The last, great, and mind blowing wilderness of the planet.
The great white continent in the south, the fairly unexplored and distant land of the last absolute wilderness of planet Earth; Antarctica! We had no idea just how amazing this place would prove to be and just how much it would blow our minds and just how much wildlife actually lived there. This unearthly part of the planet proved to be the best experience of our whole world wide trip!
Filed Under: Antarctica by Katrine April 19, 2013, 23:35
The trip to Antarctica was the one thing on our world trip that we had booked well in advance. We knew that each year there is a limited number of tours going there and to do it on the ship we wanted, we would have even less chance to secure tickets unless we did it early.
Rob had done all the research and concluded that we wanted to be on a scientific vessel rather than a cruise liner for the experience and for safety. We also needed a ship small enough so you could get close to land and with minimal amount of passengers so the daily limit of 100 people landing on the continent wouldn’t get in the way to do daily excursions. The last box to tick was to do the longer trip crossing the south polar circle since we knew this would be a once in a lifetime journey and we wanted to do it properly. We decided to book the Sergej Vavilov or the Akademik Ioffe and the only one with a few tickets left was Ioffe that we booked through OneOcean expeditions.
The morning of departure we sat quite nervous in Ushuaia not knowing what to expect of this trip. We both dreaded the crossing over the Drake Passage that we had heard so much about and we had stocked up on Dramamine to prevent us from getting seasick. When we were shuffled to the docks in a small bus and went aboard the vessel with the other passengers we all got our cabins that would be our home for the next 2 weeks. For some reason we got upgraded to a Shackleton suite and it was roomy and lovely with a very comfortable bed and two windows to enjoy the view while travelling. Once we all settled in and we all were exploring the ship we had the evening dinner and a briefing of what to expect in the following weeks. Every morning there would be a wake up call and then breakfast. After breakfast there would be lectures from various professionals in biology, oceanography, naturalists, ornithologists, explorers, photography and art to prepare us for the time we reached the continent. After lunch the lectures would continue until afternoon when there would be tea and cake followed by happy hour in the bar before dinner. After dinner there would be a fireside chat or sometimes a movie showing for those who wanted to stay up a bit longer before bed time. Once we’d reach Antarctica the daily lectures would be replaced with zodiac excursions to the mainland and islands.
When we went to bed after taking our seasickness tablets and we had drake-secured all our belongings in the cabin since we were awaiting to wake up to some serious waves the next morning. But when we woke up we could still see land which we knew was not part of the Drake Passage. The captain soon announced that due to strong gale winds and waves they had tried to enter the Drake last night but had to turn around and wait for calmer waters in the Beagle channel. We didn’t know whether we felt relief or disappointment but we all agreed that the captain knows best and what he says goes!
A day delayed we started crossing the passage, and it was rolling with about 5 metre waves. We kept the seasickness away by eating our Dramamine and after 3 days of lectures and activities, whale spotting and crossing the south polar circle we spotted land. And wow, what a sight it was! The sun was shining; the water had steadily turned cobalt blue and everywhere there were passing icebergs, some kilometres wide! The landmass was one huge ice field with exposed mountain tops raising thousands of metres above the sea. Every valley was filled with Glacier ice and the crisp, blue tinted snow was so white and reflective you had to wear sunglasses. It was gloriously wild and alien looking.
The same day we did our first zodiac excursion to the Argentinian San Martin base where we were greeted with wine and pizza. They hadn’t seen another vessel for 13 months which made us all appreciate how far we’d come! In the zodiacs we had our first encounters with Crab eater seals that were laying around on the floating ice basking in the sun. On one of the islands a bunch of miserable looking Adelie penguins were moulting and despite their rugged looks they were beautiful.
In the afternoon we went to an old British exploration station on Horseshoe Island where we had plenty of time exploring the island and its inhabitants being Weddell seals, Antarctic fur seals, Adelie penguins and Skuas with their chicks. The very well preserved station was like a museum frozen in time boasting bunk beds and a kitchen full of old cans and pots and pans. The whole island was stained with very artificial looking green colours over the rocks that we learnt was most likely copper seeping out from erosion and everywhere was old pieces of seal and penguin bones scattered among the rocks, a remnant from the days people were here and had to eat!
Before we all headed back to the boat some very brave ( or crazy?) people decided to plunge in the water to make an Antarctic swim and needless to say they needed some extra tender loving care with a long time in the sauna and some hot chocolate to heat up again once aboard.
The next day we continued our journey through the narrow passage between the mainland and the large Adelaide Island that was called the Gullet. The weather was ideal with calm water and bright sunshine that kept the snow and ice glistening like diamonds. We encountered a pod of Orcas that were hunting in the passage and one of the females had a little calf! Once we went through the Gullet and into Crystal bay we hit a fog bank and it filtered out the sunlight into the most beautiful and spooky looking waterscape of dark, mirror water between huge ice sheets.
That night the captain was manoeuvring the Ioffe through fog and ice and around midnight we were woken up from a large bang and a strong jerk of the boat. Our first thought was that we hit an iceberg but no alarm went of so we eventually went back to sleep. The next morning at breakfast our expedition leader Boris announced that we had indeed hit an iceberg the night before when the captain had tried to reverse the ship due to a very large ice sheet in front of the boat. Apparently the reverse thrust of the propellers had dragged a fairly large iceberg in behind the boat and it hit us at the rear of the ship. When we went to check it out the deck at the back was pretty buckled but luckily it hadn’t done any severe damage so we could continue our adventure.
The next day we continued our adventure north along the archipelago. We did our first excursion to a penguin colony on Pleneau Island and what an experience it was. The island was colonised by thousands of Gentoo penguins and a small group of Adelies. The smell was pretty strong but the experience of walking through hundreds of fluffy, almost adult chicks sitting sunbathing on the rocks was amazing. They didn’t seem to care much about our presence, the chicks were curious and some of them came up to our legs to have a close look or peck. We must have taken a thousand photos of all the cute penguins when it was time to get back to the ship to continue our journey to the next stop and we were all buzzing with excitement when we got back on the boat.
For the following days we stopped several times along islands and icebergs exploring the grounds and observing leopard seals, penguins and seals everywhere. The scenery was beautiful and one morning we woke up to lots of snow covering the whole boat! We still did an excursion in the zodiacs sitting in inches of snow and braving the wind and wet conditions looking for leopard seals among the floating icebergs. Despite not seeing any we finally got rewarded with a close up of Minkie whales that swam around our boats and one of them threw himself up to have a look at us which made for an awesome photo!
On the last day before heading over the Drake passage again to get back to mainland we arrived at Deception Island, and old volcanic crater that has created an island looking very much like an horseshoe with a lagoon in the middle. The whole island was covered in black sand from the last volcanic eruption in 1967 and 1969 and the ruins of and old whaling station covered the beach. It was a very eerie place since the old rusty boilers and oil containers where pretty much intact and in the sand whale bones where poking up with a white, barren glow and it all reminded us of an old and pretty gruesome era. A fur seal colony was lazing around the ruins on the beach and a whole group of skuas and a few lonesome Chinstrap penguins waddled around in the weird landscape. After enjoying a long walk along the beach the wind was getting stronger and suddenly we were all called back to the zodiacs so we could head back aboard. It proved to be a pretty choppy and wet trip back to the main boat!
Our last stop on our journey through the archipelago was supposed to be Snow Island but the increasing wind speeds that made us having to leave early from Deception island prevented us from being able to moor in the new place. The captain decided that it was not safe and that it was better trying to get across the Drake earlier before the winds would churn up big waves. We were all quite disappointed since we all knew that it would have been our very last landing on this amazing trip so we withdrew to our cabins a bit deflated.
The following 2 days we spent crossing the Drake Passage in very similar conditions we had on our journey south the previous week with waves being moderate with 4-5 metres. The rolling of the boat and the Antarctic trip on its last breath made us have a few days of recap and relaxing before getting back to Argentina. We spotted more whales, albatrosses and even a group of dolphins along the trip back and once we saw the infamous Cape Horn we knew that Ushuiaia was not far away. We woke up early on the last day and we could see the lights of Ushuiaia harbour in the distance. When we all packed up our things and said our good byes to head back to our hotels and hostels on the South American continent we knew that we all had experienced something incredible and that we were indeed some of the very lucky few that have had the chance of seeing this barren and extreme of continents and all its wildlife living and thriving there. This was a trip that we would never ever forget and nothing we had ever seen could beat that.
Dear Antarctica, we miss you and we hope that one day we can come back to see you again…
Below is a GPS map of the route we took and where we went in Antarctica:
More details here: Antarctic GPS route
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