They made it clear from the beginning; “This is not your father’s cruise”. This was an exploration, not a cruise. The plan was to traverse the usual peri-Antarctica islands and peninsulas to make our way through the Antarctic Circle to actually set foot on the continent. A rare event due to quirky weather and shifting ice masses.
The good ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov is a high tech wonder, outfitted with two fully functional engines, each with all redundant outfitting. Powered by a high efficiency fuel that if spilled, would float on top of the sea to be broken down by ultraviolet rays. 117 meters long, top speed 14.5 knots and strengthened for dealing with ice. She holds 97 souls and ten “Zodiacs” (outboard powered rubber boats each seating up to ten people and all their camera gear). The ship can go where most ships can’t and the Zodiacs can and do go anywhere.
Getting to the jump-off point, Punta Arenas, Chile was a very long and stressful series of airplanes and airports. For the trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, we flew in what appears to be the standard for crossing the infamous Drake Passage (more about that later). A curved wing, four engine plane built in England I suspect set up for short take-off and landing. We landed at the Chilean Air force Base on one of the peri-Antarctic peninsulas, basically a strip carved into the rock covered with permafrost.
We were really not prepared for the shock of our introduction to Antarctica. The aircraft landed on it’s left wheels down, right wheels up to assuage against the 30 knot 90 degree cross wind. It took three hops to get on all the wheels. The landing strip was build of rock and sand. On departing the plane we were greeted by intense cold, wind and snow. A barren landscape that could have been the moon. Then a one-mile walk from the landing strip the moored ship about a mile offshore, all the participants transported by Zodiac. Once on board the ship we were made very comfortable. Bunks and a shared bathroom.
The ship is of Russian registry and staffed by an all Russian crew and staff. When not touring in season, it goes back with Russian scientists to study the Antarctic area. The exploration was exceptionally well organized and operated by a Canadian group, “One Ocean”. They were magnificent and we felt very well cared for along this highly stressful trip. The food was excellent.
60% of the participants signed up through Cheeseman Ecology Tours but those guys were pretty much passive observers, having little if anything to do with running the ship and tour. They were available to discuss the ecology of the area and they did an excellent job. Ted Cheeseman is doing a PhD in Whale studies through an Australian university.
On the first day into the trip it all began. Up for breakfast at 7 am, donning heavy layers of dress and boots for cold conditions, out exploring in the Zodiacs till noon-ish, back for lunch, then out again in the afternoon till supper around 7 pm. Three or four layers of clothing takes about 30 minutes to get on, including heavy clunky rubber boots. Waterproof backpack to hold camera gear adds weight. Walking with all this stuff was like walking in a spacesuit.
Then climbing down a gangway from the ship deck to the Zodiac, gauging the bounce from waves to step in, hopefully not falling. Seats are along the sides of the rubber boat, I think a real risk for falling in the 2 degrees C water if the boat zigs and you zag. There were near misses. The Zodiac, armed with an experienced pilot and a 60 horsepower outboard, went on its way to search for things of interest and no-where was off limits. All of us on board were experienced photographers. Weather variable. Sometimes bright, sometimes wind, snow and freezing rain. Camera gear protected by waterproof sleeves. It got cold and miserable out there. Trying to get out of the Zodiac by swinging legs over to slippery rocks, then climbing varying distances was extremely difficult for me. Many times no place to sit.
At this point the best way to show you the trip is to show you the photos. I will introduce you to the Youtube videos I made from this trip.
The Youtube presentation photos were all taken with my Sony and high resolution. Watch it in full screen. I sorted through about 1000 photos to get what’s in these presentations, so they might be a little long but I could have easily put 500 photos into a collection.
This was a ten-day, high-energy expenditure, high stress endeavor, not counting getting to the ship from Pittsburgh. My aging physiology hit the wall about day 6. I learned that my physiology’s response to high-energy expenditure and high stress was to set limits on what it was prepared to mount to meet it. My body simply de-tuned and refused to meet any challenges. So I began to function at a de-tuned level. My appetite went completely, and the food aboard was great. I developed increasing weakness in my left leg, then all over and required assistance on the rolling decks. Urinary incontinence at night. My thinking processes slowed down. I became listless and apathetic, having to force myself to move.
So I learned I had to lower my energy expenditure, beginning day 6 limiting myself to one Zodiac excursion a day instead of two, sleeping in- skipping breakfast and taking my time dressing. I thought clinically about what I really needed to do to get through the day and worked to cut out any excess for the last four days. I may have missed some things but I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss much.
Then the coup-de-grace, crossing the brutal Drake Crossing from Antarctica to Ushuaia, Argentina (considered a necessary part of the Antarctic experience). The Passage divides the cool, sub-polar conditions of southernmost South America from the frigid, Polar Regions of Antarctica. 600 miles and two days of reliably bad weather, high waves and rolling, bouncing decks. Passengers were lined up in front of the ship’s doctor’s door. Mercifully, I did not get seasick but it was pretty uncomfortable trying to eat and sleep when you’re chasing food across the table and holding on to avoid being tossed out of my bunk.
It was a hard trip from stem to stern and when I finally got home after two days in airports and airplanes, I just collapsed for a day. But it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event not many get to experience.
Addendum: a word about Whales.
99.9% of the entire whale population was decimated before the year 2000. It became obvious that something had to be done so an International consortium was formed to regulate the issue and harass scofflaws (Japan). Most of the blubber rendered in Norway is used to make margarine. Today, the hunting and killing of whales is no longer the main cause of their population decline. It’s now them getting snagged in lobster and shrimp traps and getting hit by fast moving ships in shipping lanes. Strategy for “saving whales” is ongoing by very hard working scientists and populations are increasing.
Whales have to “think-to-breathe” because they must coordinate a deep breath every time they dive. They can dive to very deep regions and stay down a long time. They collapse their lungs when they dive. They can regulate their heart rate (slow it) so blood flow to blubber is minimized and flow maximized to internal organs. Their hemoglobin is specialized to allow a much longer period of time for absorption of oxygen to the tissues.
Besides humans, their only natural enemy is the Orca, (Killer Whale- not a whale, a dolphin). Orcas are the “wolves of the sea”. An Orca will place itself on top of a whale not allowing it to surface to breathe. They can tag team a whale, another team Orca taking over when one gets tired. The whale eventually drowns and is made a hearty meal for every Orca in the vicinity.
Interested in such a trio? Be sure you’re ready for a LOT of stress and energy expenditure. There is nowhere to go if you get sick or hurt. Contact me if you are considering such a trip.