Day 8 – Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula, Day 4

The Ultimate Polar Experience with Hurtigruten

Have you ever camped in Antarctica? You can, when you sail with Hurtigruten! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Have you ever camped in Antarctica? You can, when you sail with Hurtigruten! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wow.

That single word is the only way to describe our eighth day on our journey aboard Hurtigruten’s FRAM here in Antarctica. Some of what made today special was blind luck and happenstance, but much of it was made possible thanks to Hurtigruten’s diverse optional excursions.

Early this morning, we disembarked Hurtigruten's FRAM for another exciting adventure in the Antarctic Peninsula! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Early this morning, we disembarked Hurtigruten’s FRAM for another exciting adventure in the Antarctic Peninsula! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It began at 0830 this morning, as we joined “Boat Group C” for an optional morning of scenic cruising aboard FRAM’s Polarcirkel boats in Cuverville’s Errera Channel; a narrow, ice-choked passageway that borders both Cuverville and Danco Island, where we were just a few short days ago.

Aboard our Polarcirkel boats, we zipped away from the FRAM...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Aboard our Polarcirkel boats, we zipped away from the FRAM…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and set out to explore Antarctica's Errera Channel on our optional morning tour. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and set out to explore Antarctica’s Errera Channel on our optional morning tour. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At a cost of 750 NOK per person ($100 USD), I had my doubts about paying extra for two hours of scenic cruising. But on a grey and misty morning, we ventured out into the Errera Channel, going far deeper into it than those guests who were just going ashore would ever get to see. During our two hour cruise, we came up close to gigantic icebergs and ice flows, illustrating their scale in a way that just isn’t possible from onboard the FRAM.

Wildlife was everywhere for us to see. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Wildlife was everywhere for us to see. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
As was Antarctica's beautiful and inspiring ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
As was Antarctica’s beautiful and inspiring ice. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We were also treated to one of the best spectacles I’ve ever seen in my life, as two large whales came within feet of our Polarcirkel boats, clearly visible under the crystal waters beneath us. They played with the boats for nearly 45 minutes, and chased us when we had to leave to return to the FRAM, jumping out of the water repeatedly ahead of us in an attempt to get us to stop.

Our morning remains completely indescribable. It’s not for lack of trying; I’ve sat here with the cursor blinking in front of me for well over half an hour now. But once again, words fail to adequately capture Antarctica’s majesty. So, I’ll show you instead:

Driving the Polarcirkel boats is serious business! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Driving the Polarcirkel boats is serious business! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Venturing further into the ice...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Venturing further into the ice…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...to view this magnificent berg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…to view this magnificent berg. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Surreal! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Surreal! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
As we navigated around small ice flows...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
As we navigated around small ice flows…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...we were treated to a true spectacle: whales! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…we were treated to a true spectacle: whales! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If the whales were happy, FRAM's guests were even happier. The Expedition Team even remarked how unusual this was. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If the whales were happy, FRAM’s guests were even happier. The Expedition Team even remarked how unusual this was. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Astonishingly clear water allows for an impressive look at our aquatic friends. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Astonishingly clear water allows for an impressive look at our aquatic friends. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
All good things must come to an end...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
All good things must come to an end…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...but our return to the FRAM would be a short one. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…but our return to the FRAM would be a short one. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

What impressed me about the boat cruise was that, even after it was done, we had time to go back to the FRAM, remove our cruising survival suits, and don our regular lifejackets and blue coats for a quick jaunt around Cuverville Island.

Even though we had taken an optional excursion...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Even though we had taken an optional excursion…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...we were still given time to explore Cuverville Island. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…we were still given time to explore Cuverville Island. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

This afternoon, FRAM spent some time cruising the scenic confines of Wilhelmina Bay. While we did see some wildlife, nothing could compare with the spectacular whale show we’d seen in the morning on our optional Polarcirkel tour. As far as I’m concerned, it was a hundred bucks very, very well spent.

This afternoon, guests spent some time cruising scenic Wilhelmina Bay aboard the FRAM. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
This afternoon, guests spent some time cruising scenic Wilhelmina Bay aboard the FRAM. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and they were not disappointed!! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and they were not disappointed!! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Massive ice floes are literally everywhere...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Massive ice floes are literally everywhere…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and FRAM provided the perfect vantage point! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and FRAM provided the perfect vantage point! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As day turned into the perpetual blue twilight that so characterizes this part of Antarctica, so began another adventure for 18 guests aboard Hurtigruten’s FRAM: the chance to camp out on the ice of the Antarctic mainland.

Lying at rest off Neko Harbor, 18 of FRAM’s guests disembarked just after 22:00 on their overnight adventure. Dubbed An Amundsen Night in Antarctica, this excursion is far from cheap at 3250NOK per person, or $430 USD per person if you’re of the North American persuasion.

This evening, 18 fortunate guests prepared to leave the FRAM for another exciting adventure...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
This evening, 18 fortunate guests prepared to leave the FRAM for another exciting adventure…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...camping in Antarctica! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…camping in Antarctica! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Few cruise lines offer anything like this in Antarctica, and demand for this overnight excursion is understandably high. So, on our first Drake Passage crossing day, guests were asked to sign up for this Amundsen Night. Their names would then be put in a lottery system, and drawn at random. Couples are, of course, kept together in the lottery.

I very much wanted to participate in this excursion, almost to the exclusion of all others. But my nice warm stateroom aboard the FRAM kept calling me back; did I really want to spend a night out on the ice?

Guests receive an instructional safety briefing...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests receive an instructional safety briefing…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...before hauling their supplies up the hill to build their overnight camps. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…before hauling their supplies up the hill to build their overnight camps. Considering it’s 10:30pm, there’s still a substantial amount of light out. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I decided that, no, I didn’t. Better to leave the available spaces for those who really wanted to go. If more people got to go, I would have gladly camped out on the ice. But, I did want the accompanying photographs. So, after some discussion with Assistant Expedition Leader Therese, I found myself aboard the supply zodiac carrying the Expedition Team over to the landing site to assist with the set-up of the tents.

A total of 18 excited-looking guests clad in their survival suits came ashore at Neko Harbor just after 22:30, clutching their sleeping bags and tenting supplies. After a short briefing, everyone quickly made their way up the snow-covered embankment and off the beach. We’d been warned not to linger on the beach, as the glacier just a few hundred metres opposite has a tendency to calve unexpectedly and can cause large waves to wash ashore.

Let the construction begin! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Let the construction begin! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once guests had made it about 50 metres up the hill, foundations were scraped out of the snow that was so soft that I routinely found myself sinking past my kneecaps in it. As I photographed, I watched guests begin to construct their tents. The FRAM’s Expedition Team are there to help you, but you’re largely left to your own devices to put your tent up. It looked like an amazing experience!

Building camp. This photo was taken just before the entire face of the glacier in the background crashed into the water. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Building camp. This photo was taken just before the entire face of the glacier in the background crashed into the water. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Halfway into tent construction, there was an enormous roar. I looked up from my snowy perch in time to see the entire face of the glacier across the water calve into the bay. The Expedition Staff, knowing what we couldn’t, immediately shouted at us to stay put. Two members began racing back down the hill to gather some rucksacks that had been left near the snowline on the upper reaches of the beach.

Suddenly, someone shouted. “Look at that wave!”

Tent preparations are almost complete as it gets darker and begins to snow, softly at first, then harder. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Tent preparations are almost complete as it gets darker and begins to snow, softly at first, then harder. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The seas had developed a noticeable ripple in them; a single, giant wave that looked like someone had placed their hand underneath the water and was pushing upward. At the same time, the water on the beach drained about 30 metres back, sucking itself back into the sea with a sickening gurgling noise as water rushed in between long buried rocks and crevasses.

It was a tsunami.

Inside one of FRAM's cozy tents. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Inside one of FRAM’s cozy tents. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Now, mind you, a very small tsunami – but when it washed ashore, it completely obliterated the beach where we had been standing perhaps 30 minutes earlier. The Expedition Team’s warnings to us to stay off the beach proved to be hugely accurate; for all of us, it was a reminder that we were in a dangerous place, and that adhering to the Expedition Team’s instructions was of crucial importance.

As snow began to fall in earnest, the few of us that were heading back to the ship bade our shipmates goodbye as they prepared to spend a night out on the ice in the true spirit of explorers like Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and countless others who had done the same before them.

Finished, the campers prepare to turn in for the night, while I and a few others head back to the FRAM. Note the waiting Polarcirkel boat in the bay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Finished, the campers prepare to turn in for the night, while I and a few others head back to the FRAM. Note the waiting Polarcirkel boat in the bay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Part of me wished I had camped; another part of me, however, was very glad to see the FRAM, her lights glistening off the cold blue hues of the water, calling me home at 00:30 in the morning.

What a day. What a day!

Returning to the FRAM just after midnight on January 23, 2015. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Returning to the FRAM just after midnight on January 23, 2015. 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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