Monday morning we woke up with a very strange feeling. We knew, but still weren’t ready to admit that by the end of the day, the magical land of Antarctica would be at our stern and the bow of the Clipper would point North, back to Argentina. We vowed to make the most of our final day. Alex, our expedition leader vowed the same thing. Our wake-up call came at 5am with an intended landing at Deception Island starting at 6am. When we took a look out the window, the waves had grown significantly since the night before and on deck the wind cut through my fleece and brought water to my eyes. After trying 2 separate anchor spots in the shelter of the bay, Alex notified us that the conditions were just too unsafe for us to disembark. Our anchor would not hold. This was the first planned landing of our whole trip where the weather did not co-operate, forcing us to change course.
While some passengers complained to the crew about being jarred out of bed at 5 am for nothing, I crawled back under the covers. Dale, doubting all along the conditions would allow a landing, hadn’t moved since the night before. We did make up for it, however with two solid landings that day.
After eating like sharks at breakfast, the sun rose to see us in the protection of the island at Half Moon Bay, with a strong anchor hold. Stepping onto the beach, though still beautifully unique, was different than the past 4 days. Where there was snow the day before, this day there was rock. The landscape was evidence of a glacier that once moved through, leaving rocky beach, large outcroppings and a moderately steep hill. The view from the end of the island, at the top of the hill into the bay, justified the island’s name as it exposed a crescent moon-shaped bay to the south. The sky opened up for a bit, enabling the sun to warm us. Along with chinstrap penguins, we watched young fur seal males practice their fighting with each other – a skill they would need to ward off competitors next mating season.
Stepping onto our final landing point, at Yankee Harbour, the familiar fumes of penguin guana seeped past our nostrils as seals and Gentoo colonies occupied the beach. As our final landing of the expedition, our last chance to absorb what our eyes saw, we were free to roam the island. We knew we wanted some time alone, to just sit with the surroundings. But first, we took our time to say hello to a lone weddell seal on the beach.
The weddell seal is a true seal, earless and blubbery, at home in the water, deep diving up to 700m at an average speed of 2 m/s and lasting underwater from a single breath for up to 80 minutes. Their movements on land, though slower, simulate a giant slug as it worms its 600kg body forward in a humping like motion. A docile animal, they are easy to approach, but to be sure we didn’t startle her, we still kept our distance. After a few minutes, we settled in, nerves in check, and befriended the mammal by making eye contact and no abrupt movements. It wiggled within a couple of meters, and rolled over, not letting us out of her sight as she extended us a smile. I will have that feeling in my bank forever. She was one of the most beautiful animals we’d seen so far, with velvety beige and silver hair and distinctive eye patches that exposed her charcoal gray skin. We could have sat there all day.
We said goodbye to our seal, and took some time to sit, look around and make mental imprints. Constructing a bench out of an old piece of wood, and some rocks, we sat. There were moments when our eyes were open, letting in the emotional impact of the landscape and acknowledging the remoteness of where we were and it’s representation of freedom from all ties; there were other moments when we closed our eyes, listening to the sounds of the unspoiled land beneath our feet, the call of the nesting penguins and the crash of the waves and ice onto shore. Then, all of a sudden, a large rumble came from an ice berg in front of us. In a matter of seconds, the single berg became two as it split, lopping off a third of its mass and spinning to reposition itself. What was the bottom, became the top as it rolled completely over, hiding the heavy top below the surface. Now, we had seen everything.
On the way back to the Clipper, our zodiac got the call to “pick up some ice.” Tim rammed our zodiac into the edge of a berg and hoisted a giant piece that had broken off, into our boat. Dale took the honours of carrying it back to the Clipper. The 60+ lb pure ice was to find a new home, as shards, floating in a variety of pre-dinner cocktails. We enjoyed the sweetness the ice lent to our beverages as we stood outside and said a slow, emotional good-bye to Antarctica. In that moment of pause, the experiences of the previous five days sunk in all at once and I felt sad to say good-bye to my new favourite place on Earth. As land disappeared from our stern, the seas of the Drake Passage swelled ahead.
Latitude 59° 39.5’S Longitude 62°13.2’W
Our next two days validated the myth of sailing through the Drake Passage. Though rough by normal standards, our crossing over had been good. The way back WAS much worse. After dinner, before entering the Drake, Alex briefed us on what to expect during the two day crossing. The 50 knot wind we were experiencing was not expected to subside. This wind stirred up what Alex would call a gentle but consistent swell. By morning of Day 2, the descriptor of the swell changed to “significant.” Things were going to get worse before they got better. The 8-10m waves were enough to cause the odd “OMG” as a wave crashed the hull and smashed its way on deck, nearly burying the bow of the boat. These loud crashes were not exactly a calming event, but we had to trust the 4 decades of experience our captain was sailing with. For 2 days, our stomachs and heads were minute to minute. Thank goodness for the 12-hour tablets from the on-board doc! Our crossing was still rated at “moderate”. “Extreme” would be cause for alarm, when swell reaches 25-30m.
After 2 days of being in a cocktail shaker, we arrived, on schedule back at the port in Ushuaia. Total mileage covered: 1698 nautical miles. We said our temporary good-byes to our new found friends and sought out a necessary private room.
Antarctica was by far, the most remote, least trodden place on earth either of us have been. Covered 96% in ice all year round, most of it a mile thick, it hosts merely 4000 scientists from 14 countries across 14 million square kilometers – a visit here is truly rare. Although many countries claim territorial rights over pieces of the continent, not a single one, or combination has rights over it – it truly belongs to us all. The history of this land has seen adventurous explorers sled and walk across its ice sheets, many who lost their lives in the name of research. Without those brave souls, our journey would not have been possible.
Antarctica is a special place of real natural wonders (undamaged by human hands), that left us feeling rejuvenated, grounded and awe-struck. This documentation of our expedition captures only a small part of its grandeur. If you have ever thought about going, stop thinking, and just go. You will not be disappointed.
This once in a lifetime experience left us asking, what’s next? Maybe it’s time to look at a rocket, destination: the moon.