Silver Explorer, Antarctica: Day 3 – Crossing The Drake & A Big Surprise

Silver Explorer, Antarctica: Day 3 – Crossing The Drake & A Big Surprise

This morning we learned that we had reached Antarctica a day before scheduled. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
This morning we learned that we had reached Antarctica a day before scheduled. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Today, something totally unexpected happened. At 10 a.m., our Expedition Leader Kara announced that we would reach Antarctica early.

Even better: We would attempt our first landing using the zodiacs.

The sense of excitement was palpable among the diverse group of 114 international passengers. We were going to step ashore in Antarctica, a first for most, if not all, of us.

But before we did so, we had a lot of preparing to do.

A gentoo penguin. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
A gentoo penguin. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Preparing To Go Ashore

“It really is wonderful to have a smooth crossing so that we can offer an early landing rather than as we had anticipated, tomorrow morning,” Kara told those attending this morning’s Mandatory Zodiac Briefing.

Remarkably, by maintaining an average speed of around 12 knots per hour (thanks to a relatively calm crossing of the Drake Passage), Silver Explorer had made it to the South Shetland Islands in only 36 hours.

At 11 a.m., we could already see icebergs and land — as well as two humpback whales, a mother and calf. The captain slowed Silver Explorer so that we could observe the whales.

Our plan was to cruise between Robert Island and Greenwich Island, transiting the English Narrows. If conditions permitted, we would anchor in the Aitcho Islands and attempt a landing, via zodiacs, on Barrientos Island, where we see large rookeries of gentoo and chinstrap penguins.

Landings are internationally regulated by the Antarctic Treaty, which stipulates that no more than 100 visitors are allowed ashore at any one time. Silver Explorer is a perfectly sized vessel for complying with this regulation, as the full guest capacity of the luxury expedition ship is only 132. All staterooms are occupied on our sailing, but some are traveling solo, so there are only 114 of us on board.

Kara told us we would be divided into four groups. Today, two groups at a time would go ashore for an hour and a half to two hours. Then the other group goes ashore for the same duration. The system works well and eliminates any extended waiting times or lines.

The Incredible Zodiac

The flat-bottomed zodiacs are what make Antarctic exploration possible. “Without them, we could only do a scenic cruise and go back to Ushuaia without ever landing,” Kara said.

With assistance, getting into the zodiac. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
With assistance, getting into the zodiac. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

We were instructed about how to get into and out of zodiacs and how to dress. “The most important thing to remember,” Kara said, “is that it can get wet.” She said that because wind patterns could also change, which could prolong time ashore, it was vitally important to dress warmly.

Temperatures for the duration of our trip would be around the freezing mark. Layering is the key to staying warm. My dress: long underwear worn under an outer layer of waterproof pants and the parka that Silversea Expeditions provided. I also had a pair of gloves and the rubber boots I had rented from Silversea.

To be assured that you’ll get the proper-sized boots, I recommend renting for $70 (which includes delivery to the ship). It’s comforting to know that you’re not wearing your own boots when slogging through a stew of penguin guano, plus you eliminate having to carry the bulky boots in your luggage.

To contain contamination to the ecosystem ashore, Silver Explorer has a chemical detergent that you dip your boots into before getting into the zodiacs. There’s also a mudroom on deck 3, where you wash your boots upon returning to the ship and change into your regular shoes.

Expedition Team Leader Uli performs a Bio Security Check for invasive soil, seeds and insects in my clothing. None found. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Expedition Team Leader Uli performs a Bio Security Check for invasive soil, seeds and insects in my clothing. None found. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

The mudroom is also used for the Bio Security Check, an inspection of all outer layers of the clothing you plan to wear ashore. The expedition team examines your clothing for organic material including soil, seeds and insects in cuffs, Velcro, pockets, seams and hoods. The purpose is to prevent invasive animal and plant species in the pristine environments we’ll be visiting. Clearly, Silversea takes its commitment to the environment seriously.

Austral summer snow on my veranda railing. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
All guests were required to sign a form denoting their responsibility to abide the biosecurity rules. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

“Antarctica is the largest wilderness area on earth and we want to keep it that way,” Kara said, “so we don’t want out visit to leave any sort of impact.”

Going Ashore

The first zodiac heads out to Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
The first zodiac heads out to Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Properly layered and with our rubber boots on, we boarded a zodiac and went ashore. The excitement was palpable, but I could not have anticipated what would happen when I actually stepped ashore in Antarctica.

March of the Tourists: The first guests from Silver Explorer on Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
March of the Tourists: The first guests from Silver Explorer on Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

I have been writing for many years. I studied journalism, won a few awards for writing, have written a few books even. In short, I’ve committed myself to words and to telling stories. My mission has been to inform and inspire travelers, and yet, I am unable to relate in words, photos or video what we saw today.

I spoke with others who said the same. You may have seen documentaries about Antarctica. You may have read articles with beautiful photography, but none of these activities come close to capturing what Antarctica is like when you step ashore.

The landscape was other-worldly, and the penguins — gentoos and chinstraps — were both mesmerizing and amusing. We saw rookeries, with parents nesting their eggs, and even an elephant seal (the world’s largest seal species) lazing on the beach.

There were thousands of penguins, waddling about, protecting their nests, collecting pebbles (to build nests), stealing pebbles from other penguins (also to build nests), crapping — all modes of penguin life. We were there for nearly two hours admiring the penguins, and even that amount of time seemed too little.

Gentoo penguins on Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguins on Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

What surprised me to a degree, was the range of emotions I felt, and even now, I am unable to explain them. This place was so pristine, so beautiful, so innocent. I felt on the verge of tears at one moment. I’ve visited many places in my lifetime of travel but the sheer beauty of Antarctica overwhelmed me.

There is no way to put it into words. You simply have to be there to experience it. Trust me on this point: Put Antarctica on your bucket list. You won’t regret it.

Tomorrow, another landing, this one on the mainland of the continent.

We arrive at 6 a.m., and by 8, we’ll be ashore.

Later in the afternoon, we’ll visit Kinnes Cove for a one-hour zodiac cruise in a region known for its tabular icebergs.

Today on Barrientos Island one of the Expedition Leaders told me if I thought today was good, just wait. “It only gets better,” she said.

I can only imagine what tomorrow will bring.

The Ecstatic Calls of penguins. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
The Ecstatic Calls of penguins. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Austral summer snow on my veranda railing. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Austral summer snow on my veranda railing. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Austral summer snow on my veranda railing. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Antarctica Ho! An iceberg spotted at 11 this morning. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nest. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nest. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguins. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguins. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nesting. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nesting. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On Barrientos Island. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nesting. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin nesting. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin with Silver Explorer in the background in Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Gentoo penguin with Silver Explorer in the background in Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
December 12 Ushuaia, ArgentinaCharter flight from Buenos Aires; Embark Silver Explorer5:00 PM
December 13Sailing The Drake Passage
December 14Crossing The Drake, Day 2
December 15Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 16Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 17Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 18Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 19Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 20Sailing the Drake Passage, Redux
December 21Sailing the Drake Passage
December 22Ushuaia, Argentina8:00 AMDisembark Silver Explorer; return charter flight to Buenos Aires.
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