Sunday, January 2

The waiting game

We travelled to Antarctica with an organisation called Antarctica XXI. The company promotes itself as the “First Air Cruise to Antarctica.” To date it’s still the only company offering scheduled cruises that begin and end with a flight over the notoriously rough seas of the Drake Passage. These charter flights save you almost two full days of sailing in each direction – and the sea sickness that often accompanies the voyage.

Antarctica XXI has been organising fly-in cruises for more than eight years. During this period no cruise group has ever been delayed by inclement weather for more than 24 hours. However the company very clearly warns passengers that weather can cause serious delays. This disclaimer concerned me enough to do additional research before finally booking our Christmas cruise. I read that most flights are only delayed a few hours; half a day at most.

However, the Polar Regions are a fickle place. As fate would have it, Garry and I, along with 57 other passengers, found ourselves proving an exception to the rule on our cruise. After six breath-taking days of cruising we sailed back into Maxwell Bay, King George Island, ready to join our flight back to Mainland Chile on December 29. However, low cloud and poor visibility kept the plane waiting in Punte Arenas. A single day’s delay then turned in two days and finally three before the seasonal winds finally returned, lifting the cloud ceiling sufficiently for our plane to land.

Garry and I couldn’t believe our luck. We gained three extra days of cruising at no extra cost and found ourselves celebrating New Years Eve in Antarctica. We were effectively stranded. Apparently the Brazilian President suffered a similar fate when he visited King George Island in 2005. He was stranded on the island by poor weather for five days.

As each delay mounted our cruise director worked with the ship’s captain to arrange unscheduled excursions to scenic locations within two hours sailing time. This time window reflected the minimum period required to file a flight plan, assemble the next tour group and take to the air thus giving us sufficient time to return to base.

Our first additional day saw us anchored offshore by the airfield. We ventured onto shore once to visit the local Russian research base and its incredibly quaint Russian Orthodox Church. By chance I’d come across references to this church prior to our cruise. I never imagined I’d actually get to see it as the building wasn’t listed as an excursion destination for our cruise.

The church was built in Siberia in 2002 entirely from cedar wood and hefty spruce logs. It consists of three small rooms; an entrance annex, a high-ceiling nave and a small back chapel. Outside, the roof of each room is topped by a classic onion dome. It was then disassembled and shipped to Antarctica. The structure was then reassembled on a low hill overlooking Maxwell Bay on King George Island. To ensure that the gale-force polar winds cannot sweep it away, the building is firmly bolded to bedrock with six impressive yellow chains.

Day Two of our unscheduled extension saw us lift anchor and sail off to neighbouring Admiralty Bay. Here we took to the zodiac boats and spent several hours cruising along the five kilometre long face of an impressive glacier. Highlights of our time on the water included an encounter with an impressive leopard seal who repeated yawned on request resulting in numerous iconic photos. We also witnessed the glacier carving several times, some chunks so large, they generated wave after wave of powerful swells that swept across the bay.

Our third and final extension day took us into a nearby cove where Argentina has established a large research base. It’s inhabited all year round; hosting more than 100 people in Summer and 30 in Winter. Currently it’s home to eight women which I’m sure makes for an interesting social dynamic. The base commander took us along the shore to observe juvenile elephant seals before we ventured inside for a short lecture on the base’s research program.

It’s an impressive complex, complete with its own polar diving team who dive all year round including excursions under the ice in Winter. It also hosts one of only two barometric pressure chambers along the Antarctic peninsula. This facility is used to help divers decompress after lengthy dives or save divers suffering the lift-threatening bends. This excursion was easily our most insightful research base visit of the entire cruise. Previous base tours had involved little more than securing a stamp in our passports (I have three such stamps now) and shopping for the odd souvenir.

Upon our return to Maxwell Bay we were advised that we’d be forced to spend New Year’s Eve in Antarctica. Some of our tour group were initially angry at the prospect of spending a third unscheduled night on board. However, Garry and I teamed up with a friendly bunch of Australians to organise an impromptu New year’s Eve concert. The crew responded by organising a trivia quiz and the hospitality manager called up the ship’s engineers to unbolt tables in its panorama lounge, forming a temporary dance floor.

I designed an invite that the ship circulated during dinner and our Australian companions organised four national choirs who each wrote a song about our dilemma. The Australians (and kiwis) sang a sold about watching the ice flows to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, the American’s rewrote the theme song to Gilligan’s Island (a 70’s sitcom) and the British reworked Twelve Days of Christmas, earning some of the largest laughs of the night.

As midnight neared we then surprised the crew with a re-naming ceremony. We gave each crew member a new nickname, while sharing an anecdote that captured the history of their name. Several of the crew told us afterwards they’d never had a tour group honour them so warmly. Finally, I pulled up a copy of Auld Lang Sine I just so happened to have loaded into my iPhone as we counted down to midnight.

In the end a determined group of us successfully transformed an initially hostile situation into an evening filled with laughter, singing, dancing and memories everyone will treasure for years to come. For me the ultimate personal highlight came shortly after midnight. I found myself standing alone on the top deck looking out across a perfectly calm bay as snow gently fell around me. At the moment, in the perpetual summer twilight of the polar region (that's the image above), I truly felt I was in Antarctica celebrating the beginning of a new decade. Happy New Year everyone!

No comments: