At around 4:30 AM I woke with a start. It was pitch black in the cabin. The ‘swish swish’ noise was back.
It … it was getting closer.
It was coming down the ladder towards me…
It was Ming! Her bright yellow Gortex parka and waterproof pants were swishing together as she moved. She swish-swished to the bathroom and then swish! swish! as she grabbed some things in the cabin. Then she swished out the door. I rolled my eyes, then closed them and went back to sleep.
When the morning announcement woke us, I leapt out of bed and opened the blinds. Right outside our porthole was a chunk of ice floating merrily by. I leaped like a gazelle into the shower, threw on some clothes and bolted for the deck.
There were surprisingly few people up there.
The air was crisp and cool. I didn’t wear gloves and after a few minutes, my hands started to feel it. Everyone who was on deck was grinning delightedly at each other and taking photos.
There were a few gasps as a small group of penguins broke the water’s surface as they swam to find food.
We learned in one of the lectures we’d had that it takes less energy for a penguin to continually leap out of the water when it swims, rather than swim in a straight line with its body always in the water.
My hands began to feel too cold, so I went back inside to grab breakfast. We were all sitting together, very excited for the morning that was about to unfold.
The passengers had been divided into two groups. There are strict rules about how many people are allowed to go ashore at any one time. No more than 100 people at a time, and if you are on a ship that has more than 500 passengers on board, you cannot go ashore at all.
In Antarctica, less is definitely more. We had 150 passengers. Half would go ashore while the other half would cruise around for an hour and a half in the zodiacs. Then we’d swap.
We were in all the same group, except for Ming. She was in the group that was going to go onto Cuverville Island first, while our group was going on a zodiac tour around the bay.
Over breakfast, we heard the story about a guy who was on the ship a couple of years ago, who smuggled a penguin under his coat and hid it in his shower recess for two days. It was discovered by a cleaner. When the ship docked back in Ushuaia, he was taken away and arrested.
Was it true? I hope not. I felt just awful for the poor, bewildered penguin.
After breakfast all four of us piled into our cabin. Unsurprisingly, Ming was the first to be ready, seeing as all she had to put on was the lifejacket and muck boots. She’d been in her 5 layers of clothing for 2 days now! The rest of us struggled into our layers and helped each other to shrug on our life jackets. We were talking nervously, waiting for the call to go out for our group to report to the zodiac boarding deck for the first time.
Before we knew it, we were off!
A zodiac is like an inflatable boat that seats up to 10 – 12 people. You plant yourself on the sides of the boat with your feet on the floor. It’s possible to stand up, though the driver asks that you ask for permission first. Obviously, if the sea is rough you’d be crazy to try. It’s very fast and manoeuvrable and is (almost) impossible to capsize.
Luckily for us, the sea was smooth. As we drew closer to the island we could see people walking around, with red poles sticking up from the snow, marking where it was safe to go.
We turned and began putt-putting our way along the side of the island, looking for interesting things to see.
One thing I definitely didn’t expect to see was a sailboat!
The guy driving our boat had heard about it. The people had sailed across the Drake Passage from Ushuaia and had contacted our ship the night before, letting them know that they were there, in case they needed some help if their sailboat was iced in or something. We saw this boat off and on over the next few days. They seemed to be staying in our general neighbourhood.
Look at how thick the snow is! Oh… and if you zoom in, those three smudges lying on the ice are Weddell seals.
In one of the lectures, we learned that the water here is so cold that if the seals kept everything working at full steam when they were swimming, they wouldn’t be able to survive. So a survival mechanism they have is that they can shut bodily functions off – one of them being digestion – until they can reach land. Here they are, enjoying the sunlight and happily digesting penguins, krill and fish.
I could be wrong, but I think this might be a skua. Or a cormorant. Probably a cormorant. Maybe someone from the trip could let us know in the comments.
We could already see that we were going to get up close with some penguin rookeries when it was our turn to get onto the island, but this was our first look at them.
These were Gentoo penguins, which were far and away the most common penguins that we saw on this trip. They are so damned CUTE, so chunky and earnest.
The pinky colour that you can see around them is their poo. They eat a lot of krill and that gives their poo its colour.
Before I got here I read a few comments from people that had come here before me that penguins stink.
That’s not totally true. They do have a whiff of fish paste about them, but it wasn’t overpoweringly horrible, which was what I was afraid of. Of course, I don’t have a great sense of smell – probably from sharing my house with 4 sons for so long – but no one else complained about it, so I rest my case.
Our zodiacs communicated with each other by walkie-talkies. If someone saw some wildlife, they’d let the other ones know.
There was a rule that there were to be no more than 3 or 4 zodiacs near, say, a whale at any one time, so as not to stress the animals out. The guides would all share the time so that the majority of people got to see everything there was to see.
We stayed here for a while, watching these penguins waddle down to the water and then jump in. They looked to be enjoying the sunshine.
We were in water that was perfectly clear, with blue skies above and no wind. Our guides keep saying that we’re so lucky. The cruise before us had bad weather every single day, while Morgan, the YPT team leader who went on the cruise last year, the one that Latestarterfire and I were supposed to go on, said the same thing about that one.
Looks like being trapped in Australia last year with the covid quarantine from the rest of the world turned out to be a good thing after all!
I absolutely fell in love with the aquamarine colour of some of the icebergs. It was startlingly beautiful.
Look. At. This.
Like seriously, how is any landscape able to be so wonderful?
It was quiet. The only sounds we heard were the quiet murmurings of people, the clicking of cameras, the almost braying sound of the penguins floating over to us across the water and the sound of the sea lapping against the boat.
Every now and then a crunch would happen if we slid over the top of some ice.
I began the cruise by rationing the photos I took, because we have another 3 days after this. Someone mentioned a similar thing to the guide and he said, “No, don’t do that. This weather is extremely rare for Antarctica so make the most of it. You’ll see all the guides on land will be taking pictures as well. This sunshine is unbelievable!”
After what seemed like 15 minutes but was actually an hour and a half, we made our way to where the other half of the passengers were queuing to get into the zodiacs.
We were about to set foot on land at last!
A couple of housekeeping things:
- Now that we’ve finally reached Antarctica, I’m going to split the days up. I literally took 984 photos, (thanks Charlie for showing me how to count them!), and it’s taking an enormous amount of time to trawl through them all to find the best ones to share with you.
2. After reading yesterday’s post, Morgan reminded me of an even STUPIDER question that was asked on the trip.
It was when we were doing the mandatory briefing on the lifeboats. We were up on the deck, looking at these orange-coloured pods that are able to hold over 100 people for 3 days.
“There will be enough food stored on board to feed 100 people for the time that we’d be waiting for rescue,” said Pippa. “If the call goes out to evacuate to the lifeboats, all we ask is that you bring the water bottle that we gave you on the welcome pack left on your bed. We ask that as soon as you go back to your cabin, you fill it up and have it always ready in case we need to abandon ship.”
Then a woman from Vietnam raised her hand.
“What are the water bottles for?”