January 2008

We had been interested in seeing Antarctica for some time but had been deterred by the high cost, particularly since we had learned enough to know that we wanted to do the trip on an expeditionary ship. These are relatively small boats that accommodate 45 to about 120 passengers. Most if not all of these vessels were originally built by Russia for scientific expeditions and have been sold and refitted for passenger travel. The small vessels are able to access areas that larger ships cannot reach and the smaller number of passengers allows more frequent zodiac excursions. However, passage on these ships ranges from a low of about $6500 per person to $12000 or more.

Then, in November, 2007, the day before Thanksgiving, we saw an internet notice of an Antarctic trip for the extraordinarily low price of $1799 per person including all taxes and fees. The ship was Orient Line's Marco Polo with a capacity of about 880 passengers, though the ship takes fewer than 500 to Antarctica. After reading more about the ship and the itinerary, we booked the next morning.

More than 90% of ships to Antarctica sail from the Argentine town of Ushuaia, the world's most southerly city at the lower tip of South America. Ushuaia is typically reached from the US via Buenos Aires or Santiago. We connected through Buenos Aires.

DAY 1 [Beagle Channel to Drake Passage]
Our itinerary was the classic one for shorter Antarctic trips, spending 4 days in and around the Antarctic Peninsula, which offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Antarctica, ample opportunities to see marine mammals, and access to numerous penguin rookeries. We departed Ushuaia on January 13, 2008.

DAY 2 [Drake Passage]
Passengers to Antarctica are required to pay their dues by crossing the Drake Passage, a 600 mile stretch of open waters beginning south of Cape Horn, notorious for strong winds and high seas. The convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific waters can be quite turbulent and there was some rolling motion (considered normal) during the first night and throughout this day, bothering many passengers in varying degrees.

Judi felt a little queasy when she awoke but had made a full recovery before noon. Throughout most of the day the sea was churning a bit too much and it was a little too cold in the wind to be outside much. But there was plenty to do inside. There was an emergency orientation (compulsory by international law), introduction of the great scientific staff, and a number of worthwhile lectures (Seabirds of the Southern Ocean, Marine Mammals, History of Exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula) and, on the TV in each room, a variety of movies to watch if so inclined.

DAY 3 [Deception Island and Cuverville Island]
We approached Deception Island as we awoke, giving us our first look at the beautiful mountain scenery of the many Antarctic Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Here we would have one of several disappointments. The plan called for us to enter the flooded caldera of this volcanic island. However, because we had departed behind schedule, the captain decided to continue on to Cuverville to insure sufficient time for our first zodiac excursion. En route, we managed to fit in lectures on the Geology of Antarctica and The Penguins of Antarctica. There were also many birds to see, including graceful albatrosses and petrels.

The science staff reported 41 sightings of humpback whales on this day along with 1 elephant seal and 1 leopard seal. Each whale species has a distinctive blow pattern, which often made it possible for crew members to type whales seen some distance away.

We reached Cuverville Island about 3 pm. Cuverville has the largest known colony of Gentoo penguins, numbering about 4800. The island is not suitable for landings as sheer cliffs rise directly from the water. But zodiacs can move close to the shore, permitting good views of the penguins and other birds that frequent the island. This first excursion was preceded by another mandatory briefing on zodiac procedures and regulations designed to protect the fragile Antarctic eco-system.

The weather had been mild all day with highs reaching unexpectedly into the low 50's, making it quite warm in the sun when standing in a location shielded from the wind; the temperature fell very little in the evening. When we steamed away from the island (around 9:30 pm) we still had about 3.5 hours of light as the sun did not set until 12:30, rising again about 4:30. The scenery kept getting more spectacular with the heavily snow covered mountains glistening in the sun. And with the clear skies, we were treated to an absolutely spectacular sunset that lasted several hours. The colors on the snow-covered peaks created one of the most beautiful sights we have seen anywhere in the world. This evening alone was more than sufficient to justify the time and expense required to reach the Antarctic Peninsula.

With the sun setting so late, the mild temperatures, the presence of so many birds and the occasional whale spotting, it was hard to pull ourselves away from the decks until after midnight. It was still light when we retired at 1:00 am.

DAY 4 [The Le Maire Channel and Point Lockroy]
We arrived at the Le Maire Channel about 7 am. This 7-mile long narrow channel (not a whole lot wider than the ship) is considered one of the most beautiful passages in all of Antarctica with sheer rock walls and sparkling glaciers. Unfortunately, the conditions in the channel were too icy to safely permit our passage. In fact, only occasionally is it possible for the Marco Polo to enter the channel.

This was our second big disappointment. As we veered away from the entrance toward our next destination, we peered glumly at 2 much smaller vessels (the Bremen and the Corinthian II) heading directly for the entrance. That capability is one of the main benefits of visiting Antarctica on a small vessel.

On the positive side, we were again treated to another beautiful day with mild temperatures and clear blue skies (close to 70 degrees in the sun).

As we continued south we began to see many penguins (Gentoos and Chinstraps) in the water and on icebergs. With her telephoto lens, Judi spotted a leopard seal on an iceberg.

We reached Port Lockroy, which has another large colony of gentoo penguins, about 2 pm. The harbor at Port Lockroy is beautiful and the reflections of the bright sun on the water looked like jewels.

Here we made our first zodiac landing and received a HUGE bonus. Just as we stepped ashore, an Emperor penguin came ashore!! The nearest emperor colony is several hundred miles away so this event was totally unexpected.

Several of the scientific staff who had spent a great deal of time on the peninsula (including Jim Wilson, the ship's ornithologist and Marylou Blakeslee, the marine mammal/whale expert) had never seen an Emperor. Jim notes in our log that this was the first recorded sighting of an Emperor at Port Lockroy for at least 16 years.

The science staff and a number of safety personnel preceded the passengers to the island to demarcate paths that would least disturb to penguins. Passengers were asked to attempt to remain at least 15 feet from the penguins though we often found ourselves much closer to these rule-ignoring residents.

The watchful science staff would often alert passengers when a penguin was about to cross their path. To further protect the environment and to avoid transferring contaminants from one island to the next, special attention is given to everyone's boots. Personnel scrub everyone's boots as they are about to reboard the zodiacs. They are scrubbed a second time upon reboarding the ship and then again by the cabin attendant before he returns them to your cabin.

DAY 5 [Paradise Harbor]
We arrived at Paradise Harbor around 8 am. Surrounded by more spectacular mountains, Paradise Harbor offered another large Gentoo penguin colony along with a variety of birds.

There is also a small Chilean military outpost here, occupied only in the summer months. One of the modest structures serves as a small photo gallery and, yes - even in Antarctica - a small souvenir shop.

After the zodiac landings had been completed, we resumed sailing through the Gerlache Strait toward Half Moon Bay. Ornithologist Jim Wilson notes that more than one million whales were slaughtered in these waters before whaling was banned and wonders what it must have been like to sail in these waters before their numbers began to decline so drastically.

In the Gerlache Strait, we began to see many beautiful blue-tinged icebergs, some quite large. Jim Wilson estimates that one of the icebergs we passed around 10 pm was taller than our ship

With spectacular mountains continually in view, we wondered again whether we had ever seen any place this beautiful - and concluded probably not.

DAY 6 [Half Moon Island and Drake Passage heading north]
We had set our alarms to arise early as we were scheduled to reach Half Moon Island around 6 am. Zodiac landings were scheduled to begin at 6:30 and we were scheduled for a 7:40 departure. We were looking forward to this landing as there are reported to be a mind-boggling 90,000 Chinstrap penguins in and around Half Moon Island along with a wide array of sea birds, including petrels, gulls, sheathbills, terns, and skuas. Several types of seals also frequent this small island, only 1.25 miles in length.

To our dismay, however, a 6 am announcement over the intercom system informed us that the winds were too high for zodiac landings. This was our 3rd major disappointment. We learned later that the allowable wind velocity for landings is 25 knots; the winds were blowing up to 30 knots. Smaller ships can maneuver close enough to the island to permit zodiac landings in the conditions that prevailed, giving us one more reason to return to Antarctica on a small vessel. So the captain began our run back through the Drake Passage. The temperature was 41 degrees and we did not venture out of our cabin except for breakfast until noon. At that point, we bundled up and braved the wind near the ship's railing to try our luck at photographing the painted petrels and wandering albatrosses that would dive down for fish just off the ship.

DAY 7 [Drake Passage, Cape Horn, Beagle Channel]
Our Drake crossing was relatively smooth. As we progressed ever closer toward Cape Horn, we once again began to see many sea birds. The ship's sighting log listed 23 different species on this day including 5 Magellanic penguins.

The lectures today included Ships in Ice, Charles Darwin as a Geologist and Life in the Sub-Antarctic.

We reached "The Horn," as it is called, about 3 pm. It was blustery as always at this location but the temperature had warmed to 56 degrees. We then made our way up to and through the Beagle Channel, reaching Ushuaia about 10 pm, completing one of our most spectacular trips ever.



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