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I've never been one for clubs, societies, organizations, the like ... they're mostly contrary to my introverted and hermit nature. We didn't know it was going to be called a "club," but for the 16 slots available for kayakers (in 8 tandem kayaks) on an expedition ship of 110 passengers, they call it the "kayaking club." But wait ... where am I? you ask. What am I doing? Last you knew, I was posting from the withering hot climes of southern Africa. What happened?
Well, happily, the universe conspired on my behalf to send me to Antarctica, which completed my lifetime goal of visiting all 7 continents. The goal was born when I was 17. I won't say how many years it's taken to finally realize the goal, because some of you might be good at math. However, that's not a complaint that I *finally* got there, because frankly I never realistically expected that I would, mostly on account of the price tag. But several factors all came together at just the right time, and suddenly Erik and I found ourselves booked into an Antarctic expedition cruise.
In spite of the fact I haven't even finished posting all I want to share from my travels earlier in the year, I'm just so excited to start sharing about Antarctica. It was hands-down, unequivocally the most unique traveling experience I've had. I've done some really cool things to nurture the cultural side of travel (i.e. indulging in my interest in traditional cultures), so this was the coolest thing ever in terms of landscape and outdoor experience. Sublime, dramatic, transcendental, riotously amusing at times ... and a stretch of fabulous weather (which the crew told us was quite special and rare). Our entire 12-day trip enjoyed phenomenal weather in context of where we were. So, the universe came through all the way to the end to make our Antarctic adventure a once-in-a-lifetime, magical adventure.
The most unique and wholly wicked-awesome, spectacular thing we did was sign up (and pay extra) to be able to go kayaking. Although 16 spaces are reserved per expedition, only 13 people were in our club. So it was a nice, small group, with 2 guides in kayaks at all times and one guide in a support zodiac always following us in case there were problems with a kayak, or somebody got too tired, or somebody tipped over. Yes, apparently that is not a remotely uncommon event! I honestly presumed that very rarely happened. But nope ... the guides explained the various ways in which people tip over. The most common seemed to be because they leaned over too far to take a picture of something in/under the water (like an iceberg) or to pick up something they dropped. Fortunately Erik and I are too paranoid of tipping over to do such silly things.
It was a bit of a task to get dressed for kayaking. First of course a couple layers of clothing (thermal underwear and various fleece layers, and socks plus I attached to them some chemical foot warmers each time). Then the full dry-suit with built-in footies (like kid's pajamas) to get velcroed tightly at the ankles and then pull on polypropolene booties over them, squeeze your hands and neck through the rubber gasket-like holes which keep all water out, zip yourself shut across the front, latching the zipper so no water can get in there. Then put your spray skirt on over your shoulders, and then your life vest, and then gloves and hat and sunglasses. And camera in pocket. Whew. Now we are roasting inside our cabin and must go outside on deck quickly! Here are our dry-suits drying out after an outing. We would hang them from the ceiling vent to dry, and I was continually startled when I caught them in the corner of my eye, thinking somebody was standing in our room.
So here are the members of our kayaking club. Pics taken by the guide in the zodiac. That's me and Erik on the far left.
Now, this is not a circumstance in which you can take your nice, fancy, expensive camera and long lens, as it will get wet just from the water dripping off your paddle even if you don't tip over. A couple people had Go-Pros they mounted to their kayak. But I had my well-loved G9 point-and-shoot camera that fit just perfectly into the outer pocket of my life vest. So with the strap around my neck and tucking it into the pocket after each picture snap, I was able to capture some of our time on "film." At the time, I had no idea whatsoever what I was getting because I couldn't see the screen in the light, and I was often snapping quickly at something, not taking any time to check if it was focused or correctly metered. So it was a pleasant surprise to see what turned out. I think, if I may say so myself, that I got some fun ones. Which I will now share with you. If you just want to look at the best pics, scroll down a bit, for I'm writing chronologically.
So ... our first day out. In the South Shetland Islands, north of the Antarctic Peninsula. We launched from the beach of Barrientos Island (other days we got into the kayaks in the water, directly off the zodiac). I was so tickled how the penguins came right up and milled around our kayaks, just going about their business as if the kayaks were just part of the natural landscape around them.
Now I confess to you a secret hope, but not expectation, that I had, which was to see a whale from our kayaks. I thought this would be turbo cool but knew that the odds weren't necessarily in our favor. But I was having a blast anyway as the penguins saw us off and we started around the island in lovely weather, clear blue sky and the slightest of breezes, so it was easy paddling. No more than 15 minutes into the excursion (the goal was to paddle around the island), our guides told us that a crew member on the ship radioed them to say they could see whales right ahead of us.
"What? Whales?" I couldn't believe it. I was thinking to myself, Are you serious? Really? Whales?
Surely I did not hear correctly.
But then I heard the sound of water being expelled from a blowhole, and there they were, a mom and a calf, straight in front of us. We could see the top of their long bodies as they surfaced and arched down into the water with their dorsal fin sticking up in the air so gracefully. Humpback whales. I looked back at Erik in the rear seat (the steering seat) of the kayak and said, "Did you see them? Whales! There are whales ahead! Can you see them?"
Of course he could see them, but I was so incredulous that I had to make sure I wasn't just dreaming, that he could see them, too. Since their bodies are visible above the water for only a few seconds, it's super difficult to get a photo. I managed one, but these two were taken by our guide in the support zodiac. (The red buildings in the background are a research station.) I present these pics basically just to prove that I'm not lying to you!
So, I was happy as a peach, though of course I had no idea what awaited me in the subsequent days. I figured everything from then on was icing on the cake. Here are a couple pics from the other 45 minutes of that outing. Depending on whether or not we also chose to go to land, our kayak adventures typically lasted between one and two hours.
So we landed on Barrientos Island and spent the next hour there with loads of penguins. I'll share those photos in another post. But suffice here to say it was one of the best days ever ... kayaking through the ice with humpback whales in sight and then so much fun with penguins, which I was so excited to see in Antarctica, though I came with no idea how many we'd see or how close! (stay tuned!)
But then the next day dawned on Brown Bluff. A rather mundane name for such a lovely place. But here I suppose you can deduce the origin of the name.
The weather was splendid beyond all reasonable expectations. Clear blue sky and glassy water, so utterly still, allowing beautiful reflections and easy paddling. Even the guides were giddy over how wonderful the conditions were. At Barrientos we were paddling through ice, but now we were paddling among icebergs ... like, true, genuine, big, impressive, beautiful, magical, fantastically-shaped, penguin-populated icebergs. THIS was what I had in my imagination that it would be like kayaking in Antarctica, even though I was completely happy with what we had experienced the day before. Though I had carried this in my visual imagination, that was no preparation for how amazing it was in real life ... which means I also cannot adequately explain to you through my words and pictures. So I kind of think I won't bother trying with words right now, but here are some fun photos that turned out a lot better than I would have guessed while I was blindly snapping them. The first one is our ship anchored.
A seal! He was nice enough to look up as we passed by and give us a nice pose. Or maybe he was just practicing his yoga.
I was never quick enough getting the camera out of my pocket and turned on to catch the penguins that swam alongside or in front of our kayaks. The way that dolphins often swim around boats, penguins look just like miniature dolphins the way they swim in little pods continually jumping out of the water. It was so fun paddling with the penguin pods. But I did capture some pics of them hanging out on icebergs.
There is something particularly captivating to me about lone penguins. Well OK, I'll say that later about penguin pairs, too. And about baby penguins. haha. But I really do love lone penguins in this giant landscape. I always want to caption the photos something like, "OK guys, where'd you go?" or "Very funny, guys, where are you?" Sometimes they look forlorn. Sometimes they look epic, like they are bravely undaunted by the landscape ...
This guy looks lost, and I would like to have seen him get on that iceberg in the first place! Penguins can launch themselves out of the water onto land or ice with surprising velocity and height. Still ... it looks so improbable that fella even got up there. (I say fella but it could be a gal, too ... no way to tell the difference) Can you spot him?
From lone penguin to penguin colony ... these are some of the penguins on Brown Bluff, below. As we were approaching them in the kayaks, we began to hear the din of their continual calling. I tried to record it on the camera but didn't really come out. It was SO loud. And even from the water we could catch the stench associated with penguin colonies, created by the tons of penguin poo. Sometimes there were literally rivers of poo running down the slope, ponds of it in the snow, and when they don't feel like leaving their nest, they just stick their butt in the air and projectile-poop so it lands usually somewhere on the outside of their rock nest and drips down. I adore those penguins, but man, they could use some latrine etiquette.
Please open this pictures below in a new tab to see it at larger size (hopefully you're looking at a big monitor!) so you can hopefully discern what is going on. All the little white dots on the land are penguins ... you can see a line of them on the right leading up to the top of the knoll, and that the ridge on the left is topped and lined with them. At first I thought they were rocks in the landscape or spotty patches of snow but they're penguins who, with their little feet, waddle all the way up there, up the steep, rocky slope to build their nests. And they have to commute every day down to the ocean for food. Can you imagine?
Typically the highest house on a ridge is the most prestigious one, but I think the penguins have it backward ... the ones up there have to work so much harder!! Why are they there? We were told that wherever the nests are, is where the snow typically melts first. So these prominent knolls and ridges must be the first to shed snow in the spring. But if you know about the emperor penguins who trek for something like 50 miles across the ice and snow to nest, you know that penguins have a hell of a work ethic. In the pic below you can see them all commuting in the same direction along the shoreline. As Erik said, it was like rush-hour traffic, everyone heading to the same place (presumably for food, though penguin behavior can be inscrutable sometimes).
A lot of the time we would be paddling through little chunks of ice. I think Erik made the perfect analogy, that it was like paddling through a frozen margarita or a slushie.
We were given the option to take the kayaks to land and visit the penguins on Brown Bluff. As much as I love the penguins, it was just too damn cool paddling through the ice and icebergs. We unanimously voted to stay in the water for the duration of the expedition time. (that's me and Erik on the right in the second pic, taken by the guide in the support zodiac)
This night at happy hour, which we always observed in the bar (they served little appetizers and sweets at 4:00 pm there each day), we were talking with the bartender, Sixto, with whom we would become special friends ... often it would be just the three of us chatting at the bar (and Erik spent even more time than I did with him). We were amped up with excitement over our kayaking adventure and telling Sixto how it was just the coolest day ever -- we were a little beside ourselves at how neat the experience was for us, explaining that it would go down in our travel records, which are fairly extensive, as one of the very best days.
He said, "Oh just wait. It gets better."
"What? That's impossible. No way!"
"Just wait, my friends. You'll see."
Erik and I both were openly and genuinely skeptical. But Sixto turned out to be a wise man, indeed.