Location: Peterman Is. & Lemaire Ch., Antarctica
there was a lot of excitement in the air this morning as today was the day that we would get out first glimpse of antarctica.
like most of the other passengers on board the ship i raced up to the bridge and observation decks early to scan the horizon for a sign of land. there was a competiton going to see who could spot the first iceberg and every single person on the ioffe was keen to take out the title. after an hour or so we passed a pod of humpback whales and shortly afterwards there was an annoncement over the loudspeaker to say that the first iceberg had been sited. without a good pair of binoculars i couldn't see it at first however it wasn't long before a massive tabular iceberg could be seen by the naked eye floating on the horizon. everybody, including the peregrine staff and russian crew who'd visited the antarctic dozens of time before, were ecstatic. my heart was thumping as the adrenaline raced through my body and i had a smile on my face that stretched from ear to ear. finally, we were within reach of antarctica and i must admit that i have never felt so pumped in all of my life.
it wasn't long before we saw another iceberg, and then another - and then the continent itself came into view. even though we were still a relatively long distance from antarctica it was clearly evident that the mountains we saw on the horizon were no mole hills. these things were huge and the closer we got to them the bigger they appeared. i'd expected antarctica to be a flat, icey nothingness with no signifcant geographical features such as mountains but i was wrong. very wrong. the chain of mountains were blanketted with ice and snow and stretched for as far as the eye could see across the horizon. they had jagged peaks of all different shapes and sizes and in places you could see dark rock protruding out from the ice. massive glaciers carved their way in between the snow-capped peaks and the sheer faces of the mountains themselves dropped straight into the water below. it was a breath-taking sight and although i've done a lot of travelling in many corners of the globe i'd never, ever seen anything as magnificent as what lay ahead of me.
as the akademik ioffe neared the continent there were more and more icebergs floating in the water. most were small chunks of ice known as 'bergy bits', some were as large as thie ship itself and a couple or tabular icebergs in the distance would have been several kilometres long. a few nautical miles from shore, and with the mountains now towering over us, the water became so thick with bergy bits, icebergs and sea ice that the boat was having to break through ice to continue on it's way. a few penguins and a couple of seals lazed in the early morning sun on some nearby icebegs as the ioffe passed, looking up at us without a care in the world.
the russian crew skillfully navigated the boat through the semi-frozen water, dodging icebergs of every shade of blue and cruising along the edge of the enormous icey mountains which were now shadowing the ship from our starboard side. everybody on board was in absolute awe and were busy snapping roll upon roll of photos to try and capture the scenery however no photos could have done the place justice. to fully comprehend how magnificent the icey landscape was you really needed to be there yourself. we soon dropped anchor just off peterman island, which at latitude 65 degrees 11' south; longitude 64 degrees 09' west was to be our most southern landing during our time in antarctica.
i was bursting with excitement as i donned my cold weather gear in preparation for the first of our landings. i wanted to get suitably dressed as quickly as possible to be one of the first passengers on the zodiacs however the amount of clothes that i had to wear meant that getting changed was a lengthy process. being a queeslander i'm not used to wearing layer upon layer of clothing so found myself fumbling about as i got dressed in 3 pairs of sock, thermal underwear (top and bottom), long pants, ski pants, t-shirt, 2 jumpers, gore-tax jacket, beanie, neck scarf, sunglasses, gloves, gumboots and life jacket. it was a real mission but at least i was warm and toasty as i wandered out onto the deck looking like the michelen man.
depending on the weather conditions, peregrine aimed at offering all of the passengers at least two zodiac landings or cruises per day. the zodiacs were winched off the ship by a large crane which sat on the stern of the vessel. to board the inflatable boats the passengers were required to walk down a set of stairs at the side of the ship, which was a little tricky at times especially when the sea was rough and the stairs were covered in ice. each zodiac held about 12 people and thanks to the professional manner in which the peregrine crew operated the task of getting everyone in and out of the zodiacs was a quick and easy exercise.
once in the zodiac we headed towards peterman island, which was just a short distance away from the now stationary akademik ioffe. on the way there we spotted a few adelie penguins and a couple of seals lying on some icebergs. the sun shone through the bergs on which they were resting, creating an incredible blue background behind them. large colonies of gentoo penguins could be seen lining the shores of peterman island and as the zodiac passed them they would dive into the water and swim away, breaking the surface in a similar manner to what a dolphin would as they gathered speed. the water was chrystal clear so if you peered over the side of the zodiac you could see the penguins darting along underneath the boat. they swam at incredible speeds for a creature that looked so clumsy whilst on dry land.
the zodiac soon landed at circumcision bay on peterman island and everyone jumped on to land. none of us had been on dry land for over 2 days and 3 nights so it was a nice feeling to be back on terra ferrma again. what was even nicer is that we had just taken our first few steps in antarctica.
we spent a few hours wandering around peterman island, which is home of the southern most gentoo penguin colony in the world. there were thousands and thousands of penguins scattered all over the place and it was quite surprising to find that they weren't scared of us, but were rather curios of us being there. if you sat down quietly in the ice the penguins - mainly gentoos but with a few adelies here and there - would wander up to you and start pecking on your pants or backpack. although one of the rules regarding viewing wildlife in the antarctic is that you must keep a distance of 5 metres from the animal, this is almost impossible given the number and curiosity of the creatures there. if the animals approach you though, the 5 metre buffer zone between you and them can generally be ignored.
there were plenty of juvenile penguins on peterman island at the time too and although they were almost fully grown, most were still covered in fluffy grey feathers or in the process of moulting these. walking up a small hill i saw dozens of penguin nests made of tiny rocks and some nesting blue-eyed comorants. towards the back of circumcision bay the snow and ice was actually pink in colour, caused by a weird phenomenom known as snow algae. i believe that the algae actually grows on the penguin shit rather than the snow but don't quote me on that.
after sitting on a hill with a few cheeky gentoo penguins biting my fingers, looking out over a stretch of frozen water and some magnificent blue icebergs, i wandered across to an abandoned argentinean rufuge hut that had been built on the foreskin - sorry, foreshore - of circumcision bay. a flock of noisy antarctic skuas, the equivalent of antarctic vultures in a way, were attacking some rather pissed-off penguins just outside the hut and a couple of penguin corpses lay rotting in the snow nearby. nature can be cruel at times but there's not much one can do about that. the elements in antarctica can be cruel as well and took the lives of 3 brits back in 1982 as they wandered across the sea ice to seek shelter on peterman island. a cross had been erected on a hill overlooking the island as a memorial to them.
with our time on peterman island up, we jumped in the zodiacs to head back to the ship for lunch. the dining room was crawling with people who chatted about what they'd seen and done during the first landing and the air was so full of excitement that you could almost chew it. the midday meal ended with a speech made by some of the peregrine staff, in particular the bird expert jacques, who answered a lot of the questions that the passengers had about the wildlife we'd seen on peterman. with the anchor pulled, the ioffe cruised to our next destination - iceberg alley.
iceberg alley is just around the corner from peterman island and is a place where icebergs of all different shapes and sizes go to 'die'. as i stepped out onto the deck to board one the zodiacs i was confronted with a mind-boggling vista of icebergs that had broken off from glaciers and drifted into this calm stretch of antarctic waters to slowly melt, break up and disappear. some of the icebergs, according to the crew, were from glacial ice which was thousands of years old. new ice is white, older ice is blue and the oldest ice - some of which could have been formed whilst wooly mammoths and sabre toothed tigers wandered the planet - was actually black. the ice changes colour over time because of the pressure put on it by the glaciers from which they originated. this pressure slowly squeezes all of the air out of the ice, compacting it so hard that the black icebergs can be tougher than steel. for this reason, captains of ships such as the akademik ioffe are terrified of hitting these black icebergs as even the smallest piece of black ice can damage and possibly even sink a ship.
once out in the zodiacs we cruised through the maze of icebergs, of which no two were even remotely similar. in a way iceberg alley was like a natural museum full of the most beautiful sculptures imaginable. the wind and water had eroded the icebergs into some magnificent shapes and even the tiniest patterns in the ice were incredible. the sun picked up the irridescent colours of the ice and accentuated the electric blues of the massive caves that were present in some of the large icebergs. each of the caves were laiden with glistening icicles, some of which were larger than me. every now and again the zodiac would pass under an icey overhang that had been created by the waves washing against the base of the icebergs. these things were enormous.
in places the sea was so full of bergy bits that you couldn't see the water for the ice, which made zipping around in the zodiacs a lot of fun. the guys steering the inflatable boats revved the outboard motors as they battled their way through the ice, which banged and scraped the bottom of the boat as we went. whilst fighting our way through one large area of bergy bits we noticed some seals lying on a large, flat iceberg. a closer inspection showed that one of the seals had several large and very deep scars all over its' body, which had no doubt been inflicted by a hungry orca or leopard seal. on a nearby island some elephant seals wallowed in their own faeces whilst the stench of an antarctic fur seal colony close by filled my nose. everywhere that i looked i could see penguins diving in and out of the water as they swam after schools of fish, the speed that they gathered whilst swimming was astonishing. after a few hours of exploring the amazingly beautiful iceberg alley the zodiac began heading in the direction of the the ship. the snowy mountains and glaciers in the distance provided the perfect backdrop to the journey back to the warmth of the akademik ioffe.
Location: The Drake Passage, Antarctica
first light showed that paul was still green and that there was still no sign of land. The air temperature had dropped though so it was quite cold out on deck, and the weather had deteriorated slightly. the waves were a bit bigger and the sea appeared to be more menacing but thankfully i was still not seasick and was able to face breakfast. paul decided to skip the first meal of the day for obvious reasons.
it was a pretty uneventful day actually - just another day out on the drake passage heading towards antarctica, catching up on some sleep and bird watching. i attended a couple of seminars to pass the time, and chatted with some of the people who were on board the ship. most of the passengers were older than myself - i was one of the youngest people on the trip - but everyone that i met was nice and had done some interesting things with their lives. i was very impressed by the fact that an english guy called carl had, like me, grown a beard especially for the trip. we both agreed that you can't go to antarctica and not have a beard!
a highlight of the day for me was crossing the antarctic convergence. this is the region of the southern ocean encircling antarctica, roughly around latitude 55 degrees south (but deviating from this in places) where the cold waters of the antarctic circumpolar current meet and mingle with warmer waters to the north.
the 6pm happy hour at the bar was becoming quite a melting pot of pissheads from all walks of life. there were doctors, journalists, nerdy scientific types, an old guy who'd ridden a motorbike around the world, posh old ladies sipping wine, carl the bearded house-husband and a few scuffy backpackers - namely yvette, paul and myself. before leaving ushuaia yvette had vowed that she wasn't going to drink on the boat and that her trip to antarctica would be a 'drying-out' period in her life. needless to say she was getting shitfaced with the best of them after realising that there wasn't much else to do at this point on the journey other than get drunk. paul was still too ill to face a beer.
before heading to bed i spent a bit of time wandering around on deck by myself, staring out into the black of night with the cold wind biting my face. it was eerie being out in the middle of the ocean with the ship crashing in and out of the inky waves. it was really weird and probably the most isolated and lonely i've ever felt, even though 110 people were only a short distance away in their centrally heated rooms or propping up the bar.