Our Antarctica Adventure. Penguins waddle past our feet on packed snow paths called “penguin highways.” Their turn to feed, they dive into the sea, while on a hillside rookery their mate sits on a rock nest holding soon-to-be-hatched eggs. The nesting areas are action-packed and noisy – calls to re-unite parents in the crowded environs, soft braying of snuggling couples, shrill squawks and wing flaps to ward off a skua swooping down intent on snatching an egg. Two species of penguins have rookeries in this area; Gentoo with their showy orange beaks and their Chinstrap cousins sporting a narrow band of black plumage around their white chins. Our cameras click at the antics of these wondrous creatures.
This is our first landing since embarking on the *Sea Spirit* with Poseidon Expeditions from the port of Ushuaia, known as “the end of the world” for its location on the most southern tip of South America. In deciding how to see this least-explored continent, we by-passed the companies with larger ships in favour of the *Sea Spirit* with a 114-passenger capacity, awarding us more personal contact with the expedition crew. Another important consideration was our ship’s super-stabilizing rudder in case of rough seas, especially through the Drake Passage known for some of the most turbulent waters on the planet.
Oft called the “Dreaded Drake,” we are relieved when our expedition leader Jonathon announces, “For our two-day crossing, it will be “Drake Lake,, with only four-metre waves.” Still, we need to find our sea legs and occasionally walk like drunken sailors, but nary one iota of sea-sickness to hinder our enjoyment of outstanding cuisine prepared by our chef and galley staff.
During our passage, time flies with safety procedure demonstrations and being fitted with muck boots, life vests and toasty bright red parkas (hmm, perhaps the colour of the latter is for crew members to spot any of us explorers who wander too far). A biosecurity task is completed; passing a mini-vacuum over all outer clothing and camera equipment brought along to free them from any organic material that may introduce a non-native species to the environment.
Enthralling presentations are in the mix of on-board activities; ranging from the wildlife we will see, to tales of early explorers who dared to brave the unforgiving Antarctic terrain. Most inspiring are Roald Amundsen, the first to reach the South Pole in 1911 and, a few years later, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s super-human endeavours that saved his men after their ship, *Endurance*, was trapped in ice and sank.
“Ahoy… land ahead!” The moment we’ve been waiting for – from our aforementioned first landing, we ease into a routine of the *Sea Spirit* moving forward while tucked in our comfy beds, and each morning and afternoon being whisked away in a Zodiac to a different South Shetland Island or Antarctic Mainland locale. December’s summer temperatures could not be better; ranging between -5°C and +9°C.
The dramatic landscapes are an endless source of chilling desolate beauty – gargantuan glaciers, cliffs draped in ice and snow with coal-black rock protruding through, flat areas and hills blanketed in stark whiteness. Chameleon icebergs shimmer in hues of aqua and turquoise under sombre skies, and morph into a startling translucent white in brilliant sunshine. We come away with a new glossary to describe the various types of ice, such as anchor, frazil and growler.
Our list of wildlife sightings expands daily. Penguins win for abundance; one rookery boasts over 5,000 penguin couples! Leopard and elephant seals lounge beside penguins on snowy slopes; in a bizarre quirk of nature, these flightless birds are safe on land from the same animals for which they are fair game for becoming a tasty meal when in the sea.
While on board ship, announcements such as, “Humpbacks feeding on the starboard side” send us spilling onto the deck to watch the gigantic maws of these titans scoop up krill as they surface, then round their backs to submerge with a resounding tail slap. By times, many winged species follow along riding the airwaves. A wandering albatross with a three-metre wingspan soaring above leaves me breathless. Just when we think each day can’t get any better – it does!
We witness man’s imprint at Port Lockroy, a 1944 British Naval Base restored as a museum. Insight is gleaned as to life back then; rough wool-blanketed bunks, hooks with the warmest gear of the day, a larder of canned goods with faded labels, and a communications room equipped with instruments to scour for enemy ships. The Antarctic Heritage Trust, dedicated to its preservation, is partly funded from souvenir sales, including post cards and stamps and a handy post box to mail the cards from Antarctic to anywhere in the world. Gleefully, we fill out a bunch with “wish you were here” sentiments for our family back home.
Other relics of mankind are haunting. From our Zodiac, we are close enough to reach out and touch the wrecked hull of a 3,433-ton ship, which caught fire in 1915 and was run aground to save men and supplies.
On Deception Bay, we mill around huge metal tanks, furnaces and worker huts of a former whaling factory established in 1906, which processed whale oil to be shipped around the world, until the species was almost extinct. Crosses eerily mark graves in this forsaken place.
Our island landings have all been incredible, but the ninth day of our journey is of stratospheric significance. For the first time, we step onto the Antarctic Mainland and begin our trek upon the Great White Continent. The snow is deep as we follow the long line of red parkas up the steep incline to spectacular mountain scenery from the top – a once in a lifetime surreal moment!
During our return voyage over the Drake (still reasonably calm), a vortex of gripping facts whirls through my mind. Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent. Including all islands and ice shelves, it is about the size of the US and Mexico combined, but the sea ice that builds around it in the southern winter increases its size by more than 50 per cent. It is the driest, windiest and coldest continent on the planet. Icy katabatic winds of over 160km/h sweep over the Transantarctic Mountains – the lowest temperature recorded was -89°C. There are valleys that receive no precipitation, whatsoever, and are almost as dry as the Sahara Desert. Few wildlife species brave an Antarctic winter; one is the remarkable empire penguin.
No humans live permanently on Antarctica, although there are always some people there; about 1,000 in winter, and around 3,500 in summer; mostly scientists and support staff. Another nonpareil aspect: No country owns Antarctica – in a treaty signed in 1959, previously claimant nations agreed to freeze their claims, indefinitely, with stipulations that the Antarctic be used for peaceful purposes only, and all scientific information shared.
Antarctica is oft called the “seventh and the last continent.” Having had the good fortune of previously visiting the other six world continents, it most definitely is this for us. Our face-splitting smiles as we disembark the *Sea Spirit* say it all, yet I can’t resist shouting, “Rick, we actually did it!” A lifelong dream fulfilled.
For IF YOU GO information, visit www.seniorlivingmag.com/articles/antarctica
More info on Antarctica;
Poseidon Expeditions: Polar Cruises, M/V Sea Spirit/ Antarctica
114-passenger capacity (ensures all landings – weather permitting), plus 14 expedition members versed in marine biology, ornithology, geology, history, plus 80 ship crew.
Opportunities are available for campouts on land, kayaking and polar plunges.
Cruises during Antarctica summers – November through March