Ushuaia (Argentina) boasts of being the southernmost city on the planet and it’s the most convenient launching pad to visit the continent of Antarctica. We had made reservations well in advance on the “Ocean Endeavor” with Quark Expeditions. (Not to make an ad of this post but they truly are the best at this kind of travel. In case you’re wondering: wholehearted recommendation from us.) We were lucky to get on the last expedition of the season before they shut down operations for their winter when ice becomes so thick and sunlight so scarce that it is impossible to visit Antarctica.
We should have had half a day to visit Ushuaia but flying there, our small charter plane had to land to refuel mid-trip because the wind currents over the Patagonia were so strong we were burning more fuel than anticipated. This meant that we had only one hour to walk around Ushuaia before boarding.
Ushuaia is a cute town and while we would have loved to spend some time there, we didn’t feel shortchanged. Maybe we were simply too excited about the upcoming journey and eager to set out.
The Ocean Endeavor has a reinforced hull to be able to withstand the ice we would be traveling among. It has capacity for 199 guests plus crew which we thought would be way too big but turned out to be the perfect size for our 10 day adventure. I’ll make a parenthesis here to say that our boat was not at full capacity and my impression was that this is common; so for anyone with some time to spare it wouldn’t be a far-fetched idea to arrive in Ushuaia without a reservation and find a spot in a departing tour probably at a discount. We had a very specific window of time we could travel during so this was not an option for us but for any solo travelers out there my advice would be to take a chance.
The crew hails from every corner of the planet and while all speak different languages, they have in common their solicitousness which made our time aboard truly enjoyable.
Getting to Antarctica means having to cross the infamous Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage is the bane of visitors to Antarctica because it is one of the roughest stretches of sea anywhere. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans carrying 600 times more water than the Amazon River. We were lucky even in this as during our navigation, the Drake Passage was as calm as a lake and we were able to make quick time getting to the South Shetland Islands. We even got to watch a pod of Orcas swim by.
Several nations have laid claim to wedges of Antarctica, among them Argentina which maintains several outposts only occupied during the summer months. We visited Camara Station in Half Moon Island which had just been vacated for the season.
Why would nations keep deserted outposts? Well, the Antarctic Treaty says, among other things, that any nation wanting to claim a bit of the Antarctic continent must operate a research station there. Hence, several countries keep stations here which they visit only during a few days every year technically complying with this requirement. Antarctica is the only continent without an indigenous human population and is governed under the Antarctic Treaty which is scheduled to expire in 2048, not too long now. For a quick read on the precarious military situation Antarctica is in, please visit this well-written article from the World Economic Forum.
Half Moon Island is home to Fur Seal
and Chinstrap Penguin colonies
which happily coexist.
As well as some Gentoo Penguins.
At this time of the season, penguins are almost done molting which they do to get rid of old, damaged feathers. The new feathers will be pristine and protect them through the harsh winter. They do look miserable while it’s taking place though.
We made the surprisingly fatiguing trek to the island’s peak to visit the rookery
where our guides were eager to introduce us to Kevin, a confused Macaroni Penguin who has taken residence with the Chinstraps.
While we were here they made a stunning discovery: Kevin engaging in a mating dance with a Chinstrap. Why is this stunning? Because different kinds of penguins don’t mate with each other!
Of course more observation is required before coming to any conclusions and as our guides excitedly planned for it, we enjoyed having been lucky witnesses to the event. We were quite tired from the trek and couldn’t help wonder how the penguins make it to the top all the way from the waters’ edge:
No wonder they sometimes break for a quick nap.
There are many other creatures living on the island. Look closely at the water in this picture, those aren’t penguins swimming in.
They are Antarctic Shags.
Like penguins, they feed on fish and are excellent swimmers but they have a leg up in that they can also fly.
While in Antarctica waters, we made off-boat excursions twice a day. We were all assigned a group and then called down to the common room when we were to disembark. All our winter gear stayed in this room where everyone was assigned a locker. Once geared up, we stood in line awaiting our turn out the “door”.
Excursions were always an adventure.
Among the weird creatures in the water are these guys:
They form long columns by latching onto each other and float around pushed by the currents until somebody eats them. They’ve got the consistency of week-old Jello and seem just as appetizing but apparently are as yummy as dessert for Antarctica inhabitants.
Being in a zodiac surrounded by ice can get extremely cold but there’s no other way to experience sights such as these:
On every excursion, we would land for a few hours to observe the local wildlife.
South American Fur Seal:
Penguins were always a big hit. These are part of a Gentoo rookery:
with a random Chinstrap among them.
Upon returning to the boat,
we were required to scrub ourselves thoroughly to avoid carrying any organism (plant, bacteria, moss, spores, poop, etc) from one landing to the next.
Even the soles of our boots were exhaustively inspected before being barcode-checked back on board. Many a passenger was sent back for a second scrubbing during these checks.
With world temperatures climbing, invasive species are beginning to cause major damage in Antarctica. While Polar Bears (in the northern regions of the globe) get most of the press, Antarctic species are also suffering. For instance, an interesting fact is that there are no mosquitoes in Antarctica so far which means no mosquito-transmitted diseases. However, with temperatures rising and tourism increasing, house flies are being introduced and this means indigenous species will soon come into contact with diseases they have no defenses against. Tourism in Antarctica is governed by IAATO but this is an entirely optional association. Tourists can help keep Antarctica safe by making sure their tour operator belongs to IAATO and by following all guidelines, such as thoroughly cleaning all their gear, camera cases included.
Back on board, meals were fantastic! Imagine dining al fresco
surrounded by this scenery:
while these guys provide the entertainment:
Most of our guides were scientists or naturalists with incredibly interesting lives. Lectures were given every day on different topics, from marine life to the history of polar expeditions. Lectures were so well attended that we had to get to the audiovisual room early in order to get a seat, that’s how engrossing they were. One of our guides was a Glaciologist, specializing in the study of ice on Mars. I know what you’re thinking: “How interesting can ice actually be?” Before this trip, I would have asked the same question. Well, let me tell you it was the most interesting lecture of them all! We were lucky to get him as our zodiac guide the next day where he continued to amaze us with his expertise. Here he is explaining how scientists can figure out the concentrations of elements which existed in Earth’s atmosphere millions of years ago by analyzing the air bubbles trapped in the Antarctic ice.
Another awesome guide was Jimmy, whom we all baptized as the “whale whisperer”.
I kid you not, whenever we were lucky enough to get him for our zodiac guide, whales would invariably come calling, both Humpback
and Minke Whales.
And of course you know what these guys eat, don’t you?
Fernando says it tastes like shrimp and yes, he swallowed it raw, eyes and all.
There were lots of other creatures to look at as well.
On these excursions, some guests opted for kayaking
or even paddle-boarding.
It looks awesome doesn’t it? To be honest, I think it’s one of those things that look great but maybe aren’t so much. Why am I pooh-poohing it? Most of the people who came back from those excursions didn’t look too happy. See, unless you’re super good at it already, you’ll probably fall off a few times and well, the water is a bit colder than fresh. I imagine having to continue with the group when you’re soaking wet and possibly beginning to frost all over might be just a tad inconvenient but I’m open to changing my mind so go try it and let me know how much you enjoyed it.
We landed at some historic sites where remains of early expeditions could be seen. History buffs will have to forgive me though, I didn’t pay much attention to those. I just was in it for the penguins.
This is Primavera Station (Argentinian) in Ciervo Cove which at this time of the year seems to be run by penguins.
Turns out penguins are super nosy!
As soon as we landed, they would come over immediately to investigate us.
Observing them in the water was astonishing:
but very difficult since they are such fast swimmers. Observing them on land was much easier.
Skuas and penguins, although coexist in the same areas, are enemies.
Skuas will steal food away from the penguins
which isn’t taken lightly. A chase ensues which the skua often wins since it can simply fly away.
Skuas will also steal penguin eggs and even new chicks if their parents are careless. They don’t turn their noses up at old bits either.
While penguins seem cuddly, they’re actually kind of vicious. This youngster
relentlessly bullied this younger penguin for a full 10 minutes while we all powerlessly watched it go on.
Some of the tourists were quite upset about it but intervening is huge no-no. As always with nature, there are some other upsetting sights
as well as absorbing ones:
Penguins are simply fascinating.
Then again, in Antarctica, everything is!
Leopard Seals are some of the fiercest predators in these waters. Like every other Antarctic inhabitant, they will feed on fish and krill but much prefer penguin if it can be had. We saw a Leopard seal take a penguin right from the shore while we all stood with mouths agape. We saw another one catch a gull in flight.
Can you see the curiosity in its eyes as it looks at us?
We didn’t dare come any closer. You can tell Leopard Seals apart from all the others because their faces are more elongated, the better to hunt with.
We crossed the Lemaire Channel which is knows as the “Kodak Gap” for its stunning scenery featuring enormous icebergs.
On our last day in Antarctic waters the crew decided a “Polar Plunge” would be the perfect way to end our trip. Fernando and Alejandro were
insane brave enough to go for it.
We then began our journey back and our luck ran out.
The Drake Passage which had welcomed us so gently, woke up and attacked us. And yes, attacked is the word I’ll describe it with. The boat rocked from side to side with such force that we were thrown out of bed along with anything else that was not tied down. We could see the ocean come up to meet us through the porthole in our room and then disappear from sight until the next tilt. I was convinced we were going to capsize. None of the seasickness remedies I had carried with me worked and I spent the next two days struggling to hold down a sip of water. The boys fared just a tad better but not by much. However, Fernando was entirely unaffected and able to enjoy the gourmet meals the crew was dishing out and attend lectures by those scientists aboard who weren’t likewise indisposed. The nerve of him!
Once we made it through the Drake Passage, we found ourselves rounding Cape Horn. This is allegedly one of the most hazardous shipping routes in the world, even known as a “sailors graveyard”, but by the time we got here, after the ordeal that the Drake Passage had been, we simply enjoyed the view. We were able to take a peek at the lighthouse for a moment before the fog descended and covered it again.
And just like that, a few short hours later, we were back in Ushuaia.
Visiting Antarctica was an incredible experience and one we would gladly embark on again, seasickness and all. If there is one thing to take away from this trip it is that Antarctica is a magical, albeit horribly fragile place and we’re doing our children’s children irreparable harm by not taking better care of it. We need to begin by taking care of our little corners of the world and making every consumption decision fully conscious, remembering that everything that we use had to come from somewhere and that the health of every place, no matter how far away, ultimately effects all of us.
“We don’t have four years to sit around and wait for better management” Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles and founder of the 2041 Foundation, admonished us. Robert and his IAE16 group (over 50 people) were on the boat with us. His group, which included Mr. Jonathan Shackleton (descendant of the famous explorer Sir Ernest H. Shackleton), came from all corners of the world and were both female and male, of all possible ages and professions, but the one thing they all had in common was the focus of the work they do in their own communities towards fostering a better planet for all. I invite you to learn more about this admirable man and his foundation, and to do what we can from wherever we are. Let’s make our great-grand kids proud!