|s/y Nine of Cups
A Sidetrip to Antarctica
March 10-20, 2006
Population: Officially none, except at research
stations and then 1,200 in winter; 5,000 in summer
Land Area: 5,100,021 sq miles (varies due to changing ice
shelves) representing 8.9% of the earth’s land. It is the 5th
largest of the 7 continents and about 1.5x the size of the US.
The continent is divided into East and West Antarctica (aka
Greater and Lesser) by the Trans-antartic Mountains.
Language: No official language
Currency: No currency
High point: Vinson Massif, 16,066 feet above sea level
Low Point: Bentley Subglacial Trench, -779 ft.
Time Zone: A tricky question in a place where all time zones
converge. So everyone in Antarctica officially goes by
New Zealand time.
|Our first landing was Aitcho Island in the South Shetlands.
Cleverly named for the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic
Office (“H-O”), this island is home to gentoo and chinstrap
penguins. Since the South Shetlands are considered “peri-
antarctic islands”, we were not yet officially in Antarctica.
|On Danco Island, the sign noting the
historical signficance of the island also
provided good, but limited, reading
material for this local gentoo penguin.
|Our “little red ship” seems to be glacier-
bound…just an illusion from the vantage
point of our Zodiac.
|The Crew’s Reading/Viewing List:
|With winter fast approaching, it's time to
head north and out of this cold, high
latitude place. Come back with us to
Ushuaia and Up the Argentine Coast.
|We left Nine of Cups on a mooring in Ushuaia,
got a caretaker for Jelly and boarded the steel-
hulled ship, Explorer (aka The Little Red Ship)
bound for Antarctica for 10 days.
|Antarctica, more than
99% solid ice, was
finally considered a
continent in 1840, and
not just a group of
|Yes, there is a Lonely
Planet Guide to
Antarctica and of
course, we have it!
|The Antarctic flag is symbolic
only since no one country
owns this continent.
|The plan to visit Antarctica had been hatching for some time.
After all, it IS the 7th continent and rarely visited by most
travelers. We had even considered trying to work for a season
in Antarctica, but our applications (along with 30,000 others we’
re told) were never even acknowledged. While in Puerto Montt,
we chatted with a Dutch couple, Thalassa II, who had taken a
10-day passage aboard a research vessel from Ushuaia. Then in
Ushuaia, we met up with "Asylum" who had just gotten back.
The “bug” got us and never let go. We did not feel comfortable
taking “Cups” there…most boats that sail there are steel boats
able to cope with icebergs. The alternative was to take the route
that Thalassa took. We ended up rushing through the canals to
get to Ushuaia in time to make one of the last cruises of the
season. At $2,750 USD per person last-minute rate, it is a large
expenditure for miserly cruisers, but a once in a lifetime
opportunity, we thought. We rarely regret what we do, only
what we do NOT do. In retrospect, we'd do it again.
|Antarctica is the coldest, windiest,
darkest, driest and highest (on
average) continent in the world. In
fact, the lowest temperature ever
recorded on Earth was recorded
in Antarctica (-129.3ºF) and the
mean winter temperatures range
from -40º to -94ºF. Winds are
commonly measured at up to 200
miles per hour.
|The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C. on 1
December 1959 by the twelve nations (Argentina, Australia,
Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South
Africa, United Kingdom, United States and USSR) that had
been active during the IGY (International Geophysical Year
1957-58). The Treaty, which applies to the area south of 60°
South latitude, is surprisingly short, but remarkably effective.
Through this agreement, no one owns the continent (although
several governments have claimed territory and have
permanent stations there); the countries active in Antarctica
consult on the uses of a whole continent, with a commitment
that it should not become the scene or object of international
discord; only research for peaceful means is allowed.
|Between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
lies the Drake Passage, considered some of the roughest seas in the world.
Our passage was one of the best the Captain remembered in the last 16
years! It was calm, smooth, sunny and unseasonably warm. The Drake
Passage is named after the famous British navigator, explorer and
privateer, Sir Francis Drake. When the passage is calm, it’s called the
Drake Lake. When it’s not, it’s called the Drake Shake or “paying the
Drake tax”. The area in which the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet
the Southern Ocean is called the Antarctic Convergence or the Polar Front.
|Our trip, the green dotted line on the
map to the right, took us across the
Drake Passage and the Antarctic
Convergence to the Antarctic Peninsula.
|The view from our porthole shows a
calm sea and a huge tabular iceberg in
the distance. Tabular icebergs are those
which have broken off an ice shelf.
|The first tourist groups left for Antarctica in
the 1960's. In 2005, 20,000+ tourists visited.
|Our first landfall after the Drake Passage was the
South Shetland Islands. The South Shetlands, named
after the Shetland Islands of Scotland, are a major
group of islands at the northern point of the Antarctic
Peninsular. The 335 mile long chain consists of four
main island groups. The Brit, William Smith,
discovered them in 1819 after being blown off course
while rounding Cape Horn. Sealers took an
incredible number of fur seals in 1820-60 almost
annihilating the population. The highest point on the
islands is Mt. Foster on Smith Island at 2280’.
|The first photograph of an iceberg was made by
Britain’s “Challenger” Expedition in 1874. One of the
biggest icebergs ever, broke free from the Ross Ice
Shelf in 2000. It measured ~183 miles long x 23 miles
wide with a surface area the size of the
Bahamas…above water…and 10 times larger below.
|Antarctica’s ice sheets contain 90% of
the world’s ice which holds nearly 70%
of the world’s fresh water. In fact, if
Antarctica’s ice sheets melted, the world’
s oceans would rise by over 20’.
|Two gentoo penguins in a greeting
ritual.We were surprised at the how
much green there was. The beach
where we landed was cobble, but green
moss and algae covered the
hillside…along with a significant amount
of penguin poop. The smell was similar
to that of a hen house and we spent a
great deal of time scraping and washing
our boots before being allowed back
aboard the launch and the ship.
|Though late in the season (referred to
as “dead penguin season”), penguins
were innumerable and totally unafraid
of us. They went about their business,
never bothering about us as long as
we stayed out of their way. They had
an interesting way of spreading their
wings as they waddled quickly past …
as if they had important business to
attend to and they were already late.
|Plants on Antarctica are limited to about
350 species of lichens, mosses and
algae. There are no trees or bushes.
|We were also surprised at just how warm it was in the bright sunshine. We were all decked out in
our foul weather gear with multiple layers of clothing underneath and we were sweating. It was
molting season for the adults and fledging time for the chicks. The adults lost all of their feathers and
the chicks lost their baby down and grew their first feathers. There were down and feathers every-
where and many of the penguins looked miserable waiting for the process to be over with.
|Our next landing was Danco
Island…still not “on” the Antarctic
Peninsular, but we were getting close.
Danco Island, about 1 mile long, was
established by the British as Base O for
the purpose of topographic and geologic
surveys. It was occupied from 1956-59
and then abandoned. Per the terms of
the Antarctic Treaty in 1994, all disused,
non-historic sites,were to be abolished
and thus the site was cleared except for
a small refuge hut in 2004. The island
was originally charted by Gerlache in
1897-99 and later named after the
expedition’s geophysicist, Emile Danco,
who died in Antarctica.
|Penguins trudged up the steep snow-covered hillsides with
ease…no huffing and puffing. They actually slid back down
when they wanted to descend and looked like surfers
maintaining perfect balance, seemingly enjoying themselves.
|We climbed one of the hills on Danco for a scenic view of our “Little Red Ship” below and
another scenic vista. The glacial ice and icebergs are blue, blue, blue in sharp contrast to the
whiteness of the snow and the black volcanic rock.
|Long before Antarctica was discovered, ancient Greek philosophers as far back as 530
BC, believed that a continent covered the southern end of Earth. Specifically, they
believed that the world was “balanced” and thus a large southern continent would
balance the northern continents. Since they had named the northern ice lands “Arktos”
after the northern constellation, the opposite would be “Antarktos”. It was also referred
to as Terra Australis Incognita…the hidden southern continent.
During Cook’s explorations of the area in the late 1700’s, he mentioned the abundance
of seals at South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands which prompted sealers to begin
exploration and exploitation of the area nearly decimating the seal population. The
Antarctica continent was first sighted in 1820 by Fabian Bellinshausen, but not
considered a continent until 1840 when sufficient exploration deemed it large enough to
be considered a continent rather than just a group of islands. Inland exploration began in
the early 1900's. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in
1911. In what turned out to be a dramatic race, he arrived there five weeks ahead of a
British expedition led by Captain Robert F. Scott. The Heroic Era from about 1895 until
1930 included the Big 4 Explorers: Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson.
|A parent feeds a baby penguin. It
was near time for the baby to strike
on its own and soon the parents
would abandon it. Tough life!
|There are 8 varieties of penguins in
Antarctica. We saw Adelie,
Gentoo, chinstrap and macaroni.
Additionally, there are rockhopper,
emperor, king and royal.
|Famous British navigator, James Cook, was
the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on
January 17, 1773.
|From Danco Island, we went just around the
corner to land at Neko Harbor, an actual
landing on the Antarctic Peninsular! Located
deep inside Andvord Bay, this harbor was
discovered by de Gerlache, but takes it name
from the Norwegian whaling ship, Neko,
which operated in the area between 1911 and
It was here that American long distance
swimmer, Lynne Cox made her historic 2km
swim in 25 minutes in near freezing water in
This area is home to a large colony of Gentoo
penguins as well as brown skuas and snowy
|A chubby fledgling Gentoo in the
process of losing his baby down and
acquiring his first feathers.
|Marcie mingles with the local inhabitants who
don’t seem to mind her at all…in fact, they
pretty much ignored her. Take a good look at
the icy water in the background…not a good
place for a swim!
|Still traveling south, we entered the Lemaire
Channel, so scenic its nickname is the
Kodak Gap. We took a Zodiac trip through
the iceberg fields, threading our way
between huge, building sized bergs.
|We saw lots of crabeater seals and also
several very aggressive leopard seals.
Check out the peeking penguin.
|Ice is a major part of the landscape here. It is everchanging and magnificent. We had
the opportunity to drift and wander through ice floe aboard Zodiac inflatables. The
colors, hues and shadows were incredible. The water was very clear and the
submerged portion of the massive ice bergs showed well beneath the surface in
shades of shadowy blue-greens. We could hear cracking and loud thuds as the ice
settled and sometimes split with a crash to the water and subsequent big waves.
|Antarctica’s coastline measures nearly 19,000 miles of
which only ~800 miles is ice free. The Ross Ice Shelf is
larger than France.
|Our next stop was in the Argentine
islands at the Ukranian station,
Akademik Vernadsky on Galindez
Island. At 65º15S / 64º10W, this is the
most southern point we will reach on the
trip. This station, built by the UK and
named Farraday Station was the first to
identify the hole in the ozone layer. The
station was transferred to the Ukranians
for the sum of 1£ in 1996 and is
currently the most senior station open
continuously in Antarctica.
|Before visiting the station itself, we visited Wordie House, an historic site. Built in 1947 (not THAT historic!!) as the first station, it is
located about ½ mile from the current station and was restored by the British in the 1990’s back to its early 1950’s appearance. The
vintage kitchen to the right included a pantry that still contained canned and packaged goods on the shelves and a true reminder that
the place was once British… a Guiness sign.
|The outside of the facility was neat and clean. Storage sheds housed fuel, generators and tools. All refuse is hauled away by supply ships which call infrequently. Our ship left several crates
of fresh veggies for the station which we’re sure were much appreciated. At the station itself, we were greeted by one of the 24 Ukranians who man this station year round and given a tour of
the facility and an overview of the research work that is performed here. The wharf, far right, where we unloaded with a huge iceberg just floating into the little harbor.
|The pub, a remnant left by the Brits, sports a
carved wooden bar, a dart board, billiard table
and bras hung from the ceiling left by nubile
visitors over the years. There is also a souvenir
shop with a banner “the most southern souvenir
shop in the world” draped over its entrance.
Additionally, there is a post office which sells
commemorative postage stamps An interesting
note…only American $$$ are accepted.
|At the end of the tour, we all met in the
Farraday Pub where we all tried a shot
of Ukranian vodka (whew…now that
puts hair on your chest!). Our bar-
tender was friendlier than he appears.
|Life aboard the ship was quite civilized. We had a small, but comfortable room with
two twin beds (ugh!), a private bathroom with shower and a hanging locker…not so
much different than Cups except the bed situation. The ship had a bar/ lounge, a dining
room, a lecture hall with comfy chairs and a small ship’s library with a good Antarctic
book selection. Bulletins and charts were posted throughout the ship, showing what
activities were available and when and exactly what progress the ship had made.
Meals were quite good. Breakfast and lunch were “help yourself” buffets with a good
variety of offerings. Dinner was a sit-down affair, usually 3-4 courses and quite tasty.
Additionally, “tea” was served daily at 4pm in the lounge with snacks available. Tea,
coffee and fresh fruit was always available. We were honored to be chosen to sit at the
Captain’s Table for the Captain’s Dinner event one evening. Our captain, Kenth
Grankvist, was a Swede and had been ice piloting for 16 years in both the Arctic and
A typical daily routine would include breakfast at 0730, followed by a morning briefing
of what to expect ashore then a landing ashore. Back to the ship for lunch while the
ship moved on, an afternoon landing, back to the ship for hot showers. A lecture was
usually given around 5pm and sometimes another around 7pm. Dinner at 8pm with an
end of day review in the lounge followed by a video appropriate to the Antarctic and
always good. Full days, everyday…always interesting, always something different.
|Our next landing was at the British station, Port Lockroy (French pronunciation of Lock-rwah). Located on Wiencke Island, this station is the most visited by tourists in all of Antarctica.
Formerly the British Base A, it was set up in 1943-44 to monitor German ship movement as well as ward off Argentine claims to the area. It was manned continuously until 1962 then
abandoned. It was restored in 1996 to its original “glory” and now serves as a self-financing museum and post office. We brought postcards from Argentina and had them hand-
cancelled and mailed from here. They purportedly hand cancel over 40,000 pieces of mail per season to over 116 countries. They also maintain a small souvenir shop. The island is also
home to a large Gentoo rookery. The penguins moved in after the station was built, but it appears they are not affected by the 10,000 tourists that tramp through during the season. Like
the Wordie House, the museum is 1940-1950’s vintage furniture and equipment. David takes a look at the famous “Beastie”, an early apparatus for upper atmosphere study.
|On the other side of Wiencke Island was Jougla Point where even more Gentoo penguins
lived. We wandered around, never tiring of watching the penguins. There was also a
composite blue whale skeleton reconstructed on shore to view. While here, the wind
increased dramatically and the temperature dipped to below freezing. The skies were
overcast and gray and snowflakes whirled through the air.
|Antarctica’s native land animals are all invertebrates and they are all small. They are mostly insects
including fleas, lice, mites and midges…most of which are parasites of seals and birds. The largest
animal that permanently dwells on the continent is the wingless midge growing to just over 2.5” long.
|Antarctica is called the “white
continent”, but at times, all we saw were
dazzling shades of blue.
|Having a geologist aboard was
interesting and she gave us much
food for thought. We were familiar
with the concept of “continental
drift” and super continents, but didn’
t know exactly how Antarctica fit
into the picture. The super continent
“Gondwana” is shown left. It
sounds incredible, but there is
significant evidence from fossils that
many plant and animal species in the
shaded areas shown were shared
by each of the previously connected
land masses. Plant fossils found in
Antarctica reveal that the continent
once had a warm, ice-free climate
with trees and other leafy plants.
Not only do continents drift, the South Pole drifts as well.
At least the magnetic South Pole does. Antarctica's
wandering pole, officially called the south magnetic pole,
moves at least 5 miles a year.
|First to reach the South Pole was Norwegian, Roald
Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer. His expedition set off
from Antarctica's Bay of Whales on Oct. 19, 1911, and
reached the pole on Dec. 14, 1911. This, by the way, was
a real achievement for the new country of Norway
because until 1905, Norway was part of Sweden.
|A female blue whale caught at Grytviken in
the 1911-12 whaling season measured just
under 110 feet… making it the largest animal
ever recorded on earth!
|We saw lots of whales beginning in the
Drake Passage and throughout our cruise
in the Antarctic waters. Though several
species inhabit the area, we saw minkes,
fins and humpbacks.
| The first whaling station in Antarctica was
established in 1904 by an Argentine-Norwegian
company which took 183 whales in its first season.
Exploitation followed. In 1912-13, six land stations,
21 factory ships and 62 catcher boats killed and
processed 10,760 whales. By 1930-31, the kill
increased annually to over 40,000 and continued at
this level for the next 20 years, almost annihilating
the world whale population. In 1986, a world
moratorium on commercial whale catching went into
effect. Japan, however, still kills some 400 minke
whales each year in the name of “research” and
Norway still hunts and kills whales.
Why whales? Whale oil was extensively used for
lighting, lubrication and tanning in the early 20th
century. The market expanded even more when a
process was invented to turn it into margarine and
soap. More efficient methods of killing and
processing the whale made it even more profitable.
The records from South Georgia Island, the main
site of land-based whale processing operations,
recorded a total of 175,250 whales from 1904 to
1965. Little wonder that so few whales exist today!
|There are 6 species of seals found in the
Antarctic. Included in our sightings of
“pinnipeds” were crabeater, fur,
Weddell, leopard and elephant seals.
Sealers were the first to follow the
explorers and were so thorough in their
slaughter that they nearly annihilated
seals altogether. An example in the
South Shetland Islands, in only four
summers between 1819-1923, the entire
population of hundreds of thousands of
seals was totally gone. Seals were
hunted for their fur as well as the oil
produced from their blubber.
|About 1 in 800 fur seals are “blonde”. We
spotted this one on Deception Island.
|We watched as a snowy sheathbill kept
pecking at this crabeater seal, annoying it
until it tried to swat the bird.
|Southern elephant seals…the world’s
largest seals, lie like lumps on the beach.
|We had several beautiful, blue-
skied days and a couple of bad
weather days which gave us a
taste of what it could really be
like. Even on sunny days, the
water was at freezing
temperature. One day it snowed
heavily and we noted that the
snowflakes landed on the water,
but did not melt but rather
accumulated on the surface, since
they were a warmer temperature
than the water. Of course, as
grown adults on the Zodiacs,
there was only one thing to do
with all the snow….have a
snowball fight…which we did.
|Thick ice buries most of Antarctica. The continent's deepest ice is more than 10 times
the height of the Sears Tower. The deepest ice core ever drilled in Antarctica produced
ice estimated to be ~950,000 years old at its bottom.
| We headed back north through the
Neumayer Channel and the Lemaire
Strait to the South Shetlands again. We
landed at Hannah Point, Livingston
Island, home to gentoo and chinstrap
penguins as well as one pair of macaroni
penguins, the only macaronis we saw
during the entire trip. We walked along
the beach to Walker Bay where a
collection of local fossils and minerals
had been collected and left on display on
one of the flat rock tops. The visiting
ships coordinate their landings so that no
more than 100 people are ever ashore in
one place at one time.
From Livingston Island, a short trip to
Deception Island…our last landing for
the trip. A broken-ring shaped island,
this excellent natural harbor was formed
by a collapsed volcano cone. We
entered the inner lagoon via a narrow,
rock-strewn break in the volcano’s walls
called Neptune’s Bellows, aka “Hell’s
Gate” and “Dragon’s Mouth”. The
rusting remains of “Southern Hunter”, a
British whale catcher, lies along the side
of the entrance, sunk New Year’s Eve
1957. Because of its volcanic origin, the
beach at Deception is all black volcanic
sand. We landed at Whaler’s Bay.
|The remains of the whaling station are
evident everywhere. Dilapidated
wooden huts, large rusting tanks and
boilers for processing whale oil and
rotting boats dot the beach.
|Antarctica is classified as a desert. It has less
annual precipitation than the Sahara Desert!
|A rotting, abandoned water
boat used to bring fresh water
to the whaling ships in the last
|Remember, this was a
volcanic caldera? Well, the
sand below us was quite
warm. In fact, once a pit was
dug, the water which seeped
inside warmed up to a balmy
80ºF. The intrepid among us
(read that…young and
foolish) all went dashing into
the icy Southern Ocean for a
dip and then returned to bask
in the warm mud pit. We
were content to watch and
|We wondered if we would
regret not having gone for a
swim, but so far, no regrets!
|The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the
world’s largest current and flows at a rate
of 5.5 billion cubic feet/second … about
1000 times the flow of the Amazon River.
|Antarctic fiction began in 1605 with publication of Mundus Alter Et Idem (Another
World and Yet the Same) by Bishop Joseph Hall.
|Thoughts on visiting Antarctica….
Without a doubt, Antarctica is the most exotic place we have ever visited. It is
"other worldly". Beautiful, cold, austere, serene, remote...it is each of these, all
of these and so much more. Some thoughts...
|Extra! Extra! Extra!
The Little Red Ship sunk in Antarctic
waters on November 23, 2007.
Read the news story here.