“MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY, LOW WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG HOURS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS. SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN EVENT OF SUCCESS.” Supposed Shackleton Advert, c1913
Sign us up!
We had not planned, nor budgeted for a trip to Antarctica, but since it has always been in on my top 3 places to visit so I was over the moon that we were able to fit it in.
As Jordan wrote in our last post, the first 2 hours on the island of Tierra del Fuego involved some seriously scary riding. We chose the worst of 2 possible routes available, and the Patagonian winds made an overwhelming appearance. Just to keep it spicy.
During that ride, I promised myself that if I got there without a fall – which would have been a hard off, due to the speeds we maintained to keep the bikes atop the deep gravel – we would go to Antarctica. And, since neither of us dropped our bikes on the way down, I announced my new plan to Jordan.
Okay, maybe I always knew we’d go… I had been shopping for discount prices online for over 2 weeks but the offer we found when we were there was pretty great so we bought our tickets. We arrived in Ushuaia and bought our tickets just 2 days before the boat set sail proving that sometimes late can simply be better.
The hostel stored our bikes and riding equipment at no charge and on the afternoon of March 25th we boarded The Ushuaia– a retired U.S oceanographic research vessel – for a 10-day trip-of-a-lifetime.
After a brief lesson on safety we raised our complimentary glasses of champagne with the other 80 passengers to toast a successful expedition. We then set sail for the real End of the World – Antarctica!
Our crossing of the notorious Drake Passage turned out to be a fast & easy one, rendering the preemptive dramamine dosing by much of the ship’s passengers unnecessary. During the 2-day crossing, we were treated to multiple documentaries and lectures on Scott, Amundsen and of course, Shackleton and the amazing story of the Endurance. I can assure you there are no better stories to hear when you, yourself are on your way down to the frozen continent!
With the extra time available from the quick Drake crossing we were able to disembark to visit some Penguin colonies on the South Shetland Islands before making our first continental landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. Each day after that, we got off the ship twice to explore islands, icebergs, historical sites and mainland Antarctica.
Onboard, in addition to the Captain and the crew responsible for keeping the ship afloat, we were entertained, guided and educated by the resident geologist, ornithologist, and Antarctic experts. Presentations about ice or penguins or local geology were provided each day on the ship to compliment what we would see during our daily excursions.
Excursions were made twice each day. We would hop in to the zodiacs and make our way to shore to explore Penguin colonies & rookeries of various breeds or quietly make our way through mazes of the biggest ice bergs we’ve ever seen. We found old whaling stations and ship wrecks, and were fascinated by all kinds of marine life – from minke wales & leopard seals to the dramatic and very cool looking albatrosses.
The scenery on shore and the views from the boat were some of the most dramatic we’ve ever seen, simply awesome in the true sense of the word. Whether we were navigating the small zodiacs through a maze of giant icebergs that practically choked an entire channel, or climbing a snow covered ridge to get a better view of a massive glacier, we were never less than gobsmacked. We can see how people become obsessed with Antartica.
We crossed the southern polar circle and made it as far south as 65 degrees latitude
where we visited the Ukrainian research station, Vernadsky. The men were getting ready to hunker down for four months of darkness and we were their last visitors of the season. We poked around their quarters, checked out the laboratories and scientific instruments, and our ship’s crew gave them a few more bottles of wine to add to their bar collection. This is also where we received Antarctic stamps in our passports – undoubtedly the coolest stamps we have received!
I was able to channel my Grade-6-Ukrainian-class self and thanked them with a “дякую” before departing with “до побачення” – which they seemed to like. A lot.
At one point we were sailing between a very narrow channel between two islands. The passage was about 80 meters wide between islands of steep mountains rising directly out of the sea. With only a few meters to spare on either side of the ship we were very close to the mountain sides – the sun was starting to set and a lot of people were outside enjoying the spectacle and taking photos. Jordan was one of them. He was out on deck taking in the views when he was interrupted by a very loud noise off the port side of the ship, followed by a large cloud of ice and snow.
The avalanche slid down the mountains and swept over the ship, covering everything and everyone in a cold, white blanket. Luckily Jordan just happened to be holding the camera and was able to capture much of it on film. Unfortunately, I missed the entire episode as I was relaxing in our room reading. Though I was the only one who heard the Crew Director request that “all passengers please get inside the boat, immediately“. Outside, the cheering passengers who just witnessed an avalanche up close, drown him out.
We loved the Ushuaia because of the excellent crew & staff, but also because it was one of the smallest vessels available. With a maximum of just 84 passengers, we got to meet everyone on board and got to know some really well – including fellow moto-traveller, Ed who is travelling the world on his BMW R1200 GSA and video blogging about it at Riding in the Tracks of Giants.
And, because ours was the last ship of the year, there were no other tour ships in the area competing for the restricted number of people allowed to set foot on Antarctic land.
On our way back towards the Drake, we encountered what can only be described as extremely rough waters. Sick bags decorated all the hand rails on the ship, the dining halls were empty and those that weren’t confined to their beds or lavatories could be found on the bridge photographing and filming the entire episode.
That day we were to disembark and explore Deception Island – which is actually an active volcano, whose caldera was formed after a massive eruption and is now flooded by the sea, creating a bay. Since the volcano is still active, it is possible to have a warm bath on the beach by digging into the sand.
The entrance into the bay (the caldera) is done by sailing through an entrance only 230m wide. And, since it is one of the safest harbour in Antarctica – due to the protective edges of the caldera surrounding the bay, we did enter and drop anchor for a while in order to wait out some of the rough weather. Sadly the sea was still too rough to allow any landings, so the zodiacs, along with the passengers remained on board.
The Drake crossing back to Tierra del Fuego was, again, smooth sailing and as we sailed further north we noticed the water losing its bright blue colour. Snow and ice disappeared and penguin sightings became fewer and fewer as Antarctica was slipping away from us.
There is not much more that can put into words to describe the remote, serene and jaw-dropping Antarctic scenery we miss terribly.
Each day we would come back with over 200 photos and video from three cameras. Here is a video with the our best of our photos and video clips.