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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 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.