A Cruise To Antarctica Is A Trip Like No Other
You learn many things on a cruise to Antarctica – how to recognise sea lions, the difference between Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, how to vacuum your clothes … “Men are best at it; it causes big problems when they get home,” Tudor said with a mischievous look at a husband-and-wife team tussling with a hose as I watched my daughter whisk the vacuum over the seams and Velcro of the outdoor garments we planned to wear ashore in Antarctica.
Tudor was one of eight biologists, naturalists, historians and other experts guiding our voyage to the White Continent on a small expedition ship called Fram. The ship was purpose-built a decade ago by Norwegian line Hurtigruten to sail in polar regions: Antarctica in winter and the Arctic in summer.
The vacuuming, which must be done to avoid taking non-native species ashore, is just one of a raft of dos and don’ts we had to comply with if we wanted to walk with the penguins in what is one of the coldest, windiest and most awe-inspiring places to which a cruise ship can venture. What makes it so is not just what you see, which is amazing enough, but also the knowledge that you are visiting the biggest wilderness on earth, 998 kilometres from civilisation, with the notorious Drake Passage separating you from the mainland at Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city.
Ours was a seven-night voyage around the Antarctic Peninsula that began with a night in Buenos Aires before a short flight south to Ushuaia and a brief tour to Tierra del Fuego National Park. By 4pm we were all on board and at 5.30pm Fram set sail down the fjord that links Ushuaia to the Drake.
The three nights we would spend crossing the Drake Passage caused concern for many on my cruise, but in the event we had only one rocky night on the way out and another on the way back. In fact, by the time we got close to land on the return journey, the sea was so calm that the captain sailed west and then swung round to the east so that we could all say we had rounded Cape Horn.
Fram lacks the frills you find on modern cruise vessels. There are no balcony cabins for obvious reasons and there is some fairly compact accommodation on the lower decks, with more upmarket rooms and suites higher up.
Ours was an outside superior cabin with a large picture window, twin beds (that could be made into a double) and plenty of room for me, my daughter and all the cold-weather gear we needed for our week in Antarctica.
Fram has just one place to eat, with open-seating buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner while in Antarctica, but set dining times and waiter service in the evening while crossing the Drake. Food was good, especially the salads, and you’ll eat well if you like fish. There is also a small coffee bar with self-service hot drinks and cake, and a lecture room.
The most important space on board is the mud room, on the tender deck, where we were called, group by group, to don our boots and life-jackets before getting into one of the small Polarcirkel boats Hurtigruten uses to ferry people ashore, and for excursions.
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Rules of engagement
Under International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) regulations, visitor numbers to the White Continent are tightly controlled. Only ships with fewer than 500 passengers can make landings and just 100 people at a time are allowed ashore, and then only for an hour, which is usually long enough as there are also restrictions on where you can walk. We had 230 passengers, and once we got the hang of the system, the landings went very smoothly.
As we crossed the Drake, Karin, our expedition leader, spelt out all the other rules at a mandatory lecture (passengers must attend and sign a paper to go ashore). You must keep a certain distance from wildlife: five metres from penguins – not always easy as they often come very close – and more for breeding birds and seals.
It is forbidden to remove anything – even a pebble. Penguins need them for nest-building.
Boots had to be disinfected before going ashore, and on reboarding, to avoid spreading bacteria, and we had to follow the tracks created by the expedition team because penguins can fall in the footprints. I thought that was a joke until I saw one tumble into someone’s tracks and then struggle to stand back up.
Karin also reminded us all that we were very privileged to be in Antarctica so we should stop taking photos now and then, and reflect on where we were.
Antarctica’s statistics are mind-boggling. The continent is almost 60 times the size of Britain in the austral summer (British winter) and doubles in size when the sea freezes in winter.
Floating icebergs are the size of six-storey buildings; the ice can be up to 4,785 metres thick and temperatures can fall to below -120C. Yet hundreds of thousands of penguins call it home, as do seals, sea lions, whales and sea birds, plus the krill that keeps so many of the other animals alive.
Krill aside, we saw them all on our cruise – even a pod of killer whales which, by an extraordinary coincidence, appeared just as Andrew, a biologist member of the expedition team, began a lecture about them. Not surprisingly, he was the first out of the door. By the end of day three we had seen so many penguins, as well as Weddell seals and humpback whales, that expectations rose and killer whales came top of the list instead.
Sea days were filled with lectures about everything from history and geology to penguin-spotting. Once in the peninsula, there was at least one landing a day, taking us to penguin colonies, for hikes up snowy crags and to visit an Argentinian research base in Hope Bay where, in 1978, the first “Antarctica baby” was born.
With the weather on our side, we followed the planned itinerary. One day I climbed a hill and snowshoed down the other side.
It was one of four optional activities Hurtigruten offers, along with kayaking and two-hour cruises in Polarcirkel boats. Excursions are not cheap – kayaking cost NOK995 ($A158); camping NOK2,950 ($A469) and snowshoeing a more palatable NOK450 ($A72) – but the mixed bag of nationalities on our cruise, which included several British and German passengers, snapped them up.
We also visited the former British base at Port Lockroy – a grand name for what is actually a small, rocky islet, now curated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It was fascinating to see the huts preserved as they were in the 1940s, with HP Sauce, Quaker Oats and Bovril on pantry shelves, but most passengers were more interested in the shop (the first we had seen since leaving Ushuaia).
Reluctantly, we returned to the ship to hang up our boots for the last time as Fram set a northerly course back to Ushuaia. No sooner had we set sail than we had to turn round to answer a Mayday call from a yachtsman who had fallen ill and was hitching a lift back to civilisation.
A reminder, if one were needed, that cruising in Antarctica is not for the faint-hearted.
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This article was written by Jane Archer from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.