Antarctica – The White Continent

We left Ushuaia, Argentina at 6pm on Friday evening aboard the MS Fram and navigated the Beagle Channel and out into open waters within a few hours. Our two-day passage across the infamously rough Drake Passage was relatively uneventful. We saw some large swells but neither of us suffered from the seasickness that other passengers felt. We spent the time exploring the ship, using the gym, and preparing for our first landing in Antarctica.

We set foot on mainland Antarctica in our very first Antarctic landing at Neko Harbour on Monday, February 27, 2017 . With an early 7AM start, we were amidst hundreds of Gentoo penguins as the sun rose over the snow covered mountains. Our 90 minutes on land allowed us to see the penguins up close and personal under great weather conditions.

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Gentoo penguin

We’ve been told numerous times that this is an expedition, which means we must be flexible and let nature dictate where we go. So, after returning to the ship we sailed toward the Lemaire Channel, which is supposed to have spectacular scenery. On the way the ship’s crew learned that the channel was blocked with ice so we went a different route. On the way, snow started falling and the visibility shrank to almost nothing.

Soon we arrived to Doumer Island, where we went ashore in a snowstorm to find thousands of Gentoo penguins and an abandoned research station. Even though it was snowing, we were warm in our gear and enjoyed a long walk around the island. Our highlight at this stop occurred when we were boarding the boat to return to the ship. Less than a few yards from our small boat, a penguin flew out of the water followed by a fast moving leopard seal in pursuit. Leopard seals are considered top predators of penguins, and they have attacked humans on several occasions. To see one up close and in pursuit was certainly a thrill! We were up close witnessing the food chain with its life and death consequences. This time, the penguin survived. Unfortunately it happened so fast we didn’t get a photo.

On our second day in Antarctica, Tuesday, February 28, 2017, we joined 10 other shipmates on a guided kayak tour of Paradise Harbour. After being fitted with a dry suit, we were taken by Polar Circkel boat to a calm beach where we got in our kayaks and began our adventure. We have our own two-person kayak at home and have quite a bit of experience paddling. Still, we’d never kayaked through and around large chunks of ice, some of which had Crabeater seals lounging on top.

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Kayaking in Paradise Bay

Getting up close to the icebergs allowed us to see the depth to which these large bergs extend under the water. After about an hour and a half of peacefully gliding through the beautiful bay, we turned back towards the shore and boom!!! The winds picked up, the waves grew, and boy was it a rough paddle back! At one point the tender boats came out to rescue members of our group but we were able to make it back to shore safely. It was cold, wet, and uncomfortable, but Steve did a great job of keeping us moving forward and we survived!

In the afternoon we sailed through a beautiful strait, seeing seals, penguins, and whales along the way. We reached our afternoon landing area, Cuverville Island at about 4:30 p.m. and waiting our turn to go ashore. On the ship we are broken into 8 groups of about 35 people each. When your group number is called you go to deck two, get your muck boots and life preserver, and board one of the Polar Circkel boats to the landing spot. Sometimes the landing is on to rocks and other times it is onto a rocky beach. At Cuverville it was an easy landing on a beach, where we were met by one of the largest gatherings of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

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One of the last humans on Cuverville Island

Because it was late in the day, we enjoyed a beautiful “sunset” and were some of the last people on the island before we had to go back abroad the ship.

On our final day in Antarctica we visited Deception Island. This was a cold and windy stop, but really interesting. After a start and stop as to whether we were going to be able to enter the collapsed caldera, the winds died down enough for us to enter the narrow channel named Neptune’s Bellows. Once inside the bay we visited the historic Whaler’s Bay. Once a Norwegian whaling station, which operated between 1912 and 1931, the site became a British base in 1941 as part of a secret WWII operation. In 1969 the then research site was destroyed by a mudslide triggered by a volcanic eruption in the active volcano. The volcano is still active and monitored consistently.

We walked the length of the beach up to Neptune’s Window, a windy overlook to the sea. Along the way we had to be careful not to disturb the many fur seals that were making the beach home. The original plan was to use this beach as the site of the “polar plunge,” and Steve was prepared to go swimming. Unfortunately the number of fur seals in the area prevented us from taking that challenge.

Next stop: South Georgia Island, a two day sail across the Scotia Sea

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Ice Trekking on Perito Moreno Glacier

We’ve spent the last few days on the shores of Lago Argentino in El Calafate, Argentina. This tourist town is the base for excursions to the nearby glaciers and Los Glaciares National Park. We took a day or two to explore the town and enjoy the views. El Calfate caters to tourists, so there are lots of souvenir shops and mountain outfitters. Of course, there are also many great restaurants to try. We made the most of our time in El Calafate, using it as a base for our ice-related excursions.

Our first big adventure was to see Perito Moreno Glacier, which is the reason most people come to El Calafate. We took the full day mini-trekking trip with Hielo y Aventura. Boy, this operation was efficient! First they picked us up in a comfortable bus and drove for about an hour and a half along the shores of beautiful Lago Argentino. Once arriving to the national park, we had about two hours to view the massive glacier from a network of strategically placed walkways. We could hear the ice shifting and occasionally watched large pieces of ice fall into the lake with a loud roar. Each calving is literally breathtaking!

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In front of Perito Moreno Glaciar

Perito Moreno is part of the 97 square mile Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and is one of 48 glaciers fed by the system. This ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. Perito Moreno is unusual in that it is stable, not advancing and not receding, while most glaciers worldwide are retreating. The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier is 5 kilometres (3 mi) wide, with an average height of 74m (240 ft) above the surface of the water of the lake. It has a total ice depth of 558 feet. That’s a lot of ice!

After a nice lunch we traveled by boat across the lake to the shore adjacent to the glacier. After a short hike we strapped on crampons and were led across the glacier.

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Getting our crampons

To say this was an incredible adventure is an understatement. It took a few minutes to get used to walking with spikes strapped to your shoes, but once we got comfortable, we could see the wonder around us. The sparkling ice with various shades of blue reflecting from deep crevasses was spectacular. At one point we refilled our water bottles from a pool of blue ice and it was the most delicious water we’ve ever tasted. Our hour and half on the ice flew by. At the end of the glacial hike we were treated to a celebratory drink of whisky on freshly chopped glacial ice. The pictures just don’t do this adventure justice, but we hope you enjoy them!

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Our day on the ice was supposed to be followed by a day in the ice…well, paddling around in it. As many of you know we love to kayak and the opportunity to kayak along one of the largest glaciers in the world was too good to pass up. We joined a group of 12 other adventurers and set out onto an arm of Lago Argentino to kayak among the icebergs around Upsala Glacier. Unfortunately, the winds were so strong that we were unable to kayak. With wind at over 30 knots and waves crashing over the large boat, it was just not safe to get into the water. Of course we were disappointed but the scenery was spectacular and the crew was professional and transparent about the situation. We received a refund and booked a river raft trip for the next week with the same company. Unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures, as we didn’t bring our cameras. We were to have an on-board photographer capture the adventure, but since we didn’t get to kayak, we’ve got no pictures of the journey. Oh well.

Next stop is El Calafate, the trekking and climbing capital of Argentina.

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