After casting off, from Ushuaia, we headed East along Beagle Channel. It's about 73NM (135km) before you turn South across Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsular. Ortelius cruises at around 10.5Kn (19km/h) so we would not enter Drake Passage until sometime overnight. The channel was very calm and the forecast for Drake Passage promising, but nothing can be guaranteed once heading South of Cape Horn. Although not prone to motion sickness (never had it coastal sailing, inter-island ferry or flying) this was my first open ocean voyage. I had mild OTC 'Sea-Legs' and prescription Ondansetron motion sickness medications. Following the advice of my Travel Doctor (while getting a few vaccination updates for later parts of the trip) I took the 'Sea Legs' as a precaution; keeping the Ondansetron only if really needed as more likely to have undesirable side effects.
First evening at sea
I spent a bit of time exploring the ship, getting cameras and gear sorted or just hanging out on deck taking in the scenery. it was also the first chance to meet the crew (52) and fellow passengers (~105). Dr Karl's media profile there meant most passengers were Australian, half a dozen Kiwis, a few from the USA, Dubai (based) and elsewhere.
The crew is very international; South African, Dutch, Luxembourg, British, Swedish, French, Italian, Indian, Guatemalan , Austrian, Russian, Bulgarian, Latvian, Filipino, British included. Below Werner, our (giant) Photography Guide who, in addition to running photography tutorials/excursions, was documenting the voyage.
Ortelius is Dutch registered but was flying Argentinian & Pilot On-board Flags for the first part of this Beagle Channel leg until the handover to our Captain. The day was improving to starboard; clear blue skies contrasting with storm clouds gathering over the mountains in the distance to port.
Time flew, it seemed, and mid-evening we were summoned for dinner. It was really nice; I had Fish with fried polenta, broccoli and grilled peppers and fresh fruit salad dessert. This high standard, of both quality and service, was maintained throughout the voyage. Given there is no alternative that was a relief!
After dinner as the light faded the contrast between port and starboard became even more stark; golden sunset vs black cloud!
As the crew steered us into the night it was time to bank some sleep, and I did.
Across Drake Passage proper
Slept most of the night but occasionally the ship would move strangely and wake me, otherwise good. Daylight revealed we were traversing the prevailing westerly swell diagonally creating the odd rolling action. That said I really didn't expect to see Drake Passage this calm. Have seen the Auckland Hauraki Gulf rougher.
We got a bit of a sleep-in today, compared to later in the trip, but it was soon time for breakfast. The selection of cereals, granola, yoghurt and fruit, followed by coffee and a small croissant was great for me as I don't do cooked breakfasts. For those who do there was plenty of choice there too. Although just a cruising day there was plenty to keep us busy and lots of time to just enjoy the views, wildlife and company of fellow travellers.
The admin briefings covered all we needed to know before going ashore. There was the Biocheck (check clean and vacuum outer layers), collection of our loan Zodiac inflatable life jacket & 'Muck' tall shore landing boots. The 'Mucks' were so good that, combined with the GOR-TEX shoes mentioned previously, I never wore my own hiking boots!
A compulsory Shore Visit Briefing covered what we should, and shouldn't, do to comply with the IAATO Visitor Guidelines and just the practical aspects of getting ashore safely. Other briefings covered the details of the optional activities; Camping, Kayaking, Snowshoe Walking, and Mountaineering. There was also the all important 'Activity Opportunity Lists' to check out. With a hundred people, four activities and only so many days you were allocated a session/activity slot. If weather or circumstances didn't allow it to take place, too bad. I was happy to see kayaking and camping early in the voyage for me; other days you could just enjoy the Zodiac cruises, landings and snow shoe walks.
Meanwhile the boat rolled gently on, crossing the swell in an otherwise calm sea. Compare the horizon in the two photos below, taken across the deck from the same viewpoint. As it was gentle I wasn't feeling any motion sickness, albeit still on the 'Sea-Legs', but you did have to take care moving around the ship. I remember once walking up the stairs and must have, inadvertently, matched the falling movement of the ship. it felt oddly like walking on level ground between decks!
You could, and I did, spend hours watching seabirds glide; their soaring makes flight look so effortless. We saw a wide variety including: Wandering, Southern Royal, Black-browed, Grey-Headed and Light Mantled Albatross, Southern Giant & Cape Petrel (Pintado), Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Antarctic Prion, Antarctic Fulmar, and Imperial (Blue Eyed) Shag.
There were several Antarctic Minke, Humpback, Fin Whale sightings but those I got to were too distant to bother photographing. There was no danger of starvation either. Lunches were typically soup to start (if you wanted) and a self service buffet, with a theme which changed daily. There was no Off Menu Podcast dilemma: I had Papadum AND bread!
Most of the ship was open access with only occasional 'Crew Only' restricted areas if something hazardous was going on. I was impressed the bridge was mostly open as long as you observed some basic protocols; no rubber boots (to avoid vinyl scuffs), don't touch the controls, and keep quiet the main ones!
In addition to the briefings we had several talks from Dr Karl and the Expedition Crew. Dr. K was his usual self with his unique delivery; a barrage of diverse ideas which coalesce into a cohesive theme. One line I remember:
'Dolphin's aren't always friendly, but they have better PR than sharks'
Other speakers & topics included:
- Eduardo | Ask the Astronomer (Q&A on all things cosmic)
- Claudia | Ocean Wanderers | Bird life of the southern ocean
- Pippa | Marine mammals | About the Seals, Whales we would/had seen.
- Claudia & Eduardo | Climate system | Claudia atmospheric climate system & Antarctic convergence, Eduardo oceanic currents
- Werner | Photography Tips and Techniques
- Martin | Climbing Mount Vinson - the highest point of Antarctica
It meant what I thought would be 'the quiet time' on the cruise was actually packed with activity. The reading and podcast listening I thought would fill the days were untouched!
No matter what else was going on, there was always the spectacular environment to captivate.
And then it got cold(er)
The Antarctic Convergence or Antarctic Polar Front is a curve continuously encircling Antarctica, varying in latitude seasonally, where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic.
Antarctic waters predominantly sink beneath the warmer subantarctic waters, while associated zones of mixing and upwelling create a zone very high in marine productivity, especially for Antarctic krill.
This line, like the arctic tree line, is a natural boundary rather than an artificial one, such as the borders of nations and time zones. It not only separates two hydrological regions, but also separates areas of distinctive marine life and climates.
The Arctic has no similar boundary because of the large bodies of land contiguous with the northern polar region. (credit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_Convergence)
This was the first appearance of snow and fog, but the seas remained calm (considering where we were).
It was certainly time to get some of the cold weather gear out as the icebreaker puffer jacket and light merino gloves i wear at home for 'Winter' weren't quite up to this. Time for woolly hats, proper wind/waterproof gloves (actually my winter cycling gloves from the Tibet Trip) and a layer of Icebreaker thermals under their Merino Tee and mid-layer. I still had two more thermal layers and proper snow/ski gloves if needed but as only ventured out for photos was toasty warm for now. If put all my layers on I would be wearing more merino than a sheep!
Of course none of this phased the accompanying aviators but snow added another dimension to the photographs, and the challenge of working little camera buttons with gloved fingers.
This was my first sight of Antarctica, technically the offshore islands, but we had another night of sailing. Tomorrow it's all go.
25/11 | GPS position at 0800: 56°37.7’ S 65°31.8’ W | Air Temp: 9°C | Wind: N4/5 | Sea state: Slight
26/22 | GPS position at 0800: 61°19.8’ S 62°51.9” W | Air Temp: 9°C | Wind: ESE4 | Sea state: Slight
- Long (2m) USB phone cable good
- Small 2 plug + 4 USB multi-board worth it