Location: 64°, 57‘ latitude South. 6:00 AM.
Our ship inches along, tentative. All passengers are on deck, watching. Bergy bits and ice chunks called growlers scrape against the vessel’s hull; the captain maneuvers this way, then that. The north entry to the narrow channel lies to the left, but we move right, circumnavigating an iceberg.
“Where are we headed? Where is the channel?”
I wish that woman would be quiet. It’s so serene here. Most stand silent. We were told the ship would pass through the beautiful Lemaire Channel, weather permitting. Everything has been “weather permitting.” Weather controls vacations in Antarctica.
When the ship picks up speed and heads toward open water, everyone knows. The soothing voice of the ship’s excursion leader Claudia (Clah-oo-dia) echoes our sadness. “We must turn around. There is too much ice. We will instead anchor at Damoy Point, where we will see more Gentoo penguins. Have a nice day.”
We have almost, but not quite, reached 65° S. We won’t land at Petermann Island, home to Adélie penguins, nor see the channel considered by some to be the most scenic place on earth. Our first major disappointment. Has the curse caught up with us? Until now, the weather has been beautiful, winds mild, Drake Passage normal––rough enough to make us queasy, but not so severe as to require use of the beds’ safety belts.
Subdued, we troop down to Deck 2 to be comforted by a perfect made-to-order omelet and thin, crispy bacon. Late morning, our cozy red parkas and Wellingtons donned, we’re aboard the zodiacs. Smell of the rookery rushes to greet us before our boots even touch the water. Amid the raucous calls of thousands of penguins, the group hikes through snow and guano mud looking for fuzzy chicks, and videos the squat birds hopping rocks and waddling up steep hillsides.
Back on board, perhaps to compensate for missing Lemaire Channel, the chef treats us to lunch on deck. Under a warm sun, we enjoy delicious meat patties snuggled in fresh-baked rolls. Everyone’s smiling.
Claudia announces, “The bridge has spotted a pod of Orcas.” As we near the killer whales, the graceful black and white mammals swim, porpoise-style, toward the ship to investigate. Twelve at least, they dive under the bow, encircling us. Even the naturalists ooh and ahh while they click-click-click long pricey camera lenses.
One photo captures an underwater Orca holding the remains of a leopard seal in its mouth. My husband and I regret that we moved to the fifth deck, missing the eyeball-to-eyeball opportunity on the third, and wish we had absorbed the experience with our naked eyes rather than through a camera.
This wonder-filled day in Antarctica ends with our exploring a field of huge, blue icebergs.
At dinner, I confess, “I am now a believer––Gauchito Gil (hill) is real.” And that’s another story.