Letter from the Antarctic - November 10th 2009

Letter from Antarctica - November 10th 2009

We’ve made it and we’re here! Physically, mentally, geographically and politically we are in Antarctica and loving every minute. After a hectic start at Heathrow (where Eleanor was nearly bumped off the flight and the plane was delayed) the journey began at last and took us via Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and the lunar landscapes of El Calafate before we arrived in Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world and the point of our departure South. Ushuaia is a bustling port town nestled beneath soaring, spiky, snow-capped mountains, and we spent three days running errands, finishing tasks from home and buying last minute bits and pieces so we could head off to the Great White South with clean slates. We stayed at the wonderfully cosy Posada Costa Serena hostel, which had views over the port to watch the cargo coming in and ships going out. We were treated to a wonderful dinner at Jonathan and Roxanna Selby’s beautiful house overlooking the mountains and were given a great introduction to Jonathan’s nautical navigation software.

Eleanor and Claire in Ushuaia - chocolate penguin?Next stop Port Lockroy

After many an Argentinian steak and much red wine, we headed down to the dock to board the spectacular Lindblad ship National Geographic Explorer. She has everything you could ever need or imagine, and the Expedition Team and Ship’s Crew are second to none. They have thought of everything and we are learning and discovering new and exciting things every single day. Claire and Eleanor are bunking in with the crew and Tudor is sharing a room with Bob Farrell, the new Station Manager at Palmer.

Our voyage South began with dinner in the beautiful Beagle Channel, but soon entered the open waters of the ominous Drake Passage. Despite the relatively benign crossing, two of us spent Saturday in our bunks with seasickness. But after brilliant care from Jack Putnam (Lindblad Doctor and last year’s Ice-Cream Machine Benefactor Extraordinaire) we were soon back on track and by Sunday morning felt like Harbord, who noted after 10 days aboard the Nimrod with Shackleton “Some of us are over the seasick stage and no longer want to die”. By breakfast time we were fully recovered, and as we approached the South Shetland Islands, we were given a mandatory Antarctic Landings briefing to prepare for our first trip ashore. This briefing is given on every ship that comes South, and covers the use of the ship’s zodiacs and what to do/not to do on land. After the briefing the mudroom was full of passengers hoovering out their pockets and backpacks to ensure no foreign plant life was taken ashore, and soon after the zodiacs were zooming back and forth carrying 120 extremely excited passengers to take their first steps south of 60°. Yankee Harbour was our first destination and upon arrival we were treated to the spectacular sight of 12,000 Gentoo penguins arriving from the water, making their way up to the high ground to find their nesting site from the previous year. We were completed enthralled by their squeak-and-gargle calls to each other, their inquisitive wanderings and their veracious defense of their nesting ‘spot’. We were only feet away from a Weddell seal, and saw brown skuas and white petrels. The day was rounded off with cocktails with the Captain and a delicious Lindblad Expeditions’ Welcome Aboard Dinner.

Yesterday was without doubt one of the most exciting days of our lives. At 0630 we were up on the bridge with the Captain and the Expedition Team looking out at Baily Head, assessing the viability of a shore landing, and within the hour were out on the first zodiac and running up the black volcanic ash to high ground to escape the waves. Claire and Eleanor were lucky enough to go up to the top ridges with Steve Forrest from Oceanites to scout for Chinstrap Penguin nests, and after a fairly steep climb were rewarded with stunning views out to the snow-capped mountains of Livingston Island. The Chinstraps were fascinating to watch: their ungainly waddle giving way to the most graceful of courting dances, and we spotted a lone Macaroni hiding out on a windswept rock.

National Geographic Explorer and the team in the fast ice

After lunch some first class navigation by Captain Leif Skog led us through the narrow pass of ‘Neptune’s Bellows’ into the sheltered and gloriously sunny inner bay of donut-shaped Deception Island. With every passenger either on the bridge or on the bow, Explorer expertly sliced through the fast ice and came to rest in the middle of the bay. We spent a fantastic couple of hours playing football on the sea ice, spotting leopard seals and pups, attempting to ‘pull’ the ship with a rope through the ice and frequenting the fantastic hot chocolate station. But the afternoon wasn’t over yet: within half an hour of getting back on board we were pulling into Whaler’s Bay to bathe in the geothermal springs in front of the old base. Every night after dinner there’s a fascinating lecture on board, and last night’s showed footage of the incredible creatures the underwater specialist divers had found in the dark and icy depths below.

                                                 Bathing in the geothermal waters at Deception Island

This morning we woke up to the stunningly beautiful surroundings of Cuverville Island and breakfasted amongst icebergs and snow-capped peaks. Many passengers are heading out to kayak in the bay just now and this afternoon we hope to spend this afternoon in Neko Harbour – one of the most beautiful locations on the Antarctic Peninsula’s Danco Coast – and make our first, official continental landing.

Tonight we arrive at Lockroy and the air is thick with excitement. Headtorches are at the ready, last-minute laundry has been washed and dried, and every possible piece of technology is being charged up to power us through our first few days on base. Next instalment when we’re installed in our new home - watch this space!