We’ve just returned from a two week ‘expedition’ to Antarctica. More specifically, we were on a cruise on the MS Expedition, which is a G Adventures operated tour ship expedition. What follows is a trip report for the first half of the trip. You can read about the second half of the trip HERE.
While I’m normally not a huge fan of group tours, for Antarctica there really is no other feasible way to get there unless you’re obscenely wealthy, and can afford to charter your own ship or flight. That said, there are a number of tour operators with ships that go to Antarctica, and they’re not all the same. Some focus on the high end (luxury, comfort, etc), others are budget (research vessels with very limited comfort or amenities), and some are very niche (timeshare cabins on luxury ships, long duration travel, etc). Our primary interest was to be able to spend as much time as possible off the ship, actually on the continent itself. That meant finding a relatively small ship, as legal regulations limit any ship to no more than 100 passengers on land at any time. Thus, if you’re on a ship with greater than 100 passengers, not everyone can go on land simultaneously, and the more people on the ship, the less time you can spend out there. The G Adventures MS Expedition seemed like the best compromise between comfort and exploration, with no more than 134 passengers (at full capacity), and the trip we booked was two weeks (departure to return). Antarctica itself was absolutely stunning, and the expedition, ship & crew were all pretty good for the most part.
Even though the cruise itself was 14 days in duration, the total trip time was 18 days, as travelling from the Bay area down to where the ship departed is a rather long distance. We had to fly from SFO to Miami (on American, which was awful, more on that later), then flew from Miami to Buenos Aires (Argentina) on LAN (which was not horrible, but a long flight). Then we needed to change airports in Buenos Aires from EZE (which is southwest of the city) to AEP airport (which is on the northeast side of the city), which meant an hour+ taxi ride through some fairly miserable traffic. Next was a flight on Aerolinas Argentinas (the Argentine national airline) to Ushuaia, which is generally considered to be the southern most city on Earth, basically nearly at the very southern tip of South America. Ushuaia is where the majority of Antarctic cruise ships depart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The flight out of SFO on American was miserable before we even pushed back from the gate. The guy sitting in front of me decided that the space under his seat, the space that is generally considered to be reserved for the passenger behind you, to be for himself. He sat down and promptly started shoving something into my feet. Initially, I assumed that he was getting settled in, and would stop shoving stuff into my feet. But after several minutes had passed, and he was making no effort to stop squashing my toes, I politely pointed out that the space under his seat was for my feet. His response? “No, that’s my space”. I could tell that this was not going to be fun. At this point, some random stranger across the aisle from this guy decided to be the hero, and paged the flight attendant, and then told her that I was kicking this guy’s seat. Immediately, the flight attendant started scolding me for kicking this guy’s seat, without ever bothering to inquire what was really going on. Despite my repeated attempts to explain that the guy in front of me kept shoving stuff under the seat, and no, i really wasn’t kicking his seat, just whatever he was shoving under that seat, the flight attendant decided that I was the problem, and threatened to have me removed from the flight. It was ridiculous. Eventually the flight attendant sternly warned both the guy in front of me, and me that we needed to behave, and that seemed to end the issue, as the guy stopped shoving stuff under the seat. The remainder of the flight was uneventful, and an otherwise typical mediocre American Airlines experience.
Prior to the trip, I knew that we’d have an 8+ hour layover in Buenos Aires, and investigated options on how to kill the time. While we did have to change airports (from EZE to AEP) in Buenos Aires, that was just over an hour. That trip was kind of crazy in of itself. We got a taxi out of EZE, and less than 10 minutes out of the airport, we ran into some horrible traffic. I don’t know if it was rush hour, or something else, but a 3 lane freeway wasn’t moving. The taxi driver decided he’d solve that problem by driving down the shoulder. That worked for a few minutes, but others got the same idea. Then there were crazy speed bumps built into the shoulder, presumably to discourage this behavior in the first place, which slowed things down further. The taxi driver then decided, let’s drive on the dirt beside the shoulder. Somehow that helped, and we eventually got to the airport (AEP). The plan was to leave the airport, and walk about a mile to this grilled meat buffet restaurant, Siga la Vaca. The walk there wasn’t bad (it even had a sidewalk!), and the food was impressive. There was this salad bar thing, which was as much cured meats & cheeses as vegetables but the highlight was definitely the grilled meats. The way it worked was people walked up to this counter, and the guys running the grills would give you anything you wanted. And by anything, I mean over a dozen different types, cuts & preparations of meat. Beef, pork, sausages, ribs, pork belly, and on and on and on. It was amazing. We ate an obscene amount of food, and then headed back to the airport.
The flight to Ushuaia departed on time, and was fairly uneventful until about 20 minutes before landing, when it got crazy. Apparently the flight path to the airport is somewhat blocked by the mountains, so in order to approach the runway, planes have to perform these controlled rapid staged descents. And with mountains everywhere, and thick fog, it really felt like we were going to crash into the side of a mountain.
Ushuaia was nice, but not at all what I was expecting either. It all had this vibe of some Alpine city, nestled in the mountains, with snow everywhere. Also due to our arrival in late December, the days were ridiculously long. Sunset was around 11PM, and sunrise was 3AM. Coupled with the Argentine desire to eat dinner obscene late (10PM dinner isn’t at all unusual), the town really skewed to late in the day. That said, the city itself is very spread out, but the downtown area is relatively compact, and fairly walkable (despite being situated on a hillside along the water front). Our only significant activity in Ushuaia was doing a day trip up to the Martial Glacier, which is a 15 minute taxi ride outside the city. We arrived fairly early, and even though I had originally planned to take the cable car up, we ended up hiking, since nothing was open yet. The hike up wasn’t too bad, definitely a good workout, but otherwise easy enough. There were very few people up there too, which was nice. The glacier was gorgeous, and the views back down to the city were stunning as well. David & I explored for a bit, then hiked back through a forest, which still had quite a bit of snow & ice in places. Round trip we were gone for less than 3 hours.
Later that afternoon we finally got to board the ship and begin the real meat of the trip. The boarding process was a bit chaotic. Not because it was disorganized, but rather because it was incredibly rigid and poorly communicated. Everyone was required to board a bus just outside the dock, and get bussed down the pier to the ship. However, the bus that we ended up on sat without moving for nearly an hour, with no ventilation, because it was blocked by some other vehicle. Finally we got on the ship, and checked out what would be our cabin for the next 2 weeks (#217). It was a triple cabin, with one bed on one side, and a bunk bed on the opposite wall. The bathroom existed, but was laughably tiny. The shower was literally smaller than a coffin, and it was just about impossible to move without hitting a wall. That said, the room was comfortable enough, and the only significant time that we spent in there was sleeping at night.
However, to be able to set sail and head south, we had to attend the safety briefing followed by the compulsory lifeboat drill. Once we familiarized ourselves with the safety procedures onboard, we enjoyed the view on deck as the ship got on its way. During dinner we sailed away into the Beagle Channel, a 240km long strait in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago. The setting sun painted the sky in light pastel colors behind its snowy mountains, which provided a wonderful scenery for our first evening. After dinner we gathered once more in the Discovery Lounge, to receive our parkas.
The infamous Drake Passage turned out to be a gentle one with calm seas and skies mostly blue with some hazy cloud cover. Giant Petrels lazily circled G Expedition showing the extreme variation in their plumage from soft creamy to milk chocolate brown. Lyn Mair, Birder, gave the first presentation of the program as she talked about “Seabirds of the Southern Ocean”. This was followed by a most informative talk from Paul Teolis, Photographer in Residence, about “Photographing in Antarctica”. There was time for everyone to familiarize
themselves with their floating home and catch up some sleep. Calm sea conditions remained for the rest of the day with few seabirds around except for some distinctive pintado petrels looking as if they had been splattered with paint and blackbrowed albatrosses effortlessly gliding over the small waves, which we viewed from the aft deck behind the Polar Bear Bar or on the bow deck. The afternoon was taken up with the mandatory I.A.A.T.O. (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefing. Sarah Auffret, our
expedition leader told us about the rules and regulations of this governing body put in place to protect the tourists and the fragile
wildlife as well as the environment in general including any historical sites. We also had to learn about getting in and out of the zodiacs, our secret weapons that enable us to get right into shallow waters to land on the shore or cruise around the icebergs. It was then time to go through bio-security as expedition staff vacuumed bags and Velcro fastenings. Last of all we found our personal places in the spacious mud room and were given sensible boots to keep our feet warm and dry during the landings. There was an air of excitement as we were anticipating the first views of an iceberg or a whale as we approached the Antarctic Convergence and the cold Antarctic waters.
Another calm night through the Drake Passage allowed us to make great speed and we were getting close to land by morning. Sarah woke us up in order to get a look out our portholes and see the wonderful collection of icebergs that surrounded the ship. All shapes and sizes,
some with penguins on them greeted us to the South Shetland Islands. Right after breakfast Kerstin Langenberger gave a presentation on all the different whales that come to these waters to feed. We hope to see some of these amazing creatures on our travels throughout the
region. Soon after Julia Lindow was in the lounge explaining the different types of ice we may see as well as explaining about the glaciers and icebergs that were surrounding the ship, as we neared land. Near the end of her talk, a whale was spotted from the discovery lounge windows and all hell broke loose as everyone ran to one side of the ship to get a glance of these magnificent animals. Due to our early arrival to the South Shetland Islands, we had time to do a bonus landing and so we made our way to Turret Point to get a look at our first penguins up close and personal. We were lucky enough to see all 3 species that make the Antarctic peninsula their home. We all had a great time taking in the elephant seals, the nesting blue-eyed shags, giant petrels, and Antarctic terns.
After a good night’s sleep thanks to the smooth crossing of the Bransfield Strait we reached Brown Bluff just before breakfast. As soon as we were ready the zodiacs started to shuttle us ashore and the kayakers started to lower themselves on the water. We reached a pebbled
beach from which a few options were offered: enjoy a steep walk up a viewpoint where you could see the bay and the glacier nearby, have a look at the Adélie penguin rookery or go a bit higher and get a glimpse of the rare snow petrel. At the rookery we could see many Adélie
chicks, some just one or two days old, others a few days older but there was a real difference between their bellies! From the rookery, many penguins were making their way to the water’s edge, gathering by the dozens on the rocks and when ready to go, with no leopard seal in sight, were jumping in the cold water swimming to their feeding grounds. In the afternoon the ship repositioned to Paulet Island, site of shelter for the 21 men and one cat of the ship Antarctic. The ship sank in February 1903 after being crushed by the ice and all were left stranded on an ice floe 25 miles away from Paulet Island. It took them two weeks man-hauling their boat across the pack ice, pressure ridges and open water before reaching Paulet Island.
Our day started with an early wake-up call at 0:700, in snow and winds off Devil Island at around 20 knots and ambient temperature of about -2C. Conditions were good enough though, to begin landing operations at 08:30, which allowed us to spend about three hours ashore exploring the large Adelie penguin colony from the pebble beach and from the slope above. Nesting skuas in the upper pass prevented us going further but at around 300 feet above the beach, we still had an exceptional view of the penguin colony and the iceberg-congested bay where G Expedition waited for our return. Snow petrels and Antarctic terns flittered around, apparently from nests on the bluffs just to the north of our landing. The falling tide allowed passengers to investigate the extensive reef that was quickly being exposed to the east of our landing. This was the first day to begin experiencing the Antarctic weather conditions, with swirling snow and strong chilling wind gusts at top of the trail. Once all passengers were back aboard for a warm lunch, the anchor was raised by noon and we made way for Hope Bay to seek some refuge from the impending weather system bearing down from the west. As visibility had declined through the morning, plans to sail to Vega Island were aborted and we headed north through some light pack ice and a garden of wonderful tabular bergs. We loitered briefly to catch some views of about 20 killer whales that appeared to be hunting for Adelie penguins and, perhaps, Minke whales. We arrived to Hope Bay too late for an afternoon excursion and winds were too strong for zodiac cruises, though we were able to observe Esperanza Base as we sailed slowly passed to find some shelter from the building winds.
Christmas Day dawned sunny and calm. The first excitement was seeing the huge and famous B15Y, part of the largest iceberg in the world, which broke off the Ross Ice Shelf 15 years ago. It has travelled from the Ross gyre into the south polar current and
finally wedged itself at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The fragmented remains of this monster were spectacular as it lay in the clear blue water, showing its many faces of sculpture and design. The Bransfield Mountain peak was seen peeping above the flat, icy top at times. Crowds of Adélie penguins were hanging out on small ice floes as we slowly sailed by. There was no time to delay as the afternoon started early with a visit to Gourdin Island. The picturesque indented shore was lined with Adélies coming and going while Weddell seals lay sleeping on the ice. Once we had negotiated the rocky landing we slowly walked past the multitudes of nesting Adélie penguins. Most had small, fluffy, grey black-headed chicks no more than a week old. There was much thievery and thuggery in the lower rookeries, pebbles were continually being stolen and there were some nasty brutal attacks on one penguin that had committed some major transgression. A small chick was trampled on, then viciously pecked by several birds. A route up the hill was flagged, and we went up the steep incline littered with flat, slippery stones to enjoy the warm sunshine and views over to all the massive tabular icebergs into the far horizon. Some of us lay on the stones soaking up the sun or sat quietly taking in the penguin noise and the splendor of the afternoon. A small number of Gentoo penguins were nesting at the higher level while a group of Chinstraps was nesting on the lower level.