Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Polar Plunge is not just for Penguins

"Strange. There is always sadness on departure. It is as if one cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil..." - Fridtjof Nansen

One perfect day turned into another; this was truly the trip of a lifetime. On February 3rd at 4am we crossed into the Antarctic Circle (got to 66' 48"). This was a momentous event as only a few times a season can the boat get that far, late into the summer like this, and another milestone for us. We have been in both polar circles and on every continent now. Where is my T-shirt? We were headed to Crystal Sound but our luck left us and the weather forced the captain to turn back so we had a morning of lectures instead.

As compensation in the afternoon the crew found a large area of sea ice and after a test nudge, backed up and charged at it full steam crashing right into it. Once it had settled with a fair portion of the boat embedded in the sea ice they opened up the belly of the beast and we all streamed out, including crew. What a sight: about 150 adults went super childlike, including us, lying on the snow being snow angels, making snowmen, chasing each other with snowballs and generally goofing around. It was just like christmas, that is, if I lived in the northern hemisphere in a place where they get snow for christmas. A couple of seals and a Gentoo penguin looked on with amusement.

The next day we went to Jougla Point at Port Lockroy where we saw a large colony of Blue Eyed Shags, the older, the more sky blue their eyes. Straight after we arrived back, at about 12:30, we were invited to do the 'polar plunge'. My toes were still numb from the excursion so I cracked open my first pack of air activated foot warmers and went down in my shoes and socks, shorts and Lindblad bathrobe. We had to disrobe and wait in line in the mud room for our turn, getting more apprehensive as it got colder as we got closer. At the end it was a quick order to 'jump high and look at the camera' and you were in the barely sub freezing water (they said 29F, about -1.7C), where the cold hit you like 10,000 needles. I just wanted to get out as fast as possible so I scrambled to the platform and pulled myself up and into the boat, where we were greeted with a towel and a large shot of Schnapps (don't tell, but I had two). I then went and put on my bathrobe and got my feet into my preheated shoes, still with their foot warmers in them, keeping my feet toasty for the next five hours. Not something I ever need, or want, to do again, but hey, how many times do you go to Antarctica? FYI, the 'jump high' directive was a trick because that just makes you go deeper for longer; don't fall for it. We were two of 54 that jumped from a ship of 143 passengers, which they said was a record.

We spent the afternoon cruising through the Gerlache Strait and Dallmann Bay on our way back to the Drake Passage and 'home' (Ushuaia). We came across some humpback whales and a flock of penguins swimming in the sea alongside them. The humpbacks were really friendly staying close to the boat and lazily flicking up their tails as they dived down and then came back up floating and blowing and then lazily going down again. The penguins would skim across the water in short jumps as a group cleaning up any leftover krill. It was a marvelous scene that went on for about 90 minutes. We had come across  whales twice before, humpbacks and killer whales, but this was the closest we had got to them.

The next day we were back into the Drake Passage, the most notorious section of water in the world, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, creating a whirlpool effect. We were not as lucky as on the trip down. Staff strung ropes all around the ship so that no matter where you were you could hold on to something. The boat bounced up and down, lurched forward and back and rolled side to side. We had one of the cheapest rooms on the ship with only a small porthole and that was closed and bolted in case the glass blew out, the whole day and a half. Many passengers had patches on their necks (most for the whole trip), a protector against sea sickness and only moderately successful from what we could tell. We had successfully avoided taking anything the whole trip (we are very good on planes and boats - Elizabeth even smiles during plane turbulence), and so wanted to try to last. The only time it started to get to me was about the last two hours. We held out and soon we were looking at Cape Horn and smooth seas; it was weird seeing green and trees again.

A map was kept up to date on our travels
The trip was over, probably the most amazing of our amazing lives. At first glance a lifeless, white, barren, cold but stunningly beautiful landscape, in reality teeming with an astounding array of life. We saw penguins feeding chicks, gathered together as families, collecting twigs and fortifying their nests, waddling, swimming, sliding. And seals and whales and a large variety of birds. We are so lucky, or as Spock would say 'random chance favours us'. Next stop Peru where we try to give back a bit by doing some volunteering in Cusco.

This is Part 3.

Part 1:
Part 2: