The excitement mounted as we made our way into the port of Ushuaia. The wind blew a cold, stiff breeze from the south that put everyone in the Antarctic mood; everyone but the passengers on the Celebrity Infinity that was back in port after an aborted attempt at the same itinerary as ours. They said they hit bad weather and had to turn back. This was not their only missed port and the passengers were “mutinous” as one person put it. They were going to follow us out that afternoon and try again.
Those guests that did not bring adequate clothing shopped for hats, gloves and yes, long underwear. I can see now why the economy in Ushuaia is booming.
In Ushuaia, Capt. Goran Blomqvist joined the ship as the official Ice Pilot. He was captain aboard the Marco Polo for many years and knows the area intimately. A no-nonsense Swede, he was an imposing figure on the bridge.
Day One – Drake Passage
Ah, the Drake Passage lived up to its reputation – it was awful. The moment we left the Beagle Channel we were hit by a wall of wind. Though there was momentary hope that we would have been able to do Cape Horn en route to the Antarctica Peninsula, it was obvious that was not going to happen as the seas were against us. We tossed about all night and day in gales that reached 75 mph (Category 1 - hurricane strength.) The open decks were closed and the outside doors were barred shut. It certainly made us appreciate the fortitude of the early explorers who ventured into similar conditions in small, wooden sailing ships.
As part of our requirements by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Antarctic Treaty, I gave the guests their briefing on the official Visitor’s Guidelines along with an explanation of our intended itinerary. As this was our first time in Antarctic waters the officers on the bridge contacted all others vessels in the area to let them know our proposed course and ask for any relevant information on conditions.
Day Two – Our first proposed stop was Deception Island, a circular island that is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. We had hoped to enter into Port Foster, the sheltered bay in the middle of the island where you can see thousands of chinstrap penguins on the rocks and beaches steaming from geothermal springs. Unfortunately, the clouds were low and the wind was still very high; huge growlers (pieces of ice bergs) were bobbing up and down in the tumultuous sea like socks in a washer. I was on the bridge trying to find something to say, visibility was very bad. I could see growlers hurtling toward us at very high speed. Looming on the horizon we saw our first tabular icebergs – the huge, flat bergs that can be up to 180 miles long! Captain Blomqvist estimated that these were about two miles long. In the high seas waves crashed against their 200 foot walls forming arching waves of spray. Some waves were so high they crested over the top of these immense bergs. It was impressive. Unfortunately, the wind and waves kept us far from Deception Island. Though we were in the shelter of the Antarctic Peninsula to the east and the South Shetlands, including Deception Island, to the west, we were still being bounced around. I used the lack of visibility as a good time to invite everyone into the theater for a talk on the geologic make-up of Antarctica.
By late morning the decision was made to head north and motor until the afternoon when we would try Deception Island again. The weather in Antarctica changes by the hour. It was not inconceivable that by afternoon it would change in our favor, but it didn’t. With nothing to see and nowhere to go, the Captain Felice Patruno chose to wait out the evening outside of the South Shetlands where there was less threat of ice and see what the weather would be like in the morning.
Day Two – The weather did not improve. There was a low pressure right above us that Captain Blomqvist described as “unusually stubborn.” Normally it would have moved on by now, but it did not. We motored up and down the west coast of Livingston Island while Captain Patruno communicated with other ships in the area. The Star Princess went south to Paradise Bay, our next intended stop. She reported that she was going sideways more than straight ahead due to the wind and that she encountered a lot of ice. The decision was made that it would not be wise to attempt Paradise Bay or Half Moon Island, so we moved on to our designated alternative in the event no other destination could be reached – Elephant Island.
To appreciate our visit to Elephant Island it is important to know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. Elephant Island is the rocky outcrop that was where Shackleton and his 27 men made landfall after their ship The Endurance was crushed by pack ice. Though the men were happy to set foot on land after 497 days on the ice, Elephant Island was no paradise. Its steep hillsides are covered by glaciers that produce bitterly cold winds that rip across the narrow, rocky beaches. Twenty-two men stayed on the island for five months while Shackleton took the remaining five to seek help by sailing the 22 ½ foot lifeboat The James Caird across the north Weddell Sea to South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away! I wanted everyone to hear this story so we announced an impromptu lecture in the theater.
We passed Outlook Point, it was raining and snowing. We approached closer into the shelter of the bay and sat among towering tabular bergs. True to form, within minutes of being there strong winds blew in snow and sleet and just as quickly blew out the clouds to reveal magnificent, ice covered mountains. Snow swirled badly around the tops of the peaks like ghosts flying out of a haunted house. The clouds opened up to the east and Clarence Island miraculously appeared. Though it is twice as tall as Elephant Island it was completely hidden by the clouds. As the sun sank lower it cast an ever-changing palette of color on the ice covered mountains. It was so beautiful (and calm) the captain decided to stay the night in the shelter of Elephant, Cornwallis and Clarence Islands. It was beautiful.
Day three – The hope was that if the weather was good we could see the north side of Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton’s men made their five month camp. But, the weather predictably changed, this time for the worse. Our obstinate low pressure was joined by two other low pressures that guaranteed more of the same.
Since the low pressures would also bring rough seas, we used the time to proceed slowly toward The Falkland’s minimizing any onboard discomfort, as we had had enough, thank you very much. Our reduced speed allowed us to see a pod of humpback whales lunge feeding and four very curious fin whales. Fin whales are the second largest whale in the world next to blue whale and we estimated these guys were about 70 feet. One whale came us and looked at us, turned around and came back to look at us and them turned around to join his pod. It was the first time in all my years of whale watching that I have ever seen a whale look at us – that was pretty cool.
We had an easy crossing to The Falkland’s where we had a perfect day. Though I can understand the disappointment of not seeing all that we had hoped to see, our time near Elephant Island did give us a chance to have a real “Antarctic Experience.” We were able to stay long enough in one place to see the landscape is transformed morning till night by snow, wind, clouds and even an occasional burst of bright sunshine. For me those few hours transfixed on those islands was worth the trip.