A trip to Antarctica was born on a safari in Africa. While working on Rotary projects and fellowship trip to South Africa, Rotarian Chris Watcham, from a club in the Johannesburg area, took the visiting Rotarians on a Safari. Chris is a very talented man—a farmer, naturalist, mountain climber, photographer, humanitarian and renowned artist. One night while sitting around a fire watching the Springbok run by, Chris said, "Someday, I would like to go to Antarctica." My immediate reaction was, "Me too!" Within a month, a trip was arranged to meet with Argentinean Rotarians Carlos Gomez, a navy Commander and his wife, Suzy Bustos, club President. The project was medical equipment for the local hospital in Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is the most southerly city in the World and the closest port to Antarctica.Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent before Europe and Australia. Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. Antarctica is 98% covered by ice that averages at least 1.2 miles (1.9km) in thickness. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Antarctica is considered a desert! It is the only continent that does not have a member in the Rotary Eclub of One World!

Ushuaia was a fishing village and a prison at the end of the world used for famous criminals in the colonial days before transforming into a tourist location. Ushuaia, population about 50,000, is not only the doorway to the Antarctica but also the gateway to the Patagonia and the Andes Mountains--fantastic place for hiking, fishing, hunting, skiing, even riding on the southern most train through beautiful mountains and forests. Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, located on the Beagle Channel near Cape Horn where mountains, forests and seas all come together. 
On December 10, summertime but still cold, we boarded a Norwegian Icebreaker bound for Antarctica. An Icebreaker is needed at this time of year as there is still much ice that needs to be navigated. There were 87 passengers and 19 crew members from around the world. Many of the crew were volunteers like Dr. Diane King, MD from South Africa. Operational crew for the ship numbered 7. We headed for Drake channel.

View of the Patagonia, Andes Mountains and the City of Ushuaia, Argentina


Drake Channel.

Drake Passage is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific. This current is then intensified by the Circumpolar Current that continually swirls clockwise around Antarctica moving a huge volume of water and squeezed through a small land space made smaller by the Scotia Arc—the underground mountains connecting South America to Antarctica. The passage was named after Sir Francis Drake as he was the first to sail this way. Now Drake was an intelligent man—he took one look at the very heavy seas and said, "Forget it!" He headed North of Tierra del Fuego and sailed through the Magellan Straight behind the protection of land at the end of the world.

But we charged ahead through 30-40 foot seas in an "Icebreaker!" Icebreakers were designed to be slow and powerful, not designed to be used in heavy seas—no stabilizers. As I lay in bed, taken pictures out of the window, one picture was only water. And without moving, the next picture would be only sky! 
In this short video, watch the horizon as that will give you an idea of the movement of the ship.

Crossing Drake Passage to Antarctica: 1:29 min:


Seated in a chair, chained down to the deck, in the enclosed lounge on the port side, the ship hit a swell, the chain on the chair broke and slid all the way across to the starboard side where I was unceremoniously dumped—unhurt.
One lady could not say that—she was thrown into a counter and had life threatening injuries. Consequently, the ship turned around and headed for Cape Horn in Chile. The ship anchored near the Cape Horn lighthouse. The lady was taken ashore in a Zodiac boat and had to be carried up a very steep bluff to get to the top where she was airlifted out by a helicopter. Then there was the joy of having an additional 20 hours sailing on Drake Passage. Many people fell and one man broke his wrist. The crew kept telling us that this trip, the water was more calm than usual!
Another short video shows why the Drake Passage is called a Washing machine (1 min):



The rough seas have an advantage. At meal times, about 80% of the passengers were missing as they were sick. I was able to eat as much as desired.


Pod of 12 Killer Whales (Orcas)

The passengers were allowed access to the entire ship including the Bridge at anytime. From the bridge, it was much easier to spot sea life including Bottlenose, humpback and orca whales, seals and other creatures. Initially the temperature was 46 deg. F (8 C.) Later the temperature dropped to 4 degs. F (-16 C). It started to snow as we passed the first iceberg of thousands to come.

Things You Didn't Know About Antarctica: 2:13 min:




There are literally thousands of icebergs of all shapes and sizes. A study and art all of its own. The iceberg to the right is about 80 feet high with only about 10% exposed. There is about 800 feet of the iceberg below the water! The "cave" on the right side is large enough to hold the ship in which we were sailing.


On the third day, after plowing through much compacted ice and ice floes which only an ice breaker could do, the ship anchored near Petermann Island. The Zodiacs were lowered and we waded to shore with our Wellington's. SURREAL! 11:30 p.m. (2300 hours), with heavy snow storm and grayish light. We climb to the top of the island, about 600 foot elevation gain. Each step sent me down to my hips in snow.


The only human life we saw on land were three University students, one male and two females, living in pup tents doing a research project on penguins. One of the females had had enough. She packed up and came on board with us and made a mad dash to take a shower!!


Although no one owns Antarctica, there is an international agreement with some rules. One is not to approach closer than 3 feet of birds and mammals and 100 feet of Albatross. The birds and animals have no fear of humans.
As I was walking, a couple of penguins were walking towards me. I stopped and did not make any movements. The penguins kept walking right across my foot. The penguins violated the 3 foot rule—apparently they did not read the international agreement.

Gentoo on a rock nest      Keeping the egg warm      A Chinstrap with twins

We watched as Adelie, Gentoo and chinstrap Penguins were caring for their eggs or their newly hatched chicks. There are millions of penguins and they have no fear of humans. Adélie penguins feed primarily on small krill, while chinstraps forage for large krill—8 million a day. They feed close to the shore as Penguins are a favorite meal for the seals. There is a great deal of pink snow in their area. Since krill are pink and that is the Penguins primary food, the excrement is pink. The excrement stain is so prominent that it can be seen from space resulting in the discovery of ten new colonies of penguins. Do not eat pink snow!

Gentoo Penguins: 5:50 min:


In the above video, penguins are shown walking down the slopes. The penguins commonly come down slopes sliding on their front. They look like kids playing on sleds.
On this excursion, five different species of penguins were observed. This did not include the large variety, Emperor, that lives inland. There are other birds living in this harsh environment. The most common are the various species of Petrel and Skua.


The rocky beaches were filled with about six varieties of seals. I believe that the seals in this picture are Wendell


Swimming!? In the Antarctica salt waters that are 29 degrees F (-1.6C)? There are always those that dash into the water and back out in seconds to gain bragging rights. Most people would be dead in about 3 minutes. 
One passenger, Gordan Pugh, a member of the British Research Expedition went swimming for 1 kilometer for 18 minutes setting a record of the furthest South anyone has swam. He was wearing only a speedo! He went swimming a second time for 40 minutes and for one mile (also a record). The biggest problem was the concern about seals. Another Englishman tried swimming further in the Antarctic but further north and was attacked and killed by a Leopard Seal.

Extreme swimmer sets record for swimming in the Antarctic: 4:26 min:


Hugh was accompanied by two doctors and his wife in a Zodiac boat. There were still other swimmers—see below under Deception Island.


We saw only one other ship on our excursion. That ship is to the left. It is not a model; it is a full sized 3-masted schooner. Note the passengers on the deck. Notice how high the land is behind the ship. And the land is about three times the height of the portion shown in the picture.


Deception Island.

Deception Island is an active volcano with the top of the cone rising about 1,700 feet above the water. A portion of the rim collapsed leaving a 755 foot wide entrance for ships. The scary part is a rock in the middle of that opening which is only 8.2 feet below the water level. In we sailed and spent the day exploring. Some went swimming. Some went hiking to the top of the cone. Being an active volcano, there are spots that heat the water to about 145 deg. F, too hot to swim so the swimming must be around the edge or in one of the craters that were formed during a 1970 eruption. Water temperatures have reached as high as 158 deg F. and air temperature to 104 Deg. F depending on volcanic activity. There are glaciers on the island and a very large colony of Gentoo penguins.

Deception Island Volcano of Antarctica: 4:27 min:





The author is standing next to a grounded, tiny iceberg. Note the ledge of ice jutting out above the author's head. That is the amount of ice that showed above the water—the rest of the iceberg was below water. 
Now two days back across Drake's channel! 
Fantastic trip—if you get the chance, take it. It is well worth it.



(Ed. Note:  Dick is a recipient of Rotary International’s highest award, Service Above Self.)


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