Honestly, I need to get used to Andrews' voice. It’s not the sexiest voice to wake up to. This morning we woke to our first sunrise over Antarctic waters as we continued our journey across the Drake Passage.
I can see splashing waves on our little porthole window in our room. The water feels different. Having crossed the Antarctic Convergence overnight, a few keen birders were out on deck early already to scout for some of the seabirds of the south.
After breakfast, the business of preparing ourselves for Antarctica begins. We attend a mandatory briefing, where we learned about IAATO requirements and Zodiac operations, which filled many of us with a mix of excitement and anticipation. This was followed by a vacuum party - unfortunately not the kind of party with party hats, clowns, or birthday cakes, but the kind of party where you clean and vacuum your expedition gear. Vacuuming our gear is mandatory for all ships and guests heading down to Antarctica so as to minimize our impact on the environment and avoid introducing foreign species of plants and fungi. So, with great fanfare, six vacuum cleaners were brought up to the lounge and strategically placed for us all to clean every last little bit of grass, seeds, and cow manure from our outerwear. As exciting as the vacuum party was, it was quickly superseded by spotting our first iceberg– a graceful, glowing tabular berg about one mile long, floating at the horizon, due East. We also began to see hints of land up ahead. We are approaching the South Shetland Islands.
After a scrumptious lunchtime meal, the divers met with their intrepid team of guides to put the finishing touches on their preparations for their first Antarctic dive tomorrow. I headed outside as I was extremely curious to hear about their gear and to learn how someone actually prepares to dive in cold-waters. Among the lucky 8 professional divers, there’s a Russian family with their kids cleaning their gear, and checking their expensive cold water wetsuits for tiny oxygen bubbles trapped from previous dives.
Then, just as we are preparing to go to the dining room to hear a few new talks, we hear an announcement that whales have been spotted from the Bridge, and the Captain is planning to divert our course to take a closer look. That’s the cool part of having a Russian captain, I guess. We throw on some warm layers, grabbed binoculars and cameras and head for the outer decks, where we are treated to an amazing display of whale blows and fins, set on a backdrop of dramatic glaciers and mountains disappearing into low clouds. The whales dive, then reappear before continuing their journey down the coast. The staff is able to identify them as Fin whales, due to the white patch on the lower right jaw, and the long display of the body before the fin. An hour later, Toby finally takes the stage to talk about his experience working on a well-known natural history series for four years. This is crazy! I’m on my way to Antarctica with a crew member who participated in the filming of my favorite nature documentary series. I keep on repeating myself: Yes, this is real. I am sailing to Antarctica...with someone who worked on Planet Earth II!
Andrew’s talk on glaciers was canceled due to the unexpected, but much appreciated whale diversion, so we had about an hour of free time before gathering for a recap to hear the plan for tomorrow: our first day in Antarctica!! After a brief recap, many of us congregate in the dining room as our superstar Toby is taking the sage again to talk on penguins and tell us all about some of the different species we hope to see while in Antarctica. We learn that there’s actually a wide variety of penguins in Antarctica and that they all come in different shape, colour and behaviour of course: the tall and beautiful Emperor Penguin, the shy Adelie (named after Adele, the wife of the French scientist who discovered these first), the Chinstrap who looks like he’s wearing a helmet, the Gentoos and their playful look, and the rare Macaroni with their little punk haircut. We also learn that about 40 million years ago, giant penguins populated this continent and stood taller than man. To actively participate in the preservation of penguins, Toby finally invites us to bookmark a project’s website to learn how a team of experts is using Artificial intelligence to automatically spot new penguin colonies from satellite imagery.
Later that evening, I get introduced to the other two only backpackers onboard. Little did I know how much time we would spend together in the coming months, traveling through Patagonia, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru together. But tonight, we are all heading to sleep early. Tomorrow, we will be stepping on the iced continent for the first time.