Antarctica: The seventh continent at the end of the world

As I boarded the ship bound for Antarctica, my thoughts were running wild, but one thing kept flashing into my consciousness. It was James Cameron’s motion picture “Titanic” of all things. This epic film tells the story of how that majestic ship scraped along the side of an iceberg, tearing open a part of its hull and sinking. I was more than a little comforted when one of member of the crew explained how the hull of the “icebreaker” I had just boarded was triple-plated and did not need to steer around icebergs but rather could plow right through them.

For a long time I had wanted to visit the frozen continent. Once, I even considered booking one of those very expensive flights that circle over Antarctica providing travelers the opportunity to look down upon this uninhabited continent. In the end, my desire to “set my feet” upon the seventh continent won the day, and I booked a voyage with Quark Expeditions. The ship I boarded in the Falkland Islands for the voyage to Antarctica was called the S.S. Professor of Multanovskiy. These types of voyages are only available during the Antarctic summer months, December, January and February, when the temperatures are moderate enough (low 40s) to allow these specially-designed vessels, known as ice-breakers, to deal with the ice fields that surround this continent.
My journey, during January, began when I flew to Santiago, Chile, where I met the other 30 or so tour members and spent two days attending lectures and workshops designed to prepare me for the journey ahead. Then I boarded a chartered flight that would fly the group to the Falkland Islands where the ship would be waiting for this exciting voyage. The ship was a bit smaller than I expected, having seen it only in the Quark Expeditions’ brochure. Her overall appearance betrayed her former calling, a deep-sea, Russian research vessel. The ship had been retro-fitted to suit the needs of those taking long expeditions including those going to the continent of Antarctica. Its special three-tiered hull would insure that this ship would NOT experience the kind of problem that beset the RMS Titanic.

After the supplies and passengers were loaded and the life-boat drill was concluded, a tug boat appeared along side and the ship edged away from the dock and slowly moved out of Stanley Harbor heading toward the open sea. What a sight it was! The sun was setting on a day that marked the beginning of a journey I had dreamed of taking all my life.
The voyage to Antarctica necessarily transverses 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 point from Antarctica to any other landmass. Sailing these waters can be quite a challenge for a land-lubber like me as the waters are often extremely rough and choppy. My crossing, however, according to several crew members, was a relatively smooth one. Of course I have no way to know if this assessment were even remotely accurate since this was my first voyage across the “passage.” What I do know is that walking along the passageways or trying to stand up in the shower stall were challenges in the extreme. I can never remember a time that I have been on a ship where the waters were this rough – even during a crossing of the North Atlantic.
Finally, on the third morning, I awoke to learn that the ship was anchored just off the coastline of Antarctica. I rushed to the window but the fog was so thick I could not see a thing. Once up on deck, I could hear the penguins (and smell them!!!). After breakfast I descended the long flight of stairs from the upper deck down to boarding platform where I stepped into one of the zodiacs that would take me to land. The sounds of the tens of thousands of penguins could be heard well before they appeared through the lingering fog. As the zodiac approached the coastline, the fog began to lift and a trace of the morning sun could be seen.

Then, as if by magic, emerging from the lessening fog was the shoreline of the seventh continent. My long-time dream of visiting here was moments away from being fulfilled. The zodiac was pulled up onto the shore by crew members who has arrived earlier. Each tour member was then photographed as he or she “first set foot” on the continent of Antarctica, and then, as if on cue, the sun broke fully through. I could at last appreciate the vastness and sheer beauty of the place. At every turn there were large and beautiful ice formations in various shapes and sizes, some as tall as 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, was surreal.
Over the following several days we enjoyed morning and afternoon excursions to other spots on or near to 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.
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 voyage ended at the port of 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. It is no wonder that Antarctica appears among the places listed on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” I returned home with so many vivid memories; memories I will treasure all of my life.

Next time: “Mount Kilimanjaro”

Watson E. Mills has flown more than 2.5 million miles on 102 different airlines during the course of his more than 140 overseas trips. He has visited 176 of the 193 United Nations member countries and is a member of the Circumnavigators Club having completed three around the world journeys.

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