(This is part 3 of 4 in our Antarctica series)
We departed around 7 pm from Puntas Arenas and adjusted to life aboard our new home for the next 16 days. The next morning, Day 2, we cruised through the Chilean fjords in slightly overcast weather that still had enough visibility to witness beautiful mountains, seabirds, and some magnificent glaciers. Around 2 pm, we rolled through the Nation Glaciers capturing some beautiful photos of their faint blue tinge emerging through the clouds. We also spied our first penguins at a very far distance on some rocks along the shore.
The Drake Passage
Day 3 of our 16 day cruise was meant for Cape Horn, but the weather wasn’t in our favor and we instead sailed straight on to Antarctica bypassing the Cape due to very high winds. The notorious Drake Passage was all that was separating us from Antarctica and the sail through the passage can be one of 2 varieties…1)The Drake Shake – a violent tossing of the vessel through very rough seas or 2) The Drake Lake – a much milder sail through when waters are calmer. Our crossing starting with a little bit of swaying but it was termed more of the Lake variety by our Captain and was fairly smooth though also marred by overcast weather and sheets of fog permitting very little visibility of any wildlife that could be nearby.
Half Moon Bay: Touchdown in Antarctica!
Day 4 we finally landed in Antarctica! Our very first stop was Half Moon Bay in the South Shetland Islands. The Shetland Islands area is a group of Antarctica islands located about 75 miles north of the Antarctica Peninsula. Our cruise was divided into 15 expedition groups of about 25 passengers each. We began the process at 2 pm and our group was in the middle of the pack so we made shore around 5 pm and were allowed 1 hour. We were greeted by THOUSANDS of chinstrap penguins mixed with a few gentoo penguins. There was a rookery of chinstrap penguins and they were everywhere…hopping directly across your walking path, clumsily waddling, and regarding you with mild curiosity. Once I stopped to allow a penguin to pass and he made direct eye contact with me for a moment before turning to hop away. We also witnessed a few fur seals lounging on the shore. Our final activity of this excursion was the Antarctic plunge! We bravely stripped down to our swimsuits and ran into the icy waters for a brief exhilarating few seconds. It wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned. Once back on the boat, we had a boot scrubbing to rid the boots of all the penguin poop.
All cruises are governed by IAATO the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators and strict regulations are followed. This pertained to us in a few ways…only 100 tourists plus a guide are allowed on Antartica at a time, so we had group rotations. We also were loaned waterproof boats while ashore and any personal gear had to be vacuumed to remove seeds or other potentially harmful particles.
The Weddell Sea
On Day 5, we headed south through the Antarctic Sound entering into the Weddell Sea witnessing hundreds of icebergs floating past the ship. We finally had a little sunshine which helped illuminate their edges a brilliant blue. Today’s excursion was a zodiac boat ride in Duse Bay through the hundreds of icebergs surrounding the ship. Driving up close allowed us to see their massive size looming underneath the water’s surface. We didn’t get so lucky with animal sightings during our ride but other groups were fortunate to spy some leopard seals.
Day 6 was our first continental landing! We landed at Brown Bluff on the continent of Antarctica, aptly named for its towering brown cliffs on which 20,000 Adelie and gentoo breeding pairs harmoniously exist. The zodiacs had to navigate through a bit of an iceberg blockade to reach the landing site where penguins paraded around us. The weather was a bit challenging for photography as a freezing drizzle enveloped our landing. Later in the day though, the sun broke through through and as we cruised between massive icebergs glimmering in the light.
On Day 7, the plan was to head to Astrolabe but unfortunately, our landing was cancelled as the swells were too high. A note here: this is an expedition cruise but I do think that the number of passengers, and particularly the number of much older passengers, does impart an overwhelming culture of caution. While I admire the commitment to safety, we are definitely accustomed to much more adventurous and active cruises. If we had to do it again, we would likely trade the luxury (sauna, gourmet meals, gorgeous cabins) for 2 landings daily and a smaller ship. The expedition team though did arrange a backup option by heading to Deception Island for the afternoon. Deception Island is a volcano’s caldera in the South Shetland Islands named as the island appears solid until you find the entrance into the flooded caldera, a narrow passageway named Neptune’s Bellows. As we passed through the narrow opening we learned why it is called the Bellows as the chilling Antarctic winds gripped us as we stood stoically on the bow. The landing site is filled with decaying buildings from its days as a seal and whale hunting base. Our landing here involved a short walk along the black sand beaches to marvel at the old structures and witness a few resting fur seals. One particularly eager one charged from his resting spot directly in front of us to make his way to the sea. A rookery of chinstrap penguins was located near the entrance to the caldera and we saw hundreds from a far distance, but we only saw one gentoo resting on the beach. Finally, we did our second Antarctic plunge into the waters of the caldera. Here though, the water is a bit kinder warmed from the steaming caldera…not quite comfortable but more tolerable!
Day 8 we steamed ahead to Danco Island just off the peninsula in the Errera Channel. This was my favorite Antarctica day. Helped immensely by gorgeous weather we sailed into the Errera Channel with the sun shimmering off the blue waters guided in by several humpback whales. Danco island was teeming with 1600 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins….and several newborn gentoo penguins huddling up with their mothers for warmth. My favorite pictures of the trip. Groups of penguins traveled up the snowy slopes on “penguin highways” which are little tracks into the snow made by thousands of tiny penguin feet. We also completed our 3rd Antarctic plunge and this water was cooler than the other 2 dips…fortunately, we had a little sun! We also had the privilege of seeing a minke whale who found great amusement with our line of kayaks awaiting passengers who had signed up for kayaking. He (or she!) followed the rope tether under the water VERY close to the boat, coming up for air and gentle rolling along the line. Our day concluded with some beautiful fading sunlight highlighting the mountain peaks.
We steamed ahead to the Lemaire Channel on Day 9, a very narrow passage where towering mountains flank both sides of the ship making it seem nearly impossible for a passage. We skirted around several large icebergs to make it through and arrive at Petermann Island. Petermann Island is one of the northernmost colonies of Adelie penguins and blue eyed shags also are common here. We witnessed both as well as cryptoplankton, red and green algae that blooms on the snow. Unfortunately, 2 very friendly humpback whales decided to pay a visit to the stern of the ship while we were ashore and we could barely glimpse them..though those still on the ship had quite a display! As we departed, we made one more pass through the Lemaire Channel which was socked in with a thick blanket of fog limiting visibility as we made our way north again for our final Antarctic day.
Day 10 was scheduled for Yankee Harbor but unfortunately, we couldn’t land due to the winds so we cruised up to King George Island, the largest of the Shetland Islands where many countries have bases, including the US. Our cruise ship glided up very close to a large glacier for some beautiful pictures and we were spoiled by a glowing Antarctic sunset casting a warm hue over the ocean. Days 11 and 12 were days at sea en route to the Falkland Islands. On Day 11, we cruised close to Elephant Island known for elephant seals (or for it’s shape like an elephant) and could see a historic monument, a bust of Luis Pardo who rescued men from Ernest Shackleton’s failed Endurance mission in the Weddell Sea.
Antartica held a world of promise and it did not disappoint, but we still had 3 days in the Falklands before our incredible expedition concluded! Click here for our adventures in the Falklands!