Friday, December 24, 2010

Planet Antarctica (13-23 December 2010)

Antarctica is like no other place, I and my fellow travellers, have seen on earth. Quite literally, it is another world! What makes it this way is that it can be astonishingly beautiful one minute and absolutely unforgiving the next. Despite this, life has found a way to exist here and abundantly. It is the combination of massive snow covered peaks, multiple glaciers, thick sea ice, huge shapely icebergs and multiple wildlife that makes Antarctica unique. I also imagine that the last ice age must have looked like this over the rest of the earth.....another world, another time!

In total, we travelled 3,087km as far south as 65deg, 10min (170km from Antarctic Circle and 2,500km from the South Pole), seeing 37 species of wildlife (3 whale, 5 seal, 5 penguin, 24 bird). The best aspect of our trip was the 1 in 10 chance of getting mostly sunny weather and this allowed us to make all planned 10 landings over 4 days on Planet Antarctica: Aitcho Island, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Wiencke Island, Pleaneau Bay, Petermann Island, Port Lockroy, Paradise Bay, Deception Island and Half Moon Island. I trekked around 15km over 4 landings, kayaked approx 10km over another 4 landings, camped one night, jogged 4km on the continent and even went for a 20m swim!

To get to Planet Antarctica you must cross the infamous Drake Passage. This would be like going to the moon in a space craft. In our case, we did it aboard the Canadian owned "MS Expedition" carrying 103 passengers and 65 staff from 25 countries around the world. We even had aboard the first Turkish citizen, Nurettin Yilmaz, to ever set foot on the continent. I was lucky to meet him and he will be interviewed by the Turkish media when he gets back! He even planted a Turkish Flag on the continent. We left Ushuaia at 6:15pm on Tuesday 16 December 2010. Ushuaia is around 1,000km from Antarctica.

The MS Expedition was built in Denmark in 1972 and refurbished in 2009 - it is 105m long, 19m wide, weighs 6,334 tons and cruises at around 15-20km/h. Even a ship this big, rolled around on our 36 hour Drake Passage crossing from the bottom tip of South America to our first stop in the South Shetland Islands, just 12 hours away from the continent. The Drake Passage is wild. Waves can reach 12m and winds up to 150km/h. We were lucky not to get these but it was still a rolly polly ride for most who struggled to keep dinner down! Even in these conditions we were able to see many sea birds including the Wandering Albatross with a wing span of up to 3m, weighing up to 13kg and spending many years flying thousands of kilometers out here - simply amazing. Alone, alone, alone on the wide, wide sea!

The MS Expedition is entirely staffed by 48 constantly smiling and hello-ing cooks, cleaners, waiters and deck-hands from the Phillipines! These guys typically spend 8-10 months away from home travelling the Arctic and Antarctic. There are 7 officers and a further 12 non-Phillipino "expedition crew" and one musician to provide us with information and entertainment. Amongst these are a qualified geologist, biologists, naturalists, historian and one of the world's foremost ornithologist and Penguin expert! All gave interesting and often funny "lectures" on all aspects of Antarctica during the Drake crossings and in-between landings. Landings were a slick logistical operation, moving 103 people to shore in just 20min using rubber inflatable dingies called "Zodiacs" (after the manufacturer).

Landing No 1 - Aitcho Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), Noon-3:00pm Thursday 16 December 2010, Trekking 1:
Aitcho is a tiny island of Penguin paradise! There are 17 species of Penguin in the world and we saw a total of 4 on our trip with 2 on this island: the "Gentoo" (orange beak) and "Chinstrap" (black line under chin). All were nesting, most had two eggs and many even had chicks! They build their nests on ice/snow-free ground using a pile of small stones. Both sexes incubate the egg which takes 35-37 days to hatch. Penguins eat krill (small shrimp-like creatures), smell and we are told they taste like shite! We also saw "Shags" (medium-size black & white birds) on a rock, "Southern Giant Petrels" (big birds who eat anything) and even "Southern Elephant Seals" (or odipherous blubber slugs) which pile up on each other and burp on the beach!

Landing No 2 - Cuverville Island, Gerlach Strait, Antarctica, 9:00am-11:30m Friday 17 December 2010, Kayaking 1:
This was my first kayak amongst massive, unusually shaped ice bergs. There were 10 of us kayaking with the rest hiking a steep 130m hill on Cuverville and observing penguins, seals and birds. Kayaking on Planet Antarctica is surreal. You are surrounded by massive ice sculptures, creaking with deep blue fissures above water and fluoro green extensions below you. Penguins "porpoise" (jump) out of the water all around you looking for krill and the occassional seal stares down at you with cute cow-like eyes, lying on top of a berg or ice-sheet.

Landing No 3 - Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay, Antarctic Continent, 2:00pm-5:00pm Friday 17 December 2010, Jogging:
This is where we layed our feet on the actual continent! Whilst everyone climbed the 130m hill overlooking the harbour, I jogged 4km, up and down this hill, 4 times in the snow over 30min. My official run of the 7th continent was bloody hard as my feet sank in the snow, one out of every 5 steps but it was exhilarating. Another ozzie girl, Tanya from Melbourne ran a single lap up and down. Most of us just sat at the top of the hill admiring the view for almost 2hrs, coming to terms with the fact that our feet were connected to the South Pole!

Landing No 4 - Damoy Refuge, Wiencke Island, Dorian Bay, Antarctica, 9:00pm Friday 17 December 2010 - 5:30am Saturday 18 December 2010, Camping:Since the hut was out of booze, I came to the rescue with some Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza which was enough to fuel jokes and chit-chat until sunset at 12:50am and beyond. Most of us slept a few hours and some stayed up to watch the sun come up at 2:20am. It actually does not get dark in between and there is plenty of white light - constant day for at least 4 months in summer! We also set up our porta-loo next to the hut since you cannot leave any human souvenirs anywhere in Antarctica. The next morning it was freezing and we packed in record time to get back to the ship by Zodiak for a hot tea and shower!

Landing No 5 - Pleneau Island, Penola Strait, Antarctica, 9:00am-11:00am Saturday 18 December 2010, Kayaking 2:
Penola Strait is packed with peaks, glaciers, sea-ice, pack-ice and bergs. It is the quintessential Antarctic landscape and the sun made it ten times more spectacular! Kayaking across calm waters revealed ice bergs and whole mountain peaks and glaciers reflected in the water. Being away from the ship and people allowed us to hear the thunder of distant collapsing glaciers and the creaking of pack-ice. Kayaking activities included dodging bigger ice pieces, running over smaller ones, passing under arches in some bergs, licking the walls of others and singing into berg caves and fissures. The other passengers observed this icy lamington wonderland on the Zodiaks as there was nowhere to trek.

Landing No 6 - Petermann Island, Penola Strait, Antarctica, 3:00pm-5:30pm Saturday 18 December 2010, Trekking 2:
Petermann is a few kilometers south of Pleneau and was the most southern point of our trip: 65deg and 10min, only 2,500km from the South Pole. Petermann is also rich in wildlife and nesting site of Adelie Penguins which we saw. Kayaking was cancelled due to too much ice and we joined the others on a fabulous trek through this rich potpourri of wildlife. What made this island spectacular was its close proximity to the huge peaks and galciers of the continent and the myriad sea of ice in between.

Landing No 7 - Goudier Island and Port Lockroy, Jougla Point, Antarctica, 8:30am-11:30am Sunday 19 December 2010, Trekking 3:
This landing actually comprised two sites near each other. Half went to one and half to the other and then we all swapped by Zodiac. Goudier Island and Jougla Point was a show case of penguins and old whale bones from the whaling era before World War II. Port Lockroy is the location of a penguin research station and the world's most southern functioning post office run by England.

It is staffed from November to March each year and also contains a souvenir shop to fund research actvities. I along with many others, wrote two post cards and mailed it back to Sydney (brother) and Melbourne (Myer) from a post box in this very location using specially commissioned Antarctica stamps!

Landing No 8 - Chilean Naval & Air Force Base, Waterboat Point, Paradise Bay, Antarctica, 4:00pm-5:30pm Sunday 19 December 2010, Kayaking 3:
Whilst most people visited the active Chilean military base and museum, we kayaked across the bay to mainly observe wildlife on the shore. There was limited ice bergs and ice sheets in this area. This was also the site of the "vanilla" penguin, same as the Gentoo but a beige or vanilla colour replaces any black markings.

Landing No 9 - Whalers Bay, Deception Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), 9:00am-11:00am Monday 20 December 2010, Trekking 4 and Swim:
This was the only landing with cloud, mist and a short snow fall. Deception island is the "Santorini" of Antarctica. Like its Greek counterpart, it is a submerged, crescent shaped island caldera formed by a massive volcanic eruption and able to support a ship navigating and anchoring inside.

This island has black volcanic sand beaches, still steaming from subterrainian thermal activity and surrounded by snow covered peaks! Not exactly Santorini! This island was home to a major whaling station where whale oil was produced and stored from the 1930's to the end of World war II. It was then used by the British Antarctic Survey until 1969 when a minor eruption caused its abandonment. It is spooky place, full of broken huts, old boats and acres of whale bones. After viewing penguins and an abundance of lichen and algae we visited the abandoned whale processing boilers, tanks and huts.

To finish, around a dozen of us stripped down to our cozzies (and some did undies) and dived into the 1.5C water! I swam 20m until my head almost exploded! In the water your body feels like it has no limbs and when you get out of the water it feels like there are thousands of slaps and pins and needles all over your body. You then loose sensation in your toes and fngers. After my swim, I sat in the hot sand and burned my butt so bad that I had to run back into the water to put it out! Exhilarating!

Landing No 10 - Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), 3:00pm-5:00pm Monday 20 December 2010, Kayaking 4:
This was the last landing. Whilst most people farewelled the penguins, we kayaked the coast to observe orange-red rock lichen and a huge iceberg shaped like the island itself (half-crescent moon), complete with a lime-green, icy beach inside. This was easily the biggest berg we had seen and visited.

After landing 10 we headed back into the Drake Passage for our 49hr voyage to Ushuaia, passing within 11km of the infamous Cape Horn (most southerly point of South America) and "splashing down" at 7:00pm on Wednesday 22 December 2010. The trip back was slightly rougher with constant rolling of the boat. Many people could not sleep. Many spewed. Jogging on the ship's treadmill was like running on ice - hold on to dear life!

Planet Antarctica is easily the greatest travel experience for me after visiting 46 countries in the world to date!

PLANET ANTARCTICA ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My sincere thanks to our expedition leader, Julio Preller for proof-reading the above blog and our expedition orthinologist and penguin epxert, Frank S. Todd for his interview with Golfco Pictures.

PLANET ANTARCTICA FACTS: 1) Fifth largest land mass in the world at 14 million sq km (Australia is 9 million). 2) 98% is covered in ice, ie, only 2% is actually accessible dirt/ground/rock. 3) Has the same average annual precipitation as the Sahara thus classifying it as a desert. 4) Coldest place on earth: -89.2C recorded in Vostok Station. 5) Windiest place on earth with Katabatic Winds reaching 300km/h. 6) Ice cap averages 1.6km deep and is up to 3.2km in many places. 7) Contains 90% of all ice and 70% of all fresh water in the world by volume. 8) In winter the sea-ice causes the continent to almost double in size.

NEXT BLOG: on El Calafate and Patagonia in Argentina with target 31DEC10.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Visited Martial Glacier on 13DEC10 in Ushuaia with Tiny and Stefan from Belgium. 2) Took 3.5hr cruise around Beagle Channel islands on 14DEC10 in Ushuaia with Daniella from Patagonian Cruises. Saw Seal Lions and Shags. Learned about two tribes of indigenous peoples.


  1. Truly amazing environment...spectacular photos!

    Can't wait to receive my Antarctica Postcard, I wonder if it will get to Sydney before you do?

  2. Spectacular John! Glad that you had perfect weather and were able to capture such magnificent pics. The world has many amazing places and you've experienced one of them. Can't wait to see the Golfco segment on Antarctica.

  3. Hello Seeeexy Maaaan!!! I have found you again. Where you go? It looks very cold. Come back to Thailand. I love you long time.

  4. Merry Christmas!! Hope it's a memorable day for you! Truly amazing landscapes and wildlife! Certainly is's a wonder you didn't suffer from hypothermia! Much love from all of us xxx

  5. Feliz Navidad G1.....and Happy Hiking and New Year in Patagonia. We're all tuned in !

  6. Reading this on 25th so Merry Christmas John. Trust they will put something on for you in Ushuaia. Cheers

  7. Happy Christmas - I am at Natalie's and have shown all the family your latest entry - looked fantastic and thanks for taking the time to share - Elizabeth said the photos could have been taken by a real photographer!!! Hope you have a great christmas day - all the best Jennie and Paul

  8. Glad to see you are still number one in the stats department. Simply spectacular, a joy to read. Looking forward to the next posting - enjoy and Merry XMas - Sharon B.

  9. Hi John
    Beautiful work my lovely! Jealous that you are still traveling your heart out while I am back at work in Melbourne. A bit disappointed that you didn't post our jogging photo though! Too many awkward questions perhaps???
    Stay safe but crazy!
    XXX Melbourne Tania

  10. Tania - if you're ex Perth Tania then email me - - it's been too long! Tall Paul XX

  11. I should have looked through the viewfinder a little more carefully and aligned that shot of you holding the MS Expedition a little better.

  12. Funny, did you know the kayak (Scott) guide onboard the ms expedition got fired after he let clueless guys like you going under icebers edges... By the way you dont need to be an experienced Antarctic guide to know that this is extremely risky.

  13. Oh and laying down onto a hundred years old waterboat at Deception...very clever, its because of idiots like you that there is more and more tight regulation in Antarctica for the rest of us, nice one