please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I had never traveled via ship before we signed up for this cruise to Antarctica, so for me it was pretty exciting and interesting. This post is largely for those of you who might not know what it's like onboard a ship. We were on the ship "Sea Spirit," which accommodates I believe 110 passengers. Something very near to that, anyway. When I tell people we went on a cruise to Antarctica, I think a lot of them are picturing Celebrity Cruises-type ships that are like floating islands, servicing many hundreds of people, with swimming pools and casinos. Umm, no. Now I always call it an "expedition cruise" to separate it from the typical Caribbean cruise. Here's a little diagram to show you where our main activities took place.
The ship was, by my reckoning, very comfortable -- far more luxurious than I imagined, to be honest. By the time we booked the trip, the two lowest grade of cabin were sold out. So we were in the "superior suite" class. Check out our digs:
There was a steward for every few cabins whom you could summon for anything you needed. Often ours (who hails from Guatemala) would be in the hallway when we returned from an expedition and he'd open our cabin door for us. I always try to look people in the eye when I talk to them, but he had a gold-rimmed tooth in front that I found I could never stop staring at, haha. They did bed turn-down every evening with mints on the pillows. If we left stuff lying around haphazardly in the room, we'd usually come back to find the clothes that had been strewn around the room folded neatly on the bed. Oftentimes we came back to find little towel animals waiting inside for us. I must admit I always delight in these things. (an elephant here)
For dealing with the ship pitching in rough seas (this mostly happens only during the crossing of the Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina, the port city, and the South Shetland Islands), there are railings next to the toilet and inside the shower and all shelves have rails across them. In the living area, all dresser drawers and cabinet cupboards require an extra push to close them, they have little latches to lock them closer. A couple times on the passage over, we had not sufficiently fastened them all and in the middle of the night, dresser drawers slammed full open as the ship pitched to the side. I personally liked the movement while lying in bed and never felt ill.
The funniest thing was that all the hallways were lined with barf bags stuck into the railings at regular intervals. Sickness, I learned from Erik, can come on extremely swiftly and unexpectedly. A seasickness victim may not have time to run back to their room and may not have the luxury of being discreet in their upchucking. It was like some kind of amusement park fun-house or something trying to walk down the hallways during the Drake Passage. And we were told that we had such mild seas during our crossings that the crew was referring to it as the Drake Lake. I feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get to experience what a ship feels like in rougher seas. I was not alone ... a lot of passengers said the same thing when talking amongst ourselves.
And just in case something unfortunate were to happen ... we had to go through an evacuation drill on the first day. Here I am sporting a life jacket which I have managed to follow the directions and put on properly.
Sixto, the beloved and legendary bartender of the Sea Spirit, whose homeland is Costa Rica, told us a harrowing story of a large cruise ship he was working on in the Straight of Gibraltar that lost all of its power in a storm and therefore had not just no electricity, but no means to steer the ship or keep her upright; it pitched so violently that the slot machines came unplugged and slid from one side of the room to the other. No one could even get to their cabins, they held on to what they could for several hours; Sixto said he held onto a pillar in the bar room. OK, maybe I don't need to experience THAT kind of rough sea.
Here is the bar lounge on the Sea Spirit, which included nightly music at the piano, 4:00 p.m. hot snacks, and 24/7 jars of cookies, tea and coffee. Erik and I sat here sometimes looking through my pics from the day, downloaded onto our laptop. I regret that I didn't take a photo of Sixto. (he's probably on a bunch of other people's blogs, though, haha)
The one part of the ship that was criminally underused by us ... we only got in it on the last day ... was the hot tub on the lunch/grill deck. On the warmer days, lunch was offered outside on this deck. It was also a lovely place to sit and watch the sunset. The peeps in the first pic are a mother and son from Germany with whom we often ate meals.
I enjoyed the warmth of the hot tub water ... but can you guess what Erik did? When we first started the trip, I thought I might do it and Erik said "no way." But it turned out that I thought better of the situation and realized my heart would probably stop and then Erik would be stuck carting my lifeless body home. Erik, on the other hand, spent too much time with Sixto who talked him into participating in the polar plunge! He took a few shots of rum ahead of time for courage and one afterward for congratulations. Our neighbors in the cabin across the hall were a very nice couple, originally hailing from Britain and Sweden but now living in southeast Asia, and she was a brave soul, too! Erik said his technique was to simply walk off the boat edge rather than jump or dive so he'd have less distance to swim through the water back to the ship. I believe he captioned this pic on Facebook something like, "I was just walking along minding my own business when this happened ....." I think his technique looks suspiciously penguine and that he'd been studying the penguins for guidance.
All the plungers got a certificate verifying their deed. Erik said he's going to frame it and put it on the wall of his office ... it was a far greater feat, he said, than acquiring a diploma (which sits somewhere in an unknown box ... presumably). And if he ever has to write a resume, will be sure to include it, haha.
We didn't spend much time in our cabin, primarily only to change into our expedition clothes twice a day and typically nap in the afternoons, then sleep at night -- for which we had thick, black-out curtains to darken our cabin since it never got truly dark at night. But even in the cabin, we were treated to lovely scenes passing by. Actually, the only place we couldn't always see outside was in the dining room below decks. But just outside it in the hallway were porthole windows right at the water level, which I enjoyed watching out of ... you couldn't see the landscape or icebergs so much, but you felt the motion of the ship through the water as it sloshed up and down over the window. But here are some typical views from our cabin window.
The ship had an "open bridge" policy, so that it was basically open all the time for passengers to walk through and hang out in, even to talk to the captain (a hearty Russian fellow) and crew if they wished. The only time it was closed was while traveling through areas of denser icebergs, when the captain and crew were very busy delicately guiding the ship and needed full concentration on the work at hand. There were cameras along the sides of the ship and I saw the engineer walking back and forth along the deck during these iceberg navigation times. It was interesting to hang out in there for awhile just to see how a bridge operates -- the information that various crew gives to the captain, what he does with that info and passes it along to the helm, etc. My favorite scene, for some weird reason, in the 1990s Titanic movie is when the ship first hits the iceberg and the officer runs to flip the switch to close the watertight doors and you see the lights lighting up for each door. In the Titanic museum exhibit that has traveled around the States (I've seen it twice), they have that watertight door indicator panel on display. So I thought it was neat to see that same type of panel on this ship. I really, really wanted to yell, "Close the water tight doors!" But I probably would have been kicked off.
After awhile I felt rather fond of the ship and it felt like a bit of home as it became familiar and the daily routine sank in. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't like a ship crowding into a nice nature landscape, but here it was different, seeing my mobile home in the landscape, knowing it was what brought me there. I liked to take a picture of it in the surroundings of wherever it had brought us -- from one magical spot to another.
Here she is docked in port at Ushuaia, Argentina. This is when we first laid eyes on her from our hotel room the night before boarding. We could not have guessed what amazing sights and adventures she would imminently lead us into! Can't help developing fond feelings for the thing that carries you into your dreams. :)
We had brought some cards and games and books with us, but we had very little down time to engage in any of these. The expedition leader came over the intercom (speakers in every cabin and all common areas) usually about 7:00 a.m. with a wake-up call, "Good morning, good morning dear passengers ..." in her German accent. First breakfast, then preparing for the morning expedition which usually launched by 9:00 a.m. (for kayaking this entailed putting on all our gear as described in the first kayaking post; for zodiac cruises or landings, it was donning snow pants, rubber boots, various layers, life-vest (a smaller one than in the photo above). Then the morning expedition followed shortly thereafter by lunch. Then we usually napped, then prepare for the afternoon expedition which usually launched around 2:00 p.m. Then back to the ship to be met with hot tea in the lobby, and after changing out of expedition wear, it was just in time for happy-hour appetizers and drinks with Sixto. Then before we knew it, dinner at 7:00 p.m. We found various things to do in the evenings, but usually found ourselves tucked into our beds pretty early after an exciting day ... somehow elevated levels of excitement kind of wears you out! Plus if we kayaked or hiked on an island, that was physically tiring to us kids who aren't in very good shape!
Whenever there were particularly spectacular icebergs or whales to be seen, the expedition leader would come over the intercom to notify the passengers of which side of the ship to see them on. I really appreciated these heads-ups, otherwise we would have missed some neat sights. Didn't get any good photos of whales, but we did see them from the ship on a several occasions. Not quite as exciting as seeing them in the kayak, but still pretty neat. Here is a pair leading the ship onward into the sunset.
Of course, these waters, particularly in the South Shetlands, were mined for whales for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was so stunned when the expedition leader pointed out that the whale bones we saw sometimes on the beaches of islands were there from the whaling ship days! They've lain there for decades. It was a sad reminder of the often cruel methods whalers used to capture whales and of the quantity of these magnificent creatures deleted from the oceans by the frivolous desires of humans.
But the worst thing we were told about was related to this rusting cauldron on a beach. This is correction from my first post -- I mixed up some things in my memory, as I know that Antarctic explorers often ate penguin and I was thinking this was a pot for cooking them. And I remember being told here on the beach that "they were thrown in alive." The horror that my little brain blocked out until Erik just reminded me, what the situation was far worse than just throwing the penguins into boiling water to cook. In fact, the cauldron was used to render seal blubber. So they were cooking seal fat, not penguins. Do you know what the penguins were used for? For firewood!! The sealers would throw the penguins on the fire itself like kindling. Because of their own high fat content, they apparently burned very well. As I've explained and shown you in my penguin posts, they have absolutely no fear of humans and they cannot fly or run very fast, so they're easily caught. Literally, on these islands it wasn't, "throw another log on the fire" (there are of course no trees), but "throw another penguin on the fire." I know that it was an era in which animals received little-to-no empathy or recognition as anything beyond a renewable consumer product, whether it be for eating or wearing, or what have you, but geeze, using as kindling is just unfathomable to me.
Some islands sported the reminders of the human history that has touched this region in decaying remains of wooden boats. A seal lies in the middle of the ribs of an old boat still mostly under snow.
The G9 camera that we took kayaking was often used by Erik on land, and we often traded it back and forth. I'm not entirely sure who took the picture below, but I think it's a really good one when you look at all the details captured (such as the seagull and penguin) and the composition and lighting (check it out larger!) .... which leads me to strongly suspect that Erik was the photographer. He took some close-ups of the old boat, as well.
So people have come to this part of the world to explore, to claim bragging rights of being the first to do a number of things on this continent, to hunt whales, and now most commonly to see it as a tourist or to do research in one of the many research stations scattered across the South Shetlands and the continent itself. I forget how many different countries have research stations here. But it's quite a few. Argentina has the most, sort of surreptitiously making the biggest footprint to be able to call the continent its own. You can tell which country each station belongs to by the national flag, often painted on the outside of the buildings. Here are a couple Argentinian ones we ran across:
I had no idea, and it seems to me crazy and terribly short-sighted, that the international treaty banning all military activity and territorial sovereignty claims, which preserves Antarctica as a global treasure and resource for exploration and research expires! In the year 2048. So a lot of countries are kind of staking out footprints under the name of research for if and when the treaty dissolves and the place turns into a potential conflict zone for ownership rights, which could include mineral rights and establishment of military bases. In case you're wondering, for purposes of the treaty, Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south latitude. There are currently 53 countries party to the treaty, including some that seem so unlikely to me, such as Papua New Guinea and Monaco.
We visited the inside of the Chinese Great Wall research station. It wasn't a riveting expedition away from the ship, but I thought it was interesting and worth seeing what the inside of these stations looks like. Far more comfortable than I had imagined. The station had a basketball court and the Chinese researchers had ping pong tournaments with other research stations. Lounges, a huge kitchen, lots of rooms with computers and scientific equipment (pretty much none of which were being currently used, strangely). The gigantic snow-cat, however, was surely a regular employee!
There was a traditional Chinese bell outside. A Russian station had an orthodox church. Many countries build facets of their traditional culture into their stations.
Can't really tell where this dilapidated one is from, but I thought it would make a good backdrop for some story about somebody stranded in Antarctica for the winter, haha. Maybe a thriller involving deranged killer penguins.
Penguins do, in fact, take over anything abandoned by humans. These barrels make lovely nesting spots!
Having nothing to compare it to, as this was my only experience on a ship, perhaps my word is less valuable than somebody else's with broader experience. But for what it's worth, I would recommend both the ship, the M/V Sea Spirit, and the expedition company, Poseidon Expeditions, for anyone looking into their own Antarctic cruise. I also did something else for this trip that I have never before, which is book it through a travel agency. I'd also recommend them, Swoop Antarctica -- I was glad for all the advice and information they provided to me, considering I had far less idea what to expect from this trip than I normally do before traveling.