by Judith Clarke
The harshest environment in the world. The frozen continent. A land where strutting penguins and barking seals brave the coldest of winters and screaming katabatic winds. These were the images of Antarctica engraved on my mind, drawn from nature programs that told stories of early explorers like Ernest Shackleton who conquered the White Continent. I was excited. Soon, I too would conquer this surreal land, setting foot where only few have dared to go.
I wasn’t alone in my excitement. From the minute I boarded the MV Discovery in Ushuaia with a just over four hundred other adventure seekers, I knew that we had fared much better than the early explorers. We were heading to Antarctica in comfort and style.
She is an older ship, the MV Discovery, but she wears her age with grace. Void of the glitz and glamour of today’s mega-liners, I find her cozy and inviting. I had been warned of the frequently changing moods of the Drake Passage but was assured by everyone I met, from my cabin steward to the dining-room waiter, that if I followed the rule and took my meds early enough, I would be fine. I am armed — ginger tablets, ginger candies, Meclizine, et al. The Drake is in a good mood tonight — in less than 24 hours the White Continent will come into view.
A hundred documentaries and movies about Antarctica and its lovable penguins could never do justice to the magnificence and sheer stark beauty that lie before me on my first Antarctica morning, as I stand on deck, staring at the endless glacier beyond.
In the distance, I spot little red dots floating on what appears to be a black sheet of rubber dwarfed by the immense glaciers in the background. Soon the reds resolve into people, ten in a Zodiac craft. I hear that there are penguins, fur seals and an elephant seal somewhere at the base of the ice. I will have to wait my turn to see. And while I wait I’ll reminisce on the already amazing day I have had.
A couple of humpback whales just aft, starboard, propel me out of my cabin, layered-up with camera ready to shoot in the early morning. I heard they are there but all I see is a bit of surf too far away to be anything but a breaking wave. But wait — just there, a slight movement — the pair exhale, and for a second I see them disappearing in the distance.
“Whales,” someone shouts, “portside!” Grabbing my camera bag and racing up on deck, I arrive just in time to see the black of their backs, breaking the surface. Click. Missed it, I’m sure. Well, not quite — a group of porpoising penguins are just beneath me. Click. And a fur seal glides out and back into the water. Click. Missed it!
“Aaah! Did you see that?” Of course not! I turn just in time to see a baby humpback, now within clear sight, put on a show, breaching five times as if he or she knows we’re watching. Click. Click. Click. I’m sure someone caught that shot — just not me.
Sightseeing: Sublime and Guaranteed
Discovery World Cruises promises two landings on Antarctica, but they are very careful to point out that all landings are weather and ice conditions permitting. Today, we are unable to make a landing, but sightseeing while cruising aboard Zodiac-style crafts is a sure bet. Following an efficient color-coded system, we board and, under the guidance of an expert driver, head out into the icy-cold waters. Hundreds of gentoo penguins and seals on the volcanic beach, and the sounds of a calving glacier somewhere out of sight, make it all worthwhile.
When I told my friends that I would be cruising Antarctica many wondered why. In their minds I would be spending days looking at ice and penguins. They were wrong. The views are breathtaking like nowhere else on earth. Massive blue icebergs float by, bluer than they should be; volcanic islands disappear into clouds; brilliant white ice contrasts with dark landscapes; lazy seals drift by on ice floes; and scores of seabirds fill the skies.
I can’t feel my toes—I hope they’re still there — but my mind is as clear as the crystal waters around Paradise Harbor where we make our first landing on day four. Here, in the midst of colossal glaciers, stinky gentoos, raucous seals, and shades of blue ice, I find myself among the men who occupy the Chilean station. There are others with me, of course, but except for the penguins and cormorants picking their way around me, I am alone in my thoughts.
Peter Carey, Discovery’s expedition leader, takes us to where an “albino” (not truly albino, he says) penguin stands out from the crowd, its all-white feathers covering areas where black feathers never reported for duty. He doesn’t seem to notice the difference, and I’m not sure if his black-and-white tuxedoed family and friends do either. They seem oblivious to many things, really, including the putrid stench of guano that fills the rocks, pathways and surrounding air and stains their white feathers.
After a quick stop at the souvenir shop for a certificate as proof that I was here, and a thorough scrub of the boots to remove the mud and guano, we head back to the MV Discovery, slightly hidden in the fog that’s rolling in. A fur seal strikes the perfect pose on an ice floe as we go by — I think he’s done this before. He must be from an L.A. movie set.
As we turn away from the ice-filled entrance to Lemaire Channel and head towards the equally spectacular Neumayer Channel, I realize my day is far from over. It’s 6 p.m. and the towering glaciers on either side of the ship reflect with intensity the stunning blue skies and blinding light from the sun, still too far up in the sky to contemplate setting.
It’s chilly out here on deck, but these sights cannot be missed. “Once in a lifetime is worth a little frostbite,” I remind myself as my fingers forget that they are attached to my hands. And so I continue on. Click. Click. Click. I stay until the sun sets. Glorious reds, oranges, pinks and purples slipping behind stark white and black mountains and burnishing the ocean in our wake. It is 9:45 p.m. and the last tinges of color are beginning to disappear in the distance. Ahead of us — a shadow. Dan, an Astronomer, tells us it’s the shadow of the Earth. We can see it because of where we are. Close to the very bottom of the world.
And Don’t Miss the Seals
I came for the scenery and fell in love with the seals. Cute fur seals, “blubberous” leopard seals, gray Weddell seals. Today I’ll get my fill as we land on the rocky shores of Half Moon Bay. It is another amazingly beautiful day in Antarctica. The temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is no wind today. I pull the hood from my head – I’m slightly overdressed, I think.
Everyone rushes towards the penguins; I head for the seals — lots of them. Okay, so we didn’t exactly rush. It’s hard to rush when you’re climbing 30 feet uphill with fresh snow underfoot, but with the excitement in the air, it seems like a rush.
With my last five minutes of videotape, I follow a seal as he waddles along. Panning out towards the beach in the distance, I am just in time to see a few nudge each other. My timer goes to zero and I switch to still shots. My digital camera was a wise purchase. Click. Click. Click. A boat, wrecked and slowly decomposing, sits on the rocky beach, and the evidence of the food chain in action — a skua gull de-boning a penguin carcass — is deeply etched in my mind.
The Drake Passage is in a mood today. I stay indoors, swallow some Meclizine and read my book. Tomorrow, the Chilean Fjords, a land with spectacles of its own. Magnificent glaciers will beckon, such as Romanche Glacier where I’ll step into the Jacuzzi for my “champagne with the glacier in background while hanging in the Jacuzzi” shot. It will be my last day on board and that photo will be number 700 “and something.” I’ve decided to keep them all!
Reluctantly, I’ll wave goodbye as I walk down the gangway towards the waiting airport transfer, my bright orange parka tucked under my arm. I will have replaced my secondhand, celluloid images with new ones. Images of stunning scenery, pristine waters, rare wildlife and smiling faces, a bit wind-burned but thrilled to have been a part of such an awe-inspiring experience.
For more information on Voyages of Discovery and it's Unique Ocean Voyages, call 1-866-623-2689 or visit www.discoveryworldcruises.com
Antarctica – Travel Tips
Getting there. – Most ships sail to Antarctica from Ushuaia, located at the southernmost tip of Argentina. There are regularly scheduled flights to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires; however, unpredictable weather conditions in Ushuaia can often cause delays. Your best bet is to book your cruise line’s Antarctica package that includes pre- and post- nights in Buenos Aires and charter air to Ushuaia.
When to go. – The austral spring and summer, from late November to late February, offer the only opportunities to see an abundance of wildlife in Antarctica. November to early December coincides with late spring. At this time, penguins engage in complex courtship rituals and active nest building. Elephant and fur seals claim their breeding territories as the pack ice begins to thaw. Mid-December to January, penguin chicks hatch, seal pups can be spotted and whales, humpback and minke, migrate through the waters. Late January to February sees the end of the short summer season. Fledging penguins begin to explore and snow algae are blooming brightly.
What to wear. – Aboard the MV Discovery, everyone is provided with a bright red expedition parka ideally suited to the environment in Antarctica. Beneath the parka, several lightweight layers offer greater flexibility and better insulation than one or two thick layers. You may want to try some modern fabrics such as polypropylene fleece or pile fiber. Clothing designed with zippers, collars and drawstrings are easier to open when you are walking and exerting energy and can be easily closed when you are resting. Wellington boots or similar knee-high rubber boots are essential for keeping your feet dry and warm during landings. Rain pants or simple nylon exercise pants with an elastic waist to go over your own clothing will keep you dry while on the Zodiac. On board, temperatures are comfortable — a light jacket will suffice.
Landings. — Ice and weather conditions in Antarctica can change from one minute to the next. Landings ashore and sightseeing by sea may be affected. Be prepared to be flexible. There are many landing sites, each offering wildlife and unique scenery. The ship’s captain will make the final determination on where and when landings will occur in the interest of safety.