Journey into the last Wilderness on Earth
It’s Sunday, November 30th 2015. On a wet and cold day, Sarah is waiting for us impatiently at the Club Nautico in Ushuaia.
Sara W. Vorwerk is a 30 years old long-haul steel vessel, made in Germany. It is 54 foot in length and it is fully loaded with food, petrol, water and wine for an expedition that will take 8 people, including me, for 3 weeks to the remotest continent on earth: Antarctica.
Captain Henk, on his 50th trip to the white continent, is one of the most experienced skippers of the Antarctic.
His experience and the solid boat eased my anxiety about the crossing of the Drake passage, what is considered to be the most dangerous ocean in the world.
The Drake consists of 800 km open ocean between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, which lie north-west of the Antarctic Peninsula. At these latitudes there is no significant land mass to impede winds or waves. The winds can reach up to 100 knots and monster waves can make even the biggest cruise-ship look like a little toy.
Sailing the "Drake shake" is the price to pay to enjoy the freedom that a small sailing boat can offer through a more intimate experience in Antarctica.
The forecast on the first day doesn’t look good. The port is closed for bad weather and we postpone our departure until the following morning.
We leave Ushuaia on a very early morning on December 1st, at 4 a.m. The shades of dawn are breathtaking and the sea is motionless, the water reflects the surrounding mountains like a mirror. This scenic atmosphere comes to a sudden stop, becoming more unstable as we enter the Beagle Channel, a strait 240 km long and never wider than 5 km, that connect the Pacific and Atlantic ocean. The ocean suddenly gets wild and dark clouds appear on the horizon. I get a sense of how cold this journey will be as I stand on deck. I can barely press the shutter of my camera, my fingers turn to frozen.
The captain decides to anchor a day at the Beagle channel, before we set sail on the Drake.
My memory immediately goes back to the evening in Buenos Aires when a Swedish man on board of an ice-breaker showed me pictures of how the Drake looked like on his return back from Antarctica.
Fear and tension rise as my imagination wonders how the hell are we going to cross the Drake on a 54 foot sailing boat !
No longer till we find out. For the next 4 days the wind is blowing at 40-50 knots and waves are up to 30 foot. Being on the boat is like being inside a washing machine. Whilst most of the people on board are feeling sea sick and spending almost the entire sailing time in bed, i do feel ok, but being claustrophobic I am struggling inside the bunk. I bring my sleeping bag and blankets in the dining area, but I get very little sleep as the sound of the waves hitting the hull and the constant rolling keep me awake.
These are very long days. You can't read or do some work with your laptop, and you can’t walk inside the boat without being flung left or right.
As we reach the Antarctic Polar Front (where cold waters spreading out from Antarctica meets warmer water coming down from the
tropics ), half way the Drake passage, the bad news is delivered. Over the next 48 hours we have to do 2 hours rotating shifts 5 times a day to look out for ice. It’s the ice-watch nightmare. I don’t mind the day shifts, but waking up in the middle of the night to be cold and wet is a real struggle.
The days in the Drake seem endless. There are times when I feel as if the boat could capsize and I am holding tight to my bed to avoid being thrown out of it. A couple of times we have to skip lunch or dinner and eat just cookies, because it is not possible to cook and eat in the dining room. Many of us are sea sick; one person in particular is so badly affected that she is bedridden for four days.
On Saturday morning, we finally see land as we get closer to the South Shetland Islands. The first big Icebergs make their appearance. It is very hard to figure out their size…maybe as large as five football fields in length and ten fields in height . They are of intense white colour with shades of blue and green. I try to imagine their depth as what we see is just the tip of it.
We first land in Livingston Island. This is the first encounter with Antarctica wildlife. We are welcomed by Elephant Seals, Gentoo penguins and giant Petrols. This is the breeding season and pairs breed on level rocky areas kept snow-free by dint of body heat.
Penguins are approachable and inquisitive towards humans, but when venturing too close to a nest i receive a vocal warning, an agitated “ wahrrrrr” .
Livingston is the only place where we see Southern Elephant Seals. They are huge, heavily built seals and they group together for the moulting which takes 3 weeks. I read this seal was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, with commercial exploitation ending as recently as 1964.
We leave Livingston Island sailing South to Deception Island. Landing here is not without troubles. Our dinghy get caught by a wave on shore and one of us experiences the cold Antarctic waters.
Deception is a volcanic island and host more than 100.000 pairs of breeding penguins.The island has hot springs, fumaroles and steaming beaches. I feel like an alien landed into another planet. I cannot contain my enthusiasm and climb up to the hilltop with the desire to capture the surreal landscape. My wide angle is not wide enough to get all in but i find some interesting view points .
I see penguins walking from the beach to the hilltop forming this long black and white line of funny walking creatures that seem powered by long lasting batteries. For some the journey from the beach to nest takes over 90 minutes. I see massive and noisy penguins colonies.
The landscape is impressive, with patches of green and brown, blue sea and big icebergs dominating the horizon. There are thousands and thousands of breeding penguins here, mostly Gentoo and Chinstrap.
Chinstrap penguins are hillwalkers that enjoy a room with a view and are willing to use their bill as an ice-axe to ascend icy rocks to get to their nest. I climb to the top as I want to capture the jaw-dropping scenery. I hope I will be able to describe what I am seeing with my camera to the best of my ability.
Few Brown Skua birds terrorise penguin colonies. They pilfer penguin eggs and eat the placenta.
Livingston and Deception Islands are part of the South Shetland Islands, in the Sub-Antarctica area, about 80 miles from the Antarctica continent.
Our first landing in the Antarctica continent is on Enterprise Island. Here we don’t see much wildlife, but the landscape is impressive. We hike on top of a mountain to enjoy the magnificent view of the bay. Icebergs floating on a blue lagoon are surrounded by snow-covered mountains.The wreck of a seal-hunting ship is sub-merged in the bay and we go around with our dinghy to explore it.
On board of Sarah there is plenty of books about Antarctica and I read about the explorers that over the last two centuries have faced the dreadful desolation of this unique continent.
It is curious to think that just less than 200 years ago a continent larger than the United States of America or Europe had still not be seen by human eyes. And still today, Antartica is visited by just around 30 thousand people every year, whilst no more than 100 people are crazy enough to reach Antarctica on a sailing boat. I am one of them and so far i can say that it is absolutely worth every hour spent in the Drake’s Hell.
We leave the magic landscapes of Enterprise island and head south to Cuverville Island where we spend the next two days.
Cuverville Island or Île de Cavelier de Cuverville hosts a large colony of breeding Gentoo Penguins, as well as a large number of South Polar and Brown Skuas.
It is snowing here and we do a landing bringing snow-shoes, as we plan to hike a steep hill. It takes one hour to reach the top but the view is well worth the effort . The sea ice that blankets the Ocean it’s a jigsaw puzzle of restless floes that are constantly colliding, deforming, and fracturing from the force of wind and ocean currents. Massive icebergs decorate the deep blue waters. It’s a photographer’s heaven and my goal is to capture the majesty of the place. For most of the trip I use lenses between 16 and 100 in focal lengths . Unfortunately on the very first day I dropped my tele lens which has not been working properly for the rest of the expedition.
Without tele I have to get very close and intimate with wildlife trying not to be intrusive. I am glad I am able to do that even with birds which are not intimidated by human presence .
In Cuverville I spend hours just sitting nearby a penguin colony and observing their behaviour. There’s constant motion and a lot of noise around the colonies. These penguins are coming and going from nest to the ocean, feeding, bathing, stealing stones from each other for a nest or looking for a mate. At sea penguins are very powerful and agile swimmers but out of the water they stand like funny and clumsy little men waddling around.
After Cuverville we continue our journey down south visiting two stations, the Chilean station in Paradise Harbour and the British station in Port Locker.
We are the first people this season to visit the Chilean station. There are 14 people who live here from December to end of March and their duty is to monitor the Peninsula and provide emergency support. We are welcomed with a glass of Pisco Sour, coffee and cookies.
I am hoping to use their bathroom for a shower but i don’t think i can even ask. We haven’t had a shower since we left and we are not going to have one for the whole 3 weeks. I use wet tissues to clean myself .
The British station has a Post Office and i manage to send a postcard from Antarctica, how cool is that?!
Other than not showering, we have been in complete isolation for there weeks. No internet, no phone, no TV, no magazines…..nothing. I sent my last message from Ushuaia and that was it .The sense of isolation you feel in Antarctica is really unique. You know you are in the middle of nowhere and any emergency assistance is hard to get within a reasonable time.
The weather has been ok so far. We get about 20 hours of sun light around this time of the year. We are never in complete darkness.
Going further south to Melchior Islands is when we can have a glimpse of sunset and sunrise and the colours reflected by the ice and snow are simply stunning.
We enjoy the beautiful weather with a barbecue on the boat, and a couple of people are crazy enough to go for a swim, yes swimming in the Antarctic….well, more like a quick dip in the icy waters. More than 2 minutes in the water and you would die of hypothermia .
In Melchior Islands we see lots of Humpback whales. They move in pairs and at some point we are surrounded by more than twenty whales providing a spectacle as they cavort around the vessel. Tail-slapping is a common behaviour and their flippers are often on display above water too. We are all observing in religious silence the cetacean show.
We approach the third and last week of the expedition and i am starting to feel a bit tired, I haven’t slept much . The good news is that the Drake shake is going to be the Drake Lake on our way back. Forecast is good. There is no wind and we are motoring for 5 days.
Given it’s remoteness Antarctica seems another planet. Being in such an alien and desolate landscape I felt a great sense of personal discovery and mindfulness.
Experiencing Antarctica would humble any human being and I felt privileged to be away from all and to capture the beauty of the last true wilderness on earth………..I felt so small.