Leaving South Georgia and heading down to the Antarctic Peninsula is a major crossing. We had reports that we were likely to hit a storm and this would mean that we wouldn’t be attempting to land at the South Orkney Islands. Instead we headed directly for Elephant Island.Elephant Island was the place that Shackleton left the majority of his crew when he made the journey to South Georgia in search of rescue. Crossing the Scotia Sea brings home the hardship and enormity of the voyage they made in a rowing boat. For us weathering the storm was uncomfortable, but we still had all the creature comforts of the expedition ship.Elephant Island is another haven for penguins and seals. Leopard seals bask on the rocks and we had a rare sighting of a group of fur seal pups (apparently this is not their normal breeding area).
Chinstrap penguins can be seen swimming in the small bays and a group of Macaroni penguins have also made this their home for the season. Our zodiac cruise gave us the opportunity to get close to the wildlife both on land and in the sea.
Having lost almost a day due to the storm in the Scotia Sea crossing, the schedule is changed and instead of spending time on the South Shetland Islands we start to make our way south to the Antarctic Circle. Travelling through the Bransfield Strait we make land at Spert Island. This is a very small island on the edge of Trinity Island at the beginning of the Gerlache Strait.
Ice. And more Ice. Nothing is more beautiful than seeing an iceberg close up. Every single one is different. Different shapes, different colours, different density. Our zodiac cruise at Spert Island provided the most stunning opportunity to see icebergs from sea level and every angle.
There is also a lot of bird life with cape petrels nesting in the cliffs and a few penguins balancing on the ice. The land also provided some stunning photographic opportunities with high mountains and snow covered peaks.
Portal Point is on the continent of Antarctica and our first actual landing on the continent itself. This landing saw us climbing up a fairly steep snow covered slope to a high point over the bay. The views are spectacular and from the top you can see down into two separate bays with numerous icebergs and also a glacier. Back at the landing area there is a rocky promontory where you can sit and watch the penguins and a few Weddell seals.
From here to the Circle via the Gerlache Strait there is more and more ice. Lots of icebergs, including some immense tabular bergs and a great deal of smaller pieces and sea ice.
Actually crossing the Circle is an emotional moment with everyone on deck counting down until the moment the GPS gives the exact coordinates and the Captain blows the ships horn. For all of us this was one of the major achievements of the voyage.
And this was the point where a number of brave souls decided to take their ‘polar plunge’. This is simply throwing yourself off the disembarkation point of the ship into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean (zero degrees at this point)! The crew ties a harness round each person to ensure that there is no mishap. For everyone else who decides that it is not a smart move, there is a lot of encouragement for, and taking of photographs of, those who do.
With perfect weather we are able to make a stop at Pléneau Bay – known also as the iceberg grave yard. This is an area where very many icebergs either drift with the currents or are blown by the weather and become grounded. There are the most spectacular range of colours and shapes, from deep blues through to light greens, and many having intricate ‘carvings’ both inside and out.
Our zodiac cruise also gives us the opportunity to get close to a Minke whale, many groups of swimming penguins and a couple of leopard seal lying on the ice.
With the amazing backdrop of Pléneau Island’s snow covered mountains this is a stunning area to spend time in.
The Lemaire Channel is one of those iconic Antarctic places. It is a very narrow channel with huge mountains on either side and icebergs floating in the middle. It is often completely frozen in and not navigable, but we have luck on our side and we are able to sail through stunning scenery and picture perfect weather.
Our next landing at Damoy Point is just around the bay from Port Lockroy. With the winds picking up the landing is more difficult than previous ones and with deep snow the hike up to the high point between the landing bay and Port Lockroy bay is challenging. Although it is possible to see the buildings at Port Lockroy (Penguin Post Office, small museum and shop which are only manned during summer months) it is frustrating for most of us that we haven’t been able to land there. This is one place where most people want to send postcards home and so it is arranged that our cards will be taken to the post office and we hope to see them at some time in the future!
At Damoy Point there are a large number of gentoo penguins in several colonies which are all easily accessible. This means that you can choose a colony and sit with them for a while without all the passengers being in the same place.
The deep snow all around the area made walking difficult and sinking in, up to, or above, your knees is a regular problem. But it can be an even bigger problem for the penguins who don’t have the ability to get out of our ‘post holes’ if they fall in. This means that every time you sink deep into the snow you need to backfill the hole to protect the penguins. And this can be very slow going.
Arriving at the landing on Danco Island we were met by a strange sight. Hundreds of small ‘bergy bits’, (chunks of ice which are not big enough to be ice bergs), which had been blown onto shore and become stuck when the tide went out. This gave us an amazing opportunity to get really close to some ice.
There were also a number of penguins on the beach and we also spotted humpback whales in the bay.
The hike at this landing goes up to the top of the one kilometre wide island, giving a 360 degree view of the whole area. The route goes past a gentoo penguin colony (with one solitary adelie trying to make a nest!) and crosses two penguin highways. These are the routes the penguins take though the snow to get up and down between the sea and their nesting sites. It is possible to get very close to the penguins as they march up and down the hillside with extraordinary determination considering they really don’t appear to have the right body shape for the task in hand. But they certainly seemed to manage the climb far better than most of us in our heavy boots and many layers of clothing.
Our final landing on the continent is at Neko Harbour. This is the most perfect picture postcard setting. An almost enclosed bay with tide water glaciers, high mountains and icebergs. It was a difficult decision to leave the ship to go ashore as the landing site didn’t look as though it would provide anything more interesting than the view from the ship. How wrong can you be?
Several colonies of Gentoo penguins are within an easy walk of the landing site. They were all sitting on eggs since this is much further south than the colonies we had seen earlier in the voyage where the chicks had already hatched. There is a walk to a high point, but for the effort it took, it didn’t offer any better views than there were from the ship or along the shore line.
There is a long rocky beach giving the most spectacular views of the whole area, including the glacier which rumbles and often has avalanches or calvings, and also provides views of the penguins going into and returning from the sea.
This is an amazingly peaceful place. There is the opportunity to get away from fellow passengers for a while so you can take in the scenery and watch the antics of the penguins and the skuas trying to harass them on their nests.
On the return to the ship we took a short zodiac cruise through the sea ice giving an opportunity to see into the many small inlets from the main bay.
Neko Harbour is exactly as you imagine Antarctica should look. It is the perfect place to see the final view of the continent and having been exceptionally lucky with almost clear blue skies this is the best memory to take away from the voyage.
Our final stops are at Deception Island. The ship sails into the centre of a flooded caldera. The entrance is through Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow gap in the outer cone of the volcano where the sea flooded in and a difficult transit for the ship’s Captain.
Telefon Bay at the furthest end from the entrance provides the opportunity to walk to the top of a cinder cone where the most recent volcanic activity took place in 1970. At the time there were several research stations within the caldera and these had to be evacuated during the eruption. Current research shows that there continues to be a great deal of seismic activity around the area.
There is a walk to a high point, mostly on a loose shale path, giving a view of the whole island.
An extended walk then goes along part of the island and ends at the beach furthest away from the landing point. The beach has a number of chinstrap penguins but no obvious nesting sites.
Additional interest is from the huge number of skuas which come onto the beach to pick up the Krill which has been washed up at high tide.
The bay nearest the entrance is Whalers Bay which as the name suggests used to be a major site for whalers and, at the height of the whaling era, there were many whaling boats which came ashore here to land and process their catches. Later there was a whaling station, much of which still survives.
It is possible to wander round the buildings which have now been derelict for many years and are the home to nesting Kelp gulls.
In good weather there is an extended hike from the beach up to a high point, this passes Neptune’s Window (a look out area where it is said the first ever view of the Antarctic Continent was made). This is a challenging hike and (certainly in poor visibility conditions) does not seem necessary except for the exercise, since there is plenty to see and do at beach level.
And finally we are back on the ship for the Drake Passage crossing. With fair weather and light winds this is a two day crossing. We hope to be able to take a slight detour and make our way via Cape Horn before finally reaching Ushuaia and the end of the most amazing voyage.
A REALLY COOL TRIP – FINAL THOUGHTS
For us the final leg across the Drake Passage provided time for reflection on the sights and experiences we had had. It seems that everyone who makes the voyage across the Drake Passage starts it with some trepidation that the winds and weather will provide a tough ride. This time someone was smiling benignly over us and the crossing was much less difficult than our earlier experience from South Georgia.
Returning home is always bitter sweet – it is good to be back and see everyone and be able to finally empty the suitcase, but it is also sad to leave behind people you have met and the places and adventures you have had. This whole voyage was simply amazing. Admittedly, we were blessed with some superb weather which allowed us to land at all of the most significant places. But the itinerary, facilities on the ship, expedition team’s professionalism & knowledge and the scenery & wildlife were altogether awesome.
We do have Simon at Antarctica Bound to thank for finding us the exact itinerary that we wanted – all our wishes and none of the things that we did not want to do. For an expedition like this it is essential that you are taking a ‘package’ that fits with what you need and this is something that Antarctica Bound was unbelievably good at finding for us.
The voyage on a ship like this is not something we would automatically want to do. We are much more likely to try and undertake trips on our own. But it is not possible to go to Antarctica on your own, so be aware that you are going to be with a large group of people (almost 24/7) for the entire voyage. It was clear that Quark and the expedition team understands that there are many people who generally avoid group travel and want to have their own space and solitude and this was provided on many of the landings – it really is nice to get away from your fellow travelers some of the time and enjoy the serenity of the surroundings, even if the penguins don’t always provide peace and quiet!
Reflecting on the whole experience we have tried to think about anything we would do differently. The main consideration has to be what you want to see. If you are interested in wildlife – penguins, seals and sea birds – then the essential places to visit are the Falklands and South Georgia. These provide wildlife and birds in abundance whilst the Antarctic Peninsula has relatively few.
If, on the other hand, you have more interest in seeing ice – icebergs, glaciers and snow landscapes, then it is the Antarctic Peninsula that should be top of the list. For us the mixture of both wildlife and ice was the draw and we cannot fault the opportunities we had.
A few other thoughts and tips: (As mentioned previously) Quark provides each passenger with a wonderful warm and heavy duty Parka jacket (OK so it is bright yellow….) and this is yours to keep. Unfortunately, very many of our fellow passengers had to leave theirs behind because there was no way it would fit in their luggage. We had read about this before we left home and packed a fold up duffel bag which was big enough to fit both our jackets for the journey home. A great reminder of the trip, if not entirely fashionable. Mind you, down there it seems to be the fashion choice!
Whatever your good intentions you will eat way more than you think you should! There is food available almost all day long and meal times become both a social event and a time regulator. Without going to excess, it is important to make sure you do eat well. The landings can be physically challenging and just keeping warm burns up calories.
Keeping warm is also very important – and the old adage about layers is exactly right here. Prior to every landing it is important to work out what you are going to be doing (sitting with a penguin colony or hiking up a mountain in deep snow) and layer up accordingly. Once you are ashore there is no going back and carrying excess clothing because you are too hot is a pain. And, yes, your breath does freeze (on clothing, at least….
Waiting to get off the ship is also a necessary evil. Landings are done by group and you need to be ready as soon as you are called. Very often this meant sitting in the cabin (there isn’t enough room for everyone to wait by the gangway) with many layers of clothes on, including gloves and hats and life jacket and just waiting. It sounds awful, but you get used to it and soon manage to time exactly when to put layers on depending on when your group is going to be called.
Of course there is going to be downtime. Sailing from South Georgia to the South Shetland Islands is between two and three days and although the expedition team do fill up some of this time with lectures there is also a great deal of time when there is nothing organized. This is perfect time for downloading photographs, catching up on sleep or reading – and actually it doesn’t seem like there is lots of spare time. Unfortunately, the Sea Adventurer doesn’t have really good communal spaces to sit. The bar/lounge is not set up particularly well for either lectures or socializing and the only other area is the library which was small and most people only used it to check emails. Perhaps this is why we all spent so long in the dining room at meal times!
Finally, don’t forget that your whole trip is weather dependent. And the weather in the Southern Ocean changes literally hour by hour. This can mean that the whole days plan has to be rearranged at very short notice and you might not be able to land (or even get to) some of the places that were on the itinerary. In this regard the expedition leader on our voyage worked incredibly hard to fulfill the itinerary and, where this was not possible, to find alternatives which provided similar experiences. But it is important to be flexible and accept that the ship’s crew and the expedition team aim to provide the best experiences but only when and where it is safe to do so.
Would we do it again? Now we have been bitten by the bug (you really can’t see too many penguins!), we can’t wait to go back. Walking round Ushuaia after disembarking the ship, we commented that it would be quite easy to get back onboard and take our chances with the Drake Passage once more just to get to Antarctica again.
About the author
Northwinds Photography comprises husband and wife team, Dave and Dawn Wilson. Their passion is for photographing the wildlife and natural landscapes of the world.
Dave’s experience to date has been concentrated in North America where he recently completed a project to visit and photograph in all 58 US National Parks.
Dawn’s focus has been in Africa where she has been able to collect an extensive library of images of her favorite big cats among others.
The Antarctic, and surrounding environs of South Georgia and The Falklands, have long been a wish list item as the variety of photographic opportunities on offer is unparalleled, and unique. The list of ‘want-to-see’ items is naturally pretty extensive. Our hope, however, is to be able to expand our photographic horizons; experience and, hopefully, capture the magic of the location and the creatures that inhabit this inhospitable land; and to enrich our understanding and appreciation for the beauty and diversity of planet Earth.
All the team at Antarctica Bound would like to extend their thanks to David and Dawn for sharing their experience and photography with us. All photographs courtesy of Northwind Photography.