Expedition ships to the Antarctic Peninsula are packed with visitors psyched for close encounters with penguins, whales and Weddell seals. Dorothy Veitch recalls the trip of a lifetime
Rite of passage
Expedition ships cross the Drake Passage – the notoriously volatile stretch of water that separates Latin America and Antarctica – during the ‘summer season,’ from late October through to March. Come April, the ice freezes over and Antarctica is again cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a two-day transition from the nine-to-five grind of wifi and worries to a far simpler yet more powerful place.
A typical expedition team is made up of scientists, biologists, historians and adventurers. They nimbly switch between giving lectures on the wildlife, history and geology to navigating inflatable Zodiac boats between the icebergs and facing down snowstorms. Unlike most organised tours, tourists are made to feel as though they are explorers on a bone fide adventure.
Travel to Antarctica still holds bragging rights, especially if you camp out on the ice or dare to do the Polar Plunge, stripping off and immersing yourself in the icy waters. The sun sets after 10pm during the summer, and this is the best time to hear the glaciers creak and moan. Every now and then a section will calve off into the sea, hitting the water with a loud smack and sending a tsunami across the bay.
It is over a century since the British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was caught in the pack ice, marking the beginning of one of the world’s most exciting adventure stories. Extending like a great white arm from the main body of the icy continent, the peninsula is still populated with penguins, whales and Weddell seals that appear to be smiling as they lounge on the ice flows.
Rules and regulations
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) oversees tourism in the region and among the stringent rules aimed at protecting the wildlife is the stipulation that visitors are not to get closer than 5 metres. Another IAATO regulation holds that no more than 100 people are allowed to land in the same space at any one time.
Snow bird spotting
A mere flick of their powerful fins and penguins shoot through the crystal-clear waters at speeds of up to 22 miles per hour. But it’s when they move from the sea to the land, as they do every November for the start of the two-month breeding season, that they become adorable – and accidentally hilarious. Their rookeries are noisy and often smelly but always hugely entertaining.
Losing your perspective
Beyond the wildlife, the draw of Antarctica is the vast, icy landscape. The first thing to go is your sense of perspective. In the early summer, practically everything looks white. There are no trees or anything that might give you a sense of scale, making it difficult to judge distances. Only when you see an inflatable Zodiac beside an iceberg, do you realise just how huge these majestic blocks of ice really are.
A feeling for the ice
The more you look at the icebergs, the more you come to appreciate the range of colours, from white through to turquoise, deep blue and black. The black ice is the oldest – 50,000-yearold water that has been compressed over time so that all the air and impurities have been removed. This black ice looks like shards of glass.