Argentina

Cruising to Antarctica

For New Years this past year, I hopped on board the Ocean Diamond ice breaker for a ten-day cruise heading to Antarctica – home of no polar bears (in case you were unsure) – and to say it was epic would be an understatement. Hopping on board at Ushuaia in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province was a last minute decision that turned out to be the most amazing decision ever. Like all the best travel adventures, the journey was almost as exciting as the destination was amazing, so if you have the time, money and opportunity, you should definitely put this one on your ‘bucket list’. I can’t recommend it enough.

Never having been on a cruise before it didn’t really occur to me beforehand that you’re basically on a floating hotel. With a daily maid and turn down service, dressing gown and slippers, buffet breakfast and lunch, afternoon tea and a four-course evening meal it's the poshest place I’ve ever stayed. An interesting and lovely change after all the hostels I’d been staying in given its seven decks, fascinating library, lecture hall and lovely relaxing spaces. It even has a gym to work off all the fresh meals and sweets that are on offer. And if you’re lucky and the boat is not full, you may get a room to yourself even if you pay the sharing rate.

Before you reach the shores of Antarctica you have to brave the Drake Passage. It’s a two day journey over what can be some of the roughest waters in the world. It was certainly not a lake but the shake wasn’t too bad either on my journey. No storms meant that for the Drake it was a pretty smooth ride, according to the staff on board. There are strategically placed sick bags all around the ship, however, for days when the sailing isn’t quite as smooth. 

The two day-sail through the passage is put to good use with safety briefings, equipment handouts and lectures about things you’ll hopefully see and do. If you can stay awake through the lectures, that is! It’s not that the lectures are boring; on the contrary, they are very interesting, but the sea sickness pills can make you very drowsy. Some of my favourite lectures on board where the history ones as the on board historian was full of interesting facts and stories. Getting photography tips from the resident photographer was also a highlight, and one that certainly came in handy down the road. On-board documentaries were also good and included March of the Penguins, Shackleton and Frozen Planet, to name a few. Even if you’ve seen the films before, seeing the settings in real life just makes them that much more intense.

We set off in the evening of December 29, and it wasn’t until New Year’s Day that we saw land again. It’s very strange being surrounded by nothing but water. On the first day there wasn’t much to see except water, but by day two we started to spot icebergs. To be a true iceberg the bit sticking out of the water has to be bigger than a bus, apparently, and it wasn’t long before we started seeing some really huge ones. The size is difficult to comprehend, though, as there are no reference points nearby with which to compare, say, actual buses for example. But as the boat moves by you can become quite humbled by their size as you get a sense of their enormity.

The next four days were spent visiting sites around the Antarctic Peninsula. We had one or two trips on land each day plus zodiac cruising. The land expeditions were great fun and fairly unguided; we were allowed to wander where ever we wanted within the boundaries given. It was amazing to have the freedom to just wander alone and enjoy the scenery, serenity and wildlife without having to listen to a guide witter on or have fellow group members try to dictate your adventure.

The weather was fantastic and varied, changing the landscape dramatically. Sunshine meant the ice and snow shone blindingly in your face, but the bright blue skies made everything was crisp and clear. Grey cloudy skies made the landscape look brooding and the icebergs intimidating. A snow shower meant low visibility but an amazing spectacle as penguins huddled together and icebergs loomed out of the gloom. Reflections were everywhere and blue icebergs were spectacular.

One stop we made was Port Lockroy, an old British research station that is still manned during the summer months. There is a museum, a post office and a souvenir shop but no running water, electricity or phone/internet service. However, if you do fancy working there visit the website and apply. A little part of me is thinking about it, just so I can say I’ve lived on every continent, but five months without internet could be a bit much!

I was in awe of the penguins. Been able to just sit and watch the penguins go about their daily life was brilliant, much better than in a zoo. They are funny little creatures, always stumbling and falling over, and are very inquisitive and come up close to see what you’re doing. Watching the Gentoos gather rocks for each other as a sign of their love was beautiful.

Early to mid January is a fantastic time to visit if you’re interested in seeing lots of penguin chicks, which was definitely a highlight for me. We were lucky enough on our last day of excursions to see newly hatched Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks as well as Cormorant chicks that were only a few hours old. Another thing I was (un)lucky to see was the interaction between the penguins and the Skuas, which try to steal eggs and chicks. A couple of times I saw one swoop in and try to grab something, but luckily for all of us the penguins were able to protect their eggs those times.

In the end, I can say that this was a fantastic, remarkable journey, one that was unique and memorable. You can never have too much fun and adventure in life, just as you can never have too many photos of icebergs and penguins! Don’t hesitate to go for it if you ever have the opportunity to visit this barren, exciting and rarely visited land. You won’t regret it! 

WardCharlotteHeadshotAbout the Author

Charlotte Ward is a teacher on a mission to work her way around the world. She currently lives in Colombia and is living life exploring South America. She aims to live on or at least vist lots to every continent on the globe. She loves to travel and share her experiences with others, and you can read more about them on her blog at http://madranting.wordpress.com.

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 Full name: Argentine Republic

 Population: 42.19 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Buenos Aires

 Largest city: Buenos Aires

 Area: 2.78 million sq.km. (1.073 million sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Spanish, Italian, English,  German, French

 Major religions: (nominally) Roman Catholic

 Monetary unit: Argentine Peso

 GDP per capita: US $17,400

 Internet domain: .ar

 International dialling code: +54

 Source: CIA World Factbook