Chapter One - Starting from the End of the World
The day after Christmas, we boarded the plane from Puenta Arenas to Ushuaia, awaiting our much anticipated New Year cruise to Antarctica. The flight over the Tierra del Fuego region was cloudy but beautiful with verdant waterways underneath and the Andes hanging out by the tip of the wings. Due to problems in booking our flight, we arrived Ushuaia a week early. We stayed two blocks from the center of town in Hotel Malvinas. A friendly inn keeper, 24 hour free breakfast, very clean room, and non-smoking internet café half a block away made the wait went by much quicker.
January 2nd, we finally left Ushuaia aboard Professor Multanovskiy. It was the smallest ship at the dock, fully booked with 49 passengers and a Russian crew. At 1740 hours, we headed east out to the open sea, leaving the colorful buildings of Ushuaia with its glaciers and mountains behind. Sea birds escorted our boat through the Beagle Channel to the Drake Passage and that’s when the rock’n’rolling started. It was not too bad, just a gentle rolling motion, nothing a pill cannot handle.
January 4th, 1930 hours, we landed on Aitcho Island (see pic)! After two days and two nights, we were on solid ground again. We were very excited to see our first (actually thousands all at one time) penguin outside of the zoo. They have this ‘penguin aroma’ reminiscent of a chicken farm, which we would become very accustomed to in the next few days. There were gentoo and chinstrap penguins on this island, some feeding their young chicks, while other penguin parents were still incubating their eggs.
Since the Drake Passage was behind us, it was smooth sailing across the Bransfield Strait. The following two days, the clouds had finally lifted and the scenery was breathtaking. We made landings one after another, wasting no time – and we had a lot of daylight hours.
Chapter two - Antarctic Sound Pack Ice
January 5th, we were heading south into the Antarctic Sound, we came to a dead end. The passage south was completely blocked with ice, and there was no way through. We executed plan B and turned east towards Duse Bay on the Antarctic Continent (see pic). Many of us were on the bow, watching our ship plow through the ice towards our destination. We could hear the cracking of the pack ice as we inched forward, scaring the penguins which were sunbathing on the ice sheet fleeing into the cold water.
Chapter Three - Islands after Islands
After a few days, I came to appreciate the small ship we were on. The fact that we only have 49 tourists at each landing, leaving lesser impact on wildlife, somehow made me felt less guilty. Our small boat could also anchor closer to shore than the larger ship. Last but certainly important to us, Professor Multanovskiy lacked some of the comfort and luxury of big cruise liner, which translated to lower cost! Like our captain said, “She is not a dancing boat.”
Chapter Four - What Do Tourist Do in Antarctica?
At each landing, we spent most of our time observing penguins – they were very entertaining and curious creatures. If you sat there quietly, they would come and check you out. They traveled up and down the hill slopes via ‘penguin highways’ - icy trails that were packed solid and smooth by millions of penguins walking on them 24/7. The highways made their journey from sea to nests less hazardous since their feet were not made for walking. I was also amused by tourists setting up tripods, taking off gloves, and adjusting their cameras in sub 0 degree temperature – well, I was not that brave. A point and shoot digital camera turned out to be my best buddy. In the days followed, we made more landings on historical sites, science stations, wildlife nesting grounds, and even ‘hot’ spring. Those who went into the water swore that it was warm, but judging from the brief moment they stayed in the thermal spring – I did not think so. However, it was fun watching them plunged into the ocean. Later, we had barbeque dinner on the open deck – another one of a kind experience in Antarctic. After posing for a few show-and-tell pictures, we took our food back inside the dining hall – I enjoyed my drumstick warm.
Chapter Five - Eerie Sunset
The Bridge was our favorite hang out. It was the place to enjoy the graceful company of albatrosses and to spot whales (we saw three different types and in pairs, too). January 6th, the fog had returned in the afternoon. Once again, we were on the Bridge, wondering how freaky it was to sail in a dense fog not able to see where you were going, trapped in this atmospheric void. All of a sudden, we were in the clear! The four of us, who were on the Bridge, looked back behind our ship in awe. We just witnessed the ship broke out of the thick fog which looked like a heavy curtain hanging down from heaven. It was surreal! The dramatic evening light cast illuminations on the large tabular iceberg drifting by us like a silence movie. It was the longest sunset we had ever experienced, and our pictures simply did not do justice to what we saw.
Chapter Six - Stormy Weather
January 8th, the wind picked up and it started to snow as we landed on Goudier Island. At Port Lockroy Station, operated by the British, we were able to stamp our passports, post mail, and purchase souvenirs. Outside the small structure, there were gentoo penguins everywhere, some huddled right next to the doorway, some nesting in the gaps under the foundation. These penguins were so acclimated to people that they rarely took notice of us, even if we were only a few feet away. Most of them were more interested in their pebble-stealing neighbors then in us.
Next stop was the visit across the channel to Jougla Point on Wiencke Island. The landing was on some wave-and-ice scoured granite rocks, rather slippery in the snow. Not far from the landing site, was a large pile of whale bones left over from the whaling days. Parts of two huge skulls, lower mandibles, ribs, and vertebrae were in evidence. Unfortunately, the wind had increased and it was freezing cold, otherwise I would stay longer at this amazing site.
Final Chapter - Iceberg Alley
After the activities on our southernmost landing on Petermann Island, we cruised among a cemetery of icebergs they dubbed ‘iceberg alley.’ Some of them had big arcs, some had high towers, some looked like a person’s profile, some looked like mythical creatures carved by nature. We also spotted a couple of seals and there were penguins swam by closely.
January 9th, the weather had improved, we made our last landing under a blue sky at Neko Harbor. A number of us took a steep hike uphill to where we had a superb view of the surrounding glaciers. Not only could we hear them calving, we could even see it happening from time to time. We got down the hill by sliding down the thick pristine snow, which was great fun. You can hear us laughed and screamed all the way from the Zodiac landing site.
There was still one more Zodiac tour before heading back across the Drake Passage. One group had a close encounter with two whales less than 10 meters away from their Zodiac! We were in another group – what a bummer.
We knew we were back in the Drake Passage as soon as the vessel started to roll again. The crew said the return voyage was always worse – no kidding. Everything in the cabin was moving about. We could not even sit in the chair and taking a shower was challenging. So, there was nothing else to do but to swallow more pills, go to sleep, and tried not to fall out of bed. However, I must say if I had the money to do this again, I would do it in a heart beat.
January 12th, after taking a short detour to see Cape Horn, we returned to Ushuaia. Next stop on our itinerary – Patagonia!