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The View From the Bottom

One Couple's Expedition to Antarctica

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Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 12:00 pm | Updated: 1:08 pm, Tue Dec 31, 2013.

“Antarctica is Alaska on steroids.” That’s how Richard Mayer, Washington, describes the southernmost continent.

He and his wife, Cindy, made “an expedition” there back in early- to mid-March, which is late summer in Antarctica. The captain of the ship they were aboard said theirs was the easiest, most smooth trip he’s made through the Drake Passage in his 10 years with Antarctic Expeditions.

Richard Mayer, who admits to often being a queasy passenger, said if theirs was smooth, he would hate to experience a rough or even normal trip through the Drake Passage.

This 600-mile or so stretch of water between the southern tip of Argentina and the top of the Antarctic Peninsula is the most volatile waterway in the world, a result of hot air meeting the cold, said Cindy. In fact, the passage is so rough that there are bars everywhere on the ship (even next to the beds) for passengers to hold onto, and the crew literally lines the ship with barf bags, Richard noted.

Cindy, who kept a daily journal on the trip,” wrote how it felt to move through the Passage:

“I lay in bed at night wondering if this is what it feels like to a baby to be rocked in the cradle — that is what it is like, but very easy motion for the ship apparently. There can be 10-meter swells in this part of the sea.”

The Mayers said while they enjoyed the trip, they wouldn’t use words like relaxing or even vacation to describe it. Still the overall experience was worth every bit of discomfort or unease to get there, they said.

“There’s almost something spiritual about that part of the world,” Cindy commented. “It is just so pristine.

“How anyone could go there and not think there is a God, is unbelievable to me. It is just amazing. Quite spectacular.”

Why Antarctica?

The Mayers are travelers at heart. From the time their now-grown daughters were young, the family made a point of taking vacations to distant places to see and learn all they could together.

They began with the 50 states and branched out from there, first to Europe, but eventually to all of the continents, save Antarctica.

“We’ve done a Baltic Sea tour, from Italy all the way up through Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium and back down. But then we’ve missed little bits, like Spain and Portugal. And other countries, like Italy, we’ve been to multiple times.”

The list of countries the Mayers have visited is so vast, that it could be easier to list the places they haven’t been — along with Spain and Portugal, Thailand and Japan are on their short list of places still to go.

They have already been to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Tazmania, the South Pacific, China, a Holy Land tour which included the Pyramids and Tahiti. They recently returned from a trip to the Panama Canal, which marked its 100th anniversary in 2013.

The Mayers’ desire to see Antarctica was driven, in part, by a want to check the seventh continent off their list. Also, they imagined it would be spectacular, and they wanted to go before their age or health might prevent them.

“We knew it would be a tough trip. It is not a vacation,” said Cindy. “Although you are on a ship, and I guess semantically you could call it a cruise, but it is not . . . They call it an expedition.”

The ship they took was a converted Navy ice-breaking ship, Richard noted. Cindy described it as “rustic.

“It’s definitely not a cruise ship,” she said. “We had probably as much room as was allowed . . . we had two windows. Some people didn’t have any.

“We actually had a suite, which is a euphemism. It was a very utilitarian kind of room. People who were traveling alone were paired up with others, and didn’t have private baths.”

Life Onboard Ship

An agent at Triple A Travel put the trip together for them through General Tours. The ship leaves from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, on the tip of Argentina. It is considered the southernmost city in the world.

The ship could hold 86 passengers and it was at full capacity, said Cindy. The group included a wide range of ages, from a 15-year-old boy traveling with his father to seniors in their 60s and 70s. And while the group was largely American, there were travelers from Australia, Holland and Brazil.

Several of the passengers were traveling alone, Cindy noted, either because their spouses had died or didn’t want to make the trip. One woman who was traveling alone had multiple sclerosis (MS) and relied on canes to get around, but everyone onboard looked out for her and helped her as needed.

The food was decent, but not anything special, the Mayers said. There was no ordering what you wanted. You ate what was served or you didn’t eat.

The expedition was led by a team of five scientists, three with Ph.D.s — they included a marine biologist, a geologist and a botanist.

The crew gave educational presentations throughout the trip, the Mayers noted. Their goal is to have the people who are able to make the trip to Antarctica come home and share what they’ve seen and learned with others, said Cindy.

“They showed films and gave actual lectures on penguins, geology, the climate, whales . . . they want to preserve this, so the more people who realize it is so important to the rest of the world, the better.”

Cindy took notes on the lectures: “Penguins coloring black outside. It dims their observation from above predators and white underside looks like gleam of light in the sea, less noticeable to underwater predators.

“She told us the penguins are very stressed. These are the babies, parents have left for the sea. They are molting and won’t go to sea for a few weeks. So it is a stressful time for them.”

The Mayers also noted that they happened to be onboard the ship when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 76-year-old Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the first from the Americas.

“They were so delighted with the news, because the crew was mostly Argentinians,” said Cindy.

Island Explorations

The Mayers made their first landing Friday, March 8, at the South Shetland Islands just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. They were transported there from the main ship in small groups by Zodiac boats.

“The first time out, you can hardly move because you have so much clothes on,” recalled Richard. “Then you come back and think, ‘Well, maybe it’s not that bad.’ So you take some clothes off until you finally get comfortable with what you would wear if you were out shoveling snow here.”

The lowest temperature during their trip was in the 20s, but the water was much colder.

“At our first stop at Neko Harbor it was 0 degrees Centigrade, which is the temperature of a glass of water,” said Cindy.

That made it cold on the many wet landings the group made ashore. Anytime they left the main ship, they had to wear special rubber boots that had been treated with disinfectant.

“To go into those waters, they are very restrictive of everything,” said Cindy. “Everyone had lined boots on the ship, but you cannot wear those on any of the landings. You have to wear rubber boots.

“You step into a disinfectant, then clean water.”

The rubber boots provide very little traction or warmth, Cindy noted. To try to keep her feet warm on these outings she wore a couple of pairs of socks and some sock-like slippers inside of her boots.

Most of these landings were wet, meaning the Mayers were walking through water. What was waiting for them onshore was worth it, said Cindy.

“There were thousands of penguins, mostly Adélie and some Chipstrap,” she wrote in her journal. “We were cautioned to stay 5 meters away from them. They are very curious and have no fear. When they are hot, they expose feet and flap their wings, both cooling devices.

“When they are cold, they scrunch up and hide their beaks under wings. They also sleep like that.

“Temperature was around 30 and no wind — so an easy, enjoyable first outing,” Cindy wrote. “Also late in afternoon, so sun wasn’t bright and didn’t need sunglasses.”

The wildlife was “stunning,” the Mayers said. They saw a variety of penguins, seals and whales.

“The smaller fur seals were noisier and stayed in small groups,” Cindy wrote. “Dr. Leenda told us we could throw rocks at them or yell at them if they approached. One large bull was sleeping. We took several pictures of him as he was calm.

“There were several patches of snow, typical icebergs out in the water. Many areas had blue, white sections of ice. Some of the bergs looked like sculptures out in the water. The first one we saw looked like a cartoon drawing sculpture of a whale.

“We were called on deck to see the ship go through the bay, very beautiful, sun going down and mountains all around,” Cindy noted in her journal. “Ice and snow surrounding us, many icebergs and chunks of ice in the water. Really a beautiful sight.”

Land at Antarctica

The Mayers’ expedition landed on the Antarctic Peninsula Sunday, March 10. The first stop was Neko Harbor at Paradise Bay. They visited the Brown Settlement, where English researchers live and work.

There is a steep incline here, so a number of the passengers sat down on their bottoms and slid down the side of the mountain. The Mayers did not.

The next day they visited the Vernadsky Research Base, a Ukrainian outpost where 11 scientists live and work year-round. They bring all of the food they will need for a year, said Cindy, noting the group they met was preparing to leave and be replaced by a new group.

The Vernadsky station includes a hospital (one of the scientists is an M.D.), a bar with a pool table, a gift shop, an Eastern Orthodox church, even a post office where you can get a postcard or mail stamped from the southernmost point of the world.

“The postmaster is quite unique,” Cindy remarked. “He poses for pictures, and looks a little like Santa Claus.”

They Mayers had their passports stamped there and also mailed letters home to family — which they received in October.

“They have to wait for a ship to come in, then they go to the Ukraine and then on to their destination,” explained Cindy.

There are no buildings on Antarctica except for the research facilities.

As they rode in the Zodiac boats back and forth from the main ship the group was treated to wildlife antics — one time they saw three to five humpback whales and lots of penguins jumping in the water.

They also were able to get up close to many of the icebergs that looked more like sculptures. The passengers had fun saying what formations they saw in the sculptures, much like people do with clouds, said Cindy.

Visit Active Volcano

At Peterman Island, the group was able to watch Adélie penguins at play.

“They are all black on top and have blue around their eyes,” Cindy wrote. “They are shier and don’t come up to us like all the Gentoo do and did.

“One came up to Richard, pecked on his boots and then his knee. Dr. Leenda said they may think we are parents or at least will feed them. They are juveniles whose parents have returned to sea. Gentoo penguins are very friendly.”

The group also visited Danco Island, where they took a Zodiac tour of the area and saw a sunken Norwegian whaler that had caught fire in 1917, and Deception Island, which is actually an active volcano, with the caldera being covered in ocean water and the horseshoe-shaped land mass being the walls of the volcano.

“Supposedly we entered the bay by going over the caldera,” Cindy noted in her journal. “We landed from Zodiacs on a black sand beach in area called Whalers Bay — there was a large settlement and much remains in ruins — was first built by Norwegians in 1906-1910 or so and was abandoned.

“Then the British claimed it and they taxed whaling ships that docked there. There were huge tanks to hold the whale oil and heating oil. British left and came back in 1945 to keep a check on Germans in World War II. They were there until 1964 — a volcano eruption and left permanently in 1969 with another volcano eruption.

“Because of the lava and ‘warmer’ soil/sand, the temperature of the water is a little warmer and the beach is easier to access. We had maybe 15-20 passengers who got in the water for a swim — there was steam rising along the beach — amazing. Several fur seals were around the area and a few penguins. There was a walk up to the volcano in the afternoon. ”

More Observations

From the warmth of their Washington home, the Mayers said the best part of their Antarctica trip was the scenery. That places it near the top of their list for best places on Earth.

“This would be No. 2 or 3 on my list,” said Richard, although he was quick to note, “It’s not some place I would go back to.”

The Mayers know their trip was a lucky one. The weather was “gorgeous,” which made it possible for them to see and do as much as they did.

They were able to go out every day, they said, which can be rare for trips to Antarctica, where the weather can cancel excursions because of the fog or the wind.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing the night sky. It was unlike anywhere else they had ever been.

“It’s total darkness,” said Richard. “You can look and see stars you’ve never seen before because there is no light for thousands of miles.”

“From the horizon up are stars,” Cindy added.

The photos shown here with the story were all taken by the Mayers. Cindy doesn’t claim to be an experienced photographer.

“I just have a little 35-millimeter camera,” she said, giving all the credit for her great shots to Mother Nature. “It’s kind of hard to take a bad photo.

It’s just a fascinatingly beautiful part of the world.”

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