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Trip Report A Redhead in Antarctica

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I went to Antarctica with G Adventures on their “Quest for the Antarctic Circle” tour Dec 21-Jan 3 on the MS Expedition. I chose the quad share cabin option (they have twin and triples as well). I spent one short day in Buenos Aires on the way south.

The Photos:
I posted the photos on Facebook in a public album. You shouldn't need to have a FB profile to view them. I've done a little color editing already, but not much. Eventually I hope to play in photoshop and see what I can do.

http://tinyurl.com/afb5p89

The Stuff:
I ordered much of my gear (base layers, etc) from Sierra Trading Post. The parka was provided by G and was absolutely fabulous, I don’t remember my torso ever getting cold in it. It’s down and thoroughly windproof. If you have to purchase your own parka, you need it to be windproof (NOT wind resistant, windproof). You also want a hood that can be pulled in tight against your head so that it doesn’t catch the wind if you’re out on deck. Lots of big pockets are also really nice. The boots were also provided by G and were simple rubber boots (aka wellingtons or s___ kickers) and they served their function just fine.

- Patagonia capilene 4 thermal tights: these were amazing for keeping me warm. They aren’t too bulky but my legs never got cold. They are not cheap but I found better prices from sites other than STP and they were worth every cent. I also took a pair of light weight Cuddl Duds.
- Wickers expedition weight thermal top: similar to the capilene and excellent.
- Terramar sport silk top: so lightweight that it’s pretty see through but it was an excellent weight for some of our shorter or warmer outings. MUCH warmer than I expected but I didn’t feel overheated, even on the very warm ship.
- Smartwool and Lorpen socks: great! I do highly suggest basic sock liners as an additional layer. Avoid cotton, especially socks! It grabs onto any tiny bits of sweat and will immediately start smelling like a zombie.
- Terramar silk glove liners: pretty good. I didn’t lose any dexterity but it was much better than bare hands. These unfortunately don’t block wind and are next to useless if they get wet, but they are a liner and aren’t meant to be your main gloves (as I generally used them). I took two pairs and would highly suggest taking two pairs so that you can easily switch or have a fresh set for the next landing if one pair gets wet.
- Land’s End PrimaLoft ski pants (petite): these were excellent! They have elastic gaiters on the inside that pull in tight against the boots so they don’t let water in and they also have an adjustable waistband. My legs never got cold or wet in these.
- Lip balm with high SPF and good face moisturizer. I can’t stress how important these were! It’s very warm and dry on the ship; add that to the sun, wind and cold and your face and lips take a beating. I’d also suggest taking a lip balm for overnight that is very moisturizing to try to keep ahead of the damage.
- Take good shoes to wear on the ship. They need to have decent traction so that you can go out on deck and stay upright, comfortable and quick to put on. Don’t plan to wear sandals (unless they’re the Keen/Merrell style that have traction and actually fasten around your foot, basically shoes with holes) on the ship… you can’t wear them on deck and if the ship is rocking a bit then the stairs can be hazardous in sandals.

The things I took that I didn’t need were generally unnecessary because we lucked into such great weather. I took a fleece neck gaiter but a scarf was plenty and I never had issues with wind pulling at it. I took a dry bag but was fine with just keeping my camera around my neck on the zodiacs, but we were very lucky and I wouldn’t count on having such easy zodiac trips. I took two pairs of thick gloves that are both waterproof. Unfortunately they were simply too thick to use my camera easily so I chose to leave them in my cabin except when we went camping (they were fantastic then).

The item that I could think of that would have been nice to have is a lanyard for the ship card that you can put around your neck. I had one that is meant to be clipped to a pocket and has a windup string but that wasn’t always easy to clip to a pocket quickly between the computer and the door to the zodiac.

The cameras:
I took my Panasonic Lumix FZ150 (24X optical zoom, 12MP ‘bridge’ camera) as my main camera, the Panasonic Lumix 12X optical point and shoot as my Buenos Aires/backup camera and the Olympus Tough as a waterproof camera. My little bridge camera is absolutely nothing compared to some of the amazing cameras and lenses that many people had with them, but I’m thrilled with the photos it gave me and I could focus on what I was seeing rather than on trying to fight with my camera. Some people had very basic point and shoots (a handful of people used only a very basic point and shoot and I saw quite a few who really only used an underwater camera like the Tough) and some had thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Antarctica is one of those places that will give you amazing photos even if you use a Polaroid, but will also make you feel like the most expensive camera equipment was worth every cent. My strongest advice on cameras is to make sure that no matter what you take that you’re comfortable with it. Other bits of advice are: always pack a couple lens cleaning cloths to wipe off snow spots and pack extra batteries. You always want to have a spare battery (or three).

I also took my netbook and a small external hard drive. I used the netbook and hard drive to back up photos so that I had two copies, even after I had to delete photos from the memory cards. It’s possible for the netbook to crash while traveling but it’s extremely unlikely for the external hard drive to die as well.

I was not at all impressed with the underwater camera, but that was partially how I was using it. I mainly just stuck my hand over the side of the zodiac, pointed it the right direction and clicked the button until my hand froze (not long) or we moved past. Because of how I was using it, I couldn’t really focus it and was entirely relying on auto focus. I’d be happy to give the camera another try when I could actually look at the screen when I was using it. I got this camera right before the trip and didn’t have a chance to test it out in water unfortunately.

The ship:
The MS Expedition had a German captain, a Russian group of officers and a Filipino crew. They were fantastic! There was not a single member of the crew who was not friendly, welcoming and very helpful. There were 133 passengers (a full ship) and just under 70 crew and staff (total people on board was just under 200 I believe).

Our expedition staff was absolutely great. They have such passion for and knowledge about Antarctica and it really comes across to the passengers which just gets us even more excited (as if we weren’t already all bouncing off the ceiling from the excitement of going). We got to have Frank Todd who is an absolute expert in birds and has been going to Antarctica since the 70’s, Alex who is a PhD to tell us about geology and why the landscape is what it is. Scott is passionate about the history of the explorers and could really bring the figures of Ross, Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Worsley to life. John was the whale/seal/bug guy (he had quite a few of us wanting to turn rocks over to see little bugs). Julio was our Expedition Leader (and our wakeup call on the PA every morning). Julio and the assistant EL Andrea checked out the landing sites and made the call for what was safe or not. Ian and Dave were the ‘kayak guys’ and were both very nice. Doug was our ‘zodiac master’ and made sure that our precious zodiacs were kept in excellent condition. Mark was another kayak guy and was in charge of the camping. Katherine was our ship musician. Osi and Dmitri were mainly zodiac drivers but they were also excellent guides who could answer a lot of questions. Dr Kari and Dr Trond (a married couple) were our ship doctors and they tried to keep everyone healthy, comfortable and unbroken. I think pretty much all of the staff are amazing photographers.

The mudroom is in the bottom on deck 2, the Discovery Lounge (used for meetings, lectures, movies, happy hour, misc relaxing) and reception are on deck 4, the dining room and Polar Bear Bar are on deck 5 and the bridge is on deck 6. Deck 7 is the very top and is outside. It’s generally windy as heck and has a great view!

There is a gift shop, library, computer room and phone room on deck 4 as well. I don’t know how much phone cards cost (cheaper than I expected, but that doesn’t mean much). The internet came in 3 package sizes, the smallest was 10MB of internet transfer for $20. It’s enough to get a handful of emails in and out, but I suggest setting up a separate email account so that you don’t lose anything to loading a big inbox, folders, junk mail, etc.

I was really surprised by how sound proof the cabin was. The only time I ever heard anything from the cabins above or beside us was in the bathroom through the pipes/ventilation system, and even that was pretty faint. My cabin was #206 and we were in the bottom of the ship (right above water level) and fairly close to the center so we got less feeling of motion than the people on the higher decks or closer to bow/stern would have.

Sharing a quad cabin… it actually really wasn’t bad! Nobody hung out in the cabin much so it wasn’t a big deal that we had very little space. We were only in the cabin to sleep, change clothes and shower. The quad cabins are a new thing this season and might need a few more tweaks… there are only three ‘closets’ and only three hooks in the bathroom. However, there are two short cabinets under the desk (so I took one of those as my ‘closet’) and there are two sets of four hooks in the cabin. We took showers at various times throughout the day as the landing schedules and our own preferences changed. We put four young women who had never met into the space of many office cubicles for over a week and while there were definitely some rolled eyes at times, that was really as bad as it got. I generally hate sharing space and I’d absolutely choose the quad share again.


More to come soon...

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    I looked at every one of your pics, they are AMAZING!! I never thought I'd think about going on a ship like this to that location, but I woudl now, after seeing your pics. THANKS for posting.

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    I looked at all of the pics and loved every one. My faves were the iceberg pics with a perfect reflection on the water. OMG, those were beyond incredible. I would love to take a trip like this.

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    Great trip! Thanks for all the details (especially clothing), as we are thinking of an Antarctica trip. It’s only the cold that gives me a second (ok, and third, and fourth...) thought.

    Can’t wait to hear about camping …how long? How cold? And please, include details about “facilities”, that’s important, too.
    In some of the pictures (they are all great, loved them), people are not wearing gloves. Was it warm enough?

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    Thanks all! :)

    emd3, think about it and then book it! I never thought I'd like a cruise or anything even remotely like this but it was absolutely amazing.

    xyz, it really wasn't nearly as cold as I was expecting. Air temp was generally bit above freezing. Please do NOT let cold dissuade you from a trip like this, it's really easy to dress so that you're warm enough. If you get cold easily then go for the capilene 4 (1-3 are lighter weights), and then add merino or silk layers above that and good insulated ski pants and a down parka. There were a few times that I took off my parka and tied it around my waist because I was too warm with it on. I also often just wore the capilene thermals under my ski pants and rarely added sweat pants in between.

    I won't say that bare hands were always the most comfortable option, but it really wasn't bad. :) The only time I ever put on my big gloves was the night we went camping. I'd highly suggest thin gloves (waterproof would be best since that means windproof too) that leave you with enough dexterity to still use your camera. I thought I'd always be wearing my big gloves so didn't take thin waterproof gloves.

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    The flights, Buenos Aires and Ushuaia

    I left Iowa on an earlier flight than planned to get out ahead of a blizzard (a bit ironic to flee a blizzard to go to Antarctica) and was happy that I did. My original flight got out ahead of the storm but I would have been really nervous. I arrived into Buenos Aires in the mid morning and took a taxi from Taxi Ezeiza to my hotel (Hotel Etoile) right next to the Recoleta cemetery. They were friendly and convenient, but they do not take credit cards and the ATM’s in the airport were all out of cash that morning. Take US cash as a backup!

    My room was ready when I got to the hotel so I could dump my stuff, change clothes and freshen up a bit before heading out again. The Recoleta cemetery is right across the green from the hotel so I wandered around in there for awhile. Now, that’s nowhere near as morbid as it sounds! The cemetery is made up of mausoleums, each one more ornate than the last. It was fascinating to see the plaques that had been put on the fronts and wonder about the lives of the people involved. Some plaques were from spouses, some were from friends and some were from parents. Those are always sad to see. Some mausoleums were well tended with nice fake flowers and greenery inside, while others had broken glass, dirt and rubbish inside.

    From there I wandered around the city for awhile. I have no earthly idea where I went, but I basically just walked for an hour or two turning random directions as I went. I eventually wandered back towards the hotel and stopped at a Freddo and had a little ice cream cone. From there I headed into the little basilica (Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar). They’ve turned the cloisters into a museum and have a couple floors of old vestments, statues, artwork and registers. I really wish I could have read the comments in the various registers. The calligraphy was beautiful. The upper floors in the basilica museum give a nice view out over the cemetery.

    I returned to the cemetery to go find Eva Peron’s mausoleum (it seemed like the sort of thing that you’re supposed to do when you’re right there at the cemetery). For a map of the cemetery with a list of names, there is a small stand just inside the cemetery to the left of the entrance. Eva Peron’s name is not under Peron, (sorry, I don’t remember what it was under) but keep looking and you’ll find it. I had to laugh at the German tourists who were taking photos of each other at her mausoleum and singing (very badly) songs from Evita. I noticed that many of the plaques had dates in the format of “1960 August 17 1961” but I have no idea why! I assume the plaque was put up on the one year anniversary of the death?

    A bit more wandering around and then a short nap and a shower before I went back out searching for dinner. After a bit of people watching in front of the basilica I settled on La Biela for dinner. Dinner is always better when you can sit outside in gorgeous weather, under the branches of a very old (and very neat) tree and people watch. I think my favorite person was the guy who came through the area singing at the top of his lungs and gesturing like an opera singer. Unfortunately he was hideously off key and had a bad voice in general. I’m not sure if he was drunk or just a few fries short of a happy meal, but he had everyone in sight quite entertained. The dinner at La Biela was excellent and the server was quite friendly.

    I had an early flight scheduled the next morning so after my late dinner it was off to bed. I liked Buenos Aires for my short day but I’m not sure that I feel a need to return anytime soon. That’s not really a fair attitude to have though because I only saw one small portion of the city in such a short time.

    When I arrived at the airport (AEP) the next morning it was absolutely packed! I was glad that I hadn’t listened to the hotel clerk and requested a taxi earlier than he suggested. Practically every square foot of space in the airport was taken up with people in line to check in for flights. The line moved a LOT faster than anyone expected and we had plenty of time since our plane was delayed anyway. You’ve gotta love Aerolineas Argentinas, just remember to plan for delays for no apparent reason and you’ll be fine. Once in Ushuaia I joined the group at the airport for the transfer to the hotel. Once there, I set out to wander around the town a bit (apparently wandering around somewhat aimlessly really is my favorite thing to do when I travel).

    After walking down the shore, up hills, down hills, up side streets, down side streets and back to the central part of town I stopped into Andino (corner of San Martin and May) and ordered a very late lunch. On the waiters recommendation I ordered panzottis de centolla (king crab panzottis). Apparently that’s gray ravioli with crab in it. It was very good, but it’s a bit hard to get past the mental block against eating gray ravioli. I would quite happily recommend Andino. The waiter was an older guy who was a hilarious flirt, the food was excellent and if you’re lucky to snag a seat by the windows you have excellent people watching as your dinner entertainment. Sitting there I did learn a bit about traffic control in Ushuaia. Almost all (if not all) of the streets in the tourist area of Ushuaia are one way streets which really helps keep tourists alive since they only have to watch one way at a time. The streets that are going to/from the shore are on very steep hills and they always have the right of way. The cross streets that are paralleling the shore are flat and have to stop at each intersection. It seems so easy and logical! If you’re on a hill with possibly icy roads, stopping and restarting is iffy at times so don’t make them stop. The odd things you notice when contemplating what on earth made your dinner that color of gray and whether or not you really want to know!

    After a brief group meeting back at the hotel I went down to the little sheds by the dock to sign up for a channel tour for the next day. I signed up with Patagonia Adventure Explorer and then went back to wandering around town. This time I stayed in the tourist area and visited some of the shops for a few postcards and misc souvenirs. Dinner was at Tante Sara and I wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t bad but it also wasn’t great. I did like seeing all of the news channels showing footage of wahoos who thought that the world really was ending (this was December 21).

    The next day many people from the trip headed out on a tour of the national park. I wanted to go but I had the option of that or the Beagle Channel and chose the Channel. The channel tour was a small group (approximately 20) and we got excellent views of sea lions, a lighthouse and amazing views of the Channel and the mountains on both sides of us (Argentina to one side, Chile to the other). For anyone who chooses to take a channel tour, I highly suggest wind protection as it’s very windy. I only had my fleece at this point and not my miracle parka so I was a bit chilly at times. Lightweight layers were excellent but a windproof jacket would have gone a long way towards making me a bit more comfortable. As always, make sure you have a spare camera battery. A couple people commented towards the end that their batteries were dead and they couldn’t take any more photos. The sun came out towards the end of the tour and it was gorgeous (wear sunblock).

    After the tour, I had lunch at Marco Polo and ordered “pollo deschuesado al verdeo con papas noisette” (pitted chicken meat in green vegetables with noisette potatoes was the translation on the menu). It was boneless chicken in a yellow sauce that had green beans in it and little potato balls. The entire meal was absolutely fantastic! The bread was yummy and I highly suggest drinking coke from a wine glass whenever you can get away with it as it just adds a bit of whimsy to an excellent meal.

    After lunch it was back to the hotel, onto buses to go the 3 blocks to the pier and onto the ship!

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    IR, I cannot stress enough how much I enjoy your trip reports. I would never in a million years travel to such amazing places alone, and I'm completely in awe of you for that!

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write in such detail, and for posting those incredible photographs. Can't wait to read more!

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    Thanks all! :)

    Lily, you absolutely could go to the same places I do on your own. If I can do it then you can do it too! If you're not comfortable entirely on your own then join a tour or a small cruise, people are very nice and welcoming to solo travelers.

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    On the way!

    Once we were on the ship we all pretty much tossed our stuff down (I was the second one into the room and got a bottom bunk, yay) and headed back outside to watch the process of moving out of port. We had our safety drill (I still say that someone should have run out of the room screaming for the proper effect) and were on our way with an excellent dinner. All of the meals are free seating in tables of four, six or eight. It’s a great way to mix and match the various groups and get to meet new people.

    We left Ushuaia on December 22 and the next two days followed a slow and relaxed pattern as we crossed the Drake Passage. We were quite lucky in the weather as it was a very easy crossing. It was still enough to make quite a few of the passengers sick and anti-nausea pills and patches were being handed out like candy. The staff gave lectures in the Lounge on various topics such as the race for the pole between Scott and Amundsen, seals, birds and penguins. We also selected our boots and made sure that all of our outdoor gear was safe to take ashore. They have to be very careful to make sure that we don’t track anything from other areas into Antarctica so any of our outer gear that had been worn before had to be vacuumed to be sure there were no seeds or similar stuck in Velcro or in boot treads for those who brought their own boots.

    The Lounge was referred to as the ‘womb room’ by one of the staff… when the curtains are pulled for a lecture it’s dark, it’s warm, the chairs are cozy and there’s a constant rocking motion. Add in various degrees of jet lag and anti-nausea meds and half of the passengers were somewhat narcoleptic. The staff made it clear that it was okay if we fell asleep or got up to leave, they understood and wouldn’t be offended. They were also really good about laughing at interruptions due to yells from the windows of “PENGUIN!” Someone at a window spotted a single penguin hanging out on an iceberg and yelled, so of course the entire group bolted for the windows on that side of the ship. I think it’s safe to say that that’s the most photographed penguin of the entire trip. The staff was off on the other side of the lounge practically pissing themselves laughing at us because we were sooooo excited about a single penguin. They assured us that we’d be seeing hundreds of penguins really soon, but “oh my god, penguin!” pretty much summed it up for us.

    I basically took to camping out in the lounge for the day… wake up for a lecture and then doze until the next one. It was great! During my awake periods I loved going out to the back deck or to the top deck to take photos or just watch our surroundings until well past midnight (24 hour light is a great thing). That definitely added to the desire to doze in the lounge.

    The many albatross and petrels following the ship seemed to just float along the surface of the waves to the sides and rear of the ship. It was not uncommon to look out and see 20+ cape petrels (brown and white, also called painted petrels) hanging out in our wake. It was amazing to watch them twitch a couple feathers to follow the updraft from the ship and change course to stay right above the water. It was not uncommon to watch one for 5-10 minutes and never see it actually flap its wings; they just ride the wind from the ship.

    Since many cultures celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, the crew planned a really nice dinner. They also gave us a fun surprise and many came in and sang Christmas carols for/with us. I usually avoid that sort of thing but it was actually a lot of fun. Some of the crew didn’t really know the words to some of the songs but they smiled and quietly mumbled a bit. After carols and then dinner, Santa and his ‘helper’ came into the lounge to distribute small gifts of a photo and chocolates to the passengers. Since we were at the wrong pole for elves, Santa’s helper was one of the staff dressed up in a penguin costume. It was totally screwball but a lot of fun.

    On Christmas a call came across the PA that we were nearing the Antarctic Circle and should all head outside to see. About an hour later we slowly approached the invisible line of the Circle and ‘officially’ crossed to south of the Circle. What do you do when you cross the Antarctic Circle? You stop and have a party outside of course! The penguin costume made another appearance and the crew brought out hot chocolate (I loved our crew, they took such good care of us). We really had to laugh at the nine crabeater seals dozing on an ice floe right on the south side of the magic line. They were determined to be immigration control and apparently we passed their thorough investigation (they opened their eyes, blinked at us once or twice and then closed their eyes again).

    We were the first expedition ship south of the Circle for the season so our plans were really tentative as we didn’t know what channels were open from ice and what was still iced closed. We were aiming for Detaille Island but unfortunately that was iced closed. The captain (little boys and big toys comes to mind) decided to play icebreaker and drove into the ice sheet just a little bit and decided that yep, it was definitely a no go. We contented ourselves with a zodiac cruise in the area and a very short (very cautiously tested by the staff first) stroll on the ice. We were lucky enough to see minke whales fairly close and (as always) amazing scenery.

    After our zodiac tour near Detaille Island we headed back out to go to our next planned stop (Crystal Sound). Many of us were watching the nightly movie in the lounge and right near the end of the movie a call came across the PA that there was a humpback whale off the front of the ship. The whale was feeding fairly near the surface and was happy to let us stay nearby so we hung out with the whale for around an hour. I had to laugh at the people who came scrambling outside wearing whatever they had grabbed on the way out of bed. I think my favorite was the big bathrobe and slippers, though one or two did come outside barefoot. Not surprisingly, they went back to bed within a couple minutes. When we noticed that the captain was at the side windows on the bridge taking photos, one of the staff explained that the captain loves wildlife and if he had an opportunity to show us whales then he absolutely would.

    What a way to celebrate Christmas… icebergs, our first penguin (an adelie), crossed the Antarctic Circle, crabeater seals, a zodiac cruise with a very short walk on the ice, a wonderful lunch complete with turkey and suckling pig, and a movie interrupted by a humpback whale.

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    Thanks! :)


    The Frozen Land
    The day after Christmas started out with a zodiac cruise in Crystal Sound. There were enormous icebergs, amazing mountains and the smoothest water I’ve ever seen outside of an empty swimming pool. The sun was shining through the clouds and creating the most beautiful reflections on the water.

    It was one of those times (there were quite a few on this trip) when you simply know that even the best camera in the world isn’t going to be able to capture the beauty of the place. There’s just no way to accurately reproduce that magnificent blue sky, the wispy clouds and the perfectly mirror smooth water that reflects and magnifies everything back at you. There’s no way to recreate that crisp, cold taste to the air. So, you take a handful of photos (or a couple hundred if you’re me) and know that they’ll never turn out exactly right, but that looking at any of them will always make you smile and remember the warmth of the sun opposing the cold of the air.

    In the middle of our zodiac cruise through the ice we found a small group of adelie penguins on a large ice sheet. We came up behind another zodiac and moved in close to the ice as they carefully left the area. Dmitri was cautious to move the zodiac slowly enough that we didn’t risk spooking them but I don’t think he really had to worry much. They toddled around in front of us, seeming to both ignore us and watch us at the same time. However when we started to slowly move away, they started to chase after us! Apparently they weren’t done observing us just yet. I would challenge anyone to look at a group of penguins in full waddle-run chasing after a zodiac of tourists and not giggle like a 6 year old girl.

    That evening we headed north towards Vernadsky Station, just south of the Lemaire Channel. While we were heading north, the campers had a meeting to go over the rules, sign waivers and to assign tent partners as needed. Mark was a complete saint and walked us through a demonstration of setting up the tents (very easy) and a discussion on the camp potties. Everything (yes, everything) has to be packed out when we leave to leave the area in as close to the condition it was when we arrived as possible. I was just surprised that the camp potties were nicer than a covered bucket.

    The next morning we landed at Vernadsky Station. Now a Ukraine station, Vernadsky was once known as Faraday Station when the British held it. This is where scientists first observed the depletion of the ozone layer, aka the “hole in the ozone”. We were given a short tour of the station, allowed to purchase postcards and stamps (they should arrive in two weeks to two years), have our passports stamped and then onto the bar and tiny gift shop. The sign above the gift shop entrance advertises that it is the southernmost gift shop in the world. The base is also apparently the southernmost distillery in the world as they make their own vodka. Three of us shared sips of one shot and I’m still not sure if they gave us vodka or turpentine. The guys at the base definitely have a quirky sense of humor; I truly appreciated the “Bus Stop” and “Neighborhood Watch Area” signs on the front of their main building.

    After leaving the fun Ukrainians, we made our way just a few miles north to Petermann Island for a landing at an adelie colony. This was one of the landings that made everyone stop and say “awwww!” because many of the penguins had fresh chicks. They were under two weeks old and many were under a week old. They were just dark gray little fluff balls with tiny beaks. This is where we first saw penguins as rock thieves. There is a very definite, polite, method for a penguin to move through a colony without being upsetting their neighbors. If a penguin deviates from that polite method, they can expect to get pecked at, squawked at and beaten about the head with strong flippers by the occupants of each nest they pass. Since nests are often just a foot apart, that’s a lot of pecking and squawking!

    As always, the landing was too short (though we had almost 2 hours, full days often would not feel like enough time) and well before we were all ready to want to go back to the ship it was time to go back to the ship. A couple zodiac loads were quite lucky on the way back to the ship though and we managed to capture the attention of a minke whale. He was simply curious as to what we were and likely happy with whatever our little motor was churning up. He circled our zodiac a couple times and was only about 5’ from us a few times. Very cool!

    Once Mr Minke moved on and we could load onto the ship we moved north into the Lemaire Channel, a very narrow channel that is chock full of small icebergs and has very steep sides. We were treated to a fog bank that made the whole area seem mystical and mysterious. The bridge had a handful of crew/staff with binoculars watching out the windows as spotters as we slowly twisted and turned our way through the narrow maze of icebergs. My favorite was the weddell seal lounging on a small ice floe barely larger than itself, just watching the ship float by. Of course the captain maneuvered to give the seal as much space as possible to try not to disturb him/her.

    The decision would be made once we reached the other side of the channel and got to Dorian Bay if we would be camping that night or not.

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    Wahoo, yippee - - thanks, Iowa_Redhead for the virtual trip to Antarctica!! I stopped by Fodor's for inspiration for future travels, and here was your jaw-dropping, breath-taking trip report. The pictures were enough to hook me, but your trip report has me ready to sign up. Who knew there were so many shades of blue ice? I'm in awe that you camped on the ice and still say wonderful things about the trip! How nimble do you need to be to jump in and out of the Zodiacs in the chilly weather?

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    Wilde, you don't have to be very nimble at all! :) There are steps from the sidegate (the doorway out the side of the ship from the mudroom). At the bottom of the steps there are two crew members and then the zodiac driver in the zodiac. Going into the boat it was generally just one hand to the zodiac driver (you grab wrists to have a solid grip), one hand to one of the crew members, and then a step down onto a box in the zodiac. The box means that you don't have to step down very far at all.

    On the way back into the ship, the driver (one of our fantastic expedition staff) gives you a hand until you're in reach of the crew members and then the two crew members each take a hand and help you out onto the stairs. It sometimes sounds complicated, but it's really not. We had plenty of people on the tour with bad knees or just various age related issues. We had a few people who just weren't up to walking very far so they'd go on the shore landings and then just stay fairly close to the zodiacs instead of walking as far as the rest of us. If you need a bit more help, then you simply warn the crew and staff at the bottom of the stairs and they'll be sure to keep a closer eye to help you stay steady.

    We did get very lucky with the weather and had very calm water (both at the ship and at the landing sites) whenever we went out. That could be different on other trips and it might be a bit rougher (and wetter) getting in and out of the zodiacs. Worst case scenario depending on how unstable you might be on your feet, you might have to have a discussion with the staff in the mudroom and you might decide to skip a landing.


    If my trip report and photos can inspire someone to want to travel somewhere, then thank you for one of the best compliments I can receive. :)

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    Camping at the Bottom of the World:

    Once we got to Dorian Bay, the decision came out that we were a go for camping and the campers (I think there were about 60 of us) went into high gear to try to gather up all of our warmest layers, get in a quick buffet dinner and rewrite our last wills.

    I took a backpack with an extra pair of socks, my second pair of heavy gloves, my fleece jacket, a bottle of water and a set of toe warmers.

    My layers:
    - Thin, synthetic sock liners, thin merino sock liners and then smartwool socks.
    - Capilene bottoms, sweatpants and my ski pants.
    - Heavy thermal shirt (similar to Capilene), a t shirt and my parka.
    - My scarf, a hat and a hat liner. My heavy gloves and thin glove liners.

    Once our group was called, my tent mate and I grabbed our sleeping bags and the bag with our sleeping bag liners and fold up sleeping pads and headed for the zodiacs. We grabbed a tent bag from the stack on shore (yet again, our expedition staff were wonderful and took those over ahead of time for us) and went to find a spot. The tent was really easy to setup (and really easy to move once it was setup) and had an amazing view of the bay. Others did come and set their tents up fairly close to ours, but that’s okay. The camp potties were setup (one in a little shed and one behind a snow privacy wall) and the little penguin colony was admired from a proper distance. The little guys were waddling through the side of camp and we all tried to combine watching them with not bothering them. Sometimes the urge to hug a penguin was almost overwhelming and the little waddlers were often close enough to truly test our restraint.

    Once people had a chance to get their tents setup and start moving around a bit, Mark started leading us up the hill behind us for a stroll. 60 people walking up a good sized hill is one thing; 60 people in lots of layers and wellington boots, trudging through snow that was often knee deep if you got off the exact path, and turning around constantly to take photos of the bay… gets interesting at times. Once at the top of the hill we could look down on the ship in the next little bay and the British station, Port Lockroy.

    After a bit of time, the more responsible members of the group headed back down the slope to the tents. The rest of us had impromptu snowball fights and ended up sledding down the hill using our jackets as our sleds (they have a hood so if you slide on your back it actually works surprisingly well). It was already past midnight at that point (we didn’t even start the landing until around 9 or after) and many people were tucking into their sleeping bags. I ended up sitting out watching the penguins sleep (they really are ridiculously cute when 90% of the colony has dropped forward onto their bellies to sleep) and wandering around the allowed area until 3am.

    When I noticed that it was just me and Dave (one of the staff) still out I decided that I should probably pack it in. I had the uncanny ability to find the little ravines that were hidden under the snow and sink immediately down to mid-thigh depth. While I had been able to get myself out pretty quickly each time it happened, I knew that there was a good chance of twisting an ankle or otherwise hurting myself so I should probably go in while there was still someone else around to take photos if I busted something. I was quite pleasantly surprised that I was still comfortably warm even though I hadn’t been moving around too much for awhile and a breeze had kicked up.

    There are some definite tricks to camping in the cold. Boots should be taken off while they’re outside. I opened the tent flap as little as I could, sat on the end of my sleeping bag and took off my boots before bringing my feet into the tent. That gave me a chance to brush as much snow off of them as possible before I put them into my corner of the tent rather than dragging snow into the tent. Once my boots were off and the tent was closed back up, I changed the outer socks for the entirely dry pair that was in my bag (just enough snow got into my boots to get my feet a bit wet). The ski pants and parka were flopped on top of the sleeping bag as an extra layer and I wiggled into the mummy bag. If you’ve never used a mummy bag, the main concept is that the top is essentially like a hood that you pull closed around your face to let as little cold air in around you as possible. The fleece in my backpack worked great as a pillow. Since I sleep curled up on my side (and I’m short anyway) when I wiggled down to the bottom of the sleeping bag, I could pull the bag entirely closed well above my head. I fell asleep within moments and slept like a very cozy rock. The only times I woke up was when I was too hot and had to open the sleeping bag a bit.

    Early in the morning (5:30), we were awakened by Julio’s normal wakeup call… kind of. Mark apparently recorded Julio giving a wakeup call before we left and then went tent to tent playing it on his iPod. Effective and much nicer than snowballs being tossed at each tent. Unfortunately it was cold and snowy (it was colder than when I had gone to bed). I added my fleece to my layers and added my toe warmers between the sock liners assuming that it would take some time before we were back on the ship. It took about five minutes to tear down the tent and another five or so to wait for the zodiacs to pick us up. The staff were quite nice and brought out at least three or four zodiacs to ferry us around the corner to the ship rather than just running us back and forth on one or two.

    Several people on the ship were disappointed because they didn’t realize that you had to sign up ahead of time to go camping or it was already full when they signed up for the trip. Quite a few of the campers complained that they had been really cold all night. A couple of the things that the staff told us ahead of time that I know many didn’t listen to:
    - Go to bed warm! Walk around a bit and make sure that you’re warm when you get into your sleeping bag as it’s easier to stay warm in a sleeping bag than to get warm.
    - Make sure you’re dry, especially your feet. That means take socks to change into incase yours get wet.
    - Layers are good but make sure that they’re not tight or constricting.
    - Extra layers are great as a pillow or as an added layer under the sleeping bag.

    Camping in Antarctica was certainly a special opportunity and I’m so glad that I got a chance to go. It was a lot of fun and the feeling of solitude once pretty much everyone else went to bed was simply amazing. I had 60 people, a tent and a warm sleeping bag a 2 minute walk behind me and a zodiac to the ship was just a radio call away, yet it felt like I could be the only person in a vast, remote area. When hearing the stories of the adventures and hardships of the early explorers, it’s hard to imagine what they must have felt. How alone they must have felt in that unexplored vastness that just went on for what must have felt like forever. How bone deep exhausted they had to be and simply how much courage it took to face that cold weather day after day with the equipment they had at the time. However, I can understand how the continent seemed to pull them back, expedition after expedition. There’s something special about Antarctica that just gets into your heart and soul and doesn’t let go.

    “If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.” - Andrew Denton

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    OK, so you HAD to MAKE yourself leave hanging out in the night air with the penguins, after sliding down the ice hills, to go to your tent?? And you slept all night. WOW. So impressed and truly ready to get on the next boat. Thank you for the great details about the physical level - that helped a lot - have bad ankles, but could handle what you described:) You should get a little stipend for the beautiful descriptions of the trip! Again, thank you for such a detailed trip report.

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    And I had to giggle about the (not)following directions for staying warm in the tent. I would have been one of those people who did the ignoring. I'll be sure to remember your lesson and pay attention if it gets to be my turn!!

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    Thanks wilde! :)

    For the most part, the temperature was just above freezing. So for me coming from winter in Iowa, that's about what I was used to and often warmer than at home. Add in the many layers on planned outtings and I stayed really warm. I have a couple photos where I have my parka tied around my waist because I was too warm (I'm not sharing those since I look particularly dumb in those). I spent a lot of time on the bow or the top of the ship freezing my butt off, but that's because I wasn't dressed to be outside for as long as I was. I did finally start keeping my parka with me rather than just going outside in a tshirt.

    Dress for it and it's fine. :)

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    Brits, bones, a blonde bird and a BBQ?

    We started out the day after breakfast with a visit to the British station, Port Lockroy. The staff is working on conservation at the old base over the summer and the base offers a gift shop with post cards and stamps, passport stamps and some really good maps. The other part of this landing was Jougla Point where there are massive whale bones lying around. Some have been laid out in order from the masses of bones that litter the bay floor. According to John, it’s a bit of a franken-whale since pieces have come from at least three different species of whale.

    Relaxing on an icy beach behind the Franken-whale was a weddell seal who just didn’t care about the tourists looking on. He was taking a nap and had absolutely no intention of moving. Again the wildlife was really testing our restraint by looking so sweet, gentle and cushy soft. I swear that my dog makes the exact same faces when she’s dozing!

    After lunch we headed to Waterboat Point and the Chilean station (again a small gift shop, post cards and passport stamps available). They have the distinction of having a leucistic penguin (the blonde bird). Leucistic is not the same as albino since they do have pigment, it’s just very pale. He was a pretty little guy and was busily working away gathering small rocks for his nest. It’s always fun to watch the penguins in a colony and see how they interact with each other. Penguins seem so cuddly and laid back but they have little patience for rock thieves. We watched one penguin toddle through the nests stealing rocks from one and then from another with the pissed off penguins able to do little to deter him. Since the bird on the nest was on an egg, they couldn’t do more than stretch their necks as far as possible and screech their displeasure. Then one of the mates came back from the water and went crazy on the little thief! There was a flurry of flippers, lots of noise and the rock thief ran (tripping over nests and bouncing off of pissed off penguins as he went) trying to escape the beating he had brought down on himself. Once the thief had been thoroughly run off, the defending hero preened and gracefully accepted the praise of his mate. Penguins are not gentle birds when they’re pissed off! Of course we laughed until we almost cried at the scene.

    This was one of the places that really proved the theory that penguins generally only have about three thoughts throughout the day.
    1: “I need a rock, I need a rock, I need a rock…” as they wander about searching for a good rock.
    2: “I got a rock? I got a rock! I GOT A ROCK!!” once they find (or steal) a rock.
    3. “What was I doing??” as they look around as if in confusion after they’ve carefully placed their rock in just the right place on their nest.

    That evening as we pulled into Paradise Bay to anchor for the night, many of the passengers stood out on the bow for quite awhile taking photos of a leopard seal (and the stains from his dinner) floating on a small ice floe right alongside the ship and the gorgeous views. We could hear the ‘thunder’ of the ice breaking up and now and then might see a splash as a bit of ice fell into the sea at the curve of the bay. It looked like fresh snow ready to avalanche at any moment but was actually glaciers flowing down to the water over time.

    While we were out front gawking, the excellent crew setup the Polar Bear Bar and the attached back deck for a barbeque! There was amazing food (as usual) including suckling pig, turkey, soup, many sides and a backdrop of gorgeous still water, dark mountains covered in bright white snow and pale gray fog. I think that was one of the fanciest barbeques I’ve ever been to! It was complete with carved watermelon and other fruits/veggies as bright and colorful decorations.

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    Gentoos, Man Overboard, Humpbacks and Foyn Harbour

    The day started out on Cuverville Island and the largest colony of gentoo penguins on the peninsula. I walked down the beach for a bit following alongside one of the penguin highways and just watching the little guys. The weather was warm enough that I spent most of the time with my parka tied around my waist. I was really surprised by how often I was actually too warm in the miracle parka. I had a lot of fun watching the penguins porpoising after the zodiacs when it was time to the ship. I always wonder what they think of us as they chase the zodiacs. They’re certainly not afraid of us or the zodiacs in the slightest and seeing them flying out of the water behind and all around us only makes them seem even more playful and fun. I simply can’t see a penguin flying out of the water without hearing ‘their’ little voices in my head like little kids playing and yelling “wee!” “yahoo!” and “yippee!” and laughing in response.

    While the second group was out on Cuverville Island, I sat in the Discovery Lounge backing up photos, reading and generally just being lazy. All of a sudden one of the bright orange life boats slowly drops past the windows. What the…? Something about a life boat being lowered tends to get the attention of passengers fairly quickly. One of the women actually asked if we were in trouble. She seemed reassured when it was pointed out that if we were having a problem they wouldn’t be lowering the life boats until we were on them. My reaction was to grab my camera and coat (you learn quickly to keep your camera and a jacket/coat handy) and head outside to watch.

    A zodiac of crew loaded into the life boat and it slowly puffed its way around towards the back of the ship. It looked like a funny little cartoon version of a submarine as it went along. Once at the back of the ship, I figured out that it wasn’t just a maintenance/test run of the life boats, there was a “man” overboard. At some point they stuffed a mannequin in a floatation suit and tossed it in the water! I wonder if they dropped it from the zodiac on the way to the life boat or if someone got to chuck him over the back rail. There’s something about chucking a mannequin over the back of the ship that just seems like way too much fun! Once the life boat got to the ‘victim’, they stuck out a short pole with a hook on the end, hooked him, and pulled him in to start simulated care. They then took off for the side gate where they used the pole again to pull themselves in close to the ship and transfer the ‘victim’ into the ship for further care. I was quite impressed by the whole process… they ran the man overboard drill, they tested out one of the life boats and entertained the passengers all at the same time. Later in the day I saw a couple crew members carrying their ‘victim’ back to the storage area and had to laugh at the stunned and confused looks from a couple of the passengers who had been on shore at the time of the drill.

    Once the second group was back on board and we started moving out towards our next stop, Foyn Harbour/Enterprise Island, we were joined by a couple of humpback whales. One stayed with us for quite a while (over an hour) giving us a wonderful show of as he fed. They’re amazing to watch and part of the fun is the challenge of trying to guess where they’re going to come up again next. He was staying down for only a few minutes each time (fairly shallow dives for a humpback but enough time to make us get as antsy as a bunch of six year olds). We were very lucky because we got to see an amazing breach where he came out of the water about half the length of his body and slammed down with a giant splash. It was amazing and everyone out on the bow of the ship seemed to be pointing, yelping, gasping and as excited as a 14 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. It was so fast that I don’t think a single person got a shot of it, photo or video.

    Eventually we parted ways with our large friend and made our way to Foyn Harbour. We couldn’t get into Enterprise Island so just took a lovely zodiac cruise instead. There’s a neat old wrecked ship that we circled around. Much of the ship has collapsed in on itself and the metal is entirely rusted. From there we went for a ride around icebergs. As much as I love getting to walk among the penguins, it’s just as great to get to go close to the icebergs and see the details and colors in the ice. I’m still vastly entertained by the adelie penguins we saw hanging out on top of one large iceberg. We never did figure out how on earth they got up there as we couldn’t find a shorter area they could have gotten onto to start with. After the adelies, we saw a single chin strap penguin hanging out and observing his kingdom from his icy throne.

    At our nightly recap, Julio told us that the next day would be a very busy day including a 4:30am wakeup call, the Devils Window, a cold swim and a long walk. We were coming up to Deception Island!

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    Thank you for all of the very nice comments and sorry for the delays. Life decided to get rather hectic recently and I haven't had much time to write. Plus every time I sit down to write, I look through photos as a sort of journal and then get distracted editing photos for the little time I have. Oops!

    More should be coming in the next few days.

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    An Island Called Deception

    Our promised wakeup call came over the PA at 4:30am and I stumbled my way out onto the top deck. Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano and about 7 miles across. The island can be quite deceptive; as you approach the island, the narrow opening to the protected bay is almost invisible unless you’re lined up just right. This was a haven to the ships and whalers of the past.

    As we floated past the Devils Window and entered through Neptunes Bellows the early morning sun was shining from over the hills and casting reflections of the black, volcanic sand and the bright white snow on the smooth bay. We anchored in Whalers Bay and went ashore for a hike up to Devils Window or an opportunity to look around at the old whaling station turned research base before it was abandoned due to volcanic eruptions.

    The hike up to the Window was deceptively long. It really didn’t look that far from the landing point but the deep volcanic sand meant that everyone was walking slower than normal. The view once you got up to the Window was amazing… you could look down the sheer cliff of the outside of the island and see the waves crashing against the rocks far below. Unfortunately the hike to the Window took enough time that most of us who went that way didn’t have time to go see the whaling station as well.

    Deception Island is a very busy area so they have to be even more careful to stick exactly to the schedule than they would in an area that we were the only ship out there. All the ships work out a schedule with IAATO over the off season so that they can try to share the busy areas and still preserve the feeling of privacy/solitude. While we had breakfast, the crew pulled up the anchor and moved the ship the short distance through the bay to Pendulum Cove where we would have the polar plunge.

    Many passengers knew about the polar plunge ahead of time and those interested brought swimwear while many of the rest improvised using shorts, t shirts and even a very carefully secured hat. It had to be explained to some that just because the water was steaming, did NOT mean that it was warm. That just means that the very top layer of water was warmer than the air. I went in and had a friend take photos for me (none of which will ever be shared, online or otherwise) and it actually wasn’t too bad. The top inch or so of water was much warmer than the water below it and the first 5 or 6 feet out from shore was warmer than the water once you got out a little ways. Then it got fairly cold but not horribly so. We were really lucky with the weather as it was actually a relatively warm day. My biggest problem actually came from wanting to swim a little but needing to keep my eyes closed to keep the contacts in my eyes. The volcanic sand right at the edge of the water was actually hot enough that it actually started to burn after I buried my feet in it!

    We were all entertained to watch one young Aussie and his very carefully attached stocking hat G string. Apparently the penguin stocking hat was going to be a gift for a friend back home. I still wonder if it was still given as a gift despite its prior use. Of course one passenger had to go in naked. According to the staff there’s always one who truly craves attention. Thankfully he at least kept his hand cupped over his crotch when he was out of the water.

    The staff were handing out towels and ferrying people back to the ship as soon as we wanted to go. This is one of those times when the sauna off the mud room was a very popular place to be and nobody was complaining that the ship was kept fairly warm. After we all got back on the ship it was time for lunch and the short trip across the bay to Telefon Bay.

    Once we went ashore at Telefon Bay we went for another hike. This time it was to the rim of a caldera where we could see tons of different layers in the ground underneath us. It looked like someone had taken marble cake mix and spilled it over the side of the cliff. From there many in the group went for a longer hike along a ridge and the rest of us turned back to head back for the ship.

    After dinner I decided to visit the bridge since I hadn’t been there yet. The bridge policy was that passengers are welcome whenever it’s safe. They simply put a sign on the door and then you can knock to be allowed in. The only rules are don’t push any buttons, be quiet and don’t push any buttons.

    Once the captain left the bridge I was allowed to ask questions and look around. Vladimir (the duty officer) could tell I was interested in how things worked and he was wonderful about answering a ton of questions. “What’s this? How does that work? When do you use this?” It’s fascinating to see how some of the tools/equipment is very advanced and how some is still very old fashioned. Even though they have the computer charts everything is still carefully plotted on paper charts. Vladimir said that they mark the route in pencil on the charts and then leave the mark until they return to the same area. That serves as a reminder for what worked well (or didn’t) the previous visit.

    I was absolutely fascinated by the charts! A large spiral book of maps starts with a map of the world that is sectioned off into areas, designated by a single letter. Antarctica is W. So you flip the book back to the W section and then flip through the pages of more detailed maps to find the right part of Antarctica or there’s a list by name. Those smaller sections are numbered. Under the navigators table are wide shallow drawers with labels for the chart numbers in each drawer. It’s an incredibly easy system to go from the world map to the very specific area you want and find it in the drawer in front of your knees very quickly. Yes, I realize that I’m a dork, but the charts were really cool!

    It was a lot of fun to just walk through and ask about how things worked and when they would be used. There are redundancies upon redundancies, usually getting simpler and more basic as you go down the line. There’s a ‘dead man’ alarm on the bridge that rings into the captains quarters. If the duty officer doesn’t push a button every set time period the system assumes that there is a problem on the bridge and that the duty officer might be dead and that someone had better go check! There is a detailed diagram of all decks on an alarm panel. That panel shows exactly where a problem is and what type of problem it is. There is even a traditional steering wheel, complete with handles on all six spokes. I dearly wanted a funny hat and a fake parrot when I saw that!

    I really wish I had gone to the bridge earlier in the tour and had had an opportunity to visit a few more times. It was fascinating to see the charts, the air tanks (if there’s a fire it’s a good thing if someone can breathe while controlling the ship), the “Black Box” (Vladimir assured me that it wasn’t a small fridge despite its looks), all the levers and buttons that were just begging to be pushed.

    After quite awhile of answering question after question, Vladimir needed to get back to work so I headed down to the Polar Bear Bar to hang out with friends for the rest of the night. Despite very rarely drinking, the Polar Bear was a fantastic place to just sit and talk with a handful of friends until very late at night. Between walking the decks taking photos (one of the many benefits of constant light) and sitting and talking with new friends, I almost never went to bed before midnight and rarely before 2am for the second half of the trip. It was great but made that 4:30am wakeup call really interesting!

    The next day was New Years Eve, our final landing and Half Moon Island.

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    Hey Iowa, welcome back! Great trip report and FANTASTIC photos!

    I can't believe it's been 3 years (almost exactly) since I was there.

    A lot of your packing/planning/etc. were very similar to what I did, but my ship didn't go past the Antarctic Circle. Also, you were earlier in the season, so you got to see more penguin chicks. :-) By the time we were there, the chicks were quite big and molting. Also, we saw only a few chinstraps and adelies. I got an FZ200 very recently, and I really wish I had something like it (like your FZ150) -- iirc, my main camera on this trip was still a Fuji E900.

    I'm amazed your captain made an attempt through that much ice. (Especially since it was Gap who had a previous ship sink when it hit ice. :-O ) But what an amazing experience to be able to walk out onto sea ice like that.

    On my trip, it got dark when we were camping, because it was later in the season, and we weren't as far south. (And instead of a portapotty, we literally had a bucket with a seat.) Great photo ops to have 24hr light...

    Please keep this coming! And again, FANTASTIC photos! (I'm amazed by your great penguin photos: both the ones with personality, but also the action shots of them porpoising. I tried very hard to get those shots, but they move so fast!)

    Got to go back some time...

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    Thank you! :) I got very lucky with some of my photos (it helps when you take a bajillion photos). I'm working on the report but I generally only have time to write on the weekends so it's taking awhile.


    <<<I'm amazed your captain made an attempt through that much ice. (Especially since it was Gap who had a previous ship sink when it hit ice. ) But what an amazing experience to be able to walk out onto sea ice like that.>>>

    We didn't walk from the ship directly onto the ice, sorry if something was misleading! The captain was very careful and only the very tip of the ship was in the ice and they did it absolutely intentionally and very carefully, they knew it wasn't very thick/strong on the edge of the ice. When we walked on the sea ice we took the zodiacs out to it and then very carefully got out and walked in an area our guide had tromped around on to make sure it was safe.


    If it's been 3 years then you're definitely due for a return visit! :)

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    New Years Eve and a Half Moon Landing

    This tiny island is in the bay of Livingston Island and is home to many species but we were there to see the rookeries of chinstrap penguins and the lone (and somewhat confused) macaroni penguin, called Mac the Knife. He has apparently been there for years and seems to have a chinstrap mate. Poor confused little man!

    This was a fantastic place to visit since it was a fairly easy walk to the ‘main’ rookery and there were brand new babies all over the place. There were chinstraps hatchings while we were standing there and many more who were between a couple days and a couple hours old. The cuteness level was absolutely sky high. One penguin pair would start to do their ecstatic display (beaks up, wings flapping, tail wiggling and lots of head waggling and noise) and others would join in all across the colony. They’d no more than get settled down and another pair would start them up again. I had to laugh because it seemed like they were shouting “happy penguin, happy penguin, I am a HAPPY PENGUUUUUUUUUIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNN!” A recording of them really would make a great bedside alarm since you simply can’t sleep through it and you’d wake up giggling.

    It was fun to see Mac but the main draw for me was the newborn chicks. They were just tiny and freakishly cute. The newest chicks looked small enough to cradle in one palm while the older chicks (still within a week or so old) were large enough that they would fill two cupped hands with soft gray fluff.

    This was one of the places where I felt really bad for the staff. They laid down a couple flag poles and said “stay behind these” so that everyone would stay a proper distance from the penguins and not risk bothering them. A couple people simply kept ignoring that. When they were told individually to back up they ignored the guides and pretended not to understand English. Strange, they understood English just fine when it suited them. One of the guides finally stepped right in front of the tourist (and most importantly her camera) and started walking her back across the line simply by blocking her camera until she was where she needed to be. He was very polite and professional but he had to do everything short of physically pick her up and move her. I don’t know how the staff keeps their patience when the rules are there for very good reasons and people so blatantly disregard both the rules and the staff who are there for our safety and the safety of the wildlife. I was simply amazed, both by her rudeness and by his patience and politeness.

    After quite awhile watching the penguins, I joined one of the staff members and a couple other passengers on a lower section of the island and got to see a gorgeous kelp gull standing regally on a rock wall and a chick with an adorable spotted head on the rock behind her. It’s hard to imagine that a tan little chick with black speckles all over its head will eventually turn into a gorgeous gull with such bright white plumage.

    The walk back to the ship was truly beautiful with the sunlight and bright blue sky peeking through a light gray layer of clouds and shimmering across the snow and cliffs. We were all moving very slowly, almost trudging like reluctant children, on the way back to the ship as nobody wanted to leave the shore for the last time. We trudged a little (okay, so a lot) too slowly and the ship blew the horn to tell us to get a move on and get our butts back on the ship as we were running late.

    Once everyone was dutifully back on ship we set out for the Drake Passage and our trip home. Throughout the afternoon we had lectures on climate change, the 1914 Shackleton expedition and had time to just relax. There was a contest for the best black and white outfit (the outfits were generally cobbled together from the items people had in their cabins and items that were requested from the crew). Dinner was fantastic (as always) and was followed by Antarctic Olympics in the Lounge. Everyone broke into groups and played games. I skipped this so don’t know what most of the games were but one involved putting someone on each team into a gumby suit and the fastest team won the points for that game. I ended up hanging out with a couple friends in the dining room for most of the duration of the games. Towards the end we went back to the Lounge and I went to get my camera and head for the top deck.

    As I was heading up towards the top deck with my coat and camera, I spotted the safety officer talking to a handful of crew in a side hallway. Hmm, curious. Then I noticed that there was a small stack of orange flares on the floor at their feet. Very curious! About that time people started coming out of the Lounge to get their coats and go out onto the bow (the ship had slowed way down so that it was safe to be out there again). A few minutes after I got up to the top deck, the safety officer and a crew member came up there as well followed by a staff member who was often the group photographer. It was nice having him up there as I could now hear the countdown from a couple minutes out to midnight over his radio!

    About the time everyone was herded out onto the bow with glasses of champagne a voice came over the PA with “10…. 9…. 8… 7…”. Immediately after the count of “1!” came the loudest horn I have ever heard and flares were lit all over the bow of the ship and on both front corners of the top deck. I snapped away as fast as my camera would go and marveled at the sight laid out below me. Many of my fellow passengers (the ones silly enough to still be awake) were down there celebrating the New Year and from above it looked like we had set the ship ablaze! It was absolutely fantastic and by far the best way to ring in the New Year that I’ve ever seen!

    I learned a very important lesson… if you stand 10 feet in front of an enormous ship horn on New Year’s eve, expect a sound that will quite literally make you jump a foot and a half in the air just from the sheer volume (thankfully the rail at the front of the top deck is fairly high). After talking to the staff member who was up there I learned that the flare thing was pretty much unplanned and the staff didn’t know anything about it ahead of time. The safety officer had extra flares on hand (and I believe they were expired so they were going to be trashed anyway), we were in the Drake Passage and far from any penguin colonies or the like we could bother with a bit of smoke from the flares, it seemed like fate! I’m sure that the bridge warned any ships that happened to be nearby at the time that it was a planned thing so nobody worried (it really was a LOT of light for a short time).

    The Polar Bear Bar was set up for a celebration but I decided to head for quiet and bed instead. Everyone I talked to the next day said that it was a fantastic party. They also said that mixing a lot of alcohol and the Drake Passage (even a very calm Drake Lake) was probably not a brilliant idea.

    Next up… the Drake Passage, Cape Horn and our return to Ushuaia.

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    I just saw this and am swooning with envy! Antarctica is on my "top 3 places to visit"
    My only hesitation is my fear of getting sea sick. I'll be interested to hear how you fared on that!

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    Lillipets,

    We were extremely lucky with the Drake Passage and it was the "Drake Lake". A cruise earlier this month had the "Drake Shake" and were pretty well confined to their cabins for part of the crossing for safety. The docs on board were handing out scopalamine patches to any who wanted them and those pretty well took care of any issues for most people. I had a some ginger cookies and one or two doses of bonine and was fine. The main side effect from the anti-nausea meds was sleepiness and that's just fine on the crossing.

    I don't think anyone was sea sick for the cruise part, just for the Drake Passage crossings and even that was pretty minimal. A roommate got absolutely tanked on New Years Eve and was pretty miserable the next day with the mix of a massive hangover and the Drake but that's mostly self induced misery. ;)

    Do NOT pass up a cruise to Antarctica just based on the chance of getting sea sick unless you know that you're extremely prone to that sort of thing. There was one girl on the cruise who gets sea sick just looking at a fish tank and she pretty well dosed up for the crossings and was fine for the main part of the cruise. If you really are that prone to it, you might want to consider one of the cruises that involve a flight across the Drake but find a way to go. To say "it's worth it" doesn't even come close.

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    You inspired me so much I already contacted the travel agent who handled most of my Africa trips!
    I think I just may be able to make this happen!!!!!!!!!
    (I can hear my credit cards crying already!)
    Thanks for the inspiration! I turned 60 this year and I gotta go while I can!

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    Woohoo!! :D If you book well in advance you often get a discount. Also, check out the forum on tripadvisor, it's a fairly active forum and there's tons of good info about many cruise lines and different tours. The trip I chose is not the only one available and they're pretty much all amazing.

    Sign up for emails from Sierra Trading Post and watch for sales to get some warm gear. Take bonine and ginger cookies with you and ask for the scopolamine patch if you think you're going to need it. A lot of people also write the wrist bands (I did) on the Drake and those might help some.


    Oh you just totally made my night! :) "Amazing" doesn't even begin to describe Antarctica and pictures can never do it justice.

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    Drake Passage, Cape Horn and Home:

    New Years Day was spent in a lazy fashion watching the birds following the ship, sharing photos/videos, and recovering from the night before for many people. I spent a lot of time out on deck watching the wandering albatross who hung out with us for quite awhile. He was enormous and makes flying look so effortless and elegant. There were a couple more lectures and movies but for the most part it was just vegging out on board, not wanting the trip to be done yet.

    The next day was similarly fairly lazy and relaxing. We were very lucky and had clear weather when we came up to Cape Horn and we were also allowed very close in. Just before we got to the Cape we were greeted by Peale’s dolphins who were playing and riding the wave on the very front of the ship. They were great fun to watch from the bow of the ship. We also saw a handful of magellanic penguins on the way in.

    That evening we had a ‘fun recap’ where the staff presented photos and stories from throughout the trip (and a few stories and videos from previous trips such as the lucky penguin who jumped into a zodiac to escape a couple orca’s). The stories and history some of the staff have been part of is simply amazing.

    We came up the Beagle Channel and into port around dinner time. Many people went into Ushuaia to play for the evening and many of us spent time packing and saying goodbyes. There were some mutterings about a polite passenger mutiny and taking the ship south again (we had at least two women who were in the Navy on board and the rest of us could figure out something to do) but we decided we should probably be good.

    Our final morning on board came much sooner than anyone wanted and after a nice breakfast we got on buses to go to the airport or off the pier and into town depending on our flight arrangements. When we got to the airport many of us camped out in the queue for Aerolineas Argentinas since the counter wasn’t open yet. It was nice that there was free wi-fi in the airport so many of us started to get caught up on emails and communication with the ‘real world’ again. Eventually we all got through the line, paid for our exit stamp and went to hang out in the small café by the gates. I think there were four gates total but really only two in use. If you think you might have a long wait, do take snacks from outside as they are incredibly expensive (even for airport food) in that little café.

    I was doing my best not to be antsy about our departure as I needed the flight to be at least reasonably on time so that I would have enough time to get across Buenos Aires and to my connecting flight (on a separate ticket) to get home. Surprisingly our flight actually was on time (something of a rarity with Aerolineas)! It was very easy to pick up my bag, turn in my printed confirmation at the Manuel Tienda Leon desk and head for the main airport (EZE). I had time for a stroll around the airport, a sandwich and time to start the task of sorting through photographs on my netbook. A long flight and a short flight later and I was home, my adventure over.


    People keep saying that Antarctica is a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip but I simply refuse to believe that. I don’t know when I’ll get to go back (maybe as soon as next year in the 2014 season) because there are so many amazing places that I still haven’t visited even once, but I do know that I will go back. Many of the passengers are on a Facebook group and have shared photos that are quite simply stunning but even the most amazing of the photos can’t really capture the truth of how beautiful it is. No camera can quite show that amazing bright blue of a freshly rolled iceberg or exactly how glassy smooth the water could be. No video can give you a sense of how peaceful it is or how Antarctica manages to be both humbling and energizing at the same time.

    Going to Antarctica is like going to a completely different planet while getting to see some of the very best of our own. Sometime after the “oh my god we’re really on the way!” and before the “do we really have to leave?” a frozen land worked its way into our hearts and warmed our souls.

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    It's funny you say that "once in a lifetime" isn't enough. I thought my first trip to Africa in 2003 was going to be my "once in a lifetime" but it was just the 1st 4!
    I'm trying to convince the person I usually go to Africa with to consider Antarctica for our next adventure. And I jokingly told her that this "once in a lifetime" trip will probably end up with us going back for more!

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    For all of those considering a trip to Antarctica, I just wanted to write and confirm all of what Iowa_Redhead has said. It's a magical place! I worked at McMurdo station years ago, I did not cruise there, so I didn't have the amazing experiences she was able to have, but it was the experience of a life time. I still hope to go back someday because I didn't get to go to the South Pole, as some of my friends did! I also recommend the Galapagos, which has stunning wildlife. Thanks for helping me relive the memories! :)

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    I_R - I'm mulling over an Antarctic cruise with some friends and am reading my way through your report. Your photos alone are doing a great job of convincing me!! Would you mind sharing general costs for the whole trip? I understand if you do mind - just trying to somehow get an accurate idea of the added costs beyond the listed price for the cruise + airfare to BA, in order to figure out how much I'd need to save. Thank you for sharing your trip with us!

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    Oh, one more question - sorry! How far in advance did you start planning/booking? One friend wants to go next winter (2013-14), but the rest of us are thinking 2014-15 might be more realistic, both from a saving-up perspective and wondering if people tend to book these trips WAY far in advance.

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    Jent, GO!! :)

    I don't mind sharing costs, the vast majority is pretty much published info. I booked a quad share cabin with G Adventures. The Christmas/New Years trip was more expensive than others. I can't tell you what the price would be for the 2013-14 season since it's already filling up and I can't see prices. Anywhere from about $6k-11k per person depending on what type/category of cabin and which departure you choose. If you book over a year out I think you save quite a bit (10-20% I think someone said) but I don't think they'll release the 2014-15 schedule until sometime this summer. It's worth a call to check.

    http://www.gadventures.com/trips/quest-for-the-antarctic-circle/XVQCSX/2014/

    The flight to BA was expensive - $1.5k-2k, somewhere in the middle of that range I think, and then there is the short flight to Ushuaia ($200-300ish). As always that depends on where you're flying out of.

    Add in the hotel for any extra days in Buenos Aires and/or in Ushuaia. Plus any relevant taxis and meals on extra days.

    Camping added a small cost ($50 I think when I signed up for it, it probably increased), the tip adds a cost, etc. Bar tab and soda/wine can add a cost. I think they've decided to give everyone parkas now instead of just on one or two departures and those in the fancy cabins. That really helps with cost (and packing). Hitting places like Sierra Trading Post for cold weather gear really helps too since they always have coupons and they were MUCH cheaper than my local outdoor stores.

    It gets expensive fast but there are ways to help keep costs down. G Adventures is one of the cheaper ways to go I think. Quark is excellent but more expensive. See the TA forum for a LOT of info on different companies and a ton of helpful info. You do want to stay with a smaller ship as much as possible, less than 200 passengers and less than 100 would be nice if you can afford it (G's ship holds 133 passengers).

    Yes, people book way in advance, the upcoming season is already filling up. 2014-15 might give you a better chance to save and to get the cabin you want. The other side of that argument is 'take whatever cabin you can get and GO NOW!' :)

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    Thank you - that is extremely helpful! I know, part of me wants to just grab whatever we can for next winter, but I noticed the fully booked dates too. Plus I have a niece and nephew who will be living a plane ride away for the next year, so I'll have more plane tickets to pay for than usual! I think we're really serious, though, and all of this has given me a great place to start! It sounds so amazing.

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    Re costs - if you can be somewhat flexible there are often some significant discounts in the late fall for the imminent cruising season. For example we went on a Quark Expedition cruise in late February 2012 which we booked about 12 weeks earlier because it was 35% off. (2 for 1 is not uncommon either).

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