Vernadsky Stn - brassieres and homemade vodka
Vernadsky Station is another common stop for expedition ship visitors to the Antarctic. These days, the station is a research station manned by a crew of irrepressible and cheery Ukrainians. The station was originally established and operated by the British starting in 1947, originally christened as "Wordie House" in honor of Sir James Wordie. Sir James was a member of the infamous Shackleton expedition, and he actually visited the station during its construction. Wordie House was in use until 1953, when a new station was built on the site of present-day "Veradsky" by the British. For years, both the old and new area were called both "Wordie" and "Station F" by the Brits until 1977, when it was renamed in honor of British Scientist Michael Faraday. (becoming Faraday Station). It remained an English post until 1996, when it was sold for the symbolic price of 1 pound sterling to Ukraine, who renamed it Akademik Station Vernadsky. The original "Wordie House" (across from the main Vernadsky station) is still around, and houses a small museum. (Please do see my separate "Wordie House" tip)
Visitors to Vernadsky today will get a nice tour of the main scientific areas from the resident Ukrainians, as well as an opportunity to sample the station's "homemade vodka". Here's the bit on the vodka...
The guys running the place have built a little bar area, catering to the tourists - and probably a good place for the guys to wind down during their time at Vernadsky. The only drink they have is vodka.... one member of our group asked them for a beer. And in a moment straight from a Saturday Night Live skit, one of the Ukrainians said "beer? no beer. only vodka". And it's not REAL vodka either, it's homemade. I asked for the recipe and could only get "ice water, sugar and yeast" from the bartender. They sell shots for $3 each, or they'll give one to a female visitor for free.... if she'll only remove and turn over her brassiere. Several women in our group were more than willing to shed the undies, but they said they'd want them back... an entirely economic choice. I mean really, how much would you have to drink before you'd be happy losing a $35 bra for a shot or two of homemade vodka? :) There were quite a few bras on display at the bar, including a HUGE one (I hope that lady got a double shot, she deserved it). Anyway, the vodka wasn't half bad and took the edge off the afternoon for several of us.
Vernadsky also has a small gift shop that they proudly proclaim as the "World's Southernmost Gift Shop". They also had a record player - yes a record player - for sharing music. I saw an ancient Madonna album in the queue for play, but while we were there, we were treated to some Eastern European hip-hop something or other. It had a decent beat, and I'm sure the homemade vodka made me like it more.
There is also a post office for mailing postcards... but do remember that they have to go by ship to Ukraine first and then they're mailed. It could take a while. Also, Vernadsky Station passport stamps are available and highly prized. A lovely addition to your passport page.
Barrientos Island/Aitcho Islands/South Shetlands
For cruise visitors to the Antarctic peninsula, the first sighting of land - after the infamous crossing of the Drake Passage - will be the South Shetland Islands. On our trip, we made excellent time crossing the Drake, and conditions were such that we were able to make an unscheduled/extra zodiac landings at Barrientos Island, South Shetlands. So technically, the first moment that I set foot onto land that could be deemed as Antarctica was at Barrientos on March 9, 2011. For the record, here were my words upon touching the seventh and final continent in our travels....
"That's one small step for Pete, one giant leap for Chamlis-kind".
The locals at Barrientos are very very friendly.... but kind of short. Huge colonies of both gentoo and chinstrap penguins are there to greet and entertain visitors. When you first land, the cruise operators warn you that you're "not to approach the penguins", etc. However, they also mention that IF the penguins come to you, it's fine to hold out your hand. WELL, if I had any doubt that penguins were friendly and amenable to human visitors, that was over quickly. They come right to you, and love to click at your outstretched gloves. Soooo very cute, they are.
Now, I'm told that you can sometimes find them less approachable when they have VERY young chicks in tow, but apparently that changes pretty quickly. We saw skads of young chicks and neither the little ones nor their parents seemed to be concerned with our visit.
The South Shetlands, unlike the major of the Antarctic continent itself, are NOT covered in ice and snow. The primary land features are rocky hills, dark and probably volcanic soil, and hues of green due to the native lichens and algae of Antarctica.
If you're lucky enough to land at Barrientos, you'll have a good time with the local penguins... and will have the first of many many many incredible photo opportunities.
Iceberg Alley/Port Charcot/Lemaire Channel
Approximate location : 65°04'S, 64°02'W
The Lemaire is a narrow and deep channel running between the Antarctic peninsula and Booth Island. There are incredibly steep and mountainous shores on either side, covered with glaciers. Sunrise or sunset in the area is incredible. I have written a separate tip on the Lemaire, along with five photos, please do take a look.
As we got nearer to Booth Island, we dropped anchor at Port Charcot. We were treated to a zodiac expedition through an area known accurately as "Iceberg Alley". Anyone who feels the need to ask "why would you want to visit Antarctica" would have the question answered on this little excursion. Huge icebergs in the area shimmer in shades of blue, and they reflect magically on the mirror-like waters. Around almost every corner would be a new and more impressive ice formation or structure. Interspersed are the occasional group of crabeater seals sunning themselves. Being very quiet, we were able to get quite close to them.
Iceberg Alley really does sum up the sculptured natural beauty, majesty and solitude that is a trip to Antarctica. People ask "why go".... my response, at least to those who claim to be lovers of natural beauty is "why HAVEN'T you gone yet"? It's like nowhere else on earth.
Portal Point,1st stop on the Antarctic continent
Approximate location : 64°30'S, 61°46'W
While we'd technically touched Antarctica the day before when we landing on Barrientos Island/South Shetlands, our first steps onto the ACTUAL main continental land mass of Antarctica occurred on Thursday, Marcy 10th, 2011. We landed at Portal Point, a part of the Reclus Peninsula - on the Antarctic peninsula itself. It was a foggy day, and there were occasional flurries of snow... but any day that one sets foot ON Antarctica itself is one for the ages. :)
We boarded the zodiacs and went ashore. The area was covered in snow - in contrast to yesterday's rock, dirt and green lichen-covered scenery on the Shetlands. Large glaciers surrounded the area of our landing spot. We were welcomed ashore by a few noisy adolescent male fur seals. We kept our distance and since we had them outnumbered, they didn't challenge us. We hiked up a snowy slope for a nice bay and glacier view, and also posed for a series of "group photos". The skies were populated by both Giant Petrels and Antarctic Skuas. Skuas are a bird you do NOT want to battle with - they will literally defecate on you with a waste product that literally smell after any number of launderings.... kind of like flying skunks. We also saw several Antarctic Cormorants flying in the area.... sometimes these birds are called "Blue Eyed Shags". (one English kid on our trip waxed prophetically about a 'blue eyed shag' back home, whatever that meant )
We built snowmen, had snowball fights and just enjoyed our special moment. Getting back to the ship, we made a beeline for the hot coffee and tea stations in the bar.
Port Foster/Deception Island
Approximate location : 62°56'S, 60°40'W
Deception is a ring-shaped island, circling a huge caldera. Even now, Deception Island is classified as an active volcano. Its distinctive shape was formed when one side of the volcano caldera collapsed, allowing the sea to rush in and create a sheltered bay, known of as Port Foster. On our visit, we sailed into the caldera via "Neptune's Bellows", a narrow opening in the immense side of the caldera walls. Deception is the largest of three recent volcanic centers in the South Shetland Islands. (the other two are Penguin and Bridgeman Islands) The water in Port Foster is warmer than the surrounding sea because of the numerous active volcanic fumaroles. The most recent eruptions occurred in 1800, 1812, 1842, 1871, 1912, 1956 (the year I was born, perhaps I was destined to visit), 1967, 1969 and 1970. I couldn't help thinking that we were "about due" the whole time we were there, but we got in and out without incident.
From the edge of Neptune's Bellows, there is a wide beach with black ash-covered aprons sloping gently upward and inland for several hundred meters, up to the steep face of the cinder-covered glacier and a caldera from one of Deception's more recent eruptions.
We all hiked uphill to get incredible views of both the bay and the surrounding volcanic slopes. It was so different seeing so much black earth after days and days of heavy glacier coverage. Truly an awe-inspiring visit.
Choosing a ship - size matters
We went to Antarctica on a small "expedition" size ship. The M/V Ushuaia carried a total of 84 passengers and 42 crew. This is really the type of ship that you want to take on a trip to the White Continent. As of this writing, some of the larger cruise lines are still "going" to Antarctica... outfits like Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Lines, etc. They sail on ships carrying several hundred - if not more - passengers. Here's the bit....
The only way that you can really set FOOT on Antarctica is to go on a ship that can land you via zodiac (or similar craft). There is nowhere for a large mega-cruise ship to dock in the Antarctic. For that matter, there's not even a place that a small "ship" like the Ushuaia to actually dock - the only way to get passengers ashore is via "landings". And even IF a larger cruise ship has "some" zodiac craft, there is zero chance they could come close to landing even a small percentage of the cruise passengers. For the most part, most of the larger mega-ships just let you "see" Antarctica from the ship itself - from a substantial distance. Now mind you, crossing the Drake Passage on a much larger ship might be a little smoother, but think of what you lose in ability to actually set foot on the Shetlands/Antarctica.
So, be sure to pick a ship that can guarantee that everyone can make every landing made. FWIW, I am hearing that the international Antarctic treaty signees are either planning or have already planned to ban the presence of larger ships in Antarctic waters in the coming seasons.
Bellingshausen Russia Base-King George III Island
Bellingshausen this Russia Base is very easy to get to from President Frei its about 50 meters away in fact the building are mixed together. This place has about 40 people in the Summer and 20 or so that Winter over. They have a full time orthodox Priest which is I think the only one stationed in Antarctic year around and an Orthodox church. The priest said that prior to this assignment he had been in a really cold spot in Siberia and came down to Antarctica to warm up. The base has 14 or 15 building including you guessed it why else would I be there a “hospital”. One Russian Doctor two beds and the very basic stuff the doctor from Chile and Russia support each other I was glad to know.
This place is owned and operated by the
Russian Antarctic Expedition
The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute
38 Bering Street
199397 St Petersburg
- Adventure Travel
Look for rare high clouds #2
Continuing on from my previous 'high clouds' tip, we next start looking for Noctilucent Clouds - the name means 'shining at night', and that's exactly what these clouds do. In fact, the only time you can realistically expect to see them is shortly after sunset, when the sun is between 6 and 16 degrees below the horizon. Then, should they be there, you can expect to see them glowing silvery blue after everything else is becoming dark. I was fortunate to see them at Mawson in 1966 and, although the film I was using was slow (25 ASA), with a long exposure I was able to get the photo with this tip.
Noctilucent clouds are seen only at relatively high latitudes, much as are the nacreous clouds in my previous tip. They are most frequent in the summer months, but because the sun must be below the horizon, you need either to be travelling at the shoulders of the tourist season for a chance to see them at the polar circles (north or south) or to be looking from slightly further from the pole. Probably the best chances for antarctic tourists to see these clouds would be as you commence or finish your trip (there have been numerous sightings from South America ).
Now, why do noctilucent clouds shine in the early night? Because they still are in the sunlight, which means they are very high indeed - typically about 80km! They still are surrounded by scientific mystery, but were first seen after the Krakatoa volcano exploded in 1885. There also are suggestions they may have a link to the hole in the ozone layer: maybe a special NASA satellite, due for launch late in 2006, will give some answers.Related to:
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Port Lockroy/Jougla Point, Wiencke Island
Located at Jougla point on Wiencke Island, Port Lockroy is a historic Antarctic research site. The area itself was "discovered" by the French in 1903, and after that it served as both a whaling and military station for Great Britain for the earlier half of the 20th century. Additionally, scientific researchers made Lockery their Antarctic headquarters for many years. During WWII, the area was the center for Operation Tabarin, an effort by the British to deny Nazi Germany the area as haven for ocean raiders and spies.
In the early 1960s, the station was abandoned, so to speak - ending its role in research. Some twenty years later, the UK Antarctic Heritage trust renovated the site to share both the history and past research mission of Port Lockroy with the few intrepid Antarctic tourists.
Today, the site is a common stop for expedition cruise ship visitors, featuring many historical exhibits and information about life in the Antarctic half a century earlier. It's also a place that one can get their passport stamped with "Port Lockroy, Antarctic Heritage Trust" - a rare entry on most travel documents. There's also a gift shop - probably the most extensive one you'll find on the Antarctic continent.
As for the proper locals, you'll find thousands of extra friendly gentoo penguins, and the occasional chinstrap. True to being proper Brits, they always wear their tuxedos to greet guests. :)
Foyn Harbor/Nansen Island/Governǿren II
Our visit to Foyn Harbor came on a snowy afternoon, and afforded some very eery peeks at how powerful and cold Antarctic winters are. Even though the temperatures were still very tolerable, the increased snowfall and the blowing wind made it tough to see great distances ahead of us.
Foyn Harbor is location in/on Nansen Island (64°33'S, 62°03'W), and is the sight of a (nearly) century-old shipwreck. The area was teeming with wildlife, including flocks of Antarctic Cormorants, kelp gulls and groups of fur and crabeater seals. We eventually came to the shipwreck. The vessel itself is the Norwegian whaler Governǿren II, and it sank during the summer of 1915/16. Basically, the ship caught on fire and the captain deliberately beached it to save his crew. The plan worked, as there was no loss of life in the sinking - the crew was picked up by other whalers in the area.
Right after we returned to the ship, some 20 humpback whales were sighted just off the ship, and we spent a while on the snowy deck watching them blowing, rolling and showing their flippers and fluke. Amazing animals.
Take a dip over at Pendulum Cove
approximate location : 62°56'S, 60°36'W
Just a mile or two east of the Telefon Bay area of Deception Island offers a unique opportunity. If you'd like to confirm to the world your madness, you can swim in Antarctic waters. OK, it's not quite as hardy an effort as you'd imagine. Over at Pendulum Cover/Deception Island, there's a volcanic sand beach and an area where the more shallow shoreside waters are warmed by the volcanic fumaroles in such a manner as to make them pleasant... at least for a few feet from shore. Most people who chose to take a swim in our group learned very quickly that RIGHT in the water and down was the best plan... because there were two places you did not want to be wearing only your swimmers.... Place one would be UP in the air - where it had a breeze and subfreezing temperatures. Place two would be more than a few meters from the shore, where the water temperature plunged quickly back towards zero. So yes, you CAN swim in Antarctica and will live to tell about it.
Please go to my "ANTARCTICA BEACH BLANKET BINGO" travelogue to see my homage to our groups' Annette and Frankie-types.
No, we didn't swim.... but we had a hand in talking our guide Phil into taking the plunge, which was funny since he hadn't come prepared, as in wearing his swim trunks under his waterproof pants and parka. So crazy Phil just shed them and wandered into the drink in his skivies. Something wrong with that fellow, in a very pleasant way though.
signs of the Zodiac
There are two basic ways of "landing" on the Antarctic continent from expedition cruise ships.
> Some of the severely high dollar cruises do have their own helicopters to land participants both on shore and inland. Just as a point of reference, you can count on paying darn near US$18,000 for an 11-12 day cruise on such a ship.
> Or, most of the ships employ the use of "zodiac" inflatable landing craft. This was how we were landed from the M/V Ushuaia.
Zodiacs are dependable and get the job done. They're heavy rubber inflatables and feature a slat-steel floorboard that literally can "move" in the way that a watch band bends. This allows for the shape of the craft floor as it darts through the seas and surf. The zodiacs can seat approximately 12 passengers, and are powered by 50-75 horsepower outboard motors. And needless to say, the zodiac drivers know their business.... which is not to say that they drive at a slow rate of speed. We had one guy (an Austrian) that we nicknamed "Niki Lauda" because of his hell-crashing wave speed. (See his photo in the warning tip regarding Zodiac madmen )
The zodiacs are capable of getting within a few feet of both rocky and sandy shores, enabling Wellington-booted passengers to wade ashore. One thing that you'll learn is the "sailor's grip", where you hold onto a person assisting you forearm to forearm, rather than hand to hand. This maintains solid contact and control through all conceivable unexpected motions during the embarcation and disembarcation procedures. Learn it well, or be prepared to swim in very cold water.
(We DID have one of our ship guides fall into the ocean during a little mishap reboarding the ship. He slipped on the wet gangplank, lost his balance and SPLASH - into the cold cold waters near Vernadsky Station. Although we passengers were highly entertained, and we even helped fish him out of the drink, the cruise line seemed quite embarrassed by it all - it was NEVER mentioned anywhere on board by anyone associated with the Ushuaia. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it here..... forget what you just heard. )
Whaling history,evidence all around
Commercial whaling has not yet been assigned to the ash-heap of history (using Reagan terminology), but at least it's been banned and shunned by almost every country on Earth. Here's hoping the day comes that none of these incredible giants of the sea are subject to hunt.
That being said, a lot of Antarctica's earliest history involves the whaling trade. The waters around the continent are home to many different varieties of whale - orcas, blue, minkes, etc. Back some 80-120 years ago, this was THE place for a good season's haul of whale and whale products. When you visit Antarctica, you'll see evidence of the whaling past at many of your stops. There are wrecked rowboats, old machinery, sunkens ships and - yes - whale skeletons on islands and shores throughout the Antarctic peninsula.
I'm sure it took a hearty soul to be a whaler in the Antarctic, especially subtracing 100 years of technology from present times, re ship-building and creature comfort. So a tip of the cap to the folks who did open the continent somewhat to the imaginations of the world. And again, here's hoping that future "hearty souls" find satisfaction in visiting the whales in the Antarctic instead of hunting them.
Dumbo + Little Mermaid = Elephant Seals
On our visit to Livingston Island in the South Shetlands, we saw a large colony of elephant seals - our first look at this variety of seal on the trip. We'd grown used to the fur and crabeater seals of past days, they were everywhere... on ice floes, beaches, on rocky points and even in the water. But these elephant seals, whoa..... they are huge. Gigantic creatures, shockingly large. And we were told to not be fooled - they can move pretty quickly and are fierce when angered. We were specifically warned not to get directly between them and the water. We heeded the warning.
Anyway, the group of elephant seals that we observed were mostly females - a harem dedicated and guarded by one HUGE male/bull seal. The "ladies" are all about a ton each in weight. (2000 pounds, maybe about 900 kg or so) And big daddy seal? They told us that he was probably around 4 tons. (8000 pounds, or maybe about 3600 kg) That is a WHOLE lotta seal.
If you'd like to see a good look at "big daddy", scroll through the pictures below. The fourth one shows the male in the middle - he literally looks like a big fuzzy boulder. Better cut out the carbs, big fella.
Talks and lectures
One of the features of an Antarctic cruise is a strong emphasis, for those who want it, on learning about the environment in which you are travelling. Most trips, including ours, offer a series of informative lectures on board ship. These serve to pass the time between landings (though there were plenty of other distractions too aboard the Marco Polo) and help you get the most out of your on-shore experiences.
On our trip there were at least two lectures every day, all of which took place in the large lounge. The ones I went to were:
– Antarctic Penguins – a great introduction to these cute birds
- Landing procedures, clothing and Antarctic rules & regulations – where we learnt about the 5 metre rule and lots of other essential info (if you only get to one lecture it needs to be this one)
- Seabirds of the Southern Ocean – beautiful slides of albatross and others
- Life at Port Lockroy – probably the one I found most interesting, given by scientists visiting from the British base there and describing their life and research
- Exploring Antarctica – a film with amazing footage from Scott’s doomed expeditionRelated to:
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