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Antarctica: Days 1-4

February 28th, 2019


Days 1-4

*(this trip was 12 days long and since there’s so much to blog about, we’ll split it in three)


Antarctica in summer, is roughly the size of Australia – in winter with all the sea ice, it can get as big as 2.5 times the size of Canada! It is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth. During winter there are 182 days without sun. It is the least humanly populated continent but has 75 million penguins.

DID YOU KNOW: The coldest recorded temperature on Antarctica was -89C!!!  (-129F)

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1958 in Washington DC by twelve countries that had been active in and around the continent. It entered into force in 1961 and will remain so until 2041. It has since been acceded to by many other nations for a total of 53 to date.

Important provisions of the treaty:
• Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only;
• Freedom of scientific research and cooperation to that end shall continue.
• Scientific observations and results shall be exchanged and made freely available

Seven countries had “territorial claims”: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK. The US and Russian maintain a “basis of claim”.

We awoke this Friday morning to a foggy, drizzling day. When Fran opened her “bedroom window” blind, we could see our ship docked at the pier. However it was dwarfed by the HUGE Royal Princess Cruise ship that must have also arrived early this morning.  We, especially, Doug began to wonder what kind of ship we were getting ourselves onto because it looked so tiny for over one hundred people!

Our ship is the MV Plancius, a Dutch vessel.

It was built in 1976 as an oceanographic research vessel for the Royal Dutch Navy until June 2004 and was purchased by Oceanwide Expeditions. It was named after the Dutch Astronomer, cartographer, geologist and vicar: Petrus Plancius (1552 – 1622). The vessel is 89 m / 290’ long and was completely rebuilt as a 116-passenger vessel in 2009 and flies under the Dutch flag. We have booked a twin porthole room for the duration with a private bathroom. We expect it will feel “big” compared to our “bedroom” on Tigger. The ship is manned by an international crew of 37 (18 nautical crew and 19 hotel crew), 8 expedition staff (1 expedition leader, 1 assistant expedition leader and 6 guides/lecturers), and 1 doctor.

This is it: the day has finally arrived! We are super excited and cannot wait to begin this epic adventure to Antarctica, the seventh continent!  The Antarctica visiting season runs from late November through March – weather dependent.   Making the decision of “when” needs to be based on what you want to see/do on your expedition.  For us, it was about seeing penguins (not penguins nesting, laying or incubating  eggs) and crossing the Antarctica Circle – everything would be bonus.  There are fewer of these longer trips  as most people choose the “Classic” version.

As passengers are not allowed to bring their own luggage on board, we had to take it to a drop off point but since it was raining, Doug hailed a cab and took it over as it was nearly a kilometre away from us and we felt rolling over three bags was a recipe for wet suitcases.

We spent the day hanging in Tigger and got it settled for its twelve day “rest” and walked to the pier at 4/5 to board.  As we approached the Plancius, and could appreciate its size, we felt better about our choice.

This morning’s GPS Position: 54°53’S / 067°42’W Air Temp: +9°C Sea Temp: +10°C

Upon entering the ship we were told we were in Cabin 426 which was a twin window cabin; this was a free upgrade and a better floor.

The ship has six decks with cabins on 2 thru 6 and the bridge is on the latter. Deck three is where the dining room is located as well as the gangplanks for boarding the zodiacs. Deck four is all cabins and there is an outdoor viewing area as well as a “walking track” around the outside. Deck five contains the 24/7 coffee/tea station, lounge/bar (no recognizable beer despite begin told by the travel agent they would have Heineken so Doug was a bit bummed out) and library with a viewing section outside.

Our luggage was already in the room, so we unpacked – there was plenty of storage space, two single beds, a nightstand between them, a wardrobe with shelves and drawers and a desk with a chair below a flat screen television. There is plenty of room to store suitcases under the bed and out of the way. We have our own private bathroom as well.

At 5pm we were all asked to meet in the Lounge area on the 5th Deck

for a quick briefing and a safety film. The Plancius left the dock around six. Then an emergency alarm went off for a trial run in case an “abandon ship” order went out we had ran the drill.

There are only 108 passengers on the ship and 17 of them are divers and 8 are kayakers who will do some of their own excursions.

At seven we were invited back to the Lounge and the Captain and crew were introduced and Champagne and hors  d’oeurves were served.

Now it needs to be understood that despite people calling this a “cruise” it is not that in the way you think. When you take a “cruise” there is a set itinerary with stops at certain times/days and with set lengths of time. When you come to Antarctica, the weather and conditions can make such a thing impossible so we have been corrected to call this an “expedition”. There are more than twenty possible landings/stops that can be made and conditions will dictate which ones we’ll be able to do and when. It’s quite the adventure. The Expedition Crew leader, Ali, realizes that all 108 passengers have their own hopes, dreams, expectations and hopes for this trip of a lifetime, and she and her team plan to do their best to exceed these.

The ship’s doctor spoke to us about hygiene on the ship (there are hand sanitizers around the ship as germs can spread quickly in such a closed environment) and then about sea sickness and her “happy pills” (the patch behind the ear). We then all proceeded to the dining room on Deck 3 for a sit down meal with three options: meat, fish or vegetarian with appetizers and dessert. Dinner is always a “plated” three course meal service while breakfast and lunch are buffet style (unless weather and rough seas suggest otherwise).

After dinner we were first to see the ship’s doctor back in the lounge where we decided to get the patch she offered instead of using Dramamine for what could be a rough crossing on the Drake Passage, which can be the roughest seas on earth – and its 800 km / 500 m across!   Now we all studied this back in elementary school, but the size was more than can be imagined.

This evening we sailed through the scenic, mountain-fringed Beagle Channel and of course, passed by the spot we had camped at about ten days ago.

We retired to our cabin for the night and after a bit of television, we called it a night but neither of us slept well as the ship was rocking and rolling all night – so glad we got medication! It will take nearly two days to get to the other side.

This morning’s GPS Position: 56°40.9’S / 065°34.6’W Air Temp: +3°C Sea Temp: +5°C

For Friday’s full day at sea schedule, there were various lectures to entertain us.

The morning talk was about sea birds.

Fun facts about Albatross:
• Can live to 60+ years
• Do not start breeding until between 8 and 12 years
• An egg can take up to a year to hatch

Fun facts about sea birds in general:
• Only live on land during breeding times and then only at night
• Can drink salt water and it gets processed through glands between their eyes and filtered out
• All good strong flyers
• To find food, they use their sense of smell and sometimes fly 1000’s of kilometres to find krill/plankton
• They have a special oil that can cover their eyes to protect them from UV rays

Then the first afternoon one taught us about ice.

Fun ice facts:
• 90% of the world’s ice is here in Antarctica
• There are four kinds of ice down here in Antarctica:
• Ice Sheet cover much of Antarctica and is up to 2.5 km deep; 99% touches rock
• Shelf – huge chunks/tabular pieces that break from the ice sheet and move around three kilometres in a year

Sea Ice – you only find in winter and it contains a lot of pack ice.

Ice Berg – you only see about 10% of a berg – 90% is below the surface

There are different types of ice bergs as well:
• Growlers are the small ones,
• Bits are the size of a fridge and up to 5 metres
• Larger than 5 metres are actual ice bergs

• Ice can be different colours; blue is basal/glacier ice; green/red/pink is caused by algae and striped is caused by dirt and rock.

And the third and final one was about Penguins.

Fun facts about penguins:
• They can lower their heart rate to 3 beats per minute which allows them to dive deeper.
• They have an oily substance on their body that keeps their feathers waterproof.
• If you see a penguin flapping its flippers in summer, it is because they are too warm and are trying to cool off.
• Penguins too release salt from above their noses and you can see their beaks dripping with it at times.
• Most live to 15 years of age, but Magellanic can live up to 30.
• They mostly feed on krill and dive down to reach it to bring back regurgitated for their chicks.
• They “porpoise” which is coming out of the water while swimming so they can stop fighting the water current and go faster.
• It’s hard to tell difference between male and female as both will incubate egg and care for the young. IF it’s early in the breeding season and you see one with muddy footprints on its back, that’s a female.

We’ll see three kinds on this trip: Chin strap, Adélie and Gentoo.

During the latter talk, a minke whale was spotted but they are pretty shy and you mostly just see their small dorsal fin on their backs.

But here is a picture of one thanks to Google:

And a few minutes later we saw part of a strap toothed whale through the windows but not in time to get a photo so here’s another from our friends at Google:

We also received our loaner special rubber boots to wear ashore in the coming days.

The brochure and agency both mentioned that the boat would be providing “rubber boots” so we had envisioned normal rubber boots and had anxious thoughts about cold feet. We did bring some heavy duty socks and “Hot shots” but it turned out that these are no ordinary “wellies”. They are lined, are waterproof and have good tread. They also are quite tall, nearly reaching up to your knees.

This morning’s GPS Position: 61°16.1’S / 063°03.5’W Air Temp: +1°C Sea Temp: +2°C

Saturday was a grey day but calm as we continue crossing the Drake Passage and was also passed with more interesting lectures.

The morning lecture was about International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators):

What is IAATO?

IAATO is a member organization founded in 1991 to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

Since the beginning of the modern Antarctic tourism industry in 1969, the number of tourists in Antarctica has grown from a few hundred to more than 30,000 each year. Recognizing the potential environmental impacts that such growing numbers of tourism could cause, seven private tour operators conducting excursions in Antarctica joined together in 1991 to practice and promote safe and environmentally responsible travel in this remote, wild and delicate region of the world.

Currently, more than 100 Antarctica-bound outfitters are voluntary members of IAATO. Together they have established extensive procedures and guidelines that ensure appropriate, safe and environmentally sound private-sector travel to the Antarctic: regulations and restrictions on numbers of people ashore; staff-to-passenger ratios; site-specific and activity guidelines; wildlife watching; pre- and post-visit activity reporting; passenger, crew and staff briefings; previous Antarctic experience for tour staff; contingency and emergency medical evacuation plans; and more.

After this information we were given safety briefings disembarking and zodiac boarding.

Next was a vacuuming session; yes vacuuming. We had to bring all out outwear gear to the lounge in groups of about ten to vacuum it before wearing it on the continent to avoid bringing any seeds, germs and unwanted pests with us.

We did several laps the outside Deck on our level to get some exercise and fresh air. Our group of 108 passengers are from all over the globe – 29 nationalities and all seem well traveled. There is one other Canadian also from Vancouver aboard who is diving; several Americans, lots of Europeans; a few from both Israel and Russia, some Eastern Europeans, several from Australia and New Zealand, a Japanese couple, an Indian couple as well as a Chinese couple and more. The ages of all these people range from their late 20’s (including a couple on honeymoon from Austria) to 70’s.

Today we spotted albatross,

lots of petrols, had two humpback whales sightings and a pod of orcas with dolphins. (sadly they travel fast and are hard to catch on film and of course whales and dolphins rarely stay out of the water to catch them.

So the Drake Passage was pretty smooth and sunny; we were told we were very lucky and to not expect the same on the way back. They referred to this type of crossing as the “Drake Lake” rather than the “Drake Shake”.

After lunch we had another interesting lecture on whales. The expedition staff are a mix of marine biologists, anthropologists, geologists, bird experts and the like to give us a full picture of Antarctica.

Fun facts about whales:
• There are two categories of whales:  Toothed and Balen.
• Humpbacks have two blow holes
• Every whale’s fluke is unique like a fingerprint
• Orcas can have a dorsal fin (the one you see as they come up from the water) that is nearly 2m tall!
• The Blue Whale can be 30 m long and eats 3-4 tons of food which equates to half a billion krill!

A second lecture this afternoon was about “what lies beneath the ocean this far south”. Mostly it’s diotons, phytoplankton and algae. There are very unique looking star fish and 322 species of fish that do not freeze as they have built in “antifreeze” in their blood.

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019 – our first landings!

This morning’s GPS Position: 64°39.79’S / 062°38.32’W Air Temp: +1°C Sea Temp: n/a

After passing the Antarctic Convergence – Antarctica’s natural boundary, formed when north-flowing cold waters collide with warmer sub Antarctic seas we begin the fun part of the “expedition”. These waters continually circle the continent and ice bergs are caught in this flow. We see both tabular and regular bergs. The largest berg recorded was in 2000 – it was 300 km long and 40 km across!

After a 6:35 wake up call the breakfast at 7:00 breakfast, we begin to see the three types of ice bergs from growlers, bergs and actual bergs as well as two humpback whales. We gear up in outerwear, boots and life jackets for our first land excursion.

Upon arriving at the zodiac launching deck, we all “check out” our room cards on a board that helps the staff know who is on board and whose left the ship. We then have to rinse our boots off in a cleaning solution. (this happens each time we disembark and return to the ship – helps avoid contamination from landing to landing AND cleans off the penguin poop so your room does not smell!).

This morning’s morning excursion is to Orne Island. One of the expedition crew sets up a trail with large red marking poles and we are free to wander between those markings. We saw several colonies/rookeries of Gentoo penguins and we were excited to meet and observe our first Antarctica penguins. Further along in the walk, we reached a small colony of chinstrap penguins. We also saw some skua (a bird that eats penguins!), as well as a fur seal and a weddell seal and HUGE ice bergs in our wanderings.

At about noon, we headed back to the ship for the lunch buffet. Today we saw a good number of humpback whales, porpoising penguins (swimming) in the icy water around us before and during the lunch service.  Our excursion guide calls this area “humpback” soup as we saw so many.

we saw this one from our room’s window

Our afternoon excursion was to Danco Island. Enroute to the landing site we saw crab eater seals on ice flows and were lucky enough to also see a leopard seal on one.

Fun facts about the four types of seals:

• Weddell seals have a cat like face and a bit of spotting. It can dive to depths of 600 m and can hold their breath for 82 minutes.

• Crab eater seals come in verifying in colour and quite scared (lighter coloured seals are the young ones. These seals do not eat crabs! Only krill and small fish.

• Fur seals are smaller and are brown in colour. The are pretty playful.

• Leopard seals are quite large – up to 8 metres, of course have spots with a snake like head.

• Elephant Seals are usually gone from Antarctica by this time of year and it is not expected we will see any but an interesting fact is that they have been recorded as diving to 2300 m!

Upon landing at the beach. there are Gentoo penguins both on the beach and up on the rocks. We also saw a snowy sheath bill with a young one.

We donned snow shoes and took a hike up a hill crossing the “penguin highways” to the top (160 m / 525’ where another rookery small is found. The birds will come up here to nest as the snow melts up here fast.

The sun came out and the water below was like glass with lots of bergs of varying sizes. It is unbelievable the numbers of glaciers we are seeing.

Before returning to the ship, at 5:00, us first timers to the continent were offered the opportunity (challenge?) to do a “polar plunge” off the beach; yes: a dip in the most southern ocean. About 25 people, including, Fran took up the challenge. We stripped to our bathing suits, rushed in, had to immerse completely in order to say we’d done it. The guides had a bag of towels for us and Fran thinks the “plunge” took about fifteen seconds and man, was that water cold! Fran made it out walking on smooth rocks, immersed backwards and returned to shore while Doug had a towel ready. Talk about water being refreshing, this was more like heart stopping!

Upon returning to the ship, we showered and joined the other passengers and watched the wildlife from deck including swimming penguins and several more humpbacks.


As we leave the cove we were in. the ice bergs begin to float by.

At our daily evening briefing and dinner, we called it a night.  It has been an incredible day for us – so much in ONE day!


***We had an “official photographer” on this trip so you will see that some of our photos have a name on the bottom – those are obviously not ours but borrowed with permission from the crew.