Early in the morning, about 7am, something ghostly appeared on the horizon. At first, it was just a white smudge against the grey fog. But as we drew closer, I knew what I was seeing . . . my first Antarctica iceberg.
We’d had a surprise the day before: a perfect Drake crossing. The ‘Drake Lake’ as they call it. Although I’d felt a little bit ill in the morning, by lunchtime I had perked up in time to hear the good news. The Drake had been so good that our ship had made unprecedented time across the passage. We were going to arrive in Antarctica a whole day early. Amazing! Two landings that we didn’t expect suddenly appeared on the itinerary. This is when I have to give another shout-out to G Adventures, and their expedition team, who did everything in their power to make sure we had the best experience possible. They pulled out all the stops (and the zodiacs), made sure we had all our safety and biosecurity briefings down in good time, so that we would be ready for our landings.
And ready we were.
Our first excursion was a zodiac cruise around Barrientos Island in the Aitchoo (H-O) islands. Bundled up in my brand new G-adventures branded red parka, waterproof trousers and new socks, I looked a bit like the Michelin tire man.
We got off to a great start – not long after we left the ship, we saw a curious leopard seal pop its head up and say hello to the zodiac. He went on later to kill a penguin right in front of us. Well . . . we did ask for nature in all its gory glory!
The zodiacs were another pleasant surprise. The thought of heading out into the middle of the ocean in a tiny blow-up boat was not exactly enticing, but once inside, they feel really stable and comfortable. They held about 10 passengers at a time, plus a driver, and you really felt like you could get up close with the wildlife. They were also absolutely fine to take pictures in, and zodiac cruising became one of my favourite activities.
But what we really wanted was to get up on land, and we had our opportunity after lunch. We stayed in the same region, visiting Barrientos Island and nearby Cecilia Island, this time on foot.
And the first thing that struck me? The stench. Oh boy, the stench of the penguins! It really punches you in the nose. Thank goodness for nose blindness that sets in after a while. That, and the antics of the Gentoo penguins really distracts you. They’re far too cute to be that smelly.
As part of the IAATO (the only somewhat governing body of the Antarctic region) regulations, we were advised to stay about 5-10 metres away from the penguins at all times, especially the older adults who were moulting. But there was nothing to prevent us from sitting down on the beach and letting the curious penguin chicks come to us. That was fine. And what fun! The moment you sat down, you had little penguin chicks arriving, pecking at your gloves and nipping the camera. It was a great first day introduction to Antarctica – and, to top it all off, we had our first whale sighting in the evening.
But is it strange to say it just kept getting better? It did. Every day, it got better and better. Especially because the next day, we had beautiful bright blue skies – the kind you dream about seeing down here. It put our grey South Shetland Islands day into perspective. Now we were heading onto the continent itself – and Antarctica laid out the red, or should I say blue, carpet for us.
Neko Harbour. It still stands out to me as, I think, the most perfect day of the whole cruise. At Neko, we took a hike up to the viewpoint – where I brought with me my copy of The Potion Diaries. So TPD has made it all the way to the Antarctic peninsula! I’m not sure too many books can say that!
As I stood on the top of the hill we’d climbed, I closed my eyes and just listened. Antarctica does that to you sometimes. Your eyes are seeing so many incredible things, and in such stark, contrasting colours – the bright whites and the bright blues, the dark ocean and the black-and-white penguins – that it often becomes overwhelming. And the noises of Antarctica are just as incredible. The ice creaks and moans, it goes off like a rifle and thunders like cannon blast. That last noise, the cannon fire, was actually ice calving off the glacier and tumbling into the bay. It set forth a tidal wave – a tsunami – of water that rocked the boat (and the poor kayaks) and crashed into the beach below. Thankfully, we were high up. But what a thing to witness! It was, quite simply, unforgettable.
Our second landing site was completely different – but also very cool (pun not intended… sorta). Port Lockroy, one of the British bases in Antarctica, and the home of the Penguin Post Office (there was a BBC documentary on it not too long ago, that was shown on the ship). We were all desperate to send out postcards, of course, but unfortunately the postal workers had left not two days before our ship arrived! That means our postcards are going to ‘over winter’ in Antarctica, and be sent when the crew arrives again in November. So we might see them around Christmas time!
They also have a little museum there, that’s been preserved so we can see what life might have once been like overwintering in Antarctica. They still don’t have running water or many facilities there so not much has changed!
We ended the day with an outdoor barbeque on deck – so much fun! If extremely cold. I chickened out by the time we got to dessert and headed indoors.
I was going to try and fit ‘Day 4’ in here too, but it’s been too much already. There’s been so much to see! I could go on and on for days. But for now I’ll leave it here. More soon!