We celebrated the beginning of our Antarctica adventure in true style. On the last day of 2019 we motored away from the dock in Ushuaia a small city at the very bottom of Argentina and left in our wake the civilized world. Loaded with supplies, kayaks, kayaking equipment, skis and ski equipment we were set to embark on a 21 day journey. Our goal was not to conquer a bunch of new summits or to clock up as much vertical as possible, neither were we seeking to paddle as many miles as possible. Our aim was quite simple we wanted to experience Antarctica and to explore it from a few different mediums. We wanted to skin up it’s beautifully fractured glaciers and to paddle through it’s iceberg studded waters. We hoped to get some great down hill skiing and if treated to spectacular views or intimate experiences with wildlife then that would be a bonus.
Our team of 9 expeditioners ticked all the boxes for personality traits required to form a good team. The energy and enthusiasm was brought to the table by 4 folks from Maine USA or “Mainers”, 2 Aussies provided a sensible and practical approach while our French captain and leader Calypso alongside her partner and First Mate Adrian ensured everyone stayed in line. The Expediton Leader and Guide Matt from Canada rounded out the team, possessing a rare talent for superbly bad humor.
Our home for the next 21 days was to be the sailboat the Spirit of Sydney or as we affectionately nicknamed her SOS. She is a 60 foot aluminum expedition yacht and although homey is not built for comfort. She does however provide the perfect launching pad for an endeavor of this nature. Our initial introduction to SOS was a thorough safety briefing and run down of our roles while on board. Throughout the whole trip everyone was expected to contribute, this is an all inclusive adventure and we would all take turns cooking meals, doing dishes and making sure the boat was kept neat and tidy. We would not simply be passengers along for the ride we would be actively engaged in the operations and safety of the expedition, under the direction and watchful eye of Calypso, Adrian and Matt.
Not long out of harbor we hoisted the sails and made our way slowly down the Beagle Canal with a light breeze and stunning scenery.It takes a bit of time to get use to life on a boat and as we explored the nooks and crannies of our new home we started the process of acclimatizing to life with each other and life onboard. We dropped the anchor in a small bay about 3 hours outside of Ushuaia. Toasting to the start of a great journey and to the end of a decade. It was a celebratory evening with an air of anticipation and excitement that only the start of an expedition can bring.Reality set in about 24 hours later, while sailing down to Antarctica a journey that was expected to take 4 to 5 day we would take turns doing watches.Three members of the expedition on each watch doing 3 hour shifts with 6 hours between each watch. As we rounded Cape Horn and we started to feel the rise and fall of the swells, the wind started to pick up and the boat keeled over. I’m sure some were thinking “Is it too late to get off this ride?” The Drake Passage has a reputation of being one of the roughest patches of water in the world. With this reputation in mind we settled into our watches and grew accustomed to a life of 3 and 6. Fearing the worst, our crossing down to the Peninsula was about as good as it gets, surged on by a constant tail wind and a steady following sea not to mention long periods of sunshine we were in blissful ignorance of how bad it can get.
The relatively calm conditions allowed us to spent time enjoying the graceful antics of a small clan of following sea birds. Not long after leaving Cape Horn we had been joined by several species of Albatross, Petrels and the odd Prion. These ocean wanderers brave the fiercest conditions imaginable as they traverse the high southern latitudes hunting for fish and krill. They are expert flyers and incredible to watch as they soar within inches of the waves.
The comfortable passage was also largely thanks to the capabilities of the Spirit of Sydney. SOS was built specifically to not only handle the rough waters of the Southern Ocean but to thrive in this chaotic environment. Since her launch in 1986 she has spent most of her life toiling in the roughest ocean in the world and she felt more at home in the big waves and strong winds than during any other time in our journey. What she lacks in comfort she makes up for in performance, and we made short work of the crossing, landing in the South Shetland Islands 4 days after leaving Ushuaia with an average speed of 8.5 knots and with only one instance of seasickness.
The South Shetlands could be considered the launching pad to the Antarctic Peninsula they are string of mountainous, highly glaciated islands located about 60 miles north of the Peninsula itself.
Entering McFarlane Strait the low fog which had obstructed our view for the previous 24 hours parted and we were granted stunning views of Livingstone Island and Greenwhich Island. We pulled into Yankee Harbour and immediately allowed a sense of achievement to wash over us. We had just crossed the Drake Passage in a small boat and we had not done it as passengers but as active members of an expedition who were responsible for watching out for icebergs and other vessels and helping to trim and change the sails.
After a long crossing there is a strong desire to get on solid ground again. Adrien and Calypso immediately began inflating the dingy and we made the short trip to shore. There we were greeted by a large gathering of Gentoo penguins and a contingent of Elephant Seals. The first penguins a Antarctic virgin sees are the most photographed of the trip. Our team of 9 contained 6 such virgins and so the paparazzi were unleashed. The wildlife in Antarctica have never been actively hunted by humans there are no land based predators in Antarctica, all potential threats comes from the ocean or the air so they have developed very little fear of humans. This lack of fear allowed us to have close experiences with the wildlife throughout the trip. We went to great lengths not to frighten the wildlife or to change their behavior but quite often inquisitive penguins and seals would come right up to us. Their curiosity towards us, these unusual and foreign beings ensured that we knew we were on their turf but in a strange way it also made us feel welcomed and cemented our resolve to be good house guests.
Back on the boat and with an afternoon of incredible sunshine we decided to go skiing. There is nothing that can compare to skiing in Antarctica. The extent of glaciation in Antarctica is beyond comprehension. The risk of falling in a crevasse is a constant reality and necessitates being roped to each other while skinning up. These were new skills for the majority of our team. We started out slowly and made sure everyone was given the opportunity to feel comfortable moving as a team roped to one another, the slow pace and gentle terrain allowed everyone to adjust to their new surroundings and landscape.
By the late afternoon we had skinned up to a high point on Greenwhich Island and were granted stunning views of the surrounding islands bathed in the late afternoon light. Far below us we could SOS happily anchored in harbor, not far from them were several humpback whales, their rhythmical spouts and occasional flutes giving away their position as they trawled the outer harbor for krill.
With the rope and skins tucked back in the packs we began the our first descent in Antarctica. The ski down was excellent, perfect spring corn snow all the way back to ocean. With huge smiles and happily tired legs we made our way back to the boat.
The following day we crossed over to Half Moon Island and landed on a beach near an unoccupied Argentinean base Camara . A short walk along the shore took us to a series of small rock cliffs and a Chinstrap Penguin rookery. Penguin chicks epitomize cuteness and these little guys weren’t long hatched. Another paparazzi session ensued. 1000 penguin photos later and we were back on the boat preparing for another ski outing, this time up Livingstone Island. The ski outing ended up being short lived as a moody sky and tricky glacier travel necessitated a return to shore before reaching our high point. Skiing back down we were treated to dramatic scenes as the late afternoon light played with the distant peaks and surrounding ice cliffs.
Deception Island was our next stop. Leaving early in the morning with calm winds and quiet seas we were fortunate enough to make a quick stop into Bailey’s Head. Containing the largest Chinstrap Penguin colony in the world with more than 100,000 nesting pairs it’s a spectacle that is beyond comprehension. The hills surrounding Bailey’s Head are lined as far as the eye can see with penguins. It’s like being at a penguin rock concert with a noise and smell to complete the analogy. The foreshore at Bailey’s Head boils with a constant stream of hundreds of penguins as they come and go, mating pairs trading off between minding the chicks and fishing for their hungry appetites. Deception Island is one of the most interesting anchorages in the world. The island is actually an active volcano or more accurately a flooded caldera. As SOS slowly motored in through the narrow entrance known as “Neptune’s Bellows” the fog moved in and added to the eerie mood of the place. Anchoring at Whalers Bay deep inside the crater of the volcano. We could see steam rising from the shore as volcanically charged warm water met the cold Southern Ocean.
Deception Island’s fascinating history is apparent long before you land ashore.
Artifacts and structural remains line the beach paying homage to time when 1000’s of whales that were slaughtered and harvested here for their priced oil. We walked through these slowly decaying buildings, rotting boats and rusty boilers commenting on how hard life would have been and how tough the men who worked on Deception Island were. A short walk along the beach interrupted numerous times by inquisitive Chinstrap Penguins saw us climbing up to Neptune’s window. Legend has it that whalers would use this easily accessible view point to assess the conditions on the outside of the caldera. On a good day it’s possible to see the Peninsula, with low cloud and fog it wasn’t possible today.
We dedicated the afternoon to kayaking, our first of the trip. Calm conditions allowed us to paddle back out of the bellows to the outside of the caldera. Paddling beside towering cliffs we were granted exceptional views of nesting Blue Eyed Shags, their chicks almost full grown and getting ready to leave the nest. We explored a series of sea caves and marveled at the unusual volcanic geology which loamed over us as we paddled past. On the way back we crossed to the far side of Neptune’s Bellows and enjoyed the antics of a small Chinstrap Penguin colony.
Our next stop was the Peninsula, we left early in the morning the conditions having changed dramatically. Antarctica started to show it’s teeth. We sailed south with strong winds and a building swell by mid day the rain began. Our plan was to ski on Two Hummock Island but those plans were quickly dashed as the conditions deteriorated. In the later afternoon we dropped the anchor in a small cove lined with towering glacial ice walls, the wind still strong and the rain still falling. Welcome to Antarctica.
Moving to Enterprise Island the following day the conditions had improved. The ceiling was still low but the wind had calmed down and the rain was intermittent. Anchoring next to an old grounded Whaling Vessel – “the Governoren” which was intentionally grounded here in 1915 when the vessel caught on fire and the crew saw no other solution or escape but to run it ashore, it’s rusty carcass is now home to nesting Terns and provides a safe anchorage for us. We dropped the kayaks in the water and proceeded to circumnavigate Enterprise Island. Paddling around icebergs is a truly special experience and most of the participants were iceberg virgins. So after a quick talk about the does and don’ts we proceeded to enter an Iceberg “Graveyard”. An iceberg graveyard is an area of grounded icebergs. Grounded icebergs are safer to approach then their floating cousins because they are less likely to roll over. We paddled through a series of channels separating the bergs which unleashed another effort by the paparazzi team.
Our evening was spent with a celebratory butt slide down Enterprise Island. The honors going to Adrian who elected to slide face first.
Our team were hungry for more whale sightings so the following morning we cruised into Wilhelmina Bay, an area renowned for
feeding Humpback and Minke Whales. It didn’t take long for someone call out in exicitement with the first sighting. Soon after we had seen something in the order of 20 feeding and sleeping whales. By early afternoon with SD cards full we arrived in Orne Harbor and launched another ski outing on the south side of Spigot Peak. We raced penguins up the slope as they returned to their nests. Gaining the ridge we completed a lap on the south side before climbing up and over the ridge and skiing down the northern slopes. Another quick lap was completed before we headed back to the boat, anchored close by. We had hoped for a restful night but a huge glacial calving on the opposite side of Orne Harbor sent a huge wave of ice straight at us. The quick actions of Calypso and Adrian kept us from being pushed onto the rocks.
This stream of ice kept coming and it was decided that we would go on anchor watch for the night. This entailed shifts of 1 person being on watch for 1 hour during the night to ensure no really large pieces of ice collided with us while at anchor. Thankfully the rest of the evening was largely uneventful.
Throughout the following days we continued south, skiing and paddling in the Errerra Channel, Paradise Harbour, the Neuymeyer channel and Pleneau Bay. We visited several bases and renamed the boat to the Spirit of Gizmo in honor of our appointed mascot.
Calm winds throughout our time on the Peninsula allowed us to complete some magical kayaking outings, with the paddle at Pleneau being the highlight for everyone.
Throughout the trip the sun tried hard to come out and succeeded on several occasions which we took full advantage of to go skiing. Getting exceptional turns on Le Maire Island, Leith Peak and Mount Mills
We also had amazing wildlife experiences, the whale sightings were off the charts somewhere in the order of 50 – 70, as well as close encounters with 4 species of penguins, and we were fortunate to get up close and personal with 4 species of seals including 4 Leopard seals.
On the 16th day we reluctantly decided to start making our way back to Ushuaia. Calypso informing us that the crossing would be pleasant at the start and rough as we neared Cape Horn. We fell back into the 3 and 6 routine of watches, the mountains of Antarctica slowly slipping behind our wake. During the crossing’s 3rd night the wind started to pick up the seas grew and the rolling became more violent. Living in these sorts of conditions becomes an exercise in survival. Simple tasks like going to the toilet or getting dressed becomes a trial. Meals are simplified and when not on watch the best place to be was horizontal in our beds.
It was good to see the Drake in a meaner state if we hadn’t I think we would have felt cheated. At no point did anyone feel unsafe. While on watch or out on deck we were tethered to the boat. SOS performed exceptional well in these conditions and although she did spring a few leaks under the relentless barrage of waves and splash which at times washed over the entire boat, we had full confidence that she would get us home safe and sound.
As we entered the Beagle Canal in the late afternoon of the crossing’s 4th day the waves began to calm down and for a while the wind subsided. We had made it, although this proved short lived as later that night the wind reached 50 knots we were now in relatively safe waters.
Our last night on board was bitter sweet, after a quick stop in the Beagle we completed our journey into Ushuaia harbor. After 21 days away from the modern world were we ready to reenter it? We all recognized that we had just completed something very special, as the clique goes “the trip of a lifetime” or a trip that will set the benchmark for all future trips. But a sailboat assisted ski and kayaking trip to the Peninsula is more than that. It is a trip that will change our lives, granting us a different perspective and an insight into the world that is difficult to comprehend. Our goal was to see Antarctica from a few different mediums a goal we easily obtained. We also got the bonus marks with plenty of great ski turns and had more intimate wildlife experiences than we thought possible on a 21 day trip.
There is no denying we were all looking forward to a hot shower, a large bed and a latté but a part of us also wished we were still down in the beautifully frozen and simple world of the Antarctic Peninsula.