After an expensive flight on Aerolineas Argentina from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia I boarded my ship for the Antarctic. There are a number of ships departing from El Fin del Mundo to the Antarctic and you may prefer a smaller ship that can get closer to the ice. I traveled on the Marco Polo and, while it is much larger than many of the ships that explore the Antarctic, we seemed to be able to get very close to shore and to the ice. The islands all called for zodiac landings and we were equipped with large, bright red expedition parkas which were quite warm and comfortable. I somehow missed the notice that we should bring waterproof, high topped boots, but luckily they had extras in my size. It seems that a lot of people buy boots for the trip, then leave them on board when they depart. And for good reason - they don’t smell great after walking around in penguin poop for 4 or 5 days. This may not be a favorite stop for the crew since one of their tasks is to help clean the boots before we step back into the zodiacs.
Passing Cape Horn and crossing the Drake Passage to get to the Antarctic can be an adventure in itself. This area is known to have some of the roughest seas in the world. Fortunately for our journey it was relatively calm - enough rolling and tossing to provoke some motion sickness for at least a few of the passengers, but not nearly as rough as it could have been.
Our first ventures among the penguins brought us to Cuverville Island covered with the cute little Gentoo penguins. Because they are protected they have no particular fear of humans and we are advised to give them some distance. They, however, may walk right past you within inches. They seemed to love to pose for and, when not squawking or pooping, make great subjects for the camera buffs. The Gentoo seem to have a great time swimming, diving and playing on the rocks in and out of the water. Their main concern would seem to be avoiding lunch with Orcas. Killer whales view penguins pretty much the way I viewed the fabulous steaks in Buenos Aires - a treat not to be missed!
Deception Island found us walking amongst the Chinstrap penguins, so named because of the little black line that runs from one side to the other under their “chins.” They appear to be wearing little black helmets. Deception is a volcanically active island with hot springs and fumeroles, most recent eruptions in 1969 and 1970.
If you’ve seen the March of the Penguins movie then I can attest to you that they actually do nest the eggs on their feet. My guide told me that if the egg were allowed to rest on the ground (ice) for just a few minutes it would freeze and kill the chick inside. I did have the opportunity of watching an exchange of an egg from one parent to another. And, it did not touch the ground for even an instant.
The penguin rookeries can be very noisy. Each of these fascinating creatures has it’s own distinctive call and that is used for identification. It’s hard to imagine being able to distinguish one call out of the thousands that are crying out at once, but somehow they manage. When the parent leaves the chicks to dive into the water for food and returns amid all the ruckus, she may wander about crying out until she and the chick are finally reunited. Oh, and if you’re wondering if these cute little birds are edible I’ll just say that when Francis Drake sailed through on his circumnavigation of the world he stopped to kill about a thousand of the little critters to restock his larder!
Penguins aside, the Antarctic is still an amazing destination. The ice is almost unimaginable. While in the area there were news reports of a one hundred mile long iceberg that had broken off and was floating in a direction that threatened some passages for penguins. This would have meant enormous difficulties and tremendous extension of distances to reach open water to feed and bring food back for chicks. As it turned out the icebergs were swept off by ocean waters into an area of less concern for the penguins.
There were other large icebergs that could be seen in the distance. Many of them dwarfed even a ship as large as the Marco Polo. I have seen and heard the “calving” of glaciers in Alaska and this occurrence in Antarctica was equally spectacular although somewhat different. I didn’t experience the sharp rifle like retorts here. The sounds seemed more of a low rumble followed by enormous portions of ice falling into the sea. I’m sure that smaller ships could actually feel the movement of the water with each succeeding fall of ice (calving) into the sea.
Life on board a ship in the Antarctic is a bit different than in other locations. It appeared to me that almost everyone was here not so much for the cruise, but for the destination. Much of the daytime hours were filled with shore visits, destination lectures and people just hanging out on the bow looking to see whatever was visible, be it icebergs, whales or sea lions and seals floating on small bergs in the water. Of course, there were a few destination collectors who were there to garner another continent for their list of conquests, but I think even they had to be awed by the spectacular grandeur of the last frontier. When you go, hopefully it will be for the experience and not just to add another continent to your "bucket list." Enjoy the experience and Keep on Traveling!