An Antarctic Adventure: All good things must come to an end – Days 18, 19 and 20

15 December Friday

That our adventure was coming to an end was confirmed by our on-board activities today. There were no landings, no Zodiac cruises. Instead we had a Disembarkation briefing in the bar, and organised to pay our accounts and tips with Kathryn. Gaps in the schedule were filled with documentary screenings in the lecture room, ahead of “Captain’s Farewell Drinks” in the bar. (Cheers!).

Dinner was a little bit ‘posh’ with blue tablecloths and cloth napkins. The meal was delicious – lamb cutlets, and crème caramel for dessert!! Mmmmm!

The highlight of the day had to be the “Favourite 4 Slide Show”, painstakingly compiled by Chris and Jess. By time everybody’s photos were included (and some did not seem to be able to count to 4), interspersed with bits of video, it was fairly long, but everybody was appropriately appreciative and engaged until the very end. There was lots of appreciative applause at the end for the Brays’ efforts. Good job!

16 December Saturday

We picked up the pilot at some time during the night, placing the bridge off-limits to expeditioners (not that too many people would be lurking around at 2 am).

Liz’s wake-up squawk box announcement gave us an hour to get organised for breakfast, recognising that our luggage had to be left outside our cabins before we went for breakfast.

After Argentinian customs had checked passports while we were at breakfast, Robyn announced that they were available for collection from the bar. Each one was marked with a sticker of our tag number to aid identification. I noted with some concern that the mysterious white docket that I’d received on entry to Chile at Santiago was no longer in my passport. (Was it supposed to be there?! Hopefully I wouldn’t need it again.)

Unwanted clothing was dispatched to Robyn’s office for distribution to the Russian crew; our Muck Boots went back into storage via a chute into the Lecture room. On the deck above, Dr Peter fed the boots into the hole in the deck while Steve caught them at the other end:  an efficient process. I donated my mid-length Muckboots to the “Polar Pioneer”, not envisaging that I’d have any use for them. In the scheme of things, they weren’t that expensive, after all.

When we were finally cleared to leave the ship, it was to discover our luggage neatly stowed on the wharf, under the watchful eye of a member of the crew. All the members of the Expedition Team were also there, so there was some milling around while we thanked and farewelled them after a marvellous trip.

Having heard that it was Liz’s first trip as Expedition Leader, I particularly wanted to congratulate her on her performance. A big thumbs-up expressed everything that I could possibly say:  she’d done a marvellous job!

Having negotiated all the farewells, it was then time to sort out airport transfers. Many of us had pre-booked and paid for transfers.

One lady stood near the group with a piece of cardboard, with about a dozen expeditioners’ names written on it. When people identified themselves, she pointed them in the direction of a nearby bus. My name, along with many of my fellow expeditioners, wasn’t on the board and the transfer lady didn’t speak English. Was this our transfer or not?! (Mine wasn’t scheduled – according to my paperwork – until later, so did I have to wait for it? Our Disembarkation Instructions mentioned “various shuttle vehicles” arriving from “0745 – 0900”) Sigh… certainly seemed like typical, chaotic, disorganised South American arrangements!

Fortunately, Robyn managed to sort everything out, and we all embarked on the one coach (so much for “various”) waving goodbye to the expeditioners who hadn’t booked transfers as the bus crawled slowly down the wharf. They would have to walk to the taxi rank, across the road from the end of the wharf. We seemed to go on a miniature tour of the town, before stopping at the tourist information centre to drop Ron off. Then it was on to the airport.

Passengers departing the Ushuaiia dockUshuaia Airport is small, and (surprise, surprise) disorganised. We were clearly so early for our (noon) flight that it wasn’t even listed on the departures board. But, with a coach-load of (surely not unexpected) tourists clogging up their limited departures space, you’d think they’d have had some sort of strategy, wouldn’t you? The queue, interspersed with locals trying to check in for their flights, went from one end of the terminal to the other.

After a while, someone in charge decided to move all the tourists to the side so that they could process the locals (who were probably trying to check in for earlier flights, anyway). The lucky ones who’d been at the front of the queue before this side-tracking occurred managed to check in (and took off to the coffee shop upstairs). The rest of us were left standing beside the check-in races with our suitcases, wondering whether they’d even remember to tell us when we COULD check in. Sigh! (I have not had the most wonderful experiences with South American airports!)

Finally, with check-in quiet (except for all of us tourists bunched beside the races), the LATAM staff gestured for us to come to the counter. Finally:  into the queue, checked in without too many dramas, and upstairs to negotiate a fairly lacklustre security check before heading to the gates. More waiting, but at least there were plenty of seats!

… On board LA 7738 and we were on our way from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, with a stop at El Calafate along the way, a flight of 2632 kilometres We probably left late again – punctuality doesn’t seem to be very important. David was sitting in the same row – we had a seat between us (nice to have a bit of room to spread out). It seemed he was one of those lucky people who could fall asleep at the drop of a hat (very handy when travelling), so I kept myself occupied by reading via my Kindle App on my iPad.

When we reached Calafate, it was to disgorge large numbers of locals, while a few tourists stayed on board. It still seemed weird to be remaining on board while people departed and then loaded from this stop. (The whole “don’t do your seatbelt up while we refuel the plane” instruction was rather scary! I presumed it was so that, if there was an accidental ignition while the refuelling was taking place, there was one less thing to worry about before getting the hell off the plane!) Yikes! How often does THAT happen? (Presumably it HAS happened that they would even HAVE such an instruction!).

There weren’t as many people getting on the plane at Calafate as had departed, so we had a few vacant rows around us. David settled down to sleep again. As the plane upped its revs for take-off, I was distracted from my Kindle long enough to observe that there seemed to be smoke or fumes drifting out of the panels above my head! What the hell?!! When I looked around, nobody was reacting at all (Was this NORMAL?!). Once we were climbing, the stream of smoke dissipated, but it sure made me uneasy about the plane’s reliability.

This, however, wasn’t the last plane incident to give me the creeps! At one point on the same flight, the engines seemed to cut out. We must have been flying along for at least a couple of minutes without the engines making their usual noises. Huh?! Once again, I looked around to see if anybody else was reacting:  nothing. I was scared (again), but given the lack of reaction from anybody, I went back to reading my iPad (there was nothing I could do, after all).

After we deplaned (finally) in Jorge Newbery, Buenos Aires, I was comparing notes with David and discovered that he was also freaked out by the plane engine stopping. (It wasn’t my imagination!)

“But you were just calmly sitting there reading,” he accused.

(No, actually not calmly!) It was the strangest thing – I cannot come up with a sensible explanation. My only theory is that maybe pilots can use the updrafts from the Andes mountains to keep the planes at altitude, and save on fuel. (?) It was very, very odd!

We wallowed around the airport until finally we found the right area for our gate. Jorge Newbery is largely a domestic airport, servicing flights from different parts of Argentina, but also other South American countries. (The main international airport is Ezeiza International Airport (also known as Ministro Pistarini International Airport).) Perhaps because of the predominance of South American flights, we had difficulty in determining exactly where we had to go for our connecting flight.

Five of us from the Polar Pioneer were on the same flight, so waited (and waited and waited) in a licenced café near the departure gates. People started queueing at the gate. When the queue kept lengthening, we wondered whether we should be joining it. (There had been no notice about the gate being open.) Phil found an English-speaking staff member for LATAM who told us that the flight had been delayed, and there was no point in our joining the queue – we would be told when there was any news. Many of the people in the queue remained there – apparently they had booked discount flights, and had tight connections that they were unlikely to be able to keep. Lots of unhappy people! I was somewhat concerned that if the flight was cancelled, we’d all be stuck here overnight with no accommodation, and struggle to make our connection for our International flights out of Santiago next day.   (!)

We were still waiting as the time for our flight’s departure (20.20) ticked past, but eventually grateful that the flight hadn’t been cancelled. We reached Santiago close to midnight. At least we were now on faintly familiar turf, knowing that we wouldn’t need to pay the reciprocity fee (having already paid it), and where to join the queue for immigration. (We expected a wait – and got one – although it wasn’t as long as last time.) That accomplished, it was then on for the suspense of discovering whether or not our check-in luggage had arrived. Though my bag was one of the last out, it was, at least, there! (PHEW!)

The Customs people weren’t very interested in our luggage, beckoning us to the scanners without even looking at our declarations. It’s one way of processing people quickly, but probably not particularly good for identifying smugglers!

We were booked into rooms at the Holiday Inn Santiago – Airport Terminal (literally across the road from the airport). We ran the gauntlet of the crowds of taxi drivers looking for fares, and left the terminal. While I was looking for a pedestrian crossing so that I didn’t have to bump my wheeled duffle up and down kerbs, David shot across the road. Hold on! I pointed back the other way, but he thought I was pointing at the overbridge (which would’ve required us to retrace our steps in the terminal), so ignored me! Sigh… I followed him… At least at this time of night, there was no traffic to speak of.

Check-in was reasonably efficient, and it wasn’t long before I was in my (very comfortable) room. Munchies sourced from my carry-on, shower, bed (aaahhhh)!

17 December Sunday

I was up early (I never sleep well in hotels when I’m in transit). Breakfast was a delicious buffet. Phil and Marilyn were there, but no sign of David, so I joined them for a while. David lobbed in after they’d already left to return to their room, having made tentative arrangements to meet me in the lounge area later.

When we were waiting for them to join us in the lounge, a message came in on David’s phone about a Qantas flight delay (3 hours). It was luck that he’d even turned his phone on – I’d been using the hotel Wi-Fi to access cricket footage on my iPad that I wanted to show David, which prompted him to turn on his phone. As our flight was due to depart at 13.35, it potentially presented problems for us in checking in for our flight. Would we check out of the hotel, go to check-in for our flight and be turned away for being “too early”? If that happened, where would we and our suitcases go in the meantime?

We decided that David and Phil would go across the street to check out what was going on, and work out how best to proceed, leaving me to mind our group’s luggage. This turned out to be an excellent strategy, as the guys discovered a packed and chaotic check-in, and a secret preferentiale (priority check in) hidden away upstairs. They were also able to establish that, with David and I both travelling on Business Class tickets, we would be able to access the LATAM lounge, and Phil and Marilyn would be able to accompany us. Sounded good!

We crossed the road to the terminal (this time using the pedestrian crossing), and battled our way through the doors. Inside, to the right, check-in was chaotic, so we were VERY glad to have the option to by-pass it. Upstairs, the preferentiale area was quiet. We were the only passengers at about 10 check-in counters. Behind us, however, there was a lengthening queue to go through the ‘private security screening channel’, where you negotiated the passport formalities to leave the country, and put your carry-on luggage through the scanners.   

David was checked in first, without too many problems. I let Phil and Marilyn go next – bad mistake! They checked in, and joined the end of the ‘private security screening channel’ – apparently people from economy check-in were being sent up here because there was a massive back-log downstairs. Hmmm… So much for priority check-in!

By the time I reached the check-in counter, the security queue had doubled in length. (What must it be like downstairs?!) Everything related to my check-in seemed to be going smoothly, and then, all of a sudden, the printer ground to a halt. Despite the best efforts of the LATAM/Qantas staff, nothing happened. After 10 minutes of agitated efforts to encourage the printer to reset, the staff member presented me with two options:  I could go downstairs to check in (hell, no!), or I could take a seat and wait until the airport technical staff came to fix the machine. (Despite there being 7 or 8 empty counters alongside this one, he couldn’t use them as they were assigned to other airlines.) Sigh…

I sat… and waited… and waited … and waited. All the time, the queue through security got longer and longer. (I did wonder whether it would have been quicker to check in downstairs, but then I would probably have been held up even longer in the security queue.)

Finally, the airport IT guy came (while I crossed my fingers that this was a fault that could be fixed) and after about 10 minutes, the LATAM guy came to escort me back, and complete my check-in. By the time this was done, the security queue was almost out the door:  There had to be 60 or 70 people, maybe 10 of whom (including me) had any right to be there! Of course, it being a South American facility, there was only one counter open.

The queue crawled forward. The passengers behind me had two small children who decided that it was good fun to run around me. (Maybe their parents hoped that they would be so tired when they got to their flight that they’d go to sleep.) I was tired of standing.

When I reached the head of the queue, a US gentleman was in front of me at the counter. I think we were both taken aback when a very well preserved woman with a designer handbag, bustled up to the counter from further back in the queue, engaging the officer while ignoring the US guy. I guessed she was concerned about missing her flight (weren’t we all?)

The US guy stood back politely, while she yelled and gesticulated at the officer (who listened politely, but sternly pointed back to the line). In the queue, the locals (well, the people who could understand what she was saying) started yelling as well. She ignored them, and beckoned to another lady behind me in the queue. The second (equally well-preserved) lady came forward, yelling at the first. This provoked more indignant Spanish-language yelling around me. The officer continued to shake his head, gesturing towards the line. Chaos!

The officer clearly wasn’t going to let them jump the queue, despite their voluble protests, so the two ladies finally had to admit defeat and return to the line. Surrounded by muttering fellow travellers, it was probably not the most comfortable experience for them. (I hope they missed their flight!) The US guy was processed quickly, and I was (finally) able to present my own passport.

Latham Santiago loungePhew! Accessing the LATAM lounge was much easier! When I entered, however, I was surprised to find only David (who’d met up with another ex-ASG70 traveller, Ron.) The LATAM lounge staff would not allow Phil and Marilyn (who were travelling on economy class tickets) to enter the lounge with David, despite the assurances we’d received from the staff downstairs. As it wasn’t a Qantas Lounge, their standard arrangements didn’t apply, even though we were travelling on Qantas tickets. (Had we chosen to go to the American Airlines Admirals Club Lounge, with whom Qantas also has an arrangement, Phil and Marilyn would have been allowed in as our guests – and I would have been able to enter on the strength of my Qantas Club membership, regardless of my class of travel … If only we’d known!)

The LATAM lounge was enormous, with two levels providing heaps of facilities, including grouped lounge chairs with power outlets, dining areas, buffets, sleeping lounges, kid zones and showers. I had plenty of time to relax, shower, eat… I did feel sorry for Phil and Marilyn, though – if the security queue was any indication, they probably didn’t have a peaceful time at the departure gate!

It was a great relief when we received the boarding call for flight QF928. Boarding proceeded smoothly, and I was pleased to take my seat in the upstairs cabin. Once take-off and all the associated work was out of the way, the Business Cabin Manager came around to introduce himself and to apologise for the delay. The delay had been caused by an extremely late departure from New York on the Friday (the flight had been ready to leave on schedule, but as a result of congestion, holiday season and snow had left about 4 hours late).

I wasn’t surprised when, later in the flight, the Business Cabin Manager returned to advise me that I would not be able to make my connecting flight from Sydney to Canberra. (I’d already worked this out when we left 3 hours late! The anticipated arrival time would have left me with 20 minutes to negotiate the Border Force formalities, then I’d still have to check in for my domestic flight and get across to the domestic terminal. Nah, was never going to happen.)

When the flight arrived in Sydney, a member of the ground crew was standing at the gates with sets of written instructions and information for those who would miss their connections (about 20 people going to Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane). The guy in front of me was complaining about how cheap Qantas was – that the allowance for meals wouldn’t even get him a decent dinner. Ridiculous! Some people just like to be difficult: Dinner had already been provided on the plane, after all!

To cut a long story short:

The baggage handlers in Santiago apparently loaded back to front (a common problem, apparently, according to the Qantas ground crew in Sydney), so all the priority luggage came out last. This was particularly irritating, as all the priority travellers (who’d exited the flight first) were waiting, while the carousel filled with the bags of those who had not yet left the plane. (Great!) When my luggage finally arrived, I negotiated Border Security without drama, though I couldn’t take the fast-track lane because I’d been “in contact with … wilderness areas or freshwater streams/lakes etc. in the past 30 days”, and been in “South America in the last 6 days”. Regardless of David’s more cavalier approach (ticking “no” to everything), I’d watched enough “Border Security” to know how serious a “false declaration” could be! The Border Security guy was more interested in what Department I worked for than in opening my checked bag, especially when, while he was looking at my card, I explained that I’d been to Antarctica, subject to all sorts of biosecurity protocols (and only worn gumboots on landings), and the only place I’d been in South America was airports and airport hotels.

I transferred to the overnight hotel (Holiday Inn, Sydney Airport) in a crowded shuttle bus, along with the other fellow-sufferers, including Dr Peter, Lynda, and Ron.)

Next morning, check-out and the transfer back to the airport went smoothly. The scanner was unable to read my initial boarding pass (my seat was apparently allocated elsewhere), but it was easily fixed and I made it aboard my flight. My checked bags came off the flight in Canberra reasonably promptly, and I walked out the door and straight into a cab. (One advantage in being on an early flight – not too much competition for taxis – it’s too early for people coming to Canberra for meetings.)

Photo album for this trip is on my Flickr account at https://www.flickr.com/gp/jeaneeem/kr50HF

I also post Antarctica photos on my Instagram account (jeaneeem). Please feel free to check ’em out!

Thank you for your interest. I hope to publish the journal and photos from my next trip soon.

An Antarctic Adventure: Sea Lion Island – Day 17

We landed on Sea Lion Island and relaxed watching weaners play-fighting on the beach before discovering a Penguin rookery.

14 December Thursday

Conditions had improved sufficiently that, after an early breakfast, we were able to make a landing on Sea Lion Island, the largest of the Sea Lion Island Group of the Falkland Islands. The island has breeding colonies of Southern Sea Lions, and Southern Elephant Seals, as well as Gentoo Penguins (2800 pairs), Southern Rockhopper Penguins (480 pairs), Magellanic Penguins, Southern Giant Petrels, Striated Caracaras and Sooty Shearwaters.

Some took the opportunity to walk to the Rockhopper Penguin colony, over the top of the hill. Jacqui and I took a seat on a nice, comfortable piece of drift wood, to watch the world go by. Except for the weaner Elephant Seals duelling near the water, it was very peaceful!

Seals fighting on beachRobyn encouraged us to go and check out the Magellanic Penguins who nested in tussocks near the lagoon. We clambered over the rocky ridge to the lagoon and walked along the shore in the direction Robyn had indicated. A seal in the lagoon (which must have been very shallow) was lolling on its back – obviously not floating. Along the shoreline, birds, and other seals were camouflaged in the vegetation.

Gentoo Penguin with two chicksWe didn’t discover the Magellanic Penguin nests (though we did see a few penguins), but we did discover a small Gentoo Penguin rookery, and they had chicks! Awww, so cute!  One parent was looking after a very cute pair of chicks. As we watched, a Striated Caracaras (or maybe it was a Skua) swooped in on the nests and made off with a chick. As it flapped away from the net, another bird tried to nick the kill. Jacqui got some photos. I managed one blurred shot of a big brown bird flying away.

While we were quite happy sitting on our log, watching the world go by, Robyn soon came over and offered us an early Zodiac back to the ship. Another two expeditioners were also ready to go, so we donned our life jackets and headed to the Zodiacs. The wind had picked up, so it was a little dodgy getting off the beach. We managed it (though probably a little wetter than we had been on the ride in). By the time the others had returned from the Rockhopper rookery, the conditions required stern departures from the beach.

An Antarctic Adventure: Stanley, Falkland Islands – Day 16

We were lucky to go ashore at Stanley, and deteriorating conditions gifted us an unexpected experience in returning to the Polar Pioneer.

13 December Wednesday

We were still at sea when we woke this morning; the seas were still unruly; but the good news was that we had made excellent time overnight, and were closing in on the Falkland Islands ahead of schedule.

Gary kept us entertained with another presentation, this time on “Falkland Island Birds”, then, around lunchtime, we passed through the Narrows and into Stanley Harbour. Yay!  Land Ho!

After some negotiation with authorities, the good news was that we would be making a landing at Stanley. With several options available to us, we decided as the photography group that we would stay ashore for dinner – at one of the local pubs – and get the last Zodiacs back to the ship afterwards. For those who would prefer to dine on board the ship, there would be earlier Zodiac options.

We discovered today that Nikon Thomas and his family would be leaving the “Polar Pioneer” for an extended stay in East Falklands. Their 7 or 8 large suitcases had to be transferred from the ship to the shore via zodiac – quite an undertaking!

My own descent into the zodiac was less than graceful. Halfway down the gangway, I lost my footing and slid to the bottom, landing with one leg crumpled underneath me on the metal platform at the bottom. Neither Liz, who was driving the Zodiac, nor the crew member, seemed to even notice that I’d fallen. Perhaps they thought it was my usual way of descending the gangway! Liz was holding out her hand, and I scrambled awkwardly to my feet. (Who’d have thought that my hiking shoes would have less grip on the slippery steps than my Muck Boots?!) That hurt!

I had a brief moment of worrying which leg to lead with in stepping onto the Zodiac (what if the crumpled one wouldn’t hold my weight?) I just stepped – I’d have to step from one foot to the other, anyway. My leg went out from under me again and I was in a heap in the bottom of the boat (but, at least, aboard). That hurt (too!)! My fellow Zodiac passengers were sympathetic, and Nikon Thomas asked me if I was okay. I explained that I already had a dodgy knee.  Ouch.

The transfer was bouncy and wet, and we were pleased to experience the novelty of leaving the Zodiac via a wharf! Liz stepped agilely onto the dock, secured the Zodiac, then helped us ashore. After divesting ourselves of our life jackets, we walked through a Port Security building, each accepting a “Day Visitor” pass, which we had to return when we came back to the wharf.

There was another change to our plans:  conditions were such that the Team couldn’t allow us to stay ashore so late, so we would be going back to the Ship for dinner. Conditions were deteriorating, and we didn’t want to replicate the experience of a much larger cruise ship, whose 200-odd passengers had had to be billeted in Stanley for several days when conditions deteriorated so much while they were ashore that they could not be transferred back to their ship.

Chris had arranged for another special excursion for the photography group:  when we got outside, there was a mini-van with local driver waiting for us. He would drive us to the best site for wildlife – home of a Magellanic Penguin colony – near to Stanley, Gypsy Cove. The rest of the expeditioners had the options of exploring the township (including a museum, Government house, shopping, or heading to one of the pubs, the Globe or the Victory), taking a cab or hiking out to Gypsy Cove.

On the way, we stopped at the side of the road to photograph a pair of geese and their goslings, and a wreck in the bay. At Gypsy Bay, a board walk with viewing platforms looked down on the beach. Nobody was allowed onto the beach, as the area was seeded with landmines during the Falklands War. As the signs explained: “Although this area is believed to be clear of mines, it is possible that a mine may be washed ashore from a nearby minefield. Please be careful. Do not touch any suspicious object, but place a marker nearby and report it to the JSEODOC, Stanley.”

It was a pretty area (except for the threat of landmines). Across the top of the hill was a ridge of rocks, surrounded by flora – green, olive and yellow grasses, little yellow daisies and low-lying red bushes. On the beach, the Magellanic Penguins were gathered around a little inlet – like a little bathing area. Along the beach, a pair of ducks escorted their six ducklings beside the water. We walked along the boardwalk, observing geese higher up the hill.

Magellan’s Penguins gathered on shoreOur guide took those who were confident of their footing off the boardwalk to check out some nesting birds in the cliffs above the beach. While we were waiting for them to return, we said hello to the amazing Canadian ladies Barb and Joc LeBloc, who had walked to Gypsy Beach from Stanley Harbour. They had time for a quick look, then had to turn around to head back!  Wow!  What a great effort.

Our next stop was at a point beyond the airport to check out some seabirds at a lighthouse. As it was blowing a gale (apparently the norm in the Falklands), and a challenge to keep our feet, I decided to stay in the van. I wished we’d spent less time here, and more time actually in the township of Stanley. I wanted to see, for example, an iconic sign with street markers pointing around the world that featured in the Aurora brochures (actually we drove past it on the way back to the dock, but there was no time for stopping to be back on time.)

When we got back to the dock, it was to discover i) that all our fellow expeditioners (regardless of the arrangements for “early” or “later” Zodiacs) were congregated under the sheltered walkway at the pontoon, having all been rounded up by Liz and Team and ii) the “Polar Pioneer” was no longer parked offshore. (!!)

As Liz explained to us, the wind had increased to 60 knot squalls and the “Polar Pioneer” had dragged anchor. After two further attempts to anchor in Inner Harbour (the second seeing the ship drag at alarming rates), the Captain fired her up and headed to Outer Harbour in search of a safe anchorage.

The move to Outer Harbour, and the worsening conditions, made getting back to the “Polar Pioneer” on the Zodiacs unfeasible. But, of course, Liz had a back-up plan:  Aurora Expeditions’ Falklands shipping agent, Sullivan Shipping, arranged for the assistance of the Falklands’ Coast Guard. Their pilot ship, the “John Davis”, was small enough to load us, 10 at a time, from the pontoon, and take us back to our ship.

Each transfer would take some time, so being at the back of the queue we had time to kill. Chris, Jess, Rob and some of the girls made tracks to the closest local for a beer. Michelle and Jane went to check out some of the shops (looking for souvenirs). I popped into the visitors centre with Jacqui, in the hope that I might find some nice, small souvenirs. In particular, I was seeking a cloth souvenir patch, but very few places seem to sell these any more. No luck.

One group of 10 at a time, the expeditioners were shepherded from the covered walkway to the end of the pontoon, and stepped easily onto the ship, making their way to a comfortable cabin. When it came to my turn, I was the last one in the group. When I got to the “John Davis”, one of their crew stopped me from boarding, saying they already had 10. Huh? Surely our Team can count to ten! I probably looked more than a little pissed (someone obviously couldn’t count!), but I wasn’t going to argue.

I was irritated at having to walk out to the end of the pontoon, and then having to walk back again. When I was almost back under the cover, they were yelling at me again, “No, come on!”

My response was “You didn’t want me in the first place, so I’ll wait for the next one!”

But, no, Liz shepherded me back. I was looking anxiously at the ship, which was pulling away from the wharf.

“I can’t jump across that gap!” I told her.

Fortunately, the pilot ship sidled back to the dock, and a very apologetic crew member helped me aboard. The rest of the expeditioners in the cabin cheered as I came in. Obviously as they’d prepared to depart, the crew member had gone through the cabin and realised that there was an empty space. He didn’t have to apologise – I understood that they were helping us out in difficult circumstances. It didn’t matter now.

Our trip to Outer Harbour was comfortable – and we were very grateful that we weren’t out in the Zodiacs in these conditions! The gale force winds made it VERY rough!

When we got to the “Polar Pioneer”, the “John Davis” pulled in beside the Zodiac deck. We then had to follow the crew member around the outside of the cabin then, with his assistance – and that of our Russian crew, step thankfully on board our ship. Hey, why couldn’t we travel like this, to and from the ship every time? It was a lot easier than the Zodiacs!

Admittedly when the “John Davis” crew member said “follow me” and stepped onto a narrow ledge going around the outside of the cabin, I was terrified. My first step, where I was watching my feet while my hand went blindly up to the roof, feeling for the rail, was really scary. Fortunately, the handrail ran the length of the cabin roof, so it was then a matter of sidling along the side of the deck, moving hand over hand on the rail, then stepping, with assistance about 30cm up onto the rear deck of the “Polar Pioneer”.

Crew member guiding passenger along deck of John Davis pilot ship to board Polar Pioneer I headed back through the ship for our cabin, for a quick shower, then grabbed my camera to get some photos of the “John Davis” thrashing through the chop towards us. I recognised that the crew would not want me and my camera in their way, so headed towards the rear of the ship on the main deck, and found a spot, amongst the lashed down kayaks and gear, where I could look down on the Kayak deck. The next load of expeditioners included Jane (who grinned with relief when she stepped ashore – obviously having been anxious about that transfer, just like I was), Chris, and Jess. All safe and accounted for!

An Antarctic Adventure: Sea days on the way to the Falklands – Days 14 and 15

Another sea day, with more unpleasantly large seas and more presentations.

11 December Monday

It was a sea day (actually, the South Atlantic Ocean) on the “Polar Pioneer” as we made our way towards the Falkland Islands. For the photographers, the presentations from Gary (“Whales”), Steve (“History of Whaling”) and Chris (“Pioneering Arctic Expedition Sailing” – about their adventures in their Junk-sailed yacht, Teleport) broke the monotony of editing thousands of accumulated images. Then, there was another “Recap” in the bar.

By evening, however, the wind had blown up out of the west pushing waves and swell onto the bow of the “Polar Pioneer”. We ricocheted down the corridors, and held on tightly as we descended to the next floor for dinner. Chris joined our usual gang for dinner, having belatedly realised that we were always the first table in our dining room to be served each night. I made it through entree at dinner, but was starting to feel hot and yucky, so decided that getting horizontal on my bunk was probably the priority!

Conditions actually seemed worse than our Drake Passage crossing, with the motion pushing us from one end of the bunk to the other and also side to side. Jacqui and I decided not to even try having showers, as it was enough of a challenge to stand at the bathroom sink, let alone washing all over while holding on with just one hand! Nah, forget it!

12 December Tuesday

Another sea day, with more unpleasantly large seas and more presentations. Today, Peter (“Living and Working in Antarctica”), Liz (“Blubber and Fur:  Mammals in a Watery World”) and Robyn (“A Year with Emperor Penguins”) presented. It was also the last day to enter the “People’s Choice Photo Competition”, sponsored by Chris and David, and to submit our “Favourite 4 photos” for the Expedition slide show. Chris and Jess would be very busy in the next couple of days putting together the slide show, interspersed with video clips and overlaid with backing music.

There was much promotion of the “Great Antarctic and South Georgia Quiz”, to be hosted by Steve and Gary in the bar, with rewards of Toblerone chocolate as the lure. Given how well we have been eating, we probably didn’t need chocolate!

An Antarctic Adventure: Secret Salisbury Plain and Elsehul – Day 13

An exclusive landing on Salisbury Plain became more exclusive when deteriorating conditions meant the rest of the expedition couldn’t go ashore after breakfast.

10 December Sunday

Surprise, surprise, nobody was missing when we met up the next morning (we really were a punctual group!) Okay, we’d be going ashore, but conditions would be challenging – our first ’surf landing’. (Glad I’d opted to wear the ship’s Tall Muck Boots rather than my own Mids!) The descent into the Zodiac was dodgy at best, and the trip across to the beach bumpy. I was anxious about negotiating the ‘surf landing’ but the only real difference was having to rotate out of the Zodiac into deeper water (above the knee) and wade ashore.

Salisbury Plain is a broad coastal plain in the Bay of Isles on the north coast of South Georgia. It was discovered by Captain Cook during his second voyage of 1772-1775. It lies between the mouths of Grace and Lucas Glaciers and is renowned as the breeding site for up to 100,000 King Penguin pairs, making it the second largest King Penguin colony in the area, and one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, conditions were such that our landing was at the opposite end of the beach to the rookery. The area is renowned for being exposed to the weather, particularly the large wells that surge off the ocean, so it’s not always possible to even land here!

After we were ashore, Chris decided (with our concurrence) that we wouldn’t walk up the rookery, as the walking would take much of the time ashore that we’d been allocated. We’d stay in the area closest to the landing area, with the intention of visiting the rookery in our post-breakfast landing with the rest of the expeditioners.

If the far end of the beach was renowned for its penguin rookery, the rest of the area was clearly “Fur Seal turf” – there were hundreds upon hundreds of them – everywhere. The occasional dabs of white from the penguins mingling with the seals as they made their way to and from the water did little to break up the predominant brown of the seals! That the Team had managed to find us a thin sliver of beachfront that was safe enough for us to land (being not totally clogged with Fur Seals) was very fortunate. To be honest, I think we were very lucky to get ashore at all!

King penguins in front of a rocky shore covered by seals, with ship anchored in the background Despite our disappointment at not approaching the rookery, there was plenty to keep us occupied. Our group was the object of much curiosity from King Penguins, Skuas, and weaner Fur Seals. Three or four penguins at a time would stand watching us, providing possibilities of great photos, with the awesome backdrops of beautiful aqua-blue sea, low-lying cloud hovering around the surrounding mountains, and the “Polar Pioneer” floating sedately at anchor off the shore. Rotund weaner Fur Seals, with their big, shiny black eyes edged curiously closer. Chris, who was one of the photographers lying on the ground (I don’t lie on the ground because I know I Photographer Chris Bray regarding a weaner seal who has moved on top of some of his gearwon’t be able to get up quickly if there’s an emergency) seemed to be a beacon for the weaners, with one particularly curious one moving right up and leaning on his shoulder (perhaps checking out his camera settings LOL!). When Chris swapped cameras, putting the one with big zoom on the grass beside him, the weaner wriggled a flipper on top! (Fortunately Chris was able to extract the gear before any damage was done!). There must have been something about Chris’ gear, as the camera and lens rescued from the weaner (and left lying on the grass while he moved elsewhere) soon drew the attention of a couple of Skuas, who pecked at the bright red cleaning cloth attached to the camera until Chris tucked it underneath where it couldn’t be seen.

Issy moved slightly further afield to photograph the King Penguins beside the nearby lagoon. While I was watching, about a dozen King Penguins started walking towards her in single file. It looked like she should have an amazing depth of field shot, with King Penguins filling the frame, but Issy told me later that she was so flustered by the opportunity, that she totally stuffed her settings and didn’t get the shot she wanted. 😦

With conditions deteriorating, the Team called us back to the Zodiacs, cutting short our planned stay:  we had to go NOW!

If some of our previous departures had been a little hairy, this one was downright scary. To start with, because of the conditions, it had to be a ‘surf departure’; effectively, the waves rolling in on the beach meant that it wasn’t possible to safely reverse the Zodiacs off the shoreline with a boatload of passengers aboard. So the rear of each Zodiac was pointed towards the beach, with the Team struggling to hold them steady. With waves crashing on the bow of the craft, we had to wade into the water and climb in the usual way. When it was my turn to board, I looked up to see Chris aboard, beckoning encouragingly. The Zodiac shifted and I waded into the water following it. The water was getting deeper, the craft rising up and down a metre or more at a time so the side of the buffer was at my eye-level. There was absolutely NO way I could get onto the side of the craft, even if I dived head-first! (And why was Chris already in the Zodiac, rather than lending whatever assistance he could to his photography clients on the shore?! So much for “women and children first”!  LOL!)

“I can’t!” I cried in frustration.

Perhaps the Team realised that they couldn’t expect us to do a Fosbury flop to get into the Zodiac and pulled it closer to the shore – or maybe there was a calm period when it wasn’t rising and falling a metre at a time – but somehow I – and the rest of the photography group – managed to get aboard our Zodiacs – probably at the expense of the Team. Steve and Al, for example, were holding the Zodiacs steady in waist-deep water, and Al had to be hauled aboard head-first after he’d shoved the final Zodiac off the beach!

The trip back to the “Polar Pioneer” was very rough, and our return didn’t go unnoticed:  there were a couple of expeditioners on deck to witness our return… Secret no more. We were instructed to say, if anybody asked, that we’d had a “photography workshop”, though how exactly this was meant to placate anybody when it was obvious we’d been off the ship was anybody’s guess! Regardless, we didn’t talk about going ashore at Salisbury Plain.

We turned our tags, and geared down so we could go to breakfast. Having experienced the conditions – and the real struggle to get us on-board the Zodiacs – Jacqui and I speculated that there was very little likelihood of another landing on Salisbury Plain. Conditions had definitely deteriorated significantly since we’d first landed on the beach at 5am, and the idea of 5 or 6 boat-loads of people departing the beach in conditions worse than we’d experienced on the return seemed ludicrous, if not downright reckless!

Through the course of the morning, Liz made several announcements – we were waiting to see if conditions improved enough to allow us to land on Salisbury Plain. The winds at over 20 knots pushed a dangerous surge in on the beach, making it patently unsafe for Zodiac operations. With conditions continuing to deteriorate, Liz finally had to announce that we would not landing. People were not happy. Word had spread about the photography group’s expedition, and people refused to recognise that conditions had deteriorated so that a landing was no longer an option. Liz found herself repeatedly having to calmly explain exactly why “if they could go ashore, why can’t we?”. I was sorry for our non-photography friends who’d missed out on the Salisbury Plain experience (and sorry that we, also, had missed out on the chance to see the rookery)!

The Team worked very hard to placate those disgruntled expeditioners. As Liz later explained, our Zodiac cruise in Elsehul Harbour was the third option, after the previous two didn’t pan out because of adverse conditions. Right Whale Bay, for example, was even rougher than Salisbury Plain had been. We were grateful for the Team’s persistence, and the skill of Captain Sasha in navigating to find a sheltered anchorage for the ship!

Elsehul is a small bay on the north coast of South Georgia. The name dates back to the period 1902-12 and probably was applied by Norwegian sealers and whalers working in the area. It was discovered by sealers in the 1780s, with old tryouts, abandoned on one of the beaches, providing evidence of their presence.

As usual, the bulk of the photography group was on deck promptly, and at the front of the queue for the Zodiacs. Michelle had been quite vocal about her desire to be in the same craft as Chris this afternoon, as she wished to seek his advice. Unfortunately, when Kathrine was given the okay to start loading, there was no sign of Chris so our group was moved aside. This allowed the crew to continue loading the Zodiacs. Equally unfortunately, when Chris did arrive, loading was such that he ended up in the other photography group craft, anyway. (Michelle was very disappointed!)

We finally boarded Dr Peter’s craft at about 1.30. I rather liked his calm, laid back style. He was a little disconcerted when I described our boat as an “all-girl boat”, but graciously accepted the designation of “honorary girl” in the spirit in which it was intended.

Elsehul is the site of a large Macaroni Penguin colony, which we viewed with amazement from the Zodiacs. The colony was located amidst green tussocks and moss-covered rocks, on a steep slope maybe 50 or 60 metres above the waterline. For flightless birds, obtaining food would require a feather-ruffling steep descent with the final tens of metres down even more steeply sloped rock faces. And then, having got to the water, fished for food and returned, another arduous climb to the nests! By web-footed creatures who could only use their flippers for balance! Bloody hell!

As we motored further around the harbour, we found another Macaroni colony on an even more stark hillside – just bare rocks! Neighbours to the Macaronis were a variety of birds. Blue-eyed Cormorants made their nests on rocky ledges in the cliffs above the water. At the top of the cliffs, Grey-headed, Black-browed and Light Mantled Albatrosses made their nests amid the tussocky vegetation. We spent some time watching them soar on the updrafts, and adjust for a landing. We observed that they were lowering their feet as a way to dampen their speed in the winds on the peaks of the ridges – it wasn’t so much a ‘missed landing’ and ‘going around’ to try again, so much as a deliberate action to slow them down – like lowering the flaps!

Dr Peter steered the Zodiac through a clump of kelp so we could tentatively nose into a cave. To our surprise, it had an occupant – fortunately not a fierce band of Fur Seals – just a Sheathbill perched up high on moss-covered rocks.

Fur Seals demonstrated that it wasn’t only the Macaronis with rock climbing abilities, with some resting on rocky ledges in improbable spots 10 or 15 metres above the water. I would have liked to have seen their climbs and, equally, their descents! Pretty impressive efforts with flippers!

The hardy kayakers paddled through thick tangles of kelp to check out the dense populations of Fur and Elephant Seals on the little beach. No wonder we were Zodiac-cruising, and not landing:  this was high density housing for seals! Considering that in the 1820s the population of Fur Seals had been almost completely wiped out by sealers, it is impressive to see how nature can restore itself without the interference of human greed!

King Penguins moving single-file into the waterThere was the usual seal activity all over the beach – lots of seals (Fur AND Elephant) just lying around, male Fur Seals trying to manage their harems and maintain their territorial claims, Fur Seal pups wandering, clumping in groups, or staying close to their mothers. The location of the King Penguin colony on the slope behind the beach meant the penguins had to negotiate the territories of the crazy Fur Seals to get to the water. The standard tactics seemed to be to move, single file, in groups, and traverse – single file again – from one side of the beach to the other along the waterline. A queue of 10 penguins waited their turn at the water’s edge to dive in, while on the other side of the beach, another group walked single file along the shoreline.

South Georgia Pipits put in some cameo appearances, popping up frequently enough that we were excitedly trying to capture their images, and then they’d flit off somewhere else a second later! In one spot we saw five, which is pretty impressive for a bird that was just about wiped out a few years ago! It’s a credit to the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) that we were able to see so many. The Pipits were almost extinct as a result of predation by the rats and mice, which had been introduced to the islands by seafarers. Working with the Government of South Georgia, the Trust began a Habitat Restoration Project in 2011 with the aim to remove every single rodent from South Georgia and its outlying islands by 2015. Over a three-year period, three helicopters dropped 290 tonnes of rodenticide over an area of about 1050 square kilometres, specifically targeting the glacier-free parts of the island where the rodents lived. In 2015, scientists reported that the South Georgia Pipit had nested for the first time in living memory on South Georgia!  Because of this program, we were discouraged from putting anything on the ground – particularly open bags (which a rodent could crawl into or out of)!

Male seal forcibly holding smaller female under waterWhile we were watching some Pintail Ducks on the rocks near the shore, a young male Elephant Seal was in the shallows imposing his will and using his strength on a young female – he almost drowned her by forcibly holding her underwater. Every time he released her, her head came above water, mouth agape, and nostrils distended. When he finally gave up ‘playing’, she struggled to crawl away onto the rocks, and was barely moving. We suspected she might have had internal injuries. Sometimes it’s hard to be a passive spectator – I think we would’ve liked to have zoomed in in the Zodiac and shooed the big bugger away!

An Antarctic Adventure: Hercules Bay, Shackleton and a secret squirrel landing – Day 12

It was largely a Shackleton-themed day, with a Shackleton walk and a visit to Grytviken.

9 December Saturday

Wow! It’s hard to believe, but we were on deck, ready to load the Zodiacs, before 4.00 am. An early start for a Zodiac cruise around Hercules Bay on the north coast of South Georgia. It was named by Norwegian whalers after the Hercules, a whale catcher which had visited the bay.

The bay was probably a geologist’s delight, surrounded by rocky layers, thrusting up at angles. It is a cirque, with mountains creating a bowl to close us in on three sides, formed by glacial erosion. Streams and snow melt descended steep faces, dropping to the bay in lovely waterfalls. Algaes and mosses of various colours were spattered across the rocks above the waterline. In the water, Dr Peter had to steer through kelp fields, which looked rather like heaps of giant green fettuccine floating in the water. The kelp managed to clog up the propeller blades a few times, which Dr Peter fixed by clunking into reverse until the blades shook the kelp free.

Macaroni Penguins descending to water on mossy rocksAnd then, of course, there was the wildlife. Those tough little Macaroni Penguins scrabbled up and down the rocks to their nests. It seemed impossible that a flightless bird would even choose to negotiate these steep cliffs, let alone have nests on little toe-holds near the top. As we puttered close beside them, a group of five or six Macaronis clumsily descended, and stopped, perching uncomfortably about a metre above the water, looking like they really didn’t want to go in. When one accidentally lost his precarious grip, and slid into the water, he was quick to climb out again.

Further along, a group of Macaronis was bathing in a rock pool, watched by a (random) Gentoo Penguin. At the bottom of a waterfall, four King Penguins shared a gravelly secluded beach with heaps of Fur Seals. Lolling on his side, a big, blonde, Jabba-the-Hutt-esque Elephant Seal watched us curiously.

Small bird (Pipit) on rockWe saw Blue-eyed Shags, and successfully spotted the elusive South Georgian Pipet, a small brown bird, about the size of a sparrow, with orange feet.

Waterfall descending multiple rock faces to rocky shoreAs I was expecting a scenery- rather than a wildlife-cruise, I’d put my 24-105 lens on my 5D, and wasn’t carrying my other camera. So my trusty Canon Powershot SX40HS had to fill the gaps (and did so, admirably). I was quite delighted to actually get some shots of the Pipet.  My now elderly little ‘concert camera’ is versatile and reliable. Awesome!

We were back on board the “Polar Pioneer” for breakfast, and our hard-working crew was moving us on to our next stop. We anchored off Fortuna Bay, and the conditions made me profoundly glad that I’d elected NOT to do the “Shackleton Walk”. The walkers would climb the hill out of Fortuna Bay, go over the top of the range and descend on “loose scree” the other side to Stromness. A descent on loose scree was enough for me to decide that this wasn’t for me, not to mention that I didn’t fancy walking five kilometres in multiple layers and Muck Boots!

The few of us who’d decided not to do the walk had the option of accompanying the walkers ashore to look at Fortuna Bay, then returning to the ship. To be honest, when I saw the low cloud over the land, and thought about another descent on that slippery gangway, it seemed like a good idea not to test my luck.  So, I stayed aboard.

By all accounts, the landing on Fortuna Bay was somewhat frightening. The Fur Seals were very aggressive, so the expeditioners had to cross the beach in a tight bunch, extending poles in all directions to fend them off. As one described it, they shuffled up the hill, bristling with poles from all angles, looking rather like a sea anemone extending its spikes. Fun!  One of the crew members, Sasha, who’d come ashore with the Zodiacs, made a belated decision that he was going to join the walkers, only to come to the conclusion after a few solo confrontations with the seals, that he’d prefer to go back to the ship, so retreated to the safety of the Zodiacs!

With the Zodiacs tucked safely aboard, we upped anchor and headed around to join our adventurers at the other end of their walk, Stromness. In hindsight, I’m still in two minds about missing the walk, although I did feel somewhat vindicated when I saw one of the slopes they had to cross, and that “loose scree” in their photos – not to mention hearing stories about the ‘welcoming committees’ of Fur Seals at both Fortuna AND Stromness!!

We didn’t lose any expeditioners to seals, or “loose scree”, so everybody was back on board for a delicious lunch. For our busy crew, it was up-anchor again and on to our next anchorage, this time near Grytviken.

People walking towards Grytviken settlement, which is surrounded by snowy hillsGrytviken is part of a British Overseas Territory. The name comes from Swedish and means “the Pot Bay”, referring to old English trypots found on the site by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition in 1902. At its peak, the site was serviced by 300 men, and took 195 whales in its first season alone.

We landed below the cemetery, dodging past a few resident Fur Seals, and made our way to the cemetery to drink a toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton. When the explorer died of a heart attack on board his ship in 1922 on his way to the Antarctica for his fourth expedition, he was posthumously returned to Grytviken. Grytviken was significant to Shackleton as the place from which he planned the rescue of the “Endurance” crew. This year was the 100th anniversary of the Endurance Expedition, so it was fitting to spend some time with him. On the reverse of Shackleton’s granite tombstone is a quotation of one of his favourite poets, Robert Browning: “I hold… that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”

I was particularly touched to see a plaque to the right of the Shackleton grave marked to Frank Wild, “Shackleton’s Right Hand Man”:  a lovely tribute! The backstory to this plaque is also touching:  When Wild died in 1939, his wife had him cremated so that she could fulfil his final wish of being buried beside Shackleton. When Germany invaded Poland two weeks later, leading to the start of World War II, it seemed that Wild’s wish would not be fulfilled.

In 2002 author, Angie Butler (The Quest of Frank Wild) began researching Wild’s history in 2002, and started investigating the fate of his ashes. She discovered in 2011 that his ashes were in a disused vault under the chapel in a Johannesburg cemetery. The ashes were transported to South Georgia from Ushuaia aboard the “Academic Ioffe”, accompanied by Butler, six distant relatives of Wild, and Shackleton’s granddaughter. In November 2011, the gravestone was erected and a ceremony conducted.

We met the curator of the South Georgia museum for a tour of Grytviken. Ominously, she had a walking pole in one hand (to fend off pesky Fur Seals, obviously). She walked quickly down the hill from the cemetery, and had to wait for us all to catch up at the bottom, when our path was cut off by Fur Seals. She took us to various spots on the site, telling us about life in Grytviken in its heyday.

These days, the site in King Edward Cove, is home to about 20 people, the rusting and desolate ‘plant’ from the oil factory, including tanks, grounded whaling vessels, and a few buildings that have been restored – like the post office, the men’s barracks, the Norwegian Chapel and the museum. It was fascinating to see these beautifully restored buildings, surrounding by the gradually decaying whaling plant and paraphernalia. We were cautioned to not walk near some of the tanks, as their foundations had moved in an earthquake, so they were no longer safe. Once the tour was over, I went to check out the chapel, built in 1911, positioned towards the back of the settlement, below what used to be the ski-slope.

The South Georgia museum, open to visitors like us, depicts bygone times in the sub-Antarctic, including Shackleton’s ‘adventures’ after the icing-in of the “Endurance”, with a replica of the open lifeboat, the “James Caird”, in which he embarked to seek help, and the wildlife of the area. (A stuffed albatross on a pedestal in one room is a stunning depiction of the size of these amazing birds! – the wingspan is absolutely enormous!)

The museum is located within what used to be the home of the whaling facility manager. It also contains a very nice souvenir shop, with ‘Grytviken beanies’, and cold weather gear like scarves, gloves, jumpers, and jackets, not to mention penguin-motif items, such as earrings, key rings and tea towels. With bulk and weight already posing a luggage challenge for me (remembering that I would have to pack the Aurora jackets that I hadn’t had to pack on the way here), I decided on a pair of cute penguin sterling silver earrings, a penguin keyring, and a blue Grytviken beanie. Comparing notes with Michelle, Jane and Jacqui, we discovered that we’d all bought the same beanie (most in the same blue, too), so we decided to wear them to dinner that night!

We sat on the seats outside the Museum, watching the world around us, before heading around to the designated meeting spot for the Zodiacs. While we waited for a boat-load of passengers to accumulate for the Zodiac, we were entertained by the antics of some nearby ducks (?). The trip back to our ship was uneventful.

Tonight there was a special treat for dinner:  a barbecue on the back deck. What a lovely idea except that:  i) it was freezing cold (though we were happy to have an excuse to wear our new Grytviken beanies) and ii) it was cramped. We had to wend our way through parts of the ship we’d not needed to visit before, past crew quarters on the lower deck, before popping out the door. Here we were confronted with several tubs of dress-up hats, and an expectation that we would don some crazy piece before joining the party. Michelle and Jane were wearing relatively innocuous, but brightly coloured, leis, along with their Grytviken beanies, and I luckily managed to find one for myself. Jacqui found an Elvis sort of rubber wig, with sideburns and cowlick… Maybe it kept her head warm, at least.

The music blasting out of the stereo probably reflected the average age of the expeditioners rather than the ‘hotel’ staff – lots of songs to which we could happily sing along – “retro”, apparently. I refused the offer of a warm alcoholic gluhwein in favour of helping myself to a delicious barbecue with sausages, skewers, chicken, three or four salads, and a delicious slice for dessert.

While we were standing eating our food, Chris came over to tell us that he’d arranged a secret landing for us in the morning:  we had to be up and ready for the Zodiacs really early (again), and would have the opportunity for a couple of exclusive hours ashore before breakfast. It was secret squirrel stuff:  don’t tell anyone (this potentially presented problems for those in the photography group who were sharing cabins with non-photography people – such as Hellen, Ian and Rob); there wouldn’t be any wake-up announcement from Liz:  we just had to get ourselves on deck ready to load at 4.45am. Chris would go out in the Zodiac with the Team beforehand to check out conditions, and if they were favourable, we’d get our exclusive time ashore. We were like kids whispering over a secret at the prospect:  THIS was more the type of experiences we’d been hoping for when we signed up for the trip! Most decided that if we were to have an early start in the morning, we’d make it a night now. (It had been a long day after an early start,  so I had no hesitation to abandon the party!)

Photo album for this trip is on my Flickr account at https://www.flickr.com/gp/jeaneeem/kr50HF

I also post Antarctica photos on my Instagram account (jeaneeem). Please feel free to check ’em out!