That is usually the first question I was asked when I told people I was going to Antarctica. People would ask, “Why Antarctica?” Of course, I would answer, “Why not? Then my husband can say he has been to every continent and every state.” (I have a few more states to go) I am drawing the line on a goal to say, “I’ve been to every country.” Seeing Antarctica is an experience that is truly rare; in a given year, only about 70,000 tourists visit Antarctica, and less than 2% of the world’s population has been to all 7 continents.
A Completely Different Experience
A trip to the Antarctic region is a completely different experience and quite unlike any other trip I have ever been on. That was one of the draws for me to make this trip. I embarked on this great adventure with my husband and another couple this past November. We booked our cruise on the L’Austral, one of the Ponant expedition fleet of ships that depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southernmost tip of South America.
The attraction for this 16-day cruise is that it stops at the Falkland and South Georgia Islands on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula. Both island groups are known for the opportunity to see and experience an extraordinary array of birds, penguins, whales, and seals.
We spent our first day at sea traveling to the Falklands learning about the environment, weather patterns, animals and the flora we would be seeing upon arrival. This is what sets this cruise apart from any other; It is not like a Caribbean cruise with casinos, swimming pools, Broadway entertainment, and fine restaurants. It is a small ship – approximately 200 passengers – with a highly experienced Expedition Team on board that gives daily briefings on what to expect at our next destination (weather, landing sites, expected opportunities for animal viewing) as well as an on-going historical perspective of that region and the people and personalities that made the history. This team also lands first at each location and marks our path and prepares it for the passengers.
Island Hopping “All Ashore!”
Each time we went ashore, (often twice per day in a given area) it would be on a Zodiac inflatable rubber boat that holds 8 people and is powered by an outboard motor. There is a limitation on the number of people that can be on land at a given time so we were organized into groups that would embark and disembark on a time schedule.
Our first stop was Grave Cove, Falkland Islands, where we got our first up-close look at penguins and the albatrosses. Because it is early Spring, both the bird species are nesting. We spent about 90 minutes strolling around the bay, amazed by not just the animals, but how close they were to us! Along with the nesting birds, we saw native bushes called gorse that had budded out providing spectacular yellow flowers that flow over the rolling hills that make up the landscape of this island. While at Grave Cove, we also visited a sheep farm run by the Delignieres family, one of the few permanent residents of the Falkland Islands, who raise 40,000 sheep that produce Merino wool.
Our next stop was Fortuna Bay, South Georgia where we got our first sightings of King penguins. We also saw birds such as the snow petrel, antarctic tern, and sheathbill along with elephant and fur seals. This is not a zoo, folks! It is an incredible experience to see seals and penguins in their natural habitat and to be able to walk amongst them.
Naturally it is their home and we give way to where they want to travel and we step aside, but literally, I was standing 10 feet away from hundreds of penguins and seals with dozens of birds flying overhead!
One of our stops was Moltke Harbour, South Georgia where there is estimated to be over 150,000 mated King penguin pairs. Such a sight to behold that I cannot even describe it and to hear them call out to each other constantly is something I will never forget.
After 10 days of cruising, we reach King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, which features colonies of nesting Adélie and Chinstrap penguins. The Shetland Islands are a group of Antarctic islands that lie about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. On this island, there are 8 research stations represented by different countries that do studies on earth’s climate history and signs of a changing environment. We visited a Polish research station and talked with college interns who are based here for 6 months out of the year. The biggest complaint from them is lack of communication back home and loneliness.
Along the way, as we cruised from place to place, we also sighted quite a few whales, some fairly close to the ship. The crew and Expedition Team did a great job of always being on alert for these opportunities and the Captain would slow the ship which would allow us to spend more time watching and taking pictures.
One of the highlights of my vacation was the ability to boat through chunks of floating ice on a zodiac boat through Cierva Cove. This gave us a chance to get up close to the icebergs in all their brilliance. The water and air were so still, you could hear the icebergs moving and watching the penguins jumping up out of the water onto icebergs was amazing to see. The landscape and the stillness were stunning and a day I will never forget.
Antarctica at Last
Finally the day I had been waiting for; to actually step on the great White Continent! We literally stood and enjoyed the air, the snow, the majesty of this place. A few penguins and a few birds are all that we saw on this desolated piece of land that is so magnificent. But wait, there’s more!
As the L’Austral turned north to head back to Ushuaia after our last landing in Antarctica, we were treated to an experience that even the most senior of the Expedition Crew said was rare. A pod of 5 killer whales (Orcas) surfaced just off to the side of the ship and the Captain immediately slowed the ship. The whole pod slowly approached the stern (rear) of the ship and literally spent over 15 minutes floating there and seemed very curious about us. The stern deck is very close to the water so you could literally stand 5 feet above the water and look down at them! (The water is very clear—you can easily see 20 feet down) Finally, the largest male swam up the port (left) side, diving and rising to the surface, and eventually, they all swam away.
Trip of a Lifetime
In summary, our days cruising “The Great Austral Loop” that took us from Ushuaia to Antarctica and back again was filled with zodiac excursions in pristine waters surrounded by a landscape filled with icebergs, ice floes, and ancient glaciers. We spent days going on ice-walks, exploring penguin colonies which included the Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap, Rock-hopper, and King Penguins and closely experiencing fur and elephant seals, along with bird watching, seeing Humpback, Fin and Orca whales, some even swimming alongside our ship.
For me, my husband and our friends, this was a trip of a lifetime!