We boarded the MV Plancius on November 20, 2019 from Ushuaia, Argentina along with 110 other passengers heading towards the southernmost continent. The Plancius is one of several boats operated by Oceanwide Expeditions, a Dutch company that runs explorations to the polar regions. While on our ten day cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, we learned about a variety of topics pertinent to Antarctica including politics, animal species, and glaciology. The Antarctic Peninsula is a continuation of the Andes Mountains, lending the peninsula its craggy peaks and beautiful elevation.
IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, sets the rules and regulations for sustainable tourism to Antarctica. One guideline is eliminating possible introduction of foreign species by vacuuming out clothing and washing boots prior to arrival to the continent. We also had to wash our rubber boots between landings to prevent possible transmission of infection between penguin colonies.
The Antarctica Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 countries who have claimed wedges of land on the continent. No country alone owns the continent and there are over 70 research stations on Antarctica from a variety of countries. The largest unclaimed wilderness in the world is the Marie Byrd Land, a wedge of Antarctica somehow still unclaimed.
We learned about glaciology and the effect of climate change from an onboard glaciologist. Antarctica holds 80% of the world’s fresh water in its glaciers. When glaciers calve, they become icebergs in the ocean. Icebergs look blue because the older snow has been compacted and is denser, eliminating oxygen bubbles. The denser ice absorbs all colors except blue, which it reflects. We also learned how some icebergs are fixed, meaning grounded so they are unlikely to roll or flip which can be dangerous for boats. If an iceberg is not fixed, it bobs up and down with the current. Once the surrounding ocean water melts the iceberg enough to change its center of gravity, it can flip or roll to recenter its gravity. Because up to 90% of the iceberg is not visible under water, the roll can easily take out a boat.
We crossed the infamous Drake Passage on the first two days of our cruise. The Drake Passage is well known for being rough and violent seas, sometimes being called the “Drake Shake.” Luckily, we had the “Drake Lake,” or relatively calm seas although the swells occasionally hit the third floor windows. Thankfully we had scopolamine patches which prevented much of the sea sickness. On our second afternoon at sea, we crossed the Nelson Strait which flows between the south Shetland islands. Because of high winds, we missed our first landing at Dundee Island on the morning of the third day. Instead, we landed at Paulet Island in the Antarctic Sound where we saw Adelie penguins. Adelie penguins have an all black head instead of white markings typical of Gentoo or Chinstrap penguins.
To get to land, we used zodiacs which are inflatable, heavy duty motorized boats. We had to load and unload the zodiacs via the gangway. Because the Antarctic seas can be quite rough, this process could be quite treacherous.
On day four, we sailed through the Gerlache Strait in the morning. That afternoon we took a zodiac cruise through Valdivia Point, which was our first up close encounter with the majestic glaciers and icebergs of Antarctica. It was jaw dropping.
Afterwards, we sailed through the narrow Graham Passage to Charlotte Bay where we had our very first continental landing at Portal Point. We saw our first minke whale in the Graham Passage. At Portal Point, we hiked to the top of a landing with great 360 degree views and an adorable Gentoo penguin colony. Later, we took a zodiac cruise around the bay.
We started day five with kayaking around the stunning Ferguson Channel. As small snowflakes fell, we paddled through the glass like water. We were brought to tears by the magnitude of the glaciers and the utter silence of the end of the world.
Day five continued to be a huge day. After landing at Brown Station in Paradise Bay, we hiked to an overlook before Whitney took the polar plunge.
That night we camped at Stoney Point. We shoveled out snow blocks to form a shallow wall to protect us from the wind, where we slept in bivy sacks and doubled up sleeping bags. It snowed all night and we awoke to piles of perfect snowflakes across our bodies.
Day six was full of blue skies and long lost sunshine. We landed at Neko Harbour in the morning, where we hiked and sat amongst Gentoo penguins and Weddell seals. Afterwards, we went to Useful Island where both Gentoo penguins and Chinstrap penguins live. We even saw a leopard seal on an iceberg on the way. Leopard seals are usually solitary and known for being very aggressive. They have even been known to kill people who get too close.
On our last day along the Antarctic Peninsula, we took a zodiac cruise through the Melchior Islands. We admired multiple Weddell seals and some crazy icebergs.
Our last two days across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia hailed some fun companions. A pod of about fifteen orca whales played with our ship for over an hour. There were a few humpback whales and a minke whale, as well. There are five main Antarctic whale species each distinguishable by their dorsal fins, blow patterns, and flukes. The flukes, or tails, are used for individual identification as well, much like a fingerprint. Because we made good time across the Drake Passage, we made a detour to Cape Horn, notorious for ship wrecks and bad luck in the days of the early explorers.
Our amazing expedition team made the trip incredible!
Throughout the entire expedition, Whitney and I were in total awe of the grandiosity and scale of this continent. The natural beauty is unfathomable and I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite so magical. I can’t even put into words how surreal and beautiful Antarctica is. It is something you have to see to believe as pictures will never do it justice.