Arriving at the Bottom of the World

Day 27, Grand World Voyage 2020

Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020; South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

When I considered booking this cruise, I gave some serious thought as to whether an “Antarctic Experience” would satisfy my desire to visit this continent. Holland America was clear from the start that we would not set foot on land here. Instead, we would spend four days cruising through passages and bays, admiring this ice-covered land.

The number of visitors (not scientists at various bases) to Antarctica has grown substantially in the past few years, and now regulations strictly limit visitors to its shores. Ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to make landings. Smaller ships can only disembark 100 passengers at a time.

I decided to follow my philosophy that cruising gives me a taste of many locations, leaving me to decide later which I would like to visit for a longer stay. I’m not obsessed with the technicalities of what constitutes “visiting” a country. Changing planes in an airport? Sitting on a ship in a bay or at a pier? Really, who cares? I want to experience cultures, see through eyes that reflect new perspectives and admire this wonderful creation we call earth.

After leaving the Falkland Islands on Tuesday we cruised across the Drake Passage, which divides South America from Antarctica. This area of the southern ocean can have some of the roughest seas in the world, with 30-plus foot swells and blasting winds. I’ve read many an account of sailors narrowly surviving the Roaring 40s, Furious 50s and Screaming 60s, descriptions of the southern latitudes that encircle Antarctica.

Our passage was relatively smooth. Captain Mercer described the seas as “confused,” with swells coming in three directions, and some passengers complained more than others about the motion. But that only lasted part of the day on Wednesday. By the time we had crossed the passage the seas had “unconfused” themselves.

Around 6 a.m. this morning I caught my first glimpse of Antarctica, as the heavy fog lifted a bit. The mountains of the South Shetland Islands peeked through underneath the low cloud ceiling. By 8 a.m. our Antarctic Expedition team began describing our journey, noting details about the land and identifying the birds flying nearby.

We cruised into Admiralty Bay on King George Island, the largest in the group, and slowly passed by the five scientific stations on the bay. The large Brazilian installation has many boathouses because it focuses on the sea, while Ecuador’s station is a lone building. As we were leaving, we saw a Zodiac boat heading from the Brazilian to the Ecuadorian installation, apparently for a visit.

For days the shops on board the ship have been displaying tables of winter wear. Most of the sweaters, hoodies and jackets feature the logo for the Grand World Voyage, and many passengers have been wearing their purchases. I worried over what to pack in the way of warm weather outdoor clothing, and settled, a hoodie, a fleece jacket and an unlined LL Bean water- and wind-proof jacket. In case it really got cold I added silk long underwear.

With the temperature in the low 30s this morning, I thought I might wish for a winter jacket, but the wind was light and my layers were sufficient when I added a cute wool hat from Norway and some fingertip-less gloves with nifty finger covers to use when I don’t need to fiddle with my camera.

When it got too cold, it was easy to duck back in. The staff provided hot cups of clam chowder that warmed us from the inside.

Meanwhile crewmembers were cleaning the Lido pool, which had been drained while we crossed the Drake Passage.

By afternoon the Crow’s Nest was packed as we cruised along the South Shetland Islands to Deception Island. It wasn’t easy to stealthily sketch the crowd as they kept coming and going.

A beach near Baily Head is home to tens of thousands of nesting Chinstrap Penguins, and we hovered there turning from side to side so everyone could get a view. Some of the penguins entertained us from the water.

We continued to watch the scenery through the windows, darting outside for photos as the opportunity presented itself.

I was fighting yawns as dinner ended, and the dining crowd was sparse. We attributed it to all that clean Antarctic air. Both of us were in bed watching TV before 9 p.m. And poof! There went the TV signal, so we went to sleep early having no idea which choice the House Hunters made.