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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.