Monday, April 9, 2012

Antarctica...When The Road Ended...The Adventure Began

Antarctica...The South Pole...The White Continent...The Seventh Continent...Terra Australis.

While I was in Santiago, Chile I met some travelers that had just returned from Antarctica. They shared with me that in Ushuaia it was possible to book last minute trips to Antarctica at a pretty steep discount. It peaked my interest. I researched it a little bit and found it to be true. But, there was a catch. The arctic exploration season is short, generally lasting about 4 months from late November to early March. I was told the last voyages typically leave the first week of March. I would have to rush.

And so I rushed through Southern Chile riding at a pretty rapid pace. I traveled most days and only stopped for short excursions. I jumped on a ferry which helped me cover quite a bit of ground/sea in a short amount of time.

I arrived in Ushuaia on March 7th

I booked a voyage to Antarctica on March 8th

The ship set sail on March's the story with excerpts from the ships log.

Emi would have to stay behind in Ushuaia parked under a cover at a roads in Antarctica.
The ship on which I would take this voyage was called the MV Plancius. The MV Plancius was named after the Dutch astronomer, cartographer, geologist and vicar Petrus Plancius (1552‐1622).
Plancius was built in 1976 as an oceanographic research vessel for the Royal Dutch Navy and was named Hr. Ms. Tydeman.
The ship sailed for the Royal Dutch Navy until June 2004 when she was purchased by Oceanwide Expeditions.
It was completely refit in 2007, being converted into a 114‐passenger expedition vessel. Plancius is 89 m (267 feet) long, 14.5 m (43 feet) wide and has a maximum draft of 5 m, with an Ice Strength rating of 1D, top speed of 12+ knots and three diesel engines. I booked myself into a 4 bunk bed cabin.

Day 1 – 9th March 2012
Embarkation: Ushuaia, Argentina
GPS 16.00 Position: 54°15’S / 68°19’W
Weather: Wind SW force 4, Overcast, Temperature: 4°C

Ushuaia marks the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, but also the beginning of a different type of adventure. During the summer this rapidly growing frontier town of 55,000 people bustles with adventurous travelers...trying to go as far south as possible.
A little while after boarding we convened in the lounge to meet Expedition Leader Rinie van Meurs who gave a toast to our imminent voyage.
A short while later Third Officer Svenja Wilmes led us through the Safety Briefing
and Lifeboat Drill.
Funny how sometimes things look dark and gray on one side and bright and clear on the other. Our departure from Ushuaia was marked by a very unusual sighting of Sei whales, deep inside the Beagle Channel. Both the Captain and the Argentinian Pilot onboard remarked that they had never seen these large whales so far from the open sea.
We sedately made our way first east through the Beagle Channel before turning southwards.
With ever increasing movement of the ship, we were soon headed into the Drake Passage.

Day 2 – 10th March 2012
At sea in the Drake Passage
GPS 08.00 Position: 56°20.2’S / 655°20’W
Weather: Wind WSW force 6, slight swell, clear visibility, Temperature +5°C

Our first day at sea introduced us to Antarctica through the lecture programme and to the Drake Passage through the movement in the ship beneath our feet!
It was a time to relax, find our sea legs and to begin preparations for the landings ahead. After collecting our rubber boots we all convened for our first lecture of the educational programme.
Sonja, a researcher and guide, introduced the seabirds we were likely to encounter with her presentation “Wings of the Southern Ocean”. She talked about adaptations, identification and behavior of birds we might find in the open ocean and the penguins that we hope to see ashore.
During the afternoon, Pablo, a historian and guide, gave us a primer on the human history of Antarctica.
Later, Jim, a historian and guide, spoke about the weather in Antarctica, including its influence on Scott’s expedition. At recap, after Rinie updated us on the progress of our passage to Antarctica, some of the staff presented snippets of information.

Day 3 – 11th March 2012
At sea in the Drake Passage
GPS 08.00 Position: 60°39.2’S / 063°48.0’W
Weather: Wind SW force 5, good visibility, Temperature +1°C

During the night we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and the 60th parallel so we were then officially in Antarctic waters (using both biological and geographical definitions). The sea had calmed considerably but a light breeze guaranteed good conditions for sighting sea birds around the ship.

After breakfast Andrew, a geologist and guide, convinced us in his interesting lecture about glaciers, icebergs and sea ice in the Antarctic that “Ice is not just for cooling drinks”.
Here's a cool 2:45 minute video showing the changes in the Antarctic ice sheet over 5 years.

Delphine, a biologist and guide, then followed on swiftly with an introduction to the ”Antarctic Food web” where she told us all about the key creatures, small and large, that make up the Antarctic marine ecosystem.
Expedition leader Rinie then briefed us about the IAATO guidelines for our shore visits and the zodiac (landing craft) operations. We were anxiously awaiting to put theory into practice.
After lunch we brought our outdoor gear and backpacks to the lounge for the vacuum party. This was so we remove all seeds, plant material and other potentially invasive species from our gear that we will be taking ashore to prevent accidental introduction of new species.
Each time we would board or deboard the ship we would scrub our shoes to remove material.
And rinse our boots in a disinfectant to kill possible contaminants.
At the evening’s recap Andrew introduced us to the explosive geological history of Deception Island, an active volcano into whose caldera we would sail to the next afternoon.
Then the first icebergs were spotted off the starboard bow under a rising moon, true sentinels of the promised land Terra Incognita ahead.

Day 4 – 12th March 2012
South Shetland Islands
GPS 08.00 Position: 62°35.4’S / 59°54.4’W
Weather: Wind force 1‐2, sunny, Temperature +2°C

The weather could hardly get any better so far South, with no wind, mirror waters, and low lights as the sun was rising over Livingstone island and its many glaciers.
By 0800h the zodiacs were launched for excursions.
We went ashore at Half Moon Island, and were soon welcomed by fur seals

and chinstrap penguins.

We walked out to the northern point of the island and spent some time watching the noisy Chinstrap penguins molting in close bundles.

Everyone also learnt quickly to keep a safe distance from some of the grumpy Antarctic fur seals, as fur seals were absolutely everywhere on the beach!

Amongst the Chinstraps we found one Macaroni penguin, also molting. This was a nice treat as the species is usually nesting further North on South Georgia.

From the shore we also saw three humpback whales feeding at the mouth of the bay.
Some of us went for a longer walk to stretch those sea legs, following Jim and Pablo to higher hills past the Argentinian station Cámara.
The station personnel were busy getting ready to vacate the facility in a few days’ time. The station is only occupied during the summertime.
It was then time to get back on board the Plancius, and share the excitement of the morning during a good lunch.
After another briefing from Rinie and a good introduction from Pablo on the whaling history of Deception Island,
the Captain skillfully navigated the Plancius through Neptune’s Bellow, the narrow entrance into the caldera of this still active volcano.
On shore everyone had a good walk among the remains of both the whaling station

and the former UK research station which had been destroyed by the volcanic eruptions in 1969 to 1972.

Some of us went for a more vigorous hike up Ronald’s hill with Delphine and Johan.
We enjoyed great views of Whaler’s Bay from the top of the hill, and those who also made it past the ever present fur seals to the other side of the bay, to Neptune’s Window could actually see the high peaks of the Antarctica continent some 120 km away!
This showed how good the weather and the visibility were on our first day South!
Those of us by the Window were also treated to yet another rare sight: a Southern right whale was feeding very close to the rocky shore and pocked its callosity covered head out of the water. This sighting got our naturalists very excited as it is unusual to find Southern right whales in these waters.
Some idiot went for a polar plunge
from the beach just before the end of the landing.
The water was actually not that cold... the thermometer read +40 degrees F (+4 degrees Celsius). Swimming in first last time.

Later on that evening we were in the Bransfield Strait enjoying calm waters on our way South towards the Antarctic continent!

Day 5 – 13th March 2012
Cuverville Islands and Neko harbour
GPS 08.00 Position: 64°39.9’S / 062°37.6’W
Weather: Wind SW force 3‐4, clear sky, Temperature: +1°C

The day started with sunshine on the bow of the boat. After the morning’s briefing everyone started to get ready for the several activities planned for the day.
We were divided into two groups; I first went for a zodiac cruise around spectacular icebergs
In a variety of shapes
Faces peering through holes
and had the opportunity to spot several leopard seals
and Antarctic terns feeding near the glacial front.
We then alternated with the second group and went on shore where thousands of gentoo penguins were waiting for us.
Our guides explained in detail penguin breeding biology,
their social behaviour
and the right way to approach the penguin colony. This guy was in that awkward adolescent phase of molting.
During lunch the Plancius cruised the beautiful Errera Channel and then turned into Andvord Bay. There, our naturalists first spotted some humpback whales and then, even more exciting, some distant blows which were quickly identified as a group of rarely seen Arnoux’s beaked whales. It was a treat to get even just a glimpse of these elusive deep‐diving beaked whales! And the day was not finished yet.
In the early afternoon the Plancius dropped anchor inside the spectacular Neko Harbour
and everyone had the possibility to set foot on the Antarctic continent.
Equipped with snowshoes I went for a hike
up the glacier
in the sunshine.
After hiking a bit I came across this young penguin colony and recorded this 2 minute video of the young penguins doing their thing.
At the base of the glacier was a penguin highway at which I recorded this 30 second video.
On the landing site we had the opportunity to observe several leopards seals catching penguins near the shoreline and afterward resting on the ice.
And then later went on a zodiac cruise.
In an open lagoon between the icebergs we spotted two dark log‐like lumps on the sea’s surface.
These turned out to be two sleeping humpback whales. We got splendid views of them without waking up those beautiful leviathans, and enjoyed this unique encounter.

Day 6 – 14th March 2012
Lemaire Channel, Peterman Island, Vernadsky station
GPS 08.00 Position 064°50.3’S / 063°46.3’W
Weather: Wind force 2‐3, overcast, Temperature: 0°C

The day started out with overcast and blustery weather.
We made our way towards the Lemaire Channel.
The morning’s activity saw us landing at Peterman Island.
The most striking feature was the amazing colors of the snow, stained red, pink, green and yellow from the snow algae that flourishes over the summer months.
I managed to see several Adelie penguins in amongst the plethora of baby gentoos penguins.
Adelie penguin, "I caught a fish that was this big." Gentoo penguin, "Well, I caught a fish that was thisssss big!"
Hmmmm...where did I put that fish?
Also, there is this unique species of penguin called the rompacabeza headless penguin. It is able to survive in Antarctica without a head. It has the ability to get around the ice by feeling its way with its feet. I've never seen anything like it.
This penguin is thinking, "Oh, Sh**... this is just not my day."
What's going on?
All too soon it was time to leave and after a bumpy ride back to the Plancius we enjoyed a pleasant lunch while relocating to the Argentine Islands and Vernadsky Station.
After a briefing from Rinie about how the afternoons landing would be conducted we dressed up warmly and were shuttled to Wordie House,
an old British station that is located in close proximity to Vernadsky.
Here we saw how people used to survive the harsh environment, marveling at the now rudimentary equipment they used daily.
From there it was a short cruise through some narrow channels to Vernadsky Station,
a base that still conducts atmospheric and biological research year round and is run by the Ukraine.
After a quick guided tour around the base we spent time in the upstairs area.
The communications room.
The gym.
The atmosphere measurement room.
The climate measurement room.
And of course the southern most bar in the world.
Once again we rigged up for the zodiac cruise back to Plancius which had relocated to the more sheltered waters of the Penola Strait.
Following anchor up we turned south, heading for the Polar Circle and Detaille Island where we would hopefully be able to land tomorrow.

Day 7 ‐ 15th March 2012
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
GPS 08.00 Position: 66°24.0’S / 066°40.2’W
Weather: Wind NE force 6, snowing, Temperature 0°C

Soon after breakfast, Expedition Leader Rinie called us to the fore‐deck
to toast our crossing of the Antarctic Circle.
Although the view was obscured by gentle snow fall, everyone’s spirits were high.
Third Officer Svenja gave a count down over the radio and then, as we crossed the Circle at 66°33.9’ South, she sounded the ship’s horn. We had voyaged about as far south as you can get in an expedition cruise ship.
There it is... the Antrctic Circle Line...can you see it?
Our furthest south position was 66°44.74’S 067°00.16’W. Time to turn around.

As Plancius sailed northwards through a wet blizzard, the expedition team quickly organised a programme of lectures. Ivan described the techniques and challenges of Antarctic Fishing, and later Sonja gave us “A Whale of a Tale” where she talked about the biology of the cetaceans in the Southern Ocean.

Our second attempt at a landing, near Prospect Point, also fell foul of the weather and the approaching onset of darkness, which arrives about 10 minutes earlier every day.

During recap, Rinie outlined our aims for tomorrow before Jim, Delphine and Kelvin took over with a blend of educational comedy on subjects as diverse as flying penguins, whaling history and underwater explorations.

Day 8 – 16th March 2012
Pleneau Island and Paradise Bay
GPS 08.00 Position: 65°05.6’S / 064°02.3’W
Weather: Wind force 1‐2, overcast and snow squalls, Temperature: +1°C

Shortly after we set foot on Pleneau Island we were welcomed by a short snow blizzard which made us realize that we were still in Antarctica.
However the visibility soon improved quite a lot and the mountains of Booth Island were towering above us.
The wind dropped off completely and the morning turned out to be pretty nice.
We started with a short excursion to Pleneau Island. This photos shows to adolescent penguins, the one of the right is still molting.
Along the rocky shoreline were large groups of young gentoo penguins playing in the shallows.
As we cruised in the zodiacs, we found ourselves in a “seal soup”.
There were many crabeater seals
and interactive leopard seals around in the grave yard of ice bergs which were trapped in the shallows in the bay.
The whole setting was just spectacular!
The color of the icebergs would change as the sun, clouds and water changed.

Late morning the Captain weighed the anchor and we headed for the second time for the Lemaire Channel on our way to Paradise Bay.
This time the visibility was much better than the first time we went through. A few whales were spotted as we cruised amidst spectacular scenery.
The afternoon was spent zodiac cruising in spectacular Paradise Bay.
There were huge mountains, glaciers and ice caves. This glacier was probably 100 feet or 30 meters high.
The scenery was lined by rugged mountain scenery
and impressively towering glaciers.
Calm and powerful at the same time.
This glacier looked like a dragon to me.
And this glacier was shaped by the tides and had turned upside down.
Which is why its surface was dimpled like the shell of a golf ball.
We saw groups of crabeater seals, several leopard seals and a weddell seal was hauling out on the shore near the old Argentine summer base Almirante Brown.

The evening was spent at anchor in Paradise Bay and we all enjoyed the southern‐most, and probably the coldest BBQ in the world!

Day 9 ‐ 17th March 2012
Cierva Cove and Bransfield Strait
GPS 08.00 Position: 64°07.7’S / 060°58.1’W
Weather: Wind force 1‐2, calm seas, cloudy; Temperature: +1°C

We started our day at 0800 with a late (well, everything is relative in life) Saturday morning breakfast. The Plancius was anchored just in front of “Primavera”, the Argentinian research base in Cierva Cove .
From here we started a long zodiac cruise inside this wonderful bay surrounded by glaciers and mountains.
The overcast day made for spectacular colours of the ice with many hues of blues and green providing much delight to our keen photographers.
A big iceberg floated inside the bay and a thin layer of sea ice had already started to form
at the surface near the glacier’s edge.
This did not present a problem to our sturdy zodiacs and our experienced zodiac drivers who carefully pushed through the icy soup.
We spotted several leopard seals sleeping on floating pieces of ice with kelp gulls flying overhead.
Coming closer to land we could detect a blooming Antarctic forest: the rocks were covered in lush green moss and colourful lichens with tuffs of the grass Deschampsia antarctica growing in between. The lush but fragile vegetation is the main reason that we are not allowed to set foot ashore in order not to damage this frail terrestrial ecosystem.
Then sea fog moved closer to shore hiding the Plancius behind a grey veil. It was an eerie feeling as the zodiacs steered passed the iceberg giants back to the ship.
For the last time, we loaded the zodiacs, cleaned our boots and then set course towards the South Shetland Islands and further North.
Late in the evening we entered the infamous Drake passage which welcomed us with big swells and strong winds. Let the rock and roll start! Next stop: Ushuaia.

Day 10 ‐ 18th March 2012
Rock and Roll in the Drake Passage
GPS 08.00 Position: 60°54.7’S / 063°33.3’W
Weather: Wind NW force 7, overcast, Temperature +2°C

We awoke this morning with the announcement of 35 knot winds from the north west and a full day ahead of picking our way through the mountainous waves of the Drakes Passage.

The dining room at breakfast rang to the sound of breaking cups and plates but most of us seemed to enjoy the drama of a new and exciting day at sea. For those of us mobile and nimble enough to move around, an easy day lay ahead. Some took the opportunity to catch up on much missed sleep, swap photographs and contact details, or simply enjoy the the ever‐changing spectacle of the southern ocean before them from the relative comfort of the lounge.

For those well enough to think about food, lunch was served to us to avoid a repeat of the morning’s plate flinging. Ivan entertained us with an interesting talk of “Whaling in Antarctica” followed after lunch by Sonja’s talk on “Seals and Science” which provided her audience (in the relative stability of the dining room) with insights into the lives of Weddell, fur and elephant seals amongst others. Some retired to their cabins to enjoy an episode or two of BBC’s superb new series The Frozen Planet to relive our recent memories of the white Continent. The waves continued to pound the vessel throughout the remainder of the afternoon and many of us were now looking forward to some Terra firma. The calm of the Beagle Channel however is still a day’s sail away as the Plancius continued to plough through Drake’s waves.

Over 24 hours I read the book The Hunger Games.

Day 11 ‐ 19th March 2012
More Rock and Roll in the Drake Passage
GPS 08.00 Position: 56°44.4’S / 063°33.3’W
Weather: Wind NW force 7, rough seas, clear; Temperature +4°C

Most of us had gotten little sleep last night as the Plancius continued to rock her way north through a rough sea.

The waves were crashing over the dining room windows during breakfast, and some spray even reached the lounge windows. We were reminded to keep both hands free and hold on to the rails and the ropes that had been put up to help us keep our balance as our floating home lurched and corkscrewed over the waves. Some of us joined Jim in the dining room for his entertaining presentation on poetry and Antarctic explorers.

Shortly before lunch we made our way into the lounge (hanging on to rails, ropes and chairs) as Kelvin and the dive team shared magical images from the Antarctic underwater world that they had explored during their eight dives in icy cold waters.

Lunch was again served to us but just as we started to tuck into our pizza breads a few rogue waves sent people, food and crockery flying through the dining room. Lunch had never been more adventurous…..

The afternoon was spent doing ship’s business such as settling our ship’s accounts and returning boots, and starting to think about packing up our gear. The islands of Cape Horn provided some much welcomed shelter from the prevailing westerly winds and swell.

Captain’s Farewell drinks and the final dinner aboard were scheduled for the calm waters of the Beagle Channel where we will pick up the pilot for the six hour sail to Ushuaia during the night. The Plancius will be docking in Ushuaia early on the 20th March and we will disembark our floating home away from home soon after.

Over 24 hours, I read the book Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet.

On this voyage we completed 1,990 nautical miles! I saw things that I'd never imagined. The size and scale of everything in Antarctica is relative. Our ship was dwarfed by the open ocean, icebergs and mountains. Antarctica is a place that is so inhospitable for humans... yet so intriguing.

Some parting shots...

That's all folks!


  1. Just went from Epic to Life Changing, I believe...


  2. Good pictures!

    - wei

  3. Amazing ! Thank you.
    Look how much your life has changed since last year. We'll be at the Banff film festival (Austin) and you'll be out actually living an adventure .

  4. Very cool. Thanks for sharing. JL @ Doha

  5. Troy - congratulations on all that you've accomplished and experienced on this amazing journey. Thanks a million for bringing us along for the ride! It's been a joy following your stops and stories.

    Look forward to your safe return to Austin!



Thanks for visiting my website and for leaving a comment. - Troy

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