PAULETTE & JON'S AMAZING ANTARCTIC TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
“Imagine being completely surrounded by snow-covered, tall craggy mountains with icebergs of all shapes and sizes floating past, and sea fog descending and lifting again to reveal the most stunning scenery you have ever seen in your life. It is so very eerie to stand out on deck in the very thick fog with icebergs looming out of the mist, gliding past the ship, and then disappearing again behind us.”
Paulette & Jon have visited over 80 countries, but their trip to the Antarctic is now right at the top of their list of recommendations of ‘must see places in the world.’ In fact, they insist that every keen traveller just HAS to visit Antarctica.
Keen to learn more about their AMAZING ANTARCTIC EXPERIENCE? Then read on. Paulette’s detailed blog of their trip, amazing photos and a Fact File & Planning Tips are below.
THE QUESTION IS NOT ‘CAN I AFFORD TO GO?’ but ‘CAN I AFFORD NOT TO GO?’
This really is one place in the entire world that has to be right on top of your bucket list. There are simply no suitable superlatives to describe this place! No photo, video or painting can truly capture the beauty and majesty of this unique ice kingdom.
I am completely blown away by this place. I just can't believe what I am seeing every time I look out the window or stand on the cold deck with polar winds brushing passed my face and freezing my cheeks’ as I look at 90 metre ice cliffs and sea ice floating all around like clouds, but on the surface of the sea. When the first iceberg floated passed our cabin window, we squealed with delight, but since then there have been far too many to count, but even so, each one is just as exciting.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the soft snap, crackle & pop of ancient air bubbles being released back into the atmosphere after being trapped for centuries in the glacial ice that has finally hit the sea. The sound of a loud crack or boom could be the clue to a large amount of ice about to calve off and fall into the sea and although it’s a little disturbing. it's also exciting as you wait in hope that you will be looking in the right direction at the right time. Humpback whales lie serenely beside the ship, blowing out every now and then, and slowly submerging, then floating back up and occasionally letting out a deep whale call.
USHUAIA & DRAKE PASSAGE- RENOWNED FOR BEING A ROUGH RIDE!
We flew in to Ushuaia on the southern most tip of South America on a cold cloudy day. It had been snowing earlier on and as our plane broke through the low cloud base we were thrilled to see the snow capped mountains just beside us, and below we recognized our red and white ship moored in the Beagle Channel.
The next day we had almost the whole day to fill in before we could board the ship, so we went for a ride on a tourist bus for an hour, saw a couple of museums, looked at the shops and had a wonderful king crab lunch but finished off with a terrible dinner at the local Irish Pub!
We had feared that our crossing across the Drake passage might be violent and took the good doctor’s advice and took our seasickness pills before going to bed. I never knew that they were a preventative and not a curative, so if you are sea sick once you’re at sea, it's then too late to take the pills. However,the crossing was so smooth that it only took just over a day to make it across instead of the expected two days, so by the afternoon of the second day we were making our first landing, a real bonus.
LAYERS AND LAYERS OF CLOTHES FOR THE ZODIAC LANDINGS
It is a huge drama getting dressed in the layers of clothing required for the zodiac landings. Being a hater of the cold, over the usual layers I wear a pair of tights, then my merino thermal, then trousers. On top is a next-to-skin top, then a thermal, then a fleece. In the mudroom, we put on extra socks, our gumboots, waterproof pants, a polar jacket, scarf, a couple of hats, 2 layers of gloves, then a life jacket.
Once you have accomplished all of that, you may discover that your ship card, that you need to swipe on and off the ship with, is in the inside pocket of your trousers or your sunnies are also trapped in an inside pocket. So off come the layers to fish around to retrieve them. You don’t forget something twice! Then we had to walk through a disinfectant bath, swipe off the ship, and get down into the zodiacs for the ride to shore. Once there, however it's all worthwhile.
LOUNGING SEALS, THIEVING PENGUINS AND SKUA BIRDS ON BARRIENTOS & CECILIA ISLANDS
Our first landing was on a couple of islands called Barrientos and Cecilia, which are in the Aitcho Island group of the South Shetlands. I felt like I had landed in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary. We landed on a rocky beach on Barrientos island and close by were a couple of elephant seals lounging on the beach and Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins running around.
There were several penguin nesting areas. Most had eggs and some had very small chicks who were tentatively poking their heads out from between their parents' feet and peering out into the world. The noise was amazing with all their squabbling and calling, and the smell was overpowering. Cute, but very stinky penguins. The snow is very stained with a reddish/pink colour and it appears they have no preference where they defecate. They were sitting on nests elaborately built with rocks and stones piled high and every penguin was a thief. They would run around and steal stones from other nests and while they brought them back and were congratulating each other with such a fine rock, another penguin from behind would be pinching one of theirs.
More ominous were the big Skua birds that would fly around very low over the rookeries searching for unattended eggs or baby birds and when they spotted one, they instantly snatched it and flew away. We saw a couple of Skuas making a nest almost beside one of the penguin rookeries. “Building a home next to the supermarket,” someone commented.
We were given strict rules about visiting these places including keeping away from the wildlife, giving them space if they came near, and not blocking the penguin highways. The penguins use certain routes to get around, such as from their nests to the sea, or to other nesting sites, and these become their highways. Some are so well-trodden that they are quite deep and all you see are the penguins' heads bobbing along.
They also don't appear to have a plan B. If something is blocking their usual route they appear very confused and don't know what to do. Decision making isn't one of their strong points, so they just stand where they are, trying to decide what to do next.
Cecilia Island was different though. There were not as many penguins but we were greeted by a Weddell seal lying on the beach. The team had staked flags to ensure we didn't venture too near him. There was deep snow here, so we had to be very careful to stick close to the path they had staked out, otherwise, we found ourselves sinking knee deep into the snow. It was hard work just walking.
A LUCKY OPPORTUNITY TO VISIT PALMER STATION
That night it was announced that the following day we were to visit Palmer Station, which is the only American research centre above the Antarctic circle. The crew explained that to visit this station they had to go into a lottery and only 6 ships are chosen per year. They then have to state what day of the year they will visit, and if, for any reason, they can't make it on that very day, then they lose out. There are so many reasons why the ship might not make it. A lot is weather dependant and after seeing the conditions down here, I can understand how risky this is. So it hadn't been announced earlier, as they still weren't sure we could make it, and even down to the last couple of hours it was uncertain. In fact, there was so much sea ice around, the station wasn't expecting us to make it through and was very surprised to see us.
We were told to be prepared to get up by 4.30 am as it could be a spectacular start if we were lucky. I set the alarm and woke up way earlier than this, but on looking out of the window all I could see was fog, so we curled up for another couple of hours sleep. We were casually sitting on our beds looking out the window a bit later thinking there was nothing to see when suddenly, silently drifting past our window was this enormous iceberg- our first one. We yelled and grabbed our jackets and scarves and zipped up to the decks in record time.
The fog was starting to lift and we got our first view of the snow-covered mountains of Antarctica, and to say it was stunning just does not do it justice. We were sailing down the Neumeyer Channel, which has been described as 'some of the most exquisite scenery on Earth'. To take a photo you can only capture part of the picture, but imagine being completely surrounded by snow-covered, tall craggy mountains, icebergs floating past of all shapes and sizes, and sea fog descending and lifting again to reveal the most stunning scenery you have ever seen in your life. It is very eerie to stand on deck with the fog very thick all around, with icebergs looming out of the mist, passing the ship then disappearing again behind us.
About an hour before we reached the station, we could see ahead a line of sea ice, and when we reached it, that was the only thing we could see ahead- thick ice lying on top of the sea. It was very exciting to hang over the bow (we really have the run of the ship and can go most places, even the Bridge on most days) and watch the ship smash into the ice, crushing it to pieces and hearing the loud booms, as it hit all down the side of the ship. Some of the sheets were massive and with the water so clear you can see the huge ice plates below the water.
There was the occasional Weddell seal lying on an ice float casually watching us go by. Even tho they were really close, it didn't seem to phase them, unlike the penguins who would panic. There were a couple of penguins that were right in the line of the ship and as we got closer everyone started yelling at them to jump. They got in a bit of a flap and were calling out, then at the last moment, they finally jumped into the sea and disappeared as the ship smashed their little island.
We did a tour of the station and all the staff stopped doing their daily duties just to show us around. We had coffee, a famous Palmer brownie, and then we were on our way again down the Bismarck strait towards the Lemaire Channel. The captain tried to take us through this channel, but it was so choked with icebergs, that he had to give up. It must have been bad as the captain was Russian and seemed fearless.
BEWARE OF TSUNAMIS!
SETTING FOOT ON THE ANTARCTIC CONTINENT ITSELF!
Saturday dawned -actually the sun never really set. The sunset was 12.04 am and sunrise was 2.12 am so there was no dawn. This was the day we were finally going to step foot on the Antarctic continent itself, at Neko Harbour. Here again, we were surrounded by mountains and glaciers with impossible sheer ice cliffs ready to drop into the sea. We were warned that when we set foot on the beach, to watch the penguins and if they started running, then we were to start running also to higher ground, as if a block of ice calves off into the sea, it can cause a tsunami and wash quite high onto the beach. We were told that if we went as far as the penguins nesting area we would be safe. We could see debris that had already been flung up the beach on previous tsunamis.
The snow was very deep here and almost impossible to walk on. What surprised me was that the penguins also had trouble walking over it, and it was quite comical to watch them falling over and getting up time and again, as they made their way up or down. We had to make sure we filled in any deep holes we made from walking, as the penguins can get stuck in them.
On the ride back to the ship we did a zodiac cruise around the icebergs that were floating in the harbour. They were stunning and so big from our perspective on the zodiac. They were incredibly colourful with deep blues, greens and various shades of white, as well as being sculptured into all different shapes. In the iceberg shapes, I saw the Sydney opera house, the top end of Australia, and several big animals. Words again are failing me to try and describe such a place.
What looked like black ice was floating in the water but when you picked it up it was actually transparent. This is the oldest ice of all, it has been at the very bottom of the glacier and over time and immense pressure, all the air has been squeezed out of it giving no colour at all. Now here’s a good tip. Apparently it's the best ice to put in your gin!
GENTOO PENGUINS ON CUVERVILLE ISLAND.
We crossed the Erera channel and that afternoon stopped at Cuverville Island. We didn’t have to do much climbing here, so we could just wander down the beach and watch the Gentoo penguins go about their daily business of stone stealing and squabbling. We watched a Skua fight high up on a cliff. One dropped and rolled several times down the snow slope sending snow flying, but he got up again and continued the fight with two or three others. Skuas are quite big birds, bigger than a size 20 chicken.
CAMPING ON THE SNOW?
That night the brave and foolhardy went camping on the snow. It sounds like a romantic notion but not one of them returned and said they loved it. The best they could say was that it was an interesting experience.
LAZY WHALES IN THE GERLACHE STRAITS
The next morning we up anchored and cruised down the Gerlache Straits, back into the Neumayer Channel, which was still just as stunning so you are either glued to your window or frozen on the outside decks just to ensure you didn’t miss the view. We came across three Humpback Whales having a little sleep, so the captain stopped the ship and drifted around them. They looked like three logs lying in the water and didn't seem bothered at all that we were there. They didn't do much, just lay there, but later the crew told us they had never seen that before in all their journeys down here.
The water is so clear that we could see almost the entire body of the whales from the tail tip to the tip of their nose and immense flippers. It made me realise that the bit you see sticking out of the water is no indication of the size of the beast. At one point, one whale grew curious about us and let out a loud whale noise, lazily flipped over and stuck his head out of the water just meters from us to have a bit of a look before sinking down again and going back to sleep. We eventually left them to it- nothing happening here captain!
KAYAKING PELLETIER CHANNEL
The captain thought he would have a go at sailing down the Pelletier Channel, which up to now had been blocked with ice, but we were extremely lucky and made it through. We were the first ship this season to get through and the expedition leader said it was only the second time he had ever done it.
This channel is very narrow with sharp turns. At one point it's only 500m wide and as we sailed along it looked like it was a dead end. There was no sign of a channel until we got to the turn, and, sorry to harp on about it, but once again it was drop dead gorgeous scenery. So unbelievable actually. They dropped the kayaks off and those who had paid mega money to kayak must have thought they got their monies worth, when they had to kayak the entire 10kms of the channel but how stunning that must have been.
PENGUIN POST OFFICE
Our destination that afternoon was Port Lockroy or better known as Penguin Post Office on Goudier Island. It use to be a British Antarctic survey base but was abandoned in 1962. They have now restored it (1996) and run it as a museum, so you can see and understand what it must have been like to live and work there in the 40's and 50's. They have done it very well. Four women run it and do maintenance over the summer season from Oct/Nov to end of March and have many ships come and visit.
There is a souvenir shop but the main attraction is the post office section. They still run a mail service so you can post a letter or post card from the Antarctic. They then give it to the next ship that is going to the Falkland Islands, and from there it gets sent to the UK to be dispersed around the world.
There is a documentary called the Penguin Post Office which gives a great account of it's history and also follows the life cycle of the local Gentoo penguins. We also saw nesting blue eyed shags there. These birds have the most stunning blue eyes as their name suggests and live and nest right among the penguins who don't seem to pay them much mind.
It was at this point that we started to head back to Ushuaia. Already I was starting to miss the Antarctic and we were still there! Crazy I know. I can understand why the early explorers just had to come back time and time again, at their peril, to this unique, magnificent part of the world.
CHINSTRAP PENGUINS -MY FAVOURITE!
That afternoon was our last chance to go down to the mud room and layer up to go on our last zodiac ride to Half Moon Island. This crescent shaped island is only 2 km long and home to 3,300 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins. I have decided that this is my favourite kind of penguin, with it's pure white front and a thin band of black going from one side of its face to the other under it's chin- if it had a chin that is. They are very cute and extremely photogenic as my 3,000+ photos can prove!
There were also colonies of blue eyed shags and apparently the occasional fur or elephant seal will sometimes show up, but we only saw a couple of Weddell seals. The Argentine Camara station is on the south side of the island and looked great with it's red buildings against the white snow. Unfortunately, there was no-one there. One of the crew thought it was due to a change of government and funding for the Antarctic had been cut, so maybe it will remain empty this summer.
DRAKE PASSAGE RETURN
Once again we took on the crossing of Drake passage and once again it was smooth sailing all the way. In fact, we made such great time that the captain decided he would take us for a spin around Cape Horn as an extra bonus. After just a day to cross the Drake we got to Cape Horn by 7.00 am and once again we were lucky with the weather. The sea was calm and the day was clear so we got a really good look at it. Usually it's shrouded in clouds or rain.
Then, to top off a perfect cruise, the whales showed up and gave a brilliant display of breaching, tail slaps and fin slaps. At one point a whale came right up to the boat and did a complete 360 degree spin in the water so we saw his belly as he spun around. What a perfect finish to a perfect cruise
POLAR PLUNGE! WHALERS’ BAY
Our final excursions were on Monday. Overnight we had headed back to the South Shetland Islands and by early morning, during breakfast, we sailed into Whalers bay at Deception Island. This island is the caldera of a still active volcano and was formed by a big collapse due to an eruption a long time ago. The only way in, is through a narrow gap called Neptune's Bellows.
On the beach is the remains of an old whalers station with several collapsing buildings and old drums they used to store the blubber in, with nesting gulls and their chicks on the tops. The beach is littered with whale bones, old boats and wooden planks.
This was our worst weather day with a 40 knot wind blowing down on the beach. It was easier walking, as at least it was on stones and not deep snow, but the bitter cold wind was so strong it almost blew us off our feet, and it was very difficult to keep the camera steady for photos. We had to wrap up extra tightly with just our eyes peering over the top of our scarf and our hats pulled down to just over our eyes.
We walked up the beach and up a slight hill to a notch in the cliffs called Neptune's window for a view back down the beach and over the sea. There were a couple of chinstrap penguins waddling down the beach and we passed a couple of seals. The wind wasn’t bothering them at all.
It was here that we were to do ‘the polar plunge.’ On a good day, apparently the beach is steaming from the volcanic activity and the first few centimeters of water is quite warm, but not today. Once again the brave, but mainly foolhardy, stripped to barely nothing and ran in to literally freeze their butts off. We were simply content to watch the bizarre ritual.
LOVE THESE QUOTES!
'Strange, there is always sadness on departure. It is as if one cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil.’- Fridjof Nansen- 1912.
"Take the Rockies, the alps and Mount Washington. Cover them with thick crusted snow that, like frosting spread by a giants hand has spilled down over the land to end in a jagged, uneven border where it meets the sea.
Imagine yourself on a spaceship in another world. A world that for ten million years has been locked away behind ramparts of ice where escape is blocked in all directions by a cruel, cold, ocean.
Take all the adjectives in Mr Roget's Thesaurus and you still haven't got it. For nothing, not even Mr Roget's best can convey one's first impression of that vast, mysterious immensity of ice.
It is a lesson in humility, an unforgettable reminder of man's mortality and it is like no other place on earth."
-Jenny Darlington -one of the first two women to winter over in Antarctica 1947-48.
FACT FILE & PLANNING TIPS
THE SHIP: MS Exhibition
Owned & operated by G Adventures
SIZE: 69 crew, 135 passengers max (we had 125)
CABINS: 6 different categories of cabins -cheapest being quad share We had a category 3, twin bed with porthole & ensuite. It was larger than a normal cruise cabin
FOOD: Amazing! Better than any cruise we have been on
COMFORT: Very warm & comfortable ship. You only need to wear a t-shirt inside but keep jacket handy in case you need to run outside to see wildlife
CLOTHING: They supply gumboots (on loan) and give you a thick polar jacket to keep when you leave the shipBring your own layers such as thermals & a fleece, woollen socks, scarves, hats and gloves. I prefer possum as it's lightweight & extremely warm. Thinsulate items are also good for this reason.
Outer layers must be waterproof because if you get wet you could freeze. One pair of warm gloves then waterproof outer gloves and a pair of waterproof pants, ski pants are perfect.
CRUISE DURATION: 11 days
PORT: Ushuaia to Ushuaia
TIME OF YEAR: 12-22 Dec
COST: I don't know the exact cost as it was all included in our 44 day South American package but I thought it was reasonable. Back then we paid $21,500 each which included all flights, accommodation, Galapagos & Antarctic cruise, personal guides, transfers & some meals, entrance to parks etc. I only remember the experience now, not the money!
TIP ON COSTS: to reduce your cost, go with a quad share. It will be same sex room so if you have a partner they will be in another cabin. We met some married couples that did this just so they could afford to come and it worked well for them.
We used CHIME ADVENTURES as our agent. They are specialists in South America and the polar regions. We found them to be fantastic. Everything worked like clockwork and it was very well organised.
CONSIDER: Things to consider when going to the Antarctic is what time in the season to go. It's only a short summer, between Nov and end of Feb, maybe into March. The beginning of the season you will see nesting penguins and if lucky the young chicks. Near the end of the season the chicks will have grown and you will see more of them.
RESEARCH: It would pay to research what you will see and when before deciding when to go. You will also need to consider the type of cruise. There are plenty that just go there and cruise around, like the big ships of Holland America etc but you don't actually land. If you were to spend all that money and go all the way there it is highly advisable you chose a ship that will do as many landings as possible.
So Many Places! So Little Time! would like to thank Paulette and Jon for sharing their journey with us and what an amazing journey it was.