The Magic of Antarctica

“What is your favourite travel experience,” is a commonly-asked question of any travel writer. For years I have given the same answer – cruising Antarctica.

Cruising through Lemaire Channel.

Cruising through Lemaire Channel.

Although it was many years ago, a visit to Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Antarctic Journey brought back some wonderful memories. Given my story about the cruise was also most enjoyable to write, thanks to the memories, I thought why not include it on this blog! So here is the story about my favourite travel experience which appeared in both the Sunday Herald Sun and Sunday Telegraph.

Wildlife is one of the joys of the Antarctic.

Wildlife is one of the joys of the Antarctic.

Having high expectations of a destination which you have always wanted to visit can often lead to disappointment.

So it was with some trepidation I boarded the Marine Expeditions’ Marine Voyager for an 11 day cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula. I need not have worried. It was everything and even more than I, and my fellow 77 passengers, expected. While there were some disappointments, such as the impact of man at very ugly research stations and the sighting of several other ships (cruising around the Peninsula is becoming increasingly popular) the scenery and abundant wildlife, together with some great weather made up for any despondent feelings.

Cruising around in zodiacs was a highlight of the cruise.

Cruising around in zodiacs was a highlight of the cruise.

Good weather ensured a smooth crossing of Drake Passage, renowned for its stormy waters. (Unfortunately we were not so lucky on our return, being caught in the heart of a force 10 storm). Sitting in the sun watching the huge albatross and petrels which continually surrounded the ship was a great start. The birds seemed just as interested in us as we were in them.

A series of excellent lectures by Marine Expedition naturalists ensured we knew all about the birds, the landscape and the other wildlife we were to see, which included four penguin species, five seal species and humpback and minke whales.

Penguins in the Antarctic.

Penguins in the Antarctic.

While sunbathing became impossible once we reached the Peninsula, temperatures of up to 5 degrees ensured no one froze. Yet the changeable weather is one of the most remarkable aspects of Antarctica. One minute it is sunny, within 10 minutes there can be a blizzard.

Fortunately we were blessed with sun when it really mattered such as our trip through the narrow and steep sided Lemaire Channel. The reflection of the channel’s towering mountain crests was one of the most spectacular sights on our cruise.

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Icebergs are a feature of Antarctica.

Even the fog and mist arrived at the perfect time- just as we were weaving our way through the ice and past huge ice bergs into the Antarctic Sound.

It is easy to understand why Antarctica and its Peninsula are described as one of the most powerful landscapes on earth.

Awesome glaciers, icebergs of all shapes and sizes and massive snow covered mountains rising straight from the sea, create a feeling of grandeur, beauty and vastness.

Exploring in zodiacs.

Exploring in zodiacs.

While the size of the mountains and glaciers was obvious from the ship it was not until we saw the bergs from the smaller zodiacs (similar to the rubber duckies used by our life savers) that their size and beauty really came to the fore.

The time spent exploring the electric blue and dazzling white icebergs around Pleneau Island was unforgettable. Huge icy structures, some shaped like pinnacles others like domes and spires and yet others with deep cobalt blue ice caves, surrounded us.

The waters, covered in parts by sheets of ice, and in other parts by iceberg reflections, were full of penguins and seals.

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Swimming in Pendulum Cove

The volcanic Deception Island provided one of the surprises and disappointments. Providing the surprise was Pendulum Cove which features hot springs with waters warm enough for a cautious swim. However swim away from those waters and the water really is freezing cold!

Disappointing were the remains of a British settlement and a Norwegian whaling concern which litter the beach around Whalers Bay. While I thought it looked like a rubbish dump, my fellow passengers believed it was an important part of the Antarctica’s history and should stay (a similar debate is being held throughout the world about all historical Antarctic stations).

Proving far more picturesque was Paradise Bay. It was in this bay, described as one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world, we fully appreciated the power of a calving glacier.

Icebergs were a favourite resting place with seals.

Icebergs were a favourite resting place with seals.

Piece after piece of ice fell from the face of the glacier, the huge crack and resulting booming noises as the ice hit the water rang out time and time again. A snow storm added to the chilly atmosphere.

While the scenery was breathtaking it was the time we spent with the wildlife which made the trip so memorable.

Our zodiacs delivered us to small beaches where we spent hours surrounded by seabirds, seals and thousands of penguins.

One of my favourite penguin pictures!

One of my favourite penguin pictures!

Watching the penguins was an absolute delight. There were so many everywhere we landed it was near impossible to walk anywhere without disturbing them, so sitting proved the best option.

As a result numerous adults and chicks at all levels of growth, some still covered with down coats creating a punk rock effect, came right up to me seemingly to check out their new neighbour.

The feeding ritual provided the greatest entertainment. An adult returning from feeding would call its youngster who would instantly come running. Once the chick appeared and was recognised it received a quick feed of regurgitated food. The adult would then run away, starting a madcap chase for food which often lasted for a few minutes and resulted in another feed for the chic.

Wildlife abounds in the Antarctic.

Wildlife abounds in the Antarctic.

While penguins are extremely graceful in the water, porpoising like a dolphin, on land they are extremely clumsy falling continually, thus adding to the hilarity of the scene. The elephant seals who make the beach their home were equally as entertaining while one enterprising sheathbill saw my gumboots as a great food source.

It was these wildlife encounters together with seals we watched on the icebergs and around our zodiacs which ensured Antarctica fully lived up to its reputation as the last great wilderness.

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