The recent record-low temperatures, ice, and snow brought to mind a trip I took sometime ago to the frozen continent of Antarctica. This is a rather expensive journey that requires a commitment of at least 17 or 18 days. Aside from some tour companies that offer flights where one can view the frozen continent from a few thousand feet up (also very expensive and available only on clear days!) a sea voyage is only way to actually plant your foot upon this continent. These voyages are only available during the Antarctic summer months, January and February, when the temperatures are moderate enough (mid 40s) to allow specially designed ships, known as ice-breakers, to plow through the ice fields that surround the continent. My journey, during January, began when I flew to Santiago, Chile, where I met the other 36 tour members and spent two days attending lectures and workshops designed to prepare me for the journey ahead.
Finally we boarded a chartered jet that would fly the group to the Falkland Islands where we would board our ship for the voyage to Antarctica. It was an early morning flight of less than three hours and so we arrived in the late morning in time for a delicious lunch in a restaurant overlooking the bay at Stanley, the capital city. After looking around the town, buying souvenirs, and visiting a maritime museum near the pier, we boarded our ship, the S.S. Professor of Multanovskiy. Her overall appearance betrayed her former calling, a deep-sea, Russian research vessel. The ship had been properly retro-fitted to suit the needs of expeditions that include the continent of Antarctica, e.g., its hull had been triple plated to allow it to make its way through large, thick ice-fields without encountering the problems that beset the RMS Titanic.
Once on board, following a lifeboat drill, we had our first informative lecture given by a member of the very knowledgeable staff. Then, at around 9 p.m., under a fading blue sky streaked with thin gray clouds, the ship edged its way out of Stanley Harbor heading for the open sea. We were encircled with friendly goodbyes from Dolphin Gulls and South American Terns.
When I awoke the next morning, the ship had anchored near Bleaker Island. A light fog had set in, and from what I little could see from the ship, the name seemed most appropriate. Soon we lined up to walk down from the main deck to sea level where we would board Zodiacs, inflatable black, motorized “limousines,” that would transport us swiftly to the shore, 6 or 8 per boat.
During the ride in, the sun broke through and there appeared before us a beautiful, sandy beach completely unspoiled. As we approached we were greeted by hundreds of Magallenic Penguins. Some of these magnificent, adult birds were feeding their chicks, but most had molted and were now showing off their blue, juvenile feathers.
Then back to the ship for lunch before a bumpy Zodiac ride to Sea Lion Island. This time the waves were higher, so the Zodiacs “parked” on the beach. There were some King Penguins near, and we marveled at their size and natural beauty. Here we also encountered a group of large Elephant Seals, huddled together to conserve heat. None of these creatures exhibited any concern about humans being so near. Soon it was time to return to the ship for dinner and more lectures, before facing another day “at sea” tomorrow.
Waking the following morning, I learned that the ship had entered Drake’s Passage, the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean (Scotia Sea) with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean. This 500-mile wide passage is the shortest crossing from Antarctica to any other landmass. Sailing these waters can itself be quite a challenge for a land-lubber as the waters are often extremely rough and choppy.
By early afternoon, the ship approached the Antarctica Convergence, where the temperature plummeted and a thick fog settled over us as we listened to lectures on the Frozen Continent. The next day the unpredictable weather had improved greatly. One crew member remarked that in more than 25 journeys across Drake’s Passage, she had never seen the sea this calm. There were still more illustrated lectures about everything from the Wandering Albatross to the Humpback Whale. The short nights we had observed in the Falklands became even shorter as we pushed southward towards the South Shetland Islands.
During the night, we sailed through the Antarctic Sound toward Paulet Island. Icebergs appeared, some tiny, others very large, as the ship docked in a landing zone so we could again board the Zodiacs. We photographed all manner of wildlife including Adelie Penguins and Wendell Seals, while up the beach and just inland from the sea, we found the remains of a Nordenskjold hut from a Swedish Expedition that was carried out here almost a hundred years ago.
Back aboard, the number of floating icebergs seemed to have doubled as we headed further into the Wendell Sea toward Brown Bluff (so called because of its brown colored cliffs). Again a thick fog settled upon the ship, adding an eerie feeling to our arrival at the landing zone. Finally we would set foot on the Antarctic Continent, 7,000 miles from home.
As the Zodiac approached land, the fog was so thick that we were able to hear the penguins (and smell them!!!) before we were able to make out the shoreline. Each tour member was photographed as he or she “first set foot” on the continent of Antarctica, and then, as if on cue, the sun broke through and I could appreciate the vastness and sheer beauty of the place. I was most impressed with the shapes and sizes of the ice formations, some as big a three-story building. As far as I could see, these jigsaw puzzle-like pieces of ice seemed to announce that I was entering a frozen world different from anything I have ever known. The isolated nature of this place, on the edge of the calmest water you can imagine, is surreal. Visible as far as I could see were tens of thousands of penguins. Many were on land, but thousands were perched on nearby icebergs, standing upright, watching. What might these creatures think of the black Zodiacs delivering humans into their habitat?
Over the following days we enjoyed morning and afternoon excursions to other spots on the Antarctic Continent. Places with exotic-sounding names like Half Moon Island (so-called because of its crescent shape), Deception Island, and Pendulum Cove. Once while being transported to one of these islands, we encountered four humpback whales. Our cameras were busy as these gigantic creatures blew and hovered at the surface. When the Zodiacs passed them, they dived and showed their flukes (tails). It was an incredible sight which I had seen many times on TV but never before with my own eyes.
At Pendulum Cove, any who dared were invited to take a swim – a kind of polar plunge! Here there was some “warm” water due to the thermal activity in the area. Of course warm is a relative term, and in this case it meant that the water temperature was just above 40 degrees. Several of the more adventurous did take a swim.
Whale watching is an integral part of voyages to Antarctica. On many days the ship would attract one or more of these huge creatures who, more often than not, wanted to interact with the ship. They would breach out of the water rolling onto their sides, all the while blowing before another dive. One day two humpbacks surfaced repeatedly so close to the ship that several surprised passengers actually had whale spray on their face and clothing!
Near the end of this remarkable journey, the Zodiacs brought us to the Argentine section of Antarctica at Anvord Bay. We walked up a hill and sat at the base of a huge glacier. We listened to it creak and groan under its own weight forcing it, slowly, down into the sea. Small bits of this glacier “calved” off and fell into the sea just as two Minke whales appeared. It was an experience I will never forget.
This 12-day voyage ended at the port near Ushuaia, Argentina, itself an incredibly beautiful city nestled at the foot of the snow-capped Andes Mountains in the Tierra del Fuego area, the southern most spot on the earth aside from Antarctica.
I left with so many vivid memories; memories I will treasure all of my life.
Next time: “Across the Sahara to Timbuktu”