Argentina

Antarctica: Way Beyond Expectations

I didn’t think the day could get any better as we witnessed a pod of magnificent orcas gliding by our ship, riding the waves around ice sculptures that could have been made by Michelangelo himself, but it did. As soon as we stepped foot on frozen land, we were greeted by a welcome committee of thousands of Adelie penguins dressed in their finest tuxes. They paraded all around us as they headed to and from their nests on the rocks to the sea on a well-trafficked path, or the ‘penguin highway’, as it’s often called. Most waddled in a perfect line, though occasionally a few would opt to slide down the hills to cut the trek short.

For most people, Antarctica is a mysterious, isolated place hosting frigid temps and extreme conditions. It’s a land of superlatives, being the highest, coldest, windiest and surprisingly driest continent in the world, with the largest wilderness area. Most of its 5.4 million square miles is a vast permanent ice sheet averaging 8,000 feet in thickness. That’s hard to imagine, though, until you actually visit the place and discover a pristine wonderland that goes far beyond expectations.

Getting to the Great White Continent is an adventure in itself. The majority of travelers take an expedition cruise offered by any of a numerous companies departing from ‘the end of the world’ in Ushuaia, Argentina. I booked my cruise with Adventure Life and on an eleven-day, introductory Antarctic Explorer cruise, Quark’s Sea Adventurer was my home away from home. The ship boasted a wide range of creature comforts for its 117 guests plus crew, including a variety of compact cabins, a spacious, window-walled observation lounge, main dining room, bar, small library and mini boutique, among others.

It takes two days to reach Antarctica from Ushuaia and involves crossing the infamous Drake Passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Frequented by icebergs and huge waves, and plagued by gale-force winds, this legendary passage can often be violent, chaotic and unpredictable. If Mother Nature is in a relatively calm mood, you’ll get to experience the ‘Drake Lake’, with just a bit of rolling and pitching about, but if not you’ll be at the mercy of the ‘Dreaded Drake’, where you’ll feel like you could be flung right off the ship and into the 30+ foot waves. Rough seas aren’t fun for many but you’ll be glad to know the ship’s doctor has an arsenal full of some of the most powerful motion sickness medication. Just know there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that the discomfort is well worth the rewards.

You can't really appreciate how far removed Antarctica is until you sit on a boat for two days with not much to view except steel gray rolling waves as far as the eye can see.

 

If the situation is manageable, take advantage of all the fascinating educational presentations given by the expedition team on their areas of expertise from marine biology and ornithology to geology and history. Spend time bundled up outside on the deck watching the magnificent albatross circling the ship, go up to the bridge and learn about the navigational equipment, visit the gift shop for some Antarctica-themed merchandise, and get to know your fellow passengers. On my cruise, there were well-seasoned travellers from all over the world, many who were on a journey to their seventh and final continent. You’ll spend your time doing mandatory things such as picking up your boots and parkas, learning about the environmental protocols for shore landings, participating in safety drills and vacuuming your outer clothing and equipment to prevent spreading any invasive species.

The 2-day crossing really serves to deliver not only physical but also psychological distance from civilization. You can’t really appreciate how far removed Antarctica is until you sit on a boat for two days with not much to view except steel gray rolling waves as far as the eye can see. That makes it all the more incredible when you see your first iceberg and get your early glimpses of terra firma. The excitement then builds as the ship encounters more ice sculptures and jagged mountains covered with snow and glaciers, presenting a photo directly out of the pages of a magazine.

Scenes of grandeur and magnificence enriched by abundant marine life greet visitors as the ship nears its destination. The variety of ice will astound you; even more so when you learn that each kind has its own name – from anchor ice and bergy-bits to floe, growler and frazil. Of special note are the mammoth tabular bergs, which are flat-topped icebergs that are more or less parallel with the waterline. The glaciers, too, are impressive in size, and when chunks fall off into the sea – known as calving – the noise can be deafening.

As we cruised through the islands surrounding the Antarctica Peninsula, we settled into a routine that consisted of at least two excursions a day. Zodiacs or inflatable boats took us from the ship to land where we had time to wander around, watch the wildlife, take a hike and simply revel in the scenery. The expedition team was always on hand to point out sensitive, off-limit areas, as well as to explain about the environment and the creatures inhabiting it. The penguins were the main attraction on these landings. They squawked and waddled, fetched rock after rock for their nests, splashed in the sea during their food forays and basically went about their business as usual without paying much attention to their human admirers. Like paparazzi, we followed them, cameras clicking away, as we attempted to capture every last comical pose. We never tired of watching and listening to these Antarctica celebrities. Most species we saw were Adelie, Chinstrap or Gentoo penguins, and as it was December, they were still in the nesting stage. We were fortunate to spot one errant Macaroni penguin that seemed to have somehow gotten himself mixed in with the others. The bright yellow feathers on the top of his head helped him stick out of the black and white crowd.

On land, the penguins have no real predators. In the water, however, they can become fair game for seals, sea lions and whales. There are also certain birds, such as the skua, that will snatch the penguins’ eggs if they are exposed. We witnessed this on a few occasions and you had to admire these birds for their prowess and quick action. Along with the skua, the other bird species that inhabit Antarctica include blue-eyed shags, Antarctic terns, kelp gulls, storm petrels, albatrosses, cormorants, snowy sheathbills and an assortment of hearty geese and ducks.

On only two of our landings did we see buildings of any sort. There was the Argentinean Research Station at Hope Bay, and an extraordinary historical museum inside the old British Antarctic Survey hut at Port Lockroy. One room within the facility is also a post office and gift shop where you can purchase stamps, postcards and souvenirs. Mail sent from this remotest of destinations can take from three weeks to three months to reach its final stop.

In addition to landings, we often took zodiac cruises along the coastline to get up an up close look at the ice bergs, bird rookeries and glaciers. Occasionally, we spotted massive seals sprawled across the glowing ice structures, rarely moving from their frozen barcaloungers. And then there were the whales. Sometimes we were lucky to see them while in the zodiacs; other times, we watched them from the ship as they spouted nearby or fed on krill. When a large pod of humpbacks went by, it was akin to whales on parade, a magical Disney-like moment that felt unreal.

Depending on the cruise itinerary, Quark offers other optional activities that passengers can choose to participate in such as a one-night campout on land, kayaking, cross-country skiing and even stand-up paddleboarding. There’s also the opportunity to do a polar plunge, which 50 brave folks and I did, jumping into the icy cold 28-degree water from off of the ship’s lowest deck. The shock to your system when your body makes contact with the freezing water is indescribable. The good thing is that you are quickly pulled out, given a shot of vodka and wrapped in a towel before the whole experience actually registers. Those who successfully accomplished this feat are given certificates attesting to their insanity and affording eternal bragging rights.

Back on the ship, there’s no time to be bored. Quark values the educational component and the expedition team is passionate about sharing its wealth of knowledge about everything Antarctica. They are enthusiastic, fun and caring individuals that have a deep, abiding respect for this wondrous continent. In addition to the daily lectures, there are films, books about past explorations, maps, charts, photos and many resources for passengers to access. And, of course, there’s time to just try and soak it all in and treasure this dramatic place – the only spot on earth that is still as it should be, untamed and untouched.

 

About the Author

Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.

 

 

Related Articles

 

 

 

Add comment


Security code
Refresh

profileback2

 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