Our experience on Saturday, February 8 and this morning, February 9 cruising the 7th continent was so amazing that words can’t begin to describe it. However, I will try to capture bits and pieces in a series of short segments, not necessarily in any kind of order. Hopefully, Steve can put a few pictures on the blog later today.
The seas calmed down late yesterday morning and we spotted land! The Schollert Channel goes between two large islands in the Palmer Archipelago in the northwest part of the Antarctic Peninsula. The clouds covered some of the higher peaks; we also saw our first ice bergs. We went up to the pool deck (deck 10) to see the port side view and found that the deck covered by a couple inches of snow and ice! Infinity slowly cruised through the channel as they continued to evaluate the wind conditions. Most of the features in this region were named by the Belgica expedition that came through the area in 1898-1899 and had to overwinter in the peninsula. Commanded by Adrien de Gerlache, the crew included the American doctor Frederick Cook, who explored with Robert Peary, and a young Roald Amundsen, who later became the first explorer to reach the South Pole just ahead of the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition. There were low clouds, but we could see more and more of the landscape. From this channel, we then entered the Gerlache strait and saw three other ships (the Seabourn Quest, a three-masted schooner, and a large fishing vessel).
Our main objective yesterday was to make it to Paradise Bay, an inlet on the peninsula, surrounded by spectacular peaks and glaciers. The Captain stopped for two hours in a beautiful area and did station keeping with thrusters (no anchor). They opened the helicopter deck in front and Steve braved the frigid conditions to go out there and do panoramas while I looked for wildlife from our deck. The scene was unreal and very monochromatic – huge snow fields and glaciers, ice bergs of all shapes and sizes in the water, dark rocks and cliff faces, grey calm seas and clouds. We never did see the sun, but we did get great views of this absolutely forbidding but beautiful scenery. I believe our most southern latitude achieved was around 64 degrees, 30 minutes, but we are trying to get confirmation. The Antarctic Circle is at 66 degrees south (as I noted in previous posts, most expeditions and cruises do not venture that far south). If that is close to the number, we traveled more than 100 degrees of latitude total for this trip from Denver and we can claim that we have covered approximately 145 degrees of latitude on the planet from north to south (out of 180).
The whale-spotting began in earnest as we neared Antarctica and we saw dozens of humpback whales throughout the day and this morning (and probably a couple of other types of whales), plus we could see many penguins at a distance on rocky shores. Later in the day yesterday, we spotted the cute little birds on ice bergs close by the ship, where they were waddling around and then diving into the water. This morning, off Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands, we saw thousands of chinstrap penguins in the water! There were a variety of flying birds as well (petrels, albatrosses). Also this morning, we saw a seal in the water close to the ship.
One of the most amazing things we saw were the incredible number of icebergs, large and small, with fantastical shapes. The glaciers and snow fields are everywhere and are constantly moving and shifting; the edges finally succumb to pressures near the water and break off. I could hear the ice cracking but we never saw a calving of an iceberg. The crevasses in the glaciers and many of the bergs had a bluish-green color caused from diffraction of the light in the compressed ice. Some bergs we saw were the size of aircraft carriers, while many others were house-sized. We saw shapes like castles, large Victorian sofas, giant hot tubs, bridges (with holes through the middle), and various fantastic animals. Thankfully, modern ships have surface radar to see where these bergs are in the dark (and we did have nighttime because we were north of the Antarctic Circle). Obviously, back in the days before radar and sonar, these beautiful bergs were real navigation hazards.
It was frigid yesterday, not even reaching 20 degrees, and we often had a stiff breeze and snow pellets coming down. The thermal pants and jackets, gloves, knit caps and other layers came in very handy.
No Elephant Island
As we departed the area last evening, the Captain told us that sea conditions were too rough for our cruise by Elephant Island that was scheduled for today. So we substituted Deception Island, an active volcano with a sheltered cove located in the South Shetland Islands. We arrived there early this morning. The island was not very interesting, but we did see lots of wildlife in the area, including the thousands of swimming chinstrap penguins I referred to earlier. We have continued cruising through the Shetlands and have been abeam of a huge island with a monstrous snow field now for a couple of hours (appropriately call Snow Island). The sun popped out briefly a short time ago (of course). I would have liked to have seen this place, which was the residence of many of the crew members of the failed Endurance expedition (1914-1917), who waited here for Ernest Shackleton and five other crew members to make it to South Georgia Island and mount a rescue, but our Captain on Infinity knows best about the sea conditions in this godforsaken part of the world.
We are very grateful we were able to see this incredible place and see the wildlife. I do not envy one bit the brave souls who inhabit the research stations here and the conditions reinforced in my mind the firm decision not to consider an expedition cruise. In another life, one where I didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, balance problems, bad physical conditioning and silly personal fears of ice and snow, I would probably go on one, but I am just glad to have seen Antarctica with my own eyes from the relative comfort of a large cruise ship (and it was much cheaper).
Next up: Tuesday February 11, we are supposed to call at the Falkland Islands. Ships anchor here and the persistent winds often force a cancellation of the stop because conditions are too rough for tendering We are signed up for a tour of Long Farm, to see how these folks live here with their sheep and cattle and peat production. Many folks are doing long and challenging 4WD trips to penguin viewing areas. That would have been fun (seeing the penguins up close), but the last thing I need is a compression fracture or other back problems, so the farm will be interesting and we will hopefully see penguins in our excursion from Puerto Madryn. Steve is wonderful as a traveling companion, as he is content doing pretty much anything, and is happy to go with me to the farm.