All ticked off

The seven continents that is, not me. Courtesy of a G Adventures cruise on the MS Expedition, on 5 December 2011 I ticked Antarctica off the list of continents still to visit.


Buying the ticket, meeting in the car park, getting bussed onto the quay, walking up the gang plank. At each stage my Antarctic adventure became more real. Finally on-board and with the mooring lines cast off I was really and truly going to Antarctica.


While we ate our first meal on-board the ship cruised purposefully along the Beagle Channel. With Argentina on the port side, Chile to starboard, and an assortment of sea birds including brown albatrosses following behind us we sailed towards the Drake Passage. This was to be our first test of ship and passengers. With no land anywhere between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic peninsula the wind can circulate the globe indefinitely, dragging the sea with it and whipping up monstrous swells and waves. As the sun set we approached the end of the Beagle Channel and the start of this infamous crossing. The wind had been blowing steadily from the West at about 30-40 knots for the previous twenty four hours. Swells of eight to ten metres were forecast which would make the expected forty eight hour crossing somewhat interesting.


In actuality we were lucky; the swell wasn’t as bad as forecast. On the first full day of the crossing it peaked at about five metres and on the second was an average of two to three metres. It was sufficiently interesting on the first day that during meal times the captain altered course by about 30 degrees to make the ride smoother. Effectively this traded some of the relatively fast side to side rolling for slower front to back pitching up and down. For anyone feeling seasick this was of little comfort but it did help limit the number of people falling over and plates getting dropped. Those suffering from seasickness generally hid in the their cabins for most of the time while the rest of us enjoyed lectures on the flora and fauna of Antarctica and three hearty meals every day.


I hadn’t really considered before departure that I was going on a “cruise” and all that that entailed. Demonstrating my goal-oriented techie past I was focussed on the objectives: going to Antarctica, seeing the ice and wildlife. I hadn’t thought about the “fringe benefits” including three excellent eat as much as you want meals every day, sauna, gym, library, endless tea, coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits, and a nice cabin. After months of travelling as a backpacker it required a positive mental effort not to adopt the typical “eat as much as you can because this has got to last all day” attitude to every meal. It would have been very easy to put on several pounds and there wouldn’t have been enough hours in the cruise to work them all off in the gym or sweat them off in the sauna.


About forty eight hours after setting off, around teatime on day three, we reached the South Shetland islands. It was a lovely evening and as the sun set and a beautiful half moon hung in the sky over Half Moon Island we made our first landing in Antarctica. We were greeted by Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, lots of them, and a solitary Adelie penguin. There are some photos in my Antarctic cruise 2011 set at Flickr.


For the next couple of days we visited different landing sites in the South Shetlands and at Telefon Point in the caldera at Deception Island about half the passengers took part in a Polar plunge. The water was a bracing -1.5 degrees Celsius when those so inclined stripped down to swimming costumes and ran into the sea from the beach. More fool them! They ran out a lot faster than they ran in. On all of our landings we saw penguin rookeries, the snow stained red (and occasionally green) with guano. At this time of year the penguins are mating and waiting for the snow to melt so they can lay their eggs. On the fifth day we reached our furthest point south, at 65 degrees 11 minutes. Our path was blocked by ice so we turned round and headed back north.


On the morning of our sixth day we made our first landing on the Antarctic peninsula at Paradise Harbour and I considered I had achieved my bucket list goal “Walk on Antarctica”. We were met by yet more penguins and at this stage I started to feel penguined-out. Only three penguin species are encountered in the areas we had been visiting: Gentoos, Adelies and Chinstraps. King and Emperor penguins are only found in South Georgia and much further south on the Antarctic continent. Whilst spoilt for penguins we didn’t see many mammals. A couple of times the weather was too inclement for a landing so zodiac (inflatable boat) cruises were offered instead. These were the best chances to see an occasional Weddell seal or Crabeater seal hauled out on the ice. On one cruise a few boats were lucky enough to see a Leopard seal. And on our landing at Arctowski base we saw five juvenile elephant seals. A few times whales were spotted in the distance but unless you were already out on deck with binoculars at the ready you were unlikely to see them, or see them well. Sea birds often shadowed the ship and the staff naturalist identifed twenty six species.


The weather was mostly kind. Air temperatures were generally around zero to plus five Celsius, the seas around the landing sites were calm, the sky was mostly grey but a couple of times we had amazing blue skies with glorious sunshine and fluffy white clouds providing interest. The wind was the villain of the piece. On the open water it often blew at a steady 30-50 knots producing a very severe wind chill effect. Fortunately most of our landing sites were pretty well sheltered and we weren’t made too uncomfortable. In fact on one or two which involved uphill treks overheating was more likely to be a problem. Layers were the way to go, and thermals and down jackets were not required.


The star of the show for me was the ice: glaciers, icebergs and various forms of sea ice. The glaciers and icebergs were fantastic shades of blue. Fresh water and salt water ice alike creaked and groaned, crashed and banged as if they were telling a story. Sadly I didn’t see any big bergs being calved. The icebergs we saw were all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes and ranged in size from a few metres across to several hundred metres long. My favourite was about the size of the ship and we sailed past it during lunch one day when of course my camera was nowhere to hand. You can get an idea of some of the shapes and colours from my photos on Flickr.


The passengers came from all over the world: Chinese, Koreans, Australians, Americans, English, Slovenians, French, Germans and others. Some were there just for the cruise, others had been travelling before or would be travelling after the cruise. Ages ranged from early twenties to sixties with an average of about forty. Most of the 120 passengers had booked months in advance but at least fourteen had arrived in Ushuaia with no ticket and booked “last minute” in the four days prior to departure. All the last minute cruisers had paid US$3600.


Landings continued at various points along the peninsula and on the islands until day nine of the cruise. Our final planned landing was abandoned when the wind and ice conspired to make it impossible. Our attempt at a sea cruise instead was similarly thwarted by fog so we turned northwards once more and started back across the Drake Passage.


Our northerly passage was much easier than the southerly one; conditions on the second day of the crossing were almost calm enough to qualify for a “Drake Lake” label. Late in the afternoon of cruise day eleven we re-entered the Beagle Channel and four hours later were tied up on the quay in Ushuaia. Our cruise officially ended after breakfast the next morning when they kicked us off the ship. Many of us wondered where we could hide to stowaway on the afternoon departure. Unfortunately they’d know exactly who hadn’t left the ship because we had to sign out using the swipe cards we used on the landings to make sure everyone who left the ship was back on-board. And I’m pretty sure the sauna, lifeboats and zodiacs would be the first places they’d search for stowaways.


If funds permitted I’d do another Antarctic cruise in a heartbeat. In fact I’d do another three. The first would be around mid-January to see the penguin chicks, the second in March at the end of the season, and the third on an icebreaker right at the start of the season in November. Unfortunately they don’t and there’s no prospect of them doing so any time soon. Never mind, there are plenty of other places to go and things to do.


Summing the experience up in one word is very easy – awesome!


It’s not a word I use very often. Did you go anywhere or do anything awesome this year?

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4 Responses to “All ticked off”

  1. Mostlysane says:

    Ok that looks impressive. I have to say I’m jealous about that one. Important question though. Did you get to dance there? Or can I still aim to be the first to dance on every continent?

    • Mark says:

      Good question, Andy! No, I didn’t get to dance there. There was a bit of jive/salsa in the bar on the ship some nights. I think you have a worthy goal there. Good luck with it 🙂

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