If cruising makes you think casinos and cabarets, think again. Sailing to Antarctica is an unforgettable chance to visit one of the last unexplored destinations and the largest wilderness on earth
“There is only one cure for seasickness,” says Ian Shaw, our expedition leader, at the first on-board get-together. “Go and sit under a tree.” Pause. “So, given the lack of trees out here, if you don’t know whether you’ll get seasick or not, this is not the time to experiment. Take your seasickness pills now.”
Wise words indeed, as I struggle with the sensation of constant swaying and a queasy stomach. Donning pressure-point wrist bands and popping anti-seasickness pills at an all-too-regular rate, I take an extra precaution and stick a seasickness patch deftly behind my left earlobe. I am tired but feeling OK.
Antarctica is the largest wilderness area on earth. It has no polar bears, no foxes, no government, no military activity, no nuclear waste disposal and no mining. It has the 1991 Antarctic Treaty signed by 46 countries, agreeing to set aside the area as a scientific preserve for 50 years. It also has, according to some, one of the last supergiant oil reserves on the planet. After 2041, it will be open season.
I am travelling to Antarctica on the Norwegian vessel MS Fram – booked through Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten. co.uk), which offers comfortable 13- to 17-day expeditions. It’s one of those new, extremely comfortable, purpose-designed polar cruise ships. Accommodating no more than 318 passengers, the ship is intimate and warm. Staff and fellow travellers are friendly, and the on-board Antarctic program is intense, with professional lectures twice a day on a range of topics about the deep-frozen continent – animal and plant life, explorers, weather, global warming, you name it.
Just getting to Antarctica proves to be a challenge. From Ushuaia in Argentina, it’s a two-day trip by ship across one of the roughest waters in the world – the Drake Passage. On calm days it’s known as Lake Drake. Not today.
As we steam towards Antarctica, Canadian-born Shaw continues cheerily: “There are three questions you are not allowed to ask me – ‘When will we get there?’, ‘How long will we be there?’ and ‘How’s the weather going to be?’” Fair enough.
Then, having explained how beautiful our destination will be, he adds: “In the Antarctic Sound, you’ll see the most spectacular iceberg scenery on the continent. You’ll be naming your children after me.”
He’s half right. The scenery is truly spectacular. It is like nothing I have ever seen before. There are blindingly blue skies, crystal-clear seas and crisp white landscapes, with the occasional albatross gracefully shadowing the boat and a handful of penguins diving in unison to starboard.
An excursion is planned each day, and performed with precision. Zodiacs – inflatable boats with powerful outboards – take groups of gumboot- and lifejacket-clad passengers back and forth from ship to land. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), we are only allowed to stay for an hour.
The spirit of co-operation between tour companies is high, and it means that within Antarctica, vessels avoid landing at the same spot and at the same time. Everyone in the IAATO – it’s a voluntary organisation – is seriously aware of the environmental impact tourists can have. We are told to leave nothing behind, take nothing and leave the place as undisturbed as possible. Orange witches’ hats indicate where we are allowed to walk and we are reminded to keep our distance from wildlife and remain at least 5m away. Boots are sterilised before and after leaving the ship.
On board, the food is five-star, the accommodation cosy and the amenities more than adequate – but if you are looking for Las Vegas on water, this is not the place for you. There are no pools, casinos or extravagant shows. Between meals, lectures and landings, everything runs like clockwork. About the only thing that is unpredictable is the weather. “The only reason we have an itinerary is so we can deviate from it,” says Shaw. “So relax.” We do.
The morning of our first land excursion is bright and sunny – but within hours, the expedition is cancelled due to weather concerns. The wind, clouds and snow move in. It’s too dangerous to venture out in a Zodiac. This is when you start to realise you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s you, 12,700 tonnes of ship, a few crew and the weather.
There are more than 35 international research stations located in Antarctica. “We’re looking for a caretaker. Would you be interested?” asks Rick Atkinson, Project Leader at the English base at Port Lockroy which we visit. He spends the summer months monitoring the Gentoo penguin population, but needs someone to mind the shop in the winter off-season.
The base, built originally during the Second World War as part of a secret mission, was restored in 1996 by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is now one of the most visited places on the Antarctic Peninsula. It houses a post office – sorry, no express service – museum, gift shop and living quarters for Atkinson and his team of two (read his online dairies at www.ukaht.org/portlockroydiaries.htm).
Back on terra firma in Ushuaia, I am amazed at how quickly my seasickness subsides. It’s like a wave of happiness washing over me. Feeling human again, I reflect on how Antarctica will continue to charm, excite and intrigue. It’s a special place worth seeing, but without doubt a place worth protecting.
Ships depart for the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia or Buenos Aires, Argentina.
There are two good options in downtown Ushuaia: Lennox Hotel, a stylish boutique hotel, and Tierra de Leyendas, with great views of the Andes and Beagle Channel.
In Santiago, Chile, the InterContinental is a luxury five-star hotel to start or finish your adventure.
When to go
November to March; temperature range: -6C to +10C
See www.coolantarctica.com for a good guide to the region.