Sunday, December 4, 2016: Crossing the Drake Passage – Life on board ship

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Specialty Dining Room

Today is a day at sea, so I thought I’d write about life on board ship.  Hurtigruten is not your typical cruise line – either in Norway or here in Antarctica.  We’ll let the discussion of Norway for another time, and talk about the experience here in Antarctica.  First, one needs to realize that this is NOT a cruise.  It’s an Exploration Voyage.  What this means above all else is that things can (and will) change constantly.  So just because your daily program says we’ll have a lecture on the history of Antarctica at 6:30 pm does not necessarily mean it will happen at 6:30.  For example, we walked into the amphitheater for such a presentation one evening, sat down and were about to start when the lecturer got up and said “We are about to pass through some of the best icebergs you’ve ever seen.  Do you want me to give the presentation now or should we postpone it till 8:30 or 9:00?”  We all voted to postpone, of course, and were certainly glad we did.

So everything needs to be flexible.  One day we were scheduled to land on Danco Island.  When we got there it was packed with ice, so we just sailed over to Cuverville Island instead.  Of course, all the landing times that were in our program needed to be adjusted.

Entertainment on board is different.  No casino, no big production shows, no karaoke.  Instead, it’s primarily educational presentations on the wildlife, geography, history, or culture of the area.  There is also a science lab on board that members of the exploration staff run.  They will gather a sample from wherever we are, bring them on board and we can examine them under microscopes, for instance.

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Lots of presentations were given in the Amphitheater

Speaking of Exploration Staff – this replaces the Cruise Entertainment Staff on other cruises.  We are on a ship with 325 passengers and there is an Exploration Staff of 20 consisting of two photographers (they don’t sell pictures to you, they help you take great pictures), botanists, kayak instructors, geologists, experts in marine life, birds, etc and lifetime explorers including a guy that has skied to both the north and south poles in the same year.  In other words, this stuff is packed full of knowledge and there is nothing they love more than showing you their world.

Meals on board consist of buffet breakfast and lunch (very good I might add) and then dinner which depending on the day’s activities could be a buffet or a county-themed dinner – American one night, Italian another, etc.

Unlike other cruises, you don’t put on your T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops and get on a tender boat to cruise to the town dock.  No, instead you put on your waterproof jacket, waterproof pants and boots to join 15 other people in a rubber Zodiac to land on a stone beach in the middle of nowhere.

There are some of the normal amenities on board such as fitness center, a shop with clothes and souvenirs, a couple of bars, etc but some of the best entertainment is when the bridge comes on a says there is a pod of feeding whales just in front of the ship and the ship comes to a stop for the next 45 minutes so we can watch nature at its best.

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Saturday, December 3, 2016: Antarctica – Cuverville Island – Carol, Phil & the Momma Penguin

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I found this little guy just wandering down the beach

Today we were at a landing site at Cuverville Island located on the Antarctic Peninsula.  It’s located in a small cove within a larger bay, so it’s well sheltered from the wind and seas.  The sun was shining brightly which brought the temperature well above freezing.  The warm sun and calm winds made for the perfect summer day here in Antarctica.  As you can see in some of the pictures, the water was so flat it was almost like a mirror.

We started the day with a really nice Zodiac excursion.  Our driver/guide was the same one we had yesterday and he again was full of the knowledge of the area.  The Gentoo Penguins were one of the stars of the day with over 5,000 breeding pairs in the immediate area.  They were everywhere – walking on the beach, swimming in the water, climbing the snow banks, making their nests.

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I have never seen blue ice as in Antarctica

We cruised in the Zodiac among the icebergs deep into the cove.  There were icebergs of all sizes and shapes, some flat top table bergs, some domed, some very craggy and broken, but all beautiful.  Our driver took us close enough that I could break off an icicle to pass around.  I’ve never seen such deep blue in icebergs.

Besides all the Penguins swimming around us, we also had many birds, including Condors, flying around us.  Then we rounded a corner and found a Crab Eater Seal laying upon an iceberg, enjoying the sun.  We took the Zodiac all around the bergs but it didn’t bother him a bit.

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And the trophy for Ms. Antarctica goes to…

We got back to the ship just in time for a quick lunch and then it was back to the Zodiac to cross over and make a landing on the shore.  Again when we landed, there were Gentoo Penguins everywhere.  We needed to be careful not to get in their way or step on them.  We sat and watched the Penguins on the rocky beach for a while and then hiked in the snow up the steep hill to get to another Penguin colony high up on the hill.

When we got to the top, we found one particular mother penguin with her egg.  No one else was around except the two of us so we enjoyed watching her protect her egg for a long time.  Each time another penguin walked anywhere near her, she would lash out and peck at them, warning them to stay away from her egg.

Friday, December 2, 2016: Antarctica- Orne Harbour- A walk in the Snow

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Phil and Carol out on the glacier

Although we have been having a terrific experience so far in Chile and Antarctica, today was certainly the highlight of the trip.  This is an exploration voyage, so the itinerary always has a plan A, plan B, and plan C (and sometimes plans D and E), so you need to be flexible.  Today found us in Orne Harbour, a nice bay on the Antarctic Peninsula.  When we did our zodiac landing this morning, we landed on a snow bank instead of a rocky beach.  We took our hiking poles and zigzagged our way up a very steep hillside.  It was a soft, deep snow, but we quickly had a packed track to follow in.  If you stepped off the path, you went in the snow up to your knees or more.

It was a good climb to the top of the hill, but when you came out on top – WOW, what a view.  Totally surrounded by brilliant blue water with icebergs and then steep mountains covered with snow, ice and glaciers as far as the eye could see.  It was an exceptionally clear day with bright sunshine, so we took advantage of it and stayed at the top for a long time.

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Screaming at the mountain

But we were not alone.  There were many, many penguins and many kinds of birds on the top of our hill.  We watched penguins build their stone nests from a very short distance (10 to 15 feet).  They are so much fun to watch as they waddle back and forth gathering stones and returning to their nests.  When you look down the steep hillside that we just climbed (see the pictures to get an idea of the height), you have to wonder how they ever got up here from the water.  And the hillside is all covered with snow and ice.  This coastal area gets between six and twenty feet of snow each year as opposed to the interior of the continent, which is a cold desert area that is lucky to see two inches each year.

After a late lunch, we set out by zodiac for an excursion to explore the area by water.  Our driver was full of knowledge and explained the creation of this rugged area by tectonic plate movements.  We saw mountains and cliffs and glaciers and calvings and streams, etc.  It was the perfect afternoon to be out here with mother nature.

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Today’s sunset (at about 11:00 pm)

After dinner this evening we watched a movie on Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations and then watched the sunset over the mountains.  The days are long here as it’s summertime at this extremely southern latitude.  Sunset today was about 11:00 pm and sunrise is one something in the morning.  So if you want to watch the sunset and also the sunrise the next morning, it makes for a very short night’s sleep.

Thursday, December 1, 2016: Antarctica-Deception Island-Hiking the Caldera

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The rock wall we sail by when entering the volcano’s caldera

Today was another interesting day.  Early this morning (about 7:30) we sailed into Telefon Bay at Deception Island.  Deception Island was created by a series of volcanoes erupting over the last few thousand years, the latest being in the 1970s.  The main caldera is filled with water and, of course, is surrounded by the rims of the volcanoes.  It only has a narrow opening from the caldera to the open sea, with very calm water inside the caldera.  It was through this narrow opening that we sailed early this morning to enter.

Deep in under the surface, this is still an active volcanic area as evidenced by the steam we can see seeping from the ground along the beach when we do a landing.  Of course, this is the most southern part of the chain of mountains that start far north in Alaska with the Alaska Mountain range.  The continuation south is then the Canadian Rockies, the U.S. Rockies and continues through Mexico and Central America before becoming the Andes Mountains the entire length of South America and finally the Antarctic Peninsula.

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Phil sits on a rock and takes in the view

When we land, there are Penguins on the beach waiting to greet us.  The plan is to hike up to the top of the volcanoes’ rims for the beautiful views from there.  Today there is no hiking on snow and ice, but instead, it’s on volcanic rock and gravel.  When we look at the stones below our feet, there are all kinds of colors and textures of rock, depending on what volcanic explosion it came from.  We grabbed our walking sticks (compliments of Hurtigruten) and started up the side of the volcano.

It was a fairly long and steep climb, so even though it was near freezing we worked up a sweat.  At one point Lana was feeling a sugar low and could use something to eat.  Now one of the rules in Antarctica is that there is NO food brought onto shore, so we had nothing with us.  So Lana asks one of the ship’s exploration team that was stationed along the way and he pulled out a granola bar, gave it to her and said: “don’t tell anyone”.  They provide them to the staff in case they get stuck on land from bad weather, etc.

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The landing area and the start up the volcano side

It was a great day for hiking and as we looked down at the various volcanoes’ calderas, we could help but think of how fortunate we are to be able to experience places like this.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Antarctica-Brown Bluff-Icebergs and Penguins

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I’ve seen more blue ice here than anywhere in the world

Today was an interesting day in a variety of ways.  Again, Antarctica showed us how quickly its weather can change.  The morning started off fine with calm winds and a light snow falling.  We were sitting in the middle of many icebergs and started the day with a great zodiac excursion (more on this later).  To dress for this excursion requires a little effort as we were moving across the water in an open zodiac with some wind blowing and some snow falling… and WE ARE IN ANTARCTICA!  So, Carol’s garments, for instance, consist of:

  • Thermal underwear #1
  • Thermal underwear #2
  • Thermal underwear #3
  • Sweater
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Life vest
  • Waterproof pants
  • Wool socks #1
  • Wool socks #2
  • Wool socks #3
  • BIG rubber boots
  • Gloves, Hat and Hood
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Our zodiac drivers knew how to dress for cold weather

So each time you go out, all this needs to go on.  And, of course, it all comes back off when you get back on board.  Now, this normally would not be too big of a deal, but today we got dressed to go out in the zodiac this morning and undressed again when we ended the excursion.  And that’s when the dressing started to get funny.  We had some soup for lunch and were getting ready to go back out for a landing this afternoon, so got all dressed up again.  But the wind picked up to gale force and the snow was even heavier, so they announced that we were holding off on landings to see if the weather improved.  So, off came the hat, gloves, life vest, jacket, fleece, sweater… well, you get the idea.  We waited for a while and they announced we were done for the day.  So off came everything and we showered and changed to spend the day on board. 

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Yeah…It’s snowing, it’s snowing! Must be summertime in Antarctica!

A little while passed and we were cruising along, but I noticed that a number of the zodiacs had not been loaded on board, but were instead following the ship.  Sure enough, we came to another location and the weather got much better.  So the landings here were on again.  So Carol got to start all over with the above list… Thermal underwear #1, Thermal underwear #2, Thermal underwear #3, again… you get the idea.

So we were all ready and standing out on deck to stay cool when the wind started blowing and… you guessed it.  “Sorry folks, we can’t go ashore here either”.  By now, we are all about rolling on the ground laughing.  You really can’t predict mother nature.

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Like the blue ice shelf under the water?

But back to our morning excursion.  We were out in the zodiac to view the icebergs and penguins.  The color “ice blue” became very well defined today as we peered at the edges of the bergs as they went under the sea.  Large and small slabs of ice floated silently by, but a faint squeaking noise could be heard.  Penguins having a party!  Waddling along while on a flat, floating slab of ice, hopping to the edge or falling on their bellies and sliding into the water.

Many Christmas-card worthy pictures were made of the ice flows with happy penguins partying away.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016: Antarctica-Half Moon Island-Peaks, Penguins and Poo

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Hello and welcome to my island

Today was the day we did what we most wanted to do.  For Phil, Carol and Dwight, the day made them “Seven Continent Travelers”.  Stepping onto the land (yes, mucky, muddy land) in the Antarctic was certainly an exciting experience.

Here, on Half Moon Island, the ones in charge are certainly the penguins or “pinkwinks” as our Norwegian cruise director pronounces it.  NO stepping onto penguin highways.  NO walking up to the penguins.  NO food allowed on the island (so NO feeding the penguins).  NO taking care of bodily functions while on the island (if nature calls, you must go back to the ship to take care of it).  And, of course, NO touching the penguins.  You can not approach them closer than fifteen feet, BUT… if you stand still and they approach you, even to the point of nipping at your pants, that’s OK (since it’s their decision).

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OK. Let’s play follow the leader, but watch your step

Today we saw Penguins traveling up steep “Penguin Highways” (paths through the snow) by hopping up a few steps at a time.  They launch themselves up the hill, then waddle a few more steps, like their baggie pants have fallen halfway down.  Occasionally, a hop doesn’t end well and they slip onto their bellies and slide into home plate.

If you come too close, there is an orchestra of screeches to let us humans know that you are breaking the rules.

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An Emperor Penguin sits on the beach (just longing for a mate)

Chinstrap penguins, with their black line under their beaks, where the majority breed that we observed today.  They seem to be perpetually smiling.  There was one Emperor Penguin who had strayed away from his own kind and peacefully sat on the beach with his back turned to us.  Emperor Penguins are the biggest of the penguins so their name suits them well.

One lone beige seal slept through it all on the beach, as if he was sleeping off a long night of drinking.  He was very fat and very good with that.  You don’t have to diet in Antarctica, after all!

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Making a zodiac landing on Half Moon Island

Getting on the tender boats requires a person to be somewhat athletic.  Bundled up in long johns, hats, gloves, puffy down jackets, wool socks, scarves and heavy black boots makes it difficult at best to throw your leg over the side of the boat in the way you were instructed.  Coming back there was the added handicap of having penguin poop all over our boots.  On the ship, all boots were put through an electric boot cleaner and then disinfected.

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As we get out of our zodiac on the beach, we are already greeted by a couple of Penguins.

Ahhh…. The hot, apple-flavored tea that greeted us upon our return was absolutely heaven on earth.

Sunday & Monday, November 27-28, 2016: Sea Days headed to Antarctica

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Our ship, the Midnatsol with Hurtigruten Voyages of Exploration

On Sunday, we tried to make a landing on Cape Horn, the small island at the very tip of South America.  The only man-made structures on Cape Horn are a lighthouse and a monument marking this most southern point.  The only inhabitants are the lighthouse keeper, his wife, and son.  That certainly must be a very isolated existence.  The weather looked good. 

We had dropped anchor, the tender pit doors were open and the zodiacs were ready to launch.  Just then the wind started to pick up and the waves started to roll, and within thirty minutes the wind went from calm to gale force and the waves from flat to crashing across the tender deck.  So, as you can imagine, we didn’t get to Cape Horn. 

Here we had a great example of how quickly the weather can change here in these southern regions.  In fact, when we get to Antarctica, on each landing the expedition crew must first go in and survey the landing area.  Then ferry ashore tents, sleeping bags, and food for a couple of days just in case we were ashore when the weather turned and we needed to spend a couple of hours (or a couple of days) there before they could pick us up again.

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Cape Horn. Southernmost point in South America

We spent these two days on board ship preparing for Antarctica.  There were safety lectures, photography classes and presentations on the animals and landscape we will encounter.  We also needed to take whatever outer clothing we were going to wear ashore to be vacuumed.  This is to prevent any foreign seeds or contaminants from entering Antarctica.

We have already experienced many wonderful things in Chile, but excitement is running even higher on board ship as we anticipate what is ahead in Antarctica.