By ship to the seventh continent
Now the time has come. The day for departure through the Drake Passage with the M/V Sea Spirit to Antarctica has finally begun. (Zum Deutschen Blog.)In the morning all passengers gather at Hotel Arakur in Ushuaia.
We get the last briefing for the boarding and have another half day off to do a tour around the city or into the National Park of Tierra del Fuego. We all would like to go on board as soon as possible, but the guests of the last tour have to disembark first. From here high up on the mountain where the hotel is located, the Sea Spirit looks really small.
Can this ship master the infamous Drake Passage unscathed? Why is the passage so infamous? Well, the Pacific and the Atlantic meet here and must pass through the relatively narrow passage between South America and Antarctica. Often enough, there are strong storms, the waves can get up to 10 m high or more …
Finally the time has come. We are allowed to board. Quickly everyone has found his cabin. We are only about 110 passengers. Some cabins on deck 2 have only portholes, on the upper decks windows or balcony with chairs.
In the Beagel Channel
Shortly after we leave we turn into the Beagle Channel. Here the water is still quite quiet and left and right of this waterway it is framed by snow-capped mountains. Suddenly the signal of seven short and one long sound which is well known on every ship can be heard. It is time for the safety exercise. We grab the life vests and head to the assembly station.
This exercise works smoothly and very soon we hear the announcement that dinner is ready. All passengers can enjoy the delicious food in one seating.
Many different nationalities are on board. A large group of Chinese, many Americans, Australians, Malaysians, many Europeans from different countries, South Americans and Russians. The announcements and the program are trilingual, in English, German and Chinese (Mandarin?).
Most of them go to bed early, around 0.30 we leave the beagle channel and the calm waters. Cape Horn, we will not see at all, but will pass far from us, we pass it on our starboard side.
The Drake Passage
And actually, when I wake up at night, I’m pretty shaken back and forth in my bed. The waves have really increased in height, which I can notice very well at the up and down movement of the ship.
In the morning already a few people are missing for breakfast and over the day there will be more. I do not have any sea-sickness, and therefore, eagerly follow the lessons of the lecturers. I love the “swinging” in the Drake Passage!
Ma from China has devoted himself to ornithology and tells us all about the birds to be expected. Outside, some of the birds with the widest range, the Albatrosses, already surround us. The width of their wings is up to 3.5 m. For the other lecturers, he is the Chinese translator as well.
Heidi from France tells us all about glaciers and with her unbelievable friendly nature and her enthusiasm for her science and her radiant smile, every listener is “glued to her lips”.
So the day in the Drake Passage goes by quite fast. And very soon, the second day on sea starts. The wind gets stronger, but it has blown away most of the clouds. The sky is blue, the albatrosses continue to surround us, as are the storm-birds. 6 m high, the waves are partially. I visit the captain on the bridge, because only at special maneuvers the bridge is closed for passengers.
There are still some more lectures and then we the Drake Passage lays behind us! The first iceberg comes into sight and also the first islands of the South Shetland Islands.
The South Shetland Islands
Then we have reached our first destination. The Aitcho Islands. Here the ship anchors and we drive on shore with the Zodiacs. The first penguins! Sea elephants, snow and ice wait for us.
Before we can go ashore, every guest has to vacuum his clothes and bags, which will be brought ashore, all boots, which everybody had to borrow here must be disinfected and cleaned before and after each landing.
At least 5 m distance must be kept to the animals, to sea leopards even more.
We can watch the gentoo penguins waddle over the rocky beach, stealing stones from each other´s nests, because the neighbor’s stone is the right one for one´s own nest, not the millions of other ones that form the beach.
We are instructed not to enter the “penguin highways” and of course the animals always have the right of way and we should under no circumstances stand between them and the access to the sea. But some of the penguins do not stick to the 5 m rule…
What is a penguin highway? Surely one or the other reader would like to now. Many penguins breed far up on the rocky slopes or on plateaus. They now have a longer route to the water, but here the snow melts earlier and they can start the breeding business before others. In between, however, are still many snowy passages. The snow is not always so firm that they for example, simply slip down on the belly downhill, which looks very cute. Instead, they always use the same path and thus wear away paths into the snow. This way they save valuable energy, which they urgently need to provide for their chicks.
Of these, the penguins are still far away, they still sit on their eggs, usually only one, rarely two. Again and again we see a big brown skua waiting for a careless penguin to keep his egg or a chick briefly unobserved to grab it and feed their own chicks with it.
Some chinstrap penguins are also found here, they always seem to grin because of the black strip, which one can see below their beaks. Then we have to go back to the ship by Zodiac. I can hardly part from here, but tomorrow is another day.