"Here be dragons"

Giants live here. Wherever you look giants are slumbering - hidden by the deep snow and the low clouds that hang overhead. In the long dark winter months they move about and carve icebergs into fantastical shapes.

Or so it seems. Last night after leaving Deception Island we travelled south. Overnight we moved into a strange new world. Massive ice fields on the shoulders of tall jagged mountains calved into the sea.  We had crossed into Antarctica proper.  Parking up in a small bay – it was kayaking time for me and for Peter a Zodiac cruise.

In our kayaks we skirted the shore of the bay, being careful not to get in too close, and dodging the wonderfully sculptured icebergs that were stranded in Iceberg Graveyard. It’s hard to describe the beauty of the ice – tinted blue with blue streaks running through them – the result of denser ice and different refraction.

We came across a whale and its pup breeching the surface and we tried to keep up with them – they’d pause to allow us to catch up before moving off again. A shout went up  “Leopard seal “ as it came swimming close our group. Sarah, our kayak guide, in an off handed manner said they’d either leave us alone or be very curious – we took the hint and slowly paddled away putting plenty of distance between us and the seal. After about 2 and half hours we returned to the mother ship for lunch.

The boat then moved onto another bay: called “Circumcision” because some early explorer discovered it on January 1st the day of Jesus’ circumcision. Sheer lack of imagination. By the time we arrived the wind was up and the water was choppy. Phil, the other kayak guide, said that the conditions were at the limit for kayaking. I, along with a few others, backed out and went on a Zodiac to visit another penguin colony.

Penguin colonies stink. Krill poo and vomit covered the place. Here hundreds of chick were fledging, losing their downy coats and doing nothing except hang around looking dejected or chasing an adult insisting they cough up some delicious half digested prawn like creature. It was not a pretty sight. Although the penguins themselves were very charming. There are, however, only so many times when penguins are endearing – I passed that point a while back.

On board our ship M/S Expedition hygiene is taken very seriously. You’ve all heard about the cruise liners felled by a rampant tummy bug. Many of our fellow passengers are on the cruise of a lifetime and don’t want to be taken out by some bug or other. So we have to clean our hands constantly. That is nothing compared to the rigmarole we have to go through when we come back on ship after visiting the penguins.

Our wellies are encrusted in penguin poo so once we’re on board we have to scrub them very carefully to remove every trace of gunk and then to dip them in a powerful disinfectant. Next the wellies are inspected and if not properly clean you have to repeat the whole process again.

The food is very good, and plenty of it. The cabins are neat and comfortable and the cabin staff is without exception extremely efficient and friendly. After the evening meal at 7 pm you can watch a film in the lounge – usually some worthy wildlife themed piece – or retire to the Polar Bar and hear Kevin play. He’s excellent.

The next day we moved from Circumcision Bay to Paradise Harbour. Not sure if they were discovered by the same guy. For us Paradise Habour is special as it’s the only part of Antarctica proper we touch – all the other places are on islands. Again, it was an early start for the kayakers. The water was mirrored and with a light wind, it was ideal for a paddle.

We were going to be out for a while – around 3 hours, but we were promised that we’d take it easy. I again partnered Kay from the States, she steered and paddled I just paddled. We criss crossed the bay, making our way through ice flows and we stopped a lot: there was a lot to see – whales and penguins in the water, cormorants on the cliffs, seals lounging on icebergs. Here the glaciers came down to the waters edge and at one point there was a beach with a glacier behind it. We landed and the ship’s photographer posed us on the beach. After that it was back to base and lunch.

In the afternoon I again dropped out of the kayaking and went to a penguin colony – why?  There was a long climb up a snowy slope and crest to an exposed vantage point looking over the bay. Peter, and others we’d teamed up with, went on the climb but I didn’t – I was scared of falling on the ice. Instead I went on a Zodiac cruise where we saw two groups of whales and a beautiful crabeater seal that kept bobbing up its lovely wide eyed face feet away from us. It was enchanting and a privileged to be in the presence of such delightful creatures.

Now is time for the “Happy Hour” although since only one cocktail a night is reduced in price it seems a slight exaggeration.  The Argentinian beer is good so I stick with that. After dinner – it’ll be the Polar Bar and Kevin and if the sky is clear Milky Way gazing!

Tomorrow is the last day we can kayak and we’re heading to two other bays to visit penguins, birds and seals. After that we’ll be on the move heading for Ushuaia across Drake’s Passage. The forecast is that the crossing won’t be too rough.


gregg smith said…
More bloody dragons than penguins if you ask me (thinks: will this comment appear as many times as the blog post does?)
Brilliant descriptions though I thought I could actually smell the penguin guano at one point but it was the dog's tripe dinner

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