Friday, April 3, 2020

Photo Friday: Antarctica #1

I promised y'all penguins, so I'm jumping over whatever land-based trips I still need to share, and going right to the world's most amazing swimming birds. Okay, and also a landscape that is a bit mind-boggling. And whales....

A bit of background:
In the late afternoon of March 9, we boarded the Oceanwide Expeditions vessel Plancius in Ushuaia, Argentina. On the 12th, we woke up in Antarctica (okay, not a total surprise, and we'd seen the South Shetland Islands the day before as we steamed past). Our ship, a refitted research vessel 89 meters long, carried 114 passengers and 46 crew (including 8 guides for our adventures, and an amazing chef). That makes it a pretty small ship for a cruise, and allows for the kind of special trip this was: one where everyone could participate in all the activities and landings (all covered in the base price, BTW). Those activities included kayaking, zodiac cruises, landings, and various mountaineering activities (participation in some restricted by the need for crampon-compatible boots). It would also have included camping on shore, but weather and snow conditions, alas, sank that plan.

Bear in mind that March is decidedly late summer in the south polar regions, as we approached the fall equinox. However, we were exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, which actually extends pretty far north, so that we were at latitudes comparable to that of Denali in Alaska. The weather when we started was truly perfect.

Here's a bit of map to get you oriented:
This shows Ushuaia and the southern tip of Argentina/Chile, and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, extending farther south than what we got.

More perspective:
What we visited was the tip of that bit that extends way out from the main continent.
Okay, now for the trip.

As we approached the dock for boarding, we got a nice perspective on the different sorts of ships you can take to the polar regions (I presume all were going there; I don't think there are many other places to sail to from Ushuaia). Our Plancius looked pretty small at the dock next to a somewhat larger cruise ship--and wholly overshadowed by one of the giant ones, whose passengers generally can't land anywhere.

Plancius didn't look quite so hopelessly tiny up close.
Note the line of passengers approaching the table on the dock. We did go through a cursory health screening before boarding. It seemed to work; no one had so much as a cold virus.
We set sail just before 6 p.m., heading down the Beagle Channel.
Ushuaia perches on the narrow bit of land between the mountains and the sea, and is actually quite a bit more hilly than it looks here.
We heard a lot of talk about the "Drake Lake" of our crossing. This, believe it or not, is the water we had for most of the way across the roughest bit of ocean in the world. No one aboard had ever seen it anything like so calm. I was grateful not to be testing the ability of my seasickness patch to keep me functional (spoiler alert: I was right to be grateful for the calm).

Late on the second day we were excited to spot land--the South Shetland Islands, the first outliers of the Antarctic Peninsula.
  On the 3rd morning we woke up in Antarctica, at Orne Harbour.

The first adventure was a zodiac cruise (zodiacs are those black rubber inflatable boats) around the Harbour and out into the Gerlache Straight a bit in pursuit of whales.
Okay, the ship looks pretty big from this perspective. The zodiacs held a dozen passengers and one guide to run the engine and talk about what we were experiencing. They were highly professional and in most cases passionate about the animals and landscapes we saw.

I promised you penguins--they were the first thing they took us to see. These are called chinstrap penguins, for reasons you can probably figure out.

We then cruised out into the channel a bit where a humpback whale was more than cooperative, coming up very close to our boats. Unfortunately, we eventually realized that the whale was distressed because we'd gotten (unknowingly) between her and her calf. We moved off and left them in peace, but not before we'd all gotten a thrill.
This isn't really a photo of the whale. It shows you how close it was--almost too close to see from across the zodiac, even standing up.
Photography in the zodiacs was always a little challenging. I lost a lot of my first-day photos because I hadn't set my ISO right. You need really fast shutter speeds to get good photos from a tiny rubber boat bouncing around in the water, even if the subject is holding still (which is wasn't). It is also often hard to get a good shot with 12 other people maneuvering to get photos.
Sometimes, even when you have to peer between your fellow passengers, you get a great view.

By the time we'd seen the penguins and the whales, we all could have gone home happy. But we continued with a swing deeper into Orne Harbour, with some nice icebergs (small ones; later we saw the massive ones).

The glassy seas reflected the grey skies and it all made me feel very far from California!
One little zodiac and 8 even smaller kayaks, exploring among the ice.

This is already unmercifully long--and we haven't even gotten to the afternoon, when we got our turn in the kayaks. That--and lots more whales and penguins--will just have to wait :)

I hope this has been a nice distraction from the constant blast of scary news we're all getting right now. I'll keep posting up about our trip and sharing pictures, in hopes of making someone's day a little better.
All images and text ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2020, unless otherwise indicated.
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!


  1. You can do 52 Friday Photos of Antarctica for me!
    The picture of the flukes works even better for me because of the scale of ‘onboard’ in shot. Mostly it’s flukes in the middle of an ocean with no context. This is better(for me).

    1. Almost all my whale photos at least have some icebergs or something in the background :)

  2. A story of your trip that is very pleasant.
    Have fun and find interesting things.

    Enjoy your trip, friend.

    Greetings from Indonesia

  3. As you say 'amazing' - and despite the difficulties, you get some great shots. Now I see your 'cruise ship' I understand more of your updates on 'seasickness'. What an adventure, lucky Rebecca. I've only been white-water rafting in zodiacs.

    1. Yes, that's the one drawback of the small ship. Well, the other only came into play when we had the extra week aboard without landings--no amenities like work-out rooms or quiet spaces.

  4. Nice first chapter. I'll await more.

  5. Hi Rebecca - I'm going to love these with your notes ... fantastic memories --- take care - Hilary


We want to hear from you! Tell us your reactions, or whatever's on your mind.