We are about to embark on a journey that will bring us over 1000 km south of the southernmost city in the world. From Ushuaia we’ll be going south of south... a long way south.
Ushuaia marks the end of the road in the Argentinian lands of Tierra del Fuego, but also the beginning – the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. During the summer this rapidly growing frontier town bustles with adventurous travelers. The duty-free port flourishes with tourism but also thrives on a sizeable crab fishery and a burgeoning electronics industry. Ushuaia (lit. “bay that penetrates to the west” in the indigenous Yaghan tongue) clearly benefits from its magnificent, yet remote setting. The rugged spine of the South American Andes ends here, where the two great oceans meet. Somewhat wrong. The Andes actually continue their course underwater and re-emerge as the Antarctandes on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Today is the 8th of March 2018, and as could be expected from this period of the year, the weather has the habit of changing on a whim. But temperatures during the long days of the austral summer are relatively mild and do provide a final blanket of warmth before heading off on our adventures in an ice-aged region of the world.
It’s around 15.00 o’clock, and I’m slowly walking towards the docks in Ushuaia with my backpack on my shoulders. I start recognizing the other 82 fellow passengers at the gangway, ready to board our ship. The MV Plancius will be our home for the next 10 days. For many of us, this is the start of a lifelong dream. The excitement surely comes in different forms for each unique person, but even the most experienced of us feel genuine excitement to depart on a journey to Antarctica. We are greeted at the gangway by members of our Ocean Wide Expedition staff who welcome us aboard. Our luggage is already on board so after a short wait on the wharf, we literally step into a new chapter of our lives. I walk through some narrow metallic corridors and follow the line into the main reception area where we are met by Zsuzsanna and Michael, our Hotel Managers. Everyone seems extremely friendly and helpful, and we are quickly checked into our cabins with the assistance of the fabulous Filipino crew who respond with enthusiasm to our greeting.
I step down a few narrow stairs and reach my cabin number 12 on deck 3 where I meet my new roommate. His name is Marcel, a smiling Slovakian man in his 70s with an incredible passion for hiking the hardest mountains in the world. After a quick introductory chat, we realize we are like-minded individuals: both of us are unpacking our unique set of survival-ready provisions… a large bottle of whiskey, and some chocolate bars. A few minutes after that, we are convened in the lounge on deck 5 to meet First Officer Jaanus, who led us through the details of the required SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) Safety and Lifeboat Drill, assisted by the crew and staff. On hearing the alarm we reconvened at the ‘muster station’, the lounge, for the mandatory safety briefing, donning the huge orange life jackets that will keep us safe should the need arise. After this lifeboat drill, we returned to the outer decks to watch our departure from the jetty of Ushuaia and the last of city life for a while. We entered the Beagle Channel with an escort of Black-browed albatross. The start of the journey feels surreal. There's a double rainbow all around us, and it almost seems we are about to cross a magical gate where a deity will welcome us into the unknown. I look back one last time on the South American continent, feeling like the luckiest person on the planet.
We’re invited once again to the lounge area to meet our Expedition Leader, Andrew Bishop. Andrew is a geologist from New Zealand with a very good sense of humor and an overall well-developed cocky behavior. Having traveled to Antarctica over 30 times, he has an arsenal of entertaining ice-breakers. He gives us an overview of the ship, a brief weather forecast for the next days and some house rules in order to learn how best to feel at home while respecting others. We then meet the rest of the Expedition Team, an incredible international group of young talented individuals who will guide us during our voyage, driving us ashore, giving lectures and ensuring we get the best possible experience during our trip.
This is where I start realizing why I decided to choose an expedition and not a cruise-ship ticket to Antarctica. Each one of the 14 crew members is given the chance to introduce himself and provide us with a brief overview of their experiences and roles on board the Plancius. We have a German doctor, an Australian professional photographer, a British documentary-superstar (read on!), a few kiwi biologists and adventurers, a Swedish oceanologist and even a cold-water diving-instructor. Wow!This was also our chance to meet our Captain, Evgeny Levakov and toast our voyage with a glass of Prosecco. Our captain has a very strong Russian accent. Actually, he’s very Russian. “What a sarcastic guy”, I think to myself while deciphering his words through his expression, before realizing that he’s just a very shy big man armed with a disorienting welcome speech. I feel in good hands! To be fair, he's been steering large ships in the Arctic for years, before moving to the opposite pole.
At 19:30 we sampled the first of many delicious meals on board, prepared by our Austrian Chef Heinz and the galley team. I’m positively surprised. The food is quite good and the service is great. This is also the start of many new incredible friendships and encounters with young and old individuals from all over the world, with incredible life experiences to share.
After dinner, we head back upstairs, to grab a drink at the bar. This time is occupied with more exploration of the ship, adjusting to its movements, and settling into our cabins. Some of us have had one drink too many and have not synchronized fully. In the early hours of the morning, we would be out into the open waters of the Drake Passage and heading southeastwards towards the seventh continent: Antarctica.