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Battling the Elements: Triumph and Tribulation in the Antarctic Realm

(This is a multi-part article. Be sure to read the entire series of 2023 Antarctic Journal from the beginning of my adventure!)

The 2022-2023 Antarctic tour season opened with disaster. A 50-ft rogue wave in the Southern Ocean smashed windows and portholes on an expedition ship, forcing it to limp back to port with injuries. Soon after that, a Zodiac landing from a different expedition went bad and two passengers drowned. So, I imagine our expedition leaders were a bit nervous the day the weather turned ugly at S. Georgia. To their credit, they handled it like pros. They later said the conditions had merely turned “sporty.”

Rough day in the zodiacs. Two zodiac boats fighting some big wind swell waves.

Our target landing was Salisbury Plain. As soon as the first boat reached the beach, the winds changed. Three-foot swells rose to 6 feet. Katabatic winds – early explorers called them williwaws – skimmed over the water at 45 to 65 knots, creating a silver mist atop each wave. The ship radioed all Zodiacs to return immediately. By the time they neared the ship, its gangways bounced from 3 feet above the water to 3 feet below. Passengers timed their leap, and there was no question that many of them went airborne for an instant. Crewmen on the boat and on the gangway grabbed them and heaved them aboard like sacks of potting soil. Meanwhile, the Zodiacs risked damage at the gangways; one suffered a punctured forward compartment. So, they were forced to retreat and circle repeatedly before helping the next passenger make their leap onto the ship. Waves washed over the drenched, cold ones waiting their turn; water in some of the boats was ankle-deep.

But you sign up for things like this toward the South Pole. Some passengers loved every minute of it. Others lost their lunch. An operation that normally takes 25 minutes lasted 3 hours. Once back on the ship, several exhausted passengers went straight to their cabins and didn’t show for supper. Even the Zodiac drivers looked unusually spent after the last boat was hoisted out of the sea. The laughter in the bar was extra loud that night. No lives were lost. Only a few waterlogged cameras and phones went kaput.

The “sporty” conditions made us stop complaining about the other hazard of Zodiac landings: gearing up. It’s the most strenuous part of the trip. Underlayers + waterproof layers + two pairs wool socks + jacket + parka + muck boots + life jacket + hat & gloves in addition to assorted optical paraphernalia. I was exhausted before I even stepped out of my cabin. We all depended on a skinny little life jacket to spring to life in an emergency. Otherwise, we’d sink like a rock.

On the upside, the penguins must have wondered what kept us from visiting on such a lovely day. They kindly came out to the ship to check on us. It proves an unalterable truth about the Antarctic: it’s impossible to have a bad day when surrounded by penguins.

Penguins swimming along side our boat.

Further up the coast the weather turned postcard perfect at Jason Bay and Gold Harbor. We found a penguin everyone wanted to see, the Macaroni. They nest on cliffs rather than beaches, so viewing them could only happen from Zodiacs. So far, we had seen Magellanic, King, Chinstrap, Rockhopper, Gentoo and Macaroni. (Read the comical story behind why Yankee Doodle is connected to a penguin)

Macaroni penguins huddling on a rock above the ocean
Macaroni penguins

It was time to leave S. Georgia and cross the Scotia Sea to Antarctica. On the way, we hoped to land on Elephant Island and visit the site where Shackleton’s crew were shipwrecked throughout an Antarctic winter. Also, we anticipated seeing our final penguin species. It’s one of the only two penguin species on earth that requires a habitat of ice.

South Georgia showing beautiful topaz colored water
Picture perfect weather at South Georgia

Some additional photos from South Georgia Island and the surrounding sea