Day 7: Antarctica

Each morning our excursion leader Stephen’s voice came over the intercom system with a surprisingly soothing wake-up for the ridiculous hour we were roused (this particular morning was 6:00AM). His Australian flowed calmly through the speaker with the same message altered by day, “Good Moooorning, ladies and gentlemen. (pause) Good morning. (pause) The time is six o’clock, the temperature is 4 degrees Celsius and the clouds are overcast. (pause) We’ve seen a few cape petrels and a wondering albatross already. Today we will be landing on Half-Moon Island and will hold a briefing in the forward lounge at 7:00. (pause) Breakfast will be served at 6:30. (pause) Good morning.” Louise joked that she wanted to record his voice and integrate it into her alarm clock.

Landing at Half-Moon Island
We landed on Half-Moon Island, which is another of the South Shetland Islands. The shoreline was full of smooth, oblong rocks that had been worn away by years of erosion and were so tempting to take as a memento. But we’re all very conscientious about the “take nothing but memories and photos” mantra so we responsibly resisted the urge.

Penguins were everywhere. Just as smelly as before but still endlessly entertaining. To get to the other shoreline was a quick walk up the rocky hill and through two pillars of stone-hills. Should have been a quick and easy walk, except that this little valley is also a “penguin freeway” since it was how they get to the other shoreline as well. And they have the right of way so we’d have to stop our walking to stand still and let them pass. They traveled sometimes in little groups of three or four which meant we were stopped quite a lot.

Penguins everywhere

Waddle of the penguins

Beneath one of the rocks and burrowed into a little cave was a magellanic penguin, which Heidi later said was way off its mark since these penguins live in Cape Horn off the coast of South America. It had a long way to get home.

Hello little guy… how did you get here?
The other shoreline was lovely too, and penguins provide wonderful photo opportunities especially when there are massive glaciers in the distance.

Scenic Penguins

Nice light, too

The girls

Walk to Camara Base
Soon after we walked the length of the island – which was oddly penguin-free – to Camara Base. The base is often used for research but at that moment it was vacant so we walked around and took more photos.

Half Moon Island

Super smooth stones

Camara Base

Camara Base

When it was time to leave we noticed that a number of our fellow passengers –instead of walking down the steep, snowy hill – made a “toboggan trail” and were having a blast as they slid down the hill on their bums. Of course we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to sled so we joined them and had a few fun runs on it.

The Sledding Hill (pic by Mindy)

The sledding hill

We were starving after our early breakfast and long walk on the beach. So when lunch rolled around we were very happy – and much happier when Shannon spotted the two humpbacks that cruised next to the ship. We were positioned perfectly next the window, where we could watch them surface every few seconds and perform beautifully by flipping their flukes (tails).

Humpback fluke (pic by Mindy)
Landing at Whalers’ Bay on Deception Island
Our second excursion site for the day was Whaler’s Bay – an old whaling station on Deception Island. Deception is an active volcano that hasn’t erupted since the 1960s, which is when the Whaling Station was officially abandoned – though the “whaling” business had ended years before. The bay was a huge caldera with “Neptune’s Razor” on one end and a lake and ledge on the other end a mile or so away. We walked from one end of the bay to the other, taking in the different arctic terrain, volcanic rocks, and crumbling buildings leftover from the whaling station.

Deception Island – steamy water

Neptune’s Razor

The girls at Neptune’s Razor with Deception Island scenery as a backdrop

Ruins on the island

More ruins

Polar Bear Club
The beauty of Deception Island aside, one of the most-discussed reasons for being there was this: The Antarctic Swim Team. Also known as the Antarctic polar bear club.

When the staff announced that we had this opportunity to “go for a swim”, there was absolutely no question that three of us would do it. Not even a glimmer of doubt. There were glimmers of “what the heck are we doing?” but there was no chance we were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during this once-in-a-lifetime trip. At the end of our landing at 6:30, we and twenty-eight other passengers stripped to our bathing suits and dove in.

The water was frigid, naturally. Though the volcano is still active and some hot water does come from beneath the sand, it’s hardly enough to warm the Antarctic waters. There might have been one degree of difference between the shore and the deeper bay waters. We ran to the shoreline and dove right in – fully submerged, of course – but the cold didn’t hit us for a good second or two after we were in the water. Immediately after we were in, we were running out.

Going in…

And quickly coming back out…

Laughing ourselves silly at the craziness of it all

A natural high? Or maybe our brain cells were just numb

A number of people – especially the Russian crew – dug themselves into the sand so they could experience the treat of volcanically-warmed water against their skin. Eventually, though, we had to brave the cold and the difficulty of getting dressed to head back to the boat. We couldn’t really feel our fingers, which complicated the effort of putting on our clothes and the tiny volcanic rock dirt of the shore covered everything. Of course we didn’t care by then – the sole thought going through our minds was, “Must… get… warm… again.”

Digging into the hot(ter) beach

How to get dressed when you can’t feel your extremities? Very carefully!

But we’re officially members of the Polar Bear Club – and I can understand why some people do this all the time. The effects hours later were noticeable, since the blood rushed immediately to the skin surface to keep the body warm which gave an interesting glow to our faces. For the rest of the night I couldn’t help put my hand against my cheek to feel the extreme warmth and new softness. Plus, the entire experience made us beam with pride.

Cape Petrels
During dinner we had even more entertainment outside the dining room windows. Not only had the sun come out (but only briefly, since the weather changes by the second here) but a beautiful flock of cape petrels swooped around the boat for a good hour. We’d seen a number of them on the way down but they always seemed to travel alone so the flock was the perfect photo opportunity.

“Call My Antarctic Bluff”
For the evening’s entertainment the excursion team (Gilbert, Dolder, Shannon, and Heidi) organized a word gameshow for everyone. Shannon narrated the gameshow which gave three options of the meaning of a peculiar word. Gilbert, Dolder, and Heidi – the “bluffers” – offered a different definition each and the individual teams were supposed to guess which was the “true meaning”.

Gilbo, Dolder, Heidi, and Shannon entertain the troops
Seemed easy enough, except that the words were antarctic slang like “gash”, “degomble”, “spekk finger”, and so on. Our ‘bluffers’ were hilariously elaborate in both their explanations and their de-bunking of others’ definitions. Lots of laughter all around. Our team “Harry’s Harem” (because he was our token male) got only one out of eight correct, but it was well worth a humiliating loss to be able to laugh so hard at the staff’s wit.