. When we arrived in Ushuaia around 7pm several of us shared a taxi to our hotel. I had a glass of wine (the hotel was very generous with the portion) and then went down to a local restaurant with a couple of other people for a steak dinner. Bed at 11pm.

Photos from today are here.

24 February

I think I probably got around four or so hours of sleep. 2.30am arrived far too early in the morning, and when I got to Heathrow I used the self-service check ins and was ready to drop off my check in luggage by 3.30am. Only problem is that all the desks and security don't open until 5am. I tried not to think about the extra sleep I could have had. 

At 6.20am my flight left for Madrid. I had several hours at Madrid airport waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires. The flight was over twelve hours long. I amused myself with my iPad (the 'plane didn't have individual entertainment screens so I was pleased to have the iPad along) and tried to get some sleep. 

We arrived in Buenos Aires around 9.30pm local time. My iPhone worked (try not to think about the cost!) and I 'phoned my hotel to pick me up from the airport. I took a shower and went straight to bed. 

23 February

I set off from home around 4pm and experienced the joys of trying to progress along the M25 during rush hour. It only took an hour longer than it should have to reach my airport hotel. I dropped off the car, booked a 2.30am wake up call and a 3am taxi to Heathrow and went to bed early. After a small single malt whiskey, of course. 

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In late February 2012 I will be visiting the Antarctic on the M S Expedition (details about the ship here although I have actually booked through Discover the World). The fourteen day journey should take us into the Antarctic Circle.