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Trip Notes: Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia

Trip Notes: Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia

Old Mar 27th, 2020, 07:48 AM
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Trip Notes: Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia

This is a report of our 18 night cruise to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica in February and March 2020 with Polar Latitudes on the MS Island Sky. In short, it was an amazing, unforgettable experience. The highlights were numerous up-close interactions with several species of adorably cute penguins; experiencing the massive King Penguin colonies in South Georgia that extend as far as the eye can see; sailing through beautiful Antarctic landscapes with uniquely shaped icebergs, massive glaciers and mountains covered in snow; and witnessing humpback whales in crystal-clear water swimming alongside and under our zodiac. The cruise was most excellently run, on and off the ship, and we most highly recommend Polar Latitudes. We even got a fantastic deal on the cruise, which we booked two weeks prior to departure.

What follows are some very detailed and lengthy trip notes, which will hopefully provide some helpful information to those planning an Antarctic cruise – and will also be of general interest to a traveling audience. First, I discuss what we saw in the Antarctic – the wildlife and excursions (Part I). Then, I go over trip planning, including getting a last minute deal (Part II). Next, I discuss life on the ship, including the cabin, food, seasickness and photography (Part III). Last, I cover a few miscellaneous topics, including Ushuaia and the Coronavirus (Part IV).

* * * I. WILDLIFE & EXCURSIONS * * *

BASIC ITINERARY

By way of background, the ship’s basic itinerary for our 18 night, 19 day cruise was as follows:

Day 1: Afternoon Embarkation (Ushuaia)

Day 2: At Sea

Days 3-4: Falkland Islands

Days 5-6: At Sea

Days 7-10: South Georgia

Days 11-12: At Sea

Days 13-16: South Shetland Islands & Antarctica

Days 17-18: At Sea

Day 19: Morning disembarkation (Ushuaia)

Prior to the cruise, this is as detailed as the itinerary gets. Our experiences in each the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic follow. (Note that the landing sites and excursions are heavily weather dependent, and another Antarctic trip might visit very different places than the ones we visited.)

THE FALKLAND ISLANDS

We had two days in the Falklands. On the first day, we made two landings on the west coast of the Falklands (Saunders Island and West Point Island), both with incredible wildlife and scenery. The second day was a full day docked in Port Stanley. While not the main reason for our trip, we very much enjoyed the chance to visit the Falklands and experience its wildlife.

Saunders Island had a beautiful sandy beach, and was filled with tons of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins (that we got to interact with up close) as well as a few King penguins. At West Point Island, on a cliff face, we saw black-browed albatross chicks in their nests (and older chicks flapping their wings, starting to practice the flying motion) and colonies of Rockhopper penguins (cutely bouncing around on the rocks).

In Stanley, we chose an optional morning hike around Gypsy Cove (where we saw several large Magellanic penguin colonies from a distance) and then hiked back to the ship. Then we visited the town itself. It’s neat to see this quintessentially British town deep in the South Atlantic – with the iconic red telephone booths and all. And the Falklanders were extremely friendly and didn’t seem the least bit annoyed by all the cruise shippers.

The town offered very few attractions, the main one being the Falklands Museum. The museum’s main emphasis was history; we found the historical portion rather cluttered with too many artifacts/photos and too much text (less is more, sometimes). However, we really enjoyed the upstairs taxidermy exhibits and the chance to feel penguin and fur seal skin. After a short walk around the small town in the bitter weather, we had enough of Stanley. Other passengers seemed to have enjoyed buying up the souvenir shops selling every sort of penguin item imaginable bearing the Falklands name (made in China, of course), but that wasn’t our thing.

While it was nice to visit Stanley, there just isn’t much to see and do. And it just isn’t worth a full day, with only two total days in the Falklands. Since the Falklands offers such beautiful wildlife opportunities, it’s disappointing that our cruise – and most other cruise itineraries I’ve seen – waste a full day on Stanley. Nevertheless, our first day in the Falklands was most excellent and made the Falklands well worth it.

SOUTH GEORGIA ISLAND

We had four days in South Georgia. The massive King penguin colonies are the raison d'etre for many visits to South Georgia, and they did not disappoint. We enjoyed the unique opportunity to experience these majestic birds both up close (having them walk right up to us, hearing their calls, smelling their smells, etc.) and in panorama (colonies of perhaps 100,000+ King pairs extending all the way into the horizon). South Georgia offers an amazing quality of other birds and mammals (particularly the cute and playful Antarctic fur seals), but the Kings truly steal the slow.

The weather at the landing sites in South Georgia is very rough and unpredictable (apparently, Antarctica landing sites are much more protected from the wind, and therefore predictable). We experienced pretty much everything in South Georgia – bitter cold, massive winds, snow, hail, freezing rain, and even one sunny afternoon. On several occasions, the planned landing was cancelled due to conditions (i.e., the swell was too high to safely land zodiacs). The crew would either redirect the ship to a different site for another potential landing attempt, or send us out on a zodiac cruise with no landing.

Over the four days, we made five landings and had three stand-alone zodiac cruises. The zodiac cruises aren’t ideal (discussed more later, under “Zodiac Cruises”), but at least we managed to get off the ship in all eight attempts. Perhaps we didn’t have the best luck with the weather, perhaps some pretty lousy weather was to be expected in late February, or perhaps that’s just the nature of South Georgia. But thankfully, with four days in South Georgia, we had plenty of unforgettable wildlife viewing opportunities, even if not every single landing worked out perfectly.

Specifically, our excursions were as follows:

- Day 1, AM: landing at Right Whale Bay. The bay had a beautiful sandy beach lined with fur seals and Kings, with green hills in the background that were covered in massive King colonies. The fur seals and King both wanted to get up close and personal, and were very playful. And seeing massive King colonies for the first time was spectacular.

- Day 1, PM: landing at Prion Island. The landing was a rare opportunity to see a wandering albatross nesting site. While certainly special, there were only a few birds present. The best part actually happened to be the fur seals occupying the man-made uphill boardwalk that led to the nesting site, which were waddling up and down the path and constantly getting in our way.

- Day 2, AM: landing at Fortuna Bay. Another beautiful beach filled with many Kings and fur seals, and another amazing opportunity for personal interactions with them.

- Day 2, PM: zodiac cruise at Prince Olav Harbor. The weather and visibility were awful, and the mediocre highlight of the cruise was seeing an old shipwreck and rusty whaling station.

- Day 3, AM: views from the ship at St Andrews Bay, and zodiac cruise at Godthul (Cobblers Cove). Our attempt to land at St Andrews Bay, the largest King colony in the world, was thwarted by 70 knot winds. While it was surely a disappointment not to land at St Andrews Bay, we had good panoramic views of the colony from the ship that give a real sense of scale – a lengthy beachfront covered in black and white specks (i.e., penguins), with dramatic huge snowy mountains in the background. After moving the ship for another landing attempt, we were sent out on a zodiac cruise through Cobblers Cove, where the highlight was seeing Macaroni penguin colonies on top of rock faces.

- Day 3, PM: landing at Grytviken, the “capital” of South Georgia. Man-made attractions included Shackleton’s gravesite, ruins of an old whaling station, a whaler’s church, a nice little museum, and a post office (with an iconic red UK post box outside). Playful fur seals and lethargic elephant seals lined the beach.

- Day 4, AM: zodiac cruise at Gold Harbor. A beach with a massive King penguin colony, adjacent to a beautiful glacier. While winds prevented us from landing, we were able to sail alongside the beach and get a perspective on the colony.

- Day 4, PM: landing at Brisbane Point, Royal Bay. Brisbane Point hosts one of the largest King colonies in South Georgia, but is apparently very difficult landing; one guy on the expedition staff had landed there 20 years ago, and the rest of the staff had never visited. We were slated to do a ship cruise through a fjord this afternoon, but the crew believed the weather was set up perfectly for a landing at Brisbane Point and wanted to give us one last massive King penguin colony landing. Their gamble paid off wonderfully, and our last afternoon in South Georgia was sunny and surrounded by a seemingly infinite quantity of Kings lining a curved beach -- all the way into the horizon. The backdrop of the nearby Weddell glacier made for great visuals. Hearing the expedition staff truly marveled by the chance to visit this King colony made us appreciate how lucky our day had been.

THE SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS & ANTARCTICA

We had four days in the Antarctic, with two days in the South Shetlands and two days around the Antarctic Peninsula. The first two days paled in comparison to the last two, which were absolutely magical and continuously filled with the landscapes we came to Antarctica to see – icy mountains and massive glaciers reflecting into water that was filled with enormous, beautifully sculpted icebergs. Second to the majestic scenery was the marine mammal viewing – humpback whales and even orca, up close from the zodiac. We only wish we could have hurried through the South Shetlands and spent even more time in the heart of Antarctica.

In early March, it probably wasn’t the ideal time for Antarctic penguin viewing. While we saw many great penguins colonies (particularly Gentoo and Chinstrap) surrounded by beautiful icy backgrounds, we were too late for some things (e.g., the Adele penguins were already gone to see, chicks were pretty big and had mostly lost their down coats). But we had our penguin fix in South Georgia, and the whale viewing – which is ideal in March – more than made up for it.

Over four days, we made four landings (including one the continent itself) and had three stand-alone zodiac cruises. The first day was spent entirely at Elephant Island, the second day at two other islands in the South Shetlands (Half Moon Island and Deception Island), and the last two days were spent in the heart of the Antarctic peninsula (around the Gerlache Strait). Specifically, our excursions were as follows:

- Day 1, AM: views from the ship at Point Wild, Elephant Island. The wind was too rough for even a zodiac cruise, and we were stuck on the ship to see penguin colonies from a distance. The ship was positioned in front of a massive glacier, and we got a nice sunrise over the mountains. Point Wild is significant to Shackleton buffs.

- Day 1, PM: zodiac cruise at Cape Lookout, Elephant Island. Due to weather, there apparently weren’t any suitable afternoon landing sites on Elephant Island, so we had a zodiac cruise around the southern tip of the island. From the zodiac, we saw Macaroni penguin colonies on rock faces, various Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, fur seals, and a Weddell seal. Overall, Elephant Island was a disappointment; perhaps if we had landings, we’d have felt differently.

- Day 2, AM: landing at Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Island is a small island shaped as it sounds, and is covered in Chinstrap penguins. The morning was extremely foggy and grey, creating a dramatically eerie backdrop for the penguins. Also, the extremely poor visibility meant that a new penguin adventure would appear out of nowhere pretty much everywhere we walked. Interacting with these Chinstraps up close was very fun.

- Day 2, PM: landing at Whaler’s Bay, Deception Island. Deception Island is famously the caldera of an active volcano. The island is very interesting from a historical and geological perspective: being in Antarctica, standing on the beach inside the crater of an active volcano that erupted just 50 years ago, touching the hot water along the beach, and smelling the sulfur. However, the island wasn’t so interesting; the wildlife was very limited (fewer than ten penguins, and a few dozen fur seals) and the ruins of the whaling station didn’t interest us much.

Day 3, AM: landing at Cuverville Island. An amazing rocky beach, covered in very social and curious Gentoo penguins. One penguin came up and started pecking my jacket while I was crouched down for photos, another walked right into another guy’s lap, etc. And the backdrop was majestic – icebergs in the near and icy mountains in the distance. We had tons of time at this landing, and opted to spend some time taking a long zodiac cruise around the island. The cruise was unbelievable – sailing around the icebergs, seeing a leopard seal feed by vigorously thrashing his kill (a poor little Gentoo), and experiencing humpback whales up close.

Day 3, PM: landing at Brown Station, Paradise Harbor. This was our one and only continental landing (i.e., setting foot on the Antarctic Peninsula itself, rather than island across the strait), a milestone that meant more to some than others. It was also our only time walking on snow with penguins. There was a Gentoo colony, and the Gentoos are very cute and playful in the snow. Brown Station is an Argentinian “research” base (i.e., Argentines setting up shop to maintain their territorial claim to much of Antarctica), but it was empty/closed. We also had tons of time at this landing, and opted for another long zodiac cruise to experience more beautiful Antarctic landscapes and humpbacks up close. Paradise Harbor lives up to its name, and the icy mountains completely reflect into the ice-laced water.

Day 4, AM: zodiac cruise at Orne Harbor. Our second continental landing attempt was unsuccessful because the ice was too steep, so we took a zodiac cruise to see Chinstrap colonies and do some humpback whale watching. Compared to the previous day, the landscapes weren’t as majestic (more melted snow, few icebergs) and we didn’t manage to get intimately close to the whales.

Day 4, PM: zodiac cruise at Fournier Bay. Our final afternoon was planned as a whale watching zodiac cruise, which turned out to be spectacular. The bay was stunning – massive glaciers, one after another, and all the classic Antarctic scenery. We even saw a leopard seal sleeping atop a small iceberg. We’d seen humpbacks up close in the zodiacs on previous excursions, but this time, they were almost too close. The water was perfectly clear, and we could see their massive bodies under the water, as they were alongside and underneath our zodiac. Up close, we could truly appreciate how big these animals were, hear their vocalizations and vibrations, and feel the splashes of their breaching. We also saw a group of about eight orcas in close range from the zodiac; it was amazing to see the orca fins swim by – and then see their distinctive white eye patches as they hoped in and out of the water. As a final farewell to Antarctica, when we returned to the ship, a playful humpback whale put on a spectacular show for us for a good 20 minutes. The water was still perfectly clear, and he was essentially doing laps around and under the ship and regularly breaching, and even sticking his head out of the water several times. People were joking around that the company hired him for the performance.

* * * II. TRIP PLANNING * * *

GETTING A LAST-MINUTE ANTARCTICA DEAL

We booked the cruise about two weeks prior to departure. In early 2020, we had a good window of opportunity for a vacation on short notice. Taking advantage of a last-minute deal on an Antarctica cruise seemed like the perfect trip, if we could make it work.

The best way to get a last-minute Antarctica deal is to get on the email list of several particular Ushuaia travel agents. Conventional wisdom is to hang out in Ushuaia for a last minute deal. That’s out-dated advice, as the Ushuaia-based agencies are more than happy to use the Internet to sell last minute deals.

The three agencies from which received email deal alerts were Freestyle Adventure Travel, Antarctica Travels, Ushuaia Turismo. Each agency sent out new deals every few days – some trips departing a few days later, and others as many as 3-4 weeks later. The three agencies sometimes offered the same cruises, but not necessarily. If multiple agencies were offering the same cruise, it was always at the same price. Deals seemed to range from not so great (maybe 20-25% off rack rates) to great (up to 50% off).

We ultimately booked our cruise through Freestyle Adventure Travel. They were the only agency to email us about the deal that was the one we really wanted (which we ultimately booked). Our initial communications with the co-owner, Sarah Scott, were good, so I felt confident to go ahead and proceed with Freestyle.

I most highly recommend Sarah and Freestyle Adventure. Sarah is a Brit (married to an Argentine), so there are no language barrier / communication issues in dealing with her. She is readily available and responds quickly; all our communications were texting back and forth on WhatsApp. We were able to pay by US credit card; we submitted the cruise company’s credit card authorization form to Sarah, and the cruise company itself charged our card. In booking a last minute deal through a third-party agency, there’s always a fear that another passenger will grab your spot first, that your spot never really existed, or that your agency will somehow botch something with the cruise company and the booking will somehow fall through the cracks. Thankfully, Sarah got the job done for us without any hassle.

SELECTING AN ANTARCTIC CRUISE

We chose the Polar Latitudes (PL) cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands because wanted an itinerary that would visit South Georgia and Antarctica (rather than Antarctica only). We also wanted a ship with a small number of passengers, in order to maximize our time on land.

Although we were searching for a last-minute cruise, we had a very wide range of options. While we obviously did not have a choice on the time of year (which is a major consideration in choosing an Antarctic cruise), it seemed that there were available rooms of some sort on almost every cruise departure in the late 2019-2020 season.

I had been researching Antarctic travel, out of curiosity, for several years. So, despite the short notice, I had a good idea of what we were looking for in an Antarctic cruise and was able to quickly assess the various deal options that came our way.

In selecting an Antarctica cruise, the most important thing for us was the size of the ship. We only looked for ships carrying around 100 passengers. By rule, only 100 guests (not including crew) are allowed to be on land at once at any particular landing site in Antarctica or South Georgia. This means that, if the ship carries significantly more than 100 passengers, you do not get a maximum possible time on land. (As discussed later, the 100 passenger rule does not seem to be an issue with ships in the 110-115 passenger range.)

The other major decision we faced was whether to choose an Antarctica only trip or spend more time and money on a trip that included South Georgia and the Falklands. I read many reports that South Georgia was just as good as Antarctica, and better in some ways. We were very interested in South Georgia’s wildlife, particularly since it is the best place in the world to see the king penguins. Since the trip wasn’t going to be cheap either way and we might not return to the Antarctic region for a while, we figured that we’d regret passing on South Georgia.

Our third requirement was a basic level of comfort – not necessarily four/five star, but also not hostel (Russian academic research vessel) quality either. We essentially wanted a clean cabin where we didn’t have to deal with a shared bathroom, had a regular bed rather than bunk beds, and wouldn’t be totally cramped.

We had been monitoring the various last-minute deal alerts for several weeks, and nothing really piqued our interest. Since most cruises are Antarctica only and relatively few include South Georgia, we only had so many choices. That, combined with only wanting a small (~100 passenger) ship, made things difficult.

In early February, we received a deal alert for the February 21st PL cruise to Antarctica plus South Georgia and the Falklands on a 114-person ship, the MS Island Sky. After doing research on PL and the Island Sky, we determined that it was the trip for us. PL seemed like a solid company with great reviews. The ship was much more luxurious than what we were seeking, but the price was as good any cruise that we’d seen that included South Georgia. We quickly booked.

BOOKING USHUAIA FLIGHTS

Our cruise started and ended in Ushuaia, as most Antarctic cruises do. In booking our domestic flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, we chose to minimize our time in Ushuaia – while conservatively giving ourselves enough of a buffer in case something went wrong with our flights. We were happy with that decision.

We’d recently visited Patagonia (two-week hiking trip in 2017), and Ushuaia just didn’t seem all that interesting to us. Our cruise included up to two free pre-cruise hotel nights in Ushuaia (at the five-star Arakur hotel), but we decided that one night would be sufficient.

Since embarkation was at 3pm, and we chose a flight that would arrive in Ushuaia at about noon the day before. We wanted a one-day buffer in case flights were cancelled or luggage was delayed.

Disembarkation was at 8am, and we chose a flight that would depart from Ushuaia that same evening. We were advised not to book too early of a flight because the ship could arrive late due to weather. As it turned out, we flew through the Drake Passage and docked in Ushuaia the afternoon before disembarkation – and spent the last night on the ship at the port.

We flew Aerolineas Argentinas into Ushuaia, and LATAM out of Ushuaia. We chose based on price and schedule. These are the two airlines that fly to Ushuaia; both are mediocre – choose your poison.

CLOTHING & PACKING

Antarctica packing is actually quite simple: layer up. On excursions, we wore:

- Upper Body: thermal top, lightweight fleece, heavyweight fleece [skipped if it was particularly warm], waterproof jacket (provided by PL, ours to keep)

- Lower Body: thermal bottoms, fleece pants, waterproof pants

- Hands: lightweight “e-glove” liners (perfect for taking photos), thick gloves/mittens

- Feet: regular cotton athletic socks, thick wool hiking socks, waterproof boots (provided by PL, on loan for the trip only)

- Head: Regular sunglasses, fleece hat

Around the ship, we wore casual clothes (e.g., jeans and a polo shirt).

On the online forums, there is much discussion about what to wear on an Antarctica cruise. People who booked cruises two years in advance, who have a lot of time on their hands and who are looking forward to the “trip of a lifetime” will tend to overthink the clothing aspect of the trip, but keep it simple.

The best packing tip I read online was to travel with a soft wheeled duffel bag rather than a hard suitcase – so it can be unpacked, rolled up and stored in the cabin. When traveling, we’d never previously unpacked our entire suitcases and put everything in drawers and closets. However, with 19 days in one room, it seemed nicer to unpack than live out of a suitcase. And it was very beneficial to not have two large hard suitcases taking up half our usable floor space.

* * * III. LIFE ON BOARD THE SHIP * * *

THE POLAR LATITUDES EXPEDITION STAFF

Polar Latitudes (PL), the expedition company, was absolutely fantastic and we most highly recommend them. PL is a US based company that operates exclusively in the Antarctic, and they charter two almost identical sister ships during the Antarctic cruise season: the MS Island Sky (our ship) and the MS Hebridean Sky. PL supplies the 14 member expedition staff – the guides and scientists who lead the excursions, drive the zodiacs, give the lectures, etc. – who run the “expedition” portion of the cruise (i.e., excursions, briefings, lectures), as distinguished from anything related to the ship itself.

The expedition staff consisted of 10 men and 4 women, mostly in their 30s and 40s. The majority were Canadians and Brits, with two Swedes, a German, a Lithuanian, and Hong Kongese. The staff included various specialists – a birder (who directed BBC documentaries), a mammal specialist, a geologist (who published a book on the Galapagos), a guy with extensive knowledge of Polar / expedition history, a photographer, kayak guides, a pianist and the team doctor.

Each expedition staff member appeared to love his/her job. They appeared genuinely thrilled that someone was paying them to be in Antarctica, and seemed to realize how lucky they were. Even though most had years of experience in Antarctica and this was everyone’s last trip of the season, none showed any signs of being the least bit burnt out or jaded. Perhaps because each Antarctic trip is different (different landing sites, different wildlife in each part of the season, nature is unpredictable, etc.), it keeps the staff on their toes. A lot of the PL staff had nice dSLR cameras and would be snapping away anytime there was something cool to see. It was very inspirational to be on a trip where the guides were just as genuinely fascinated by the “sites” as the customers were.

THE MS ISLAND SKY CREW

The MS Island Sky crew was also most stellar and exceptional. The Island Sky crew consisted of all 70+ members – the captain, the senior officers, the engineers, the chefs, the waiters, the maids, etc. Unlike the expedition staffers, who work for PL, the Island Sky crew members work for the ship itself. (More precisely, they are employees of the ship owners/managers -- Salen, a Swedish company.) The Island Sky crew works year-around on the ship, which travels in the Antarctic and Arctic during the respective summer seasons.

The Captain and First Officer are Swedish, the Hotel Manager is English, the Chief Engineer is Russian, and Maitre’d is Serbian. Essentially every other member of the crew is Filipino.

The “rank and file” Filipino crew members deserve tremendous credit for making life on board the ship so great. They were highly competent, enthusiastic, friendly and professional. They worked extremely hard and tirelessly to keep us all happy. While they are surely underpaid (particularly considering the price of these cruises), they always had smiles and never seemed bitter about their jobs. The senior officers all seemed like great people (and likely great leaders/managers as well), so their good attitudes probably rubbed off on the crew.

Among the senior officers, the Maitre’d stood out as spectacular. By the second day, he learned not only everyone’s names – but also their intricate dietary preferences. He’d go out of his way to accommodate any request, no matter how annoying or crazy. He was so on the ball that, as the trip went along, he could anticipate peoples’ requests and needs.

Lastly, the Captain was great. The Captain works for the ship, not the expedition company, so it is easy to see how the expedition leader and the Captain could have divergent incentives and agendas, particularly about maximizing the quality of the excursions. Thankfully, our Captain seemed to have a great working relationship with the expedition leader, and was equally motivated to work hard to give us the best excursions possible. On our last afternoon in South Georgia, along with expedition leader, he was responsible for cancelling our boat cruise through a fjord and instead taking us to the rarely-visited Brisbane Point. And on our last afternoon in Antarctica, he came out to whale watch and happened to be in the zodiac that was buddying with our zodiac; we were scheduled to return to the ships at 3pm, and he was having such a good time that he had everyone to stay out for an extra hour.

THE PASSSENGERS

The ship holds 114 passengers, and we traveled with 107. As a 20s/30s couple, we were hardly the typical Antarctica cruise passengers – and bonded mostly with the few younger people. Almost everyone was polite, respectful, well-mannered, etc., both on land and on the ship.

The passengers were almost all boomers. (Technically, a few might have been late members of the silent generation.) There were no more than a dozen people in their 20s/30s – about four couples, two single ladies, and a young guy who was traveling with his parents. And there was literally nobody in between. The young couples were all DINKs (double income, no kids). The boomers were mostly well-to do, well-traveled types – many retired, but some not.

We mostly hung out with other younger folks, and we were certainly happy to have a few other couples in our demographic. We hit it off with just a couple of the boomers; while most of them were perfectly pleasant, we just weren’t going to be the best of friends with the vast majority of the boomers. Some of the boomers seemed curious to talk to the younger people only to size us all up (i.e., find out how we’re affording the trip), and we got a sense that a few of them had a little bit of an inferiority complex due to our presence (i.e., feeling that they worked hard and saved up their entire lives to finally go to Antarctica, and thinking we must be spoiled to have the opportunity to visit Antarctica in our relative youth).

In any event, we didn’t go to Antarctica for social hour. As a couple, we certainly had each other – and we were happy to make a few new friends. But for a younger single, an Antarctic cruise might be quite lonely.

In terms of nationality, the vast majority of the passengers were Anglos – a good mix of Americans, Brits and Aussies, with a few Canadians and Kiwis. There were about three continental European couples (Germans, Dutch, Czechs), about 8 Asians from various countries (Singapore, HK, and PRC), and a group of 13 Israelis. It wasn’t the most “diverse” crowd – everyone was White, save a few Asians.

The vast majority of the passengers were traveling as couples. Among the remainder, some were traveling as a pair of friends/relatives traveling together and some were traveling solo. There were definitely more women than men, as there were more non-coupled women than non-coupled men.

THE CABIN

Our cabin was refreshingly comfortable, and it very much exceeded our expectations. It felt much more like a nice hotel room than a cramped ship cabin.

We had the lowest tier room, a “porthole suite.” All the cabins are marketed as “suites,” meaning that the “bedroom” area is somewhat separated from the “living room” area (which has a loveseat and TV). While it isn’t really a suite, the design and the curtain makes the cabin feel a bit less cramped – and allows two people to spread out a little bit more.

The cabins are recently renovated. The cabins have the rustic wooden “ship” look in a good way (i.e., shiny, fresh and clean), with modern/updated touches (stone bathroom countertop, glass shower door, USB plugs for charging, etc.). The cabin could either be made up with two single beds or as a double bed. The storage areas were well designed, and there was plenty of space for all our unpacked luggage. Fancy bathroom products (e.g., Molton Brown) were included, but we brought our own stuff.

The maids worked tirelessly to clean the rooms twice a day, once during the morning excursion and once during dinner. The cabin’s TV offered an array of live English channels (BBC, Sky, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, etc.) that, surprisingly, had perfect reception during the whole trip.

Unless money is no object, we didn’t see the need to splurge for a higher cabin. The only difference between our cabin and most of the higher-tier cabins was the window; while we had a porthole, the next tier had windows, and the tier above that had sliding glass doors. The very top tier cabins were apparently larger and had balconies. We were perfectly happy with a porthole, as there’s nothing much to see while inside the room sailing in open ocean. When there is something easy to see, it’s perfectly easy to get outside to take pictures. Plus, seasickness is best avoided by being on the lowest floor – which has the cheapest cabins.

AROUND THE SHIP

Overall, we thought the ship was very nice. The Island Sky is one of the smaller Antarctica ships, and it is by no means a mega-ship with every imaginable amenity and luxury. However, our priority was the excursions and nature, not the ship – and the ship certainly exceeded our needs.

For wildlife viewing, there are several outdoor viewing decks – on all sides of the ship. The bridge was also open to passengers at all times except during challenging circumstances/conditions. We visited the bridge to chat with the crew about how all the equipment worked.

The main indoor public areas are the dining room, the lounge (lectures / briefing room), and the club/library. All were comfortable and nice enough. The dining room has no windows, which is unfortunate – particularly when there were pretty views outside. There is an outdoor dining area on the upper deck that was open as the weather permitted; while there were heat lamps, we found it much too cold.

The main amenity we wished the ship had was a real gym. With constant eating, it would have been nice to get in a proper workout. To try to make sure we could still fit in our pants by the end of cruise, we generally did bodyweight exercises in the room and ran up and down the interior stairs. Others walked or ran around the “track” on one of the decks for exercise, but that was too cold for us.

THE RESTAURANT

The food was impressively endless, and the service was excellent. While not close to the level of a Michelin-starred restaurant, the quality and freshness were remarkable – particularly considering the small galley and almost three weeks without replenishment. Overall, the dishes were mostly very good, albeit a bit repetitive, but some dishes just didn’t work out.

Breakfast and lunch were buffet. Breakfast was essentially the same every day – eggs cooked to order, a flavored smoothie of the day, and all the usual hot and cold breakfast items that would be served at a nice hotel breakfast buffet.

Lunch items varied from day to day, but generally had the same format: an extensive fresh salad bar, cold prepared salads, smoked fish, hot chafing dishes (meat dishes, a fish dish, a vegetable side, a couple grains, a vegetarian offering), a cheese station, and a dessert station (mousse, cakes, jello, ice cream, a baked sweet and custard).

At breakfast and lunch, the waiters tirelessly kept the buffet full and clean, regularly refilled beverages, and quickly cleared used plates. There was always enough food; any time a dish was running low, more quickly appeared.

Dinner was a four-course sit-down dinner (appetizer/salad, soup, main, dessert/cheese), ordered off a menu. There was generally a choice of three appetizers/salads, two soups, four mains (one red meat, 1-2 white meat or fish, one vegetarian), and several desserts. Unlimited wine, beer or soft drinks were included with dinner.

At any of the meals, there was total flexibility to eat pretty much anything the chef could possibly make – either for dietary reasons or just preference – and they would do everything to make guests happy. First, there was an “always available” menu with basics like salmon filet, chicken breast, steak, hamburger, etc. Second, they would happily accommodate any reasonable, personalized request, such as “can you prepare a bowl of that four-cheese pasta on the buffet without the meat” or “can we order the chicken dish with its sides, but with salmon instead of the chicken.” At dinner, despite the set menu, we were absolutely allowed to order as much as we wanted (e.g., order all three desserts just to sample a few bites of each).

The crew was extremely good about accommodating dietary preferences and restrictions. As mentioned previously, the Maitre’d knew everyone’s restrictions down pat. He was very proactive about warning people to avoid certain things and asking if he could make them something special. Items on the menu and buffet were clearly labeled and marked (vegetarian/vegan, gluten free, sugar free, etc.)

The kitchen often went for an old-school fancy/stuffy French style, particularly at dinner. This was rather silly and try-hard; some of the dishes had names that haven’t appeared on French restaurant menus in a couple decades, and they were hit or miss. If the kitchen wanted to make “fancy” food, a “modern” haute cuisine style would have been more appropriate. Also, we personally would have appreciated more varied and interesting “ethnic” food. Surely the Filipino chefs would be able to cook up some really amazing Asian food, but it might not have been desired by most of the passengers.

There was also plenty of food on offer between meals. Coffee, tea and cookies were available 24/7 in the club. Small sandwiches, scones, cakes and ice cream were served with afternoon tea. Canapes were served at the early-evening daily recap. It was truly an endless amount of food, and it required great discipline to keep from gaining too much weight.

INTERNET

Each passenger received a card with 200 MB internet access, and additional cards were $45 for 500 MB or $90 for 1 GB. The Internet was via Satellite, and speed ranged from decent to not great, depending mostly on the time of day. For basic email usage and sending a few photos back home, it was good enough.

The library had two computers with free Internet access. The signs said to limit access to 20 minutes, and people seemed respectful and kept their sessions quick when others were waiting. Often, one or both of the computers weren’t even being used. A lot of people were happy to get away from the Internet for a couple of weeks, and the people who felt otherwise were simply buying Internet cards to use on their personal devices.

DAILY SCHEDULE

There were two types of days: landing days and sea days.

On landing days, two excursions would be planned, one in the morning and one in afternoon. There was no set schedule; start times varied greatly, usually due to the travel distance between sites and the weather conditions. As PL really did their best to maximize our time on land, the land excursions generally lasted at least three hours, and sometimes as long as four hours. Zodiac-only excursions were generally 1.5 to two hours. Breakfast and lunch times varied, based on the timing of the excursion.

On sea days, four lectures (~45 minutes each) were generally scheduled throughout the day, with two in the morning and two in the afternoon. There were a several mandatory briefings for which PL took attendance (ship safety / fire drill, biosecurity, rules for respecting wildlife in South Georgia and Antarctica), but all other lectures and briefings were optional. Lectures had a 60-95% turnout, with fewer people showing up when the seas were rough and causing some to want to stay in bed.

On both landing days and sea days, there was a daily recap prior to dinner. At the recap, several members of the expedition team would each give 3-5 minute mini-talks on topics that related to what we had seen that day, or on other Antarctic-related topics of interest. Then, the expedition leader would go over the next day’s schedule.

LANDINGS

The standard Antarctic landing is a wet landing on the beach, in a zodiac (inflatable boat). Aside from docking in Port Stanley, all our landings were wet landings. The ship anchors into a safe spot near a beach, and passengers are shuttled, 10-11 at a time, to the beach in zodiacs.

The passengers were broken into four different boarding groups, mainly as a crowd control device so as not to waste everyone’s time and create chaos with 100+ people lining up at once. The first group would be given a boarding time, the second group would be told to board 10 minutes after, and so on. The boarding order would alternate with each excursion. This was an honor system, and nobody was actually checking groups. Since we generally had tons of time on land, people didn’t really seem to be maneuvering to be the first ones to board. As the trip went on, lot of people seemed to just board when they were ready, and it worked itself out organically. Boarding was often immediately after breakfast and lunch, and they’d often tell people in the later groups to come on down early if they were ready.

Upon landing at a beach, the expedition leader would get on the zodiac and give a short blurb on the site (e.g., where to go and not go, what wildlife to keep an eye out for, time to be back). Then, everyone would get off the zodiac. The water could be knee-high or higher when first getting out of the zodiac. With waterproof boots and waterproof pants (both absolutely required), we never “felt” the knee-high water.

At a landing site, we had free reign to go wherever we wanted (within the prescribed paths/areas) and spend as much or as little time as we wished in any particular spot. It was wonderful – for peace and quiet, photography, enjoying nature, etc. – not to be forced on “guided walks” where we had to march along with a herd at someone else’s pace. We generally tried to spread out from the “pack” and go in the opposite direction from where most other people were going. The expedition team members would be stationed throughout the landing site, and we could chat with them and ask them specific questions that were on our minds.

As previously mentioned, PL knew that most people came for the wildlife, and did an excellent job giving us as much time on land as possible and not rushing us back to the ship unnecessarily. Plus, since we were an approximately 100-guest boat, everyone could go directly to the landing site, and we didn’t have to “rotate” our time on land. It would have been a travesty to go all the way to Antarctica and spend all that money, only to have to “rotate” our time on land.

With 3+ hours at a landing site (sometimes 3.5-4 hours), we could slowly take in the site – take our time with the photography, just sit and watch/enjoy, leisurely walk through the beautiful nature, etc. Of course, anyone could return earlier, and many did for whatever reason (bladder, tired, wanting to get out of bad weather, had enough penguins, etc.). If the weather wasn’t miserable, we generally stayed out until the last time to return; the younger folks and the photographer types tended to stay out until the end. It was great to have these long leisurely excursions, where it wasn’t a frenzy to rush around the beach, snap some photos and return to the ship.

A NOTE ON THE 100 PASSENGER RULE

As mentioned earlier, a maximum of 100 guests (not including crew) are allowed on land at any given time in Antarctica and South Georgia – and this was a non-issue for our trip of 107. I was slightly concerned that our time on land would be restricted since we had more than 100 people. But it wasn’t.

I never got a good answer as to how the 100 passenger rule really works. I was given various explanations that didn’t fully add up: that some people are kayaking (the kayaking was cancelled over half the time due to weather); that not everyone goes ashore (I was also told that on one day, 107/107 went ashore in the morning and 106/107 went ashore in the afternoon); and that some people are already returning by the time everyone arrives (boarding takes 30-40 minutes, and people didn’t seem to be returning that quickly). I was told that there’s no “rounding” and that 100 means 100, but perhaps nobody is really counting that closely.

In any event, with just a few Antarctic cruise ships carrying 100 passengers or fewer, those who care about maximizing their time on land are probably just fine on ships carrying 110-115.

ZODIAC CRUISES

Zodiac cruises took three forms: (1) a pre-scheduled zodiac-only excursion designed to see wildlife and scenery that is best seen in a zodiac; (2) an optional zodiac cruise that was available after finishing up at a landing site, in order to see additional things what might be better seen in a zodiac; and (3) a “backup plan” zodiac cruise when bad weather prevented a landing. The first two were generally nice experiences, and third was generally unpleasant and disappointing.

The zodiacs are most useful for seeing scenery and wildlife that can’t be fully appreciated from the ship (too far away) or by walking around a landing site (can only see so much by foot). Among our favorite zodiac experiences were following whales around, driving between “streets” of icebergs, and getting up close to glaciers.

Overall, we much preferred walking around on land on our feet – and found the zodiacs cruises generally annoying. Our major gripe with the zodiacs is that they are cramped and uncomfortable. With 11 passengers (wearing 3-4 layers each) cramped into a small inflatable boat, there isn’t much room for movement. And it’s hard to see – either look forward (trying to see in between two heads) or try to turn around and look backward (while not knocking a neighbor into the water). If you’re lucky enough to get a front seat, then it’s much easier to see.

If the weather is cold and windy, than it’s really uncomfortable sitting out in a small boat barely being able to move due to all the clothing and being cramped. If the zodiac cruise was taking place because bad weather prevented a landing, chances were that the zodiac cruise was going to be frustrating. Plus, wildlife experiences that are intended to be had on land (e.g., having intimate experiences with penguins) just weren’t even close to the same in a zodiac.

Lastly, the zodiac makes it really challenging to get decent photos. Given how cramped it is and how difficult it is to see, it’s very tough to get in a decent position to properly frame a shot. Plus, it’s difficult to stabilize the camera since the zodiac is constantly rocking in the waves – even if the driver shuts off the engine and stops moving. Most people were polite and respectful (i.e., not knocking each other into the water with their big camera lenses) and the drivers made efforts to help everyone good photo ops (i.e., telling the near side to turn around and scrunch down and telling the far size to stand up). But, unless one could score a front seat (asking ahead of time generally worked), the zodiacs is simply not meant for good photography.

If 10-11 people weren’t jammed into a zodiac, we might have found the zodiac cruises much more pleasant.

POLAR PLUNGE

The famous “polar plunge” consists of jumping from the ship into ice cold Antarctic water. It is a classic cheesy, check-the-box travel thing to do. I partook, and wife had absolutely no interest. It was certainly an experience and an adrenaline rush – and something to tell stories about.

We were told to dress in our swimsuits and come down to the deck in our bathrobes. One by one, we jumped into the water from a zodiac that was roped up to the ship. Before the plunge, a harness was placed around our waists, and we were tied to a rope. A ladder was attached to the zodiac to help us climb back up. After the plunge, we were given towels and a shot of vodka (to help warm up the blood).

For anyone in decent health, the polar plunge perfectly safe and doable – and jumping into freezing Antarctic waters isn’t as bad as it sounds. We had 27 jumpers in all. The jumpers were disproportionately men (there’s definitely a machismo / male ego factor at work), but both men and women of all ages jumped.

As for my plunge, the most difficult part was lead-up -- the anticipation, nervously waiting in line, standing on the deck in the bitter cold in nothing but a swimsuit. The initial shock when I first entered the cold water was brutal, but it happened so quickly – like a shot at the doctor’s office. When I first came up from underwater, I was a bit disoriented and couldn’t see because I had saltwater in my eyes (I stupidly didn’t remember to close my eyes). Still freezing, I instinctively dog-paddled as quickly as I could to the ladder and pulled myself up. After I got out of the water and quickly toweled off, the outside air felt so warm that I was just hanging out on the deck in my swimsuit for a while and watching other jump. Then, I took a nice warm shower.

The photographer videotaped everyone’s plunges, and another guide did the same with an underwater Go-Pro. Another passenger also recorded everyone’s plunges and saved the videos on the shared library computers. So, we all have nice evidence of our jumps.

MEDICAL & SEASICKNESS

The PL team included a doctor – a very knowledgeable and personable Canadian – who was on-call 24/7. During normal waking hours, he was always around and more than willing to answer any questions.

The doctor was on board both for major emergencies – and to help people avoid seasickness. He took proactive role and educated people about how to deal with potential seasickness – before it became a problem. For example, he would alert everyone when the seas were supposed to be particularly rough and would recommend that one should take a pill right when beginning to feel nauseous. He had some sort of seasickness pills on hand, which he gave out upon request.

There are various strategies to try to avoid seasickness – the prescription Scopolamine patch, Dramamine or other OTC drugs, the Sea Band, ginger candies, etc. Different passengers did different things. In my lay opinion, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to avoiding seasickness – everyone handles the seas differently, and some Antarctic cruises get much rougher seas than others. One should assume rough seas, think about past experiences at sea, consult with a doctor, and make a personal decision about what works best.

Based on chats with the crew, we generally had pretty good luck with the seas. We had one incredibly rocky night traveling to South Georgia. The seas were sometimes okay and sometimes a bit rough going from the Falklands to South Georgia and from South Georgia to Antarctica. In the infamous Drake Passage (Antarctica to South America), we luckily experienced the “Drake lake” rather than the “Drake shake” and it was smooth sailing almost the entire way through.

I get really bad seasickness, and wore the patch the entire time (technically, a new patch every 72 hours). I’d previously worn the patch and knew I needed the “strongest” treatment possible even though it has some nasty side effects (particularly dry mouth). With the patch, I was generally fine; I felt a little dizzy at times, but never nauseous or anywhere near vomiting. Wife deals much better with seasickness, and wore the patch for the first few days before having enough of the dry mouth side effect. On two occasions, she started to feel a little nauseous and took the doctor’s pill, which seemed to prevent any further problems. We both wore the Sea Bands, and we’re not sure if they helped anything or were entirely nonsense.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Shooting in Antarctica presents some unique challenges, particularly given the weather and white ice. I consider myself a decent hobbyist who enjoys photography rather than a “photographer,” so I’ll just briefly discuss my personal experience and offer some amateur tips. For those wanting true expertise from the pros, there are many great online resources (articles, blogs, online discussions forums) about Antarctica photography.

I traveled with two bodies, one with a long lens and one with a wide lens. Carrying two cameras was incredibly useful, and allowed me to take both landscapes and close-ups at the same time – without having to worry about switching lenses in bad weather conditions. My long lens “only” reached up to 400 mm equivalent, which was perfectly fine for everything except shooting wildlife from the ship. From the ship, I couldn’t get the best shots of flying birds (unless they came up fairly close) and had no chance of nice shots of whales far out in the distance (we saw so many whales up close that it was no big deal).

A big technical tip would be to trust your histogram, err on the side of underexposing, and make sure you’re not blowing out your whites (e.g., glaciers, icebergs, snow, penguin fur). A big non-technical tip would be to look at professional Antarctic photos and get an idea of the shots you might want and what makes for good Antarctica photography. There is limited time to experiment and practice being an “Antarctica photographer,” so it’s useful to review some nice Antarctica shots beforehand and learn from them. Of course, it’s important to have your own style and capture your own unique experiences, rather than simply try to replicate other photos.

Absolutely bring a dry bag to keep your camera safe.

Among the passengers, photography equipment varied widely. Perhaps 30-35% of the passengers were traveling with semi-professional / professional equipment of some sort. The remainder were using camera phones, save a few who were not taking any photos. People took generally nice photos with their iPhone cameras (an iPhone camera has its limitations, particularly with action shots and objects far away), so there is no need to run out and buy a “fancy” camera for the trip that you might not even know how to use.

On the last day at sea, there was a photography contest. It was intended to be fun and informal, and thankfully nobody seemed to take it too seriously. The staff set up a computer the day prior, which we used to upload our entries (two photos per category). The staff selected the finalists in each category. The finalists were displayed on the screen, and the shot that received the loudest applause from the passengers was deemed the winner. The winners received a penguin-shaped USB drive with the PL logo – plus bragging rights.

The last night, the photographer played a slideshow containing some of his photos from the trip. At upon disembarkation, all passengers were given a USB drive containing the official trip photos taken by the photographer. After reviewing the photos and having seen his incredible portfolio, our hunch is that he didn’t give us his best shots (especially the signature shots of the more rare things we saw) and kept them for himself. We didn’t really care about receiving someone else’s photos of our trip, but other folks who were counting on receiving an amazing set of photos seemed disappointed by the slideshow.

LECTURES

The lectures were generally well done. The presenters appealed to a broad audience and struck the right balance of being fun, engaging and intelligent – without being too technical and boring.

Each lecture covered a particular Antarctic-related topic. The mammal guy gave talks on pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) of the Antarctic. The birder gave talks on the birds of the Falklands, penguins generally, the Kings of South Georgia, and her work filming a BBC documentary on Gentoo penguins. The geologist gave a talk on Antarctic geology and another on ice. The history buff gave several talks on various polar expeditions in the early 1900s. The photographer gave a couple of talks on Antarctic photography, which were more of an opportunity to see his excellent portfolio than to learn photography skills.

In the age of the Internet, nobody should be going on an Antarctic cruise for the lectures. One can learn the same information in his own living room, watching a lecture on YouTube or reading some articles. Nevertheless, the presenters were passionate about their subjects and generally did a nice job sharing their knowledge with us. Plus, the lectures made the long days at sea pass more quickly.

CITIZEN SCIENCE

PL was very into their “Citizen Science” program, which it marketed as a way for passengers to do “real science” on board. Mostly on the long days at sea, there were various Citizen Science projects taking place – which basically consisted of data collection (e.g., cloud surveys, taking phytoplankton samples). The methodology just didn’t seem scientifically sound, and we thought it was nonsensical busywork for retired people who wanted something to do and wanted to feel like they were “doing science.” Thankfully, it was all optional, and we chose not to participate.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

All on-board announcements were made through the emergency broadcast system, which is heard in every room and throughout the ship. While it may seem silly, our biggest complaint was the frequent unnecessary announcements – and the inability to turn them off. (It also shows how otherwise wonderful our trip was!)

The announcements were genuinely annoying and infantilizing. If breakfast was from 6am-7am and the excursion started at 7:30am, we’d have a wake-up announcement at 5:45am from the expedition leader, a 6am “breakfast is served” announcement from the Maitre’d, and then various other announcements about what time we should board for the excursion. If we wanted to sleep as much as possible, skip breakfast, wake up at 7:15am, and throw on our clothes quickly, we were out of luck.

On days at sea, every lecture and every Citizen Science session (sometimes 6-8 a day) was announced. With the rough seas, surely many people wanted to take naps. With announcements usually every 30-45 minutes on average, taking a nap was challenging.

The daily schedule was on the TV in every cabin and posted all over the common areas, so most of the announcements were entirely unnecessary. The announcements made us feel like we were kids at summer camp. Most passengers were successful professionals who knew how to be somewhere at a certain time, and could have managed without the announcements. At least, there should have been a way to turn on/off the announcements in the cabin (without disabling the ability to receive emergency broadcasts).

TIME CHANGES

We had a time change to and from South Georgia. In the Falklands and Antarctica, we were on Ushuaia (Argentina) time. However, we went an hour forward when approaching South Georgia and an hour backward after departing. It was kind of neat to go into our phones and set them to “Grytviken” time, but the time change was a bit annoying. It would have been more comfortable if they just didn’t say anything and pretended like we were on Usuhaia time.

* * * IV. MISCELLANEOUS TOPICS * * *

THE ARAKUR HOTEL

As stated earlier, we had one night at the five-star Arakur hotel prior to the cruise, included with our cruise (up to two nights prior were included). The Arakur hotel is awesome – primarily because of the pool area – and beginning our trip there was a great start to the cruise.

The hotel is elevated high above the city, and the pool has beautiful panoramic views of harbor and surrounding mountains. The pool has an indoor portion and an outdoor portion; swim under the glass to go between the indoor and outdoor portion. The indoor portion is heated like a normal indoor pool, and the outdoor portion is very aggressively heated to balance out very cold Ushuaia. There are also two Jacuzzis just next to the outdoor portion of the pool. Relaxing in the outdoor pool and Jacuzzis while admiring the views – in what would otherwise be freezing Ushuaia cold – was really enjoyable.

Our room was nice and modern, with many fancy computerized buttons and switches. However, the service was definitely lacking. Several members of the staff had a typical “attitude” we’d often encounter in Argentina rather than a customer-service oriented attitude that we’d expect at a five-star hotel. From this, we suspect that the hotel is badly maged and does a poor job at training its employees. In any event, the amazing pool more than made up for the less than five-star customer service.

USHUAIA

We had about 27 hours in Ushuaia prior to the cruise (an afternoon and most of the following day), and about 6 hours in Ushuaia following the cruise. Prior to the trip, we weren’t particularly excited to visit Ushuaia. And, in the end, we were happy we didn’t spend any more time there than necessary.

We’d typical rush around to see as much as we could, but Ushuaia just didn’t interest us. Tierra del Fuego National Park is the main attraction; based on photos, we’d seen much better elsewhere in Patagonia, and it seemed like a hassle to get to the park. The museum seemed like a total rip-off, at about $25 a head. The town itself seemed like a big tourist trap. Pretty much every other highlight seemed like an inferior version of what we’d be seeing in the Antarctic.

Prior to the cruise, the weather was cold, rainy and foggy. We’d planned to at least check out the town and maybe go to the National Park, but – between the bad weather and the beautiful pool – we couldn’t motivate ourselves to leave the Arakur Hotel either day.

After the cruise, the weather was sunny and beautiful. We checked out the town (and confirmed it was a big tourist trap, with all the usual suspects to be expected in a tourist trap town). We walked around the outside of the museum and saw the old prison buildings, but didn’t pay to go inside the museum. We took a nice long walk along the harbor and had good views of the surrounding mountains and the channel – the best part of our day in Ushuaia.

THE WUHAN CORONAVIRUS

As I write this, we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic caused by the Wuhan Coronavirus. In short, the virus didn’t affect our trip one bit, but the world totally changed while we were on the ship.

Our cruise embarked on Feb 23 and disembarked on Mar 13. When we embarked, there were only a dozen cases in the US and it wasn’t even the #1 story in the US media. When we disembarked, it was a worldwide pandemic, travel restrictions (travel bans, closed borders, flight cancellations, etc.) were well into effect on several continents, and the worldwide financial markets had crashed.

About 10 days prior to our cruise, IAATO (the Antarctic tour operators organization) announced a Coronavirus policy: denying boarding to anyone who had been in China in the past 14 days; denying boarding to anyone ill; and requiring temperature checks for all passengers.

PL complied with the IAATO policy. Apparently, there were Chinese passengers on our cruise whose bookings were cancelled. (We did have four PRC citizens on board – two who live in the US, and two who had been traveling in South America for some time.) Our temperatures were checked prior to boarding, and everyone passed.

At the time of boarding, people were reasonably nervous. There was an ongoing story about an infected Princess Cruise ship that was quarantined in Asia. We, and other passengers, were certainly concerned – and realized that a temperature check did very little to ensure that someone among us was not infected.

As it turned out, after 19 days on the ship, isolated from civilization, nobody exhibited Coronavirus symptoms. In all likelihood, nobody on the ship was infected.

As the trip went on, people started to realize that we were probably all virus-free – and that, on a ship in the Antarctic, we were as safe as anyone in the world. People joked around that we should try to remain on the ship indefinitely.

Although we were in the Antarctic, we were all well aware of what was going on in the world. As mentioned, the major US/UK news stations were in every cabin and there was reliable enough Internet access. Even for people trying to escape from reality for a couple weeks, news of the Coronavirus was a popular topic of conversation and couldn’t be avoided. People were well aware that their financial portfolios were toast, that they might have trouble returning home, and that they might be returning home to a mess. Nevertheless, the Coronavirus did nothing to ruin our wonderful cruise.

Returning home looked to be very scary – we were afraid of both flight cancellations and the virus itself. First, we had our domestic flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires (USH-AEP). Then, we had an overnight in Buenos Aires, and a monster EZE-SCL-LIM-LAX journey back home. (We redeemed an AA award for our international flights, and that was the “best” routing available.) That’s six airports (Ushuaia, both Buenos Aires airports, Santiago, Lima, and Los Angeles), four countries and four flights. We did the best we could to keep ourselves safe – and hoped for the best.

EZE and SCL airports were desolate, as flights from China and Europe had already been halted; we took that as a good sign that our risk wasn’t so high in those airports. But we were very nervous when we arrived at LIM, saw that they were doing absolutely nothing to screen incoming passengers, and then saw that the terminal was crowded with tons of European flights as normal. At LAX, immigration was totally empty and we breezed by.

As it turned out, our LIM-LAX flight was on Mar 15, and Peru announced later on March 15 that its borders would be closed the following day. As I write, hundreds of American tourists are stranded in Peru. We could easily have been stranded in transit, and we dodged a huge bullet on that one.

Of course, we’ve been self-quarantining – and would be doing so even if we hadn’t just traveled. At the time of writing, it has been almost two weeks since our flights, and we’re fine. So, we probably didn’t catch anything from the flights – or we’re both asymptomatic. Now, we will try not to catch the virus in the US. Only if we could have remained in Antarctica . . .
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Old Mar 27th, 2020, 10:52 PM
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What an absolutely wonderful Trip report! Such great detail. You were soooooo fortunate with the timing. one day later and you'd have been SOL. You must live right


Thought . . . you might want to also post this on the South American forum since the Cruise board is less active.
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Old Mar 28th, 2020, 09:00 AM
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Yes, agree with janisj. Fabulous report.
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Old Mar 29th, 2020, 12:50 AM
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Moved to South America Forum at OP's request.

A link to the trip report is still visible on the Cruise Forum.
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Old Mar 29th, 2020, 04:52 AM
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A fascinating report. Thank you for posting. Antartica is very much on our list so this was exceedingly useful in the detail
provided.
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Old Mar 29th, 2020, 06:14 AM
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Thank you for sharing your trip with us. Much of what you described is similar to what we experienced on an almost identical itinerary two years ago. It's a truly unique part of the world, isn't it? With all the changes it is experiencing with today's climate abnormalities, I wonder what it will look and feel like just a few years from now. I did not come across Polar Latitudes when I did my research, but will now look into it for a possible return visit. Glad the pandemic didn't impact your journeys.
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Old Mar 29th, 2020, 01:28 PM
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Originally Posted by tripplanner001 View Post
Thank you for sharing your trip with us. Much of what you described is similar to what we experienced on an almost identical itinerary two years ago. It's a truly unique part of the world, isn't it? With all the changes it is experiencing with today's climate abnormalities, I wonder what it will look and feel like just a few years from now. I did not come across Polar Latitudes when I did my research, but will now look into it for a possible return visit. Glad the pandemic didn't impact your journeys.
Absolutely a unique place!

In the short term, my guess is that the biggest change that a repeat tourist might notice might be overtourism -- rather than anything having to deal with climate. Our expedition leader said there are 19 new ships coming to Antarctica in the 2021-2022 season (though he said it's not a net +19 because some new ships are replacing current ships). Surely the overall number of tourists is going to increase in the coming years. (And I'd expect that a good number of these tourists are going to be coming from certain places that aren't exactly known for their travel etiquette.) With more ships, more tourists, and an increasing number of tourists who don't respect the wildlife and just the want selfies to prove that they went to Antarctica, I hope that IAATO will keep doing everything they can to keep Antarctica pristine.

I didn't actually come across PL when I was doing research prior to specifically planning this last-minute trip. They're big enough to be a legitimate player (running 2 boats for the entire Antarctic season), but I guess not so big -- and not constantly advertising -- that you can't miss hearing about them. Check them out.

Given the cost, I doubt we'll be back to Antarctica anytime soon. If we do go again, and money were no object, I'd want to see the Emperors.

Last edited by LAX_Esq; Mar 29th, 2020 at 01:44 PM.
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Old Mar 29th, 2020, 03:35 PM
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I hear you about the cost. I've thought about the subantarctic islands south of Australia and New Zealand. Seems like the Auckland Islands and Macquarie Island offer some of the wildlife and landscapes that we both experienced in South Georgia. Did you do the short Shackleton hike while on South Georgia?
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Old Mar 31st, 2020, 07:40 AM
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Originally Posted by tripplanner001 View Post
Did you do the short Shackleton hike while on South Georgia?
We got "rained out" that morning and couldn't land. The "Shackleton buffs" were VERY disappointed. (We had a shocking number of people who were obsessed with the polar explorers, every little detail of Shackleton's voyages, etc. Wife and I very much like history, and while we felt it was interesting to learn the basics about the polar explorers and expeditions, they aren't the historical topics we'd want to read books and books about. We were wondering if the Brits had more of a fascination with that stuff than the Americans; the names Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, etc. would never have come up in our US public school K-12 educations.)
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Old Mar 31st, 2020, 07:48 AM
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We did the short but interesting hike - more landscape than history, which was fine for us. Not just Brits but Europeans in general on polar history, at least on our voyage.
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