Antarctica Stories and Tips

A Boat Journey to the French Antarctic Islands

Penguins in the night in Kerguelen Island Photo,

The Antarctic continent belongs, in theory, to the entire Humankind and can not be exploited for commercial purposes, but the following seven countries have pretensions to it: Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and France. USA has the greatest scientific base in the Antarctica: McMurdo (a whole village with over one thousand people living permanently there), apart from Palmer in the Antarctica Peninsula, plus a third base in the Geographical South Pole. Russia has many bases, including one in the Magnetic South Pole. Italy, Spain, China, Brazil, Japan, India, Germany, and so on, until forty countries also have bases in Antarctica.

The Antarctic Islands have a different status and are officially owned by several countries. Since there are no airports in the French Austral and Antarctic Islands the unique way to travel to them is by the scientific ship MARION DUFRESNE, which sails from Reunion Island four times a year and accepts only 14 visitors in each voyage (those who have family members in the islands are given preference to book the places); the rest are scientists, maintenance personnel, cooks, etc. Indeed, they are very inaccessible islands, but it is worth to get there if you wish to observe the Antarctic animal’s life in their milieu, without being bothered by the humans. Apart from different kinds of penguins and seals you can watch sea elephants, sea leopards, whales, orcas, albatross, petrels, and many other birds. The whole journey took me 29 days with 28 nights. From Reunion to Crozet there are six days of navigation, then three more to Kerguelen, two more until Saint Paul, which is uninhabited by humans, and a few more hours to Amsterdam. Finally we returned to Reunion (six more days). Apart from Malagasies of Madagascar, who worked in the ship machines, downstairs, and rarely mixed with the French, the rest of the crew on the ship were all French, including visitors. I was the only "foreigner" in that Terra Incognita.

We were anxious to reach our first Island, CROZET, but the scientists of the Alfred Faure base were still more eager than us to meet new faces. The welcome was superlative: lots of food, drinks and sweets. We landed there through our 5 seats helicopter because there are no ports in the islands, only small piers for the zodiacs. The pilot was very careful to choose a no direct route from the boat to the island without over flying the numerous albatross nests. Crozet Island, apart from the colonies of penguins, is particular because of the albatross. The more characteristics are the black eyebrow ones, with a weight of about 5 kilos. When they open their wings they reach a width of two and a half metres. After the copious lunch we made a long trekking to their nests. The babies adopt an anchorite position in their nests and wait for weeks to their parents, without moving, even if it rains, snows or is very cold. Their parents have to fly sometimes very far away during days to bring food.

KERGUELEN is, with much difference, greater than Crozet or Amsterdam Islands. Its surface is almost similar to Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact Kerguelen is an archipelago composed by 400 islands. The base is called Port aux Français ("Paf" in short) and is the most important in the French Antarctic Islands.
I was so lucky to see a sea leopard near my refuge! Later I was told that they usually search for penguins close to the Antarctic continent and rarely in these islands. Before eating the penguins they play throwing them up in the air several times.
Sea elephants are the more giant animals of Kerguelen Island; they measure up to six metres long. They are clumsy and crawl on earth, but in the ocean they can submerge reaching a depth of 1500 metres to look for food. I saw hundreds of them in the island lying lazily, sleeping, because they know that on earth they have no enemies. In the sea orcas are their main predator; an orca can swallow up a sea elephant weighing 3 tons.

AMSTERDAM Island was first sighted in 1522 by the Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano (captain of the caravel Victoria after Magellan’s death in Philippines), when returning home during the first circumnavigation of the world in History. He could not disembark because of the bad weather conditions. Our Marion Dufresne too had difficulties reaching the island. The base there is called Martin de Vivies. The characteristic of Amsterdam are the seals; there are hundreds, thousands of them besides the base and walk around undisturbed. Although they do not fear the humans they do not allow to be touched by them. The males are twom long and weigh about 165 kilos. They form harems of up to 15 females, and when they show sign of weakness are immediately challenged by a young exemplar to fight for the harem. Sometimes one of the two dies. They eat krill, calamari, and fish, and recognize their children by touching their noses, in a way that reminds the Maori manner of New Zealand.

SAINT PAUL consists in a volcanic cone with a caldera, has a surface of 7 square kilometres and is located at 54km from Amsterdam Island. We stopped for a few hours to replace the food and medicines in a wooden refuge, as the maritime laws stipulate, just in case some sailing boat in trouble could need help or shelter. In Saint Paul, apart from seals, there are thousands of Rockhoppers penguins. They are called thus because they jump until the top of the hills, and are also known as crested penguins, or macaroni, for the brightly coloured feathers on their heads. At one time Rockhoppers and other penguins were hunted for their oil, but today are protected. They have a stature of about 60 centimetres and a weight of 4 kilos, while in Crozet and Kerguelen live the Royal penguin, with a size of 90cm and a weight of 13 kilos. In the Antarctic continent lives the Emperor, the tallest of the 17 kinds of penguins in the Antarctica, reaching a height of 120cm.

While navigating we slept in the cabins of the boat. There were singles, doubles and triples, with bathroom inside, table, chairs, radio with music, but not TV or video. Everyday the Malagasies cleaned our rooms and changed the linen. Usually in the cruises there are all facilities for the tourists such as sauna, Jacuzzi, but MARION DUFRESNE was a scientific ship and the only ludic activity was a gymnasium. When there was storm we were forced to secure ourselves to the beds with the help of belts to avoid falling down. In the islands we had basic refuges, simple, but convenient, although some visitors preferred to sleep in the boat instead, and those with family members in the Islands could use the dormitory of the bases. We had to carry with us sleeping bags because it was very cold at night, and the refuges had not heaters. Toilets were in the nature, together with the sea elephants and penguins. For showers we waited until we got to the bases or to our boat.

Onboard the MARION DUFRESNE we assisted every day to scientific conferences offered by the specialists travelling with us. They gave us lectures about the sea streams in the Antarctic Ocean, the climate changes, the tectonic plaques of our planet, the last theory about the Gondwana continent, the travelling icebergs, the sea pirates who board and rob the ships in the Malacca Passage, the illegal fishing boats, the cruel killing of the whales in the 21st century, etc. Apart from that we had every morning a video documental about the life of the Antarctic animals: penguins, whales, sea leopards, and all kind of birds. And after dinner we watched films, mainly French, with actors such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Gerard Depardieu, and Edith Piaf. After the movie we all went to the cafeteria for action. The nights with pleasant breeze we used to go out to the deck and walk to admire the starry firmament and the meteorites. Thanks to this routine one night we saw the Austral Dawn.

The bases of Crozet, Kerguelen and Amsterdam have cafeterias with a sort of pub, a library and a cinema where the personnel members, known as hibernators, gather after dinner. In summer there are about 50 people in each base, but in winter this number decreases to 20. Practically all hibernators are young, and spend periods from 3 months to 1 year in the islands. Many of them get addiction to that lonely and quite life and repeat the period, but others experiment psychological changes in their behaviour due to seeing the same people around them everyday. The "syndrome of Ker" (Kerguelen) makes friends forever after 3 months of living together.

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