Before I start writing I’m going to have to apologise for the excessive use of superlatives in this post about our trip to Antarctica but I won’t apologise for the number of photos. Even if we managed to capture just a tiny amount of its beauty, it will give you an idea of the magnificent allure.
The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is a Finnish built, Russian ice breaker. When it isn’t carrying out research trips, a Canadian company hire it as an expedition cruise boat. As we booked last minute and only very few boats take children, it turned out purely by chance that we ended up on what we felt was the best boat for us. Its programme is more adventurous than many of the other voyages, with lots of landings. Neither of us had done any sort of cruise before so I have nothing to compare it to, but we felt we got the best of both worlds: so comfortably looked after but lots of quite strenuous activities. It is one of the smaller expedition cruise boats (max 96 passengers) and because it was built for scientific purposes, it had a variety of functions that most boats don’t have, including that it could turn and stop almost anywhere. Having read about other trips we had been slightly worried that Steve and I might be some of youngest passengers on an Antarctic cruise. We needn’t have worried as it turned out that the Vavilov had a wide demographic of ages, we ended up being in the middle. The sailors and captain were all Russian employed by the Russian Oceanography Institute but the One Ocean expedition cruise staff were from all over.
As we boarded in Ushuaia we were delighted to see another family, they were from Australia and had 2 children. The staff were really surprised too, as they very rarely see children on a trip. The kids were soon running as a pack. Brianna and William are such delightful and lovely kids and at 11 and 9 they were a perfect fit with our girls.
The first evening on board we sailed through the calm Beagle Channel and got to know many of the other passengers and staff. For the following couple of days we crossed the Drake Passage, one of the roughest seas in the world. Luckily it was a relatively smooth crossing but Lucy and I still managed to be seasick. By the second day, we were feeling better and I managed to attend some of the presentations from the naturalists and scientists onboard. It was amazing to listen to the lectures and stories from these experts in their fields.
Eventually on the third evening after sailing for 48hours we had our first sight of the Antarctic islands. Huge icy cliffs of glaciers looming out through the fog, the excitement was growing.
The following morning everyone was on the bow of the ship early, way before breakfast, staring memorised by the black waters with great lumps of brilliant white ice in the Lemaire Channel. Surrounded by high cliffs and peaks outlined in crisp snow. It was breathtakingly beautiful, the white ship was perfectly reflected in the mirror-like waters.
After a fortifying breakfast, we struggled into our multiple layers. The boat provided Steve and I with insulated Wellington boots, insulated water-proof trousers and matching jackets. We took clothes for the girls, as they only had them for adults. On went the tights, thin socks, ski socks, leggings, fleece trousers, thick waterproof trousers, t-shirt, 2 fleeces, waterproof jacket, hat, muff, thin gloves,waterproof gloves, wellies and, of course, a life jacket. It sounds a lot but it wasn’t too much more than they would wear for a European winter. But after wearing mostly shorts and t-shirts for the last few months, it was a struggle to get them dressed. They didn’t complain at all though even though it made them waddle like the penguins we had come to see.
Blue skies were peaking out from behind fluffy clouds and the fog kept its distance on the tops of the peaks. We carefully climbed down the gangway onto the inflatable rubber zodiacs. The sea was like glass, which made our first clumsy transfer from ship to zodiac, in all our layers, easier than we had expected. The girl’s life jackets had a very handy handle on the top of their back, which meant that if necessary they could be easily grabbed like a giant handbag.
Pleneau Island had a large colony of Gentoo Penguins and a fantastic view from the top of a rocky headland of lots of grounded icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Watching the penguin’s comical waddling up and down the snowy hills, could have kept us entertained for hours. However once they hit the sea, they changed from comical clowns to fast, sleek, efficient hunters. Both parents care for their chicks, taking turns hunting and brooding to keep them warm. Getting the chicks to be fully grown and independent by the end of the short Antarctic summer is hard work.
We took a cruise in the zodiac past the amazingly carved, ice-blue bergs. I know the science behind their their shape and colour but you could defiantly see God’s hand in their beauty. As the fog rolled slowly in from behind, as we headed back to the ship, the scene became even more unworldly and celestial.
All that excitement and beauty was too much for some people. Lucy conked out in the bottom of the zodiac as we marvelled at the views.
That afternoon on Petermann Island we landed between several colonies of nesting gentoo and adélie penguins. We were told that we should stay at least 5 metres from them but that they are curious animals, so we shouldn’t expect them to stick to the same rules. It was lovely just to stop and watch them waddle up and toboggan down the “penguin highways” from their high rocky nesting sites. If you stood still they weren’t afraid of humans so would come far closer. While we were totally absorbed watching the penguins, the expedition staff were keeping a close eye of the amount of loose ice that had come into the bay. The wind direction had shifted since we had come ashore and now the little bay was rapidly filling with ice. We were asked to make our way back to the zodiacs, we didn’t mind as we’d already had a good walk and look around. The clear landing spot where we’d been just an hour and a half earlier before was now completely choked with small pieces of broken glacier. The staff were highly professional and we felt very safe with them but we could see it wasn’t the best situation to have all your passengers in. We slowly ground our way through the lumpy ice soup with the propeller making a horrible scraping sound. The ship itself had no such problems, it is fully equipped to push away any ice, so once we got close enough we were back in clear waters again.
Our first wonderful day in Antarctica ended with another breathtaking backdrop of the Lemaire Channel. We decided then, that even with all the hassle of getting there, the seasickness, cost etc, that if we had just had that magical day it would have been worth it. Port Lockroy is a historic base belonging to the British Antarctica Survey, it has been preserved as a museum to show how life was for polar scientists and explorers in the 1950 and 60’s. It was fascinating to see how they worked and lived especially how they over wintered. One of the scientists on board had done as such for 2 winters in 1967 to 1969 at a different but very similar base, so it fascinating to hear about his experiences after seeing the conditions they he had lived in. They also had crèches of gentoo chicks literally on their doorstop. When the chicks are big enough both parents go to sea to bring back enough food, the chicks huddle and “crèche” together for warmth and safety. Our “babies” were mesmerised and all four children just stood and watched the curious chicks. After one of the postmistresses had gently removed a snoozing chick from someone’s abandoned backpack we were able to take a zodiac across to nearby Jougla Point and take a look at a massive whale skeleton and the tiny remains of icebergs carved onto almost mythical figures by the elements. I found while wandering around gazing in awe at God’s marvellous creation, I was often brought back from the higher plains of wonder by the pungent odour of penguin guano. It is heady stuff and very pink from all the krill they eat. Lucy like many 6 year olds is a mud (or in this case penguin poo) magnet and she had to be hosed off every time we returned to the ship, luckily with all her layers she couldn’t even feel the cold water.
Later that day we took the scenic route to our landing at Neko Harbour and were treated to a magnificent afternoon of watching several groups of humpbacked whales feed. Wow! We were just speechless, they were so graceful, so huge ….and so close. First we would see a ring of bubbles forming on the surface as they bubble-netted the krill from deep below, then the tips of their huge jaws would appear scooping up any krill in their path. Some were just cruising around near the surface socialising. The noise of them expelling air through their blowholes could be heard throughout the bay as different groups of usually solitary animals congregated in the rich feeding grounds. We didn’t know which way to look. Whilst relaxing near the surface we could see their characteristic humpback and small dorsal fin and we were so lucky to see many of them raising their tails just as they dove into the deep. The bay was surrounded by huge cliffs of glacial ice that groaned and cracked. Occasionally there would be a loud shot-like noise as an iceberg carved from the end of the glacier.That night, we had been really looking forward to camping out on the continent in just a sleeping bag and bivvy bag straight on the snow but it wasn’t to be. Thick grey snow clouds rolled in during the evening, so it wouldn’t have been safe. I think quite a few people were secretly relieved. I was really looking forward to it, I couldn’t imagine a more magical place to spend the night. Unlike most of other the boats, ice camping was included in the trip and was open to everyone. The doctor and safety crew thought there was absolutely no reason why the children couldn’t do it. In the end about half of the boat signed up to do it. The girls were sad that it was being postponed, until they heard instead that their favourite member of staff: Shiho from Japan, was going to do a short hulu-hoop show instead. We loved the fact that the expedition staff whilst being highly skilled and professional at the job they were employed for were also encouraged to share their other talents. Shiho teaches hulu-hooping in Australia, when she is not in the Arctic or Antarctic. As she had a very willing group, both children and a few adults, she was often up on deck in calm waters teaching everyone to hulu-hoop. A rather surreal view as we glided past icebergs, whales and glaciers.