Saturday, January 31, 2009

Drake Passage, Iceberg Alley and beyond...

The Falklands marked our last stop before Antarctica. Unfortunately, to get to Antarctica one must cross the Drake Passage. There are scores of stories about horror crossings, and about one story where it's called "Drake Lake"...and that was last year's Star Princess cruise! This year started out pretty reasonable, but during the night the winds picked up to hurricane force and 10m+ waves (yes, 10 metres) came at the ship. It was not conducive to a good night's sleep as the shipped rocked, rolled, jarred, shuddered, groaned and otherwise made her displeasure known. Jen and I took a vote and decided the time the ship shuddered from deep in her stern all the way through to her bow and then pitched to port so hard we almost fell out of bed (well, I almost fell out, she had a wall on that side!) then slowly wallowed back to the same degree of pitch starboard, was probably our favourite minute and a half of the crossing!

In the morning, after things had settled to the lowest hurricane levels, that's one step above gale, our captain came on to let us know we were in one piece and to let us know that we had been "smacked" a few times, just for those people who didn't feel it. Persistant rumours around the ship had some of the rogue waves at twice the "official" height. However big they were, they were plenty big. And I have to say how pleased I am that I chose to do this trip on a BIG ship. I can't imagine that crossing in something smaller and missing out on some of the extra locations that smaller ships can reach was a very small price to pay, imho.

But then the weather gods smiled on us and the seas flattened, the wind lessened and the days turned glorious - if totally overcast most of the time. The first piece of significant mass as we entered the waters of the Antarctic is Elephant Island. This is where Ernest Shackleton dragged his crew in their lifeboats after the Endurance was crushed by pack ice in November 1915. They spent four grueling winter months on the island before being rescued. It's an epic tale and there are several books, some based on diaries from the captain and crew, and many internet sources if you want to find more information. Elephant Island isn't huge and we circumnavigated it during our cruise. It was fascinating to watch the sea colour change as we moved and as the sun played hide and seek. The island went from relatively dull to foreboding to shimmering blue-grey with green jewelled water during our journey. Sea birds played in the updraughts of the ship and penguins jumped alongside.

Amber and Susan watching Elephant Island go by from their balcony

I think this is an albatross...I'm about as adept at identifying birds as I am at shooting them in the freezing drizzle off a moving ship!

My first Antarctic penguins. These are chinstrap penguins

Who says penguins can't fly?!

We didn't get spectacular sunrises this year, but the colours were still pretty amazing and I was glad I got up at 3:30am. We spent the whole day cruising through Iceberg Alley. Days are LONG in Antarctica at this time of year with almost no real night, just a dwindling twilight that fades into almost dark for a couple of hours before the sun tries to peek out again. No commentary really for these photos, nothing written or visual could begin to do this area justice.

Some people were hardier than I

At least my roomie, Jen, was also rugged up for the early morning cold

I had seen a few penguins in the water and a few on distant icebergs

before this gorgeous iceberg floated by with a bunch of penguins all over it. It spins me out that these little guys can actually get up to the top of a big iceberg like this. If you look really closely, you can see one straggler at the bottom looking up...not sure if he's the smart one or the slow one!

Looking at the little specks on top of an iceberg that seemed to be pretty close to the ship really shows how deceptive distance is here. It seemed to me that we were plenty close to them at some points - this is one reflected in our balcony door!

I just couldn't stop myself, the icebergs were simply too striking to stop taking photos. The colours, textures, light and shapes; the close-ups and scenic vistas...indescribable

We started this day at 3:30am and so far, we're barely at noon and there's lots more to see!

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