Day 5 – Arrival in Antarctica

Coming Ashore At Brown Bluff With Hurtigruten

Our first landing in Antarctica happened this afternoon on Brown Bluff! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our first landing in Antarctica happened this afternoon on Brown Bluff! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Monday, January 19, 2015

Because of a snowstorm that pounded Hurtigruten’s FRAM late last night, we awoke to the news that we wouldn’t be able to make our scheduled landing at King’s Cove. But this is the nature of expedition cruising; it pays to be flexible and expect the unexpected.

In the Observation Lounge on Deck 7 early this morning, waiting for our first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
In the Observation Lounge on Deck 7 early this morning, waiting for our first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Suddenly, Antarctica is visible from the bright windows of the lounge...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Suddenly, Antarctica is visible from the bright windows of the lounge…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Even so, many guests – including myself – were up at 06:00 to catch our first sight of land in Antarctica, and we weren’t disappointed. We passed several large tabular icebergs on our morning of scenic cruising, and watched as penguins raced off icefloes as we made our way slowly past.

The beauty of Antarctica is as indescribable as it is magical. Words show their horrifying inadequacy here.

Antarctica! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Antarctica! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I’ve seen beautiful things in this world before. I’ve been lucky enough to watch elephants run wild in South Africa, and to see the sun set on the Mekong in Cambodia. I’ve looked on as lizards sunbathed themselves in the Galapagos, and sailed silently between the majestic rocky outcroppings of Australia’s King George Falls.

This wasn’t like that. This was like meeting your long-lost soul mate.

The open bow viewing area on Deck 5 became the place to be as Hurtigruten's FRAM neared the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The open bow viewing area on Deck 5 became the place to be as Hurtigruten’s FRAM neared the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Passing a penguin-filled iceberg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Passing a penguin-filled iceberg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and FRAM's Expedition Team members alike line up to take photographs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and FRAM’s Expedition Team members alike line up to take photographs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Passing a huge tabular iceberg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Passing a huge tabular iceberg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I saw my first glimpse of Antarctica, bathed in a million shades of grey and blue that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. The clouds boiled overhead, the seas rolled beneath our keel. Even here, in a land without a permanent population, everything that surrounds us is alive, in its own unique way.

After an enjoyable breakfast and lunch in the Imaq Restaurant (both of which are served buffet-style), we arrived at Brown Bluff, located on the coast of the Antarctic Sound at the end of the Tabarin Peninsula. Interestingly, the Peninsula gets its name from a popular Parisian nightclub that was favored by early polar explorers – though I don’t personally see the connection!

After lunch, we disembarked the FRAM...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
After lunch, we disembarked the FRAM…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and headed for Brown Bluff via the ship's Polarcirkel boats. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and headed for Brown Bluff via the ship’s Polarcirkel boats. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Brown Bluff is spectacular, with cliffs that tower 745 metres (2450 feet) above the rocky shoreline. This afternoon, guests aboard the FRAM made their way to Deck 2’s Mud Room to put their boots and lifejackets on in a procedure that is, at last, becoming quick and routine. It’s also fun – going down to Deck 2 to change footwear and put on all the necessary gear somehow heightens the experience.

Disembarkation is very orderly, and the Expedition Team are doing a fantastic job of managing the groups and crowds. Disembarkation today started with Kayak Group A, then moved on to those who were partaking in the first round of optional cruising-only excursions. Finally, Zodiac Groups 3,4,5 and 6 were able to disembark one at a time, followed by Groups 7, 1, and 2. Being in Group 3, I disembarked first this time – but our disembarkation tomorrow will be last, as groups are cycled so that not one group is always first or last. It’s a very clever – and fair – way of arranging things.

Coming ashore on Brown Bluff, with its vast rocky beach and towering cliffs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Coming ashore on Brown Bluff, with its vast rocky beach and towering cliffs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
There are also just a few Adelie Penguins. Everywhere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
There are also just a few Adelie Penguins. Everywhere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Perfect for reflecting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Perfect for reflecting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

When guests come ashore, they’re given a short briefing by one of the Expedition Team members before being turned loose to their own devices. These short briefings are important and informative, and let guests know where they can and cannot go, and at what time they must be back at the Polarcirkel boats for the return to the ship. Most are conducted in English and German.

Today, guests could hike along the beach for kilometres so long as they were mindful of the carefully-placed orange cones and flags that denoted where the Adelie Penguin rookeries started. Guests are asked not to step over to the other side of the cones, though this can be difficult in some instances to determine which is the “right” side of the cone to be on.

The enormous icebergs that had been driven ashore by the tide became objects of fascination. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The enormous icebergs that had been driven ashore by the tide became objects of fascination. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...particularly those with a brilliant blue hue to them, indicative of very old, highly compressed ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…particularly those with a brilliant blue hue to them, indicative of very old, highly compressed ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As we walked along the beach, frequent stops were made to touch the many icebergs that had washed ashore. Contrary to what you might think, these aren’t made up of smooth, shiny ice like you’d find in the ice cube tray in your freezer; rather, most were made up largely of ice and snow pellets that you could scoop up in your hand.

Hurtigruten's FRAM, hidden by ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Hurtigruten’s FRAM, hidden by ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It also made sense to stop and photograph these icebergs, many of which held huge crevasses tinted in varying shades of blue. This blue appearance is caused by compressed snow which forms glacial ice, and appears to be blue due to the refraction of light, which cannot penetrate the surface of the ice because it is so tightly compressed. “White” icebergs appear that way because their surfaces still contain a tremendous amount of air, reflecting the sun’s rays. I wouldn’t rely on my description to write your next science essay, but that’s essentially the gist of it.

Here’s my unexpected recommendation for anyone travelling to Antarctica: find yourself a rock or a snowbank and sit down. Don’t move. Just watch and listen.

It's amazing what you can see in Antarctica when you sit still and just take in the scenery. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s amazing what you can see in Antarctica when you sit still and just take in the scenery. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We did as much, finding a nice rock near the shoreline to perch on. Initially, this was for a practical reason – walking in those rubber boots is tough business, and a rest was in order. But then something amazing happened: once we’d stopped walking and started watching, Antarctica came alive.

It's also great for photographing the Adelie Penguins. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s also great for photographing the Adelie Penguins. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

You could hear the sounds of the ice crackling as it melted in the warmth of Antarctica’s summer sun. Waves gently rolled ashore like the soundtrack to some high-end spa. Adelie Penguins called out to each other in the distance. Aside from the odd Polarcirkel boat zipping back and forth from shore, not a single man-made sound could be heard. No car horns, traffic, airplanes, advertising, or other white noise. Just silence.

Here on Brown Bluff, it's just you and the Penguins. And it's fantastic. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Here on Brown Bluff, it’s just you and the Penguins. And it’s fantastic. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Adelie Penguins are curious creatures, and so far, I haven’t tired of watching them. The advantage to sitting still and not moving is that they are quite curious, and will come up close to you. IAATO (eye-ato) regulations in Antarctica state that you must keep a minimum distance from the penguins and other wildlife while in Antarctica – but, of course, should the wildlife come to you, this is completely fine.

Penguins and Explorers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Penguins and Explorers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

So, from our rocky perch, we were treated to an amazing display of wildlife. The Adelies walk in single file, like a precision military march. When one stops, the rest do likewise. When the lead Adelie in a group of six or seven stopped to cross a small stream by jumping over it, the remainder of the penguins mimicked their leader’s actions. Clearly, he’s was the Alpha Penguin.

They’re also unintentionally comical. While walking along, one might slip on the ice or lose their footing and take a header into the ground. Unruffled, they pick themselves up, shake themselves off in a way that looks similar to that of a wet dog, but with flippers, and continue on their merry way.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One penguin suddenly zipped by from out of nowhere, chased in hot pursuit by another penguin. Like a barkeeper throwing a drunk out, the penguin was driven right into the water, escaping only when he swam away. The other penguin stood on the shore line, watching to make sure he’d seen the last of him. I could have swore he shook his little flipper at him and shouted in a squeaky voice, ‘…and stay out!’

Before long, it was time to return to the FRAM, where another fabulous dinner buffet awaited us. I have to admit I prefer the buffet to the fixed-seating option we had during our Drake Passage crossing; you can choose when and with whom you wish to dine, and can pick the foods (and desserts) that interest you most.

Guests could also choose to go Kayaking around Brown Bluff this afternoon, for an additional cost. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests could also choose to go Kayaking around Brown Bluff this afternoon, for an additional cost. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Interestingly, there is much confusion around the table water in the dining room. Hurtigruten does their best to convince you to purchase your water, at a cost of 12 NOK per carafe or 132 NOK per person for the entire voyage. For a couple, that works out to over $30 US for water at lunch and dinner. You can, of course, request table water from the tap for free, and I had a tough time determining the difference between the paid water and the tap water. They tasted the same to me. For the price, you only get a single carafe – about enough for two glasses each.

The good ship FRAM awaits our return. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The good ship FRAM awaits our return. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Coming back onboard, guests must clean their boots using a water and brush device attached to the tender platform. Quick and easy! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Coming back onboard, guests must clean their boots using a water and brush device attached to the tender platform. Quick and easy! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Considering how much this cruise costs, I think shaking guests down for water at dinner is unacceptable. For their Norwegian costal cruises, I can understand why Hurtigruten does that – but here onboard FRAM, no one will be disembarking on the next island as they do in Norway. Everyone is here for the duration. Worse, it seems to create a division between some guests as they learn that the water they thought they had to buy on Day 1 was actually available for free all along – if you asked.

Tonight, the crew of the FRAM held a fashion show that highlighted wares that can be purchased in the ship's gift shop. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Tonight, the crew of the FRAM held a fashion show that highlighted wares that can be purchased in the ship’s gift shop. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But vague water policies can’t stop today from being an amazing one, nor does it diminish the overall experience here on the FRAM. I know that, like every other guest onboard, the anticipation of what lies in store for us tomorrow fills me with excitement.

Hurtigruten’s entire history has been built around sailing to some of the most remote places in the world, safely and consistently, and they are living up to that admirable reputation here in Antarctica.

Looking out into the darkness: FRAM's searchlights cut a path through the growing polar darkness. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Looking out into the darkness: FRAM’s searchlights cut a path through the growing polar darkness. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our full journey:

Hurtigruten's FRAM, Antarctica

DATEPORT
January 15, 2015Buenos Aires, Argentina
January 16Buenos Aires - Ushuaia, Argentina
January 17Crossing the Drake Passage
January 18Crossing the Drake Passage
January 19Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 20Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 21Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 22Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 23Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 24Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 25Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
January 26Crossing the Drake Passage
January 27Crossing the Drake Passage
January 28Ushuaia - Buenos Aires
January 29, 2015Buenos Aires, Argentina
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