Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Back to the Real World!

They could’ve, at least, taken us off the ship in the zodiacs, that would’ve been appropriate… Instead, we walked off the gangway onto the pavement, spent some five rather boring hours in Ushuaia, and went off to the airport. The Ushuaia taxi to the airport was no different than the other taxis in the town (sorry, city!), except that the trunk opens with a little piece of wire of wire strung through what used to be the lock, and the driver’s side passenger door is hanging a little crooked, so can really only be opened from the outside … by a professional (in our case, the driver).

At the airport, LADE remains the bastard stepchild without its own dedicated check-in counter and widespread confusion at the gate, which finally received an agent about five minutes before our scheduled departure time – we’d leave twenty minutes late. The plane says something like Fuerza Aerlinges Argentinians (sure to be spelling that wrong), I had noticed it on the inbound flight too, but still had no idea what it meant – just found it noteworthy that it said this instead of, say, LADE. Well, I’ve since figured it out (I think): Argentinean Air Force. Boo-yah!

As for military precision… well, that’s not in such high demand for the Fuerza Argentinian… as we left twenty minutes late, and then seemingly made a stop to pick up every hitch hiker along the way to Buenos Aires that wanted a ride (Ok, we made two stops, but at the departure gate, nobody had a clue what the number would be, I just knew that I’d had one stop on the way down). To be honest, I kinda like LADE’s pragmatism – they don’t pretend to be a discount airline (we got two food services on the way down and two more on the way up). They simply don’t bother issuing boarding passes or assigning seats because they don’t need to. And they don’t care what you think or what all those other airlines do. They also fly little Fokker F-27 jets, with overhead luggage bins that are just a shelf (much better than what Air Kras operates anyway!). And, finally, when they are going from Point A to Point B and Point C is on the way, and somebody wants to get on/off at Point C, well, we’ll just have to stop there. You know you’re not flying LADE to get there quickly. And, they get you there cheaply!


Well, I fell in 30 seconds into my kayaking experience. And was pretty embarrassed about it. And went right back out again (without falling in again) and had something to talk about for the rest of the trip. And I paid almost $900 for it, which is a lot… but, once again, it may have actually been worth it. And not for the normal reasons either – it’s because kayaking always gave you a choice: land or kayak. In the end, I kayaked five times out of the possible eleven (?) they had offered. Missed out on a fun slide on one of the landings, but that wasn’t nearly enough to tip the scales.

They say kayaking gets you that much closer to the wildlife. I don’t how true that is – the zodiacs get you awfully, awfully close, and they buzz all over the place, whereas we are a bit limited by our paddle power. Then again, when you are sitting in a kayak, your butt probably water level, and a 900 pound leopard seal with its blood-thirsty reptile-like look dives under you, and you have no idea where he’ll come back up… well, you feel pretty damn close to nature! And when Lousie nonchalantly mentions that you just may want to keep your elbows away from the water (lest he should mistake them for something tasty), you tuck them in right fast.

The very last time out, I finally learned to appreciate silence too… There wasn’t much wildlife out there (a seal here, a whale there, a few penguins swimming everywhere), so the zodiacs weren’t usually near us, and it got quiet… The icebergs sat peacefully in the water. We made big noise when the kayaks would hit the ice we were paddling through. And the ice/snow would make huge noise when an occasional avalanche would come down up above, or an iceberg would calve down below… Did I mention it was sunny, there was no wind whatsoever, and we didn’t really paddle all that hard – on this day, Paradise Harbor was serenity.

I hear some woman actually swam across Paradise Harbor recently – she’s fucking insane, whether she had a wet/dry suit on or not, and no matter how freakishly better her blood circulation is that most of ours!


It’s better than the zipline and the surfboard, right?

Actually, the zodiacs were quite amazing – they get us on land, they get us up close and personal with the seals, they let us see all sides of the amazing icebergs down here, and the whales occasionally get curious about them.

And we get to compare and contrast our different drivers in a sort of a mental competition. James and Rob win for most exciting. Scott wins for most knowledgeable and steady. The girls generally fare the worst in the speed drills. Sergey takes the cake for most Russian, including, apparently, regular encounters between the propeller and the rocks… But he’s calm, restrained, and, yet, quite funny about it all.


Up at 6, last Ioffe meal – breakfast at 6:30, and off the boat before 8. Everything ending too quickly and with a bit of an anti-climatic whimper. Now to learn to interact with people other than the hundred or so I’ve gotten used to over the last 13 days, settle for less amazing meals, and be forced to occupy myself on my own unlike Quark providing a full program here on board!

Drake to Cape Horn

Feeling fine in the morning, but sticking to the drugs just to be sure. Not much going on today – pay up your accounts, get your passport back, with Antarctica stamps in it, a movie on sailing around Cape Horn, filmed in ’29, narrated by same guy in ’80 – pretty funny, but the presentation room, with the lights dimmed, continues to put me to sleep… Looks like lots of free time today for reading/writing/listening to music. Getting kinda sad to be leaving the boat and the people met on board behind tomorrow!

back in the Drake

It’s rocking again… Feeling find in the morning, dizzy and noxious after thirty minutes in front of a computer. After skipping breakfast and lunch, give up and switch to “better living through chemistry” by taking a pill for sea sickness – works remarkably well. Enjoyable dinner, then play cards = “Chairman Mao” till 1AM. A bit more subdued than the night before when we were finishing my bottle of Argentinean vodka and 5.50 peso wine till 4AM (only 2:30 for me). Or the till 4AM birthday celebration for Marlese a couple days ago… Missed a few presentations during the day (while remaining perfectly horizontal), saw the “Plight of the Albatross” in the afternoon – poor, poor, unfortunate, very stupid bird!

Halfmoon Bay and Deception Island

Halfmoon landing – first big chinstrap colony, plus a bunch of fur seals. Spectacular rock spires all over the island. A whole lot more uncleaned up equipment strewn around. Seas looking a bit rough, so probably for the best to not go kayaking. Spend a better part of the landing listening to Conor and Kieran discuss cricket…
Afternoon: long sail to Deception Island waiting for another expedition to clear out first. Offers a picturesque sight upon arrival – sailing into the center of a volcano. A little steam coming off the water near the shore . Hike up to “Neptune’s Window” on shore, passing a bunch of fur seals lounging and playing around, remnants of the old whaling station, and the last three or four penguins to be seen on the trip… Whaling stuff, all rusted out , seems a little depressing after seeing all the whales on the trip.
Before getting back on the ship, it’s time for a bath. Due to the volcano, water here marginally warmer than normal, so bring your bathing suit! Lots of people, including some of the older passengers go in. A few go in twice(!). I got plenty of it during a ~15 second dip. Refreshing… Katy and Sarah go for a second dip… sans bathing suits. Hank had started the skinny-dipping tradition a minute earlier.

Orne and Paradise Harbors

Morning: couldn’t do the landing we’d planned – another ship’s there (?). Kayaking in a big harbor filled with ice floes. See chinstrap penguins on shore for the first time – a leopard seal and humpbacks seem like more of same old, same old by now.
Afternoon: kayaking in Paradise Harbor, didn’t see that much – a couple leopard seals, a Minke whale that didn’t want to hang around and an ice cave that kept sending chunks of ice down, so we couldn’t approach (Safety Third?). The water was the calmest I’d seen yet though, absolutely still. Starting to learn how to appreciate the silence – out there on a kayak, it’s amazingly still and beautiful. The zodiacs really do distract a bit from all the serenity. Bright and sunny day too – warm enough that Jane and Kieran went for a dip at the end. Not by accident.
Third day in a row of spectacular sunsets in the evening. We’ve done well the with weather… my contacts with the Russian crew say this is certainly the time to come here – weather’s best and the whales are here en force. Heading due North now, leaving the peninsula and aiming for South Shetland islands tomorrow.

Neko & Danco

Highlight of the day: a really curious Minke Whale that hung around for a long time by the ship and the zodiacs right as we were leaving.
Morning: cruise around Neko – not too spectacular, but quite cold. Get on land after – lots of Gentoo penguins that are really bad at walking… A climb up a hill to witness an ice shelf calving into the bay – dramatically spectacular. A tidal wave follows… Neko is mainland!
Afternoon: Danco Island starting with spectacular cruise all around, multiple humpback sightings and amazing icebergs in perfectly still water. On island, lots more penguins – at the top, nests with little baby chicklets recently hatched… facing very long odds of survival given how late they’re born, but cute to look at. Not allowed to take them home as dinner snacks… Slide down the hill to the bottom after more stunningly spectacular views all around from the top of the hill on the island.
Evening: a bit more celebrating of Marlese’s birthday… going later than I stayed up… Wonder how the Carolina game went…

Petermann and Pleneau

Morning: visit big penguin colony at Petermann Island: lots of Gentoo penguins, a few Adelies – Adelies are gradually relocating further South. Penguins quite funny trying to walk… Feeding ceremonies – two chicks chasing an adult. A skua bird eating the remnants of a penguin… Nice, sunny day. Akademik Vavylov shows up – two identical ships hanging out in the bay. Kayaking in the afternoon.
Kayaking: absolutely amazing. Perfectly still, Lake Sammamish-in the morning-still, no wind and lots of wildlife – sixteen seals we came up to, three more swimming about and a few more just off in a distance… Penguins serenely popping out of the water, swimming about. Speaking of penguins – it’s a bird, but it doesn’t fly. It spends most of its life on land, but it’s really not so good at walking, and it’s by no means a fish, but it’s a damn good swimmer. Graceful too… and hunted by leopard seals, of course.
Evening: sailing through the LeMaire Passage (named after a Belgian explorer of the Congo… hmm…) – stunning sunset – bright red ahead and behind (The captain announced, in Russian, to the crew that they should come out and see the sunset – it’s one of the best he’d ever seen!). Prior to sunset an odd barbecue on back deck – a bit cold… Spend the evening with drink in the bar.

on to the continent!

Yalour Islands – morning: kayaking and a visit to Akademik Vernadskiy Ukrainian research station (formerly British ‘Faraday’ Station). Kayak through some narrow and shallow passages – pretty cool. Tour of station not terribly exciting, but speaking Russian results in extra shot of vodka at the bar and some good conversation. Sarah, from our boat, trades her bra for a shot…
Afternoon: too rough to land, so zodiac cruising around Waddington Bay. Lots of seals on ice floes – leopard, crabeater, fur. All mostly sleeping and lazily gazing at us. Penguins, cool icebergs, and a sei whale sighting at the very end. Downside: two hours on a zodiac gets rather cold!
Evening: camping right back near Vernadskiy (across the bay, at old Wordy hut) – not particularly cold, but not particularly comfortable either. Glad to say I’ve slept on Antarctic soil though!

back North

Started sailing back North, around Adelaide Island again – waters a bit more choppy this time… No ill effects so far, we’ll see if that keeps up. Aiming for a shore landing in the afternoon.
No shore landing – too rough… No particular ill effects, but a two and half hour nap in the afternoon just to make sure.

Antarctica Proper

Sailed back out to sea and around Adelaide Island at night, in morning back to land, near Horseshoe Island – first landing/kayaking. Thirty seconds after getting into a kayak, tipped over and had to get fished out – kayaks not all that stable! Went back in after getting new pair of gloves, no more tipping the rest of the day. Ended up ~15 feet away from a pair of Humpback whales right at the end! Afternoon – switch to a shore excursion. Lunch – first time properly hungry for a meal on board after work out and swim… Afternoon: Stonington Island – gorgeous views of mountains and icebergs reflecting in glassy still water in the bay at first (including some amazing icebergs), then on land to visit with some Adelie penguins and Weddell seals (a pair of Crabeater seals on a piece of ice in the bay). Remains of a couple of old research stations – seems like a miserable place to spend 30 months! Americans left some rusted out tanks behind?

Third day at sea

Still calm. Still sailing straight down. At lunch see our first iceberg in the distance, lots of birds, saw a fin whale on the starboard side of ship! Reports of a seal, but didn’t see. Seem to be aiming to cross circle around dinner time. Lectures on ice, Amundsen/Scott, seals, photography composition. Falling asleep in dark presentation room downstairs.

And then, Antarctica showed up! Saw first iceberg over lunch, then a couple presentations – back out on the deck around 4:30, and we’re surrounded by huge floating pieces of ice everywhere, including some huge ones coming straight for us. Saw a couple whales in a distance too, celebrated crossing the Antarctic Circle (66º 33′ 36″) with a bit of sangria and music on the front deck.

Second Day at Sea

Fairly sunny and much calmer, also slowing down, aiming to hit circle at a specific hour. No more problems with rough water. A few birds, even though I’m told there’ll be more with wind. Saw maybe a penguin in a distance … or was that day before? Lectures on penguins, whales, IAATO, and zodiac safety. Learning Spanish on deck.

First day at sea

crew says it’s pretty calm, it seems pretty rough to me. Working out at the gym in morning, maybe bad idea – not holding down lunch or dinner. Lectures on photography, geology, Shackleton, first kayak meeting. No wildlife to speak of.

Академик Иоффе

There’s quite a bit there to be said about the good Akademik Ioffe. It was, after all, our home for almost two weeks. Some basics to get out of the way first: it was the third cruise ship I’ve been on (Carribean, Mexico coast) and it was far and away the best. It was also the third Russian vessel I’ve been on overnight (Caspian Sea, Sea of Japan), this was incomparably the best as well… The power of threes… The cabin was large and comfortable enough, and the sink was nice. The communal bathroom/shower scheme left a bit to be desired, but it worked well enough. Beyond the basics, we had three excellent meals every day, and somebody came by to make up our beds, also three times a day (good bit of napping in between) – the power of threes continues. The weather was excellent – just one day down South where we didn’t get to do anything. We got well, well, South of the Antarctic Circle. We saw a plethora of wildlife – whales, penguins, seals, birds. One of our ‘Kayaking Goddesses’ commenting that she saw more leopard seals our one day at Pleneau (about twelve) than in all of her previous trips combined(!), and this was with the propeller power of our kayaks… Max was quite excellent at mixing his drinks and rescuing our horrible Argentinian vodka… if only he could save some cookies for those of us staying on share a little later!
All in all, it’s incredibly hard for me to say that something was actually worth $10,000, but they came pretty damn close. Oh, and the damn Dutch who got onto our boat for less than $5K each… More detail to follow:

Ushuaia, Argentina: a bus from pier to the ship

As Ushuaia is mostly comprised of narrow one way streets, the bus actually goes a couple of kilometers from the parking lot to the ship. The actual distance is probably about 500m … and they did collect all the luggage in the morning. This is all about simply keeping the tourists organized. There are four ships in port – our Akademik Ioffe, flying its Russian flag, and looking every bit like an actual polar research ship, the Clipper, another Quark-chartered ship that doesn’t look quite so Russian-ly sturdy and ready for the ice, a real, large cruise ship, which, I imagine, goes to the Falklands and nowhere South of there. South Georgia maybe? And finally, a ship sporting a Brazilian flag that looks more like a cargo vessel, but is bringing some passengers on board… and has two helicopters sitting in the back – that bit makes it rather interesting…

Ushuaia, Argentina: Los Acebos hotel shuttle bus to town

Speaking of getting into town, the Los Acebos does provide a shuttle to town that makes 5-6 trips daily, saving you that $5 cab ride. Ushuaia itself isn’t much of a city – there’s one main street and a boardwalk in front of the dock. The one main street specializes in selling souvenirs. And fairly expensive food (Oliver notes that prices have gone up since his last trip 4 years ago). There’s a not so interesting, graffiti-covered lookout point at one end of the town, overlooking a skateboard park… and a nearby grocery store, which specializes in 2.70 peso boxes of wine and 10 peso bottles of vodka ($1 USD = 3.30 peso) – we stocked up!

Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierre del Fuego – Fin del Mundo. There’s not much public transportation in the “Southernmost City in the World” (not to be confused with Chile’s somewhat smaller “southernmost town in the world”), so from airport to Los Acebos, Warrick and Mary (a Kiwi couple I ran into in the overly-crowded Ushuaia arrival lounge, which isn’t designed to handle two simultaneous airplane arrivals, who were doing the same Quark trip) piled into a taxi, along with myself, and we bounced along up a hill (and up mostly paved roads) to the Los Acebos hotel, where, lo and behold, Oliver was hanging out! Oliver and I took a couple more cab rides around town, visiting a mountain-side glacier and getting to/from town. Los Acebos is quite nice, but I would’ve preferred a hotel actually in town, I think.

Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina: LADE airlines

I should figure out what LADE actually stands for… it’s the military-run Argentinean airline that zips little airplanes all over the country, doesn’t assign seats, issues little coupons in place of boarding passes, doesn’t speak much English, but gets you there on time and in relative comfort, and quite cheaply… Also features another marginally necessary bus ride from terminal to airplane at the Buenos Aires airport.

Primary takeaway upon arrival in Ushuaia: I can’t believe my overnight bus -> plane (TACA) -> bus/boat -> plane (LADE) itinerary for Tamarindo to Ushuaia via San Jose, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires actually worked, and moreover it went off without a hitch! Actually, the biggest problem was that I kept getting places too early and had too much time to wait… Resulting in sight-seeing in Montevideo and catching the Superbowl in BA.