Penguins, penguins, penguins!
Heading south for the winter would normally mean lots of sun, a nice sandy beach and a chance to get a tan in January. But that depends on how far south you go. When I left a very cold and rainy London last December I had packed my thermals and woolly hat. There's no chance for sunbathing in Antarctica! I joined the Clipper Adventurer for our 20-day Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia (PSG) expedition.
From Ushuaia we headed to the Falkland Islands (the Malvinas to the Argentinians), a little group of islands with a big history. But more importantly there is also a great variety of wildlife to see - black browed albatross, various types of penguins including Magellanic, Gentoo and comical Rockhoppers, and playful little dolphins that followed our Zodiac inflatable boats across the harbour at West Point Island. We also had the chance to spend a day in Stanley, the Islands' largest settlement. There's plenty to see in Stanley, including a memorial to those who died in the 1982 war and a fantastic little museum packed to the rafters with all things Falklands. From there it was back to sea and on to South Georgia, which for me was the highlight of the trip.
South Georgia is a wild, remote place with some of the best scenery the area has to offer. Vast mountain ranges, sweeping glaciers and wide beaches literally covered with penguins, penguins and more penguins! The abundance of wildlife is amazing. On almost every landing we did there was a greeting party of King penguins, irritable fur seals and fat, lazy elephant seals. It was hard to decide whether to go exploring or find a spot to sit and just watch the penguins go about their business, completely unbothered by the small hoard of over-awed tourists invading their beach. South Georgia also has a rich history. The first whaling stations started here, and the remains are still to be seen at Stromness and Leith Harbour. The story of the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men is a big part of the island's history as well and there is an opportunity to pay your respects at Shackleton's grave at Grytviken.
December is an adventurous time to travel and true to form the weather was changeable and this season the ice was heavy. Heading to the Antarctic Peninsula we encountered pack ice that was thick enough to force us to turn back and find another route. But it is an experience in itself ploughing slowly through pack ice. The best spot to be was up on deck watching the ice shift and move beneath the bow of the ship. Pack ice was one thing but the huge tabular icebergs were something else. We spent one morning sailing through a corridor of giant white and blue bergs, some the size of city tower blocks. To see almost every passenger on the ship on the decks in complete silence tells you what a sight these bergs are. We eventually reached the Peninsula and set foot on the seventh continent, watched the entire time by a curious group of Adelie penguins who looked like they were as amused by us as we were by them! There are many places to visit in and around the Peninsula including the South Shetland Islands that offer some fantastic hiking opportunities and the chance to see a few more penguins, just in case you haven’t seen enough already! We all too soon were heading north again but not before our expedition leader found the time to fit in a polar swim for the few people on board who were crazy enough to strip off and jump into the Southern Ocean.
Any visit to Antarctica is an experience not to be missed but if you have the time (and the sea legs!), the Falkland Islands and South Georgia adds something else to it. The history, incredible scenery, wildlife and complete remoteness of these tiny British territories make it well worth the effort to get there. There are a few long sea days but boredom is never an issue. The expedition crew provide plenty of informative lectures on everything Antarctic, from biology and geology to what it is like to live at an Antarctic research base for a winter or two. All the ships have well stocked libraries and it is easy to spend an hour or two watching the albatross and petrels gliding effortlessly behind the ship. Travelling to Antarctica requires an open mind and adventurous spirit. There are no fixed itineraries or schedules - everything is ruled by waves, weather and ice.....lots of it.
Cat Griffin, Exodus' Polar Sales Consultant