From Ushuaia through the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands


Tuesday, Jan 28th

Early start today. After our wake up call and a quick breakfast, we get on the bus to the airport at 6:30 am. The domestic airport is only 15 minutes away and we are scheduled on a 8 am flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Our flight was a charter flight with only the people from our trip on it. The flight to Ushuaia takes just over 3 hours. Approaching Ushuaia we see the first snow covered mountains of Patagonia.

Ushuaia, the southernmost town in Argentina, is located on the Island of Tierra del Fuego. It is a small town with about 70,000 inhabitants. The main industry seems to be tourism, although our guide tells us that the government is providing lots of tax incentives to companies to get manufacturing located down here.

We are transferred onto buses and drive into the Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the way there we pass the southernmost golf course in the world, the nine-hole Ushuaia golf club. We feel a bit weird driving through the National Park in a bus, while we see lots of people hiking. If we had had a few extra days, it would definitely have been nice to come here bit earlier and explore the area around Ushuaia a little more. The mountains, lakes and ocean bays look beautiful, but this area here is nowhere near as spectacular as the Torres del Paine National Park on the Chilean side of Patagonia.

We then get onto a catamaran, which takes us on a 3 hour trip along the Beagle Channel. The Beagle Channel connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans on the southern edge of Tierra del Fuego. On the northern side, Tierra del Fuego is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan.

The boat stops right next to a couple of small rocky islands in the middle of the Beagle Channel, which have many sea lions and large black and white cormorants, which from a distance look like penguins.

                   Wildlife in the Beagle Channel

At the end of the trip, the catamaran drops us off back in Ushuaia at the pier, where we first see our home for the next 10 days, the National Geographic Explorer.


Every guest is greeted with a handshake by the ship’s hotel manager before we get on board. When we find our room, we have a  brief moment of worry, when we only find my luggage there, not Jen’s. However the missing bag turns up fairly quickly and we are ready to settle into life on board. There is a champagne reception in the lounge with a short introduction to the ship and the facilities. Despite the fact that they keep telling us this is an “expedition”, it is clearly a cruise. (I have never heard of an expedition that starts with a champagne reception, has early morning stretching and yoga classes, several bars and a spa.) Later in the evening we have to attend a safety briefing in the main lounge and are shown the life boats.

Leaving Ushuaia

We are still in the calm waters of the Beagle channel when we go to sleep, but we are warned that we will be entering the Drake Passage at around 3am, and that we are expecting a lot of wind, so it could get rather rough. We carefully put everything in our cabin in drawers and bags, so we don’t have cameras and laptops flying through the room later in the night.

The Drake Passage

Wednesday, Jan 29th

It looks like we are very lucky today, and the Drake Passage is being good to us. It is a remarkably calm day apparently. The waves are no more than 2 to 3 meters high, which does not have a big effect on the National Geographic Explorer, as it has stabilizers. We are only rolling from side to side very gently. I started taking seasickness medication last night, and so far I have no problems at all. It has, however, gotten noticeably colder outside. We are at about 57 degrees south, Antarctic waters officially begin at 60 degrees south.

We see our first Wandering Albatross circling the boat. It is a massively huge bird. Wandering Albatrosses in fact have the widest wingspan (up to 3.5m) of any living bird. They can remain in the air for hours without ever flapping their wings, just sailing through the wind. They spend most of their lives out on sea, and only go on land to breed. We see several more of them during the day. They are very elegant birds in the air, flying effortlessly, often only inches above the waves.

We spend the day exploring the boat, and attending several presentations and talks in the lounge. In the morning all the staff introduce themselves, and there is an interesting talk about seabirds just before lunch. We have a light lunch in the observation room, which is on the top deck. In the afternoon one of the professional photographers on board gives a presentation on wildlife photography, which was actually quite useful, and we learned a bit more about aperture and shutter settings for different types of shots. The final presentation of the day was on penguins. There are three species of penguins, which we will definitely see on this trip: Chinstrap Penguins, Gentoo Penguins and Adelie Penguins (with a very remote chance of seeing Macaroni or even Emperor Penguins).

By late afternoon the Drake Passage slowly starts to be a bit less benign. The waves are getting slightly larger and the boat is starting to move quite a bit now. I was starting to feel a little queasy, but I was still OK when we started dinner. However, I barely got through the first course, when I started to feel very seasick. I made it back to the room just in time, and then spent the next 12 hours lying on my back with my eyes closed, which was the only position that did not make me feel sick. Overall it wasn’t too bad, but unfortunately it was Jen’s birthday, and so I missed the after dinner celebrations, when the staff brought her a birthday cake and sang a Philippine birthday song for her.


The South Shetland Islands: Hannah Point and Deception Island

Thursday, Jan 30th

I manage to get a decent night’s sleep despite my seasickness and the continued motion of the boat. But all that was forgotten quickly, because when we wake up, we get our first glimpse of land in the distance and we see our first iceberg. We have reached Antarctica! The land we see in the distance are the South Shetland Islands.

                       First glimpse of the South Shetland Islands                                            Our first iceberg.

We spend some time on the bridge in the morning. The boat has an open bridge policy, which means guests can come up and hang out on the bridge whenever they want. It’s really interesting to see all the instruments, maps and weather charts. And the crew are quite happy to explain things to us. Even though they have an enormous range of very advanced GPS and ultrasound equipment, they also still keep a hand-written course on a map, just in case the GPS doesn’t work for some reason. 

     Snow Island
                     Cape Petrels

After breakfast we attend a presentation on Oceanography, but after 10 minutes, the speaker suddenly announces: “I have to stop the presentation here, because there is a group of killer whales just off the bow”. There is mad rush by everyone to get outside. The captain slows down the boat and tries to follow the whales. There is a humpback whale surrounded by a small group of killer whales. A couple of times they get very close to the boat, and we can clearly see the black and white bodies of the killer whales when they come up every couple of minutes. Apparently, they don’t find killer whales on every trip, so this is very exciting that we manage to see them on our first day.

Afterwards everyone has to go down to the mud-room for ‘decontamination’, where all of our gear and clothes are checked for any soil or seeds, to make sure that we don’t bring any contaminants onto land. In the afternoon we have our first land excursion. Since they cannot put more than 100 people on land at any one time (according to the guidelines for tourism in the Antarctic treaty), we are split into 2 groups. We are in the later group, so we first listen to a very interesting lecture on killer whales by the two researchers who are on board with us. 

The land outing is at Hannah Point on Livingston Island, which is part of the South Shetland Islands. We go out on the zodiac just before 5pm. There is a large colony of Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. The penguins don’t seem to be afraid of us at all, in fact they seem to completely ignore us. We were told to try to stay away at least 5 meters of any penguin, but that proves to be quite difficult, because they just walk really close towards us while we stand there. We even see two Macaroni penguins among them, which is apparently quite unusual to see here. There is also a big group of elephant seals. We watch a huge male elephant seal get out of the water and very slowly make his way up the beach with penguins quickly getting out of his way. Male elephant seals are enormous. They typically grow to about 3000 kg, and they are up to 4 times larger than the females. They are also exceptionally good divers, and can dive to well below 1000 meters, with males being able to stay under water for up to an hour.
                      Chinstrap Penguin                 A young Gentoo Penguin                       Macaroni Penguins
               Elephant Seal and Gentoo Penguins
                The National Geographic Explorer
                       A Skua with chick

In the evening we reach Deception Island, which lies on the southern edge of the South Shetland Islands. The Island is the caldera of a huge (still active) volcano, which last erupted in 1969. The caldera has a narrow opening to the ocean on one side, and therefore makes for a large protected natural harbor. Deception Island had been used as a Norwegian whaling station until 1931. Our captain steers us carefully into the crater and then takes the ship right up to the beach of the old whaling station. We can see some old buildings, several huge storage tanks and a small cemetery in the distance. The water is totally calm inside the huge crater. It is just a magical place.

                       The old whaling station in the caldera of Deception Island

Previous Chapter                       Back to Main Menu                       Next Chapter

No comments:

Post a Comment