I am starting my journey towards Antarctica! I’ve just left San Jose, California, heading towards Houston, then a red-eye to Buenos Aires, and then off to Ushuaia - El Fin del Mundo - at the very end tip of Argentina by tomorrow night. Whew - it’s going to be a long couple days, but my expedition has officially begun
For a bit of background, I am a Wildlife Safari Manager for Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (www.cheesemans.com) and I coordinate safaris all over the world for fellow wildlife enthusiasts. I have a background in biology, conservation, and natural resource management. I also have a background in hotels and cirques, so this job is a great fit for my interests and experiences. And occasionally, we actually get to join the safaris and expeditions we manage! This is my fourth Cheesemans’ safari in the 4 years I’ve worked here, the other three being an expedition to South Georgia Island in Oct 2015, Tanzania and Rwanda in Feb 2016, and the Galápagos Islands in Jul 2018 (see my other journal entries).
Thank you as always to my co-workers for making this trip possible. Thank you to Sarah for taking care of my cats. Thank you to my family for nurturing my sense of adventure and love of wildlife.
More to come... This is just a quick one I found on Google.
After some very long flights, changing airports in Buenos Aires, and not sleeping on the flights, I have finally made it to the hotel and into my room by 9pm. I’m exhausted. I met quite a few of our trip participants in the hotel lobby. I’m really looking forward to traveling with these folks I’m off to eat dinner with my roommate and then hit the pillow for some much-needed sleep.
I had a leisurely wake-up a bit before 8:30am. Slept like a log mostly. After checking out of the hotel, I took the shuttle into town. Ushuaia is a nice little town and very walkable. The day was beautiful - chilly in the wind, but the sun was really warm. I walked down the waterfront, taking photos of the majestic mountains and common-but-different birds they have on the water — ducks, geese, and gulls that are not quite like the ones back home. After taking in the waterfront, I walked down the main street, not really interested in shopping or stopping in to anything in particular, just people watching and enjoying being somewhere that’s not home. After a late lunch, it was time to meet the buses that need to take us through the customs checkpoint and along the dock to the ship.
Top photo: crested duck
Middle photo: view of Ushuaia’s harbor
Bottom photo: view of Ushuaia
We all walked up the long gangway, being greeted by the ship’s staff members. I handed over my passport and was shown to my cabin. It’s a nice enough cabin: 1 twin bed, 1 sofa bed that gets converted to a bed starting this evening, a closet with hangers and drawers, a desk with drawers, and a small bathroom.
I’ve met my cabinmate Anita. She’s a hugger and very nice. We agree that I’ll take the sofa bed. I’m only a little worried of taking this bed because of the way it is oriented and my seasickness. I know on the last big ship I was on, I liked rolling from head to toe. On this sofa bed, I’ll be rolling side to side. I hope it doesn’t make the seasickness worse. (Still hoping that I don’t get seasick, or at least not as bad since I’ve medicated myself much better on this trip.)
After unpacking, we had a quick meet-and-greet followed by an orientation, followed by the mandatory muster station training, followed by some free time before dinner. During our free time, our ship pulled up the ropes and began to back away from the dock. WE’RE OFF!
We’re now officially motoring down the Beagle Channel. The scenery here is stunning. The mountains are so big and sharp and snowy. The water is currently quite glassy. I’m trying to take photos, but they’re not doing justice to what I’m seeing. Dinner is called, dinner is eaten, and now we’re all either off to bed or socializing in the lounge for a bit. As it’s quarter to 10 now, I’ve opted to stop the socializing, write in this journal, and get to sleep. We’re predicting to be out of the protective waters of the channel around 12-2am, so we all may or may not be in for a rough night.
Talking to the assistant hotel manager earlier, he said the way down there on the last trip was fine, just a bit of rolling, but on the way back, they had a 30° roll where the 5th deck touches the water. Pretty crazy. I’m on deck 7. Here’s hoping I don’t see my window disappear into an underwater view
Top photo: our ship docked in Ushuaia
Middle photo: cruising down the Beagle Channel
Bottom photo: the mountains are big and stunning and some are really jagged
At 1:20am, the rocking and rolling began. It woke me up and made for a not-so-pleasant night of sleep. According to this morning’s announcements, the ship’s greatest roll was about 20°. Luckily, everything in the cabin is secured, unlike on the Ortelius where our desk chair and trash bins visited each and every side of the room throughout the night with a loud crash.
I decided to skip breakfast and just sleep in since I slept so poorly. My cabinmate Anita did get ready in the morning and left the room only to come back a short time later to take some seasickness meds. She left again. And came back carrying lots of throw-up baggies. She did get sick and decided to take more meds and lay down. So we both slept on and off.
At around 10:30, I sat up in bed, gauging how I was feeling. Not too bad. Let’s try to get ready to leave the room. OK, so far so good. I left the cabin, took the outdoor stairs down to the lounge — the breeze felt good — and made myself a cup of coffee. Now I sit here, trying to half keep my eye on the horizon and half type. Again, so far so good.
I couldn’t be in the lounge any longer. Even while standing in front of the porthole and watching the horizon, my seasickness started to kick in again. Up to the cabin I went. And there I stayed until dinnertime. I did have my thermos of tea and a couple of cookies at my bedside if I needed something. I managed to go down to the dining room for dinner, but didn’t stay afterwards. Back to bed.
I did not get a good night’s sleep. A lot more rocking and rolling. I was told that we had a ~35° roll. Our cabin’s desk chair was strapped down to the floor, but it managed to come undone and roll across the room. My cabinmate likes to put all her things on the desk, so those all went scattering across the room. She also put her suitcase against a wall, so it slid back and forth, banging against the metal wall. I threw a towel between her suitcase and the wall - one problem solved. She got up and grabbed the chair while I strapped back into place. She did re-stack her things on the desk, but they all just went back on the floor after another decent roll. Aye aye aye. And with each heavy roll, I have to grip the side of my mattress to prevent me from sliding out. Not at all a restful night’s sleep.
So today, I have decided that there is no good reason to leave my cabin. My cabinmate brought me some pastries from breakfast. I still had lots of tea in my thermos. And while my cabinmate kept coming and going, she complained each time about how difficult it was to get around. I wanted to point out that there was an easy way to avoid her risking her health as she slid across the floor. **In fact, just a bit after writing this, Anita came into the cabin, didn’t close the door behind her, so she turned around to do that and didn’t have a grip on anything in the cabin. It was then that the ship lurched and she was thrown straight towards me across the cabin, her head ramming straight into the metal wall. She was draped over my sofa bed and I tried to assess the damage to her and one of the staff members must have heard the bang and came right in. She called for Sam, the ship’s doctor. Sam arrived with a ziplock full of ice. She briefed us on the symptoms of a concussion which are very similar to experiencing seasickness, so rather difficult to tell the two apart in these conditions, but she seemed confident that Anita wasn’t concussed. Poor Anita got an immediate goose-egg on her forehead. She and I both resumed our lying in bed for the afternoon.
So I did end up getting dressed and went down to the lounge. I needed tea and more sustenance. Tea made, banana grabbed, I went back to my cabin. I tried to take a video of the swinging towels in the bathroom (I don’t have swinging curtains in this cabin) and managed to be slid off the bed and across the floor on my butt. OK, no more trying to do that.
I think the ship’s captain does his best to position us well for meals times. I was able to go down to dinner and chat for a bit. Then it got dark, my horizon disappeared, and one of my table mates said, “You need to go back to your cabin. You just turned gray.” And so I did.
There were two staff members who checked in on me today and both had mentioned that I change the position of the sofa bed I was sleeping on. I was able to fold up one side, climb over it and down into a “coffin.” It turned my bed into half its size, but allowed me no room to roll around. When my cabinmate came in later that evening, she exclaimed, “Maureen! What’s happened to you?! Are you OK?!” I told her I was fine and that this is what the staff recommended I do with the bed. I also apologized in advance if I needed to climb over the corner of her bed if I needed to pee in the middle of the night.
I slept so much better last night. I still woke up a lot, but I was able to sleep deeply without worrying about sliding off the bed. I was woken up a few times by an ache in my leg — kind of like a Charlie horse feeling. I ate the banana I had grabbed the day before - maybe I just need some potassium. I also took a shower and that felt amazing. Today’s sea conditions are off to a good start. I missed breakfast, but was well enough to grab some hot chocolate from the lounge and I headed up to the auditorium for the mandatory orientation for our visit in Antarctica, explaining the procedure for riding in helicopters and visiting the penguin colony. After that, we had to go through bio security screening so that none of us are accidentally bringing seeds (like foxtails) into the Antarctic ecosystem via our backpacks or boots. All my gear was cleared.
Seems like everyone is doing much better today. However, because of the crappy sea conditions earlier, we’re behind schedule. We’re probably going to make it to the sea ice by late tonight/early tomorrow morning, then from there, we still have to make our way to the penguin colony area. So we still have time before we make any outings to the penguins.
Today was the first day I had lunch with the group. I attended some lectures after lunch. I sent an email to my family to let them know I’m alive. And while we’ve changed course a bit ago and things are a bit rollier again, I will try to make it down to dinner. I should at least stock up on my tea and cookies.
So I managed to eat some soup and ginger ale, but as soon as I was done, I excused myself from my table and hurried upstairs to my cabin as I felt my seasickness coming over me. I reached my cabin in time, propped up the toilet seat, and then I did not get sick - phew!
I turned my bed into a little coffin again and listened to my podcasts to block out the wave action. Here’s to hoping for a better tomorrow.
We woke up this morning to blinding light coming from our porthole window. I really could not see out. This was a good sign as it means we were surrounded by ice!
I got dressed, layered on my jackets, and went for a quick stroll outside on my deck. We are in Antarctica! It’s exactly as I pictured, but even better now that I’m experiencing it.
I went back inside for breakfast in the dining room — my first on the ship — then bundled up a bit better for a longer stay out on deck to take photos. The scenery is stunning. Icebergs surround us - some humungous and well grounded, others floating by - the ocean is covered in ice except in the trail of where we’ve just been and the occasional bare patch. The water is a deep black color, but it turns beautiful shades of blue around the floating icebergs. The ice atop the water is also beautifully colored in blues and grays and whites.
Watching the ice breaker ship do its work is mesmerizing. I’ve taken lots of videos because photos cannot do it justice. My favorite thing is to watch the cracks in the ice appear — they’re like lightning bolts at first, zig-zagging through the surface, then they begin to separate and the deep black water fills in. Sometimes ice chunks come off, revealing a gorgeous turquoise ice color or the brown bottom where algae/diatoms collect on the underside of the ice sheets.
Today was also my first day to see critters that were not seabirds. We saw our first emperor penguins - they were at a distance, running across an ice sheet and into the water, away from our ship. We also saw a couple Weddel seals napping on the ice, only waking as we got fairly close in the ship.
Top photo: the bow of the ship as we make our way through some thin ice
Middle photo: beautiful blues of a small floating iceberg
Bottom photo: Weddel seal being rudely awoken from its nap
We’ve stopped. It seems that we’re not quite sure the best route to take through the sea ice to get to where we want to be. Fortunately, the weather is sunny and bright and that means that the ice pilot can take to the sky to find us the best route. The helicopter mechanics pull out one of the helis, attach its rotor blades, get inside, and take off.
As we stand around on deck waiting for the pilot to return, we were greeted by several groups of emperor penguins swimming in the waters around our ship. At least we know we’re close’ish to the colony!
After the pilot returned, the captain and his guys worked on a plan of action. And since there was one helicopter out and ready to go, we were broken up into groups to go down and learn the procedure for boarding through both sets of doors and what signals to look for from the staff (stop, go, etc.).
Top photo: helicopter arriving from its reconnaissance mission
Middle photo: swimming emperor penguins
Bottom photo: helicopter orientation
After setting down a path (not a straight one) through the ice, we have arrived at a good stopping point close to the colony! From here, we’ll have a short helicopter ride out to the colony in the morning, so long as weather conditions permit. The helis do need good visibility, especially the ability to distinguish the horizon which isn’t always possible in snowy/icy white/foggy conditions where the ice cover and sky blend together. All our fingers are crossed for a clear tomorrow.
Top, middle, and bottom photos: some of the ice conditions we faced
There are 18 species of penguins in the world. We are here to see just one species: the emperor penguin. There are two species within their genus: king and emperor — they have many common features and look very similar, however, the emperor is the largest.
POPULATION: Kings are subantarctic and live on the islands around Antarctica; their population is estimated at 1.6 million pairs. Emperors are only on Antarctica’s coasts within 54 colonies; their population is estimated at 238,000 pairs. Lifespan is about 20 years.
BREEDING CYCLE: Kings and emperors only lay one egg per breeding cycle. The emperor breeding cycle is 8 months ~Apr-Dec — matches the sea ice cycle.
December - March: They use ~3-4 months to get fit (=fat, they double their body weight) to be able to endure the 8mo breeding cycle. The penguins come to shore to breed ~mid March and they walk or toboggan (slide on their bellies) to get to the colony. They’re all together by late March.
April: Courtship. They practice seasonal monogamy = one partner per breeding season, but not annually; only ~15% of pop stays together year after year. Other penguin species, except kings, have ~80% monogamy. This could be because they don’t have nests or could be because there are more females in the population. Many males don’t make it through the winter/incubation period.
Breeding is difficult - they’re very fat, it’s crowded, and other penguins interrupt.
May: Egg-laying. They produce thick shells (0.8-1.4mm) that they incubate on their feet. Then comes the very important egg transfer. Females lay the egg and then very carefully pass the egg from her feet to her mate’s feet. Up to 25% of eggs are lost during this process. The females leave the colony to feed - she is exhausted and skinny after producing the egg, so she will walk kilometers to the ocean to feed and regain body fat. Because of this, it’s not safe for females to take turns incubating egg.
June-early Aug: Egg incubation by the males. Males have a brood patch where bare, featherless skin transfers heat to the egg. Males will rotate the egg on their feet to keep all parts warm. They will sleep a lot while incubating and undergo a ~10% reduction in metabolic rate. They huddle together to keep warm and the mass of males is always moving in a dense pack to avoid heat loss. In the huddle, the heat can be high (37.5C), so they rotate from the outside to the inside of the huddle and back. The huddles only last about 2 hours to avoid over-heating, plus it’s also good for their metabolism. When in a huddle, a male may lose 150g/day of metabolic mass vs. a lone, non-huddling male would lose 300g/day.
Mid-July-mid-Aug: Hatching. Hatchlings stay on the male’s feet to avoid the ice. The chick is hungry, so males make a “crop milk” from the lining of the male’s esophagus (~60% proteins, 30% fats). Chicks will be fed a few days and will start to appear out from under the male’s feet. Males are waiting for the females to return to help feed the chick. At the end of the 4 month fast, males have lost 45% body weight (~9% body fat is left (was 45% when they arrived) — they still have to walk to a place to feed which can take days — they seek out openings in the ice that remain year after year. Leopard seals know that males will be making their way to these openings and wait to feed on these skinny guys.
Females don’t digest the food they have taken in, so when they arrive back to the chicks, they will feed the chicks what they caught at sea.
There will be different sized chicks because females don’t lay eggs at exactly the same time.
Aug-mid-Nov: Chick-rearing. At about 30 days, chicks will start to explore and parents need to watch them. At about 45-60 days, the parents will not allow the chick onto their feet anymore - they are now adolescents. Parents leave the chicks so that they can go feed and bring back food. The chicks form their own huddles and creshes. Unfortunately, some chicks can’t wait for their parents to return and starve. Also, gulls and skuas will take chicks.
As the ice melts, parents’ commute is shorter to the open water. They give 20% of take to chicks and keep 80% to themselves (they need to prepare for the next breeding season).
Nov-Dec: Chick molt and departure. By early Dec, the chicks will follow the parents to the water and then the parents stop feeding chicks. The chicks will molt their downy feathers for waterproof feathers and fledge. They’re hungry, so they will start to swim. They will begin to wander and not come back to land, only coming back to land to breed. They have ~60% survival rate during the first year - the chicks are so small and can have trouble feeding or they will be fed upon. They will first return to the colony at 4 years and will attempt to breed the next year.
Today was GLORIOUS!
We were awoken at 5:15am and told over the loud speaker that the weather conditions were cold, clear, and crisp — perfect for the helicopters. (If too cold, the helicopters need to warm up for a couple hours (!) for the oil to perform properly.)
Starting at 6:30am, the helicopter groups were called down to muster — lining up in an orderly way so that each of us is checked off the ship and tracked by an ID number we were each given. By ~7:15, my group was boarded and by 7:30, we were on Snow Hill Island and only about a mile away from the penguin colony. This was my FIRST helicopter ride ever! I approve of this mode of transport
We landed at Basecamp — a makeshift heli pad, a large tent full of supplies (should we need them), and a toilet without any kind of screen/privacy. The setting was actually quite pretty as we were up against a wall of blue ice. Basecamp is set up about a mile from the penguin colony so as not to disturb the penguins.
We grabbed our backpacks/camera bags and met with Woody, the Expedition Leader for this trip. He gave us the run down: stick to the flagged path the staff have created for us to reach the penguin colony, don’t approach the penguins, keep a good distance from the penguins though the penguins are allowed to approach us, no touching penguins, no food allowed except lunch served at Basecamp, and use the toilet at Basecamp or the one nearer the colony.
And so we all started down the flagged path towards the colony, taking in the scenery around us. We’re not technically ON Snow Hill Island, but instead on the “fast ice” that is fastened (hence “fast”) to the land. We’ve been told the ice we’re on is probably 2-3m thick. While here, we all need to wear a PFD - personal floatation device - a red lifejacket that will self-inflate if submerged. Luckily, they’re fairly thin over our big bulky jackets and not like the thick, boxy orange lifejackets we have to use on the ship in case of emergency, so they’re not much of a nuisance.
And while walking down the snowy path, we were greeted by some tobogganing emperor penguins! Seems they like to use our path too.
Top photo: helicopter landing at Basecamp
Middle photo: our first up-close penguins!
Bottom photo: tobogganing penguins
As we walk closer to the colony, we can hear a great cacophony. We can’t yet see the full colony as they’re behind a hill, but the adult penguins are whistling (we would probably need a kazoo to replicate it) and the chicks are also chirping away. As soon as we walk around the hill, we are presented with a great plain of penguins!
The colony is really made up of lots of smaller sub-colonies that the penguins wander in and out of throughout the day. From our point of view, there is a kind of fat line of penguins to our right, an empty road down the center, and some additional sub-colonies a bit further off to our left. At the “end” of our road, there is a little hill that some photographers have set up their tripods on.
I realize quickly that there is no guano smell. On South Georgia Island, there is a very distinct smell of penguins. But here, I don’t smell it. It’s really quite nice. And the guano here is green, not pink. I know the South Georgia penguins eat a lot of krill and now I’m wondering what these guys eat that turns the snow green.
Today, I move from sub-colony to sub-colony, watching the adults and chicks interact. It’s a warm day (for Antarctica) and the penguins all look hot. Many lie in the snow to cool off. We see quite a few dead chicks. It’s no wonder considering the harsh conditions they are up against here. There are gulls and skuas flying over the colony occasionally. I’ve noticed that when the gulls call as they fly over the colony, all the chicks run and huddle together, but not so if the gulls remain quiet as they soar.
At one point during the afternoon, a small airplane flies over the colony, setting off all the penguins in to a flurry of flapping wings. The plane flies over several times, causing this penguin reaction each time. I asked Tom Hart, the Penguinologist, about this plane. He thinks it’s the Argentinian government checking up on our operations — making sure our Basecamp, people, and procedures are following regulations. However, that plane should not have been flying so low as to cause a reaction from the penguins. The government may be receiving a complaint from our Penguinologist or trip leaders...
As we watch the penguins, we observe a penguin highway that we all must stand clear of, timing our crossings when the penguins are through. And we watch as adult penguins, usually one or two, seem to escort groups of chicks from sub-colony to sub-colony. Sometimes, brave groups of chicks go out alone. And in places where there snow mounds to climb, the chicks seem to want to play King of the Mountain and get to the top, even when the incline is way too steep to climb.
This was an amazing day.
Top photo: typical scene within the colony
Middle photo: posing adults
Bottom photo: King of the Mountain
We had another amazing day out on the ice! My helicopter group was the first out this morning, so we left the ship around 6:45am. We visited new areas today because the penguins moved around a bit overnight. Weather was sunny and “warm” again — I actually took off a jacket layer and my gloves for a time, but then the slightest bit of breeze came up and I needed to bundle myself again.
I tried to focus more on the chicks today since I already got some great photos of the adults yesterday. Those chicks are so cute. I’ve had a couple debates with my cabinmate about whether the emperor vs. king penguin chicks are the cutest. I’m on Team King. These emperor chicks are super adorable, but the kings have greater personality. Someone else on Team King mentioned the same thing to my cabinmate, so I think we won the debate.
There was a particular sub-colony that I really liked because there were levels of ground where the penguins stood and so you could see lots of things happening depending on where you focused for a moment. There was another King of the Mountain play structure. There was a slight downhill area that some penguins tobogganed from. There was feeding, there was playing, there was highway crossing, there were chicks that were almost the size of the adults, and there were really tiny chicks I just wanted to scoop up (but wouldn’t, of course). I spent a good deal of time watching this group.
And then across a muddy highway, there was another nice sub-colony location with beautiful backgrounds — icy blue wall on one side, gorgeous snowy expanse in another. And of course some very active chicks running amok.
While watching the penguin interactions, I picked up on the feeding and courting behaviors.
Feeding: it’s truly amazing that the parents find each other and find their chicks in this chaos. They can recognize each other’s calls. How one penguin’s whistle differs from the next one is beyond our hearing comprehension. Amazing. But when the parents do find the chick, the chick wants to eat. It will usually back up into mum or dad, not quite sitting on their feet but practically, the chick will tilt its head backwards and up towards mum/dad’s face a few times, and make some noise. Mum or dad will then kind of make a classic (if you have pets) regurgitating motion in the throat. Once something has come up, mum/dad will bend down towards the chick with a wide open mouth and the chick will insert its head right in there to take the food up. This feeding bout can last quite a while.
Courting: this is another behavior that happens after the parents find each other and I think that each time I saw this, there was at least one chick in between the parents, but there was usually more than one chick around (because I think the adults can’t escape hungry little ones, even if they aren’t theirs). But the two adults will face each other and be quite close (little one in between), their heads facing slightly upwards. Then one will drop its head quite dramatically into its breast. After a long moment, the other penguin will do the same. Then the first will roll its head all the way back and then roll it sideways around and back up into the original head-facing-slightly-upward position. After another long moment, the other penguin will do the same. And so it goes until the little one does something that causes one parent to lose balance and need to interrupt the “dance” to move around.
I stayed out until around 4:30pm today. Like yesterday, I ate a big breakfast, skipped lunch, and didn’t dare pee in the open toilet. It was wonderful to stay out among the penguins for so long.
Top photo: a bit of both beautiful backgrounds: icy blue wall and great expanse
Middle photo: chicks!
Bottom photo: what crossing the muddy highway looks like (because penguins are clumsy and trip)
Wow. Our group is SOOOOOOOO lucky to be here for a third spectacular day. Same weather as we’ve had the other two days: clear and crisp and “warm.” Today, my group is the last to get out to the colony. We all kind of liked the relaxed speed of breakfast and getting all our gear on.
The penguins had moved overnight and we were kind of back to our set-up that we had the first day, just a little different. However today, the penguins’ behavior was different. I think we habituated them over the last couple days because today they were very brave and many of us had penguins practically sitting at our feet. We were all in heaven
I started out my morning sitting in front of a sub-colony that had some pretty cute chicks who were all lined up in a row. I’m so glad I sat down there. These chicks got brave and made their way close the small group of photographers and observers, but then an adult managed to call them back to the main group. I moved about 30 feet away to get a different vantage point. This same group of brave chicks made their way again towards our human group, this time ignoring the calls from the adult. And out from this group, 2 VERY brave chicks decided to make their way in amongst us. It was so surreal. I had put my camera down to take all this in. I had a penguin chick just feet from my feet. I was trying to be so still so as not to scare them. There was a photographer lady right next to me who managed to get herself in an odd position to photograph the chicks, then when she put her camera down, she was kind of stuck there, also afraid to move. And these little chicks just looked around, poked around, one started calling and it was so neat to see the little one’s breath puff out a little steam each time. And then they wandered even further into our group and was able to move and take some photos of my fellow chick-onlookers which I’ll send them. Eventually, after the chicks made their rounds through our group, they went back to the safety of their colony. And all of us onlookers were just awestruck and commenting about HOW COOL THAT WAS!
I eventually moved to another sub-colony section and ended up face-to-face with a curious adult penguin this time. WOW. What a day for meeting penguins. This one also made the rounds amongst our group. I think we were all glowing.
I planted myself between two sub-colonies and spent the rest of the day watching individuals and groups of penguins vacillate, the adults usually tobogganing across the snow, the chicks usually forming groups and then spreading into a single-file line and then back into a group, needing to confer with each other that they’re on the right path. What a pleasant afternoon...
Top photo: me with penguin chicks, trying to stay super still
Middle photo: more chicks
Bottom photo: more penguins
Tonight, after we all returned to the ship, the crew arranged a BBQ outside on deck. Lovely idea and a grand tradition, but it’s tough to eat outside in below freezing conditions, trying to hold a metal fork and still have full use of those numb fingers. After dinner though, we all met in the lecture room for a bit of bad news: storms are coming.
Our Expedition Leader explained that there are two storms forming in the Drake Passage. Since we all know from experience that our ship is not built for the crossing, the EL and captain consulted the weather maps and decided that we needed to start making our way through back through the ice tonight with a plan to depart from King George Island (at the tip of the Peninsula) by the morning of the 28th in order to try to get ahead of the first Drake storm and reach sheltered waters near Argentina by the second Drake storm. Aw man. There was a collective groan from our group, both because we were leaving the penguins early and entering rough seas which we had just spent 3 days suffering through.
To make up for the bad news, here are some nice photos.
Top and middle photos: sunsets from Antarctica
Bottom photo: more cute penguins
So our captain broke through the ice last night (or really, I think they kind of retraced our path that we used to reach our penguin destination), but the ship stopped after it got dark. I guess the full moon wasn’t providing enough light for them to continue safely. This morning, the ship began to move again, however it’s been slow going due to heavy fog. Visibility has been really low — we’ll be breaking through ice sheets and then a multi-story iceberg appears from nowhere. The tools the ship’s crew uses are good, but not fool-proof in weather like this where visibility is so key. (This includes reconnaissance by the helicopters and ice pilot.) By the time we reached Seymour Island, the veil lifted and we were in nice, clear weather again.
Top photo: example of the low visibility through the fog
Middle photo: iceberg that appeared next to us suddenly
Bottom photo: the fog cleared into another stunning day
After lunch, the captain found us a good spot to “anchor” the ship into some fast ice so that we could go wander outside and take photos of the ship from the ice surface. It’s a nice idea, but I would have rather we used the time to go look for Antarctic critters. We saw some Adelie penguins and some seals from the ship earlier and we were close to areas that are landing spots for the other big Antarctic Peninsula expeditions. Instead, they rolled down the gangway, set up a flag for selfies, set up a rope attached to the bow for selfies with people looking like they were dragging the ship through the ice, and we took a group photo. I was told by staff that they always do this. I get it - I’m sure people appreciate it (heck, I used my flag photo as my new FB profile photo), but the day felt like a waste of precious time in Antarctica. I could have been seeing things, doing things, especially after feeling like our sea days really took over the time we had on this trip (4.5 days to the penguins, 3 days with penguins, 4 days back to Ushuaia).
Top photo: me with the flag
Middle photo: the ship in ice
Bottom photo: Adelie penguin (yeah! Another penguin checked off my list)
After we left our “anchor” in the ice, we made our way through the Antarctic Sound and past the main Peninsula. The scenery was stunning.
Top and middle photos: landscapes and icebergs
Bottom photo: the various looks of “pancake” ice
I assume we made our scheduled departure from King George Island this morning as we started our journey back across the Drake. It’s been sunny all day, so we are missing the storm, but it has been very rock-and-roll-y. My seasickness hasn’t been horrible unless I focus on something (then the nausea comes over me), but I decided “better safe than sorry” and would rather not chance injury or sickness by leaving my cabin. I’m not needed anywhere. My cabinmate has ventured in and out of the cabin all day and she comes back complaining of how exhausting it is fighting against the movement of the ship. Like on the way down to the penguin colony, my reply is “no, thank you.” I haven’t been hungry, but Anita has been bringing me cheese and bread from the meals — she’s so sweet.
More penguin photos!
Today is a lot like yesterday, so no use getting up and around. I’ve listened to all my downloaded podcasts though. Luckily, I have an old iPod with some music and audiobooks, so I can still be entertained. Plus, I have a ton of photos I need to delete or edit slightly...
More penguin photos!
I can tell that we are in sheltered waters this morning. The ship isn’t rolling much and so I’m up and out of bed with the wake-up call. We’re very near Argentinian land. Everyone greets me at breakfast and tells me what I’ve missed: lectures, a fundraiser (not as good as Cheesemans’ from I was told (the trip participants weren’t asked to donate items to the fundraiser and that’s a big part of the “fun” in fundraising), but they raised a lot of money for Tom Hart’s penguin research group, so that’s fabulous), some seabirds (though I did watch out my porthole during my cabin days and see albatross and petrels flank the ship).
After breakfast, we entered the Beagle Channel. The Andes have formed it and it is stunningly beautiful as we’re surrounded by mountains and forests and water. I’m hoping to see some Magellanic penguins — would be great to check another penguin species off my list, though also not so great because I would love the excuse to come back down here. There is also the possibility of spotting dolphins here.
Photos: scenery within the Beagle Channel
This afternoon, we watched the video the staff members put together from photos and videos they took and from trip participant submissions. It was wild to see the conditions during the Drake Passage crossings that I didn’t see from my bed. After the recap of the trip, we gathered in the lounge for the Captain’s Champagne Toast to thank us for a wonderful journey, though of course we were mostly thanking him and his crew. We also applauded so many of the ship’s staff: the helicopter pilots and mechanics, the kitchen crew, the housekeeping crew, the hotel and bar staff, and of course our expedition staff. We were also very lucky that the trip participants meshed so well.
By dinnertime, we were docked back in Ushuaia. We’ll spend the night on the ship and then wake up early for breakfast and disembarkation.
This morning, we disembarked the ship. Many of us have a flight around 1-2pm, so we’ll be bussed to the airport around 11am. With a couple hours to kill in Ushuaia, a group of us find a coffee shop and a large table and chat for a while. On our way back to the bus area, we get our passports stamped for fun — Ushuaia has a nice penguin stamp
I’ve had about 2 hours of sleep in the last 30+ hours. I had some breakfast in Houston and am almost home to San Jose, but “almost” as in 2.5 more hours... I want my bed and my kitties.
I’m home at last. Looking forward to a nap with purring kitties nearby.
Thank you again to my work - Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris - for letting me join this amazing adventure. Thank you to friends and family for your support. I’m off to bed...