Quark Antarctica Expedition – What to Expect

When I was researching trips to Antarctica, I found some of the more nitty gritty practical stuff that I really I wanted to know, seemed conspicuously absent from the travel brochures. If I wanted to know any of the little things, I had to direct my questions to the Peregrine ‘polar experts’ and I didn’t want to be continuously bothering them with too many queries about what they might perceive are insignificant details. So I thought I would compile some info here, so I could remember it and also in case anyone searching is looking for a ‘Quark Antarctica Frequently Asked Questions’ type thing. We travelled on the Ocean Diamond in March of 2018, obviously different ships will have different amenities – these notes are based on our experiences on that ship.  If you’d like to read the ‘day to day’ activities of our trip, you can click HERE and find my travel diary of how our journey South of the Antarctic Circle went, and then just click ‘next’ to see each day.

Cabin
We didn’t get a cabin allocation until about two weeks before we were due to leave. This is an unusual experience for me as when we cruise, we usually choose our own cabin – but since we booked through a travel agent, we didn’t seem to have that option. When we finally got out ‘boarding passes’ there was a cabin number written on the travel documents, though it was in tiny print and you had to hunt for it.

Our cabin was really well appointed and quite comfortable for two. We had a larger than usual room with plenty of space to store our things. The beds are neither too soft nor too hard, so I’m a happy camper who prefers a firm mattress – of course, the rocking of the ship really helps you sleep, so the mattress is not as important as onshore stays.

There is a TV in the room which runs some documentary films and seems to have a movie channel, playing an excellent selection of favourite films, but we have been on board a week and I can’t find anything resembling a TV guide, so it’s a bit of a crap shoot if you want to plan an hour or so to relax and watch a movie. We were able to copy a movie off my laptop onto a USB and watch it through the DVD player, so that was useful.

The only issue we seem to have had with our accommodations is the air conditioning – when we got here the room was a stuffy 24C and we had to call in the AC guy to come and turn it down for us. As we were getting ready for bed, we told him we wanted it around 19C (which is a good sleeping temperature) assuming we would be able to adjust it using the thermostat for a warmer temperature in the daytime. But he seems to have set it at around 17C in here, and the thermostat isn’t working, so if we want to be warmer during the day we need to call him back every morning, and again to cool it down every night.

 

Quark Clothing – Parka and Boots

One of the first things the staff did for us was to outfit us with our Expedition parkas, which have been specially designed by Quark for Quark passengers for Antarctic and Arctic Expeditions.   They are big and bulky, with loads of pockets to hold your excess things, but they are super warm and I have found myself wearingly only a thin merino thermal layer, a long-sleeved t-shirt layer and the parka. No need for a jumper or polar fleece layer at all. Aside from being a butt-ugly bright banana yellow, they are an excellent item of clothing and have obviously evolved from years of feedback and from passengers being unprepared for the conditions here.

Over the top of all this, you will find yourself wearing your PFD (personal floatation device) every day when you are off the ship. You must wear it on the zodiacs and you will find yourself wearing it while walking around on land because wearing it is easier than carrying it. It’s a fairly slim design as life jackets go, but it’s fairly heavy and rather bulky on the back of your neck and chest. You end up walking everywhere feeling like the Michelin Man.

The Muck Boots that are lent to passengers to use while they are on their expedition are also another very sturdy and solid piece of equipment that is absolutely essential.   There is a major downside to the boots being provided on the ship though… they’re men’s boots. All of them. So ladies are being given whatever size is appropriate for their feet. In my case, I wear a ladies size AU 6 (or EU36-37) and in a men’s boot – say in Dr Marten boots – I wear a men’s size 4. Only problem is, women’s legs tend to be far more shapely than shoes made for men’s legs – men’s size 4 boot is effectively made for a ten year old boy with chicken legs. So I had to go a size up and wear a size 5, and even that was far too tight in the calves that I had to fold the boots down, rendering them less useful as waterproof boots when getting in and out of the zodiacs at landing sites. After the first day though, it rapidly became apparent that the size 5 boots, even with the height of them folded down on themselves was no good – as it was still so tight around my upper ankle that it was cutting off the circulation in my foot and starting to bruise my shin! So I had to go back and get a men’s size 6 boot. I am still wearing them folded down and even with two pairs of sole inserts in each boot, I feel like I am clambouring about in clown shoes. My feet are slipping about all over the place inside my boots and I have been ever so slighting twisting my knees every day – not good. I’ve also had to be extra careful on the rocks and ice when ashore to make sure I don’t lose my footing in these boots that are two sizes too big – they’re quite the trip hazard. So if you know you have a tiny foot and muscular calves… I’d seriously consider trying to bring your own good quality insulated waterproof boots from home. They might be expensive and may never get used much again in the future, but the stability and sureness underfoot would be worth it.

 

Food
The food has been amazing on board, with a wonderful variety and plenty of it!

An enormous buffet breakfast is served at approximately 0730-0830 in the main dining room and there are plenty of options from various breads, cereals, cold meats, smoked salmon, cheeses, eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, baked beans, a couple of omelette stations, tea, coffee, juices, yoghurts – the whole shebang.

Lunch is again served buffet style between 1230 and 1330 (depending on how morning land and zodiac excursions have gone). There is usually a pasta or stir-fry stations, plenty of salads and cold meats, and hot dishes that vary every day which usually include some grilled fish, and some sort of casserole option with vegetables, rice or pasta to compliment. Soups are also available at lunch, with breads, and desserts also on offer. There is a daily a la carte sandwich, hamburgers and other things available on request and the dining team do their best to help provide options for people with dietary requirements. There is also a new refreshing non-alcoholic punch to try every day.

Dinner is served in the main dining room starting from 1900-1930 after the evening debrief/recap. Dinner is a four course table service menu with appetizers and salads, a soup course (usually a choice of two soups), a main meal course (usually a fish, beef/pork option and a chicken option) followed by a desserts (usually a specialty dessert, an ice cream sundae type option, a cheese platter or a selection of fruits). Dinner is served with complimentary red or white wine – often sauvignon blanc or cabernet blends from Argentina to Italy to New Zealand. For those that don’t favour wine, beer and soft drinks and juices are also available. We are used to a cup of tea or coffee being served at the end of a meal, but for that, we needed to go to the Club to make our own.

Seating in the dining room is strictly first-come first-served, there is no reserved seating and no allocated table numbers. One of the best aspects of dining on the ship is that members of the Expedition Team will come and join a different table for dinner each night – a more interesting and well-travelled and sociable bunch you will never find.  So our dinner conversations have all been very lively and inspiring.

Internet
I could find ZERO information on Internet availability or cost prior to actually getting on the ship – even the Expedition staff who briefed us in Ushuaia were cagey about the accessibility once onboard, which is a bit shit or I would have told my family not to expect to hear from me at all for the next 14 days.

Further to that, there is considerable pressure from the Expedition Team who will encourage you to ‘disconnect’ and discover this amazing place as the first explorers would have – without the ability to connect back to The Real World™. Additionally, your fellow passengers will also loudly and proudly exclaim on the first day or so that they are going to completely disconnect for the duration as well, so there is considerable peer pressure to leave the Internet alone too.   Given that the Internet on the ship completely sucks balls, in both speed and expense, as well as actual availability – there doesn’t appear to be many people actually using it.

There are three packages available:

  • USD$35 Webmail Package : they will set you up a text only email address for use while you are on the ship.
  • USD$60 Package: Internet access of 60MB of data. Untimed but limited by data usage.
  • USD$100 Package: Internet access of 200MB of data. Untimed but limited by data usage.

None of these packages are suitable for blogging or sending lots of pictures back home but still, they might be all fine and dandy if you were 100% confident that you have NOTHING running in the background of your smartphone or iPad or laptop that was going to be refreshing or downloading or synching stuff while you were carefully trying not to use your data. It would be all too easy to jump online to chat a bit via WhatsAp or Messenger and then check your limit and find out it’s been all chewed up by something you didn’t know was running. I have decided not to buy an internet package but I have a feeling I am going to really regret that by the time we are on the Drake Passage on the homeward stretch.

 

Photo Journal
The on-board photographer who is here to give you hints and tips on how to best capture your Antarctic experience also sets up a couple of laptops on the ship and encourages passengers to share photographs. These photographs will be available to all of us at the end of the trip.

What often seems to happen with wildlife photography and when we are out in the zodiacs in particular, is that half the people on the small boats will have a great view of a particularly exciting wildlife moment and the other half of us will end up with a row of yellow jackets, or someone else’s camera protruding into our shot, or just a blurry mess as you spin around onto your knees to allow others to see. So we all get to view these amazing things, but only about half of us have the good fortune to capture those special moments of a whale breaching or of a leopard seal hurling it’s catch – so the photo journal is a really good idea and many people will participate in sharing their images. So long as you are not a professional photographer planning on making a commercial enterprise out of your photographs, I would strongly encourage people to share their best shots so we can all come away with beautiful images of our shared experiences regardless of where your seat is on the zodiac that day.

The images get compiled and are made available to passengers via a Quark website where you can go to download them once you are home. Worth noting is that the downloadable images will be in a slightly lower resolution than that which was provided by your fellow passengers. Also worth noting – once you put your images into the Photo Journal you are basically giving them to Quark; to potentially use in their advertising brochures and online web presence.  While the Photo Journal is a great resource for the passengers and is a fantastic idea for sharing your best pictures with your fellow travellers, Quark are very happily collecting amazing images for free – which doesn’t bother me, but maybe a concern for some.

Laundry
Halfway through our journey, a ‘special’ for an entire bag of laundry for USD$30 was offered to us, which we took full advantage of. The laundry bag is very generously sized if you wanted to wash jumpers or polar fleece items. The laundry list was amusing – there are pantyhose and stockings listed on the items that you may want laundered, and we couldn’t help but wonder who on earth is coming down here with pantyhose and ladies shoes!

Had we known this laundry offer would come around about mid-trip, we could probably have gotten away with a one week pack instead of packing enough clothing for two weeks – having said that nearly everyone here is wearing the same things to shore every day, and the same things to dinner every night, so it is not like a traditional cruise in that respect! Walking pants or even track pants in the dining room are passable attire.

Giftshop
There is a gift shop onboard that carries a limited range of Antarctic souvenirs, but they do have a good range of warm clothing if you find you don’t have enough layers or need a second beanie or something. I have noticed though that most of the items seem to circulate through a discount table or rack at some point – this could be because we are at the end of the season and they are trying to get rid of stock, or it could just be the way the gift shop always runs… but I’d avoid paying full price on any of the clothing items for the first few days and wait to see if any discount tables appear. The store manager also appears to have considerable discretion to discount items too.

As it happens, there is often an opportunity to send postcards from one from one of the stations along the Peninsula here. Now I haven’t sent postcards home for years, but we are in Antarctica and I’m kinda curious how long it will take, so why not? We were given about 30 minutes warning before going ashore that we would be able to send postcards at that day’s landing, so as you can imagine everyone was scrambling for the gift shop to pick up some cards – which unfortunately had heaps of cards with images of South Georgia and the Falklands and the Southern Oceans, but not many that actually had images of Antarctica or that said, ‘Antarctica’. So I’d advise getting i early and buying some postcards that say ‘Antarctica’ if you are planning on trying to send some home for fun – or better yet, pick some up in Ushuaia on spec.

Things I’m really glad I brought with me…
Merino neck warmer – I bought a cosy neck warmer at a ski shop in Whistler for about $30. So far it has proved a great investment on the zodiac cruising as you can pull it up over your face and to cover your ears when it’s cold, and it’s a lot easier to wrestle with than a scarf.

Toe warmers – we happened to pick up bulk bags of toe warmers when we were in Canada in January, and they were $9.99 for a pack of 16 pairs of toe warmers… here on board and in Ushuaia (and indeed back home in Brisbane) they are selling for about $3.00 a pair. So bulk toe warmers from Amazon or something is not a bad plan, they’re good and they really help when you are sitting still in the zodiacs for what can seem like quite a long time if you are cold. They are also useful to put in your mittens or pockets – or even attach them to electronic devices if the batteries don’t like extreme cold.

Laptop – every day we are out on the zodiacs and every day I’ve been worried about dropping my camera overboard. I have it tied to my wrist with a lanyard, so it’s unlikely, but I’m sure it happens to someone. Anyway, I’m glad I brought my laptop as I’ve been backing up my photos after every excursion – so if the camera goes over, I’ll only lose a handful of pictures, not the lot. Also, I’ve been able to write this blog even though I’m offline… which is good or I’d be so far behind I’d never catch up.

Teabags – weird as it sounds, English Breakfast tea is often thin on the ground. It’s popular as all giddy-up so it gets used up quickly and on ships sometimes seems to run out. The weird orange, chamomile, or apple cinnamon flavoured teas will still be around for the whole trip but good old English Breakfast tea bags will disappear. So I always pack a little bag – back up tea bags, raw sugar, hot chocolate sachets, chai lattes and even mushroom cup-a-soups. They don’t weigh much but can make life more pleasant – which probably says a lot about the type of traveller I am 😉

Things I wish I had brought with me…
A travel mug – there is no tea or coffee in our rooms and no room service, so to get a cuppa we need to go down to the tea and coffee station on Deck 4 and then carry it up four small flights of stairs to Deck 6. Not such a big deal, except when the ship is rocking or if there are plenty of people about. A covered travel mug would have been a good addition to my pack.

A crazy/unusual hat – even a bandana would do. It is apparently a tradition to hold an alfresco dining evening at some point throughout the expedition (weather permitting) and everyone is encouraged to wear a crazy hat. Come to think of it every cruise I’ve been on has a ‘mad hatters’ lunch or afternoon tea or something, so I probably should have been all over this one.  Instead, passengers were encouraged to get resourceful and create a fun and crazy hat from found objects around the ship. Mind you, you never seem to have a lot of spare time, so making some piece of creative headgear is not so easy.

A USB stick – I usually travel with one, but for some reason, I forgot to bring one on this trip. I mentioned earlier, the Photo Journal where people can share images they are happy to have disseminated to all passengers… if there is any particular photo you absolutely love in the ‘Photo of the Day’ or you hear people talking about someone or other’s great leopard seal feeding pic, you can copy it from the laptops during the trip to get the high-resolution version, rather than wait for the resized downloadable content. A USB is also useful to share bulk pictures or videos directly with other people you meet on the ship.

Chocolate – the Expedition Staff usually only have a few hours in town during turn around days and they tend to use that time to find free wifi spots to catch up with family and friends.  It turns out that one of the only food staples that they tend to run out of is chocolate. So if you’d like to make immediate friends with the expedition staff – bring lots of chocolate to bribe your way into their good books.  😉

Things I should have left behind…
Snacks – we brought a few snack foods on board, including cheese and crackers, because we know that the cheese and crackers thing isn’t really an Argentinian thing or an America thing for that matter. Many times I have walked into American supermarkets looking for the makings of a decent cheese plate, and found the options are severely limited. You just can’t find good charcuterie, pates, dips, and fancy cheeses in regular supermarkets the way you can in Australia. So we brought some of these sorts of snacks on board.   What we hadn’t counted on was, Gunter – our Austrian Executive Chef on board, who has the cheese and crackers and savoury snacks thing absolutely nailed down… an entire wheel of Roquefort stationed at every buffet meal; happy thought indeed.

Walking poles – One of our party brought a walking pole with her as she has long-term knee problems, and we were anticipating crossing rocky and icy terrain when ashore.  Quark provides walking poles at every landing site, so you can use theirs and not have to worry about bringing yours and putting it through the biosecurity cleaning processes.

If you happen to be reading this because you’ve stumbled on it while searching about doing a Quark Expedition and you have any questions that I might be able to provide insight on – just ask in the comments and I will do my best to answer.

 

 

Quark Day 10 – Deception Island

This morning’s quote:

“If you plan to pay your shipboard account by credit card, please register your card at Reception”

~ Ocean Diamond Reception Staff

 

Last night we were told that were going to be outrunning a storm on the way back to Ushuaia. Can’t be too bad or we’d be hightailing it back already, but it has pushed up our schedule by a few hours at least. We have excursions planned for Deception Island this morning and instead of our usual 0715 wake-up call for a leisurely 0730-0830 breakfast, we were being given a 0615 wake up call in preparation for immediate pre-breakfast zodiac cruising and landing excursions.

 

As we entered through Neptune’s Bellows and passed Neptune’s window – the narrow passage that allows entrance to Deception Island (one of the South Shetland Islands), we had conditions of 2°C and 35-knot winds. The passage is very narrow and very shallow with apparently some areas with only two meters in depth – the ship has a four meter draft so seriously windy conditions are not ideal. Once passing through the Bellows passage area we entered the bay to find less windy (25 knots) conditions but unexpected gusts of up to 40 knots, leading to zodiac cruising and kayaking being cancelled for this stop.

Instead we would be doing land tours only and that meant half of us would go ashore early and the other half could go back to bed for a couple of hours – thankfully our group, Amundsen (I think I mentioned our zodiac groups were named for explorers – Amundsen, Wild, Shackleton and Scott) was in the latter group and we were able to lay in a bit and not rush straight out into the cold.

I’m not feeling any better than yesterday, and have spent most of the night awake coughing. I went to sleep around 2300 and unfortunately was awake about 0135 and 0250 and 0420 and about this time I pretty much gave up. Between the coughing fits and the pain that coughing causes my back, and worrying that I was going to wake my cabin mate, I’ve had a pretty shit night’s sleep when I really need some rest.  So be it.  Today is our last excursion and I’m not missing it no matter how crap I feel. It’s 0820 now and we are going to be loading up and heading out in our zodiac group at 0915. It’s cold, windy and rather dreary looking outside and I have no idea what there is to see on Deception Island – we were told there is a walk to a lookout point atop a sheer cliff (not a clear shift), but with so much low cloud and fog about, lookouts may be a waste of time and energy. Let’s hope it lifts a little over the next hour or two.

Deception Island lies in Whaler’s Bay which was named by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot, due to the heavy whaling activities undertaken here in the 1900s. There are many old buildings on the island including the dilapidated remains of the Norwegian Aktieselskabet Hektor Whaling Station and a British Antarctic Survey base, which was evacuated during a volcanic eruption which occurred in 1967. The BAS Base, Station ‘B’, had been a centre for aircraft operations in 1955-1957 and again from 1959-1969. It was from this base that in 1928, the Australian Hubert Wilkins, and American Carl Eielson, made the first powered flight over the Antarctic Peninsula, a hazardous 10-hour exploration.

Meteorological and geological research has also been conducted at this site. The beach is covered in ash and cinder, which also covers large barrels, whalebones, water boats and artefacts from the whaling and research groups that once operated here.

The weather was quite cold today and with the winds gusting up to 40 knots, we were having a bit of difficulty remaining upright at some points. The long black lonely looking beach offers no protection from the biting winds. Today was the first time I found myself wondering what sort of person would want to spend a winter in Antarctica. I also for the first time was wondering what sort of ‘emergency supplies’ the Expedition Team was taking ashore with them at every zodiac landing site… not that I thought we were going to need them, but today was the first day that I would say the environment was less than ‘hospitable’.

All these old tank structures were used to boil down or store whale oil. Woody tells me they bring food, water, blankets, temporary shelters, and some items to use for building/securing said shelters. Usually we have around 80 people ashore at a time (IAATO agreements state that no more than 100 should be ashore at any one time for sustainable tourism in the sensitive Antarctic environment and our ship is a good number to allow for the sensible management of visitors), and no, there is not enough food and water for 80 people brought ashore at every landing – but there are enough supplies that they could hold up for a time if needs be, given the very changeable conditions.

Today Deception Bay is cold, extremely windy and almost haunting with its ramshackle run-down buildings and tanks strewn about. It’s hard to imagine this place looking like a bustling and active community of whalers and researchers when today it looks so deserted and run down. The cold air was playing havoc with my already labouring lungs and I was out of breath the whole time we were ashore.

We saw plenty of fur seals – but kept our distance, they have been known to bite.

I took some videos of these seals playing? fighting?  They didn’t seem very aggressive but given they are known to bite, I wasn’t getting any closer to find out.  There is a LOT of wind noise on this video so turn the volume down if you are going to click ‘play’. I was going to dump the audio track, but it sort of captures the harsh conditions – it was so windy, we were having trouble walking into it, and I was certainly having trouble holding the camera still in the high winds we were experiencing.

Mr Whippy seal poo!  

Eventually, my desire to breathe overcame my desire to take more photographs of the hauntingly surreal landscape and we head back to the ship.

Later in the afternoon, we had another lecture “Whales in Depth: Going Deep” with Dany, one of the marine biologists discussing the biological mechanisms that allow these gentle giants to dive to such depths. One of the cutest little jibes I heard out in the zodiacs while we were all marvelling at the enormous humpback whales, was from Dany (marine biologist) – we were all staring in wonder at the whales and he threw Ema (microbiologist) a gentle ribbing: “Yah, why would you study marine biology; microbiology is where it’s at.”

I can’t get over how passionate the crew are about everything in this environment. We have been very fortunate with the weather and have just seen record numbers of whales. The staff are either queued up to say to us, ‘Wow, you have had such luck with the whales, so many whales!’ or we have actually had a very special trip. At various points surrounded by easily more than a dozen of these gigantic graceful creatures – and all of the staff have told us that they have had trips where the passengers were lucky to see even one whale in the distance from the ship. I have seen Naomi with tears in her eyes looking at the whales so close to our zodiac, and Jean saying ‘You saw four whales this outing? That’s amazing, we are lucky to see even one.’  This whole trip has been amazing and today’s foul weather has been the only sign of how inhospitable and harsh conditions must have been here – particularly for sparsely equipped early explorers.

So today is our last excursion and while I won’t be sad to see the back of those clown-sized Muck Boots that I’ve been wearing.  But I am sad to realize that I will probably never be back in these beautiful icy areas ever again.

The rest of the day was spent sailing north as we started to race for a gap between two storm cells – one off the bottom of South America and the other forming over the Southern Antarctic Islands. They had been watching these lows form for a couple of days and knew that we could be forced to make our way back to Ushuaia by going through one of them, but had pushed as fast up the Peninsula as they could so we wouldn’t have to miss our stop at Deception Island. Now the weather radar looked as though we might end up being buffeted around by the edges of both storm cells.

While the Captain and our Expedition Leader worried about the best way to sail back, the passengers were treated to the second half of ‘Penguins: Spy in the Huddle’ in the Main Lounge mid-afternoon while Dr Shannon handed out seasickness medication in readiness for the Drake.

I made it to Dany’s whale lecture, and down to dinner in the Dining Room, but passed on a social ‘Liar’s Club’ in the Club tonight in favour for trying to get an early night.  Have to kick this cold over the next few days before we fly home.

 

Quark Expedition – Day 9 Graham Passage & Cievre Bay

“Give me this glorious ocean life, this salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire! Let me roll around the globe, let me rock upon the sea; let me race and pant out my life with an eternal breeze astern, and an endless sea before.” ~ Herman Melville

Woke up and immediately started coughing up a lung… stepped out of the bathroom and said in my best ‘phone sex operator’ husky voice: “Well, I feel better, how about you?”  It is so annoying that myself and Trish have both picked up some bug that someone has brought on the ship with them – there has been a steady increase in people with an alarming sounding rattling cough, and unsurprisingly in such close quarters, here we are both down with it.

I really don’t want to fly home with this and hope I am better by then… long-haul flights when you’re crook are absolutely shite.  But in the meantime, we have two more days of excursions still to go and another planned in Portal Point this morning which is on the continent proper, so we are both determined to ignore the lurgy and get the most out of these few days in Antarctica.

Okay – scratch that.  We had *hoped* to land at Portal Point this morning but the weather had other plans. It was a balmy 3C but we had winds of 35 knots, which is not suitable for zodiac cruising at all. Portal Point lies at the entrance to Charlotte Bay on the Reclus Peninsula, on the west coast of Graham Land. The British named it after they built a refuge hut at this site in 1956, enabling them to use a nearby snow slope as a gateway up onto the Peninsula plateau. The hut was only occupied from 1956 to 1958, and research conducted from this field hut focused on surveying the region and studying the local geology. The building was dismantled in 1997 and taken to the Falkland Islands apparently. Portal Point is also quite scenic due to the surrounding mountains, lots of crevassed glaciers and glacial tongues that extend down to sea level so it was quite pretty to sail through it, but looking at the chop and watching the snow coming in sideways made us glad we weren’t planning on going out in it. Can you tell I’m inside today updating this as we go?

So we have made it into Graham Passage which separates Murray Island from the west coast of Graham Land. It was named by a Captain Skidsmo after his whale catcher ship, ‘Graham’ which was the first to pass through it, on March 20, 1922. The passage is lined with enormous ice cliffs, which makes for really spectacular scenery as well as great opportunities for viewing marine mammals or at least it might if I was willing to go out on decks and watch as we sailed past.

I am currently in my centrally heated cabin, in bed, rugged up under a doona and a blanket wearing pyjamas and a thick polar fleece jumper and leaning against an electric heat pack propped up on some pillows. I am coughing up lots of crap (which is hurting my back) and my breathing is somewhat laboured, and I’m contemplating getting dressed to go out into the ‘feels like -5C and the snow is coming in sideways, Outside™’, to go for a zodiac cruise. I’ve never really been accused of being stupid before… but I think after this it is probably a fairly fitting descriptor.

This may not be my finest moment of self-care…

So… about half an hour after I wrote the above, I went outside to take some photos of the glaciers and ice in Graham Passage (well, look at it – you can’t just look at this amazing landscape through a salt-splattered cabin window!) and the cold air brought on such a huge coughing fit that I have decided to be sensible and *not* go out for a zodiac excursion in Graham Passage. 🙁 It’s still snowing – sideways – and our Expedition Leader, Woody, has just come over the PA suggesting everyone ‘rug up a bit, it’s a bit chilly’… which is rugged and tough Antarctic Expedition Leader for: ‘It’s fucking cold people, don’t make me pull out the emergency blankets because you don’t have enough layers on’.

Instead, Trish and I have spent the morning enjoying the views from the ship and watching some movies on the in-room movie channel in between coughing fits. I’ve rung to see the ship’s doctor primarily just to double check which anti-biotic I should be self-medicating on, and I hope I’m much better tomorrow to get in some more zodiac cruising at Deception Island.

Those of our group who did go out this morning said the bay was very beautiful and there was sea ice forming – it needs to get stupid cold for sea ice to be forming on the surface – but that the whales were not very active, they were just logging this morning so it was a very cold and rather quiet excursion. I’m glad I didn’t miss more leopard seals feeding or a pod or killer whales or something, but not so great every one went out in these conditions and didn’t get to see much.

This afternoon we are heading to Cierve Bay to hopefully try and find a calmer spot to go zodiac cruising. At this stage, I’m unlikely to go – I’m still waiting to see Shannon, the ship’s doctor.

Thankfully just after lunch, Shannon, the ship’s doctor came to see us. She had a listen to my chest and I was so relieved to hear that it was just a virus going around the ship and not the start of some hideous bronchitis thing. She has seen nearly half of the people on the ship with similar symptoms since we all got on board, and most of those that had it at the beginning of the trip are well and truly over it now.   She also said that the cold air and being outside wasn’t going to make us any worse so if we go out, so just rest up and have a few early nights.

Woo-hoo! I felt rather relieved. After having bloody bronchial pneumonia knock me on my arse for about 8 weeks in 2015, I am really wary of chesty illnesses. The result of this fortuitous conversation was that I felt better about getting rugged up and going out with the afternoon’s planned zodiac cruising around Cierve Bay.

A sneaky leopard seal checking out the propellor on our zodiac (damn, where’s my polariser now?!) Traversing the brash ice to get into the harbour – I love the sound that it makes as you cut through it in the zodiacs.

I am so glad I rugged up and went out… With no real notice the weather had lifted and cleared up completely and we spent a couple of hours riding around in the zodiacs in beautiful blue skies and bright sunshine this afternoon.   It was so warm I was unzipping my parka and taking my gloves off to try and cool down. We have really been enjoying the moody and atmospheric conditions that we have had over the last few days of excursions, but now Antarctica showed us a whole different palette of colours.

About four gorgeous whales in front of a tidewater glacier. Not a single one of these photos has been adjusted for brightness, contrast, colour balance or anything.  They are straight from the camera and unfiltered and unenhanced.  A couple might have had yellow jacket bits cropped out of them – but they are compltely unmanipulated.
While earlier we had been lamenting the lack of blue skies somewhat, now that we had some, I was glad for the overcast days leading up to this – everything is so blindingly white and the glare hits you from every direction.  The worst of it is you can’t see anything on your camera’s LCD screen – even turned right up, it’s not bright enough to overcome this much ambient light.  So every shot you take is pretty much composed blind (so many crooked horizons!). Behind us when we turned into the sun:Getting in amongst the ice.Some Chinstrap penguins blending in with the Gentoo.

Crystal clear water, gorgeous blue icebergs and bright snow and clear skies. It was just amazing out there this afternoon. We saw more leopard seals feeding, at one point were surrounded by about a dozen humpback whales, more crab-eater seals and quite a few chinstrap penguins. The guides here are incredible and you would think they would be used to this place, but every day we have gone out with them they have seemed as full of amazement as we are. This afternoon our guide, Naomi, was so overcome she literally had tears in her eyes when a humpback whale emerged from the dark water right beside our zodiac.   He was so huge and so calm and majestic, and so close I swear you could have reached out to touch him. We have seen so many whales this trip, and the guides have been telling us that on many trips, people are lucky to see one whale, and there we were this afternoon surrounded by about fifteen whales and not knowing which way to look, in the hope of seeing their elegant tails as they dived down to feed.

Chinstrap photo by Arthur:  Photo by Linda:Linda again:Couple of pics from Arthur: Poor little penguin! Nasty ol’ leopard seal.Gulp feeding.  Photo by Jandoc:Photo by Leonardo (Lyn, Mum, Trish and I are in the zodiac pictured!):

We saw some rather rare phenomena today – a large truck sized iceberg rolled right in front of us.  The sun comes out for even just a short time and it will accelerate the melting of an iceberg and with that melting comes a destabilizing effect that causes the iceberg to roll to regain ‘balance’ on the water.  We saw a chunk fall off an iceberg and then saw as it rolled and rolled until it seemingly lumbered its way to a new resting position.

I am so glad I went out this afternoon.

Quark Expedition – Day 8 Danco Island and Wilhelmina Bay

“Once wedded to Nature there is no divorce – separate her you may and hide yourself amongst the flesh-pots of London, but the wild will keep calling and calling forever in your ears. You cannot escape the “Little Voices.”

~ Frank Wild

Woke up feeling like shit and coughing up crap. Dammit. It’s been going around the ship since Day 1 and I was hoping to avoid it.  I distinctly remember someone with a horrid sounding rattly cough sitting directly behind me during our lifeboat drill when we first embarked in Ushuaia, but there is not much you can do to avoid picking up bugs in the confined and enclosed space of a ship.  So yeah, feeling pretty ordinary, possibly have a bit of a temperature but I rugged up for our zodiac excursions anyway…

This morning we are planning to do a land excursion and zodiac cruise at Danco Island. Danco lies in the southern end of the Errera Channel. It is relatively small at only 1.6kms long, but for being so small has quite a high ‘peak’ measuring 180m. There are also lots of beautiful rolled icebergs that tend to collect in this shallow area of the Errera Channel and as we are finding all along the Peninsula, Danco is home to more Gentoo penguins – approximately 3476 breeding pairs (which I thought was rather specific for being an approximation!). Last century, Danco was also home to the British Antarctic Survey’s Station ‘O’. The station was closed in1959 when the work was completed and the hut was removed in 2004 but there’s a plaque indicating where its location was.

More little juveniles learning to swim – they are so funny to watch, hopping in, falling about and hopping straight out again.  The more time we spend with the penguins, the more character and personality we seem to be attributing to them. Yep, that’ll keep you warm… What you looking at? Hey!Run, Gentoo! Run!Photo by Arthur:

Photo by Lorenzo:

We had a wonderful time ashore with just light snow and a bit of a cool breeze.  One of the most fun things to do is just to find a quiet rock and sit on it.  We have a policy of not encroaching on their space and trying to stay about 5m away from the penguins so as not to scare them or cause them to feel chased – but if they come towards where you are, then that’s fine.  So if you just sit and wait for a while or even just stand still long enough, the penguins will come and visit you.  We had quite a few curious little fellows biting at our jackets, boots and gloves as they came and checked us out.

After our visit to Danco, we hit the zodiacs in the stillest and calmest conditions we had yet encountered.  It was only now that we stopped moving that the snowy conditions actually started to feel cold, (Mind you, that could be because I might have been running a bit of a temperature as well…?  who knows?).

Driving the zodiac through the brash ice is a strange feeling, a bit like scraping along a sandbar for ages. Most of the whales we met this morning were just lolling about logging. It seems they tend to be more active in the afternoons when they are awake and feeding more.  We saw some other wildlife this morning – mostly birds and a few crabeater seals.

Photo by Barry: Photo by Arthur: Photo by Jayn: Photo by Arthur: And of course, more beautiful icebergs.

Went back to the ship to warm up and have some lunch and we met a man at lunch today who seemed to be the first person I have met here who doesn’t seem excited or even appreciative to actually be here.  It’s truly weird how much he stood out compared to the other passengers.  There is an odd phenomenon on cruise ships, whereby you often encounter people who only seem happy when they have something to complain about!  No, I’m not kidding, they are on holiday and floating in a luxury hotel where they can do as little or as much as they like, and have all their needs catered to – but they will still find plenty of things to complain about.  This guy is probably one of them and I can’t decide if he’s a sorry old sod or just a complete prat. Anyway, he sat down and started immediately complaining about the food that we’ve been enjoying on the ship – everything is too salty, too spicy or too strong, for his liking but he mentioned this in such a way as to disparage the choices we had made for our lunches?! We then watched him have a small token bowl of soup for lunch, followed by three trips back to the dessert table for ice cream, strawberry jam roll-ups and some sort of pudding.  He was also the sort of person who would not shut up… about himself.  He was in the Australian Navy ‘back in the day’ and was telling us that he’d heard a rumour that we may have to outrun a storm on the way back to Ushuaia… whereupon he launched into a story about being stuck on a navy ship caught in a storm that ‘came out of nowhere back in ’84 off the coast of Coffs Harbour’. There were apparently 25m swells, their ship (can’t remember what type of ship he said it was, some sort of warship or frigate), was riding up the huge waves, ‘teetering at the top a bit’ and then plunging down into the sea with the bow going about 50’ into the ocean, which made the ship jag and jerk as it came back out of the water – the feeling was apparently scary as hell and he thought he was going to meet Neptune. He said you couldn’t walk around the ship without being slammed into the walls and the most dangerous things was attempting a flight of stairs as there would suddenly be nothing under your feet – the Captain he claimed, literally left marks from his fingernails dug into the deck on the bridge.

He then proceeded to subtly start playing the Travel Game with us – first person on the ship to do so – telling us all the bigger and better and more remote places that he had been to (Seriously? more remote than Antarctica?) … from Coldfoot Alaska for ‘the best viewing of the northern lights in the world – you know, way better than Iceland or Greenland’, to Svalbard in northern Norway ‘that you can’t get to by road, you can only get there by supply ship’. He was obviously well travelled and for some reason he wanted us all to know it and then I figured out why… He proudly proclaimed that he had only been ashore the first day of this trip and now that he’d ‘stepped foot on Antarctica’, he’d been here he didn’t need to go ashore again.  I couldn’t understand his attitude, he had spent all this money and come all this way and didn’t seem to feel the need to get the most out of the voyage?!  I wanted to roll my eyes and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to Bangkok; airports count, yeah?’ but instead, I proceeded to goad him (just a little) by saying ‘Well actually, our first landing site wasn’t strictly speaking on the Antarctic continent, as Stonington is just one of the small islands off the Peninsula.” He completely ignored my comment and changed the topic. I didn’t catch his name and I am only mentioning him here because everyone has been so delightful and full of an adventurous spirit, but this guy had come all this way, seemingly so he could say he had been here but was completely disinterested in actually *being here*. I’m rather hoping that he doesn’t sit with us again, and I’m thinking of avoiding the entire greater Sydney region in case I ever have the misfortune to run into him again.

Anyway, lunch was lovely and we managed to get a few hours to warm up before our afternoon excursion to Wilhelmina Bay.  Wilhelmina Bay is located between the Reclus Peninsula and Cape Anne, along the west coast of Graham Land… yes, Graham Land.  My Dad always wanted to come to Antarctica, I think that is how it has ended up such a thing in our imaginations, and we get here and discover there is a Graham Land, a Graham Island, a Graham Harbour and a Graham Channel – it kinds feels like he was meant to be here and I’m sorry that he never got to visit this place before he passed away.  But I digress… Wilhelmina Bay was discovered by Adrian de Gerlache during the haphazard Belgian Antarctic Expeditions of 1897-99 and was named for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who was 18 years old at the time and reigned until 1848. It is a large 24km wide glaciated bay containing many islands and we are going there because it is a favoured whale hangout.

I very nearly piked, as I was feeling rather exausted from the morning’s excursions and the coughing was wreaking havoc with my back pain, but for the first time in my life the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) seriously got the better of me and I trussed myself up in my Michelin Man get up and went out anyway – I mean, what if *today* was the day that we saw *THE* David Attenborough Antarctica moment where the orca hunts a seal off an iceberg and I missed it beacuse I have a bit of a cold?  Nope.  Not going to happen!  🙂

So I added an extra layer of clothing, because it seemed extra cold today (yes, I am pretty convinced I am running a temperature now) and out we went – for a rather eventful and exciting afternoon of very active whale watching in the most beautiful, moody and atmospheric area imaginable.

Landscape photo by Acacia:Uncredited, unfortunately, I assume one of the kayak guides took it: Photo by Leanne: Photo by Leane:Back to the ship and it was very shortly time for our debrief/recap and then onto a BBQ on the back deck for an evening of dining al fresco! Yep, no shit – Gunter, our head chef and his entire team cooked up a storm out on the open decks and we had a crazy hat party.

Today just happened to also be Aunty Mary’s birthday which made it doubly special… who else can say they had an outdoor BBQ in Antarctica to celebrate their 69th birthday?! I mean, seriously. Happy Birthday Mum!  <3  Alex, our Ukrainian Maitre D’ and some of his servers came and sung Happy Birthday.

 

A great finish to another excellent day in Antarctica.  I’m loving this voyage – it’s simply unbelievable.

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.