An Antarctica Journey 

              Lila and I left for our journey to Antarctica by first visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina for a few days, which in fact became even fewer when we could not get out of our home because of the snow and the fact that the airlines stopped flying.  But no big matter since we had insurance to cover our trip interruption.  The insurance would have come into play if the snow was twenty feet deep and the airlines could not operate for seven days…only kidding, but they were not.

              Anyway, one day later than planned we were on our way.  Buenos Aires was very hot and humid, just the way I like it.  Reminded me of summer in Washington, D. C., except no one spoke English…. you know it really was not that different.  Great hotel on the main street, their Champs-Elysees, except that it is much wider.  We did a lot of walking through the many neighborhoods and visited the site where Eva Peron is buried.  Not with her husband, who is buried outside of town with his third wife, and not really recognized with any great monuments.  There are many streets with many stores for shopping and malls that look just like ours, but the people do not speak English, well not much difference than here. 

               The city is old, but has a character reminiscent of Europe with many restaurants.  We went to a Tango club, but when reading the Fodor’s guide we found one that was not located downtown, but just catering to locals (and us).  It was quite interesting to watch the Argentineans dance the Tango; it is their national dance and they do take it very seriously.  Lila and I danced the Tango back in our hotel later that night, but she snapped her head too fast one time…well, she couldn’t move her neck for three days.  Just kidding.  The buildings were very colorful and bright, the flowers were in bloom and the people were just strolling along the streets and drinking in the local open-air pubs.  It was a wonderful place to visit, but a little warm.  Lila and I did visit the Synagogue in Buenos Aires, but it was closed and the policeman, very politely, would not even permit us to take a picture…evidently, he was under orders to ensure that no harm came to the building or its occupants.    There is a fear of terrorists. 

              From Buenos Aires we flew to Ushuaia, which is in the southern most portion of Argentina at Tierra del Fuego…not a sophisticated town, but growing because of the increasing cruise ships stopping there.  In Ushuaia we boarded the Marco Polo setting sail for twenty-three days without ever stopping at a port where we could buy a t-shirt.  Well not exactly…will explain later.  In fact, the ship had provisions to feed us for that whole time, but we were asked to conserve water as they could run short.  This was because they can desalinize less water when the going slower…so they said.

           The Marco Polo is not a big ship by today’s standards and old by today’s standards.  It has a loyal following of those who traveled aboard her in a time when it often traveled to exotic ports, when others did not visit these ports.  It is 23,000 tons and could hold 850 passengers.  I am certainly happy that we only had 400 passengers and the supporting personnel, because the communal areas are not that large.  The ship was built in East Germany in 1965 by the Russians as a cruise ship, this gives you a good feeling already, right.  In 1992 it was completely rebuilt to include some of he amenities that westerner’s need like a place to eat and bathrooms.  It has a strengthened hull to move through ice that any other ship would not be able to do…but then you may ask, Why would any other ship even want to move through ice?,  to get to Antarctica , I suppose.

             Beside the 450 old farts on board (I swear if the senior citizens ever stop cruising, the whole industry would sink…forgive the pun), there was an expedition team that lectured on the whole of Antarctica and went ashore with us, a Zodiac boat team that operated seven Zodiacs.  You ask what is a Zodiac…well it is an inflatable boat with an outboard motor and we sit on the rubber sides about six inches from the freezing water with our feet in the boat..  When it comes up to the water’s edge we must rotate our feet over the edge and step into the shallow water and get upon to the shore or ice, which ever is there.  That seems easy, but not for the old farts who are riding the Zodiacs.  Just try to lift your feet up over the level of your fanny, while balancing your body on the rubber boat and you are wearing waterproof boots. 

             We also had a helicopter and crew on board, which routinely flies ahead of the ship to search out the ice conditions.  The ice could very rapidly freeze over making us unable to get out without an icebreaker.  That would be both expensive and timely.  Additionally we had an ice master on board in the bridge, who helped the Captain steer clear of the ice…oops, I wonder where he was when we hit the iceberg.   More on that later.  There was also a beach master who controlled how the Zodiacs moved people to shore and how we, as guests, in Antarctica would conduct ourselves.   I was very impressed with the overall team, their professionalism and dedication.  While I would have loved more time on the ice, they ensured that all of the guests got ashore safely and orderly.  The lectures were exceptionally comprehensive and I would have remembered much more if I did not fall asleep so much.  But then that is what old farts do so well after a great breakfast and/or lunch.

             Additionally, we had the regular staff that you would find on a cruise ship, stewards, restaurant waiters and chefs, casino and entertainment.  Well…we needed that after a tough day on the ice.   The food was really wonderful, great choices, presentation perfect and the wait staff superb.  The whole ship was primarily Filipino, a pleasant and very gentle people who worked very hard to keep us happy, full of food and comfortable in our staterooms.  The weather was not conducive to sunbathing, eating on deck or swimming in the pool.  On good days it was about 32-35 degrees F and on bad days with the wind chill factor it could be minus 20 degrees F.  Sitting in the Zodiacs with the wind blowing, the boat bouncing and the water freezing as it touches anything cold  (that would include everything) it was truly a sight to behold. 

             So we set out across the Drake Passage, where the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Southern Ocean meet and the water is notoriously rough…high sea states and the big ships rock like corks in a bathtub with a pair of children.  Everybody was ready with patches, bracelets and Dramamine.  The people were in a semi conscious state.   Well, for us it was really easy…they knew we were coming.  The water was not rough until the next day when we saw swells of about 20 feet.  The boat did bounce a little, some got sick, but I just continued to eat.  It took us about two days to get to the Antarctica peninsula. Our first visit on Half Moon Island at the Bransfield Strait to see a rookery…oh, that is where the penguins are waiting for their newly born chicks to get old enough to enter the water and learn to do what penguins do.  A rookery smells...it smells from the guano (I think I spelled it correctly) and there is a lot of it there because there is a lot of penguins there. 

              I should point out at this juncture that the cruise company issued each passenger a parka…each of us had a red parka, the American color for Antarctica.  I often thought how funny we must have looked to the penguins, when four hundred of us humans all dressed alike in red parkas came ashore.  If they had cameras they would have taken at least the same number of pictures that we took of them.  Now, everybody had at least one camera and they emptied the film like it was a machine gun, but the penguins just stood their ignoring us or maybe laughing at us.  But they are quite cute.  Over the next many days, we had the opportunity to see Chinstrap, Gentoo, Emperor and Adelie Penguins.  They are fascinating birds and they can walk very great distances to a place to lay their eggs and return each day to enter the water for food and then return to the rookery.   While they are clumsy on land they are magnificent swimmers.

               We passed the Antarctic convergence zone (where the water temperature drops precipitously and we are then in Antarctica waters) without too much turbulence.  During the night we did hit a big snowstorm and the boat was rocking very heavily for about two hours.  However, the weather did improve dramatically and we went ashore in the Shetland Islands at Half Moon Island.  There we were greeted by an array of about 3000 penguins that are identified by a line around their neck that looks like a collar, these are the Chinstrap penguins.  They are about 15 inches tall and have completed their mating time and now raising their newly born chicks.  We saw many fur eating seals and some other wildlife.  The next day we made two landings, and one at a Chilean base, Paradise Harbor, and the other at a British base, Port Lockroy.  In each instance we saw the Gentoo (orange beak) penguins.  The scenery in this area of the peninsular is miraculous... icebergs, ice covered mountains, Berger bits (small ice bergs) and Growlers (ice masses in the water). The weather ashore at the British base was about 41 degrees F, not really too bad.  Transiting to Port Lockroy we went through the Lemaire Channel, a narrow body of water with walls of snow and ice rising sharply vertical from the water’s edge for about 300 feet, maybe more.

                The people on board were very pleasant and we spent quite some time with a young couple that was staying in the cabin adjacent to ours.  They were very interesting and should be considered old world romantics living in the present time.  They were married in August after Doug proposed to Jennifer at a Chicago Cubs game by hiring a plane to trail a banner expressing his proposal of marriage.  Well, obviously she accepted and now they have been on a honeymoon ever since then and continuing their honeymoon until late April.   They have traveled all over Europe, and are trying to at least touch each of the continents before they go back to reality.  Now, how many of us would have loved to take an eight-month trip all over the world when we first married or even now.  They joined our table for dinner and we spent most of our time together during the twenty-three days aboard Marco Polo.  Many of the other passengers and staff believed that Doug and Jennifer were our children.  Now, that was a nice compliment.   

            The waterproof clothes and boots we brought along for the landings worked out very well.  The boots were great, but they did get dirty when we walked in the guano among the penguins, but the ship’s crew cleaned our boots before we got into the Zodiac boats.  Fortunately, they are more anal than I am so the boot cleaning worked out real well. These Zodiac or pontoon boats are a real kick and they do get us ashore quite well, if not with a little refreshing spray.

           When we left the Antarctica Peninsular and we set sail for the Ross Sea heading further South to about latitude 78 South degrees.  Daylight started getting longer…as we left the peninsular it was dark at just past midnight and  dawn at about 3:00 am.  At the Ross Sea, we had total daylight with the evenings showing a dusk effect at about 1:00am and the sun rising again at 3:00am.  One evening we were still taking pictures of icebergs with the sun low in the horizon at about 12 midnight.    Getting to the Ross Sea required that we transit from the Southern Ocean through the Bellingsham Sea and the Amundsen Sea.  In the Ross Sea we traveled along the Ross Ice Shelf to McMurdo Sound.  The Ross Sea and the McMurdo Sound is at the southern side of Antarctica.  It is home to McMurdo Station, the US research base and also provides access to the Shackelton hut and the Scott hut, both of which explored this continent many years ago.  We had a representative of the New Zealand Government aboard who will open those huts for us to visit.  The New Zealand government is charged with the care of these historic sites. 

            Each day we would attend lectures on ice breaking, research expeditions, the animal life and they would tell much about experiences in Antarctica.  We had lunch with Peter Hillary, whose father, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Everest.  During the transit to the Ross Sea, we traveled close to icebergs and eventually went through icepacks (fortunately they were open and were able to get into the Ross Sea).  They sights were spectacular and the closeness of the ice would draw everybody to the railings or the windows.  We also traveled along the Ross Ice Shelf...it was unbelievable.  This is a shelf of ice about 100 feet high (only one eighth of an iceberg is above water) at the lowest point and it extends forever.  It covers the size of Massachusetts.  A piece broke off some time ago that was bigger than Belgium.  It is a natural wonder ...hope the pictures come out.  The ship cruised between the ice shelf and the iceberg that broke off.  We could see penguins, Emporer and Adelie, and also Weddell seals.  The ship was actually riding in the edge of the ice wash that starts to freeze and becomes the ice pack.  Everything is always ice or weather dependent ...requiring that they must often send the helicopter up to survey the ice pack ahead. 

             Next we had two wonderful days...first to McMurdo Station, the research arm of the US and today at the Scott Hut at Cape Evans.  We had a tour of the McMurdo Station, visiting the McCrary Research Institute and received some briefings.   We also visited the general store and purchased some souvenirs (….there is always a place to shop).  We actually tried to reach McMurdo Station the day before but could not make it because of ice and high winds. The channel from McMurdo Sound had been cut through just two weeks ago and the ice pack had cleared.  We were about 200 feet from the ice shore of McMurdo base, but the winds were quite high and it was cold, real cold.  So we waited until the next day to get ashore.  It was very exciting and everyone was anxious.   In fact, this was the second time in six years that this ship was able to reach McMurdo Station.  Ice was forming on the Zodiac boats as we were heading into shore.  Yesterday the sun never set.  At midnight we were taking pictures of Mt Erebus about 100 miles away...it was alight from the sun.  Great scene. 

The next day we arrived at Cape Evans, where Scott built his hut in 1902 when he first visited the South Pole.  Shackelton stayed at the hut during one of his earlier visits and then Scott came back there on his last trip to the South Pole.  He had his last birthday party at the hut, the night before he left to reach the South Pole.... he never returned.  He died in Antarctica with his group during that expedition.  His story is truly an amazing story and points up why Amundsen succeeded first in reaching the pole.  We had planned to visit the Shackelton hut, at Cape Royds, but were unable to reach shore.  There was too much ice and the Captain was intending to have steps carved in the ice, but then the water was too rough.  As the Captain said to us (now imagine a Swedish accent) in order to make us feel better about missing the Shackelton hut, “I have seen both huts and one hut looks like the other”.

So, the next day we visited Cape Bird to view another penguin rookery, but the winds were up and beach landings would have been difficult.  We did, however, take a wild and crazy Zodiac boat ride among the icebergs, some of which were as large as a six-story building, while others just floated around with the wind.   We had seals swimming around and many penguins both on the shore and in the water.  While we were on the Zodiac boats the driver showed us that the ship had hit an iceberg.  On the stern of the ship about twenty-five feet up from the water line there was a dent in the hull with paint missing.  Evidently the Captain was backing up the ship and then drifted into the iceberg.  Neither he nor anyone else was aware that the ship had even hit the grounded iceberg, until the dent was noticed the following day.

               Each day we turned the clocks back one hour as we headed west around the South Pole.  We had done this for about eight days, gaining an hour each night and then we crossed the International Date Line on February 9th, 2000 and lost February 10th, 2000, a whole day.  Bummer!  I want a days cost of this trip refunded to me…I just lost three meals…. maybe more.

               The next day we went to Terra Nova, the Italian base...rather small and not too developed.  The Italian personnel stay there about two or three months with about a100 person staff.  There were just great.  They served us cappuccino and chocolate and gave us a tour of the base.  It was very cold and they were getting ready to leave (leaving the next day).  They did wait for us to arrive and had to delay their departure one day.

               The next morning we went on to cruise Cape Hallett and Cape Adare very early about 6am to see the Glacier and probably the last ice floe and icebergs we will see.  We start getting more darkness and nighttime from here on out.  It was very beautiful, but at 6:00am…you have to be kidding.  But every one was up there freezing their arse off.  The ship staff is serving hot chocolate to keep us warm, but it does not help.  As I take my gloves off to use the camera my fingers start paining real bad from the cold so on go the gloves and I wait to take another picture. . 

               At this point we are rapidly closing on the end of this journey and it was splendid.  We cross north of the Arctic Circle which truly marks or return to a reality that we did not see of live in Antarctica.  Last night for dinner they recreated Scott's last dinner before he left on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole.  That dinner had been given to him in Britain in 1910 at the British Antarctica Society.  Later that evening we went to a reading of the diaries of the members of that last expedition by Scott.  It covered the period approaching the end just before their death knowing that the diaries and letters to love ones would be found someday and given to the families. 

              On the trip to Christchurch, we attended a lecture by Peter Hillary about the experiences of climbing of Mt Everest by both him and his father, Sir Edward Hillary.  We have had the pleasure of spending much time with Hillary and his wife aboard the ship.

              As I mentioned earlier, the ship readied itself for this journey by having the following on board...an ice master to guide them through the ice floes, a set of eight zodiac boats and drivers to take us ashore, a beach master who regulates how we land and get off the ice landings, an expedition team of lecturers and guides, a helicopter team who regularly go ahead to look for breaks in the ice...all this in addition to the normal cruise staff to operate the ship, take care of the cabins and feed us.

             Considering that they could not provision the ship during the cruise, the meals have been nothing less than amazing.   The shows each night have been wonderful with performances by singers, dancers, and magician. Even had Mimes performing some really neat routines.  They ship and the accompanying staffs were extremely professional and dedicated.  They did a great job keeping us educated, entertained and happy.

             On the trip to Christchurch, the Captain had time available for us to cruise the Auckland Islands, which are just south of New Zealand.  These islands are a wildlife refuge and the New Zealand government only permits about 2000 visitors a year.  We were told that they were truly something special and that not too many people ever get the opportunity to be on the island.  Can you imagine if they let the five hundred of us old farts show up on short notice. 

             After we arrived in Christchurch, we readied ourselves to return home.  Did the packing …the suitcases shrunk.  Before boarding the plane in Christchurch, we did visit the Antarctica Exhibit Hall just adjacent to the airport.  We had a opportunity to experience some of the elements of Terra Incognita (Antarctica, for the uninformed) that only New Zealand locals get to see.  And the long journey home began and ended without incident.   Great to go and even more wonderful to return home.  It was great seeing Greg, Deborah, Kevin, Larry and Jan (who I have not seen yet since she is away).

 

             A trip of a lifetime...the scenes that Lila and Alan have seen in Antarctica cannot be seen any other place on this planet.