Start: February 6, Almirante Brown Research Station
Finish: February 9, Ushuaia, Argentina
Killer Whales Seen: 3
Total Landings in Antarctica: 9
Total Penguin Colonies Visited: 6
Combined Weight Gained: 13.5 Pounds
Our last full day in Antartica brought us to an Argentinian research station where we went on a short hike that culminated in a magnificent view of the bay, humpback whales and our ship, the Sea Spirit. From there we took our last zodiac cruise, spotting more whales and seals and getting up close and personal with a massive glacier.
That afternoon we finally catch sight of a small pod of killer whales, the last animal species we wanted to cross off our lists. And then head to visit one last colony of chinstrap penguins on the Orne Islands. Two days later we're back in Ushuaia after a second bumpy crossing of the Drake Passage, shocked that this fantastic trip has come to an end, and dealing with the prospect of returning to our itinerant life on the road.
The morning of February 6 we pay a visit to Almirante Brown, an Argentinian base that is maintained more or less to bolster Argentina's claim to a large part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Although according to the international Antarctic Treaty, no country can own part of this continent, Argentina continues to claim and print maps that detail its very own slice of Antarctica.
We didn't visit the base, aside from a cursory glance around and saying hello to the folks stationed there, instead we head behind the station and climb a hill to get a breathtaking view of the bay. Humpback whales are heard and seen in the waters below as we watch our ship reposition several times to avoid drifting icebergs.
Back in the water we make a quick circuit of the surrounding area via zodiac, spotting a colony of nesting cormorants who live high up on the surrounding cliff sides.
We also spot this glacier, one of the most interesting chunks of ice seen on the trip. Not only does it come in several shades of blue and green, it also has rocks and dirt embedded inside that show its beginnings as the underside of what was once a glacier.
The highlight of the zodiac cruise was getting close to this massive wall of ice, easily over 100 feet tall. You can see the 18-foot zodiac in the bottom-right corner of this picture. It is at least 150 feet from the face of the ice, for safety reasons this is as close as we can get. Without the scale of something close by, it's nearly impossible to gauge just how massive this wall of ice is.
Crossing the bay we're greeted with the calmest seas so far. A near mirror finish and the occasional blue sky make for astounding scenery.
We also spot one last leopard seal lounging on the ice. This guy got a little antsy when we approached and slid off into the water.
After the zodiac cruise passengers were invited to take a polar plunge. None of us felt the need to prove our mettle by jumping into water a mere degree above freezing, and chose instead to take pictures and offer sympathies to the frozen few who went for a swim.
Shortly after lunch the officers on deck spotted a pod of killer whales. Announcements went out, the decks were packed, and we finally caught a glimpse of the final animal we had hoped to see in Antarctic waters.
Our afternoon, and final landing of the trip, was spent at the Orne Islands where we visited a chinstrap penguin colony and enjoyed an hour or two in quiet contemplation before boarding the Sea Spirit and turning north to Argentina.
A weddell seal quickly became the star attraction, although this chinstrap tried unsuccessfully to get in on the action. The fact that a sleeping ball of blubber was the most popular sight is testament to just how many penguins we've seen in the past six days.
Not to be ignored, the chinstraps did put on a good show. This colony was a bit more lively than the first we visited.
It took 6 colonies and many thousands of penguins for me to finally catch one doing a belly slide. This isn't a common behavior for the more diminutive species, emperor and king penguins are the real sliders.
We had time for one last scenic climb up a hill, offering 360 degree views of the Gerlache Strait full of house-sized icebergs. At the top we sat and soaked in the scenery without distraction. A final personal goodbye to a place unlike any other we've been.
Back on board it we braced ourselves for two days of crossing the Drake Passage. Before we hit rough waters the captain joined us in the lounge for a farewell cocktail. Jessica appears more than thrilled at the prospect of downing a few more free drinks after the previous night's debauchery at her birthday party.
The passage went fairly smooth. One day of rough water, 3 to 4 meter seas, better than average we are told. Many are confined to their cabins, and most simply choose to catch up on sleep lost during the previous week's tiring schedule. On deck we pass the time snapping a few more photos of giant albatross as they tail the ship. Above is a wandering albatross with a wingspan nearing 10 feet.
The last day of the trip the three of us weight out to find out the damage a week spent eating buffet breakfasts and ordering a side of steak to go with our entrees has done to our girlish figures. I top the chart at a total of 10.5 pounds gained. While I'm proud of my efforts, I feel a great disappointment that my colleagues couldn't have achieved better than a combined 3 pounds. Rest assured, after a few weeks of eating cold lunches and camp food, the belts will once again slacken.
Back in Ushuaia disembarking goes off without a hitch. We return to our campsite and contemplate a return to sleeping in a tent. That night we dream of open bars and all you can eat bacon. The next few days are spent preparing for life back on the road, sorting photos and reliving the memories of this fantastic journey to Antarctica.
I can now answer without hesitation when people ask me what the best part of our trip has been.