No Shit. You Wouldn’t Believe it. I Almost Died!

Port Lockroy and Plenau Bay, Antarctica

Well as beautiful as Day 1 in the Antarctic Peninsula, was, Day 2 could not have been more different. Mariano our expedition leader, woke us at 6:50 a.m. on Saturday morning with his regular morning wakeup call of “Good morning ladies and gentlemen (pause) Good morning” to let us know that the boat was passing through Neumeyer Channel and it was filled with ice, offering all of us an incredible sight. I pulled on my thermals and heavy jacked and made the dash up to the lounge and viewing point on Floor 5. And it was indeed something else. However, something else was also the weather. Cold, incredibly windy and some sleet. Yuck.I want the pretty blue sky back please.

Neumeyer Channel

Despite the weather, Ben made his way around at breakfast to tell all the kayakers the game plan for the morning. We were going to visit Port Lockroy, the home of a small research station, store and Gentoo penguin colony. After the walk around the site, we would head out on the zodiac, board our kayaks and paddle about 6 miles before meeting up with the boat on the other side of the peninsula. Ben said it was a “little” windy, but we should be fine. OK. I’m in. (Remember “In it to win it”.)

Neumeyer Channel

The visit to Port Lockroy was very interesting. There were penguins everywhere (and oh my … they were smelly) as we walked over the rocks and up towards the station. Once inside, I walked around the little building that served as a museum commemorating the many years that the station had been inhabited by scientists. Lots of really interesting artifacts. In addition, each room had been left in its original condition so for example, the kitchen was still stocked with dozens of canned goods and the darkroom still contained a lot of old photographic materials. It was a lot of fun to wander around.

Port Lockroy

As part of the stop, we each had our passport stamped with the Port Lockroy insignia (a penguin of course) and were also able to buy hats, t-shirts etc. in the store. I, of course, went looking for Christmas ornaments and lo and behold right beside some Christmas stationary, I saw a sign attached to a little basket that read Christmas ornaments. Home Run!!!! The basket was filled with handmade little stuffed penguins reading Port Lockroy Antarctica with a woven string hanging from the penguin’s head. I actually let out a “whoop”. I had hoped to find one, but really didn’t think it possible. The streak continues!

Point Lockroy

Anyway, after my fabulous find, I walked outside and spent some time wandering among the penguins. Unfortunately, we were restricted to a small viewing area so while we were close to some of the penguins, the majority of the penguins were communing on rocks on the backside of the building where we were not permitted to go. Nevertheless, it was still a lot of fun to watch them albeit in a very smelly way … I am certain that odor will stick with me for a while.

Port Lockroy penguin colony

By now Ben was assembling the kayak team so we boarded the zodiac, moved a bit offshore and transferred to the zodiacs where we would set out on our two hour paddle. Unfortunately, just as we set off, the winds REALLY picked up. By the time we made the turn around the point and headed towards the channel we were being blown sideaways. It was absolutely brutal. The waves were enveloping our kayak, and Karina and I were constantly fighting to keep the kayak from drifting into the rocks as we weaved around and through the ice. For every stroke we took, we would need two more to straighten out the kayak. The combination of wind and waves made it absolutely miserable as we bobbed up and down and back and forth in the very rough waters. (There was a lot of cursing in English and Swedish!) At one point we even had the zodiac support boat tow us back towards the middle of the channel because we could not get away from the rocks and ice flows. Karina and I finally made it near the end of the channel, which is where we were supposed to veer right around the point and head up the next channel in the opposite direction we had just come from to meet up with our boat.

Rough waters in Port Lockroy

However, we were already an hour and a half into the paddle and rather than have the wind at our back in the next channel, the winds were coming at us crossways. In other words, we were in for the same kind of conditions as we had just come through. (Apparently, “katabatick” winds that can come off the glacier were in full force that day and we were bearing the brunt of them.) Ben made a judgment call for us to turn around and head back in the direction we came. They would hold the boat and we would forgo the meet up.

The trip back up the channel was equally brutal. We were constantly fighting the winds and bobbing ice flows. Amy at one point raised her paddle in the year and yelled at Ben “This is not for beginners!! But, despite the incredibly tough conditions, we all made it back to the entry point where we began. We were all exhausted, tired and for some a “wee” bit shook up. While we were never in any real danger as the zodiac support boat driven by Ruslan stayed close by, it had been a VERY rough lesson.

Our fearless captain Ben praised all of us for sticking with it. He said it was the worst conditions we could have possible faced. As Ben was talking, Pernille pulled up in another zodiac and let us know she and Ben had planned ahead and brought hot chocolate. Perfect. The drink warmed our insides as well as some very cold, wet hands. As an added bonus, we each got to taste “Milo” a form of hot chocolate drink from New Zealand (Ben’s mother country). The hot drinks were exactly what we needed after a brutal paddle.

Ben after our “almost died” episode

As we floated around the zodiac, Ben told us that we had just experienced one of the more rigorous paddles (and certainly a more typical type paddle than the prior day) in the Antarctica. My arms ached and my hands could not stop shaking (I think mostly from the c old, but a little bit from “rough” ride. As we chatted, Ben suggested that years from now the difficulties we faced on the channel would grow exponentially so when we got on board we might as well start telling our story with “No Shit. You won’t believe it. We almost died.” Cracked us all up and brought a lot of levity to the situation we just faced. (And actually became our battle cry for the rest of the trip.)

Lemaire Channel

Anyway, once back on the ship (and telling our “almost died story”), we headed further south. The game plan was to sail through Lemaire Channel and spend the afternoon at Plenau Bay home to the “iceberg graveyard”. But first, we actually had to sail through Lemaire Channel, which proved to be a little more difficult than anticipated because huge icebergs and ice flow had moved into the channel blocking our passage. The first go at it resulted in a sharp turn to the left and a reversal of course.

Iceberg graveyard (icebergs can’t get out of the Lemaire Channel)

The ice flow included some very large icebergs and a lot of tight, packed ice. As we took the hard left to complete a 180 degree turn we cruised in the direction we had just come. The Captain then made another sharp left to point the ship back in the direction of the Lemaire Channel. The second go was a success as the Captain maneuvered the ship around several large icebergs and through a very small opening towards Plenau Bay. The sound of bumping into the ice and crashing through the ice flow was incredibly loud and shook the boat. It was fabulous drama as many of us watched from the outside viewing area on Deck 5.

Now despite the fact we were able to maneuver towards Plenau Bay we were still stuck with lousy weather. By now it was snowing and the winds were pretty strong. Nevertheless Ben, came around to the kayakers at lunch to find out “who was in”. Out of nine, there were only 3 of us who wanted another go at it that day: me, Karina and Chris. In addition, two staff members from the Port Lockroy station were also going to join us. (They had come on board for the day as we were going to be passing by Port Lockroy again later that night so it gave the staff members a bit of a break from what I can only imagine is a pretty isolating job.)

So once we reached Plenau Bay we put on our gear and jumped in the zodiac. As we moved away from the ship, we traveled past magnificent icebergs that were part of the iceberg graveyard. (Apparently once the icebergs pass through the Lemaire Channel they become stuck in this area and cannot get out. Hence the name iceberg graveyard. I thought they should add a second name “iceberg graveyard … where icebergs go to melt”).

Anyway, we transferred to our kayaks in pretty rough water and began to paddle. As Karina and I tried to maneuver our kayak, a huge gust of wind tipped us on our side. Instinctively, we leaned in the opposite direction and righted to the kayak. Holy Crap! We almost went in. (Again, here is where I will insert the “No Shit. You Wouldn’t Believe it. We almost died”.)

Kayak on ice

We paddled around in the heavy current and winds, with sleet battering our faces before finally finding a small, better protected cove. There was a huge area of frozen ice in the cove and Ben instructed us to paddle as hard as we could and pop the kayak up onto the ice for a lovely little slide across the frozen water. It was great fun. We sat on the ice for a bit spotting penguins here and there and a couple fur seals.

After resting a bit, we hopped up and down in our kayak to bounce it backwards into the water again. We followed Ben’s lead and headed back into some pretty rough water around a bend towards a magnificent iceberg. By now Karina and I were soaked from the snow and sleet and the constant winds wiping up the water and spray. It was an exhausting paddle.

Leopard seal straight ahead

As we were about to turn around, we heard Pernille paging Ben with the now familiar “Ben, Ben, Ben … Parnille” on the walkie talkie (all the expedition staff carried walkie talkies for communications). Apparently P had spotted a leopard seal, a rather elusive and rather large spotted seal and it was circling the zodiac a little bit in front of us. We followed Ben’s lead towards the zodiac, circled around the area and waited. Suddenly the seal popped up near the zodiac support boat. Sweet. Leopard seals are rare and it is often hard to spot one. I tried numerous times to take a picture, but with the sleet, my camera lense kept getting wet.

Soon it became obvious that the leopard seal was just playing with us. It was popping up all around us. As we watched a second one appeared and this one was HUGE. Suddenly the new one made this huge leap out of the water giving us a full view of how large it really was. It was enormous, fabulous and a little unnerving all at the same time. Once back under water again, we waited to see if one or both would reappear again, but after waiting a bit it was obvious they had moved off. Nevertheless, all of us in the kayaks were thrilled at what we saw.

Leopard seal in the water (and rain on my lense)

Ben told us we should head back towards the boat. We loaded into the zodiac support boat, tied the kayaks to the zodiac and headed off into the wind. The ride was very rough and the kayaks kept flipping over so we kept having to slow down and right them. Finally, we stopped and Ben and Pernille pulled the kayaks out of the water, dumped out whatever water had seeped into the kayaks and secured the kayaks all the while balancing in the zodiac (remember we were in pretty rough waters). These two were very impressive!

With the kayaks secured in the zodiac, we flew over the waves, we passed a number of Gentoo penguins as well as some fur seals all hanging out on the icebergs. At one point we smashed into a huge wave that came over the top of the zodiac and smashed me right in the face. Seriously.

The ride back to the ship too a little longer because the captain had to reposition the ship in an area where the waters were a little calmer because it was too dangerous for the zodiacs to dock with the ship in the rough water. Nevertheless we made it back, and once on the ship, I took a hot shower while my body continued to shake from exhaustion. Who knew this trip was going to be such hard work!

That night, we had a wonderful barbecue dinner (complete with all of us designing “funny festive hats” to wear that night), followed by a trivia contest about the Antarctica run by Ben and Pernille. Our team came in third. It was a great way to end a very hard day in the Antarctica.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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