For most of us, visiting Antarctica seems an unachievable dream. But because I was turning 60 last year, I decided to see if getting there was at all possible. Following lots of googling, in November last year I had one of the best adventures I’ve ever had, travelling on a 13 day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia, the charming Argentinean town at the tip of South America.
I decided to go in November, at the beginning of the season, because I wanted to see frozen landscapes and I got my wish ++. In the afternoon of our second day crossing the Drake Passage, the first huge icebergs appeared, and thereafter we saw many. Huge, blue-striped, table-shaped ones that had broken off ice shelves and smaller wonderfully-sculpted ones that fallen from ice cliffs, all subsequently eroded by waves into strange and beautiful shapes.
For the next 7 days we explored numerous channels and bays between the snow-covered South Shetland Islands and the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula, gazing in wonder at the cascades of ice that poured down into the sea - just like icing on a wedding cake! Pack ice partly blocked most of the bays and some of the channels, so we had wonderful experiences exploring how far we could get through the ice, thankful that our boat, the MS Expedition, was a lot more manoeuvrable than Shackletons. We also visited a couple of bases, including the old British base of Port Lockroy which has been turned into a museum and post office. In reality we saw only a tiny part of Antarctica - the pointed bit of land that juts north towards South America - but it was enough to get an idea of what the continent is like.
Travelling early in the season means that wildlife is only just returning to the frozen land. There were thousands of penguins – mainly gentoos and chinstaps – porpoising along the channels through the ice made by our boat or congregating on the snow- covered slopes, waiting for the snow to melt so they could claim their nesting spot on the rocks. Small patches where rocks jutted out were hotly contested, with lots of squabbling over the small stones that form the nest, and just a few eggs already laid. Every day there were 2 landings, going from ship to shore in inflatable zodiacs, which yielded several close up encounters with fat, lazy Weddell seas resting on the ice between their deep dives to find food. None had pups but the parents are adorable in their own right. These were the only seal species we saw – my ambition to see a leopard seal remains unfulfilled.
To my surprise, the weather was not the challenge that I expected. Some days an icy wind blew, but 4 layers of thermal or fleece clothing under my coat, a balaclava under my hat and occasional forays into the shelter/warmth of the ship’s bridge or down to the lounge for a cup of cocoa, meant that I was never really cold. Apparently the journey over the Drake Passage can sometimes be a nightmare, but we had a gentle swell in both directions and, on one day, enough sunshine to burn my face (to my surprise I learned that there’s still a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Despite international action on Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the hole is not yet closing – only increasing in size at a slower pace than previously). The flying skills of the birds that followed the boat on that section of the journey, including 4 species of albatross, provided endless fascination – for me at least. I couldn’t believe that some passengers were in the lounge playing Monopoly!
In summary, it was BRILLIANT. Go if you get the chance!
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