Saturday, January 27, 2024

Antarctica 2023-4 - Day 6 - 12/31/2023 - First excursions (Heroina and Paulet Islands)

The sleepless nights are starting to get old. This time I think it was mostly from anxiety about the off-ship excursions and how my bladder would handle them. The plan from the night before indicated that the first disembarkation for the first excursion would be at 8:45am. However, the expedition leader (Ryan) announced around 6:30am that we were now aiming for an 8am disembarkation. Before breakfast Fran also found out that her sign-up for the acoustic zodiac had been accepted, and that they would be touring in their separate zodiac as part of this first excursion - so we would be on separate zodiacs. The expedition used the term “zodiac” for their rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) - I think it’s a particular brand of RIB.

After a quick breakfast we returned to the room so that Fran could hurriedly prepare for her boat - they were among the first groups, while our normal group (Crabeater Seals) was third to last. They call passengers down to the mud room by group, with about 20 passengers to a group - this avoids overflowing the mud room. Once down in the room, passengers don their muck boots, coats, and life vests, then line up to board the general zodiacs in groups of 10 or 11 - your call group doesn’t matter at this point. Special groups (photographers, kayakers, science groups) of course board specific vessels and don’t take part in the general lines.

The calling of the groups went faster than we anticipated, and I was quite flustered at having to get on all my gear without my "guide" Fran to help me. I somehow managed to get prepared in time and made it down after my group was called. I put on the boots, jacket, and vest, and lined up. The boarding members head down the stairs, step in a tub of Virkon to disinfect our boots, then board with the help of the guides as soon as the zodiac pulls up.

This first excursion was a sea cruise at Heroina Island - one of the bigger of the Danger Islands at the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. We apparently had good conditions in the Weddell Sea, as the water was relatively calm for us. The main attraction at this island was a very large colony of Adélie penguins. Our driver Julie drove us around the sea ice and toward the island. The penguins were all over the island and the nearby waters, including on top of the ice floes. We got within 3 or 4 meters of swimming penguins at multiple points on the cruise. One of the “highlights” was witnessing a leopard seal that had caught a penguin and was bashing it against the water and ice to dismember it so that the seal could eat it. Another noteworthy moment was the first whiff of the mass of guano (feces) when we got close to the island and a bit downwind. Apparently some other groups ahead of us (including Fran's boat) had also seen some whales, but we did not get sight of them.

Adélie penguins on Heroina Island

We headed back to the ship after about 75 minutes of puttering about. The boat was still buzzing with excitement, but unfortunately I was starting to have the pelvic discomfort; the high speed dash to the ship helped in terms of time, but not in terms of comfort. I was also getting a bit cold toward the end of the cruise, so I’ll have to think about how to adjust my layering to improve that.

Once back on the boat, we brush our boots off in a tub and then step in another tub of Virkon. From there we head up to the mud room and get changed. Fran was waiting for me in the mud room, and we immediately began exchanging stories. She had a great time on the acoustic cruise (they were making sound recordings to support a PhD project for a researcher on board), though she didn’t get as much time for sightseeing as other zodiacs did.

From there we headed up to the common areas to debrief a bit with some fellow passengers before going back to our room. Fran went to the gym for a quick workout while I hung around, chatted with a few others in the lounge, and went to the “Polar Boutique” to buy some glove liners. I met back up with her for lunch while the ship was making its way toward Paulet Island for the afternoon excursion. Afterward we had a check-in about how I was feeling, which turned into a bit of an intervention, but also some inspiration for me to make a better time of the trip and stop sulking so much about my condition.

It took a while to get to Paulet Island, partially because of all the sea ice, and the announcement around lunch indicated that we would arrive in the area around 3pm, and hoped to begin disembarkation at 3:45pm. However, the wind picked up when we got to the area, and they announced around 3:30pm that they were repositioning the ship downwind of the island to get some shelter to operate the gangways, and would continue to assess the situation. Unfortunately, the result of this is that we weren’t able to make a landing on the island. We began disembarkation around 4:45 for another 75-ish minutes of zodiac cruising. This island also had a large Adélie penguin colony. This time there was more sea ice / pack ice for our driver Andy to navigate during the cruise. We saw 3 different types of seals (Elephant, Leopard, Weddell) laying out on the rocky beaches.

Adélie penguin jumping into the water

After the cruise we headed over to the restaurant for dinner; it was buffet style this time, and had some New Year decorations. After dinner we changed into more festive clothes before heading out to the lounge to join the New Year celebration. It started with a series of musical performances by the expedition crew before moving upstairs for a mini dance party. We rang in the New Year (Argentina time) with Liz, Michelle, and Diane, then headed off to bed.

New Years Eve - I'm wearing Fran's jacket


My favorite pictures from the trip can be found here.

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