Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
By Rodora Yates
Antarctica was never on the itinerary. However by pure luck I met Sarah in El Calafate who owns a travel company in Ushuaia specializing in last minute deals to Antarctica for backpackers. Once she put the thought in my head about Antarctica the idea could n’t escape my mind. My dad and my sister (who also love to travel just as much as me) also persuaded me that it was stupid not to go since I was so close with the argument I’d regret not going if I didn’t go. Its one of the hardest places to reach in the world and a dream for many of my friends (Greg Moir shout out to you). I’m so glad I listened to my family.
The debate between the cost (4 months of travel) vs future cost of getting back to Ushuaia finally came to a conclusion and resulted in a really expensive impromptu splurge. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for backpackers to max out their credit cards for this trip. The result – a lot less money in my bank account but the excitement of heading where not many have ventured before and proudly being able to say I have visited all 7 continents in the world.
Last minute deals
Last minute tickets are the last remaining places in a cabin on a ship sold at up to 50% discount. These can be sold from 1 month up to the day of departure. The closer to departure date the bigger the discount and cheaper the ticket. These are usually luck of the draw based on availability, with some backpackers waiting up to two weeks for a great deal.
Fortunately when I arrived in Ushuaia the season had just started and the Sea Adventurer was available. It did however mean waiting around in Ushuaia for 3 extra days than I’d planned to be here. Sarah is a fantastic contact if you wish to book a trip as she has done the trip before and can answer all your questions.
Also across the road there is Daniella http://www.ushuaiaturismoevt.com.ar/web/
When deciding which boat to travel on in Antarctica its best to pick the smaller boats or larger boats with multiple options such as kayaking. This is because there is a rule that only 100 people are allowed on shore at a time. As we had a kayak option and our ship was small we never had any issues.
Also if you’re expecting a luxurious cruise, then you are going to be disappointed. There are no 24 hour buffets, saunas, spa rooms, or heated pools. It is labelled an “expedition” and not a cruise for a reason hence this type of cruise attracts a different and more adventurous type of traveller; my type of person.
My trip was an 11 day expedition on the Sea Adventurer with 105 passengers. Details of expedition and ship can be found here http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/en
This included the following;
There is also an option for camping (US$250) or kayaking (US$950) which was way too expensive for me.
A typical itinerary for the 11-12 day cruise is Day 1 embark, Day 2 -3 drake passage, Day 4-8 Antarctica peninsula (excursions and itinerary depend on weather), Day 9-10 drake passage, Day 11 Arrive back in Ushuaia.
What to bring?
Below is a list of essential items for the trip;
I expected extreme cold but it’s actually not that bad averaging 3-5C (37-41 F) every day (unlike Toronto’s negative 20).
Day 1: Embarkation
I was excited to finally get on the ship after spending a week in Ushuaia. There isn´t much happening in Ushuaia, and there is only so much walking up and down the main street of San Martin I could do. The night before the cruise Sarah organized a get to meet other passengers’ drinks night. These were all last minute backpackers who had all booked the same deal as me. This made me feel a lot better about the cruise as I initially thought I’d be the youngest on the cruise. Who would have thought so many backpackers like me would have bought a trip to Antarctica last minute as well. There were even four other backpackers staying in the same hostel as me.
As there were quite a few fellow passengers at my hostel we all headed to the ship together. I looked like the biggest alcoholic as I had no space for my wine in my big pack so had to carry two bottles in the sides of my small back pack. I felt better when I found out there was a couple who brought 22 bottles of wine with them.
This is when I got my first glimpse of the Sea Adventurer. My first thoughts were this ship is quite small and is this ship ice breaker worthy not wanting a titanic moment along the way. I was then told to get on to buses to take us to the ship. This was really weird as we were walking distance to the ship but apparently there is some kind of law in which we needed to board the port by bus.
Once on board I was given a welcome drink and sandwiches. You could tell the backpackers from the rest of the crowd immediately as we headed to the free food section.
Once settled in I headed outside where I was given a glass of champagne to wave goodbye to Ushuaia.
It was then time for our first presentation in the main lounge.
This is where I would receive numerous presentations on wildlife, geology and history by the expedition team all with a speciality. As I’m not a documentary sort of person, I did feel like I was back at university. However some of the presentations were quite interesting and changed based on what we saw during the day.
Our first presentation was a welcome to the ship and what to expect over the next few days. I was told we would be crossing the dreaded Drake Passage, one of the world’s most deadly passages. Our expedition leader Alex even provided us with a weather chart which can be found at http://passageweather.com/. Below is an example of the chart as I couldn’t access historical records. In summary if its blue and green it’s going to be relatively calm however if it’s yellow to red then it’s going to be a rough journey. Fortunately the forecast predicted calm seas. However we found out the hard way this can change within minutes.
After the presentation most of the passengers ventured out of the boat to the drake passage where there were spectacular views of fjords with snow capped mountains also passing Puerto Williams (South America’s southern most population) along the way.
We were given cards as well, as it was a cashless system in which you would be charged with one large bill at the end of the trip.
During our passage through the beagle channel we were given our first meal in the dining room. Wow this was fancy. Delicious gourmet three course meals and definitely opposite to the free food basket the other backpackers and I had been scavenging through while waiting for the cruise. There was even a special death by chocolate night where there was a chocolate fountain, multiple types of chocolate cakes, ice cream station and chocolate pieces on the last night in Antarctica.
It was then time to change over captains from the Argentinian captain to our Russian captain and head into open water.
Day 2-3 The Dreaded Drake Crossing
This is when the fun began. The ship slowly started swaying. At first it wasn’t too bad and more of a fun ride, but then it got worse. Long gigantic waves were hitting us on the side making us sway up and down from left to right like a rollercoaster. Passengers who claimed they had never been sea sick before and hadn’t taken drugs before we departed regretted their decision.
When the big waves began we were playing Taboo and it was hilarious to watch as one of the players fell from one side of the boat to the other. There were even quite a few glasses/ mugs and I had to hold on tightly to my drink to stop it from falling off the table. It was so bad that the crew even closed the outside decks banning us from checking out the enormous waves. I decided I better go to sleep as I am prone to severe motion sickness (plane, buses, ships you name it). The next day the roughness of the storm was evident by the damage caused. I woke with the chair in my cabin thrown on the other side of the room. There were also sea sickness bags lined up all over the ship. One of my fellow passengers even threw up at the breakfast table. The staff even looked sleep deprived and queasy (including the doctor) and admitted they weren’t well. The on board shop wasn’t even open as apparently it was destroyed by the Drake. I was advised later that it was a 9/12 on the beaufort scale (0 calm- 12 hurricane). I can’t even imagine how bad a 12 would be.
During the passage, I saw many birds catching the wind of our ship including albatross and seagulls.
To pass time – there are plenty of presentations, movies, and a library (filled with board games and books).
After a few days the captain announced the ship would be crossing the Antarctic Convergence. This is a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub Antarctic. The sudden drop in sea water temperature from north to south of on average 2.8 C (5.0 F) from 5.6 C (42.1 F) to below 2 C (36 F).
After two days I was finally getting close to Antarctica, and even had a competition of first sight of an ice berg (which was around 2am).
As we were getting closer the icebergs where getting bigger and bigger in all shapes and sizes. There were even icicles forming on the rails of the ship.
The outer decks were also covered in snow including the life boats and kayaks
I was getting excited as this meant I was nearly in Antarctica and could finally get off the ship.
Day 4- Portal Point and Enterprise Island
Portal point was named by the British as there used to be a refuge hut on this site in 1956.
The staff split the ship up in groups, so the shore excursions were spaced out. Once my group was called I was loaded into a 10 person zodiac that was headed to our first on shore excursion – Portal point. The zodiac is an ice strengthened rubber raft designed to hold 10 passengers.
First time stepping on Antarctica.
Words cannot express the sheer beauty of the white continent. Everything was completely white in every direction. When I first stepped on shore it was lightly snowing making this moment even more magical as it felt as though I was stepping into a winter wonderland. The only comparison I can give is to the movie Happy Feet. As it was unlike anything I had ever seen in my whole entire life. From the zodiac I went on a small hike with little orange flags lighting up the way. The view from the top looking down back at the bay and ship was absolutely breath taking. I couldn’t believe I was finally on my 7th continent and made it so far far away.
There is nothing like stepping in fresh light and fluffy powder and I was regretting not bringing my snowboard with me. However it was surprisingly hot hiking around in all my layers, who would have thought I would of felt hot walking around Antarctica.
After having some fun making snow angels and rolling in the snow it was time to head back to the ship.
As I finished my hike early I had enough time to venture out on my first zodiac cruise.
This is where I got to get up close and personal with the beautiful glaciers of all shapes and sizes. It was amazing how deep blue the glaciers were (which is a reflection of the water below).
Glaciers all shapes and sizes
I also got my first glimpse of a penguin family casually hanging out on a glacier. One of them even posed for a photo jumping off the glacier
Towards the end of the zodiac we were lucky enough to see sea lions as well.
After lunch the ship headed to Enterprise Island. Enterprise Island is known for its famous shipwreck the Governoren. In 1915 the Governoren finished its whaling season and was ready to head with its cargo to Norway. The crew had a party and one of the lamps got knocked of the tables starting a fire. The captain immediately ran the ship aground to evacuate this crew. It’s amazing to think that after all these years the ship is still there.
Day 5 Danco Island, Neko Harbour, Paradise Harbour and the Lemaire Channel
The ship arrived at Danco Island the night before. As days are really long in Antarctica sunrise at 3am and sunset 10.30pm it was still light outside. I was drinking my 3rd hot chocolate for the day in the lounge when someone yelled out penguins. I quickly ran to the window and it looked as though hundreds of tiny ants were crawling up a Cliffside. I couldn’t believe there were hundreds of penguins until someone lent me their binoculars.
First thing in the next morning there was a shore excursion to Danco island.
Danco island is home to approximately 1,600 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins whom breed quite high on the slopes.
This is when I got to get up close and personal with penguins for the first time. It was really cute watching the tiny little penguins scrambling all over each other to get up the hill. The thing I remember most when I first stepped on shore (besides how cute they were) was the distinct smell (penguin poo) not so pleasant and quite strong. However the stronger the smell the bigger the colony.
Here they would court their partner by bowing to each other, then mate and then build a nest. The reason why the penguins were climbing up the hill was this is where all the materials are to build their nests are and also it keeps them away from predators. I can imagine how hard it is for them to do this every day with their tiny little feet.
The next stop – Neko Harbour.
Neko harbour is named after the floating whale factory ship, Neko and known for its calving glaciers. It is home to approximately 250 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins.
Before we reached Neko harbour we were shown a video of the impact of a calving and how dangerous it could be. A large calving occurred on a prior trip which caused a tsunami. The result, zodiac boats, kayaks capsizing and penguins running for their lives.
On our way on shore I passed many penguins swimming to shore. They swim so fast it’s almost impossible to take a photo of them.
Once onshore there was a small hike to a beautiful view point of the glacier.
Also at the top of the short hike was a penguin colony, with the picturesque viewpoint in the background. If you’re a penguin you might as well build your nest with 360 degree panoramic views.
When I got back on the ship, a special polar BBQ was prepared for us. It was such a treat to be eating ribs (my favourite) outside with views of glaciers and icebergs.
On the way the ship passed the Chilean Antarctica base which was still closed as its only open in the summer
We were lucky enough to see killer whales and humpbacks along the way that came right up to the ship as they were curious on what we were.
Paradise Harbour was named by whalers, because it is such a protected anchorage.
My first visit was via zodiac. Here I got up and close with the intimidating Petzval Glacier flowing into the sea.
After the zodiac I went onshore to the Argentinian Base.
Here I got to climb a steep view providing fantastic views of the base and the glacier below. The best part of this hike is I got to slide down from the top of the viewpoint.
The Lemaire Channel, a narrow and scenic 11 kilometre channel. The narrowest point under 800 meters wide with towering peaks overhead so quite difficult to navigate.
We were told there was a possibility we weren’t going to make it through as the last expedition couldn’t go through because of sea ice and glaciers. However the captain wanted to try anyway. To celebrate the passage we were given baileys and hot chocolate.
The result was spectacular scenery of glaciers, mountains and miles and miles of sea ice.
Day 6 Petermann Island & Vernadsky
Petermann Island was named after August Petermann, a German geographer and supporter of polar exploration. Petermann Island is home to Adélie penguins (500 breeding pairs), the most southerly colony of gentoo penguins in Antarctica (2,000 breeding pairs) and blue-eyed shags.
The shore excursion was split into two hikes one to the Adelie penguins and the other to a view of the sea ice.
As the main attraction of Adelie penguins was over crowded with people, I decided to venture off to see the sea ice first.
The snow was so thick and powdery of course I had to jump straight in and make a snow angel.
I was lucky as a couple of penguins decided to waddle over to me and have a conversation behind me. The mating ritual for penguins consists of talking to each other, then bowing, and then mating.
At the end of the hike was a colony of Gentoo penguins with miles and miles of sea ice behind them.
After the hike I headed over to the small Adelie colony. Wow what weird looking penguins. They have completely black beaks and eyes that look like they were pasted on.
The Vernadsky station was purchased from the British for a nominal price of 1 pound in 1996, as it was cheaper for them to sell the station than pay to remove the buildings. This is also where scientists first observed depletion in the ozone layer, known as the ozone hole.
We were the very first boat to arrive after the long winter. It was such an amazing experience to receive such a great welcome. I can understand though as they hadn’t had contact with anyone else all winter.
We had to go for a short walk to the station as there was still a lot of snow in the area. This much snow made it looked as though we were in the middle of Siberia.
There was even a bar (of course it’s Ukraine) where they made their own vodka. Here you could give up your bra for a free shot.
This is where I posted my postcards home. I have no idea if they are going to arrive.
According to one of the signs Vernadsky is 8624km away from Sydney.
As with all the other stations the station was surrounded by penguins as it’s a nice shelter from the cold for them. Here there was a mother looking after her egg.
Day 7 Port Lockroy and Orne harbour
When I woke up in the morning the sun was finally starting to come out. I had almost forgotten what the sun looked like as it had been covered in clouds for most of the trip.
As we got closer to Port Lockroy there was an amazing view of the mountains snow white and the seven dwarfs, beautifully reflecting in the sea.
There was even a small yacht moored next to the glacier. I couldn’t imagine going through the drake in such a small boat without it being destroyed.
Port Lockroy is a British Antarctica base.
There is a museum, tourist shop, and post office. Post cards sent from here can take months to arrive as they get sent to the UK first before being sent to the country address.
When I got back to the ship it was time for the polar plunge. This is where you jump into the cold Antarctic water which is 0.4 degrees Celsius. Definitely an extreme ice bucket challenge so I had to do it. Plus some of the older passengers over 60 were all going in so I really didn’t have an excuse.
I was one of the first passengers jumping in with the thought I want to get this over and done with.
When I stepped up to the edge of the ship, and saw a large glacier pass by I thought; what the hell am I doing. But before even thinking I decided I’m not touching the water before hand and just jumping in. The staff tie you to a harness and pull you out straight away. It was freezing. Lucky I had a shot of vodka waiting for me as I got out. My brain stopped working when I started climbing up stairs instead of down to get to my cabin, ended up in the staff area and they asked what I was doing there and I didn’t know.
After the plunge we warmed up with a delicious outside polar BBQ.
As the sun had finally come out the beautiful blue colours of the glaciers were making an appearance.
When I got dropped off shore I walked up a steep hill with switchbacks made by the expedition team in the snow.
I had to be careful as it was quite steep and any tumble could trigger an avalanche. However at the top I was rewarded with a fantastic view of the harbour below.
At the top I got to see my favourite type of penguin of the trip – the Chin strap penguins. They are smaller then Gentoo so were constantly jumping in the snow in sync which was really adorable. I could watch these little guys for hours.
As it was a clear day I could see an Antarctic sunset. Below are some of the photos
When the sun had set it was time for the biggest party of the cruise; the western night. Let’s just say things got really messy. There is a camera always pointing at the coffee station for presentations (to watch in your room) so there was karaoke, dancing and singing aimed towards the camera (the audience the ships passengers). I would love to get hold of this video. One passenger even passed out in the hallway with the doctor having to sleep next to him for the night.
Day 8 – The hurricane in an active volcano
The luck with weather finally ran out. The weather had turned significantly the next day from clear and sunny to a full blown hurricane.
The ship made it into an active volcano taking shelter from the more than 100km/hr winds. So now I can say I have been in a hurricane in Antarctica in an active volcano.
The plan was to go to deception point but the weather was so bad we couldn’t leave the ship. This made me realize how powerful Antarctica really was as no-one was in control.
Day 9-10- The drake
What started off rough (due to the hurricane) ended up being a mild trip across the drake with it being as flat as a lake on the way back. So calm we were able to stop and follow some whales making their way to Antarctica.
Day 11 Ushuaia
Sadly I had arrived back in Ushuaia. Really sad it was the end of the trip, but glad to be off the ship (three days was way too long). During breakfast you could spot the backpackers as they had converted their sick bags into takeaway lunch bags.
Antarctica is one of the best trips that I ever done. It’s such a unique experience that unless you’re there it’s impossible to explain in words. The best comparison I can give is it’s like living the movies Happy Feet and Ice Age. A winter wonderland, with unique and diverse landscapes, gigantic glaciers and hundreds of penguins, whales, sea lions and birds. Its such a unique experience to see these animals thrive in such a harsh environment.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/