*Day 18* Alex called another early start with a 5 am call for a 5.30 landing, he certainly is keen to make the most of our time in Antarctica, having bartered a 3 pm must depart by the Captain.
Neko harbour I remember as one of my favourite places from my previous trip, we had beautiful blue skies and a stunning paddle through the tinkling ice-covered waters. The weather today could not have been more different, there was only a very tiny area of beach showing and the guides had cut steps into the snowbank so we could access the landing point.
The snow fell heavily and the glacier was nowhere to be seen, although we knew it was somewhere in the murk. We climbed the steep snowy hill next to it and gradually the snow eased and we could see it in all its magnificence even without the sunshine. We all had great fun sliding down the steep hill after Elke set up two “ski runs” for us. Back on the beach a leopard seal had been sighted so there was no hesitation for me to return.
I spent an hour watching it patrol back and forth, the guides who were stood in the water holding the zodiacs keeping a close eye on it. Numerous penguins faced the gauntlet and I am pleased to say all made it safely although one did come very close as he skidded onto the beach just out of reach, triumphantly shaking himself off and heading up the bank to the colony. The clear waters meant you could generally see the leopard seal until he went out of sight towards the end of the beach, he would then just pop up out of the blue with his menacing leer and to the whirr of many camera shutters. As the snow thickened it made his game easier. A crabeater seal passed by almost on the beach; although the leopard seal was unlikely to consider him dinner he kept a close eye on him and snorted bubbles whenever he came close.
Time eventually ran out and I hopped into the zodiac, as luck would have it Colin the marine mammal specialist was the driver so he took very little persuasion to make it more of a zodiac cruise than transfer and found us a Weddell seal to “complete the set”.
On returning to the boat instead of the usual change into “ships clothes” for some of us it was a strip down for the polar plunge – a dozen brave (or simply daft) soles lined up at the gangway. We had gathered quite a crowd of onlookers – who I am sure were hoping the leopard seal would make an appearance. In we leapt into the chilly water, a true polar plunge in snowy conditions. Alex helpfully reminded us all to check the water for ice before we leapt. It was cold – no surprise there, we were all roped so inelegantly fished out of the waters by our helpful crew, hot showers and a hearty brunch.
We repositioned to the Melchior Islands for our final excursion, pushing through incredible ice, something our little ship and able captain seem to very much enjoy. All were on deck as the sun had broken through; we were clicking away taking our last photos of Antarctica. The Melchior islands are a zodiac driver’s playground, renowned for humpback whales we knew we were a little too early in the season for any likely sightings but it was the perfect excuse. There are numerous islands and rocks all covered in deep snow and the channels had trapped many icebergs which made for a spectacular backdrop as we zipped around, the swell of the drake could be felt as we reached the outer islands and the guides revelled in the ever changing conditions.
The Captains thick Russian accent was heard of the radio – “Alex, I am moving the ship we are getting iced in, 3 o’clock remember”. Like naughty children we chased the ship down, the last zodiac pulled out of the water at 3 pm on the dot and we headed out into the swell.
*Days 19 & 20*
The Drake was no lake, I am not good when the ship begins to corkscrew so spent much of the journey in my bunk. As it turned out I was not the only one, but with gale force 11 winds and 10-metre waves I don’t feel such a wimp, just annoyed that I missed some great talks including life at the South Pole station with Cecilia and Senior Inspect Morley’s quiz.
By the end of the 10th we had found refuge in the head of the Beagle Channel so had a calm final evening and a Captains dinner when we were not clinging to plates and glasses. We had a recap of the of the entire journey and a slide show of our trip, many drinks were bought in the bar as we saw in the wee hours saying fond farewells to friends who had been strangers just three weeks ago – but that seems a lifetime away. We knew it had been an incredible journey, despite a rough crossing on the Drake we had exceptional luck in South Georgia managing every landing, thanks to the captain’s skill, Alex’s leadership and some amazingly committed zodiac driving and landings by all the expedition staff.
We had made our own luck by being prepared to take every chance with early starts and late options – just what expedition cruising is all about… Travelling 3,522 nautical miles with 19 landings, 1 ice landing and numerous zodiac and ship cruises.