Youre going where?
Why would you want to go there?
The consensus on the charter flight from Miami to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, was that these were the most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs in online argot) when we told friends we were setting off for a cruise to Antarctica.
Even some widely traveled acquaintances had a hard time remembering that Antarctica was the icy place to the south and that polar bears and Inuit are only up north, while penguins are only down south.
So there we were, following — loosely speaking — in the footsteps of Shackleton, Scott, Ross, Amundsen and the other intrepid explorers who risked and often lost their lives on expeditions in search of glory on and around the last continent to be sighted by Europeans.
Not even the Tierra del Fuego natives a few hundred miles to the north had even seen the continent when the first sail ships got there in the early years of the 19th century.
We took off from Miami in late January, at the height of the Antarctic summer, stopping for fuel eight-and-a-half tiring hours later in Buenos Aires. After a little more than an hour on the ground, we flew on for another three-and-a-half hours to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.
When in this narrative I say we this may mean any of several groupings: Our L-1011, formerly with the Royal Jordanian Airline, carried nearly 300 of the 490 passengers who would take the cruise; among us on the plane were 22 who had signed up in response to an invitation in a newsletter of the Friends of the National Zoo in Washington D. C.; and within the FONZ sub-group there were three Virgin Islanders — Trudie and Neil Prior and myself.
Ushuaia is a town of maybe 40,000, sitting between the southern ranges of the Andes and the Beagle Channel, the waterway named after the ship Charles Darwin made famous in his Voyage of the Beagle. The city, founded by missionaries in the 1870s, has a frontier look, somewhat because it is indeed a frontier town, at the end of Highway #3, 1,200 miles south of Buenos Aires.
Some of the rough and ready rustic look comes from very rapid growth over the past 10 to 15 years since it began to attract visitors as a duty-free zone and then as the principal jumping-off base for cruises to Antarctica.
The nearby surrounding mountains, only snow-tipped in the summer, with a few scattered small glaciers here and there, give Ushuaia an Alpine feel and the steeply pitched roofs designed to shed the winter snows reminded us that we had flown past the Roaring Forties and were now deep into the Furious Fifties, latitudinally speaking. What roars in the forties and is furious in the fifties is the wind, the wild west wind blowing relentlessly and mostly unimpeded across the circumpolar Southern Ocean.
Trudie, Neil and I spent very little time settling into our cabins on the Marco Polo before walking down the waterfront to the Maritime Museum — otherwise known as the Museum at the End of the World, where we began our nature-watching training by studying stuffed birds and animals: penguins of several species, seals and sea lions, wandering and other albatrosses, skuas, Antarctica giant and other petrels, and so forth.
The Marco Polo used to be the Russian cruise ship Aleksandr Pushkin until it was bought and refitted a few years ago by Orient Lines. Orient has, in turn, been bought last year by the Norwegian Cruise Line. In her present incarnation, she is a comfortable ship, big enough to be good in rough seas, small enough to never seem like a floating city. Orient holds at 500 passengers in Antarctica; even when it sails in other regions the Marco Polo only accommodates about 800. Food and service were outstanding. The Norwegian captain and his officers were skilled and experienced.
The sun was still shining when we cast off at 8 o'clock that evening and we were two hours into our passage down the Beagle Channel when we were treated to a spectacular sunset. We were all exhausted and took to our beds by 11. I woke up for a few minutes at about 1:30 a.m. to the realization that we had left the protection of the Beagle and were now out in the South Atlantic, rocking not too steadily south to the other Sir Francis Drake Passage, between Cape Horn and our destination, the Antarctic Peninsula.
Drake got around. We have our own Drake's Passage here in the Virgins. Ours is much more user-friendly.
That day at sea, we were relieved and elated to find ourselves in gentle swells, easily mastered by the Marco Polos excellent stabilizer system. We began to spend a lot of time on the aft deck, bundled up against the chill, binoculars in hand, beginning to learn the difference between Blackbrowed, Royal and Wandering albatrosses, between the Giant, Antarctic, Snow, Storm and Wilsons petrels and other birds we saw with increasing frequency as we neared the Southern Continent.
This demanding exploration was interrupted from time to time by such distractions as hot chocolate, hot lemon tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and other obstacles to our trying to emulate Shackleton. I was lucky that Trudie and Neil, although not experienced in this part of the world, are serious birders and know how to look for identifying characteristics. There were also birders aboard who knew the birds of the region, plus the ships own naturalists, who were around, throughout the cruise, to lecture or just answer questions.
The next morning, I could see snow-covered land out my port porthole. By the time I got to the fantail, scores of my fellow travelers were already there, exhilarated by our first look at Antarctic land, not yet the continent but Livingston Island, one of the South Shetlands, an archipelago just a few miles off the mainland.
Now, there was the first floating ice and, strange as it may seem to you, we were all happy to be among ice floes and icebergs (our captain kept us a safe distance from any big enough to harm the ship).
For the next several days, the only time we werent in sight of land was when the occasional fog rolled in. Very little wind, although the ships progress generated enough wind-chill for us to be grateful for the red parkas provided (to keep) by the cruise line. Cold weather wimps like me were also nearly always protected by layers of Caprilene and Polartec thermal garments.
The sea was flat all the days we were among the islands and along the peninsula. Most days, the temperature ranged from the 30s to the 40s. We had a lot of sunshine, usually tempered by a gray haze. A couple of times, we had a misty drizzle but low wind speeds made it easy to get comfortable in your thermals, if you stayed out of the ship-made wind.
The day after we sighted Livingston Island, we made our first landing, in 15-passenger Zodiac rubber boats, at Deception Island, a volcano that last erupted in 1970 and still steams in the Antarctic air.
We anchored in a large, nearly circular caldera, either a volcanic crater or a collapsed volcanic cone. This was our first chance to wear our knee-high rubber boots, stepping into the shallow water at a typical Antarctic gravel beach. The island is mostly black lava rock, with very little snow, at least at this season, because of volcanic heating. The ground where we landed is a mixture of gravel and volcanic cinders. Hot water runs into the near-freezing sea in small streams.
In one cove, the geothermal flow forms a very narrow band of tepid water where those of us who were either brave followers of the explorer tradition or just not very smart took off their (not our) clothes and, clad only in swimsuits, ran across scorching sand into cold water and then into the hard-to-find tepid pool (go a little too far and freeze). Then, run back across the hot sand, all in the cold air, and try to get your clothes back on as quickly as possible. Some of the more agile managed to get off their wet swimsuits and into dry clothes without showing any forbidden skin. If this masochistic behavior sounds improbable, I h
ave pictures to prove it and the crew told me they always have many takers.
One skua — the predatory bane of penguin colonies — spent the entire time we were there standing in the warm water. This is also where we also saw our only krill — the shrimp-like principal food of penguins, crabeater seals and baleen whales. The ones we saw were boiled to death from contact with the hot runoff.
This may be a good place to mention that the median age on the ship — and ashore — was in the 70s.
The next day was, for me, the highlight of the cruise, this despite a major disappointment. We were supposed to begin the day in the Lemaire Channel, one of the most beautiful waterways in Antarctica, a narrow channel lined by steep rock walls and glaciers. We woke up to a dense blanket of impenetrable fog and, after waiting around the entrance to the channel for the weather to clear, we gave up and took off for our next stop, Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island.
The sun was shining brightly when we dropped anchor in the bay, almost completely surrounded by snow- and glacier-covered volcanic mountains. Floating ice in all sizes scattered across the water. Flocks of sea birds overhead. Schools of penguins darting through the sea and leaping in unison like pods of dolphins.
Ashore, our first penguin colony. On the way in, our Zodiac driver stopped for several minutes alongside a nesting site of Royal cormorants (or Blue-eyed shags). The penguins were Gentoos, slaty-black head topped eye-to-eye with a neat white bonnet and set off by a bright reddish-orange bill. Many chicks huddled under the protective fold on the parents bellies.
What still pictures cant convey is the restless bickering in the colony, the noisy cacophony of squabbles and chicks and parents calling to each other, and the pungent smell of penguin … guano. If youve seen a few penguins at an aquarium or on TV you know theyre cute." Seeing thousands of them in their natural setting going about their daily lives is endlessly fascinating.
Bundled up as I was, I soon became overheated and, back on the ship, happily stripped off several layers to stand in the sun, study the motion of icebergs, bone up on bird identification and scientifically observe the younger ladies enjoying the on-deck Jacuzzis. The towering snow-clad mountains, glaciers with bright blue layers, big and small white bergs and floes, gamboling penguins — magical.
After another unsuccessful try at the Lemaire Channel, we took off for Waterboat Point in Paradise Harbour, where the Chilean government maintains a research station. The eponymous waterboat was used as shelter, along with some packing cases, by two unfortunate Englishmen who, quite unwillingly, spent the year from January 1921 to January l922 in Paradise awaiting rescue. They mostly ate penguins, all through the fierce Antarctic winter. It was cold and sunless for months and, besides, penguin meat is supposed to make awful eating. The records say they gave up exploring after that adventure.
Aside from the handful of Chilean researchers, the residents here were more Gentoos and a few Snowy Sheathbills, dumpy pigeon-like shorebirds with short, stout blue-gray or pink toes. These are scavengers who peck like barnyard fowl at the ground around the colonies of other birds but steal most of their food directly from penguins and shags who go fishing for a living.
Backtracking north along the Antarctic Peninsula, we went ashore the next morning at Half Moon Island, a small crescent-shaped islet which is home to a thriving colony of feisty and aptly-named chinstrap penguins, called chinstrap for a distinctive black marking on the neck. There are also nesting colonies of kelp gulls and Antarctic terns. And, as always, skuas boldly patroling the colonies on the lookout for unprotected eggs and stray chicks, their only food at this time of year.
Here, too, there is a bleak, stark beauty in the contrast of craggy black heights, white blue-streaked glaciers and a slate blue, ice-flecked sea. This was one of the times we were glad to have our protective garments to ward off the cold drizzle, which also mixed with the guano to make the footing slippery in places. I heard one usually genteel lady say she couldnt wait to get back on the ship, away from the rain and penguin s–t, to enjoy a hot toddy in the Polo Lounge.
This is where we said goodbye to the Antarctic.
As soon as we turned north outside the islands, the captain announced that our re-crossing of the Drake's Passage would be more typical than our trip down. And so it was.
I spent the next 14 hours in my cabin as we plowed through swells of up to 24 feet but I was able to regain my footing in time for breakfast the next day, en route to the infamous Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.
For those whose geography has gone a little rusty, the mainland of South America ends at the Strait of Magellan. The Big Island (Isla Grande) of Tierra Del Fuego runs south from the Strait to the Beagle Channel and, south of the Beagle, a maze of mostly uninhabited Chilean islands meanders farther south to end at the island of Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos).
Seeing Cape Horn silhouetted against the setting sun was a big excitement for me and for all the other Walter Mittys in our group who have steered tall ships around the world in the Age of Sail. In our dreams. About a mile to starboard, we saw a three-master running parallel to us under very little sail in the 35- to 40-knot wind.
As soon as we rounded the Horn, the seas calmed and it was smooth sailing from there to Ushuaia, where we docked for the last time the following morning. Next to us at the pier was the three-master we had passed near the Horn, the Polish Frederyk Chopin, manned by 50 members of various youth groups in Poland.
Trudie, Neil and I took off immediately on a 12-hour inland tour, over the mountains, with a driver from an Ushuaia tour agency we had called from St. Thomas to plot the day.
Our driver was a university student (majoring in tourism) who took us along Lago Escondido and Lago Fagnano to the little town of Tolhuin for a mid-morning coffee break. Our next stop was an 8,000-acre sheep ranch owned by our drivers family. On a sunny day in the 60s, we sat at an outdoor picnic table to devour a lamb that was still over the fire on a spit when we arrived.
Some of us opted for a post-prandial tea and were pleasantly surprised when our hosts brought out a black, gold-printed box of tea bags with the brand name Virgin Islands Tea and a logo showing a map of the Virgins, St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas, identified by name.
This was not planned for us. Its an upscale brand-name tea available in Argentine supermarkets. We have no idea who made the decision to give the tea our name.
We had afternoon tea high atop Cabo San Pablo, a windy promontory overlooking miles of South Atlantic beach, then headed back to the ship in time for our last dinner aboard the Marco Polo before flying away home.
A TRIP TO THE DEEP, DEEP SOUTH
Youre going where?
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