Why Antarctica - Why Not! - First Landing.

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2020

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MS Expedition

Flag of Antarctica  ,
Sunday, November 28, 2010

The loud speaker "ding donged" into life. This is the captain speaking "Abandon Ship! Abandon Ship! Abandon Ship!" Chilling to the bone announcement, but luckily this was only our (very serious) lifeboat drill exercise where we had to go to our cabins, put on our warmest clothes, don our life jackets found under our beds and present ourselves in our allocated station for boarding our life boat. Good procedure to know!  Around three years ago a similar boat sank in Antarctica and happily, I believe, all went to plan and all lives were saved. So with safety procedure out the way, it was time to explore our home for the next nine nights, the “MS Expedition”.

A trip to Antarctica has long been on our travel list. It is our 7th and last continent, and not so easily or readily travelled by others. The appeal is to see and experience this pristine and remote wilderness area for ourselves, rather than from our armchairs through documentaries and books.

But back to exploring the ship. What a luxurious ship and so well organized! - quite beyond our expectations in every regard. She was a ferry ship in northern waters originally and was bought by a well known and respected Canadian based  tour company, GAP adventures, only last year ,and totally refurbished as a 120 passenger expedition ship. Stabilizers were added to assist with passenger comfort for the dreaded Drake passage, purportedly to be the roughest passage of water in the world.  Our cabin is spacious with twin beds a desk, and a bathroom. The common areas of the dining room, lounge, bars, reception and library are all comfortably appointed and roomy. Down in our zodiac boarding area, we have a heated “mud room” where we put on all our wet weather gear and rubber boots before a landing, and disinfect our boots (to protect against any cross contamination from site to site). On return we again disinfect by walking through a large container of disinfectant and then clean off our boots and waterproof pants with hand held hoses. Protecting the fragile environment here in Antarctica, is utmost in the minds of the expedition crew.

Soon after our life boat drill, a meeting was called in the lounge area and we were introduced to the twelve expedition leaders, who we would get to know very well during the course of our trip. These staff members have naturalist and seafaring qualifications and then a further specialist area with amazing experience and knowledge of Antarctica.  For example Frank is an Ornithologist, Biologist, amazing photographer, author of seven books and is recognized worldwide as an authority on penguins. Scott is a Historian and his lectures on the historical figures who ventured into Antarctica were amazing.  John, one of the expedition leaders has more than 80 Antarctica trips to his credit' but also leads expeditions to the high Arctic during the northern summer. Roger is a Geologist who gave interesting lectures in his field. These are just some examples of the depth of knowledge and experience we had on tap during our trip.

As we sailed away from Ushuaia in the calm waters of the Beagle Channel, the most perfect four course dinner (with choices) was served. Thinking this was special for our first night, we had little idea, then, that for the whole trip every meal would be this good. The meals were served by the most amazingly friendly and attentive staff, headed up by the ever enthusiastic and exuberant Hotel Manager Josie. 

We were reminded to stow away everything loose in our rooms in the cupboards before bed, as we would enter the Drake passage in the night. However we were still a little taken back, being such infrequent sailors, at the rolling and pitching experienced during the night. After a restless night where we had to re-secure some of our possessions and felt like we were about to fall out of bed a few times, we awoke to the unfortunate reality of - seasickness! Not a good experience. We had taken a preventative drug but the Drake passage did both of us in. The following 24 - 36 hours were a blur of staring at the horizon and the toilet bowl at varying intervals. As a footnote though, let me say I am writing this as we cross back again, feeling right as rain! Different medication and I believe a calmer passage - so far so good anyway! 

According to our expedition leaders our crossing was only a two and a half out of ten in severity and we had made such good time our first landing was scheduled an afternoon earlier than we had anticipated. Luckily we were starting to feel well again and the prospect of landing was so exciting. The Expedition leader, Julio explained in very clear terms how landings would work and what exactly was expected from us in how we board the zodiacs and what we do and do not do on land. Whist we would have lots of willing staff to assist, we had to learn how to take someones hand (sailors grip by grabbing the arm above the hand) and how to swing our legs in and out of the zodiac. We also had to be responsible to “turn our tag”. We were each assigned a tag number and at the moment we lined up to get on to the next zodiac we had to turn our white tag over to show blue, denoting we had left the boat. On return our first job after disinfecting our boots was to turn our tag over again, noting our arrival back on ship. 

Rugged up in full wet weather gear and rubber boots we were walking a little like penguins ourselves! A word about rubber boots – they are soooo underrated!!! They became our best friends by keeping our feet and legs warm and dry as we stumbled around in snow and climbed to quite high advantage points in knee high soft snow. They also protected when we disembarked and embarked the zodiacs as this is performed in often knee high and sometimes choppy, icy water. There are no piers to tie up to in Antarctica!  

The moment arrived. We stepped down into a zodiac from the ships outside platform and along with eight others and were off zipping across the water to Aitcho Island, part of the South Shetlands group of islands. Not mainland yet, but still Antarctica.  Land never felt so good beneath the feet!  Some cute little Gentoo Penguins hung around on the beach to welcome us and as we hiked a couple of kilometers, we had mosses and lichens pointed out to us, then many more penguins and also whale bones left over from the past whaling days. We came across several elephant seals on a beach. Great big wrinkly blubbery masses, belching and grunting as they raised their heads to take a look at us, then wriggling around to settle in a more comfortable spot to go back to sleep.

Overwhelmed and on a high knowing that this is only the first day, of daily shore excursions, we all boarded zodiacs to go back to the ship knowing that our Antarctica adventure had now REALLY begun.

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