While inquiring about a cruise to Antarctica I discovered that there were at least two types. One was on a conventional cruise ship that accommodates several thousand passengers. Typically, these cruises are sightseeing trips, where the ship passes along the coast. The other type was more hands-on, where passengers go on daily zodiac excursions to icebergs, fjords, islands, and the continent itself. I signed up for the latter type of cruise, which accommodated 180 passengers. You can see from the photo I took while our ship was still at the dock in Ushuaia the size difference between the two types of vessels used for these voyages. The smaller blue vessel on the left with Quark Expeditions painted on the side was the Ocean Diamond. That was the ship I took to Antarctica. The much larger cruise liner in the background was a mega ship called the Crown Princess. It supported up to 3080 passengers.
After loading onto buses in the parking lot we were driven into the secured dock area where we boarded the Ocean Diamond, our base camp for the next 10 days. The Ocean Diamond was an older vessel but very well maintained. I checked Wikipedia and discovered it was built in Europe in 1978. When I got to my cabin I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was much nicer than expected with one large bed and no roommate assigned. Not having to share a cabin for 10 days made the Antarctic adventure all the better. After I got my belongings stowed away, I heard an announcement over the intercom inviting all passengers to the large meeting room for an overview of our expedition. One of the things they stressed was that this was not a typical cruise. Instead, it was an expedition where certain things would be attempted, but the plans would change based upon weather and ice conditions near the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather and ice flows change rapidly in these latitudes, so each day the captain and crew determine what places to visit and which activities to pursue.
As you would expect, the meals and accommodations on the ship were excellent. I had to take special care to avoid overeating. I also made visits to the small gym to keep my body active during the cruise across the Drake Passage. It took about 2 days of continuous sailing to reach the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. During the passage the weather changed from needing a light jacket to requiring winter clothing. Fortunately, I was well prepared. Before leaving Ushuaia I rented the gear needed beyond that provided by the Quark Expeditions. The company provided a very warm waterproof winter coat and tall rubber boots. In Ushuaia I rented insulated waterproof pants and gloves, and I already had a hat with ear flaps. From the list of required outer clothing, I could see a couple of themes emerging. The clothing needed to be waterproof and warm to survive the conditions we would experience in Antarctica. Obviously, while onboard I was very comfortable as long as I stayed inside, but once I stepped onto the deck a blast of Antarctic air would remind me that this was a very different climate than I had experienced in Ushuaia. As expected the zodiacs rides were even more bone chilling.
During our traverse of the Drake Passage I had the opportunity to meet and converse with many interesting passengers. This small group represented most continents, many nationalities, and a wide variety of personal and professional experiences. Similarly the crew was from the four corners of the world. Because we were all sharing the same adventure we naturally had a lot in common and striking up a conversation with a stranger was easy. I met people from Australia, many from Europe and Asia, and a few Americans too. Also I discovered that many of the crew members had given up professions to conduct tours around this magnificent continent.
The voyage across the Passage, which was known to have some of the most treacherous seas in the world, was relatively calm and much faster than the captain had expected. As a result, they scheduled our first zodiac exploration a day early. We explored a bay and then eventually landed on an island where thousands of penguins nested.
Along the shoreline in the bay were two types of seals. The giants on the beach were the elephant seals weighing thousands of pounds. These enormous creatures were just sleeping the afternoon away hardly moving as we approached. Our zodiac driver and guide reinforced what I had heard before. The wildlife in Antarctica have no natural fear of man and don't immediately go scurrying away as soon as you head in their direction; you just need to keep a respectful distance. Because of their lack of fear, we got very close to the wildlife.
We also saw large numbers of fur seals. These guys were very active both in the water and on the shore. Every now and again young males would engage in mock fights preparing themselves for the day when they would attempt to collect a haram and pass on their genes.
Our last stop was a volcanic outcrop known as Penguin Island, the seasonal home for a colony of chinstrap penguins. These penguins were in the final weeks of molting where both the young and the adults grow the new feathers needed to waterproof and insulate their bodies. They shared the island with fur seals and a few elephant seals.
At dinner that night everyone talked about the marvelous day we had had. It was like being in a zoo without the cages. We all felt we had experienced something very special and unique.
Overnight the winds increased and by morning the ship was listing heavily port side. I happened to wake up early, and as I stepped onto the deck I quickly realized the strength of the winds and the cold. Unlike the calm seas and the bright skies of the previous day, this morning it was overcast with 40 MPH winds gusting of 60 MPH.
A few hours later it was calm again with perfectly clear skies. On our zodiac ride that morning we saw two varieties of seals (leopard and crab) resting on the icebergs. One of the seals had been wounded in a fight and was bleeding.
Another amazing sight was the enormous bright white icebergs. We also saw humpbacked whales swimming alongside the Ocean Diamond.
Rather than bore you with a day by day accounts of my activities, I will share the highlights that left more of a lasting impression on me. First, the sheer size and power of this wilderness was impressive: the glaciers, the icebergs, and the mountains. Second, the animals that survive and flourish in these harsh conditions were truly amazing. Lastly, the weather was just like you might expect. It changes rapidly and must be respected.
Glaciers cover this land as far as the eye can see, and surprisingly they are not melting as fast as other places around the world due to global warming. Thus, the edge of the continent was mostly lined with massive glaciers slowly flowing into the sea. We were told that in some places the glaciers were over two miles thick. As you can imagine, the weight of glaciers deformed the underlying crust of the earth. Although the following photos give you some idea of their scale, it is impossible to capture in a few photos how massive and extensive the glaciers are in Antarctica. You just can’t help feeling humbled by their size and beauty.
Aside: At the present time global warming is mostly impacting the formation of sea ice that surrounds Antarctica. Until this trip, I didn’t understand that sea ice plays a critical role in the food chain. Algae forms on the underside of the sea ice sheets, and this algae is the main food source for krill that in turn is eaten by the fish, birds, and mammals. In one region, water temperatures have risen by three degrees resulting in sea ice not being as thick as it used to be and melting much sooner.
Most of the large icebergs we saw during our travels were the result of calving from the glaciers as they enter the ocean. Some of the icebergs were many times larger than the Ocean Diamond. The sizes, shapes, and colors made for a surreal environment. In bright sunlight, the contrast between the blue ocean and the pure white was dramatic. When it was overcast, the icebergs was equally dramatic appearing more ominous and forbidding.
In the region of the Antarctic Peninsula there were many mountains that lined the coast. The darkness of the rocks juxtapositioned against the bright snow and ice made for many dramatic views. The contrast was often otherworldly.
As I mentioned before, the wildlife in Antarctica have not developed an instinctive fear of humans. In some cases they seemed to be downright curious about the strangers that were visiting their domains. Penguins would stop and stare. Seals came right up to our zodiacs within a few inches of our cameras. And the whales swam alongside our rubber zodiacs without showing any signs of fear or annoyance.
We saw quite a few whales during our journeys around the Antarctic Peninsula.
Although my sightings were limited to humpback whales, other passengers also saw minky whales and fin whales. One day we were in a area where we saw between eight different whales in less than an hour.
Penguins have established colonies in several areas along the Peninsula. The colonies we visited had several thousand penguins in each on. Depending upon the species, the young many have been ready to head out to sea, while others were still molting and week away from venturing into the water.
The weather was what I had expected. It changed rapidly and was extreme. It would be sunny and calm and an hour later would be overcast with strong winds. When we first encountered the steady 40 MPH winds, the Ocean Diamond listed to the port side at an alarming angle. Then it was calm and sunny again. Some days the high winds and rough seas restricted the things we could do.
As our time in Antarctica was ending, we got one last reminder that the weather in this region was ever changeable and must be respected. The captain announced that a significant storm was approaching the Drake Passage and we must set sail immediately to avoid being caught in it. The forecast was for 60 MPH winds and 35 foot swells. Even though we avoided the worst of the storm, we still had to deal with some treacherous conditions as we crossed the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia.
Going to Antarctica was amazing and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to experience an unspoiled wilderness up close and personal.