The boat was still rocking at 7:30 in the morning when Stephen's kind voice again came over the intercom and said "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, good morning!" It really wasn't a good morning. I felt exactly the same as I had 10 hours earlier. Would this never end? His announcement went on to mention we were now 70 nautical miles north of the South Shetland Islands. If knots were indeed nautical miles per hour (which they are), some quick mental math told me I'd pretty much be in my room for the rest of the morning. This sucked. I mean it really sucked. I paid all this money and was so very excited for this? Good lord it had better get better.
I tried to make the best of it by listening to some of the lectures on channel 4 - one on pinnipeds (seals), one on photography in the Antarctic, and a great one on Shackleton's Expedition from 1914-1917, and his ill-fated ship, the Endurance. At least my misery was educational.
Praise God - we entered the calmer waters of the South Shetlands around 1:30 in the afternoon. I could feel the difference immediately. It was honestly like someone flipped a switch in my body. My head cleared, my stomach settled, and I popped up out of bed.
Sick of being inside for a day and a half, I grabbed my coat and went outside. I made it up to the top deck, where I witnessed my first iceberg, and took in my first views of land in the Antarctic. Dark, jagged rock formations lined both sides of the ship as we moved through the islands. It was pretty cold, with a fairly strong wind whipping through the air, but it was tolerable - and a hell of a lot better than my cabin.
Around 2:00 or so, we had a mandatory meeting in the lecture hall to go over the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines for landing in Antarctica. Basically, it was a reminder to use common sense - keep a safe distance from the wildlife, walk slowly, keep your voices down, don't try to take a penguin home, etc.
We also had a long talk about boots. It was emphasized that our boots would need to be cleaned thoroughly both going to and coming back from the landings. They went into all the reasons why, but just one was sufficient for me: penguin crap (or "guano" as it's more discretely called). I didn't really want to spend the entire trip walking down smelly hallways of the boat dodging foot prints made of penguin poop. Anyway, suffice to say there were plenty of rules to follow to insure safety, the integrity of the environment, and cleanliness.
We then reviewed the logistics of the landings themselves highlighting, for instance, the compact, water-sensitive life jackets we had to wear while in transit from boat to land, and an overview of the Zodiacs - the small boats we'd actually jump in and ride to the shore. There were around six of them, and they were cool. They looked like something the marines might use. Made of really tough black rubber, they could hold about ten passengers and one driver. For those of you who are interested in such things, the staff mentioned they used 4-stroke Yamaha engines, which are apparently much stronger than the former 2-stroke engines and much more environmentally friendly as they don't burn oil.
Finally, we had a quick overview of the actual landing site. We were heading to the Aitcho Islands, part of the South Shetlands, near the entrance of the English Strait. It was apparently home to a few thousand Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, along with some fur seals and a few impressive rock formations. The terrain was pretty easy, and offered a chance to stretch our legs a bit. Basically, a nice easy spot for our first landing.
We were then divided into two groups to help manage traffic in the hallways of the ship. I ended up in the second group, which meant I had a few extra minutes before heading out. I was really excited - first because I was feeling so much better. I was like a new person. Second, I was about to set foot on land in the Antarctic. Even at this moment, it seemed surreal.
I went back to my cabin to start gearing up. I didn't really know how many layers I would need. It was cold when I was up on deck, but not unbearable (I found out later it was about 1 degree Celsius, which isn't too bad). But, hell, this is the Antarctic! I decided more would be better, at least for the first time out. I ended up putting on two pairs of wool socks over my normal cotton ones (nothing worse than cold toes). I put on some long underwear, then my ski pants. I had some Nike Under-Armor-esque stuff for my upper body, followed by a half-zip pullover and my heavy North Face ski Jacket. I finished the ensemble off with my sweet waterproof boots, a stocking hat, and some ski gloves. Yeah - that ought to do it. (Another big thanks to my folks for getting all this stuff to me. I used pretty much everything.)
While we were getting ready, the staff prepped the Zodiacs, and went ashore to pick out the actual landing site. As chance would have it, when lowered, the gangway down to the water's surface ended up right in front of my port hole, which had been opened after we hit the calmer waters. I could see the Zodiacs arrive and take off, carrying members of the staff with them. I was getting geeked out. I snapped on my little life jacket, grabbed my camera and headed out the door.
The last few people of the first group were just heading down the gangway as I got to the main lobby. One of the staffers had remained on the boat near the gangway, controlling traffic down to the next awaiting Zodiac. There were a bunch of people in my group standing patiently, bundled up with thick coats, heavy gloves and big smiles. It was a great feeling. The anticipation was ridiculously exciting.
Much to my appreciation, the operation of loading all of us into the Zodiacs was surprisingly efficient. Soon, it was my turn to head through the door. Before hitting the open air, I had to step into a little tub of chemical disinfectant to clean my boots. Then I headed outside. It was cold and a bit windy, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.
The gangway was narrow, with metal steps and wooden rails. It took a little concentration to get down without making a fool of yourself. The big boat was still bobbing a little, and the steps were a bit wet. Anyway, once at the bottom of the platform, two of the crew assisted us into the Zodiacs - insisting we use the "sailor grip" for contact, meaning my hand would latch on to their forearm, and vise versa. I jumped in and took a seat on the right-hand side of the zodiac. Once we had our full load of ten people, the crew pushed us off, and our driver (one of the staff members - in this case it was Heidi) told us to hold on, and off we went.
The ride was really cool. The Zodiacs were fast. Once away from the ship, she gunned it a little bit, and the front end lifted up out of the water, as we left a good sized wake behind us. As we approached the island, I could see the landing site where another Zodiac was unloading its passengers. I could also see short, vertical black and white shapes littering the entire island. There were penguins everywhere! Even from the boat, it made my sighting a few days ago back in Ushuaia look like a petting zoo.
Everyone on board got a big smile as we approached. The Zodiac journey lasted all of 90 seconds or so. We coasted up onto the shore where one of the crew grabbed the front of the boat to secure it. Stephen was there to meet us, and gave us some instructions on where not to walk and where the other staff members were. He also pointed out a couple different spots on the island where they'd already seen some fur seals. In fact, there was one about 50 feet away from us on the beach. Then, one by one, we swung our legs over the side and into the water, setting foot on land. It was an amazing feeling. I was here! I'd made it. I was walking on an island in the South Shetlands. Wow.
I slowly walked up the little hill in front of us trying to record this moment in my mind. I looked over at the fur seal again. He was just hanging out, looking sleepy and lazy. The owners of this island though, were the penguins. They were everywhere - lying down on the grey pebbles of the beach, standing up on the rocks, jumping in and out of the water, everywhere.
In our briefing, Stephen mentioned a good rule of thumb was to keep about 5 meters (15 feet) from the animals, unless, of course, they came up to you. Additionally, it was a good idea to try to walk at "penguin speed" as to not disrupt the native's lives more than we had already. As I reached the top of the hill, I thought it amusing to see all our people waddling around in all colors of big puffy ski jackets.
Most of the locals were simply standing around, checking out the new arrivals. A few were preening themselves, and a few were looking up at the sky, yelling as loud as they could. I watched one guy in particular - he was standing on top of a little rock formation, looking proud. Every so often, he'd belt out a loud cry for everyone to hear. It was a strange sound, not what I'd expected to come from these little guys - it was guttural and sharp, with peaks and valleys. It reminded me somewhat of a donkey whining. Anyway, if they weren't checking us out, they were in transit - walking around by themselves or in groups of two or three with some purpose that we'd never know.
And, unsurprisingly, there was also penguin crap all over the place. Long white lines of guano covered the ground. It was impossible not to step in it. The island smelled like a zoo - but it wasn't as bad as I'd anticipated. The penguins didn't seem to mind.
I walked around the island as much as I could, basically going as far as they'd allow in each direction. It was beautiful. Nothing man-made in sight, just nature untouched. The rock formations were indeed beautiful. Rocky and jagged, a dark grey against the cloudy overcast sky. There was even a little green here and there - some moss that had taken root in some of the more fertile soil.
The penguins were ridiculously amusing. I could have watched them all day long. I mentioned there were two types on this island, and they were really easy to identify. The Gentoos were nearly all black with a white belly and little white eye patches. The Chinstraps had more white around their face, and, as you'd expect, a thin line of black running under their chins.
We were told most of the older ones were going through their molting, where they basically generate a new set of feathers. It apparently takes a ton of body energy and about 3 weeks to complete the process. They were easy to spot. Many of them were standing near rocks, looking absolutely miserable. Their sharply contrasted black and white uniform had been replaced by a fluffy, fuzzy grey coat of old feathers which were falling off in patches. You almost felt sorry for them.
The younger ones, however, were active and pretty curious. They'd walk right by you if you stood still - sometimes it didn't matter. They'd lean forward, throw their flippers back for balance, and swing a short little leg out in front of the other. Sometimes they'd run into an area they couldn't step up to. They'd then throw their flippers back and hop up to the next level. It was comical. They seemed to have personalities. They'd yell and preen, and watch us go by. Some would get into arguments with each other. Some were chasing each other around the island, while others were just lying on their bellies, taking a nap.
After about two hours, we were told to start meandering back toward the landing site. As I rounded a little bend, young Gentoo and I crossed paths, heading in opposite directions. When we were about 20 feet away, I stopped and sat down. He just kept walking right toward me until he was about three feet away, then stopped with his flippers out and proceeded to look me up and down. We stared at each other for a good 30 seconds before a couple people came up behind me, causing him to lose interest and waddle off down a little path. It was a really cool experience.
I made it back to the landing area, and proceeded to start cleaning my boots. They had a little brush system rigged up, affectionately called the "Guano-matic". It actually did its job pretty well. I hopped back in the Zodiac, the last of the tourists on this landing to do so, and we took off, with only the staff boat remaining. What an awesome first landing. If the others were as cool as these, crossing the Drake was well worth it.
I took a nice long shower when I got back. The showers in the rooms are quite the deal. Everything is built to economize space. Accordingly, the floor of the entire bathroom is also the shower floor. You just pull a small shower curtain around yourself and the toilet, and then push a button on the wall for the water. The spray lasts for about 60 seconds, then you have to push it again - like automatic faucets in public bathrooms. It was a bit weird having the toilet in the shower with me though. However, as the boat was in motion again, it was good for balance every now and then.
I went up to the forward lounge at 6:30 where we were to meet for the Captain's Cocktail and recap of our landing. I sat down at a table with a cool couple I'd met the first night at dinner - Roisin and Brendan from Ireland. Great people. In their lyrical accents, they shared the stories of their landing, and remarked on the awfulness of yesterday, to which I heartily agreed. We all three were looking forward to dinner as none of us had eaten since our meal on Sunday night.
The reception was pretty fancy - we all had champagne while Heidi toasted our crossing of the Drake (thank God), and our first successful landing. We heard a bit from the captain, a hearty white haired Swede named Ingemar Utbolt. I love that name. After the formal part of the reception, we had a few minutes before supper time, which was apparently the official "Captain's dinner". One of the staff found me and said I'd been invited to the Chief Engineer's table. Really? Cool. I accepted, without knowing why I'd been invited. But really, who cares? Turns out Roisin and Brendan were invited as well, which was great. We made our way to the dining room, where we found the proper table, complete with our names in front of plates. As far as I could tell, only the captain's table and the Chief Engineer's had assigned seats. Exclusive company, huh?
The dinner was really nice. The Chief Engineer was a cool guy - he was dressed in his official coat and tie, with close-cut salt and pepper hair atop an expressive face which he always leaned toward the speaker when listening. He was a true engineer, a bit introverted - never really speaking unless spoken to. But, when queried, he was full of great stories. He was Scottish by birth, and still had the accent to prove it, but had moved to Spain a few years ago with his family. He said this was his last voyage before a nice long vacation which would take him home to see them. While there were other people at the table besides us, Roisin, Brendan and I pretty much dominated the conversation, asking our host about the bowels of the ship, about his first job on the sea and about the reasons he got into this line of work. Both the conversation and the company were excellent, as was the fact I now had something in my stomach. It's amazing how 24 hours can change your entire perspective.