This is a day for which we've been waiting for many months - the day we set sail for the Antarctic.After packing our bags so they could be collected and taken to the ship, we wandered up the Tante Sara in anticipation of meeting Keith and Karen, who were to have arrived that morning off the Polar Star.After about twenty minutes with no sign of them E downed his coffee and went off to check the other Tante Sara cafe and sure enough there they were.It was great to see them again and to be able to meet up, and in Ushuaia of all places - the 'end of the world'.We spent a few hours in our typical noisy fashion chatting and laughing and catching up with news and hearing about their Antarctic experience until they had to leave for their flight home.But we couldn't let them go before divesting them of some of their warm clothes - this was to benefit all as it helped K2 reduce their baggage, and filled some gaps in our Antarctic wardrobe.They both looked really well and we're looking forward to seeing them again next February.We still had a couple of hours to spare before we were due to meet up to be taken on board our ship the Orlova - a Russian expedition vessel.Embarkation was quick and easy and our cabin, 602 on the captain's deck, was spacious, warm and comfortable with an opening window and en suite shower room.A quick exploration of the ship revealed that there was a library, dining room, bar and lecture/theatre room all on deck below us, and the bridge on deck 7 above. Unlike those on decks 3, 4 and 5 we were pleased to find that we had immediate access to the upper and outer decks.We were given a taste of what was in store when we were issued with our itinerary at a briefing session before we sailed - life was going to be busy and very full.We were introduced to the expedition staff: Cheli Larsen (NZ), Expedition Leader; Jamie Watts (England), Asst Expedition Leader; Christian Geissler (Canada), Marine Biologist; James Cresswell (Wales), Geologist; Shane Murphy (USA), Historian; Dmitri Banin (Russia), Ornithologist; Vladimir Seliverstov (Russia) and Alex McNeil (Canada), Zodiac Drivers & Naturalists; and ship's Physician Michelle Franks (Australia) - so lots of countries represented.All in all, with the 98 passengers on board 25 nations were represented (this doesn't a UK breakdown of the English, Welsh and Scots aboard). The 70 odd crew (officers, engineers, catering & cleaning) is Russian.We set sail early at 5 o'clock and, passing the Polar Star on which Keith and Karen had arrived that morning, we headed out into the Beagle Channel.We soon got a taste of what was to come at the Captain's Welcoming Cocktail Party (where we wished the captain happy birthday for the following day) and our first delicious four course dinner on board - buffet salad bar, appetizer, soup, choice of main course and dessert.Sailing along the Beagle Channel as the sun set we passed two of the company's other ships on their way into Ushuaia and officially entered the infamous Drake Channel around midnight.Although we're not normally seasick, we'd decided to take sea sickness pills as the two-day Drake crossing can be extremely rough.Some time in the middle of the night we were made very aware that we were in the Drake Passage when the motion of the ship woke us up when we found ourselves sliding up and down in our bunks.We're told that our crossing was actually average and not particularly rough.But a combination of the sea conditions and the reputation of the Orlova, known to the company as the 'Rollover Orlova) made the crossing very uncomfortable for many passengers who succumbed to seasickness (including the ship's doctor), some of whom were confined to their berths for the two days.Fortunately for us the medication worked and we were fine.After a full turnout at the Captain's dinner we weren't surprised to see many fewer people at breakfast.And breakfast revealed just how uncomfortable the crossing was - with every heave and roll of the ship first one way then the other plates, cups, cutlery and bowls of fruit went flying and crashing, milk and juice went pouring everywhere and we had to hang on for dear life.The dining room staff though was magnificent, displaying great skills in walking at 45 degree angles while simultaneously serving tea/coffee and collecting plates etc and never spilling a drop.Shortly after embarking on the first day we'd had a compulsory lifeboat drill, and on the second a compulsory briefing (lots of grey faces only just making it through the session) on the rules governing Antarctic landings and safety aboard the Zodiac inflatables that were used to ferry us between ship and shore.These were the only things that were to be compulsory - for everything else it was up to individuals to decide whether they wanted to take part or just relax.The two days of the crossing were packed full, with interesting and very informative lectures, lunch, afternoon tea and more lectures, daily briefing, dinner and films, yet still leaving lots of time out on deck, well wrapped up, to take some fresh air and watch the birdlife - Albatross, Cape Petrels and other birds.The lectures covered a diverse range of subjects designed to enhance our knowledge and understanding, and so enhance our experience on the expedition - the history of Antarctica, its discovery and exploration, the natural history of the continent, its marine and bird life, geology, glaciology, icebergs and sea ice.Meals are at a set time every day but you can sit wherever you like and we got talking to Chuck and Jinny from Montana and Paul from Holland with whom we were to spend many happy hours sharing dinner and drinks in the bar. Early on we would be seen trying to find a table in the restaurant with a dry table cloth thinking that those that were wet had been soaked by spilled liquids. We didn't know that the table cloths are deliberately wet to stop crockery and cutlery sliding off in heavy seas!After two days in the Drake we were all very pleased when we knew we would soon be in the calmer waters of the South Shetland Islands. Before that we had to cross the Convergence which is where the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (the only current which circles the globe without hitting land) stops the warmer waters of the South Atlantic and Pacific from crossing into the cold waters of the Southern Ocean.This is what keeps Antarctica cold and, as the 'freezer of the world', the world's temperature at a bearable level.At this point we would see fewer birds and this was essentially where the Antarctic started.And it was also at this point that the sea got rougher and slowed us down considerably as the captain set a zigzag course to try to minimise the rolling of the vessel. Cries of delight were heard all over the ship when, a few hours later than planned at about 8pm, land was sighted as the South Shetland Islands rose majestically before us.Even although we had a good idea of what to expect, this first sighting of land in Antarctica surprised us with the ruggedness and height of its mountains and the intense white density of the snow, glaciers and icecaps.This brought a change in the cruise: people felt better and emerged from their cabins; the bar became more sociable and friendships were made; meals were a much calmer and less turbulent experience (but the food was still absolutely delicious); the first phase of lectures was over in anticipation of landing and experiencing this wonderful Continent.It also set a new pattern for daily life over the next few days - early morning tea, breakfast, a landing or Zodiac cruise, lunch, another landing or Zodiac cruise, afternoon tea, get-together for re-cap of the day's activities and briefing for the next, dinner, film show and/or socialising in the bar, and occasional shopping - notice we haven't mentioned sleeping, there was little time for that!Because there were 98 passengers on the ship and the maximum number allowed on-shore is 100 we were all able to go ashore at the same time.So that landings and Zodiac cruises could be managed we were organised into four groups, each one named after a type of penguin.We opted to be Chinstraps, whilst the others were Adelie, Gentoo and Macaroni.Our first scheduled opportunity to land was at Half Moon Island at the entrance to Moon Bay in the South Shetlands, and after 60 hours at sea we were really pleased that conditions enabled it to go ahead.Although the weather was a bit overcast and the sea slightly choppy it was all systems go and we were ferried ashore to wander freely among the hundreds of breeding pairs of Chinstrap Penguins, but under strict orders to keep 5 metres distance (although they can approach us) and give them right of way on crossing tracks.The Chinstraps are absolutely gorgeous and so cute that it's easy to forgive the horrible smell of penguin poo which pervades the air at all penguin rookeries. This being our first landing there were a few stand-offs at crossings with neither party being quite sure who had the right of way.But it was fascinating to observe the penguins at close quarters, watching neighbours squabbling, males carrying pebbles for building nests, lots of squawking and males posturing and showing off to attract a mate - just like all blokes do - and to witness a Skua harassing the colony and making off with one of the eggs (the Skua is one of the penguins' greatest threats, as is the Leopard Seal, more on which later). Different breeds of penguins don't mix but oddly a Macaroni Penguin has for the past couple of years been living amongst the Chinstraps - expedition staff reckon there must be another one to make a breeding pair but have only one seen one.This was fortunate for us because it was our only chance to see a Macaroni which is really funky with orange tufty feathers on its head that look like strands of spaghetti.The day having brightened considerably, we wanted to spend as much time ashore and cover as much ground as possible so we followed Jamie on a walk in the other direction in the hope of seeing some seals.Walking along the shoreline took us past some small groups of Gentoo Penguins before we came across three Weddell seals lounging about in deep snow.They weren't particularly active - very laid back with occasional raises of their heads to give us a glance.Jamie remarked that the big one was the largest and most chilled out one he'd seen. This was a really excellent landing so we were looking to our next one, that afternoon, further south at Whalers' Bay on Deception Island.It is so named because it's not really an island but is actually the flooded crater of a volcano which is still active (it last erupted as recently as 1970).After slipping through the narrow entrance of Nelson's Bellows we disembarked.Whalers' Bay is an historical site consisting of the old ruins of a Norwegian whaling station which operated here until 1940, and the ruins of a British Antarctic Survey base which was destroyed a landslide during the last eruption.It's a rather sad and depressing sight given the bloody history of whaling - lots of remains of old wooden barrels and the inevitable whale bones litter the shoreline.A walk up to Neptune's Window hoping to see the Antarctic mainland in the distance brought disappointment, as did the walk back down to rocks on the shoreline where a leopard seal had been 'spotted' earlier.A good bit of fun was had when a good few of our more hardy (or mad?) fellow passengers stripped off for a polar plunge.This is a bit of a tradition here because the water is sometimes warmed by thermal activity - but not on this day it wasn't!We decided to keep our clothes well and truly on.We were welcomed back on board by Eric the barman who was dishing out hot chocolate laced with a good dash of rum - just the job.This made a good start to the evening which was to have a Russian theme. Some of the crew and dining room staff put on a bit of a show of jolly Russian singing and dancing - it was really really and great fun, especially at the end when some of us got roped in to the finale.This was followed by shots of vodka as we entered the dining room for a Russian Dinner - another excellent meal.The staff were really putting on a great show for us because the previous evening they brought out a beautifully presented mini- cake, complete with a massive sparkler, as a surprise for someone's birthday.After a few beers in the bar with Chuck and Jinny it was time for bed.What a full and excellent day.We had now travelled from the South Shetland Islands across the Gerlache Strait to the Antarctic Peninsula proper. Woke up to find it was snowing, the ship covered in snow and, mysteriously, a snowman on the rear deck - passenger 99?With the snow continuing to fall we were assured that the landing conditions were perfect because it was so calm.To get prepared for these landings we each put on 2 or 3 pairs of socks, long-johns over our underwear, thermal vest, short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts, fleecy jumpers, trousers, waterproof over-trousers, wellies, padded and waterproof jackets, hats, 2 pairs of gloves and sometimes a balaclava and scarves, and on top of all this a life jacket - and that's just the clothes, we can hardly move!We also have to gather together a backpack carrying sunglasses, sunscreen, cameras, binoculars etc.So it takes some time to get ready.We were now at Danco Island in the Antarctic Archipelago at the southern end of the Errera Channel, where walked to the top for a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains and heavily crevassed glaciers, passing loads of gorgeous wee Gentoo Penguins in their very smelly rookeries high on the slopes.The cleverest ones nest at the top to get the first nesting places clear of snow, but it does mean a long trek up and downhill to feed in the sea.For us it was a good bit of badly needed exercise climbing up through steep and deep snow trying to follow in others' footsteps but regularly plunging down into the thick snow.We were hoping to see some Minke and Humpback whales which are apparently seen in this area often, but no luck today.Over lunch we sailed on south to Neko Harbour on the shore of Andvord Bay for today's second disembarkation.As we sailed further south the sea turned from clear water to a huge floating raft of 'pancake' ice and just about everybody was out on deck, hanging over the sides to watch as the ship ploughed and crunched its way through it, batting large clumps aside with great thuds and shattering the softer flat floes giving us our first sighting of Krill (little shrimp-like creatures that form the staple diet of whales, seals and penguins).We were supposed to have made a landing here, which would have meant setting foot on the main Antarctic continent, but there was so much floating sea ice that there were no safe routes for the Zodiacs to get us ashore.Instead, the ship turned round and took us into Andvord Bay where we cruised in the Zodiacs awestruck by huge and incredibly shaped icebergs and the massive faces of the many glaciers that sweep down the mountainsides and tower over the sea.Absolutely stunning!Back on board we were warmed up by a glass of hot cider and dinner tonight was a BBQ on the rear deck - yes a BBQ in the Antarctic.So well wrapped up we arrived at the rear deck where the staff had set up tables and benches, and all sorts of meat was sizzling on the BBQ and a delicious spread of salads, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, bread etc., and bread and butter pudding to finish - mmmmmm.Keeping ourselves warm with plenty of mulled wine we scoffed our dinner as quickly as possible before it got cold, then adjourned to the bar where a merry time ensued.Suddenly, Christian came dashing through the bar shouting 'whales!!' and within a minute were wrapped up and again back out on the upper deck.By this time the captain was turning the ship and we sailed towards a massive pod of Orcas - there were at least 15 of them and, when we got closer we also found a pair of Minke whales with calf in amongst them.There was speculation that the Orcas were trying to get and kill the calf but Christian (a marine biologist) said he saw no evidence of that in their behaviour and thought they were probably just feeding from the same source.We spent nearly an hour watching the whales, some of whom swam right alongside the boat at one stage.What an amazing end to another wonderful and full day - it can't get any better than this, we thought.Next day we awoke to find ourselves at anchor in Port Lockroy, where the former British Antarctic Survey base has been restored by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust and is now run by them as a museum, gift shop and post office all in the building called, rather grandly, Bransfield House. Rick who runs this outpost came onboard to give a brief talk about the history of Port Lockroy and he tempted us with descriptions of some of the goodies in the gift shop. When we went ashore it was as if none of us had seen shops for months - everyone was rushing around gathering up books, t-shirts calendars, postcards, etc. Postcards written and stamped at this remotest of outposts will hopefully arrive in the UK within a couple of months. Bransfield House is surrounded by Gentoo Penguins many of whom have established rookeries around and under the building.Rick and the three woman who help man this base are oblivious to the stench of penguin poo! Afterwards we went on a Zodiac cruise around the bay and we were delighted to come across our first Leopard Seal.This one was putting on a real display showing off and trying to attract our attention. Every Zodiac that approached was given a display of its swimming prowess, and how it could leap onto an ice-flow from which it would wriggle and slide around, every so often giving us a look to make sure we were watching. This was one side of the Leopard Seal - the other is that it is very aggressive and does attack and eat penguins. It has a very reptilian look with a large mouth containing very sharp teeth.However, on this occasion penguins seemed quite unperturbed and were seen swimming nearby. Our Zodiac skipper this time was Vladimir and he took us around some very impressive ice-flows, icebergs and glacier faces. He took the Zodiac up against an ice platform and we were able to leap shore for a photo opportunity.Back on board we were soon underway to sail the famous Lemaire Channel which is one of the most scenic waterways in the Peninsula with towering peaks on either side and at is narrowest is only 800 metres wide. Unfortunately we didn't see it at is best because the weather closed in and it started to snow. Pressing on we were hoping to land at Peterman Island the most southerly point we would reach on our expedition. Although the weather cleared and the sun came out we all knew that the amount of sea ice would probably prevent our landing.We were right and we had to content ourselves with a group photo in the bow of the ship to celebrate reaching 65°10´ south. We were a bit disappointed not to land because this would have been the only opportunity to see the Adelie Penguin, the fourth type we were most likely to see. Cheli and the team always seem to have a plan B which this time was another Zodiac cruise in clearer water of nearby Penola Bay overlooked by Mount Scott. This was an area of fantastic and sometimes immense icebergs where were able to look into the water to see how colourful they were as the reached down into the depths of the water. We were also to see another Leopard Seal - this time lazing on an ice-flow - and also the amazing sound of another seal as it sang and called to its mate. We saw another Leopard and a number of Waddell Seals, a huge jellyfish, and krill at closer quarters. Just as we were nearing the Orlova our outboard motor conked out and despite all Dimitri's efforts refused to start. In the end we had to call for help and as James didn't know his bowline from his elbow (he is a geologist after all) E had to hold on to the tow rope so we could get pulled to the gangway. We all imagined James accelerating and E being yanked off into the sea! Again after dinner we got the call - whales!On deck we thrilled to get our first but brief sight of a small pod of Humpbacks Whales.But later that evening we were astonished by our luck when we came across another pod of Orcas - even larger that the previous night.There must have been at least 30 of them and when the boat again stopped we watched with absolute delight for a very long time as they swam and dived around the ship. Despite tannoy calls from Cheli and her crew to those still in their cabins, some of our fellow passengers did not emerge from their cabins (some did in their pjs) and they have no idea of the spectacle they missed!Eventually the captain put the ship on course and we set off into the (light) night.Early next morning over breakfast we sailed into Paradise Bay.For some this was to be a highlight and we were lucky enough to be in the first Zodiacs to sail around this stunningly beautiful bay. We spotted a colony of Blue-Eyed Shags nesting a cliff-face, Antarctic Terns sitting on an ice-flow as we cruised around the Petzval Glacier in Skontorp Cove and had a sighting of a minor calfing from the Glacier.Afterwards it was our turn to land - this time on the actual Antarctic mainland!! - to climb to the top of the hill behind the Argentinean Almirante Brown research station.Through thick snow we made our way uphill and across the plateau to meet up with Shane who was standing on his own. The views were wonderful and far down below we could see the Zodiacs - looking like toys dwarfed by the glacier cliffs and icebergs - sailing around Paradise Bay. All around we could hear cracks and creaks but did not see any major avalanches or glacier calfings. After taking our fill of the beauty around us, we made our way back to the top of the hill where a few of our fellow travellers and Quark crew were having fun.This was where we had the chance to slide down to the bottom - on our bottoms - so, tucking our jackets into our wet over-trousers we were soon whizzing our way downhill - much easier than stumbling and slipping our way down on foot. With a few ungainly stops as we hit bumps we were soon at the bottom, in E's case, his wellies filled with snow. All good fun and a few of our friends had a good laugh at our expense.That afternoon was our last outing before setting out on the long journey back to Ushuaia so we had to make the most of it.Ominously the snow started to fall and we were fearful our Zodiac cruise of the Melchior Islands would be cancelled. We needn't have worried because Cheli and the Quark crew were not going to deny us. Although perhaps briefer than planned we were asked to say if we wanted a 45 minute cruise and everyone said yes!We set of with Jamie at the Zodiac helm and made our way through driving snow to coves and icebergs. We were thrilled when we spotted a lone Adelie Penguin, with a Chinstrap Penguin as a mate, as this was the only one seen on the entire trip (as far as we knew). The scenery, enhanced by the weather, was dramatic as we weaved our way through choppy sea channels.With snow piling up on our Zodiac, Jamie suggested a 'pirate' raid on one of fellow Zodiacs.Slushy snowballs were quickly piled up as we crept up on an unsuspecting Zodiac and we launched our fusillade. We knew we'd now be a target so gathering all remaining snow we assembled another, but measly arsenal. As we made our way back to the ship we were pounded by 'enemy' snow but what fun we had!We had to re-board the Orlova quickly as a late attack came from the rear.It was a poor effort but full marks to them as they had built a complete snowman on the bow of their Zodiac so that explained their lack of snow for fighting. That evening the restaurant was the scene of an international dinner - another exceptional feast.Later on we were all out on deck to witness our 4th sighting of whales - this time humpbacks which spent ages swimming close to and around the ship.What a whale-fest we have had. Been really lucky with the weather and all we've seen - heard that two other ships at one point only a few miles behind us couldn't make two of the landings we had done.It is amazing how quickly the weather changes.There was a noticeable sense of finality when we all awoke the following morning as we were again back in the Drake Passage and only a couple of days from Ushuaia.After what we had seen and experienced, what was left?The few remaining lectures were poorly attended because once more friends were wrestling with the effects of the heaving swell of the Drake. Zodiacs were now safely tucked away in the Orlova's hold. The forward deck was now closed to passengers so we had to make do with the upper and rear decks from where we watched albatrosses and petrels flying alongside the ship.From the bridge we waited expectantly to see the occasional wave as it surged over the bow and flowed across the forward decks. Wonderful food was still being served by the excellent kitchen and restaurant staff but once again with diminished numbers of diners.We heard from Eric (the bar manager) that this had been a record-breaking cruise as similar cruises normally get through around 12 cases of beer:we'd drunk our way through 56 cases!!! In addition rather than 1 bottle of gin, we were into our 4th.We made good time and reached the calmer waters of the Beagle Channel in time for Farewell Dinner.Some staff/crew got togged out in their best gear and we celebrated with champagne while we watched a small selection of photos of some excellent photos taken during the trip. The restaurant was once more full with everyone giving their appreciation to the staff and crew who had served us so well and made it such a fantastic trip. Before this trip we'd had reservations about whether we'd enjoy cruising and whether we'd look out of place in our well worn 2+ year old travel gear. We needn't have worried on the last issue because our fellow travellers were a relaxed bunch and all sorts of garb was on show. On the first point, however, we'd say that 10 nights aboard ship was about our limit and, had we been restricted to the ship because of weather etc, it would have more than enough. Asit turned out we'd had the most wonderful experience and we would love to something again, although not sure we'll ever be able to afford it.In his final lecture Christian mentioned an experience where a penguin had jumped into his Zodiac to escape Orcas (that eat penguins).Have a look at the very event on You Tube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTKrYulr_7o . We also came away with a much better understanding of the effects of global warming thanks to James's and Jamie's factual lectures.
Lots of love and a Happy Christmas to everyone
E & M xxxxxx