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May 19

Antarctica – Anticipation leads to Deception

by Tony in Antarctica

Summer in Ushuaia, next stop Antarctica

The 15th of March in Ushuaia was the kind day that’s just perfect for a pair of shorts and a snug skijacket. As we made our way with our bags to the port of Ushuaia, we were setting off on a summer trip with a difference – a 12 day, 11 night trip to the white continent of Antarctica and across the polar circle. From the very outset of our round the world trip, we had both agreed that Antarctica had to be a part of our journey, and it was one of the most anticipated destinations. And this was it.

Giant Petrel on Half Moon Island

Soon after boarding, we set sail, cruising into the glassy waters of the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia fading into evening in the distance behind us. Our first activity of our cruise was the Captain’s welcome and the entire boat assembled in the lounge to join a giant Russian man in a toast to a successful trip, and good weather in the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage, three words that can strike fear into the heart of the most seasoned seamen. Let’s hope for good weather he said. Let’s not! spoke the eyes of all the passengers around us, clearly trusting more in their own bravado than the wisdom of our Siberian captain. We would be sailing for the next two days across the Drake Passage between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, the meeting place of the Atlantic and Pacific, stretching across the latitudes of the Furious Fifties and Shrieking Sixties, some of the wildest seas on Earth. Everything in our cabin was bolted shut and locked in place as we turned in for our first night’s sleep, awaiting the raging seas of the following day.

Albatross in the Drake Passage

Pintado Petrel swoops through the waves

And so the 16th of March dawned, a glorious day, bright sunshine and calm seas. Maybe the captain took a wrong turn? Maybe he knows a shortcut? We trusted to his judgement, and admired the birds diving and disappearing behind the crests of waves, and others gliding effortlessly on the breeze behind our ship … groups of beautiful Pintado Petrels, lonesome albatrosses, and far off in the distance, a group of feeding Fin Whales, the second largest animal on the planet. The next day, our last on the world’s wildest seas, was just as calm – now where are we sailing? As Rinie, our expedition leader, explained to us later, we had in fact spent two days not on the Drake Passage, but on the Drake Lake, a rare and privileged destination through which very few people pass. Alas, the old Antarctic superstition goes “Drake Lake, wild weather in Antarctica”, therefore no views and few landings. Had we used our quota of fortune on the journey?

Sunny summer morning in the South Shetlands

That evening, conditions did begin to deteriorate as we sailed through a misty Southern Ocean, but maybe it’s the luck of the Irish (it was Saint Patrick’s Day after all), because there in the mist to our port side was our first glimpse of land in Antarctica, the snow-covered desolate landscape of the South Shetland Islands. It was an amazing sight, seeing these rocky shores spread out before us in the fog like a deserted no-man’s land, a truly mysterious setting. We decided it was a perfect time to crack out some bubbly and braved the biting chill in the air to celebrate our anniversary with a few swigs straight from the bottle.

A Chinstrap Penguin runs to welcome us

Aside from bird-watching, our two days at sea had been spent attending briefings from the expedition teams on the marvellous lives of penguins, the classifications of icebergs (there’s five different types), identification of seabirds, weather, sea … a whole diploma in Antarctic everything. Oh, and organising the kayaking. We had seen when we were booking that Kayaking was offered free of charge on our expedition. When we booked in Ushuaia, however, our travel agent was very skeptical, so we asked her to confirm with the company. As it happened, the kayaking was free, but you had to confirm a space as only 14 people could be accommodated. We got lucky – there was a last minute cancellation and the company gave us an e-mail saying we could swap the space between us. During our two days at sea, it turned out that a third (30-40) of the passengers thought they were going kayaking for free. It was the soap opera of the voyage, and in the end a plan was made to let “The 14” kayakers as much as they want, and all the others to have one go.

Overlooking Whalers Bay from Neptunes Window

Old blubber fuel tanks on Deception Island

Given all the hullabaloo about kayaking, I opted for that on our first stop in Antarctica when we dropped anchor just off Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands. Ninfa decided to go onshore. As we disembarked, we had to turn our cards from green to red to show we were off ship, and then turn them back when we boarded again. Straightforward, no? When we returned from our morning activities, I heard over a crew’s walkie talkie – “Tony Byrne, we’re missing Tony Byrne, does anyone know where he is?” Still not sure how that happened, but seeing as I’m the one writing the post, I think it’s because Ninfa turned the wrong card.

Deception Island is a volcanic island, and Whaler’s Bay, the harbour where we would anchor is actually a huge caldera, and despite all that is known as one of the safest bays in Antarctica!!! The entrance to the bay is through Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow channel which we couldn’t even see the as we sailed by because of the fog. There must be a science to fog, but as we didn’t get a briefing on it, I don’t know. But when we entered Whaler’s Bay, it was clear again, a long finger of fog stretched in vain behind us as we eluded its grip for the safety of the shore.

Fur Seals on Deception Island

Us with a foggy Neptune Bellows in the background

Whaler’s Bay is known as such as it was a major base for the whaling industry in the early 20th century. Having hunted the whales in the Antarctic Ocean almost to extinction, a volcanic eruption which covered the bases in sludge was the final nail in the coffin of the whaling industry on Deception Island. The vista of the bay is one of a derelict airport hangar, rusted industrial tanks, and the weather-beaten skeletons of old wooden huts and boats, against a black volcanic earth, and imposing glaciers crowning the mountains behind them. And that’s not to mention Neptune’s Window, a natural gap in the cliffs looking out to sea.

Old grave of a whaler on Deception Island

This time Ninfa and I both declined the opportunity to kayak, and transferred to the island on one of the zodiacs. Ah, the first feeling of Antarctic land under my feet was great. While Half Moon was all about the animals, Deception is a poignant look back at man’s first contribution to Antarctica – to pillage what resources they could, hunting whales almost to extinction. It’s comforting to see that industry in ruins, but the massive boilers are a testament to the once huge industry which operated here. Rusted tanks, similar in size to the huge circular fuel tanks you see in ports and airports, once contained whale oil. We passed the grave of a Norwegian whaler who died here, and past the less civilised remains of whale bones scattered along the beach. While most of the passengers had gone for a trek, we strolled over to Neptune’s Window for a view of the sea and the bay, with only a few lazy Fur Seals and a couple of groups of Gentoo Penguins for company. Waoh, the ship looked small against the background of the bay and the mountains around us. We were after all on one of the smallest islands in the South Shetlands, which should give you an idea of the scale of Antarctica. Each of our twice daily excursions lasted between two and three hours, and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the ship. There was only time left for a few of our Japanese shipmates to take a dip in the icy waters, and well, that didn’t take long at all.

Our next post will continue our adventure south, to set foot on the actual continent itself (as opposed to its islands) and down below the Antarctic Polar Circle. Check back soon for the rest of our adventure.

For photos, click on your choice of the Drake Passage, Half Moon Island, the South Shetlands, and Deception Island, or have a look at some of the highlights below.

Chinstrap Penguin on Half Moon Island

Half Asleep Seal on Half Moon Island

Shrill cries of a seagull on Deception Island

Ninfa on Deception Island

Fur Seals play on Deception Island

Gentoo Penguins on the beach in Deception Island

Fur Seals play on Deception Island

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One Response to “Antarctica – Anticipation leads to Deception”

  1. From Amar:

    Those pictures are incredibly! I really like the majestic looking Sea Lion. Hopefully get here myself by the end of the year.

    Posted on 24. May, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

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