Sparky Travels

February 14, 2011

Aboard the Ocean Nova

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — admin @ 11:30 pm

Today, the 12th of February, I walked along Ushuaia docks towards my floating home for the next 2 weeks and hopefully, Antarctica. After clearing the security screening (uninterested security staff nodding ‘ok’ as I walked past them) I reached the Ocean Nova. A small ship apparently, it looked pretty big to my non-maritime eyes. DSC00237

As I got there the bus pulled up with the vast majority of the 69 passengers booked on this ship. As expected on a trip that normally costs $12000 USD, the majority of the passengers were in the retiree age-group but a few young faces punctuated the mass of wrinkles and grey hair (mine excepted).

I raced on deck and chatted to some other spritely young faces who had made it up the flights of stairs: Astrid from Amsterdam, Nick from Adelaide and Trevor from Canada. My room mates for the voyage were both in the younger age group; Stephane, from France with a command of English as poor as my French and Kratos, a guy from L.A with no interest in movies.

Pretty soon the tannoy went off inviting everyone to the welcome briefing. Introductions, and H&S formalities were completed, including a trip up on deck to go through evacuation procedures, and were followed by a glass of champagne, speech by the captain and toast to the journey. Dinner was a real change from the grotty backpacker kitchens and cheap Parillas I’d been used to. White table cloths, salad bar, 4 course meals and a cheeseboard to finish, hit home the fact that this expedition was way closer to a cruise. I’d expected a free glass of wine with dinner but it turned out that all drinks had to be bought, it may even be a relatively sober trip.

During dinner the anchor was raised and the Ocean Nova left port, heading for the dreaded Drake’s Passage.

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I took advantage of the bar for a couple of drinks and chatted to a few travelling companions before heading to bed.

Our first full day at sea was the 13th of February. We were allocated our jackets (bright yellow) and wellies and had an extensive buffet breakfast (my daily routine was to become cereal, yoghurt, fry-up, orange juice). During our trip across the passage there were a number of presentations by the expedition staff to keep those of us who were still upright amused.

I don’t have a great amount of experience aboard boats so I was kind of wary about the experience. I even bought anti-seasickness tablets in Ushuaia just in case. I took one on the evening we left port but it tasted so horrible ( earwax mixed with brie ) that I never took another one. It turned out that I have pretty good sea legs which was helped by a mild crossing of the Drake’s Passage.It is an infamous stretch of water, sustained by the circum-Antarctic currents and winds looping round the continent. It can produce the dreaded Drake’s shake (50 knot crosswinds with 15m swells) or out of nowhere calm down to become Drake’s Lake. Our crossing was probably 3 or 4 out of 10 on the severity scale.

To keep us amused during the crossing and in-between meals, the Expedition Staff gave topical presentations on their subjects of expertise. Natalie, the marine biologist gave a talk on whales while Bob the geologist gave one on the geological history of Antarctica and the areas we’ll be visiting. After lunch, Nigel the ornithologist gave a presentation on birds we are likely to see. After the presentation we spent some time watching the huge albatrosses following the ship. We also had a presentation about the zodiac landing craft we’ll be using to get from the ship to shore. All pretty obvious stuff really.

That night we climbed up on deck and braved the chill and swell to have some drinks with the Expedition Staff. As an added bonus, the Captain ( a huge Russian) even joined us for a while. I’d cracked open the bottle of Johnnie Walker which I’d purchased in Ushuaia prior to boarding which helped to keep my trips to the bar to a minimum.

The next day we were again blessed with a relatively calm Drake’s Passage with swells of less than 6 metres. Our talks this day were another one on birds, history of Antarctic exploration and icebergs. We were also inducted into the bio-decontamination procedures when leaving and returning to the ship, basically washing everything we will be wearing onshore and then cleaning our boots on embarkation and disembarkation.

Just before dinner we sighted land, the South Shetland Islands. DSC00262

Soon we were sailing past islands covered almost completely by a deep layer of ice with little rocky peaks jutting up through the smooth white hills.

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The excitement was building throughout the passengers as we reached the shelter of the islands. To celebrate Valentine’s Day the staff hosted a Valentines Day party, with fancy dress and a topical quiz. That day we spotted cape petrels, the slightly smaller cousins of the albatross and the smaller Wilsons Storm Petrel. We also caught our first, albeit brief glimpses of fin whales, an unidentified seal and some penguins swimming by.

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