Visitors find sights are worth the long journey

Brian Witte/Associated Press


This three-mast rigged ship called Europa offers passengers a close look at the Antarctic landscape. Visitors to Antarctica can choose from a variety of vessels, including yachts and modern cruise ships.

One by one, a small group of tourists step carefully down the cruise ship’s gangway, and wait for a break in the swelling waves to make their move.

With a quick stride, they settle onto a small rubber boat, and are soon bouncing past floating chunks of strikingly blue ice and a napping seal. The boat lands on a rocky beach, and legs are swung over the Zodiac to step on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Walking by blocks of beached ice, the senses are struck by a tremendous sight and a pungent guano smell. Hundreds of Adelie penguins are waddling around. Their numbers stretch high up a rocky slope, about as far as they eye can see.

It’s the group’s first landing on this remotest of continents, and already the two-day cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, through infamously rough seas is paying off.

Increasingly, travellers worldwide are realizing this vast crystalline wilderness at the bottom of the world is well worth the trouble to visit. Some 26,000 visited in the past year, and the number increases annually.

“Each year seems to be the highest ever,” says Kara Weller, who is leading this trip for Quark Expeditions.

It may be the coldest continent in the world, but the weather can be surprisingly pleasant during the December days of the austral summer. Temperatures often get above freezing. Trips usually run from November to March.

Most of this trip spanning 11 days is spent at sea on the M/V Orlova, a 100-metre ice-strengthened cruise ship that is nearly full with about 100 passengers.

The ship is comfortable, but not fancy. It has a bar and lounge with a small library and an auditorium. Small yachts also make trips to Antarctica. Much larger cruise ships also come down here.

The M/V Orlova left port on a Friday night, and the next day, passengers could already watch the powerful glides and graceful arcs of wandering albatrosses and other birds of the southern seas.

To pass the time at sea, tour guides mix in numerous lectures by various experts, including a bird specialist, a marine biologist, a geologist, a historian — even an artist who gives lessons on drawing and painting icebergs and penguins. Lectures on global warming are surprisingly absent on this trip, though, but Weller says the topic is usually discussed.

Many of the trip’s highlights happen during landings on the continent and nearby islands.

Watching an avalanche from a distance and hearing the stentorian cracking boom of a calving iceberg are unforgettable experiences. Still, there is plenty to see from the ship’s decks. With few hours of darkness this time of year, tourists are able to maximize sightseeing.

So long as you’re heavily dressed to keep warm from strong winds, it’s easy to spend a couple of hours on deck watching a large array of wind-carved icebergs floating by, some bright white, others various shades of blue. The ship passes pristine landscapes of high mountains laden with big hanging glaciers. Whales also rise up into view occasionally. Sunsets can be long-lasting, lighting up the sky with bright orange and reds.

A gentoo penguin feeds two recently hatched chicks by regurgitating a snack on Ardley Island, Antarctica.

Hundreds more penguins are visible on Aitcho Island. Gentoo penguin nests are clumped together, and the birds are hard at work using their beaks to steal small stones from each other to improve their nests.

It’s not long, though, before passengers get their first taste of the extremely fast-changing Antarctic weather.

Strong winds and thick ice force the cancellation of a landing at Paulet Island, home to thousands of Adelie penguins.

The unpredictable nature of Antarctic weather became evident again several hours later, when the path to Devil Island was blocked by ice. The ship had to turn around as it encountered sheets of ice at sea. It’s not so bad being stuck on the ship, though, with plenty of large tabular icebergs to watch.

After yet another cancelled landing at Half Moon Island the next day, a break in the weather allowed for a trip to Deception Island, a dormant volcano. As chinstrap penguins popped up and down in quick bursts beside the ship, it eased through a narrow opening called Neptune’s Bellows and to a natural harbour known as Whaler’s Bay.

A couple of hours later, we cruise up the island’s caldera to Pendulum’s Cove, where visitors can take a polar plunge in waters heated by the volcanic activity.

The next morning, it’s off to Cuverville Island, where scores of gentoo penguins are sitting on eggs. Before heading back to the ship, there’s a Zodiac cruise around a group of icebergs, giving a close look into cavernous openings with swirling blue patterns.

After lunch, there’s a visit to Danco Island, with more breeding gentoo penguins. Here, they have worked out a network of well-worn “penguin highways,” trails in the snow to aid climbs up a steep hill to other penguin groups. While waiting to get back to the ship, a couple of passengers spot a bright orange 10-legged spider-like creature floating between some rocks by the beach. Known as a sea spider, it would more than cover the palm of a hand. It’s one of those unusual critters you can come across here.

Back on the ship, travellers are given the alarming news that one of the older passengers is very sick and will need to be evacuated. This means a long detour overnight to go back to the South Shetland Islands to get to an airstrip. Because of evacuations like this, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, many tour groups highly recommend that passengers get medical evacuation insurance.

After the passenger was evacuated to Chile, the group paid a visit to Ardley Island, where newly hatched gentoo penguins were being fed by their parents. An adult penguin delicately takes the chick’s head into its mouth and regurgitates a snack of krill into the chick’s mouth, leaving a slimy strand from beak to beak.

The next stop was at research stations on a nearby island. One of them even has a gift shop. The area is the only eyesore on the trip, with rusting barrels and the smell of fuel in the air.

Trying to make up for some lost time, the ship headed south again for a packed last day, hitting one of the trip’s highlights at Paradise Bay. Mountains here are covered with glaciers, which press down in a still, jumbled bluish-white fury of ice.

Before making the two-day trip back, the visit concludes in the Lemaire Channel, where the water creates mirror images of a long string of mountains on both sides of us. A pod of orca whales swim quickly beside the ship, their black and white bodies submerged but visible through the clear water.