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The Akademik Ioffe (above) got us to Antarctica and served as the lifeline to civilization during our voyage, but the boats that gave us the up-close-and-personal (it's an Olympic year...) views were the Zodiacs. These inflatable pontoon craft could seemingly go anywhere and were quite stable- an absolute necessity when 11 passengers stand up simultaneously to get a photo.

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The Zodiacs were stacked two high on the rear deck, and each day after breakfast the crew scrambled to get them launched.

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A Russian crew member manned the crane, and one by one a guide and boat were lifted into the water.

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We had two adventures each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Sometimes the excursions would be split with half staying on the Zodiac and cruising a particular area and the other half landing, and then vice-versa. The afternoon trip often was in a different location, which necessitated loading all the Zodiacs back on the ship and relaunching them after lunch. Above, a group observes a resting leopard seal.

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Checking out a large iceberg.

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It was rare to find anywhere the Zodiacs could not go, however here we encountered a large mass of brash ice that had drifted in and blocked our path around the far end of an island. Rather than turn around, a passenger aids our guide in pushing the larger chunks out of the way with oars.

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Weather can change quickly in Antarctica, and we had to be prepared for extremes. Our morning above started with calm seas and light fog, but a heavy wet snowstorm moved in an hour later. Conditions like these tested even the best waterproof gear. Hint: 'water-resistant' means you'll get soaked on a day like this!

Cruising, Paradise Bay.jpg

Getting intimate with the Antarctic landscape awoke a realization of how small and insignificant you really were. Above, a Zodiac quietly cruises the coast of Paradise Bay.

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Each Zodiac carried a bright blue plastic barrel stocked with survival supplies, and our guides were in constant contact with each other via two way radios. As you stepped down the gangway, a staff member would sign you out by name and cabin number. At the end of the excursion, we would wait our turn to rejoin the ship and get checked off the list as we reboarded. Our guides were fabulous, and at no time did we ever feel unsafe or in danger.

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Above, we head around a point of rocks at our next destination, Deception Island.