Day 6: November 19, 2018: Humans of Antarctica
Like all mornings, we woke up at 7am for breakfast at 7:30. We had moved to a beautiful bay surrounded by -of course- incredible mountains covered with unfathomable amounts of snow.
While the weather and visibility have improved, the winds picked up. There was a steady 35-40 knot wind with gusts over 50. As we ate breakfast, the crew monitored the wind to see if we could land.
At 8:30, the decision was made to land and at 9, we set off at 9 for Damoy Point on Wiencke Island. The zodiac ride was rough and the winds pushed the waves onto our dingy. Luckily, our clothing- including the expedition-provided jacket was waterproof. Eventually we disembarked the zodiac onto the ice.
The island was covered in snow and penguins. The twist was that there was a historic British Antarctic Survey hut on the island. The hut contained a tiny museum commemorating the former airfield on the island as well as providing insight into life in Antarctica. Damoy acted as a refueling stop for planes traveling between the Falkland Islands and the interior of Antarctica. As aviation technology improved, planes no longer needed to stop at Damoy. Without any purpose, the station was abandoned in 1993.
Besides the hut, there was plenty of island to explore. The guides flagged a circular pathway around the island. Along the way, I saw multiple gentoo penguin colonies and two seals. The scenery and wildlife here was truly superb.
During the zodiac ride back, the winds pickup up even more. We were lashed by the waves so much that one guy called it Polar Plunge Round II. Thankfully, I put my camera in an interior pocket.
After lunch, we sailed over to Port Lockroy, an inhabited base run by the British Antarctic Trust. This is the famed “Penguin Post Office” that is the subject of travel articles every year during the postmaster application season. On multiple occasions, friends have sent me articles about this place. Before disembarking, we were met on the boat by a representative of the base.
Christy had just graduated from the University of Edinburgh, majoring in Middle Eastern History and Politics. Somehow she went to the furthest place from the Middle East: Antarctica. From early November until March, Christy and three others are running the gift shop and adjacent museum. The crew consists of three women and one man, who Christy called “either the luckiest or unluckiest man on earth”.
Christy and crew arrived here on a cruise ship 11 days earlier. “It was like I was on a cruise and just didn’t get back on at one of the ports,” she said. The cruise ships regularly provide Lockroy their food and drinking water. There is no WiFi on the island, but the staff can send short text messages via a satellite connection. Christy seized the opportunity of being on our boat by taking her first shower in 11 days.
So far she apparently likes being on the island and has adjusted to the smell of penguin neighbors that live all over the island. However, it has only been 11 days- we will see what happens come February/March.
The island is tiny- it has 3 tiny buildings and a flagpole with the Union Jack flying above some penguins. The whole place was no more than 200 meters long. The island was so small that I was very glad I did not apply to work here.
I first headed into the main building. There, I visited a gift shop which somehow takes credit card. In addition to some unique souvenirs, I mailed some postcards to my family.
According to Christy, the letters would eventually be taken by a cruise ship to the Falkland Islands. Then they would be flown by military aircraft to Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom. Then they would go through the normal British postal service. I was told that my letter would most likely be delivered in 6-8 months. Talk about speedy.
Also inside the building was a museum. This base was formed during World War 2 as a secret spot to spy on Axis ships that potentially were sailing through Antarctic waters. Of note was the “painted ladies” or murals of famous actresses during the era. Men would look at them since there were no women on the island – a big change from the island today where women outnumber men 3-1.
After 45 minutes on the island, I took a zodiac ride over to another tiny island nearby. This island had some more penguins and a leopard seal. It was windy so I only spent about 30 minutes here.
In the evening, we had our typical recap and briefing. The slideshow started with a looped video of penguins mating. I then came to the realization that the cruise is basically a summer camp for adults. We the passengers were the campers and the staff members were the counselors. Michael, the only children from New York and I speculated whether the staff members had a secret social life in the off-limits parts of the ship. More specifically, we wanted to know which staff members were secretly or not-so-secretly hooking up. We were fairly certain of one couple because they always stood next to each other at meetings.
Our main evening activity was trivia. The questions were based off the lectures earlier in the voyage. Unfortunately, nobody else in my group attended any lectures, but I was able to get a few right. Phone usage was allowed (there was no internet so people couldn’t cheat by Google-ing the answers). For the bonus question, we had to name the zodiacs. I pulled up pictures I had taken from earlier in the trip and were able to see some of the names. That propelled us to be in a tie for second place but we lost the tiebreaker.
Port Lockroy marked the southernmost point of our voyage: 63’49” South. From here we headed north to the South Shetland Islands for one day then back across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia.