For me, nowhere stirs the imagination quite like Antarctica. The Great White Continent at the far end of the planet. Discovered less than 200 years ago and the reserve of rugged explorers and adventurers. A few years ago I was lucky enough to follow my dreams and visit one of the most inaccessible places on the planet. My ultimate bucket list destination. Is it the sort of destination I usually write about? No. Do I think people should visit? Absolutely.
A trip there will never come cheap and to make my dream a reality I spent many years saving up my annual bonuses until I was finally ready. And the trip just blew me away. The scenery, the wildlife and the journey itself will all stay with me for the rest of my life.
If you want to see Antarctica you will need to join a cruise. It’s not the type of destination with scheduled flights, hostels and a few Airbnb. You won’t even find a free walking tour. The most accessible spot is the Antarctic Peninsula and to get there you’ll most likely leave from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina. At 54° South, they call it the southernmost city in the world. You can even get a passport stamp from the tourist information office to prove you visited El Fin del Mundo – the End of the World. Cruises depart between November and March during the southern hemisphere summer. I visited in March, at the end of the summer, so there were a large number of penguin chicks finishing their moult and eager to investigate.
What size ship?
When you’re spending so much money on a trip one of the most important things to consider is the size of the ship. In my opinion, in Antarctica, smaller is better. This might seem strange, especially with the ocean crossing, but it’s all to do with getting the most out of your time when you’re there. A smaller ship means it is quicker to load and unload passengers giving you more time for exploring. There are also limits set out that allow a maximum of 100 people ashore at one time and forbid vessels with over 500 people allowing anyone to land. I sailed on the Akademik Ioffe, an ice-strengthened Russian research vessel that carried a maximum of 96 passengers. Originally built for spying, her design makes her ideal for research in polar waters. The small number of passengers means she is well suited for maximising the time spent either onshore or onboard the ship’s zodiacs.
Crossing the Drake Passage
Until recently visiting Antarctica meant a 2-day journey across the Drake Passage each way but in recent years it has become possible to fly from Punta Arenas in Chile to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands and join a cruise from here. This can save you time and your lunch. The Drake Passage is notorious for having the roughest seas in the world. At other times it can be as flat as a pancake. Whether you get the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake” is well and truly in the hands of the weather gods. Personally, I enjoyed the crossing, despite the huge waves crashing over our bow, and if I went again I would still join a ship in Ushuaia. The explorers of the 20th Century never had the luxury of flying in so why should we?
An itinerary, subject to change
Because of the unpredictability of the weather and the floating ice you can never be sure where you will make landfall on these expedition cruises. The tour leader will give you an idea of where they hope to visit, but even in an ice-strengthened ship, you don’t want to be playing chicken with a large iceberg. No one is coming to rescue you if you get into difficulty. Unexpected sightings of wildlife can also mean sudden changes to plans. Lunch was abandoned one day after the sighting of a pod of Humpbacks breaching, who we followed to enjoy the spectacle.
Antarctica can be a paradise for wildlife watchers. Whilst the range of animals may not be huge the chance to see such large colonies of birds or endangered species of whale makes it somewhere special. Along the peninsula, you may see whales, seals, penguins and many types of seabird.
When you mention Antarctica the first animal most people think about is the penguins and once you’re there, they’re not hard to find. The ladies and gentlemen in dinner jackets are fairly widespread. When it comes to penguins in Antarctica the rules are clear. Don’t walk any closer to them than 5 metres. It turns out these rules have not been translated into Penguinese, or if they have, the locals aren’t very law-abiding. If you get down to their level they become very inquisitive, especially the chicks, and will happily come over and say hello. They’ll peck at you and if you lie down you may even be lucky enough to have one climb on you. Of course, they may also choose to defecate or throw up on you too, which isn’t quite so pleasant.
The most common penguins we encountered were Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap. There were also a couple of Macaroni penguins too, trying to disguise themselves in a crowd of Chinstraps. The bright yellow feathers above their eyes made this particularly difficult.
Despite being one of the rarer species of penguin, the most frequent we saw was the Gentoo. These birds live in fairly large breeding colonies and can be incredibly noisy. You can learn a lot from a good nature documentary, but one thing you can’t get from it is just how much a colony with thousands of penguins, eating a diet of krill and other seafood, can smell. It is, however, one of those memories that you take away, as the smell lingers about you.
It’s not just penguins in Antarctica. It is home to a huge number of migratory birds. Capturing them on film is hard to do them justice but there are many species of Albatross, Skua, Petrel, Shag and Tern to be seen. Some, like the albatross threatened by the activities of humans.
Another big draw to Antarctica has to be the whales. There is never a guarantee of seeing these behemoths of the deep but your chances are high. Drawn to the bountiful krill that inhabits the cold waters you may see Blue, Minke, Sei, Humpback and Fin whales. Some species were driven almost to extinction by whalers who killed over a million whales last century in the Southern Ocean alone. Numbers have started to increase since the ban introduced in the 1980s but several remain on the endangered species Red List.
Our expedition was lucky enough to encounter Humpbacks on most days along with a few Fin and Minke. Sitting in a zodiac drifting closely by these beautiful creatures is amazing. There is something magical about huddling to keep warm in your boat, with all sensation draining from your body as the cold sinks in, only to be caught by the spray from a Humpback blowhole.
The Antarctic waters are home to the majority of the world’s Orcas. Roughly 70% of them live here. We got lucky on a zodiac trip to some icebergs when we encountered a school of these amazing ‘sea pandas’. They were curious and came right up to the boat. Having a killer whale spy hop whilst sitting in a flimsy boat is slightly surreal. I’m glad they were curious and not hungry!
One of Antarctica’s apex predators is the leopard seal. These toothed beasties can grow up to 3.5m long and weigh as much as 600kg. They also have a scarily large mouth, full of razor-sharp teeth. In Neko Harbour, we saw one cruising around the headland eyeing up the penguins and sure enough, it snapped one up. In a rather X-rated show, it toyed with its catch for a while before throwing and slapping it around to turn the body inside out. It does this to get at the calorie-rich blubber beneath the skin.
Despite being almost driven to extinction in Antarctica in the 1900s seal populations have rebounded dramatically in Antarctica. You won’t see the hundreds of thousands of individuals on the Peninsula that you might on South Georgia but there are still plenty here. There are healthy populations of Crabeater, Weddell, Antarctic Fur and Southern Elephant Seals all waiting to be photographed.
These animals may be slow-moving and cumbersome on land but are agile and elegant once in the water. If you do encounter them on land it’s important not to obstruct their route back to the sea. They can easily feel threatened and will try to get back into the water. A 6ft long, 130kg Fur seal is not an animal you want to be arguing with about who should move.
Antarctica is home to the biggest seals in the world. On Livingstone Island, we came face to face with a herd of Elephant seals, sunning themselves in their wallows. Much like the other wildlife in Antarctica, they are noisy and smelly, even when they are lying around doing nothing.
Antarctica isn’t just about the wildlife. Despite, or possibly in spite of, it being so inhospitable and difficult to reach man has left a large footprint here. 32 countries maintain active research bases on a seasonal or permanent basis and there are also abandoned whaling stations, wrecked ships and decommissioned bases around the continent. You can visit many of these and they help give an insight into how important the continent was and remains today.
Built on Galindez Island and now run by the Ukrainians, this station was originally built by the British in 1954. Called Faraday Station it operated under a British flag until 1996. The cost of decommissioning and removing the station, in an environmentally suitable way, was considered prohibitive by the British so they sold the base to the Ukrainians for £1. When they left, they didn’t even take the money. It is still there today, in the bar. Yes, the base has a bar. More on that later.
Today the Ukrainian scientists still carry out research into a range of sciences including meteorology and atmospheric physics. This is similar to the work that was undertaken by British scientists before them.
A guided tour of the base allows you to talk with the scientists and a chance to find out more about their research. You can also buy souvenirs, get your passports stamped and send your postcards from here. Delivery times are, however, fairly unreliable; relying, as they do, on passing ships to collect and forward on the mail. If you have the time you must stop for a shot of vodka in Faraday Bar, the southernmost bar in the world! At the time a shot would cost you just US$1, although with inflation I’m sure it’s much more now. Importantly all this money helps the Ukrainians maintain the base and continue their important work.
Close to Vernadsky Station is Wordie House. It was established by the British in 1947 on Winter Island and conducted research into meteorology before closing in 1954. The work was then transferred to Faraday. The wooden building was made from material salvaged from a whaling station on Deception Island and a hut at Port Lockroy. It was designated a Historic Site and Monument in 1995 and today it is looked after by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. You’ll find over 500 original artefacts inside including a pantry of items you’d expect to see in a museum – which in fact it is. You’re also likely to find a few fur seals around keeping watch – no overnighting allowed.
Port Lockroy itself is a natural harbour amongst the islands of an archipelago off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Today it is one of the most popular destinations on the Peninsula. This is partly due to the colony of Gentoo penguins you can get really close to and partly because it is home to the southernmost post office in the world.
During World War 2 a secret expedition, Operation Tabarin, set out to establish a permanent British presence in Antarctica so they could assert their territorial claims. Bransfield House, or Base A, was built on Goudier Island and became their first permanent base on the Peninsula. It was established in 1944 and ran as a research station until 1962. In 1996 it was renovated and now operates as a museum and the Penguin Post Office.
The staff also monitor the effect of tourism on the breeding penguins. The colony established itself in 1985 and now numbers 800 breeding pairs. Visitors are free to explore half of the island but the other half is off-limits. Interestingly, the research has shown no apparent impact on the penguins breeding success.
Almirante Brown Station
Life in Antarctica isn’t without its intrigue. This Argentine base is on the mainland in Paradise Harbour. It was built in 1951 and closed in 1984 after the station’s doctor burnt it down. Discovering he was going to have to overwinter here, he set fire to the camp. Fortunately, everyone was rescued. It was rebuilt but is only used by now for summer research. You can walk up to the top of the hill that overlooks the base for a fantastic view out across Paradise Harbour. The best way to come back down is to take the human bobsled route.
If you are really lucky your expedition may let you spend a night camped on the ice. Sleeping under the stars, on an unnamed island in Paradise Harbour, is a truly magical experience. Sleeping bags and bivvy sacks were provided, but no tents, so it was a totally outdoor escapade. Wrapped up in these and fully clothed, the sub-zero temperatures meant nothing and we were left drifting off to sleep to the sound of icebergs calving into the ocean from the nearby glaciers.
Antarctica is a land of ice. 98% of the continent is covered in it. 61% of the world’s fresh water is here. In places, it is over 3 miles thick. When it reaches the sea, icebergs the size of countries break off. Even the small icebergs are beautiful to see. The deep blue colours caused by all the air having been squeezed out over thousands of years as it made its way to the coast. Cruising around the icebergs, at a safe distance, is truly magical.
One of the final stops was in the South Shetland Islands. Deception Island. The island is the caldera of an active volcano, which fortunately hasn’t erupted since 1970. The island has been used as a whaling station and also for scientific research. Visitors can look around the remains of the station together with the remains of Chilean and British research bases. These bases were destroyed by eruptions in 1967 & 1969. The Royal Navy also destroyed the oil tanks from the whaling station in 1941 to stop the Nazi’s using it as a resupply base.
The island is also home to the largest cemetery in Antarctica. There are 35 graves here belonging to the whalers who first occupied the island. There is also a memorial to a further 10 who were lost at sea. For the graves of your loved ones to be in such an inaccessible place must have been hard for those left behind.
Fancy a swim?
If you want to take a dip in the waters of the Southern Ocean, then this is the place to do it. You could, however, be excused for not wanting to plunge into the frigid cold water. With a water temperature of 2°C and an air temperature of just 1°C it takes a brave, or foolhardy person, to strip down to their swimmers and dive into the freezing depths. A slow walk in is not recommended but diving in headlong is a real body blow. You can almost feel the heat in your body draining out as the cold takes its grip. Fortunately being a volcanic island there’s a handy heat source down below. Our ‘lifeguards’ had kindly dug a pit in the black, sandy beach where the upwelling water was nice and toasty. A warm bath after our cold dip.