Discovering Antarctica – the first days

Wednesday 31 January to Saturday 3 February

Wednesday 31 January

We left Ushuaia promptly at 6pm. We had been on the ship MS Expedition since 4:30 and had managed to unpack and arrange our cabin. By family definition my bed is on the right side, but when I saw that was the ‘window side’ I suggested to Bruce that we change sides every two nights to enjoy the window view. 

The first formality was a welcome and safety drill. With life jackets on we were taken to the mustering point to see the life rafts or pods. 

The first of many public announcements suggested we go up on deck to farewell Ushuaia. It was quite cool. 

Then dinner. 

The house staff are all Filipino and they did a great job of serving the meal. 

Afterwards we went to the Polar Ice Bar and chatted to a group of travellers, the majority were sole travellers, sharing cabins with strangers, but with their own goal in sight, such as the sixth continent before turning 30. Amazing how many make this journey on their own. 

Of course our booking through Hampton Travel & Cruise meant we were a large group. The challenge was to meet other people.

Thursday 1 February

It was a long day crossing the Drake Passage. We were all trying to find our sea legs. Breakfast and lunch buffets were a challenge, negotiating a plate full of food back to the table. We were pleased that dinner was served to us and it was the waiters that had to negotiate the rocking ship. 

We had to take all our outer clothes and camera and backpack to the mud room, and have them bio-cleaned on the way there. That meant applying a vacuum to anything with Velcro and pockets. This included the back packs we would carry, and any hats, scarves, gloves and waterproof pants that weren’t new.

We were given new jackets, bright red with thick inner linings. They look fantastic, but I am not sure how much use they will get in our Mediterranean climate at home. We were also allocated boots, big rubber things that we would wear ashore.

Lyn gave a lecture on sea birds, explaining how they glide in and out of the wave troughs, picking up the energy of the waves to lift them up. Later that day the resident photographer Jacqueline captured a lovely photo of a Wandering Albatross.

Friday 2 February

We made good time across the Drake Passage so by afternoon of the second day we were in the South Shetland Islands and ready for our first excursion in the Aitcho group of islands at a latitude of about 62° 24’ South. 

As we were approaching a nasty smell became evident. I thought it might be the seals, but I was assured it was the penguins and it would get worse and we would become used to it. 

Our first experience donning our jackets, waterproof pants and boots was interesting and we certainly improved as time went on. 

The expedition staff went ashore first and checked out the area. They set up flag poles marking the route we were to follow. Strict instructions that we were to go no closer than 5 metres to any animal or bird. The rule didn’t apply to the Antarctic creatures, and they often crossed our path, giving us a fantastic opportunity to see them up close.

We had been instructed on how to get in and out of the Zodiacs, both from our ship and also on the beach landings. Safety was a prime concern.

Before going ashore and when we returned to the ship, we had to swipe our identity card and walk through a ‘sheep dip’ to clean any bacteria from our boots. The boots had to be scrubbed in the Mud Room and left there. If boots weren’t cleaned well enough their owners were called over the intercom to come down and do a better job.  Seemed very tedious, but how important to keep this wonderful part of the world in its pristine shape. 

We were divided into two groups. Our group’s first visit was to Bariantos Island for Gentoo Penguins on the beach and Chinstrap Penguins higher in the ridges. We were entertained by the penguins feeding their young. Most chicks were born late December, after eggs were laid in November. The Gentoo penguins have silver and white chicks and by now they were quite demanding, even chasing their parents for more food. There were also some penguins moulting and we knew from the Little Penguins at home and the Jackass Penguins in South Africa that it is a stressful two weeks when they can’t do anything except stand and wait until their new coat of feathers and down grows. Grumpy Bums. 

Further up the beach the Chinstrap penguins were sitting on the rocky ridges with their chicks. The chicks are a dirty brown colour and since they live higher up in a more muddy terrain, both adults and chicks looked very dirty. 

The Chinstrap penguins are easy to identify with a white face and a distinctive thin black band around their chin. 

After our allotted time on Bariantos Island we were swapped with the second group to Cecilia Island. This was a nesting place for Giant Petrels. There were also Weddell Seals sleeping on the beach. This is moulting season for seals as well, so they are obliged to just lay on the beach and wait for their new coat to grow. 

It was a rough night as we crossed the Bransfield Strait to the Antarctic peninsula.

There was a competition for the first to spot an iceberg. I didn’t get up at first light to participate, but it was an amazing experience to see those lumbering blocks of ice at a distance when I woke up.

Saturday 3 February

In the morning we were taken to Danco Island in the Errera Channel and very close to the Antarctic mainland. Here we climbed the slippery, snowy slopes to overlook the channel. Gentoo penguins roost below the snow line, and here they had climbed to the rocky peak above the snow to build their nests, creating a ‘penguin highway’ through the slushy snow.

The kayakers also came out for the first time as the waters were calmer. They were a pretty sight amongst the calm waters.

There were a few seals basking on the rocks and Minke whales made a brief appearance. Of course there were hundreds of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins putting in an appearance for us.

The slope was steep and slippery, so I was offered to return one of their flag marker poles to the boat on our descent, which acted like a walking pole.

We returned to the ship for lunch and I appreciated the thick hearty soup they served each day. 

In the afternoon we repositioned to George’s Point where there were Weddell and Antarctic Fur seals on the beach moulting. We were told these were probably the young or impotent males who have been forced out of the family or the harems. They moult first. 

We had already seen the penguins greatest enemy, the Skua. These large brown birds will circle a colony, disturbing the penguins and hunting for the weakest. 

In this case they were targeting an adult penguin with its chick. It is very difficult to tell male and female penguins apart and since they both have an active part in rearing the chicks, we really didn’t know whether it was the mother or father protecting this young Gentoo chick. 

In a long drawn out and disturbing process we watched as the Skua dive down on the chick, many times managing to grab it by its neck and carry it some distance, sometimes away from the colony of penguins that were watching and other times closer. Each time the adult penguin squawked and roared and chased the Skua. This went on for some time. Eventually another Skua flew in and appeared to chase the first Skua away, giving the penguins some breathing space. Each time the adult would walk towards the colony, encouraging the little one to follow, but it was becoming more and more exhausted. The two Skuas reappeared and at that stage it appeared that the adult penguin abandoned the chick to its fate and went up to the colony to two other chicks. 

It was a horrible end for the little chick as the Skuas dug in with it still crying. 

In the de-brief that evening Lyn, the bird expert, explained that penguins are dumb and Skuas are smart. Too true. 

We re-positioned during dinner to Paradise Cove for the ice camp. Bruce had booked us in to this adventure, so at 9pm we left with 43 other fools to set up camp at Leith Cove

Dressed in multiple layers of thermals and armed with cameras, a tent, sleeping mats and sleeping bags, we left the warm comfort of the ship to cross the water to the tiny icy cove. 

Fortunately one of the crew, Sarah helped us assemble our tent, burying posts in the ice against the wind. 

It had been our first sunny day and with a clear sky we were treated to our first and only sunset, which was stunning. 

It was hard work walking around the campsite where the ice was nearly knee deep and fragile, so after sunset we opted for an early night, about 11pm and listened to crew member Blaise serenade us to sleep with the likes of American Pie and Hallelujah

The night’s silence was interrupted by the crashing of ice from the glaciers. Every one sounded like an explosion. I could only contemplate the continual destruction of this amazing place with the denied global warming – what are our politicians thinking?

Our ice floor was not very even, we do really lack camping experience, but although the air was cold, I had far too many layers of thermals on and needed to strip some of the layers off. 

We were woken up at 5:15am, did I sleep at all? I made a quick dash to the porta potty and we packed up the tent and headed back to the ship for a hot shower and hearty breakfast. We were welcomed on board like heroes with a warming, well-laced hot chocolate.