Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting a Sunburn in Antarctica

I did, really. I was at a barbecue at the time. I´ll tell you all about it, later on ... you have to keep reading.

So ... Antarctica. How to describe it? Grand. Awe-inspiring. Dazzling. Stunning. Sublime. Breathtaking. Astonishing. Overwhelming. Beautiful.

Pick your favourite superlative -- it was all of the above, and more. And really, really funny, thanks mostly to the penguins. But that was the subject of another post.

There are few places in the world you can go where you feel completely, utterly removed from civilization, but Antarctica is definitely one of those. It doesn´t involve the hardships it used to, as I travelled on a very comfortable 120-passenger cruise ship, instead of suffering hunger, deprivation and exposure as so many explorers and whalers did in Antarctica´s early human history. (I´ve never understood, actually, why so many of them went back again, and again, after suffering horrendously in their previous attempts. Perhaps it´s a testosterone thing -- I don´t think there were any women in the early days.)

As you already know, I flew down to Ushuaia March 9th, and spent a couple of days hanging out there before joining my group for the cruise. I was relieved when I saw the ship for the first time -- it looked suitably big and seaworthy, and unlikely to capsize or sink or have any other terrible thing happen to it. Just as long as we didn´t hit an iceberg.

I had a shared cabin, with one roommate who fortunately turned out to be very nice, and not a snorer. I was also relieved to see when I met some of the other passengers that it wasn´t going to be a ship full of couples, and me¡ there were a lot of other single travellers, and many of those travelling on their own as I was.

It takes a full two days in the Drake Passage to get to Antarctica, normally, but we had exceptionally favourable conditions with a sea as calm as glass and no winds, so we made it in half a day less. ´The Drake¨, as it´s affectionately known, isn´t usually so kind, but I seem to have generally good luck on boats. My ferry crossing way back when to Norway from the north of England, across the North Sea, was similarly calm, as was the Italy to Greece crossing. (The only rough seas I remember, actually, were those we encountered one ferry trip to Newfoundland -- however, while all around us suffered from seasickness, I and my sisters went straight to sleep. Perhaps Mom doctored our food with Gravol.)

Our luck held as we reached Antarctica and cruised among the islands, eventually landing on the mainland at Neko Harbour. Sunny, warm, calm, gentle breeze -- well, the ´warm´ is relative, but it was probably warmer than either Toronto or Vancouver was at that time. Definitely above zero on at least a couple of days.

Possibly it wasn´t Antarctica at all, but a giant stage set. It did seem entirely too good to be true. I´ll have to investigate that later.

We had a couple of landings every day, and returned each night to the ship to sleep. Because we made such good time through the Drake, we had an extra stop at one of the South Shetland Islands first -- Barrientos Island -- with its reception committee of thousands of penguins, all eager to come see us. It was green, too, which threw me for a loop (grass? This far south?) till I realized that it was the mosses and lichens lending the ground that colour.

Next day was a cruise in the Zodiacs among the Melchior Islands in the morning, and on land at Danco Island in the afternoon for a hike to the top of the mountain (I use the term ´mountain´ loosely, but it was at least as big as what Ontario likes to call ´mountains´ i.e. Blue). We started to get the hang of the getting on / getting off the boat procedures by the end of the day: don all appropriate layers of clothing and waterproof gear in case weather changes (which it can, without warning, in that part of the world), pull on big ugly rubber boots and wade through disinfectant tray, turn tag with your assigned number (facedown when you´re off the ship, right side up when you´re back on), manoeuvre self down gangway to bobbing Zodiac and hang on for dear life till arriving at destination.

The ´tag´ thing, especially, kept being hammered into our heads, with particular reminders to ONLY TURN OUR OWN TAG. They´d had a previous cruise where a wife had turned her husband´s tag right side up, as well as her own, which indicated to the crew that they were both back on the ship. Turns out that hubby wasn´t, actually -- they´d left him behind on an island, shivering in the near blizzard that had sprung up by the time they returned for him eight hours later. The wife only noticed he was missing when he didn´t show up for dinner or to go to sleep that night.

Or so she said. Perhaps it was all really a devious scheme to get rid of him without any suspicion attaching to her. (Note to self: could be excellent plot for murder mystery.)

On St. Paddy´s Day, we cruised through the appropriately nicknamed ¨Kodak Gap¨ (official name Lemaire Strait) in the early morning as the sun rose, surrounded by icebergs reflecting all the colours of the dawn. I had brief Titanic-related worries, but we sailed through without incident and hit nothing.

In the morning, we stopped first at the site of a 1940´s-era British research station called Wordie House, still left as it was then and stocked with all the essentials for winter survival -- at least if you´re British -- of Cadbury´s drinking chocolate and cans of McEwan´s lager. Then we headed on to the new research station, which also used to be British but was handed over for the princely sum of 1 pound to the Ukraine about ten years ago.

It is no doubt due to its British heritage that the station contains two things that no other research station can claim: a post office, and a pub. (What self-respecting Brit would try to weather an Antarctic winter without those?) I mailed off postcards to parents and sisters, which will arrive in whatever time it takes for them to be picked up by a supply ship, sailed back to the Ukraine, and mailed onward from there. Possibly some time in 2011.

And of course, we had to hit the pub. The Ukrainians had added a new twist of their own, by producing homemade vodka on the premises. Yowza! That moonshine had a kick to it as it went down, but I can see how it would help in 60 below temperatures.

The Ukrainians had also added a display to which women visitors were encouraged to donate, but I declined. I only have two bras with me this trip, so I can´t afford to give one to them, thank you very much.

That afternoon we had the barbecue, on the aft deck of the ship. It´s very surreal to sit at a picnic table, eating a burger and drinking a beer, slathering on sunscreen (too late, which is how I got sunburnt), wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, as you look at the icebergs and deep, deep blue water of Antarctica all around you.

Thursday (the 18th) brought the mainland at Neko Harbour. More penguins, seals and predatory birds; I saw the circle of life in action as a hungry skua (a large gull-like bird with the hunting skills of a hawk) swooped down to nab a tiny, late-born penguin chick who was barely half a foot tall. One of our guides explained that the chick probably had first-time parents, who didn´t get the timing right -- he´d been born too late in the season anyway to survive, and probably would have been abandoned by his parents when they had to go back to sea. So I decided to forgive that skua -- I suppose he´s got to eat, too -- but was still quite relieved when another friendly penguin who´d come over to say hello to me escaped from another skua´s attack. (I remembered that my camera has a video function and caught some of it -- if I can manage it, I´ll upload the video to shutterfly too.)

In the afternoon, we went whale-watching in Wilhemina Bay, heading back north. Humpback whales apparently like to congregate in groups, and spend some time just hanging out; for no reason that any scientist understands, they also like to do full body rolls in the water, slapping their fins with a tremendous splash as they turn.

Friday morning brought us Deception Island, and the first non-sunny day we´d encountered all trip. In mist, snow and cold temperatures, we wandered around what is actually the caldera of an active volcano, which last blew in 1970. Many of the originally whaling structures still survive -- whaling used to be big business in the Antarctic, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when whale oil was used as fuel. The site has been left to its own devices, not maintained in any way, so it´s eerie walking around in the silence and fog, thinking about what used to happen way back when. There´s also a small graveyard on Deception Island. which adds to the eerieness. It isn´t the original -- that one was swept out to sea in the 1970 eruption -- but it´s quite haunting nonetheless. It´s all about atmosphere, and you can´t beat a windswept Antarctic beach for that.

We finished up that landing with a swim, for those souls foolhardy enough to plunge it. I settled for stripping off my boots and socks and wading in, but declined the full-body experience (not in the least because the thought of me in a bikini is still just too scary!).

What was supposed to be our final landing at Half Moon Island was cancelled as the wind picked up and the sea started to swell. We did see our first Orcas of the trip, though, so I was still happy.

So we turned north, again, and set out across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. That´s where we saw the real Drake: thirteen-metre waves, 120 kilometre per hour winds (that´s 60 knots, if you want to know), and a ship that rolled like a drunken sailor. Anything that wasn´t fastened down went with it, back and forth as the ship plunged through the waves -- my mattress included, which made for an interesting night´s sleep!

But I STILL didn´t get seasick so my perfect record remains unblemished. I can attest to the effectiveness of Gravol and will swear by it every time I travel to the Antarctic from here on out.

So that´s six continents down ... one more to go. Asia, here I come ... well, in a few months anyway!


  1. Hi Carol,

    I'm enjoying reading about your trip. I didn't realize that you'd been to Australia before (you mentioned that Asia was your last continent to get to). Where did you go? We still haven't been to Sydney--just the airport. We will definitely spend some time there before we head back. Anyway, enjoy your travels and stay safe!

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