Wow, my Antarctica adventure was amazing! There is so much I want to share with you about my recent expedition to the “White Continent” but where to start? This “trip of a lifetime” was unlike anything I’ve ever done! I kept pinching myself, knowing how blessed I was to be there – as one of only around 40,000 people who visit Antarctica each year.
I was blown away by Antarctica’s pristine, majestic beauty and its fascinating and rich wildlife – especially the adorable penguins who truly stole my heart! Our visits to South Georgia Island & the Falkland Islands were also fascinating – and filled with more natural beauty & wildlife.
So, in this first post-trip article, I will give you a solid overview & strong flavor of my journey. In future posts, I’ll focus more in-depth (with more photos!) on the key destinations we visited – Buenos Aires, the Antarctica Peninsula, South Georgia, Falkland Islands, Shipboard Life on an Expedition Vessel, Montevideo & My Love Affair with Penguins.
Quick Summary of the Trip Itinerary
I learned of this trip last year through my BTO Photography Tour group (with whom I have traveled before). Our 18-person BTO group signed up for a Vantage Travel tour with the cool name: “Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia: In the Realm of the Great Explorers – 2017.”
Vantage Travel had a total of 39 people on their tour. They provided us with two wonderful “adventure tour leaders” – Argentine Pablo Milano & Chilean Marco Barrales – who accompanied us on the 22-day tour (which ran mid-Feb to mid-March). We then joined with the other Hurtigruten MS Fram ship passengers for the adventure we would share together.
Our tour began in vibrant Buenos Aires, Argentina with a couple days of sightseeing. A 3-hour flight delivered us to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina where we boarded the ship – and began our 18-day polar expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia Island & the Falkland Islands. From the Falklands, it was a leisurely 3.5-day cruise north to Montevideo, Uruguay where disembarked the ship. We had a day of touring in Montevideo (also lovely!) before flying home the next day.
Ushuaia, Argentina – Gateway to Antarctica
Ushuaia is a picturesque town (population of 65,000+) nestled between a snow-capped mountain range (part of the Andes) and the historic Beagle Channel. Located in Tierra del Fuego, it claims to be the world’s southernmost city and it has a busy port. In fact, nearly 90% of all Antarctic-bound travelers depart from here.
We had 2.5 hours to explore this cute town before boarding the ship so we did as most visitors do. We walked along the Avenida San Martin (the town’s 8-block main street), checking out the different tourist and expedition gear shops. Being doubtful that there would be any shopping in Antarctica, I got my one trip t-shirt here.
There were also many restaurants, but we opted for ice cream instead. And, of course, we all lined up to get the mandatory photo taken in front of the cute “Ushuaia – Fin del Mundo” (end of the world) sign!
The MS Fram – Hurtigruten’s Polar Expedition Ship
The long-anticipated moment had come – it was time to board the MS Fram. I couldn’t wait to explore this expedition ship which would be our floating home for the next 18 days! We boarded around 4pm, got checked-in and settled in our 2-person cabins before heading up on deck at 6pm for a full-group photo – taken as we were pulling out of the port.
The MS Fram is part of the Norway-based Hurtigruten Cruise Line. She was built in 2007, specially designed and ice-fortified for cruising in icy Arctic and Antarctic waters. She’s a pretty ship – with a Nordic flair! – and has all the necessary amenities. On this trip, there were around 230 passengers and 68 total crew/staff.
Perhaps, you’re curious about the demographics of my fellow passengers? As you might guess, we were an international mix. Americans comprised the largest nationality on board. There were Scandinavians (primarily Norwegians) and many Brits and Germans. In fact, the 2nd language on the ship (for all announcements) was German. There were also quite a few Australian, Canadian and Chinese travelers plus small numbers from other European, South American & Asian countries.
Not surprisingly, passengers were primarily in their 50s, 60s & 70s, because Antarctica is a long & expensive trip. However, folks were relatively fit and active with the necessary spirit of adventure. And, they were all well-traveled. This was definitely not their first rodeo! For many (including me!), this Antarctica trip gave us our 7th and final continent on the list. Whoo hoo!
What about the staff and crew? Again, no surprise – the captain and most ship officers were Norwegian. Our expedition team (the naturalists & guides) were an interesting mix – many from Norway but also the Netherlands, Argentina, Spain, US, UK and Germany. The rest of the crew were Filipino (which spells fun!) They were servers in the dining room, kitchen staff, housekeeping, reception staff, and the ship’s seaman & boat drivers.
So, it was truly an eclectic blend of cultures. I particularly loved the Nordic-Filipino combo! The entire staff and crew worked beautifully together as one big happy family. There is much more to share about the fun and interesting “Expedition Shipboard Life” so I will write a separate post on just how they fed, entertained & educated us during our long time at sea. In the meantime, here’s a link to some info on the MS Fram.
The Legendary Drake Passage – Let the Sea Games Begin!
Successful ship embarkation – check! Now, we began to sail along the Beagle Channel out into rougher ocean waters to begin our 2-day crossing of the Drake Passage. The Passage, starting south of Cape Horn at the tip of South America, is where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, creating some potentially treacherous seas.
The Drake Passage crossing is nervously anticipated by all Antarctic-bound travelers with justified trepidation. Would we have a “Drake Lake” or the more-likely “Drake Shake” as we sailed the 600 miles from Cape Horn down to the Antarctic Peninsula?
Well, the sea & wind gods seemed to be in a “let’s shake it up” mood as we crossed the Drake, giving us “moderately rough” seas. So, everyone quickly pulled out their seasickness meds. Many of us (including me!) wore the scopolamine patch (behind the ear, lasting x 3 days) and were most thankful for them!
I don’t usually get seasick except in really rough seas, so I honestly don’t know how I would have done without a patch – but I certainly didn’t want to test it! Happily, I never got seasick– and had no trouble eating all of the good meals. However, there were quite a few people that suffered some ill-effects (of varying degrees), but we all survived the Drake – a requisite Antarctic badge of honor!
Actually, it was quite fun walking “like a drunken sailor” down the hall to the dining room holding on to railings whenever possible. The ship had stabilizers so the movement side to side and front to back was considerable but gradual. It did get a bit wilder mid-day Sunday with higher winds and 4-6 meter seas (13-20 ft) – but it was just a few hours before we arrived in the Antarctica Peninsula where the seas quickly calmed. Here’s a fun video (below) of my friend & roommate Nadia’s soup at lunch that day moving back and forth – to give you an idea.
During our two-day Drake crossing, the ship’s crew & expedition team kept us busy! We had a Captain’s Welcome reception our first evening to meet the team. There were mandatory briefings each day about our upcoming Antarctica landings (and the rules!) and briefings about special activities like kayaking. The expedition team (naturalists, including experts on geology, glaciology, birds, and biology) provided lots of interesting lectures (~4 /day) on a wide variety of topics (which they did on all sea days).
Arriving at the Antarctica Peninsula – The Reward!
It was Sunday around 3pm when we heard the exciting overhead announcement – our first sighting of land! Phew – we had survived the Drake Passage! By 5:30pm, we had arrived safely in the Antarctic Peninsula and the calmer waters of Dallmann Bay. Many of us bundled up and headed to the deck for our first photos of the snow-covered mountainous terrain plus some icebergs. There was even a humpback whale welcome party showing off his (or her) fluke near the ship!
There was jubilation at dinner that night, after which we had a 9pm briefing for our first Antarctica landing tomorrow morning at Neko Harbor. We now had three glorious days to explore Antarctica. In total, we enjoyed 5 “expedition landings” there in which we went ashore by zodiac boat to visit penguin colonies, former scientific research stations, and an old whaling station. Plus, we enjoyed other wildlife like seabirds and fur seals.
Besides the landings (which took place each morning and afternoon), we enjoyed beautiful scenery from the comfort of the ship as we cruised through majestic bays and channels past towering icebergs between the destinations. Now I want to give you a summary of each landing.
Antarctica Landing #1 – Neko Harbor / Our First Gentoo Penguins
The ship pulled into the Neko Harbor area around 6:30am. The Neko Harbor landing is on a rocky beach, located within a large beautiful bay lined with mountains covered by thick snow and glaciers sloping down to the sea. It’s also located on the actual Antarctic continent (vs. some of our landings which are on islands in the Peninsula).
My boat group arrived onshore around 8am (for a 1 ¾ hour visit) to find a good-sized colony of adorable Gentoo penguins wandering around the beach. There was light snow in the upper areas of their colony to which the penguins would climb up and down on their “penguin highways” grooved in the snow.
We were all entranced watching the antics of these cute little Gentoos. It was now late February – the time of year when penguin chicks (born in Dec. & January) have grown into “molting” adolescents. Many of these “teens” were looking a bit scruffy as they sloughed off (over several weeks) their outer wooly brown/grey feathers to reveal their final sleek feathers below – perfectly designed for swimming.
Rules from IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) dictate that you keep a 15-foot distance from the penguins. However, if you stand still and they come close to you or even up to you, it’s okay. And these penguins certainly do that – they were not intimidated at all by us. In particular, a few of the babies were quite curious by us humans.
Background on A Typical Expedition Landing
The whole scenario around an “expedition landing” is quite interesting so I wanted to share with you how it works. The ship would arrive at the destination and set the anchor. Soon after, expedition team members would go ashore by zodiac boats to check out the conditions (wind & waves) to make sure it was safe for us to land. If so (and luckily it was always a yes!), they set up the landing site. They would create walking paths – using flags and cones to mark where we could safely walk so as not to disturb the penguins or seals or the fragile environment.
The ship organized passengers into 8 boat groups (around 30 people each) for the whole trip. I was in Group #2. At the trip’s 1st landing at Neko Harbor, we were the 2nd group to go ashore. At each landing, the order of who went first would rotate by one so each group had the chance to go earlier in the cycle.
Per IAATO rules, most Antarctica & South Georgia landing sites allow only 100 people on shore at a time. This is to minimize the impact on wildlife and the environment. Since we had around 200 passengers, the staggered boat groups helped with this. There was a 30-45 min. break after the first four groups were called to go ashore to ensure that the first groups would be coming back as the later groups were heading for their landing.
Once the Expedition team radioed that they were ready to begin the landing, the ship’s PA would announce that Boat Group #1 (etc.) should head down to Level 2. That is where we passengers (fully dressed by this point) would put on the last of our expedition clothing – a life vest and the waterproof (and nicely insulated) knee-high Muck Boots (housed on storage racks by our room #s).
Fully dressed (and feeling pretty hot while inside!), we’d line up by the door leading to the tender pit – to wait our turn to board the zodiac boats. The next boat group would be called down to Level 2 to get ready, usually within 5-10 minutes so it went pretty fast. When it was time for us to board the next zodiac, the crew member “doorman” would scan our ship ID (which electronically logged us in and out!) before we headed outside to board the 8-passenger zodiac driven by a heavily bundled up boat driver. Usually, it was a short ride (only around 5 minutes) to the shore.
Upon arriving onshore, each zodiac group got a short briefing by the expedition leader of what to see on this landing, where to go, and approximately what time to return to the beach to head back to the ship. The shore time was usually between 1.5 – 2 hours. The five zodiacs were constantly running back and forth to the ship. Some people would go back to the ship earlier than the allotted time and a few of us (especially us photographers) might stay a little longer on shore. It always worked out!
Landing #2 – Damoy Point
The afternoon landing at Damoy Point began around 5pm. By this time, it was snowing. The landing was at the rocky site of another Gentoo penguin colony. After checking out the penguins, I took the fairly long walk along a snowy path to two colorful former refuge huts – one British and one Argentine. You can go inside the British hut, which has been restored to show life for the men stationed there between 1975-1993 – it was very interesting. Such hearty souls!
Landing #3 – Almirante Brown station
We woke the next morning to a beautiful clear-skied day for our landing at Almirante Brown (our 2nd continental landing) in the gorgeous Paradise Harbor. Brown is an Argentine scientific research station. It was a permanent base until 1984, and now is only open during the summer season. The base appeared to be already closed for the season by the time we were there (on 2/27).
The station is made up of around seven distinctively orange-colored buildings sitting on rocky outcroppings along the water which, from the ship, really stand out in contrast to the snowy white landscape behind.
When you visit Almirante Brown, you can walk among the buildings and enjoy the small colony of Gentoo penguins hanging out in the station area. They know a good ocean-front view when they see one! Then there’s the opportunity to walk up a snowy hill for stunning views of the iceberg-filled bay below which I did. The larger hill route was closed off due to high winds by the time I was there.
My Antarctica Sea Kayaking Adventure
Before I left on this trip, I learned of the opportunity to go kayaking in Antarctica! Being a “water girl,” I knew I was a yes for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine the bragging rights! Once on the ship, I signed up for the optional kayaking excursion (which cost 995 NOK = $117).
So today was my big day! I was thrilled to see that we got beautiful weather and a stunning location near Almirante Brown for our group kayaking adventure. Our group numbered 13 kayakers plus our 2 kayak guides, expedition team members Tom (Netherlands) & Line (Norway).
During a sea day, we kayakers had to attend a mandatory kayak briefing on the ship where Tom demonstrated how to put on a “dry suit” which is designed to keep us dry and airtight, just in case we fall in the frigid water. Luckily, none of us tested the suit’s promise that day!
That morning, we would first enjoy our 1.5-hour kayaking before doing the nearby Almirante Brown landing. We were shuttled by zodiac around 11am to a rocky (and pretty) beach with huge glaciers looming behind. There, our 2-man kayaks were waiting for us. Since I was a “single,” I was paired with Sven (from Norway) since he had no kayaking experience and I had some. The Norwegian & the Californian – what a combo!
We took off at noon and kayaked around the large beautiful bay on calm seas, with the MS Fram clearly in view. Tom & Line were in one-man kayaks (plus experienced kayaker Judith from Denmark). I left my nice SLR camera on the ship, taking only my iPhone 7 (which is waterproof!) in the kayak.
About an hour in, the winds came up very strong and the seas turned rough. Yikes! From this point, we all slowly – and with great effort – padded into the wind and eventually made our way back to the landing site, safe and sound. It was definitely exciting and a bit nerve-wracking. One boat did need to get towed in but the rest of us made it under our own steam to Almirante Brown where we did a short tour still wearing our black and red dry suits.
Landing #4 – Cuverville Island / Polar Circle Cruise
Today was a busy day. Returning to the ship for a late lunch, the afternoon landing at Cuverville Island began around 5pm for my group. The landing site was at another rocky beach which housed a large Gentoo penguin colony (4800 pairs). Beautiful snow-covered mountains provided a pretty backdrop.
We spent an hour at Cuverville before heading back to the ship for our BTO group’s “Polar Circle Cruise”– another optional activity (costing 950 NOK = $112). The ship has two special cruising zodiacs with individual, comfortable seating for 11. We had to dress in special Regatta Suits to protect us from the wind, wet and cold & wear special googles too. And, we’re glad we did!
For 1.5 hours, we cruised around the area’s beautiful mountainous scenery. We also spent a lot of time checking out the 2-3 humpback whales we found – trying to get good photos of them diving and throwing up their beautiful flukes! Finally, in the fading light, we hunted for larger icebergs for some last photos.
Landing #5 – Deception Island / A Volcanic Crater Caldera
Deception Island was our final scheduled stop in Antarctica. The island is part of the South Shetland Islands, a little north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Island is the caldera of an active volcano. It has a narrow & treacherous entrance (called Neptune’s Bellows) leading into the large caldera.
We arrived at Deception Island the next morning around 7am to strong winds and high seas. As a result, the landing was initially cancelled. But about 20 minutes later, the captain announced that the winds had calmed a little and he was going to attempt sailing into the crater. Luckily, we made it safely!
We anchored at Whaler’s Bay, which was a whaling station from 1911-1931. The volcanic landscape of Deception Island is stark in a beautiful way. The beach and the ruins of the whaling station are now inhabited by lots of fur seals and a few penguins. The winds were howling as we walked around. The temp was around 0°C (32F) before wind chill! Deception Island was an interesting stop since it was a totally different scene from the other landings.
Our 3-Day Sea Journey to South Georgia Island
After visiting Deception Island, we began our journey that afternoon to South Georgia Island. Turns out, we had another 3 days of rough seas ahead of us! How naïve had I been? I knew the Drake Passage could be rough and the waters within the Antarctic Peninsula would be relatively calm. Somehow, I hadn’t realized the seas could be rough again en route to South Georgia. Oh, well, good thing I brought additional Scopolamine patches.
The next day, the Captain gave us an update on the rough seas. Bad news, it would be like this all the way to South Georgia. Good news – it wouldn’t get any worse. Love that Nordic humor! However, as usual, the Fram crew kept us well-fed and entertained.
Visiting South Georgia Island – Another Jewel!
Yes, the journey to South Georgia Island was long but was so worth it! This island is fascinating on so many levels – the amazing King Penguins, its whaling history and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s deep legacy here. I will certainly write a full blog post on South Georgia but here are the highlights:
St. Andrews Bay – King Penguin Central
Our first landing on South Georgia on Saturday afternoon was a doozy! St. Andrews Bay is home to the island’s (and probably the world’s) largest colony of King Penguins. You won’t believe the number & neither could we! There are 200,000 breeding pairs (that is not a typo!) in the penguin colony along the bay’s 2-mile/3.2 km beach area.
The King Penguins are truly magnificent! They are the 2nd largest penguin (standing around 3 feet tall) after the even taller Emperors. I love the King’s regal erect stance & walk and the beautiful orange coloring on their neck, beak and side of the face. Total eye candy for the cameras!
It was a snowy and windy day (at times with wild wind gusts) but it was pure heaven walking among these Kings. The highlight was crossing two small streams (with expedition team member’s help!) and walking to the top of a high hill to look down with amazement on the huge King Penguin colony laid out below us. It was truly mind-blowing!
Grytviken & Stromness – Former Whaling Stations / Shackleton History
South Georgia Island was the site of a major whaling industry for over half a century. The next day, we visited two former Norwegian whaling stations – Grytviken (1904-1965) & Stromness. Grytviken was particularly fascinating – it’s the only whaling station that has been restored. So, you can safely walk among its many buildings, processing areas, and whale oil holding tanks.
You can also visit the pretty Norwegian Lutheran Church (erected in 1913) and the wonderful museum (with gift shop) housed in the Villa (former home of the station manager). In addition, there is great history here related to famed British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. In fact, he was buried at the Cemetery in Grytviken after his death in 1922. Visiting his grave and paying your respects is a must for all visitors!
Shackleton spent a month in Grytviken in 1914 before sailing the Endurance south for his planned Trans-Antarctica Expedition. Unfortunately, the ship was soon crushed in sea ice in the Weddell Sea. Ultimately, a super-human, heroic 800-mile voyage by Shackleton (and 5 others) in a small lifeboat led him back to South Georgia 18 months later (in 1916) to seek rescue for the rest of his 21 men stranded back on Elephant Island.
Our afternoon landing at Stromness was focused on wildlife since the whaling station buildings were off limits (due to safety issues). The beach was teeming with adorable, playful baby fur seals and a few penguins.
There was an optional walk up into the long valley to see where Shackleton came down the mountain (via a waterfall) and walked into Stromness – after 36-grueling hours crossing the rugged, glacier-covered mountainous (and uncharted) interior of the island. To learn more, check out my blog post: Fascinating South Georgia: Land of King Penguins, Shackleton & Rich Whaling History.
The Falkland Islands – British Feel & Wildlife Galore
From South Georgia, it was a 2.5-day sail to the Falkland Islands, also known as Islas Malvinas (by the Argentines). The sea gods continued to rock & roll us but we were getting used to it. We enjoyed 4 landings over 2 days while in the Falklands.
Our first stop was Stanley (formerly known as Port Stanley), the Island’s capital. Located on East Falkland island, this major city has around 3000 people living there. There were no zodiacs for this “landing”! Instead, we docked next to the pier in Stanley’s large protected harbor and walked off the ship like normal people. Gosh, no life jackets or Muck boots!
We had 8 hours in which to explore the town and nearby area. The Falkland Islands are a British Overseas Territory so there is a distinctive British feel to the town. I took the ship’s 2-hour Stanley Highlights Tour, then walked around the cute town on my own, including a visit to their excellent museum.
West Falkland Landings x 3 – More Cute Penguins
Our last three landings, which were more nature-oriented, were on the less populated island of West Falkland. We visited sites on New Island, Carcass Island and Saunders Bay. At New Island, we walked to a huge Rockhopper Penguin colony for a first look at these cute Rockhoppers with fun, punk-looking faces! At the colony, we also saw black-browed albatross babies sitting on their nests, peacefully co-existing with the rockhoppers. These albatrosses were already large with amazing wingspans!
Our final landing of the trip was on Saunders Island – and it was a picture-perfect ending! The weather had warmed, the high winds the day before had calmed, and the long, smooth sand beach was beautiful. It was equaled by the wildlife. Here in one place, we got to see all four types of penguins we had seen on the trip. There were gentoos, kings, rockhoppers and magellenic penguins. Plus, for good measure, we added in some sheep grazing on the grassy hillside. A photographic jackpot!
Montevideo, Uruguay – Here We Come
After bidding farewell to the Falkland Islands, the ship headed north on a 3.5-day voyage to Montevideo where we would disembark the ship. As we sailed, the weather continued to warm and the seas calmed. It finally felt like you’d want to spend some time on deck. We relaxed, slept in and caught up on our journals, photo reviews, Facebook posts during this leisurely time at sea.
On our final evening, the crew held a special BBQ dinner outside on the top deck. It was great fun and the ship slowed during the meal so it wasn’t too windy. The next morning, the ship arrived into the port of Montevideo, Uruguay at 6am. After customs formalities, we began to disembark the ship at around 8:30am – bidding sad farewells to the wonderful crew and fellow passengers with whom we had developed friendships during this amazing polar voyage!
Montevideo City Tour
Our Vantage Travel group enjoyed a full-day city tour of Montevideo with an excellent local guide. We drove along the Rambla, a 20-mile-long waterfront on the Rio de la Plata (a river so wide you think it’s the sea) and took group photos at the large Montevideo sign overlooking a cool beach area.
Lunch at the popular Mercado del Puerto (near the port) was the chance for my last beef tenderloin of the trip at one of their steakhouses. Beef is almost a religion (in addition to soccer) in Argentina & Uruguay – land of the gauchos and the pampas. Honestly, I ate more beef on this trip (including on the ship) than I’ve done in the last 6 months. But when in Rome…. (or is that Buenos Aires?)
I really LOVED Montevideo and the Uruguayan people I met. I definitely want to go back and spend more time there. One day was not enough!
Time to Say Goodbye
The next day, our Vantage Travel group headed back home to the States – filled with amazing memories, great new friendships, and thousands of photos on my SLR camera and iPhone to review. We were also gifted with a cute stuffed penguin by Pablo & Marco since we couldn’t take home the “real thing!” We had all fallen in love with the penguins – and we woulda if we coulda!
I know this has been a particularly long blog post article but I hope it has given you a really good taste of this amazing Antarctic Adventure. I truly hope that you might also be inspired to consider a trip to the White Continent to experience Antarctica’s pristine & majestic beauty one day!
To learn more, be sure to check out the additional blog posts I’ve written about the great places visited on this trip: