Ice bergs, penguind, wild landscape, rough sea, glaciers, whales… my expectations for Antarctica were high, especially as cruises are really expensive. Until about 2 weeks before my flight to Ushuaia I didn’t have any plans to go to Antarctica. Too expensive, I had put the idea aside a while ago. When I started preparing more for Fireland and Patagonia, I read about cruises in many blogs and also about discounted last minute tickets. I did some research and enquiries and got more and more excited about Antarctica’s rough nature, so different from what I’ve seen so far in my life. I get a few offers and while still very expensive, one is at least within reach. I probably could travel 1-2 months longer for the price, but I think the experience will be priceless and decide in the end to do the cruise.
After walking 3000km, it also couldn’t come at a better moment. A luxury cruise in a shared twin cabin, a lot of very good food, yoga classes to relax and recover; lectures on birds, penguins, photography to finally also stimulate my brain; a crew that looks after you so you don’t have to worry about anything. Over and above everything is the encounter with the nature and wildlife, but I also really can do with some luxury now.
Day 1. Beagle Channel
After spending the morning hiking above Ushuaia, I can board the ship at 4pm. My backpack is already waiting for me in the cabin and Marna, a Swiss who lives in Uruguay now, is the perfect person to share the cabin! Refreshments are already waiting for us, coffee, cakes, scones, muffins before getting an introduction and safety instructions. The expedition crew is big, 29 people including ornithologists, marine biologists, geologist, guides, naturalists,… I am going to learn a lot. The ship has a gym, 2 saunas, yoga classes, a library, buffet breakfast and lunch, seated dinner, afternoon tea, 24h coffee/tea… The abundance of amenities and food is crazy after months of restrictions and dehydrated food. I will be dreaming of it after the cruise when I am freezing in my tent in a stormy night in Patagonia 😉
Cruising through the Beagle Channel, I am outside as long as I can to take the views in. It’s grey and covered but impressive and the water is so calm in this sheltered place.
After dinner we get to choose our yellow bright parkas from different sizes and I have to get a men’s size as my arms are too long. We can keep the parka afterwards but it’s too heavy for hiking so I will donate it. I already got borrowed thick waterproof pants and gloves from the Freestyle Adventure agency where I booked the last minute cruise (they are awesome, I can only recommend to contact them if you ever plan to go). Then we get to choose our Muck boots which will keep our feet warm and dry (should have had these for some river crossings back in New Zealand ;-)).
Day 2. Drake Passage.
I slept like a baby thanks to the sea sickness pill I took preventatively. But we are extremely lucky, the Drake Passage which can be terrible with 11m waves, is exceptionally calm. So I head first to the gym for some cycling, rowing and back exercises before having a shower and breakfast just before it closes at 9.30am.
Then lectures are starting and the first one about Antarctica birds didn’t sound exciting, but was so interesting and even funny. It’s impressive how petrels can fly hundreds and thousands of kilometers to get food and come back to the Antarctic ocean to find their partner breeding at the same little spot it left it 2 weeks prior. They can just live in the ocean without land and don’t need to sleep, just part of their brain is resting as for whales. Another lecture is about photographing in Antarctica, it is more tricky as cameras have problems adjusting to so much white for example.
The weather is clearing up and the sun comes out. As I enjoy the sun outside after lunch I hear that a crew member who already went 30 times into Antarctica never had such a calm sea before when going through the Drake Passage. Seems we are extremely lucky! It also means we are faster and in the evening it is confirmed, we are so much faster that we can have an additional landing already tomorrow afternoon as we reach Half Moon Bay earlier than usually.
The afternoon passes quickly with lectures on penguins and whales, an introduction to yoga classes, afternoon tea and a daily recap and briefing before we already have dinner. It’s a seated 5 course dinner and I still can’t believe how I went from dehydrated couscous or glassnoodles to such fancy meals, enjoying as much salad, fruits, vegetables and fish as I can! The crew is extremely nice and I get along very well with my room-mate Marna. I couldn’t be happier!
Day 3. Drake Passage and Shetland Islands
My day starts at 6am, checking the views outside but only seeing a little glimpse of the sunrise due to the completely covered sky. Afterwards I spend an hour in the gym before taking a shower. Walking into the dining room for breakfast, I realise that we are now approaching our first ice bergs. How exciting! I just have a real quick breakfast, heading outside as soon as I can. It’s amazing. The ice is so close now and penguins are swimming close by our ship. You can see the jump out of and in to the water, a few dozen at a time. It’s around 4 degrees Celsius but hands are fast frozen while taking pictures.
It’s hard to go back inside but I want to listen to the lecture by the glaciologist on ice in Antarctica. So many things I didn’t have any idea about, like what is the difference between glaciers, ice sheets and ice shelves. Having someone so passionate talk about it makes it easy to follow and enjoy the lecture. (Glaciers are big and local, like a channel or river while ice sheets are huge on a continental scale. There are 3 ice sheets on the planet – West Antarctica, Greenland and the biggest, East Antarctica sheet. Ice sheets are grounded and built on rock while ice shelves are floating, off the continent in deep water (like 44% of the coastline of Antarctica).) Following this talk is a mandatory lesson about the Antarctica guidelines and procedures we have to follow. Follow already after lunch – because this is it, I am the luckiest girl ever who just cruised the Drake Passage in record time and our crew adapted our tour to already take us out this afternoon to Half Moon Bay on the Shetland Islands.
So after lunch we put on our warm gear and wait for the call for the Mud Room. In there we get the Muck boots, wet gear, life jacket and put everything on, feeling rushed by that woman from the crew ordering us around to stand in line and get dressed quickly. Once we are done we are divided into groups of ten to walk through a disinfection solution and board the zodiacs.
The first group of 100 passengers including myself is brought on shore of Half Moon Island where crew members are already waiting for us. There is a specific itinerary we can follow, respecting some guidelines and not disturbing the wildlife. I am overwhelmed the minute I am on shore. There are these beautiful Chinstrap penguins walking around everywhere, being just incredibly cute doing nothing at all, not even talking about the cuteness overload once they start walking. I take pictures, pictures, pictures.
Walk in between, take more pictures, enjoy, almost cry of joy for being here. Even though we are 100 people it never feels too crowded as we are well dispatched over the island and can follow a path. The penguins are moulting right now and apparently it’s a tough time for them, they are very weak and just stand around, all energy is needed for the moulting process. I heard before the trip how badly the penguins poo smells but it’s not too bad in my view.
We have 90 minutes on land before being picked up by the zodiacs for a 60 minutes cruise, getting now closer to the ice and to get a different angle. It’s just perfect, the water is rarely as smooth and calm as today and it’s a few degrees above zero without wind so rather warm with all the layers I am wearing. The calm sea also makes for great picture opportunities!
Getting back on board we can enjoy a hot chocolate and have some time to relax before the Captain’s cocktail. Marna and I spend a great evening with our new friends on board, drinking more champagne than I should before having more wine at an amazing Captain’s dinner. Afterwards Robert Swan talks about how he was the first one to walk by foot to the South Pole, having established since “2041”, ambassadors for the year 2041 when Antarctica discussion are open again. He got 80 ambassadors from 35 countries on board who have also a leadership type of program. While I think he achieved something inspiring and it’s good to create awareness on Antarctica, I don’t particularly like his personality and how he’s talking (or shouting) at us… Same for my friends here, it’s just “over the top” and we mock also about the “2041 only” announcements. Probably not the nicest thing to do but it’s a shame to separate the boat in half and have a special zone where only 2041 eat etc.