Baño Antartico y Adiós...

Trip Start Oct 05, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2013

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Flag of Antarctica  , Antarctica,
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Another wake-up call, another day, but one tinged with sadness as this was our last day of landings before we started the long journey back across the Drake Passage...

We had sailed through the night back to the South Shetland Islands and were woken up early because the guides were keen for us to see the boat sailing through 'Neptune's Bellows', the almost hidden entrance to the inner bays of Deception Island. It's a tiny passage made even more difficult on our approach by an iceberg sitting right in the navigation path of the boat. Having made it safely through (and clapped the crew!!) we anchored in the middle of the submerged crater of an immense 'sleeping' volcano.

Our destination was Telefon Bay, located to the north. The beautiful weather of the previous day had disappeared and we were left with a very cold, strong wind and grey overcast skies. The wind meant the zodiac ride was slow as the current and waves were very strong. There was very little wildlife on the island so our main focus was on the landscape. We walked from the beach area up to the edge of one of the mini craters and stood at the foot of an amazing black glacier looking at small waterfalls cascading down. We then moved higher up and got to see the view of the whole bay and appreciate the scale of the volcano. It was at this point that our guide told us about the emergency plan should any part of the volcano blow whilst we were there...something about the boat leaving us and moving to the outside of the island, whilst we would try to walk to an agreed point where they would try to pick us up. I'm glad we never had to put this into action...!!

The idea of a 'baño Antartico' had been muted since the start of the trip and this was the infamous location where we had to put our words into actions...!! The volcano can - at certain times - warm the water on the shore. What this means in reality is that the water is a few degrees warmer than the surrounding areas, but still pretty cold - it's certainly no thermal bath, nor do you see steam rising from any of the water. Unfortunately for us, the certain times when this happens is also related to low tide, whereas we were actually there at high tide. That wasn't enough to deter us though, and on arrival back at the beach there was about a third of us who actually stripped off and managed a dip. I'd be lying if I said it was enjoyable, but I doubt there are many people who can say that they have bathed in Antarctic waters!! Luckily for us, the guides and sailors were there with towels afterwards and having got dressed as quickly as our frozen fingers and feet would allow we were all given priority in the zodiacs to get us back to the boat and into the hot showers as soon as possible. We were also greeted with a special extra with our usual hot chocolate - a splash of Captain Morgan's courtesy of Hector (the hotel manager) to help warm our insides. It was very much needed!!

Onto our final destination then - Hannah Point on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands. Our guides had described this as one of their favourite places, representing Antarctica in a microcosm due to the density of wildlife and presence of vegetation. The landing was once again difficult due to the wind, but we managed to convince one of the sailors that if we could get enough people together he would allow us to go fast and 'jump' in the zodiac on the way back to the Ushuaia for the very last time!!

This was a guided landing due to the density of penguin colonies on the island. Because the weather is slightly warmer here, the chicks had been born earlier and we were able to see much older 'adolescent' penguins than we had previously done. There were both gentoos and chinstraps living very close to each other and we moved through at a very slow pace to observe the antics. The chicks were hilarious - some of them appeared to only have recently discovered their wings and were running round and round in circles trying to use them. There was also a lot of play fighting between them and crazy chases as they each tried to out do the others. The funniest though was their behaviour towards their parents, or the adults who were in charge of the penguin kindergarten - a collection of chicks looked over by a handful of adults whilst the others went off fishing. If they weren't running away from them, the chicks were chasing the adults. The whole colony was a constant scene of activity, far more so than any of the others we had previously seen!!

We also got to see a macaroni penguin and chick, very distinctive because of their yellow spiky hair to the side of the head. There was only one standing very confidently in the middle of a chinstrap colony, and to be honest it didn't look like you would really want to mess with it - a lot bigger than the other penguins, and with a very large beak!!

The island is home to a large number of nesting birds, most of whom feed on penguin chicks when they can. For this reason, we were led through very slowly and in smaller groups to ensure we didn't distract any of the parents from watching their chicks. I think we saw albatrosses, skuas and kelp gulls, but was mostly too occupied with watching the penguin chicks to focus on the birds...!!

A colony of elephant seals were also on the island. These lay in a giant pile of blubber just off the beach, occasionally waking up to roar or scratch themselves. Our guide explained that they were all young adolescent males who were in the process of shedding their skin, hence why they were spending time out of the water and on land. We passed a couple more groups as we made our way to the return landing beach, some of whom gave us a sleepy look as we stopped to take more photographs. Apparently they can move as fast as us, if not faster, although it's hard to believe when you see them roll around and the blubber wobble!! We were told that if one started approaching us that the best way to scare it off is to bang 2 rocks together as they really don't like the sound. I'm glad I never got to test this theory though...!!

It was a very sad group of people who stood at the landing beach waiting for what we had deemed the 'last boat' out of Antarctica. There were enough of us to fill the 'jumping' boat, and we managed to get Pablo who was the sailor who had promised to allow us to speed back to the Ushuaia. It was a great return journey, bouncing along on the waves holding on for dear life and squealing with delight, or possibly fear at the thought of falling into the freezing water!! A fitting end to 11 great landings...

Boarding one last time, we had to hand back our life jackets and boots and it was time to put away the snow gear as it would not be required during our return journey on the Drake. Another dinner, and then it was up to the bridge to say a very sad goodbye as we watched the last pieces of Antarctica drift by, accompanied by some very dramatic music courtesy of the Third Officer, Eugenio. There was a lot of drumrolls and crashes, very apt as dark grey clouds reflecting our mood rolled in and hid the last piece of Antarctic sun...
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