Tag Archives: Polar Pioneer

What happens on the Pioneer, stays on the Pioneer…

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We bumped into Ted, one of our comrade kayakers aboard the Pioneer, literally, in the middle of a forest walk today in Los Glaciares National Park (as you do) Рwe almost lost sight of our small group that were heading towards the moraine alongside Perito Moreno, as we shared our unbridled enthusiasm for our incredible trip aboard the Polar Pioneer all things Antartica.

A perfect reminder we haven’t talked about two traditions aboard ship, that happen, pretty much without fail, every voyage… The Polar Plunge and the BBQ. In spite of a Russian crew the ship sails out of Sydney effectively, so “throw another XXX on the barb-ie” CAN be heard from the stern decks.

Thankfully the BBQ came first as the thought of jumping into icy cold water, even with a rescue diver in place, was enough to have us both reaching for the goose fat and inhaler.

Snowy stern deck on our BBQ evening

Snowy stern deck

We came back from our landing at Detaille Island with snow in the air and teeth chatting to smell the universal smell of meat cooking outside #yum. As the zodiacs and kayaks were stowed away, the chefs huddled behind huge drum BBQ’s wrapped up in quilted coats and beanies, turning chicken thighs, pork kebabs and sausages… Time to head to the sauna to thaw out and get our glad rags on.

We needn’t have bothered with any finery as it was cold as and the expedition team had “kindly” provided a dress up box to get us into the swing of our summer BBQ. Arriving a little (fashionably) late I spent the evening impersonating a belly dancing Emirates stewardess.

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Let’s get the party started

Gluwein flowed as sounds were pumped out from the back of the bar… Party time! As the snow came down and started to settle, a full scale snowball fight ensued which left s all confused as to who was on who’s side… Time to ‘retire’ to bar for more bevvies and rocking tunes. It will come as little surprise that we were one of the last to leave. Yep, we threw more than caution to the wind and drank our weight in Wyborowa.

The Plunge is normally only attempted on calm preferably sunny days, which is why we thought we had gotten away lightly as the window of opportunity was fading. Drake -1 and unsurprisingly, given our hungover state we thought “what the hell” as the call was made, today would be the day.

Bouyed from our final and truly exhilarating paddle around Paradise Harbour, with it’s millpond conditions, carving glaciers and sightings of minke, we lept into the sub-zero temperature waters….. It was effing cold and all hope if emerging elegantly from the water were completely dashed!

Matt surfacing from his plunge

Yep he did it

Jules emerging from polar plunge

And so did she…

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Doing the Drake

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Call it karma, fate, a fluke, anything you like; one thing was certain, we had been extremely lucky throughout our entire Antarctic adventure – from wildlife sightings to sea conditions.

On our maiden voyage through the passage the sun shone down on us for the most part and a few white horses and slight swells were all that we encountered. The Pioneer pitched and rolled (gently some might say) but the bows were never truly awash with salty spray for long.

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Good form on the Drake

Following our relatively peaceful passage first time round, we were expecting the worst on the return leg, stowing all that we could to avoid disaster and more than a few passengers popping a Phenergan or two to be on the safe side. The dining room was quiter than usual as the effects of a near gale force 7-8 (on the Beaufort scale) took hold and we were tossed around in ‘moderate’ seas with winds gusting and the odd wave crashing over the bow, port and starboard sides…..

We had seen footage from previous expeditions. Trust us, just google “drake passage” and you will see for yourself why the Drake has earned it’s reputation of being a passage of dread for some, whipping up a storm with that tests the most hardened sailor.

As we neared Cape Horn, the seas calmed and it was time to get ready for the Captain’s farewell drinks. Just before this, Lesley our ship’s doc reminded us of the many men that had lost their lives at sea and especially in these waters; the Cape and notorious Drake Passage were considered a milestone for many a sailor aboard a clipper that made use of the trade winds.

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Rounding the Cape at sunset

Once again we thanked our lucky stars as we were blessed with a safe passage and also rewarded with a picturesque sunset across the Cape. A handful of passengers, including us (natch), stayed on in the bar, toasting our adventures and throwing some shapes, as we headed back towards the Beagle Channel, to pick up the pilot that would accompany the ship back into port.,

Up Close and Personal….

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Over the radio came the call to action. “Howard to Judd, Howard to Judd come in please, humpbacks by the ship” …….

Three km from the ship, we headed back. Quick. Double time. The first of our truly closer than close encounters that made us appreciate, just how privileged and insanely lucky we were on this trip, came about as were heading back from our landing at Cierva Cove. Arms aching from pushing and pulling our paddles at breakneck speed, we headed back to the Polar Pioneer and the bobbing Zodiacs, unsure of what to expect. Whales, yes but which ones and where were they?

Captain Sascha had spotted two ‘sleeping’ humpbacks earlier and they were, some thirty odd minutes later still spy-hopping, ‘spouting’ fishy breath, diving and showing their flukes to the passengers and crew of the ship, who watched in awe and astonishment from the four zodiacs… Thankfully some with Go-Pros and decent cameras!!

Suddenly the pair turned their inquisitive nature towards us and the rest of our band of merry kayakers, slipping under us, literally and quite scarily, (all 15m of their length gliding within a metre of us) performing underwater acrobatics to reveal their barnacled flippers beneath the surface of the water. The whales sauntered off, circling and spouting en route, to check out the Polar Pioneer with the crew running from side to side, watching what the gentle giants were going to get up to next.

Frigid with cold and excitement we didn’t capture many decent images, but what we took away with us was the most incredible memory; one of the most majestic creatures there is on this earth honouring us with it’s playful presence. It truly felt like we were in our very own ‘Frozen Planet’ episode… Minus the cameramen.

We are sooo looking forward to sharing the video footage – it was THAT incredible and really quite difficult to put into words alone!

The very next day our whale blowing experience was replaced by seal sirens…. One leopard seal in particular took a shine to Judd (or his kayak) and led us a merry dance through the labyrinth of ice around Cape Renard.

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Crystal clear water around the cove

Not only was the vista amazing with shifting colours of blue; azure, indigo and turquoise troughs of water and icy sculptures capturing our senses, we also were on the look out for the numerous penguins and seals that were in nearby waters – lone seals where seen hugging the edges of the bergs and floes, a herd of fur or Weddell seals popped up out of nowhere and swam across our path, followed closely by a raft of penguins powering by in the opposite direction – we were left wondering where to look and point our kayaks!

Leopard seal heading over to J's kayak

Leopard seal at large

A particular leopard seal and his few friends came to the rescue. They came right at us before neatly turning and deftly sliding behind a berg. We started to turn our kayaks, trying to keep up with their high speed ballet in the water, only to find they, or one leopard seal in particular, returned to “play” with us, swimming beneath our kayaks in turn; nibbling at our rudders and gently knocking the underside on the way. Not forgetting they do have a set of very sharp (read flesh tearing teeth) Judd sensibly told us (Matt) to keep his hands out of the water.

Shadow of leopard seal under kayak

Shadow leopard seal …

Awkward on land they were so graceful and energetic in the water; twisting and turning beneath the kayaks, to pop their curious heads up our of the water, one within centimetres of Judd numerous times and all three staying within 5 metres of us for sometime.

The Weddell Sea and Antarctic circle….

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This trip became a first for not just us, but the crew and expedition team too… Not one ship had managed to make it into the Weddell Sea this season, with pack ice far too thick and treacherous to push through.

Captain Sascha, who headed up our all Russian crew, skilfully pushed through the farther than anyone had; the craggy buttress of Rosamel island marked the entry point, skies brightened and an eerie silence fell on the deck, broken only by the sound of ice cracking loudly beneath the hull, as we slowly slugged our way through the frozen waters.

Tabular iceberg stretching as far as they eyes can see

Tabular iceberg

Polar Pioneer pushes her way thru ice into Weddell Sea

Pioneer pushes into Weddell Sea

We passed ice floes bearing lone crab eater, Weddell and fur seals and the most incredible tabular berg stretching for miles and miles – in fact as far as the eye could see.

 

Sadly we had reached the point of return, as the skipper conceded safe passage could not be found around the peninsular. BUT with perfect conditions, icy calm clear waters it was once again time to jump (not literally for obvs reasons) into kayaks and zodiacs to check out leopard seals we had seen dozing.

Crab eater seal taking a nap on

Napping on a floe

A HUGE consolation prize for not spending time in the Weddell, we would now be able to head further South, 66 degrees 33′ to be precise and actually cross the Antarctic circle!!

Yippeee!!!

Huge cause for celebration, we amassed on the forward deck and raised a glass as we crossed ‘the line’. ¬† 240 years and 42 days, to the day, we all took the same oath Captain Cook did …

“We will keep Antarctica pristine and untouched for peace, harmony and nature. So be it”