I don’t plan to write much about the destinations that I have visited through my work – while I do have an amazing job that lets me travel to some amazing places around the world – most of the time I don’t get to spend more than a few hours ashore and that’s not really long enough to develop any knowledge about the place. I will, however, make an exception for Antarctica, where I consider myself amazingly lucky to have been able to spend four months cruising this untouched white continent and surrounding islands.
Unless you’re a scientist the only way at present to reach Antarctica is by ship, while there are numerous cruise ships claiming to visit “Antarctica”, the majority of these only go to the surrounding islands or sail past. Restrictions in place for tourism in Antarctica restricts ships from landing more than 100 persons ashore at any one time, so if you’re on a ship carrying more than 200 – 300 people you’re probably not going to get ashore! Back in December 2009 having recently gained my licence I found myself completely by chance aboard the 12,000 GT expedition ship MV Minerva and here are some of the highlights of my trip.
Over the course of the four months we operated on behalf of 3 different companies running 5 – 12 night expeditions to Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica out of Ushuaia a small town located on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern most tip of Argentina. From here we sailed out through the Beagle Channel past the Cape of Good Hope and turned south over the dreaded Drakes Passage to Antarctica.
The Drakes Passage is notorious for its weather and it definitely lives up to its reputation and is seen as a bit of a right of passage for travellers heading south. Of the numerous crossings I did over those four months all but two were rough and one, our last of the season was the worst weather I have experienced in 12 years working at sea – my only regret is that nobody on board got it on film!
After your first 24 hours of being tossed around, you’ll hopefully arrive within the shelter of Antarctica, sailing up one of the many channels, possibly the world famous Lemaire Channel, past some amazing scenery. There are no ports in Antarctica so you head ashore in a fleet of small Zodiacs (little rubber boats holding around 10 people) landing directly on the beaches or ice. As a crew member, these are great fun to drive! Every vessel operating down there will have an expedition team aboard with an experienced leader who knows the best places to land ashore and of course during the summer months its light 24 hours a day so you can find yourself trekking across the ice at 2 am!
One of the highlights for me, was Deception Island, a horseshoe shaped volcanic island with a large bay inside it if the ice allows your ship will head in through the narrow entrance and drift inside while you visit some of the research stations based here. Another popular landing is Paradise Bay, home of an abandoned whaling station turned research station and where you have the opportunity to climb up a very steep cliff before sliding back down on the snow. If you’re lucky you’ll also witness sections of ice breaking off the nearby cliffs!
Of course with the minimal presence of humans, wildlife thrives and there is plenty to see including a variety of penguin species (King, Adelie, Chinstrap, Macaroni and Gentoo), seals, whales and birds. Your ships bridge team will make announcements whenever they come across whales and even manoeuvre the ship to give you the best views – we certainly did!