Antarctica Part 6: The South Shetland Islands and Back Across The Drake

Click here to read Part 5: Humans of Antarctica

Day 7: The South Shetland Islands:

We woke up near our intended destination of Deception Island in the South Shetlands Islands. This archipelago lies about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

While the weather was clear, there was unfortunately a heavy wind of 50-60 knots with gusts well over 70. That made it impossible to land at Deception. We sailed within 1/4 mile of the island.

The morning was instead taken up by lectures to pass the time. One lecture was on Adobe Lightroom and another was on the geology of Antarctica. At lunchtime, they updated our itinerary. We were going to land at Aitcho (like the letters H.O.) Islands.

At 2:30 we got in the zodiacs and headed ashore the Aitcho Islands. I’m not sure how much latitude played into this, but these islands felt markedly different than the Peninsula. The main difference was that the land here was not completely covered in snow. The beaches and penguin colonies had dry land. The penguins’ bellies were tinted brown from the mud and guano.

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We were also introduced to a new warmer-weather species of penguin: the chinstrap! The chinstraps were a bit smaller than the gentoos and sort of hopped around. They were so cute!

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Because we were further north, the penguins (both Gentoo and chinstrap) had started the breeding cycle sooner. They had already laid eggs and built nests. The birds were very protective of the nests and hissed at any other penguin walking nearby. This made the area quite noisy and smelly. The penguins on the peninsula were smelly, but these penguins were much smellier.

After an hour we headed back to the ship. The ship quickly repositioned to a spot three nautical miles away so we could have a second excursion for the day. There, we went on a zodiac cruise.

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This new island had steep glacial walls of ice extending a hundred feet up from the ocean. We cruised along the walls while simultaneously checking for wildlife. The big finds were the seals: one upright and one nearby in the water. The zodiac ride lasted an hour before we headed back into the ship for the last time.

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Just before dinner and before we lifted anchor, we all gathered on the aft deck for a celebratory toast of spiked hot chocolate. It was so lovely seeing everyone there together. We really had become a tight knit group- family if you will-over the last week. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve spent an entire week with a person or group of people.

Solan, our expedition leader, led us in a toast. We toasted to those who couldn’t be here with us. We toasted the adventurous spirit that drove us to the frozen end of the earth. And finally we toasted Antarctica, the beautiful land we were lucky enough to have visited and experienced over the last week.

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With that, we lifted anchor and the long and arduous crossing of the Drake Passage began.

Day 8: The Day Where Nothing Happened

Although i got a great night’s sleep, I was tired and seasick the entire next day. I watched really bad action movies including Suicide Squad and XXX: Return of Xander Cage, walked to meals and that was about it. In total I walked just over a half-mile.

Before dinner, we had a funny auction for a penguin charity. The best things auctioned off were the ship’s flag and a nautical chart of the peninsula signed by the captain with custom artwork. The flag went for about $800 and the charts for $1,500.

Day 9: ‘Round Cape Horn

Solan our expedition leader woke us up on the PA system. We had reached Cape Horn, the end of South America and one of the world’s Great Capes. The Chilean navy had allowed us to sail 8 nautical miles away from the point, which lies at the southern end of Hornos Island.

I climbed up to the top deck and there is was- the famed Cape Horn. Land Ho!

While there are numerous mountains in the vicinity, Cape Horn itself is a relatively flat spot. There was a lighthouse and some other building I could not point out.

Solan then told us that we were going to reach Ushuaia by the evening to beat an impending storm that had the potential to close the port. Despite landing early, we were going to pretend as if we were at sea, but people would be free to go for a walk around town after dinner. I am guessing that the ship staff was excited because they could potentially have a wild night out or connect to WiFi.

Throughout the day, the mood on the ship was upbeat despite the realization that real life was about to hit. I spent time packing my room and getting my souvenir Antarctica flag (a different and cheaper flag than the one auctioned off) signed. We had a beautiful toast with the entire crew and the captain before pulling into Ushuaia during dinner. While seeing Antarctica was the reason for the trip, I really felt that meeting and interacting with the other passengers was a highlight. How often do you get so many well-traveled people in a captive setting?

That evening we watched an incredible slideshow with images from the trip. The quality of the images was amazing. I really wished I had brought a better camera. While we had the option to leave the ship and head into Ushuaia, everyone opted to stay on board. After all, why leave when you have a fully stocked bar and all your friends within a 1 minute walk of your bed? We ended up partying the night away with the staff until very late.

Day 3: Farewell

Everyone was so sad the cruise was ending. Even the staff was sad since the next cruise apparently has an average age of 70. After breakfast we disembarked, headed onto the super short bus ride and then into Ushuaia.

Once ashore, the group split up. I walked over to my hostel – the Antarctica Hostel- and spent most of the morning catching up on my emails, social media, and news. I then wandered around town. Since leaving college I never would have thought that 50 degrees would feel warm but I now was walking around comfortably in a T-shirt.

The crew and staff were walking around town too in plain clothes. It was fun to see them! They had about 4 hours ashore before the next trip began.

In the afternoon, I walked over to the old airport which sits opposite the bay from town and the cruise dock. I had a straight-on view of the Ocean Adventurer. A couple was aggressively making out high school style 50 feet away on the grass.

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The Ocean Adventurer from a distance

Right around 3:45, I watched the next cruise begin. Solan, the expedition leader greeted the passengers as they cheerfully walked down the pier onto the ship and presumably into the main lounge where welcome drinks were being served by the same crew. It’s hard to imagine that just 6 hours after I left, a whole different set of people is there. How difficult it must be for the crew and staff to form relationships and bonds with passengers just to suddenly break them and be forced to form new ones. It was definitely a bittersweet moment.

The crew couldn’t see me from this distance, but I waved goodbye to the Ocean Adventurer, Antarctica, and all the emotion this trip brought me and walked back to town.

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