Antarctica Adventure!

Recently I adventured to Antarctica. It’s not every day you get to say that and it has always been a dream of mine to travel to the south pole (or close to it!) and to see the glaciers, penguins, whales and birds that inhabit such a remote environment. There is something liberating and awesome (in the full sense of the word) in going somewhere where very few humans have traveled. Especially for someone like me who is spends so much time online.

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Being Australian and unused to real cold, I think I was also attracted to exploring a truly cold problem with travelling to Antarctica is, as it turns out, the 48-60 hours of torment you need to go through to get there and to get back. The Drake Passage is the strip of open sea between the bottom of South America and the Peninsula of the Antarctic continent. It is by far the most direct way by ship to get to Antarctica and the port town of Ushuaia is well set up to support intrepid travelers in this venture. We took off from Ushuaia on a calm Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours, were into the dreaded Drake. I found whilst ever I was lying down I was ok but walking around was torture! So I ended up staying in bed about 40 hours by which time it had calmed down significantly. See my little video of the more calm but still awful parts :) And that was apparently a calm crossing! Ah well, turns out I don’t have sea legs. At least I wasn’t actually sick and I certainly caught up with a few months of sleep deprivation so arguably, it was the perfect enforced rest!

Now the adventure begins! We were accompanied by a number of stunning and enormous birds, including Cape Pestrels and a number of Albatrosses. Then we came across a Blue Whale which is apparently quite a rare thing to see in the Drake. It gave us a little show and then went on its way. We entered the Gerlache Strait and saw our first ice which was quite exciting, but by the end of the trip these early views were just breadcrumbs! We landed at Cuverville Island which was stunning! I had taken the snowshoeing option and so with 12 other adventurous travellers, we started up the snow covered hill to get some better views. We saw a large colony of Gentoo penguins which was fun, they are quite curious and cute creatures. We had to be careful to not block any “penguin highways” so often was giving way to scores of them as we explored. We saw a Leopard Seal in the water, which managed to catch one unfortunate penguin for lunch.

We then landed at Neko Harbour, our first step onto the actual Antarctic continent! Again, more stunning views and Gentoo penguins. We had the good fortune to also have time that day to land at Port Lockroy, an old British station in Antarctica and the southern most post office in the world. I send a bunch of postcards to friends and family on the 23rd December, I guess we’ll see how long they take to make the trip. We got to see a number of the Snowy Sheathbill birds, which is a bit of a scavenger. It eats everything, including penguin poo, which is truly horrible. Although their eating habits are awful, they are quite beautiful and I was lucky enough to score a really good shot of one mid flight.

The next day we traveled down the Lemaire Channel to Petermann Island where we saw more Gentoo penguins, but also Adalie penguins, which are terribly cute! Again we did some snowshoeing which was excellent. I took some time to just sit and drink in the remoteness and the pristine environment that is Antarctica. It was humbling and wonderful to remember how truly small we all are and the magnificence of this world on which we reside. We saw some Minke Whales in the water beside the ship.

In the afternoon we broke through a few kilometres of ice and took the small boats (zodiacs) a short distance, then walked a half kilometre over ocean ice to land at Vernadsky Base, a Ukranian scientific post. The dozen or so scientists there hadn’t seen any other humans for 8 months are were very pleased to see us :) All of them were men and when I asked why there weren’t any women scientists there I had a one word answer from our young Ukranian guide: politics. Interesting… At any rate it was fascinating and it looks like they do some incredible science down there. There was also a small Elephant Seal who crawled up to the bar to say hi. They also have the southern most bar in the world, and there were treated to home made sugar based vodka, which was actually pretty good. So good in fact that one of the guests from our ship drank a dozen shots, then exchanged her bra in exchange for some snow mobile moonlighting around the base. Was quite hilarious and poor expedition leader dealt with it very diplomatically.

To cap off a fantastic day, the catering crew put on a BBQ on the deck of the Ocean Nova which was a cold but excellent affair. The mulled wine and hot apple dessert went down particularly well against the cold! We did a trivia night which was great fun, and our team, “The Rise of the Gentoo” won! There was much celebration though the sweet victory was snatched from us when they found a score card for a team that hadn’t been marked. Ah well, all is fair in love and war! I had only one question for our expedition leader, would we see any Orca? Orca are a new favourite animal of mine. They are brilliant, social and strategic animals. Well worth looking into.

The next morning we were woken particularly early as there were some Orca in the water! I was first on deck, in my pyjamas and I have to admit I squealed quite a lot, much to the amusement of our new American friends. At one point I saw all five Orca come to the surface and I could only watch in awe. They really are stunning animals. I learned from the on board whale expert that Orca have some particularly unique hunting techniques. Often the come across a seal or two on a small iceberg surrounded by water and ao they swim up to it in formation and then dive and hit their tails simultaneously creating a small tidal wave that washes the seal off into the water ready for the taking. Very clever animals. Then they always share the spoils of a hunt amongst the pod, and often will simply daze a victim to teach young Orca how to hunt before dealing a death blow. Apparently Orca have been known to kill much larger animals including Humpback Whales.

Anyway, the rest of day we did some zodiac trips (the small courier boats) around Paradise Harbour which was bitterly cold, and then around the Melchior Islands in Dallman Bay which was spectacular. One of the birds down here is the Antarctic Cormorant, closely related to the Cormorants in Australia. They look quite similar :) We got to see number of them nesting. Going back through the Drake I had to confine myself to my room again, which meant I missed seeing Humpback Whales. This was unfortunate but I really did struggle to travel around the ship when in the Drake without getting very ill.

On a final note, I traveled with the Antarctica XX1, which has a caring and wonderful crew. The crew includes scientists, naturists, biologists and others who genuinely love Antarctica. As a result we had a number of amazing lectures throughout the trip about the wildlife and ecosystem of Antarctica. Learning about Krill, ice flow, climate change and the migratory patterns of the whales was awesome. I wish I had been able to attend more talks but I couldn’t get up during most of the Drake :/ The rest of the crew who looked after navigation, feeding us, cleaning and all the other operations were just amazing. A huge thank you to you all for making this voyage the trip of a lifetime!

One thing I didn’t anticipate was the land sickness! 24 hours after getting off the boat and I still feel the sway of the ocean! All of my photos, plus a couple of group photos and a video or two are up on my flickr account in the Antarctica 2013 set at http://www.flickr.com/photos/piawaugh/sets/72157638364999506/ You can also see photos from Buenos Aires if you are interested at http://www.flickr.com/photos/piawaugh/sets/72157638573728155/

A special thank you also to Jamie, our exhibition leader who delivered an incredible itinerary under some quite trying circumstances, and all the expedition crew! You guys totally rock :)

I met some amazing new friends on the trip, and got to spend some quality time with existing friends. You don’t go on adventures like this without meeting other people of a similar adventurous mindset, which is always wonderful.

For everyone else, I highly highly recommend you check out the Antarctica XXI (Ocean Nova) trips if you are interested in going to Antarctica or the Arctic.

For all my linux.conf.au friends, yes I did scope out Antartica for a potential future conference, but given the only LUGs there are Gentoos, I think we should all spare ourselves the pain ;)

Below are links to some additional reading about the places we visited as provided by the Antarctic XX1 crew, the list of animals that were sighted throughout the journey and some other bits and pieces that might be of interest. Below are also some excellent quotes about Antarctica that were on the ship intranet that I just had to post to give you a flavour of what we experienced :)

  • AXXI_Logbook_SE2-1314 (PDF) Log book for the trip. Includes animals we saw, where we went and some details of our activities. Lovely work by the Antarctica XXI crew :)
  • Daily-program (PDF) – our daily program for the journey
  • Info-landings (PDF) – information about the landing sites we went to

The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church. — Ferdinando Magallanes

We were the only pulsating creatures in a dead world of ice. — Frederick Albert Cook

Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever. — Kim Stanley Robinson

I have never heard or felt or seen a wind like this. I wondered why it did not carry away the earth. — Cherry-Garrard

Great God ! this is an awful place. — Robert Falcon Scott, referring to the South Pole

Human effort is not futile, but Man fights against the giant forces of Nature in the spirit of humility. — Ernest Shackleton

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions …. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale. — Robert Falcon Scott

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things. — Edmund Hillary

Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results. — Ernest Shackleton Adventure is just bad planning. — Roald Amundsen

For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton. — Sir Raymond Priestley

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2 Responses to Antarctica Adventure!

  1. Rodney Brown says:

    You may be interested in the “White Ice Cycle Expedition” sees Maria Leijerstam, 35, cycle to the South Pole.
    I’m unsure how whether this has had much media coverage here since she is British, but she is currently in the Trans Antartic Mountain range, if I’m reading the tweets correctly.
    Aside from the map position, the tweets appear to give the most current information.

    Hope this is interesting.

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