Ten Day Journey on an Icebreaker Expedition Ship to the Southern Seas and Antarctica

March 2008: In my opinion, no traveler can claim to have visited every country in the world without visiting Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica isn’t a country. Instead, it is something even more. It is its own continent and to visit every country in the world without visiting every continent seems an injustice. Checklists aside, Antarctica is truly one of the most beautiful and unique places on the planet. Few places left are as remote and it is a magical and humbling feeling to cross the remote southern seas into one of the world’s last wild frontiers.

About Antarctica

Route I took from Ushiau, Argentina to Antarctica via the Drake Passage and South Shetland Islands

Antarctica is the 7th continent, approximately twice as big as Australia and unlike other continents, all of Antarctica is an icy wilderness. It is a polar desert that in the interior receives less precipitation than the Sahara Desert. Despite its hostile nature, it has an amazing array of marine life along its shores such as whales, seals, albatross and of course its most famous resident, the penguin. 70 % of the worlds fresh water is frozen in the continent’s glaciers and ice caps, which cover the entirety of its land mass. Because of its geographic isolation, extremely cold temperatures, and the ice buildup around its shores every winter that effectively double the continent’s size preventing ship traffic for most of the year, it was one of the last places on Earth to be explored. When someone finally set foot on the continent in 1895, a flurry of exploration over the next 50 years ensued, bringing some of the bravest adventurers the world has ever known, such as Ernest Shakleton, Scott, Ross and Amundsen.  There are no continuous inhabitants, and it has the lowest population density in the world with a maximum of 5,000 people in summer and 1,000 in winter. The only inhabitants are a few hardy scientists living in research bases.

To protect this environment and fragile ecosystem from destruction and really to prevent war between competing countries trying to harvest its resources and lay claim to its lands, the Antarctic Peace Treaty was initiated in 1959 and is currently signed by 54 countries and in summary requires Antarctica to be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only until 2048.

Even though countries are not allowed to claim any land in Antarctica, many are positioning themselves for an eventual land grab by establishing research bases where little research is being conducted, and even by bringing in pregnant women to give birth in Antarctica in what is perceived as an attempt to lay further legitimacy to their claim over the land. What the future holds for Antarctica is unclear but past accounts of war and decimation of the world’s wilderness areas by countries throughout history in search of new resources to feed an ever-growing global industrial machine is a good indication that conflict is inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get to Antarctica

The easiest and cheapest way to get to Antarctica is to fly to the southern tip of Argentina, Ushuaia at the bottom of Tierra Del Fuego, and join an expedition boat with an ice reinforced hull. I booked the cheapest expedition boat I could find that at the time was on GAP Adventures departing from Ushuaia across the 2-day long Drake Passage. 

Tierra Del Fuego National Park

Ushuaia in itself is a frontier town and sits on the edge of a large, forested wilderness that is carved up by mountains and lakes. Visiting Ushuaia isn’t complete without also hiking in the beautiful Tierra Del Fuego National Park and scaling some of its peaks. It is truly a stunning place and worth visiting Argentina alone.

Trip Cancelled When the Ship Sank

My trip was nearly doomed when the GAP Adventures ship hit an iceberg at the beginning of the summer season just shy of Antarctica and in the middle of the night. Even though the ship had an ice reinforced hull and is able to navigate through a certain amount of ice, there are limits to what it can safely do and evidently the captain misjudged, and iceberg and it was bigger and thicker than expected. With little time to spare, the ship sank, and all the passengers were forced to evacuate into open top life rafts. Some evacuated so quickly that they didn’t have time to find their shoes or their belongings. The ship sank to approx. 12,000 feet to the bottom of the frigid waters and the passengers floated all all night in the Antarctician waters before the distress signal was answered by a nearby Chilean ice breaker ship. All passengers were rescued hours before the start of a hurricane lie storm that may have sunk the lifeboats. Because the boat sank, all future trips on the boat for the season were cancelled including my trip. But by a stroke of luck, a Russian boat was leased at the last moment and one trip was salvaged for the season, the very last one of the year, mine and because the ship was arranged at the very last minute, a large discount was offered to attract passengers making my trip significantly cheaper.

Crossing the Drake Passage/One of the Roughest Seas in the World

Looking Out the Ships Windows on to the Stormy Drake Passage

We started the journey in the Beagle Passage, with a glass of champagne and an introduction to our Russian ship crew and Philippine hospitality staff. We were given a safety demonstration with a strong emphasis on evacuation into the life rafts which were now covered with an immersion suit available for every person. Then we set off overnight and by morning we were on the Drake Passage.  The Drake Passage, named after Sir Francis Drake, the famous British privateer, is renowned for its volatile weather and massive waves. The Drake is a narrow open area of sea that separates South America from Antarctica between the north and southern edges but to its sides there is nothing but open ocean all across the globe. Because the land constricts the ocean flows between these two open areas, strong currents, swells and storm fronts are produced making the area one of the most feared seas in the world.

For two days we battled the southern seas as we traveled southward to Antarctica. Most passengers hid in their rooms to battle their sea sickness in the privacy of their rooms and some never appeared for meals. I had a sea sickness medical patch behind my ear, which worked extremely well and I never experienced any sickness.  The southern seas truly are remote. 

Wondering albatross that can glide across the open ocean for up to a year without ever landing

Occasionally we were visited by a curious giant albatross bird or whale but on the most part we were alone without any other ships or planes in sight. The journey to Antarctica seemed rough but we would later find out that it would be nothing compared to the journey back across what is dubbed the Drake Shake with its 20–30-foot waves that made it almost impossible to walk on the ship and eat in the dining room.

The room that my girlfriend and I shared for the trip and where most passengers stayed during the crossing of the Drake Passage to cope with their sea sickness

Barf bags are strategically places all over the hallways of the ship for sea sickness

South Shetland Islands

The outer islands around Antarctica are not covered by the Antarctica peace Treaty and most islands have already been claimed by a country. The first land we saw after crossing the Drake Passage for 2 days were the British South Shetland islands, which we visited on the way to and back from Antarctica because the wildlife and scenery is simply stunning. Since there are fewer glaciers on land, it is easy to explore and do a lot of hiking. We were able to walk right up to giant bull elephant seals, and Weddel seals. But not to close, and the elephant seals were quick to warn us to back off by roaring and snorting or even by bluff charging anyone who ventured to close. Penguins were friendly and one penguin jumped on top of a girl seated on the ground.

Landscapes of South Shetland Islands

Weddel Seal

Whale Bones Abandoned on Beach

Fur Seals

Antarctic Coastline

We wanted to visit the Weddel Sea but there was too much ice, so we opted to go the other way westward down the Antarctic Peninsula. The route a boat takes is dictated by avoiding other boats, swells from storms and most importantly ice. During the next week, we journeyed all the way down to the Antarctic Circle traveling by day through channels surrounded by stunning scenery of glacier capped mountains, and ice bergs with colors and shapes that defy imagination, sometimes with penguins on top getting free rides. One iceberg had the largest penguin species on it, the emperor penguin. Then there were frequent sightings of whales, fin, humpback, and killer. The weather ranged from blizzard like conditions with hardly any visibility to a sunny paradise of 40 degrees F.  We explored by day, stopping and exploring different islands and parts of the Antarctica Peninsula by zodiac boats, and at night we would either stop in a harbor or continue traveling. Wherever we went the captain was always on alert monitoring the sonar radar for any indications of ice bergs to ensure our safety. Places we stopped along the way were: Errera Channel, Android Bay, Danco Island, Neko Harbour, Lemaire Channel, Petermann Island Argentine Islands, Paradise Bay, Waterboat Point, Wilhelmina Bay, Foyn Harbour, Barrientos Island, and Aitcho Islands.

Icebergs of glacier ice that have calved off of the Antarctican ice sheet-some that are miles long float along side the boat in the ocean

Killer whales spotted of the side of the boat

Glacier Lined Coasts

Glaciers

Glaciers Meet the Ocean

Stepping Foot on the 7th Continent

It was a special moment when we first stepped foot on Antarctica to accomplish my goal of reaching all 7 continents. Antarctica lived up to its reputation. it was bitterly cold, windy and the visibility was poor was snow flurries. We were greeted on arrival by waddling packs of penguins, and I will never forget the cacophony of sounds and squawking and the foul stench of rotting fish that followed the penguins around. The penguins were an absolute delight, and most had no fear of humans since they have never been hunted and the young curious ones would waddle right up to us. One penguin came right up to me and started tugging on the zipper of my jacket. We climbed a hill to sled down on our butts. Some people had to slide around penguins who waddled across their path. Some of the other passengers on my boat were on the ill-fated ship that sank earlier in the year, and this was their first opportunity to finally step foot on Antarctica and the experience was very emotional for them.

View of our boat from the zodiac 

Being met upon arrival by the friendly natives

Penguins

Since the animals are not hunted they have no fear of humans. Me and my new penguin friend.

Sledding on Antarctica

Burtality of nature, baby penguin being eaten by Petrol birds

View from the penguin Colony

Zodiac Boat Trips

Zodiac boat trips were a great way to get close to the ice bergs and marine life. They were also the only way to get from the ship to land. Zodiacs would allow a more intimate encounter with the wildlife and icebergs. Some icebergs would flip over creating small tsunamis so we could never get too close. We were able to approach whales in the water, see abandoned whaling ships from the early 1900s when hundreds of thousands of whales were massacred in Antarctica, and my favorite animal the leopard seal. The leopard seal is a feared predator that only lives in Antarctica and is almost 15 feet long with razor like teeth that resembles more of a dinosaur than a seal. It hunts penguins and we saw one shredding a penguin apart in midair. On occasion a leopard seal would follow our zodiac and hit it trying to take a bite out of it in curiosity. This has on occasion resulted in a puncture that can deflate a zodiac. There has been only one leopard seal attack on a human that resulted in a fatality. Likely there would be more if leopard seals lived in a habitat shared with humans.

Iceberg Art

Zodiac on Paradise Bay

The Leaopard Seal-Most Feared predator of Antarctica

Whales on the ice floes

Abandoned old whaling ship

Visiting Research Bases

We stopped at a Chilean, Argentine, British and Ukrainian research stations. The most interesting was the Ukranian research station where there was a bar with lots of bras hanging on it. Per custom, ladies from each passing boat are required to leave a few bras in return for free drinks of vodka. It was obvious that this was a custom bore out of the lonely less of the men on base who lacked any female companionship for very long periods of time. I also sent a postcard from one station to my parents that arrived 8 months later.

A British explorers hut from the early 1900’s near the current British Research Station

Not far from the British research station was an old explorer’s hut that was frozen in time. During the early days of exploration, explorers would need a base from which to further their explorations into the interior, so they built several of these small huts. These huts are still standing preserved in the Antarctica cold with the untampered possessions of the explorers. it is an eerie experience to enter ones of the huts and to imagine the prolonged isolation the explorers experienced when living here completely cut off from the world for several months if not longer at a time. 

Relics frozen in time in the British explorers hut 

Relics frozen in time in the British explorers hut 

Plunging into the Icy Antarctican Waters

Only the bravest passengers made the plunge into the cold and icy Antarctica waters off the ship. With a shot of vodka, staff would sweep away the ice to clear a path of open water, and you would make a quick plunge into the water. A doctor would stand by and a staff member ready to jump in with a life jacket in case of the need of a rescue. the water was below freezing because it is salt water which actually freezes at a lower temperature than freshwater. It was painfully cold and there was no lingering in this water. It was in and out and to the sauna immediately afterwards.

Me Jumping into the freezing waters of Antarctica

Staff pushing ice aside so passengers can do the Antarctic Plunge

After spending a week in Antarctica and the South Shetland islands, it was time to cross the Drake back to Ushuaia. The return trip was stormy and rough with high seas and was no picnic. Then once we returned to Ushuaia, we went out to a local bar to celebrate the successful end to a great trip with the new friends we made on the boat.

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