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The Travel Blog

Antarctica – Exploring the White Continent

Image Title: Standing on the Antarctica Continent. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Standing on the Antarctica Continent. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Enjoying the icebergs in the Bellingshausen Sea in a new polar explorer parka. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Enjoying the icebergs in the Bellingshausen Sea in a new polar explorer parka. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Sea Kayaking through brash ice near Adelaide Island. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Sea Kayaking through brash ice near Adelaide Island. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Gentoo Penguin Chicks on Port Lockroy. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Gentoo Penguin Chicks on Port Lockroy. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Humpback Whales in Wilhelmina Bay. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: &^%$#@*& . . . . [Photo: Quark Expeditions]
&^%$#@*& . . . . [Photo: Quark Expeditions]

The sound of silence is absolute. We are kayaking near Adelaide Island at latitude 66.5°S - below the Antarctic Circle. It’s a balmy 2°C (36°F) in January which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The wind and the water are still. The silence is only broken by the rhythmic sound of our paddles dipping in the water and the frequent sound of our hull scraping against the brash ice in the Bellingshausen Sea along the Antarctica Peninsula. We are on a two-week expedition with Quark Expeditions. Cheli Larsen, the Expedition Leader from New Zealand, made a point at our entry briefing of telling us that cruises have scheduled ports of call but expeditions have “objectives” and that “objectives” get changed by wind, waves, ice flow, and sea captains.  

We have spent the past two days crossing Drake Passage which is 600 nautical miles of the Southern Ocean directly south of Cape Horn. Our passage was relatively calm with 2 to 3m (6 to 9ft) seas, but it can easily see 10m (30ft) seas that they call the “Drake Shake”. Sea sickness is definitely a concern, but ended up not being a major factor on our passage south. Our ship is the Ocean Endeavour.  She is 137m (450ft) long and accommodates 199 passengers and 124 crew for polar exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic. Our “Crossing the Circle Expedition” boards and disembarks from Ushuaia, Argentina.  The expedition spends 2 days in passage to the Antarctica Peninsula, 8 days of sea and shore excursions, and then 2 more days crossing back to Ushuaia. Adding another day on each end for boarding and disembarking and it becomes a 2 week trip. Our 5th deck Twin Superior cabin on the starboard side of the ship has two twin beds, a small sofa, two single closet units with a third shelf and drawer unit, an en suite bathroom, and a 1m (3ft) square window. The ship has two lounges that double as lecture areas and ample deck space for 360 degree views of wildlife and scenery. The dining room serves meals in a single seating and offers buffet breakfasts and lunches with 50/50 buffet and plated dinners. Like most cruises, we didn’t go hungry. The ship also has a small, heated pool on one of the aft decks as well as a spa and fitness area. The deck plan is straightforward and fairly easy to get around. All-in-all the accommodations were nice – not quite Spartan but not particularly luxurious. Hey, its Antarctica.

During our Drake Passage we were issued our "Complimentary" yellow polar explorer coats and liners to keep. From there, we were fitted with insulated muck boots and auto-inflate PFDs to wear on our sea and land excursions. Since we were fortunate enough to get two of the sixteen coveted kayak spots, we were also fitted with dry suits and booties, spray skirts, and kayaking PFD’s. We then spent our two days in passage getting to know our fellow passengers and the incredible Expedition Team. The Expedition Team was comprised of 27 men and women from around the world. They included a dozen PhD scientists in ornithology, marine mammal biology, and geology as well as two professional photographers, two Antarctic historians, and professional outdoor guides for kayaking and paddle boarding. The Expedition Team also included three guest scientists from Oxford University in the UK doing research on penguins (Penguin Lifelines). Needless to say, we didn’t get bored on our two days crossing Drake Passage.

We were awoken on the third day by the ship intercom system at 0700 to invite all passengers to the bow of the ship for a “Crossing the Circle” ceremony. Once there, we were offered mimosas and a reading of an 1800’s ship’s log about crossing the Antarctica Circle. The ship was moving slowly through Crystal Sound on the east side of Adelaide Island and the dark water of the sound was filled with blue and white icebergs. Some were as big as the ship, others were smaller than the kayaks we would be taking out later in the afternoon. Some had seals or penguins resting on them, oblivious to the large blue and white ship that must look to them like just another iceberg. At this time of year nearly all of the sea ice has melted and the ice still floating in the sound has calved off of the hundreds of glaciers that entrap the peaks of the islands and the continent at this latitude.

Later in the afternoon, we gear up for our first kayak paddle in Antarctica. We load ourselves into one of the ship’s zodiac ten-person RIB’s (Rubber Inflatable Boats) and motor away from the ship with four tandem and four single kayaks towed on stringers behind us to an area that is somewhat protected by the slight chop created by the breeze. Then we get into the kayaks from the Zodiac and begin paddling. Once everyone is in their kayaks and the chatter and excitement has calmed a little, we are overcome by the beauty in the silence and desolation of the white wilderness before us. The rule of thumb is to stay 3 times the height away from any piece of ice or ice berg because, generally speaking, three-fourths of an iceberg is underwater and you do not want to be surprised if it suddenly rolls over. The blue shades of the icebergs comes from light penetrating the ice. It changes hue depending on the amount of air entrained in the ice and the amount of sunlight that penetrates it from direct sunlight and reflection from the water and the rest of the ice. You will also see rocks trapped in the ice from when it calved off the glacier.

Yes,we saw penguins. No, we did not see polar bears. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and polar bears live in the northern hemisphere. On our expedition we saw Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins. All three species have similarities and differences.  All three live in colonies and all three have very little sexual dismorphism [Really, that’s a thing. It  describes the difference between the male and female physical attributes of a species and no you cannot tell a male penguin from a female penguin without getting very personal. See, we really did pay attention to the nature lectures crossing the Drake Passage]. The colonies we visited ranged from a few hundred birds to over 5,000. All of the colonies were loud and smelled like . . . well, like a penguin colony. From one colony that has taken over a British research station at Port Lockroy, you can get your passport stamped and send a postcard from Antarctica to your friends. Penguins are fascinating creatures with no land predators for healthy adults, but there are a lot of ways to die as a penguin chick. If you are a penguin chick and you don’t freeze or starve or fall down a cliff or get snatched by a sea leopard while learning to swim, then all you have to do is not attract the attention of one of the ever-present Skua’s (a large sea bird) that feed in the spring on penguin chicks and eggs.

And yes, we also saw whales every day from the ship, the zodiacs, and the kayaks. By far the most common species of whale we saw were humpbacks feeding on krill. The most spectacular whale day was in Wilhelmina Bay, sometimes referred to as “Whale”helmina Bay because it is such a fertile feed ground for humpback whales. The day we visited there were around thirty of these gentle giants methodically rounding up tons of krill and straining them through their baleen sieves to swallow [more tidbits from the nature lectures during the Drake Passage; if it’s tough to be a penguin, you really don’t want to be a krill]. We viewed whales from a zodiac on this day because there was a stiff, 20kt breeze and rain turning to snow that was not conducive to kayaking. Besides, in a zodiac you have many more options to following and keeping up with the feeding animals. The highlight of the day was a group of five humpback whales that turned and came right under our zodiac and surfaced just a few meters (maybe 10 ft) away from us. It was magical. It was surreal. It was a quiet connection with nature.

As if having a private moment with four or five 30 ton animals wasn’t enough excitement for one day, we also did the Polar Plunge in Wilhelmina Bay. When we returned to the ship from Whale Watching and everyone was sharing stories during lunch, the ship’s intercom came on announcing an IQ test. Anyone who wanted to take the plunge into the 2.0°C (35°F) water was invited to the gangways. Yes, swimsuits are required. No, its really not that bad. OK, it is really that bad, but its only for the few seconds it takes for your body’s involuntary reaction to climb out of the #$%^&*#*&’ing cold water. But hey, you get to take home a great picture of yourself in unnatural distress.   

So those were the highlights of our Antarctica Expedition. We were very pleased with Quark Expeditions, but to be fair, there are a number of other tour operators, each offering their own unique experiences. For example, you can depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, Punta Arenas, Chile, or Christchurch, New Zealand. You can now also fly over Drake Passage directly from Punta Arenas, Chile to an airstrip on the Antarctica Peninsula saving yourself four days of passage time and the full sea sickness experience. You should note that vessels with over 200 passengers are not allowed to make shore landings, so read the fine print if you really want to walk among the penguins instead of seeing them from rail of a cruise ship. We would encourage anyone entertaining this serious bucket list adventure to consult the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) before booking a tour. These operators have agreed to a code of conduct that ensures sustainability of the Antarctic environment and the remarkable but fragile ecosystems within the Antarctic region. If you would like to know more about our experience, please feel free to contact us at info@opendoortravelers.com or check out our YouTube Channel for Antarctica Videos.

 

Phil & Diane

www.opendoortravelers.com 

 

More Details

Gear: There are many, many web-resources for what to bring on a polar tourist expedition. Quark, like many of the tour operators, will provide you with a polar parka and neoprene boots that are appropriate for the conditions. You need to bring your own waterproof pants for sitting for a couple of hours at a time in a wet zodiac and enough insulating layers to keep you warm. On the ship, the fashion is outdoor-chic. Lots of fleece and dryfit, but onboard the ship is really rather warm so jeans and tees are ok too. Keep in mind that there may be a luggage limit and that it's totally ok to be seen in the same clothes day after day. 

Cameras: We travel with a Canon G3X camera with a 600mm zoom lens and a Nikon Coolpix AW-100 point-and-shoot underwater camera. The G3X takes higher quality pictures and provides a serious zoom lens. The Coolpix is very convenient and takes full-HD video. On this trip, we also took 7X50 Binoculars for spotting whales and other marine life from the ship.

Getting There: Most people fly through Buenos Aires to Ushuaia or through Santiago to Punta Arenas depending on where they are departing from. We flew through Santiago to Puerto Montt on the way down and from Ushuaia through Buenos Aires on the way home. From Puerto Montt, we took a 4 day Chilean Ferry to Puerto Natales (Patagonia Ferry).  We then took an extra week to do the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park before going to Ushuaia to board our Antarctia ship.

Sea Sickness: Sea Sickness is real on this trip, even for very seasoned sailors. We planned ahead and had Transderm, Scopalamine Patches for the passages. These are the patches that you put behind your ear. There require a physician prescription in the US and they are expensive. Our patches after insurance co-pay were $20.00US each.

Passenger Demographics: In a word the demographics of the passengers on our expedition were diverse. Nationalities were: American, Canadian, British, South African, New Zealand, and Chinese. Ages ranged from 20's to 70's. There were several families, some with adult children and some with high-school children. We would guess that 70% of the passengers were traveling as couples including several LGBT couples. The common demographic was a general fondness for adventure.

 

[Disclosure: We recieved no compensation from Quark Expeditions for this blog entry.]