Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Argentine Islands - Vernadsky Station

Until 1996 the Vernadsky Station was the working part of the British Faraday station.  When the British decided to move out, rather than absorb the cost of dismantling the station and taking away all of the materials, they sold it to Ukraine for the princely sum of £1.  The original pound coin is actually embedded in between the pumps in the bar upstairs.

The station is now the most senior research station manned all year round and when the ice prevents ships from reaching the station it can be many months before the staff here see another person. So they are quite happy to show visitors around. 

The guy who took us was one of the metereologists, so he talked to us about the work that they have been doing on the weather.

He had various charts recording the extremes of temperature going back to 1947; the lowest recorded temperature here was minus 43.3 degrees centigrade back in August 1958.

Of course the coldest recorded temperature in Antarctica as a whole is somewhat lower.  At Vostock station, much further inland and at a higher altitude, they recorded minus 89.6 degrees centigrade in 1983.  The highest recorded temperature there, in 2002, was still only minus 12.3.  Thirty people live on the station in the summer and eighteen all through winter.

At the South Pole itself it is slightly warmer, but they don't bother to talk about minus temperatures, because it still never goes above zero. The temperature there ranges between minus 14 and minus 82, with the average annual temperature here at minus 49.4 degrees. However even with the relatively gentle wind speeds of only around 20km per hour, the low temperatures can drop down to about minus 110 degrees centigrade.
Back at Vernadsky though, temperatures aren't as low as they used to be and our guide was explaining some of how they measure of the effects of global warming.  That work is pretty important here, as this was where scientists first discovered the hole in the ozone layer.  Indeed the gift shop here sells official bottles of low ozone air!

The station has a variety of other scientists, including biologists, and one of the labs we visited had various bits of penguins and penguin poo that were being analysed. That room was a bit on the smelly side, some didn't spend too long there.

Upstairs they have the kitchen and social areas for the team.  The British heritage is still in evidence her with a bar, billiards table and darts board.  The  wooden bar was made unofficially by carpenters that were supposed to be doing other work.

There is a large collection of bras hanging over the bar, apparently donated by various of the limited female visitors.  One is absolutely huge, and if that belonged to a real woman then I'm guessing she was scary.  I didn't add any of mine to the collection, it took me long enough to find one to replace the one I lost in the fire.

The station also has its own post office where we got another stamp in our passport, and a gift shop.  The guys here use the spare time they have in the winter months to hand make various souvenirs which they sell to visitors.  I liked that and bought myself a little hand painted bell.

This was the furthest south that we were going to reach on our trip, at 65 degrees 15 minutes south, which is about the same distance from the South Pole as just under three times the distance between Land's End and John O'Groats.

Argentine Islands - Wordie House

In the afternoon we anchored around the Argentine Islands for landings at Wordie House and the Vernadsky Station.  Both were originally part of the British Faraday Station.  On the way to shore we spotted fur seals on one of the small islands.  Fur seals are from the same family as sea lions, with the longer front flippers that enable them to sit up and 'walk' on the flippers rather than just moving caterpillar style as the other seals do.  No pictures sadly as it was just too wet for my camera.
 We also had a go at breaking up a bit of the pack ice with the zodiac, without much success. Not surprising really, the sea ice was so thick and widespread around here that we were only the second ship that had made it to here since the end of their last summer, almost a year ago.

Wordie House was our first stop.  Our photo seems to have disappeared, so I have borrowed one from BAS.  But it was snowier when we were here and the picture doesn't show the huge glacier outside.  The hut, Base F, was built in 1947, one year after the original 1934 base was washed away by a Tsunami.  It is rumoured to be haunted, but we didn't see or hear any ghosts.

Restored in the 1990s by the British Antarctic Survey in the manner that it would have been in the 1950s, it is an important historical site, with many original artifacts of life in an Antarctic station.  It was hard to imagine four or five men spending months here.

I rather liked seeing the old jar of Marmite along with the old anthracite stove and other items. The old Guinness sign amused me, but I'm not sure they would have got a great deal of that here.

One item on the wall was an old document showing how much coal they had used to keep the cold out.  I couldn't make out all of it but they got through quite a bit.  Only to be expected when the information at Vernadsky shows that the average annual temperature out here is just under minus two degrees centigrade now.

The overall trend shows this as increased from just over minus six back in 1947, but the coldest year was 1959 when the average temperature was below minus eight.   I'm guessing that they used a lot of coal that winter.

But of course those temperatures don't take account of the wind chill factor, and I can definitely say that the wind can make it a lot colder even in the Antarctic summer time.
From Wordie House we got back in the zodiacs and made the short trip round to the Vernadsky Station on Galindez Island.

The Lemaire Channel

After a windy night, the expedition team and crew went and broke the camp and brought back the tents, bivi bags and sleeping bags.  Unfortunately there were three less than they had started with.  They had blown away in the wind.

The crew did manage to find and rescue one set though; while we were eating breakfast, we spotted them pulling it out of the sea.  We were fairly glad that we hadn't been in the tents!

All of the tents were soaked, so the first task after breakfast was to get everything hung up in the drying room reach for the next night of camping.


There were no activities in the morning because we were on the move, heading a bit further south.  Our journey this morning took us through the Lemaire Channel, which is nicknamed 'Kodak Gap'  because it is so picturesque.

Of course on a cloudy day like this, it is difficult to see the full effect of the scenery, especially in photos.

The channel runs for 11km between the continental peninsula and Booth Island, but it is only 1600m wide with steep sides. Often, it is hard to tell where the white snow covered mountains end and the white snowy and cloudy sky starts.

Occasionally we would get a break in the clouds and suddenly could see that the land went much higher than we'd realised. On a clear day, this would undoubtedly have been breathtaking; it was still pretty awesome today.

As you approach the channel, you can't see it until very late, so you start to wonder whether the captain has lost it, but he hadn't. The ice can sometimes block the channel completely, but we were in luck today and sailed right through.

Needless to say, the photos in this posting are all ice and snow.  At least it makes a change from penguins.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Weddell Sea update

So I said before that we were disappointed that our trip to Antarctica did not go into the Weddell Sea, and that whilst we did of course have some amazing experiences, we were upset that we did not get what we had really wanted from this one off trip.

I didn't mention the name of the agency that we booked through because we had used the agency for another booking and were very happy with them in that so, although we were angry with what happened here, we didn't know whether the fault lay with them or the company itself, so it seemed reasonable to give them a chance to make recompense before criticising them to everyone.

We have now heard back from them, and I am genuinely impressed with how they have dealt with the complaint.  They have told us that they were never given the updated information from the providing company.  Obviously we can't be certain whether that is true or not, but we have no reason to doubt it and it doesn't really matter, as they haven't tried to buck their responsibility to us.  In fact they have already offered us what we consider to be a very reasonable way of putting this right.

They have offered us another trip, free of charge, at the end of this year.  The trip they have offered is just to the Weddell Sea, gives us a better chance of seeing the emporer penguins, and is in fact a more expensive trip than the original one we took.  We know that giving us another trip is better for them than refunding us, but this looks like a win-win solution.  Taking them up on it means changing our plans for next year and obviously paying to get back to Ushuaia again, but we think that it will be worth it to be able to take this trip, which is ideal for what we wanted to see.  And luckily we are in in a position that we have the freedom to do that.

So I will now mention the name of the agency, which is Journey Latin America, and say that whilst something clearly went badly wrong in the first place, they have done a good job of putting it right, and we would happily use them again.

Dorian Bay

While Nic was mincing in moonboots, I had signed up for the photography workshop.  I had decided to do a few of these as I could do with the help.  Sadly, whilst I did get some useful tips, most of my photos of Antarctica were fairly disappointing.

Part of this was that I had accidentally reduced the pixel level, which explained the early fuzziness, but I also had a problem with the lens getting wet or misting over.  Will have to solve this for next time I'm in  very cold place!

But back to today.
The shore landing was at Dorian Bay.  There was a lot of ice and small icebergs close to the landing site, and our zodiac driver took us around a few of them in search of the leopard seal that had been there earlier, but we missed it.  Even so, it was good to get up close to the ice, which comes in a variety fantastic shapes, textures and colours.  And the photo is not deceiving you, some of the ice really was that blue.

Dorian Bay itself is again uninhabited but for penguins, and there was less snow around the shoreline, so the guana was even more noticeable and you got pretty filthy boots.  This was not a place to fall over so I took extra care with my footing as I walked around.

Whilst I didn't get bored of looking at penguins, I am sure you will quickly get bored of reading about me watching them, so I won't say too much about that in my blogs from now on, but I will still post photos.

In any case, the penguins weren't really doing anything especially exciting today which did cause me a bit of a problem with today's photo homework.

The task was to take pictures of wildlife, but although I take a lot of general snaps, something has to catch my interest for me to take proper photos, and today the penguins didn't provide that.  So whilst I did take some penguin pictures, my photographs were more focused (no pun intended) on the ice.

On that score my luck was in, because our zodiac driver on the way back was Laurent, the photographer, so he took us back around the ice again, and was happy to wait while we all clicked away.

As we left the shelter of the bay and headed back to the ship, we realised how much the wind had got up.

The ship had moved closer to shore to make the journey shorter, but we all got pretty wet on the way back.  I was glad of my waterproofs keeping me nice and dry, but it was at this point that Nic discovered that his weren't quite so effective.   His trousers and thermals needed drying out afterwards.

We took it easy for the rest of the day as we were supposed to be camping on the snow that night.  Unfortunately the wind got up so much that it had to be cancelled as it wasn't safe to take the zodiacs out and they were worried about the wisdom of camping too.  It turns out they were right to be concerned.

Mincing in moon boots

One of the activities on offer on the ship was mountaineering. This sounds impressive except that, for most people who either don't have mountaineering experience or didn't have the  right type of boots, it wasn't so much mountaineering as walking in wellies with snowshoes.  Hence the activity was unofficially renamed mincing in moonboots.

But the relatively basic nature of the hike was fine for Nic, so he gave it a go today.  The group of around twenty  set off to Damoy Point and were kitted out with their snowshoes and roped up to walk in two groups.

The ropes were because they were walking across a glacier and you never entirely know whether the nice snow covering is hiding a deep crevasse.  Thankfully the guides knew what they were doing and no-one fell to their cold death!

Walking on ropes took a bit of getting used to, and a few people fell when they hadn't yet all managed to get the rhythm right.  And when someone kept stopping to take photos it mean that those ahead all had to slow up until he caught up again, but they managed OK overall.

They were lucky with the weather, and it only took them about an hour to get to the top, where they were let off the rope so that they could walk around and enjoy the great views.

Still not being used to walking in snowshoes, and knowing that pieces of the glacier can calve off into the sea, Nic made sure to keep well away from the edge.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jougla Point and Antarctic kayaking

Nic kayaking in Antarctica
In the afternoon, we were on the list for kayaking.  However as the wind had been quite strong, making the water a bit choppy, and as one of the people in the morning session had capsized, I figured I would be too nervous of, and therefore more likely to actually capsize myself, so I took my name off.

Nic did go though.  There was a group of about twenty people and he was in the back of a double kayak. They boarded them from the zodiac, which wasn't as rocky as he had expected. 
Antarctic iceberg
Unfortunately he couldn't find the rudder controls with his feet, so they just had to steer with the paddles, which made it a bit trickier when they had to avoid drifting bergy bits and bigger icebergs.

With only a couple of hours, they couldn't go that far, but they paddled around Goudier Island, close to the coast and past all of the penguins on land.

Leopard seal seen while kayaking
They were lucky to see a leopard seal jumping off a bit of ice in front of them.   Leopard seals are large carnivores that can be vicious if the mood takes them, and they have been known to have a go a the zodiacs, so it is as well that it decided to swim off while they were kayaking.

Antarctic ice
It was a tricky session at times, as it could be difficult to get through sea ice.  And when the wind turned very blowy and it started sleeting, it was difficult to turn the kayak, but they had to do so quickly to avoid an iceberg drifting in their path.  A few times, they had to just stay still to keep the kayak centered to avoid  getting an unscheduled dip in the icy water.

Nic was happy that he had been kayaking in Antarctica, and seeing the leopard seal was great, but as he said, in the main they didn't get far or see anything new, so I decided it wasn't worth the risk of falling in, and he decided it wasn't something he wanted to do again unless there were something especially good to see that you couldn't otherwise get to.

While Nic was off kayaking, I did the shore landing at Jougla Point.
This is on the main island near to the base, but is uninhabited - except of course by the penguins. 

On shore there is a reconstructed whale skeleton, and some other remnants from the days when the whalers were there, which gives the penguins some things to poke around.

They seem to like to have a few objects that they can jump on and peck at; it's sometimes like they use them as part of a game.  And that appears to include us sometimes as well.

I took advantage of others going off on a hike to wander around the point on my own and spend time watching the penguins.  You will hear about me doing that a lot during this trip, but the general consensus amongst most of our fellow passengers was that you just can't get bored watching penguins.

That is as long as you watch them properly.  Some do just sit around for ages, but especially with the gentoos, if you pick out a few of the more lively ones to watch for a while, you will soon become fascinated by them. 

One of the things that you will often see are the chicks chasing their parent around for a meal.  The chick is bigger than the adult at this stage, so it is funny to watch the chase and the parent telling the chick off for keep pestering it.

I also have a fascination for seeing their little footprints in the snow.  Whilst the idea may not be entirely pleasant, it always looked good when you could see the footprints better because they had been walking in the guano too.

As I was walking around, the weather, which had been windy but reasonable up until now, decided that it was time to remind us that we were in Antarctica, and suddenly turned very cold and started raining and sleeting.

I was very glad of my multiple layers.  I pulled my jacket hood up and tight around my face and did like the penguins do; I found a big rock to shelter behind and turned my back to the wind until the worst of it passed.  I also felt a little bit sorry for Nic out in his kayak.

Back on board, dinner tonight was an Antarctic barbecue.  The chef and his team provided an excellent meal out on the back deck.  Some of the guests collected their food but took it back into the dining room. We were having none of that. We wrapped up warm again and ate out on deck. It was a fun evening, though eventually the cold Antarctic wind set in and we all headed inside.