Antarctica – Days 1-3 – Drake Passage

Suddenly having 6 extra weeks in South America, I was considering what to do.   Then one of my friends (thanks Alain!) suggested that if I had the money – Antarctica was the best trip he’d ever done.   Ohhhhhh – now that was a good idea!  And surprisingly, not one that I’d thought of at all.

So emailed quite a few companies with my dates looking for last minute deals and ended up going through Freestyle Adventure Tours on the 12 day,  Antarctica & Falkland Islands: Sea Birds and Penguins trip by One Ocean Expeditions on the ship: Akademik Sergei Vavilov.   There were quite a few reasons I was super-excited about this particular trip:

  1. It was a relatively small ship, with a maximum of 96 passengers (you can only land 100 passengers on Antarctica at any one time)
  2. It was a science ship that would actually have scientists on board with us who were going to Antarctica to do their research (penguin counts)
  3. It was not doing the regular trip to Antarctica: across the Drake Passage, down the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and the back again. This one was going across the Drake Passage, up the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, across to the Weddell Sea on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, over to Elephant Island, and up to the Falkland Islands before flying back to Punta Arenas in Chile. Weather and ice permitting of course!
Antarctic Peninsula and Falkland Islands Excursion Points
This is actually the final set of excursion points that we achieved rather than the initial plan. Good news though – it didn’t change.

The Antarctic trip started with a Pizza Party organised by Freestyle Adventure Tours at the Irish Pub in Ushuaia, an opportunity to get to know other passengers and receive our Antarctic bird guide, One Ocean buff and luggage tags.   Then we all met the next day at 3:30pm at the super-fancy Hotel Albatross to hand in our passports and head to the ship.

Gifts from Freestyle Adventures
Gifts from Freestyle Adventures – a guide to the wildlife of Antarctica, luggage tag and a buff (not pictured)

Turns out there was only 50 passengers on the trip and it was a surprisingly young crowd! Usually I would have been one of the younger passengers, but this time I was one of the older ones!  There was almost one staff member for ever 2 passengers on the boat, as well as a few scientists and a film crew on board.   Got shown to our cabins – I’m sharing mine with Assa from Sweden – and then explored the ship while waiting to cast off.

Exploring the Akademic Sergey Vavilov
The view from the top deck while still at port in Ushuaia (top left), mine and Assa’s cabin (top right), the bridge (mid left), the multimedia room (mid right) and the bar, otherwise known as the Vavilounge (bottom)

Had a lifeboat drill before casting off, in which our side of the ship (the starboard side) came second (hmmm…. there are only 2 sides on a ship…)

Lifeboat Vavilov
Getting to know the Vavilov’s lifeboats

Cast off was at about 6pm and we headed off up the Beagle Channel on our way to the Drake Passage.

Casting off the Vavilov at Ushuaia - OneOcean

Nice and calm going down the Beagle Channel with a great “Welcome Aboard” Party in the Bar (so much good food!) and a beautiful sunset to accompany. 

Beagle Channel
Sunset as we headed away from Ushuaia and up the Beagle Channel

Dinner was great as well (I can see us all leaving here a kilo or two heavier 🙂 ) and we all hung out in the bar for several hours afterwards before heading to bed.

I don’t think anyone slept well that first night – partially excitement and partially because we entered the Drake Passage, which decided to give us an abrupt introduction to sea-sickness.   Gale-force winds and 5-metre swells brought the majority of the passengers on the ship down, and most didn’t appear at all for the first day.

Doc Walter (an Aussie from Brisbane) was run off his feet dispensing sea-sickness patches and pills, and even with that most people stayed in bed (sea sickness abates somewhat if you are lying down).    I wasn’t doing too bad without drugs, though couldn’t finish watching the talks in the “Vomitorium” – the presentation room that is down in the bottom of the ship.  I had to get out of there … but I wasn’t the only one!

Akademic Sergey Vavilov - OneOcean - Vomitorium on the way through the Drake Passage
The “Vomitorium” down in the bowels of the Vavilov. This was actually the 2nd day of the Drake crossing when it was far less rough

Ended up hanging out on the bridge for quite a while (they have an open-bridge policy) – very impressive to see the bow of the boat crashing through the swells.  Apparently, it was a slightly worse than normal crossing.

Drake Passage - Vavilov - OneOcean
Our rough first day crossing the Drake Passage. These waves and the swell were incredible and kept the majority of the passengers in bed. View from the bridge

Also spent lots of time hanging out in the bar (the Vavilounge) – very impressed by the musical prowess of several of the staff.  These guys were awesome!

OneOcean - Vavilov - concert
The Expedition Leader (centre), Expedition Photographer (right) and assistant Hotel Manager (left) could often be found jamming in the bar of the Vavilov. They are incredible musicians!

Went down for lunch, ate, and then threw up 🙁  Good thing the staff put out a multitude of sick-bags in all corridors and stairwells – I guess they knew what to expect!

Vomit bags
The crew knew the Drake Passage! Sick bags were everywhere around the ship while we made the crossing.

Went to sleep for a couple of hours (still trying to catch up from lack of sleep coming back from Easter Island) then decided to cave in and see Doc Walter for a sea-sickness pill at 5pm – after all, I wanted to keep dinner down!   Seemed to work 🙂

Day 2 crossing the Drake Passage was a lot better!  Only 5 knot winds and not much of a swell – lots more people out and about today!   Spent a lot of time up on the bridge again as there is always a staff member up there – and usually one who knows the different birds we are seeing.   Lots and lots of Cape Petrels, and Sooty Shearwaters, plus Black-browed Albatross, Southern Fulmars, Chinstrap Penguins porpoising and some Fin Whales (and possibly some Minke whales) blowing and cresting.

Drake Passage bird sightings
Some of the wildlife we saw crossing the Drake Passage – Cape Petrel (top left), Sooty Shearwater (top right), Southern Fulmar (mid left), Black-browed Albatross (mid right), Chinstrap Penguins, and whales.

Also got shown how to find out where the ship was currently located in the map room near the bridge – love these maps!

Vavilov Maproom
The maproom in the Akademic Sergey Vavilov was right behind the bridge. You could learn how to read the instruments and maps to discover where exactly you were at any given time

Every day, the schedule is posted on a number of noticeboards around the ship.   The One Ocean guys are awesome and great fun, so these tend to have a little information, a little humour, the schedule, and the “Russian word for the day” – after all, we are on a Russian ship (it is actually owned by the Russian Institute for Science) and the ship’s crew are all Russian.

Ocean Notes - OneOcean - Vavilov
Ocean Notes were posted all around the ship to remind us of our adventures the previous day, tell us what was happening when on this day and a few other bits and pieces.

Went to the talks that were on today, but the main activity was preparing for our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula.   This started with trying on all our outerwear to make sure it fit, and swapping it if it didn’t.   Followed by a “Vacuum Partyyyyyyyy”, which is where we had to take all our outerwear, boots, bags and anything that we were going to carry with us on shore landings to the Mud Room to go over it with a fine-tooth comb (and vacuum cleaner) to ensure that there was no soil, grass seeds or anything that could contaminate the Antarctic environment.

Vacuum Party before landing on Antarctica
The “Vacuum Partyyyyyyyy”. Getting ready to make our first landing on Antarctica

Our preparations finished with a briefing about IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), how to maneuver getting into and out of the zodiacs and etiquette whilst aboard, and the plan for our current landing itinerary, along with some super-scary-looking weather forecasts!

Ice Chart - Antarctica
This is an ice chart for the Antarctic Peninsula just as we left Ushuaia. Some of it didn’t look too promising!

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