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Why Small is Big in Antarctica

Posted by Roderick Eime on August 20, 2019

Oceanwide Expeditions Hondius in Antarctica

 

Are you ready for your big adventure cruise?

You must be sick of hearing about your friends’ fantastic Antarctic adventures by now, so isn’t it about time you had your own?

Yes, it’s true, there are adventure cruises all around the world now but for most people, it’s Antarctica that sets the heart racing and is your first taste of true wilderness. The great empty white continent is the coldest, windiest, driest, least inhabited continent on the planet and hardly seems like an ideal holiday destination. Well, I’m about to tell you Antarctica is the sort of place you DON’T go for a holiday - but instead, for the most rewarding, enlightening and enriching adventure experience you will ever have. 

If you were to go into your corner travel agent and ask about Antarctic cruises, chances are they will scratch their head and reach for the closest brochure. Most likely it is a cruise company with whom they have a sales agreement and one that excludes a great many of the really interesting smaller cruise companies who know more about travel to Antarctica than the big, glitzy operators with their free-flowing champagne and Michelin-starred chefs.

Now, if you like that kind of thing, by all means, go for it because no matter who you travel with, you are sure to have the best time. But let’s dig a bit deeper and see what else is on offer for this spectacular voyage you will most likely only ever do once in your life.

 

Spirit Enderby Penguins in Antarctica

 

Where exactly does my voyage go?

Almost every voyage leaves from the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, at the very bottom of South America. You will then sail across the legendary Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula and - hold onto your beanie - because it can get rough. You might get lucky and sail across the ‘Drake Lake’, but no one can guarantee a smooth crossing.

 

EXPERT TIP from Expedition Cruise Specialists: These days new Polar Class 6 ships like Oceanwide Expeditions’ Hondius and Aurora Expeditions’ Greg Mortimer are purpose-built to minimise movement in open water. But if you’ve got a queasy stomach and even the thought of a bumpy crossing turns you green, Antarctica21’s new Magellan Explorer might be just the ticket. Cross the Drake Passage in both directions by charter jet before joining the ship close to the action.

 

The new Magellan Explorer in Antarctica

 

Once across the passage, your ship will arrive in the much calmer waters around the Peninsula and begin to explore the islands and fjords full of squawking penguins and curious seals. Ships may also visit the sites of current and former Antarctic bases, so there’s a fair dose of history too.

If you’re more the serious adventure type, you might consider a voyage to East Antarctica. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Because that part of the continent, below the Antarctic Circle, is the epicentre of history and exploration and is sure to trump your friends’ stories about their ‘excursion’ to the Peninsula. For this voyage, ships depart from the southern tip of New Zealand, stopping at the lesser-known subantarctic islands due south of the long white cloud. You may not have heard of Macquarie Island which, for trivia buffs, is actually part of Tasmania, although more than 1700 kms away. It was made famous by Sir Douglas Mawson, who set up camp there in 1911 while on his way to the Ross Sea, where you can end up if you’re going all the way.

 

EXPERT TIP from Expedition Cruise Specialists: Getting to East Antarctica is harder as it involves a longer time at sea, but the rewards are undoubtedly worth it. New Zealand’s Heritage Expeditions offer several expeditions to East Antarctica each year aboard the Spirit of Enderby, or for the ultimate experience you can cruise all the way from Ushuaia to New Zealand aboard Oceanwide Expeditions’ Ortelius or Lindblad Expeditions’ soon to be launched National Geographic Endurance.

 

Spirit Enderby towards Antarctica

 

What will I see in Antarctica?

Most of your boring dinner guests will tell you all about the penguins, (flying) seabirds, seals or even whales and, let’s be honest, they can be pretty entertaining. Communing with the handsome King Penguins with their hilariously fluffy youngsters is not something you’re ever going to forget. Then there are the boisterous Gentoos who hop around constantly tending their nests and demanding youngsters. Sound familiar? 

Sometimes the little guys will get distracted and come over to check you out. If you sit still, they will inspect your backpack, pulling on the buckles and straps to see what’s inside. Shoelaces are another favourite source of amusement.   

Now you need to be on your guard with the fur seals. The naughty weener pups, with nothing better to do while they wait for mum to come back from shopping, will chase each other around and sometimes you too. If dad’s at home you will likely get a surly look and a not-so-polite request to move along. 

 

seals antarctica with oceanwide expeditions

 

The big blubbery elephant seals are something else altogether. Like some weird sea monster dreamed up by Jules Verne, these slothy creatures wallow around in packs, belching and slobbering all over each other. The little ones, however, are as cute as all get out with their big dreamy eyes and whiskers and may even approach you if you’re patient. Your guide will quickly remind you that it's their choice, not yours to make the approach, so don’t get carried away. 

You’ll know too that whales love to go on summer holidays to Antarctica where all the food is. Take it in turns with your fellow passengers to stand watch on the bridge for the telltale blow of the spout. If you’re not sure what sort of whale it is, your guide will race over with the picture book and get you to describe the shape and pattern of the ‘blow’ and how big the fins are. Most common are the Humpbacks who just love to shoot out of the water and splash back in. This is called ‘breaching’ and it’s only Humpbacks which do this. Ask your guide why. Otherwise, you might sight the smaller Minkes, Orcas (aka Killer Whales) or big ones like Fin Whales or (get ready with yelps of delight) the super rare Blue Whale.

EXPERT TIP from Expedition Cruise Specialists: Several ships, Oceanwide Expeditions’ Hondius and One Ocean Expeditions’ Resolute offer dedicated whale watching cruises each year, guided by leading marine mammal experts.

 

Aurora expeditions whale watching

 

And what else is there to do?

These days the various ships that go south have a whole bunch of stuff to keep you amused. When ashore you can hike up a hill (or mountain), go snowshoeing, photograph everything in sight or explore the historic huts and bases like at Port Lockroy or Deception Island. For the particularly intrepid, there is ice camping (yes, in tents) or even snorkelling and dry suit diving for qualified scuba divers. During the few sea days and in the evenings, sit in on one of the expert lectures from biologists, historians or any of the other scientists who may be along.

Then, when your expedition is over, you will have a brag bag chock full of stories and yarns for when you take your place at the table

 

Roderick Eime is Australia’s leading expedition cruising photojournalist. You can follow his exploits at www.expeditioncruising.com

Images in this article courtesy of Oceanwide Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Heritage Expeditions, One Ocean Expeditions & Antarctica21 

 

Camping on the ice in Antarctica