Antarctica Day 24 – Madrid to London

The flight from Buenos Aires landed in Madrid at around 05:00 local time, about an hour after breakfast was served. For breakfast it was a bread roll with what tasted like it might have been chicken and cheese. They also provided plenty of drinks at this time, 20 minutes before putting on the seat belt sign to stop people using the washroom.

It took quite some time before we disembarked and by the time we were in the terminal there was only 90 minutes left until we needed to board the next plane. Despite having just come off an international flight we still had to go through a security check (and no passport control). As it’d be another 8 hours before we’d get to eat again we stopped by Starbucks and picked up a drink and a sandwich. It was also a chance to sit on chairs more comfortable than on the plane or at the gate.

The flight should have started boarding more or less by the time we got to the gate, but once again the flight was late leaving though not by much. We arrived in London a couple of hours later, in some ways relieved that there were no further flights to take. From there it was an easy train journey across London, although slow, before heading North and eventually our separate ways.

After over 5 days of heading home by all manners of transportation, the expedition was over. We’d seen so much since we set out at the end of December; many species of penguins, whales killing whales, and amazing landscapes.

Swimming in Antarctica in nothing but swimming trunks, and falling down a crevice beneath the snow are two things I’ll remember for a long time. Of course though, it will also be memorable as we had achieved our goal of visiting Antarctica, the last continent.

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Antarctica Day 23 – Buenos Aires to Madrid

After a long day it was good to wake up fairly relaxed; we just needed to have breakfast and wait for the taxi to the airport at 09:00. The breakfast in this hotel was nowhere near as good as the boat – unfortunate considering it was a 5 star hotel.

The driver arrived at the hotel early but then had to wait longer for us as it took ages for the hotel staff to process payment for our bill. Originally I thought as they confirmed they had my credit card details on record they’d be able to automatically charge it to that. However it still required the use of the actual card so decided I’d use cash to speed up the process. This then took them close to 15 minutes to process the payment of US$37 in cash. I have no idea why it should take so long, maybe it was just incompetence.

The drive to the airport from the hotel was about 30 minutes; the driver not talking but listening to his music for the entire journey. Checking the luggage was quite a wait, but they were okay with my friend’s luggage being overweight – so that was helpful. It was also great that they spoke good English and confirmed with us the details for the connecting flights.

Unusually the security check allowed water to be taken through and did not require laptops removing from bags. Most international airports I’ve been to require both of these as standard! I did wonder how the passport control would go though, as in the time since my passport had been stamped on arrival it had been stamped with one for the Falkland Islands on the same page. As they still claim the UK illegally occupy the Malvinas (their name for the Falkland Islands) I did wonder if they’d object to this. Fortunately after staring at the page for a minute and writing what seemed like an essay, they let me through to the departure gates.

The gate had changed twice since we’d arrived at the airport, but then remained as the same one by the time we were there. The flight had exactly the same films available as the previous so when they served food I watched “Phantom” on the basis there was nothing better to watch I’d not already seen. Surprisingly the meal choices were exactly the same as the flight out a few weeks previous as well.

As the day came to a close we were given an unbuttered bread roll with a slice of cheese; at this time I decided to watch “The Frozen Ground” to try and pass the time.

Antarctica Day 22 – Ushuaia to Buenos Aires

It was a fairly early start to the day so that suitcases could be outside of the rooms by 07:30, with breakfast being squeezed in before this. After breakfast we said goodbye to those we had gotten to know over the past couple of weeks. We knew it was likely we could stay in touch with some of them as the boat had set up a spreadsheet for sharing email addresses a few days previous.

Once cabin keys had been exchanged for passports we could then disembark and collect our luggage before heading out into the town. For this 800 metre journey they actually unnecessarily booked transport for us – but they did take our main luggage and arrange a time to be picked up.

As we had some spare time before our flight we went to the Hotel Albatross to see if they could hold our camera bags for us whilst we went around town. Unfortunately, even though the previous driver had told us we could they didn’t let us. Instead we used the internet for just over an hour to catch up on the “real” world before heading out into the town.

Ushuaia Prison

Our first stop was at the museum which is located next to the naval base. Entry to tourists for this museum is 110 pesos, or US$12. The first part of this museum is for their maritime history and contains a number of model ships. From there it is into one of the wings of the old prison building which is dedicated to the buildings history; including stories of some prisoners. Upstairs in this wing is more on the prison, prisons elsewhere in the world, Antarctic history, penguins, and a gift shop.

The next part of the prison is the main hall which was marked out as a basketball court and had a couple of more wings off it. One of these was closed, but there were two more to look around. The first of these wings was an art gallery where local artists were selling their work, with the upstairs being more on history.

The final wing was left pretty much in it’s original state. The place was rundown and when looking up you could see holes in the wooden floorboards above. The upstairs was mostly closed off because of this, but you can still wander around the cells, and other parts of the ground floor which included their bathing and washroom areas. Whilst in here it started to rain outside – some of it seeping through the roof which was in disrepair.

Traction Engine

Outside of the museum there is a train and a traction engine, both previously used by the prison. As we still had a fair bit of time left we headed back to the main street to do some shopping for souvenirs and to find a place to eat.

After going into a couple of shops we ate at Andino Gourmet – the same place we’d eaten the first evening we’d gotten to Ushuaia. We both ordered a pizza, something the waiter was surprised about it seemed. It turns out they were quite large and intended for sharing but at 114 pesos they weren’t bad, and we managed all but about half of one. Whilst eating we saw the expedition leader and the atmospheric climate researcher walk passed the restaurant.

When walking around the town again we then managed to bump into two more passengers on separate occasions and some more of the crew. From the Sous Chef we heard that the other ship that had gone out, the Ortelius had broken down after 5 days. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as it’s quite a trip to have cut short. It’s likely they wouldn’t have gone to the Antarctic peninsula in that time which left me wondering what the passengers would have done for the past week.

From one souvenir shop I got a plush penguin for my sister for 99 pesos, and from another got a fridge magnet for my parents for 75 pesos. I’d not really done much shopping for souvenirs this trip and could probably have bought more, but I knew my checked luggage and hand luggage were already too full.

For a while we waited outside the Hotel Albatross and after about 15 minutes the driver from earlier in the day returned to take us to the airport. This was a very quick drive and within minutes after arriving we’d checked our baggage and paid the US$5 airport tax. What surprised me here was that neither me nor my friend were charged for overweight baggage like we had been on the outward journey.

Once through security we were pleased to find that we could pass the time during the long wait with free Wi-Fi access. As it happened though this wait was longer than intended. At the time we should have been boarding we went through a door at gate 4, which is what the board said, and ended up in baggage claims. We got one of the staff to take us back to the waiting room and then thought we’d found the right queue but this was for another flight.

By this time the board said the flight was “pre-boarding” though there was no sign of movement towards attempting boarding, or indeed a plane waiting for us. Checking online I found that it had been delayed by 40 minutes, though after this time had passed it still wasn’t looking hopeful. By the time we left the gate the flight was more than an hour late.

Flying into Buenos Aires

During the flight they gave out the usual snacks and drinks and even had a reasonable entertainment system in that they had several TV episodes to keep us entertained for a portion of the journey. Once we landed we were only an hour late, and from touch down it took 30 minutes to get out of the airport to our lift. Most of this time though was sitting on the the plane waiting for them to open the door.

It was then a 20 minute drive from the airport to the Eurobuilding hotel, and once again we got a nice deluxe twin room. Due to the lateness of the arrival (it was gone 23:00) we were stuck for choices of places to eat so ordered some chicken and fries using room service.

By the time we were done and ready to sleep it was fast approaching 01:00 which meant not that long until we’d need to get up for the next leg of the journey home.

Antarctica Day 21 – Approaching the Beagle Channel

During the night it had rained but still the sea was relatively calm – we awoke to blue skies as well. First thing in the morning I finished helping with the virus situation by giving them instructions they’d need to follow as an Administrator in order to stop the virus spreading.

I then had a brief period of time to pack my suitcase before there was a documentary titled “Antarctica: Of Ice and Men” which was just a recording of a BBC programme. It covered a lot of what had been spoken about already from the earliest human history of the continent up to the first tourists setting foot there.

There was then a brief talk about what other expeditions the company caters for, such as trips to the Arctic. It was quite a short talk and was followed by decks being called one by one to return Wellington boots.

By the time lunch was served we could see the first signs of land – Cape Horn and the other islands off the tip of Tierra del Fuego. It meant it was likely that by the evening meal we’d be approaching the Beagle Channel for our approach to Ushuaia. After lunch each group had to settle their bills to save time the next day. I think around this time we must have slowed down as we didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I had heard rumours that as we were 12 hours early we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the channel until later.

A little later there was a planned slideshow of passengers photos – this however was shorter than they anticipated as the virus limited peoples ability to add more pictures to it. To remedy this they used some of the crews photos and shown a time lapse video from one of the passengers. I didn’t like to say anything but I thought the time lapse video was quite poor – the slideshow was excellent though and brought back memories of the previous couple of weeks.

This was followed by a celebration for our last day onboard the Plancius – a cocktail was handed out to everyone and the Captain said farewell. The expedition team also gathered for one last time to say goodbye. There was then a bit of time for people to mingle before heading down for the last dinner – an Argentinian sirloin steak. At the end of the dinner the hotel staff for the boat were introduced one by one, and said farewell to us.

As the day came to an end we were stationary in the Beagle Channel waiting for the pilot to take us the rest of the way in the morning.

Antarctica Day 20 – Drakes Passage

Over night we had entered the Drakes Passage, an area of sea that is notoriously rough. Throughout history there have been stories of how bad it is, and during the exploration of the New World it often resulted in shipwrecks. Though surprisingly it wasn’t all that rough when we reached it, so in some ways it was a pleasant surprise. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have seen what it could throw at us though.

In the morning there was a lecture from the onboard Atmospheric researcher on how to survive in Antarctica. This covered the various ways of getting to Antarctica and what the research bases are like once there. In the case of Neumayer station the majority of it is under the ice, which means it’d have a finite lifespan due to the weight of the snow and ice above. There were also a couple videos about life and research in Antarctica. I can imagine it must be quite an experience to stay in Antarctica that long and to keep returning.

The afternoon consisted of a second lecture and a quiz. The lecture was on the Norwegian explorer Hjalmar Johansen who had worked his way up from stoker to assistant meteorologist on a North Pole expedition. This then went on to cover his visit to Antarctica with Roald Amundsen.

A little after this I heard mention of the computers on the ship having a virus, and soon discovered it had spread to many memory cards owned by the ship’s passengers. I then spent the rest of the afternoon working on cleaning memory cards and USB sticks as well as trying to remove the virus from affected machines without having an internet connection available for any reference or Anti-virus pattern updates. It turned out the Raspberry Pi I brought with me had an alternative use as it’s a Linux based computer that wouldn’t get infected but could be used for cleaning.

In the evening I was finally able to locate the virus however could not remove it due to not having sufficient privileges on the machines so would need to leave it until a member of the crew with privileges was about.

Sunset over Drakes Passage

As the day came to an end we’d headed far enough North to get a sunset at a decent time so got the opportunity to finally photograph one, and also got to see the full moon reflecting on the water. It’s not often I get to see either from the sea, and certainly the farthest South I’ve ever seen them.

Antarctica Day 19 – Antarctic Peninsula Day 3: Wilhelmina Bay

By 06:00 we had begun navigating through the scenic waters of Wilhelmina Bay, accompanied by a couple of humpback whales. The scenery here was amazing – crystal clear waters with small bits of ice floating, icebergs (some of which you could see what was below the surface too), mountainous glaciers and ice sheets. Everywhere you looked you could see reflections in the water, with the occasional ripple distorting the image.

Wilhelmina Bay

Due to such good weather our planned excursion ashore to Portal Point was cancelled in favour of a zodiac cruise around icebergs. I would have liked to have stepped foot onto the Antarctic continent one last time though.

As soon as we set out in the zodiac it started to rain, so we were cautious about when we were using our cameras. To start with we headed in the direction of a female Humpback Whale and her calf, though after a while they started to change behaviour so we stopped following to avoid agitating them further.

For a while after this we cruised around large icebergs and even saw a small one with Antarctic Terns on it. Not long after we decided to see what else could be found and headed off in the opposite direction. Whilst passing the mainland a large piece of ice broke off; as it hit the water the sound of the ice cracking could be heard.

Continuing on with the cruise we encountered a pair of sleeping Humpback Whales. After watching them for a while with the engine off they awoke and we followed them for a time as they headed towards the boat. They then abruptly seemed to fall asleep once more so again we went off looking elsewhere.

Crabeater Seal

On one ice flow we found a Crabeater Seal that was resting there. We couldn’t get that close so it was difficult to see it clearly with the ice formations obscuring it. You could tell it looked quite different to the seals we’d seen previously. Contrary to it’s name, the Crabeater Seal does not eat crabs – there are no crabs in Antarctica!

From there we headed to a small piece of land a few metres across, and got off the boat. Our method of going ashore was to basically ram the zodiac into the land. Once I got to the peak of the island I took a step to one side and disappeared down a crevice that had been covered in snow. It took quite some effort to get back out, but fortunately I’d stopped myself falling any further than my waist. I guess you could say it adds to the experience, and I did find it amusing once I’d gotten out.

By the time I’d gotten out, another boat from our group had landed on the other side of the island – this soon triggered a snowball fight between the people from the two different boats. With one hand I protected my camera whilst with the other I threw snowballs back. Only once did I come close to being hit, but I smashed the snowball with my hand before it hit me and then returned the favour with a well-placed shot.

Imperial Shag

Having technically stood on Antarctica once more we got back into the zodiac and headed back to the ship for the last time. Our time in Antarctica may have been coming to an end, but the adventure was not yet over. We would still have the Drakes Passage to cross on the return journey.

Before lunch we crossed the Gerlache Strait, an area named after the Belgian expedition leader Adrien de Gerlache, the very first expedition to stay in Antarctica over winter. Not long after lunch we’d crossed the Schollaert Channel into Dallman Bay, and then onward into the Southern Ocean. The snow had continued all this time and showed no sign of stopping.

In the afternoon there was a lecture on the tube-nosed birds of the Southern Ocean. By this time we were in the open ocean so the sea was a bit rougher. It was amusing to watch chairs slide from one side of the room to the other as the ornithologist spoke. This lecture did however overrun by at least 15 minutes.

There was then a short recap for Antarctica to discuss the Weddell Seal, the formation of lenticular clouds, and an amusing bit about a science paper discussing the pressure required when penguins defecate.

For the first time this trip I wasn’t too keen on any of what was on offer for dinner so left the dining room early and decided to get some sleep.

Antarctica Day 18 – Antarctic Peninsula Day 2: Half Moon Island and Deception Island

The day started as we finished navigating into the McFarlane Strait and dropped the anchor at Half Moon Island just before 07:00. The weather at this time looked misty, but the sea was relatively calm so looked promising for a landing. From the dining room we could see the building the Argentinians had used as a research station – it’s red walls providing a stark contrast to it’s snowy surroundings, and two communication towers just visible through the mist. To tell all visitors they were Argentinian they had even painted their flag on the roof of each building.

Half Moon Island

At 08:00 they began transporting people over to the shore where you could see a wrecked rowing boat; one which looked like it could be quite old. This island is predominantly populated with chinstrap penguins, and the occasional Gentoo penguin. There were reports though that a lone Macaroni penguin tends to frequent this island as well.

To start with we hiked up the hill and down onto the other side of the island across deep snow. There were points where the snow would be higher than my knees and at others where I barely sank at all. Eventually we reached the rocky beach and could continue walking down that at a much faster pace.

Eventually we got around to the other side, behind the research base and the peak. Here we found a number of Weddell Seals that were laying around in the snow. It would seem they were well camouflaged as one of the others in the group walked over to one and almost sat on it thinking it was a rock.

Weddell Seal

It was then quite a trek back to the chinstrap penguin colony and onwards in the other direction. We passed another Weddell Seal hauling itself up off the beach along the way, and around this time there was a large piece of ice break off one of the glaciers across the water.

The path we took circled part of the colony and headed down onto another beach. From this other path we could see Giant Petrels harassing the penguins. Apparently if I’d gone another 20 metres or so down this path I’d have seen the lone Macaroni Penguin that had been reported before we arrived.

On the way back along this path later I saw a pair of Giant Petrels take a young Chinstrap Penguin chick and kill it against the rocks – there was blood everywhere. They then continued to pull parts of the meat from the kill until they’d had their fill and flew off.

Chinstrap Penguin

On the way back I paused at the wrecked rowing boat to get a few pictures before heading back to the ship ready for the next briefing. This briefing was to prepare us for the plans for Deception Island as there was some hope we may be able to do a “polar plunge” there; i.e. swimming in the Antarctic waters of an active volcano. This included a bit about the geology and the history of the island as well as the special restrictions in place for this site.

Old Rowing Boat

As we approached the opening in the crater that we could sail through we had to get close to the rock face due to it being the deepest route. Going through the middle of the gap would have caused damage to the underside of the boat’s hull, such as what happened in the case of a British vessel during an “argument” with an Argentinian vessel.

Deception Island

Once ashore in Whalers Bay, the majority of us headed along the beach and up onto a lookout point called Neptunes Window. Scattered around along the way were pieces of whale bone and parts of what were presumably once wooden buildings, but now bleached white. It was a bit of a hike across the mostly desolate landscape, but from the top you could see across the crater of the volcano. The expedition leader marked an area off with rope as he knew part of the cliff edge had virtually nothing beneath it due to erosion from the sea.

We then took a casual walk back down from the viewpoint to the landing site and across the other side to look around an old whaling station. It was pretty wrecked and one of the buildings had a collapsed roof; it looked like it was one once used for habitation. There were also a few large storage tanks, one of which had a hole in it’s side so you could see what they used to put inside them – or at least what was there now.

Whaling Station

Following this a group of us got changed into swimming trunks and then ran out into the icy cold water. It may be the crater of an active volcano but the water temperature wasn’t really any warmer – the expedition staff mentioned that at best it would be only 1 degree warmer than the open sea. After I got so far out I dived under the water and swam for a bit before standing and casually walking back to the shore. Whilst under the water it wasn’t that bad, but once I’d started walking back it started to get quite chilly – I particularly noticed how cold my toes felt.

Post-Polar Plunge

As I got back to the shore the ship’s Doctor handed me a towel so I could quickly dry off and get into some warmer clothes. By the time I was back on the zodiac heading for the ship I’d warmed up enough to not be bothered about how cold it had been. Onboard the ship it almost felt too warm – it probably meant to some degree I’d gotten used to the cooler temperature.

I found it quite amusing that one of the group commented I was like James Bond coming out of the water – walking out slowly whilst everyone else was trying to get out as quickly as they could. Personally I don’t see that though, but still an amusing comparison.

As a special treat, outside on the deck we were then given a cup of hot chocolate with rum and cream in it. It was pretty nice and I did go back for seconds – it helped to keep us warm on deck as the ship navigated back out of the crater, Port Foster, through Neptunes Bellows and back out into the Bransfield Strait.

There was then a short briefing to explain the plans for the next day, and how we were returning back to the mainland of the continent. After dinner the mist returned and did so with a vengeance – the visibility was probably 10 metres at best.

It seemed like the mist might be around all night so I decided not to stay up to see the sunrise.

Antarctica Day 17 – Antarctic Peninsula Day 1: Antarctic Sound

The morning started with us finally arriving at the Antarctic peninsula, having navigated around the ice shelf over night. Our starting point for the morning was a place called Antarctic Sound – an area between the mainland and some islands, and named after Otto Nordenskjöld’s ship which sank near Paulet Island in 1903.

Before breakfast there was a pair of humpback whales going around the ship as we crossed the Sound, and shortly after breakfast we dropped the anchor ready to go ashore on to what for most people would be their seventh continent.

Adelie Penguin on an iceberg

As we took the zodiac to the shore we had to weave around icebergs in the water, some of which had Adélie penguins on them. It was a great ride and in some places we got so close to smaller icebergs we could have reached out and touched them (though some of the group on the other side of the boat would only have had to have leaned back to touch them).

We went ashore at Brown Bluff, the remains of an extinct volcano with a height of 745 metres, and finally stepping foot onto the last continent. It was unbelievably great to do so – there were Adélie and Gentoo penguins all around, icebergs scattered all across the water, ventifacts on the shore, and snow covered mountains in front of us. It wasn’t that cold either, though that could in part be attributed to wearing the right clothes.

Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Walking along the beach of cobble and ash we passed nesting Gentoo penguins and eventually reached a colony where we stayed to photograph them for over an hour. For a while I sat and watched one small group of penguins where Adélie penguins were building nests, and stealing stones from other nests to build their own. It reminded me of watching the BBC documentary, Frozen Planet.

Gentoo Penguin chicks sleeping

When it was time to do the hike we instead got a call from the bridge of the Plancius alerting us that we needed to start heading back as quickly as possible. The wind had picked up and the ice in the bay was shifting considerably. The ship had to move further out which meant the zodiac rides were rougher and took longer. Each one had to zigzag around the flowing icebergs, trying to avoid them the best they could to avoid damaging a zodiac boat. One of the zodiacs ahead of us got stuck on the ice which meant they had to try and shift their weight to get free – which eventually they did.

Adelie Penguin building a nest

When we boarded the ship it was slowly moving further and further away so we had to zip around the back and get tied up as quickly as we could. Once attached to the ship we could then quickly transfer over so the zodiac could go back to shore to pick up more of the group.

Upon leaving the bay we headed in the direction of the Erebus and Terror Gulf to see what the waters were like. The name sounded a bit ominous, and as we approached a heavy mist descended – all we could see was the mist and icebergs all around us. The wind had also dropped considerably for this part giving it a very eerie feeling.

As we ate dinner we approached Rosamel Island, an almost circular island. The closer we got the more ice we had to break through. Eventually it was more a case of pushing large sections of ice out of the way. We then began circumnavigating the island so that we could see the Weddell Sea and Dundee Island. It’s pretty impressive to see a ship break through the ice and almost disturbing to hear the noise it makes as it breaks through. Apparently the Captain was grinning from ear to ear as he navigated us through it though.

Breaking through the ice

Once around the other side though the wind was incredible, but we saw more and more icebergs that warranted being outside to photograph. Eventually it got too windy and cold to be out there any longer so we sat inside the ship and watched from the windows for a while. As we completed our circumnavigation the mist started to lift and the sun come out, but the wind persisted.

Rosamel Island

The break in the weather didn’t last long and by the time we were back in Antarctic Sound the wind was too strong to have an afternoon excursion. There were no alternative plans either so the afternoon was spent talking in groups in the ship’s lounge until the briefing.

The briefing covered information about the Adélie penguin, and also the history of the area that is tied into the Nordenskjöld expedition. The expedition didn’t do too well and they lost their ship and had to survive on the islands for an extended period of time years before Shackleton had a similar experience. We were also given an idea of the plans for the next day, assuming all went well.

The day then ended as it had begun – with a sighting of a humpback whale. The night sky didn’t seem to get fully dark though, twilight lasted long after the sun had set.

Antarctica Day 16 – South Shetland Islands

Early in the morning we arrived at Elephant Island, the first of the the South Shetland Islands we’d encountered. We got a wake-up call at 06:00 to let us know we’d arrived and would be stopped for about an hour. This gave us time to go out on deck and photograph Point Wild, a barren and intimidating piece of land that Shackleton encountered during his Endurance expedition.

After a group photo we then had a bit of time before breakfast and moving on to Cape Lookout to hopefully land. This is a very remote and rarely visited location, so not many people have stepped foot on this island, so it was quite pleasing that we expected to get a chance to. On the way though we encountered a pod of at least five fin whales, one of whom we believed to have been a juvenile, which delayed people going for breakfast but didn’t shouldn’t have affected us going ashore.

The Fin Whale is the second largest animal on the planet. On one side it looks whiter in colour than the other, and when diving it will sometimes roll to reveal it’s foreflippers.

A while after breakfast we went around the tip of Cape Valentine, and gradually edged closer to the island. As we did so we passed a very large iceberg, the largest we’d seen this close and one I noticed whilst on the ship’s bridge. This one had many chinstrap penguins sitting on it close to the edge. As we passed we could see that it was an iceberg that had at some point turned on it’s side – this was evident by the large flat surface that could be seen at an angle on one side.

Again we had another whale encounter whilst en-route, this time a humpback whale – not visible for long enough to photograph though. When we got to Cape Lookout the conditions were not suitable for the landing we’d anticipated so we moved on hoping we could land on Gibbs Island instead. It was unfortunate, but on expeditions you can’t expect everything to go as planned – you have to be flexible to the conditions you encounter.

Iceberg

By about 12:00 we had reached the island and had begun navigating around it to find a suitable landing point. Again the conditions were not good enough to land so we continued passed it and onwards towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

The afternoon went by slowly, but eventually there was a lecture to go to – one on the coastal birds of Antarctica. Though it was introduced as us having already seen 90% of the species covered in this. This ended with a video on the migratory behaviour of the Arctic Tern, a bird which travels between the Arctic and Antarctic every year as the seasons change.

For the evening briefing they discussed Orca Whales due to the previous evening’s sighting. This then moved on to a bit about the politics of Antarctica, and who actually has claims to which bits. Under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty it meant that these claims have no actual meaning – in the interest of science it is owned by none. At this time the plans for the next day were unknown – the data they had for the ice shelf was 3 days old, but looked promising.

Before any decision could be made the Captain and the Expedition Leader needed to see what it was like there – which wouldn’t be known until the morning. This meant they wanted to leave all options open until then; for now we’d continue down the Bransfield Strait.

The evening story was from the glacier expert and was about her time on a German research base on Antarctica and how psychologically taxing it was. It sounded like it was a really rough time, and from what she said, staying in Antarctica for extended periods of time over winter can cause people to act crazy. In this context it makes it even more amazing that Shackleton achieved what he did.

Antarctica Day 15 – South Orkney Islands

The sea had made it a rough night, though we had come close to the South Orkney Islands we had continued navigating passed them towards the South Scotia Ridge instead of making the intended excursion in the morning. This was due to the weather conditions and the current levels of ice approaching Antarctica. This meant we were moving slower so we didn’t hit ice too fast, and was taking a longer route to avoid the thickest of the ice (which would take longer to get through than to go around). If we hadn’t continued on we risked missing the opportunity to land on the peninsula.

During the morning there was the occasional iceberg flow passed us, though it was a fairly uneventful and calm morning until the lecture on ice in Antarctica. This started with explaining how snow crystals are formed and why they are unique, and how it can form ice. In the case of glaciers when they meet the sea they form ice shelves which the glaciers continue to flow into. We were also told what Antarctica would look like without its ice and how isometric rebound would raise the land by approximately 500 metres. As this lecture continued some more impressive icebergs started to pass by again and the weather brightened up.

By lunch time the horizon on the port side was filled with icebergs, and we could see icicles had formed out on deck where the snow had been cleared earlier. After lunch there was a lecture about polar poetry and a book the expedition leader had written about it.

“I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize”

The lecture talked about how poetry was a constant in the life of Ernest Shackleton and how other polar explorers were inspired by poetry, and how it gave strength to some when the conditions were tough.

This was then followed by the third lecture of the day, one on Antarctic currents and meteorology. I did find it amusing that someone from Tromsø was talking about how unreliable Antarctic weather forecasts are considering Tromsø weather forecasts are notoriously bad. There was a lot of overlap between this lecture and previous ones – it was a last minute addition to the itinerary to fill time that would have been used for the landing but tied some things together fairly well.

Killer Whale

Before dinner there was a briefing to serve as a progress report and the expected events for the next day. This was cut short though by a sighting of a couple of killer whales eating a killed Southern Bottlenose Whale off the port side. It was incredibly cold outside, so a definite indicator of how much farther South we’d travelled. It was hard to stay out in the cold as long as we did but it was worth it to see feeding killer whales and sea birds trying to get what they could.

The Killer Whale has a very large dorsal fin which makes it easier to identify when it’s close to the surface. For a long time these whales were feared, but today they are iconic animals of the oceans. Wherever you could see these whales feeding there was soon a large number of sea birds trying to scavenge what food they could from the surface.

Over dinner we were told that the hope was that we would be able to see or maybe even land on Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands – we’d get to know this for certain by 06:00 the next morning.