Antarctic Peninsula

A tight lineup of Gentoo penguins on the penguin highway.

The big day had finally arrived. Linda and I were going to set foot on Antarctica itself. The culmination of a life’s dream and ambition to visit all 7 continents of the earth. All morning long the Captain cautiously navigated our ship through the dense sea and pack ice, at one time making contact with a small iceberg. An exciting event to say the least as it hit the ship and scraped down it’s length, collecting paint to show where it made contact. Onboard the ship the air was electric with anticipation as we stood on the forward observation deck with our fellow adventurers watching the land mass grow closer. Linda and I were in the third grouping to disembark and it was a supreme effort on both of our parts to be patient as we impatiently waited for our turn to board the zodiac that would take us ashore. As we each disembarked and set foot on the continent the palpable anxious energy became an all encompassing blissful joy radiating from all who were on shore. Here at Brown Bluff we were appropriately greeted by Antarctica with some nice snow flurries while we observed an Adelie penguin colony.  Our second destination of the day, Paulet Island was canceled due to excessive sea ice blocking access.  As an alternative activity a polar plunge was scheduled.  The water was a balmy 29 degrees, not quite cold enough for Linda and myself so we abstained.

Our second day traveling down the Antarctica Peninsula would take us to Cierva Cove. Cierva Cove is a deep water cove located on the Palmer Coast on the Antarctic Peninsula.   Here continuous calving of glaciers filled the cove with hundreds of deep blue icebergs. Upon entering the cove my initial feeling was how small and insignificant our ship was as we cruised along the face of the glacier. It towered above our ship and appeared at times to completely surround us. Soon I realized that the iceberg filled sea encircling the ship confused my vision, giving the illusion of being enclosed within the glacier.  Once my initial awe subsided I started to focus on smaller bits of the big picture. Wildlife was in abundance everywhere. The calving of the glaciers not only creates numerous icebergs but also aerates the ocean water attracting large colonies of krill which in turn attracts a large variety of wild life which feeds upon them. This certainly was one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth I have ever visited.

The morning of December 31st would find us navigating the Neumayer Channel on our way to Damoy Point. I awakened early and found my way to the observation deck at the crack of doom so I would not miss a thing. The Neumayer Channel is a quite narrow channel that parallels the Antarctic Peninsula. Majestic glaciated mountains lined the channel to each side of the ship. As we undulated our way though the channel and the walls closed in around us it gave the appearance of being on a small lake surrounded by steep rugged mountains,  their snowfields becoming towering glaciers that spilled into the bay around us. The Neumayer Channel is now on “The Most Beautiful Places I Have Visited” list. (I’ve got an extra large binder I can keep adding pages to) Our mornings destination Damoy Point was a beautiful small bay to anchor and get off and explore an old British airbase and what else….. more penguins!

Our usual itinerary took us to two places per day, the morning at one for a few hours then back to the ship and while having lunch we would transfer our exceptionally luxurious hotel to another site where once again we would go ashore and check out the wild life in the numerous environments unique to Antarctica. So the afternoon of the 31st would find us retracing our trip through the Neumayer Channel and take us to Cuverville Island where orphaned icebergs gathered in the bay.

New Years Eve on board was a quite bizarre. We never got South of the Polar Circle so technically there was a sunset and a sunrise. Sunset was at 11:57 and sunrise was to be at 1:32.  The sky was over cast and grey so perhaps there was a darker shade of grey at some point but who could tell? It was full on daylight outside the ship so they closed the curtains in the bar to give the feeling of it being midnight, yet you never would of known it. The curtains did not stay closed for long with the possibility of seeing the last whale of the year and we all kept a vigilant watch. We had left the Antarctic Peninsula and were heading north for the South Shetland Islands.  Our ship had left the sheltered waters of the Antarctic Peninsula and had entered open unprotected water. The dance floor was rolling and heaving, yet somehow after a few drinks it became quite stable.

New Years Day was to be our last landfall before heading out into the Drake Passage for the return voyage to Argentina. Our destination was to be Half Moon Island to visit a colony of Chinstrap penguins. A large storm was in the forecast so our day would be cut short in an attempt to stay ahead of the storm for a smoother passage.Although our visit would be cut short an early departure was good news for us all.   At 500 miles wide the Drake Passage is known for being some of the roughest ocean on the planet as the currents from the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean flow east into the South Atlantic. With a storm coming along with predominately Westerly winds the Drake Passage could be a horrendous 2 day crossing. After experiencing the rough seas from South Georgia to Antarctica none of us were looking for a repeat or potentially worse experience. 

Our passage across the dreaded Drake Strait turned out to relatively calm. Sure, the ship heaved, pitched and rolled, but nothing near as bad as we had already experienced crossing the Southern Sea. By now we had also acquired “sea legs” or the ability to have the appearance of staggering drunkenly down the passageways yet maintaining a straight and even course. Once we entered the Beagle Channel it was smooth sailing to the port of Ushuaia, Argentina. There we would board our flight for Buenos Aires.  From Buenos Aires it would be another long flight to San Francisco before our final leg home to Lake Tahoe.

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