Our intrepid sales consultant Sarah recently journeyed from Ushuaia to the vast white wilderness of Antarctica on a once-in-a-lifetime polar cruise.
The Drake Passage
The shortest route to Antarctica is via the infamous Drake Passage, supposedly the roughest sea passage in the world, said to have only two temperaments: ‘Drake Shake’, or ’Drake Lake’. I had worried that if we had a rough crossing that I would get seasick and it would ruin the whole trip. Fortunately, we were lucky to have a ‘Drake Lake’ crossing – virtually still waters – which is quite uncommon.
In Spanish, the Drake Passage is known as the Mar de Hoces, after the Spanish marine explorer Francisco de Hoces, who is believed to have first discovered it in 1525. In English, it’s named after Sir Francis Drake, who later discovered it in 1578. It wasn’t until 1616 that it was first traversed by the Dutch navigator William Schouten.
During the passage, we had various ship briefings and safety talks about using the Zodiacs, the small power boats we’d be using for our excursions off the ship. We were provided with waterproof boots and Polar parkas in a fetching bright yellow, and took our own outdoor gear for examination at bio-security, as we couldn’t take anything contaminated out onto the continent. And there were opportunities to attend lectures on board about glaciers, the discovery of Antarctica, and a brief photography starter talk, the last of which I was most keen on as a photography enthusiast myself. Our expedition was accompanied by several professional photographers who were on hand to help passengers refine their technique.
We also had time to familiarise ourselves with our vessel. The Ocean Diamond is one of the fastest ships in Antarctica, and it’s also very comfortable, with elegant and modern cabins and several large common spaces, including a lounge, a library, and a spacious restaurant. The panoramic observation lounge gave us great views of the beautiful polar scenery, and it wasn’t long before we were catching our first glimpses of whales, penguins, seals, and loads of birdlife!
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
One of the main drawing points for this tour was that we’d be crossing the Antarctic Circle (66.5 degrees south of the equator), which not many polar tours do as you have to travel so much further south. When we crossed on the fifth day of the tour, everyone gathered on the aft deck for a glass of bubbly.
The Polar Plunge
It was then time for a chillier experience: the 'Polar Plunge'!
Those who were brave enough were called forward. We were led down to one of the Zodiac platforms, each had a safety rope tied around our waist, and then it was time to take the plunge... literally!
A rite of passage for adventurous travellers, the ‘Polar Plunge’ is pretty much exactly what you’d expect: a leap from the relative comfort of the platform into icy cold Antarctic waters.
On the day of my plunge, the water was minus two degrees Celsius, but you don’t stay in long enough to really feel it, and the adrenaline is enough to keep you warm. The experience is quick, but memorable. Once out of the water, you’re wrapped in a towel and offered a shot of whisky or Jaeger to warm you back up.
Later that day, I had my first chance to get out onto the Antarctic waters during a paddling excursion to Crystal Sound and Detaille Island. It was a serene experience, just floating about on the water, and getting up close to icebergs populated by seals and penguins. The crew set up a little bar on one of the ice floats, so I could enjoy a Baileys and hot chocolate and let the awesome reality of the experience sink in.
On the sixth day, we had our first opportunity to see colonies of penguins on an excursion to Red Rock Ridge, so named because of its conspicuous reddish tinge. We cruised around the bay in our Zodiacs, viewing the beautiful blue icebergs until it was our turn to land. We saw a small colony of Adélie penguin chicks, with some remaining adults, and the experience was everything I’d hoped for.
In the afternoon, we visited Stonington Island, which is the site of a historic research station used by both the UK and the USA from 1940-1974. We explored the island and its buildings, which are not often seen by tourists, being so far south.
In between excursions, there was plenty to keep us entertained, from lectures about the history and geography of the region to enjoying meals and drinks in the restaurant or observing fur seals, Leopard seals and even breaching Humpback whales from the observation lounge.
The Kodak Gap
On the eighth morning, everyone went out on deck to observe as our captain navigated the narrow and towering passages of the Lemaire Channel. 11km and just 700m wide at its narrowest, it’s so photogenic that it’s been called the ‘Kodak Gap’. Oddly, the Belgian explorer Charles Lemaire after whom this channel is named never actually set foot in Antarctica; it was his countryman Adrien de Gerlache who honoured him by giving it his name.
That evening, we had a special treat for dinner: a barbecue out on the aft deck, made all the more memorable as we watched the sun set over the looming mountains and icebergs surrounding us.
The highlight of my trip was a visit to the dark, rocky Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest gatherings of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica. I settled into a spot near a penguin ‘highway’ and watched as they passed by. Again, as these penguins were so young, they were inquisitive towards visitors, and several approached me to test if my coat and boots were edible. Getting this close to truly wild animals, and on their terms, really was a dream come true.
This was followed by an evening excursion around Skontorp Cove, each Zodiac accompanied by a professional photographer who would help us refine our shooting in low light and during sunsets.
We also explored Foyn Harbour, where the wrecked whaling ship Guvernøren is partially submerged at such an angle that it’s possible to float over the top of it, peering down through clear water at the wreck below.
Returning to Ushuaia
The water began to turn against us in the final days of the cruise, so unfortunately it became too windy to stay out in the Zodiacs for too long. That said, we did get the chance to land at Palaver Point, ticking off our third species of penguin, Chinstraps, and while sailing around the bay we had some close encounters with several species of whale.
As a bad weather front was now making its way through the Drake Passage, our crew took the decision to start making our way back to mainland Argentina to avoid a rough crossing. We were all quite happy with this. As we transited back, due to the engines turning up the water behind the ship, we were soon being accompanied by hundreds of birds swooping about the ship, some with wingspans as big as three metres – a breath-taking display to bring our cruise to a close.
Back in Ushuaia, we all got dressed up for the Captain’s Dinner, and went on to celebrate an incredible tour in the bar.
GROUP TOUR from £6115 for 14 days