Conquering the 7th Continent

In March 2016, John, one of Swoop’s resident Polar experts, took an expeditionary cruise to the White Continent. An abundance of icebergs, wildlife and a fair degree of feisty weather all made for an unforgettable Antarctic experience.

Ushuaia – the Gateway to Antarctica

Arriving in Ushuaia was probably one of the most exciting and equally underwhelming experiences of my life. Exciting, because it’s the southerly most city on the planet, and underwhelming because it’s a bit rubbish really; were it not for the monumental mountains surrounding the town, one could call Ushuaia quite ugly. It’s a tourist town from where most people start or end some sort of an adventure – for me it was to be my departure point for a cruise to Antarctica.

Meeting the Ship

I boarded the vessel ‘Akademik Sergey Vavilov’ (Vavilov) and was shown to my cabin, which was basic but comfortable. I was sharing with a Swiss man, who I believe was partnered with me because of his age, and I’m guessing because he was also European. I had worried what my cabin-mate would be like, but in the end we spent so little time in the cabin, that even if we had not hit it off, it wouldn’t have mattered one bit. As it happened, Stefan and I had a great time together; after all we were both there for the same reasons – mostly penguins and whales!

The Vavilov is an extremely stable vessel, with internal pumps, which pump water from one side of the boat to the other through every wave cycle, thus mitigating the effects of the wave. This stability made my Drake crossing very easy, and onboard lectures kept me entertained. It took around two days until we caught sight of the South Shetland Islands. I really wanted to shout “iceberg dead ahead!” but the expedition leader was already announcing over the vessel tannoy “fin whales off the port side”, so we all went to take a look at our first whales.

Arrival on the 7th Continent

It was the next morning after sailing across the Bransfield Strait that I finally saw my 7th Continent for the first time. That’s when it hit me how utterly massive Antarctica is. I had seen myriad photos, and watched a thousand videos, and though it’s a cliche to say, still nothing had prepared me. The mountains are huge, with glaciers carving paths through the valleys down to the blue, perfect sea hosting icebergs the size of houses.

It was on this morning I watched my first ever unpolluted sunrise, and wow! The colours were so vivid. That same evening I was treated to a moon rising from the sea, huge and orange, just as spectacular.

Then it was down to business; the plan for the next five days was to see and do as much as possible. We had hoped for two landings (excursions) every day, but as the weather controls most things in Antarctica, that didn’t happen. Of the five days exploring, we managed just two days with two landings; on the other three we managed only one. But our sightings of whales and other wildlife from the decks of the Vavilov more than made up for that. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything; being out on the Zodiacs (a small motorised craft) is of course is great fun, but the nature of smaller vessels such as the Vavilov means that they can still be controlled very easily, slowing down, turning and even stopping if wildlife is spotted from deck.

Setting foot on the Peninsula

On the second day in Antarctica, we touched down on terra firma!  I took one giant step for John and walked past a few penguins and onto my 7th continent. Awesome, arbitrary, and for many a real highlight of a their Antarctica visit. I found a further 20 people on board who had just completed seven continents. Someone threw a snowball, and somehow a snowball fight began and seemed a fitting celebration to mark my arrival in Antarctica. Then I topped it off by building a snow-penguin; I wonder how long he will stand there for?

I had heard that March has less to offer in terms of wildlife than the peak season months (December to February). This may very well be true, but if you are looking for whales, as I was, March is probably the right time to go.

Kayak Joy

My kayaking experience was a moment not dissimilar to the epiphany that I experienced stepping off an aeroplane for the first time as a backpacker: a strange feeling of freedom and awesomeness sweeping over me. I’m not one to be awed easily and so it was a surprising moment. Humpback whales swimming half a metre from me, blowing smelly water vapour from their blowholes, porpoising penguins leaping through the water, and looking up at tower block sized icebergs; all humbling stuff. Best of all, I left my camera on board the Vavilov, so from the kayak, with my own eyes I just simply watched Antarctica. Brilliant.

When John did have his camera in hand, he captured some remarkable pictures and also made a mini video documentary about his whole adventure. Now that he is home, get in touch with John, so he can help you plan your trip of a lifetime to Antarctica. Swoop has over ten year’s expertise in arranging unforgettable experiences on the White Continent.

John Newby

Swoop Polar Specialist

John first set foot from the UK, aged 20, on a flight to South Africa. He quickly realised he wanted to visit every country in the world. He found his way to Finland, where he became a fisherman and spent 13 years living under the northern lights, just south of the Arctic Circle. After leaving Finland, John forged a career in travel, before returning to his much-loved snowy roots and speciality: the polar regions.