Going to Antarctica

Going to Antarctica

A Complete Description with Lessons Learned and Lots of Advice!

© Copyright 2008 Marshall Carter-Tripp

Early Days: Planning, Booking

This incredible trip began in November 2006, when I asked my niece Katherine, who lives in Australia, if she’d like to go on a cruise with me as a present for her 18thbirthday and graduation in December 2007, and she selected Antarctica!  I’d been thinking about Antarctica for several years as I watched colleagues in Embassy Buenos Aires head that way, and I tamped down my concerns about dealing with the cold, and replied, “Sure, let’s go for it!”

Next, I began to investigate various companies offering trips to Antarctica, seeking advice from former State Department colleagues who had worked with Antarctic and Artic issues, and eventually arrived at Quark, which is well respected in the travel community – and whose ships had a small passenger load. This was important as the IAATO rules do not allow more than 100 persons on shore at any time (more below on IAATO and the Atlantic Treaty).  Quark also had a representative in Buenos Aires, Zelfa Silva, who was known to several friends, and whom I realized that I had actually met during my embassy tour. Zelfa would eventually be a key factor in our successful trip. Quark Expeditions & Zelfa's site 

As I booked the Quark trip myself, not through a travel group, I had to set up the rest of the trip as well. PANIC!  I wanted to have some time in Buenos Aires to allow for my niece to arrive from Australia safely and recover from the jet lag of that long trip. My previous stopping place, near the apartment where I lived for three years, was not available. The property manager for this place offered several choices but none were fully air-conditioned and I remembered Buenos Aires in January too well for that (and in fact it was worse, topping 35°C/100°F for several days). So, in October 2007, I searched for Internet offerings, and finally decided on an apartment with two bedrooms (for niece and self) and Internet hookup in Barrio Norte/Recoleta. This turned out to be somewhat less than promised, and the Internet connection never worked. (The offering agent, presented a contract on my arrival that effectively relieved it of responsibility –i.e. no refunds - for services that did not work. Ask about this kind of requirement before you make a decision on a rental apartment.)  While the price was better than a hotel for 6 days, and the extra space was worth it, next time I would go straight to a hotel for the first night – avoiding any uncertainties about check-in at an apartment - and then shift to an apartment once safely in the city. Alternatively, plan to head on to Ushuaia the next day, and spend time in Buenos Aires on the way back. (NB, it is also possible to fly into Ushuaia via Santiago de Chile, where none of these concerns would apply.)

Once I had made my decision, good or bad, I turned to the next issue: WHAT TO TAKE!!!  MORE PANIC!!! I realized that I had not checked off all items on the list included in the Quark materials, and I turned to the web to order some things (El Paso is not a major source for Antarctic-proof clothing). Zelfa stepped in here and offered to lend two parkas for the trip, saving both money and suitcase space. She also offered good advice: for example, a daypack or backpack is essentially useless, as all you need to carry during a landing is your camera and some spare batteries, and perhaps a tissue or two. No water bottles – no port-a-johns in Antarctica!  Anything you take on shore must be brought back. These are common-sense rules intended to protect the fragile environment of Antartica; they are the governing principles for trips organized by member-companies of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators

As it turned out, I was too focused on adhering to the Quark list. Next time I would under-pack a bit (it’s not necessary to have two sets of everything. If you get your legs wet, use the hairdryer to dry the thermal underwear! ) Bring as much as you can in quick-dry form. One thermal quick-dry sock layer and one heavy sock layer will be enough…if you suffer from Reynaud’s or other cold-toes and cold-fingers problems, bring the hand and toe warmers sold in sporting goods stores, or online at campmor.com. These inexpensive little gems last for 8 hours. One in the pocket where you keep your camera, or in the camera bag, will help preserve batteries;  fellow passengers using identical cameras without the warmers had to replace their batteries every day.

The parkas that we took were early-issue Quark, and I’d use a different one next time (some expeditions provide parkas, others not). The temperature was considerably warmer than we had expected, or feared, and several times I just removed the parka and life jacket while on land. Best: get a parka that has a zip-out layer, so you can choose the level of warmth you need while on shore or cruising in the Zodiac. I’m cold-phobic and did not expect to feel comfortable walking about Antarctica with or without a parka, but one good sweater and thermal camisole/undershirt were plenty for the underpinnings. 

Also, pay attention to the adaptor for any electric connection you wish to make. While you are in Argentina (or Chile) you’ll need the “Southern hemisphere” adaptor with the tilted prongs, but on ship it is most likely to be a European socket with two round prongs.  Both are 220/50.  Bring extra batteries for your camera and extra memory, and don’t forget the instruction book unless you have used this camera long enough to be completely familiar with it. There is no worse feeling than seeing an unknown icon flashing on your screen, perhaps causing you to miss shots that you can never repeat (even if you return to Antarctica – and you will want to)!   And DON’T forget a good pair of binoculars!  If you have any difficulty hiking or balancing on uneven ground, a collapsible walking stick would be a welcome tool. 

Last – but not least – motion sickness?  Many passengers, including retired doctors, had the patch, and that had much to recommend it. Several were relying on motion bands or electronic versions of them, in some cases because they could not use the prescribed medicine. Most relied on the motion sickness pills provided by the onboard doctor – which were more effective than Dramamine but would make you drowsy. I had some non-drowsy Dramamine on the way out, only to lose it to careless inspection and repacking by TSA – so I used my motion bands, and happily the trip was calm enough that I had no problem. This is a complex decision, based on any problems with motion sickness in other trips, etc. Awful to be sick, and frustrating to fall asleep constantly as the result of taking medicine not needed. Talk to your doctor early if you have any concerns!  (You may or may not find what you need at a pharmacy in Ushuaia, don’t put off thinking about this issue until then.)

Arriving

OK, packed and ready?  Tickets booked? Be sure to allow a margin of time much greater than you might think necessary, particularly for strike-plagued flights in Argentina. For arrival in Buenos Aires and transfer to the domestic airport budget a minimum of three hours, and onward flights to Ushuaia (preferably non-stop) may not depart on time. Don’t count on late afternoon flights from Ushuaia to arrive in Buenos Aires in time for transfer to overseas flights from Ezeiza; consider stopping in Ushuaia for a day to get the early morning flight, or staying in Buenos Aires for a day or two on arrival. Avoid unnecessary stress!

Katherine and I arrived several  hours late (and hungry as Aerolineas is now serving some rather peculiar food; if we’d realized that we would have bought a sandwich in the airport). We spent our extra day exploring Ushuaia. The Presidio museum is worth several hours, and the Fin del Mundo Museum on the waterfront is a good visit as well (you can have a stamp in your passport here for the “end of the world” if you like). For more interesting souvenirs, visit the shop at Piedrabuena 51 for masks using designs of the Fuegino Indians who once inhabited the shores of Tierra del Fuego. They are made of the local lenga wood, and the artisan who creates them has extensively researched the motifs. Ushuaia is otherwise full of Argentine crafts from the rest of the country, which retail for good prices due to lower taxes in the province. Penguin fans can buy dozens, maybe even hundreds, of penguin figures, from very expensive rhodocrisite to simple t-shirts. Don’t miss the seafood, especially the centolla (spider) crab, fished locally and really a delight! (Tia Elvira and Tante Nina are recommended sources…)

And the adventure begins

January 5: The Quark trip began with a morning baggage call at the hotels, followed by a bus tour of the national park. The unfortunate (and temporary) nasty weather during the latter meant that, at least for me, it was mostly an opportunity to talk to other members of the expedition cruise to come; an indoor asado (barbecue) lunch followed, which was, frankly, not a very good introduction to the joys of a true Argentine asado   But it serves as a means of occupying time while the crew replenishes the ship. (I had not realized until the day of embarkation that our ship, the Ocean Nova, would not be in port for even 12 hours.)  Our embarkation was quick and simple (memo to travelers – take the bus even if it is just a short hike from the hotel to the port…don’t try to board the ship with your luggage by yourself!). A short hour later and Ocean Nova maneuvered out of the berth and headed out into the Beagle Channel that leads to the feared Drake Passage. The Drake is named after Sir Francis Drake. It is the circumpolar current that flows unimpeded around the Antarctic continent, and where fierce winds that are also unimpeded are the norm. Below 60 South we enter Antarctica, as defined by the Antarctic Treaty – a group of nations that constitute a kind of international governing body for the continent, and who have all committed to the goal of maintaining the continent for peaceful purposes and scientific research. 46 countries now adhere to the treaty.  More details at Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and at the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat site.

January 6: Late in the night we stop and the Argentine pilot rappels down a rope and drops onto a boat sent out from the pilot station onshore, from then on we are out in no-man’s land heading into the Dreaded Drake….happily the Drake turns out to be a Lake, and we cross with little motion (although many travelers have taken their Dramamine and fall sound asleep during the informal lectures the next morning.

January 7: First whale sighted at 7 a.m. Ship fever has set in … nothing on the horizon. Then an island at 11:30 a.m., icebergs at 12:26, and an iceberg with penguins aboard!  Suddenly, late afternoon, we get a bonus landing as we have made such good time across the Drake Lake – an unscheduled landing in the Aitcho (H.O) islands, Barrientos to be specific. Everyone hustles down to try on boots and get suited up. This is within the Arctic Treaty coverage area and so it is technically Antarctica! Better yet, there are both Gentoo and Adelie penguins on this island. Everyone is quietly stunned to have reached the goal so soon, and the penguins are quite endearing. The IAATO rules require that you remain 5 meters from the penguins, but they obviously have not read the rules and happily come to inspect you up close. 

Leaving the South Shetland Islands we traverse a strangely black and white, and flat, landscape, which resembles a theatre backdrop, decorated with turquoise icebergs.  Some of the mountain ranges look like puffs of smoke. 

January 8: Landing on Useful Island (meaning useful to the whalers). 45°F!  Useful is essentially a pile of granite boulders covered with penguin guano. More interesting is a beautiful Zodiac cruise to a glacier, and then a stop at Almirante Brown, a disused Argentine station (we’ll see many more Argentine stations, all of which seem to be painted a lovely barn red).  Here you can climb to the top of a long hill and slide down (without benefit of sliding Frisbee). At the base are many colonies of Gentoo penguins, where one can get a close-up look as they steal rocks from each other’s nests, as well from nearby slopes, and then humbly present the rocks to the partner on the nest – who may turn up his or her nose at the new nest ornament.

January 9:  A blockbuster day. We begin by a landing at Peterman Island, another splendid bluesky day, already 45°F/7°C. This was the landing site for French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot, whose first marriage failed due to his polar obsession, and who on remarrying inserted a clause in his nuptial agreement allowing him to go on polar expeditions!  He also had the first wine cellar in Antarctica. His ship, Pourquoi Pas? (Why Not?) left its initials here on the granite boulders. From here we cruise to Vernadsky, a formerly British station, sold to Ukraine for one pound when the Brits decided it was surplus. The original measurements of the ozone hole were taken here, and the station continues the monitoring. At 65 S 15  it is the furthest south we will go. Vernadsky has a team of 14 men and one woman, if the photo on the wall is correct – and I’d hate to be her, based on the exercise room, filled with giant photos of nearly naked women. On the second floor is a bar where the Vernadskyites sell the vodka they make themselves, and a number of handmade souvenirs including penguins (natch). They have a nice sense of humor, with beach chairs out on their landing and various guides shuffling around in flip-flops. But it is 50°F/10°C now!

The end of the day is a fantastic cruise among icebergs in Pléneau Bay, one of which begins to rock back and forth and nearly falls on our Zodiac – this is a berg at least 5 stories high. The icebergs are simply incredible, flashing gorgeous shades of turquoise, and forming sculptural scenes with other bergs.  Once all are back on ship the Ocean Nova cruises up the Lemaire Channel, passing a sailboat and a yacht!  At 1 a.m. (hours later than real sun-time, due to Argentina’s doubling of daylight saving time) an extraordinary sunset occurs, which illuminates the surrounding mountains. 

January 10: Awakening, we find ourselves in a completely tranquil bay, on water like glass. At 7 a.m., the temperature is already 47°F/8° C!  We’re surrounded by glaciers and snow-covered mountains – a range of which is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  From here we move to Port Lockroy, a British station now an historic site, set up as it was in the 1950s. Souvenirs of all kinds are sold here, and you can mail postcards – as you can at Vernadsky.  Then on to Neko Harbor, in front of a massive glacier, which constantly calves huge chunks of ice, sounding like gunfire.  The last Zodiacs here find a trio of minke whales, which play with the Zodiacs for an hour – nudging and diving and generally being coy.  I watch from the cabin, glad, and jealous, for those on those Zodiacs!

January 11:  A more Antarctic morning, 3°C/38°F, snowing and foggy. Five penguins drift by on a small iceberg. Another black and white and turquoise world. Later today we stop at the south side of Trinity Island to see another huge colony of Gentoo penguins, and also a clutch of sleeping Wedell seals. Tonight the ship steams northwest to Deception Island and anchors off. 

January 12:  The captain heads in through Neptune’s Bellows, a demanding entrance to the defunct (?)  volcanic caldera. Here there was a very active whaling station until 1931. An eruption in late 1967 finished off the British Antarctic Survey station here, and it was quite miraculous that everyone got out alive – the water in the bay boiled!  Many of the passengers head up to the top of a large ridge to view a colony of penguins, perhaps a quarter of a million strong, on the eastern side of the mountain. The rest explore the remains of the base, and the bravest strip off their cold-weather gear to jump in the frigid water of the bay!  Two dozen intrepid passengers eventually do so, my niece even wearing a bikini! 

Final stop: Half Moon Island, where there is a chance to see a Macaroni Penguin, which has an odd orange frill on top of its head; but he’s had enough visitors and leaves before we arrive.  This is probably the most difficult terrain, lots of chunky unstable rocks, and iced-up pathways.  But it’s the last stop in Antarctica and no one wants to leave. And it’s warm still, most of us have stripped off our parkas to enjoy the mild air.

On the way this evening we pass a huge iceberg with several dozen penguins on top, and as the captain swings the ship around – and almost all of us come out to watch -  many more dozens of penguins gather at the base to hurl themselves at the iceberg and try to get a grip enabling them to make their way to the top. Passengers cheer as they do!!!  

Now we turn really northward…the ship is followed by flocks of painted petrels. From the library window on the stern snow-covered hills and icebergs on the horizon are a faint trace of what we are leaving behind.

January 13-14. Rolling through the Drake once again. It begins as foggy and then a blue sky as we pass quietly into the Beagle Channel.  Behind us, as there were on the outward bound trip, many different albatrosses, petrels, gulls, terns, and even Magellanic penguins.  We arrive early in the Channel, and enjoy a beautiful evening for the farewell dinner (oven-roasted prime rib, or grilled fillet of red snapper or curry risotto, all followed by Baked Antarctica!)  The only painful part is the end, when we are all awakened at 5:30 am to place bags outside by 6 a.m. – and we debark at 8 am….ready to head for the airport, or for lodgings in Ushuaia. Only later do we realize that Antarctica is a huge white magnet, that will draw us back…next  South Georgia?  We’ll all be dreaming in white…and already realize that visiting this incredible place has changed us, even if we do not return.  (I’ll be back –somehow!!)

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.