Cierva Cove and Portal Point, Antarctica
Well what a difference a few hours makes. When our expedition leader Mariano awakened us at 7:00 a.m. with his (insert Spanish accent) “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. (Pause) Good morning”, the boat was absolutely still. I opened the curtains to see magnificent blue sky and gorgeous icebergs. Yahoo. We had arrived at Cierva Cove to a fabulous Antarctic day. And to add to the gloriousness, there was only a little breeze! It would be an easy morning paddle.
Our kayak guide Ben announced over the ship’s speaker that the kayak team would be meeting upstairs on the top deck to be fitted for kayaks. Our little group within the group consisted of Carolyn and Chris from California, Kim and Randy from Las Vegas, Amy and Andy from NYC, Karina from Sweden, Anna from Barcelona and me. We would be in double kayaks and since there were 3 singles Ben teamed me with Karina and Anna from Barcelona would share a kayak with Ben. Only Carolyn and Chris were experienced so at least I would not be the only one lacking in any experience.
Our team leader, Ben, was a Kiwi (New Zealand) and was incredibly enthusiastic about kayaks and the opportunities that presented themselves to us in the little tiny floaty things. He was a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife in the area (as were all the expedition team members) and very knowledgeable about wind and weather conditions (which I can assure you is a big deal down here given that the term “can change on a moments notice” must have been penned to describe the weather here).
Anyway, outfitted with kayaks and dressed to go (it took me almost 15 minutes to put everything on) we walked downstairs to the gangway and boarded the zodiac in the bright sun for a short ride into the bay where we moved over from our transport zodiac to a zodiac towing all the kayaks. Ben and Pernille (our zodiac driver) taught us how to move from the zodiac into the kayak and back into the zodiac. After some practice, we got it down and shifted back into the kayaks. Fortunately, the bay was relatively calm and we had no problem paddling around and checking out the massive icebergs in the bay.
And what icebergs they were. Absolutely massive chunks of ice that had been “calved” off of the glaciers that surrounded us in the cove. What really surprised me about the icebergs was the beautiful blue colors that reflected through the iceberg both above the surface (and in the cracks of the icebergs) and below the surface. Less than 10% of an iceberg is visible above the surface so in some cases these ‘bergs were massive below the surface. Bob, the geology guide on board our ship, had told us the night before that these icebergs are thousands and t thousands of years old and because the ice is so compressed and filled with massive air bubbles, they take on a sky blue color. And boy was he right. Everywhere we turned we were staring at these massive ice structures with the most amazing hues of blue visible above and below the surface. It was stunning.
As we paddled, we encountered numerous ice flows that we maneuvered through, which was a heck of a lot of fun. Nothing like banging up against large chunks of ice in a heavy plastic floaty thing. And because the sun was out and it was slightly above freezing, the icebergs and ice flows were crackling (think Special K crackling). Ben told us that the icebergs, were full of air bubbles and as the ice warmed, the trapped bubbles were coming to the surface and making the popping noise. It was really amazing.
After a while Ben led us away from the vicinity of the ship, through the relatively calm waters and along the shore line where we spotted a number of Gentoo penguins near an Argentine research station. We sat in our kayaks for about 10 minutes watching them play above the water. It was hilarious and fascinating all at the same time.
By now it was close to 11 so Ben told us it was time to head back to the boat. We would spend more time in the kayaks later in the day as our ship moved to Portal Point, a landing area further down the Antarctic Peninsula. The afternoon adventure would be our first shore excursion to the Antarctic Peninsula.
I had absolutely loved our first kayak session. And once Karina and I got into the rhythm of the paddle stroke it became much easier. I loved the sensation of bobbing up and down in the kayak and it was really special how close we were able to get to the massive icebergs (certainly much closer than the zodiacs). The crystal blue skies, the white mountain ranges all around us, the giant icebergs and the gentle lapping of the water made for a surreal atmosphere for which no words or pictures can do it justice.
It was also really fun to a have this little team within a team. We had two incredible guides and a mere nine people in the kayaks. My decision to kayak was looking like a home run.
As we shifted from the kayaks to the safety zodiac, Ben told us we all did a very good job and reminded us that “we were in it to win it” (which he had said to us when we all signed up for the kayaking program). Still not sure exactly what he meant by this, but I think it was his way of saying if you don’t participate you won’t achieve.
Anyway, once on the boat, we went through the requisite disinfecting process, followed by the check-in. Then we were instructed to jump in our showers (in full gear) and rinse off the salt water from our dry suits and boots. I followed Ben’s instructions, but it was nearly impossible to pull that suit off once it is wet. I decided that from now on, I would just strip everything off and hang it in the shower and rinse it off from there.
We had lunch at 12:30 (massive amounts of food, including salads, fish, beef, soup and of course the always present desert). I took a rest in the afternoon as my arms were a bit sore. However, it wasn’t long before Ben made an announcement for the kayak team to meet near the gangway at 3:00. As per protocol, we would head out before the others who were only going out on the zodiacs.
The weather continued to be absolutely stunning. Little wind, clear blue skies and not too cold. At 3:00, seven of us met at the gangway (Amy and Andy elected to ride the zodiacs for the afternoon), disinfected our boots and jumped into the zodiac. We immediately learned from the zodiac drivers that a humpback whale had been spotted not far from the zodiac holding our kayaks. Ruslan put the zodiac in gear, picked up the humpback’s trail based on the circular ripples in the water (from the whale surfacing and blowing). We followed the humpback around for a bit snapping pictures ever time it surfaced. It was thrilling to be so close to a whale.
We finally pulled alongside the zodiac with the kayaks. It took us about 5 minutes to all get situated in the kayaks (it is a bit of process as you have to first swing your legs over the zodiac into the kayak, shimmy onto the top of the kayak and then slid down onto the seat. Once positioned in the kayak you have to pull this long covering over the top of the kayak to “waterproof” the inside of the kayaks. We no sooner got into the kayaks than we spotted two more humpbacks shooting water into the air as they came up to breathe. At this point, we could hardly contain our excitement. Beautiful sunny day, paddling around in kayaks following whales. What’s not to like?
After watching the whales move away from our general vicinity, Ben had us follow him away along the shore line towards a number of Gentoo penguins and fur seals hanging out on some rocks. It was incredible watching the penguins interact with one another and jump back and forth into the water.
While we were watching the penguins, the whales returned so Ben had us paddle towards the general vicinity of the last spotted location. We sat for only a couple minutes before we were rewarded with a waterspout and the resurfacing of not one, but two humpback whales (momma and calf). Karina and I were closer to the whales than anyone and before I could pull out my camera, the momma resurfaced within a few meters of our boat. Then next thing we knew, the momma was swimming directly beneath our kayak. OH.MY.GOD. We watched this massive humpback whale pass beneath us and a few minutes later she and the baby resurfaced a few meters away on the other side of us. Karina and I could barely contain ourselves.
We watched for another few minutes as they drifted away from us, but not before the momma resurfaced, swam for a bit and then went for a deep dive flashing her huge tail. It was absolutely unbelievable. I was literally shaking from excitement.
After the excitement of the whales, Ben guided us to the landing point where the folks from our boat were already ashore and climbing up a glacier for a view around the inlet. I was so full of adrenaline that I think I almost set a record for vertical climbs in a drysuit.
The initial part of the hike was actually pretty arduous: long vertical climb followed by some leveling off. After that there were a few little hills to climb before reaching the top. The kayak team reached the top long after the others from the boat had started the hike down so we ended up having the viewing point all to ourselves with Loli and some expedition staff. And what a view it was. Crystal clear blue skies, no wind and amazing views of the glacier and the icebergs in the bay far below. The expedition staff told us the last time they were here it was foggy and rain. We were incredibly lucky to have the conditions we had.
After playing around in the snow (I tried to make a snow angel, but the snow was too icy) and taking all the requisite pictures, we started the hike down. At the last vertical drop (the original vertical climb), we sat on our butts and slid the remainder of the way down the hill. It was hilarious and so so much fun.
Once at the bottom, I noticed that there was a number of fur seals sunning themselves on the snow near the kayaks. Apparently they had been there when were arrived, but in my excitement about the whales, I didn’t even see them. I sat and watched them for a few minutes, took a couple pictures and then was told we had to head back to the ship. (First ones off and last ones on.) Apparently, they were waiting for us to board.
We got back into the zodiac and headed towards the ship, but not before we spotted another whale spout. The area was teeming with humpbacks. Once on board, I pulled off the gear, hosed it down, showered and dressed and went up to the bar for a drink. Pisco Sour with 80,000 year old ice (seriously, they brought some ice aboard for our drinks.) It had been an amazing day!
But wait! There’s more. After dinner, many of us were sitting in the lounge on Deck 5 (the lounge had 360 degree views from these massive windows) when the captain came on and advised us that we were passing through Charlotte’s Bay and there were whales all around the ship. I grabbed my jacket and camera and headed outside just in time to see the setting sun behind a cloud framing the most amazing view of a pod of humpback whales. It was incredible. The whales stayed with us for quite a while, coming up for air and then diving deep into the waters often showing their tails. We did not see any whale jump, but it was still impressive to watch the incredible number of whales around our boat.
One of the guides told me that it was the best day they had had all this season. And I did not doubt that one bit. Beautiful crystal blue skies, no wind, and whales everywhere. (Apparently the number of whales we saw was incredibly unusual.)
It had been a day to remember. And it was only Day 1!