Antarctica conjures up images of ice and pristine landscapes melding into contorted frozen shapes, crystal clear waters, floating ice burgs against a backdrop of snow capped mountains and deep blue skies, breaching whales and colonies of penguins in a vastness never before experienced. It certainly did not disappoint!
The Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands are home to some of the planet’s most impressive wildlife and dramatic landscapes.
The starting point of our adventure is the southernmost town in the world – Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, which nestles between the spectacular snow-capped mountains of the Andes and the Beagle Channel.
There on the dock was a smallish red expedition ship I knew instantly to be our home for the next 12 days as we embark upon the 2 day voyage across the Drake Passage in order to reach the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. Having just met some ladies who had disembarked that very morning after a gruelling passage, I checked to ensure there were adequate seasickness tablets in my kit. As luck would have it, our crossing was more attuned to floating on a pond than the stories of treacherous seas I had heard that very morning.
The seabirds that thrive in these conditions, mainly Cape Petrels and Fulmars put on a display as they soared around the ship with a few Gray Headed Albatross joining them, while they escorted the ship to Antarctica.
The crossing gave us time to acquaint ourselves with the ship. The cabins are very comfortable with twin beds and private en-suite bathroom. There is even a small writing table and chair, wardrobe and shelving. Each cabin also boasts a window or porthole.
At 105 metres in length, with a capacity to hold 120 guests, the MS Expedition is an ideal vessel for expedition travel in the Polar region.
The ship has an ‘Open Bridge’ policy, which means that anyone can freely visit the bridge at virtually any time. This is such an interesting place to sit with charts and instruments that the Captain is more than happy to explain. With a birds eye view and a pair of binoculars at hand, the first whale sightings often occur from the Bridge.
The ship has generous decks on each level, as well as large windows throughout the ship in order to maximize viewing possibilities. There is a comfortable library where more knowledge can be gained on the rich wildlife we will most likely encounter over the coming days.
Lectures are presented each day in the Discovery Lounge by our on-board Glaciologist, Geologist, Marine Biologist, Historian and Naturalist. We also enjoy daily photo workshops with instruction and advice from our expert photographer.
Delicious, gourmet meals are served in the dining room where guests mingle and swap stories of the days adventures.
Following the Drake Passage crossing, our first morning in Antarctica started with a stunning sunrise in Gerlache Strait, lighting up the surrounding mountains. After breakfast we watched three Humpback Whales lounging among icebergs and they became curious and swam under the bow to give glimpses of long white pectoral fins under the water. We dropped anchor in the Errera Channel off Cuverville Island, where we went ashore among the nesting and moulting Gentoo Penguins. The chicks were nearly fullgrown and moulting into their adult feathers ready to face the world. They are one of several species to be found in the region. These little penguins are so inquisitive, they come to take a closer look and nibble on my boots. Their hilarious antics keep us entertained for ages with plenty of incredible photo opportunities.
There were several large icebergs grounded between the anchorage and the island and we could cruise with the Zodiacs between them to see the blue colours and amazing sculptures.
The next morning was capped by our crossing of the Antarctic Circle, this imaginary line of latitude running at 66°33’44”S south. Champagne was in order and we gathered to celebrate the MS Expedition’s, and our own passage.
We settled into a daily routine aboard the MS Expedition – starting with an early morning wake up call, meals in the dining room, twice daily excursions (weather permitting) in the zodiacs or kayaks, landings where possible and abundant wildlife viewing and interaction. The itinerary packs in a diverse range of amazing experiences.
Preparing for our zodiac cruise in the bays and among the ice was an adventure in itself. Donning layer upon layer of clothing topped with our Expedition jackets we uncontaminated our boots before immersing ourselves in this pristine natural environment.
Charlotte Bay turned out to be my favourite spot for an upclose and personal look at the Humpback Whales. In this deep bay we found calm seas and beautiful vistas. It did not take long to spot a half dozen Humpbacks and soon the full armada of zodiacs and kayaks were cruising in all directions in search of amazing encounters and sensational photos. Some groups stayed with a particular whale or two while others drifted around the bay to take it all in. I could have reached out and touched the whale that gently rose to the surface right next to our zodiac. He took a long look at us just as we were looking at him. These massive creatures are often inquisitive and when they are not feeling threatened, they sometimes approach zodiacs and kayaks to take a closer look. This was the most amazing experience I have had in my life.
After a calm night of penguin lullabies, the brave campers who chose to spend the night on the ice in a tent, awoke to a brisk morning, with a fiery, brilliant sunrise over Booth Island. Shortly after, everyone was cozy and warm back on the ship, and we were on our way to our next adventure. On the way, we watched in awe as the bridge team delicately navigated the Lemaire Channel through masses of ice and a number of breathtaking narrow passages. We continued through the Neumeyer Channel, a winding corridor between glacier-rimmed peaks, made spectacular in the sunshine of another phenomenal day with breaching Humpbacks whales to entertain us.
We once again woke to a beautiful autumn day here in the Antarctic, en route to the Ukrainian scientific research station, Vernadsky. It was purchased from the British in 1996 for all of one pound. The British occupied it for 49 years studying geophysics, meteorology and ionospherics. Today the Ukrainian scientists concentrate on ozone research, geomagnetism, meteorology and glaciology. At the station we got a quick tour, and then were scuffled off to the bar where we could partake in their home-brewed “hootch” that packed a serious punch especially as it was only10 o’clock in the morning!
Our day on Deception Island was unlike the others, full of history, geology and the desolate Antarctic landscape of an active volcano in the South Shetlands. Following the morning wake-up call, many of us headed out on deck for our pass through Neptune’s Bellows, the sea entrance to the caldera of Deception Island. The morning was spent at Telefon Bay on the northwest side of Port Foster. From the wide, black sand beach, we walked up a gentle slope to the rim of a crater. Many continued on to more scenic overlooks, and others meandered their way back to the beach. Finally, the moment many had been waiting for…the polar plunge. The water just a degree below freezing, we plunged head first into the Antarctic water to the admiration of our audience of Fur Seals along the shore. The sauna was packed to the max upon arrival back at the ship.
Before commencing our homeward journey across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia, we paid a visit to the Antarctic Sound, a place where giant icebergs of incredible colours and shapes are trapped in the bay by the wind and currents, having broken off from ice shelves in the Weddell Sea.
Not only were we treated to this incredible landscape and wildlife by getting out there amongst it, we also enjoyed many informative lectures, entertaining films, great company topped off with the black & white dinner and award ceremony.
Antarctica should be at the top of your bucket list, it was on mine and it will stay with me forever.