Check out our photos of Antarctica here.
Next stop, where the wind howls strongly and the clouds hang low, Torres del Paine, Chile…
P.S Iain would like to boast that he has now been to all seven continents.
The day had finally arrived. After six very patient days in the city of Ushuaia, our anticipation growing everyday, we were ready to board our boat to Antarctica, The M/V Ushuaia; an old American research vessel built in the 1970’s and converted into an expedition ship for cruising the icy waters of both the North and South Poles. The weather was terrible but this didn’t deter our excitement as we boarded the ship with backpacks full of wine, cookies and thermals, ready for the next ten days of venturing to the bottom of the world, where penguins and whales swim freely, seals lie lazily, the landscape is pure white, and icebergs are your only neighbours. This is the final frontier, the unknown. This is Antarctica!
Having purchased last minute tickets at a 40% discount we were of course delegated a cabin at the very depths of the boat – right at the bottom where the anchor sits – with no window and a shared bathroom. This didn’t bother us the slightest, as backpackers we are fitting candidates for stowaways so we happily accepted the lack of luxury knowing that through our enthusiasm for seeing the sights we would only be in our room to sleep.
After we had acquainted ourselves with our cabin, and had a sneaky glass of red, we joined our fellow passengers upstairs in the lounge bar for welcoming drinks and nibbles. Through our research we were of the understanding that most people aboard the ship would be quite old – the average age being sixty. We were really happy to find such a diverse mix of people from all over the world onboard. Representing fourteen countries we were young and old or part of a family enjoying the best Christmas Santa could ever offer. As we mingled with our fellow Antarcticans, as named by our expedition leader Augustin, we set sail through the Beagle Channel, south to the White Continent.
To get to Antarctica from South America means you must endure the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough ocean crossing, ravaged by storms and swelling seas as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge. No one was safe from seasickness as the swell increased to four metres, enough to make your stomach swirl, cups fall over, and manoeuvring oneself around the boat extremely difficult. Our captain told us the worst he had to navigate was a whopping 14m swell! How one would withstand such epic seas is beyond us, the thought brought fear straight into our eyes – well excitement to Iain. Approximately 75% of the boat was bed-ridden for the first day as the swell showed no sign of calming. Very few made it to meals, and a handful to the daily activities. Iain suffered pretty badly, his sea legs failing him, while Treeny had a few “sick” moments and was generally a far stronger seaman than Iain.
Crossing the Drake takes two days, so in between meals and sleeping those that were feeling strong enough attended lectures and documentary screenings. The Lectures were conducted by Biologists, Geologists and our expedition leaders. Topics ranged from the history of Antarctic exploration, the wildlife we would be seeing, and Antarctica itself including the Ice Sheets, and the Ozone hole which menaces the South Pole from above.
The sea finally began to calm on our second day crossing the Drake. The weather was looking promising as we approached the South Shetland Islands, with icebergs the size of our boat beginning to appear and peacefully drift past us. The Ushuaia cruised straight through the South Shetland Islands and across the Bransfield Strait to the Antarctic Peninsula where we would be making our first landings. Everyone jumped on the bow of the boat as the White Continent began to appear on the horizon, we were pinching ourselves, “are we really here”.
When we think of Antarctica we imagine a harsh, extreme environment of blistering cold winds and below freezing temperatures. Come in the summer and you will experience otherwise. The climate of the Antarctic Peninsula is considerably milder than the rest of the continent. This is due to its position extending north towards South America from the South Pole, allowing the region to be heavily influenced by the various oceanic weather patterns which travel across and around it from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While the interior of Antarctica, closer to the South Pole, fits the blistering climate mentioned above, the Peninsula warms up enough in summer to allow access by ships as the pack ice (ocean ice) begins to melt. The warmer temperature in the summer months also provides the perfect climate for seasonal habitation by animals coming ashore to nest and breed, and people coming from abroad to undertake research.
Antarctic cruise ships commonly travel for nine to eleven days doing the “Classic Antarctica” expedition during the summer. Our trip was eleven days. It included six days of getting to and from Antarctica and then five days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. Generally in the five days each ship will arrange one to two landings a day. If you are lucky enough to get on a small boat, such as ours, then you are guaranteed to make the landings. Bigger ships with over one hundred passengers are less likely to make the landings as there is a limit to one hundred people on land at any one time. Our ship made three landings on the actual Antarctic continent, four on the surrounding Antarctic Islands, and another two on the South Shetland Islands. Landings involved taking a zodiac (inflatable boat) to shore and taking a walk around Penguin rookeries, seal colonies, visiting research stations or enjoying the view from the top of snow covered mountains.
Each landing provided the opportunity to meet different Antarctic wildlife. We saw three types of penguins; The Chinstrap, Adelle and Gentoo – the latter of which our expedition leader Augustin labelled the “cockroach” of Antarctica, “they are everywhere”! Seals were plentiful, lying on the shore or on floating ice sheets like blobs of lard. We met five types of seals; The Antarctic Fur Seal, The Southern Elephant, Leopard, Wedell and Crabeater seals. The Elephant seals were very strange and unattractive; they actually have a stump of a trunk growing like a real elephant. We encountered a beach full of broody males practicing their fighting techniques on our second last landing on the South Shetland Islands, the most seals we have ever seen in one place, there were hundreds. Whales were by far the most elusive creature to catch on film. They enjoyed teasing us with their attempts to breach as they playfully swam around our ship. Three types of whales came up to play; The Humpback, Antarctic Minke, and Fin Whales. We were hoping to spot the most elusive of all, the Orca, or the Killer Whale as it is often called. Many people claimed to see one or a few, this will forever remain a mystery.
There are no permanent inhabitants on the whole continent of Antarctica, animals included. A small handful of the bravest individuals “over-winter” here, that is, to live through the winter, the darkness and extreme cold conditions that come with it. Come summer, when the climate is more bearable, the number of seasonal inhabitants increases tenfold, when scientists from countless different fields flock to research stations scattered around the continent to spend the summer studying numerous aspects of the environment. We were fortunate enough to meet a number of these inhabitants during our visit.
The Research stations of the Antarctic Peninsula are predominantly Argentine, Chilean and British. Back in the day the British decided to do a spring clean of their stations and dismantled those which were no longer of use. One such station named Faraday was kept and sold to Ukraine for the bargain price of £1. The deal was made on the condition that the Ukrainians continue the atmospheric research conducted here and share the findings with Britain. Pretty sweet deal. The station then became known as Verdansky Station. All the summer residents here are from the Ukraine. As soon as we stepped off the zodiacs we felt like we had arrived in Ukraine – we even got our passports stamped. We were taken on an informative tour through the station, observing how the place operates, where the residence research, sleep and eat, we even learnt that the hole in the Ozone layer was actually discovered here!
It’s a different world down south, most certainly a man’s world with very few, or no, females to distract the men from their work, they surely have a sense of humour about it. Upstairs in Verdansky station we found a fully stocked bar and pool table. We were told every Saturday night the men suit up in their finest for a “night out”, a suitable way to retain ones sanity. Here we also got to try their famous homemade vodka, these are Ukrainians so of course they know what they are doing; the shots were warming and delicious. The story went if you leave your bra you get a free shot, none of the girls were game to try, Treeny only has one left so couldn’t part with it, but then we were told they became inundated with bras of all shapes and sizes that they now have a few bags full stored in the attic so they had to stop accepting them.
Not far from Verdansky Station is a very old research station named Wordie House which became disused by the British and has now been turned into a museum to allow passing cruise ships to visit and see what conditions were like for early Antarctic explorers. The small black timber cottage has been recently restored, though all the original fixtures and fittings have been retained inside, including the tins of Marmite, books and research equipment. It was a fascinating look into the lives of the researchers. It is a wonder how they kept warm in such rudimentary buildings. That very same day we also visited another disused British station which has been converted into a museum in Port Lockroy. This Station was set up towards the end of the Second World War to lookout for any German’s who might be lurking and conducting unwanted activities in the region. Today there are four young British adults manning the island; counting penguins and running the gift shop and museum – not a bad summer job!
Not even the ice is permanent in Antarctica. Reaching to depths of over a thousand metres, solid masses of glacial ice move slowly over the continent compressing and pushing down the land that lies beneath. Great mountains and glacial valleys lay silently hidden deep below sea level as the glaciers move over them and out to sea. Upon reaching the sea these great ice shelfs break off and become enormous ice bergs, some as big as whole cities. Sighting icebergs is far easier than animals; they are everywhere and move so slowly they are hard to miss especially for Treeny who proved incredibly terrible at spotting anything. On one outing off the ship we went on a zodiac cruise through what is known as “Iceberg Alley”, a sheltered channel where an impressive number of icebergs get stuck as they drift from the Australian side of Antarctica. It seemed more like an Iceberg Graveyard, where the bergs sadly meet their end as they slowly melt or merge with another unable to move. We were mystified by these colossal chunks of ice, each one carved by wind, rain and the sea they floated through. The naturally formed shapes were inspiring to us, as architects we saw remarkable buildings.
When the sea freezes it becomes known as “Pack Ice”, we knew being summer there wouldn’t be as much, but being December and earlier in the season the temperature was still cold enough to see it and crush it! There is nothing more satisfying than driving through the thin pack ice and listening to it break; we could tell the zodiac drivers thoroughly enjoyed this too. The most exciting incident happened on our second landing in Portal Point when the sea began to freeze around the ship. We were all happily enjoying the view atop a nearby mountain when the crew got the call to get everyone back to the ship before the sea froze too much and the ship became stuck. We were on one of the last zodiacs to leave the mainland when the ship began cruising off without us fearful that hanging around any longer would be too dangerous. The zodiacs picked up the pace crashing through the newly formed ice as we followed our ship to clearer waters. It was adrenaline pumping action, racing against time to escape the encroaching ice.
One of the most spectacular passages for cruise ships visiting Antarctica is the Lemairre Channel. At only 11km long and 1.6km wide the channel is short and slender. The passage is renowned for freezing over and being impassable to ships, we were lucky on Christmas Day passing through with ease and crushing whatever ice was in our way with great gusto. Our ship, The Ushuaia, has an open bridge policy meaning when conditions are good passengers are allowed onto the bridge where the Capitan and his officers control the ship. The view from here was incredible and much warmer than being outside; it also provided the best spot onboard for spotting wildlife and icebergs using the ships binoculars. We ended up passing through the channel twice as conditions were perfect again on our return. Being on the deck and observing the complete silence and isolation of this place was an incredible experience, the only sound was the quiet of the engine, the cracking of the ice and the Captains classical music.
In South America the big event for Christmas is always on the Eve rather than the day itself. In Argentina specifically, families come together on the Eve of Christmas to celebrate with a traditional asado (bbq) and celebrate the night away drinking wine. Christmas day is a religious day and is spent at Church, or curing a hangover for those we are not so devoutly inclined. Being an Argentine ship, Christmas day for us was celebrated on the Eve and in true Argentine style.
We were blessed with spectacular weather when we awoke on Christmas Eve; perfect blue skies, unusually mild temperatures and the calmest of waters – Santa most surely spoilt us. We made two landings on the Antarctic continent, the first in Paradise Bay to Brown Station, an Argentine research station which was unoccupied during our visit. A nearby mountain provided stunning views from the top of the surrounding icy peaks, glaciers, icebergs and our ship in the freezing waters below. Everyone, including the oldies, had fun sliding down the steep hillside to return to the zodiacs.The zodiacs were great for gunning around shallow enclosed bays. Directly around the corner from Brown Station was Skontorp Cove, a beautiful, scarily peaceful bay enclosed by walls of ice; fifty metre tall glaciers and giant icebergs. The zodiacs took us for an upclose view around and in-between the icebergs, over the thin pack ice and ever so quietly we approached some seals lying calmly on an ice sheet.
Afterwards we moved on to Neko Harbour an equally impressive bay home to another incredibly large glacier calving through the hidden landscape deep below the snow and ice. Here we disembarked the zodiacs on the beach and staggered through the snow passed busy Gentoo Penguin rookeries to a vantage point above the glacier where we sat patiently waiting for it to fracture and fall into the water creating a mini tsunami. Our patience never paid out with only insignificant pieces breaking off, we were only mildly interested anyway, our minds drifting off to the water below, cold and freezing, and we were about to jump in it!
With such gloriously warm weather we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go for a quick dip at the beach with the penguins that were swimming happily around us. We had been mentally preparing ourselves for this moment ever since we decided to board the ship. The time had come and we were breathing heavily in anticipation. It is much easier to jump into a frozen lake, running in as we did was slower and painful. As we raced each other in our legs collapsed on us, immobilized by the bitter cold water, we went under in a most ungraceful fashion coming back up wheezing for air, our breath stolen by the shock. We screamed and shouted blasphemous phrases, as one would in such conditions, and quickly made a run for it to the warmth of the dry towels that awaited us onshore. Although probably one our shortest swims in the ocean it was certainly invigorating and exhilarating, an opportunity that one should never pass up. Even more thrilling was the entertainment provided by a local Minke Whale who swam playfully around the arriving zodiacs as we all returned to the ship.
Christmas was beginning to feel very Australian; we had spent the afternoon on the beach and gone for a swim, now we were chomping on a sausage sizzle as the giant bbq on the ships deck seared our meat to perfection. The sausage sizzle was actually a Choripan; a chorizo sausage in crusty white bread, and the bbq was the Argentine asado; an assortment of meats cooking slowly in a woodfiredbbq complete with chimney. Our dinner was delicious. We had made some wonderful friends on the ship who became our dining buddies, Oonagh and Keiran of Ireland, Merrick of Queensland, Mikhail of Denmark, and Chris and Graham of Melbourne. We ate almost every meal together and we were so excited to be sharing a wonderful Christmas dinner with such great people. An after party ensued in the bar where more wine was drunk and Treeny’s inner dancing queen was unleashed in her most spastic fashion you may all well be familiar with.
Meals onboard the Ushuaia were out of this world. Having lived off a backpacker’s diet of the simplest pasta for dinner and pate and bread for lunch over the previous three months, we were more than excited to be dining on fine food for eleven days. Breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday, fully waited on. Breakfast was a mouth watering buffet; all you can eat eggs, bacon, fruit, cereal and the most delectable croissants. Lunch and Dinner were fancier affairs, both consisting of three courses; entrée, main and dessert. Everyday was something different and scrumptious. After dinner we would retire to our room, where our beds had been made for us, feeling full and satisfied, excited for what tomorrows menu may bring…and of course the days activities.
Life on-board the boat in between landings and meals was quiet and relaxing. We spent our time reading, watching the world go by on the bridge with the Captain or on one of the ships many decks, and getting to know the other Antarcticans. In the evenings, if we weren’t too tired, we would stay up and watch movies with our fellow passengers. One such film was “Red Knot” a yet to be released American film centering around the tumultuous relationship of a young married couple as they embark on a trip to Antarctica on the very ship we were on. The writer and director Scott Cohen just happened to be onboard collecting additional sound bytes for wrapping up the films production. After discussing the making of the film with everyone Scott so kindly offered to let us be the first audience to view it, we jumped at the chance! It is a beautiful film, with gorgeous cinematography, depicting the extremities of the Antarctic environment, which I felt, in a sense, represented the emotions the couple were experiencing. It also gives you a nice idea of what life is like on the ship, so keep tuned for its release which will be in the next few months.
The trip was coming to an end far too quickly. Our last day of landings was made as we headed north, back to South America, stopping en route in the South Shetland Islands; a grouping of islands approximately 120km north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Like Antarctica, the South Shetland Islands are not owned by any one country, and under the regulations stated within the Antarctic Treaty, are free for use by any country for non-military purposes and which do not exploit the resources of the natural environment of the region – such as mining exploration. But, of course countries would like to make their territorial claims, with Britain, Chile and Argentina being the predominant countries in the South Shetland Islands.
Typically cruise ships stop in Deception Island, a large island shaped like a donut and which is actually an active volcano. The crater has filled with sea water allowing ships to enter into the middle of the donut. There are a number of research stations within the crater area, a few of which were abandoned after a volcanic eruption only 50 odd years ago. They say that they know when an eruption is coming by the presence of animals; using their instinctive nature the animals disappear fleeing the island before disaster strikes. We were on the lookout. Unfortunately for us there were already too many cruise ships booked in to visit Deception Island that day. Instead of landing here we awoke early for a cruise around the interior with the onboard scientists answering all of our questions. It was mildly disappointing as we were excited to make a landing here to enjoy some more Antarctic bathing time, only this time in steaming hot volcanic thermal water. We still appreciated that we were able to tour through the interior. The landscape is fascinating here as volcanic ash and glacial ice form distinct layers in the islands topography. Afterwards we moved on to Livingston Island and Yankee Harbour to visit the last elephant seal colony and penguin rookeries we would encounter on our trip. It was sad to say goodbye to our new animal friends.
As the ship set sail north out of Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands we waved goodbye to Antarctica. The two day trip across the Drake Passage was incredible with calm seas the entire way. With no swell to fight against the ship cruised at record speed towards Cape Horn. We arrived early into the Beagle Channel so set the anchor for our last evening onboard as we awaited our call to return to the Port in Ushuaia. The crew made the last evening really special, and quite the formal affair. We said our thankyou's to all the staff and crew onboard, and we all received certificates declaring our “survival” of the Drake Passage, and entry to Antarctica. We were certainly Antarcticans now. Afterward we had a wonderful farewell dinner with our new friends, still looking out the window waiting for a whale to breach, or an iceberg to drift past. Saying goodbye is always hard, we were especially sad to say goodbye to all the food, and then the thought suddenly dawned on us that the comfort and security we had so thoroughly enjoyed the previous ten days would disappear the moment we set foot on the wharf – back to the wild, to the unfamiliar, to the world of the backpacker.
Antarctica was a magical experience. Everyday was surreal as we explored deeper into this wonderful white world of extremes. The isolation and the silence we experienced here was out of this world. The animals we met were so undisturbed and blissfully happy living in such a serene environment. To see penguins, seals and whales in this kind of natural habitat is unbelievable, there is no where else in the world like this. We just hope that the Antarctic Treaty stands strong for the rest of time, and that the greed and corruption of foreign countries is never allowed to destroy this peaceful place – the only place on earth where countries come together to protect the natural environment.
And next time we visit Antarctica, we are going deeper south, all the way to the South Pole. We are gonna find us some Emperor Penguins!
Check out our photos of Antarctica here.
Next stop, where the wind howls strongly and the clouds hang low, Torres del Paine, Chile…
P.S Iain would like to boast that he has now been to all seven continents.