Antarctica

Antarctica was not the easiest place to visit. We first started planning our 2010 Antarctic adventure in 2008. There were several reasons why we began planning the cruise so far in advance. For starters, Antarctica is a niche itinerary. As such, there are only a couple of sailings each year. Those sailings tend to be really expensive and they book up quickly. We had to book early to make sure that we could get a spot on the ship and to give ourselves time to pay for the trip.

Another reason why we booked the cruise so far ahead was because this was an incredibly difficult cruise to plan for.

The cruise was scheduled for February 2010. Even though my family chastised me for going someplace cold in February, February is the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere.

The cruise began in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were told that we could expect triple degree temperatures in Buenos Aires that time of year, and that it would also be hot in some of the other South American ports that we would be visiting.

Of course our ultimate destination was Antarctica. We didn’t really know how to pack for Antarctica. Some Web sites indicated that the Antarctic Peninsula would have temperatures in the 50s and 60s that time of year. Other sites indicated that the temperatures would be around twenty below zero. Not being sure of what to expect, we purchased high end parkas and other gear that was designed for extreme temperatures. We even got a camera that was specifically designed for use in cold weather.

As you can imagine, packing was extraordinarily difficult because we needed clothing for extreme heat, extreme cold, and everything in between. Never mind that the cruise line also expected us to bring dress clothes for evenings on board. Imagine trying to cram every type of clothing imaginable into one suitcase and have enough clothing to last for three weeks, and keep the suitcase under 50 pounds and you can begin to understand how challenging it was to pack for a cruise to Antarctica.

On the day before we were supposed to leave, I received a text message indicating that our flight had been canceled. It was a beautiful day, so I couldn’t imagine why the flight had been called off.

When I called the airline, they told me that my flight from Charlotte to Atlanta had been canceled due to a snow storm that was supposed to hit the next day, but that the flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires had not been canceled. I told the woman that I only lived four hours from Atlanta and would drive to Atlanta to catch the flight to Buenos Aires.

Having lived in the south for well over a decade I have come to learn that nobody down here knows how to drive in the snow. As such, Taz and I left for Atlanta very early in hopes of beating the snow. I did not want to be on the road with the other drivers if the roads got slick.

I ended up timing the trip perfectly. It began to snow as I circled the airport parking lot looking for a place to park. We finally parked the truck, went inside, and got checked in. Now there was nothing to do but to wait for eight hours for our flight.

Over the next hour it began to snow a lot harder and the snow began to accumulate. The airport became like a ghost town. Nearly all of the domestic flights had been canceled, but the international flights were still going.

 

I expected to encounter snow in Antarctica, but not in Atlanta.

I expected to encounter snow in Antarctica, but not in Atlanta.

Almost all of the flights out of Atlanta were canceled.

Almost all of the flights out of Atlanta were canceled.

Our flight was delayed several times, but eventually the airline started the boarding process. Just as the first passengers began to board the plane an announcement was made that the flight had been canceled. By that time it had stopped snowing and all of the other international flights were getting out without any problems. Someone suggested that the airline was losing money on the flight because it wasn’t full. They may not have wanted to make a bad situation worse by incurring the expense of deicing a practically empty jumbo jet so they canceled the flight.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t another flight to Buenos Aires with an available seat for another week. We ended up having to cancel our cruise to Antarctica because we had no way of getting to the departure city. We checked other cities such as Miami and Houston, but nobody could get us to Buenos Aires in time to catch the ship.

In case you are wondering, we were not able to get a refund from the cruise line. Thankfully, we had insured the cruise and were therefore able to get most of our money back.

We left the airport exhausted, hungry, and emotionally drained. By this point we had both been awake for about 36 hours and we hadn’t eaten anything but a light snack that day. I was literally nauseous and felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. After nearly two years of planning and spending tens of thousands of dollars, my Antarctic dreams were dashed by the airlines.

To add insult to injury, the airline wouldn’t even give us our luggage back. They told us to come back to the airport tomorrow to get it. When I told them that I lived 200 miles away, they told me that they could Fed-Ex the bag to me for a hefty fee. After demanding to speak to a supervisor, and then demanding to speak to the supervisor’s boss, I finally got the airline to agree to fly the luggage to Charlotte the next day. The Charlotte airport is nearly an hour from where I live, but it sure was better than having to drive back to Atlanta.

As we left the airport there didn’t seem to be any snow on the roads. We were making good time going home until we hit gridlock just outside of Atlanta. The police had shut down the interstate as a way of trying to prevent accidents. There was absolutely nowhere that we could go. We had to sit and wait.

After about five hours of waiting, one of the cops decided to be a bully. Even though all of the traffic was stopped and nobody could go anywhere, the cop decided to drive his patrol car between the two lanes of stopped traffic. He could have easily driven in the emergency lane or in the median between north and south bound traffic, but I guess he thought it would be more fun to make everybody move out of the way. He forced the cars on one side of the road into the median and forced the traffic in the other lane past the emergency lane and into a ditch on the side of the freeway. Keep in mind that there was no snow on the road, so it’s not like the cop was trying to make room for snow plows or anything like that.

As the cop forced everyone off the road, he seemed to take great pleasure in shining a spotlight directly into each driver’s face and barking insults over his car’s loud speaker. I had never before witnessed abuse of police power taken to such an extreme.

To make a long story short, what should have been a four hour drive home turned into a fifteen hour trip. When we finally reached our home we had been awake for nearly two days and neither of us were thinking clearly. Even so, we did manage to find a cruise that was leaving the next day out of Charleston, South Carolina. We hadn’t planned to go to the Caribbean, but I had told everyone that I would be gone for the next three weeks and I didn’t want to spend my vacation at home starring at the walls.

Leaving out of Charleston seemed ideal since the port was very close to home and we wouldn’t have to worry about flying. Of course the airline still had our luggage in Atlanta. I was concerned about whether or not we would even get our luggage because the airline kept canceling all of the flights to Charlotte. Thankfully, the last flight of the day was not canceled and we were able to get our luggage with enough time to repack for our Caribbean cruise.

The next morning we drove to Charleston without any problems. When we got onto the ship we discovered that most of the public areas on board were decorated with pictures that had been taken in Antarctica. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Although we tried to make the best of our Caribbean cruise, it just wasn’t a good experience. The weather was bad in many of the ports, and near the end of the cruise over 400 people got sick with the Nora Virus. The whole ship went into lockdown mode to stop the spread of the virus. Some of the public areas were closed. The buffets were limited in a way that kept passengers from getting their own food and drinks. We also spent part of the cruise quarantined in our cabins.

By the end of the cruise, I absolutely couldn’t wait to get off of the ship. Even so, all was not lost. The “cootie cruise” hadn’t really worked out, but we had at least we had gotten a vacation and we did get to have a little bit of fun before everyone started getting sick. More importantly though, our travel agent had managed to get us reservations on the February 2011 sailing to Antarctica. This was to be the last time that cruise ships were allowed to visit the white continent (although that eventually changed and the cruise lines have since resumed Antarctic cruising)

As the departure date approached for our second Antarctic cruise attempt, the weather forecast began to call for snow on the day before we were supposed to leave. Even though this may not sound like such a big deal, Taz and I live in the south where even a dusting of snow causes the entire city to shut down. Hence we knew that we had to leave early if there was to be any hope of going on our cruise.

Being that this was to be the last chance to take a cruise ship to Antarctica (or so we had been told), we had booked our flight out of Miami. We figured that Miami was the US city that was the least likely to be impacted by snow or ice. Now that we had decided to leave early though, we had to figure out a way to spend a couple of days in Florida prior to catching our flight.

Ultimately, we ended up driving to Cocoa Beach and spending the night in a hotel near Port Canaveral. The next day we had decided to drive to Orlando and spend the day at Disney’s Epcot Center. Epcot has an area called the World Pavilion that is a recreation of countries around the world. Taz and I had visited Epcot on our honeymoon nearly sixteen years before, but now that we had actually been around the world we were both curious to see how the Disney version of the various countries compared to the real thing.

Upon our arrival at Epcot, we discovered that the park was virtually empty. It was a cold rainy day, and because it was the middle of February most of the kids were in school. Taz and I knew that we would blow through an empty park in a matter of a couple of hours, so we decided to get the park hopper passes which would allow us to visit all of the Disney theme parks.

After a long day of theme park hopping, we made the drive back to Cocoa Beach. The next morning was to mark the beginning of a very long, grueling day. We started out by spending our day at the Kennedy Space Center. I have always been a big space geek and had actually tried to become an astronaut at one point (it’s a long story). Since we were already in the area I just couldn’t resist spending the day at the space center.

When we finished with the Kennedy Space Center, we drove to Miami and caught a midnight flight to Lima Peru. After a five hour layover, we caught our connection to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

By the time that we got through customs, got our bags, drove to the hotel, and got a bite to eat we had been awake for nearly 40 hours. As exhausted as we were though, we were still able to appreciate how nice the hotel was. We stayed at a place called the Caesar Park Hotel. It was a five star hotel located on the main drag in Buenos Aires, directly across from the famous obelisk.

This was the view from our room in Buenos Aires.

This was the view from our room in Buenos Aires.

We had reserved a room with a balcony overlooking the obelisk. The hotel also had a fantastic restaurant, where we found that the currency Exchange rate was very favorable. Taz and I hadn’t had a real meal in a couple of days so we ordered a rather large meal. We had appetizers, dessert, and a bottle of wine. I ordered a fillet minion with all of the trimmings (I have since gone vegetarian) and Taz had the pasta. If we had ordered such a meal in a fancy hotel in the United States we probably would have paid at least a hundred and fifty dollars. However, in American dollars, the total cost of our meal was only about thirty bucks including the tip.

After dinner we couldn’t wait to go to bed. We awoke the next morning and made our way to the cruise ship terminal. We had arranged for private transfers, but ended up having to share the car with another couple.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the cruise ship terminal. I had read numerous reports on Cruise Critic of how chaotic and disorganized it was. The terminal wasn’t nearly as disorganized as I was expecting. From the time that we arrived it only took us about half an hour to fill out all of the forms and board the ship. Of course I’m sure that it helped that we got priority boarding because we had sailed with this particular cruise line so many times in the past.

Buenos Aires wasn’t exactly one of the more scenic cruise ship terminals that we have sailed out of. The area was entirely industrial. Granted, a lot of cruise ship ports are industrial, but this one was more industrial than most of the other ports that I have visited. The port was very loud and there were factories all around us. The wind was blowing smoke from the various chimneys toward the ship.

Once on board we decided to explore the ship and enjoy the 90+ degree weather in spite of all of the noise and pollution around us. Later on after the muster drill we made it a point to go up on deck for the sail away. We usually watch the sail away from our room so that we can avoid the crowds, but since this trip had been such a long time coming the sail away felt special and we wanted to enjoy it. It was as if the sail away was a celebration for us since we were finally sailing to Antarctica after everything that had happened.

The next day, Taz and I woke up at around noon. It is a tradition on cruise ships for the captain to make an announcement every day at noon to inform the passengers of the ship’s position and the current weather. When the captain said that the temperature was in the mid 70s I couldn’t believe it. It had been so hot the day before and it had been less than 24 hours since we had set sail.

 The Drake Passage

After a couple of days of sailing and a brief stop in the Falklands, we set sail across the Drake Passage toward Antarctica. The Drake Passage has a reputation for being the roughest stretch of ocean on earth. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans all converge at Antarctica. The rotation of the Earth causes the waters to swirl around the continent. This water is squeezed through the Drake Passage (a 500 mile gap between South America and Antarctica) and is forced upward by an underwater mountain range.

The Drake Passage has such a reputation for being rough that sailors refer to it as the Drake Shake. Every great once in a while though, the Drake Passage is so calm that it is referred to as Lake Drake.

Given the Drake Passage’s reputation, I was prepared for anything. I knew going in that some cruise ships going to Antarctica in recent years had canceled the Antarctic portion of the voyage because the Drake Passage was simply too rough on that particular day. As such, I was prepared for anything. Surprisingly though, the infamous Drake Passage was abnormally calm on the day when we sailed across it.

That afternoon I decided to go for a swim in the ship’s indoor swimming pool. Even though the seas were calm, the water in the pool was sloshing around like the water in a washing machine. Although some passengers were reluctant to get into the pool under those conditions, I couldn’t wait. I grew up swimming in the Atlantic, and I absolutely love swimming in wave pools. This wasn’t a wave pool, but it was the next best thing.

Elephant Island

We were scheduled to arrive at Elephant Island, Antarctica at 7:00 AM. When we arrived however, we discovered that the ship was surrounded by a dense fog and visibility was reduced to less than 100 feet. In spite of the fact that we couldn’t see anything, the naturalist on board narrated our visit to Elephant Island as if we could see what he was talking about. Aside from the naturalist’s speech, our only indication that we were in Antarctica was the extreme cold and the large chunks of ice floating in the water.

 

At first all we could see was ice floating in the water.

At first all we could see was ice floating in the water.

For the next hour and a half, Taz and I stared out the window hoping and praying that the fog would lift.  At one point, the naturalist basically conceded defeat and told us that with the current weather conditions that there was no way that the fog would clear. A couple of minutes later though, the shape of the island began to emerge from the fog.

As the fog slowly lifted, we got our first glimpse of Antarctica.

As the fog slowly lifted, we got our first glimpse of Antarctica.

At first all we could see were shadowy outlines of the contour of the land. Within less than a minute though, the fog lifted and we were able to get our first real look at Elephant Island.  The island reminded me of all of the pictures that I have seen of Antarctica because it was mostly covered in snow and ice and any exposed rock was a dark gray color. Taz and I quickly put on our winter gear and went outside onto our balcony to enjoy the scenery.

One of the huge icebergs floating near the island.

One of the huge icebergs floating near the island.

I was really glad that I had a camera with a telephoto lens and that I had brought a tripod. Because there had been so much fog (and because the fog could move back in at any moment) the ship never got within two miles of the island. As such, I had to use my camera’s maximum zoom to get any decent pictures. Taz enjoyed the scenery through a pair of binoculars.

The fog lifted and we were able to get a good look at the island.

The fog lifted and we were finally able to get a good look at the island.

Even though we were wearing so many warm clothes that it looked as if we were preparing for a space mission, the temperatures were still bitterly cold.  The funny part was that the television in our stateroom had a channel that always displayed the current weather and sea conditions. Someone must have neglected to update it for a few days because it showed the temperature as being 38 degrees, when it was undoubtedly far colder.

Another view of Elephant Island.

Another view of Elephant Island.

My outer layers did a good job of keeping me warm, but my face was fully exposed. Even though I have experienced colder temperatures elsewhere, my face stung from the cold and my eyes watered quite a bit. During our time at elephant Island, Taz went into the cabin several times to warm up. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I stayed outside except for whenever the ship would pass through a dense fog bank.

We left Elephant Island about an hour after the fog lifted, and sailed into another dense bank of fog. We were supposed to visit Deception Island later that day, and make a visit to Paradise Bay and the Gerlache Straight the next day. However, this part of our itinerary was canceled by the cruise line. The weather forecast called for 70 MPH winds and 30 foot seas, so the captain made the decision to leave Antarctica and set sail for Ushuaia, Argentina. So after nearly three years of planning, we got to experience Antarctica for about an hour.

Thankfully, the cruise lines are once again visiting Antarctica. I have every intention of returning one day so that I can experience all that Antarctica has to offer.

You can view our raw video footage from Elephant Island, Antarctica at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EVOk7cBLGk

I also created an hour long video of my Antarctic experience, including all of the various ports that we visited on the cruise. You can find the video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_1sYdFE2g0&feature=c4-overview&playnext=1&list=TLIUiTQszjbaI

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