The White Continent – an Epic Day

Antarctic Peninsula – Day 3…

Our overnight sail landed us at anchorage in Oren Harbour for a 5 am wake up call.  Alex promised us from the beginning of the voyage, that when there was good weather about, he would ensure we took advantage of it.  For our second full day in the Peninsula area, this meant an early start.  Disembarkation for our first excursion began at 6am, when we cruised to land at a steep peak.  I was eager to get to the crest of the hike prior to the masses.  Our ship only had 115 passengers, which is not many, but at a small landing site, 80 people make getting time alone tough.  Burning off some of our deluxe menu calories and solo time were motivation enough to run up the 15 minute icy climb.  I was stopped in my tracks when my eyes met the view. 

The sun had just started to rise over the harbour, casting specs of light on the far shore and mirror-like bay.  It was stunning.  I sat, alone in silence and welcomed the day.  As more people arrived behind me, their voices pierced my ears and the moment was lost.  I was grateful to have the time I did alone on the peak, however brief.  The two of us sat and watched the sky change colour from dark blue to hues of pink and red, then to orange.  The reflection of the sun on the mountains finally gave them a glow of white and yellow as the cloud cover lifted and the familiar sound of humpback blow holes rose from the water beneath us.   The sun was awake, the sky was blue and the clouds were few as we turned to make our way back to the zodiac. 

Sunrise - Oren Harbour

 Passing by a nesting chinstrap penguin colony, we arrived back to our landing site.  Alex then notified us that we wouldn’t be going back to the Clipper just yet.  Breakfast would have to wait. Jimmy had radioed in, there were Orcas, a lot of them, and they were hunting.   Grateful we had dressed warm, we got into our zodiac to enjoy the spectacle for the next hour and a half.  First, there wasn’t much action as Nacho drove us out to see what was happening. Then, dorsal fin after dorsal fin broke the surface, continuously as the pod prepared for its hunt.  We got close and allowed them to do their thing while we watched.   The radio went off again, it was Jimmy telling Nacho to back track.  This was when the real fun started.  First, we got a little too close to a humpback, who let us know by snarling and waving his fins beside the boat, missing us by inches.  Next, it was the penguins.  Hundreds of Gentoos and Chinstraps swimming for their lives in hysteric clusters with patterned jumps from the water to get a breath so they could continue to safe ground.  But safe ground was far away, they too had been out enjoying their breakfast when the Orca hunt started.   A large iceberg was their nearest sanctuary.    

Orca hunt

Masses of panic-stricken penguins swam toward the iceberg, Gentoos mixed with Chinstraps, with Orcas in pursuit, eventually circling their little haven.  It was quite the site watching these small sea birds swim like the wind, then jump 3-4 feet out of the ocean, straight up onto the berg.  Of course, not every attempt at safety was successful, as some were denied the jump height needed to get onto the ice.  Finally, the Orcas had their momentary fill and left the penguins who remained to live another day.   We later learned, we had been watching over 80 whales hunt that morning in the bay.  Amazing.

Safety bound penguin

For pure amusement, the killer whales moved onto to torment the humpbacks.   These Orca’s don’t typically feed on humpbacks and they didn’t this time either… they were just having fun chasing them and practising their hunting techniques.   After two hours, Nacho pointed the zodiac back to the Clipper.  We’d already had an amazing day, and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet.  As breakfast was served, our captain lifted the anchor and steered us southward to Danco Island, and we again watched the action in the water.  Orcas were on the port side, humpbacks on the starboard, the two groups meet in our wake for an amusing encounter.  Could this day get any better?

 After our routine on board boot scrub and sign in, we made our way to breakfast.  We were met by our ever-smiling stellar Peruvian waiter, José.  By this time in the voyage, José had figured out that the teeny coffee cup and saucer combo didn’t suffice to quench our group and he had traded them for monster mugs.  The coffee was warming to our cooled blood and was the perfect partner for our French toast and real maple syrup.  Despite the early morning, we were on such a high that a nap was impossible.  Besides, there was only a small bit of time before our next anchorage.

Hiking up to the top of Danco Island gave us a spectacular panoramic of the surrounding mountain ranges and again the company of Gentoo Penguins.  

A little hang out time on Danco Island

Once we were back aboard the Clipper, it was time for the polar plunge.  This is where the “crazy people” part comes into play.  Whether by peer pressure, or total stupidity, we vowed to take part.  Why not?  The chances of us going to Antarctica again are very slim, so we had to take full advantage – no regrets.   Almost half of the boat shared our mindset as we made our way to the disembarkation area for our dare devil plunge into the southern ocean.   

The air temperature was -1C,  the water was cold enough that sea ice had started to form, making it around minus fucktarded cold, and no, we didn’t have wetsuits.  One by one, we followed each other down the stairs, to a platform off the side of the boat.  Each of us had our own turn in the spotlight, harnessed in for safety.  This was not the kind of thing you think about.  If you do, you’re done for.  You just have to take deep breath and jump in.  As my body broke the surface, the shock of the cold made its way up my body, inch by inch, as if in slow motion, until my entire body was submerged.  Then, for an instant, as my body continued downward, prior to reversing direction upward toward the surface, everything stopped.  I felt nothing.  Then in a flash, my mind caught up with my body, not yet putting a label on the sensations, just knowing it wasn’t good, I surfaced and turned fast back toward the boat.  In 2 strokes I was at the platform and hurled myself out of the water.  Then it started.  The sheer pain of a million tattoo guns piercing my skin in a thousand spots at once.  As I walked back up the metal stairs to the boat, a furious shiver took over, I couldn’t move fast enough.  Once inside the boat, the doctor congratulated met me with a towel and shot of vodka.  Normally, I can’t drink straight alcohol. It doesn’t agree with me and I don’t like the taste.  But this was different.  If ever there was a use for vodka, this was it.  As the liquid passed my lips, I could feel its warmth coat my throat and line my stomach, then penetrate my entire being.  I was saved.  

My reaction after the shock of polar plunging... making my way back to the boat

Dale plunged in with style, right after me.

By the time we were back to our cabin, where dry clothes and warmth awaited, the prickling burn of those million needles had stopped and we were shivering again.  It was nothing a shower couldn’t fix.  That was the warmest cold shower I’ve ever had.

 In celebration of the already epic day and pristine weather conditions, the crew hosted us on deck for an outdoor BBQ lunch with warmed wine.   Lunchtime was a time to relax, refresh and prepare for the rest of the day.  We still had one more landing site.  With the sun at our backs, Neko Harbour awaited us for a continental landing.

Deck BBQ for lunch (L-R), Brendan, Paul, Sarah, Tran, ?, Nacho

We were blessed with the offer of a private zodiac cruise in nearby Andvard Bay prior to landing.  We accepted and five of us jumped on the opportunity to carve through the brash (forming sea ice) with Jimmy, determining the path of cruise for the later zodiacs.  As we left an open trail in the ice behind us, the water in front cast a flawless mirror image of the landscape.  The conditions couldn’t be more perfect.  After a close hello to our first leopard sealand twenty more minutes of touring, we landed on Neko Harbour.

Our cruise in the bay

This was one of my favorite spots of the whole trip.  Something about that place, maybe it was the sunshine, maybe it was just everything that day, but it spoke to me.   We passed through more nesting Gentoos on our way up to the ridge to take in the grandeur of the surroundings.  This also provided an opportunity to watch the actively calving tidewater glacier.  Since we were the last group to land, most of the other groups had headed off on zodiac cruises,  giving us the advantage of being pretty much alone on the peak.   We made it to the top, settled into to observe, and 5 minutes later an avalanche rolled from the top of the glacier, over the cliff, into the ocean, almost engulfing one of our cruising zodiacs. 

Neko Harbour Avalanche

Back on the Clipper, we enjoyed Bailey’s and hot chocolate during an epic sunset through the very narrow Lemaire Channel, taking us further south still.   This day, we had checked off every box on the crew’s Antarctic Expedition list.Sunrise – check, Glacier hike – check, Orcas – check, Humpback whales – check, Polar Plunge – check, Deck BBQ – check, Continental landing – check, Sunset – check. It was only the end of our second full day. 

Sunset in the Lemaire Channel

 Even the crew, all with more than eight years experience in Antarctica admitted they’ve never had a better day in the south. We could have turned the boat around, headed back to Argentina and we would have been full.  But there was more to come, including more sunshine.

 

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