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february 5, 2005 -> from ushuaia to antarctica on the ushuaia

We had expected to be the youngest passengers on board the M/V Ushuaia.  Instead, we were probably near the median.  There were several passengers in their early twenties and a few in their fifties or sixties, but the average age was about thirty.  Antarctic cruising has changed dramatically in the last ten years.  A decade ago, only rich retirees and spoiled youth could have afforded the US$10,000 price tag.  But prices have dropped considerably, opening up the continent to a much younger demographic.  The Ushuaia was one of two boats offering “budget” cruises, at about US$2,500 per person for a 10-day voyage.  That is still expensive, but in comparison, a five-star hotel in New York or London can easily cost more than US$250 per night.  Few of the passengers struck me as filthy rich.  Many (like us) had signed up to last-minute deals.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime journey, so to hell with the cost. 

We were very lucky.  The Ushuaia is a small ship by Antarctic standards, with only 35 or 40 cabins, and not all of the cabins were filled.  The crew was incredible, and the food was excellent.  We had a lot of space to relax and get to known our fellow passengers.  The passengers were from all over the world, including a large number of Americans (9), Brits (8), and Australians (4.)  Almost everyone was laid-back, and many new friends were made during the journey.  I tried to remain aloof from the requisite high-school shenanigans (taking photos of bare bottoms on deck, cross-dressing) and then completely lost any semblance of dignity by performing a pole dance in the commons room.  During the past two months, we have been constantly running into our fellow Antarctic cruisers – on top of volcanoes, on hiking trails, in restaurants and bars – and it feels like we are meeting old friends. 

Anyone who has seriously considered an Antarctic cruise has heard of the Drake Passage.  Named for the notorious English pirate, Sir Francis Drake, the Passage is a band of rough seas and storms in the deep water between Tierra del Fuego and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.  It takes two days to cross, meaning that 40% of a 10-day passage will be spent navigating the Drake – a grim reality for those prone to seasickness.  As we cruised out of the Beagle Channel and into open water, everyone was gobbling Dramamine and placing anti-seasickness patches behind their ears.  Some confined themselves to their beds, others tried to carry on as normal, playing cards and venturing on deck as the ship began to roll.  Nonchalant attitudes could not hide the dread that everyone felt. 

The first night was rough.  The ship was rocking like a cradle, rain was pelting the decks, and a few people became violently ill.  Dinner was an exercise in futility, as plates skidded off skid-proof placemats and into laps, passengers fell over backwards in their chairs, and waitresses slammed into the walls.  As the ship rolled, diners sickened at the sight of the angry sea through the portholes.  On the second day, we awoke to sunny skies and much calmer seas.  We ended up making landfall early enough on the second day for our first landing.

The Drake was a disaster on the return journey.  In addition to rolling up to 45 degrees on each side, the Ushuaia was also pitching (the bow rising up out of the water before crashing down.)  The ship is capable of rolling up to 60 degrees, so we were completely safe, but the combination of the pronounced roll and the pitch was profoundly sickening.  We were popping Dramamine like candy and imagining flat horizons but we still started to feel ill.  Visits to the bathroom were hellish: the confined space, the unsavory smells, the constant movement.  We all but gave up on meals, surviving on water crackers and alfajores (the delicious Argentine cookies).  We were in bed for almost 48 hours straight. 

We learned much about Antarctica, its history, geography, animal life, and politics during the cruise.  Only three million people have visited Antarctica, and only half a million of those are alive today.  The crew stressed how privileged we were to be here, and intended to make us ‘experts,' who could spread the word about the fragility of the Antarctic environment.  Sometimes the crew members gave lectures, at other times we watched films.  We became well-acquainted with the early Antarctic explorers: Nordenskjold, Scott, and Shackleton – perhaps too well-acquainted.  By the third film about Scott's doomed expedition, we were praying he wouldn't last quite so long this time. 

We made two landings a day while in Antarctica.  Dressed in our warmest clothes, we would board the Zodiacs and motor off to the landing point.  In most cases, our landings were in sheltered bays, but on a few occasions the water was rough and we were already soaked by the time we hauled ourselves out of the Zodiac and onto the shore.  Generally, we visited areas with high concentrations of wildlife: penguin rookeries and seal colonies.  We also visited an Argentine and a British research station (the latter also held a branch of the Royal Mail.)  Many of the landing points had huge glaciers or mountains nearby.  One of our favorite visits was to Deception Island.  After a walk around the old whaling station, we all took a bath in a volcano-heated ‘Jacuzzi' that a member of the crew had dug into the beach.  Just about everyone also took one (or several) dips in the Antarctic Ocean before rushing back to the hot tub! 

The penguins were undoubtedly the stars of the Antarctic cruise.  What strange creatures!  They are clumsy comics on land – waddling and hopping across the rocks – but underwater they are as quick and agile as swallows.  When swimming, they ‘porpoise' like dolphins, leaping out of the water at intervals to have a look around.  With a burst of speed, they shoot from the water like torpedoes, landing on iceberg shelves several feet high.  Sometimes they misjudge the height and slam into the ice walls before sliding ignominiously back into the water. 

Most penguins breed in the summer months, so the rookeries were teeming with fat, grey, fluffy, squawking chicks.  Everywhere we looked, chicks were chasing their parents, demanding food.  The parents fled at high speed, often slipping or doing face plants as they tried to negotiate rocky areas.  When the parents finally gave up, they would open their beaks wide and regurgitate half-digested krill and fish into their chicks' mouths.  Other penguins were working on their nests: picking up little rocks in their beaks and depositing them in a growing pile.  Naturally, some penguins took the easy path, stealing rocks from other's nests.

Penguins may look dapper in their tuxedoes when they return from the sea, but they are not the cleanest of creatures.  The rookeries reek of guano, and whole hillsides are covered in their red-brown waste.  Penguins crap in sudden, powerful jets that coat their neighbors.  We often saw penguins with perfect, red, circular stains on their white chests – it looked as if they had been assassinated.  The dirtiest of the lot were the chinstrap penguins.  Their rookeries smelled and looked atrocious, their chicks were more feces than feathers, and the adults were uniformly brown.  By the end of the trip, everything we owned smelled of guano.