Continued from yesterday:
Ok, so we get back to the cabin and see the seat belts. This comes as no surprise as it is one of the reasons I've decided to do this trip NOW as opposed to a few years from now. The Drake Passage is notorious for fickleness. It is where the colder waters of the Atlantic converge with the warmer water temperatures of the Pacific. There is no telling how that convergence will react. You can have either the "Drake Shake" or the "Drake Lake". In reading the reviews I was struck by the power of the Drake Shake as one group actually had a grand piano which was secured to a support post on the ship, tear away from the pillar and land upside down in the lounge! That, my friends, is some powerful shaking! There is a scale that is used to measure the power of the seas. It's called a Beaufort Scale and it ranges from 0 to 12. 0 is calm winds 0-1 mph with "seas like a mirro:r and 12 is hurricane force winds 92+ mph and "The air is filled with foam and spray. Sea completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected." The levels in between are rated as well. You have to pass through the Drake 2 times on an Antarctic Expedition. It's a coin toss as to what you will have. No guarantees. Some trips the passengers are confined ot the cabins for their own safety and the ship staff delivers food to the cabins. Well, expecting the worse case scenario (not hurricane season but still...) I figured the younger I was the better I'd be able to withstand the rigors of a rough crossing. Plus, the trip wasn't getting any cheaper either! Sign me up!
So the reviews mentioned the seat belts. We had no idea what to expect so we dutifully strapped ourselves in and waited, expecting the worst. Our crossing, thankfully, was about a 5, which is a "fresh breeze 20-25 mph, crested wavelets form on inland waters. Moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form, many white horses are formed. Chance of some spray." I have no idea what those white horses they are talking about are, but it really wasn't all that bad. At no time was I in fear of being tossed out of the bed, and the mattress stayed on the box springs just as Nature intended! I had a patch that I probably didn't need, as I've never been sea sick, but I wore it just in case. My roommate though was pretty darn sick, despite her use of ginger, and the patch. I guess there is no telling how you will react. So she was out of commission for a few days (passage takes 2 days) and could not eat much more than broth and crackers. I on the other hand ate heartily (way too heartily!) and enjoyed the ride. The expedition crew used the time at sea to give lectures on what to expect and how to adapt to the environment we would soon be encountering.
The afternoon of our second day we arrived to the South Shetland Islands and we were able to make our first landing! It was so exciting to know that we would soon be standing in Antarctica. For a great many of us it was our 7th Continent, so we were mostly very seasoned travelers, but you could sense the anticipation from all of us! We were told that Antarctica is made up of snow, ice and rocks. There is no dirt anywhere. What would look like dirt was actually layers and layers of penguin poop! Slippery, slimy penguin poop! The smell is almost overwhelming when you first encounter it, but you do get used to it. We had been provided with special wellington boots that come up to the knees as well as special parkas for the climate. We were told to purchase waterproof pants with a special elastic cuff that would go over the top of the boots to keep water out when we had water landings. We had to disinfect our boots and walking poles, and everything we carried onto the landing sites, as they wanted no bacteria being introduced to the environment that wasn't already there. We all had layers and layers of clothing on and were ready for just about anything! The order of our departure from the ship rotated with each landing and our group was first for the first landing! We could hardly contain ourselves!
There are no docks in Antarctica. Only small ships are able to navigate the waters so the ships will anchor off the shore and the Expedition Crew will launch Zodiac boats that will take groups of 10-12 on shore. The Zodiacs have a metal bottom and inflatable sides made of thick rubber and using an outboard motor for power. When you are dealing with over 100 people there are a lot of trips being made to get everyone ashore and then back to the ship. You are on the open waters with no protection from the elements. We were advised to protect our electronics by cutting small slits in plastic bags and threading the camera straps through the slits for protection. That was a pain to deal with when taking pictures and looked very dorky but it did do a good job of protecting our cameras. Here we are in the Zodiac getting ready for our first landing.
I made sure that I took a picture of my foot on the ground! Then I realized we were on an island, not the actual Continent but what the heck! Keep in mind that is NOT soil beneath my foot, but penguin poop! You can see it's pretty darn thick!
This little guy was my very first penguin!
And when we started looking around we spotted this elephant seal who was in the process of molting.
He was surrounded by all the brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews of the first one! There were hundreds of them, all squawking and toddling around in their funny little way. Most of the babies had been hatched a while ago and at this point in time, though they still could not swim or feed themselves, they were almost as large as their parents. The chicks didn't have their waterproof feathers yet so you could tell them apart from the adults because their front chests were all dirty from their feedings. There was no way to wash themselves off.
The mother (and maybe even the father?) will feed the chicks by opening up their mouth and the chick will stick its entire head down the parent's throat. Then the parent will regurgitate the krill they have partially digested into the mouth of the chick. Pretty disgusting, but interesting nonetheless. Nature is full of strange ways!
The weather was chilly when we landed but it was dry and calm. Suddenly it began to snow. It wasn't accompanied by the big blustery winds we'd had in Bariloche. It was HUGE fluffy snowflakes that drifted down like something in a snow globe! It was so very special. Here we were on an island in Antarctica seeing (and smelling!) penguins for the very first time and all of a sudden it was like Christmas Eve with this gorgeous snowfall!
It really seemed very magical.
We had been told that we needed to steer clear of the wildlife and stay at least 15 feet from them. Paths were marked off with colored rebar. However the animals had no idea what those colored sticks planted in the ground meant, so if they came to us, we could just stand still and allow them to approach us. I can't tell you how many times I was thi-i-i-s close to a penguin, but have no photos as proof. Oh, yeah, many people were taking pictures but of course we were almost all in the same colored parkas, so I'm sure pictures exist but how would know who to send the picture to at the end of the trip! Here's a picture that you can tell I'm in but I was much closer to them many more times.
This is a picture like I suppose many people have. One of the group with a penguin at their feet, but I have no earthly idea who I could delight by sending it along to them.
You could park yourself on the ground (poop, remember?!) and sit still for a bit, and sure enough, you'd have a curious visitor in no time! They weren't aggressive, just curious. And so darn cute you wanted to smuggle one into your parka and bring him home! Our first landing lasted about an hour and a hlaf and we headed back to the ship. We had no idea what our next 5 days would bring, but we knew for sure that we had made it there and we had our first encounter with the most remote of places we'd even been or will be again!
The snow stopped almost as quickly as it started. We had no idea that that brief "weather episode" would be the only bit of inclement weather we'd have the entire trip! The Expedition Team had told us they were in charge of the wildlife but we were in charge of the weather. They had no idea our group would prove to be the best weather providers in the history of their team!
More tomorrow. Stay tuned!