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The end of the Earth

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Whether you want to camp on the ice, kayak with whales or trace the routes of the great adventurers, there's a way to visit the dazzling wilderness of Antarctica. By Minnie Burlton


The light is crystal-clear and so, too, is the water we're paddling through. As our group of yellow kayaks cuts through a small inlet, the ice creaks and groans as it jostles for space. It is an extraordinary feeling to be so close to the water and icebergs. Scooping up a couple of chunks of 10,000 year-old glacier ice, I can see the fossilised air bubbles still trapped within.

 

Willing a passing humpback or orca whale to surface by my side, I try to imagine the sheer size of a 10 ton mammal. Within seconds, a white shadow passes beneath me. Then the water erupts and we're surrounded by a raft of penguins popping out of the water like fat, sleek torpedoes. They're so close I can see the startled look in their eyes as they take a look at us.

 

As we paddle along the shoreline, we are watched by thousands more penguins and a line of sleepy elephant seals who serenade us with a noisy chorus of growls, belches and flatulence.

 

Nearing the snout of a vast glacier, a sound like gunshot shatters the silence. Adrenalin floods our systems, hearts are racing and our senses are on full alert. A thunderous crash signals the glacier is calving and a block of ice weighing hundreds of tons plunges into the sea.

 

It seems the only guarantee in this environment is that it is totally unpredictable. The weather can change in minutes. Whales and seals can surface without warning. Four fifths of an iceberg's bulk is beneath the water and as the sea erodes their edges they can suddenly topple over.

 

Although winds can reach over 180 mph and temperatures can plummet to -90˚C, during the summer season (from December to March), you're more likely to enjoy calm seas, blue skies and sunshine.

 

For us, the only dip in the weather comes when we near Elephant Island, the fearsome place where in 1916, Shackleton and his men endured four and a half winter months living under two small upturned open boats, surviving on a ration of half a penguin a day each. So it seems entirely appropriate that we should experience Cape Wild in a snowstorm with rough seas and a howling katabatic wind to sting our faces. The Zodiac ride and landing is invigorating stuff and back in the warmth of the ship we strip off our outer layers and boots and sit down to afternoon tea to the backdrop of excited chatter.

 

a land of superlatives

 

Expedition ships today are a far cry from the wooden sailing vessels used by the early explorers. Some offer five-star luxury while others offer a more expedition-style experience. As well as their ensuite cabins, libraries, bars, saunas and elaborate choices of breakfast, lunch, tea and evening menus, the ships carry an impressive team of experts (from naturalists, historians and polar scientists to kayakers, photographers and adventurers) keen to share their knowledge and skills. The number of landings will depend on weather, timing, conditions and your ship's captain.

 

In short, Antarctica is a land of superlatives. It is also the driest, coldest, windiest and highest of all the continents. Over 58 times the size of the UK, it locks 90% of the world's fresh water into ice and supports one of the richest concentrations of wildlife in the world. It is quite simply in a class of its own. It is a place that relatively few people visit, but for those who do make the journey, once visited it will never be forgotten.

 

WHEN to go

 

November
Temperatures are still cold but the ice is beginning to break up and the snowy vistas are at their most pristine. There are fewer visitors. Penguins are courting and building their nests and in the Falklands, the spring wildflowers are in bloom.

 

December and January
Seal pups and penguin chicks begin to appear in South Georgia and the Falklands. Whale sightings are common. The days are long and often clear, with temperatures at their highest. As this is peak season, ships are more crowded and there may be waits involved before going ashore as only limited numbers of humans are allowed to land at once.

 

February and March
Whale sightings are at their most frequent, although at the very end of the season, other wildlife may be less visible. The penguin chicks have grown and are ready to leave the nest. Ships can reach further south as the pack ice has broken up.

 

Antarctica in a day

 

A Day trip to Antarctica
(DAP Flights)
Various dates from November to March

If you're short of time, DAP, amazingly, offers day trips to Antarctica from Punta Arenas, Chile. Fly over the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego Island, Darwin Mountain Range, Cape Horn and the Drake Passage and touch down on King George Island. A five-hour tour gives a flavour of the peninsula and a chance to see seal and penguin colonies. It is also possible to stay overnight at the Ice Camp on Collins Glacier and return the following day.
Tel. +56 61 2616100 / www.dapantartica.cl

 

Skip the Drake Passage

 

Antarctic Express – Fly the Drake (Quark Expeditions)
8 days, departing December 17, 2013 From £5,100
Ship: Sea Adventurer
Passengers: 114
Skip the notorious 600-mile Drake Passage which separates Antarctica from South America. Where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, this is one of the wildest seas in the world. It is affectionately nicknamed the Drake Shake, or if you're lucky and conditions are calm, the Drake Lake. Fly from Punta Arenas in Chile to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands and dive straight into the wonders of the Antarctic Peninsula. Tel. 0808 120 2333 / www.quarkexpeditions.com

 

Antarctica by private jet

 

Visit the Emperor Penguins (Mantis Collection, with White Desert)
Eight days, departing December 4, 2013; from around £32,400
Fly in lavish style via private jet from Cape Town into the interior of Antarctica, arriving at a smart eco-camp, where pods offer luxury ensuite bedrooms and the maximum number of guests is 12. Visit a colony of 6,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins, explore 100m-long ice tunnels, try your hand at kite sailing, abseiling or simply just check out the view. Tel. 01483 425 465 / www.mantiscollection.com or www.white-desert.com

 

Adventurous Antarctica

 

Antarctica Off the Beaten Track (One Ocean Expeditions)
13 days, departing November 8, 2013; from £6,590
Ship: Akademik Ioffe
Passengers: 100
This is an early season, 12-night adventure voyage offering ski touring, hiking, snow shoeing and overnight sea kayaking trips as well as a full day of expedition field photography with polar photographer, Daisy Gilardini. Departing Ushuaia in Argentina, the ship will cross the Drake Passage to sail along the Antarctic Peninsula. Tel. +351 962 721 836 / www.oneoceanexpeditions.com

 

In Shackleton's footsteps

 

Shackleton's Centenary Voyage (Ice Tracks)
19 days, departing November 20, 2014; from £7,570
Ship: Akademik Sergey Vavilov
Passengers: 100

Marking the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition, in conjunction with the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, special guests will include Henry Worsley and Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Sir Ernest. Henry Worsley is a relation of the great polar explorer and navigator, Frank Worsley, and the only person to have retraced the original routes used by Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen. He regularly lectures about the golden age of polar exploration, drawing on diaries, photographs and film footage of the original expeditions alongside details of his own polar adventures. Tel. 01926 641938 / www.ice-tracks.com

 

Who owns Antarctica?

 

Antarctica is not owned by anyone. Instead it is 'governed' by The Antarctica Treaty of 1959 which was signed by countries active in the region and established it as a 'zone of peace and science'. Responsible tour operators also adhere to the code of conduct of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (www.iaato.org), which was founded in 1991 'to advocate, promote and practise safe, environmentally responsible private sector travel to the Antarctic'. One of IAATO's guidelines to help minimise the impact on the environment and wildlife is that 'no more than 100 passengers are ashore at a landing site simultaneously'. This means on larger ships passengers will have to take it in turns to go ashore, something to bear in mind when choosing an expedition operator.

 

Under canvas on the ice

 

Camp like an explorer (hurtigruten)
One-night excursion, from £330 (for the excursion only)
On some of Hurtigruten's Antarctic expeditions, there's an option to leave the ship for the night in a small group and camp out on the ice in an expedition tent, thermal sleeping bags included.
Tel. 0844 272 8961 / www.hurtigruten.co.uk

 

Travel with experts

 

South Georgia Spectacular (Exodus)
15 days, departing November 2, 2013; from £7,195
Ship: Akademik Sergey Vavilov
Passengers: 100
With expedition leader Paul Goldstein (award-winning wildlife photographer and guide) and Mark Carwardine (zoologist, conservationist and award-winning writer, wildlife photographer and presenter) this is sure to be a very special polar experience. With more than 30 species of seabirds, including four of penguins, South Georgia is a Mecca for polar wildlife, spectacular scenery and historical sites from early explorations. This trip flies in and out of the Falklands, giving a full week in South Georgia. Tel. 0845 619 6764 / www.exodus.co.uk

 

Into the unknown

 

The Ross Sea (Oceanwide Expeditions)
32 days, departing January and February 2015; cost to be announced
Ship: Ortelius Passengers: 120
Very few people reach this area of Antarctica. This is a rare chance to visit the Ross Sea, the historical huts of Shackleton and Scott, the McMurdo Research Station, the extraordinary Dry Valleys and Macquarie Island. Ortelius is equipped with helicopters to fly passengers on various excursions. Tel. 00 31 118 410 410 / www.oceanwide-expeditions.com

 

Adventurous Antarctica

 

Antarctica Off the Beaten Track (One Ocean Expeditions)
13 days, departing November 8, 2013; from £6,590
Ship: Akademik Ioffe
Passengers: 100
This is an early season, 12-night adventure voyage offering ski touring, hiking, snow shoeing and overnight sea kayaking trips as well as a full day of expedition field photography with polar photographer, Daisy Gilardini. Departing Ushuaia in Argentina, the ship will cross the Drake Passage to sail along the Antarctic Peninsula. Tel. +351 962 721 836 / www.oneoceanexpeditions.com

 

Through the eyes of an artist

 

Antarctica, The Falklands and South Georgia with Bruce Pearson (Wildwings, in association with One Ocean Expeditions)
18 nights, departing November 20, 2013; from £7,219
Ship: Akademik Sergey Vavilov Passengers: 100
Renowned wildlife artist Bruce Pearson's love of the southern oceans and its wildlife goes back many years and is celebrated in his recently published book Troubled Waters: Trailing the albatross, an artist's journey. This voyage is unusual in that workshops will be held throughout on drawing and painting. The proposed itinerary includes the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Orkneys, South Shetlands and the Antarctic peninsula. Tel. 0117 9658 333 / www.wildwings.co.uk

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