King George Island, Antarctica
So I awakened to find us in a fog shrouded bay off Freei Station. Uh oh. This did not bode well for our flight out of here today. Fortunately, I had made contingent plans and booked two fully refundable flights from Punta Arenas to Santiago. One for the day we were supposed to leave and one for the next day. We would see if the backup flight would be needed.
After breakfast, Mariano announced that while we waited on some word from the pilot on whether they could fly today, we would go ashore to see a penguin colony that still had a number of babies in the nest and babies learning to swim. (This was not a good thing since the season was already starting to shorten and penguins must be big and strong to survive the long winters swimming in open waters.
As we boarded the zodiacs we looked at the fog and realized that it was not going anywhere anytime soon. There was no wind and the temperature was easily above freezing. No matter, we set off for another walk along the beach and some penguin viewing
The best part of the trip was watching the babies trying to learn how to swim in a pond that was less than a foot deep, but crowded with the little ones flapping their wings and becoming accustomed to the water. It was pretty darn funny.
After an hour and half on shore, we headed back to the ship and a heavy fog. By now, I knew that we were not leaving that day, but others remained hopeful. Once on the ship, Mariano called a meeting and advised us that there would be no flight that day. Loli could assist with light changes if any were needed at this point. In the mean time, we were at the mercy of the weather gods.
In the lounge, Loli had set up a couple computers and was working with the staff in Punta Arenas to try and help rearrange flights for folks. I still had a couple days to play with so I was not worried at this point and my two flights I had booked out of Punta Arenas were fully refundable tickets so I could easily call LAN airlines from the ship and rebook my flight if need be or obtain a refund. In the mean time, however, patient Loli was dealing with a myriad of passenger questions and issues.
Throughout the afternoon we watched the fog start to lift only to come back with a vengeance. By late afternoon, many of us were simply sitting in the bar drinking and being entertained by a number of videos being played by the staff. Adrian, our bartender, was kept more than busy as afternoon turned into evening.
After dinner, Ben and Pernille put on a montage of pictures from out trip set to music. (They had tried the night before, but had “technical difficulties”.) This time, the montage worked perfectly. And even better, the montage would be available on a website for our download when we got home!
I finally called it a night when Mariano told us there would be no more updates until the morning. By now, I was becoming a little more anxious as my window to fly to Easter Island, without major inconveniences and changes, was shrinking. I tossed and turned all night and around 5:00 a.m. I finally got out of bed and took a look outside. Low and behold, the fog had lifted. YES! I jumped in the shower, but by the time I was dressed the fog had settled in again. Damn! I wandered up to the lounge on the deck 5 only to find some other passengers staring forlornly out the window.
Shortly before breakfast Mariano announced that we would not be flying out that morning. Damn. There goes any shot I had at spending a little more time in Santiago since my flight to Easter Island was set for the next day at 8:30 a.m.
Mariano advised us that through one of the passengers on the ship (a Hong Kong tour guide) a visit to the Chinese Station (next to Freei Station) had been arranged. And since it was the start of the Chinese New Year, the tour was extra special. We loaded into the zodiacs at 8:45 and by 9:00 we were in China (seriously – the station is considered Chinese territory). We were permitted to take pictures and shortly after arriving were lead to a metal building housing a gymnasium and the site of their Chinese New Year celebrations. In addition, they were also celebrating 30 years as an Antarctica Station.
We were told that the Chinese scientists on site were conducting wind and weather studies as well as studies of snow patterns, glaciers and waves. By 10, we had to leave as the celebrations were about to begin. Rather than taking a zodiac directly back, Wendy, Nigel and the rest of the expedition team led the group on a walk from the Chinese Station to Freei Station. It was a lovely, foggy 40 minute walk where we were able to look at the Chilean Church on base, pass a few penguins and stare out at the fog.
As we were about to head back towards the zodiacs, Wendy received a call that Ruslan had arranged for us to cross over into the Russian Station (Bellingrusen) and visit the Russian Othodox Church at the top of the hill. So in the span of two hours, I had visited China, Chile and now Russia (and I said I would never go back to Russia ….)
The climb to the top of the hill was a little arduous and unfortunately when we got to the top, the fog had really moved in. Nevertheless, the tiny little church was worth a view (and certainly reminded me of all the Russian Orthodox churches I visited in 2010).
We hiked back down the hill towards the zodiacs. At this point, we could not even see the ship through the fog, but a funny thing happened on the way to the boat. The fog suddenly started to lift. And not a small window of fog. It was as if a vacuum had been activated and the entire fog bank began to disappear and land appear all around us.
We no sooner got on board the ship than Mariano made an announcement that the pilot just called and a window for landing had opened up. The plane would be taking off at 4:30 with the passengers waiting to take our place on the ship and we would be boarding the plane to take us to Punta Arenas. Yahoo! There was still time for me to catch my 8:30 a.m. flight to Easter Island, but it would take some work.
I borrowed one of Loli’s phones and contacted LAN Airlines to changed my flight from 3:30 that day to the 11:25 p.m. flight that arrived in Santiago at … gulp … 2:35 a.m. the next morning. A number of other folks, including some of the kayakers, did the same thing. Now we had to hope that the plane took off on time, unloaded the passengers, refueled and took off by 7:30 p.m.
At 5:00 p.m. Mariano made an announcement beginning with “Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.(pause) Good morning. Then he clarified that he was not losing his mind, but was staring the announcement as a favor to someone. Huh! I guess someone else like his wake up calls in addition to me. Anyway, Mariano advised that we had received confirmation that the plane was in the air. We would disembark at 6:00 p.m., hike the 1/2 mile up the hill and wait for the plane.
While I was sitting in the lounge waiting to disembark, Don, one of the many passengers I had the pleasure of meeting, approached me, held up his iPhone and said listen … and there it was “Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen …. Good Morning.” But that wasn’t all. At the end, Mariano had added special greeting just for me. I was incredibly touched by Don’s thoughtfulness. (I had been talking at breakfast about how much I loved Mariano’s wakeup calls.) And as it turned out, once the cat was out of the bag about me liking the wakeup call, more and more passengers sitting around me said the same thing. It really was a lovely way to wake up. (And Don is going to email me the sound wave so it will live in perpetuity). Big shout out to a couple great Floridians Don and Jeanine.
The time finally came to disembark the ship. Unfortunately, I did not get Ruslan as my driver (no offense Bob), but I still got one last chance to watch that crazy Russian in action as the zodiac he was driving flew past me.
Now the hike up the hill was not nearly as much fun as the hike down the previous week. Everyone was busy say goodbye as the plane landed. However, it turned out it was not our plane, but rather a medivac plane for a passenger on another ship that had sailed into the harbor earlier that day. (We had been watching the ship all day and wondered what was going on since our ship, the Ocean Nova, is the only ship that calls into Freei Station.
s we continued to wait a huge group of scientists and students walked up the hill towards us. Apparently there would be at least one other plane landing besides ours.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, our plane came into view in the darkening sky. The passengers were offloaded and soon they were walking past us. We all decided to give them a rousing welcome (since the group of passengers who were waiting to board when we landed acted like sticks in the mud). We were high fiving and cheering them and telling them what a great time they would have. (It was actually the least we could do since these poor folks just had a day and a half taken from them in the Antarctica.)
Now it was time to really say goodbye. There were hugs all around, but special goodbyes for Ben, Pernille and Ruslan. The fun and adventure they had provided to the kayak group would stay with us for a lifetime. Then it was time to hug some of the passengers who had made the voyage so much fun.. (Many of the expedition team said it has been the most fun group to travel with all year. And I am sure they are not just saying that. We really did have a lively group.) It was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my kayak partner in arms (and polar plunge buddy) Karina. There was also Kim and Rudy from Vegas and Don and Jeanine from Florida. Ironically some of my kayak buddies were also going to Easter Island so there was no need to say goodbye to Amy and Andy or Chris and Carolyn (ironically four of the folks I met at our first dinner) or another couple, Wendy and Jere. We would be meeting up in Easter Island for dinner and drinks.
And with goodbyes done, Loli quickly had us begin our march toward the plane (single file) and before we knew it (and actually in record time of less than 15 minutes) we were boarded in our seats and taxiing down the gravel runway. It was 7:35. We would make the flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago and with little sleep, I would make my flight to Easter Island. Goodbye Antarctica it had been one helluva adventure!!