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Antarctica: Crossing the Circle

Antarctica: Crossing the Circle

January 11, 2014 - January 28, 2014
Pictures are here

Sometime in October 2013
Having finished our Around the World trip earlier in the year, we had since talked about going to the seventh (and last) continent. My friend had recommended Quark Expeditions and I had signed up for their newsletters. Got an email from them talking about a Black Friday sale and we only had a week to take advantage of it! Of course we left it to the last minute, but to make it more complicated, on the last day I was out in Kentucky rock climbing and Char was back in California. The distance, and my lack of cell service, made planning hard. I talked the Quark guy into letting us put the trip on hold until Monday morning so we could discuss things in person.
The timing of the trip worked out very well (Char didn't have work in Januaray) and we also wanted to do the "Crossing the Circle" trip, which crosses the Antarctic Cricle (we'd done the Arctic Circle and Equator earlier). Also the sale gave us quite savings! Without time to even ok it with my boss we signed up! How exciting.

Getting There
Left our packing fairly last minute (at least compared to my usual over-preparedness), met a friend for dinner (and stashed a car at his house), and then we were off to the airport! Took the red-eye to New York where we had a 10-hour layover.
Once in NYC, we had just enough time to stash our luggage and train into Midtown to meet up with a friend for brunch, do some quick shopping, and head back. Always nice to see friends! Had some yummy teas too... Got back on the plane and this time we got some sleep! It's a long flight (~12 hours) from NYC to Buenos Aires and luckily this one was fairly empty so we were able to snag entire rows to lay down and sleep in. Almost like first class!
Had a 3-hour layover in BA; just enough time to exchange some money and eat. However our flight was then delayed another 4 hours (a strike from what I gathered), so we dozed uncomfortably at the gate. Eventually we made it Ushuaia and easily met our bus which took us to our hotel, then we wandered around town a bit and had dinner at the recommended Tante Nina. The local specialty, king crab, was great; as was the black hake dish.

Had a few days before our trip started and we had a few things planned. The first day we did a boat cruise down the Beagle Channel. Along the way we saw the lighthouse, fur seals, cormorants, and most importantly -- Magellanic penguins! The boat landed at Haberton Estancia where we had a guided tour of the ranch, lunch at the restaurant, and then a tour of the marine mammal museum. Eventually our bus picked us up and we made it back to town. From there we wandered around a bit more, then had dinner at the recommended, and very meaty, La Estancia. They have an all-you-can-eat deal, but the fixed plates were already more than enough for us!
The next day we had a day trip to Tierra del Fuego -- rafting in the morning, lunch, and then hiking in the afternoon. A few other Quark folks were on this outing so we started making friends even before the real trip started! The rafting was pretty straightforward; we had ended up in the boat with most of the Spanish-speakers, luckily our new friend, Ricardo, would translate things into English for us as needed though. Lunch was nice, and came with many bottles of wine! Not wanting to insult our hosts, John & Vasu finished a couple bottles for the team. The hike was super scenic: beaches, mountains, wild horses, it had everything! And we only lost one person. At the end of the trail is the "post office at the end of the world", so of course we got our notebooks stamped and mailed ourselves a postcard. It was in there that we found our missing member -- silly Ricardo!
On the way back we got off at Los Nires hotel (vs our more conveniently located Hotel Austral downtown) as it was almost time for the Quark pre-trip briefing. To kill time beforehand, we had a drink with our new friends. During the briefing I met a fellow, David, who had gone to Waterloo and graduated the same year as me -- small world indeed! Post-breifing our new group of friends all headed out for dinner at the fun/fancy Maria Lola's. Then we split off with a Japanese fellow, Yo, to pick up our luggage from our old hotel and taxi back to Los Nires.
Packed up our bags and dropped them off for transport to the ship, had our included breakfast, and then had ~5 hours to kill before it would be time to board the ship. We played checkers while waiting for a taxi, and then took the cab up to the base of the Martial Glacier. From there we jumped on the ski lift, then hiked an hour up to the actual glacier. Great views! Reversed our route, taxied into downtown, and found some absolutely yummy dulche de leche filled churros. After that it was time to head down and get on the boat!

The Drake Passage #1
The Drake Passaage is the landless body of water between South America and Antarctica. It's known to have rough waters and most everyone was prepared with scopolamine patches (anti-seasickness medication). We were quite lucky though and the water was very smooth! Due to the nice weather we were able to spend a lot of time on the deck watching the many aalbatrosses and petrels that were following the boat. So many birds: sooty, wandering, black-browed, grey-headed albatrosses, southern fulmars, and cape petrels to name a few!
To help pass the time the crew also gave many lectures on a variety of topics: seals, penguins, Antarctic exploration, ship superstitions. We also had a showing of the 100-year-old film 90° South -- very cool.
As we were on an expedition to cross the Antarctic Circle we didn't stop until we got there. The captain had to reroute us a couple times due to ice, but we were expected to cross the circle around 2:30am, so we set the alarm for 2:15am. After the appointed time came and went with no anouncement, I wandered up to the bridge to see what was going on. Turns out we were blocked by ice and had to reroute again -- nothing's for sure on an expedition! Around 4:30am we made it! Took pictures of the GPS and enjoyed some celebratory hot chocolate in the observation lounge. Then it was back to bed for a couple hours. And only a couple hours, because at 6:30am they came on the PA to tell us about an orca sighting! Lucky for us, they were right outside our cabin so we were able to see them through our window (and then we went back to bed).

[Editor's Note: the rest of the trip will be much more brief than above] Generally, each of the 10 days in Antarctica was structured like:
  Three-hour excursion: 1.5h zodiac cruising & 1.5h on land
  Three-hour excursion: same as above
  Short break
  Evening activity
So the days were pretty busy! Some days we only had 1 excusion, and then the other timeslot would be replaced with an educational talk.
We saw so many awesome places/animals/things:
  • Vernadsky Research Base, where we bought some hand-made souvenirs and tried their homemade vodka
  • An iceberg graveyard
  • Shard Adelie & Gentoo penguin rookeries
  • Chinstrap penguin rookeries
  • The most amazing (and long-lasting) sunset ever
  • Many different types of seals
  • Many different types of whales
While we were originally worried about being the only people under 50, we quickly found a group of similarly aged people and dubbed ourselves the Whale Tails. Much fun ensued. One girl, Mara, bonded with the kitchen staff and was subsequently given many extra treats from them -- thus we never went hungry again!
One day there was a Polar Plunge off the side of the ship. I was super excited and we were the first ones in line! We captured the experience on video (but I have to be not lazy and edit it into something nice), and Char event had to push chunks of ice out of her way to get to the ladder back to the ship! Not quite as mind-numbingly cold as I'd feared, but running back to the room and jumping into the hot shower was still nice.

The Drake Passage #2
On the way down some people felt like they hadn't gotten the full Drake Passage experience due to the calm waters. Well we got it on the way back! The winds were up into hurricane speeds, swells 20+ feet, people falling over in their chairs during dinner -- the full experience to be sure.
Once back on solid ground we hightailed over to our favourite dulce de leche filled churros (the other Whale Tails were excited to try this), did some shopping, and then split a cab to the airport where we started our looong voyage home. Despite picking up my bag in Buenos Aires and putting on the conveyor belt for the next flight, it still managed to not show up in San Francisco when we got there. Oh well, it showed up a couple days later.
A great trip, a great set of new friends, and great memories!!
Copyright © 1999-2013 Morgan "Buddy" Betts