Sunday, June 23, 2024

Antarctica 2023 ✈ Days 1-3: Embarkation • Drake Passage

Antarctica had always felt like a distant and unreachable bucket list destination, not just because of its geographical location, but more so because it is so expensive. Honestly, I never thought it'd be possible for me to check off this bucket list item but we decided to make this trip happen and celebrated our 10th anniversary with an extraordinary adventure to the end of the earth - Antarctica! I am so grateful for the opportunity to finally step foot on my 7th continent and to experience this incredible journey with our moms.

13D12N Antarctica Cruise - Oceanwide Basecamp Expedition
30 November 2023: Orne Harbour & Danco Island
1 December 2023: Paradise Bay & Lemaire Channel
2 December 2023: Pleneau & Petermann Island
3 December 2023: Port Lockroy & Damoy Point
4 December 2023: Cuverville Island
5-7 December 2023: Drake Passage & Disembarkation

25 November 2023 (Sat): Day 1 - Embarkation day

After spending a night in Ushuaia, the day we've been waiting for has finally arrived. We are boarding our 13D12N cruise to Antarctica today! 

We booked our Antarctica Basecamp cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions about 1.5 years in advance and considering how much we 'splurged' on this trip ($9,100/pax), you can imagine our anticipation for this bucket list trip! Yes, this was our most expensive trip ever.

After checking out of our hotel in Ushuaia at 10.30am, we took our luggages to Oceanwide's luggage storage location. According to Google, it was only a 10 min walk but we didn't know that Ushuaia is a hilly town. So even though our hotel was only few blocks away, majority of the route was downhill and it wasn't easy going downhill with the luggages. 

The staff tagged our luggages with our room numbers and this was when we found out our room numbers - 310 & 312. I quickly looked up the deck plan of the ship to find out where our rooms were located. 

I was happy with the location of our assigned rooms because we've read that a cabin on a lower deck and near the center of the boat minimizes the movement in the cabin, which helps prevent seasickness, especially when we cross the Drake Shake. I was also glad our rooms were together. We also found out quickly after starting the excursions of how convenient our room's location was, as we were right next to the zodiac boarding area. 

After dropping off our luggages, we were free to roam around Ushuaia and were informed to make our way to the pier for boarding at 4pm. Spotted our ship - M/V Hondius as we were walking towards the harbor. There were only 2 ships departing that evening - Quark Expeditions and Oceanwide Hondius.

We were done roaming around Ushuaia around 3.15pm and decided to go to the pier to see if they'd let us get on the ship early. We thought they'd check out documents before entering the pier but surprisingly they let us through without looking at anything.

Turns out we were the first ones there at 3.30m, but the ship was not ready for us to board yet so we had plenty of time to take photos of the ship without other passengers.

Boarded our ship at 4.10pm and we were welcomed by the Expedition team as we entered through deck 4 to the reception area. Check-in was quick and easy. We provided our passports and were given our key cards/name tag, which was used to enter our room and also to tag in and out everytime we get on and off the ship. The staff then led us to our rooms in deck 3. We noticed that majority of the staff on this ship (and many other cruise ships) are from the Philippines.

Our luggages were already placed in our rooms before we arrived. Our Twin Porthole Rooms - 310 & 312. The room looked modern, clean, and spacious enough for 2 in a room. There were also plenty of storage space, with wardrobes for our clothes, and space under the bed to keep our luggages. There were shelves on both sides, and the red sofa in the middle also had drawers. 

The room we originally booked was the Quadruple Porthole room, which is basically this same room, but with 4 beds (2 upper berths and lower berths). About a month before departure, I saw that there were still at least 2 Twin Porthole rooms available so I emailed Oceanwide to ask if it is possible for us to get 2 Twin Porthole rooms instead, and they graciously gave us the complimentary upgrade! :)

Our welcome gifts include an Oceanwide water bottle, a shower timer, a journal, and a EUR30 drink voucher in celebration of Oceanwide's 30th birthday. 

Other features of our room include a private shower & toilet, flatscreen TV, desk & chair, hair dryer, safe deposit box, telephone (to call the mom's room), anti-slip mats on all table surfaces. Shampoo and body soap were provided in the bathroom, and I liked the heated tower rack in the bathroom. The water temperature and pressure were good, and there were also handle bars in the bathroom which was important as there were a few times where we had to hold on to it while using the toilet and taking the shower to avoid falling during the Drake Shake.

The public areas on the ship includes the bar & observation lounge with 24/7 coffee and tea station, a lecture room, and library.

Oceanwide uses 3 different ships for Antarctica trips, and we specifically chose trips on M/V Hondius, as it is their newest ship that was built in 2019. Hondius is considered small for Antarctica cruises with a capacity of 170 passengers. P.S. Per the Antarctic treaty, only 100 people can be ashore at a time. As such, only small ships that carry less than 500 passengers can offer their passengers excursions in Antarctica, while larger ships cannot.

At 5.15pm, we were asked to gather at the Observation Lounge on deck 5 where our Expedition Leader, Adam, welcomed everyone onboard, followed by a mandatory safety briefing by Chief Officer, Matai.

We were then asked to get the life jackets from our rooms and gather again at the dining room, where the staff checked and made sure everyone wore the life jackets correctly. The safety briefing continued on the outside deck where the staff showed us the 'orange taxi' in case Titanic!

After the safety drill, we went back to the lounge at 6.30pm for the Captain's Cocktail Party, where we met the Captain, Toni Salo (Finnish), enjoyed champagne and canapes, and toasted the voyage ahead. The captain briefed us about our journey across the Drake Passage. We learnt that the wind map was crucial throughout our trip as it provided an indication of how the sea state would be. Light blue/green means calm seas, while orange/purple means rough seas. We were headed towards the purple zone which doesn't look good for the Drake Passage. The captain also told us that they will be closing all portholes on deck 3 (our deck). Thankfully, we were well-prepared for seasickness by putting on the seasickness patch (Scopolamine) and took Dramamine pills.

Adam also explained how our day to day will be once we arrive Antarctica. One thing to note about traveling in Antarctica is that everything is very weather dependent, and where we land also depends on the weather. In a perfect scenario (which is rare), we'd get a zodiac cruise and/or landing twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Activities could be cancelled if the weather is bad. As such, one of the main reasons we chose this trip with 7 days in Antarctica instead of other shorter ones (4-5 days) was to build in buffer for bad weather coz we wanted to do as much as we could in Antarctica, especially since it took so much time and $$ to come all the way here.

All 22 Expedition guides then took turns to introduce themselves. We couldn't really remember their names on the first day but we knew all of them by the end of the trip. There were about 145 guests on the ship so the Guide to Passenger ratio was about 7:1, which was great. There were about 50 passengers from China so we had a Chinese guide who served as the translator, which turned out great as mom was able to listen to use the audio device to listen to all lectures and briefings in chinese.

After completing all the intro and briefings, our ship departed Ushuaia at 7.15pm and it was time to head down to the dining room for our first meal on the ship. Dinner was buffet style and we were pretty impressed by the food options served at the dinner. There were enough seats for all passengers and guides in the dining room so everyone dine as soon as the dining room is open.

After dinner, hubby and I went out to the deck at 9pm to enjoy the sunset views and bid goodbye to Ushuaia as our ship sailed through the Beagle Channel. We also noticed puke bags were being placed all around ship in anticipation of what's coming on the Drake Passage.

Returned to our room to finish unpacking our luggages and went to bed early (benefit of not having internet). We would be entering the Drake Passage some time past midnight so we kept our fingers crossed that we would make it through the night without getting seasick.

Here are all the things we packed for this trip...which include the Scopolamine seasickness patches, meds, a bunch of Uniqlo Heattech thermal layers, waterproof parkas and pants, wool socks, hand/foot warmers, and rubber gloves. I must say we packed well and had everything we needed for the trip.

Just in case you're wondering if we had internet on the ship, yes but it's not free. Each of us were given 100mb for free, which was only enough for sending about 2-3 Whatsapp messages (text only), which I used very sparingly to keep the families updated that we're still! We could pay for internet but it was very pricey (500mb for EUR150) so this was a good opportunity to be completely disconnected from the world and have an internet-detox. Proud to say we survied 2 weeks with almost no internet!

26 November 2023 (Sun): Day 2 - Drake Passage

Our portholes were closed the night before so we couldn't see what's going on outside (probably looked like we were in the washing machine), but I could certainly feel the ship rocking at midnight when we entered the Drake Passage. It was a weird feeling laying in bed and feeling the ship rolling. Thankfully, our seasickness medicine (Scopolamine patch + Dramamine pill) seemed to work well. Even though I could feel the 'rock and roll', I was still able to get some sleep throughout the night and didn't get seasick. However, we found out that MIL threw up 4 times through the night but thankfully she brought stronger seasickness med which helped her feel better.

Morning call was at 7.45am. We were all feeling good and was able to make it to breakfast. There weren't many people at breakfast that morning because many people felt pretty sick. We could see the waves from the dining room windows and felt the ship rolling left and right, and I was surprised that all our plates and cups stayed intact. We noticed that all the dining tables had anti-slip mats and had barriers around the edges to prevent things from sliding off. Pretty sure the ship's stabilizers were also important to minimize the movement in the ship.

After breakfast, we gathered at the lounge at 9am for the mandatory briefings. The staff had to take attendance and it took quite some time to get started because many people weren't feeling good and it was a challenge for them to make it to the lounge. It was funny seeing the staff distributing puke bags in the lounge..."better safe than sorry"! The mandatory briefing covered guidance for going ashore in Antarctica, safety and biosecurity procedures, zodiac operations, and additional guidelines in repsonse to the Avian Flu (i.e. no sitting, kneeling, or lying down on the ground or snow, and to stay 5m away from wildlife).

Lunch was served at 12.30pm and the turnout at lunch was still pretty low. So glad we were all feeling good and was able to eat. We didn't want to overeat juts in case it all comes back out! They also took our dinner orders during lunch as we were having plated dinner (instead of buffet) in the evening.

The afternoon began with the biosecurity 'vacuum' party at 2.45pm. Deck by deck, we were asked to bring our outerwear and things we plan to wear/bring ashore to make sure they were perfectly clean with no seed, mud, or organic material, to prevent the introduction of new species to Antarctica. We didn't really have anything to clean coz we've washed everything before the trip so we just showed our stuffs to the staff and was done after a quick check. 

We also collected our muck boots earlier in the morning. These muck boots were provided for all passengers to keep throughout the trip and they were very comfortable and waterproof.

We attended the first daily recap of the trip in the lounge at 6.15pm. As expected, not many people made it to the lounge for this recap. Adam provided updates on the weather and wind conditions the next day, which looked much better.

We had plated dinner at 7pm with a soup, appetizer, main course, and dessert. The attendance was slightly better as the sea state is calmer.  

After dinner, we went up to deck 7 to visit the bridge. Our ship has an open bridge policy so anyone can visit anytime. Deck 7 is also where the nicest rooms (suites with balcony) are located but we felt the ship rolling more intensely high up on this deck. In this case, more expensive rooms don't necessarily mean better. :P

As the sea was calmer, the captain opened the decks so we went out to get some fresh cold air. P.S. This was at 9pm and it doesn't get dark in Antarctica during the summer.

Wrapped up our day watching Beckham's documentary. Yes, I brough my super long HDMI cable to connect my laptop to the room TV and enjoyed snacking on my Pringles...haha! We intentionally saved this documentary for this trip thinking that we won't have much entertainment on the ship but the TV was loaded with a lot of movies.

Our room's portholes were opened so we were able to enjoy the seaview from our room. As seen on the captain's note above, day 1's sea state was 'rough' with large swells, while day 2 was an easy crossing with 'moderate' sea state and low swells.

27 November 2023 (Mon): Day 3 - Drake Passage
Day 3 of our trip and we were still in the middle of the ocean crossing the Drake Passage. 

Fortunately, the sea state was much calmer as compared to the first day so we went out on the deck to take some photos after breakfast but the weather was chilly.

We had a busy morning with back-to-back briefings...starting off with the kayaking briefing by Adam and Matt, our kayak guides. They explained all the equipments we'd be using and demonstrated how to put on the wetsuit, all of which are provided for free.

We continued with the camping briefing led by Saskia, Alexis, and Carina. They explained every part of the activity, demonstrated how to use the camping gear and how we need to prepare when being on land. For the camping activity, we would be digging our own pit in the snow and will be sleeping in bivvy/sleeping bag (without a tent) surrounded by glaciers and mountains. This was one of the activities that I look forward the most as it was certainly an experience that we wouldn't be able to get anywhere else in the world. Not many people can say that they've spent a night ON Antarctica peninsula. 

The third and last briefing for the morning was for the Mountaineering activity led by Jonny, Owain, Dave and Edward. We were going for just the basic mountaineering so there was less 'technical' information we needed to know.

Buffet lunch on day 3

At 3.30pm, we gathered at the lecture room to sign up for the camping, kayaking, and mountaineering activities. The benefit of this Basecamp trip is that everyone on the ship had the opportunity to participate at least once in all these activities and they were all included in the trip cost. Many other cruises charge extra for these activities with limited spots and some of them are based on lottery system.

All passengers were split into 4 groups (red, green, yellow, blue) for all excursions to meet the requirement of less than 100 people ashore at a time. We were in the yellow group. 

We gathered at the lounge at 6pm for the daily recap where we got to hear about the weather/wind forecast and plans for the next day. Koen and Juan also showed us how to put on snowshoes, which we would be using for several landings in the following days. We were given the chance to practice wearing snowshoes here because it was harder to put them on while balancing on the snow. Oceanwide provided the snowshoes at almost every landing locations with no extra charges.

Day 3 dinner was also plated dinner which tasted pretty good.

After dinner, we prepped our gear for excursions the next day. We learnt very quickly that the ski goggles were unnecessary and the balaclava was only used for camping.

We are scheduled to visit the South Shetland Island and Deception Island the next day. We have not made it to Antarctica Peninsula yet but we were excited to finally see land after 2 days on the Drake Passage!

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