Quark Antarctic Expedition – Day 4 Stonington Island


Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective conscious of so many and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.

~ Jon Krakauer

Well, getting up at 0200 to toast Crossing the Circle was a lot of fun, but it seems once I was awake that was it – I pretty much tossed and turned for the next few hours and felt like I stayed awake. We arose this morning to exactly 0°C outside, lots of icebergs floating past our window and more light snow up on deck. Which is no problem until we factor in that we are considering going swimming this afternoon… I was pretty keen on doing the Polar Plunge – I mean, where else are you going to get an opportunity to jump into the icy cold waters of the Antarctic?  But looking outside this morning – now I’m not so sure. So let’s hope for a tiny break in the clouds or a cessation in the snow, to make it look even just a tiny bit more like swimming weather..?  😀

Outside our window when we woke up:

Skipped breakfast again – they are just feeding us too much on this ship – in favour of staying on the heat-pack. My back is NOT enjoying the cold (lack of decent sleep doesn’t help either), and I have a feeling it is only going to get worse today once we are wearing all of our heavy, cumbersome and restrictive Antarctic clothing for most of the day. We got dressed up yesterday to sort of trial out our gear and I literally feel like the Michelin Man in all those layers – I have no idea how agile we will be getting in and out of the zodiacs this afternoon all trussed up like fatted pigs.

We have two lectures today – the first presented by Liliana, the onboard ornithologists on everyone’s favourite birds: “Penguins – 101″.  TIL that penguins can’t fly – unless you throw them.  If you’re not interested in the education stuff (I can’t help myself, I’m a perpetual student and obsessive note taker) then skip down to the “HERE!” bit below.

Waimanu fossils show a prehistoric mega-penguin that was a precursor to modern penguins. The Waimanu was a flying and diving bird, which evolved off the coast of New Zealand where there were no coastal predators just after the period of the great dinosaurs when the great aquatic reptiles were also gone from the environment.

Penguins are incredibly adapted to their aquatic environments, they can swim up to 40kms per hour, and they can jump up to 3-4m out of the water.  Living in the harsh UV of the Antartic environment, Antarctic penguins will undergo a catastrophic moult after the summer.  Penguins literally bleach from black to grey from the harsh UV conditions in the Antarctic each summer and they need to change their feathers to gain a new coat of UV protection.  Their fresh black feathers will also attract heat to their bodies during the winter.  While they are moulting, they are unable to swim as they are not sleek and waterproof, so they stay on land and will go weeks without feeding.

Penguins come in a variety of species ranging in size and markings –

Emperor penguins – approximately 1.1m tall
King penguins – approximately 0.9m tall
Humbolt penguins – approximately 0.5m tall
Fairy Penguins – approximately 0.3m tall

Strangely Liliana said, the questions she is asked most often about penguins was ‘Are they still birds?’ and ‘do they breathe water like fish?’  Yes, unfortunately she gets a lot of American tourists down this way… (I can still hear the strong American accent of a woman at Hampton Court Palace admiring the topiary garden and asking “Do those trees grow like that?”  *rolls eyes*)  Anyway, YES – penguins are still considered birds, and no they do not breathe water.  They have beaks with no teeth like birds (an adaption to flight so their bodies can be light as possible, but which is redundant for a penguin).  They have hollow bones, are pneumatic and are entirely covered in feathers. Additionally, they lay eggs. Oh, and they also have long legs and penguins do have knees – they’ve just evolved to have their long legs inside their bodies to minimise their external extremities to keep their bodies warm.

The wings of a penguin have evolved to be flippers more useful for their marine environment, but still posses the same bones that are evident in wings, but the bones were heavy and over time fused together to be more robust.

In flying birds, the feathers are placed in a row and come in primary and secondary rows that give the ability to be airborne, but in penguins, the feathers are almost all exactly the same size, and they cover the entire body.

I also learned today that the word ‘penguin’ is the same in nearly every language!  Very unusual…

Penguins were first seen in the north – the Great Auk (pinguinius inteninus which means ‘penguin white head’), that are now extinct but which were living off the coast of Iceland during the Golden Age of Discovery.  Sir Drake and his 16thC Welsh sailors named the similar birds they found in the Southern Oceans, ‘penguins’ (most probably Magellanic penguins) as they were used to seeing the Great Auks also called ‘penguins’ back home.

In the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas, we most commonly see Emperor, King, Adelie, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins:

We delved quite a bit more in the breeding habits of the various penguin species in the sub-Antarctic – the pebble offerings of the Chinstrap penguins, the Adelie males incubating the eggs while the females feed, the march of the Emperor penguins and all that good stuff.  I won’t go into it any further here as penguins – of all creatures – seem to have a bloody good PR machine working for them… thanks to Happy Feet, Surf’s Up, Madagascar and Morgan Freeman’s efforts, most of us already know quite a bit about penguins and are rather fond of them.  I particularly like Emperor penguins for their brilliant colours, Rockhopper penguins for their tenacity and Fairy Penguins, because, well… cuteness overload.

After a cuppa, we had another lecture by Annie, the wonderfully enthusiastic marine biologist, on “Giants in Ice – Whales of Antarctica”.  Visiting Antarctica at different times during the season will change the likelihood of what sort of wildlife you are likely to encounter.  Earlier in the season, you are likely to see penguins in their breeding phases, sitting on eggs and nurturing chicks, towards the end of the season, you are likely to see those chicks becoming more independent, learning to swim and more whales as they begin their northerly migrations… seeing we are at the end of the summer season, it is not unrealistic that we may see a greater number of whales.

Whales are the largest of the marine mammals, which are not an isolated systematic group in zoology – they stem from different mammalian groups. Seals, sea lions and walruses (Order Pinnipedia) – are more closely related to bears than other marine mammals.  The second group are the Sea cows – dugong and manatees (Order Sirenia) who are more closely related to elephants of all things, and a third group (Order Cetacea) – whales dolphins and porpoises are more closely related to hoofed animals but have evolved to be more adapted to marine environments.  I would never have thought whales are more closely related to reindeer than dugongs..?!?  The world is a weird place.

Anyway, the Antarctic as a habitat has no terrestrial animals – the questions Annie gets asked most often is ‘Where are all the polar bears?’.  No shit, people think there are polar bears in the Antarctic.  There are, however, 23 species of marine mammals species in Antarctica, but not a single one of them is a bear.

Of these marine mammals:

  • 3 are ‘endangered’ – the Blue whale, the Fin whale and the Sei whale
  • 1 species is currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ – the Sperm whale
  • 10 species are currently listed as ‘least concern’ – mostly seals they are faster breeders
  • 8 species there is insufficient data to classify their endangered status
  • 1 species is currently unevaluated – the Antarctic minke whale

Baleen whales – Suborder Mysticetes : they have two blowholes and no echo-location

Within the Baleen whales there are three families :
Right Whales (Balaenidae – skim feeders)
Rorqual Whales (Balaenopteridae – gulp feeders)
Grey Whales (Eschrichteriidae – bottom feeders)

Baleen whales have ‘baleen’ instead of teeth – a baleen is a long filter that allows for system of baleen plates that hang from the upper jaw (made out of kerotene – like fingernails or hair) that is used to filter out small particles from the water. The kerotene plates are soft and flexible in water but rigid when dried out. Some of the Baleen whales include:

  • Minke Whales
    • Balaenoptera bonaerensis
    • Small whale, genetically different from the common Minke whale
    • more closely related to Sei Whale
    • 7m in length and about 9,100kgs
    • opportunistic feeder – krill, copepods, amphipods, crocodile icefish, even squid
    • 155-415 baleen plates
    • mostly solitary in small groups
    • doesn’t vocalize a lot
    • females tend to stay away from males, and stay away from other females without calves
    • subject to predation by killer whales
    • population estimate vary to several hundred thousand
    • not sure if monogamous of polygamous
    • gestation about 10 months
    • 1 calf only every 1-2 years, weaned after 6-7 months
    • sexual maturity males 5-8 years, females 7-9 years
    • lifespan up to 50 years
    • prevalent across the entire Southern Ocean
  • Humpback Whales
    • Megaptera novaeangeliae
    • Middle sized rorqual baleen whale – 17m, about 30-40 metric tonnes
    • Often solitary or in small unstable groups
    • Cooperative feeding on feeding grounds – bubble net feeding
    • Feed mostly on krill and shoaling fish
    • Most complex vocalisation in the animal kingdom – travels up to 50kms
    • Southern hemisphere population estimated to be 17,000 -20,000 animals. no longer considered to be endangered anymore
    • first larger whale population to recover from industrial whaling
    • long range migration between high latitude feeding grounds and breeding grounds
    • competitive male groups around females – use song and physical contest to attract mates
    • gestation is approximately 11-12 months
    • no genetic exchanged between north and south humpback whales as they move by the season – winter in the tropics and summer in the Antarctic/Artic, so the humpbacks of the north never cross with those of the south.
    • Calving in July-Aug – one calf only, weaning 1-2 years. calve every 2-3 years. Weaning is later as they have to learn when its safe to start vocalizing without attracting prey.
    • sexual maturity 6-10 years
    • life span may be 45-50 years
  • Blue Whales
    • balaenoptera musculus
    • Largest animal on the planet and largest whale in the rorqual family
    • largest recorded: 33.3m long, 180 metric tones.
    • whalers focused on largest for most blubber so this size not seen anymore. genetically larger whales are no longer seen
    • Today they are more like 28m in size
    • Flipper about 3m, tail width about 4m
    • 55-68 ventral pleats
    • Feeds exclusively on krill of less than 5cm in length, eating as much as 4-5 metric tonnes of krill per day.
    • Produces long infrasonic sounds for reproduction
    • Southern Hemispher populations est 400-1400 animals
    • Considered critically endangered, <1% of pre-whaling population estimated to be 202,000 – 311,000.
    • Left with less than 1% of genetic diversity of the population
    • Migration routes hardly known (southern hemisphere to atlantic)
    • Male competition around females result in physical contest
    • Similar to Humpback whales in reproductive cycle, gestation is approx. 11-12 months. Short term pairs
    • Males will swim behind females and test their reproductive capacity by checking for pheromones. – they pair up for less than an hour, or they hang out for days
    • Weaned after 7 months.
    • Growth rate is up to 90kgs per day.. 3.7kgs per day
    • Calving interval 203 years
    • Hybridization with Fin Whales has been seen (5 cases) and Humpback Whales 1-3 cases) . Hybrids were fertile.
    • Not deep divers
    • Every blue whale has a unique pattern on the side of their skin, some have marks/scars that allow for identification.
    • Sexing needs to be done by biopsy

This is actually really cool – humpbacks migrate according to the season, so when it’s summer in the south, the humpbacks are closer to Antarctica, but the ones in the north are in winter, so they are wintering closer to the equator.  Likewise, when it is winter in the south, the southern humpbacks are closer to the equator while their northern cousins are summering in the Arctic – so they never meet.  Genetically, they remain quite discreet.

Toothed whales – Suborder Odontocetes : one blow holes, use echo locations (including beluga and narwhal) sonar above 20khz which is above the human hearing range, and it allows them to create a 3D map of their environment.  Species include:

  • Dolphins
  • Killer Whale
    • Orcinus orca
    • Largest species of delphinids
    • they are the most widespread cetacean
    • Size m: 9m 5,600kgs
    • Size f: 7.9m, 3,800kgs
    • Large dorsal fin and rounded flippers, eye patch, saddle patch are highly variable
    • 4 different Ecotypes… ABCD (broken down below) different prey types and a high degree of reproductive isolation
    • Key predators in all marine ecosystems
    • Diet includes shoaling fish/squid, salmon, turtles, otters, seals, sirenians, sharks, dolphins, porpoises
    • Population is estimated at around 80,000
    • Type A – whaling killer whale, typical black and white pattern that inhibits ice-free waters offshore. Type A feeds on whales – they will try to outrun their prey until the prey succumbs to exhaustion.  The whale’s cognitive capability will decide within seconds whether it is worth pursuing depending on the condition of the prey.
    • Type B – sealing killer whale – grey, black and white, with a large eye patch and dorsal fin, forages on pinnipeds and perhaps emperors penguins. They tend to forage on pack ice
    • Type C – fishing killer whale – usually found in the Ross Seas, similar to Type B but with a narrow oblique eye patch. They tend to forages in dense packs.
    • Type D – is a hybrid. of the fishing killer whales.
  • Long Finned Pilot Whale
  • Hourglass Dolphin
  • Commerson’s Dolphin
  • Beaked whales
  • Sperm whales
    • Largest of the toothed whales
    • dives to 600-900m where deep-sea squid are found
    • has been known to dive to 3000m
    • size: M: 18.2m long and 57 metric tonnes
    • size: F: 11m long and 23 metric tonnes
    • produces the loudest acoustic signals in animal kingdom 230db ultrasound – sound is used to stun squid.
    • very stable groups up to 12 and between females – males migrate across groups and ocean basins.
    • numbers recovering slowly – still vulnerable status
    • slow maturation and growth – 18 month gestation with up to 3 year weaning period., calving intervals of 406 years
    • lifespan up to 60 years
    • has a spermacetic organ which is like a tank of oil in the forehead used to regulate buoyancy. At the surface, the oil is a liquid at 34C and when they want to dive, they can regulate a drop in the temp of the oil which crystalises it and allows the whale to sink. On ascent, it will reactivate the blood flow to the oil in the forehead to warm it up and create more buoyancy allowing it to ascend without energy expended!


So whale lecture over, I return to our program.  We marched downstairs to the Main Dining room for a quick lunch. Lunch was again, absolutely superb, but many of us were not really paying attention to the food – everyone seemed excited and somewhat preoccupied as we were preparing to finally go out in the zodiacs and foot on Antarctica this afternoon.

While we had been busily engaged in these educational lectures this morning, the Expedition Team had been working with the Bridge to get us as far south as possible down past Adelaide Island and into the Marguerite Bay. Our goal was to visit Stonington Island where two remote abandoned research bases were located.

Before leaving the ship, we all walked through tubs of disinfectant to make sure we were not transferring any unwanted germs or microbes onto the Island, and again upon entering the abandoned stations, we all had our boots scrubbed of any obvious snow, plant or guano matter to maintain the integrity of the sites. We went through the same process later in the afternoon when entering the ship as well – so I think it is safe to say that the Expedition Team (which consists of many career scientists) take their biosecurity obligations very seriously.

A group of Adelies hanging out in the cold. Stonington Island is named for Stonington Connecticut, the home port of an American sealing captain Nathanial Brown Palmer. In 1941, America established a research base here on Stonington Island, however, the US base was short-lived as the outbreak of WWII saw military resources pulled back from Antarctic exploration and redeployed elsewhere. A few years later though, in 1946, The British Antarctic Survey arrived in Stonington and built Station ‘E’ which was occupied by 6-17 men and some 150 sled dogs for the purpose of finally completing a map of Antarctica. In 1948 when some privately funded US researchers returned, they found the British had taken over their hut to use as a sledge workshop, they had hoisted the Union Jack from the US flagpole and they had ‘repurposed’ the US base’s plumbing – and by that, apparently they stole their loo!  Initially this led to some international tensions, the two bases are barely 230m apart, but eventually, they started to work together as the US planes complimented the sled dog teams efforts to map the area.

We visited the Stonington stations which oddly enough, had an unexpected British research team camped out between the old research huts. Members of this research team greeted us and gave us some brief history of the site. We were able to post some postcards with them, though Lord knows when they will end up back in ‘the real world’.

I was wearing merino thermal layer next to my skin, a long sleeved t-shirt layer, a down jacket that is zipped into my fabulous bright yellow Quark parka.  On the lower half, merino thermal tights, insulated waterproof ski pants, thick socks, toe warmers, and the poorly fitting Muck boots.  I was also wearing a PFD (personal floatation device) which is required for anyone getting into the zodiacs which had to be quite tightly fitted so it didn’t just slip off and mark the place where you sank if you happened to fall in!  On top of that, I was carrying stuff in my backpack: gloves, glove liners, a beanie, a waterproof sack, spare socks (because my boots were folded down and I had no idea what to expect), water, camera, sunglasses, sunscreen and lipbalm.  I’ve never felt so Gumby in my life.  Even kneeling down to take a photo is a huge chore… but as you can see, it wasn’t that cold while walking around, I’m not wearing my beanie or my gloves.After our land visit to the Island, we loaded back into the zodiacs to do some scenic cruising and to look for wildlife. One of the IAATO conventions is that no tour operator takes more than 100 people onto land in Antarctica at any one time, so our groups take turns at visiting the land sites and zodiac cruising around the glaciers and icebergs. The system works really well, and while it is in place to protect the delicate Antarctic environment, it also allows visitors to have wonderful experiences traipsing around on land but also fantastic opportunities to view the landscape and the wildlife up close from the zodiacs.

Here is where it gets difficult to decide which photographs to include and which to leave out… everything is so wildly different from anything I have seen before.  Antarctica is other-worldly and everything feels kinda surreal.  In every direction around us, there are beautiful tidewater glacier ice cliffs, enormous floating icebergs, and all sense of space and distance becomes lost as you can’t rightly judge the how large or how far something is with no frame of reference.  Everything is enormous – you think you are looking at an iceberg the size of a double-decker bus, but then you get closer or better still, you see another zodiac get closer to it and you realise it is the size of an office building instead!

We were fortunate enough to see some crab-eater seals, a couple of Weddell seals, some Antarctic terns and some Adelie penguins. There was a sighting of a fin whale, but by the time we arrived where it was claimed to have been sighted, it must have moved on.

The colours in the ice are quite astonishing – even in these moody and romantic light conditions, you can see these brilliant blues coming through in the glacial icebergs. 

As soon as we were sitting on the zodiacs at -1°C, while it was lightly snowing and no longer walking around the unsure ground of the landing site meant we were getting pretty damn cold very quickly.  It was out with the beanies and gloves and mittens as soon as we cooled down from our walk.  Those ugly yellow parkas soon became our best friends – because even in these conditions, no one was shivering.  The biggest problem, of course, is the desire to leave your camera hand free of your warm mittens.  I decided pretty quickly I would rather have lots of photos and one cold hand!  After our zodiac cruise, everyone was recalled back to the ship for the next most exciting thing that was going to happen today – as if Crossing the Antarctic Circle and stepping foot on Antarctica itself wasn’t enough – we were being given an opportunity to take the Polar Plunge!

For those who don’t know what that is – it is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You throw on your bathers and jump off the side of the ship into the freezing cold waters of the Antarctic. Woody, our fearless Expedition Leader had decided that since hardly any visitors to Antarctica come this far south, that this is where we should do our swim. Not sure about the sanity of that… but we were doing it anyway!

We all donned bathers and bathrobes and excitedly formed a queue that wound its way through the corridors and up the stairwells of the ship, waiting for our turn to walk down to the gangway and jump into the icy waters. And when I say ‘icy waters’, I mean ‘icy waters’ – there was literally ICE bobbing around in the water that we were about to jump into.

As I moved up the queue, I found myself not feeling excited, or apprehensive or even nervous, but rather I had a, ‘Come on! Let’s get on with it!’ sort of feeling… I wanted to jump and didn’t want to have to wait – but at the same time, it also felt rather like waiting in a queue to get a flu jab or something. You want to do it, you feel compelled to even, but you’re 100% confident that the whole endeavour is going to be decidedly unpleasant for a brief moment.   😛

Eventually, I came to the front of the queue, dropped my bathrobe and stepped out onto the top of the stairs. I was greeted by a freezing cold wind as I stepped outside the ship in a pair of bathers into the still softly falling snow. Down the wet steps, I went with my hands feeling that the handrails were too cold, and my feet already telling me, ‘Oh that is way too cold and wet’. But I had decided I was going to do this, as I would unlikely ever happen to have the opportunity again – so down the gangway, I went. Woody, tied a harness around my waist – a safety precaution in case of shock or heart attack I should imagine, and then the people from the upper decks who were either too chicken or too sane started to chant in encouragement. Without giving it too much more thought, I stepped off the pontoon and plunged into the freezing cold water. I came to the surface spluttering thinking, ‘Must not swear, must not swear.’ Got my head above water and yelled out really loud, “HOLY SNAPPING DUCK SHIT THAT’S COLD!”

And that is me… in the water.  The ambient temperature was about -1°C to -2°C… water temperature, apparently, was roughly the same.It was cold…
This is Vlad, one of the ship’s guides – positioned beside the gangway pontoon to take photos of people jumping in the water.   He’s looking pretty relaxed and groovy and well, warm! Vlad got some great shots of people jumping in that I’ll be able to access at the end of the trip.

Woody diving in after all the passengers had been through.We had 89 people take the Polar Plunge today – which is apparently far more than they usually have… Naomi was putting it down to the adventurous nature of people who choose the itinerary that comes so far south.  Normally, they will have a couple of dozen people jump in and they find half the staff jump as well to sort of show people it’s not that bad.  Today, not so many staff jumping in – they thought it was particularly cold this far south.  Most Antarctic visitors do a Polar Plunge much further north on the Peninsula up near Deception Island which, it turns out, is a volcanically formed island that has plenty of geothermal activity that means the water temperature in summer rarely gets colder than 4°C-5°C there.  There was actually some concern that we wouldn’t be able to jump in today because sea water starts to freeze and turn into sheet ice at -1.8°C.  So if it had gotten any colder, we could have been breaking ice to be able to swim. As soon as we got out, we were handed what felt like a warm towel but was rather just one at the ambient temperature that cut the wind away from our freezing bodies.

I came back in rapidly found my robe and room key and was in the shower and warming up quicker then you can say ‘Whose crazy idea was that?!’ It was exhilarating, and kinda crazy, but felt like it just had to be done. Here is a shot from the Bridge of the exact coordinates where we all thought it’d be a great idea to go for a brief swim!



The view from our room while I was drying my hair… yeah, I’m just shaking my head as how nuts this all is and I can’t believe I am actually in Antarctica!

Once all the excitement from our crazy adventures today calmed down – we had our evening recap and debrief and gained a now familiar ‘vague idea’ of what we would be hopefully doing tomorrow.

We then went down to the Dining Room for another stellar meal (shrimp, salmon and all good things). We had the very pleasant company tonight at dinner, of ‘Pato’ (our photobomber from the first day), a 21-year-old, hot air balloon pilot from the Yarra Valley.  Almost as soon as he sat down I started asking him about the most spectacular places in the world to go hot air ballooning – and the list went ‘The Yarra Valley (no bias!), Kenya, Burma, Turkey, New Zealand …’ and on and on and on! We had a great conversation about his last gig – which, you will never believe this, was flying the Sky Whale of ACT fame, in Brazil!  He was working on an Arctic expedition flying balloons near the North Pole off a Russian nuclear Arctic expedition ship (as you do!) and decided he had to get himself onto a Quark Antarctica expedition. So he just up and flew to Brazil and kinda pestered them until they took him on as a guide. In the meantime, he picked up a gig flying the Sky Whale in Brazil (as you do!)  Next on Pato’s agenda is a return to Oz for a few months, then off to Poland for the International Ballooning Festival in September. I apparently have earned myself a place on his team should he need people to hold ropes when he decides to take a balloon up to northern Western Australia to go flying over Cable Beach and the Kimberleys – count me in!

We are meeting some of the most amazing and diverse people here – it’s awesome.  🙂

After such an early morning start, a huge morning of lectures, an awesome afternoon of excursions and a positively exhilarating polar plunge experience in the early evening, and scintillating conversation over dinner – I am completely fooked and going to bed early! G’night!

Quark Antarctic Expedition – Crossing the Antarctic Circle

“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, polices and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

~ John Steinbeck

I’ve celebrated many things on ships… birthdays, several Christmases, New Year’s Eve, Australia Day, 4th July on a US ship, St Patricks Day, Halloween, ANZAC Day and even Easter. I have also celebrated Crossing the Equator, Crossing the International Dateline, Transiting the Panama Canal, and until now, my favourite, Crossing the Arctic Circle at 66° 33′ North just off the north coast of Iceland.

Tonight, we got a 20-minute call over the public address system at 0140 that we would be Crossing the Antarctic Circle 66° 33’ South just after 0200 and anyone who wanted to be on the outer decks of Deck 6 should rug up and come out for a glass of champagne.

So we quickly jumped out of bed and expected there to be a handful of crazy people willing to forgo sleep and warmth to toast this momentous occasion. Our cabin on the ship is 623 so we are already on the right deck and walked about 10m down the corridor into a mass of yellow Quark jackets!

The crew had been up and ready before us with trays of champagne, and so many people had gotten up to toast the Crossing of the Antarctic Circle. All the expedition staff were here, many in penguin and dragon onesies, and I would estimate that 90% of the passengers were here too.

The excitement and buzz around the group as we floated in the deep southern ocean waiting for Woody our Expedition Leader to say tell us exactly when we were crossing the invisible line was infectious. Everyone was all smiles and excited for the expeditions to come.

Word came from the bridge and a countdown was started – it felt very much like a New Years toast only people were talking about having goosebumps and how much they had been looking forward to this for decades. We milled around and were eventually herded together for a group photo by the ship’s photographer, Acacia. We were then taking turns being photographed beside a handmade sign to mark the occasion.

I, for one, can’t hardly believe I am actually here. Antarctica is a place I have always thought I would want to come, but never in my life did I think I would actually get here.

After all the buzz of excitement and champagne we eventually all head back inside to try and get back to sleep. It took me ages to wind down and get back to sleep.


Quark Antarctica Expedition – Day 3 Still Crossing the Drake Passage

“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals for I have seen the albatross”
~ Robert Cushman Murphy

Managed to sleep in again this morning which was fantastic and opted to skip breakfast in favour of sitting on a heat-pack and catching up on some writing… that and we can’t keep eating like this!

The schedule for this morning was pretty light – we had a photography lecture, “Capturing the Experience; Photography Basics” at 0930 which I thought I would go along to for shits and giggles. Many people in the room were there with their big DSLR camera equipment and many were there with little point and shoot cameras, and there is an equal portion of people using just their smartphones… and why not?  The image quality from many modern smartphones is excellent these days and they are so easy and convenient to use – great for landscapes and portraits, but of course, there are limitations in using a smartphone for wildlife or anything that requires zoom. It’s my opinion that the one truly spectacular image that you capture from your trip is far more likely to come from fortuitous timing than having the biggest and most expensive camera equipment, so it was great to hear Acacia, our photography guide open her talk by saying that, ‘the best camera, is the one you have’. She did a great job of explaining photography basics in 45 minutes and covered technical camera operations in laymen’s terms as well as the importance of composition and lighting.

Didn’t really learn anything new, except perhaps that I have not experimented enough with the various ‘scene’ settings on the point and shoot camera I chose to bring with me in favour of lugging my DLSR and lenses around every day.  Yes, I came to a photography mecca and one that is particularly known for its rugged landscapes and unique wildlife photography opportunities and I chose NOT to bring my DSLR and hefty professional lenses… why?  Well, because I wanted to immerse myself in the experience of being here, and allow my photography to capture my experiences rather than to have the photography take over the entire trip.  These days I am carrying a small Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX90V point and shoot digital camera with its pretty damn fancy 700mm equivalent, 30x zoom.  It was fantastic on my last Baltic trip with all the low light conditions in the museums and palaces, and I was equally impressed with how it functioned in freezing cold conditions at Whistler over the Christmas break.  So I’m pretty sure it will be up to the task here too.

After the lecture, I thought I’d avail myself of the invitation to go visit the bridge – have a look at the Drake Passage and see where we are going on the electronic charts that have been made available for us to view there.

The Bridge has many pairs of binoculars so guests can bird watch, or look for wildlife or even ice bergs.  There are also books in here for bird identification and maps of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The arrow marked our current position while I was on the Bridge, and the other dropped pin marks the Antarctic Circle, which we hope to cross at some point during the night.

Mid-morning we had another lecture, this time with Annie, one of the onboard marine biologists, on: “Pinnipeds of the Antarctic”. Which had most of us walking around the ship asking… ‘What on earth is a pinniped?’

It turns out for those marine biology challenged amongst us that a pinniped is a seal – or a finned, feather-footed marine mammal. Marine mammals are those that derive most of their nutrition from marine environments. For the sake of simplicity, they are effectively the eared and earless seals or Phocidae and Otariidae.

If you’re not interested in learning the ins and outs of a fat seal’s arse skip down to “HERE”!

Continue reading

Quark Antarctica Expedition – Day 2 Crossing the Drake Passage


It seems we are going to get philosophical travel quotes with our daily program.  Nice!

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing .”

     ~ Helen Keller

Being extraordinarily overtired and having been rocked to sleep by the ship, I slept in uncustomarily late – an impressive 0730. We woke up to some very beautiful and moody foggy conditions over lovely calm sea.  The ‘fog bow’ picture below was taken by a fellow passenger, Shona.  It was not long afterwards that breakfast was announced over the ship’s public address system and we all dressed and filed downstairs for a fabulous buffet breakfast.

After breakfast, we had another briefing, this time about the delicate Antarctic environment and the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) conventions – that would govern our visit to the Antarctic region, followed by a zodiac watercraft safety briefing.  We discussed the challenges we would find with our itinerary seeing we were going so far south.  Our itinerary was one of the few that Quark offers that actually goes south far enough to cross the Antarctic Circle… this is the last trip the Ocean Diamond will do this year, and this is only the second time our Expedition Team were going to cross the Circle this season.  Most people who journey to the Antarctic (tourists like us, I should say, not researchers and scientists) will take a trip that takes in the Falklands, the South Shetland Islands and/or the South Georgia Islands and then hit the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula before heading back across the Drake… our itinerary was basically to hightail it as far south as possible to come around Adelaide Island and into Marguerite Bay (at around 68° south) before slowly winding our way back up the Antarctic Peninsula, stopping where conditions permitted.

I chose this itinerary because it was the trip that offered the most time actually *in Antarctica* compared to other trips which spent more time at sea going to the Falklands (where we had already visited last year) and the South Georgia Islands which are sub-Antarctic environments (ie: more greenery, more rock, less dramatic glaciers, icebergs and snow).  So this trip was going to be all Antarctica, all the way – and even the Expedition Staff seemed excited about going this far south of the Circle this late in the season.

As it happens, Quark is one of the founding members of the IAATO organization whose goal is to have eco-responsible tourism occurring in the Antarctic and Arctic regions. They have a mission to leave the Antarctic pristine, ensuring visitors leave no rubbish, disturb no wildlife and take no plant or rock souvenirs home. There are strict guidelines and procedures in place for how tours can be conducted in Antarctica which includes stringent biosecurity measures – they do not want tourists unwittingly introducing exotic plant, animal or bacterial material to any of the delicate Antarctic ecosystems.

One of these measures involves getting passengers to have any garments or backpacks or walking poles that will be used on the Peninsula checked by the Expedition Team for seeds, soil or plant matter. Basically, anything that was not purchased brand new for this trip that we were planning on taking with us when we left the ship on excursions (particularly outer layer garments), had to be checked by staff. The staff had set up vacuuming stations on each level of the ship and passengers were called through to have their backpacks and garments inspected and vacuumed for minute particles. Additionally, a washing station was set up on the lower decks to have walking poles, tripods and monopods scrubbed in disinfectant. The Expedition Team impressed upon us how seriously they take this responsibility, and the biosecurity checking took a number of hours as they called passengers from each deck to vacuum and check our things.

We were also informed of procedures that would occur after zodiac landing expeditions where we would have our boots hosed down and then we would be required to step through trays of disinfectant upon arrival back at the ship to stop any cross-pollination of bacteria, pollens, seeds or plant matter from site to site as we travel along the Peninsula… If it all sounds a bit full on or over the top – just do a Google image search for ‘Mt Everest rubbish dump’… climbers have been abandoning rubbish, excess food, spent oxygen cylinders and extraneous camping equipment at Mt Everest base came for about 80 years, and there is now literally tonnes of rubbish scattered about in one of the most remote environments on earth that environmentalists are working hard to bring back down for suitable disposal. I certainly appreciate the efforts being made to keep Antarctica a pristine environment, and for a change, not a single tourist here appeared to be complaining about these regulations being an inconvenience. I guess the type of person who is attracted to an Antarctic voyage with a company like Quark, already has a keen appreciation for the delicate nature of the remote environments we will be entering into and likewise, wants to see them preserved and protected.

The biosecurity measures took quite some time and while it was going on we were being called deck by deck to collect a pair of Muck boots. In another effort to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers, Quark lends their pax a pair of high quality insulated rubber boots for use during the expedition. These boots are designed to keep your feet warm and dry during zodiac excursions and it meant none of us had to go to the expense of buying expensive single-use footwear for the trip. The boots themselves are very heavy duty and finding the right size turned out to be kinda difficult – I have tiny feet and these are men’s boots; in men’s boots I would ordinarily be wearing a size 4, but there was no way I was going to fit my calf into boots that are designed for a ten-year-old boy.  So with some really thick socks, I opted for the size 5, but like many short chicks who aren’t the skinniest of minnies, they were still stupidly restrictive around the calf – like seriously, cutting off my circulation, restrictive. So I tried on a 6 but then my foot was slipping around inside the boot too much.  :/

Oh well, I was just going to have to take the size 5s, fold the boots over and hope we didn’t get into any water deeper than a few inches… I wasn’t alone on this one, plenty of women found the boots too tight around their calves tiny feet or not.  It will likely be doubly so once we put on our layers of warmth under our waterproof outer-pants. And if we thought trying them on was hard, taking them off was doubly difficult! Once your foot was securely into the boots, trying to lever them off was really hard. The easiest way to accomplish this unexpectedly difficult task is to have your roommate pull them off for you and then you can pull theirs off for them!  🙂

All of this preparation for our excursions took several hours and before we know it, it was suddenly lunchtime. Lunch was again served in the Dining Room and was quite an impressive buffet of salads and warm dishes, soups and stirfry, sandwiches and hamburgers were also on offer – they were obviously planning on totally over feeding us this trip. The sea had been getting rougher as the day wore on and there were noticeably fewer people attending lunch today than dinner last night.  Mind you – it didn’t look rough outside, just long rolling swells that didn’t seem all that agreeable to some people.

Our fearless Expedition Leader, David Wood (‘Woody’, yes of course he’s Australian) would come to call this sort of weather, ‘romantic’ or ‘dramatic’… with him there was no such things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ weather.

After lunch, we had two lectures, the first on ‘Birds of the Southern Ocean’s with the onboard ornithologist Liliana. Did I mention how incredibly qualified and overachieving the entire Expedition Team are?  There are more PhDs and professional qualifications among this lot than you see at your average academic conference – I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

It was very interesting, I learned that seabirds or sentinels are designated such due to spending most of their lives at sea and only returning to land to breed. Unfortunately populations of various seabirds have decreased by approximately 50% over the last 70 years, largely due to pollution and habitat and food source depletion. Seabirds generally have quite a long lifespan and can live up to 70 years – there is one Lazen Albatross, named Wisdom who was tagged as a chick and who has her own Facebook page so she is known to be 67 years old, and is apparently breeding again.  Incredible.

I also learned that most seabirds are ‘philopatric’ – which means they are attached to their place of origin to breed, whether it is to a certain colony or a certain island, or even as specific as a certain slope on a certain island within a certain colony. The come back to the exact same spot when they are mature enough to breed themselves. Philopatric animals are very sensitive to changes in their environments – for example, there is a colony of Atlantic Puffins that is suffering considerably from fishing depletion in their attachment area and they are unable to find fish small enough to be ingested by their chicks. The adult birds are currently okay, they can consume the larger fish, but they continue to breed in the same place and they repeatedly feed their chicks with fish that are too large for the chicks to eat.  As a result, the chicks are starving. The adult birds however, continue to return to the same rookery each year and try again to breed a chick. It’s really very sad.

Recently, as in the last week or so, an entirely new colony of Adelie penguins has been found on remote southern side of the Antarctic Peninsular where drone explorations found 1.5 million nesting pairs that were not known to inhabit the area. That is 3 million Adelie penguins and as many as 1.5million chicks that were previously unknown to researchers, and Liliana as an Antarctic ornithologist was very excited about this find because Adelies have a small clutch size and very slow chick growth rate, so it is very promising for the Adelies.  Most seabirds tend to breed in large colonies like this, as this gives the large group a better chance to survive predators, and it is easier for them to show each other where sources of food have been found.  The downside is that disease can spread through a colony very rapidly due to the close proximity.

It was at this lecture that I learned all about the Antarctic Convergence or the Polar Front, which basically affects all life in the Antarctic.  The Antarctic Convergence is where water masses up to 1000-2000m deep that circulate in the Southern Oceans meet warmer waters from ocean currents in the north and are lifted towards the surface as they approach Antarctica, bringing water to the surface that is rich in nutrients and krill. The Antarctic Convergence encircles the Antarctic continent and moves in latitude each year depending on currents and variations in water temperatures etc. However, between South America and Antarctica, there is not much room for the Front to move so it remains fairly consistent and predictable, so it makes for a good place to look for seabirds, whales and other sea mammals that survive on phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill etc.  I knew nothing about this phenomena – I feel like I’ve been living in ignorance.

There are many seabirds prevalent in these convergence regions from Great Albatross, Grey Albatross, Great Southern Royal Albatross (enormous birds with a wingspan of 3m) down to smaller petrels, cormorants and terns. Too many to list here. The most interesting thing I learned about any of these seabirds during this lecture is they tend to spend most of their life in flight – and that they actually expend more energy when being on the surface of the water than when gliding in the air over the water’s surface. It turns out that these birds (and some seals too) are capable of unihemispheric single wave sleep while sleeping – that is, they can shut down half their brain and let it go to sleep while the other half of their brain keeps the body functioning and in this case, flying, allowing them to remain flying for many more hours of the day.

Sorry if this is boring but I thought it was fascinating stuff… they were preparing us to better understand what we would likely be seeing over the coming weeks, but after this lecture, I was mostly just wishing humans were capable of unihemispheric sleep!  😀

After our bird lecture, there was an “Antarctica In the Imagination: Pre-History” with Justine our onboard historian, which I am told was very interesting, but unfortunately, I missed it and hope to catch up on this one later.

At 1800 we had our Daily Recap and Briefing in the Main Lounge which apparently will happen every day to go over the things we saw each day and to give a brief overview of what to expect the next day.

Then it was 1900 and a Welcome Cocktail party to meet Captain Oleg Klaptenko from Russia, and his staff – free champagne and canapés.  The Captain (yet another one who says his public speaking is terrible) issued an open invitation for passengers to visit the bridge whenever we wanted to.  We were then treated to a wonderful Welcome Dinner in the main Dining Room.

We had another delicious meal – this time of mushroom soup, beautifully cooked Argentinian tenderloin beef and vegetables, followed by cheese and crackers (obviously there were other choices, but this is what I chose for dinner), and of course, more complimentary wine with dinner.  I don’t know why, but I was expecting more rudimentary meals than we were used to on cruise ships, this being an expedition type voyage – but we were on a fabulous floating restaurant, with an Austrian chef named Gunter who had a wonderful habit (that I heartily endorse) of supplying an enormous wheel of blue cheese at every meal!

I did eventually remember to take some photos in the dining room… 



After dinner many of us met in The Club bar to have a casual talk with Woody on ‘Maritime Superstitions’.

Woody started off his informal chat about superstitions by explaining that superstitions are about belief – so if you believe it, it will be true (for you at least) and people will continually frame a narrative that reinforces their belief system. If this sounds like religion to you – well, yes.  It may as well be.

Anyway, he had a list as long as your arm of ‘Bad Luck’ superstitions:

  • No whistling on ships – Captains on many ships will insist on no whistling on their ships and have been known to put people ashore for continuing to whistle, it apparently brings bad weather and the association is likely with the whistling noise high winds make in the sails.
  • Woody asked us how many of us looked back to Ushuaia as we left port, to which about 80% of the room put up their hands, whereupon he informed us it was bad luck to be looking back – you must always be looking forward on a ship. It is extremely bad luck to be looking behind you from the bridge for very obvious reasons… on the bridge you need to be alert to hazards in front of you!
  • Black travel bags and luggage are also assocated with bad luck, merely because of black being the colour of death and darkness.
  • Another more modern ‘bad luck’ superstition is to never say the ‘T” word on a ship – and if you don’t know what I mean by the “T” word, it was the name of a movie made in 1997 staring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio staring an enormous wrecked ship.
  • More unlucky words “Rabbit” and “Rat” – instead you can say “Bunny” or “Rodent with the Long Tail”. Woody had no concrete ideas on where this one is coming from but apparently, French sailors in particular, are very superstitious about rabbits and rats?!
  • Killing am albatross is bad luck – though many expeditions into the Southern Oceans found albatross a godsend when they had run out of supplies.
  • When drinking, you do not chink glasses as the ringing sound made from the glasses colliding means a sailor loses his soul. Instead sailors will salute one another by putting glasses together but ensuring that hands connect with hands instead of allowing glass to connect with glass. If glass accidentally connects with glass, sailors will often cover the glass to smother the ringing sound as soon as possible.
  • When cooking whole fish on a ship and the meat has been removed from the topside of the fish, the fish should not be turned over to gain access to the meat on the bottom of the fish. This action is believed to cause ships to capsize. Instead the meat on top should be eaten, the bones removed and the bottom meat then accessed.
  • It is apparently very bad luck to rename a ship. Shackleton bought a ship called ‘The Polaris’ and promptly renamed it ‘The Endurance’ which then turned around and sank (in sailing lore, this of course had nothing to do with the ice, but rather because the ship was renamed!). Another example of bad luck following a ship with a name change with the USS Phoenix which survived the bombing of Pearl Harbour only to later be sold to the Argentinian Navy where it was renamed. It promptly sank in 1982 (again, nothing to do with the Falklands War according to sailors, it was due to the name change!).
  • Oddly, the only good way to rename a ship was to do so on the day of a full moon…?  Apparently, the Ocean Diamond that we were currently in the middle of the Drake Passage on, has been renamed, but Woody promised us it was done correctly on a full moon… wtf?!
  • Priests on board are bad luck – they are dressed in black all the time, and of course priests are heavily associated with death and more darkness and whatnot.
  • Bananas! Who would have thought bananas onboard would be bad luck. But apparently Bananas are bad luck as they stop you catching fish. Cargoes of bananas were always run fast to get their produce to market before they went off, so Captains were often pressured by owners to sail faster and take dangerous shortcuts. In addition to that the bananas could quickly ripen and start fermenting in the hold making other stock (like slaves) sick, and they were also prone to carrying insects which then bit the crew. So that one at least kinda makes sense.

‘Good Luck’ superstitions seem somewhat thin on the ground in comparison:

  • Albatross and seabirds are considered good luck, as this meant land was hopefully nearby.
  • Dolphins were considered good luck, though why, Woody didn’t say
  • And THAT’S IT for good luck at sea.

On the balance of things… it seems going to sea is all bad and should be avoided at all costs!

Quark Antarctic Expedition – Day One Boarding in Ushuaia

As much as we were in desperate need of sleep, the bus taking us the Tierra del Fuego National Park and to see the End of the World was going to be picking us up at 0750 and we had to have our bags all packed in in reception, be checked out and had our breakfast by the time the bus arrived – which meant another stupid early start with not enough sleep.

But we got there. Dressed, packed, checked out, bags in reception, breakfasted and ready for exactly 0750 on the dot. We then pottered around town picking up passengers from other hotels before heading directly to the Tierra del Fuego train station. I wrote quite a lot about the history of the prison train that operates in the Park and how it is now used to ferry tourists around, last time I was here so instead of repeating myself… here’s a handy link for anyone who is interested in the history…   <cheeky re-used blog post>  😛

I decided to take the train in again – it was a beautiful trip last time and a beautiful day today, so why not. The train has a multilingual audio guide and we had a very noisy group of German tourists behind us last year when I was on the train, so I was hopeful of hearing more of the commentary this time. Alas, it was not to be, this time we had a bunch of inconsiderate Italians who wouldn’t shut the hell up when languages they didn’t need were coming across the PA system. Oh well… so be it. :/  Have I mentioned how much I hate tourists? Yes, I know, probably only every other post – but travel would be awesome without other tourists about.

The park was still beautiful and in spite of not being able to hear most of the commentary… again!

Okay – I can’t explain this, but when I went into my travel wallet to dig up some currency to pay for our train tickets, of all the pieces of paper and entry tickets to all the museums and attractions I have been over the last year (from Hong Kong to Moscow, from Rio to Stockholm, from Tokyo to Vancouver) for some reason, I seem to have kept my ticket for this very train trip from February last year…  😮  

After the train ride, we met back up with our guide, Mikaela and head to Lake Agamaco to the exact same spot I visited last year. This tour we walked from the lake through to the large Visitor’s Centre across the boggy peat around the lake. The walk was only about 20 mins long but we had a beautiful fresh breeze and gorgeous blue skies.

At the visitor’s centre, which was packed for some reason, we had *the* most amazing hot chocolates ever, and a quick look around the museum/gift shop before hopping back on the bus for the picturesque drive down to the boardwalk at the End of the World.

When I was here last year we arrived in this beautiful place and there was just our group of barely twelve people – today there were busloads of people here. Everyone was jostling to have their photo taken in front of the famous sign showing how far it is to Alaska, and then they were jostling for positions along the barriers to have their photos taken in front of the view. It’s still an amazingly beautiful place, but decidedly less serene than my last visit.

As a side note, I now quite strongly believe that whoever invented those Selfie Stick things should end up in Shepherd Book’s ‘Special Circle of Hell’, which as you all know is reserved for child molesters and people who talk in the cinema – and now the inventor of Selfie Sticks.  People, when you travel, stop waving those things around inconsiderately – be social and ask someone nearby to take your photo, most of the time people are only too happy to oblige. </rant>

I am kinda pinching myself a bit today; I distinctly remember being here last year and thinking, “I want to just drink this place all in, I don’t imagine I’ll ever be back here.”  The End of the World is singularly beautiful and I was so glad to be back here admiring the view again and looking at the gorgeous cloud formations, in spite of the crowds of pushy tourists.  Seriously – click on this picture, or right click and open it in a new tab or something to see it in a decent size, it is so beautiful here…

We head back into town after our walk around the End of the World and had about an hour before we had to head to our meeting point to embark the Ocean Diamond to begin our expedition. We decided to quickly find a few last minute supplies and then head back to the bar at the hotel we had stayed at last night because we knew they had reliable wifi and well… we already had the password. 🙂  The internet on the ship was a bit of a mystery – we had no idea how much it would cost or how reliable the access would be, so we figured we better say our goodbyes and send last-minute messages while we could.

So – what can you expect on a Quark Polar Expedition? We all still had absolutely no idea, but we were about to find out.

Eventually, 3:30 pm rolled around and we went down to the meeting point near the dock. We were filed onto buses and driven around the block into the commercial port area.   There waiting for us was our Quark Expeditions, Ocean Diamond expedition ship. The atmosphere was a mix of excitement and anticipation with a palpable sense of apprehension… see, no one of really knows what to expect from this trip – once we were on the ship we are entirely in the hands of the expedition staff and no one appeared to have had done this type of trip before.  Antarctica really is a once in a lifetime experience it would seem.

We were greeted by staff at the door and given our room keys and cruise cards, then escorted to our cabins to ensure our baggage had arrived. Our room is very cool – nice and larger than your average twin oceanview cabin.  It’s well appointed and tastefully decorated – complete with cool penguin photos on the walls.

After this, we had our first briefing, where we were introduced to the Expedition Crew, which is comprised of about 20 polar experts from all over the world – geologists, ornithologists, marine biologists, a historian and all sorts. I will post up all their bios on a separate page or I’ll get too distracted. They are an extremely well-qualified bunch and it was rapidly apparent that they seriously enjoyed their jobs and were full of enthusiasm for the expedition even though they have all done it many times before. We dispersed from our initial briefing to go unpack, check all our luggage items had arrived and to await a safety drill that would be happening in the early evening.

We stored all our stuff carefully in anticipation of the dreaded crossing of the Drake Passage, and explored the ship a little – it is a beautiful small ship, with the Main Lounge for lectures, a Club Bar for recreating, a Dining Room large enough to seat everyone on board at once, a small fitness centre, health and beauty Spa and a wee Gift Shop. With only seven floors, the gangways and Dining Room are on Deck 3 and our cabin on Deck 6, so I could foresee a lot of stairs in our immediate future. 🙂

Safety drill was simple and pretty much as per every other ship safety drill I had done. We drilled in the Main Lounge with our life jackets and listened carefully to instructions about our muster points and what to do in case of emergency.

We were then shepherded down to our designated lifeboats where we were waiting for the crew to do their drills before we would be given the ‘Okay’ to head back inside.

While we were standing around underneath a happily very well secured lifeboat, waiting in our lifejackets for the drill to finish and some typical traveller small talk type conversations were happening around us – and while the following conversation is remarkable, it is also increasingly commonplace if you are a travelling Australian.

It went something like this:
Polite Man: “So, where are you guys from*?”
Me: (noting his Austrailian accent, I answered more local) “We’re from Brisbane.”
Polite Man:  Really? (with a smile) “We are from just up the range, in Toowoomba.”
My Mum: (laughing) “I grew up in Toowoomba!”
Me: (also laughing) “And I was born in Toowoomba.”
Nearby Stranger, joining our conversation: “I’m from Toowoomba too!”
Me:  (grinning now) “No way!”
Polite Man: “Unbelievable!  We live in such-and-such-suburb.”
Stranger: “OMG, I grew up in SameSuburb too! And went to the SameSuburb School!”
Polite Man’s Wife (also laughing): “I used to teach at SameSuburb School!  But you are far too young for me to have taught you.”
Stranger: “My Dad used to teach at Same Suburb School too! Do you know Jeff H.?”
Polite Man & Polite Man’s wife: “Yes! We know Jeff and Kate H… so that must make you, Jessica H.! Oh my! You know, I was just talking to your father before Christmas and… etc.”

Talk about a ‘Small World’… Happens on nearly every trip – someone runs into someone they know from a past job or an old school friend or an SCA acquaintance. It was a lot of fun to see this interaction unfold, with everyone shaking their heads at the coincidence of running into someone they were so closely connected to, some13,000 kilometres from home.

*Without variation, every single conversation between travellers start like this, by the way – “So, where are you from?”  🙂

Then it was time to be returning our lifejackets to our cabins and before long we were being summoned back to the Main Lounge to be issued with our official Quark Expeditions Polar Parka. Quark have for many years now issued their passengers with a parka of their own design for passengers to for use during the voyage, and which passengers get to take home to keep. I dare say it has stemmed from a recurring problem of people turning up ill-equipped to deal with the conditions here, and then over time has resulted in a jacket that best suits the type of zodiac expeditions that passengers will be taking part in every day – it is waterproof, insulated, hooded, has a pocket for room keys and plenty of snaps, bells and whistles. Very fancy, very warm and very bright fucking yellow. I dare say I will be very grateful for it over the next couple of weeks, but it is unlikely to ever see the light of day once I get back to Australia – so I opted for a Men’s L size jacket which is long enough to keep my butt warm and will perhaps make a good ski jacket for Mr K down the track. Besides, yellow is so not my colour!  (NB:  That is Pato photobombing in the background, we will find out more about Pato later).

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. At 7:30 we were greeted personally by the Maitre D’Hotel (Alex from Ukraine) and shown to a table with a very friendly waiter named Paulo.  We were treated to a lovely five-course meal with complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks to accompany our meals.

The sea was obviously expected to get a little rougher later tonight and we found this out in the traditional manner of passenger ships – sick bags had been placed in the stairwells for any guests who unexpectedly started to feel green around the gills!  Ominously, an announcement also came over the PA system just after dinner that Dr Shannon, our onboard physician, would be in The Club after dinner handing our free seasickness medication for anyone who needed it…

All up an exhausting first day and we turned in fairly early being rocked to sleep in what turned out to be moderately rough seas overnight.  I love being at sea!