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Exploring the 7th Continent: Antarctica

Antarctica may not be a destination that immediately springs to mind when planning either a trip of a lifetime, ticking off a bucket list item or even that 10 day break that can be needed to re-charge the batteries. It is mainly known for its extreme weather, treacherous seas on the voyage to get there, vast colonies of penguins, and enormous glaciers. However, there is so much more to a trip to the seventh continent which goes above and beyond all expectations. A visit to Antarctica can seem a little daunting because of the extremities – in winter, temperatures can plummet to -80 degrees Celsius (-112 Farenheit), and the Drake Passage is known for being the roughest sea in the world. However, when travelling with a vastly experienced crew and expedition team who are determined to deliver the best possible adventure to the guests, any fears can be quickly allayed. Most expeditions take place between the months of November and April, which is essentially spring through to autumn, meaning temperatures are much more bearable. These conditions provide plenty of daylight allowing for maximum exposure to the landscape and stunning photo opportunities.



On Global Dream Travel’s first voyage to the seventh continent, we took a chartered flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, right on the tip of the South American continent. Once we landed, we boarded a coach to get a guided tour of the Parque Nacional in Tierra del Fuego. It gave us a fascinating insight into the history as well as the animal and plant life that exists in southern Patagonia. Temperatures were much cooler than Buenos Aires (around 10 degrees Celsius or 50 Fahrenheit as opposed to the 25 degrees Celsius in Buenos Aires), with a breeze that certainly had an Antarctic feel to it. That afternoon was truly memorable, and yet it was an aspect of the trip we had barely considered prior to departing with all the focus having been on Antarctica itself. Once we boarded the Ultramarine (120 metres in length with a passenger capacity of around 190), met the crew and familiarised ourselves with the itinerary and facilities, it was clear there was a real air of excitement. This wasn’t just among the fellow passengers but for many of the crew as well, they are so passionate about what they do and seem to enjoy sharing their experiences of this amazing adventure. With all the safety briefings out the way, and the late arrival of a Chilean pilot that was necessary to dock into Cape Horn the next day, the ship set sail shortly after midnight and we were on our way.


Exploring Southern Patagonia before setting sail from Ushuaia

After a reasonable sleep despite the excitement, we had our breakfast and were called down to board the Zodiacs, so we could then make a landing at Cape Horn. The Zodiacs are small rigid-hulled inflatable boats that hold about 10 people. These were our primary form of transport for whenever we weren’t on the Ultramarine. It was a very short journey to the shore, and despite some harsh gusts of wind and a few moderate waves we made it pretty comfortably. Not only was it a nice little warm up for the Zodiac excursions to come, but it was also a great opportunity to step foot onto Chilean soil for the first time. There is one house there, inhabited by a family where the father had volunteered to do a military placement for a year, as it is a requirement for this post to be manned. It was interesting learning about how they live – they get one shipment of food arriving per month meaning meal planning is essential! When the winds pick up, the children are forced to stay inside for their own safety – gusts of over 80 miles per hour occur frequently. We were easily able to return on board the ship before we then departed for the Drake Passage.



A view of the Ultramarine from Cape Horn, officially part of Chile


We were fortunate that on this occasion the sea was only a little rough, although that didn’t stop many travellers including myself suffering a little. If it was required, the ship’s doctor was able to administer medication on board which helped ease the headaches and nausea; many passengers had a patch on their neck which also seemed to be very effective. Due to the favourable conditions, the crossing took around a day and a half rather than the 2 full days expected, and it provided a great opportunity for some downtime. I enjoyed the on-board library with numerous books on the history, wildlife and terrain of Antarctica, and it was conveniently situated adjacent to the on-board Panorama bar. The other great thing about this time were the number of short lectures provided by the different crew members on topics such as the birds, mammals, geology and marine biology of Antarctica. It wasn’t long before we’d broken the back of the journey, and the first signs that we weren’t far from the continent started to emerge; the spray in the water from the fin whales that were following the ship, or the occasional iceberg that would drift by the cabin window! Indeed, by the end of day 3, we had confirmation that we were now officially in the political and biological sphere of Antarctica, with the South Shetland Islands in our sights.



Constantly changing weather allowed for some stunning pictures as we approached land


Waking up on day 4 was truly spectacular. There was something surreal about gazing out the window at breakfast time, admiring glaciers and icebergs set among the murky and slightly eerie weather conditions. There was a hope and expectation that we would be able to get out in the Zodiacs and explore around the shores of the South Shetland Islands, and maybe even make a landing, especially given we had all been confined to the ship for 2 full days. You could therefore imagine the disappointment that due to the increase in swells, wind force and deterioration in the weather conditions, any adventures had to be postponed until the afternoon. Whilst you could understand that the safety of those on board was paramount, you couldn’t help but pray for conditions to improve so we could all get out on the water for a change of scenery. And thankfully it seemed as though those prayers had been answered, when at lunchtime it was confirmed that we could now get out for a venture. To prepare for the weather conditions appropriately, I had a few layers of clothing to put on, in my case that consisted of tracksuit bottoms under waterproof walking trousers, thick socks, 3 upper layers plus a thick parka (that was over the top of a duvet jacket), buff, beanie and ski goggles. To say it was touch and go regarding the conditions was an understatement – the swells at time were up to 2 metres, which certainly made boarding the Zodiacs a bit of a challenge – the timing had to be spot on. The crew were very experienced and clear in their instructions which helped, and everybody successfully made it on to each vessel, although it was certainly nerve wracking watching some of the guests attempt to board!



The water starting to freeze as we approach the 7th Continent


Before we knew it, we were haring through thin ice sheets on the surface, getting closer to the spectacular scenery. And it wasn’t long before the first sightings of what we all wanted to see – penguins! Whilst it wasn’t possible to get to the shore and set foot on terrain, it was still nice to be in close proximity to large numbers of penguins in the water, who were extremely curious about the Zodiacs. Some would get within a couple of metres, constantly dipping their heads above the water to take a closer look. They certainly helped produce some amazing photos, with all the guests rushing to get their phones out to take multiple snaps and videos. Before we knew it, it was time to head back, however as we got closer to the ship it was clear that conditions had significantly worsened from when we had set out. Leaving the Zodiacs to board the ship took a lot longer than before, meaning a prolonged wait in the freezing wind. Thankfully there were hand warmers available for those that needed them, and after what seemed like an age it was our turn to disembark. It took numerous crew members to secure the Zodiac to the ship due to the excess movement caused by the waves and current. Indeed, it was really touch and go as to whether or not it could be done, and when it was my turn, just as I stood up to get off the vessel, a huge amount of water sent be back down! Thankfully I was able to make my way off second time around without causing a scene and headed straight for the shower to warm up. You could really feel the buzz from the excitement of the other guests at dinner time, not just from the views and wildlife on show but the adventures just from getting on and off the ship. But really, the excitement had only just begun.



A Gentoo Penguin leaping out of the water


The plan for the following day was to set foot on the mainland and enjoy the iconic moment of stepping on to the continent itself. This of course, was weather dependent, and waking up on day 5 to plenty of wind and snow didn’t fill us all with a huge amount of optimism. The ice on the water was visibly thicker than yesterday, and some of the icebergs we were seeing were over 20 metres high. It was clear that we were now within touching distance of the mainland, and it wasn’t long before the first glimpses appeared through the thick fog and cloud. At times it was eerie, other times it was spectacular as the weather conditions would produce rainbows across the scenery. There was a mixture of emotions that followed as we had the green light to get out and about in the Zodiacs, however due to the conditions we weren’t able to get onto the land. The thought of getting out on the water didn’t seem that appealing with the recent memories of ice-cold winds sweeping through us, and occasionally water getting into the gloves! However, it was really worth it as not only did we witness the ice gradually thickening, but there was a spectacular moment when the mist lifted, the sun shone briefly, and this amazing landscape lit up around the bay. In terms of wildlife, we did see the occasional penguin in the water, but Skua birds stole the show today. We were taken aback by their sheer size, however we were warned not to disturb them as they can get very aggressive if they feel threatened. They were casually resting on some of the really small icebergs known as growlers.



Despite not getting on the mainland, we still had an enjoyable and unforgettable experience. Even being on the ship was special, as the constantly changing weather coupled with numerous whale sightings made for some excellent photos, and we all knew it was only a matter of time until we were able to step foot on the continent itself. Indeed, the next morning we were out on the Zodiacs again, visiting a couple of penguin colonies and getting up close to these comical creatures. It was still touch and go as to whether or not we could get onto land, as the wind was really picking up and the snow seemed to be getting heavier. However, after a quick ride around the bay into more sheltered conditions, we were finally able to disembark onto land. It was an amazing feeling albeit a bit surreal. There was a giant glacier a few hundred metres ahead of us, and beyond that we saw an avalanche rumble further away in the distance. Amidst the excitement it took a while to notice a large Weddell seal having a sleep on the rocks just a few metres away from where the Zodiacs had moored up. And out of nowhere its young pup appeared, and the 2 were more than happy to pose for photos. Before long we were back on the Zodiacs and aboard the ship, enjoying some down time and reflecting on an epic morning.




Setting foot on Antarctica for the first time - a cold but unforgettable feeling!

Another day by the mainland was fast upon us, and after a leisurely morning in the gym and spa facilities followed by yet another filling lunch buffet, it was time to explore the seventh continent through a different means of transport – helicopter! Having never been on one, the safety briefing that took place before was carefully listened to just for once. We were all then weighed so our seats could be designated, and it was time for lift off. The distraction of the noise of the helicopter’s engines was soon forgotten as we took to the skies and saw the landscape from a completely different angle. The first thing that really struck me was the sheer size of the glaciers, which was put into perspective by just how small the ship looked, yet the glaciers were still towering around us. It was also very striking looking down on the icebergs, as the crystal-clear water allowed you to get a better look at the sheer size of the ice below the surface. Although it was only a 15-minute flight, it felt like a significant amount of time to get a closer look at this extraordinary landscape. It was almost like something out of a film at times, and certainly an experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.



A short video from the helicopter

After a smooth landing we were back on board, but before we could take stock of the experience, different groups were being called down to undertake a Zodiac excursion. The planned trip was to make another landing to get up close and personal with Gentoo penguins by visiting one of their colonies. It was an opportunity that was too good to miss, so after a quick cup of tea and the addition of thicker layered clothing it was time to head down to Deck 2 once again and prepare ourselves for another adventure. Our experience with penguins so far on the trip was fairly limited – we had seen a few jump in and out of the water close to the Zodiacs due to their curiosity, and we had gotten reasonably close to a colony that was just hanging out by the shore, however sharing the same terrain as them would be a totally new experience – and it did not disappoint. These highly amusing creatures provide so much entertainment, from their slightly cheeky personalities to the way they interacted with one another. Due to the threat of Avian Flu, we had to stay 5 metres away from the penguins, and whilst this may sound a disappointment it did provide some great moments, including when they would often waddle up behind you when you’d least expect them to! It was amazing to see the penguin ‘highways’ they had created – small prints in the snow used to travel some fairly significant distances. As humans our obligation was to create our own paths before filling them back up with snow upon departure, to ensure the land remains as preserved as possible and to leave minimal evidence of any human visitation or activity whilst on land. The smell was of course pungent, due to the way penguins often enforce their own way of social distancing by defecating in the direction of their nearest companion, however I still insist it is nowhere near that of large numbers of seals! After taking numerous pictures, videos and a little bit of walking, it was time to return to our vessel and relax for the evening after what was arguably the most enjoyable and fascinating day on the entire trip.



A visit to a colony of Gentoo penguins - their population has significantly increased as a result of climate change


Day 8 of the excursion was to be our last day docked by mainland Antarctica, and it started in spectacular fashion with clear blue skies and bright sunlight, which really brought out the crisp white snow of the landscape. After breakfast and admiring the landscape around us, something truly stunning took place. 3 Minke whales came in close to proximity to the boat. They are often found in areas where there is a lot of brash ice as their main hunters, Orca whales, tend to avoid these areas as it’s harder for them to come up to the surface. The footage I shot from the spa area where I had convened to relax after a workout didn’t do it justice, however before long there was footage circulating from fellow passengers who managed to film them swimming through the crystal-clear water in very close proximity to the boat. It was typical of those random yet stunning moments that really stick out in the memory. In true Antarctic fashion the weather began to take a turn for the worst, however we were still able to get one last land excursion in on the mainland before slowly heading back to Ushuaia. The final Zodiac excursion to the land consisted of a fairly short walking route, and a last chance to take in the stunning scenery. It was great to spend plenty of time talking with various expedition crew members as well as fellow passengers to start to reflect on our time there.



Meandering through incredible ice structures on our last day by the mainland


We did see a few penguins that had taken refuge on the ice after reported sightings of a leopard seal, but it was just about taking everything in. Shortly before returning to the ship, we were informed that it would soon be time for the much talked about polar plunge – a chance to jump in the ice-cold waters. It did seem like a rare opportunity to do such a thing, so it was hard to say no. There was a mixture of nerves and excitement when putting on swim shorts and a bathrobe before heading down to the same deck where we would normally board the Zodiacs. There were around 40 of us that chose to go ahead with this, so the queue was quite long. In what seemed like an age with the cold wind, it was soon time to remove the bathrobe and flip flops, and stand bare footed on the freezing cold metal, which was a shock to the system itself. The harness was fitted and it was my turn to jump. What was strange, was throughout the process of embarking and disembarking the Zodiacs, there were constant instructions and help provided by the expedition crew. Despite several crew members present, on this occasion there was no countdown or green light given or anything like that. Once the photographer shouted to smile, it was time to jump. I’ve swam in cold water and taken ice baths before, but this was something else. With a temperature of -2 degrees Celsius, it was an extreme shock jumping in, and immediately you could feel sharp, stabbing sensations in the lower back area. It felt instinctive to rush to the steps and climb out as quickly as possible. And just like that, it was all done. A free shot of vodka was offered to take the edge off it as well as a patch to restore some pride before it was time to shower and warm up again. It was certainly a great energy lift and was the perfect set up for another enjoyable evening at the bar.



Sipping an Old Fashioned as the sun gradually sets just after Midnight

Before we knew it, it was time to start the journey back across the Drake Passage, only this time it was much rougher than the way over. With swells of up to 10 metres, it provided some interesting moments when moving around the ship. It was great that there were still plenty of lectures each day by various specialists on a number of topics related to Antarctica, and guests could also upload pictures for the compilation that was being put together. The final 2 days largely consisted of reflection, reading, using the gym and spa and enjoying the company of the other 100 or so passengers on board as well as the crew. It was quite a sight seeing the South American continent gradually approach. It’s little things like seeing a tree again for the first time in nearly 2 weeks that make you feel as though you’re suddenly back in civilisation! After one last night it was time to await our turn to disembark and make the short journey to the airport to catch a flight to Buenos Aires, with stunning views of Patagonia and the east coast of Argentina along the way.



The onboard gym and spa facilities offered great views!


On reflection, it was certainly one of the best trips I’ve ever done. It wasn’t just the other worldly landscapes and incredible wildlife, but also the real sense of adventure due to the constantly changing itinerary as a result of the conditions in Antarctica. Furthermore, our partners at Quark Expedition went above and beyond to make it extra special, whether it was the hospitality staff making sure everything was up to a very high standard on board, or the passion, experience and knowledge of the expedition crew who were all extremely personable. Some might say it was a once a lifetime experience, but I would absolutely love to do it all over again!


Do you fancy the Trip of a Lifetime to Antarctica? Email us on info@globaldreamtravel.co.uk or call us on +44 7799904189 for more details and how Global Dream Travel can get you there!



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