Antarctica For All Ages: The Trip of a Lifetime
By Chloe JonPaul
“After life in the vastness of a vacant continent, civilization seemed disappointingly narrow, cramped, superficial, and empty.”
– Frank Hurley, photographer on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endeavor
Those words certainly ring true for me. As an older woman traveling alone to such a distant place, I knew that I would have to start planning well in advance and explore all my options before booking passage.
While I didn’t realize it at the time I was considering such a trip, Frank Hurley’s comments would have a tremendous impact upon me upon my return.
The Internet provides a wealth of information for anyone planning this kind of trip. The web site iExplore.com lists the top seven companies offering expedition cruises to Antarctica. Ships sailing to Antarctica are limited to carrying no more than 200 people aboard and the sailing schedule runs from mid-November to mid-February.
After speaking with a woman who had traveled to Antarctica the year before, I decided to book with Abercrombie & Kent. Her glowing account of the trip and description of the fine service provided by A & K convinced me.
The other feature I found enticing was that there would be stops in the W. Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
Booking well in advance saved me $500.00 I was also able to select the least expensive cabin. One spends very little time in the cabin on an expedition cruise. As it turned out, the cabin was extremely comfortable and nicely furnished.
An Argentine Barbeque
My journey began with a flight to Santiago, Chile. A & K personnel met those of us who had arrived on that flight and escorted us to the Hyatt Regency. Later that afternoon we enjoyed a sight-seeing tour of the city which included the Presidential Palace, cathedral, and the highest point overlooking the city.
Early next morning, we left to catch the 8:30 flight to Ushuaia (pronounced Ush-Y-a), Argentina where we would board the Explorer II to begin our journey to Antarctica. It takes three and a half hours to fly from Santiago to Ushuaia.
After clearing immigration and customs, we were treated to an Argentine barbeque featuring lamb. As an added bonus, we were entertained by a troupe of dancers from the Provincial Ballet – six young men dressed as gauchos and six lovely young women, graceful as swans in their filmy white gowns.
The next stop was Tierra del Fuego National Park. There are only five varieties of trees in this area and the only animals you’ll see are the fox, rabbit, and beaver.
The Falkland Islands
By early evening, we boarded the Explorer II where the first order of business was a mandatory emergency drill – life vests and all!
Our first stop was Port Stanley. The Falkland Islands are generally remembered as the place where Great Britain and Argentina fought a war but we discovered that their importance is especially significant in terms of the Gold Rush era.
Several sight-seeing options were available in Port Stanley. I chose the audio tour so that I could have the chance to explore a bit on my own, including a stop in at the Globe Tavern a favorite haunt for the scientific crews who go there while on leave.
Upon leaving Port Stanley, we set sail for South Georgia. Within a few hours, we entered the Antarctic Convergence sailing the Scotia Sea where there was a noticeable drop in temperature. There were plenty of albatross, petrels, and pichons flying around the ship. Dolphins could be seen splashing in the distance.
The expedition crews lectures were informative and eclectic – the exploitation of whales, seals, and fish, penguin life, Sir Ernest Shackleton, plate tectonics, and global warming -to name a few.
Each day we left the ship to board a zodiac which took us to our destination where would hike and climb or simply sit and observe the penguins and seals. Despite enormous swells at times, the ship’s crew did an excellent job of getting everyone into and off the zodiacs safely.
Highlights of This Fabulous Journey South
Salisbury Plain (north coast of south Georgia) which lies between the mouths of two glaciers with its “welcoming committee” of king penguins and fur seal pups; where the mature seal “beach masters” bask in the sun, looking like huge rocks.
Elsehul, an area where there are colonies of fur and elephant seals with Gentoo penguins interspersed among them, living in complete harmony.
Stromness Bay, where Shackleton arrived in his heroic effort to save his crew who were stranded on elephant Island; where the old whaling station, abandoned long ago, stands vacant and rusting; where we climbed the ridge past the waterfall to re-create Shackleton’s trek into Stromness; white reindeer, brought there by the whalers, still roaming the hills.
Fin whales and orcas moving in graceful ballet-like patterns alongside the ship
Icebergs with their blue refracted light that seem to have been carved by a sculptor
Elephant Island where Shackleton’s crew remained stranded for four months living in upturned life boats waiting for their rescue.
Half-Moon Bay and Livingston Island where chinstrap penguins abound
Deception Island where thermal springs heat the water so that the more adventurous passengers can shed their parkas and strip down to bathing suits to splash around in the water
Neptune’s Window where you can gaze across the bay atop a ridge and catch your first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula
Neko Harbor where you actually set foot on the Antarctic Continent.
Lemaire Channel, also known as Kodak Alley or Fuji’s Fiord, with its breathtaking scenery and two mountain peaks known as “Una’s Tits” – named after a secretary working for what is now known as the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
Port Lockroy, home to weddel and leopard seals ; scores of Gentoo penguins
Paradise Bay – a real paradise- and the final stop on the continent where many of the passengers enjoyed their final slide downhill in the snow after climbing to the top of the ridge
Some “WOW” Experiences
Watching two penguins doing their mating dance – so lovely and graceful
Seeing a leopard seal fast asleep on a piece of floating ice
Hearing a glacier “calving” and watching the ice fall into the sea amide a thunderous roar
Observing the male and female chinstrap penguins trading places to guard their egg
Marveling over a fur seal pup less than two hours old
Looking at giant petrels feeding off the carcass of a dead elephant seal
What You Can Expect
A sudden and dramatic change in weather conditions on any given day
Spending two days at sea between south Georgia and Antarctica
Seasickness while crossing the Drake passage which is considered to be the roughest sea in the world
Change of itinerary due to weather conditions and ice – Passengers are advised in advance to “pack their patience”.
Strong kabatic winds (cold air that travels down the mountains)
Lots of hiking and climbing
Camera batteries dying quickly. Cameras should be carried in a well-insulated bag.
A Note of Encouragement for the Older Traveler
The majority of passengers on this voyage were at least fifty years old; most of them physically fit and energetic. I was amazed at how many people were making this journey for the second time. As one person put it: “Once is not enough. You just have to come back.”
Before embarking on this kind of trip, be sure to have a complete physical and discuss the trip with your doctor to see if there might be anything on the agenda that might be harmful for you to engage in. I was delighted to hear from the crew that there was a 97 year-old woman on a recent expedition.
A Final Thought
It is my hope that the Antarctic Treaty will continue to be enforced; that this vast, incredibly beautiful continent will remain pristine and wild.
In her book, Terra Incognita, Sara Wheeler writes: “I know nothing will ever be like this again. I’ll never feel quite so separated from my anxieties. It’s as though God has given me a gift, once in my life, to step off the planet for two months and listen to a different music.”
And I echo her words… amen to that!
Chloe Jon Paul is a freelance writer and world traveler who lives in Bowie, Maryland.
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