If you were expecting to find polar bears here, you have chosen the wrong pole. The South Pole, the windiest, highest, coldest and most arid continent of the world, is home to penguins, seals, whales.. just not polar bears which are found exclusively at the North Pole.
Antarctica was a mystical continent that was left untouched till the 1910s. Explorers tried to unwrap the wonder surrounding this isolated continent, in the hopes of better understanding the wildlife and resources that exist in a desolate ice box. Today, Antarctica is not a sovereign state, but continues to be protected by nations for nobel goals of peace and science. Whilst the continent has been open to tourists since 1957, there are strict IAATO guidelines to be followed. Necessary to preserve the fragile balance in the ecosystem.
After touring South America, we made our way to the tip of Argentina, Ushuaia, where our expedition ship was docked. Due to a surge of immigrants from neighbouring countries who wanted to benefit from Argentina’s free education system, Ushuaia’s population exploded by ten-fold over the last 10 years. Take care of your shopping urges in Buenos Aires, because aside from casinos, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, there isn’t that much to go gaga about at the tip of the world.
Your best bet for weather at the South would be to travel during the December and January periods, as temperatures are most bearable then (around -2℃ to 5℃). Cruises do offer early-bird discounts, so there’s no harm in planning ahead. We settled upon a 17-day cruise by American travel company, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K)– the main draw being their experienced guides, most of whom have been with the company for over a decade. They provided valuable information on the plethora of wildlife, as well as shed light on the prolific history of explorer-cum-hero Sir Ernest Shackleton a.k.a The Boss, whose name you’ll hear very often throughout the journey. There was even a photography coach, who gave tips and tricks of how to score that ‘Nat Geo’ worthy photo.
The cruise ship, run by French company Compagnie du Ponant, was well-stocked with an endless supply of freshly baked breads, wines, spirits and fine food. We’re still in awe of the variety of food aboard Le Boreal. Indeed, we were indeed fortunate to have escargots and veal aboard a ship that was out at open sea for an extended period. Brownie points for the cosy interior, heated pool and library-bar; that was equipped with a poker set which provided us with entertainment for hours on end. Wildlife spotting was made easy from The Bridge, which was open nearly 24/7 with binoculars for loan. Most of the French crew were amiable and conversant in English, which set the scene for interesting conversations. As for connectivity, WiFi on board was at a steep rate – so unless there were major first world issues to deal with back home, it seems most people were content on remaining incommunicado over the course of the trip.
Zodiacs, conceptually similar to lifeboats, were used to ferry people from the ship to shore. Landings involved dipping one’s feet at least ankle-deep into the frigid sea water. Be sure to rent waterproof boots from Ship to Shore, pack along wellingtons or invest in waterproof socks, so you don’t have to suffer the fate of damp socks that would take ages to dry in the cold.
If the winds get too strong, a Zodiac landing would be mission impossible due to the choppy seas. We experienced this at our first stop along the coast of Falkland Islands, which perhaps, was a blessing in disguise, for we were bestowed with exceptionally good weather thereafter.
A&K provided a couple of back-up tour options at in the mainland of Falkland Island because of the failed Zodiac landing. Zeroing in on Bluff Cove, we hopped into a jeep that scaled rough terrain, eager to come up close and personal with penguins after being cooped up in a ship for the past day.
Weather at Bluff Cove was unpredictable, from sun to hail, in just a matter of hours. Nonetheless, the gushing winds made it a prime phototaking opportunity, for penguins were strolling out of the vicious ocean, and scaling the shifting sand beneath their tiny feet. When it started hailing, we took respite in the quaint Sea Cabbage Cafe, that served hot tea and warm scones – pure joy. Was also thrilled to send some love home via postcards, which reached the addressees before we returned.
After a couple of sleeps out at sea, we were awaken by the gentle coo of expedition leader, Suzana Machado D’Oliveira, who announced our arrival at South Georgia Island. Affectionately dubbed as the place ‘where God goes on vacation’ and we could certainly see why.
King Penguins and their chubby, brown babies (known as Oakum Boys), were everywhere. We felt like intruders, who were creeping into their breeding territory, where hundreds and thousands of them called home. They seemed blissfully oblivious to our presence, with some penguins copulating right before our eyes!
Whilst guides recommended that we maintain a safe distance of 5 metres from our feathered friends, this rule was certainly hard to enforce as the penguins waddled up to us unabashedly.
One thing to be wary of is their excrement (also known as guano) – bright red, pungent and a chore to scrub off once it stains your waterproof pants. Interestingly, the penguins appear to be biologically aware of their unsavoury poop, and are endowed with the gift of expelling their excrement in a projectile motion so it doesn’t soil their tails.
3 days were spent visiting the various spots around South Georgia Island – my favourite being the Gold Harbour , where throngs of elephant seals were grunting and slapping each others’ bellies. Beware when they start floundering towards you. Weighing in around 400 – 900kg, one could be easily pulverised by the giant seals in an instant.
We stopped by Grytviken, home to abandoned whaling stations that were previously used to harvest whale blubber as a source of energy. Aside from a museum and a post office, the town was practically dead. Beyond research and science, the A&K guides vehemently reiterated that whaling in other parts of the world needs to be put to a halt immediately, for certain whale species are nearing the brink of extinction.
Not before long, we were cruising down the Drygalvski Fjord, which was an utterly breathtaking experience as it was flanked by gorgeous glacially sculpted shorelines.
The expedition leader excitedly pointed out cascading glaciers, which tumbled down with a ‘boom’ followed by a cloud of snow. As we crossed the Fjord, we were 900 nautical miles away from Antarctica, and anticipation was mounting.
Journey to be continued in Part II.
This is an independent post. The writer has no affiliations to Abercrombie & Kent, Compagnie du Ponant, or any of their related entities.