When initially confronted with narrowing the highlights of Antarctica from my recent voyage down to just five, I immediately thought it would be impossible. The entire journey consisted of highlight, after highlight, after highlight – the mind actually boggled.
But having returned home, and after some time to digest the experience and let it all soak in – I guess the experiences that remain the most top of mind would have to be the best.
Let me preface this by saying that some of these are not ones I expected. When the anticipation was building towards our 11-day Classic Antarctica voyage with Chimu Adventures (on which we took more than 80 Places We Go viewers!), what I pictured largely revolved around expansive white landscapes, penguins (of course) and freezing temperatures. It was very much ‘big picture’.
Yes, of course we got all of the above, but there was also so much more.
One of the things that stood out to me was the diversity in the landscapes. Antarctica is not just sheets of white ice as far as the eye can see (though there is that too). There are huge mountains, volcanoes, rocky outcrops that rise from the sea, visible vegetation, pebbly beaches, bays as still as lakes and of course, those incredible icebergs.
We never tired of looking at the scenery around us, it was always different, always new and always breathtaking.
And it was those icebergs that were one of my absolute highlights.
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first sighting of icebergs. They literally represent the fact that you are at the very end of the earth – and make the environment seem like another planet.
We woke up on one of our first mornings at Portal Point, in the northeast of the Reclus Peninsula, and our ship, the MV Ushuaia, was surrounded by them. They floated in the still sea like melting ice in a drink, and their colours in shades of icy blue were simply astonishing.
During our journey, we continued to encounter these amazing pieces of nature – one even hitting our boat (let’s call it a gentle nudge – and gave us all a reassuring reminder of what a stable ship we were on). When you peered over the railing of the deck and down into the water, the meaning of ‘tip of the iceberg’ had never been more apparent. You could literally see the enormous scale of the ice under the surface, dwarfing the size of the berg that was visible above the water.
Passing them as we sailed around the Antarctic Peninsula and you couldn’t help but keep at least one eye on the water the entire time. We would pass icebergs as tall and long as the ship itself, and closer to land, penguins and seals would use the smaller ones as pontoons or even an icy waterslide!
The wildlife is something that is on everyone’s agenda when travelling to the white continent, and let me tell you, they exceed your expectations.
From your first landing in the South Shetland Islands to the islands and bays around the Antarctica Peninsula, penguins will calmly wander in and around you like you are one of them. On Danco Island we were welcomed by up to 2000 pairs of Gentoo penguins – one of the largest colonies in Antarctica.
They waddled without a care as far as the eye could see, and many weren’t camera shy either. As a rule, we were not to approach them or go within five metres of them, but the penguins own curiosity meant they were not shy in approaching us, and many of them had zero qualms about walking right up to our feet or lenses.
Whales continuously surprised me in Antarctica. From humpback whales popping up front in front of our zodiacs and ushering us to land as we travelled for our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula, to more frolicking in the waters of Iceberg Alley where we could simply watch the display from our zodiacs. Seals also were a regular and carefree sighting – splashing in the waters close to shore alongside penguins and following our ship as we set sail.
The wildlife was an almost constant companion – and a continual reminder of what an extraordinary land you were in.
An environment like no other
Going anywhere on this planet without seeing road signs, traffic lights, corner shops, or green trees, is extremely rare. Add to this a complete absence of the noises you are used to – cars, phones, tools – and there is no doubting you are somewhere very unique.
The stillness is almost overwhelming – you stand on the rocky beaches of the Peninsula, surrounded by icy mountain ranges and slushy icebergs, and strain to listen but you simply hear nothing. Nothing that is, except for the sounds of nature. Water lapping at the shore, migratory bird calls, penguins calling to each other and of course, the odd ‘click’ of someone’s camera.
A lack of power lines, cables, vehicles and more totally sever your connection to the ‘real world’ and it is far from scary. It is totally liberating. You are no longer in ‘your’ world – you are in the hands of Mother Nature and this is a land that belongs to the wildlife around you – you are simply a very privileged visitor.
Swimming is definitely a highlight
The sheer thrill of undressing on the ice and plunging into the Antarctic waters is enough to create a memory as priceless as they come. In the sheltered and safe waters of Deception Bay, where so many early explorers took refuge, dozens of us got our gear off and dared the icy waters. Adrenalin filled water fights and splashing ensued and it was actually hard to get your head around where you were. Truly a pinch-me moment!
You can truly be comfortable in Antarctica
It’s hard to imagine being truly comfortable in an environment as hostile as Antarctica. Approaching the journey, you brace yourself for freezing conditions, basic facilities and a total removal from civilisation – which in today’s world, can be confronting.
The reality is that the polar voyage is a lot more comfortable than you might anticipate!
We travelled on board the MV Ushuaia, which started its life as a research vessel in the service of the United States National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Agency. It was then transformed into an ice-strengthened Polar vessel after a complete refurbishment.
With 46 cabins, a large dining room where jovial (and ample) meals were held each day, a lounge and bar area (where things got even more jovial), a conference room with multi-media equipment for onboard lectures, a library, infirmary and open-bridge policy, there was more than enough room and comfort on board for everyone, and it was always a warm and inviting place to spend our time.
On the ample deck, we could watch the crashing seas of the Drake Passage, or the icebergs float past on glass-like seas. And the largely South American crew put on a traditional Argentinian Barbecue for us, the weather not quite as bracing as we expected, with some of the crew even wearing t-shirts outside!
A ratio of almost 1 crew member to 2 passengers ensured we were well taken care of, from those that expertly navigated the vessel around the infamous waters, to those that cooked, cleaned, served, guided and lectured. They all became our friends and the atmosphere on board was one of complete unity – especially created out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience we were sharing.
As for being out on the ice itself? Absolute care was taken to ensure we were well prepared with the clothing we needed to ensure we stayed warm and comfortable at all times. In the end, the ‘cold’ was not even a factor – the experience simply took over.
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