ANTARCTICA …The “GREAT WHITE CONTINENT”
January 16 – 30, 2013
As I sent more and more clients to Antarctica during the last 10 years, my own dreams of visiting that continent (the only one I had not experienced) were put on the back burner. Finally last summer I decided to move those dreams to the forefront and plan my own trip! I mentioned it to a good friend, and next thing I knew we were booked to leave in January 2013. Our first thoughts were what we would need in the way of warm clothes; although January is summer in Antarctica, the highs only reach about 35 degrees. January is high season and the penguin chicks are active along with the seals, whales, and multitudes of sea birds, so it was the perfect time to go.
We chose a Tauck tour although there are several other top-notch companies with which one could travel to that part of the world. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, the “Paris” of South America where we enjoyed a two-night stay. I could write a complete article on Buenos Aires alone, as there is so much there to experience. Our two half-day tours of the highlights included a tango show, without which a visit to B.A. wouldn’t be complete.
At the end of the two days, the excitement and anticipation was palpable in our group as we boarded the charter flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southern-most seaport. After a lunch and tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park, we boarded the Le Boreal, a beautiful French ship carrying 200 passengers ….our home for the next 10 nights. The ship has a Class “C” ice-hull rating, the minimum that one should look for when sailing to the Antarctica Peninsula and the ice-filled waters. Sailing through the Drake Passage is literally a rite of passage for anyone entering this precious land, and stories abound about traversing these waters.
Having traveled worldwide and visited the Norwegian Fjords, Alaska, Chilean Fjords and New Zealand’s Milford and Doubtful Sounds, for me all of them together cannot compare to Antarctica! No words, no conversation, nor photographs could have prepared us for the experience of sighting the first iceberg after 36 hours at sea crossing the most treacherous body of water on Earth. We had a very easy and fast trip across the Drake going southbound, but it still is enough to clear one’s head of all the trappings of everyday life. Coming home was a bit more dramatic, and we can add our stories to those of other travelers about the Drake Passage.
Our first glimpse of the icebergs on the horizon left us speechless. Like modern day dinosaurs, these towering blocks of ice are nine times greater below the surface and lie in tranquility, reminding one of a land hardly known and of a time long forgotten. But I think what struck us most was the deafening silence that would be interrupted only by the occasional screech of a gull or a penguin or a breaching whale. This is a true natural wonderland untouched by man. One can’t help but feel humbled- and yet connected.
A quote from Mark Jones: “The first view of Antarctica is always an iceberg. It may be monolith hovering on the horizon, a barely discernible specter looming out of the mist or perhaps a sun-spangled dazzling icon marking the gateway to this new world. It will undoubtedly be icebergs that leave the most lasting impressions on the imagination of visitors.”
We found ourselves not wanting to miss a single lecture given by wonderful expedition leaders and naturalists who shared many stories with us and accompanied us on the zodiac landings. Several of them have made over 100 trips to Antarctica; their knowledge is immense and enhanced our trip immeasurably. The goal of all aboard was to maximize every moment of every day from the moment we embarked.
Our ship, Le Boreal, features a sophisticated design and innovative marine technology. In addition to two restaurants, the ship has a theatre and spacious gathering areas and library, plus a full spa and fitness center. On other cruises she carries more than 264 passengers but in Antarctica her limit is 199. Fewer passengers mean more opportunities for shore excursions each day, an unbeatable guide-to-guest ratio and staterooms with private balconies for every guest. A smaller vessel like Le Boreal also provides a Category I operation status in Antarctica, resulting in no limitations to the registered sites that can be landed on and explored. Our accommodations and the ship itself were a far cry from what those early brave sailors experienced on their tiny sailing ships! One can only wonder at the courage it took to undertake their voyages.
A lot of thought and preparation goes into packing for such a journey. It is hot in Buenos Aires and then cold in Antarctica. In researching the recommended gear and clothing, and now having experienced firsthand what is needed, the best advice I can now give is 3 layers: silk underwear consisting of a long sleeve shirt and long bottoms (a must;) then a layer of warm-ups or pants and turtle neck and finally the waterproof pants and parka. The parka is provided by most of the cruise lines as they want to ensure that it is adequate for all weather conditions one might encounter. It is also necessary to have good waterproof boots at least 14” high, gloves, hats and maybe a scarf or face mask. (Think ski wear). When not going out on excursions, life onboard is casual and a pair of slacks, sweater and casual shoes suffice for dinner.
Our typical day in Antarctica started with an early breakfast and zodiac ride to shore (depending on the landing;) sometimes we cruised early morning and went ashore later. In preparation for the landings, we layered up, boarded our sturdy zodiacs and navigated (sometimes through brash ice) to land and then would meet the penguins. On our zodiac trips we cruised and saw seals and penguins playing in the water. There were two outings a day, with our visiting places such as Half Moon Bay, Neko Bay, Cuverville Island, Peterman Island, Yalours and Paradise Bay by Zodiac, Port Lockroy, Whalers Bay, Deception Island, the Lemaire Channel and Brown Bluff. On some landings we had the option of a long hike, short walk, or a Zodiac cruise. Then there was just time for lunch and a bit of relaxation before once again donning our gear and setting off on another adventure ashore or in a zodiac. Because we were in the austral summer it was light until nearly midnight and the captain and naturalists would often spot whales and give everyone a “heads up” to come on deck and enjoy exciting whale-watching. One evening the killer whales put on quite a show chasing a minkie whale and trying to kill it. It got away. What a thrill to watch the humpbacks from near and far performing their stunts.
The expedition team was always on hand to share tales, educate us and give us hands-on lessons that never failed to surprise and inform. We saw 3 penguin species: Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie; the Humpback, Killer and Minke whales; the many seabirds including the Albatross and Petrel and the Skua birds, and last but not least the seals (Elephant, Leopard, and Weddell.
Our last day provided the biggest treat of the entire trip. After a morning landing in the Zodiacs to visit a large colony of Adelie penguins at Brown Bluff, we returned to the ship and were told that we would do some expedition cruising in the afternoon. About 2:00PM the announcement was made that the Captain had found an iceberg (ice floe) to which he was able to pull adjacent. We took the zodiacs in for a landing and then could have our pictures taken with the ship and ice as a backdrop. Truly amazing and spectacular and definitely the “WOW “Kodak moment" of the day and perhaps the trip!
Our Captain was amazing and skillful, navigating our ship through a painted landscape of icebergs as tall as skyscrapers. Roald Amundsen, one of the early explorers (1911), wrote: “Glittering white, shinning blue, raven black- in the light of the sun, the land looks like a fairy tale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed and wild as any land on our globe, it lies unseen and untrodden.”
Antarctica will live in our memory as a sanctum of pristine natural beauty. It is tucked away, happily frozen in time. The Antarctic continent has thrived in its natural state for millions of years out of reach of human interaction. It wasn’t till 1821 that men set foot on this virgin land. Given its extreme climate, it has remained largely untouched even to this day. It is one and half times the size of Australia and doubles its size in winter.
Whenever we were called over the loud speaker that it was time for the “Yellow” group to assemble in the lounge on Deck 3, we would grab our parkas from the hooks and our boots from the mat outside our cabin door and head down to board the zodiacs and go off on our adventure. As I was putting on my boots and watching my friend don the big boots I couldn’t help but think of the line from Pooh…” Christopher Robin was sitting outside his door, putting on his Big Boots. As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an adventure was going to happen”. And every day in Antarctica WAS an adventure!
In the words of Mark Twain “Years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I am so thankful that I followed my dream of visiting Antarctica to do just that!
Susan Dischner, CTC & Leisure Travel Manager
Four Seasons Travel