Stiggelbouts in the Antarctic

In Ushuaia, we rented a very strong mooring where Pazzo could wait for us during our foray to Antarctica. Uka (an Easter Islander who manages the Club Nautico) agreed to keep an eye on our Girl while we were away.

So, on January 15, we removed the genoa and canvas cockpit enclosure, cleared the decks, closed all thru-hull valves, kissed Pazzo goodbye, and meandered down the Malacon (sidewalk bordering the harbor) to the cruise ship dock and the awaiting “Ocean Atlantic.”

Except for Chloe, none of us had been on a cruise ship before so our expectations were flavored by Hollywood. On one hand, it was nice to leave the driving, cooking, and cleaning to the ship’s staff. On the other hand, there was plenty of tedium – especially on the 2.5 day transits down and back across the Drake Passage. The Drake is famously known for its nasty weather and huge seas circling the globe, unhindered by land at 60 degrees south latitude. Along with fear of ice, this reputation dissuaded us from sailing Pazzo down to the last continent. We would have liked to see the Drake in one of its “moods,” but the weather Gods delivered smooth conditions for both transits – much to the relief of our fellow passengers.

The food was excellent and plentiful and the expedition staff (those responsible of our entertrainment) did a fine job coordinating and delivering interesting lectures and forays off the ship. Accommodation on the ship was comfortable and appropriate for the adventure. It was clean but not ostentatious. A small library offered a narrow but deep assortment of Antarctica –related material.

The Russian crew was competent but not approachable, preferring to stick to themselves. Visits to the machinery rooms were prohibited and visits to the bridge were restricted. We met and befriended a few interesting fellow passengers but found a few of the expedition staff to be most interesting and affable. We particularly enjoyed the company of Jes “Yeti” from Denmark, Steve from Tasmania, and the Ship’s Doctor, Jose from Mexico.

During our crossings (5 days out of 9) we passed the time attending lectures on wildlife, geography, and biology (2 each day), eating (3 meals each day), reading, and watching for wildlife (mostly birds) on the ship’s aft deck. We took advantage of the

ship’s small gym and sauna which was, curiously, open only during breakfast and around the dinner hour.

While in Antarctic waters, the ship visited two sites each day and the expedition staff led shore visits and “zodiac cruises” at each site – weather permitting. Coordinating 200 guests plus staff in a dozen large zodiac inflatable boats twice a day was a feat well handled by the expedition team.

Antactica is governed by a treaty signed by 24 countries with an interest in the wellbeing of the continent. Tourism is governed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an international body who creates and imposes rules governing the behavior of tour operators and tourists visiting Antarctica. Near as we can tell, IAATO has no enforcement responsibility or power. Their rules are subject to interpretation by the governments of the signatory country where the ship is registered. Therefore French ships (for example) are expected to follow French interpretation and enforcement of the rules while Russian ships follow Russian interpretation. Vessels from countries not part of the treaty are not bound by any regulation. It is not clear who enforces any of the rules. It seems like the tour operators are watching each other and applying pressure on operators who are not playing nicely. Independent yachts seem to do as they please. Ocean Atlantic, under the direction of a Russian crew but sailing under the Stars and Stripes behaves according to very strict US interpretation. Examples of IAATO regulation:

* Boots worn ashore must be washed and disinfected prior to and after each shore landing

* Guests must always maintain a 5-meter distance from all wildlife

* Zero tolerance for any litter of any kind

* No human waste of any kind may be deposited ashore or within 10 miles of shore. Vessels must move offshore before discharging waste.

All this regulation is aimed at preserving Antarctica as an undisturbed natural wonderland for future generations. While some of the rules seem a bit restrictive, we applaud IAATO’s efforts – especially with tourism growing at an astounding rate.

Our Itinerary was as follows:

Day 1 Depart Ushuaia east thru the Beagle Canal, then south past Cape Horn

Day 2 Southbound across Drake Passage

Day 3 Southbound across Drake Passage

Day 4 Visits to Danco Island and Cuverville

Day 5 Visits to Melchoir Islands and Port Lockroy

Day 6 Visits to Paradise Bay and Neko Harbor

Day 7 Visits to Deception Island and Livingston Island (Walker Cove)

Day 8 Northbound across Drake Passage

Day 9 Northbound across Drake Passage

For the most part, the ship moved at night, arriving at our next port the following morning. During the lunch hours, the ship sailed to the afternoon site.

Highlights of our “expedition” (if you can call it that with 200 passengers) included amazing sights of ice bergs, glaciers, and bergy bits (small float ice formations) as well as, of course, wildlife:

Humpback Whales Gentoo Penguins Albatross

Minke Whales Chinstrap Penguins Petrels

Fur Seals Dolphins Sheathbills

Crabeater Seals Wedell Seals Terns

Elephant Seals Leopard Seals Skuas and Gulls

Of course Cindy was in photographer heaven with her zoom lens and an onboard professional photographer/coach. Lots of great lessons and even better shots!

All in all, we enjoyed our Antarctic cruise. We’re happy with our decision to leave Pazzo safely in Ushuaia, safe from the ice and challenges of Sir Drake. John and I were glad to have had a cruise-ship experience, but are not keen for another. Cindy and the girls, on the other hand enjoyed being pampered. Similarly, Antarctica was beautiful and interesting but I wouldn’t go back again while Cindy would jump at the opportunity. To each, their own.

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