Antarctica trip report

Posted by on Dec 26, 2022 in Stuff, What's New?

I visited Antarctica in December 2022 after several years of research and planning. The appeal lies in its unique geography, natural features and political status, as well as the historical context of its discovery and exploration. I had read many accounts of the first explorers to visit these lands and I was hooked. Also, after visiting six continents, the final seventh one was even more appealing. Finally, Antarctica’s unique status as regulated by the Antarctic Treaty Systems was another interesting feature and reason to visit.

Trips to Antarctica are expensive and prices keep going up. After careful research I chose Antarpply Expeditions for their attractive pricing, small ship and good reviews.

The company’s customer support was very good. One will obviously have too many questions for such a trip and they answered all emails promptly, professionally and in a friendly manner which I appreciated.

My initial booking was for March 2022 but in August 2021 they canceled the entire 2021-2022 season due to Covid19. I was hugely disappointed but in hindsight it was the right call. Other outfits struggled with the pandemic, canceled cruises on short notice (even after people were already in Argentina), had to turn back mid-cruise or had ships quarantined and unable to disembark passengers – all just terrible situations.

My booking was switched to December 2022 and about 5-6 months before that I started getting ready. One of the first steps was getting insurance with a coverage of minimum USD 100k (including evacuation). After some research I decided on Atlas International by WorldTrips bought via Insubuy. It was a smooth process with no complaints.

Next, Antarpply had some paperwork and information requirements, including signing a contract and various forms to be filled out, all of which were pretty straigtforward.

The MV Ushuaia ship that would take me to Antarctica leaves from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina. I booked flights about four months in advance. Flights from Europe to South America got very expensive after 2019, as I would find out. This was all part of the price to be paid, I guess.

I booked with KLM and Air France for the flights from Europe to Buenos Aires and back, and with Aerolineas Argentinas for the flights to Ushuaia and back. Hotels were easy to find with (Flor Austral in Ushuaia was a good choice).

As flying became somewhat hectic after easing of Covid19 restrictions I allowed 1-2 days between flights to cover any rescheduling due to flight delays or cancelations, or lost luggage. Also, Buenos Aires is a beautiful city that deserves some time for visiting, and Ushuaia is very nice as well (I had visited Buenos Aires previously on my Argentina and Uruguay trip).

Getting the right gear for this trip was another important part of planning. Antarpply provides a guide for this and there are various resources available online. Multiple layers are the way to go – fleece or wool (no cotton) undergarments, jackets and pants, as well as a good (but not the heaviest) parka jacket. Gear also included three pairs of good thermal socks to wear under the rubber boots Antarpply provides; head covering, gloves and neck warmer; waterproof pants that go over boots; shoes and clothes to wear on board the ship and in Ushuaia and Buenos Aires. Sunscreen and important medicines were also on my list.

A 70-300mm lens for photography was one of the best investments for this trip – very useful for photographing everything from penguins and seals to icebergs and glaciers. I also had the kit 18-55mm lens for landscape photos, but used it less frequently.

Antarpply also had a Covid19 protocol which required proof of vaccination and proof of a negative test taken 48 hours before boarding (self-administered RAT tests were accepted which was convenient).

After everything was in place it was finally time to go. I flew for three hours to Amsterdam and from there to Buenos Aires on a somewhat tiring 14-hour flight. Buenos Aires in Summer was as nice as I remembered it and the grills and alfajores were as good as always. I revisited Calle Florida and Obelisco and then went to the Galeria Pacifica shopping centre located in a beautiful building.

I flew to Ushuaia the following day and spent two nights there before boarding. I found Ushuaia to be a nice town with a lively atmoshphere located in a scenic area. The main commercial street is San Martin Avenue filled with nice shops, cafes and restaurants. Plaza Malvinas and the surrounding area is also nice and filled with monuments dedicated to Argentina’s war with the UK for the Falkland/Malvinas islands. Puerto Turistico from where ships leave for Antarctica is another scenic site.

I also visited the Maritime Museum which was very good. The museum is located in the building of a former prison which is an interesting feature in itself. On display are exhibits on Ushuaia and its history, the former prison building which houses the museum, exploration of Antarctica, art and more. Very nice.

Embarkation on the MV Ushuaia, Antarpply’s ship, took place at around 16:00 in Puerto Turistico and was a straightforward process. My double cabin (which I did not share) was small but efficient. This first day of sailing offered scenic views of the Beagle Channel and included several briefings and presentations to get settled on board.

The Ushuaia is an older ship and it’s a bit rough around the edges but did its job very well. The crew on board was one of the expedition’s highlights and a very strong point reommending Antarpply. They were all professional, friendly and very cool, and made the trip even more enjoyable.

There were presentations held daily on various topics related to Antarctica’s history, politics and fauna which were interesting.

As mentioned, the Ushuaia is a smaller ship. This is important because all passengers can take part in all landings at the same time, whereas with larger ships this isn’t possible; there’s a limit of 100 persons applied to landings in Antarctica. A smaller ship also allows for more streamlined logistics.

I also need to mention the food served on board which was very good every single day and added to the experience. The menu was varied and everything was delicious and nicely presented.

During the first night of sailing we entered the infamous Drake Passage which features some of the most turbulent waters on the planet. Crossing it is the price you have to pay for seeing Antarctica with your own eyes. I was pleased to experience some of its calmer states during this crossing with swells of 2-3 metres. But the ship still swayed with the waters and I got seasick during this first night (even with appropriate medication; the cinnarizine-based Natropas worked on the return trip, though).

On the second day of the trip the ship continued its way through the Drake, swaying back and forth, without notable events or activities besides daily presentations. I gradually felt better and was back on my feet towards the end of the day.

The following morning sailing became smoother as we entered Antarctic waters. Finally there! I spotted a number of birds, some small penguins and a humpback whale.

We reached the South Shetland islands in the early afternoon and got some much awaited first views of Antarctic lands in calm waters and sunny weather. It’s not often a dream that seemed far-fetched for a long time becomes reality, but the first sight of Antarctica was one of these moments and it was awe inspiring. Picture-perfect landscapes of snow-covered mountains, huge cliffs and rocks, deep blue waters bathed in the sun, it was all a great start to my time visiting the seventh continent.

Excitement only grew from there. Zodiac rubber boats were prepared for our first Antarctic landing at a place called Yankee Harbour. The landing was shorter but very nice and a great taste of things to come. After crossing calm waters in the zodiacs and a short hike on land we reached a gentoo colony with cute little penguins wandering around and making funny noises. A few elephant seals seals were also present to complete the picture.

After returning to the ship we sailed to Half Moon Island and passed the Argentine Camara research station and some impressive glaciers.

The fourth day of the Antarctic cruise found the ship inside the bay of scenic Deception Island, a spectacular circular island formed by a volcanic crater. Good weather continued. We passed by Argentinian Deception Station and Spanish Gabriel de Castilla research stations on the island.

We landed at Telefon Bay for a cool hike to a secondary caldera. The same day we did a second landing on Deception Island at Whalers’ Bay, site of a former whaling station and of a former British air base (in operation at different points in time). I enjoyed this visit a lot as a chance to see some real Antarctic history. Impressive. The island’s volcano is active and geothermal activity is present which made the sand and waters at the shore warm, another interesting feature of the island.

After this great start, the day saw us sailing south, leaving the South Shetland islands behind and getting closer to the Antarctic peninsula. As we drew nearer the scenery changed to more glaciers, much more snow on land and many icebergs in the water. It felt like being in a National Geographic documentary, only better.

We ended the day with a third landing, this time at Hydrurga Rocks, another spectacular location. The waters were far from calm this time which made the zodiac crossing even more exciting. The rocks hosted cute chinstrap penguins with some keeping eggs warm in their nests while others made themselves useful gathering the occasional small stone for home improvement. Too cute. The site itself was very scenic, there were a couple of weddell seals present and the entire experience was outstanding. The day ended with some spectacular sunlight reflecting off faraway peaks.

The midnight sun is a nice feature of these Southern latitudes in December. During my trip there was continuous daylight all day and night long. I couldn’t resist waking up at night and checking out icebergs and frozen landscapes in full daylight through the cabin’s small window. I even saw a whale from the cabin window at one point. It all felt like a dream at times.

After navigating the Gerlache Strait, the following day we reached Bancroft Bay, another incredibly scenic location featuring still waters filled with icebergs of all shapes and sizes radiating intense blue colors from below.

We started the day’s activities with a zodiac cruise through the bay’s icebergs. Waters remained still, there was almost no wind and it started snowing lightly. The entire experience was just magical. We could spot krill in the waters, the backbone of Antarctica’s ecosystem.

I also visited the ship’s bridge in the morning. Later in the day we spotted a couple of very active humpback whales while sailing to our next destination.

Our next stop was Orne Harbour. We were supposed to have our first landing on continental Antarctica here but heavy ice around the landing point made this impossible. We spent some time in the area as it was another scenic location and had fun spotting more humpback whales. In the evening we started sailing once again towards our next destination.

We started the expedition’s sixth day by sailing through the narrow Lemaire Channel, a scenic (though foggy at the time) route. This also marked the Southernmost point we reached on our trip.

Returning North on the same day we proceeded to Paradise Bay. While named for the abundance of whales to be hunted in the area in older times, this was a place of spectacular natural beauty.

We made a landing here at Skontorp Cove which was notable in a number of ways. First, the landing spot provided excellent views of Paradise Bay, featured a rather steep snow-covered hill that could be climbed and hosted a small colony of funky gentoo penguins. Additionally, this landing took place on continental Antarctica itself unlike previous landings which were on Antarctic islands. Finally, the landing spot also hosted the Argentinain Brown research station. The station was closed at the time but it was still nice to see a bit of current human presence in Antarctica from up close. All in all it was a very cool and interesting landing.

The day’s activities didn’t stop there. After the landing we did a longer zociac cruise in Paradise Bay and it was spectacular. Impressive mountains and glaciers surrounded very still dark blue waters filled with icebergs of all shapes, sizes and shades of white and blue. We also saw some more wedell seals in this area. It was magical once again.

The following day, our last before heading back, was supposed to include a visit to the museum and post office at Port Lockroy. This looked very cool but had to be canceled to speed up our return and avoid incoming storms. Plans and schedules change all the time in Antarctica and we were very lucky to see and experience everything we did on our trip. It was decided the Port Lockroy visit would be replaced by a zodiac cruise in an area called Patagonia Bay, but this was scrapped as well due to heavy winds. We did see a lot of humpback whale activity there, though.

We started heading back and entered the Drake in the early afternoon hours. During the crossing back to Argentina we navigated the passage in somewhat more turbulent waters with swells of 3-4 metres, occasionally going to 4-5 or even 7 metres. It all went well, though, and after another two days we navigated the Beagle Channel and disembarked in Ushuaia.

The final day spent on board included an Antarctic certificates award ceremony, a champagne toast and a wrap-up of the expedition schedule. It was a nice ending to this adventure. This was also the day Argentina won the world soccer cup final, another cool experience with all the celebrations from passengers and the Argentinian crew.

While challenging due to its unique conditions, the Drake crossings, one day of seasickness, temperatures ranging between -5 and -20 degrees Celsius and logistics needed for this trip, this was one of the most spectacular experiences of my life and it was all worth it. Antarctica is amazing.

My pictures from this trip are available here.