Antarctica is one of the last great untamed continents on planet Earth. Often, simply referred to as just “The Ice”, Antarctica is located at the most southerly point of the globe and the famously cold, windy and dry climate makes it an enigma to most. Previously it was only ever ventured by great expeditioners, and relived with either heroic or harrowing stories, but for the last three decades it has also been explored by the most dedicated of globetrotters. Vast and largely uninhabited, the best way to travel through the ice sheets of Antarctica is to set sail on a cruise, which I was fortunate enough to do back in 2013.
However, with such an immense continent at your helm, it’s important to know what each region offers, how they differ and how you can optimise the time you have there. So, in an effort to expand my horizons and truly discover the depths of Antarctica, I sat down with James Turner from Aurora Expeditions, one of our partners on the ground, to relive my trip and discover what else lies beyond. Like most, I started my journey in the most northerly part of the Antarctic continent, the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Peninsula area is probably the most popular region as it offers great access for shorter itineraries, along with some of the most favourable weather conditions. Visiting this part of Antarctica you can expect to be greeted with fjords, glaciers and a maze of sheltered channels and inlets. The perfect habitat for penguin rookeries and seal colonies; there is an abundance of wildlife sightings and impressive scenery to be enjoyed.
The Antarctic Peninsula is most traditionally accessed by ship and the journey takes a little under two days, cruising south from Ushuaia across the infamous Drake Passage – the point at which the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. The conditions you experience as you cross can vary a great deal with the Passage affectionately known as either the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake”. While most will naturally want to experience calm conditions going across, from experience I must say, it does add to the sense of achievement if you do battle a few waves on the journey.
As you sail across to Antarctica you will spend the time on board getting to know your expedition team who will give a series of fascinating lectures and show various films of what you can expect once you reach Antarctica. However, if you are short on time, or braving the Drake Passage isn’t for you, then there is always the option of an air-cruise expedition. Charter flights depart from Punta Arenas in Southern Chile and the flight is just two hours to King George Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula where you will meet your ship.
Once you reach your destination, whichever way you choose to get there, you can indulge in a number of activities. Enjoy Zodiac cruises in smaller speed boats that allow you to explore shallow coastlines and secluded bays, and marvel at wildlife encounters both on and offshore guided by the onboard naturalists. If the daily landings and boat rides aren’t enough, you even have the chance to spend a night sleeping under the stars on the ice itself, surrounded by the mass numbers of (rather loud) penguins. You can also switch some of your time ashore for the adrenaline rush of kayaking the open waters, giving you the chance to get truly up close and personal with the wildlife and fascinating ice sculptured scenery. For the really brave, don your best swimmers for a polar plunge – a glass of warming whiskey waiting ashore for you after!
The variety of experiences on offer was an unexpected element of my trip, but it is exactly what you should be looking for when planning. Some operators are fantastic for thrilling Antarctic adventure experiences such as deep-sea diving or snow camping; other boats are perfect for a more gentle and erudite exploration with world-class lectures and Guest Speakers on board. All the boats we work with in Antarctica have been vetted to meet our high standards of crew, guiding and service. However, selecting the perfect exploration vessel is crucial not only to make the most of your time, but also to ensure you are doing your part to minimise the impact on the environment.
The IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) already has in place strict rules that prevent more than 100 people being on land at one site at any given time; so you will never be there with crowds of people, waddling like one large penguin colony for the best view. Another factor we take into consideration is the vessel itself; when I spoke with James during the summer, he explained that at Aurora Expeditions they have designed their ships using Ulstein X-Bow Hulls. As well as ensuring smoother sailing across the Drake Passage, this design ensures lower fuel consumption and lower air emissions, both of which are hugely important to us here at True Travel.
“Towering black rocks that punctuate the landscape contrast with the shocking white of the ice and snow”
My meeting with James during one of the hottest summers on record in the UK couldn’t have been more antonymic to the bitter chill from my time on the ice. But as the whirring air conditioning cooled me I was transported back to snow-capped landscapes and endless ice sheets that bleed blue hues from water, to land, to sky; and I was reminded how much more there is to see beyond just the Peninsula.
James explained that to get the most of this normally ‘once in a lifetime’ trip you will want a minimum of two weeks for your Antarctic cruising experience. In addition to the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea and South Shetland Islands are usually ‘must-visit’ and typically you can expect to be sailing for around 12 days to explore the regions together. Heading further east to the Weddell Sea brings with it more challenging sailing conditions and more dramatic landscapes compared with the Peninsula, this means that fewer boats will visit so it can feel quieter and more secluded. The South Shetland Islands are about 200 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
There are more than 20 wild islands in the archipelago, including King George Island, where several scientists and research stations are based. Several whales, seals and penguins frequent these coastal shores providing incredible opportunities for wildlife photography. Over 80% of the islands are glaciated, and the towering black rocks that punctuate the landscape contrast with the shocking white of the ice and snow.
If you have a bit longer to spend, then be sure to maximise your time with a cruise that includes a visit to South Georgia and The Falklands. What sets South Georgia apart from the Peninsula are the vast swathes of King Penguin colonies and the beaches lined with Antarctic Fur Seals and Elephant Seals, sights you will not see in other parts of Antarctica. Anyone with a keen interest in the history of the exploration of Antarctica will have the opportunity to trace the history of Sir Ernest Shackelton’s Endurance Expedition of 1914 and learn how he was able to miraculously survive and traverse the challenging terrain of South Georgia to ultimately save his stranded crew. The Falklands are typically visited as you sail back towards Ushuaia in Argentina. Time here will allow you to experience a huge variety of birdlife and most notably the diverse penguin species that enjoy the slightly warmer waters.
Antarctica expeditions are complex and multi-dimensional in nature, with such large removal from Western amenities you are truly escaping to the sub-zero wilderness. But, with this comes an eye-opening, breathtaking voyage, taking you through a continent frozen in time, where wildlife flourishes and the horizons are a sea of untouched beauty. It has not escaped our minds to protect this immaculate environment from the harsh realities of the modern world – that is why we choose to work only with those that share our affinity for positive impact travel and enable you to discover a world beyond the realms with no trace but your footprints.’
Spend 1 night in Ushuaia before cruising for 12 nights around the Antarctic Peninsula and Weddle Sea onboard an AE Expeditions ship, including all meals and non-premium drinks, shore excursions, zodiac cruises, educational lectures and guiding as well as gratuities for ship’s crew, from £11,660 per person.
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