Silver Explorer, Antarctica: Day 3 – Crossing The Drake & A Big Surprise
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
|December 12||Ushuaia, Argentina||Charter flight from Buenos Aires; Embark Silver Explorer||5:00 PM|
|December 13||Sailing The Drake Passage|
|December 14||Crossing The Drake, Day 2|
|December 15||Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula|
|December 16||Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula|
|December 17||Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula|
|December 18||Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula|
|December 19||Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula|
|December 20||Sailing the Drake Passage, Redux|
|December 21||Sailing the Drake Passage|
|December 22||Ushuaia, Argentina||8:00 AM||Disembark Silver Explorer; return charter flight to Buenos Aires.|