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Air-Cruise with Antarctica XXI on the Ocean Nova

Author: Dileep Bhandarkar
Date of Trip: December 2012

06 December 2012
It all started with the 4 am alarm and we were ready by 5 am for the taxi to show up for the half hour trip to SEATAC airport. The flight out seemed to be on time. What a relief! But after checking in and going to the gate we learned that we were going to be delayed by one hour due to weather related traffic metering in San Francisco.We had plenty of time and did make our connecting LAN flight to Lima. On arriving in Lima just before midnight, we were delighted to see Pisco Sour tasting offered in the duty free liquor shop!

07 December 2012
After more than 24 hours travel from Seattle and 3 flight changes in San Francisco, Lima, and Santiago we arrived in Punta Arenas around 2 pm. The Antarctica XXI staff was waiting for us in baggage claim. There were more than 10 Adventure Lifers on our flight. We got our first taste of the windy conditions in Punta Arenas as we walked with our luggage to the bus. The airport is about half hour drive from downtown.

We checked in to the hotel and waited a while to get our keys. We tried on our waterproof boots for size and adjourned to our room for a quick shower. These boots by BOGS were much more comfortable than The Wellingtons we had on our previous cruise. The welcome briefing was at 5 pm Welcome briefing in the Conference Room at Hotel Rey Don Felipe covering Antarctic Visitor’s Guidelines, Zodiac Guidelines, and The Plan for tomorrow.

We were given a package of information, then came the under stated bad news. The previous cruise had been cancelled because the weather conditions were not conducive for landing the BAE 146. We might not get out the next day unless a “window” opened up for landing. Stand by for a possible wake up call. Yeah, right! There was a contingency plan but we would not know if it would be invoked until the cocktails welcome dinner at La Pergola Restaurant, Hotel José Nogueira at 7:30 pm. We got an envelope with our dessert outlining the contingency plan for the next day. Arrangements had been made with the Argentine Air Force to transport us ona C-130 Hercules that can land in adverse conditions!

08 December 2012
After breakfast, many of us went on a 3 hour city tour visiting the buildings around Plaza de Armas, the Sara Braun City Cemetery, and Maggiorino Borgatello Museum. We returned to the hotel around noon to load up our luggage on the bus for the 3 hour drive to Rio Gallegos. We had a sumptuous lunch at the Dona Ines Restaurant in the Dreams Hotel by the sea.

We drove through the Patagonian pampas and spent over 2 hours at the border while the Antarctica XXI staff had our visas processed for Argentina. On arrival at the Gallegos Hotel, we were told that we would have dinner and stay overnight and hopefully fly out the next morning if the weather conditions permit!

09 December 2012
At the 7 am breakfast, we were informed that we would head out to the airport at 8 am for a 9 am departure! We were relieved to see the C-130 provided by Argentina’s Linea Aerea del Estado (LADE) ready for us. The interior of the airplane was a sight to behold and we were packed tightly. We were thrilled to have a snack and soft drink passed down to us. We dared not drink too much, since there were no toilets on board!

After the exciting Hercules flight, we landed at Frei Station and we were welcomed by the Expedition Staff who took us on a mile long walk on the runway and snow to the zodiacs that took us to the M/V Ocean Nova. There were 53 of us ready to start out Antarctic adventure.

On board the Catering Team was waiting for us with lunch. During the afternoon we were briefed about emergency procedures and Daniel of the Expedition Staff introduced us to the most remarkable facts of the Antarctic continent during a lecture. At 7 pm on a perfect afternoon we landed at Half Moon Island (Coordinates: 62°35′30″S 59°55′15″W). We had the chance to visit a Chinstrap penguin colony and see lots of wild-life: a few Gentoo penguins, Antarctic Terns, Skuas flying over the colony, Snowy Sheathbill, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, and even a singing Weddell seal. An amazing first day in the South Shetland Islands!

10 December 2012
Our day started with a 7 am wake up call and 7:30 breakfast. Today was an exciting day in Antarctica! We started with a talk about penguins by Andre, followed by our first continental landing at Portal Point, on a stunning & sunny day. We got the opportunity to hike in different directions and have a fabulous view of the surrounding glaciers. Portal Point (Coordinates: 64°30′S 61°46′W) is a narrow point in the northeast part of Reclus Peninsula, on the west coast of Graham Land, where a hut was established in 1956 as a “gateway” of the expedition route.

In the afternoon we visited Orne Harbour (Coordinates: 64°37′S 62°32′W) for a somewhat strenuous hike up to the Chinstrap colony, but some of us chose an optional Zodiac cruise to see the nesting Cormorants. Just before dinner a pot of Orca was spotted, and it was amazing to see such a large group traveling on a calm evening with glaciers and icebergs as background. We had a recap of the day at 6 pm, followed by dinner at 7 pm, and then on to Lemaire Channel.

The Lemaire Channel is a spectacular sight with enormous sheer cliffs falling straight into the sea. Affectionately known as “Kodak Gap,” this narrow 7 mile long waterway flows between the 3,000-foot peaks of Booth Island and the peninsula Glaciers and cliffs reflected in still waters at the south end of the channel. We dropped anchor at the southern end of the channel at about 10 pm and waited for the sun to set slowly at midnight. We could see the Quark Sea Adventurer also anchored near Pleneau Island and their yellow jacketed passengers walking on a nearby ridge.

11 December 2012
Today, we started the day with a 6:30 am wake up call and breakfast. Right after breakfast, Daniel gave us a presentation on Antarctic Glaciology in the Panorama Lounge. Just after that we landed at Neko Harbour (Coordinates: 64°50′S 62°33′W) at 9 am. It is an inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula on Andvord Bay. The weather could not be any better! With temperatures in the mid 40s, we dropped our jackets on the rock near the beach and hiked up to see the Gentoo penguin colony. We were within 100 feet from a large group of penguins. Some were still building their nests – stealing rocks from each other. Some had eggs they were protecting. We even got to see some mating activity! We saw so many reflections in the water and also a Crabeater seal on an ice flow. We had plenty of time during this landing and it was fun watching the Gentoo penguins going in and out of the water. We took a leisurely cruise on a zodiac to take a closer look at the floating icebergs on the way back to the ship. This was our most favorite landing site!

After lunch we landed at Danco Island (Coordinates: 64°44′S 62°37′W) and we had the option of going all the way to the top of the island to enjoy a magnificent view of the Errera Channel. We chose to walk along the beach and watch the penguins struggle in the snow as they made their way down to the sea. We went for another zodiac cruise to look at floating icebergs and found seals, penguins, and cormorants perched on the floating ice. We were thrilled to find a large piece of floating black ice that we picked up and took to the bar for our Scotch on the rocks! This ice does not melt in your glass for at least 2 hours! It was a nice surprise and unexpected as well to see a Twin Otter over flying the area.

Once back on board the Polar Plunge started! That was a lot of fun for the swimmers and the viewing public as well. Sanity prevailed and I refrained from taking the plunge, opting instead to take pictures from Deck 4. The Hotel Team rewarded us with a truly Antarctic BBQ on the freezing cold outside deck. What a treat! But we had to make a quick retreat to the warmth of the aft lounge!

12 December 2012
Once again, we heard Mariano wake us up at 7:30 in morning to get ready to enjoy what we thought would be our last whole day of excursions. After breakfast, we landed on Mikkelsen Harbour (Coordinates: 63°54′S 60°47′W) is a small bay indenting the south side of Trinity Island at 9 am. This little island full of interesting wildlife, including some blue eyed shags. The island has leftover deserted huts and artifacts from whaling operations in the early 1900’s.The harbor was used by whalers for mooring factory ships. We had two hours ashore to enjoy among the Gentoo penguins and a lone Weddell seal.

In the afternoon we repositioned to Spert Island after Andre shared with us a talk about Climate Change. (Coordinates: 63°51′S 60°57′W). It is a little known island lying off the west extremity of Trinity Island, in the Palmer Archipelago. We went for an exhilarating hour long Zodiac cruise around Spert Island. It was fantastic to be in such a place with steep walls next to us, channels and spectacular monstrous icebergs.

We had our farewell champagne toast with Captain Alexey and the Expedition Staff and we remembered through pictures all what we had been doing during these intense four days on board M/ Ocean Nova. The farewell dinner was capped off with the catering staff parading in Baked Alaska!

13 December 2012
We cruised in to Maxwell Bay in the morning. The weather looked clear, but as we closer the fog set in. Antarctica didn’t want us to leave! Weather was not good and the incoming flight was delayed. That gave us the opportunity of landing at Ardley Island where we observed Adelie and Gentoo penguins feeding their chicks, which are very rare at this early time of the Southern summer. In the morning we also went cruising to get a close look at Humpback whales! A big bonus, since it was the first time of the voyage we could see them from a close distance. After lunch we were welcomed at Bellingshausen and Fildes Stations where we visited the Russian Orthodox church, a souvenir shop at the Chilean station and the living quarters. We got our passports stamped at both stations.

A nice bonus day to make up for our late arrival to start the cruise. Now it was time to pack our bags and be prepared to leave the ship the next day!

14 December 2012
On waking up at the usual 7 am we were told that the flight from Punta Arenas had not departed and they were in standby mode. We would probably not leave until sometime after lunch.

We were give $10 internet credit per person to send emails or contact our travel agents. We did not have much luck! Just wait and see.

Finally, we learned at noon that the flight was leaving soon and we were to disembark by 3 pm. The zodiacs took us ashore for the long uphill walk in deep snow to the end of the runway. We waited and watched the BAE 146 come in and land. Then we were driven to the other end of the runway where the airplane was parked.

We watched the incoming Chinese tourists leave for the zodiacs, their luggage being unloaded and ours being loaded. Fuel was being siphoned in from steel barrels. It was a very long wait in the cold and some of us were not well prepared.

We boarded and waited for a Mineral Air flight to land taxi and park next to us. It appeared that there were passengers on a day trip to the stations on King George Island.

We finally took off just after 5 pm and were in Punta Arenas at 7:30 pm, eager to rebook our ongoing flights.

The local LAN staff had no access to information on international connections in Santiago, but they could book us on a midnight flight to Santiago!

We had enough time for a refreshing beer in the bar and then wait for the flight out of Punta Arenas. Many of our travelling companions went into town and spent the night at the hotel, but we chose to get to Santiago to book our remaining flights home.

15 December 2012
Our flight from Punta Arenas departed just after midnight. The final adventure had begun. We picked up our luggage after the flight landed at 3:30 am and went up to the 3rd floor to find the LAN sales desk. There were 8 of us Adventure Lifers eager to see what flight we would get from the trip home. The earliest flights out were after 10 pm. Fortunately, there is a Holiday Inn across the street! But wait, they have no rooms at 4 am and their lobby is closed until 6 am. Why not have a bite to eat at the airport and kill some time. We got our rooms at the Holiday Inn at 7 am – day room until 6 am for $105 with breakfast included. We need to get some sleep and a second breakfast was not needed.

The next priority was to get our boarding passes. Partial success as LAN printed them for the flight from Santiago to Los Angeles. They could not do it for the Alaska Airlines flight from LAX to Seattle. We found out why the next day!

The Holiday Inn lobby has very comfortable couches and plenty of computers to access email. The restaurant is good too.

16 December 2012
Our flight landed a few minutes late at LAX. We had a long walk (seemed like a mile) to Terminal 6 where Alaska Airlines is located. After a 15 minute wait in the MVP Gold Priority check in line, we learned that LAN had not made a confirmed booking on our flight to Seattle and not all our information was sent over to Alaska! MeganB did a great job getting us exit row seats and we were on our way home shortly!

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