Passenger’s log-book from m/s Hebridean Sky, operated by Polar Latitudes. Voyage to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), South Georgia and Antarctica. Departing from Puerto Madryn and finishing at Ushuaia. November 2019.
3/11 Finally, finally we leave the pier. It is the first night on the ship, outside temperature around +25 degrees. The bay of Puerto Madryn is sheltered from the winds and the sunset throws about yellows, reds and oranges just like on a colourful beach towel.
4/11 We ride the wave of luxurious seafaring. 5m high. Speed of 9 sea knots. Half of the passengers stay in unity with their beds and some other cabin items. The doctor keeps distributing pills to anybody interested. Our cabin mate threatens to disembark at the Falkland Islands and is given an injection.
5/11 The most appropriate sleeping pose is the lateral recumbent position – it gives you the best chances of staying in the bed. Dinner al fresco on the upper deck is refreshing indeed.
An educational film on the modern expedition recreating the Shackleton voyage in a replica of his original lifeboat and clothing of the time (Chasing Shackleton) is chilling indeed, and even my stomach starts feeling the waves.
6/11 The coast shines in the spring sun and my nose gets sunburnt in no time at all. The ship continues maneuvering in the stream and along the winds, but the waves are too prominent for all of us to board the boats and get ashore. The foot touches the ground for 5 minutes only. Landing aborted. We wait for a second attempt. The rockhopper penguins and the black-browed albatrosses in their nests are beyond our reach. The wind exceeding 35 knots has turned the tables against us.
7/11 The very British Stanley demonstrates a perfect set of weather conditions. The beach with its sand of Carribean white and waters of turquoise blue darkens in a couple of minutes and sharp hail hits my face. The water resistant trousers turn out not to be 100% resistant. The red British phone booths invite us to call home.
8/11 We sail on. I put on sunscreen, locate my sunglasses and prepare to lie down on one of the settees on the upper viewing deck. I look up. A dark storm is swooping in on us. 5 minutes later I stand in a slightly sheltered nook and watch snow reduce the visibility to some ten twenty metres. There are snow drifts on the deck now. The albatross and the painted petrels don’t seem to mind.
9/11 A big day on the ship. Biosecurity instructions and vacuuming (seed locating) party. No foreign organic material shall encroach on the endemic nature of South Georgia! We are to inspect, clean and disinfect all our outerwear, bags and boots. By means of a paper clip, we pick everything out of all and any seems everywhere. Any day now we might be visited by inspectors, who will give the ship notes.
At 14.33 we will have reached the Shag Rock.
10/11 The first day in South Georgia. To outpace the change of the weather, the landing takes place at 6am. But what a landing it is! Thousands of king penguins hoot and whistle. And they smell. So do the fur seals. The braver among them show off bloody scars. We are given skiing sticks to fight back the more inquisitive ones. The down covers of the penguin chicks are most definitely warmer than all of merino or alpaca wool and down jackets combined. The chicks of the wandering albatross have reached the size of a well fed lamb. In a few weeks they will leave the nest carried away on a wing span of 3 metres. Tiny, little sweetlings!
11/11 Armistice Day. Everywhere but here. Here it is the penguin and seal day. And the day of abandoned whaling stations. I know I have way too many pictures of king penguins already, but I can’t help it – they are just too funny and good looking. The pups of elephant seals, though merely 4 weeks old, weigh substantially over 100 kg already. Still, the big round eyes have that cute childish innocence. In the distance, the cliffs have given home to a colony of macaroni penguins who watch us from under their thick yellow eyebrows. I need a lense with a bigger zoom, for a better view. Meanwhile, the very specific clouds can be spotted without any lense or zoom.
An occasional insignificant iceberg starts crossing our path. Well, merely the size of a two-storeyed building, no more.
12/11 Disappointment – coffee at 5 am, all the trouble getting oneself into all the thermal layers: socks, thermal socks, thermal leggings, sweatpants, thermal underwear, one sweater, a second sweater, down lining, rainproof outerwear jacket, neck bandana, hat, sunscreen, rubber boots, glove liners, waterproof gloves – all of that just to watch the expedition team take the boats on a wet and increasingly splashy trip to the coast and back. Damned be the katabatic winds. A katabatic wind is a wind created by the fast downward flow of air that has cooled off atop a mountain or a glacier. In gusts it rushes quite visibly over the sea surface carrying along the spray from the waves and almost toppling us over. The huge swaying ship lulls us to sleep right after breakfast.
And then we land in Grytviken. The thick fog and wet snow take but an hour to turn into an almost sunny afternoon. A glass of whiskey raised at Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave. Poetic. It is for the first time ever that I get to ring church bells with my own two hands. A hike uphill. Elephant seal pups’ playful rumbles in the water and, I kid you not, shopping! Tomorrow’s wake up call is set at 4am. Winds be willing.
13/11 5am coastal bustle. The gigantic elephant seal bulls roar and fight each other. Their pups chirp, rumble and laugh. A random bark from a fur seal reaches us amidst the general ruckus. The adult king penguins caw and whistle, the chicks pipe out proper melodies. Only the few gentoo penguins seem to hold their tongues (or beaks rather). The southern giant petrels and skuas scout the area and take an occasional bath. It’s downright crowded. The breakfast at 9 am seems well-deserved.
We round the southern tail of the island amidst huge icebergs glistening in the sun – the first whiff of the true Antarctica. We leave South Georgia behind. The ship shakes and rattles with the waves. I keep whispering the wind taming chants. For the third hour in row – no use.
14/11 We persevere. Most have regained their colouring and sea legs, as noted happily by the expedition team. Even our cabin mate surviving on the crackers that we bring her from the restaurant is firmly convinced that even South Georgia alone has been worth all of these trials and tribulations. The painted petrels outside the portholes are enjoying the company of other, the much rarer Antarctic petrels. A film, informative lectures, auction, champagne. I dress for a cocktail night in the ship’s bar. Tomorrow we are allowed to sleep in, afterall.
15/11 Eerie mist and fog everywhere. Fingers crossed for Antarctica not to follow the fate of Atlantis. The air has cooled off noticeably – I can see my breath. The same follows from the water temperature and salinity measurements carried out daily within the framework of the Citizen Science project. The project also invites us to count birds and observe cloud coverage on the hour when the area is passed by the NASA satellites; the research data are then channelled off to some remote databases.
On a side note – this trip can by no means be described as one spent on a low-fat or any other diet. Rather, it is an eternal feast. First, a smaller breakfast for early birds or snacks before early landings. A second, genuinely proper breakfast with everything your heart (or stomach) might desire. A buffet-style lunch, with no lack of choice. Dinner, served at the table, with an elaborate menu and wine offered. The chef greets everybody personally, the wine selection changes and the food is abundant. Even I sample desserts here. I will think about recovery at a later time.
Sipping a margarita between the biosecurity check and the evening briefing, I hear it announced that we have crossed the 60 degrees’ latitude. We have officially arrived in Antarctica!
16/11 Early morning. Fog. The Elephant Island. Point West – the place where Shackleton’s 22 men waited for the rescue living under the boats and chewing penguins for 4 miserable months. Gradually the fog disperses to leave us with the sight of rugged, chinstrap penguin covered rocks and ice blue glacier. The island seems to be enclosed by a misty belt. Tabular icebergs, pointed mountain tops covered in blinding snow. Lights, shadows, tones, angles, mist, clouds, sundog.
The heart grows weak with the beauty of it all. There are no words to describe it, nothing comes close enough. Exhilaration. There! It is these views that have drawn me back to this place. My mind is simply blown away and carried off behind the horizon. I look around – I am not the only one. Nobody around has managed to withstand this mind blowing magnificence.
17/11 Mikkelsen Harbour. D’Hainot Island. Wake with a glacier in your eyes. Let yourself be blinded by the whiteness of the sun. Listen to the roaring of the glacier calving. Step around the gentoo highways. Stay still to guard the sleep of a Wedell seal and her pup. Tread through the snow and brave the winds. Count the whales – orcas, humpbacks, orcas. Soar in a boat through the mist among icebergs and penguin baths. Not a Sunday to complain about. Even kayaks embraced their rowers today. They had a humpback whale circle them and serenade his vociferous songs – a fairly scary encounter for some. The daring will soon brace the Antarctic waters for a polar plunge, but the barbeque dinner will be served to everyone. Ding dong – the pool is open. I will head there to document it.
18/11 National holiday. The Latvian flag is raised on Cuverville Island. Penguins seem to like it. We contemplate the possibility of changing the name of the gentoo penguins to latvoo penguins and establishing a colony here. Emotional and patriotic photos. The shallow bay offers a selection of grounded icebergs for viewing. Gerlache Strait in golden sunshine. At the same time, it is snowing in Antarctica. The little snowflakes dance around and do not melt. We start our way back northwards. And – a stop in Charlotte Bay. Huge glaciers. Glittering sun. Finally we step foot on the continent itself.
This cannot be truthfully depicted – either by words, stories or pictures. I was right back then when I decided: if God should live anywhere on the earth, it would be here, in this unworldly beauty, inhospitality and majesticity that is Antarctica. Everybody around me is looking in vain for words to capture it. This is a different dimension, a whole other world, another kind of essence. A very well celebrated national holiday indeed.
19/11 Deception Island. Mist, eyes bleary from the snow. This is a crater of an active volcano, with the last eruption in 1967. It was because of such eruptions that the whalers felt so deceived in their search for shelter. Black volcanic sand. Whale bones. A fight has left a leopard seal with one fin only, but he leisurely yawns wide enough for us to count his teeth. The sun gradually erupts in its full glory. We do not feel deceived. One final landing. The fate makes it perfect – bright sun, a balmy lull of the wind, the waters calm. Chinstrap penguins clamber up and down their penguin highway and ignore us completely. And that is the way it should be: we should not disturb anything or anybody in this wildlife paradise. We are the dispensable ones in this world. Climbing back into the zodiac, I silently promise Antarctica that these are not our final goodbyes, I will try to return again. Bittersweet sadness and the setting sun colours the last glistening icebergs in the sea. The fear of the Drake creeps up on me.
20/11 The morning comes so calm that I oversleep the breakfast. This is the Drake Lake (as opposed to the infamous Drake Shake). But I do not let myself relax the vigilance. The mind swarms with what I have seen, felt and heard.
Antarctica – a place so beautiful, so pristine, with so much to be admired and protected. And it is protected by the Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty enshrines that in the interests of humanity Antarctica is forever to be used for peaceful purposes only. For peace and science.
The Treaty system includes, among others, the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection up for review in 2048. I count on the common sense of the signing countries (Latvia including) to continue the ban on resource extraction for commercial purposes. Just look at what destruction and almost extinction was brought about by the unbridled hunt for the seals, whales and other species.
Antarctica is the only continent with no native population to stand up for it. Which is why we have to. Didactic pathos? Indeed, we have become the ambassadors of this cold continent. Meanwhile, the snow keeps falling calmly behind the cabin porthole.
21/11 The Beagle Channel welcomes us with sun and calm waters after a fairly rough night. Just as well, since it might have been tricky to pack the suitcase while jumping the waves. We have crossed the Drake Passage at a record speed. I am undecided between homesickness and the urge to hide myself somewhere on the ship and sail back to the land of ice again.
The captain invites us for a farewell cocktail. We have returned considerably earlier and after dinner there is a chance to roam the streets of Ushuaia. Tomorrow we will be taken straight to the airport.
What happened to these almost three weeks? A whiff of icy breath and they have flown by. But I will treasure the taste of it in my memory forever.
Written and translated by Dace Rubene