Antarctica: Part I

(see more photos on facebook)

Day 1,   January 19, 2010   A Dent in the Wallet

I’m over the biggest hump on route to Antartida (Spanish for Antarctica).  Never mind crossing the windiest stretch of ocean on Earth… the decision just to get on a southbound vessel was the hardest part.  Just yesterday I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina the most southern city in the world, hoping to have the same last-minute bargaining power that I had used on a boat in the Galapagos Islands.  Unfortunately I found a much tougher beast than I found in the islands off of Ecuador, and arriving at the peak of tourist season wasn’t going to help my ability to negotiate fares either.

For the last year I have mulled over the ways in which one could go to Antarctica.  They are as follows:

#1 On your own personal sailing expedition…I don’t have a boat, and I’m a pretty poor sailor, so this option did not make it on my life list.

#2 Get a job as a scientist, researcher, or service worker at one of the research stations for a 6-month Antarctic summer…Truthfully, I’m sick of jobs that take over my life and isolate me from the world, so this would not be an option either.

#3  Spend about six grand on flight….not the bang for the buck I was looking for.

#4 Spend $3-12,000 on an Antarctic cruise, which vary in levels of comfort from Navy-style berths to first-class cabins (champagne included).

My only option would be #4, a price which I could cut in half by scoring a last-minute deal in Ushuaia.  I debated for days about committing to it.  A few thousand dollars would last me for months on the road in countries I have yet to explore.  I have taken pride in traveling on a tight budget, and have insisted that doing so enriches the experience. At the same time, who knew when I would be back in Ushuaia again (if ever) and it would costs thousands to return.

I recalled a visit to Chamonix, France when I was just 18 years old.  I had the chance to climb Mount Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, with a friend, but I eventually backed out because I was too cheap to shell out thirty dollars to rent a harness and ice equipment.  I regret that decision to this day and now scoff at the idea of missing unique opportunities to save on money that you’ve already saved.  What’s the point of saving money in the first place?  For some, it’s to buy a house, or to save for a child’s education.  For single, irresponsible. and selfish me, I save so that I can embrace these types of opportunities.  This could be my one life opportunity to get to the world’s seventh continent, and once I arrived at its closest port, I realized that my decision to go had already been made.

"The Ushuaia" leaving the port for which it was named

I boarded the 70-meter, 80-passenger ex-research vessel, the “Ushuaia” at 4:00 pm today.  As I unpacked my bag in the smallest cabin on the boat, I soon forgot that my savings account was just half the size it was the day prior.  And so began the trip.

Day 2, January 20, 2009  “Dazed on the Drake Crossing”

I went to bed tired last night…and awoke to light this morning.  I mistook the ceiling light that my roommate left on for a sunlit window, and I jumped out of my upper bunk to check the time.  1:30…shit…we had slept for 14 hours, and had missed the morning Antarctic lectures.  Apparently the swaying boat and the uniform sound of the motor below us had put me in a sleepy daze.  I dressed and climbed the stairs above.  There must have been a conference going one for I was the only one in hallway, but soon looked out a porthole to darkness, realizing my mistake.  The dark Antarctic sky called me out.  It’s 1:30 in the morning you asshole.

We spent all of day 2 crossing the Drake Passage, the narrowest section of the Southern Ocean, which connects the Antarctic Peninsula to Cape Horn, South America.  At this latitude, unobstructed Westerly circumpolar winds build up to produce nasty swells and the world’s most daunting waters.  For better or for worse, we encountered a peaceful sea today, and swells rarely amounted to more than a few meters.

With not much to look at but an open sea, I used today as an opportunity to meet some of the seventy passengers onboard.  Fifteen were from the Netherlands, a good few from the States, five from Argentina, a couple from India, Pakistan, and China, and quite a bunch from Australia and Europe.  My roommate Benny, a native of Vancouver with Chinese blood, born just a day after me, was on a similar journey to that of my own.  He too was traveling for 2-3 years, but his trigger was a fight with his dad, and the need to get of his family’s business.  Remniscent of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, he packed his bags for seemingly endless journey.

Day 3, January 21, 2010   Land in Sight

Three Chinstrap Penguins provided a warm welcome

“Off.”  That’s how I could describe my condition so far on the trip.  I don’t know if it was the swaying boat, the loud engine next to my bed, the lack of exercise, or all the junk food I was eating, but for some reason I was lethargic, achy, and surprisingly unexcited about the expected landfall later that day.  My excitement and hopefully my energy level would increase as we neared the Antarctic mainland.

By lunchtime, some 800 kilometers into the trip, we encountered the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago just off the Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Small islands, flanked by cliffs and narrow, iceberg-filled channels…this is what I came for.  At 2:00 pm, we boarded a train of Antarctic-proof zodiacs and landed on the Aitchos Islands.  A line of two feet-tall chinstrap penguins welcomed us to their smelly home.  Tens of thousands of Penguins on an island the size of a Manhattan city block makes for a high density of penguin shit, and I’m now convinced penguin feces rivals only those of humans in the gross factor.

We walked across the drizzly desolate island, strictly staying 5 meters away from all wildlife.  As the winds and rain picked up and temperatures plummeted to about zero, my rubber boots sucked all feeling out of my toes.  However on this trip, I need not worry about the shivers for a hot shower is never more than a few hours away.  Our zodiac return to the ship was quite exciting as the swells picked up to three meters.  Following each wave crest, the bough of the zodiac would crash down and completely drench the front four passengers, as if we were in an Antarctic water amusement park.  One U.S. lady upfront was so horrified that she began to cry.  This was good for her I thought.  As we approached the ship the zodiac crashed against Ushuaia’s massive metal hull, and if someone had their fingertips on the outside of the tube, fingers surely would have been crushed.  One elderly man was so paralyzed by the situation that we literally had to lift him out of our boat onto the deck above.  Passengers were completely wasted when they got onto the deck, and I think some were questioning their decision to come here.

Day 4, January 22, 2010  Touching Ground on the 7th Continent

Last night the Ushuaia cruised across the Bransfield Strait (otherwise known as the mini-Drake because of the swells it generates) and into the Antarctic Sound.  As we entered the sound, icebergs became so frequent that the boat had to slow to just a few knots as it navigated around them.  They were absolutely massive, some the size of city parks, so large that they would circulate the Southern Ocean for years before melting.  Unlike normal islands, icebergs migrate with the currents, so it requires two crewmembers to be on iceberg watch to ensure we don’t pull a Titanic with these unmapped obstacles.  They pose such a challenge that we have an ice captain onboard, exported from Russia, who specializes in this type ice navigation.  Enormous seals slept on these rolling ice beds, and if you had the right light, you could see the aqua blue bottoms, the majority of the iceberg mass below water.

Deep-blue iceberg drifting in the Brainsfield Strait. Up to 80% of an iceberg's mass is submerged underwater.

Encountering the beautiful ice bergs reminded me of a slide show I went to of my child-hero, the late Alex Lowe, one of the world’s great mountain climbers.  He showed pictures of his “Sailing to Climb” Antarctic expedition, where he joined a southbound sailing vessel to ice climb the world’s tallest icebergs.  With envy, I pictured him carefully cramponing off the rubber hull of our zodiacs, swinging forcefully on his first pass into the ice, as to avoid slipping into the ice-cold or slashing the inflatable boat below.  The perfectly cut blue ice floating at sea would be my fondest memory of Antarctica.

We intended to cruise to Paulet Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, but the pack ice from the Weddell Sea extended out into our route, much farther than expected.  This was the same ice that trapped Shackleton’s expedition in 1914, crushing both his vessel The Endurance, as well as his dream of making the first traverse of Antarctica.  But while he and his crew spent 14 months getting themselves out of this epic, we were only inconvenienced for a morning.   As a nice alternative we cruised south and made our first landing on the Antarctic mainland.

At 9:30 a.m., the zodiacs landed, and many of the ships’ travelers had just touched their final continent.  Located at 65 degrees South, we had landed on the Northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, but we had yet to cross the Antarctic Circle.  In the Northern Hemisphere, there are many towns and small cities scattered across greater latitudes in Norway, Alaska, and Russia.  But Antarctica is a much different from the Arctic.  With a landmass extending from the South Pole, temperatures and winds are much more extreme than in the high boreal latitudes.  Consequently, 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice, and options for landing on dry ground are few and far between.  Today we found a sliver of that two percent, a volcanic outcropping called Brown Bluff, where we set up base for three hours to admire the surrounding glaciers, icebergs, and penguins.

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One response to “Antarctica: Part I

  1. Wow – checked in today also to see if you were someplace safe and away from the earthquake. Hope all is well and thank you for showing me sights I’ll never see in person.

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