Sailing to Antarctica

From Svalbard, I made my way to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, stopping along the way in Oslo, Barcelona and Buenos Aires.

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Most of the tourist cruises to Antarctica leave from Ushuaia, which is much closer to Antarctica than Australia or New Zealand is.

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I had booked my Antarctica trip almost a year in advance with G Adventures. The MS Expedition had around 130 passengers and 70 crew and staff. More than a third of the passengers were Australian. From Ushuaia we had 2 days of sailing through the Drake Passage, then six days exploring the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica Peninsula. Then 2 days sailing back to Ushuaia.

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Cruises to Antarctica have been in the news a lot recently. An Australian expedition ended up getting stuck in the ice and the passengers had to be rescued by Chinese helicopter.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-02/rescue-helicopter-arrives-at-stranded-antarctic-ship/5182632

Fortunately, our voyage wasn’t quite as eventful. This was no doubt due to the skill of the officers and crew.

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Most of the crew were Filipino, the officers and captain were Ukrainian and the expedition staff (tour guides) were mostly American and British. The staff were introduced to us as: This is our expedition leader (and zodiac driver). This is our geologist (and zodiac driver). This is our historian (and zodiac driver). In between landings, the staff gave lectures on topics such as Antarctic wildlife and the history of explorers in the region.

My 4 person cabin, complete with towel monkey.

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The food on the ship was great. Breakfast and lunch were buffets and you had a choice of 3 mains at dinner. Seating was unassigned, which meant you had the chance to mingle.

The Drake Passage is notorious for being one of the roughest stretches of water. The crossing down wasn’t too bad, but coming back it was quite rough (12 metre waves!). The tables were bolted down and the chairs were chained, but some people still flew out of their seats when the ship swayed violently at lunch. Fortunately I don’t get seasick.

I was surprised at how much of the itinerary was subject to change due to the weather. Most of the cruise ships go around the western side of the peninsula, but because it was early in the season and there was still a lot of pack ice preventing landings, we went around the peninsula’s eastern side and into the Weddell Sea. We were supposed to go camping one night, but that was cancelled due to the inaccessibility of  the potential camp sites.

Most of the expedition days we had 2 landings. Before leaving the ship you had to disinfect your boots (want to limit the impact on Antarctica as much as possible) and swipe your passenger card (you want to make sure you don’t get left behind!)

We used zodiacs to make landings on islands and the continent. Some of the rides were quite rough due to wind and waves. Waterproof trousers were an essential item of clothing. Getting in and out of the zodiac from the gangway could be a challenge at times as due to swells, you could suddenly find yourself a metre higher than you expected, you didn’t want to get stuck halfway between.

Some of the landings were rough as well, with waves breaking on the zodiac. The guides worked hard standing in the water and bringing the zodiacs into land. Another landing involved the guides using an ice axe to cut steps into the ice so we could step onto land.

There were lots of birds flying around the ship and one time a leopard seal followed behind the zodiacs. A couple of people caught a glimpse of whales in the distance, but it was too early in the season to see many whales.

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Along the way we also passed lots of icebergs and pack ice. The blue water at the base of the icebergs often looked amazing.

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Next time: Penguins galore!

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