Saturday, February 21, 2009


This is Copacabana beach. In Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. Packed with tourists for Carnival. I have been here for three days now, and the average temperature has been 29 degrees (yes, Celsius), with plenty of humidity. So perhaps you'll understand why it's taken me some time to finally get the Antarctica post together. You know, that continent when the warm summer temperatures barely creep above freezing...

Anyway, the blog still lives, even if there haven't been any updates in much too long. My excuse is Rio. Lott, I hear, injured his shoulder again in the mean time. Anyway, the remote part of the world without internet access, this time, was
Back to Antarctica - and that is the post title, in case you are not up on your Cyrillic - appropriate too because I traveled from Russia all the way to the end of the world (Ushuaia, Argentina prides itself on being the Southernmost city in the world), just to meet a whole ship full of Russians - our cruise was to be aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research vessel, leased to Quark expeditions, along with a full Russian crew and staff (Russia doesn't focus on research quite so much any more...).

The Ioffe, chilling in the icy waters near Antarctica

So, on February 3rd, Oliver and I joined the other 100 passengers on board, and off we sailed, heading South across the Drake passage towards Antarctica. And the ship would be our home for the next two weeks, coming back to Ushuaia on the 16th. Pictures speak louder than words, of course, so, if you haven't seen these yet, you should definitely have a look: Antarctica photo album.

The best I can really add here is a few thoughts and highlights from the trip:
- Our expedition was called 'Crossing the Circle,' as in the Antarctic Circle. This is a much longer way South than most ships go, and getting that far South you really need the weather to cooperate. Well, the weather more than obliged for us - the crew kept talking about how this was one of the best 10 day stretches of weather they had ever seen down there. The Drake Passage, however, which you have to sail across (for a full three days if you want to steam all the way down past the circle) is a different story entirely. It's generally considered the roughest stretch of waters anywhere on the planet... We were once again told that what we got was really quite calm. And the ship has some pretty amazing stabilizing features. No matter, being out there for three days wasn't a whole lot of fun! On the way down, I survived without any pills, on the way back, I decided to try the 'Better living through chemistry' that the ship's doctor was preaching... and am glad to report that it works.

Crossing the circle produced a celebration on the bow, and our first sightings of lots of icebergs.

- On to Day 5, near Horseshoe island, being further South that most of the Quark staff had ever traveled (good weather!). The day before, the 15 of us that had signed up for kayaking got our first lecture and basic safety tips. Included in that was trivia like Louise had never had anybody go in on her watch. Christine had had but two. Most of us, including me, had had some kayaking experience prior to Antarctica, and the kayaks were quite stable. So, with all that as a background, quite obviously, I got into my kayak down by Horseshoe island, paddled out for some 30 seconds away from our zodiacs, and then jerked around sharply to try and catch a glimpse of a large chunk of a nearby iceberg falling off... And over went the kayak. So, it took me 30 seconds to break Louise's perfect safety record! So, in summary, I've been swimming some hundred miles South of the Antarctic Circle. For the record, the water is quite cold, but the dry suit does its job quite admirably. I got back out, changed gloves, got right back in, and had a great time paddling. Culminating with a pair of humpback whales coming right up to us.

The reward for getting back in: humpbacks swim right up to us...

Animals are everywhere down by Antarctica - a variety of whales, penguins, seals, and birds. Along the way, we got to hear what the whaling and sealing industries have done to the populations... It's quite sad, really (Blue whales, for example have gone down from over 100,000 to about 5,000!). And apparently, the only worthwhile byproduct of a whale was oil, that would be used to light street lamps in places like London. The biggest point of all this was that we saw lots of whales on the trip, but I can't even begin to imagine what things would have been like a 100 years ago. The other animal we saw lots of was the leopard seal. This is a mean looking creature! Granted, he spends the vast majority of his time sleeping, but it sure looks like it could do a lot of damage if provoked.

The penguins (and we saw three types heading North: Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap) are hilarious. Graceful they are not. But falling down and getting right back up seems alright. The do appear to be excellent swimmers though (note the leopard seal above...), but for whatever reason (navigation?), they will constantly jump out of the water as they're moving along:

On Day 7, we got to go camping. This really just involves a sleeping bag and a waterproof bivy sack. Some 40 odd passengers went and three members of the kitchen staff. The Quark staff sent three people with us, but they didn't exactly seem excited to go. Perhaps something about having to carry out all the 'toilet remains' back to the ship afterwards... As for those of us camping? It was quite fun - sufficiently comfortable, and not at all cold. And up early enough that morning for a beautiful sunrise:

Two days later, we finally got to land on the mainland in Neko harbor:

There's a lot more to say here, but I don't want to make this too long, so I'll end with one last observation: there were a little over 100 passengers on board. These had to be some of the most interesting, well traveled people I had ever met. These were [mostly, there were a few of us bucking the trend] not backpackers - these are more of what backpackers become when they grow up, assuming they have the time and the means to keep traveling. The majority of the people here had been to each of the seven continents now. Doris had been to 132 countries. After two weeks there, I've decided that the standard trips that get to qualify as 'trips of a lifetime' should be Antarctica, African safari, Galapagos, and trekking in Nepal. You can make an arguement for Easter island, Arctic cruises, and the trans-Siberian too, but those seemed a bit second tier... The number of people on this cruise who've done some of these (and often all of them) was fairly astounding.

Three Dutch passengers representing the rest of the passengers here.