Trip Start Jun 01, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2008

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

So Antarctica, where do you start? WE set off at 6 on Thursday evening on the Russian Scientific Research Vessel, "Akademik Ioffe" with about 100 passengers and crew (all big gruff Russian sailor types). We headed East down the very calm Beagle Channel and out into the Southern Ocean to the dreaded Drake Passage spending most of the time out on deck spotting wildlife, taking photos and drinking hot coffee. Before sunset we passed the southern most town in the World, Puerto Williams which in on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel. For the next two days we crossed the Drake Passage. One of the most dangerous stretches of sea in the World. It can be the "Drake Lake" or the "Drake Shake". We got lucky enough with the weather and thankfully neither of us were sea sick. Although only 1/4 of the people on board showed up for breakfast and i think the ships doctor was kept very busy. It was rough seas with 4 metre swell but apparently thats nothingfor the Drake. It was two long days but there were plenty of presentations, videos and lectures from the staff to keep us occupied. All of them are hugely experienced eg. Graham .. part of a team who were the first to circumnavigate Sth Georgia Island in sea kayaks with no support, a World first.. and many other crazy expos Coach.. who spent 4 years in the Australian Antarctic Munro Station. Di who was the first female station leader of any nation in the Antarctic. Jacques a marine biologist from Canada who had a penchant for bloodlust and birds the list goes on.. And finally our kayak guides Solan, from Alaska, who has been kayaking professionally in both poles since he was 19 and Mo a French Canadian girl with similar experience. Their enthusiasm for where we were heading and the wildlife we would see was contagious and it kept us all excited despite the two day trip across the ocean. We could also visit the bridge at any stage, check out the nautical maps of where we were headed, the radar and chat the first mate in broken English. We also had a competition to see what time and what longitude/latitude our first ice berg would be spotted.   On the morning of Day 4 on board, Sunday, we were woken by the ships tannoy announcing we had arrived in the Lemaire Channel on the Antarctic peninsula. Each day we would have 2 weather dependant 3 hour excursion, where you landed buy zodiac. We had signed up for kayaking so we had a choice for each excursion to either kayak or go on the excursion. Sometimes these were to shore and other times they were zodiac cruises for wildlife, scenery, bergs etc. IT was hard top call some of the time but I ended up kayaking any time it was offered, which was 6 times in total. Sandra went 4 times. Twice it wasnt an option because of high winds and another time it was aborted after a half hour for the same reason. The weather really can change dramatically in a matter of minutes here. So that very first morning in the Lemaire was amazing. We had perfect conditions, the sun came up and there was no cloud in the sky. We spent the morning kayaking around Petermann island through melting ice flow and getting as close as possible to some humpback whales. The water was very calm as well which made it very easy for us novice kayakers in the double kayak. We were safe enough in the hands of Solan and Mo anyway who never strayed far from the two crazy Irish who decided the Antarctic peninsula would be a good place to start sea kayaking for the first time!. The water temperature was about -1C but we were given all the necessary safety equipment including dry-suits which kept us toastie warm. None of us planned on testing them out in the water though.   That afternoon while everyone else cruised the bay for wildlife and icebergs we kayaked again. The sea ice was thicker and it was a little colder but it was well worth it. We got up close and personal with two huge leopard seals who were dozing on icebergs in the bay and we had a couple of whale sightings as well. They're very inquisitive and come up for a look at us almost vertically. When they do appear close we raft all the kayaks together so they can see us and don't flip us by accident with their fins. Nightly entertainment for the voyage was a mix of presentations where staff would recount their experiences of the Antarctic, bar talks on wildlife, like penguins, the albatross and of course whales. Paulee the ship barman had a different concoction every evening for happy hour. An episode of David Attenboroughs "Inside the Freezer" was also played every evening which was great as it was all filmed in the areas we were visiting. On our second day the weather had gotten pretty rough. The wind had picked up making it impossible to kayak in the morning so we went on a zodiac cruise instead. There would be no shore landing. So we tipped around in the zodiac getting a look at icebergs and glaciers up close in an area known as iceberg alley. We were lucky enough to see a leopard seal hunt down and kill a gentoo penguin about two feet from our boat, amazing stuff you would only expect to see in a documentary. Shortly after this though the weather turned. All of a sudden we were facing 80kmph winds. They are called catobatic winds and they can roar out of nowhere down the glaciers and onto the water in minutes. Our zodiac driver decided to head back to the ship pronto but not before all 8 passengers had been hit with pea size dice pellets and freezing cold sea spray. It showed us all how quickly things can change in the Antarctic if we didn't already know. That afternoon the weather had improved slightly but again not enough for kayaking with rough seas. We got a chance for a landing though, this time to Vernadsky station, a Ukrainian scientific station. We were given a guided tour of the station in broken English from one of the scientists. There were 13 of them there due to stay for a year in total. Its also the site of the southernmost bar in the World. The lads brew their own vodka there from glacial water in their spare time ( which I presume they have lots of). A lonely existence. Days 3 and 4 were spent in the Gerlache Strait. A surreal experience. The weather was very calm but cloud cover was very low, the temperature had dropped to -6C or so (before wind chill, which makes a big difference) and it snowed heavily all day. As Solan put it " the quintessential antarctic kayaking experience". Paddling around the bay surrounded by water with ice slowly forming (it was snowing and the snow wasnt melting when it landed in the water, that's how cold it was) surrounded by icebergs the size of apartment blocks watching huge glaciers calving into the sea. The noise of the calving is like thunder and it can be hard to spot where its happening, if you get lucky you can see it or even get a photo. We also got to combine the kayaking with a shore landing and hike on the peninsula on the evening of day 3. It cut our kayaking short by an hour or so but I got to visit my first penguin colony and actually land on the peninsula for my first time. It was a chance to get up close with the penguins who are really funny clumsy birds to watch on land but then they are the exact opposite in water.   We got another dose of danger on day 4. This time we had started the afternoon kayaking along the shore of the peninsula in flat calm water. About 20 minutes in the catobatic winds made an appearance again which made the conditions very dangerous. We rounded a cliff face to try and find calmer waters but it was just as bad the far side. Solan called the excursion off but it still takes time for the zodiac to pick everyone up as the wind had resulted in everyone becoming quite spread out. Basically we all faced our back to the wind and stopped paddling only stroking every so often to keep the direction. The wind was very high though and Adam, an Aussie flla tried to make a turn into in to go around a set of rocks. His kayak quickly flipped and he ended up "in the drink" as the Aussies would say. We all had been drilled in what to do in that situation and he did his wet exit. Yuri our hardy Russian zodiac driver was quickly on hand to pull him out of the freezing water. Realising things were getting a bit ropey Solan got myself and 3 other kayakers to raft up side by side for more stability. We then waited for Yuri to pick up the other kayakers spread apart from us. It was long before we were all thawing out back on board the ship but again it was another example of the Antarctic weather.   That evening was beautiful with blizzard snowfall and no wind. Sandra and I built a snowman on the top deck of the ship as the captain manoeuvred the ship through giant icebergs skilfully to give us all a close up look at these monsters. We knew at this stage that a large storm was brewing in the Drake so we would have to cut short day 5 by a couple of hours. We still got to make our excursion to Deception Island in the morning. This is a volcanic island that used to be home of a whaling station and research base until 1969 when it last erupted and destroyed the buildings there with volcanic mudflow. Graham took us on a three hour hike to the 1800m summit of the volcanic crater which was tough going. There were huge winds to contend with but it was worth it for the views of the bay and the Sth Shetland islands in the distance. Graham informed us that the wind was blowing at 50 knots or a force 10 gale at the peak. Not sure what that equates to in kmph but it was enough to hold my body weight up when I lay into it. That night we got a beautiful fire red sunset to cap off a fantastic 5 days in the Antarctic.   This was our final excursion before we left for the two day sail back through the Drake Passage. Basically that's what gives me time to write this. The Drake is worse today than the outward journey and alot of people including Sandra are suffering. Thankfully Ive escaped for the moment anyway. This was truly an unforgettable experience and worth every cent. Hopefully the photos will do it justice. You could try and describe what we've both experienced but you would run out of superlatives
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