January 9, 2011

Sailing South

When my granddaughter, Jordyn, was younger, she used to sing a song about continents and point them out on our globe. Well, Jordyn, we have now been to all seven! This was another goal of our trip and what an amazing experience it was!

Ninety-six passengers, including us, boarded the Polar Star, a Swedish icebreaker in a former life) on December 29th and sailed calmly into the Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin's ship). That evening, after taking our seasickness medication, we entered the Drake Passage which turned out to be relatively uneventful and we spent the next two days reading and napping and trying to get our sea legs.

New Year's Eve was our first landing. Zodiacs were launched and ten people boarded each one with one of the Expedition Guides who drove and provided commentary about what we were going to experience. This outing was to the Arctowski Research Station on King George Island which is operated by Poland and our captain and crew were Polish and it was New Year's Eve and so ….... Cheerski!

This was our first penguin sighting and we were all thrilled to see them waddling along-many quite close as they have no fear of humans. The first thing we learned about penguins is that they STINK! The smell of penguin poo permeates places. Consider they live on a diet of fish then add the natural processes and you can begin to imagine the stench. Its called “guano” and was actually harvested in the past for fertilizer. Penguins walk single file and make 'penguin highways' lined in guano where they walk, slide, fall to and from the sea to their nests high in rocky outcrops. We were fortunate that we arrived just after the chicks had been hatched so we saw lots of fluffy, grey babies still at their parents feet (moms and dads take turns sitting in the nest) and feeding them the regurgitated fish they have eaten.

Back to the ship for New Year's Eve, where we were just in time to hoist a glass of champaign and toast the new year. No fashionistas here! Most people were still dressed in their trekking clothes but RA and I managed to dash into the outfits we've been dragging along for three months for this occasion. We were totally overdressed! Speaking of fashionistas, we had a celebrity on board. Roberto Cavalli, a 70 year old, Italian dress designer with his gorgeous 25 year old 'assistant' who had flown in on his private jet and had his own personal Zodiac and expedition guide. He was there doing research for his next collection labelled 'Arctic White'. We were a little miffed that he didn't ask for our input! The passenger list was quite diverse with over half being Americans, 10 Canadians and the rest Ausies, Germans, Swiss and one Israeli. With open seating, we were able to meet most and I'm sure the Reynens enjoyed a respite from our constant presence!

We made two landings a day and one day three-visiting four research stations: Polish, Ukrainian, British and Argentinian. Its hard to narrow down exactly what they're researching. There's just so many penguins you can count. Speculation is they are primarily guarding their sovereign rights to future mineral, gas and oil deposits. On these daily outings, we would land where we could watch penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie), seals (leopard, fur, Crabeater, Weddell) and giant petrels. On our way to and from the ship, we would divert course to get up close and personal with the icebergs. These ranged from giant edifices 25 feet high and long as a football field to translucent, dimpled bits that you could pick out and taken back to the ship to cool your drinks. What's surprising is the beautiful blue lines and shadows caused when oxygen is compressed from the 100,000 year old ice or dark stripes containing the soil and gravel dug out by the glaciers on their way to the sea.

But without doubt, one of the highlights of the trip was the morning we were awakened at 6:00am to see the orcas that were spotted ahead. We all dressed and rushed to the bow in time to see them swimming along side the ship, blowing spumes of water in the air and jumping out of the water and diving back down. This is a sight I will never forget! Later on we saw Humpback whales but, as you know, the first time is always special.

So we had a glorious trip but every silver lining has a cloud. On the way back, the Dreaded Drake dished up a force 8 gale which literally pitched you out of bed! Thanks to Dramamine, we arrived back in Ushuaia none the worse for wear with very fond memories of the White Continent!

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