33 days away from the world

ANTARCTICA

January 2020

Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego

There are few cities on Earth whose name immediately resonates with adventure, remote and wilderness. Ushuaia is certainly one of them. For me, Ushuaia has been the place of short breaks, frantic pit stops between two cruises, too short to explore the city beyond avenue St Martin. I know every good internet cafés, the best supermarkets to avoid the crowds, and nothing beyond that. This year, I decided to take the time to explore the "real" Ushuaia. I rented an AirBnB for 8 days before embarking on the most unique polar cruise one can do: a semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica from Ushuaia to New Zealand, via the incredible Ross Sea. 

Ushuaia in January is reaching its peak tourist season. It is the middle of summer, but do not expect beach weather, it is the "fin del mundo" after all. In eights days of exploring the town and its surroundings, I got every type of weather you can hope for, from hail, rain, snow, to calm and sunny, but finding times without the infamous wind of Patagonia was proven difficult. 

 

The town, whose name means "at the back of the bay/cove", spreads SW-NE between the Beagle Canal and the Martial mountain range to the North. It does not take very long to find yourself lost in the forest of Nothofagus trees or at the top of a wind-swept mountain. After 8 days of hiking, working on my lectures, and meeting some of my great friends who are lucky to live in Ushuaia, Antarctica was calling.

ONBOARD MV ORTELIUS

On the 13th of January I could finally embark on the MV Ortelius, my home for the next 33 days. Embarkation days are always pretty hectic. After a quick meeting with my new colleagues, we were given 2H to buy our last provisions and come back to greet our passengers. 2H became 5 minutes, as truckloads of food had to be loaded manually on the ship. Good team workout, and best way to get to known our colleagues from the galley, hotel, and navigation. 

MV Ortelius is one year younger than me. It was built in 1989 in Poland exclusively for polar expedition cruising. Ice strenghtened, the ship travels to both the Arctic and Antarctica. It was acquired by Oceanwide in 2011 and has been sailing the world ever since. Many of my friends have worked on it as polar guides, it was my turn to join as their "glaciologist in residence" for one cruise only, but not any cruise, 33 days along the peninsula, the Amundsen Sea, the Bellingshausen Sea, and finally the Ross Sea.

The team I joined was by far the most experienced group I have ever been lucky to join. Many of them had already overwintered several times in Antarctica, done that Ross Sea cruise a handful of times, and were all absolute polar veterans. I was going to learn a lot from them.

After a couple of days at sea and the Drake passage behind us, we finally reach our first site, the incredible Lemaire channel and Vernadsky station. The day was beautiful, two of our guests got married on the ship while crossing the Lemaire, it all felt so magical.

PETER THE 1st ISLAND

 

This expedition cruise will make us cover a total of 6000 miles in 33 days. So we obviously have quite some distance to cover. Luckily, after our great stop on the peninsula, another crazy one is coming: Peter the Ist Island!

More people have been to space, than have managed to step on Peter the Ist. This volcanic island that belongs to the Norwegian claims in Antarctica, is about 450 km west of continental Antarctica and is almost completely covered by ice <3 . Its topography justifies the few visitors, the island is surrounded by ice and vertical cliffs. But we will try our best, take our ship as close to the island as we can and who knows, either take our zodiacs out or perhaps our big toys: the three helicopters we have on board? 

The island appeared late one afternoon. We were battling a fierce wind coming from the West, and sheltered far behind the island on the downwind side. After a good assessment of the situation we decided to attempt sightseeing flights for all our guests running through the night. The sunset was beautiful, there were whales around us, what a stunning evening.

The long traverse began. Bellingshausen Sea, Amundsen Sea, .. many days at sea to reach our main goal, the incredible Ross Sea. Sea days are by no mean boring days. There's always plenty to do on the ship, between lectures, equipment prep, and training we had our hands full. The great weather was following us, and I did not get sea sick once on this cruise which is really a first! I tried to spend most of my time on the outer decks, observing huge tabular icebergs passing by and the ever changing sky. What a great feeling to know we are the only ones there. While dozens of ships are stuck exploring every inch of the Peninsula, we are the only people on Earth witnessing this amazing natural spectacle.

Approaching the Ross sea wasn't easy. A thick band of sea ice was blocking the way to the Ross Sea. We got pretty stuck in it, and hope to catch a small lead free of ice, to avoid a huge detour that would have added another 4-5 days of sailing. Let me tell you after 9 days on a ship without getting out, we were all seriously hoping to catch that lead! 

We tried our best but got pretty stuck in the sea ice. So stuck that our Captain decided to take the big drone out (the heli) to get an overview of the situation and map out where the lead was. We did have satellite images, but internet was so weak that we only had images a few days old. I was lucky to be a part of that flight, and learnt a lot about "mapping sea ice for a ship" while flying super fast. And it worked! A few hours later our troubles were far behind us.