An entire plane load waited with baited breath as they peeked out of the tiny windows. There was nothing to see but a thick white fog. After the two hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, we were keeping everything crossed that the plane was not about to make an about turn and head straight back...
We started to make the descent and then the plane erupted into celebratory clapping as the wheels touched down on the gravel runway. We had made it to the Great White Continent. Antarctica.
After booking this trip 15 months prior and saving hard for a whole year we had finally made it to the number one destination on my Bucket List. I almost had to pinch myself to believe it really was happening!
The previous night, at our briefing (otherwise known, in my opinion, as 'A million and one ways to die in Antarctica'), we had been informed that it didn't look promising for our flight making it the next day. A collective groan had made its way around the room, if this happened 4 days in a row the entire trip got cancelled.
At the end of the briefing, where I now feared I may die from falling down a crevasse, get attacked by an elephant seal, get stuck on land in a blizzard lasting for days with no food or shelter, be hit by giant chunks of ice flying through the air from a calving iceberg (you get the picture...), we got told that there was a very small window of time that looked good for landing but that the flight would be much earlier than originally planned. Breakfast would be at 5am and the airport buses would leave at 5.45. Cue the cheers!
After landing we were escorted along the runway to the waiting zodiacs. As we walked the 1.5km journey to the coastline we were greeted by a glimpse of what Antarctica had to offer, a pale blue iceberg floated just off shore and a lone penguin hopped onto the beach for a quick greeting before diving back into the icy waters.
We clambered onto the zodiacs to reach our home for the next 10 days - Quark's 'Sea Adventurer'.
The rest of that first day continued to be foggy and we saw very little of the white beauty that we knew was out there. Instead we got to meet our expedition guides and boat crew and continued to be warned of ways we could die if we didn't follow the rules! And we ate - a lot (all trip). Big buffet lunches, afternoon tea, 3 course dinners, buffet breakfasts every day. As long as we were on the boat, no one was going hungry! We also started to get to know some of the other passengers before heading to bed after a long day.
As I pulled the curtains back the next morning I was greeted with a much clearer sky and views of Enterprise Island. We had sailed a considerable distance through the night.
As soon as breakfast was done they started to load us onto the zodiacs to take us around the island.
Our group was last and when our turn finally came around our long wait was rewarded with a visit from a group of humpback whales. A mother and calf repeatedly swam around our zodiac constantly showing their flukes. Another lifelong wish had been granted. That day we probably saw in the region of 200 flukes, each whale proudly showing their unique markings under tail over and over again.
Entering Wilhelmina Bay gave a glimpse into the history of Antarctica with a sunken whaling ship sitting, rusting in the shallow waters, we could see harpoon heads through the jagged holes.
The whole area was beautiful with tall snow covered mountains and little icebergs floating by.
During lunch we set sail again,this time towards the Lemaire Channel.
I don't believe that any words can truly describe this experience.
The channel is about 7 miles long, 300m deep and not very wide. At the far end are two 'gatekeepers', enormous icebergs that drift back and forth. Our captain decided to attempt passage as the waters were calm and the wind was gentle. As we sailed along there was barely a word spoken as we all admired the breath taking beauty of the majestic volcanic mountains either side of us, with their snowy tops and valleys full of glaciers, reflecting in the calm waters. Seals basked in the sunshine on small icebergs. Tiny penguins leapt through the water speeding along. Icebergs of different shapes and sizes floated by, each with little hints of blue.
As we rounded the bend we caught sight of the gatekeepers. They were enormous. Huge chunks of crisp white ice just a mere 10m from the side of our vessel. Our captain and his crew did an amazing job of navigating us through the narrow channel that became increasingly filled with icebergs much, much bigger than the ones that had impressed us so much earlier that morning.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from such beauty but dinner was called and we reluctantly left. By the time dinner was over we were in open water and needed our sea legs to move about. Walking in a straight line was no longer an option! Thank goodness for sea sickness prevention medications.
Thankfully we woke to calm, mirrored waters again. After breakfast we wrapped up warmly and headed back up to the deck. I'm fairly sure it's impossible to get fed up of this scenery. Pretty soon the entire expedition crew and all guests were gathered together in anticipation of the ship crossing the Antarctic Circle. As we watched the GPS creep towards its' target the crew handed out champagne. The captain signalled the event with a long, loud blast of the foghorn and the celebratory cheers began.
After crossing the circle we sailed through Crystal Sound. We saw small, flat pieces of broken sea ice floating past us, reminding me of lily pads on a pond. Before long the pieces grew both in size and number and we could hear them crashing against the hull of the boat as we sailed by. Many of the larger pieces had seals basking in the sun. They looked at us grumpily as we passed, creating little waves, disturbing their peace.
After a while the ice pieces became too big and numerous the captain turned the ship around. This was as far south as we were going to go.
Once the waters became freer of ice the ship came to a stop. The time had come for all the brave (or stupid!) people to do the Polar Plunge. Just under half of the ships' passengers got changed into their swimming gear and one by one they were attached to a rope and leapt off the gangplank into the 2 degree water.
There were plenty of gasps and declarations of 'it's cold!'
Gerald decided that as he was here he should take the plunge so he got in line and enthusiastically jumped in.He confirmed that it was extremely cold and that it momentarily took his breath away. Thankfully he lived to tell the tale!
After lunch we spent over an hour in the zodiac zooming around Crystal Sound, getting much closer to the seals. We saw plenty of Crabeaters and one Weddell. Being in the zodiac also meant we could get much closer to the icebergs. The last one before returning to the ship was gigantic, full of caves and deep blue crevasses.
We were supposed to do a landing on Detaille Island but the ice was too thick for us to approach safely.
After dinner we listened to one of the crew tell hilarious anecdotes about his working years that ultimately led him to work each winter in Antarctica. Each day a different staff member leads a talk. They all have such interesting backgrounds and stories to tell.
Just as we were getting ready for bed we sailed past a tabular iceberg which was at least a kilometre long and between 30 & 40m high. I took a photo through our porthole but photos really don't give any idea of the sheer enormity of these icebergs as there is nothing else nearby to give it perspective. Some have been as big as a car, others as big as a giant multi storey car park. They really are incredible.
We had sailed through the night towards Petermann Island. As we approached the island by zodiac we could see small, vertical black lines covering every rock - penguins! There was much excitement aboard as this was our first landing and our first close up penguin encounter. The smell of guano, penguin poo, hit us as we got closer. It really is quite pungent in the otherwise crisp air of Antarctica.
Two types of penguin were breeding, originally the island had been full of Adelie penguins but now it is predominantly the Gentoo penguin. The Gentoos were there to greet us as we stepped ashore, waddling along side us, curious. Many others were sitting on their grey pebbled nests with their fluffy grey chicks. We watched in amusement as one cheeky penguin continually stole pebbles from other nests to build his own, despite the fact that egg laying season was most definitely over.
The guides had mapped out two routes for us to walk safely whilst also ensuring we didn't disturb any nesting sites. The first route led up to the Adelie nesting site. The Adelie penguin is deep black with a stark white tummy and eyes. Their chicks were much larger than the Gentoo chicks, dark grey and very fluffy.
The Gentoos have a bright orange bill and a white patch on their head so they were quite easy to tell apart.
The other track led to an amazing viewpoint of the area we had just sailed through, full of icebergs glinting in the sunshine.
After lunch we had a zodiac cruise around the Yalour Islands. We saw lots more Adelie penguins leaping in and out of the water, sliding down the snowy slopes on their stomachs and generally having fun.
We also saw some amazing icebergs, one had a melt lake in the centre causing a bright green reflection on the ice above it.
This cruise also gave us our first leopard seal sighting. Another fabulous day with breathtaking scenery in every direction.
An early zodiac cruise to Pleneau Bay was first on the agenda. The sky was very overcast which meant that the variation in colours of each iceberg was very noticeable. Some of them were incredibly blue. Although it was 5 degrees today the wind was blowing at 25 knots making it feel much colder. We also had a snow flurry whilst we were zipping about the icebergs.
As we approached the island you could smell guano, it was clear we were close to a penguin colony and as we approached, sure enough, Gentoos were everywhere.
We watched them leaping in and out of the water whilst others huddled over their tiny chicks keeping them protected from the icy winds. We got close to the iceberg graveyard, full of decaying icebergs, growlers and bergy bits, but with such strong winds it wasn't safe to actually enter as we could have easily got trapped.
As soon as all the zodiacs were back on board we set sail for the Lemaire Channel again. A completely different sight this time with an overcast sky, strong winds and snow. The first voyage saw every passenger standing on deck, this time it was just a handful braving the cold and wind.
As the day progressed the winds were averaging between 30 & 35 knots with gusts up to 59 knots. Instead of the planned landing on Damoy Point we listened to 3 of the crew in their specialist areas. Adrian talked about penguins, Michael talked about climate change and the global consequences if Antarctica continues to melt at the rate it is and Ariane discussed sea ice ecology and how vital it is to the food chain. All three talks were very informative and interesting.
The weather did not improve overnight and as well as the gusting wind it was also raining hard. We weren't sure if we were going to get to Port Lockroy. The original plan was half the passengers would go to Port Lockroy for an hour whilst the other half visited Jouglar Point then we would swap over. Eventually the guides decided it would be more comfortable to just visit Port Lockroy and for only half an hour to avoid getting soaked and cold. We were one of the first groups to head over, we bumped our way over the waves and kept our heads ducked as the rain pelted down. Once we arrived on the tiny island, the size of a football pitch, we were greeted by lots of Gentoo penguins and their chicks. One of the adults strolled right past me no more than a metre away, stopped to observe me a while, then carried on his way.
We headed inside Base A to have a look around the historic site which has been turned into a shop and museum. It was a great insight as to how the British men stationed there would have lived all those decades ago.
The main reason we had been so keen to get here was because it was also the location of a geocache. We signed the log, left a trackable penguin that wanted to live with the penguins of Antarctica and felt pleased that we had now cached on all seven continents.
After lunch we relocated to Paradise Harbour to make our first landing on the actual mainland of the continent rather than just the islands. The base here was Argentinian and was staffed by a friendly Argentinian who insisted that I sign the visitor book.
Once again there was a small colony of Gentoo penguins that were feeding their chicks and improving their nests with newly found stones.
As we had 90 minutes to explore I made my way up a steep incline to a viewpoint. It was hard work climbing up the snow covered mountain but the views were worth it. It was even harder coming back down as the compacted snow was quite slippery in places.
After the landing we had just over an hour in the zodiac exploring the harbour. The mountain side was free of snow in places and had beautiful colours all over where moss and lichens were growing on it.
Antarctic cormorants were nesting on the cliff face and their chicks were flapping their wings madly getting in practise for their first ever flight. The whole harbour had glaciers running down the valleys to the water and being an overcast day the blues were very noticeable in the ice. Much of the ice looked like it would calve off at any time but we didn't get to witness such a sight.
We came across a couple of crabeater seals resting on an iceberg and watched them for a while before heading back to the ship for a BBQ dinner on the deck with views of Paradise Harbour. It was 6 degrees!
When we woke in Neko Harbour it was a balmy 7 degrees outside and the wind had dropped. This was another continent landing and this time we had about 2 hours to explore. Once again the guides marked out safe pathways as previous ships had warned of a new crevasse that had suddenly appeared on the usual route.
Gerald spent the whole time watching for calvings as this is a well known bay for activity. I decided to follow the route to the top viewpoint again, along the way we got very close to a penguin colony as this area has 250 breeding pairs of Gentoos. I had my photo taken with the Antarctica flag, penguins and snowy ice caps in the background.
I watched the penguins for ages, the little chicks just a couple of weeks old feeding from their mothers throats.
I made my way back down and watched the penguins playing in the shallow waters. Suddenly they all hopped out, huddled together and faced the same direction. Then a Weddell seal popped its' head out of the water. The penguins never stopped watching it. The seal then hauled himself out of the water onto the rocky beach, every time he moved we could hear the pebbles scraping along underneath his weight. As soon as he came onto the land all the penguins jumped back in the water and continued playing.
We then got the call to return to the zodiac, life jackets went on and cameras got packed up. About 5 of us had climbed onto the zodiac and I was admiring the valley glaciers when there was an almighty crack and then a deep rumble, like thunder, as a huge piece of the glacier fell into the sea. Our guide Mike started repeatedly yelling at everyone waiting to get onto the zodiac to run up the beach. Then he started the engine and we zoomed off further away as we observed a huge wave rush towards the beach. All the icebergs started rocking back and forth and we got bounced about in the zodiac. It was an impressive sight but sadly not one that we caught on camera! This was definitely the best landing of the trip so far. Not long after we got back on the ship three humpback whales spent some time around us, spouting their water up in the air and showing their dorsal fins. Then one by one they dove down deeper each showing their tails before disappearing.
After lunch we landed on Cuverville Island.
The temperature had risen to ten degrees and many of the penguins were lying on their tummies in the snow trying to cool down. Cuverville has over 4800 breeding pairs of Gentoos and they were everywhere. I did a lot more standing and observing rather than taking photographs over our two and a half hour visit. It was great watching the penguins waddle past us. Because of the warm weather the snow was rapidly melting and we saw little waterfalls forming over the rocks and streams were heading down to the sea.
As we walked along the beach we noticed some large pieces lying on the ground, we assumed the pieces were driftwood but as we walked further we realised they were bones, most probably from a blue whale as several enormous vertebrate lay beside the jawbone which was a few metres long.
Several seals were swimming between the icebergs and as we watched them a large iceberg suddenly calved, again creating that thunderous sound and sending waves towards the shore.
Our first landing of the day was at Whalers Bay on Deception Island. We had an earlier wake up call than usual as we were entering the caldera through Neptune's Bellows which was narrow and craggy and it was suggested we should stand on deck to see the entrance.
Upon landing we headed along the black, volcanic beach to Neptune's Window for views out to sea between a gap in the dramatic walls of the caldera.
In 1967 there was lots of volcanic activity and the area was evacuated, the glaciers became full of volcanic ash and matter. When the glaciers melted in 1968 the volcanic matter inside the glaciers created a dam which eventually burst and destroyed all the buildings in the area, knocking them off their foundations and semi burying them. Now they sit there decaying and rusting providing shelter for the many birds and fur seals that live in the area.
There is evidence of the whaling activity that went on with huge vats that held the blubber and many whale bones laying on the black sand.
As the area is still active the sand was hot in places and it created steam where it made contact with the water.
For the driest continent in the world we sure had a lot of rain! Our afternoon landing almost didn't happen as it was coming down so hard along with 20 knot winds. We did eventually end up on Half Moon Island and we finally got to see chinstrap penguins up close. There was a penguin highway over the rocks that they all waddled over back and forth. Many of them were just lying on the beach with their wings out trying to cool down on this very mild day.
After spending a long while watching the penguins we headed to the other side of the island to see the fur seals. They were mostly just lazing on the beach but some were a little feisty with each other.
This was by far the wettest it had been and we decided to head back to the ship a little earlier than we needed to to get dry and warm again.
Our final night on the ship had arrived. As usual we had a lovely dinner including a chocoholic buffet for dessert. After dinner it was the Captains cocktail party followed by a slideshow of photos from our trip.
Nine amazing, unforgettable days in the great, white continent had come to an end.
Not all went as it should have! The next morning we could not see land in any direction and the plane coming to get us was not safe to land. We waited all day for a break in the weather but it never came. Late afternoon we were told that we would definitely be spending another night on the boat. The staff entertained us with movies, lectures, anecdotes and an Antarctic quiz night. Passengers frantically contacted insurance companies and travel agents to reschedule flights. We were warm, comfortable, well fed but definitely stranded.
We woke to blue skies and sunshine and were told the flights would land at 11am. Then the fog rolled in again. The flights got postponed again. This time they were due to land at 3pm but didn't arrive until almost 4pm. By the time we finally took off it was 5pm. We missed our flight to Santiago and had to change our flights home. Thank goodness for insurance.