The Last Continent

The Port of Ushuaia, the southernmost city on our planet, wears a busy look today, hosting no less than five ocean-worthy vessels on this glorious afternoon. A National Geographic expedition ship sits on one end of the pier, a couple of larger, more conventional cruise liners are moored further along; and sandwiched between them all, is the smallest of the lot, MV Ocean NovaIMG_9112

As far as accommodations go, I’ve clearly lucked out. I’d paid to share a cabin but have ended up with my very own. And its a well kitted out one too. An en suite bathroom, personal temperature control, turndown service, and a pair of perfectly-sized, insulated, waterproof boots provided. Not a shabby start to the voyage.

Our intensive safety briefing concludes on deck 5, the topmost on the ship, and a little past 6 pm local time, we set sail east along the Beagle Channel. Cerro Castor and Cerro Cinco Hermanos, the iconic mountains that cap picturesque Ushuaia, slowly blending into the horizon.

Three hours into our sailing, we slow to a crawl for our first port of call, Puerto Williams. Its only 0.1° south of Ushuaia, with a standing population of just over two thousand people, but all the same, of significance to the Chileans. They’re adamant about it being the southernmost settlement in the world; they operate a naval base here, and if any vessel wishes to attempt a landing at nearby Cape Horn, it must depart Puerto Williams with a Chilean pilot on board. Antarctica XXI, the company operating our ship, certainly hopes to do so.P1030236Once ashore, Nigel, one of our expedition leaders, leads us to the replica of the Yelcho‘s bow. There, he enthralls us with a discourse on Ernest Shackleton‘s failed Antarctic expedition of 1914, and his masterful efforts to rescue his crew thereafter. The Yelcho, a Chilean naval tug, played a vital role in those efforts, and its legend lives on to this day.

The main drag in Puerto Williams is deserted, save for a few local canines, who accompany us on our walk about town. We stop briefly at the town’s attractive overlook, then, sensing some activity a little distance further, find our way into a local gymnasium. An invigorating game of soccer is in progress, providing the evening entertainment for residents of Puerto Williams. Its a lot of fun to watch, but our curfew beckons, and we must be back on board the Ocean Nova by 11 pm local time.P1030261I raise my window blinds in the morning to reveal exactly the same vista as before – we haven’t moved an inch all night. Over breakfast, my fellow passengers, numbering about 65, are equally clueless. David, our expedition leader, reveals all during our morning briefing in the Panorama Lounge. Cape Horn is a no go. They debated for much of the night whether or not to risk a landing there, but given the forecast, decided against it. Instead, we all got a comfortable nights rest, while still anchored to shore; a decision, David assures us, we’d be thankful for later.

As our sailing finally gets underway again, I make my way to the ships library. Located in the aft, its a cozy and well equipped space, with plenty of little nooks, and topical books to keep one engrossed for hours. Its also the perfect place to unwind and take it all in.P1030289Empowered by Graeme‘s superb presentation on Seabirds of the Southern Ocean a little while back, I reach for my binoculars and watch with total mesmerization as countless Albatrosses, Petrels and Terns gracefully swoop in and out of my viewfinder.   
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Nearing the eastern end of the Beagle Channel, a patrol vessel pulls up alongside the Ocean Nova. As we prepare to enter international waters, its time for our Chilean pilot, accompanying us from Puerto Williams, to depart. And disembark he does, with much pomp, and a speaker on the Chilean patrol boat blasting Highway to HellP1030296To our west, dramatic storm clouds loom in the distance, over a strip of land that is unmistakably Cabo de Hornos or Cape Horn. We now leave the calm waters of the Beagle Channel and enter the infamous Drake PassageP1030285The Antarctica XXI expedition team comprises 12 members, their combined expertise running the gamut; ornithologists, geographers, underwater photographers, glaciologists, historians, to name a few. A typical day on board the ship involves a daily briefing by David after breakfast, and a couple of presentations through the day. Subjects could range from Types of Cetaceans to the Earliest Antarctic expeditions. From Penguin behavior to The topography of the frozen continent. Each one incredibly compelling, leaving us with a new found respect for Antarctica, a continent we’ve hitherto known next to nothing about.IMG_9141As Krystle gallantly takes the podium to present her tips on photography, she is visibly uncomfortable. The Ocean Nova has been heaving and swaying for the last couple of hours, battered by the stormy waters of the Drake Passage, and its only getting worse as we continue south.

Up on the bridge, the friendly officer on watch, seemingly unperturbed by all the chop and swell, offers me a few tips. Stand out on the viewing deck, he says, and look straight towards the horizon. That and some fresh air will take your mind off the choppy motion, he assures me. It works, briefly, till a massive wave crashes against our bow and leaves me all but drenched.
IMG_9142Sufficiently dry, I make my way to the dining room, with David‘s repeated warning, “one hand for the ship”, ringing in my ears. Several passengers are conspicuous in their absence this evening, and the few that are seated look rather miserable. The impressive galley crew, meanwhile, perform heroic maneuvers to keep our dinnerware from being flung across, while continuing to serve with a smile.

So far I’m doing pretty well. Having never experienced motion sickness previously, I try and convince myself that this too shall pass. But I couldn’t be more mistaken. Drake the terrible hits just when I’m about to tuck into dessert. Three insufferable bouts of barfing later, I meekly find my way to the ship’s doctor. The dramamine kicks in soon enough and I’m knocked out for the night.P1030368Its 8 am by the time I awake, still quite drowsy. But at least I slept through the turbulent night, and have retained my breakfast this morning. Up on the Panorama Lounge, we have a compulsory IAATO briefing to attend. Essentially, guidelines on what not to do while in Antarctica, as prescribed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Thats followed by the rather cumbersome chore of having all our outer layers – those that we plan on wearing on trips ashore – thoroughly vacuumed by the expedition team.

A little past noon, we enter the Antarctic Convergence, a point at which the colder Antarctic waters flowing north meet the relatively warmer subantarctic waters. Its our official welcome into the white continent, the crossover notable for two things in particular; a noticeable drop in ambient temperatures, and the deepest part of the Southern Ocean, where 3700-meters separate us from the ocean floor. The transition couldn’t be more timely, as Pablo walks us through The geology and geography of Antarctica. Slide 5: Antarctica is the highest and driest amongst the seven continents. Who would’ve thought?

The mood at lunch is significantly more upbeat, with almost a full house, and many a seasickness tale being exchanged. An unpleasant experience shared by a majority of us, its one that we’re sure to wear as a badge of honor. Cue “I survived the Drake Passage” teeshirts.IMG_0222_SGJust as we’re wrapping up lunch, the PA system comes alive, “Folks, look out for a pod of Humpbacks on our starboard side”. Table manners are quickly discarded, as all hell breaks loose across the dining room. I join a small group on the viewing deck, for a clearer view of the cetaceans, or at the very least, their blows. In all the excitement, and with the wind whipping against us, I manage to lose a contact lens.

3 pm local time and Nigel, who’s up on the bridge, calls out our first iceberg. Its almost 90 nautical miles further north of a similar spotting last season, and unfortunately, for those of us who entered time estimates for the iceberg spotting contest, we’re all well off the mark.P1030317The Unknown Continent, another enthralling lecture by Nigel, is followed by Ben‘s hilarious talk on Maritime Superstitions. At dinner, we’re finally able to appreciate the efforts of Gelda and her galley crew, and indulge in the fine spread they’ve put on for us. With almost three days of sailing behind us at this point, the sea has gotten a tad bit calmer too, so the overall vibe in the dining room is more than convivial, almost jubilant.

The sun will set closer to 11 pm tonight, a full hour later than at Ushuaia, and we’re going to have just under 4 hours of darkness – grayness, more like it – with sunrise expected just past 3 in the morning. Working our way back to the Panorama Lounge, we settle in for a screening of the film, Around Cape Horn, and a night cap.

In the morning, my drawn curtains reveal a surreal scene. Its our first sighting of land in days – we’ve reached the Antarctic Peninsula
P1030372My fellow expeditioners, David starts off, his soothing voice often heralding the onset of the days activities. The waters are relatively calm for now and we’re hoping to make two landings during the course of the day, he informs us. From that point on, our collective excitement is palpable, as we rush through breakfast, scramble to get our gear together, put on our layers and lifejackets, and join a queue of fellow passengers, all eager to board Zodiacs, for our first trip ashore…IMG_9257Yankee Harbour got its name from American sealers in the early 19th-century, presumably for the safe haven it provided their boats. Lying at the southwestern end of Greenwich Island, one of many that make up the South Shetlands Archipelago, it is to be our first sojourn in the white continent.

Once we’re all ashore, Nigel seeks out volunteers for a trek up Oborishte Ridge, some 340-meters or 1100-feet high. The show of hands is impressive and soon we’re zig zagging our way to the summit, laying down fresh tracks, in snow thats almost two-feet deep. Its laborious for sure, but the payoff after about an hour of trekking is nothing short of spectacular. P1030414From our high perch, we’re able to appreciate the stunning topography of the area, trace the path of surrounding glaciers, and spot our temporary home, the Ocean Nova, which appears as a speck on the horizon.P1030400Yankee Harbour is also a vital breeding ground for the Gentoo Penguin, supporting a sizable population of no less than 5000 pairs. Across the site, parents are taking turns incubating their eggs, the calm occasionally broken by distant trumpeting, a Penguins characteristic mating call. Infidelity of any kind though is frowned upon here.P1030461Only 420-acres in area, Half Moon Island lies just north of the much larger Livingston Island, one of  nine major islands that make up the archipelago. Despite its inviting name, its a lot more daunting in appearance; a craggy shoreline and choppier waters marking its approach. A low fog rolling in doesn’t help matters either. After a quick lunch back on the ship, we make our second Antarctic landing here.P1030499The South Shetland Islands were discovered by sealer William Smith in 1819. A sealing boom ensued, and not long after, whalers followed suit. Entire populations of seals and whales were decimated, and in some cases, completely wiped out.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since, and today, hunting is highly regulated in the region, with marine mammal populations having rebounded since. Walking ashore on Half Moon Island, a shipwreck from a Norwegian whaling fleet serves as a remnant of that era. As a waddle of Penguins disperses, a Southern Elephant Seal steals a peak to see what the commotion is all about…P1030500Much like Yankee Harbour, the little island boasts a healthy population of fauna, including the South Polar Skua, the Snowy Sheathbill – the only land bird native to the continent – and a host of of Gulls, Petrels, Shags and Terns. Not to mention, the occasional Elephant or Weddell Seals, who spend most of their day hauled out on its beaches. But most notably, the island is home to the very handsome Chinstrap Penguin.P1030528And also, a lone Macaroni Penguin, who, according to Graeme, stubbornly shows up on the island every mating season. A+ for perseverance.P1030547Back on the ship, its time to unwind after a hectic, but incredibly gratifying day. We’re now sailing north along the Bransfield Strait towards King George Island, and the relatively calmer waters here are almost reminiscent of the Beagle Channel. Its frigid out on the viewing deck this evening, but also gobsmackingly beautiful; the moon putting in an appearance, against the backdrop of an incredibly dramatic evening sky…P1030596I duck back in to the Panorama Lounge for some warmth, and the last of our evening briefings by David. He begins with a vote of thanks to our expedition team; a stellar, highly seasoned collective, varied in their backgrounds and capabilities, and representing no less than nine countries between them. Then its on to Gelda, the only Argentine on board, and her outstanding hospitality team; and finally, a toast to our gregarious Panamanian Captain, and his exemplary crew. All told, including the lot of us fare-paying passengers, there are apparently 32 nationalities on board. Quite the floating UN, if you will.IMG_9305My fellow expeditioners, there is one more thing, David signs off in characteristic style. I know a lot of you are in a celebratory mood tonight, but do keep in mind that your wake up call tomorrow is at 2 in the morning, he cautions. The announcement obviously met with resounding sighs across the lounge. He goes on to explain why. Our flight back to Punta Arenas in Chile tomorrow is entirely weather dependent, and as such, the pilots have determined a small window within which to land and take off safely.

Just before midnight, as I make my way back to the cabin, I step out onto the viewing deck for one last look. We’ve concluded our sailing by now, and are anchored just off the Fildes Peninsula, the southwestern tip of King George Island. The largest of the South Shetland Islands, its home to a dozen research stations, operated by as many countries, and Chile’s Base Frei, facing us, is the largest. To its right is China’s Great Wall base, and on its left is Russia’s Bellingshausen station. Somewhere in between lies the gravel airstrip we’re scheduled to take off from tomorrow.P1030619Dawn arrives before we know it. By 3 am, we’re already filing into Zodiac boats, which have by now made countless sorties, to get our full complement of luggage ashore. Even at this groggy hour, its hard not to appreciate the sheer logistics of this operation.

As a fiery eastern sky coaxes the sun out of hiding, and we await the last of the ships passengers to begin our mile-long hike to the airfield, a colony of Gentoo Penguins casually swim ashore. They’ve definitely taken us by surprise, and in doing so, given us the best send off we could ever have hoped for.IMG_9352Seven of seven done. A feeling of accomplishment, no doubt. But really, just the tip of the iceberg, as clichéd as that might sound. Maybe not the Drake Passage – ever again, if I can help it – but Antarctica, I hope to be back someday, in the not too distant future…
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A full set of pics from my trip to Antarctica can be viewed here.

2 thoughts on “The Last Continent

  1. AK

    Massive congratulations on setting foot on all 7 continents, Brat!!!!!!!

    As always, your prose and pics are engrossing, enthralling, enchanting, enticing, I can go on…

    You are an inspiration, Brat!

  2. ATUL GARUD

    Bharat,
    As usual, you leave the reader breathless with your racy prose, description and illustrations. Do consider my oft repeated suggestion to publish the entire series of your travelogues. It will sell like hot cakes, I promise.Add a few maps, though to get a proper orientation.

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