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(2014 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Antarctica conjures images of penguins, snow and icebergs. 

Many of us also recall vivid tales of exploration, where heroic explorers such as Britain’s Sir Ernest Shackleton and Norway’s Roald Amundsen raced to reach the South Pole.

The southernmost continent had been on our bucket list, so last December my husband Eric and I booked on Norwegian company Hurtigruten’s 19-day Great Antarctic Expedition. MV Fram would depart Ushuaia, Argentina, bound for the Falkland, South Georgia and the South Orkney islands—destination Antarctica.

During Fram’s at-sea days, eight scientists lectured on topics such as Antarctica’s wildlife, geology, explorers and life on research stations. Passengers became human sponges soaking up knowledge. The bonus? Everyone could ask more questions during on-land excursions where these scientists became expedition guides.

While approaching the Falklands, excitement grew, particularly because Fram sailed on the expanse of royal blue ocean perfectly alone save for thrilling visits from curious whales, albatross and petrels. During his lecture, Chilean scientist Dr. Rudolf Thomann recounted Shackleton’s doomed 1914 exploration of Antarctica. His crew’s arduous journey after Endurance was destroyed by heaving sea ice gave us a deep appreciation of Fram’s state-of-the-art technology and comfort.

Land Ahoy!

The Falkland archipelago appeared. Soon, pilot boats plied the waters, conveying everyone ashore where resident Ian Strange greeted us.

“Welcome to New Island!” he cried. “Hike over the hill to the rockhopper penguin rookery. But stay on the trail so native grasses aren’t trampled, please.”

Ascending the gentle rise, the breeze delivered the full-on fragrance of penguins. With 50,000 or so birds, smells are inevitable and, I concluded, not as nasty as predicted.

Rockhoppers are about 55 centimetres high, with white breasts, black backs and vermillion beaks. Golden feathers sprout from their heads, lending them a “dude-with-attitude” appearance. Large, powerful, bubble-gum pink feet lend them their name, but I remain perplexed how these flightless birds ascend 40-metre cliffs.

Black-browed albatrosses swirled above us on our return walk to Strange’s small museum, where we gained insights into the solitary life Ian and his daughter lead. Being the only residents of New Island, tourists represent their link to the world, so albeit brief conversations can be profound.

Ian explained how settlers—whalers and sailors—imported livestock on purpose and rats by chance, both of which have practically eradicated native wildlife. This is why the Stranges are committed to restoring native flora and fauna to New Island.

Their solitude contrasted with the community of 2,000 residents of Stanley, the capital of Falklands. It resembles an English village, complete with scarlet telephone boxes, Christ Church Cathedral, Government House, plus the Falklands Museum and National Trust.

Exploring boosted our appetite and where to eat but Malvina House Hotel? Its name reflects ongoing bitter conflicts over ownership of this archipelago, which Britain claims as “Falklands” but Argentina contests is their “Islas Malvinas.”

Want a lively discussion with locals? Broach politics or environment!                            

On to South Georgia

Departing Falklands, Fram plied 1,400 kilometres to South Georgia, a two-day trip where we experienced notorious Drake Passage—that stretch of unruly water between Argentina and Antarctica. The frisson of anxiety among us regarding seasickness transformed to full-on reality as Fram pitched amid 10-metre swells. Those of us who’d prepared by wearing patches, however, found life tolerable.

Helpfully, expedition leader Anja Erdmann’s daily announcements included weather and sea-swell forecasts. After leaving Falklands she explained that now, ice rules. Both she and Captain Arild Hårvik explained sea ice might prevent Fram from approaching the Orkneys.

“We appreciate your flexibility and sense of adventure,” became their mantra. Ice represents the primary reason Hurtigruten calls their Antarctic voyages “expeditions,” not “cruises,” because there’s no guarantee Fram can reach advertised destinations.

When we landed on South Georgia, everyone was delighted. It is home to thousands of king penguins—stately birds, which are the second-largest species, slightly smaller than emperors, those heroic stars of March of the Penguins.

While hiking to rookeries along grassy or beach paths, we cautiously stepped past gigantic elephant and fur seals basking with their babies. Seals are unpredictable despite looking cute, so we afforded them a wide berth and walked in groups.

Whereas Falklands are low-lying, South Georgia features towering glacier and snow-clad peaks, the tallest just shy of 3,000 metres. In his lecture on the region’s geology, Steffen Biersack noted, “The geology of Antarctica reflects the story of Continental Drift. Whereas Falkland rocks originated in present South Africa, the mountains of South Georgia and Antarctica broke away from the Andes 30 million years ago.”

Here we also visited Grytviken, a former Norwegian whaling station, complete with 100-year-old chapel, museum, plus fascinating rusting detritus of the whaling industry strewn along the beach. The British Government has spent an estimated six million pounds cleaning up the waste; a testament both to good intentions and the enormity of environmental cleanup.

The Antarctic Peninsula

Back on board Fram, scientist-lecturer Manuel Marin informed us about the 1959 creation of the International Antarctic Treaty. It reserves the land and ice shelves south of 60° latitude for scientific research and promotion of peace and international cooperation.

Inevitably, as the snow- and glacier-draped Antarctic Peninsula approached, our excitement reached fever pitch. A visit from 14 humpback whales further inspired passengers and crew alike. Calves and parents effortlessly dove beneath Fram, affording up-close-and-personal views of some of Earth’s largest mammals. Meanwhile, chinstrap penguins promenaded lopsidedly on icebergs, plopping into the ocean whereupon they transformed into birds of “flight” as they elegantly flew through the water, resembling dolphins.

Everywhere we landed in Antarctica, we were warmly welcomed by researchers at British, Ukrainian and Polish research stations who become starved for company. Because Fram was one of the first vessels to visit as the sea ice was starting to break up, we represented fresh faces and news from Norway, Canada, China and other countries passengers called home.

Not only could we chat with researchers, some of us signed up to kayak amid icebergs and growlers (baby icebergs), and others among us won the lottery when we camped overnight in tents at tranquil Neko Harbour.

There, because the latitude dictates the sun never sets, it was difficult to sleep. Mind you, an avalanche across the bay, the incessant cackling of nearby gentoo penguins defending their nests, and the total thrill of actually camping on Antarctica might have had something to do with sleeplessness.

Unforgettable Antarctica. Will I return? Oh yes. . . once it’s in your blood, I believe it’s there to stay.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit: Hurtigruten ASA: hurtigruten.com

Falkland Islands Tourist Board: falklandislands.com

South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands: sgisland.gs

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