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Trip report: ANTARCTIC PENINSULA – Fiona crosses the Polar Circle

March 2010

Fiona“First it was a creaking, groaning sound, then a sharp crack, like a gunshot. Finally a whooshing thump and suddenly the expedition staff were shouting “Off the beach, off the beach!”. We ran from the shoreline and watched the waves sucked from the shore, then
a wall of water bore down on us, catching numerous penguins unaware and sending them headlong into the boiling surf. This was Niko Bay, close to the Antarctic Peninsula and we had just witnessed the ‘calving’ of a magnificent ice-blue glacier. I, along with a handful of loyal clients, had joined the new Dutch ship Plancius for a voyage of discovery starting in Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip – crossing the notorious Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands and further south down the Antarctic Peninsula to cross the Polar Circle at 66 degrees south.

The voyage was in late March, technically late in the season, but we were astounded by how much we saw, all weathers thrown at us and a superb range of wildlife and seabirds. Enormous majestic icebergs shot through with cobalt-blue stripes floated quietly by as we sailed gently through startlingly narrow channels, necks craned to catch the top of the snowy peaks on either side. I was glad of my seven layers of clothing, and the sturdy rubber boots loaned to all passengers as we zodiac-cruised in driving hail and horizontal snow blizzards, with an average of two shore landings per day. I was impressed with the variety and quality – an abundance of whaling stations one day, a beautifully restored British base another. Inquisitive fur seals, standing tall on their front flippers, long whiskers quivering, for a better view; the grunts and snorts of a group of enormous elephant seals; the comical penguin waddle of Gentoos, Chinstraps and Adelis – and possibly the southernmost sighting of a Macaroni penguin, with his yellow topknot clearly distinguishing him from his other penguin neighbours. Without doubt my favourite day was an unforgettable encounter with a hunting leopard seal which spent half an hour circling our zodiac and playing cat and mouse with several unfortunate penguins who were captured, released and caught again by this most efficient of hunters.

Re-crossing the Drake Passage, the remainder of the voyage flew by with fascinating lectures on a variety of topics from flora and fauna to historical accounts of former intrepid expeditions. One can barely imagine how those tough and stoic voyagers could have managed in such an unforgiving climate (in some cases sacrificing their lives) to chart many of the places we visit today – from the comfort of our delightful ship with its cosy cabins, delicious food and inviting bar!”

“My visit to the White Continent will stay with me forever – if you would like to know more or to plan your voyage, please do call me.”