Antarctica – Travel Review
by Nigel Berry
In the days of sail, only those that had rounded Cape Horn could wear a gold earring and eat with one foot on the table. I now know why.
Between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsular, two oceans meet in the turbulent 500 mile-wide Drake Passage. It’s a real test for those who dream of standing on the White Continent.
It is one and half times bigger than the USA. The UK would fit into it almost 60 times. Its largest ice shelf is roughly the size of France. It has 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater and 90 per cent of the world’s ice. Antarctica dispenses mind-boggling statistics at a rate as impressive as its vast expanses.
We board our 84-berth expedition ship the M.V Antarctic Dream in the Argentinean city of Ushuaia, the most southerly port on earth. She is tiny but business-like. As the sun sets she heads down the Beagle Channel towards Cape Horn.
For three days we head south, shadowed by increasing numbers of wandering and black-browed albatross and southern giant petrels. We know because the birds are identified for us in fascinating daily lectures. Soon we become experts on how to tell a sea-lion from a seal. We can name the different types of penguins. And we know how to get on and off the Zodiac craft and the international rules to be observe once ashore.
“Manoeuvring through narrow channels in the increasing ice floes”
The first Islands we reach are the South Shetland. Then it’s the Aitcho group. When we land at Barrientos we meet the ever inquisitive gentoo and chinstrap penguins, plus resting and moulting elephant and fur seals.
Later we journey across the Bransfield Straits towards the Antarctic Peninsular. Before dinner we meet the captain and senior officers over cocktails, all smartly turned out in contrast to their passengers who are told on boarding it’s ‘dress-down Friday’, everyday.
The next morning finds us on Cuverville watching hundreds of gentoo penguins taking their first shy swim. They are oblivious of the fearsome leopard seal circling the nursery cove for an easy meal or two. And that afternoon we land on the Antarctic Continent at Neko Bay. Our trip ashore involves some skillful manoeuvring through narrow channels in the ever increasing ice floes.
A walk along the beach brings us to a bay dominated by an impressive glacier wall. We sit to wait, but not for long. A huge chunk of ice carves itself from the massive wall with a thundering rumble, sending a tidal wave across the bay. The ice from the bottom of the glacier has been under huge pressure for thousands of years, completely clear. It’s excellent later with a large scotch.
“The captain beaches the ship onto a black volcanic beach”
Wiencke Island is our next stop. Here there is a chance to wander amongst bleached whale skeletons and discover the star of the show, a full size Emperor Penguin. It is one of the first to arrive for the breeding season and completely at ease amongst the hordes of photographers. It is then on to Danco Island, where the inhabitants are not so friendly. We need to beat a hasty retreat from an irate fur seal baring some rather nasty fangs.
We reach our furthest point south and now turn north to navigate the Lemaire Channel into Dallman Bay. Here we watch humpback whales feeding on the abundant krill, a tiny shrimp-like creature that lives under the ice.
Next morning we land at Deception Island, a circular bay about eight km in diameter and 180m deep with just one narrow entrance. Once through, the captain beaches the ship onto a black volcanic beach so we can trek to the rim of the crater and enjoy the view of the flooded cadera. At nearby Pendulam Cove the hot springs running off the beach warm the sea enough for a swim. I couldn’t resist. Well, not many people can claim to have swum in Antarctica.
“The gusts are enough to throw me out of bed”
At last, land is sighted and we again find the sanctuary of the Beagle Channel. The albatross and petrels leave us to resume their patrol of the open oceans. They are replaced by the coastal cormorants, terns and skuas. We are left to compare notes on a remarkable journey. One that wears its ‘once in a lifetime’ tag with undeniable justification.
Pettitts (01892 515966; pettitts.co.uk) is a tour operator specialising in worldwide destinations, including South America and Antarctica.
Visiting the “white continent” is a not a cheap trip but Pettitts can advise you on how to make the best use of your time and budget.
Tours to Antarctica operate between November and March but the best time is December to February. Other operators include Veloso Tours (020 8762 0616; veloso.com) and Journey Latin America (020 8762 0616; journeylatinamerica.co.uk).