This trip took place in December 2007, when a bunch of kiwis chartered the yacht out of Ushuaia for 3 fantastic weeks of a lifetime, exploring the Antarctic Peninsula.
Reaction to the whales swimming under the kayaks was dependent on where you were. For Chris, who was in one of the kayaks and who had fallen out several times during our practice sessions at Pauahatanui Inlet, it was nearly an underpants changing moment. We had coaxed Chris back into a kayak to paddle amongst the penguins and icebergs and he was sitting rigidly upright when the pod of Minkes first surfaced. With low cloud blanketing Paradise Harbour the sea appeared like a black mirror. When the whales dived they left a trail of bubbles, their concentric ripples showing their progress – directly under the kayaks. On board the yacht it looked magnificent with the kayakers providing bright patches of colour in an otherwise black and white world. In the calm conditions sounds travelled clearly. We heard the whales breaching, penguins squawking, the regular crash of ice carving off the surrounding glaciers and the gentle splashes of paddles in the water.
Crossing the Drake Passage
Our first task was crossing the Drake Passage and it proved to be an unexpected highlight. Most of us were novice sailors and while the owners had assured us we would quickly learn to sail, we approached the crossing with considerable trepidation and generous quantities of sea-sickness pills. A watch system of three hours on, six hours off was instituted and we quickly became proficient at helm and galley duties. Darrel and Ben, our professional crew were instantly on hand for more challenging tasks, the most memorable being a short spell when the wind gusted to 50 knots and we surfed down the rollers, at one point nudging 23 knots of boat speed.. The wind stayed mostly on our tail giving us a “downhill” run that allowed us to complete the crossing in three days. A variety of sea birds kept us company, particularly around the Convergence, where cold Antarctic waters swell to the surface bringing an abundance of krill. Pintados (Cape Petrels) and albatross would soar past and skim a meal from the fish life disturbed by our wake.
Life aboard Spirit was cramped but warm and companionable. A heater in the saloon provided a constant source of warmth and ensured we always went on watch in dry gear. The huge perspex dodger covering the cockpit provided shelter at the helm and we were rarely cold.
Deception Island was our first Antarctic landfall and it felt like an adventure straight out of a Willard Price novel. The island is an active caldera and we sailed through its narrow entrance into a harbour about 14kms long. Small icebergs lay grounded on the shore, which was steaming from the hot water bubbling up through the beach. The abandoned whaling station’s rusting blubber tanks providing further stark contrast to the snow and the black volcanic ash.
Darrel knew of a rarely visited penguin colony on the outside of the island and after a moderate trek across the rim we were able to climb down to it. The chinstrap penguins (and there must have been over 100,000 of them) were nesting in an area of volcanic activity that provided centrally heated nests. But the price the penguins paid for this home comfort was to swim across an exposed reef where huge swells crashed violently. We spent several hours watching schools of penguins being battered by the dumping waves before making their way up a steep ice face to their nests which were constantly patrolled by hungry skuas. Colony life was far from harmonious and it felt like watching a soap opera with many disputes, much romance, and the usual sex and drama.
Nature watching turned to naturism when we dug a swimming hole in the beach. The hot water bubbled up and after adding chunks of ice to cool it enough we piled in for a soak. Despite the flurries of snow, Chris was unable to contain his exhibitionist nature and insisted on his buff moments.
On our first day when we were still keen to gain our sea legs by staying on deck, Jane had gone below and baked a cake. From then on the trip became a culinary competition with fresh bread baked every day. The yacht was well provisioned and on nights when were anchored we took pride in preparing three course dinners, that were washed down with generous quantities of Argentinian red. A most memorable shipboard night followed a long fine day that had been spent exploring Port Lockroy by kayak. Joy, Ben and I arrived back about 8pm to find the remainder of the crew “sunbathing” in down jackets and enjoying several fine wines. In a surreal atmosphere, we partied on deck till late in a manner that was more Mediterranean than polar. However I do remember that a skinny dip that day in water that was less than one degree was a very brief affair.
Our first night ashore was in the disused British hut in Dorian Bay. We had landed in a gale on a tiny rock, before ascending a short snow cliff and crossing the tongue of a glacier to the hut. It wasn’t far, and by Antarctic exploration standards it wasn’t hard, but in the wind and in an environment that was new to all of us, it felt challenging. At the hut we removed the shutters as the local gentoo penguins came to inspect us. Inside, it looked like the last party had walked out in 1975, leaving food supplies for the next year. The place was full of old tins and packets with brand names long since gone. There was even Textured Vegetable & Protein. Feeling like pioneers we fired up the primus and had a memorable evening reading the log book, telling yarns and enjoying the relative space after the confines of the yacht.
The next day dawned fine and calm, enabling us to set off for a camp on a nearby glacier. The training weekends at Ruapehu were remembered as we roped up and organised our crevice rescue gear. It was hot, heavy work climbing with winter weight equipment, but we were rewarded with the most spectacular camp site that I have ever visited. Mindful of the changeable weather we dug shelter walls for our tents taking frequent breaks to soak in the surrounding views. Vertical black mountains towered above us to the south and snow covered icefalls flanked us to the north. In the West the sea sparkling below us at the end of a long runway of glacier. We ate dinner that night in our “conversation pit”, the snow block walls framing our dramatic setting.
The fine weather continued and we had big days exploring by kayak and snowshoes. On a long paddle out of sight from the yacht we came across a leopard seal devouring a penguin. Fascinated, we drifted closer as the seal focused on its immediate task of skinning the penguin. Once the meal was finished we became the object of attention and beat a semi-dignified retreat, remembering stories of these seals eating zodiacs. Apparently they find the texture and shape of the sterns of the pontoons fascinating and frequently mouth unattended boats. If not distracted this quickly turns into a full scale attack. Even though great care was taken to never leave the zodiacs unattended in the water and we saw several examples of their depredation.
In the following excerpt from our blog, Chris describes a moment cruising on Spirit:
We left in pretty good weather but soon hit a lot of ice, which effectively blocked our path to Paradise Harbour. The sound of ice hitting the hull is quite spooky, especially if you are huddled in the "Head" (see how the nautical lingo is flowing now?) covered in Snow Fairy shampoo trying to have a bit of a shower. Thoughts of a rapid abandonment of ship did not bear consideration in such a bubbly state, so all thoughts of Titanic Consequences were put to one side as several days of accumulated grime were sloughed off despite the sound of ice rebounding off the hull just 8 mm away!.
The light conditions were always changing. In sunny conditions there was lots of turquoise and the ice and sea would sparkle. Paddling through a bay nearly chocked with car size icebergs, penguins porpoised along behind the kayaks and the pace slowed to a meander as we drank in the fantastic scene that was brighter, bluer and crisper than I had imagined possible.
To avoid recrossing the Drake Passage by yacht we had arranged to swap places with a group of Irish kayakers who were arriving on the adventure ship Vavilov. Registered as the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, but marketed as the Peregrine Voyager, this ice strengthened, Russian registered vessel is one of the most popular ways to see the Antarctic. Built in Finland for Russian research, the ship has been refitted for tourism and spends seven months of the year taking groups of 110 passengers at a time to Polar regions. Russian staff, under the command of the Russian captain take care of the engine room, navigation, house-keeping and general ship-board duties while the western Expedition Staff lead the trips ashore and generally provide most of the passenger management. It’s generally a good system that weather dependent will see everyone off the ship twice a day.
Despite the well planned shipboard life we initially found Vavilov rules intensely frustrating. We were used to being responsible for our own safety when off the yacht and while we were very much novices at Antarctic travel, had enjoyed the freedom to go anywhere. Several of us were reprimanded for not following various safety rules and it is possible that we appeared somewhat truculent to our fellow passengers. Our mood improved as we went out on the three “expeditions” available in the next day and a half. ”Zody cruising in Wilhelmina Bay” proved to be a new experience as we explored the edge of a large field of fast ice and drove around huge tabular icebergs that towered above us. Despite being another day among the ice bergs, it was another day of magic lighting, cloud formations and new types of ice. We also landed back at Deception Island and visited a different colony of Chinstraps and saw our first chicks, newly hatched that day. It was a fitting way to spend Christmas day and celebrate our last day in Antarctica.
As we recrossed the Drake Passage there was time to reflect on the last 20 days. We had enjoyed almost constant sensory overload and in the constant daylight had a dearth of sleep and often a surplus of adrenalin. We were tired but the overwhelming sense was that we had melded as a team to adventure together. The next charter was booked before we left South America.