Antarctica is the last frontier and a stunning combination of landscape & wildlife awaits those venturing by air or sea with awe inspiring views at every turn, but is it worth the journey?
Being fortunate to have experienced such extremes as Lapland, Greenland & Spitsbergen, perched between Norway’s northern tip and the North Pole, I’m asking myself if I really need to visit Antarctica to see even more ice and snow…
It’s February, nearing the end of the Antarctica cruise season and a group cancellation for Quark Expeditions meant over 50% off their 19 day Explorers Expedition cruise to Antarctica & the Falklands. It was too good to miss… I’m in!
We exit the protected waters of Ushuaia at Argentina’s southern tip in our reinforced hull with 76 customers and 46 staff ready to do battle with the infamous Drake Passage that now separates us and the Antarctic Peninsula by some 2 days.
We are accompanied by some of the finest minds on the elements and wildlife that lay ahead. The quint-essential Charles Swithinbank (Glaciologist since 1953), Tony Soper (founder of the BBC´s wildlife unit and producer of decades of wildlife documentaries, Prof. John Sparks (Ornithologist who has worked with Tony for decades), along with a Marine Biologist, Geologist and Naturalist to feed our hungry minds with facts, thoughts and stories about this all-consuming continent that has taken so many lives, be them on land or its icy waters.
This continent is where the Earth´s weather system starts. So cold and dry that only ice crystals fall on the South Pole, which are then carried by the downward driving Katabatic wind that carves the landscape at will as it heads for the ocean and meets the only uninterrupted seas on Earth. The result is some highly dramatic stormy scenes, which due to extended visibility, I had the privilege of viewing as they move around the skies and our cruise.
Being the last to book, by chance I had my own cabin fit for two, though it was located on the bottom deck at the front (sorry, Bow). Maybe fine if you are an offshore fisherman, but I would recommend cabins further back if not.
We ventured across the vast open seas of the Drake Passage before being rewarded with some simply stunning scenery and clear blue skies, the likes of which I´ll never forget and wildlife in abundance. Penguins, including the beautiful King Penguins and their babies, various species of seals and their oh-so-cute pups, the majestic 12 foot wing span of the Wandering Albatross gliding effortlessly above the ship and a variety of magnificent whales that play in the water, crashing on the surface and playing with us in our Zodiacs (dinghies for landings twice a day).
When a whale is circling you in a dinghy you´re both excited and a tad anxious, but when it says ´hello´ by raising its head above the water at the back of the boat and opening its mouth, that´s one of those heart stopping moments in life!
Following in the footsteps of many an explorer, we too were stopped in our tracks by icebergs and sea ice twice. We couldn’t get to our desired landing spot but thoroughly enjoyed the adventure all the same.
A brief swim in Antarctic waters only made possible through being followed by a lay in a thermal mud pool on the volcanic beach, naturally.
We drifted in our dingies by sleeping seals on icebergs, walked through dozens of seal harems on the beach with a watchful eye for the dominant males and tried to comprehend I was standing on the edge of 100,000 King Penguins as one of those David Attenborough moments in life.
While expecting to need a zoom lens for this, a wide angle is the priority as we get so close and personal with the wildlife you have to ensure you keep your distance and not touch them.
Our Quark issued wellington boots had taken a pounding with the droppings and water jets to clean them before going back on deck, but the daily briefings by our resident specialists were just amazing and extremely entertaining. Coupled with those were the visits to various country scientific posts, where years are spent studying the wildlife surrounding them, and you are careful not to touch or step over the penguins.
We acknowledged the explorers such as Shackleton as we visited historic sites, and absorbed the remains of past wailing stations littered with rusty machinery left behind.
As we left the Antarctic Peninsula heading for Port Stanley, I had long since forgotten any question of whether I should visit this magnificent continent to see more ice and snow. There is no comparison to any other place I had seen or knew of. My appreciation for having experienced this unique environment and captured so many memories is extreme. The beauty at every turn is intense.
Our Port Stanley stop was a trip down memory lane with red phone boxes and old Land Rovers at every glance, while the branded food supplied from the UK appeared to carry no meaningful price premium, as the Islanders are more than looked after and not disadvantaged in this way. Remembering the Falkland war and the impact it had on the locals, it was clear the flag was flying strong for the Falkland folk in every way. Leaving the shores we fell silent while passing the battle fields recalling the soldiers that journeyed across the islands for the element of surprise.
The final leg back to Ushuaia was kinder as we bid farewell to our majestic friend of the high seas, the Wondering Albertross, with its unique locking wing joints and mastery of riding the wind off the waves, it effortlessly glides across the ocean for hours without needing to use precious energy to stay airborne.
New friends made from across the globe, an altogether unique experience was had by all and never, ever to be forgotten, just astounding.
General options for experiencing Antarctica are 9 day cruises or more from Ushuaia to the Peninsula. Short trips may not reach the Antarctic Circle, being a little way down the peninsula, while longer trips may include the Falklands and or South Georgia, the only place you can see Emperor Penguins.
New options include fly and cruise where the difference is flying over the Drake Passage instead of cruising it.