After weeks of anticipation and an incredibly quick spruce up after our paddle, Valentine our kayak guide, kindly dropped us off at the Ushuaia Port Authority building to join our fellow passengers and crew aboard the Polar Pioneer. Dwarfed by the cruise ship Dram docked opposite, we once again thanked our lucky stars a small icebreaker, with a mere 45 passengers (90% Aussie) 22 crew and 10 expedition staff, would be our home for the next 11 days.
We quickly settled in, stowing away our things, ready for the opens seas and sussed out where the dining room and bar were to be found. Seven-short-one-long blows on the ship’s horn was our signal to don our life vests and head to the muster station. We took small comfort in knowing that if we did have to abandon ship, our snug 40 man lifeboat would include the ship’s doc, expedition leader plus health & safety diver/driver and all round action man.
Captain’s welcome drinks and a gave us all chance to get to know a few of our cabin neighbours and fellow Aussie passengers plus find the odd Dutch and German on board. On our second day aboard, we continued our journey through the Drake Passage and closer towards the Antarctic Peninsular – perfect blue skies were replaced by grey and foggy ones with swells that reached several metres.
Probably not a bad thing as there were a number of activities to get through before we reached our first of our landings, at Brown Bluff… We had lessons on loading onto zodiacs safely, measures to be taken for man o’board, ‘gumboot giveaway’ and vacuuming of all our outdoor clothing – we had to bare all, zips and pockets, as Velcro was particularly difficult to remove any seeds or other minuscule contaminants that could have an adverse effect the Antarctic ecosystem.
Daily activities aboard ship included talks by Dr Mike, resident paleontologist – the first one entitled ‘Antarctica in Deep Time’, a snapshot look at the earth from Permian times, 225 million years ago up to present day. A fascinating insight into how a super landmass called Pangea once existed, where all the continents were connected and Antarctica enjoyed much warmer climes and dinosaurs roamed.
Matt enjoyed a whistle stop tour of the galley by chef Tim and was rather taken with the various cold stores plus cooking facilities. No surprise, major logistical planning goes into the feeding of 50 plus hungry guests for up to 20 days with breakfast, lunch, tea time treats and dinner. More so given that their dry and frozen stores are amassed prior to the first sailing of the season, with fresh produce the only items taken aboard each trip.
Twelve strong kayakers wrestled into their dry suits and other assorted paraphernalia (25-30 layers and counting) to join Judd, our kayak guide, on the stern deck ready for ‘Kayaking 101’ – how to get in and out of the kayaks via a zodiac plus general health and safety tips. The biggest test of all? Popping on our “skirts” wearing multiple gloves and marigold rubbers. It turned out to be a far cry from the dry run some had expected; the full force of a wave that breached the starboard side”goffed” them good and proper.
Our resident naturalist Nigel gave a brief but informative introduction to whales, seals and penguins. So much to learn and understand, with facts like Emperor penguins can dive to a depth of 500m, blue whales can live to over 100 and their calves need up to 300 litres of milk per day, putting on up to 3 kgs of body weight in just one hour!
With only a few sightings of sea birds during the first two days at sea we added albatross, petrels and prions to the list. We were naturally very excited to spot our first dolphins from the ship’s bridge. Six Peale or Hector’s, we weren’t quite sure, but either way, we enjoyed watching them as they streaked through the bow waves.
The ships galley treated us to fresh baked scones and home made jam in the afternoon…. Rumour had it our expedition diver/zodiac driver, Martin, was the man responsible for the blackcurrant jam, served with the scones. Devonians at heart there was one missing ingredient…. clotted cream!
Following expedition leader Howard’s premonition of sightings of wildlife post sunset, the bridge was the most sought out spot for the evening’s entertainment. David Attenborough’s ‘Frozen Planet’ series came in a poor second in Screen One aka the Lecture room. As we neared the South Shetland Isles and English Strait the fog lifted and we were treated to an ethereal light playing across the water. Eyes were peeled for the first sighting of an iceberg – with a competition to determine the time and it’s coordinates. Beneath the full moon a good-natured debate ensued as to what determined the dimensions of an iceberg; the answer? … it had to be the size of a double decker bus.
Sadly we didn’t get the prize for the berg … Our claim to fame, aside from being the only Brits aboard, was having biggest bar tab on the first two days (natch) Well, we are on holiday, after all!