Pondswimmer goes to the Antarctic

Trip Start Jan 16, 2009
Trip End Feb 03, 2009

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Am on the way to the Antarctic .......................
Long, long flight from DC, where I have been staying with Robert, Debbie, spouses and grandchildren - something I must do more often this year - via Houston to Buenos Aires. It clocked over 6000 miles which would be 12000 for the round trip. 14 air hours but slept at least half of it - even sitting up in steerage. As I am flying free on old air miles from the time in the 80's when I lived in and travelled all over the USA I am intrigued to know whether, as they were registered on the boarding pass, they will register positively on my account - giving me more miles free! I doubt it but you never know your luck.

Arrived by smooth hotel transfer at the Art - a small downtown arty hotel in Recoleta - and went to a cafe for light lunch. Asked the hotel for a city map and read this over lunch. Thought the adverts a little "unusual" but looking at the map cover found it is the Buenos Aires Gay Guide. They gave it to me because I am on my own? Look that way? Or just what came to hand? Did I really write that!! Is this sin city? - certainly sun city today. Will look for a concert tonight. That should be safe....
.....To bed for 3 hours and instead an Argentinian dinner at traditional steak house Rio Alba with Miriam and Chacho, friends of Micky Unger, my dear friend from Philadelphia. My first real Argentinian steak and it was superb. Then they gave me a late night city tour of their neighbourhood and some of the fine old, but disappearing for new development, colonial mansions. Bed 2.00 am; with a week's worth of things to do and see in three more days.

Next morning slept until Nigel arrived and then went to the famous and grandiose cemetery with ritual obeisance at Evita's tomb and a walk through the park to the Latin American art museum. Passed statue of Louis Braille and Nigel took a photo to show to his blind friends! Back for an early dinner and early night.
Next morning we took the train to Tigra and the Delta of the Parana River. We took the local bus/boat going up and down the backwaters where there are a mixture of holiday homes and people living. Interesting to see locals getting on and off, having post, water and groceries delivered and generally participating in the life of the delta. We crossed the Parana which arrives from the famous Iguazu Falls and is immense. Back by train and took Nigel back to Rio Alba where the steaks are as wide and as deep as the Parana!

Wednesday to Boca where Nigel enrolled as a player for Boca Junior and I enrolled as a Tango dancer. Maradonna was on a walk around. Dinner chez Chacho and Miryam who have been most hospitable.

The flight into Ushuaia next morning was breathtaking with a landing directly over the Beagle Channel and settled in an excellent B&B. Went to the Glacier and did four hour trek up from the base of the ski lift to the bottom of the glacier. Today we went to the National Park and took five hour trek around the shoreline of the Beagle channel and through the woods including a quick swim in the channel. I kept talking about wanting to swim until Nigel called me an "all talk chicken" so stripped off and took the plunge! The views from the trek path are just breathtaking. Now back in town about to go for as much as you can eat Terra del Fuegan barbequed lamb. It is supposed to be really special. Tomorrow we board the Polar Star for 12 days down to the South Polar circle and back.
Next day we got up at a leisurely pace, left our luggage at Nigel's B&B and went to the city museum and on for the worst lunch in the worst restaurant in Ushuaia. Just the thing to make us feel sick before encountering the notorious Drake Passage. We boarded The Polar Star at 4.00 pm for our 12 day voyage. It would be two days out to the Antarctic Peninsula, 8 days in the Antarctic and two days back again to Ushuaia. We selected the voyage which went far south rather than the one which takes in South Georgia and the Falklands. We met Nigel's daughter Hannah, our fearless Expedition Leader, on the dock, settled into our cabins and met at about 6.00 in the Observation Lounge for safety demonstrations and lifeboat drill. Dinner followed and we spent the early evening on deck with most of the 100 passengers watching the beautiful view as we sailed out of the Beagle Channel into the Drake Passage. To the bar after dinner and had long chat with Mark, who works in IT in a bank in Zurich. He is convinced that we are seeing a massive shift of wealth from those who own paper to those who own real things such as gold, silver, property, farmland etc. He has transferred virtually all his assets into gold and silver arguing that the massive printing of cash by governments and central banks will destroy the value of money.
Up in the morning to see the birds following the boat. This was the time to see the Albatross, especially the Wandering Albatross, which with a 12 foot wingspan has the largest span of any bird. It is a wonderful sight to see them skim over the water taking lift from the waves.  We were fortunate that the weather was fair with a heavy swell but nothing worse. It was comical to see the passengers crossing the lounge, trying to maintain balance and walking penguin fashion as demonstrated by Hannah in her introduction the day before. "One hand for you, one hand for the boat" was the general rule. Whales were sighted but not by me. Some passengers had impressive cameras with huge telephoto lenses supported by a pole, but I just had my excellent pocket camera and a new pair of binoculars bought specially for the trip.
The routine for these two days was early breakfast followed by two lectures; lunch followed by two lectures then dinner followed by a film on some Antarctic topic. The team included two geologists, a recent member of the Antarctic Survey, a marine mammal specialist, an ornithologist, a historian and Hannah who is a wildlife artist, zoologist and absolutely in command as  team leader.
After two days passed quietly like this we woke the third morning actually in The Antarctic to navigate the spectacular Lemaire Channel before our first landing at Peterman Island. This island has about 2500 pairs of nesting penguins and we wandered freely among them keeping a minimum distance of 5 meters and taking care not to disturb their well trodden paths. They are quite unafraid of us and seem content feeding their young, still with their baby fur but not much smaller than their parents. They promenade around as if going for walks on their own or with friends. Hannah showed me a good place to swim so this was my first dip into Antarctic waters. Nigel, and most others on the boat thought I was quite out of my mind. There was much talk of "men in white coats" waiting for me on the ship's return to harbour. Back on board for lunch and in the afternoon another landing on the Yalour Islands where there were more penguins and we split into two groups - one landing and the second taking a zodiac cruise round the icebergs. After about 90 minutes the groups changed over so that everyone had both experiences.
Day four and overnight we had passed the magic figure of 66033' which meant that we were now below the Antarctic Circle. We had planned to land on Detaille Island but there was just too much densely packed sea ice for this to be practical. It was quite spectacular seeing the boat gently pushing this away with cracking noises all around. We were through by mid morning so were able to have a Zodiac cruise through the icebergs passing many seals of various kinds basking on the ice. After lunch we went through a spectacularly narrow channel called "The Gullet". I quote from the ship's log:
"We arrived at the mouth of the channel at approximately 15:00. From
the bridge we could see that the Polar Star's ice breaking credentials would be tested as pack ice filled the strait between Adelaide Island and Graham Land. The Captain expertly navigated us through the pack, sounding the ships horn to warn wildlife that was resting on the floes ahead that it would be wise to move. We saw various seals, penguins and minke whales as we passed
through the ice. The ship shuddered as we smashed our way forwards, which added significantly to the excitement. Thankfully, once we had passed the main body of ice there was clear water which allowed us to drop 6 Zodiacs and undertake a cruise of the southern extent of the channel. We saw kelp gulls, Antarctic cormorants, Skuas, Antarctic terns, Wilson's storm petrels and snow petrels as we puttered around icebergs that lay in the shadow of the huge, crevassed ice cliffs that dominated our views from the boats. Hannah set precedent with an expedition landing on a small snow capped rock in the channel. Soon all boats followed and we waved to the drivers as they took our photos at the southernmost landing site we would make during the expedition at 67 10' S. Walter Solomon stunned onlookers with a graceful dive into the icy water of the channel; in doing so he fulfilled his dream to swim within the Antarctic Circle" (Highlighting mine).
I was greeted back on board with a huge welcome at the evening briefing and became an instant celebrity - which I must confess I enjoyed!

Next morning landing on Prospect Point, an abandoned base which had been dismantled under the Antarctic treaty. Climbed up and took photos and when the Zodiacs went back was allowed to stay behind on the beach with Ali a New Zealand geologist and Veronika a Hungarian expert on Oceanography and climate change who was my official photographer for my third swim and my first off the Antarctic Continent. I went out to a baby iceberg and back, climbing on and showing off for the camera en route. It was wonderful how Hannah and crew encouraged my swimming without all the usual regulatory and health and safety nonsense. They practiced what I had learnt from John Stuart Mill at A level. A person should be free to take risks as long as he does not endanger others in so doing. Came back for a really interesting lunch table. Pauline from Newcastle a retired teacher who has given her house to her daughter and travels as much as she can. From here she will travel through South America for five months ending up in Bolivia or Columbia where she hopes to join some volunteer project. After teaching she also had a career in the professional theatre mainly appearing in small North East locations. She shares a cabin with Fumino a Japanese girl who is travelling on the proceeds of her book on having a man's brain in a woman's body. He has just broken up with his girlfriend and talks openly about his issues. It was a great breakthrough when his father appeared with him on Japanese TV and even more when he invited Fumino to join his business for which she had long been rejected as a mere girl. Now Fumino is unsure if he wants to ! Pauline jokingly threatens to sue the shipping company for making her share with a man! Also at lunch was Mick a staff member and self taught expert on Antarctic birds and marine animals. He grew up in Dublin in the 1940s when he was a bit of a loner seeing and photographing things which others just walked by. Later he showed me the photos which were revealing of the old life in Dublin and which he is now working to get published.
The afternoon promised a Zodiac cruise through Mutton Cove otherwise known as Iceberg alley. The weather got brighter and the light translucent in its clarity. We sailed past fantastical shapes and colours carved out of ice which had broken off glaciers probably thousands of years old; past a cliff nesting site of blue eyed shags and back to the ship for a barbecue on the aft deck.  It could not have been more idyllic. The sun set over the distant hills providing a deep golden band in the sky and a reflected glow to the ice flecked water. It was light when I went to bed at 11.00 and still light at midnight when I went out to take another picture and still light at 2.00 am when I woke up again briefly.
Next morning we landed at the Vernadsky Ukranian base where the hole in the Ozone layer was discovered. The scientists there thought their measurement device was faulty as it consistently gave unprecedentedly low readings. When a replacement device arrived to their great surprise it confirmed the absence of this critical layer normally only 3mm thick but which filters out the UVA and UVB from the sun's rays. After a station tour we moved to Wordie House on the other side of the Island which is an old British base from the 1960's preserved as a museum.
After lunch a landing on Pleneau Island., where we saw Scuas eating a dead penguin and went really close to a Leopard seal sitting on a rock who winked at me as we went past.  I decided not to swim that afternoon! The island has a large Gentoo colony and we walked feely over the rocks keeping to the 5 metre rule. The snow was white, pink and green - the colours coming from algae. Later we had another zodiac cruise and I was more than happy I had not swum when we saw another leopard seal sitting on an ice floe who bared his teeth at me as we passed. I got his picture - definitely my best of the trip. Really scary! The Leopard Seal is the top predator of the shallow waters and loves to catch the penguins as they go in and out of the water. The penguins think a lot before they decide to go fishing.    
Next day up at 4.30 am for a visit to Cuverville Island. This has a long shingle beach and hundreds of pairs of nesting penguins. Left aligned photo tag: I elected not to climb the local mountain but sat quietly on the beach watching the penguins playing. [PHOTO_ID_R=penguins-and-.jpg
Took lots of penguin video.   Back, and off again mid morning to the Argentinian base in Paradise Bay. Climbed to the top of the hill for a superb view over the bay and we all slid down again on our bums.  Each location is more stunning than the last and this provides a wide lagoon surrounded by snow capped peaks.  
After lunch those who were still standing went for our third landing of the day to Goudier Island with the world's most southerly Post Office and gift shop in another British base museum. Then over to Jouglar Point on Wienke Island  for more penguins and blue eyed shags and heaped whale bones from the dreadful days of the whaling fleets. Had my longest swim yet, actually only one and a half minutes, in leopard seal free waters, before an enthusiastic audience.
Next day was our last in the Antarctic before returning over the Drake Channel back to Ushuaia. This has been an absolutely amazing, awesome, astonishing, astounding and adventurous expedition. I have been far from home in a vast white desert which dwarfs all other immensities with the sheer scale of the continent. We have been in huge panoramas with the knowledge that what we can see is but a tiny fraction of the whole, a pinprick on the edge of a vast continent. I have been so far from my daily life that my mind has become disassociated from its normal thought patterns, concerns and routines.  
In the morning we went to Deception Island in the South Shetlands and landed at an old whaling base destroyed by a volcano. Here tens of thousands of whales were caught, killed and the blubber taken aboard the factory ships. The remains were thrown into the bay which was scarlet with their blood. These remains were dragged on shore and rendered down in vats which we're fuelled by live penguins forced into the furnaces. By the time the whale trade ended 96% percent of the world's whale population had been destroyed. It is slowly recovering from 4% to about 15% of the previous population, but sadly some countries are still catching and killing these magnificent creatures.  The seals which were also decimated by the sealers have recovered to earlier levels. We walked around the old whaling installations and after a hike up a hill for a spectacular view went back down to a hot bath dug in the volcanic remains at the seashore. Many swam in the sea for a moment or two and then wallowed like seals in the warm bath. I did not swim saying that "I do not like crowded beaches"!         

In the afternoon we were due to land at Hannah's Point a place full of wildlife and dear to our Hannah but the seas were too high for the zodiacs so we crossed the Livingston Island bay and landed on a beach with a superb elephant seal - the largest and deepest diving of the seals and a colony of chinstrap penguins - the first of these that we had seen. Had my final swim in the company of Fumino!
Then two days back over the still calm Drake, more lectures, bar talk, reading and chess and finally back to Ushuaia and off for my next adventure in the Patagonian Andes
Slideshow Report as Spam
Where I stayed
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starlagurl on

I would LOVE to swim in the Antarctic water. Was there a warm towel waiting for you when you got out?

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

pondswimmer on

Thanks for your comment. I suggest starting in the hampstead ponds and then graduating to the Antarctic!
The vodka was better than the towel!

leslie on

Enough to make ANYONE envious. Splendid commentary.

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