An Antarctica Cruise is still a fairly adventurous endeavour, sailing in a part of the world that is very remote, but exceedingly beautiful. And the penguins, ahh the penguins - so cute, so many, mating, and building nests.
We flew to Buenos Aires and were met by the Quark Expeditions staff, checked in, had a delicious dinner and then flew to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. We boarded the Ocean Endeavour cruise ship in the afternoon and sailed out of Ushuaia down the Beagle Channel, past Puerto Williams in Chile, to the Drake Passage.
After all the hype about the Drake Passage, the weather was fairly calm most of the time, with only occasional waves. I listened and learned as the experts of the Quark Expeditions crew presented topics like Penguins, the history of Antarctic exploration, the danger of plastic to wildlife and fish, and photography.
The highlight of the passage was the birds that flew along in the ship's wake - Brown Antarctic Skua, Southern Giant Antarctic Petrel, Northern Giant Petrel, Cape Petrel, and Black-browed Albatross. On the afternoon of the second day we saw our first icebergs and then land - the Aitcho Islands, which is part of the South Shetland Islands.
We cruised through the South Shetland Aitcho Islands with penguins jumping out of the water as they swam toward land to mate, and a seal lying on a piece of ice, before dropping anchor. The crew explained how to put on a life jacket and then we put on our warm clothes and boots and disembarked for the first time into a zodiac and cruised to Barrientos Island. We stepped over the side of the zodiac into the water on the shore and saw our first Gentoo penguin colonies. Since it was still early in the season, the penguins were still deciding who to mate with while others were waiting for the snow to melt before they could build a nest.
I found the best way to enjoy the penguins and really see what was going on was to stand still and just watch them. Some were walking around looking for a mate; others were bowing their heads to show a potential mate their beaks could be used to pick up stones to make their nest. Eventually my patience paid off when two penguins appeared to hold hands as they decided to mate and walked together past me.
We then continued our hike up the ridge to see a Chinstrap Penguin colony, the chinstrap name obvious from the narrow black band under its head which makes it appear as if it were wearing a black helmet. An elephant seal lay on the snow showing its finger nails.
After visiting the penguin colonies, we reboarded the zodiacs and cruised around the icebergs and nearby islands, before happily returning to the ship. What a wonderful first shore excursion!
The cruise ship sailed past a research station and icebergs before the narrow opening with steep cliffs to Deception Island, called Neptunes Bellows, came into view. Once inside the Port Foster sheltered bay, a modern Brazil ship was anchored near the Old Whaling Station in Whaler's Bay. Penguins jumped out of the water onto some ice and then jumped back in again.
Since it is early in the season, a lot of the ice still covered the bay and the cruise ship broke its way through some of the ice. For the only time on the cruise we were allowed to walk around the front of the ship and we posed for a group photo.
The weather cleared revealing a panoramic view of glacier-clad mountainous islands as we neared our next excursion, Cuverville Island. On one side is the Arctowski Peninsula with Mount Fourcade, Henryk Peak, Pulfrich Peak, Sable Pinnacles, Mount Dedo, Wild Spur, Hubl Peak, and Wheatstone Glacier and on the other side Clifford Peak on Anvers Island and then Mount Bulcke, Mount Parry and Harvey Heights on Brabant Island before arriving at Ronge Island with Mount Britannia and Mount Tennant.
We boarded the zodiacs and cruised around Cuverville Island with views of the lichen-clad rocky coast, the large glacier on the southern side, beautifully shaped icebergs and Gentoo penguins scampering out of the water and over the rocks to the shore. There were also a few Adelie penguins who looked lost among the Gentoos, brown skuas, colourful blue-eyed shag birds, and an elephant seal.
We then landed on the island and walked around the Gentoo penguin colonies, once again taking time to watch their mating rituals, and then reboarded the cruise ship to head for our next destination.
The cruise ship pulled up anchor from Cuverville Island and sailed between the Van Beneden Cap on Arctowski Peninsula and Mount Britannia on Ronge Island to Neko Harbour before entering Paradise Harbour and arriving at the Argentinian Almirante Brown Station. The panorama included Mount Inverleith, Triangle Peak, Hauron Peak, Mount Banck, Bryde Island, and Lemaire Island.
We boarded the zodiacs and cruised by the buildings of the station, still with a lot of snow around. Penguins were on the shore staking out their mating territory. We continued in loose ice past icebergs and multi-coloured lichen on the cliffs with blue-eyed shags nesting and a snow petrel flying by. Then it was back to the ship to return towards Neko Harbour.
The ship cruised the short distance back from Paradise Harbour to Neko Harbour and took the zodiacs to land for the first time on Antarctica; for most of us this was our seventh continent. We climbed up the steep snow trail past Gentoo penguin colonies to an expansive viewpoint of the surrounding glaciers flowing down into the sea.
The snow had melted on a lot of the rocks, so we were able to witness Gentoo penguins picking up small stones in their beaks and placing them into the nests. We then cruised around seeing black transparent ice for the first time.
The ship cruised back from Neko Harbour to Danco Island, just a short distance from Cuverville Island. We boarded the zodiacs and cruised around with views of icebergs and the Arctowski Peninsula with Hubl Peak and huge glaciers flowing down into the sea. On the other side once again was Ronge Island with Mount Britannia. We also saw some more birds including an Antarctic Tern, a Kelp Gull, a Brown Skua, and a Snowy Sheathbill.
For those of us who had signed up to camp on Antarctica, alas, this was the last night we could do so, but the weather wasn't cooperating. So, many of us decided to bivvy outside on the deck of the ship - cold, windy and fun!
The next morning after breakfast, we again boarded the zodiacs and landed on Danco Island, seeing Gentoo penguin colonies again. We climbed up the hill to the top of the island with panoramic view of the Arctowski Peninsula with Sable Pinnacles, Wild Spur, and Hubl Peak, Ronge Island with Mount Britannia, and Cuverville Island.
Back on the ship, we cruised to Foyn Harbour and boarded the zodiacs in bad weather - snowing, windy and poor visibility. The highlight was cruising around the old whaling ship, the Gouvernoren, which caught fire in early 1915 and was abandoned In Foyn Harbour. An iceberg floated by with a small circular window and the colourful blue-eyed Shags were in the water and a seal rested on the blowing snow. After returning to the ship about half of the tourists jumped into the cold water in the Polar Plunge.
We then headed back across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia, thanking our expedition crew for a wonderful adventure.