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Lessons Learned–Antarctica 2016

Lessons Learned–Antarctica 2016

The measure of a trip away to me is the question, if money were no object, would you go there again?  

When it comes to our trip to Antarctica the answer would definitely be yes. In fact Birdlife Australia are adverting a trip, including South Georgia, for November this year and I would love to win lotto and go.

There are things I would do the same and others I would do differently, so on the off chance I ever do get the opportunity to go again I’m going to write them down so I don’t forget.  Some of this might even be useful to someone else one day. Who knows. The Project Manager in me knows a thing isn’t over until you’ve reflected on the Lessons Learned, so here goes.

Great Expectations
Research, planning and pre-preparation
Photography
Travel
Gear List

Great Expectations

Expectations can make or break an experience. Set them too high and you’ll be disappointed  Expect something to be bad, and most likely it will be. Finding the sweet spot is tricky. On a trip like this there are also expectations of yourself.  We were spending a lot of money on travel and gear, so I was carrying a the weight of my expectations of myself and my photography along with everything else.  Luckily that didn’t add to the actual weight of our baggage so we got through the whole trip without paying excess luggage fees.

Everyone I spoke to before I went was saying how great it was going to be, so there really was no way or lowering expectations about Antarctica itself.  That was fine as it did not let us down. There were others on our trip who had clearly set themselves the expectation of crossing the Arctic circle, and there may have been those who desperately wanted to see Adelle penguins. As we didn’t end up getting far enough south for either of those because or mangled thumbs and uncooperative weather those people may have felt they didn’t get everything they wanted from the journey.

For me I was expecting to see icebergs and penguins. And we did.  What I wasn’t expecting was to get snowed on and that was a magical surprise. I wasn’t expecting to get sea sick, but took medication to be safe and it was fine.

Research, Pre-planning and Preparation

When imagining a new trip I usually think I’m going to do a stack of research about where we are going and the things to do when we get there. After doing the basics to determine travel and accommodation logistics I tend to get distracted. On this trip I delegated the planning for the two city stays, Santiago and Buenos Aires, to Kingsley. Whihc meant we basically ended up winging it.  I was a little frustrated by that at the time, but in retrospect I’m quite mellow about it.  We had a lovely time and saw some interesting things.  Could we have done more?  Sure, but we weren’t there to check things off lists.
I was very pleased with how my hotel address and exchange rate cheat sheets worked out.
I printed out a business card with the name and address of each of our hotels on it before leaving home On arrival in a new city we just handed this card over to the taxi driver and away we went. Much less stressful than an experience in Berlin where the taxi driver started taking us to Potsdam
when we wanted to go to Potsdamer Strasse.  Left both him and us quite upset and rattled.

The quick exchange rate cards likewise saved us doing much mental arithmetic and went easy on the iphone calculator.

Offline google maps were a definite must have. We were also glad to have Global Roaming turned on when we got back from Antarctica to a distressing SMS about one of our dogs going walk about back home (all safe and sound by the time we got back) 

Photography

Over all I was happy with the gear I took and how it functioned. I was glad to have two camera bodies with me despite the extra weight.  It gave me the confidence to get the camera out on the zodiac and in all weather with the knowledge that in the worst case scenario I wouldn’t be stuck without a camera.

On all but one occasion I had spare, empty memory cards on hand so I could change them out in the field. I carried them in a little case, turning used cards so they faced inwards and empty cards so they faced outwards to prevent confusion.  I downloaded and backed up photos after each outing, so at any point in time there would be three copies on three different media.  I had enough cards with me that I didn’t need to reformat them while away which turned out to be a VERY good thing.

The one time I didn’t have my trusty case with me was the time a fellow photographer ran out of room on hers. I would have been able to loan her one otherwise, so I’ll be making sure I have a spare card with me every time I go out in future.

I wish I’m taken a good pair of waterproof gloves.  The special gloves we bought have little ‘peepholes’ in the fingers which theoretically let you press buttons and things more easily.  More often than not I took the glove off my right hand when photographing and just wore a thin merino glove liner.  In between shots I’d either put the outer glove back on or stuff my hand in my pocket.
The outer gloves weren’t waterproof, so quickly became wet when you moved around the ship hanging on to snowy or wet handrails. Kingsley made use of the hairdryer in our cabin to dry the gloves out.

Waterproofing the camera.  The weather shield I had got more use in Iguazu than the Antarctic. It certainly kept the camera dry, as intended, but you needed to have a very good idea of where all your controls were as although you could see the LCD the top panel of buttons, which in my case have all the important settings like ISO, autofocus and burst modes, metering etc, are not visible.  That would probably be fine if you were going out to focus on a single subject in pretty stable conditions, but we were switching between portraits on seals, landscapes, flying seabirds every time the zodiac changed direction so changing your settings was part and parcel. It did act as a large, warm and waterproof glove though, so given that my actual gloves weren’t waterproof it all worked out ok.

Some other travelers had a much simpler set up which was a clear plastic sleeve with an elbow joint and that seemed to work really well.  Unless you were somewhere where it is really belting down that might be a better option.

We took a selection of dry bags along, and a rain cover for my camera bag.  I did use the dry bag a couple of times, but it was more for peace of mind than any practical use. We certainly could have done without the two large bags and just taken just one small one. The rain cover for the camera bag worked really well.  The bag is reasonably weather sealed itself, but the cover meant that spray on the zodiac, rain and snow were a non issue.

Battery life was something I was concerned about, having read dire warnings.  I was pleasantly surprised with how well the batteries lasted for me. I knew that GPS drains the battery so I’d turned that off, which is something I now regret.

We were able to charge everything up in our cabins. We traveled with a power board and a European power adapter which worked a treat in our rooms. In the lounge/bar the power sockets were different and I don’t recall which adapter worked up there.  We had access to a few different kinds so it all worked out.

The laptop we took was Kingsley’s old one, which was heavy and ungainly.  Given how much the trip was costing I couldn’t justify buying a new one, and although I had the ipad with me that wouldn’t have given me the ability to download and backup all my pictures to external hard drives. I’m glad to have had the laptop there, but one which weighed less and that actually held more than 60 seconds of charge would have been an improvement.

The selection of software I’d loaded up met all my requirements. The Scopoderm patches we were wearing to prevent sea sickness gave both of us fuzzy vision so  I didn’t get as much done on it as I had expected.

The two WD My Passport hard drives were great and I’ll be traveling with them again.

Adding to the weight I also took a ipad, iphone and a kindle.  I wouldn’t have been without any of them for the trip, though I would make sure I downloaded the offline maps before heading overseas. The ipad was perfect entertainment for long flights and I made use of it for blogging in some instance too. It was amazing to see how many people on the boat used their ipad as their primary camera!

I need to be revising my blogging platform (watch this space). People had all sorts of issues adding comments to the blog, and I didn’t know they were there until I got home. I could move my blog to the same platform as my online galleries, but I’m a little wary of doing that in case I decided to move that to another vendor at some stage. I’ve got this one on my list to investigate this year.

Blogging on the road was fine in those places where there was decent internet.  That meant it was unbearable in Ushuaia and Iguazu. It all takes up more time than you think it will, but doing it on the day really is important.  I wish I’d taken better notes on those days I didn’t write on the boat.. The eyesight didn’t help, but even scrawling something on a bit of paper would have been a good idea. The big events you remember, but it is the smaller, more intimate observations of the moment that slip away.

A spell checker wasn’t available for Open Live Writer when I left, but I’m pleased to say there is now so hopefully future posts will be less prone to my poor typographic skills.

I only took one lens cloth and wish I’d taken a couple more.  I spend more time than necessary figuring out where I’d put the one I had.  I did try and buy a spare in Ushuaia before setting out, but had no luck locating one.

I could have left the macro lens at home, but I was happy with the rest.  My walk around Canon 18-200 may only be a kit lens, but I’ve been very happy with the flexibility it gives me, and I’ve taken some shots I’m very happy with using it over the last few years. The Tamron 70-200 was great on the boat and the shore when I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to lug the 150-600 around. The Tamron 150-600 was great for birds and whales and penguins. So although there was  quite a bit of duplication there, I don’t think that was a bad thing. I was able to stick different lenses on the two bodies and when I got my cat together that made for easier switching where required.

I wish I’d taken more pictures.  I know this sounds stupid considering the GBs of photos I came home with, but I found I didn’t take as many as I thought I was taking at the time.  You won’t be back there again in a hurry so don’t be self conscious about how many times your shutter fires. Work the shot, make it count.  Get your delete key ready for a workout.

I wish I’d worked my shots more. There is a very real FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when you do a trip like this. Because you don’t get a lot of time in any one place, and because the wildlife is on the move, every choice you make comes with an opportunity cost. Staying an extra five minutes with this penguin here might mean you don’t see the iceberg tipping over there. I wish I’m stayed up later and gotten up earlier to make more of the sunsets and sunrises.

The flip side to that is you also need to take time to just absorb the experience. This sounds counter to the above, and maybe it is.  Because of the weather and the medical evacuation we didn’t get quite as much of the experience as we might have done. But I was glad to take the time to just gaze out at the magic surrounds, to feel the wind on your face, the cold seeping through your fingertips but not getting into your core, rejoicing at the effortless maneuvers of the birds in those winds of the Drake Passage, and the effort involved in taking off and landing on the waves.

The beauty and joy of the dolphins using the bow wave to slip stream. The effort of the breaching humpbacks. The play of the penguin chicks, the studious care of their parents. The drama that plays out before you as the skuas and chicks battle it out for their survival, predator and prey equally keen to see the next day. The smell of the penguin poo, the smiles of delight on fellow travelers. The wonderfully familiar wake-up call of “Good morning, good morning expeditioners” in Monika’s friendly but no-nonsense German accent.

I wish I’d taken more people pictures.  I will be working to get some more portrait experience this year I think. People give perspective.

There wasn’t as much structure to the photographic part of the tour as I anticipated there might be.  Given the range of interest and experience that makes sense in retrospect. Alex was certainly there to answer questions put to her. The number of people feeling poorly through illness or seasickness would have made a set structure difficult to stick to.

There were some things I think that would have been useful to have known before we started out, a pre-trip technical checklist which I will try and compile One of the things I really, really, really wish I’d done was to set the time and date on my camera on arrival.  It would have saved me a heap of rework later on.

Travel

Flights

We flew Perth, Sydney, Santiago, Igauzu Falls (via BA), Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Aukland, Sydney, Perth.

That meant a lot of airports and transfers. If repeating the journey I’d make sure I flex direct from Sydney to Santiago, and would have stopped in BA, before heading up to Iguazu, allowing the trip from Iguazu to Ushuaia to be done together, eliminating the need to transit between International and Domestic airports.

LAN were great, though the food on board did get a little samey.  The staff were helpful and polite.  QANTAS were fine too, though we did get a plane that was just about my age.

Between the two of us we fit under the luggage weight limit, but only just when it came to carry on.

We didn’t really need to take the three travel pillows we had with us.  In fact one would probably have sufficed.

The ship

The Ushuaia was a great little ship.  I am so very pleased we traveled on her and not one of the big monsters that was tied up in port. The staff were lovely and we had everything we could want and more.  The food was not amazing, but it was plentiful and made a bit of a conversation piece.

Traveling as part of a group.

I’m not a natural joiner. Being an introvert and finding it difficult to follow conversations where there is background noise posed a challenge that I think I failed to rise to on more than one occasion. Luckily Kingsley is very good at being my buffer, and this holiday had lots of structure which enabled (or forced) me to be a part of the group while still having time to myself to recharge.

Being in a smallish group in a largish group was also a little odd.  Some travelers tended to an isolationist policy, trying to keep withing their own cluster together at all times to the exclusion of the other passengers on the ship. Others preferred to mingle with those from all nations aboard, and there was a broad spectrum including the USA, Germany, China, India, UK and France, not to mention the crew from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Columbia. With one crew member to every two passengers we didn’t get to meet them all, although as our cabin was on the lower deck and the engine crew tended to smoke outside the hatch on our level we had a nodding acquaintance with many of them.

There was one fellow passengers on the ship, traveling alone, called Gina.  A Chinese girl living in the US she went about making sure she got to know everyone on the boat. I would love to have that level of comfort and confidence. She was just a lovely person and had an absolute ball. Always ready with a smile, and happy to challenge people and their views she was well traveled and keen to extract everything she could from every situation.

Some of the connections made as part of the trip have persisted and we had a little catch up a little while ago.  There is the chance of some more local excursions in the future.

Clothing and Laundry

I never anticipated how difficult it would be to make sure we had clean clothes. We ended up paying a (relatively) small fortune to hotels in some places simply because of poor planning and preparation. Many laundry services were closed on Mondays, and if you need anything cleaned over Carnival you will need to do it yourself.

Next time I’ll be looking at laundry locations when booking my accommodation, and taking laundry in as the first thing in any new city.

We have enough stuff without having too much.  Two suitcases and two carry on suitcases in total was plenty. Having the right things with you at any moment is key of course.  Our coldest experience was back on the continent when we went on a tour without multiple layers of coats, thermals, gloves and hats. Out in the penguin colony we shivered out way in the wind and the rain, far far colder than we had been in Antarctica.

Just Do It

Perhaps the most important lesson of the lot, if you have the opportunity to do something amazing, go for it.  Life is full of regrets for things you might have done but didn’t. On this trip I learned things about the world we live in, the people in it, the wilderness, my husband and myself. The pattern of my life is richer for the things I’ve seen, the mistakes I’ve made, the things that have both scared, infuriated and delighted me. The more I see, the more I want to see.  The more I learn, the more I want to learn.

Of course coming home is always lovely as well.

Day 25, 26 and 27 – Return to Ushuaia, visiting more penguins and returning to Buenos Aires

Day 25, 26 and 27 – Return to Ushuaia, visiting more penguins and returning to Buenos Aires

Walking around Ushuaia over the last few days has that awkward feeling of running into the same people over and over again in the supermarket. Sitting her at the airport we are next to a lovely German couple who shared our coldest day of the trip on the Pira tour to visit the Magellanic penguins. More about that to follow.

Lots of hugs with the crew as we left the Ushuaia. As everyone disembarked the must reach the polar circle at all costs American couple, you’ll hear more about them in later posts, were sitting down with a staff members from on shore to document their complainants. I felt a bit sorry for them as thy had managed to ruin their. One holiday by hanging on to expectations which were contingent on things beyond any one’s control.

The expedition staff did all they could to make the journey as full of experiences as possible and I think they did a great job. Angry Ken and Sulky Barbie did not share that view. As I frequently remind a certain someone, name calling is unhelpful, but in this case I’m making an exception.

We zipped up to the hotel is a convoy of taxis for $5 each. As we were early we couldn’t check in, so just dumped our suitcases and ran off with our dirty clothes to the lavadero. Only to find it closed. Even with Linda’s translations we weren’t able to figure that out much with the guy who happened to be there, but after carting our gear back to the hotel we asked at reception to discover that everything would be closed, and we were going to have to ration our clean clothes until we got home.

It turned out we arrived back in Ushuaia on the 3rd day of Carnival. Which meant that everything was shut.  Are you picking up on a theme for our holiday yet? Luckily Antarctica was open while we were there, but because of no internet there, and stupidly slow internet at our hotel you still have to wait to hear about all of that.

Back at the hotel I connected to wireless and had a slight (possibly not so slight) panic when the first message I got was from someone in our street saying our dog Sausage had wandered into their house and that they would hold onto her until they heard from us. The message was dated Jan 30, over a week ago. A number of frantic messages, emails and phone calls later we were assured that both dogs were alive, well, and relocated to their aunts house. The gate had been damaged in a storm and despite the best efforts by our gallant house sitter alternative accommodation was required.

Once that drama was resolved we decided our sea legs weren’t bad enough to prevent us from pottering around the even more-closed-than-usual downtown of Ushuaia. We booked ourselves on a tour to Isla Martillo for the following day, grabbed a bite to eat and then checked in and napped. 

Although we had napped through the main part of Carnival, when we ventured down the many steps to town at about 7 there were some folk still celebrating in the streets. For the mobs of kids and teenagers this amounted to chasing each other with cans of fake snow. Empty cans were discarded on the ground without any concern. I was amazed to see how little mess there was when I was walking around the following morning. The lovely poppies I had intended to photograph wee a little worse for wear sadly.  The cleanup crew must have worked through the night. Apparently whatever it was is non toxic as it was spayed into people’s faces.

A little spooked we headed uphill for yet another dinner in Ushuaia. Over our time here I think we have managed to eat at every eatery in the main street. And yet, nothing exciting, just pasta, pizza, salad, steak and potato. Ushuaia is not a foodies paradise.

The next day, Tuesday, most of our fellow expeditioners were leaving town, either for home, or for further adventures in South America. We missed saying goodbye to some, but met up with others over breakfast in the hotel. I
left Kingsley at the hotel to chill while I took my well traveled and little used macro lens out on the town.

Instead of flowers I found cat street, the street that runs parallel to the main drag. I met one exceptionally smoochy cat who seemed keen to walk along with me. He also had a friend, and a kitten in the background.  I’m allergic to cats, but this little one even got a tummy rub out of me. I spent the walk back to the hotel reminding myself not to touch my face with that hand. After that encounter I seemed to run into a cat on every block, none of whom were as friendly as the first.

Pub lunch at the Irish Pub with a friendly waitress, a rarity in Ushuaia, and then down to the port to get on our bus for our afternoon tour.

This started with being loaded on a bus (we were told there was a limit of 20 on the tour so at this stage I was a little confused by the size of the coach we were on) . This was soon explained and the green lanyards would be going first, while the blue lanyards visited the museum, and then the reverse.

The guide ran through the rules for walking with penguins, but it was a little difficult to hear over the noise of the other passengers and the bus. We were old hands at the right of way, but from Fiona’s review form the previous day many of her group didn’t pay much attention to this.
The bus ride took us through some lovely scenery and lasted about 1 hour 45 minutes. I will admit to snoozing through part of the journey, and I think most of our fellow travelers did likewise.
On arrival it was starting to drizzle , which expanded to full on rain by the time the first group were on the island. The museum was more of a research station. They let us have a little look at the areas they use to clean the bones of the animals that come to them, all non chemical to allow them to extract DNA and take samples of heavy metals etc. The guide was very informative, and covered much of the same material we’d been told in lectures aboard the Ushuaia.
On the shore of the Beagle Channel stood The Bone House. A quaint little shack where they do the final processing of the skulls, which is apparently quite stinky. A bit macabre, but quite pretty from a distance.

Once we’d finished in the museum it was nice and sunny and we thought we were in the clear.

Next  was a quick trip to the cafeteria to extract more funds from the tourists. We sat with a lovely couple from Germany who were visiting South America to hear the Rolling Stones play. They had seen them play in Russia and a number of other countries, including a trip to Australia where the show was cancelled. As good a way as any to decide where to go next I suppose. They are now retired with 5 grand children to keep them busy between Rolling Stones concerts.  Despite their five languages they didn’t speak Spanish. The europeans really put us Aussies to shame. All you parents out there, get your kids to study a language. Spanish is a good choose I think.
After a cup of what passes for coffee in most of the places we’ve visited in Argentina we were filed onto a large covered zodiac and warned that it might be a bit bumpy. Bone jarring would be a fitting description as we zipped out into the Beagle Channel towards the island that the Magellanic penguins call home at this time of year. There are 70,000 of these birds on the island along with some Gentoo penguins and itinerant and confused handful of King penguins. King penguins aren’t supposed to live in this area, but the island frequently has between 1 and 6 of these very handsome creatures. 
We were lucky enough to see four of them. The weather was not going to make it easy to photograph them however. With a heads up form Fiona I had brought the long lens with me. The wind decided that would be fun to play with and even with Kingsley trying to act as wind break it was blowing all over the shop.

And was it cold! The coldest we have felt in the whole trip, and that includes being snowed on. I was lucky in that I had donned thermals top and bottom, brought gloves, a hat and my buff as well as the Gortex the jacket and polar fleece. Kingsley hadn’t read the brochure and was less padded. I think the cold got to him as he ended up having a bit of stumble on the way up the hill and put a nice dirty mark on his last pair of clean pants. 
The guide hustled us up the marked trail as the rain started to fall. It wasn’t too heavy, but enough to collect the chill from the Antarctic wind and add to the sense that this was the coldest place on earth.
The Magellanic penguins are more like our little penguins in Australia in that they like nice cosy burrows to next in rather than nests made of pebbles. The island looks like a bit rabbit warren actually. On a different day we would have hung around on the top of the hill taking photos for ages. With a gale force wind bearing down on us ( this may include some poetic license) we couldn’t get down the hill fast enough. 

The King penguins were right in the middle of the colony on the beach, but we were able to snap a few shots from the boat.
The Magellanic penguins make a very odd braying sound so if you closed your eyes ( and managed not to fall over beau case you don’t have your land legs yet) you could be forgiven for thinking you were surrounded by donkeys. I will henceforth refer to them as Eeyore penguins.  There is a lot less penguin poop in these colonies too.  I think the chin strap have the market cornered on easily excavated guano. Except for it all being in the Antarctic I suppose. Maybe they were just the stinkiest. And good for them, it’s clearly working out ok.

After waiting for some green lanyard stragglers we were back on the nicely heated bus for the long drive back to town. As Kingsley said, a very expensive bus ride at about $150 ach, but I can add two more penguin species to my list which is quiet exciting.
By the time we got back I was about 9:15pm and time for dinner. Yes, that’s right. I was not only still awake, but in a restaurant ordering tea. Luckily this is Argentina and eating at that time of day is more norm than exception so we had no trouble getting some pasta and a nice malbec to go with it. Then a walk home, uphill, in the rain.
It is worth noting that I did not take the aquatech camera gear on the trip and everything survived the elements fine, including us. Kinglsey did have to put his boots in front of the overly enthusiastic radiator at the hotel, but it was nice to give it a purpose for a change.

Our flight out of Ushuaia was at a respectable hour so there was no mad rush in the morning. That gave us ample time  to slosh coffee all over the table multiple times on the poorly designed, wobbly, easily knockable tables. I couldn’t face more cake for breakfast so stuck with fruit  ( the hotel offers some fruit, some toast, frosted cereal and the most extensive range of tarts, pies, muffins, cakes and sweet pasties you can imagine. It’s like they are trying to promote diabetes. But I digress)

The internet at the airport is free, and significantly faster than the hotel to the point of being ridiculous. The view from the airport is also very impressive when compared to the hotel. If you’re designing windows in a room where people are going to be seated, don’t start the windows at shoulder height. Just saying.

 Our southern adventure has been very satisfying and it will be a while  before we put our cold weather gear to use again based on the weather back in Perth.

Now back in Buenos Aires it is warm, but not hot. I’m pleased to discover I still have clean warm weather clothes so should make it back to Perth without attracting too many nasty looks from strangers.

Day 22, 23 and 24 – Whilemina Bay, the Drake and the Beagle Channel

Day 22, 23 and 24 – Whilemina Bay, the Drake and the Beagle Channel

We woke this morning to Monika’s announcement that there were humpbacks breaching around the ship. I shrugged on my Gortex jacket and pants over my pjs, grabbed my camera and beanie and I was out the hatch.  No gloves, very few extra layers, but I wasn’t missing this.

Luckily my camera habits meant that I had a memory card ready to go in camera and the batteries were fully charged.

The visibility was sub optimal (snow / rain / low light) but it was a wonder to see.

Cold hands and a lack of action from the whales eventually drove me indoors to dress properly and have breakfast.  Everyone was a bit of a buzz.

After breakfast Monika informed us that there was ‘a bit’ of weather between us and where we were heading next, that being South America.  And the bit of weather being a cyclone. Rather than barge our way through it the captain was going to hang back in sheltered waters until a predicted (relatively) clear path would allow us to slip through, bypassing the worst of it.  Seeing all the scary colours on the weather map we were all in agreement, and reaching for our sea sickness meds in preparation.

Before things got too rough we had another Photoshop session with Alex in the dining room.

Winds of 50 knots meant no excursions while we were waiting so we had to just sit back, crack out our laptops to start sorting through photos, and enjoy the scenery from the comfort of the ship.

There were a few lectures from the staff to keep people entertained, although some passengers used the comforting voices to lull them off to sleep.

Before we went to dinner everyone was instructed to head below and make sure everything was ship shape and securely stowed as the night ahead was likely to be rough.

And it was. The following day we were allowed a late start, and many people decided to milk that and stay in their cabins until the afternoon. Even some of the staff seemed a little queasy.

Even so, I never felt unsafe and the rocking and the rolling was fine as long as you weren’t trying to perform any complicated tasks, like showering.  Of moving around. Kingsley devised a way to wedge himself into his bunk with life preservers to reduce the amount of movement in the night.

We managed to get out on the rolling deck and enjoy the magnificent sea birds, including a huge flock of sooty shearwaters,

and beautiful black-browed albatross (who are much more elegant on the wing than they are taking off or landing),

The next day went much the same way, but with less wind and slightly calmer waves.  It takes time after the big winds for the swell to die down.

As we entered the Beagle Channel the dolphins arrived to give us a show.  They are mighty fast, and quite daring, getting right up close to the nose of the ship and using its power to launch themselves sideways.  Their colouring is quite different to the indo-pacific bottle nosed dolphins that make up the swan river population. I think they were dusky dolphins, but I’m happy to be corrected.

Because they were so close it was another ‘wrong lens’ moment, so most pictures are only part dolphins. Being a bit of a dolphin tragic it was just so very exciting to see it.  I don’t know if any of the WA Dolphin Watch team have been out this way but I’m sure Delphine would have been thrilled to see this behaviour.  I know I was.

 Kingsley also caught them on video so you can see just how fast and agile they are.

Once we all came inside the crew presented us all with certificates to commemorate our journey. The first person called was Kelly, who went round and hugged every member of the crew present, setting the precedent for everyone else, with only a few notable exceptions. It was really lovely. Angela acted as staff photographer for the event – thanks Ang! They also played us a lovely video with picture form our trip and some information about the fantastic staff we’d had helping us out.

The dining room guys got a huge round of applause, which was well deserved.

And dinner was a special treat as well.  As the Pilot had just came aboard to guide us through the Beagle Channel, the good news for the Captain was that he got to come down  with his key staff and join us for the farewell dinner. It was by far the nicest meal we had aboard ship.  Maybe the captain eats like that every night….  The wait staff wore fancy waistcoats as well and looks very flash.

And then we all trooped off to our cabins, packing our bags in readiness for out disembarkation in Ushuaia the next day.

My mark of a good holiday is this, if money were no object, would you go back there again? For Antarctica the answer is a don’t-stop-to-think-about-it-for-a-second YES!!!! If you get the chance, go.  If you can’t afford it, start saving, or look at ways of getting employed there or on a boat going there.  This trip was an experience I will never forget and will be talking about in all the traditional cliches for decades to come.

Day 21 – Flandres Bay Paradise Bay, Orne Island and Wilhemina Bay

Day 21 – Flandres Bay Paradise Bay, Orne Island and Wilhemina Bay

Last night a few of us had a mini session with Alex going through some of her common Photoshop edits.  The thought process behind them was, for me, the most interesting part. The art rather than the science so to speak and a peek inside someone else’s thinking process. I hope she doesn’t find that creepy…

The science of how to make the edits I’m more familiar with, although I tend to use Lightroom for the basic things I do rather than Photoshop.

In retrospect, with the morning that was to follow, I wish I’d asked questions about how to focus through snow.  That might have been unfair as this was out Fearless Leader’s first falling snow experience, but I’m sure rain poses the same challenges.  I’m going to message her now and ask… (the best part of doing a trip with an expert is the opportunity to ask follow up questions.  And Alex is very good at mentoring her former students. Best thing).

The night was a little like a roller coaster ride.  For those of us on the lower decks we got a solid back massage as the boat rolled and pitched.  In the fancy cabins on the upper decks Ang and Sue had the ocean banging on their window. The crew told us the next day the winds got up to 185km / hour.

Having weathered the winds in our sturdy little icebreaker we awoke in Flanders bay, and it was still and beautiful.

No wind meant we could get out and about in our zodiacs, cruising icebergs and getting snowed on as it turned out. We saw a crab eater seal launch itself out of the water and onto the ice.  The power required to do that when you weigh that much boggles the mind.

 

Cruising around as the snow softly fell on us was just a little bit magic.  Oh and it was a little bit cold too.

The colour of the ice was exquisite, and we got to watch sea ice forming on the surface. Did I mention it was cold?


 The guys who came back and  went out after us got a real treat, seeing a leopard seal lazing nonchalantly on the ice. Having seen their enviable pictures his smug expression reminded me most of the puppet Randy of Sammy and Randy.  We didn’t see him so no pictures – sorry.

We did see the beautiful Snow Petrel flying about.  Very tricky to photograph a fast moving white bird on a white background so I was happy with what I got. Realistic expectations after all.

We also got to watch the butterfly like birds feeling on the surface.  They were entrancing, but I’ll need to ask Fiona what they were called. *Wilson’s Storm Petrels.


Our final landing of the trip took as to Orne Island.  The chinstrap penguins there seemed grottier than the Gentoo ones we’d seen. There was something a bit Oliver Twist about them, although I’m sure they were well loved and cared for.

The parents did show us a lot of pebble nest building and some acrobatics.


 
We also got to see an iceberg tip over (they do that from time to time) and we got rained on a bit.

And once the rain had got all over my lens, we found the two tiny skua chicks and their parents. Rain on the lens!!!  Well the main thing to remember is that I got to see them, and they were very, very cute.

These were our last footsteps on Antarctica and I wish I’d taken more of a moment to farewell it. I know this was meant to be a trip of a lifetime, but maybe that just means I’m meant to go back again one day.

In the evening we were given a show by a number of humpback whales as the light dimmed. No great whale tail photos, but I will have to compare those with the ones I have off the Australian coast to see if there are any matches.

Day 20 – Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island and Port Lockroy

Day 20 – Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island and Port Lockroy

We had an early morning wake up from Monika, inviting us on deck to watch as we started to navigate the Lemaire Channel.  This stretch of water is apparently quite scenic, and navigation is entirely dependent on the weather as it can be too full of ice to get through. We all donned our cold weather gear and climbed out of bed to see what we could see.

Which wasn’t very much.. On this occasion there was enough water and not too much ice, but far too much fog to make
out very much. The captain got us through safely  but ever so slowly.

After breakfast we went out on extended zodiac cruises around Pleneau Island. The seals were out and about doing their thing, in and out of the water.  Our guide Leandro told us that he hadn’t seen this many crabeater seals since his first year in the Antarctic.

A few of the zodiacs also went fishing for black ice.  Unlike the beautiful blue ice in the glaciers and icebergs, some ice is almost colourless.  The air bubbles in the ice have been pressed out through long compression.  With help from Linda our boatswain (I think it was Carlos but I terrible with names) managed to bring a big chunk aboard.  Later it would be used in the bar to go with bourbon or scotch, reportedly making crackling sounds as it melted.

 In the other zodiac Alex was convinced to be the one to stick her arms into the water to put out a big lump. I don’t think I would have been game, but as she said, the ice was colder than the water, which makes sense when you think about it.

Back on the boat we got to watch the chefs preparing bbq* in the snow.

This may sound stupid, but I really hadn’t expected to be snowed on while in the Antarctic.  It is summer after all.  This was a bit special as a number of people on board had never been snowed on before.  It was quite special, especially as you could watch it come down while in the cosy comfort of the bar, and you knew you wouldn’t have to be trudging through slush any time soon.

There were vegie kebabs for the vegetarians, although I think perhaps they could have used a little longer on the grill. It was the most elaborate way of preparing sausage in a bun that I’ve had in a while. 

Visibility was going to continue to be poor, so in the afternoon Monika had arranged for us to visit Port Lokroy. Kelly was very excited. Port Lockroy is one of the operational post offices here in the Antarctic, and many folk were busy preparing their postcards to send.  From here they would travel  back to the UK before then being dispatched to the rest of the world.


Port Lockroy used to be a secret British  military operation in the 1940s. It is now staffed during the four months of summer by a team of four volunteers. So far this year they have had 18,000 visitors come through.

The operation is a post office, shop and museum.  I was amazed how excited some of the passengers, and crew for that matter, were to be able to shop. I’m not much of a shopper so was more interested in the museum and the penguins, but the British Antarctic Heritage Trust did well out of Kingsley and I and the rest of the complement from the Ushuaia.

In return some of the volunteers were able to make use of the amenities aboard our ship. The base does not have running water for things like showers (though I’m not convinced they share a bucket for their ablutions). Just as volunteer Laura came aboard to talk to us there had been an announcement that the ships water would be offline for a while which had us all a little concerned for her, but apparently that was rectified in time.

The best part of the visit was that we got an Antarctica stamp in our passports.

Our visit to Port Lockroy got me thinking. Even though I was the furthest away from any city I could possibly be, I felt less remote in Antarctica than I had sitting in the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley. I think that it may be to do with the nature of each place. It is possible in the North West of WA to be alone. You could grab a swag and sleep under the stars, travel for days by foot or car in some spots without seeing anyone.  And if you do that, and you’re prepared, you’ll be fine.

In the Antarctic being on your own would kill you. You simply can’t survive for long on your own.  In our case we were traveling as a group, and we had one staff member for every two passengers aboard. Even the four volunteers at this base where seeing a boat load of tourists just about every day. That was reflected in that some of the vollies came from retail backgrounds rather than what I might have expected, scientific.

And the same experience is true for many of the creatures that live down here.  Penguins live in colonies, krill make up half of the world’s biomass. It’s a little different for pelagic birds and leopard seals, but everything else tends to form groups.

On a personal level I am attracted to the solitary figure, a sensibility to which I can relate.

The museum part of the base was sweet, a  representation of yesteryear. I haven’t seen a typewriter in a long while and the raunchy pictures on the door of the head, well see for yourself.

And of course there were penguins.  And some kind of pigeon I didn’t get any good pictures of. I spent ages trying to get a decent shot of this guy and the flag but really, it was too tall and he was too short and I didn’t have a fish eye lens. I felt better when Alex said she hadn’t managed it either.  She may have been lying to save my feelings, for which I will be forever thankful.

The babies here were a little younger, staying closer to mom and pop. Very cute though I think you’ll agree.

 

 
 

As we returned to the ship in the early evening the light was breaking through the cloud,s illuminating the landscape in a way that took your breathe away.  What a privilege to be in such a place.

*Perhaps one of the best parts of writing up this blog is that I
discovered some pictures that were still on a memory card I hadn’t
downloaded. All thanks to the missing BBQ shots.

Day 19 – Antarctic Continent

Day 19 – Antarctic Continent

We started the day watching humpback whales breach  in the Gerlache Strait.  It’s a hard life.

After breakfast we arrived in a small harbour names for a whale factory ship that used to operate here.

The only person unhappy with the weather for our first steps on the Antarctic continent was our fearless leader, Alex. As we should all know beautiful blue skies and sunshine does not make for perfect penguin photography conditions. It does make for a unforgettably magic experience and views.

Having been shuttled to the shore across glassy water we landed near a  Gentoo penguin colony and we were able to watch the art of home maintenance Gentoo style. Pebbles are the main building material of choice.  There isn’t much else on offer actually. The challenge is that your neighbours often feel free to take the pebbles you’ve used to make your nest to beautify their own so it’s an ongoing activity to keep up with the Joneses.

We made our way up hill over the flawless snow for a view from the top. We’d all donned our various layers before setting out, but halfway up the hill we stopped and started to strip off,  to the point where I ended up in short sleeves, no gloves and no hat. Simply balmy at 5 degrees c and no wind at all.

Towards the top of the hill we heard an unforgettable sound from the glacier, and
saw a small part fall away. Not large enough to create a new iceberg it
did create an amazing wave. There was more rumbling and groaning form
the ice but no calving.

On the top of the hill we got a sneak peek at a Skua family. If you’re ever in a situation where you’ve gotten too close to a Skua and it decided to have a go at you, the tactic we were told was to loosen the fingers of your gloves and wave them over your head, allowing the birds to attack something other than your flesh. Better yet, apply common sense and give wildlife the room they need to feel comfortable and unthreatened.

After marveling at the view for some time we started back down. Under guidance to prevent disappearing down any hidden crevasses some passengers decided to take the easy way down and slid.

On our way back to the shore Pablo spotted a Weddell seal having a relax in the snow. 

There were plenty of chicks in the rookery and it takes some getting used to to see them spread out like there has been some kind of penguin massacre.  They seem to be able to sleep in the craziest of positions.

After lunch (I swear they are trying to fatten us up for something Hansel and Gretel style) we made our second stop of the day at  Cuverville. We got to see a functioning penguin highway, channels worn in the snow used by the penguins used to traverse the steep slopes.

Many of the penguin chicks here were of an age that they were quite active, and very funny to watch as they went running after mum or dad seeking food.

Here you can see the backward facing bristles on the penguin tongue which helps keep the fish, squid and krill in when fishing.


There was one penguin still sitting with its egg. There is a good chance that late hatchlings won’t make it.  The penguin chicks rely on being part of a creche, a group of chicks under the general supervision of one or two adults while the rest go out to sea to fish. Later chicks will be fewer in number and more vulnerable to predation.

While waiting for our ride back to the boat we watched a bit of drama start to unfold. A penguin chick had slipped down part of a rocky slope away from its parents and was being approached by a pair of skua. By this age penguin chicks are often able to hold their own, but the skua often try to tire the babies out, or try to get them to fall off the edges. By the time we left the little one was steadily making his way back up the rocks.

Watching these kinds of things in nature is quite challenging.

Our ride back to the boat included a zodiac cruise, allowing us to get up close and personal with the crab eater seals. As a general rules they would raise their heads to look at us as we approached, before deciding we weren’t really that interesting and going back to sleep.



Seeing the icebergs at sea level is just incredible.You always kind of think those photos will all the blue are photoshopped to look that way, but those colours are real and quite unearthly.

Our evening meal included a toast by the crew to celebrate our landing on Antarctica proper.

Day 18 – South Shetland Islands

Day 18 – South Shetland Islands

The good news for today was the weather was good for Elsie and her husband to be evacuated  from King George Island. There were a number of boats in the harbour making the most of the same weather window including a sailboat waiting for its captain and crew and a navel vessel offloading their sadly deceased doctor. Did I mention we were in the remote wilderness and that we were at the whim of the weather?  Puts things in perspective.  I don’t know what happened to him or her, but we were please that our thumb lady was going to get the medical care she needed.  
A number of planes were buzzing in and out and we all let up a cheer when Doctor Grace returned to the Ushuaia on the zodiac and announced that our evacuees were up, up and away.  I hope the Doctor then retired for a well deserved rest.  No rest for us though, we were full steam ahead to our next activity, a landing at Robert Point.

Our second and third zodiac rides turned out o be quite exciting. In retrospect I am confident that had it not been for the medical evacuation we may not have gone ashore for the first or second landing we did on the trip.  I think the crew were very keen to get us out doing something. 
We were a way back in the now single file line to be checked off and loaded onto a zodiac. That meant me got to watch as everyone else was maneuvered aboard. Then it was our turn and our zodiac approached the loading dock. As it did a big bit of swell came through and a huge dollop of water was loaded off the Ushuaia and into our zodiac. Our driver zoomed out into open water, grabbed a bucket and started bailing out the bottom of the zodiac. That done he came back for a second try and we boarded as carefully as we could.
 On the beach the guides had marked off an area for us to use so as not to antagonise the numerous fur seals on the rocky shore. 
Watching the seals after yesterday’s lecture I could really see the bear and otter similarities.

We also had to watch our step in places so as to avoid the vegetation.  There isn’t a lot of greenery down this way, and what is there grows very slowly so having people trampling all over it is not a good plan.

Further up the hill we found Elephant Seals in moult.  While they are shedding their fur they don’t go in the water. They looked pretty relaxed and just watched us pass by.
The penguins of the day were the adorable Chipstrap and Gentoo species again. The babies were very cute, interacting which each other and chasing after their parents with load and persistent demands for food.  These penguin parents are very dedicated and very patient. I guess you get away with a lot when you are that cute.

 
 The ride back to the boat was even more interesting than the one out. This video still doesn’t capture the real size of the swell. Our zodiac operator (I don’t know what I should call them, captain, driver??) was very skilled at navigating the big waves rather than driving us head long into them.  Some other passengers reported different experiences on their zodiacs.

This is the ride from yesterday if you want more.

 Once everyone was safely aboard we set sail for the Antarctic continent. Every year each tour nominates the places the are going to visit in order to manage/spread the impact of visitation around the various sites. Because of the medical evac our plans needed to change, so the expedition leader, Monika had been wheeling and Dealing to arrange our new itinerary. Withing that we were still at the mercy of the weather gods, and there was a good chance we weren’t going to cross the polar circle.  Sadly that caused some people a large degree of disappointment.  For me we were seeing the things I wanted to see and I was happy to go wherever they could take us.
To keep us entertained and educated Kata gave us a lecture on dolphins and whales are I learned these things;
  • There are different subtypes of Orca
  • Orca are members of the dolphin family, not actually whales as the term killer whale would suggest
  • They have very good hearing
  • You will only see them if they choose to be seen
  • The only conclusion you can reach is that  Orca are really ninja dolphins
  • They also won’t eat anything they haven’t killed themselves, and even then only the tongue, neck and skin. Myabe it’s a variation on a paleo diet for dolphins
  • The world’s smallest dolphin lives in the coastal region of Magellan Strait (*edit – when not being killed and molested by moronic tourists. I can’t tell you how disgusted I felt with the human race today)
  • Of the true whales the Baleen whales baleen plates are made out of hair, the smooth part facing outward and the hairy part facing in, and used to filter food out while excess water is expelled.
  • Humpback whales can be uniquely identified by the patterns on their tail fluke (I have to compare my antarctic pics with my WA pics now to see if I’ve seen any in both places)
  • Southern Right Whales are id’d by the patterns of resident critters on their faces
  •  They are called right whales because they were considered the right whales to hunt as they were non aggressive and floated when killed
  • Sperm whales spout to the left at an angle
  • Minke whales are playful

And here is an iceberg to leave you with for today.

Day 17 – South Shetland Islands on board MV Ushuaia

Day 17 – South Shetland Islands on board MV Ushuaia

Monkia, our expedition leader woke us up with her cheery “Good Morning, Good Morning Expeditioners” and an announcement that we would have a briefing on plans in the bar after breakfast.

The weather continued to be foggy, but there was hope that the afternoon would present a weather  window that would allow the medical evacuation to go ahead. There were not facilities on King George Island that would make it possible to offload the injured passenger and her husband to wait for the plane without us, understandably so the delay would cause further impacts to our planned itinerary. As a result we would do some of the things in the South Shetlands that were scheduled for the end of the trip at the beginning instead.

The up side of that was that if we got to do a landing the thumb lady’s husband might get to do a landing before they were scooted off the ship.

The downside was that some passengers were starting to get a bit grumbly. My own view on the subject was that if were me or one of my loved ones that needed to be getting off the ship I would want the crew to be doing exactly what they were doing, and anyway we were in the far south and everything that happened here would be at the whim of the weather. No point getting upset about it when everyone was doing everything they possibly could to make the best out of it.

We had our first landing of the trip at Yankee Harbour, Greenwich Island. That meant our first trip out in the zodiacs. Everyone struggled into their numbered live preservers to be counted off the ship by the good doctor.  As a group we were all a bit unruly as we seemed to be unable to form a single file for this purpose.  We did improve for the subsequent landings though.

I was a little apprehensive about the zodiac trip to shore.  I had my camera in a dry bag inside my backpack and a rain cover on the backpack. The process for getting onto the zodiacs was clearly explained to us and the guides set off ahead to make sure everything was ok on land before we arrived.

The Ushuaia is one of the smaller boats to come down to Antarctica, and even so it took 11 trips to get everyone ashore. It made sense that if you travel on the bigger ships you may only get on land once or twice in a cruise, and maybe not at all. I was very happy with our choice.

The sea lions (with ears) that live there now are no longer bothered by sealers, but a few of our fellow travelers failed to head the instructions of our guides and strayed too close for their comfort. The guides swung into action to distract the fast approaching and massive beasts and we avoided adding anyone else to the evacuation list.

We visited our first penguin colony, this one Gentoo penguins.  The Gentoo are the third largest penguin species, following after the emperor and the king penguins.  Gentoo also seem to be the most adaptable species, spreading themselves over much wider areas than others. They are less selective about diet so will eat krill, fish and squid based on availability.

There were a couple of confused Chinstrap penguins in the group too. The different species don’t seem at all troubled by the intermingling.

The Antarctic Skua needs a good PR company. Being birds of prey in the antarctic means either you eat fish or you eat penguins. Putting a positive spin on eating cute little balls of fluff is tricky. . During our trip we saw a number of cute fluffy Skua chicks too, and we know that those chicks need to be fed but… Kelly took this harder than most.  Knowing that everyone needs to eat doesn’t make it any easier to watch Skuas attempting to make off with a cute, fluffy, engaging little penguin baby.

At this colony there were two penguins whose pebbly nests were a little further down slope than most. Enter two skuas keen on tag teaming penguin parents and their chicks. At one stage a penguin from the top of the slope came hustling down to help out one of the besieged parents.
We don’t know what the outcome was, but we do now that some penguin parents will lose their chicks to predators, be they skua or leopard seals.  It’s a harsh environment I suppose, and I guess we didn’t spend anytime lamenting the baby squid that the penguins kill to feed their chicks.  Just as well squid and krill aren’t cute and fluffy.

The whether hadn’t improved by the afternoon so our next activity was a boat tour of the stunning Deception Island. I will have to take the stunning part under advisement as we saw very little other than fog. It was interesting to be cruising around inside a volcano though. The last time it went up two research stations were lost.

This is what Deception Island looked like to us.

I wasn’t at all bothered by that. We’d seen penguins being adorably cute and that made my day. Although they look awkward, they navigate the most rocky terrain without hands and mostly without falling over, and can swim like Thorpey. I could not be more impressed.  We also learned that although they look like they have short legs, most of their legs is hidden under their feathery bodies, sort of like reverse leg warmers.

A grand day out regardless of a bit of rain and wind.

Day 16 – Antarctic convergence and beyond aboard MV Ushuaia

Day 16 – Antarctic convergence and beyond aboard MV Ushuaia

A day of firsts. Today we saw our first penguins swimming in the ocean. We were all very excited, which must amuse the crew no end.  They swim like dolphins, porpoising in and out of the water to maintain their speed.  I don’t know why I was surprised to see them out so far away from land.

We spent some time out on deck trying to get photos, but they are quick and quite little so I certainly didn’t get much.

We also saw our first seals swimming about, out first icebergs and our first whales. We entered Antarctic waters and saw the South Shetland Islands shrouded in fog. It was hoped that the evacuation would happen off King George Island today, but although a plane got very close it was turned back from the island because of poor visibility. The seas are much calmer now we are out of the Drake which was a relief for those suffering from sea sickness. The sea sickness patches came off.

It was a day of lessons and we were given the run down on behaviour in Antarctica including giving penguins the right of way, how to get in and out of zodiacs and boot cleaning to ensure we didn’t introduce pests or disease anywhere.

The lecture of the day was about seals and sea lions. I had no idea  they were closely related to bears and otters, although looking closely at sea lions it seems quite obvious to me now with their little sticky outy ears. True seals are better suited to the water, while sea lions are able to walk much like dogs using all four limbs on land. And they can put on some speed when properly motivated, as we were to see in the days to come. Both are deserving of respect and distance on land where they can get quite cranky if you get too close. Duly noted.

The winds were strong (40 knots) so there was no opportunity to make a shore landing safely. That did not mean we lacked for entertainment as Dave and Di put on a show for us in their penguin onsies. Fabian was delighted, and I think he may be stalking Dave and his onsie for the rest of the trip.

The dining room on the Ushuaia is divided into a series of rooms. The
rearmost has tables that seat ten people.  The chairs are attached to
the floor (although there is a secret trick that can be used to
temporarily remove and replace the)  and swivel. There is not a lot of
room between the chairs, and for people like Kingsley who is all legs
getting in an out is like a three dimensional game of Tetris. In the end
he seems to have settled on a technique that has him entering the chair
over the seat back. Not very dignified, but it gets him there.

The
movement of the ship means you become quite intimate with your fellow
dinners as you are often literally rubbing elbows, thighs, shoulders
etc.

We also had our first photography tour session with Alex.  She talked about the use of exposure compensation and birds in flight photography, and distributed out photo challenges for the trip.

Alex also presented us with pictures of our beautiful fur babies and seeing the gorgeous photo of Smudge made me a little* emotional. This is the longest we’ve been away from Smudge and Sausage and being out of contact is very hard. In retrospect it was just as well we were out of contact as this was the day of the storm and Sausage’s first great escape and being able to do absoluelt nothing would have been unbearable.

When attempting to review my photos and makes some notes on the day I discovered that I was finding it difficult to make out some of the settings on my camera.  It unfolded that both Kingsley and  I had run into one of the side effects of the patches, affecting near vision. I’d like to blame that for my sub-par penguin swimming photo, but I don’t think I’d get away with it.

Day 15–Drake Passage aboard MV Ushuaia

Day 15–Drake Passage aboard MV Ushuaia

Overnight we have been piloted through the Beagle Channel and have started our way over the Drake Passage. The roll of the ship took a little getting used to in our cosy bunks but so far I have been pleasantly surprised and think we are doing very well in terms of a calm journey.

According to Wikipedia the passage is 800 kms wide and covers the area between Livingstone Island and Cape Horn. The volume of water running through it is approx 600 times that of the Amazon river. having never seen the Amazon that probably doesn’t give me any context, but from looking at at the seemingly endless ocean I can tell you there is a lot of water out there.  I don not have that number in Olympic sized swimming pools or Sydney harbours so don’t ask.

Crossing of the Drake can be very rough, youtube shows some amazing footage which you should check out if you have the time and inclination. This is my favourite (not our video, not our trip but this is the ship we were on).

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There are others on board who would disagree with my assessment of a nice gentle crossing and many people have been knocked about with serious sea sickness. That would normally keep the ship’s doctor, the petite Colombian Dr Grace, busy enough, but we learnt this morning that one poor lady met with misadventure overnight, and to prevent a slip in the shower grabbed a door jam just as the heavy door swung closed. Partial thumb amputation by ships door is not a ideal start to an Antarctic voyage. We will be changing our plans a bit and steaming towards the nearest airstrip, on the South Shetland Islands, to allow her to be flown back to civilisation for further medical treatment. So far she is doped on on pain meds and members of our tour have medicated her husband with contraband chocolate.

As mentioned previously, In our min group most travelers opted to go with the Scopoderm sea sickness patches. I’ve never been sea sick before, but there are times when there is no point taking chances so we ordered our patches on the internet from New Zealand.  They aren’t available in Australia. Some others are using anti-nausea wafers and other pills and poultices.  Poor Brigitte seems to be copping the worst of the sea sickness in our group, and Kirsty has brought a nasty cold with her form Disney World and is tucked up in her cabin with the small pharmacy of drugs Todd has stashed away.

While we are on the open ocean there isn’t terribly much to do aboard ship apart form get used to the movement and bird watching on the upper decks. Fortunately this is am amazing experience for me. We have a range of sea birds, albatross, petrels, shearwaters and the much maligned skuas who, for whatever reason, love to glide about the stern of the ship. And they get unbelievably close. So close in some cases that my 70-200 lens couldn’t focus, and it has a minimum focus distance of 95 cms…
This is an uncropped portrait of a skua hovering just above my head and clearly trying to figure out what I was up to.

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In addition to my friendly Skua+ we spotted Black-browed Albatross, White Chinned Petrel, Cape Petrel, Giant Petrel and Wandering Albatross, Our daily lecture delivered by Pablo, one of the three biologists on-board, talked a bit about these pelagic birds. It was very interesting to learn that only some birds have a well developed sense of smell; vultures, kiwi and pelagic seabirds like the albatross, shearwaters and petrels.

+This skua photo was actually taken closer to the Shetland islands, but I hadn’t reset my camera dates to the new time zone. Stay tuned for a lessons learned post later this week.

We started on the first full day of the breakfast, lunch and dinner regime. Breakfast consists of toast, fruit croissants, cereal, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, cheese, ham etc buffet style. The coffee is pretty ordinary, but it is served to you by some of the funniest, friendly people alive so that is forgiven.

Note: Seeing as I am finishing off these posts after the fact I am going to cheat a little bit and include some information I didn’t know at the time where it makes sense to do so..

The serving staff in the dining room are, in no particular order were;

Fabian, who advised us to  walk-like-a-penguin to avoid losing your balance aboard ship. He also demonstrated the technique to us and Kingsley spent the day practicing. Fabian and Lorri and having a competition to see who is the smiliest person in the universe.  Fabian has the edge only because Lorri is a little green around the gills.

Alvaro, who reminded me of the genius Alexei Sayle, is a man of a thousand and one facial expressions. Working with people who all have different languages means that being able to express yourself using your body language and facial expressions is a great skill, and this man is the master.
Carlos, who came around the dining room every meal to see who was opting for the vegetarian option each day (believe it or not this varied more than you might think). For some reason he would look at me every day as if expecting me to choose the vegetarian option. I didn’t, and can’t help feeling that I disappointed him.  Something about me must look vego for some reason. Carlos has eyebrows that speak volumes.

Over the course of the trip the vegetarian dishes went from the basic to the out and out weird. The corn and white sauce lasagne was perhaps the one that stood out most in my mind.  I wish I’d had the forethought to take pictures of each dish for reference.

Maria Jose played the straight man) to Curly, Larry and Mo. I don’t think she has been on the Ushuaia as long as the others, but she is equally lovely and helpful.

Lunch and dinner are three course affairs, aimed at giving people something to do as much as a attempt to provide a balanced and nutritious diet I think. Edible but not a gastronomes delight would be my summary.. The best thing about the food  were the lovely soups, all served with mountains of fresh bread. Sadly after the last two weeks I have had both bread and cheese up to the eye teeth. Still, no chance of going hungry as there is plenty of food on offer.

Being a captive market I expected the bar prices to be high, but we have been pleasantly surprised.  A very generously poured glass of the house red or white is $5 USD, a bottle of wine ranges between $20 and $40 USD and a cocktail $10 USD. Soft drinks come in at about $3 USD and the tap water is drinking standard, though may start to taste a bit sub standard once the ship has to start processing its own.

Our bar tender for the trip was Alejandra. We quickly discovered that the trick to having drinks with dinner was to purchase them in the bar beforehand and then take them with you to the dining room. Otherwise poor Alejandra was running backwards and forwards from the bar at one end of the ship to the dining room at the other for 88 passengers, all the while keeping one hand for the ship and one for the beverages and glasses. While I’m sure that kept her fit it was also time consuming and you could get to dessert before getting something to wet your whistle..

The bar runs on a chit system, where you bill is accrued during the journey and you pay in cash (USD) at the end or by part payment by credit card two days before return to Ushuaia. This system worked fine, but you need to keep an eye out on the dodgy Australians who try to put your cabin number down instead of their own.