I mentioned in a prior post the caveat that one hears almost daily in Antarctica: “weather permitting”. All our plans, all our good intentions to see this island, explore that area, walk among Adèlies, cruise an iceberg-laden bay – all subject to the whims of mother nature. The evening before, on Day 6, we had been told we just miiiiiight get to camp out on land, and we even had a camping meeting with staff member Joao, who got us pumped for the event by explaining that we absolutely, without exception, would be cold; we would not sleep; there would be no campfire with marshmallows. Can’t wait, we thought. But mother nature wasn’t having it on Day 6.
At around 10:00 a.m. on Day 7 we piled into the zodiacs for a trip to Pleneau Island. This was the first land excursion in which we would see Gentoo penguin colonies and really get a glimpse into the life of a penguin. One thing we noticed before even arriving was the smell. It’s hard to describe a smell, but if I had to put it into words, I’d say it resembled rotten fish. This makes sense since Gentoos tend to eat fish and krill. The putrid smell was starting to become familiar, but the greater concentration of penguins here than anywhere else we had been to this point made the stench more overwhelming. Not that it really mattered to any of us – the things you put up with when you’re distracted by the beauty of the place!
Gentoos are also a lot louder than their soft-spoken Adèlie cousins. A couple of days later we would end up on an island with thousands of them, which made it so noisy I could barely hear myself think.
Upon arriving at Pleneau island and exiting our zodiacs we were instructed to take caution given the slippery igneous rocks combined with snowy weather that had welcome us. I maybe should have listened better, because less than five minutes later I found myself on my backside, in a puddle of water. I had fallen craftily, trying to avoid re-tearing my sensitive meniscus and/or breaking my boyfriend’s expensive camera (he had graciously taken my Nikon D3100 for the duration of my trip while I got to use his brand new D5200). I picked myself up, took a couple minutes to dry off the camera and my gloves, put my hat back on and ensured all 100 people who witnessed it (or at least it felt like everyone on the ship saw it) that I was okay. As I set my sights back on the small hill I needed to climb to get closer to some of the Gentoo colonies, I took a step forward and… slipped again. In the exact same spot. Back into the same puddle of water, another crafty knee/camera-sparing move, but this time with the added humiliation of not having learned my lesson the first time.
I finally did make it to the top of the hill and it was worth the torment I had just gone through. Gentoo rookeries were everywhere, and this time they were set against the backdrop of what is known as “Iceberg Alley” in the distant bay. Over the next couple of hours I would wander from one area to the next, observing as the penguins sat perched on top of their young to keep them warm, gawked at one another – sometimes playfully and at other times aggressively – and even stole rocks from one another to build up their own respective nests.
At one point I caught up with Kate and we sat down in the snow as the sun peeked out of the clouds, warming our faces and illuminating the stunning bay and icebergs in the backdrop. “What did we do right to end up here???” we mused to each other. It was a key moment in my life: I was able to sit still, observe my surroundings, listen to glaciers crack off in the distance and even put the camera down to appreciate where I was and what I was seeing. The gratitude I had for this opportunity and the adventure I found myself living was simply overwhelming.
After returning to the ship for yet another delicious meal, we got back out into boats, for me this time in a kayak. It was a much more pleasant paddle than my first one a couple days prior – the water was calmer and, despite an initial push to get where we were heading, we didn’t have too much of a workout to get through. We were able to slow down, take breaks to observe our surroundings and even paddle into a small bay area where we could view some icebergs. I let everyone else go ahead while I stopped and observed a giant, glowing blue iceberg in awe.
We made our way ashore to Vernadsky Station, a scientific base station currently being operated by Ukrainians. We had been told earlier that this would be an exciting time for the men living here, as the 12 of them had not come in contact with any other human being in several months. I also imagined them rolling out the red carpet and throwing a party especially for us ladies, given that the station only employed men to avoid any “problems”. What that meant, I declined to ask.
Red carpet and party was not quite what we got. We were greeted by a short, boyish-looking 20-something who, after showing us where to drop our bags and remove our coats and shoes, got straight to the tour with all the charm and seduction you’d expect from a Ukrainian scientist stuck thousands of miles from civilization. But hey, at least he feigned a smile in our direction every once in a while and for a split second may have made eye contact.
After the tour we made our way upstairs to the world’s southernmost bar. We had been looking forward to trying their special Ukrainian vodka and discussing the life and times of an Antarctic-based scientist. On the ship we were also told that the ladies could get a free drink by donating undergarments to the bar’s collection – I had seen bra collections in bars before and never thought of it as creepy or disturbing. In this circumstance, I’m on a year-long trip and only brought a total of three bras, not to mention that a good bra nowadays can run you $50 or more, so I opted instead to take a (clean) pair of undies ashore in exchange for my free drink.
In fact, it did turn out to be a bit creepy and disturbing. For one thing, I’ve read that Russians and their Ukrainian neighbors generally don’t get in the habit of smiling at strangers. Apparently that’s reserved for friends and family. Not only did the two barmen seem extremely uninterested in seeing us; they looked like they wanted to murder us.
I then noticed the bra-only pile and thought I should make sure there wasn’t some kind of misunderstanding earlier on the ship when the term “undergarments” was used. If I bust out a pair of underwear and slap them down on the bar, only to find that they only accept bras, things could get awkward fast. Terrified to ask Potentially Homicidal Barman No. 1 (PHB1), I went to Jenni, a staff member, to have her accompany me to the bar and ask.
“No panty, only bra”, PHB1 replied in a thick Russian accent, as PHB2 looked on. I got an even stranger look from him in response to my comment that bras are a hell of a lot more expensive than a €2 shot of vodka. Plus the seriousness with which PHB1 and PHB2 conducted their business made the bra pile start to seem like more of a creepy fetish than an innocent, light-hearted joke. So I wouldn’t be donating to their collection, after all.
Nonetheless, I sat down with the Gergelys and fellow kayaker Lucas and had my €2 shot of vodka, got a few pictures and visited the souvenir shop before heading out. I didn’t get murdered and I even got to hang on to the pair of underwear I had stored away in my backpack. A successful trip all around.
Upon returning to the ship for dinner, we got the good news that mother nature would permit us to camp for the night! The bad news was that we had very little time to move. The 40 or so of us on the ship voluntarily abandoning our warm beds in favor of a hole in the ground rushed from the dining room to our cabins in preparation for the night to come. Jill, Kate and I were in a mad rush to get every possible layer that would fit over the previous ones onto our bodies and head out into the zodiacs. I hit a record for the trip with nine layers of clothing.Our campground for the night
Once on land at Hovgaard Island, we each collected a mat, bivvy sack, sleeping bag and body bag (for lack of a better term – this was what we would put around our bodies but inside our sleeping bags since they were easier to throw in a washing machine than a sleeping bag). Shovels were passed around so we could dig our “graves” – a term Joao had used in our camper’s meeting the night before. Digging a hole large enough to sleep in would protect us from wind during the night, but I questioned the wisdom of getting sweaty from a rigorous grave-digging workout while in nine layers of clothing. In a strange way, though, it was fun to have to work for the right to go to bed. If I had to do it all over again, I would have made my grave a bit wider, as it didn’t occur to me at the time that I would need or want to stretch out during the night. It’s a luxury taken for granted until you’re bundled up to the point of resembling the Michelin Man.Digging my grave. Photo courtesy of Nikon Gergely
There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet about exploring Antarctica. In an effort to preserve the pristine environment, tourists are not allowed to relieve themselves anywhere except on the ship. This usually wasn’t a problem when we were doing 2-3-hour excursions. We would simply avoid drinking any fluids within an hour before an excursion, and we’d be sure to use to the toilet before heading out onto the zodiacs. Camping was a different story. We started piling on the layers around 9 p.m. and wouldn’t be back onto the ship until after 6 a.m. This left us with two options: hold it for 9+ hours, or become acquainted with Mr. Yum Yum.
This is where guys have it easy. They could simply hover over the 50-some gallon can and keep their distance so as to avoid any potential splashing. They also wouldn’t need to drop every last one of their layers to their ankles, leaving roughly 40% of their body exposed to the Antarctic elements. I decided I’d try my best to avoid Mr. Yum Yum for the evening, so when I finally made it back to the ship the next morning I felt as though I had just won a gold medal in the bladder Olympics. Success! I just felt bad for the poor staff member who had to haul Mr. Yum Yum back on board the ship.
In the end, Joao’s information proved false: I actually didn’t get cold, and I even slept through most of the night. I woke up only once, I’m guessing around 4 a.m., wanting desperately to roll over. I took my coat off, put my earplugs in, pulled the bivvy sack back over my head and fell back asleep until it was time to head back to the ship at 6 a.m.My view waking up the next morning
Facts about Day 7:
– Latitude: 65°12,3’S, longitude: 64°09.1’W
– Sunrise: 4:03 a.m., sunset: 10:54 p.m.
– Air/water temperature: 0°C/32°F, +0.1°C/32°F
– Wildlife spotted: Gentoo penguins; Southern Giant petrels; Wilson’s storm petrels; Antarctic shags; South Polar skuas; kelp gulls; Antarctic terns; snowy sheathbills; whales (humpback, Antarctic Minke); seals (crabeater, Weddell)