Friday 31 January
Day 31 Glacier Alley and Ushuaia
Today was a wonderful day of sightseeing as we travelled along the famous Beagle Channel and Glacier Alley, made famous by Darwin, who discovered so much on his exploration in this ship. We got up early in the attempt to see as much as we could of this scenic cruising. We could see the towering Andes towards the north. It was wonderful scenery. We enjoyed it in the Crows Nest for the remainder of the morning seeing numerous sea glaciers coming down from the mountains directly into the sea. It was pretty impressive. We were on our way to Ushuaia where we had a train tour arranged 'to the end of the world! We docked at lunch time and dressed up warmly because we'd been told that the maximum temperature was going to be 8 degrees.
The tour was interesting. The Argentinian guide was good and his English wasn't bad. We drove through Ushuaia and it was an attractive little town not unlike some of the little towns we have seen in Alaska and Canada. We began to see some lovely scenery as we drove to the Museo del Presidio (Prison Museum). It opened in 1902 and it was interesting to see that it was built on the same plan as the original Pentonville Gaol in the 1800s with a central area and multiple arms of cells going off like the spokes of an umbrella. The original prison was meant to become a penal colony based on what had happened in Australia but that didn't quite happen, but it did become an enormous jail and by 1920 had 5 pavilions with 79 exterior facing cells each. Originally planned to have 380 single cells it usually housed about 600 prisoners. It was a grim place to be imprisoned because of the extreme cold, persistent rain and high winds. The temperature very rarely went above 12 degrees even in mid summer and could be 20 degrees below in winter. A prison railway was started in 1910 and ran along Maipu St to Monte Susana and it became the southernmost railway in the world. In 1943 a modern Hospital was built on the grounds which later became the Naval Hospital. The prison and railway were closed in 1947. In 1998 major repairs were made to both the prison and railway and over 15 years it has become a modern museum and important tourist attraction in this part of the world.
We had an hour to look around the museum then had to get back onto the bus to drive to the Railway station of El Tren del Fin del Mundo. At the station, we had hot drinks and a snack and listened to a band for twenty minutes at the railway station. The little steam train was interesting and the carriages were comfortable. We were packed in like sardines but there were big picture windows so we had good views as we travelled along a River valley hearing about the history of the Prison Train. That was interesting and the scenery quite picturesque but you can just imagine how hard it would have been for the prisoners to build the railway in those awful conditions. We saw lots of sturdy horses and multiple tree stumps where all the trees had been felled to build the railways. We then drove to headquarters of the National Park of Tierra del Fuego where there was the southernmost post office in Argentina and could see in the distance the border between Chile. As soon as we got back to the ship we left the port to ready ourselves for sailing Drakes Passage. Francis Drake sailed through it in 1575 in his circumnavigation and named the passage between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Drakes Passage. We were meant to be sailing past Cape Horn at about 3 am and expected really rough seas but it was still quite calm when we went to bed enjoying the calm before the storm.
Saturday 1 February
Day 32 Drakes Passage - sailing towards the Antarctic
Today was another sea day with our usual golf (John) and singing (me), Trivia and the evening show. There have been some really great lectures on the areas we are visiting. Today we had one on the bird life of the Antarctic Region with some great information and photographs of the birds we are likely to see. The second was on the ecosystem of the Antarctic region and that was interesting as well. We get to the Palmer Archipelago tomorrow morning so we'll have to get up early to see as much as we can.
The Drake Passage was really calm and the Captain said it was the best weather he had ever had when he had sailed in these waters previously. We passed very wide of Cape Horn because we were a little behind time and the Captain wanted to spend as long as he could in the Antarctic. We had a quiet afternoon in anticipation for seeing the Antarctic tomorrow. The show was The Unexpected Boys which was a tribute to the Jersey Boys. It was really good. The Drake Passage remained calm. We have been so lucky with the weather so far.
Sunday 2 February
Day 32 Sailing in Antarctica. Arrive at Palmer Station.
Today was one of the best days of our cruise. We were at last in Antarctic waters in the Palmer Archipelago. We were up at six and could already see land in the distance and the occasional iceberg as we were going towards Palmer Station, the US Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. We saw magnificent scenery, icebergs, massive snow covered mountains, numerous pods of whales and some seals. As we got near to Palmer Station, six of their personnel came by rubber ducks to the ship and they were giving lectures to us about life on Antarctica.
The scenery was spectacular as we passed by through one of the many channels between the various snow covered islands. There were some incredible snow and ice formations, each one different from the last and we had some great views of the ice flows often with seals or penguins on them. There were a lot of 'growlers' which can cause so much harm to ships which was why we were going so slowly. In the middle of this wonderful scenery, and the unique and abundant wildlife. Later in the morning we went into the Lemaire Channel north of Hovgaard Island with dramatic scenery ahead and on both sides of the ship. We watched a lot of it from our balcony on the starboard side of the ship and every bit of it was stunning. Intermittently we had commentary which could be heard on the balcony. We took an large amount of photos of the ice formations and the wildlife and it's going to be hard to know which ones we are going to dump to make the number manageable. There were whales, seals and numerous penguins sitting on the ice flows
I periodically took some photos of interesting ice formations and tried to take some of the wildlife. But often the animals were a long way away so I don't know how the photos will come out but there were a lot of hump back whales breaching and penguins and seals sitting on the ice flows. At midday we were still passing through the Lamaire Channel and we could see Scott's Peak. This is one of the higher peaks in the Antarctic and people have lost their lives trying to climb it. Usually cruise ships cannot get right through this channel and have to turn around and go back the way you came. However, our Captain said he thought it was safe so a decision was made to change the itinerary a bit. In the afternoon the Palmer personnel left the cruise. Their lecture had been fascinating and some of them had been living at their station on and off for years. That needs some dedication I think! The Palmer Station Personnel were running the United Sates Antarctic Program (USAP) under the auspices of the Science Program. In the afternoon we sailed through the Neumayer Channel and Gerlache Strait. Despite the bitter cold (2 degrees and -10 degrees with wind chill) we walked around the promenade deck together and we saw numerous penguins and seals swimming and on the many small ice floes. The scenery was out of this world. There were steep ice cliffs, caves, ice bergs, snow and ice covered mountains as well as the animals and numerous Antarctic sea birds including albatross and petrels.
As we reached the farthest part of the Lemaire Channel the scenery was just spectacular. We saw heaps of wildlife with whales, penguins on ice floes and seals. There were multiple icebergs, glaciers, growlers and small ice flows where many of the penguins were sitting on and swimming on and off. We changed the itinerary a bit so we weren't always sure of where we were at any time, but the weather was great with sun and blue skies so the captain was exploring different channels that are not usually navigable due to ice. Often the Lemaire Channel is not fully navigable even in summer so we were really lucky to get through.
After the Lemaire Channel we got into the Neumajer Channel and Paradise Bay. We were so lucky with the weather and hope tomorrow is as good when we sail around Dalman Bay. We've been able to get into places nut usually navigable by cruise ships because of the stunning weather.
We were able to watch the amazing scenery even while we were at dinner because sunset wasn't until nearly 11pm. We are at 64 degrees west now so pretty far south! We hoped tomorrow would be as good
Monday 3 February
Day 33 Sailing in Antarctica
What an amazing day! The weather was stunning (the best the crew said they'd ever had when sailing the Antarctica). We set our alarm early and had breakfast at six so that we could get the most of the sightseeing and weather. It was very cold - again only 2 degrees but it was sunny with blue skies so was ideal to view all the sights. Most of the usual activities were curtailed because most people just wanted to enjoy the scenery and listen to the commentary from the expedition leader Lou Sanson.
We spent the first couple of hours just watching from our balcony and our view from the starboard side was incredible. There was so much to see as we sailed slowly through Dalman Bay to Willemina Bay. There were incredible sheer cliff up to snow covered mountains, massive icebergs, smaller growlers and lumps if ice, incredible ice formations and millions of penguins together with some other bird life, hundreds of seals, and a few whales.
John had his morning walk as usual while I was still watch the scenery and then we both went walking around the promenade deck. One circuit is a quarter of a mile and we managed four circuits. Cold weather is great for MS! It was very very cold and we'd had to rug up with multiple layers and we were still cold especially the bits that were exposed such as our noses and our hands and feet got pretty cold as well. But it was certainly worth it. We've taken over 700 pictures on this trip and over 200 since being in the Antarctic! We'll really have to prune them when we get home but we are getting a lot if pleasure just looking at them on the iPad.
Over the next few days there are to be lectures about various aspects of the Antarctic including the birds and animals, the Antarctic Treaty, the Antarctic ecosystems and some of the early Antarctic explorers. We won't go to all of them but the couple we had today were really good. They are given by there three experts on the ship - Lou Sanson, Dr Peter Carey and Dr Craig Franklin. We've been really lucky with the quality of all the talks and they've been really interesting. The day went so quickly and with each passing hour, the scenery got better and better. We didn't want to miss any of it. The amount if wild life was incredible. We had no idea we would see as much as we did. We saw the Chilean Research station where there was a penguin rookery. We've seen so many penguins on this trip but the number on the rookery was just mind boggling.
In the evening we had booked into the murder Mystery Dinner in the Pinnacle Restaurant. We were going with an American couple we had met and none of us really knew what to expect. We didn't dress up particularly as it was cool even in the Restaurant. We were met by various people who were in character for the evening. There were four staff from the Prinsendam sing and dance team, one of the Shorex staff and Matt, the Trivia and games host. They were dressed up in costume as if at the birthday party of an unpleasant but rich man. He was murdered during the evening and the suspects were his wife, his daughter, and three previous business associates. We had one at our table and it was up to us to question people and listen to the loud conversations between the characters. We were served a five course meal with wines to match. It was a very entertaining evening and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
We were both tired after our long day of sightseeing so it was good to get to bed! We have more sightseeing in the Antarctic tomorrow with an earlier start so we needed a reasonably early night! However I did start to download some of our photographs onto my iPad and some of them were amazing. We were so pleased.
Tuesday 4 February
Day 34 Sailing in Antarctica
It was another eagerly anticipated day!
As soon as we were up at six we started to see some of the giant tabular icebergs. These are salt water icebergs that break off the ice sheets attached to the continent. They are virtually unique to the Antarctic although there are a few much smaller ones in Northern Canada. All morning we were touring through Hope Bay where we saw the Argentinian Research Station. There were a lot more penguins and seals though we didn't see any more whales. After lunch there were a couple of really good lectures on penguins, the physiology of how the sea mammals are able to dive so deep and a lecture on Shackleton with a lot of the original photos. They were incredibly interesting and we thoroughly enjoyed them.
It was much colder today with higher winds, lower temperatures, sleet and snow, and although John did manage a short walk around the deck, it was pretty unpleasant, cold, and very slippery with the decks covered in ice. I didn't venture out at all! We were travelling north around the Antarctic Peninsula to the Nordenskjold Coast where we saw the massive ice shelf from the distance and an enormous tabular iceberg which was nearly a mile long. It was flat on the top and apparently pilots have been known to land aircraft with special floats on them when hopping from base to base as they are so flat at the top.
After the great day's viewing the weather really closed in and the visibility went down to another fifty yards. We were meant to be going into the Weddell sea but the conditions were getting treacherous so the ship sailed north again. We had also intended having a look at Elephant Island, which has a lot of history attached it, but the weather didn't allow that either so our sail through the South Shetlands took us East of Isla 25 de Mayo but a long way west of Elephant Island. We were due to leave on our trip north out of Antarctic waters well west of the Falklands tonight. We have two sea days in front of us and have along way to go if we are to reach Puerto Madryn in Argentina on Friday.