Touching Down on the White Continent.

King George Island, Antarctica

So another day another early wake-up call. This time I was up at 4:45 and off to breakfast at 5:15. I dressed in my cold weather gear as required by the Antarctica XXI team and donned the heavy duty rubber boots we had been issued the day before. (We had to wear the rubber boots every time we left the ship to ensure we were not contaminating the pristine Antarctica environment. The rubber boots were decontaminated every time we returned to the ship.)

The plane, the plane

We left for the airport in two buses at 6:00 a.m. just as the sun was rising. After checking in at the airport our group of 63 moved to gate 1 and waited for the all clear signal to board the plane. Finally at 8:15 a.m. we were given the go ahead to board the DAP BAE 146-200 for the 2 hour flight to Freei Station (pronounced FRAY) on King George Island, Antarctica. (We had to be at the airport early because the weather in the Antarctica is so unpredictable we had to be ready at a moments notice to fly.)

Anyway, the boarding was quick and before we knew it, we were headed south for our 2 hour flight to Antarctica. Once in my seat, I took a look around and was actually kind of surprised by the airplane. I guess I figured we were going to be traveling in some kind of military transport plane. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was because there are no regularly scheduled flights to the Antarctica and so I thought the only way to be able to land there was in a heavy duty military type plane. Now don’t get me wrong, this plane was heavy duty, but was also extremely comfortable with 3 seats across on either side of the plane and two flight attendants who served us what turned out to be a pretty good meal. In other words, no jump seats or MREs here.

Iceberg straight ahead (or below)

Anyway, the flight could not have been more smooth. We were very fortunate as the winds in this part of the world can be brutal and lead to incredibly rough, rocky flights. About 20 minutes before landing, I caught my first glimpse below of a floating iceberg. (I resisted the temptation to yell “iceberg straight ahead”.) The landing at King George Island, Shetland Islands was uneventful, but rather interesting because we came down on a gravel runway. (And no it wasn’t bumpy at all.) The weather outside was cloudy, but not very cold (about 0 celsius).
First glimpse of Antarctica

After disembarking we were met by the incredible Lolli (short for Delores). With a huge grin and an obvious sense of order, Loli corralled all 63 of us, (after of course taking the requisite picture with the Antarctica flag), and led us on a 1/2 mile trek past the Bellinghrusen station and Freei station to the shoreline and our waiting zodiac boats, which would ferry us to the waiting Ocean Nova and home for our trip through Antarctica Peninsula.

Once at the shore we were fitted with life-vests, which we were required to wear every time we disembarked the ship. We then waited in turn to board one of the three zodiacs waiting to take us to the ship. The zodiac ride was great fun (we even spotted our first penguins) as we tore across the bay to the ship. I soon learned our zodiac driver was named Ruslan (from Russia). Ruslan had a huge smile and apparently loved speed. Ruslan quickly became my favorite zodiac driver.

Once we boarded the ship, I stepped into a disinfectant foot bath (which all passesngers would do every time we boarded or left the ship), had my name checked off the passenger list and was leld to my room by Tina, my housekeeper for the trip. My room (305) had not one, but TWO windows. I quickly dropped off my things and did a walk around the ship.

I have arrived (Antarctica flag)

Now the Ocean Nova was a small ship by Antarctic cruise ship standards (holds just over 100 people including 63 passengers and crew whereas others hold at least 200 passengers plus crew). The ship had three levels for sleeping quarters: level 2 where the crew slept and also the location for the ship’s store and our disembarkation ramp; level 3, which was also the location for the dining room and level 4. The ship also had a level 5, which did not have sleeping quarters, but was the location of the Panorama Lounge and Bar (with surround windows so we could see from all angles as well as doors to access the outside deck), the library and a small workout room.

Once I completed the walk around, I headed to the dining room for lunch. Then shortly after lunch, we went through a myriad of safety drills, including learning how to put on the survival suits and how to access and board the lifeboats.

Late in the afternoon, there was a meeting of any folks who wanted to kayak on our shore excursions. I had not signed up (since I have only kayaked a few times in my life), but figured when in Rome…. so I attended the meeting and before I knew it “Ben” the master kayaker, had convinced me and 5 others to join the group of 4 who had already signed up for the kayak excursions. So instead of jumping on zodiacs each day to tour the area, we would be disembarking first, taking a zodiac away from the ship and boarding our kayaks to explore the area. We were fitted with dry-suits and dry boots and given instructions on boarding the kayaks in our gear.

Now I have never worn a dry suit, but I have come to believe that it is a lot like trying to leave the womb. OH.MY.GOD. The suit has rubber bladders around the neck area and around the wrist (to obviously prevent water from entering the suit. To get into one of these contraptions, you pull the suit up around your waste and then squat slightly and try to pull the suit over my head with the rubber thing around the neck. After pushing and pushing, your head finally pops through. But wait, there’s more. Then you have to torque your body around to get one arm in a sleeve and push it through the rubber bladder that envelopes your wrist and then you repeat for the other side. Next, you pull shut this massive zipper, extending from the shoulder to the hip, closed. Last but not least, you pull on the rubber dry boots. And oh yea. You do all of this over 3 layers of warm weather clothing: long underwear, two pairs of socks, thermal pants, and thermal tops. And … don’t forget your waterproof gloves. It is a major operation.

On the zodiac going to the Ocean Nova

Prior to dinner, we met the expedition team and what an impressive group it was. We met Mariano, our expedition leader, who has led expeditions all over the polar region (at last count 150) and was responsible for working with the captain of the ship to decide what areas we would explore; next was Loli (Mariano’s wife) who had a wealth of outdoor adventure experience and would serve as the logistics coordinator for the trip and sometime zodiac driver; then there was the incredible Nigel who has over 20 years experience in the Antarctica (I quickly learned that Nigel’s on board lectures about the history and the wildlife were can’t miss sessions); we met Wendy, our resident birder, and Nigel’s wife; then there was Bob, a geologist, who provided us with all the information we needed about the ground underneath the snow and of course all about icebergs; then there was Ben and Pernille (pronounced Pa Nil A or “P”) who were formed the kayak team; and finally there was Ruslan, one of the zodiac drivers (who is an incredible photographer with pictures published all over the world), and Bjorn another zodiac driver. All of the expedition staff had amazing resumes revolving around nature, outdoor activities and obviously the Antarctica. It was over the top impressive.

Shortly before dinner, the captain joined us in a champagne toast for the voyage and Mariano briefed on the game plan for the next day. We were going to put in at Cierva Cove in the morning where we would do a water excursion (ie no shore landing only viewing from the zodiacs or the kayaks). In the afternoon we would go ashore at Portal Point for a hike up the hillside in the snow. We were also warned to expect very strong winds (45 knots) that night as we set sail.

After the briefing, we pulled up anchor and and headed from King George Island out to the Bransfield Straight where we would be crossing towards the Antarctica Peninsula. Almost immediately as we left, you could feel the winds picking up. The crossing started right after dinner and would take us most of the night. I turned in early and around midnight awoke to MAJOR pitching of the boat back and forth and up and down. Uh oh. The noise from the vessel crashing into the waves was really loud, the boat seemed to be groaning every time we moved and there was constant banging. I laid awake for at least an hour. At one point, I got up and opened the curtains to see massive waves crashing up against the ship and over the ship. Yowza. I thought I missed all of this by flying over the Drake Passage. I was sure there were going to be some people in pretty rough shape in the morning. In the mean time, I crawled back into bed, pulled the covers over my head and hoped by morning it would all calm down.