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A Trip to Antarctica

In December 2002, my wife and I went on what, for us, was the adventure of a lifetime--a trip to Antarctica!  We booked with an Australian tour company, Aurora Expeditions.  Our ship, the Polar Pioneer, left Ushuaia, Argentina, on December 18 and returned December 28.


 Some background: 

 Our reasons: 
Why?  Why Antarctica?  I've always been intrigued by remote places, and the White Continent is about as remote as it gets.  I also figured "How many world travelers make it to that continent?"  So it was always a special destination for me, and I'd thought about going for some time.  For her part, Sarah is very fond of penguins, so she was excited about having the chance to see them in the wild.
Where?  We went to the Peninsula (and offlying islands) only.  The Peninsula is the most accessible part of Antarctica, especially for those living in the Americas.
When?  The dead of winter, of course!  Well, ok, our winter is the austral summer, but it sounds more impressive to say it the other way.  The Antarctic tourist season starts in November and ends around the end of February; naturally December through January is the height of the season.
How?  I had always figured there was no way to get to Antarctica except as part of a scientific expedition.  But then one day, I received the May/June 2000 issue of Via (AAA's member magazine) which had an article about visiting Antarctica as a tourist!  It seems that tourism to Antarctica has become a real industry; about 10,000 people visit each year.  Apparently, there are a number of companies that run cruises there.  There are three types of ships that go down:
  • Expedition Ships:  These are the smallest.  Most of them are converted Russian research vessels, which normally carry around 50-150 passengers.
  • Cruise Liners:  Yes, these are full-size cruise liners, with all the amenities.  These behemoths have all the things you'd expect: pool, jacuzzi, casino, fancy restaurant(s), etc.  Some don't even offer landings; they cruise offshore so people can see the beautiful scenery without leaving the comfort of the ship.  When they do make landings, those become huge mass-production affairs to get everyone ashore and back (OR, each passenger can go on a strictly limited number of landings).  This was not the sort of cruise we had in mind.
  • Icebreakers:  These go the furthest south.  The others are ice-strengthened, but aren't specialized for forcing their way through miles of pack ice.  Icebreakers go deep into the Ross and Weddell Seas, and do circumnavigations of the Continent.  Obviously these are the longest and costliest of Antarctic cruises, which were way outside our budget and available vacation time.
Sarah's mother, brother, and sister-in-law had been down two years earlier on the M/V Orlova, which carries 124 passengers, and they told us even that was crowded on landings.  Sarah and I wanted to go on the smallest ship we could, so we found one that carries 54, the Polar Pioneer.  (We were in cabin 307.)  We found that even with only 54 passengers, we were still getting in each other's way on the landings.

 The environment: 
The Antarctic is an extremely fragile environment.  We weren't even supposed to touch the moss on the rocks: because of the harshness of the climate and the short growing season, it can take up to a century for a colony to grow to maturity.  We also weren't supposed to approach the avian wildlife, especially penguins, closer than five meters (yards), and generally speaking, we weren't supposed to disturb the wildlife.  We found, much to our dismay, that we ended up doing just that anyway, at least a bit.  The reason is that most of the continent is covered with ice; the bits that are exposed tend to be taken over by penguins as nesting sites, which doesn't leave much room to walk around on.  And this was with only 40 to 50 people at a time.  I hate to think what effect a hundred or two visitors might have.

There are self-imposed restrictions on how many people can land at a time, but not all companies observe the limits.  I imagine the cruise ships must make a lot of choices between: 1) making huge destructive landings, 2) putting limits on how many total landings each person can make, and 3) landing only so many at a time (which would delay them moving onto their next spot and reduce their total number of stops).  My advice, if you're considering going, is to get on the smallest ship you can.  They have more of an adventuresome feel, and can get around better and faster than the larger boats.  The drawback, of course, is that they tend to cost a little more, because they don't have as much economy of scale--but I found the price difference wasn't really significant considering what you're paying to begin with.  Small ships rock more on the waves, too, which is a big deal in the Drake Passage and seasickness can be a real issue for some.  Also, if you want to go on a small ship, book early!  By early, I mean almost a year before your trip.  I booked our cruise in April, and by then most of the cabins on the cruise we wanted were already taken.  As it was we had to settle for a Christmas trip, when we'd have preferred New Year's.  Small ships fill up quickly.

Because we wanted to go on a small vessel, we contacted ExpeditionTrips.com, which specializes in small-ship travel.  Based on the things we said were important to us, they offered us three companies to book with: Quark, Peregrine, and Aurora.  In the end, we went with Aurora because they offered the option to spend a night camping on the ice.  We went on their 11-day Antarctic Peninsula Christmas Trip.


 And now, the voyage . . . 

 Journey to the southernmost city in the world 
Ushuaia from our ship

We had an absolutely nightmarish time just getting to Ushuaia.  The first leg of our flight was cancelled due to mechanical failures, and we had to fight our way onto most of our flights thereafter.  Every time we went to the counter there was another problem to resolve.  We had to fight with three separate airlines just to get there--for the domestic leg on Aerolineas Argentinas, we had to pay to upgrade our seats to business class to get down in time to catch our boat.  If we had waited for the next-day seats they had available, we'd have missed the entire cruise.  They didn't even tell us about the business-upgrade option until we pressed them.  My advice: don't fly Aerolineas if you can help it.

Finally we made it to Buenos Aires, with tickets in hand for our 5:25am flight to Ushuaia.  We had to overnight in Buenos Aires, so we checked into our hotel room and crashed out, exhausted.  Next morning we were up bright and early, flew down to Ushuaia, and were elated when we finally boarded the Polar Pioneer.

 The Aitcho Islands 
Gentoo penguin

After a day and a half crossing a relatively calm Drake Passage (we experienced only 1-meter swells; 10 meters is more common), we arrived in the South Shetland Islands, northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Our first landing was on the Aitcho Islands, where we visited a rookery of gentoos and chinstraps.

It was really exciting, after seeing penguins in documentaries etc., to actually be there and see them in person!  They do all those comical penguiny things you see on TV, and they were so cute.  This particular colony was largely gentoo, with a minority of chinstraps.

 Gourdin Island 
Adélie penguin

Next we sailed toward the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and landed at Gourdin Island.  Gourdin has a huge adélie penguin colony.  Adélies are our favorite of the penguin species; they're the classic black-and-white tuxedo penguin (kings and emperors have other colors mixed in, and look more serious and stately).  Needless to say we were pretty excited to be seeing adélies.

Penguins porpoising When penguins are traveling fast, they jump out of the water so they can take a breath without having to stop for air.  One neat thing about visiting these colonies is that you're surrounded by penguins on land--and then when you look out to the water, you see more of them porpoising around, to and from the shore.

Isabelline penguin While on Gourdin, we saw something very unusual: a brown penguin!  This was not a chick--it was full-grown, shaped just like the other adélies around it, but the parts that are normally black were a sort of light brown.  Our tour guides told us this was an Isabelline penguin; it's a genetic oddity, similar to an albino.  About one in 50,000 penguins is born this way.

 Brown Bluff 
Blue iceberg Iceberg with blue vein

That same day we moved on to Brown Bluff, where we made our first landing on the Continent itself.  Sarah and I were ecstatic--most cruises this length only land on the Continent once (they spend most of their time island-hopping, because the islands have more landing sites and more diverse wildlife), but here it was only our second day, and we were already landing on the Peninsula!  Setting foot on the Antarctic Continent had been one of my major goals on this trip.

This was where we first saw a lot of icebergs.  One of the most intriguing things about them is that oftentimes they are made of, or at least contain, blue ice.  Sometimes you'll have a berg made entirely of light-blue ice, or you might have one that's mostly white but with deep veins of dark blue.  It's beautiful stuff.  If you take off your sunglasses for a good look, the ice radiates blue.  It's pretty amazing, but unfortunately cameras can't seem to capture the effect.  Blue ice is very old, ten thousand or more years, if I remember right; it's had the air squeezed out of it, causing it to reflect only the blue end of the spectrum. Adélie penguins

Brown Bluff houses a very large adélie colony.  Adélies were the most skittish of the penguins we saw; oftentimes they would stop a certain distance from you, turn their heads and stare with an "Is that thing going to eat me?" kind of look.  However, if you sat or squatted down, held still, and pretended to ignore them, their curiosity would get the better of them and they'd creep a little closer to try to figure out just what sort of creature you were.

 The Weddell Sea 
Tabular Icebergs

After leaving Brown Bluff, we had a good portion of the afternoon left.  Since the weather was so good (we had amazingly calm weather on this trip!), they decided to take us a little into the Weddell Sea.  The Weddell is just east of the Antarctic Peninsula, and it's usually full-fledged icebreakers that go in there, because it's mostly filled with pack ice and other ships can become trapped if they venture too far inside.  The Weddell is where Shackleton's ship was caught and crushed by ice.

Ramming the pack ice! We didn't go far in, but there we were.  This was another added bonus; I hadn't expected to get into the Weddell.  As we steamed ahead at about 7˝ knots, we passed tabular icebergs the size of cities, probably from the Larsen Ice Shelf (parts of the Larsen are gone now; much of the shelf had already warmed and broken off into the sea).

After a while, we started to approach a huge expanse of flat pack ice.  As we came closer, those of us on the bow started to speculate about how she ship would turn away from it.  Well, sure enough, we didn't turn away--the captain cut the engine and actually rammed the ice!  That was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen!!  As we hit the ice, I leaned out over the bow to get this shot.  Afterward, we backed out and headed north again.

 Astrolabe Island 
Astrolabe Island

During the night, we sailed around the tip of the Peninsula and down its western side, to an isolated island called Astrolabe.  There we went on a zodiac cruise; the island didn't have many accessible landing spots.  There was a pleasant fog that morning, and we headed out.  Since there were no large areas on the island for the penguins to nest on, they clung to whatever nooks they could find along the edges.

Weddell Seal Also on this zodiac cruise, we saw a small iceberg with two seals on it--a weddell and a leopard.  Leopard seals are a bit uncommon to spot, and it seemed kind of strange to see a weddell hauled up sleeping next to a leopard, since leopards are known to eat other seals.  Apparently, though, the weddell didn't consider it a threat, so perhaps leopards only hunt underwater because they're too awkward to hunt on land (or ice).  This was my best shot of the weddell.  It watched us for a while as we sidled up, then it got nervous, then got more nervous, and finally slipped into the water and swam away.  The leopard seal never woke up, and probably wouldn't have taken much notice of us if it had.

 Baily Head (Deception Island) 
Not all our landings were smooth (or dry)!

After leaving Astrolabe, we headed east, back to the South Shetlands.  Our destination was Deception Island, one of the natural wonders of Antarctica (see official Web site).  About 80,000 years ago, the island erupted, blowing out its center and a small hole in its side.  Water flowed in, creating a large natural bay which looks like a great place to anchor but actually isn't--hence the island's name.  The floor of the caldera is covered with soft volcanic ash, which doesn't hold an anchor securely, and strong winds whip over the sides of the island--so ships at anchor will drift.

Deception is still active, and if conditions are right, it's possible to actually swim in the water there(!)  Basically, your tour guides have to find just the right spot, and if they do, you can immerse yourself in the water.  You can't really swim, per se, because the bits at the right temperature are very limited; too far one way or the other, and you either freeze or scald.  We didn't find the right conditions that day, but we had some very memorable landings to make up for it.The lefthand third of the Valley of Penguins

Chinstraps heading back to sea First we landed outside the caldera, which was our roughest landing on the trip.  Several people, including Sarah, were thrown into the water (that's her zodiac above), and one of the passengers dislocated her shoulder.  This was Baily Head, which houses one of the world's largest chinstrap colonies, and was featured in Life in the Freezer and Antarctica: The Last Wilderness.  There were penguins all along the beach, then up a canyon which formed a sort of penguin highway, then up a low hill...and beyond lay a valley filled with penguins.  (What you see on the left is the left-hand third of the valley.)  There were about 200,000 of them here.  Needless to say, this was Sarah's favorite landing; she didn't care that she was cold and wet.
Chinstraps Greeting Chinstraps Fighting
Chinstraps walking right in front of Sarah! A Macaroni Penguin! Here we saw chinstraps roosting, greeting one another, even fighting--and we even saw a single macaroni penguin.  It's very unusual to see macaronis this far south; their normal haunts are the subantarctic islands like the Falklands and South Georgia.  The little guy looked kind of lost there.  We didn't have a chance to see him greet his mate, but we did see him get aggressive; he picked a fight with a chinstrap and drove it some ways off (macaronis are notoriously bad-tempered).  Then he looked around, picked up a rock for his nest, wandered back to it, and sat down again.

 Deception Island Station 
Deception Island Station, 1967 Deception Island Station, 2002

Once back aboard ship, we sailed through the entrance to the caldera, which is called Neptune's Bellows.  We had dinner while the crew looked around for a place to swim.  They didn't find one, so instead we landed at a historic site. 

    There had been three research stations inside the caldera: one British, one Argentinean, one Chilean.  In 1967 and 1969, the volcano erupted.  It destroyed the Chilean station, damaged the British one, and threatened the Argentinean one.  As a result, all but the latter are now abandoned.  (Click here to see how the building to the right looked before the eruptions.)  Since then, Spain has also built a base inside the caldera, not far from the Argentinean one.  Both stations are manned only in summer.
We landed at Deception Island Station, the former British base, which had originally been established in 1912 as a Norwegian whaling station.  It was abandoned in 1931, then occupied by the British at the end of 1943.  The 1967 and '69 eruptions damaged the buildings, which now seem about ready to fall apart.  According to the signs, we were allowed to enter the buildings at our own risk, which we did (though carefully!).  Very cool.  I love visiting historical sites, and to walk around one in Antarctica was spectacular.  There's a lot of debris lying around on the ground, too--remains of barrels, clothing, etc.  We were told that the British haven't yet decided whether this is a historic site or a junkyard; they go back and forth between renovating and demolishing the site.

Airplane Fuselage While we were there, one of the passengers nearly fell down a well!  Apparently as he approached this old well, some of the ground gave way just in front of it.  Yikes!

Also at this site there was an aircraft hangar!  The first powered flights over Antarctica left from here, flown by Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1928-29.  Years later, when the British occupied the site, they used Sir Hubert's airstrip for their base.  Outside the hangar was the fuselage of one of the base's survey planes, a DeHavilland of Canada UH-1B single-engine Otter.  The wings were inside the hangar.  Those aren't neon lights you see through the window--those are holes in the roof from when the area was bombarded by volcanic debris.

It seems that since we visited Deception, another cleanup has taken place, during which the airplane was removed from the site for safekeeping.  This link also gives some of the history of this aircraft.

 Neko Harbor 
Neko Harbor

We awoke next morning as the ship sailed through the Gerlache Strait, a beautiful area lined on either side by dark mountains largely covered with snow.  It had a sort of black-and-white look that made me crave hot fudge sundaes for the rest of the trip. Argentinean refuge hut

Then we landed at Neko Harbor, our second (and last) landing on the Continent.  Here was a colony of gentoos, and an Argentinean emergency refuge hut built in 1949.  Argentina set up a lot of these on the Peninsula to bolster its territorial claims there.  Also here is a very active glacier.

Sliding down the hill Sarah climbed the hill with most of our group.  They walked along the ridge, then got the bright idea to toboggan barebacked down the hill.  Apparently it was an awful lot of fun.  I missed out, though, because my knee was bothering me, and climbing the hill in ¾ foot of soft snow was putting a lot of strain on it.

Glacier--with avalanche on hillside Instead, I hiked off down to the left and sat near the edge of the glacier.  I and some others watched and listened to it.  At first, a glacier sounds like dripping water in a cave; then every now and then you hear it crack or crunch as some part of it moves against another part, or against the ground.  Also every now and then you see a chunk come off and fall into the water.  We didn't see any really big impressive pieces fall off, but we did see an avalanche in the distance (see photo on left).  We also saw some moderately sized pieces come off and hit the water, which was neat even if it wasn't the huge show I had hoped for.

 Paradise Bay 

Paradise Bay Then we moved on to Paradise Bay.  On the way, we passed Chile's González Videla Station, which identifies itself as "González Videla Port Control" and challenges passing ships about where they're from, where they're going, etc.  A few minutes later we passed Argentina's Almirante Brown Station, which was mostly destroyed in 1983 when the station doctor went stir crazy and burned down the buildings so they would have to be rescued.

Paradise Bay is a popular spot for visitors; it's a large protected cove surrounded by the type of hot-fudge-sundae mountains we saw in the Gerlache Strait.  Because of the beautiful scenery it really is aptly named.  We went on a zodiac cruise here, but didn't land.

 The Lemaire Channel 

The Lemaire Channel Our tour guide was very particular that we should stay up and watch as we passed through the Lemaire Channel.  Sarah and I were beat, so we slept until he came over the intercom (at about 10pm) to let us know we were approaching.  Sarah went up to the bridge to watch it (that was her favorite spot, because it was inside and warm), while I went to the bow (my favorite spot, because it didn't smell like stale cigarettes). Heading back to the Bar

While on the bow, I got mixed up with the Australians, Britons, and New Zealanders who were up there drinking to celebrate the occasion.  When I saw how much fun they were having, I went back to our cabin for my flask of Bourbon and a can of warm Guinness.  The Guinness sprayed all over my gloves, but it got me started.  Andy (at right) was celebrating his birthday, so I introduced him to American whiskey.  He thought it was really good! (though that might have been the champagne speaking)  I didn't have the heart to tell him it was really cheap Bourbon.

We didn't actually go through the Channel till around midnight, but it was quite beautiful: more hot-fudge-sundae mountains...yum!  After passing through it, we anchored around the corner, and I went with the party crowd back to the bar.  Things heated up from there; I left early around 1:15, but they kept going till around 4:00, which was their normal ending-the-evening time.  Those Aussies, Brits, and Kiwis sure know how to party!

 Vernadsky Station 
Landing on the fast ice

The next morning we were going to visit a Ukrainian station, Akademik Vernadsky, which was originally Britain's Faraday Station, where the ozone hole was discovered.  Because Antarctic stations are fairly small and can't handle too many visitors at once, they usually ask the Polar Pioneer to land only half its passengers at a time.  Sarah and I were in the group that would go there second; instead, we would first go to Wordie House, the original British base in the area, which was situated on a nearby island.  Little did we know that that would become an adventure of its own.

We were approaching an expanse of thin fast ice (frozen seawater that's attached to land).  Sarah asked if we were going to land there; I replied no, it was too thin; we were just coming alongside to have a look.  Much to my surprise, a couple seconds later our zodiac pilot revved the engine and rammed the boat up onto the ice.  He then walked out over the bow, poked and stomped around a bit, then told us it was safe to get out--"but don't take off your life jackets."  This pilot was Greg (the guy walking in the picture on the left), who we started to realize was a touch on the wild side; when things got dangerous he would start to grin.  After this landing, we started trying to get on his zodiac on outings, because things tended to be more exciting when he was at the till. The snow was deep in places!

From the zodiacs, we walked up what turned out to be a frozen creek.  Not far from the hut, we were stopped by a high snowbank we couldn't climb because of a break in the ice.  Greg started testing the trapped "bergy bits" (very small icebergs) to our left, and found a couple we could walk across to get to a not-as-high snowbank we could climb if we were feeling athletic.  We then walked through some deep snow to the hut. Wordie House

We explored the hut, then waited for the zodiacs to come pick us up.  (It had turned out to be too dangerous for us to walk back to the zodiacs.)  The temperature rose here to a downright balmy 12°C (55°F), which made this our warmest landing.  We were actually taking clothes off (ok, just outer layers, but still...), and one of the passengers stripped down to a swimsuit and took a brief plunge in the water.  BRRR! Akademik Vernadsky Station

Finally, we crossed over to Vernadsky Station, where the scientists showed us around.  The Ukrainians were very hospitable and very polite.  They also had a small pub (with a pool table!), but it was just too smoky for Sarah and me to enjoy.  More's the pity, too; I would have loved to sit down at a pub in Antarctica.  But they also had a tiny souvenir shop and a post office, from which we mailed a couple of post cards before we left.  My parents finally got theirs almost a year later.

 Yalour Islands 

Antarctic moss This was our southernmost landing, at 65°15'S.  Here was a large but scattered adélie colony.  Much of the island we landed on was covered with snow, but it had a number of rocky raised areas, which were covered with roosting penguins.  The penguins here got around mostly by tobogganing rather than walking.  I guess that makes sense--if it's hard for me to get around when my feet sink six inches in the snow, what must it be like for someone with 2-inch legs?

On the rocks here, I also saw several tiny insectlike critters, which were probably a species of collembola, possibly Cryptopygus antarcticus.  I took several photos so I could get them identified, but forgot to set the camera for short-range shooting, so they came out too blurry to make out what they were.  Bummer!

 Camping! 
Sarah and me in front of our tent

That evening we went camping.  We found a good spot on Pleneau Island, and were still having impeccable weather, so we landed the zodiacs and set up camp for the night.  Most of the ship's passengers camped, and most of them chose to spend the night out in the open.  They slathered on sunscreen, left their sunglasses on, and bedded down on the rocks.  Sarah and I joined the minority, setting up tents on the snow.  It was much warmer in the tents than outside (it blocks the wind and two people heat up a dome pretty quickly), but everything inside was damp.  I hate camping in the snow.

Our campsite at midnight This photo is a shot of our campsite at midnight.  This far south, it doesn't get dark in the austral summer; you just get this sort of twilight you see here.  We woke up at what must have been three or four in the morning and it still looked like this.  Also, the sun does strange things at this latitude.  We watched it set over those hills you see there, then--to our surprise--saw it over those same hills the next morning, rather than over the opposite horizon.

 Port Lockroy 
Port Lockroy

We packed up and headed back to the ship, very glad to get back indoors and warm (I had stuck an ungloved hand in the snow and my fingers were very painful).  Next, we headed to Port Lockroy, another historic site.  The British built Port Lockroy during World War II to keep an eye on the Germans' activities in Argentina and Antarctica (countries were starting to toy with the idea of making territorial claims to Antarctica about then).  It's been renovated as a historic site, and they maintain a staff there during the Antarctic summer.  There's also a British post office and souvenir shop here, so we sent a couple more post cards.  The site is very nicely preserved and very well done; unfortunately, however, there's something very...touristy...about the place, and I found it a little disappointing.  Vernadsky obviously received a lot of tourists, but it still had more the feeling of a research station; Lockroy felt more like a remote tourist attraction. A curious gentoo penguin

There's also a gentoo colony on the little island that Port Lockroy sits on.  When we'd finished looking around the station, we were taken by zodiac to a large section of fast ice (like that frozen creek we landed on near Vernadsky).  While waiting near the edge of the ice, this little fellow came out of the water, and hopped up onto the top of the ice to have a closer look at us.  His friend was more skittish and dove back into the sea without ever fully leaving the water.  Even this braver one didn't stay long.

 Our return trip 

Santa spared no one We got back to the ship and had Christmas dinner at lunchtime, per European (and, apparently, Australian) tradition.  Considering the way our Aurora hosts were drinking at dinner, we figured there wouldn't be another landing, which turned out to be true.  In the meantime, we retired to the bar, where they held a Secret Santa thing for everyone.  There we were attended by the raciest (and probably the drunkenest) Santa I'd ever seen.

By the end of the Secret Santa presentation, the ship was rocking back and forth pretty severely, a sure sign we were back in the open sea.  Those who kept drinking (and there were plenty of them) got plenty seasick later on.  Sarah and I put on our scopolamine patches and took it easy.  We were rewarded by being able to handle dinner; half the passengers didn't attend that night.

Tierra del Fuego from the south

Eventually, we returned to Ushuaia.  Along the way, it was really neat to see Cape Horn from the south.  When we reached Ushuaia, we spent the day cruising for souvenirs and running errands for Sarah's brother (who had been down two years before).  Then we got up early next morning and headed to the airport for our return trip.  After the difficulties we had getting down, we expected trouble at every leg--but amazingly enough, we had not a single complication on our way back.  As if to make up for it, though, we were followed on every flight by screaming children with inattentive parents.  Thirty-two sleepless hours later, we arrived safely in Sacramento.  We had both come down with a cold.

As a follow-up, I'd like to comment that--now that we have kids--we can see how parents learn not to be bothered so much by rowdy children.  We still don't think that excuses letting the little ones run all over the place screaming in public--except in places like Funtastic, of course.

 Supplemental Stuff 

Leon's Antarctic Journal--for really detailed info

Get a perspective on where we visited

Send me an email!

Penguin Species!--See a brief description of the different species of penguins

See where we later went on our honeymoon