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Watching the Weather from the Ice
Some weather interrupted the next day and though it prevented us from visiting the penguins, but it was still a memorable day:
“Late morning, a snowstorm hit: a blustery squall with big soft flakes the size of postage stamps. Out on the deck, it was an instant thick winter. But then, just an hour or two later, the sun blasted through and once more, the landscape returned to its glazed baby-blue-pearl-white glory, as far as they eyes could see. That's what is special about an icebreaker: we are not anchored at sea, but are driven into the icy land — a part of it — and thus able to turn 360 degrees and see, uninterrupted, this ethereal continent.
The air here feels strangely therapeutic — deep breaths awaken all the senses. It is so clear, fresh and invigorating it actually seems to elevate you, it makes you giddy. We both agree that this is the most rewarding natural environment we have ever had the good fortune to visit: pristine and life-affirming, while at the same time rugged and unforgiving.
Back inside, we read more about Shackleton's voyages in the wild sea aboard the Endurance (until it sank and they had to live on ice floes for five months). We wondered what the great explorer would think of our afternoon tea, with chocolate mousse, meringue cookie and apple strudel. I'd like to believe that, had he traveled with Quark and realized the number of lectures, presentations and discussions offered on board he simply would have said, 'Things have changed since my time — thank heaven'.”
Penguins and Perfect Photos
From Snow Hill Island, we set sail for Devil Island, Whalers Bay at Deception Island and a number of other mysterious, tucked-away refuges where Adélie penguins, Gentoos and Chinstraps all thrive — beautiful, foreboding places that almost dare you to try and survive what they offer up, be it cold, rough seas or dense, rocky shores.
“The hills are alive — with the sound Adelie penguins. Yesterday we actually got to set foot on land (versus ice) as the Zodiacs brought us to shore on Devil Island (named for the two 'horns' that lava flow created).
A small island, featuring snow-duned mountains, a steep, chocolate-brown colored hillside — and tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. In fact, as the boat approached the island, the hillside looked as of the gods had salt and peppered it — but those were the penguins. Reaching the black, rocky beach on a gorgeous day, we then scaled the hillside near the peak, Claire and I took our jackets and sweaters off and reveled in the clean spring air along with the jaw-dropping views. The Adelies are a treat to watch — a little more active than the Emperors — jumping on and off bergs, scooting all over the place, swimming in groups like needles sewing thread, and speedily bouncing in and out of the water toward shore.
Later, the Quark team offered Zodiac tours in and around the island, which provided some wonderful photo opportunities. At dusk, we took another touring ride aboard the Zodiac, to explore Paulet Island from the sea, and it provided the most gorgeous images of the trip. Film directors call this kind of late-day light the 'magic hour' — when peach-rust light washes over everything to create a totally unique mood. Luckily, we had Quark's historian David Wood piloting our boat of nine people and so we had a history lesson as a bonus. We even got to see the hut left behind by the Swedish Nordenskjold expedition (1901-1904) when they were stranded here.
But then Woody framed the best shots of this trip (which is saying something, given all that we have seen): a full moon rising, several penguins on a small berg, and that magical late-day light. Claire said this was the prettiest place she'd ever seen in her life.”
The Sadness of Leaving Antarctica
As the ship headed back through the Drake Passage to Ushuaia after almost 10 days of exploring, we already longed to head back to Snow Hill. This was my final entry aboard the ship:
“Fernweh is one of my favorite terms. It's German, and loosely translated it means 'an aching for the distance' — sort of the opposite of homesickness. On this trip, we have met dozens of travelers who seem imbued with Fernweh. These are sturdy, seasoned, well-mannered adventurers who taught Claire and I much about their homelands and so we thank them dearly. I hope we can stay in touch with a number of them.
Then of course, there is the Quark Expeditions team. Whenever Claire and I saw a blue jacket on board, we knew we could stop and ask questions, get directions, get information, or just enjoy some time talking about the trip with them. Scientists, artists, teachers, historians — an incredibly impressive group of rugged, erudite people. They treat the wildlife and environment as sacred treasure. Words don't seem like enough but we'll offer them anyway: thank you. It was a privilege to be in your good hands on this trek and for the kindness you showed our daughter, as a father, I am most grateful.”
Overall, we saw the prettiest sunsets I've ever witnessed, more icebergs and glaciers and even Weddell seals. We cruised around in Zodiac boats, exploring life among the smaller hunks of ice floating in this chunky sea. We enjoyed numerous educational presentations onboard the ship ("This is an expedition, not a vacation," I was reminded many times,) and enjoyed wonderful meals with interesting people.
We watched nature documentaries, observed an onboard artist document the animal life around us, and watched one of the last great Russian icebreakers crush through tons of ice as we plowed back toward Ushuaia.
(Soon the Kapitan Khlebnikov will return to the Russian Navy, but at the time of writing there are still a few opportunities to travel aboard this no-nonsense ship. Spots remain on the Quark Expeditions World Cruise, the Arctic Circumnavigation this summer, and aboard Antarctica's Far East trip in December 2011. See more at www.quarkexpeditions.com/)
Story and photos by Chris Epting
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