THE TOURIST PENINSULA ABOARD AQUARK EXPEDITIONS SHIP
By Pedro Chanceaulme
I have arrived to the port of the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, located in Tierra del Fuego Argentina, to board one of the most exciting adventures in my life, a cruise to Antarctica. Technically the southernmost town in the world is located south of Ushuaia, crossing the Beagle Channel in Navarino Island, Chile and its name is Puerto Williams. We should be fair saying Ushuaia has the dimensions and services characteristic of a 25.000 inhabitants city in constant and expansible growth. On the other hand Puerto Williams, at the moment, it reaches the dimensions of a town with a modest number of residents where most belongs to the naval base established in that point.
I board a solid Russian Polar Investigation Ship, steel reinforced hull especially designed to navigate in those adverse sea and ice conditions, under the control of the most prestigious and famous ice captains that world knows, the Russian Polar Captains. I settle in my functional cabin, I order my belongings in the closet and check the comfortable bed. By the ship public address system all passenger are called to the lounge to meet our Expedition Leader, who introduces us the guides and lecturers that will drive us through the marvels of Antarctica. After the formal presentations, we find we sum up 14 different nationalities between passengers, guides and crew, Austrian, Belgian, Canadian, French, Swiss, German, Italian, North American, Chilean, Argentinean, etc. conforms this true Noah´s Ark of nationalities.
With fuel, food and all necessary supply for a secure and comfortable expedition, we cast off from the lines that tied us to South America and our adventure begins toward the south of the south, where a vast and unexplored continent waits for us.
During dinner we reach open sea, the feared Drake Passage receives us with kindness. The captain adjusts ship speed to the length of the waves offering us a comfortable navigation, what I deeply thank because I should recognize that navigation in upset waters is not one of my favorite pleasures and I get dizzy quickly. Night was fine and during the morning I felt enough integrated to the navigation movement of the ship, the same as that most of my trip partners.
After a good breakfast, a lectures program directed by experts in varied matters waits for us, "South Sea Birds", enlarge our theoretical knowledge of this fascinating world, continued by a practical demonstration outside deck, identifying the birds that follow the ship. As the wind begins to take an unusual intensity, 7 in the scale of Beaufort, the temperature gets down quickly making unsafe and uncomfortable our permanency outside, our practical class finished getting inside to drink some hot drinks to recover our body temperature, so quickly lost.
The captain makes corrections to soften the navigation in the stormy sea. The intensity of the storm turns our navigation more and more rough but grasped to our seats, we continue with attention the chat "Introduction to Antarctica", made in French and English for all passengers' better understanding. The storm continues and our cultural baggage is enlarged with the interesting chats as "Antarctic and Sub Antarctic Birds", "The Brush Tailed Penguins" and "The Geopolitics of Antarctica". After the excellent dinner, the rude navigation and the chats of the day leave us drunkards of knowledge and sea. The bed waits for us without any discussion.
The new day surprised us with calm sea and White Neck, Wilson Storms, Giants and Wandering Petrels, and many seabirds surrounded the ship. Some icebergs begin to appear in the horizon, the same as a persistent fog that makes the icebergs to appear and disappear like an endless game. Movies and lectures enlarge our knowledge of the Antarctic world. During afternoon and in accordance to the recommendations that the system of the Antarctic Treaty imposes to those companies that make tourism in Antarctic and also, following the instructions of the International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO) about the behavior that visitors should observe to this almost unpolluted areas of the planet for conservation and enjoyment for future generations. The Expedition Leader distributes and explains in detail the norms and recommendations contained in the pamphlets, supported by an interesting National Science Foundation of USA three languages video, called "Behold Antarctica".
After an informative next day excursion meeting, programmed to land the Rongue Island in Antarctica Peninsula, we answered the Captain Welcome Cocktail and Dinner invitation, where introduces us his officers. A magnificent dinner and repeated champagne toasts are made in honor to this new Antarctica experience. During the dinner we navigate to some 20 kilometers of Smith Island and we enter to the Strait of Gerlache, finally we are in Antarctica. After the party we go to the bed with adrenaline running through our veins due to the following day adventure.
Early morning, approx. at 05.30 hours our Expedition Leader announces us Whilelhmina Bay proximity, icebergs and smaller pieces of float ice gently still in the bay, over them we can observe Crabeaters and Antarctica Seals. A Skua and some Snow Petrels fly over our heads in the luminous southern morning. We anchor in Rogue Island and immediately the first trip to land in zodiacs boats begins, where we appreciate from the recommended distance, about 5 meters, our first Gentoo Penguin and its chicks in the beach. It is also possible to appreciate Antarctica and Skin Seals next to their small and beautiful breeding.
The beach was covered with whale bones and we could sight some Antarctic Penguins that observed us curious. We returned to the ship and go South by the Neumayer Channel. Low clouds and fog began to cover the sky. A strong snowfall received us while we pass the splendid Lemaire Channel, well-known as the Kodak Passage or the Fuji Funnel, due to the immense quantity of pictures taken by the tourists of the scenic beauty of its mountainous geography that rises about 3.000 meters abruptly from the sea.
Icebergs and float ice with Leopard and Crabeaters Seals, floating before our navigation route delaying our track. After passing Booth Island we anchor among the Hovegaard, Booth and Pleneau Islands. We explore an immense icebergs garden and ice floats with many Leopard and Crabeater Seals resting on them. The very near observation of a couple of Minke Whales delighted our afternoon. We returned to the ship for a perfect and delicious Austrian dinner and dances, prepared by the assisting chef.
Next morning we reach latitude 66° 33´ South and we cross the Antarctic Polar Circle accompanied by a dozen of Orcas, petrels, and a lot of other seabirds. We arrive Cristal Sound, whose bay was frozen. Insistently the snow petrels accompanied us flying in circles above the ship. Half dozen of hunchback whales slept floating in the surface of the sea and we passed very close without waking them up.
Later on we find minke whales and many Antarctica skin, crabeaters, leopard and wedell seals resting on the ice with their breeding swimming close to their mothers' watch. We continue navigating toward the Detaille Island guided by a couple of minke whales that allowed us to shoot wonderful pictures. Regrettably the ice didn't allow us to disembark in Detaille Island and captain decided to head North toward Barcroft Island. During dinner we happily celebrated our crossing of the Antarctic Polar Circle.
During next morning we explored Barcroft Island finding skin crabeaters, wedell seals, and adelie penguins, Antarctic blue eyed shags, skuas, and a lot of other seabirds. It began to snow and the wind grew stronger, enough reason to return to ship with some difficulty and soaked by the water sprinkled by the wind, the waves, and the zodiac navigation. After being safe on board the ship head for Adelaide Island under a hard blizzard. We had dinner and we went to bed while a furious storm of snow and wind loosened out, sleep was the best option to pass the stormy night..
The new day offered us the same hard blizzard than last night, changing captain's plans determining to go to Prospect Island, but the bad weather continued and a new change of plans was made, heading now to Port Lockroy in Weincke Island where we would arrive near midnight. During the day we always carry out countless activities and those interesting chats that experts offered us with videos and movies of this vast and interesting continent-laboratory.
After breakfast we approach by zodiacs to Port Lockroy and landed under a soft but persistent rain. We visit a gentoo penguin's colony and we could sight a great quantity of hairy, nice and always hungry chicks being fed by their mothers. A solitary blue eyed shag and an adelie penguin observed us with reluctance.
In the beach we found several dispersed bones of hunchback whales, where somebody had built a complete skeleton of whale starting from diverse bones, giving a quite real impression of the gigantic dimensions of such mammals. During the return to the ship a couple of hunchback whales emerged very near the zodiacs, allowing us to shoot some fascinating pictures of so majestic animals.
During the lunch we head Petermann Island and we explore the island in our zodiacs, finding a great quantity gentoo and adelies penguins. We also find two monuments made in memory of the two British scientists of the BAS (British Antarctic Survey) that died when they fall down in an ice crevasse during the return trip to their base and the other one, in memory of the famous Frenchman Jean Baptiste Charcot. We return on board and immediately the ship head for Paradise Bay through the Lemaire Channel.
The sun showed the majesty of the place, illuminating the brilliant snowy picks and the glaciers that give the paradisiac name to the place. It is also the first place in the Antarctic continent where we landed, all other explorations were carried out in islands of the Antarctica Peninsula. We had good weather and most of us enjoy climbing a hill behind the Argentinian Base Admiral Brown, but we enjoy much more slipping down the hill. Turning back to the ship we visit a colony of blue eyed shags, on board a delicious French dinner was waiting us.
A dense fog delayed our night track toward Baily Head, in Deception Island. Regrettably strong waves didn't allow us reach land. While we had breakfast the atmospheric conditions improved and we could disembark to observe the skin seals in the beach, but the main attraction of the day was undoubtedly the immense colony of Antarctic penguins that go from the sea their nests high in the rocks, marking deep trails among the rocks that have used these birds for years in its way from the feeding areas to the resting areas and vice versa.
We returned to the ship and our next stop was Port Foster, in the interior of the enormous nine kilometers crater flooded by the sea. To get into the crater, the ship should go through the Neptune Bellows, a narrow channel that slips among vertical walls of cooled magma. A wrecked whale ship reminds every captain that attempts the pass, the precision of the maneuvers he has to carry out. Immediately we boarded the zodiacs to visit the ruins of the Hektor Whaling Company, an old Norwegian whaler station remains semi buried in the ashes of the last volcanic eruption of 1970, that survives in such lonely latitudes.
Scientists have data of the important volcanic activity in Deception from 1842, 1912, 1917, 1967 and 1970. We prepared a small trek to Neptune Window, a crack between two geologic outcroppings in the ring of the crater. We found marine elephants, skin and wedell seals and colored petrels in the beach under the window. We returned to the ship and moved toward Pendulum Cove, named by scientists that carried experiments 100 years ago. We also had the opportunity to take a bath in the icy sea that due to a flow of thermal waters made bearable the temperature of the water to take a pleasant bath, of which we took many pictures.
After our strange experience of taking a bath in Antarctic waters we boarded the ship and move quickly to the Hannah Point in Livingston Island, under a gray colored sky and low clouds. There we found a dozen of nice macaronis penguins blended among an Antarctic penguins colony. Scientists had information that a couple of these subantarctic penguins migrate to this point first time in 1992, and the current population is about 12 couples. Exploring, we found gentoo penguins and we could observe chicks of South giant petrels, gulls and Antarctic doves in the rocks. Marine elephants and seals dozed placidly on the rocky coast. We returned to the ship for an excellent and abundant dinner, necessary to recover strength after so many day's emotions.
At 2 in the morning we anchored in Maxwell Bay in King George Island. In front of us the lights and runway of the Chilean President Frei Base and their neighbor the Russian Bellinghausen Station and more South, the Great Wall Chinese Base, could be seen. After breakfast we disembarked under a brilliant clear sky with a radiant sun, but with such a low temperature that the air could be cut with a knife. Chilean and Russians opened their souvenirs stores that attracted our attention immediately.
We had the luck that a Russian amphibious transport went toward Chinese Base and with our guide we visit the Chinese Base. An Hercules C-130 airplane of the Chilean Air Force, landed in Lieutenant Marsh Chilean Base, bringing new scientists and supply to the area. The Russians showed us their meteorological station and also they offered us tea, sodas and immediately we were laughing with their songs, harmonica and accordion music, folkloric dances and their great happiness of living. The wind began to blow and we had to advance our return to the ship. With great sadness we said goodbye to our new friends and we left King George Island toward Yankee Bay.
The wind already blew with a storm magnitude, so the captain considered to change our navigation route to Half Moon Bay, where we could see the small Lieutenant Camara Argentinian Station and to the left of the station, we observed several skin seals and Antarctic penguins, but weather worsened and our guides decided, by security reasons, to suspend the landing, so, we stood on board enjoying the wonderful landscape of the glacier that fell by the hillsides of the mountainous Livingston Island. The captain decided return to the Straits of Bransfield and headed Northeast, we descried Greenwich Island and then we turned North, to the Drake Passage, through the Straits of Nelson, saying good-bye to the Antarctic Continent.
The navigation was not so bad, the same as the weather. We had all the season of the year each two or three hours. Our lecturers offered us a vigorous program of interesting chats maintaining us busy the whole day. During the night, the Drake Passage showed to us in all its magnitude its sadly celebrated fame as a farewell salute.
Next morning with a lot of difficulty we reach the control bridge, to see the captain's efforts to offer us the best possible navigation among foamy waves of about 8 to 10 meters high, an infernal wind, rain, snow, in short all the worse; but the calm and professionalism of the sea men and our guides, helped us to calm our fears and convince us to pass in the best possible way the hardness of the moment, personally I decided to enjoy this wonderful manifestation of the nature, stuck to a window of the control bridge.
Suddenly the needle of the barometer began to ascend, the wind and rain ceased, the clouds opened up and the sea was calming down as we descry the Cape Horn. We entered Chilean territorial waters surrounded by birds, dolphins and a queerly calm sea. The Captain hosted the farewell dinner and party, where we could express him our admiration and respect for his magnificent job transporting us with professional security, comfortably, considering prevailing conditions, and mainly by his cordiality and friendship the same as his officers, lecturers and guides. We will always have them in our memories, the same as to all those that participated in this expedition.
We wake up next morning tied again to the continent in the Port of Ushuaia as scheduled. My heart and my overflowing spirit full of knowledge and lived emotions bring to my mind the poem of my friend, the Chilean Antarctic man, writer and poet, ambassador Mr. Oscar Pinochet de la Barra.
"Ice is noble material of eternity
all and nothing
bubble where the universe fits
without own light
to reflect the Creator"
Deeply grieved I disembarked, saying goodbye to all and each one of my trip partners, and while I am walking by the dock heading the city, I felt a renovated happiness feeling quite similar to one of the so many blasts of Antarctic wind, arose from inside me, I realized that I am smiling and I felt prime and more human that when I began the trip. This is for what it is worthwhile to live.
A San Agustín's thought, taken from one of the Quark Expeditions' books on board the ship: "The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only one page of this book".
Photo: Quark Expeditions and Pedro Chanceaulme