Exploring Antarctica, Danger at Every Turn
The stormy weather had finally subsided; it was a beautiful sunny morning. The M/V Ushuaia was now 60 miles southeast of Greenwich Island at Astrolabe Island. Everyone piled into the zodiac boats to circumnavigate the island. Engulfed with so much sunshine and blue sky while at the same time being surrounded by pack ice, icebergs, and freezing cold air felt dreamlike. Many penguins, in the water and on the island, offered greetings as the boatman steered the tiny rubber boat in and out of very tight nooks and crannies making up the shoreline. Penguins are amazing as they can leap out of the water up 6 foot cliffs at the water’s edge to get to their rookeries.
It was a very different experience seeing pack ice up close and personal in a zodiac than from the bridge of the ship. Unworldly ice sculptures floating in blue, green, and turquoise waters made up the scene. The sun shone brightly while the cold seeped into our bones from the frozen world. Just as the cold began to overwhelm us the boatman returned to the ship.
After lunch the ship sailed south to get in position for a landing on the Antarctic mainland. The captain tried a route that went close to the mainland, but he had to turn back due to the unexpected thickness of the pack ice. It was a “Shackleton” summer which made the weather unusually cold. This meant turning northwest until the captain could find clear waters before turning south again. However, the new course put us back in the open sea and it was rough out there. Mostly everyone was ill.
I watched icebergs of all shapes, sizes, and colors sail by my small porthole. When a berg would hit the side of the ship it made a loud scraping sound as it dragged along the hull. I got up at 11:30pm and went to the bridge to see were we where and found that we were on schedule for arrival at our planned southern destination. I went back to bed and slept well cradled by pack ice, frozen islands, and the Antarctic continent.
We were woken from our slumbers by a message over the ship’s intercom system announcing that another tour ship was sinking and had put its passengers overboard in life rafts. Our ship had turned north on a rescue mission to pick up the survivors! I got dressed and headed upstairs to the lounge were the other passengers were abuzz with the news. None of us knew much more than the message over the intercom so our imaginations ran wild. We headed to breakfast where unsubstantiated stories ran rife.
The chief guide explained the situation to us. It turns out the tour ship Explorer had struck an iceberg around 2:00am and was taking on water. The captain of the Explorer had decided to abandon ship and so the crew and passengers were all onboard life rafts floating about near the South Shetland Islands. After the Explorer made her May Day call all of the other 15 tour ships in the area turned and headed to its last known position. Another ship arrived and rescued everyone while we were on our way. There was no loss of life. The captain turned back to his original heading and continued the trek south. This event brought home how remote and fragile we are in Antarctica.
The weather turned bad again and made it impossible to stop at the first planned destination. The captain continued south. The sturdy ship made it to Gerlache Strait and then turned in towards the Antarctic continent. The weather did not clear up, it kept snowing all day. But, the wind did die down a little bit offering some relief from the massive seas.
Once at Cuverville Island everyone disembarked to explore the spectacular place and its many penguin rookeries. The normal landing site was the main beach. Thick and piled up pack ice forced a landing on another smaller beach. Heavy snow kept falling, which made the surroundings feel tranquil. Unbeknown to the boatmen pack ice was freezing in while everyone toured. Ice sheets blocked the way when it came time to return to the ship. The crew used an empty zodiac to chop an opening in it. We returned to the ship safe and glad to be onboard. What an unexpected and worrying adventure this was.
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