At the end of 2022 I was able to tick off one of my big bucket list destinations when I travelled south to join an expedition cruise sailing to South Georgia and Antarctica. While I packed up my warm clothes and checked my spare memory cards and batteries for my camera I was bubbling over excitement, but there was also a dash of nerves as well.
The longest I’d ever spent on a ship was a week. Most trips to the Antarctic peninsula last around ten days, but when you throw in South Georgia plus a few extra days in the Falkland Islands, I was looking at a hefty three weeks at sea (although some operators do offer slightly shorter itineraries down to about 16 days). Half of the attraction of the trip was going somewhere truly remote of course, but even though I knew the ship would have a programme for sea days, I still couldn’t help but wonder exactly what we’d be doing all day as we sailed the long distances between destinations.
From the moment I boarded, my worries subsided. It helped that the weather gods were with us as we pulled away into a Southern Ocean that was like a lake. Even for those passengers who took time to find their sea legs, it was clear that we were never going to be bored for a moment – even on days when the horizon was an endless blue.
Most departures take a day to sail from Ushuaia to the Falklands, but since I was on an early season departure from Puerto Madryn there were two days to get used to life on board. They seemed to go by in a whirl. After vital safety briefings, there was a buzz in the air as everyone began to explore our new home. The birdwatchers were the first to discover which decks gave the best vantage point for wildlife watching, while others scoped out the ship’s gym so they could keep up their fitness regime.
On the first evening we all met properly as an expedition group when the captain hosted drinks in the ship’s lounge and introduced the crew. Just as importantly, the expedition leader held the first of the daily briefings, to recap what we’d done that day and talk about our plans for tomorrow. The excitement was palpable as we were shown charts and weather forecasts for the days ahead.
The next morning, I was up early to take the air before breakfast. Of course, the birdwatchers had beaten me to it, but it was a first chance to discover one of the great pleasures of being on the Southern Ocean: wildlife watching. I learned very quickly to always carry my binoculars with me. It was a great way for passengers to start bonding early in the trip as we all looked for birds, and then asked each other exactly what we had just seen. They became familiar soon enough: black-browed albatrosses with their smoky nightclub eyes, the brutally beaked giant petrel, dainty prions and charming black-and-white cape petrels. They were to be our constant companions following the ship’s wake, gliding and swooping as if flight was the most effortless thing in the world. I never got tired of seeing them.
On the second full day, our new-found ornithological skills were put to work as the guides introduced our ship’s citizen science projects. Over the voyage we logged seabird sightings and meteorology reports while at sea. The value of citizen science on was underscored during a seminar given by the guides. This was part of the rolling educational programme on board. Every guide was an expert in something, from marine biology to history and geology and the talks were a far cry from some of the dusty lectures I remembered from university. I studied zoology, but there’s a big difference between listening to a professor talk about bird anatomy and hearing a guide talk about the penguin colonies we were about to see!
As we neared the Falklands, the briefings took a more practical turn: how landings work and the protocols for getting in and out of a zodiac. We were divided in groups to allow for staggered departures from the ship to run as smoothly as possible. Our landing groups were named for penguins – a source of much amusement and another conversation starter as we continued to get to know each other by asking ‘are you a gentoo or a rockhopper?’
Whatever our penguin names, it was after those first landings in the Falkland Islands when the atmosphere on the ship really began to change. As we hiked to albatross colonies and penguin rookeries, we had our first truly shared experiences. Dinner was suddenly more sociable and the drinks in the bar a little livelier. There’s no better way to meet your fellow passengers than sharing a zodiac ride, a long walk or a wildlife encounter. We began to feel like explorers.
The two days at sea from the Falklands to South Georgia flew by. There were more talks from the guides of course, but now we had the first of thousands of our photos to go through, and new friends to sit with in the lounge while we did it. Several times I pulled a book off the shelves from the ship’s impressive polar library to read but got no further than a paragraph before I fell into conversation with a fellow passenger – or better yet, rushed to the deck when a whale spout had been spotted.
Nearing South Georgia meant crossing the Convergence, where the warmer ocean waters in the north meet the colder currents coming up from the great white south. There was no visible change in the sea, but the air temperature dropped noticeably as if to symbolically note that we were getting closer to the polar regions. On the afternoon of the second day of this leg of the trip we passed Shag Rocks – six lonely sentinels that pointed the way to South Georgia, 240km away.
South Georgia was a treasure house. From the extraordinary king penguin colonies of St Andrews Bay and Salisbury Plain to toasting ‘the Boss’ at Shackleton’s grave in Grytviken our visit there was four days of sensory overload.
Simply put, when we left South Georgia, we all needed a little downtime at sea just to process what we had just experienced. It was so overwhelming – like being in the middle of a real-life wildlife documentary – that the following two days were necessary just to rest and process what we’d seen, and then mentally get ourselves ready for the final showstopper: the Antarctic peninsula.
The seas were livelier here, but when the call came out over the tannoy that our first iceberg had been sighted, everyone was out on deck with their energy levels immediately fizzing over again. Giant fog-shrouded ice sculptures tend to do that, especially when they’re carrying a cargo of chinstrap penguins. Antarctica was near.
The White Continent was everything we could have wanted and more, but after four days of walking in the snow, having our kayaks investigated by curious leopard seals and (when moored at a predator-free anchor) doing the famous polar plunge, we were finally due for the closing leg of our voyage.
Our long circular route meant that we only had to sail once across the Drake Passage. We well and truly had our sea legs by now, but no weather forecast was more closely watched as we began our approach. When the seas did get rough on our final day, we were well-prepared. While the first day was gentle enough, as we began to close in on Ushuaia, we got a taste of what the full Drake Shake might be like. Still, the lectures from the guides never stopped, though some passengers were thankfully that our ship gave the option of watching them piped through to the televisions in their cabins for comfort.
The Beagle Channel was delightfully calm as we cruised through on our last night – the perfect setting for our final dinner on board and farewell drinks in the lounge.
At the outset of the trip, I had worried about how long I’d be at sea, and if there was too much time on the boat compared to the days we had on shore. I needn’t have been. The days were full, but more than that, the length of the trip meant that the passengers had longer to meet each other, to share experiences, and become friends. In three weeks, we had become our own little world.
Disembarking at Ushuaia, the town felt as busy as New York. I wanted to run back up the gangplank and do it all again. Still, as my inbox pinged with Christmas and New Years’ wishes a few weeks later from people who had been strangers when we got on board, it was a treat to swap photos and stories from our adventures. My only complaint? I wish we’d had more time at sea!
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