On a Russian Spy Ship to Antarctica

Penguin Beach, AntarcticaForty-four passengers were standing in line to check in on board the M/V Grigoriy Mikheev when Jane, the woman in front of me, asked the purser: “Do these stairs go up or down?”

I suddenly knew that it was going to be an entertaining two weeks from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, to Antarctica, one of the world’s last frontiers.

The M/V Grigoriy Mikheev was led by a 35-year-old Russian captain. The ship was run like a clock by a veteran Russian crew and captained by a 35-year-old blond gent who looked like he bit the ends off of nails. Yet the captain, for all his tough looks, always welcomed passengers on the fifth floor command bridge. There was often a small crowd there, sheltering from the weather and taking advantage of the picture window to view the whales and other wildlife that dotted the Antarctic.

The friendly Russians mesmerized me. Several of the men had sailed the ship since its 1990 launch from St. Petersburg. Back then, it had been equipped with an unimaginable array of eavesdropping electronics.  Two years after launching, the former spy ship was rebuilt for tourists. The modifications required that 90 percent of its electronics be removed. Still, the expedition’s chief dive master said the Mikheev sprouts far more revolving doohickeys and strange wiry appurtenances than might be needed by an innocent icebreaker in Antarctica.

Two of the dive masters were sometimes Swedish TV stars who made underwater spectaculars for BBC and other worldwide networks. Three dive masters on board (the third recently recruited from Paris, sporting an accent, curly locks, look and manner that melted the hearts of every female passenger) meant our fellow voyagers included over one-third divers, their wardrobes bristling with dry suits and fancy cameras, including a world adventurer photographer for National Geographic Magazine and a dozen famous other magazines.

The scenery as we sailed was otherworldly, yet the other passengers on board were just as captivating. As I strolled onto deck one afternoon, I heard Jane, the woman from Des Moines, asking, “Is that the same moon we have in Iowa?” That question was followed with, “Why did they announce whales when there are only a couple of fins?”

It’s true, I considered. Unless you’re a diver, you seldom see a whole whale.

We’d left the great views in the Beagle Channel (Jane thought it was named after Snoopy) and lined up for seasickness pills to defend against the dreaded Drake Passage. Would it be Drake Lake (as it was 30 days a year) or the Furious Fifties and the stormiest ocean on the planet?

We crossed in relative calm, but still rocked and rolled over heaving ocean swells, two days each way.  Pass the pills, thank you very much.

On the morning of day three, we steamed to our first Antarctic anchorage, winding through a narrow channel into the caldera of Deception Island.

As we stood on deck surveying the view before us, Jane asked, “Will the volcano erupt while we’re here?”

Forty-three pairs of fingers crossed simultaneously.  The last eruption had been in 1969.

We watched as 16 divers struggled into their dry suits, having qualified to freeze their fingers and other extremities.  The dive masters had required each person to try his or her  dry suit in 40 degrees (4 C) water.  Satisfied that all were ready, the dive master maneuvered the Zodiac to the gangway where alien apparitions in black rubber clunked down the ramp for one of the coldest dips on earth.

As a borderline non-sadist, I still thought it great fun to watch them jump into the icy waters. Later, the wimpy non-divers boated to shore at Whaler’s Bay to inspect an abandoned British station. The 1969 eruption had half submerged whale boilers and whaling vessels in obsidian sand. On top of the fine black sand cavorted fur seals and Gentoo penguins around which were littered whale vertebrae and bones.

Not far away, the beach steamed. The crew had dug a hefty hole which filled with hot water, allowing the non-divers their first and last Antarctic dip.

The next stop was Astrolabe Island, which was crowded with Chinstrap penguins and a dozen Antarctic seabirds.

Actually, the poor little penguins were frightened by the dozens of leopard seals patrolling offshore. We watched as two dozen tiny tuxedos in a queue, jumping nervously up and down, flapping furry flippers, waiting for the first heroic comrade to take a jump in.

Finally, one stout-hearted fellow dove in and half a dozen others followed. Then, suddenly, they began an en masse abrupt about-face and popped, literally, out of the water like cannon shots to land back on the low cliff of the island. Every fourth penguin missed its footing and tumbled in an awkward back flip, often into the waiting jaws of a ferocious leopard seal.  We furiously snapped pictures.

Meanwhile, Jane implored the dinghy driver to dive into the icy water to rescue the darling little penguins.  Truth be told, though, there were penguins to spare.

Such experiences barely scratched the surface of the adventure.  In subsequent days and into lit-up nights, we slid down glaciers, learning to tuck our jackets under our behinds so the snow wouldn’t blow us up to gigantic white proportions.

At our fourth landing, Jane asked, “What happens if the water gets higher than my boots?”  We were all kind of wondering about that when we carefully waded ashore. But we landed without incident, surrounded by penguins, seals and exotic birds, constantly reminded by expedition leader Peter to observe the five meter rule. Never go closer to a penguin than 16.5 feet.  This simply didn’t work, however, because the little beasts have no sense of distance, toddling left, right and crossways like tipsy stars of the silent screen.  We’d freeze like mimes expending rolls of film with their every misstep.  They probably thought we were under mass hypnosis, two dozen enthusiasts of “Simon Says.”

Calling the penguin babies “chicks” was a confusing misnomer because most were larger than their parents who had stuffed them with food for months.  The big fat babies were actively molting, changing their flimsy birth feathers for something more substantial, a quilted suit with thousands of interwoven feathers per square inch.

We sailed alongside one iceberg for what seemed like hours, but the radar showed it was a mere 4.5 miles long.  Tabular icebergs calving off the Weddell Sea shelf have exceeded 40 miles in length, so our iceberg was a mere piker.

As the days passed, we explored more iceberged seas, climbed pinnacles overlooking Antarctic sunsets and stopped by Cape Horn on the way back.  Upon disembarkation in Ushuaia, I could faintly hear Jane studiously ask Peter, “Do penguins have knees?”

It had been a great two weeks.

If You Go:

Dressing for the Antarctic: we had brilliant sunshine, hail, shrieking winds, dead calms, fog and sleet, all before breakfast.  The magic word is layering which I overdid and was too hot 90 percent of the time, walking around looking like an unkempt coat rack, rubber jacket around my waist, down jacket half off. Zero degrees Centigrade is a mere 32 degrees Fahrenheit and summers in Antarctica are easy, if you don’t over-layer.

Antarctic ships:  Two breeds ply the Antarctic.  The largest is the cruise ship up to 1,500 passengers, luxury personified, and no one goes ashore because logistics forbid it.  For a luxury cruise you need excellent binoculars.

The alternative is an expedition ship such as the Mikheev carrying 100 passengers or less, allowing frequent shore excursions.  We enjoyed two or three landings a day, weather permitting, and enjoyed most the luxuries associated with a cruise ship: sauna, bar, five decks to roam plus a luxury no cruise ship allows – an open bridge.

The highlights:  Beside the gargantuan blue neon icebergs, leopard seals, minke and humpback whales, diverse species of penguins and seals, you’ll very possibly meet enormously interesting people, such as a seven Dutch family reunion; a Scot hippie chick; Virgin Blue Airline’s first female pilot in Australia; a foundation guru setting up Argentina’s first nano-tech lab; dive masters and photographers from all over the world; a Canadian dot com millionaire and Jane. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Last Minute Fares to Antarctica: 90 percent of tourist ships leave from Ushuaia which provides an outstanding opportunity for last-minute fares from $2,000 and up. depending on the number of days.  Or you can go by luxurious cruise ship for a spare ten grand and much more. I snagged 12 days for $3,000, sharing a bath.  Those not sharing paid $6,750 per person.  The only decent travel agency for booking last minute fares in Ushuaia to Antarctica is Tourismo de Campo at 25 Mayo 76, email info@tourismodecampo.com.ar.

Getting to Ushuaia:  The best fares for flights roundtrip Los Angeles to Ushuaia, via Buenos Aires, include Lapa, $665 with five-day advance purchase and flexible dates, or $879 on United and LanChile, slightly less from New York City and Miami.

Places to Stay and Eat in Ushuaia: The Cesar Hotel, private bath with breakfast included, in the heart of the city on San Martin for around $20 per night  Never stay on San Martin on a weekend because the drag racers will keep you awake all night.

On weekends, stay at the Malvinis Hosteria, a much quieter hotel one block west of San Martin. This is also $20 a night, with included breakfast buffet.

For more hotel information, see www.tierradelfuego.org.ar/rga/hotes.htm

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