Anyone journeying to Antarctica will tell you it’s a dream come true.
I pinched myself as after booking more than 2 years ago my girlfriend and I were finally on our way in late November, departing Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina and known as the city at the end of the world, to board our expedition ship and fulfil our own dreams.
As an expedition cruise, Hurtigruten’s MS Fridtjof Nansen, is very different to a leisure cruise. A lecture and science centre replace the normal entertainment venues, no casino or pool, although there are jacuzzis along with a wellness centre and gym.
The lecture theatre fills up as we join talks offered by the expedition team – all experts in their field ranging from marine and wildlife biologists, social anthropologists, oceanographers, archaeologists, ornithologists, palaeontologists or glaciologists. Young or old, setting out on new careers or those returning every season for 20 years or more - all are passionate about their chosen specialty and continue to be filled with awe and excitement as our journey commences.
It takes almost 2 days and 2 nights to cross the Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. It can be completely flat when its affectionately named Drake Lake, however we experienced the Drake Shake - seas to 9 metres and winds around 60kms.
Various countries have attempted to stake a claim to Antarctica over the centuries. But in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 48 countries designating the continent a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science, recognising the importance in maintaining this pristine environment.
On the way we crossed the convergence, a 40km moving stretch of water where the warm waters of the north meet the cold waters of the south; the air temperature quickly drops from about 6 degrees to around zero, however with the wind chill, it feels a lot colder. At this point we have officially arrived in Antarctic waters.
Antarctica is the windiest place on the earth where wind speeds of more than 350 kilometres per hour have been recorded. It is also the highest, driest and coldest continent covering 14.2 million km² - the fifth largest continent of our planet - almost double the size of Australia!
Antarctica is classified a desert as only 50mm of rain fall on average per year - dryer than the Sahara Desert, yet it holds 70% of the world’s freshwater and 90% of the ice on earth.
Did you know that 50% of all marine animals live in Antarctica yet this continent covers only 10% of the world’s waters!
Once across the Drake Passage there’s always a view and we marvelled at the constantly changing scene, high craggy snow capped mountains, mighty glaciers, large icebergs, each a unique structure floating on the water with glimpses of the 7/8ths that hide below - reflections shimmer azure blue. Translucent ice cubes bob along, silhouettes constantly changed - birds, swans, horses every animal or object imaginable - we finally agree on the shape, but then it’s already morphed into something else or melted, despite the waters being icy cold.
There’s no need for TV or movies here, we have our own entrancing constantly changing cinema right outside.
Sun or a touch of blue sky provides shadows and the snow and ice sparkle like diamonds. Our photos and videos can’t capture all these nuances adequately and often look monochromatic.
The landscape is majestic, can there be so many shades of white? One moment the snowy ice mountains are shrouded in low thick cloud, the next we see those same peaks stretch to the heavens as the sun makes a magical appearance.
It’s not only the ice shaped animals that capture our attention, but the real ones - incredible wildlife. Penguins, penguins and more penguins! We’re promised three types - the hardy Gentoo with red beaks, Adelie - black faces with a white ringed eye; Chinstrap has a black band running under their chin from ear to ear. They don’t interbreed and each couple mates for life. Seals and whales, bird life too, usually just a few at this time of the year and often in the distance.
Shore excursions have a different meaning — no towns, museums or cafes to visit. It takes time to dress, 5 layers on top, thermals under our slacks, then a waterproof jacket and pants. Woollen beanie, 2 sets of gloves and at least 2 pairs of socks; thick soled rubber gum boots on loan from the ship finally complete our ensemble. We waddle to the landing deck and board zodiacs to go ashore. Our waddling though was quickly recognised as this is how penguins get around, except when they are sliding on the ice or diving into the sea to catch fish.
Penguins build rocky nests in which they’ll usually lay 2 eggs. This is a serious business as not just any old pebble will do. Often a favoured pebble is on another nest, so a penguin will quickly nick one and waddle off with a smirk on their beaks. Others try a bullying approach, plump up their chests and I’m sure they announce that pebble is mine!
Possession of a pebble is not given up lightly and fights ensue. So it goes on even once the eggs are laid. It’s exhausting work and in-between times they slide or waddle off to the sea to feed.
This 2 min video from BBC shows penguins building their nests at the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy.
Yes - you read correctly - Antarctica has a post office which will be featured in a future post soon.
Tomorrow join me to continue my journey through Antarctica
All images are my own unless otherwise noted
And as we continue our art journey into 2023 I am delighted to say that we have three more new subscribers to the AnArt4Life blog - welcome aboard J.E. and T.T. - both who live in Australia and to N.A. in Ohio.