Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula

Cool Water Cruising in Antarctica

Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sirverity on March 17, 2008

Antarctica is a land of extremes, and it is not just the weather. This is the least populated, least visited and least accessible continent on the planet. It is also the most unusual, most remote and, unofficially, the most exotic destination for world travelers. Aside from scientists, researchers and well-equipped (and well-heeled) adventurers, most visitors arrive via a varied armada of cruise ships from mega-liners to small research vessels where half the adventure is getting there.

The overwhelming majority of visitors, due to time, expense, and accessibility, have their explorations confined to the Antarctic Peninsula--a large finger shooting up across the Antarctic Circle within striking distance of the southern reaches of South America. Here, summertime temperatures, usually a balmy twenty to thirty degrees, allow for unobstructed passage of such scenic highlights as the Gerlache Strait, Neumeyer Channel, and the appropriately-named Iceberg Alley.

Most cruises originate in South America, with the Argentine ports of Buenos Aires and Ushuaia as the likely departure point. Often a visit to Antarctica will also include stops in the South Shetland Islands, and the laid-back but politically controversial Falkland Islands. Whatever the itinerary, a trip across the Southern Ocean and Drake Passage will leave visitors with no doubt that they are at the extreme end of the earth.

As you draw near to the continent, you can expect to see the full spectrum of iceberg types on display, from slushy "bergie bits" barely afloat to monstrous tabular bergs the size of a small city drifting by. On my own visit, I was impressed when we were told that the large tabular berg off the port bow was eighteen miles long by seven miles wide, or roughly the size of Queens, New York--only without the traffic. A special treat are the blue icebergs that owe their color to older, denser ice, which often begins its life as a glacier.

Wildlife lovers will enjoy the opportunity to see the local denizens up close, like penguins splashing alongside your ship and Weddell seals lazing on level ice floes. Depending on the cruise line, some offer the chance to actually get off and walk around or even watch from a zodiac as a humpback whale surfaces to check you out.

Long story short, Antarctica offers experiences that are just not available anywhere else. For the traveler that has seen it all, this is the kind of experience that inspires you to keep on traveling. For the novice, this is the type of experience that will keep you traveling forever.${QuickSuggestions} The question first and foremost in my mind was how should I dress? The answer was really quite simple: Warmly and in layers. Also, a windbreaker of some substance is recommended as things can really howl down there. If you'll be going ashore, footwear that is both rugged and something you don't mind getting dirty is a must.

The second thought after I booked my trip was what will I see? The answer was a pleasant surprise. The landscape is predominantly rugged cliffs in the two to four thousand foot range. Everything is capped with snow or ice, and on the peninsula and Shetland Islands there are impressive glaciers of mammoth proportions.

In the water there are icebergs of all shapes and sizes to accompany the humpback and killer whales, leopard and Weddell seals, and many varieties of penguins. When conditions are calm, the reflections really create a scene that is beyond description.

Other practical suggestions, in my opinion, are motion sickness medicine for the inevitable unruly weather, a good pair of gloves and earmuffs, and a camera with a decent zoom lens attachment for those up-close pictures that show up in the brochures.${BestWay} Obviously, with no roads, no cars, and only the crudest of airstrips and helipads, almost all visitors arrive via ship, and even then there's no guarantee that your chosen course or 'port' won't be blocked up with pack ice. Due to international laws, the giant mega-liners aren't allowed to disgorge their passengers ashore, not that there'd be anywhere to put them on the overwhelmingly sheer coastline. Visitors intent on setting foot on the last continent would do well to book with a smaller, and sizably more expensive cruise line that allow landings.

Another option is to fly to some of the northern research stations out of the Chilean city of Punt Arenas. Other than a price tag of over two thousand dollars, the chances of getting good enough weather to take off and land are slim, so if you're intent on getting aground that way, leave a good five days in your schedule to accommodate the vagaries of the weather. For what it is worth, I was told that on any given day there's only a twenty percent chance of taking off.

Star Princess

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sirverity on April 1, 2008

Almost everyone visiting Antarctica arrives via ship, and in recent years the larger cruise lines such as Princess, Celebrity and Holland America have entered this market which had previously been dominated by smaller, high-end, highly-exclusive vessels.

My own visit was on the 2,600 passenger Star Princess. Sure, in many ways I envied those aboard the smaller ships for their ability to enter narrower waterways or launch zodiacs so that I could have actually set foot on shore. Yet around dinnertime, when I enjoyed better than average gourmet meals, elaborate entertainment, and a nice workout followed by a dip in the hot tub, suddenly I didn't feel so bad. This contentment level was increased when I reflected on how I didn't have to break the bank just to be there.

The large megaliners, while drawing the scorn of hard-core travel junkies, do offer the one thing that blue-collar travelers like myself can truly appreciate: Value. While a trip aboard the smaller ships cost anywhere between five to ten thousand dollars a person, an inside cabin aboard the Star Princess could be had for around two thousand dollars to start, which for a 16 day cruise is quite the deal.

This ship had all the usual amenties one would expect such as several eating venues, a disco, library, and a multitude of bars. Internet service was available, though slow, and it was kind of cool to tell my friends that I was emailing them from Antarctica. Particularly enjoyable was the onboard naturalist, in this case a Cambridge professor with a lifetime spent in the polar regions. His lectures packed the large theater to the point that it was standing room only, and even then it was worth the discomfort to hear his firsthand and often humorous tales of the history, politics and wildlife of Antarctica. It was far more education than I expected and it highly embellished and deepened my appreciation not only for what I was seeing, but also my admiration for those brave, if not insane early explorers to this incredibly remote place.

South Shetland Islands

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sirverity on April 1, 2008

Named for their Northern Hemisphere latitudinal counterparts, this island chain in the Southern Ocean is the gateway to the Antarctic as it is here where most visitors get their first glimpse of land after crossing the oft-turbulent Drake Passage. Paralleling the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and separated from it by the Bransfield Strait, this archipelago features numerous research stations, excellent wildlife viewing, and an ever-changing cast of icebergs.

My own visit here featured stops at three points of interest, beginning with Elephant Island. It was on this barren, rocky island that Ernest Shackleton and his band first made land after escaping in rowboats from the crushing pack ice of the Weddell Sea. It was a cold and dreary day when I arrived, but I suppose the island would look like the garden of Eden if I had just spent two weeks adrift on rough seas. Regardless, it was interesting to see firsthand the setting of what is perhaps one of the greatest survival stories of all time.

Not far to the west is King George Island, where our ship took us into the sheltered harbor which houses Arctowski Station, a Polish research base which was kind enough to send us one of their residents to educate us on the work being done there as well as the extremes confronted by anyone spending a winter in this beautifully hostile environment. The cluster of yellow buildings under the cliffs of a natural amphitheater really put into perspective the overwhelming power of the natural world and mankind's relative insignificance when confronted with such magnificence.

Like everywhere else in the South Shetlands, the landscape feautures jagged peaks covered with tremendous glaciers and glossy fields of snow. There were a few patches of hillside where the snow had melted and literally tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins gathered in massive colonies. We were also treated to a mother humpback whale and calf steadily making their way across the bay, diving as they fed.

To the extreme southwest of the chain is Deception Island, a flooded caldera that still experiences geothermal activity. Only smaller ships can enter inside the caldera which was once a base for the whaling industry and now offers tourists on certain ships the opportunity to actually swim in Antarctic waters, albeit naturally heated ones. This is also an excellent place to observe healthy numbers of penguin colonies, whether splashing next to your boat or dotting the shoreline and sloping mountainsides like crowds at a concert.

In summary, the South Shetland Islands are a worthy feature of an Antarctic voyage and a great place to get acclimated to the kind of scenery that awaits just across the Bransfield Strait.

Neumeyer Channel

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sirverity on April 1, 2008

This narrow waterway nestled between Anvers and Wiencke Islands is one of the scenic wonders of peninsular Antarctica. The cliffs here are not as towering as in the nearby Gerlache Strait, but the scenery is much closer and therefore easier to observe.

Our approach was from the Bismark Strait after finishing our passage through the Gerlache Strait. The highlight here was a pod of orcas that arched in and out of the water seemingly unfazed by our rather large presence. At the entrance to the Neumeyer Channel there is a man-made tower on the right hand side, one of the only reference points I had seen to allow the scale of the grandeur to be accurately appreciated.

Inside the channel there were narrow rocky 'beaches' occasionally covered by clusters of penguins but mostly empty. As is the case everywhere in Antarctica, icebergs were abundant, though somewhat smaller here than elsewhere. As always each had a unique shape, evoking images like some kind of frozen organic Rorschach Inkblot Test. Keep on the lookout for lazing seals perched atop level floes.

Passage through the channel doesn't take very long, but on a clear day, with the sunlight creating shadows and reflections on the piles of ice and snow, the visitor will be exposed to the stark beauty of this pristine environment and will subsequently have difficulty accurately describing the majesty of such a scene to any who may ask.

The Gerlache Strait

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sirverity on April 1, 2008

In the passage between Antarctica proper and a chain of ice covered islands, lies the Gerlache Strait. Named for a Belgian Antarctic explorer, this body of water is an ice-clogged channel that offers spectacular views sure to make even the most self-assured person feel small.

Your average visitor's experience is in the hands of their boat captain, and he or she in turn is at the mercy of the highly volatile changes in weather that the region is known for. In practical terms this means that there is no guarantee that you'll even be able to pass through the strait, and even if you do, there's no knowing if the fog will allow you to see far up the high cliffs that surround it. However, if the weather allows it, as it did during my visit, a cruise down this icy waterway can be a true highlight of an Antarctic voyage.

My own visit in January of 2008 lasted a mere few hours. Heading south with Anvers Island and others on our right and the continent proper to the left, skies were blue, seas were calm and the biting wind was manageable. Other than a few breaks belowdeck to warm up, I stood perched on deck with my tripod and camera, alternating between my wide-angle lens to capture the two to four thousand foot peaks rising precipitously from the waterline, and my zoom lens to capture small cliques of gentoo or adelie penguins hitching a ride on small icebergs of blue and white.

On each side of the strait there are enormous glaciers in various stages of formation which would have appeared even more impressive had there been some kind of context present to put things in scale. Our ship was the only man-made object to be seen, so I've been forced to explain to those perusing my photos how that mass of snow and ice that they see at the base of the mountain could have buried our ship and then some, even if it only looks like a hill with a snowbank.

Our passage ended in Flanders Bay just as we hooked around to the Bismarck Channel to the west, marking the southernmost point I've visited thus far. From there it was a short trip to the entrance of the Neumeyer Channel which will be discussed in another review.

All said and done this was certainly my favorite destination during my four day visit to the White Continent, and weather permitting this is probably the most dramatic scenery available to your average Antarctic cruiser.

© LP 2000-2009