Day 10 made me wonder if Antarctica was starting to interfere with my voice of reason. For one thing, I was roped into waking up at 4:30 a.m. for our last day of excursions – this time to the ultra-creepy Deception Island. A caldera of an active volcano, Deception Island is perhaps Antarctica’s most visited destination and features a narrow entry, meaning ships have to take turns maneuvering in. In our case, someone forgot to tell our captain I’m not a morning person, so we ended up with the first slot of the day.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The lighting when we arrived at the crack of dawn was nothing short of a photographer’s dream. It also added to the eery nature of this former whaling station, almost giving the dilapidated structures on the beach a haunting sense of disapproval from all the wildlife poached in years past. The place told a story perhaps like nowhere I’ve ever been.
Adding to the eery feel was the steam rising up from the beach due to the volcanic properties of the island. I would later discover that although parts of the sand were nicely heated, the water itself was the usual 0°C/32°F Antarctic water. More on that in a minute.
Deception Island was one of my favorite places on Earth, and this one of my favorite moments, specifically because I was able to lose the rest of the passengers and staff on our ship – not that they weren’t lovely people, I just like to take a moment to myself sometimes – and wander around the island on my own for a little bit. I did eventually meet up with Kate, who I thought had gone over the ridge on a hike with the others, but in fact she had stayed behind, wandering around on her own as well. We did a short hike up to Neptune’s Window, an area between two rock pillars looking out over the Southern Ocean. On our way up, Kate and I heard a grumbling to our left and, wondering who that could possibly be when the remaining passengers from our ship were about half a mile away, looked over to see a few fur seals camouflaged into the dirt. Turns out we had encroached on their territory and they weren’t happy about it. Ooops.
Luckily the penguins we came across on the beach were a bit friendlier, as were a couple of adorable Weddell seals who didn’t mind our presence so much.
As it came closer to the time we needed to be back at the beach to get our zodiacs back to the ship, a decision had to be made: Do I join the handful of passengers planning to strip down to their underwear and jump in the freezing Antarctic waters, or do I maintain my sanity and stay in my eight layers of beautiful, warm, dry clothing? My first thought, seeing as how I still had the world’s nastiest cold, was to take care of my body and keep it warm and dry. But after watching fellow passengers Neil and Nick run screaming into the water half-naked and bolting out of it even faster and louder than when they went in, I thought to myself “now why WOULDN’T I want in on that???” I even turned to Bob, a doctor back home in the U.S., and wondered aloud “this might actually help my cold, no?” He agreed, which meant one thing: I was going in.
The funny thing about stripping down to your underwear and jumping into Antarctic waters is that it’s not the water part that’s difficult. It’s the de-layering process. As I removed each layer my body got colder and colder, making me question what on god’s green Earth I was doing. By the time I got down to my skivvies, I had so much adrenaline rushing through my body that the water wasn’t all that difficult to bear. For the first three seconds, anyway.
By the time I jumped in, some of the Japanese ladies on our ship had also braved the cold and discovered spots in the sand so warm that we could actually lie in them for a good five minutes with relative comfort. One side of my body was still exposed to the cold, but the part facing the sand was so warm and comfortable that it didn’t matter. One lady even kindly began throwing dirt on me. I kindly returned the favor.
The only problem with lying in the warm sand is that eventually you have to jump back in the water to rinse it off. By then my adrenaline had worn off and I got a bit of a shock. Turns out the ocean water in Antarctica is cold.
Those of us brave enough to take the polar plunge got priority on the zodiacs and were rushed back to the ship. I promptly jumped in the hot tub, but was surprised to find that I was the only one with that brilliant idea. No problem – more me-time. After that came sauna, shower and bed for a nap. Not a bad way to start the day.
In the afternoon we went on our last Antarctic excursion, this time to a place called Aitcho Island. Every one of our excursions was unique and memorable, and this was no different; you’d be hard-pressed to find a place anywhere in the world with this many penguins in one spot. Aitcho Island gave us an unbeatable opportunity to observe the birds, specifically Gentoos and chinstraps, up close and in a more social setting. Aside from them sticking their beaks in the air, cawing and flapping their wings, perhaps the funniest observation I made was their tendency to projectile poo onto one another, always with the sound a baseball player makes when projecting chewing tobacco from his mouth. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to capture it. One penguin came up to within roughly two feet of me and stared me down – luckily I avoided the projectile treatment his friends and family received.
Back on the ship that evening I tidied up in our cabin before dinner, a toast and an auction. In the dining room Chad led us in three separate toasts: one to the loved ones we left at home, another to the spirit of adventure, and a final toast to Antarctica herself. A beautiful and welcoming continent she had been.
The toast was followed up with an auction, with all the proceeds going to charities picked out by OneOcean Expeditions. Some of the items up for grabs and the prices they fetched were:
– An hour captaining the ship around Cape Horn (with the added enjoyment of wearing a captain’s hat and sunglasses): $1200
– Replacing Chad to give the morning announcement on Day 11 (won by Canon Gergely, who did a fantastic job and even gave a shout-out in Hungarian): $140
– A bottle of Antarctic water: too much $$ to pay for water (but hey, it was for charity)
– Our ship’s nautical chart, signed by the captain and expedition leader: $2300 (won by a German woman who probably has a lot more money than I do)
– Breakfast in bed, hand-delivered by bartender Ian in a penguin costume the next morning. This was the most rewarding prize for all of us – I don’t remember how much money this fetched for charity, probably because a price can’t be put on this:
Although my polar plunge actually did shock the sniffles out of my system, I turned in early that night to give my body some rest. It was yet another unforgettable day at the bottom of the world.
Facts about Day 10:
– Latitude: 62°59.0’S, longitude: 60°35.3’W
– Sunrise: 4:24 a.m., sunset: 10:06 p.m.
– Air/water temperature: +1°C/34°F, +1.1°C/34°C
– Wildlife spotted: penguins (Gentoo, chinstrap); albatrosses (black-browed, light-mantled sooty); petrels (southern giant, cape (Pintado)); storm petrels (Wilson’s, black-bellied); Antarctic shags (endemic); skuas (brown, South Polar); kelp gulls; Antarctic terns; snowy sheathbills; humpback whales; seals (Weddell, Antarctic fur)