The Seventh Continent

Antarctica. The bottom of the earth, the coldest place on the planet, the world´s most harshest environment, and truely one of the most spectactular places I’ve ever been to. To know that approximately 350,000 people have ever visited the planets 5th largest continent, you can truley feel that you´re exploring the last frontier on the face of the earth. It´s unspoilt beauty that you will find in few other places, and every corner you turn is another postcard picture. Thousands of icebergs, huge mountain peaks, massive glaciers, glassy waters, perfect mirror image reflections, an abundance of wildlife etc, etc…
The pioneering explorers of this ice continent must have been amoung some of toughest men to have ever walked the planet. Their stories of exploration turn into stories of survival and heartache, rather than moments of triumph and discoveries. Men stranded for months on end in paper thin huts, wearing little else than cotten and woollen garments in temperatures that we can´t imagine, living off penguins and fur seals. Their stories of endurance and perserverance are just unbelieveable. I would encourage anyone to read about their heroics before venturing to the South.
As you can tell I´ve become quite caught up in the ora that Antarctica creates. My trip was a 10 day cruise aboard the M/S Explorer, the first ever purpose built expedition ship. The Explorer first began trips to Antarctica in 1970, and today has pretty much seen every corner of the globe. It´s staffed by some 60 people, led by a core group of about 10. The expedition leaders are in charge of setting the itinerary and the smooth running of the trip. They´re backed up by the captain and his officers, plus a group of experts in fields such as history, marine life, birds, geology and glaciers, and naturalists. All knowledge fields are covered, and our crew were on the top of their game.
Setting off from Ushuaia on the 21st of Feb at 7pm, we blessed with a beautiful evening. Not a breath of wind disturbed the Beagle Channel as we headed for the open seas. All passengers dined together for the first time and it was apparent from the beginning that the food would be excellent and plentiful, and the company great.
The next morning the Beagle Channel had given way to a rolling Drake Passage, and many of us weren´t feeling quite ourselves. I spent much of the night awake, sliding up and down my bed from the rolling motion. Since my stomach and head weren´t quite right I spent much of the day catching up on sleep. By the time dinner came around I was right as rain. Many passengers weren´t as lucky and the dining room was rather empty.
I spent much of the 3rd day up on deck looking for wildlife. The first iceberg was sighted at about 11am, and finally land at 12pm, the South Shetland Islands. The closer we got to land the more abundant the wildlife became. Sightings included whales, dolphins, seals, birds and hundreds of penguins diving through the water. We made our first landing at Aitcho Island (part of Sth Shetlands). 2 colonies of penguins inhabited the island, Gentoos and Chinstraps (these have a thin black feather line under their chin). Stepping on land it´s noticeable straight away how penguins have no real fear of humans and, in fact, are just as curious of us as we of them. The second thing that is noticeable is the penguin stench, mostly created from their guano. I just sat down in front of large group of Chinstraps and let them come to me. 1 Gentoo was most curious and tested me out by nipping at my clothes for a couple of minutes (not painful). It was a great introduction to Antarctica, touching land and moung the wildlife. I´m here!
The next morning is what I had been waiting for. We cruised overnight into the Weddell Sea and awoke surrounded by thousands of icebergs of all shapes and sizes. The large tabularbergs (flat on top and rectangular shape) were the most impressive. The deeper into the sea we explored the greater the numebr of icebergs there were until we had to turn back or run the risk of becoming trapped! Not a breath of wind disturbed the oceans surface, so gorgeous reflections were created, and it was easy to see the floating icebergs deep under the water. Occassionally a fur seal or penguin was spotted on top of the ice flow.
Coming ashore at Paulet Island, we explored an old stone hut that was built by stranded Sweddish explorers 1901-1903. Saw plenty of wildlife again – crabeater, Weddell and fur seals, shags (cormarants), sheath bills and 1 lonely Adelie penguin.
The afternoon was spectactular. The sun came out (the only time in 10 days) and we got blue sky. The Explorer cruised down Antarctic Sound amoung enormous icebergs (biggest on the trip) and ice flows. The Antarctic Peninsular, with it´s large snowcapped peaks and massive glaciers, was visible the whole way. There was a definate sense of excitement in the air because this afternoon would be our continent landing at Brown Bluff. For many of us it was our 7th continent. The beach at Brown Bluff was dotted with fur seals and penguins, and a rydge to walk up on for fantastic panoramic views. The bay below was inundated with icebergs and we finished the landing witha zodiac cruise amoungst them. We spotted fur and crabeater seals, and the penguin eating leopard seals. The best iceberg reflections of the trip. This was my favourite day of the trip – the continent landing, the wildlife, the icebergs – it was how I had imagined Antarctica to be and I finally felt I was truely here.
At Bailey Head the next morning, we were fortunate enough to witness the worlds second largest Chinstrap colony. Up to 80,000 breeding pairs gather in a natural ampitheatre occupying the hillsides for breeding and malting. Quite a sight, noise and smell! We were touring Deception Island this morning, and our second stop was at Whalers Bay. Formerly a whaling station (once reported to have at least 6,000 whale carcasses floating in the bay), it now stands as a reminder of those dark days. Most of the old buildings were destroyed by volcano erruptions. An old aircraft hangar stands , as this was the first place an aircraft took off from in Antarctica. Old whaling boats sat in their final resting placs and huge whale bones lay scattered along the shore. Many of us had been waiting for this stop because it was our chance to brave the cold Antarctic waters and go for a dip. Geothermal activity from the volcano, meant that by digging into the sand hot water pools could be created. The ocean was just 1 deg Cel, and after stripping off into my boardshorts I dashed in and dived under the water. The intial shock wasn´t as bad as I´d expected but the after shock staedily tells the brain how cold it is. The hot thermal springs helped thaw out the body pretty quickly, and in fact became to hot to sit in. It´s amazing to think that the coldest water I´ve ever been in is right beside the hottest water I´ve evr felt.
After luch we had some close encounters with 2 humpback whales, a mother and calf. They spent an hour frollicking around our ship, plenty of tail action when they dived, and everyone on board was blown away.
The 3rd landing for the day was on Livingston Island, at Hannah Pt. It´s a kind of wildlife meeca. Large colonies of Chinstraps and Gentoos, and 1 lonely Macaroni penguin. Other birds included Southern Giant Petrels, shags and sheath bills. The highlight were the Elephant seals. The beasts we saw were adolescents, wieghing in at 2 to 3 tons, looking pretty aweful due to their annual malt, large chunks of skin and fur falling off them everywhere. It was a big day after 3 landings and a swim.
Day 6 saw some of the best scenery of the trip venturing through the Neumayer and Lemaire Channels. Both being narrow channels meant we were able to get a better sense of the enormity of the mountain peaks and sheer walls of ice created by the endless number of glaciers. Plenty of ice flow in the water, and we spotted a couple of Minke whales.
We landed at Port Lockroy to visit a British Antarctic heritage site which was formerly a whaling and scientific station up until the 1960´s. It is maintained and open for 4 months of the year for tourists by the Brits. Jougla point, across the channel, had many whale bones and a reconstructed carcass, and the enormity is mind blowing. 1 lonely King penguin stood amoung the Gentoos (the second largest penguin in the world, and a long way from home).
At the end of the Lemaire Channel we did a zodiac cruise around “iceberg alley”. Some very uniquely shaped bergs, particularly one with an arch. Saw a number of leopard seals, of which one or 2 were very curious of our presence. Even to the point of biting the zodiacs. Plenty of penguins swimming and a couple of Minke whales shot through quickly.
To better our efforts of yesterdays swim, a few of us decided a true antarctic swim had to be done off a floating iceberg surrounded by glaciers. 5 of us were driven out to a berg, stripped off into shorts and 1 bikini, climber onto the ice flow and proceeded to do the unthinkable and dive into 0 deg Cel water, with an unknown depth, and possible attcks from leopard seals! Needless to say not to much time was spent splashing around in the water. My feet were colder than they´ve ever been. This is up there with the craziest stuff I´ve ever done!
The last landing of the trip was at Culverville Is in the Errera Channel. It´s another Gentoo colony. I spent my time just lazing on the shore watching the young penguins learning to swim, with much hilarity! They were also extremely curious even sitting peoples laps. Our last hurrah in Antarctica was a zodiac cruise around the Melchior Islands. Small islands that have been suppressed by glaciers. Spotted several fur seals, and 1 Weddell seal. Rough coastline, with many surge areas.
Once back on the ship we began our 2 day cruise back across the Drake to Ushuaia. We were fortunate enough to get the flattest crossing the crew had ever had, so not to many sick puppies.
The last highlight of the cruise was getting to see Cape Horn, the very tip of the South American continent, a beautiful sight.
Can´t say in words how much I enjoyed the trip. I took more photos than I´ve evr taken before and what you see below is just a small sample. I encourage anyone who is serious about travelling, serentity, beauty, wildlife to visit this white continent. It´s unlike any place you´ve ever seen before or likely to see again.

Journal Comments

  • BarryKing