On our third day in Antartica we arrived at the small Argentine base of Almirante Brown. Passing the now ubiquitous Gentoo penguins we climbed up behind the base to a small peak about 140m above the base. The staff joked that Lucy was probably the youngest person to have ever “summited” the peak. From the top we again had fantastic views around the bay.
Whilst it was fairly hard going climbing up in the snow it was much easier going down as we slid most of the way down on our bottoms. The girls loved it.
When we reached the bottom the snow was gently falling but we still took a cruise out in the Zodiacs on the way back to the boat. The ice bergs were magnificent and it was very atmospheric in the gentle snowfall. Yet again we had humpback whales around us, feeding and cruising around. We could also see how one glacier had advanced out into the bay and had massive towers at its leading edge.
On our return to the boat we soon warmed up. As usual we were treated to a great lunch of soup, salad, main course and desert. What with full cooked breakfasts, 4 course lunch and dinners plus afternoon tea and biscuits it was clear we would not be loosing any weight on this trip.
The weather was clearing and that afternoon we landed at Cuverville Island on a long pebbly beach absolutely covered with penguins. Everywhere you went there were penguins coming in and out of the sea. As we walked further along the beach there were fur seals and weddel seals lounging on the rocks. The sky were clearing and again the views were beautiful it is really hard to describe just how stunning it was.
With the clearing skies it meant that tonight it was good to go camping on the ice. So after dinner we headed off the ship to land on the Antartica peninsular for a night on the ice. As everything has to be shipped out with us we had to take our own toilet. Basically a large lined drum nicknamed “Mr Yum Yum”. This was placed behind some rocks and poles used on the path to it to mark whether it was occupied or not. It might not have been the most comfortable toilet but it had a great view.
To sleep on the ice we were given a mat, a sleeping bag and a bivvy bag to stop the sleeping bag getting wet. No tent! First we had to dig a hole in the snow to place everything into. This was in case the wind got up. We dug 2 triple holes. One for me,Gilly and Lucy and one for Alisha, Brianna and William. The kids were really excited. Before bed they all did some more hulu hooping so what with this and the digging we were quite warm when we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was nearly midnight but it was still light. In fact it did not get dark all night just a twilight.
We all slept reasonably well and Gilly and I awoke just after 5 to the most amazing sunrise and humpbacked whales blowing in the waters below us. The zodiacs were coming to get us at 6 but the children did not want to get up as they were fast asleep, warm and cosy. Eventually they were up and we were whisked back to the ship for a very welcome hot cup of coffee. I had always wanted to camp on the ice but thought that after doing it once that would be it. In fact it was really great, yes the weather was good which helped, but if we had the opportunity to ever do it again I certainly would.
That mornings landing was at Orne Harbour. First we did a short cruise to see the seals and the sea birds before landing. The star sight here was a different type of penguin, the Chinstrap Penguin. They are the mountain climbers of the penguin world and build their nest high on the top of rocky hills. We found a colony close to the beach and the kids felt that was enough. I though decided to continue the climb up the hill to see some more penguins and to enjoy the view.
To my surprise I looked down and saw the girls making the trek up the hill. They had seen that from the top you could slide down and they had not wanted to miss out on a great slide down the hill.
Returning to the boat we were surrounded by humpback whales. This time they were really close to the zodiacs. The guides said even they were amazed at how many whales we had seen but it was not finished yet.
In the afternoon we entered Wilhelmina Bay on a beautiful sunny afternoon. The scenery we had seen so far on this trip had been fantastic but this possibly topped the lot. It was just stunning. The bay was surrounded by white mountains with massive glaciers flowing down to the sea. It simply blew us away. And then to top it all it was teeming with humpback whales. Everywhere you turned you could see them either singly or in groups.
Excitedly we got into the zodiacs and were surrounded by them. We even saw a couple breaching (jumping completely out of the water) although they were too quick to get a photo of. It was just amazing to be in such a beautiful, pristine environment surrounded by such large gentle animals who were unconcerned by our presence.
Half way through the cruise we were surprised to see a couple of the crew pull up in a Zodiac. They had coffee laced wit some liquor to warm us all up. Very nice.
That evening we were treated to a magnificent sunset and also a full moon. What a day.
The next morning we had headed to the South Shetland Islands and were welcomed with a sunny but windy day. The wind was gusting up to 45 knots which is around 90km an hour or Force 9 on the Beaufort Scale. Inside the ship it was rocking much more but you only really noticed the wind if you ventured outside.
We had arrived at Deception Island which was to be our landing for the morning. But first we had to get in. Deception Island is a Volcanic Island in the shape of a horseshoe with the Middle been a giant caldera. The entrance to the horseshoe is narrow made worse by the fact that about halfway across is a submerged rock just below the surface so it’s a tricky entrance at the best of times. We were told if the winds were above 35 Knots we would not be able to go in. However our captain very skilfully navigated us in despite the 45 knot winds.
It was though too dangerous to launch the zodiacs so instead the ship cruised around the giant caldera. The landscape was very different with volcanic ash everywhere. The last eruption had been in the late 1960’s. On the way out we could see large colonies of Chinstrap penguins on the rocky cliffs.
At Deception Island passengers are given the opportunity to swim in the Southern Ocean. It was not going to be possible today but the plunge pool on the ship was filled with sea water so for those passengers who wanted to take a polar plunge this was where it could be done in 2 degree water. Gilly and I decided it had to be done so took the plunge. Needless to say after been immersed we got out very quick!
With the winds we were not going to be able to do any further landings that day. There was also a storm coming in with winds of 70 knots an hour, hurricane strength. Our captain, and for that mind us, did not want to be out in the ocean in those winds so it was decided to set sail immediately for Ushuaia to try and stay in front of the storm.
Despite the storm the sail across the Drake Passage was relatively calm. We spent the day sailing reliving what we had seen, interspersed with some more great talks by the experts on board. Time passed quickly and we had made lots of new friends there was always a good evening to be had in the bar.
We managed to stay ahead of the storm and arrived early back to the Beagle Channel. This meant we had to spend a day circling around until it was time to take the pilot on board to take us to our mooring. Mind you we still had a great day. More talks as well as a tour of the ship to see the engine room etc
We also had loads of sea birds near the ship and it was great watching the birds, especially the Albatrosses as they wheeled in the sky and dipped just above the waves with their massive wings.
We celebrated our return and the great trip we had had in style that evening. A great dinner followed by speeches. Then right at the end the 4 children asked to speak. They confidently came up and took the microphone to speak to the 100 people seated. They wanted to thank the crew and presented each of them with a special badge they had made. None of the parents knew anything about this, they had done it all by themselves. The crew were really touched and we were so proud. We knew then that they had enjoyed the trip as much as we had.
The next morning we were in Ushuaia and after an early breakfast it was time to disembark. It had been a trip of a lifetime to a truly special place. We said our goodbyes to the fantastic staff who had made it so special and to the many great people we had met and returned to the campsite via the launderette to find the truck all safe and sound.
We were exhausted after the trip but our memories will stay with us forever of the special, magical place at the end of the world called Antarctica.