The culmination of a dream trip come true. Our last few days were spent making our way from the Antarctic Peninsula up towards the South Shetlands for a visit to Livingston Island before the final push through the notoriously difficult Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. The final landing at Hannah Point on Livingston Island did not disappoint as it is considered one of Antarctica’s most biodiversity-rich sites. Who could ever forget the belching, bellowing, and snorting sounds of several dozen massive elephant seals in a wallow? Not us! As always, penguins (chinstraps and gentoos) kept us entertained for hours…we can watch those little guys for hours on end and not get bored! It was super hard to pull ourselves away from Hannah Point, but we still did have one more adventure to tackle. The dreaded Drake Passage! This challenging body of water encompasses the ocean from the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica up to Cape Horn in Chile and it has the reputation of being the world’s roughest seas. So much so that it has earned 2 nicknames: “Drake Shake” or “Drake Lake”…unfortunately we had the former. Armed with Transderm patches, we successfully fought against motion sickness and 2 days later were reluctantly disembarking at the port of Ushuaia. Fantastic trip all around and all the credit goes to the amazing Cheesemans who worked tirelessly to ensure that this was a trip of a lifetime!
21 JAN: (Thursday: Hannah Point on Livingston Island [South Shetlands]): It was a late wakeup at 0730, but the boat was rocking and rolling and the waves were absolutely ridiculous, so we were sure that today’s landing would be cancelled. Ted forewarned us that it did not look pretty, so it was with a heavy heart that we got up and got ready for the day. Becky put on a transderm patch to combat seasickness, and we enjoyed our breakfast conversation with Ray McGahern (the Irish dad) who was a pilot and now is independently wealthy. He told us that it was great that we will start traveling now while we are young, and that it was rare to meet folks who go against the grain. We had a lovely breakfast and were the last ones to leave the dining room. By 0945, Ted surprised us with the good news that the landing was a go after all! Hannah Point was doable, as the winds were blowing in a favorable direction…we were thrilled to be on a zodiac cruising to shore by 1030. Hannah Point is famous for having more biodiversity than most sites in Antarctica, hence making it a hugely popular landing. We were warned to steer clear of the giant petrels, as they spook easily and will abandon their nests if approached within 50 meters. Animals to see on this visit included Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni, snowy sheathbill, kelp gull, fur seal, and elephant seals. We saw everything except the Macaroni penguin. Since this was our last landing of the trip, we opted to skip lunch at 1300, gaining an extra two hours on shore. The crowd did thin out at lunchtime but there was a sizeable amount of folks who decided to do the same thing as us, so we were in good company. The elephant seals wallowed in a huge, stinky, farting mass and had us in hysterics with their belching, farting, fighting and snoring. They are disgusting to look at, and even more revolting to smell. We spent some time watching them feign attacks at each other, with jaws open wide and a whimper like a dog escaping their gaping mouths…very funny. It seemed like they were fighting because one of them was always heaving its obese body atop the others, crushing them with its weight. The crushed seals would bellow in return, and then try to mount other elephant seals, so it was an endless and repetitive cycle over and over again. We ended our time here watching Chinstraps and Gentoos hop up from the beach in a single file line that snaked its way around us. Since the last zodiac was supposed to depart at 1545 sharp, we made sure we were on time (but of course we departed Hannah Point late because it’s impossible to ensure that everyone is ready to go at the cutoff time!) It was bittersweet to have Hannah Point as our last landing…sweet because it was an amazing landing and bitter because the trip was almost over.
The zodiac ride to the ship was rough and it was a scary process to make our way up the gangplank with the zodiac bouncing up and down several feet at a time. We warmed up with hot chocolate and talked to Rachel about how the family was enjoying such close proximity to each other for such an extended period of time. Becky also found out that Ed Rooks, our art instructor, hailed from Trinidad. That explained his unique and lovely accent! Ted gave us a briefing at 1730 about the route back via the Drake Passage and the incoming inclement weather tomorrow night. Ross gave a brief talk about the symptoms of seasickness again, and recommended that we scale back on our alcohol. Becky went to bed directly after dinner, but Robby attended the 2030 video presentation of “Around Cape Horn” which he said was hilarious. Afterwards, he partied it up at the bar and watched a neat video taken by the captain of a minke whale swimming around Doug’s zodiac.
22 JAN: (Friday: At Sea in the Drake Passage): We got to sleep in today (wake up call at 0730), and the boat was rocking and rolling for breakfast. Oh Drake Passage…bring it on! It felt like a roller coaster ride, but wasn’t too terribly bad. Becky had dry mouth because of the transderm patch, so she drank a ton of liquids as recommended by Dr. Ross. We attended all the morning lectures (Doug showed a slideshow presentation of Kenya and Tanzania…wow!), Ted gave a Climate change solutions briefing, and Rod Planck gave a year in review, showcasing some of his favorite photos over the past year. Lunch was at 1230 and we were ravenous…luckily it was a delicious lunch of stir fry noodles and chicken pot pie. Gail joined us for lunch, but she soon got pulled into “emergency crisis” mode because Eleanor’s luggage was missing, while everyone else successfully retrieved their baggage to pack.
After lunch, Becky laid down to combat seasickness, while Robby fixed Craig Poore’s hard drive and started selecting some photos for tomorrow’s group slideshow presentation. He also attended Patrick’s Alaska landscapes presentation, and Jim Danzenbaker’s Panama Birds lecture. Becky packed up her gear for the long trek back home and filled out the Cheesemans’ evaluation form, before joining Robby in the observation lounge where she managed to finally get copies of some photos from the plunge into Antarctic waters at Deception Bay. Dinner was good, we were finally able to sit with Vic and Vicky, Mark and Dan, and Andrea (Mike was feeling sick so he skipped all the day’s meals). After dinner, Becky had a “Lie to Me” marathon, while Robby was the ultimate social butterfly, chatting it up with all non-seasick personnel. He even witnessed as crazy Ross went to the bow of the ship, got splashed twice, and took a serious dunking as the water crashed into the bow and blurred him from visibility. Everyone watching this from the library lounge was sure that Ross had been pulled overseas, but once the wave subsided, they could still see him standing there….Vic captured the mania on video so we’ll have to watch that video again and again! We both fell asleep just past midnight.
23 JAN: (Saturday: At Sea in the Drake to Ushuaia via the Beagle Channel): Wow! A sleep in day with zero morning activities…no way! We double checked our daily itinerary just to be sure and the first organized activity was at 1400 where Ed Rooks would give a speech about wildlife opportunities in Trinidad and Tobago. Robby went to breakfast and brought Becky some hot chocolate, croissants, and crackers to settle her stomach. Ted came on the loud speaker to announce that the rough weather should be over by mid to late afternoon once we finally got out of the Drake’s clutches.
Even though the itinerary was clear up until lunch, the Cheesemans’ ended up adding two programs, the first being a short video on Gentoo Penguins and the second was a lecture given by Doug on Bhutan. Both were interesting, although the observation lounge wasn’t packed as usual. We figure that was because of the rough waters. Lunch was pretty simple fare…fries and a sandwich. Afterwards, Ed gave a brief lecture on Trinidad/Tobago which lasted about 15 minutes, and later on Ted gave a slideshow on another of Cheesemans’ trips up to the Arctic in search of polar bears. We then watched the group slideshow presentation on Antarctica and admired the photos that had been shared by everyone. Dinner was supposed to be a BBQ in the lounge, but it ended up being in the dining room. Our rib-eye steaks were delicious, and the asparagus was cooked to perfection. After dinner, it was back up to the lounge for the Captain’s toast and we had a chance to thank the wonderful Polar Star staff for their hard work over the past few weeks. Once folks were a bit tipsy, the “Save the Albatross” auction began and folks were bidding in earnest. We bid on Hugh Ross’s favorite photo of the whale skeleton beside a penguin carrying a whale bone and were surprised to win it. We also won silent auction bids of a Cheeseman baseball cap and Doug’s very own whale fluke print which he promised to mail to us once he returned home. After spending several majestic weeks with the albatross, we were happy to donate $250 towards the Albatross fund. The last thing on the agenda was to watch the people slide show which was great and made us nostalgic for the entire trip…what wonderful memories were created here. There were some truly magical moments, a few downers but on the whole, what an amazing experience and we feel blessed to have been able to join the Cheeseman family in this adventure. It was worth every penny! As we reminisced, “Shackleton is the reason why we went to Antarctica, but the Cheesemans are the reason why we will return”.
24 JAN: (Sunday: Arrival and disembarkment at Ushuaia; late evening flight to Buenos Aires): Breakfast was served at 0700 and for once, there was no breakfast announcement. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and started saying our goodbyes to those passengers who were catching the early 0930 and 1000 flights out from Ushuaia. The majority of folks were leaving at 1430, and we were the only ones departing at 2200. Our bags were packed, and we eventually piled them onto bus #4, which took us to the hotel Albatros, where a Rumbo Sur representative told us to be ready for pick up at 2020 that evening. We all immediately piled into the comfortable lounge area to check email. A disturbing bit of news was to see fraudulent credit card activity while we were on the cruise, so we will need to call our bank to dispute those charges. Lunch was a fantastic all you can eat buffet at a Chinese/Argentinean restaurant, where we enjoyed the cuisine and stuffed ourselves silly for only 55 pesos per person (drinks extra). We actually ended up preferring this style of restaurant over the highly recommended restaurants in our guidebooks and on tripadvisor. Afterwards, we hiked around Ushuaia in the rain to burn off the calories consumed during lunch. We found a couple of touristy souvenir shops and bought some gifts for our Antarctica minded friends who would appreciate a trinket from this corner of the world. The afternoon was spent talking to Vic and Vicky, who are a fantastic couple and definitely folks we want to stay in touch with in the future. They left for dinner at around 1800, and we remembered one last friend to purchase a gift for, so we managed to squeeze in some last minute shopping. Robby somehow spotted Vic and Vicky at one of the seafood restaurants enjoying some crab legs for dinner, so he stuck his face right up against the glass window and started making Garfield faces, in the hope that they would notice him. The waiter noticed Robby and told Vic that “his son was saying hi”. We found out about this when Vic and Vicky came laughing back to the hotel to say their final goodbyes before we were picked up by Rumbo Sur for the airport. The airplane was sitting on the tarmac and was on time, so we weren’t sure why we boarded late, but we did at 2230. However, we managed to land at the domestic airport on time at 0130, and our pre-coordinated taxi ride to Bernie’s Bed and Breakfast (www.posadabernies.com) was patiently waiting for us. By 0145 we were whisked away to the B&B and were in bed sleeping by 0245. Sigh…this goes down in the books as one of the best trips ever. Thanks to the Cheesemans for all the priceless memories!