Antarctica is calling and I must go
Antarctica, also known as the frozen continent, or the last continent, is the driest, coldest and windiest continent. It is the last true wilderness on earth. Whether it is the extreme climes, the isolation, the spectacular ice formations or the penguins, Antarctica’s spell beckoned past explorers and today continues to enchant modern day adventurers. There is something magical about Antarctica that words and pictures cannot translate, you simply have to see if for yourself.
My first trip to Antarctica was as a trainee guide/naturalist aboard the Ocean Endeavour with Quark Expeditions in November. Our journey began in Ushuaia, Argentina, the capital of Tierra del Fuego. This small town is framed by the snow capped Maritial Mountain range to the North and the Beagle Channel to the South. The ski resort town bustles with excited tourists who are either about to embark on, or have just returned from, what is undoubtedly the trip of a lifetime.
We left Ushuaia in the late afternoon and sailed down the Beagle Channel. Named after Darwin’s ship ‘The Beagle’, the channel is 240km long and 5km wide at it’s narrowest. Darwin describes the channel well; “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow”.
Our next day at sea was packed with presentations about birds, marine biology, glaciology and the history of Antarctica. At the stern (back) of the ship we had constant companions; cape petrels and southern giant petrels followed us closely. The wandering albatros, grey headed albatros and black browed albatros were also spotted gliding seemingly effortlessly with their wing tips almost touching the water.
The following morning I woke up early to lots of sea ice with the occasional fur seal resting on it. Later I was to see my first iceberg! A masterpiece of nature’s art, each is unique and captivating. The blue of the ice above and below the water, I now know to be real and not a photoshop edit or filter.
In the afternoon we had our first landing in the South Shetland Islands. The island’s summer inhabitants greeted us in extraordinary numbers; chinstrap and gentoo penguins galore. The constant noise made by the penguins on this first landing will stay with me forever. Pairs called to one another reaffirming their bonds, the chinstraps on one side and the gentoos on the other. Spending time with the penguins was like being in a wildlife documentary; their behaviour was remarkable. We witnessed them mating and building their nests with small pebbles. Much to my amusement there was always one penguin who stole pebbles from neighbouring nests rather than finding his or her own. It would appear that even Antarctica is not without it’s thieves!
The next morning was like sailing through a museum of icebergs. Large icebergs the size of the ship glistened in the sun and smaller growlers, lived up to their names as they grazed the side of the ship. A zodiac cruise in the Errera Channel was nothing short of magical. The silence of the still air was broken only by the popping of the air pockets in the melting ice and the occasional rumble as a glacier calved into the sea. There is no place on earth like this frozen continent. Gentoo penguins porpoising in the water surrounded us before leaping elegantly onto land. A weddell seal on the ice yawned before singing to us. No words will do the sound made by this animal justice, it is certainly worth a Google search!
That afternoon we made a continental landing at Brown Base, an Argentine research station. For many aboard this was their 7th continent and there was a fair amount of celebration!
The next few days passed by in blur. Penguins, seals and ice. Each excursion was a new adventure and when we weren’t on land or in a zodiac many were on the bridge or on the stern with binoculars scanning for birds and wildlife. We were blessed with an incredible sighting of orca. Several pods, totalling between 40-50 animals swam all around the ship. The captain did a fantastic job at manoeuvring the ship and the orca played in the ship’s wake. It was so exciting to see these animals and the atmosphere on the outer decks was infectious.
Back across the Drake Passage with an entourage of sea birds following us, and before I knew it, we were in the Beagle Channel.
I had mixed feelings about returning to Ushuaia, life here had continued in much the same way without us, as it was doing in Antarctica. I wanted to know what the penguins were doing, had they laid their eggs yet? Fortunately for me this was now my job and I would soon find out.
Antarctica is calling and I must go.