Dec, 2015: Adding Antarctica to our itinerary only really became an option after hearing about the potential for ‘relatively’ cheap, last minute tickets from some good friends in London. Once we had heard about it though, the frozen continent quickly became the only place we knew we had to at least try and visit on another wise very unplanned trip. While everyone takes different memories away with them, I think the biggest thing for me was being quite in awe of such a vast and pristine landscape. It’s a landscape which is bigger than Europe yet may only have a couple of hundred people on it at any one time. It’s very hard to put in words something that even comes close to providing a fitting illustration of the place. Ethereal, mesmerising, vast, empty, raw, brutal… they all spring to mind but don’t really do it justice. This is how we get there…
Last minute Antarctica expedition: who we sailed with
There are a bunch of travel agencies in Ushuaia who specialise in ‘last minute’ trips to Antarctica. These trips vary from 3-4 weeks taking in Las Malvinas (otherwise known as the Falklands), South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsular to 10-11 day trips which only go to the peninsular. A few weeks out from the start date of a trip the agencies get notified of any spare births by the expedition companies themselves. The agencies are then able to on-sell these tickets at an agreed discounted rate meaning that you get the same rate regardless of which agency you go with. We went with Sarah and her husband Gaby from Freestyle Adventure travel given their super friendly yet efficient service and settled on a 10 day, 40% off expedition with a Canadian company called Quark onboard the MV Sea Adventurer.
The Sea Adventurer is one of the flagship vessels for Quark and has an ice class of 1A meaning it can push through a bunch of ice which a lot of ships can’t. It was way more luxurious than we expected and even though we had the cheapest cabins down in the belly of the ship they were still super comfy. There were ~75 ships crew, expedition crew and ‘hotel’ staff for us 100 passengers. They were all completely awesome from the obviously experienced yet slightly crazy Russian captain to the definitely crazy but super warm Ukrainian waitress. The expedition crew also included a bunch of experts in their field including an Ornithologist, Marine Biologists, a Historian and a Geologist who gave daily talks on various topics when they weren’t guiding us around the ice or through the water in Zodiacs.
Last minute Antarctica expedition: the trip itself
Our 10 day trip consisted of a very rough 2.5 day crossing of the dreaded Drake Passage (with 6 – 12m swells), 5 days on the Antarctic peninsular, and then a very smooth and fast trip back which allowed us to go via Cape Horn. Some people did camping, others went kayaking but for most of us we had 2 excursions per day hanging out with penguins and seals, visiting British and Argentinean bases or cruising the water in inflatable zodiacs (dinghies) searching for wildlife and gaping at the never ending ice. We had BBQ’s on the ships deck, climbed peaks for epic views of Antarctic goodness and even took a plunge in -1 degree water before thankfully guzzling down shots of Vodka to warm ourselves up again. In general it was really just a massive privilege, and humbling experience to go to the frozen continent and realise just how insignificant and vulnerable we are as a human in the face of such awesome natural power.
On a number of evenings I would go out on deck by myself and just stare out across the water to the shore. I would try and imagine what it would be like to be suddenly transported across the mountains to the interior beyond and be a sole human in such a massive frozen land. Such vastness was quite disconcerting in a way but amazingly thrilling at the same time. At the start of the trip, Shane our expedition leader spoke passionately about how we would all be guests in Antarctica, not so much of a nation or of Quark itself (the expedition company) but of the animals who live there and the landscape itself. Standing out on deck those evenings I completely understood what he meant.
Last minute Antarctica expedition: the wildlife
Antartica isn’t really known for a huge amount of biodiversity but there certainly is volume particularly of Gentoo penguins of which we saw 1000’s. Other than those cute and hilarious little buggers we saw two other types of penguins (Chinstrap and Adelie), 4 types of seals (Crabeaters, Weddell, Leopard and the amazing Elephant seals) and 2 types of whales (Minke and Humpbacks). We saw several types of birds (can’t remember them all) and some lucky buggers apparently even saw a pod of Orcas (Killer Whales). Mostly the wildlife was completely non-plussed about our presence and a lot of the time (particularly for the penguins) I think we were quite a nuisance. The Humpbacks were easily the most impressive and we had the pleasure of sailing probably 10 – 15m from a pair of them for 5 – 10mins one morning. Those massive creatures truly are breathtaking and outrageously cool!
Last minute Antarctica expedition: the ice
Perhaps even more impressive than the wildlife (at least for me and I think Fi as well) was the ICE. From the HUUUUUGE tabular bergs, to the tortured glacial ice which looked set to carve off at any moment, to the sea ice we churned through in the Sea Adventurer, we saw ALOT of ice and it was amazing. It came in all different textures, shapes and every possible shade of blue you can imagine and never ceased to make me stare in wonderment! Some ice was glassy smooth, some was jagged like sea born stalactites and then you would have the pieces that were dimpled like a giant golf ball eroded by the constant lapping of the ocean.
On one particularly perfect day in the aptly named Paradise Bay we went zodiac cruising around the ice, up to a decent sized glacier and switched the engines off. We sat for a spellbinding few minutes looking and listening to the ice all around us. You could hear the water gentle lapping against the bergs around us and in the distance you could hear the glacier creaking and groaning under the weight of a millennia of pressure. The water was so still and flat it created such a picture of Antarctic perfection that no camera could ever appropriately capture it (mine was frustratingly on the blink at the time). Not for the first time was I spun out at how the driest continent on earth can be made up of so much snow and ICE.
While at the end of the trip it was nice to get back on land and stretch the legs on solid ground it was such an amazing experience that we definitely felt a twinge of sadness. The Quark expedition leader spoke about their secret mission to convert us all into Antarctic activists and I think they definitely did a good job on us. Obviously not everyone will have the chance to get to Antarctica in their lifetime but if ever you are confronted with even a whiff of an opportunity I strongly suggest you take it!!