Phang Nga, Thailand: Happy 2012 everyone, but my thoughts are still in 2011. In November I ventured to Antarctica for a kayaking expedition and as the finale of an extraordinary seven month sabbatical. I am one of approximately 25,000 lucky folks who will visit Way Down Under this season, which happens to be a bumper season because of the centennial of the Amundsen-Scott race to the south pole. Antarctica is a continent of superlatives: the coldest, windiest, driest, most remote place, and the largest wilderness area on Earth.
This is my expedition journal:
MONDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2011
After travelling more than 30 hours across the Pacific, through two air hubs in the United States, and the length of South America, this morning I find myself at yet another airport. My immediate worry: making a 6:20am Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. I arrived at the airport at 5am and it was prime time, with crowds and chaos and very long lines. I worried about missing my flight, especially when two of the four check-in staff decided to take a break. To my surprise I made it, and despite the seeming airport chaos, the flight departed just ten minutes late. After four flights across three continents over two days, I and my luggage finally arrive in the world’s southernmost city without a glitch.
I walked around the compact town of Ushuaia for several hours, checking out the clothing stores and book shop. Somehow I managed to kill the whole afternoon and saw all the Ushuaia I desired to see, including buying some last minute gear such as cold weather gloves for kayaking. I also visited the maritime museum and penal museum. It was interesting to learn about Ushuaia’s origin as a penal colony in the late 1890’s. I then attended a low-key welcome meeting by G Adventures before having a crab and squid dinner with a fellow expeditioner.
TUESDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2011
This morning I toured the Tierra del Fuego National Park with some fellow expeditioners. It’s great to be back in Tierra del Fuego (Fire Islands) and Patagonia, and in the Andes, right on the border with Chile. It’s been a decade since I was last in this part of the world. While the landscape is pretty physically, it required less than five hours to get a sense for the park. Back in Ushuaia and after an unsatisfying lunch at the only Irish pub in town, I took care of some loose ends: getting a Ushuaia passport stamp and getting some peso cash. At 4pm boarded a bus for the five-minute drive to the M/S Expedition.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ship. Although the Expedition was built in 1972 as a car ferry, it was refurbished two years ago to a high standard. I paid extra for my own cabin – why risk the enjoyment of a journey on roommate roulette? In my stateroom there are twin beds, a large window, a desk and a reading chair. The bathroom, and especially the shower, is tiny but functional. After unpacking and exploring the ship, we then attended a safety presentation and drill, and informational session before setting off around 7pm, an hour late because of the delayed arrival of some staff members. This is the first Expedition sailing to Antarctica this season. Most importantly, I put on a sea sickness patch as soon as I got on the ship.
There are 88 passengers on board., 30 below ship capacity. Most of the passengers are from the Anglo world, with as many Aussies and Canadians as Americans. Several passengers booked last-minute from Ushuaia including one couple who booked on the day of embarkation. Most of the passengers are single (with significant others at home), and while there is a large age range, surprisingly the crowd skews young and female, it seems. There are few couples on board. I expected the trip would skew much older, especially considering this November sailing and the priciness of Antarctica. I was wrong. Dinner includes table service and the food is better than I expected. As we sailed through the Beagle Channel we passed at a distance the iconic lighthouse of Ushuaia. After dinner I attended a kayak briefing session. To my pleasant surprise there are only five passengers signed up for kayaking.
WEDNESDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2011
We left the Beagle Channel (which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) around 4am and I sensed the more pronounced rocking motion of the ship. Although I only woke up once through the night, I am still tired today. As we progress through the Drake Passage, the seas are very mild, a 1 on a scale of 10. “Drake Lake,” as they say. The sun is shining and the weather is beautiful. This feels more like the Caribbean than Antarctica. I hope the awesome weather lasts.
Today is fully at sea. I attended lectures on sea birds of the Southern Ocean –- which emphasized Albatross, petrels, prions –- then went on deck to look at some of the sea birds which are following the ship. I also paid a visit to the bridge and noticed that one of the crew members was watching “Colombo” on his computer. (I am not sure which should be more concerning: his watching TV, or the choice of Colombo). I attended a second lecture on Ernest Shackleton, who was a great leader but not-so-great expeditioner. After lunch the kayaking group had an equipment fitting session to take advantage of the calm seas.
In the afternoon there was also a lecture about the many species of seals we will encounter. Whales were also spotted today, and over dinner I saw whale spray and a tail. Whoopee. The expedition team is very knowledgeable and includes two naturalists, a marine biologist, a geologist, a historian, a camping master and a kayaking master. We also had a captain’s welcome toast and dinner tonight.
Tonight at 9:30pm we passed the Antarctic convergence, the largest biological barrier on earth. It’s a barrier to many marine organisms, as the water is too cold south of the convergence. At the convergence colder Antarctic water meets warmer subantarctic water and there’s a sudden drop in temperature. At Ushuaia the water temperate is 4 degrees celsius. At 8pm the water is still 4 degrees. By 9pm it was three degrees. By 9:30pm it was zero degrees, and it will stay this cold until we return pass the convergence again on our way back. Biologically we are now in Antarctica.
THURSDAY 10 NOVEMBER 2011
This morning around 1am I awoke to much bumpier and lumpier water –- the sea has definitely picked up. It was a rocking night, but my Kimite sea sickness patch is working just fine. I easily went back to sleep.
Ship wake-up call occurred at 7:30am this morning. Outside there are swells of 3 to 5 meters. It’s definitely a lumpier and much more active sea than yesterday’s Drake Lake. After breakfast I hit the smallish gym; it was hard work doing exercises such as lunges while the boat rocked back and forth. I then attended a mandatory briefing session on guidelines by IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, on rules to keep the continent pristine.
After lunch we approached Aitcho Island, part of the south Shetland chain, and had a bonus late afternoon landing . But first we attended a lecture on zodiac procedures and sized our wet boots. Jagged black volcanic Aitcho Island was small but beautiful with a colony of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. I witnessed several penguin couples mating. The male climbs on top of the female, the beaks connect, the wings flap, and the business is quick.
At 6:30am, the water temperature was – 2 and the air temperature zero, but it felt like -20 due to the strong wind gusts (up to 50 knots or 75 mph). This morning we approached Brown Bluff, the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, but due to the very strong winds we could not make a landing. Persistence and patience, advised expedition leader Susan. We then entered the Antarctic Sound and the Weddell Sea, and saw many large tabular icebergs, including one more than a kilometer long in diameter. But the high wind persisted and I was nearly blown away. Luckily I ate a big dinner last night. At 11:11am, on 11/11/11 the captain marked the occasion with a whistle blow and a moment of silence for Remembrance Day, the start of WWI.
Due to the wind there were no landings today. On board there were lectures on penguins and the Amundsen-Scott race to the south pole. This year marks the centenary of that race and the conquest of the south pole. In the afternoon we had a presentation from three volunteers who will man the Port Lockroy British settlement for the summer. At lunch the topic was about the sinking of the M/S Exploration, which was also operated by Gap Adventures. The Exploration was the precursor ship to the Expedition, and her photo hangs in the library. I had no idea of this history when I booked this vessel. Lighting rarely strikes twice, I pray.
SATURDAY 12 NOVEMBER 11
This morning we wake up to fog and snow. The outside decks were covered in snow and were slippery but the wind was down. We then entered a large pack ice field and the ship was totally immersed in the ice. We went as far as we could into the ice field then turned around. The ship’s bow made a “V” impression into the ice, our version of “we were here.”
Once we exited the ice field at Danco the five kayakers finally got to kayak. It was frightening at first to be on the water, and I was very apprehensive about the whole thing, especially after signing all kinds of insurance waivers and acknowledging everything that could go wrong. We paddled alongside the ice field and around a couple of ice bergs. We watched penguins play in the water and saw a seal on the ice. It was beautiful being on the water and up front and close to Antarctic. I wore four layers at the top and three layers at the bottom and was warm for the whole kayaking session, though toward the end the weather turned and we paddled back to the ship in a grey blizzard with choppy swells. The unanchored ship had also moved so it was a bit of s stretch paddling in rougher, colder weather. The skies were grey and it was hard locating the ship in this weather. I felt some panic even though there was a safety zodiac dedicated to the kayakers. Still it was an awesome and not-to-be-forgotten experience. As Stephen and I clumsily climbed into our tandem kayak, Ian, the kayaking master, said “Todd, you’re in command of this vessel.” I assumed control of the rudder in the rear cockpit position.
In the late afternoon we moored at Neko Bay, a sublime protected inlet surrounded by mountain. The bay was filled with ice. There was a penguin colony on one of the more modest slopes. The kayaking was superb. The water was pancake flat and calm, and it was such a magnificent experience to gently glide between the ice floes and to just sit on the water. While we were still in the kayaks, going toward (but not very close to) a glacier, there was an avalanche at the top of a mountain. Our collective response was “oh shit,” thinking the glacier is calving. We then paddled over to a small beach where we landed on the Antarctic continent to check out the penguin rookery and to enjoy the vistas. As the ice was coming in, the captain ordered everyone back to ship. This unfortunately abbreviated my land visit.
As we left Neko Bay the captain stopped to pick up a buoy which somehow had become lodged on the ice; our version of picking up litter along the side of the road.
SUNDAY 13 NOVEMBER 2011
This morning we entered Paradise Harbor. Paradise it was; another bay surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains. The Chileans have a research center here which is sometimes manned, and there are the remains of a weather structure clearly visible. We went kayaking again and it was beautiful. The water was very calm and I could have sat in the kayak all day, drifting in between the ice floes and gently paddling on the mostly shallow water. Occasionally we paddled through brash ice which I especially enjoy, as the hard-rock ice scrapes against the kayak. Penguins, petrels, and even a seal were visible. This is Antarctica as I imagined: beautiful, pure, pristine, untouched wilderness, covered by ice. One of the benefits of being the first expedition of the season is the ice cover. I marveled how no one had been to the spot in which we kayaked for at least half a year, perhaps longer.
This cruise has the feeling of a family trip, It’s a small ship, with only 88 passengers, so there is a level of intimacy here. But also because we’re the first cruise of the season, the ice and weather conditions are somewhat unknown. So while we head to various places, we’re not sure until we get there whether the water is navigable. So essentially we’re cruising Antarctica, looking for interesting places to stop and see, and there is a high level of improvisation. Take this morning. Originally the intent was a landing in Paradise Bay, but the fast ice restricted that. So instead zodiac tours and kayaking were organized.
This afternoon we sailed into Port Lockroy, which is yet another stunningly beautiful harbor ringed by snow-covered mountains with a couple small islands. There are Gentoo rookeries on the islands. This afternoon we made a landing onto the islands, first to visit the rookeries and to witness the penguins nesting and occasionally mating. Then we went to Port Lockroy where the British maintain a heritage/scientific post, and a gift shop, of all things and in all places. No place is sacred any more, it seems. I bought and mailed post cards in Antarctica!
For dinner the Expedition served up a barbecue on an outside deck.
One quirky aspect of the M/S Expedition is a keyless policy. None of the rooms have keys. There’s an honor system on the ship that builds a sense of community. And while I have some very expensive equipment in my room, as do many guests, it’s all been secure.
After dinner we were treated to a beautiful pinkish-violet sunset in Port Lockroy, the end of a fantastic day in Antarctica.
MONDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2011
Today we turned around and head back North. Port Lockroy is the furthest south we venture on this expedition along the Antarctic peninsula. I opted to NOT go camping last night and slept late this morning. I got out of bed an hour later than the usual 0620. I am beginning to feel sluggish from all the eating (especially the barbecue last night; I had two burgers and loads of other food) and minimal activity. My right ear is a little tender, and my throat slightly coarse. Otherwise I am fine.
As we head north along the Niemayer channel I spot another ship on the horizon.
This morning as we entered Wilhamina Bay the sun sparkled on the snowy mountains. Hues of blue and white, with a touch of grey, are all that we see. The mountain in front of us at Wilhamina Bay towers at 7,000 and the plateau leads to the south pole.
Wilhamina Bay was frozen over, so we only stopped for a photo opportunity at the edge of the fast ice. We skipped Enterprise Island and headed for another bay in the late afternoon, where we landed to visit yet another Gentoo penguin colony and a refugio maintained by the Argentines. We also went kayaking, and witnessed a seal lazing on a small iceberg. Unfortunately I did not get that shot as my new Olympus waterproof camera ran out of juice. Today’s kayaking is the first time I have felt cold to the bone. The water splashing on my face, the wind, and the numbness in my hands all created an unpleasant situation. However, as we leave the Antarctic Peninsula tonight, and will spend the next two days in the South Shetlands, the seas will be rougher so this may be my last kayaking day.
What really stands out today is purity – purity of the water, purity of the blue sky, purity of the snow whiteness, sparkling under the brightness of the sun.
TUESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2011
Today and tomorrow will be in the South Shetlands before crossing the Drake Passage for the journey back to Ushuaia. The wake up call came at 6:15am and immediately I layered up and headed out on deck to witness our approach into Deception Island, which is the only place in the world where a boat can venture into the caldera of an active volcano. The navigation into Deception Island past the rocky walls of Neptune’s Bellows is quite technical and once inside we hung a left and parked at Whaler’s Bay, which was once the site of an extensive whaling and sealing operation. What’s left are a few decrepit buildings and rusted oil storage and docking structures, a small cemetery, and some whale bones. Deception Island is said to be the lair of Captain Nemo.
If yesterday was about blue and white, today is about black and white. After walking along the black snow-free beach of Deception Island, and after some crazy ship mates took the Polar Plunge, we sailed to crescent-shaped Half Moon island which is populated by mostly Chinstrap penguins, some Gentoo and a solitary Macaroni penguin.
We kayaked. Inside the bay the sea was relatively calm and we paddled around a point and along the island into another calm, flat, tranquil area. What was most interesting were the deep blue icebergs bobbing about. Ian, the kayak master, allowed us to paddle through the brash ice –- that was a lot of fun, and technical too, especially as we did not have the benefit of a rudder –- and we got up close to a photogenic iceberg. We snapped away. It was a beautiful, secluded spot and interesting kayaking too in and out of the ice. We then proceeded to make a landing to visit the penguins and see the Waddell seals. One pup seal, about a year old, was active and stared at me with large round brown eyes.
Last night’s dinner theme was black and white, in honor of our little friends. While I like to bounce between the tables, I share many meals with Bernie (Oz), Jeremy (US), Julie (US), Billy (UK), and Roger (Sweden).
After dinner we played an Antarctic Bluff vocabulary game. I went to bed by 10:30, exhausted.
WEDNESDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2011
Our evening passage through the Bransfield Strait to King George Island was rough, perhaps the roughest yet on this voyage. Several things from my desk top crashed to the floor. Does this portend a choppy passage back across the Drake? We arrived in Admiralty Bay by breakfast. Admiralty Bay is the site of a Brazilian base, one of eight bases on King George Island, which we plan to visit. However, both of the possible landing sites are covered in ice and a landing is not possible at this time, so we’re moored inside the bay to wait out the weather. To kill the time a special lecture on ice has been arranged. Alex the geologist mentioned that 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice and 60% of the world’s freshwater supply is in Antarctica. What’s most concerning is the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula are warming at a rate much faster than the global average, though East Antarctica is cooling faster than normal.
Later we went on a zodiac tour – my first – to see a glacier up close. The glacier had many blue hues and crevasses. It was cold and windy, and we got rather splashed returning to the ship. Still, my three layers of socks, three layers of bottoms, and four layers of tops kept me pretty well insulated, including three layers on my head.
At 1:30pm Susan announced that we’re giving up on visiting the Brazilian research station. The high winds are expected to continue in Admiralty Bay for another 24 hours, so instead we’re heading to a protected harbor on King George Island toward the southwest. We’re not sure what the conditions are there, but hopefully they will permit a landing –- one last landing –- in Antarctica. This is the nature of expedition cruising. We’re totally at mercy to environmental conditions, and improvise as we go along.
We sailed to another spot on King George Island, to the Polish research base of Arctowaki, and did the equivalent of barging in. A Polish staff member on the Expedition knows the base commander and through his diplomacy the Poles welcomed us for our final landing on Antarctica. On King George Island we saw Adelie penguins and a mother elephant seal with her two or three-week old squeaking pup. Later, a male elephant seal wallowed over to the female for some mating on the beach.
After observing the seals and walking past the lighthouse and the tourist shop –- yes, another tourist shop in Antarctica, selling t-shirts! — we were invited into the living area of the Polish base, where the Poles were quite hospitable. They prepared tea and coffee and put out chocolates, snacks and fresh fruit –- scarce fresh fruit –- as they welcomed us all into their intimate living quarters, which is staffed by 11 in the summer and seven in the winter. There were Rotary placards and other momentous from around the world. What was so amazing about this base visit is how spontaneous it is. We literally just showed up I never imagined, even when I awoke this morning, that I would have tea on a Polish research base in Antarctica.
By 6pm we’re back on ship as the Expedition prepares to leave Antarctica and the South Shetland islands. Tonight after dinner we enter the Drake Passage.
THURSDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2011
At sea on the Drake Passage. Politically and biologically we’re still in Antarctica. We’re south of 60 degrees south and below the Antarctic convergence. The seas are relatively calm, for the passage. While the ship is rocking back and forth it’s all bearable and I seem to have some sea legs. My sea sickness patch is working well. It’s a leisurely day, having had a late breakfast. I’ve sat through lectures on Cretaceans (whales and dolphins) and then on the explorers and sealers of the Antarctic Peninsula. I also toured the control center and the engine room, the guts of the ship, and the bridge, the brains of the ship.
Here’s a recap on where we visited on this expedition cruise. This is a unique itinerary, forged by the specific and variable weather conditions which we faced:-
Aitcho Island – landing
Neko Harbor – kayaking and landing
Paradise Bay – kayaking
Port Lockroy – landing
Whalers Bay – Deception Island – landing
Half Moon Island kayaking and landing
Ferraz Station, King George Island – zodiac cruise
Arctowski station, King George Island – landing
In total we went kayaking five times.
FRIDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2011
At Sea. We made great progress crossing the Drake Passage, with a speed about 12 – 12.5 knots and agreeable seas, about 3 on a scale on 10 in terms of severity. On this final day the kayakers did a photo swap and I attended a lecture on climate change and CO2 emissions.
I’ve been on this boat for 10 nights already. I am ready to get off the ship and get on with my life. I’ve scheduled 48 hours in Buenos Aires before heading to Hong Kong. While it seemed like a good idea at the time I made the arrangements in August, I wish I could just get back home now.
By early afternoon we turned to South America, with the green-covered Andes of Chile and Argentina on the not-so-distant horizon. It’s a gloriously sunny day, warm and with gentle winds. Yup, we’re no longer in Antarctica.
This afternoon we had our final kayak debriefing. Ian, the kayak master, presented everyone with certificates. My certificate said:
“Todd Miller was among the hearty few to ply the frigid waters of Antarctica in a sea kayak. Amidst brash ice and ice bergs, among seals and penguins, through wind and swell, under cloud and sun, he has paddled in a true polar wilderness, and is entitled al the bragging rights thereof. This document hereby certifies that the above named is among the rare few on the planet who can claim to be an Antarctic Sea Kayaker!”
SATURDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2011
Melancholy morning as good byes are said. I always feel deflated during such occasions. While there are a few people whom I really enjoyed hanging out with (Jeremy, Bernie, Billy, Roger, Julie) and look forward to staying in touch with, I’ve had enough. I want to get off this boat already.
Although we’ve been hanging out at the beginning of the Beagle Channel since yesterday afternoon, the disembarkation was delayed. It took an hour longer than projected. Luckily, the luggage storage in Ushuaia only had a few pick up times and so I was forced to pick up my luggage at 11:30am, and head to the airport early –- or so I thought. I checked in per normal, and then as Roger and I had coffee we noticed that my scheduled flight was not listed on the departure board. Aerolineas Argentinas had advanced my departure time by one hour, and not even communicated this. While this advance is good for me, I would have missed my flight had I not been forced to pick up my luggage at 11:30am.
I arrived in Buenos Aires on time and with my luggage – no small accomplishment given this airline’s track record.
After finding my way to the Lennox Hotel, in a dicey neighborhood a few blocks away from the Obelisk, I treated myself to a good steak dinner then went to a slick tango show production, Tango Porteno. The production values were very high and there was a 12 piece orchestra. I skipped the dinner and just showed up for the entertainment.
SUNDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2011
Got up early to go to the Buquebus terminal at Puerto Madera. Took the 8:45am one-hour high-speed ferry to Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay. It’s good to notch up another country! Colonia is a UNESCO-honored colonial town originally established by the Portuguese. It reminded me as a small version of Macau, without the casinos but with the ferry. Upon my return to Buenos Aires on Sunday night, I strolled Puerto Madera, marveled at the beautiful harp-like pedestrian bridge, and had a disappointing dinner (undercut, bloody sirloin steak and mayonnaise-flavored Caesar salad. Yuck.). Later, I went to the top rated jazz club in BA, Notorious, for a Jazz Fusion session. They were good (pianist, guitarist, sax, drums) and threw in a little tango as well.
The weirdest sensation is on my first two nights off the boat, I have felt a rocking sensation when I get up at night. My sea legs are still with me.
MONDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2011
After staying in my hotel room at the Lennox as long as possible before incurring additional charges, I played tourist this afternoon, visiting for the second time the cemetery in Recoletta and walking through the parks and sculptures of UN plaza. I then went to the working class neighborhood of La Boca and to the colorfully painted homes and buildings of the El Caminito pedestrian area. I also bought some souvenirs, including a soccer ball which ended up getting me into trouble with airport Security. (Delta deems inflated balls as a safety hazard, and required me to leave the comfort of the lounge, go the back way to baggage claim, where I retrieved the offending ball from my luggage. I then spent another hour trying to deflate the damn thing). On my last afternoon I finally got into the vibe of Argentina. In searching for the optimal tango music CD, a clerk playfully scolded me for not knowing the signature tune from Scent of a Woman. I then got into a taxi with an exuberant driver, Pablo, who sang in a baritone voice and was rather chatty, though he barely spoke English and I barely speak Spanish. He even gave me his email address and phone numbers as he dispatched me to the airport for the long journey home, arriving in Hong Kong hours before Thanksgiving.