Thursday, April 21, 2016

Embracing the unexpected in Antarctica

Penguins, icebergs, and our ship--on a gorgeous sunny day in Antarctica.
On day 10 of our week-long Antarctic expedition, a blizzard blew in. Winds gusting up to 115 miles per hour slung snow sideways across the deck of our ship. Ice crusted windowsills and kayaks stacked on the port side of the deck as temperatures fell below freezing.
The ship rolled with the roaring waves prompting the captain to reposition the ship so that the mountains onshore would provide additional shelter from the storm.

Our expedition begins
Throughout the seven scheduled days aboard Sea Adventurer, we had enjoyed exceptional weather—epic days, the guides said. Nearing the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, temps hovered in the mid-30s and seas were mostly calm—perfect for our Antarctic experience.
Disembarking the plane that brought us to King George Island.
We booked the trip almost 18 months in advance with two objectives in mind: to fly both directions from Chile to Antarctica and to cross the Antarctic Circle. Quark, a leading company in polar expeditions, only schedules one trip  annually that accomplishes both.  At the time of booking I didn’t realize what a feat crossing the Circle is, especially because the ship must maintain its schedule during the trip. Most companies taking tourists (yes, we were) to Antarctica only reach the tip of the peninsula, which is certainly a wonderful destination, but we wanted to do more.
Brilliant sunset after crossing the Antarctic Circle
The night before leaving Punta Arenas, Chile we were issued heavy-duty, waterproof, double-lined, yellow parkas (ours to keep) and thick mid-calf “muck” boots. These were necessary for keeping feet warm and dry as we tromped through snow, ice, mud, and slush. Also, most Zodiac landings on shore required walking through water a short distance before reaching land.

Boarding Zodiacs to get to the Sea Adventurer, which was
anchored off shore.
In the morning everyone met in the hotel lobby at 3:30 a.m. for an early morning flight—necessary to utilize the shrinking window of opportunity for landing on the primitive airstrip at the Chilean military base on King George Island. Still, we applauded our good decision to fly from Punta Arenas to King George Island. Not only did we skip the two-day, potentially horrendous passage through the Drake Channel, but we saved four days’ travel time on our voyage.
After two hours in the air, the plane landed uneventfully, passengers disembarked, and we walked a mile and a half on a muddy path to the beach where we boarded Zodiacs that took us to the Sea Adventurer. Excitement was thick in the air as each traveler first set foot on the ship that would be our home for a week’s expedition.

Weather determines everything in Antarctica
Ice on a window of the ship
We just didn’t anticipate that we would spend three more days of anxious waiting after our week's excursion was done before getting back to Punta Arenas.  The day of our scheduled return flight, fog rolled in making a sight landing on King George Island impossible. For two days, a dull haze covered the landscape. Two times the chartered plane took off from Punta Arenas—and two times weather conditions forced it to turn back. On the third unplanned day aboard the Sea Adventurer—after the blizzard had subsided—the air cleared, and the plane finally was able to take off and subsequently land at King George Island.

Quickly, our luggage was loaded onto the Zodiacs, and we also boarded the water crafts for our last ride to shore. When everyone had reached land, our group got the necessary permission to walk across the Chilean military base. We were there watching as the plane zoomed in for a landing. Ditching our muck boots (too dirty for the plane), we boarded and took off without delay—to a hefty round of applause.
Finally (and gratefully) leaving King George Island--walking to the airstrip.
Antarctica was fabulous, but most people had schedules to keep—and flights to change--so we were anxious to get back to South America to figure out our next moves.  Still, we were warm, dry, and well-fed during the unexpected delay—another reason our journey was truly unforgettable.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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