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Antarctica and the rough waters of the Drake Passage

In November 2007 Chris Osborn headed across the Drake Passage to the icy Antarctic Peninsula aboard the Ocean Nova.

{img_alt} It started out with a flight from London to Ushuaia, the southern most point of the South American continent via a stopover in Trelow. I had a night in Ushuaia to recover and think about my Antarctic adventure. It was windy and snowing when I arrived, but excitement was in the air and I was mentally preparing for the dreaded Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is the notoriously rough stretch of ocean which separate South America from Antarctica.

The next day I made my way to the port and boarded the Ocean Nova, my home for the next 12 days. After checking into my cabin I made my way up to the panorama lounge where I was greeted with a glass of champagne and I found myself among my fellow adventurers who were all travelling to see the snow, ice, penguins and much more. The group was a friendly, cosmopolitan bunch with people from UK, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, Ireland, Venezuela, US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Japan, China and Holland.

Then we were introduced to the expedition team and found out what was in store for the next days. The captain warned us that later that night we would be sailing through a storm and dinner was moved forward by an hour. The doctor was also introduced and over the next few days many of the passengers would be seeing a lot more of him!

Roughly half of the people on board boat felt the effects of the crossing. However the other half were perfectly fine and during this time they could enjoy lectures given by members of the crew on all aspects of the wildlife, geology and the history of Antarctica, including information about the great explorers.

I woke up early on the morning of day 3 at about 5am, the world had stopped moving and I could not hear any wind or waves. I drew back the curtains and there it was; icebergs, snow, mountains, Antarctica!!!. We were sailing between the mainland and the outlying islands. I rapidly got ready and rushed upstairs on deck. There are moments in life which stick in the memory for ever. This was one. It had definitely been worth it! {img_alt}

When the breakfast bell rang we had to be dragged away from deck and down below into the restaurant. The food on the boat was extremely good, and that morning I think I consumed the equivalent of 3 or 4 full English breakfasts, having not eaten much during the course of the roller-coaster journey!

Later that morning we anchored and everybody was excited to be getting off the boat for the first time. We all put on about 10 layers of clothing looking like a line of Michelin men/women, in anticipation of the freezing cold temperatures, after all this is Antarctica. However we all soon realised that it wasn’t actually that cold and on future landings everyone looked a great deal thinner.

Our first landing was Portal Point, which is on the Antarctica Peninsula. To get to land we would board small motorised Zodiacs which could hold around 10 to 12 people. I was on the first zodiac as I couldn’t wait to make my first steps on continental Antarctica. Like many others on the boat, this was our last unconquered continent and it was funny looking back at others getting off the zodiacs. Many were kissing the ground like the Pope coming home or getting friends to film their first steps like Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Over the next 6 days we would make two landings a day either on the Peninsula or on the out lying islands. You are not allowed to have more than 100 people on the island at once, so boats with more than 100 people can’t make too many landings. The Antarctic Treaty signed by many nations also requires that NOTHING must be left behind- no yellow snow, no water bottles – just foot prints to keep Antarctica pristine and completely undisturbed.

{img_alt} We would go on small hikes across the ice, taking many photos and admiring the landscapes. If the hike involved a hill we would nearly always slide back down and everyone reverted to being a child again.

Our friendly companions on nearly every landing were the penguins. On this voyage we saw adelie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. You can not help but admire these funny looking creatures. They have evolved to be great swimmers and to be able to survive the harshest weather conditions on earth, however they have decided to make their homes on top of mountains. They would struggle up the slopes, many falling and picking themselves up until they reached their goal. They showed no fear of us and would often look at us with great curiosity. At times it was hard to believe I was walking amongst the penguins and I was not watching a David Attenborough programme.

{img_alt} It was easy to spend hours just watching these charismatic animals. Penguins generally mate for life and it was funny watching pairs courting like young lovers and then quarrelling like old married couples. Some penguins also showed a tendency for kleptomania. Small stones are much valued as they form the basis for their nests, but instead of finding their own some rouge penguins would steal from their neighbours while the owners looked the other way.

We were also fortunate to see fur, weddell and leopard seals and on our last day in Antarctica we saw some humpback whales in the distance. However it was the penguins which were the stars.

During the voyage we also made a couple of landings at research stations, which provided interest about another side of life in Antarctica. At the Ukranian Research station stop, Vernadsky, we were able to take a tour. Previously this station was called Faraday and was operated by the British when they discovered from here that there was a hole in the ozone. It was this news, before global warming was big news, that probably first highlighted the damage humans can do to the world.

{img_alt} One evening back on board ship, we were lucky enough to be in great shelter and have great weather, so the staff set up a barbeque dinner on the deck. This was probably, no definitely, the most scenic background to a barbeque I have ever experienced but you had to eat quickly as the food got cold within minutes. 

One of the optional activities offered on this voyage was the 'Polar Plunge'. You may think this is absolutely crazy thing to do, zero degree water should not be swam in, but when a 75 year old Japanese is first to volunteer you cannot say no. The staff hooked a bungee around my stomach and let me go. I hesitated a little before jumping as a saw a small iceberg float by, but as fast as I had jumped in I was yanked out. As soon as I was out I was wrapped in towels and given a glass of vodka which I downed in one. I have no memory of being in the water, however I can now say I have swam in Antarctic waters. Many of the group succumbed to the peer pressure and took part in the plunge. {img_alt}

On our last day in the Antarctica we visited Deception Island and the Captain saw the opportunity to do something a bit different. He drove the Ocean Nova into the sea ice and so we were able to get out the boat and walk directly onto the ice. Everyone got off the boat including the crew and it was time to take some group photos and have some fun building snowmen and having snow ball fights.

{img_alt} On the voyage north back through the Drake Passage the majority of the passengers had gained their sea legs and it was less traumatic. Anyway after two days at sea, again, we anchored in the Beagle Channel.

At two in the morning the pilot came on board and shipped the ship to the port of Ushuaia. The fantastic voyage came to a close.

Find out more about our wildlife voyages to Antarctica