I’ve been lucky enough over my years of travel to have seen some incredibly beautiful places and experience some truly amazing things. Then I went to Antarctica. It may be the end of the world but the rest of the world really does pale in comparison. I have really struggled to write this post because the words don’t exist to describe this place. Basically you need to think of the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, multiple it by say a million, add some and then you might be getting close. I will do my best to describe it but the words and pictures really don’t do it justice. You just have to experience it for yourself.
I booked this trip last minute so hadn’t really put much thought into what to expect. However this trip has exceeded any pre-conceived expectations, ideas and dreams that I did have. I asked a few people on the cruise to describe the trip and their experience and apart from the standard “incredible” and “amazing” a couple of comments that stuck with me were “beautifully desolate” and “surprisingly blue”.
The itinerary for the trip was quite vague as it needs to be flexible for weather considerations. Basically we were to go to the South Shetland Islands and then to the Antarctica Peninsula before making our way back to Ushuaia all in 11 days.
This trip was on the M/V Sea Spirit with Quark. When I booked I was told that the Sea Spirit was the premier boat in the fleet. I didn’t really grasp what this meant until I got on board. They say it is not a 5 star ship but after living on the backpacker scene for a few months it certainly was 5 star to me. I was staying in a 3 bed room with Michaela and Carmina. The rooms were quite spacious and I could even stand up in the shower which made it better than most dorm rooms I’ve stayed in.
The Sea Spirit holds a total of 114 passengers and 72 crew. The crew (we interacted with on a daily basis) were basically broken up into 2 groups, the hotel staff and the expedition team. Both were amazing! Under the last minute package, alcohol is not included, however we were well looked after by the staff. Where most of the hotel staff were Filipino, the expedition team was a mix of Aussies, Kiwis, Saffas, Brit, Canadians and Polish. For a group of people with such different personalities, it was evident that they all got on quite well together but most importantly, they all loved their jobs. Their inner nerd would be released when they were talking about their speciality but that just made it more fun and enjoyable for us. The team was made up of:
Cheli – Expedition Leader
Pam – Expedition Coordinator
Luke – Geomorphologist
Damien – Historian
Liz – Marine Biologist
Will – Geologist
Liliana – Ornithologist
Marla – Naturalist
Juani – Naturalist
Kevin – Kayak Leader & Zodiac driver
Disco Dave – Zodiac Driver
Franny – Guide
In terms of preparation the only things I was told that were a definite must was waterproof pants and gloves (which I picked up in Ushuaia). You can pretty much get away with any other type of clothing as you are given with a really thick, warm waterproof jacket and you just need to add layers. Quark also provided us with boots to use for all shore landings and zodiac cruises.
Sea days were classed as E&E days i.e. eating and education. In between breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner there were lectures. On the first couple of days there was some mandatory briefings otherwise the lectures were on various subjects relevant to what we were seeing and experiencing.
The food was incredible on the trip. I don’t think there was anything I had at all where I thought it wasn’t so good. I enjoyed everything and there was sooooo much of it! At dinners there was usually something that we all wanted but another dish that we all wanted to try so we order it for the table and all shared it!
During this trip I have developed a new found appreciation of penguins. I’ve always thought that they are pretty cute but when you actually spend time sitting and watching them, their individual personalities start to show and they are hilarious.
This trip would have been amazing regardless but I happened to meet 4 other solo travellers who I spent most of the time with which made the trip even better. Luke called us the “Gang of 5”: Marcella, Paul, Ellen, Andrew and myself. I’d like to thank these guys for making an awesome trip even better!
First Drake Passage Crossing
After we left Ushuaia we headed out through the Beagle Channel around Isla Navarino and into the Drake Passage. Since I had booked the trip everyone I spoke to about it all said that the Drake would be rough and basically it would be a horrible 2 day crossing. My response was always the same – to laugh and tell them “nah it’s going to be calm as”. They all looked at me like I’d lost it but it turned out that I was the sane one!!
Even though we only had swells of 1-2m, when we got up after our first night aboard sick bags had been places throughout all of the halls. I found it amusing that even though it was really calm so many people were sea sick. Dr Ray had a bit of a busy day!
Cheli had told us at the first briefing session that we the passengers were responsible for the weather. We did well with this crossing as we gained half a day due to the conditions. This meant that we got an extra shore landing!
Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands
62º 36’S / 059º 55’W
Our first shore landing and you really couldn’t have asked for better weather or sightings. The sun was shining and the Chinstraps were out in force. Half Moon is home to many Chinstrap colonies although there was a couple of Gentoo’s roaming around. The further we got around the Island we discovered a large yet still juvenile Elephant Seal hauled out on the rocks. A bit further along and we discovered the beautiful motley skin of a Weddell Seal.
While we did see 2 Chinstraps mating they were a bit late in the season as most of the chicks were a couple of weeks old. On our way back to the zodiacs we saw 2 Skua’s land with a penguin chick in ones mouth and proceeded to tear it apart and feed on it. Whilst it wasn’t the prettiest of things to see it is sell part of the circle of life as they have their own chicks to feed.
Hannah Point, Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands
62º 39’S / 060º 37’W
Hannah Point was very much a sensory overload. Everywhere you looked was something incredible. There was heaps of both Chinstrap and Gentoo colonies, Skuas, and Kelp Gulls with chicks and heaps of moulting Elephant Seals wallowing together. It’s not an overly large area but it was jam packed with wildlife.
Whilst I didn’t get to see it myself, Pam got some amazing photos of a Skua trying to take a Gentoo chick and not only its parents but other adults helping to fight it off. I did get to see a lost Chinstrap chick get attacked by some adults while it tried to find its way home.
Whaler’s Bay, Deception Island, South Shetland Islands
62º 59’S / 060º 39’W
Deception Island was not like any of the other places we visited because the island is actually an active volcano (a caldera to be honest). Because of this there isn’t too much in the way of wildlife (although there was a few Chinstraps) but there is a cool steaming volcanic beach!
The remains of the old Norwegian Hecktor Whaling Station, Whaler’s cemetery and British “Base B”, still exist as well as many old whale bones. I find it incredible to see just how big they actually are!
Cuverville Island, North Errera Channel
64º 40’S / 062º 37’W
Cuverville is home to the largest Gentoo colony on the Peninsula. It was an incredible experience as we got to see everything from penguins mating, sitting on eggs, chicks quite literally hatching from the eggs, minute, hours and day old chicks. The chicks are so cute!! There was also plenty of Skuas flying around trying to take on the penguins but they weren’t successful here. They had to make do with the eggs after the chicks had hatched.
64º 53’S / 062º 52’W
Today was meant to be our first continental landing. However it was the only day the entire
season the Argentinean Navy decided to show up at the Almirante Brown Station (they then followed us for the next few days). So instead of doing a shore landing we did a zodiac cruise around Paradise Bay.
The Bay is incredible with huge cliffs and glaciers not to mention ice bergs and heaps of brash ice. The weather was beautiful so there was some pretty cool reflections and it just made the scenery even more stuffing. We also got to see a Weddell Seal hauled out on some ice.
Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay
64º 50’S / 062º 33’W
Continental landing!!!! We finally made a landing on the 7th continent!!!!!!! All the other lands in the Antarctic have been on Islands where this was on the mainland. It was a beautiful spot surrounded by huge glaciers which you could hear calving. We were told that if anything came off it would create a wave so if we saw penguins running in mass up the beach, we should too! There was a lot of pink granite in the cliffs. I had Will as the zodiac driver on the way over and he was really excited about the pink granite. It wasn’t until he related it to kitchen benches that we became significantly more enthusiastic about it.
On shore we hiked up through the snow to a lookout point which gave beautiful views over the harbour. The way back down was a fun race through the snow. Andrew did a penguin dive (not on purpose) which caused me to fall over after losing my footing from laughing so hard! Once again there was lots of Gentoo penguins and even a Weddell seal chilling out on the beach.
Port Lockroy, Goudier Island, Palmer Archipelago
64º 49’S / 063º 30’W
Port Lockroy is home to the British “Base A”. Nowadays it is under the care of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. With a team if 4 staff they run the base with now consists of a museum, shop and the most southern post office in the world! The area is surrounded by Gentoo’s including having their nests up under the buildings.
65º 06’S / 064º 04’W
Pleneau was another beautiful spot for a zodiac cruise. We cruised around some massive but impressive icebergs. We also went past sheet ice which was the current home of a heap of Crabeater seals. While they are not the most graceful of animals moving on land, they do have a beautiful face. We were also really lucky to see a Leopard seal! At one point he opened his mouth so we got a good look at his razor sharpe teeth. It’s no wonder the penguin we saw jump up on the ice ran like the wind when he saw him – he definitely could (and would) inflict some damage!
Although this was the furtherest south we ventured, there was one little guy I never expected to see… An Emperor Penguin!!! He looked a little bit sad and lost sitting up on the rocks on his own moulting. It wasn’t the best view of an penguin but considering still how far north we were it was a rarity that I’ll treasure.
65º 04’S / 063º 57’W
After lunch the ships cruised through the picturesque Lemaire Channel. It’s a fairly narrow channel with huge mountains and glaciers on each side and a few icebergs in it. It really does make you feel incredibly small compared to the sheer size of these mountains. But it was an amazingly beautiful view.
Palmer Station, Anvers Island
64º 46’S / 064º 05’W
10 times every year, the American Research Station, Palmer, invites ships to stop and tour it’s facilities. The invitation was actually made to the Sea Spirit on the cruise before us but because of bad weather they weren’t able to go. However Cheli was able to change the date and get us in there!!!
The base is fairly small (only 45 ppl in the summer months) but they do some interesting research. We got to see some scientists cleaning off a Slogum Electric Glider which is directed using satellites and is used to collect samples. I also had a chat to a scientist who is conducting research into the far from glamorous but all important Krill. She actually had some in bowl so we could see what they look like. While it’s the food source that keeps the Antarctic going, it’s not one that can be seen.
Torgerson Island, Palmer Basin
64º 46’S / 064º 05’W
This is a small island opposite Palmer Station that is home a few colonies of Adelie penguins. This was the only time we saw these guys but they made me laugh as they are really feisty to each other. There was one penguin who puffed its chest up and then slapped another really hard. I couldn’t believe the sound it created and how hard they can actually hit.
64º 46’S / 064º 05’W
Probably not one of the smartest things I’ve ever done but it’s something I’ll never regret doing! The polar plunge took place between Palmer Station and Torgerson Island in water that was only 2 degrees! The crew secured a zodiac to the back of the ship and attached a ladder to it. Pam and Kevin were also out in another zodiac to not only take photos but also to clear the brash ice out of the way so we didn’t gave to jump on it. We had to wear a harness to jump as a just in case but they didn’t have to use them.
The cold affects everyone differently, for me I got a killer headache as soon as the water touched the base of my skull. It is rather amusing to watch because you are trying to quickly get out of the water but because if the cold nothing works quite like it should. Thankfully when we got out some of the crew were waiting with dressing gowns and towels for us before we made the mad dash up 2 decks to the jacuzzi!
64º 54’S / 063º 42’W
Tonight just as we were getting to the end of dinner a call came over the loud speaker… There was humpbacks!!! So we quickly scoffed down the last few bites of our mains and ran upstairs to watch these beautiful and magical creatures. The desert tonight was a chocolate buffet so we all stood outside juggling wine glasses, plates of chocolate and cameras!
This is a video taken by Paul which sums up the encounter better than any words I could ever string together. Apart from Cheli’s comments part way through the best bit is the last few seconds. Humpback Whales in the Antarctic.
64º 37’S / 062º 52’W
After last nights Humpback sightings we were all pretty excited. But at 6am we were woken to call that there was another sighting. I must admit I didn’t bust a move for this one and promptly fell back asleep until 7.15 when we got the call for a pod of Orcas. This made me throw on some long pants, grab my jacket and camera and run!! The sighting only lasted for about 15 minutes and they weren’t that close to the boat but we didn’t care they were still Orcas! We all toddled to breakfast thinking that it couldn’t get any better than this… How wrong we were!
64º 09’S / 060º 56’W
We were told that this mornings zodiac cruise was more about the scenery than the wildlife which I think we were all ok with after what we had already seen that morning. There was a call that there was Orcas out in the distance so we started to head that way but didn’t see them. On our way back towards the boat I saw a spurt of water go up which turned out to be a Minke whale. It was fairly inquisitive as it swum under one of the zodiacs but we were really lucky cos it swam around ours several times and came quite close to us. They have a beautiful torpedo shaped head and I was really happy that with the Minke we had pretty much ticked off everything that we were likely (and extremely unlikely) to see.
Mikkelsen Harbour, Trinity Island
63º 57’S / 060º 47’W
This afternoon an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the boat was stopping for a pod of Orcas. We all rushed outside and stood there for over an hour watching the pod. There was definitely 4 (possible 5) whales in the pod. At first we thought they were just swimming around but it wasn’t long before we could tell they were feeding. The crew believe that the pod was feeding on a carcass of another whale, possible a Minke or Humpback calf purely because of the amount of blubber that came to the surface. This obviously then attracted the birds but there was some pieces of blubber that even the Skua’s couldn’t pick up and fly with.
Before we realised the pod was feeding there was a group of penguins porpoising along and heading straight towards the pod. It was very amusing to see the penguins obviously realise what was ahead, do a complete 180 degree turn and very quickly escape.
It was so amazing to see these huge and incredibly beautiful animals so close to the boat. It was a real treat for us all. Cheli actually took a zodiac out a bit closer to the pod to get some photos to help the researches with identifications. On Orcas it is the dorsal fin which they use for identification.
D’Hainaut Island, Mikkelsen Harbour, Trinity Island
63º 57’S / 060º 47’W
About 15 minutes away from where we watched the Orcas feeding was D’Hainaut Island which was our final shore landing. Where we got off the zodiacs there was a heap of whale bones (it never ceases to amaze me how big they are) and also a group of Weddell seals hauled out on the beach. The Island is home to an old Argentine refuge hut and several Gentoo colonies. The scenery was beautiful with huge glaciers all around. On our was back across the Island we saw a Chinstrap come out of the water and proceeded to be chased up the hill by a couple of Gentoo’s. One of the Gentoo’s actually tried physically attacking the Chinstrap which was quite amusing to see.
63º 51’S / 060º 57’W
This was our last excursion out in the zodiacs. Cheli described this as “the zodiac cruise for zodiac drivers and you can all come along for the ride”. Basically the cruise was through and around all these rocks in between dodging icebergs. There was some huge rock tunnels we went through. We also had to turn back a couple of times as the way was blocked by icebergs. Cheli was out in a zodiac wig just Pam so they were able to race around a lot faster than the rest of us who all had 10 passengers per zodiac. But it was still a lot of fun and a great way to finish up our last excursion.
Second Drake Passage Crossing
The return of the sick bags!! This crossing started off the same as the first – very calm. However the winds started to pick up after the first day to give us swells up to 6m! These swells only lasted just over 12 hours but I thought it was fun to experience the Drake as it normally is. I did find it rather amusing that in the days of the crossings there would be significantly less people around the ship as so many people were suffering from sea sickness.
See full gallery here.
Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air!