Our long-awaited trip to the world’s 7th continent took place in January. We were originally scheduled to sail on Viking’s Polaris ship in December, right before our Viking Chilean Fjords and South America cruise. However, the week prior to our scheduled sailing the Polaris was struck by a rogue wave while crossing the Drake Passage. The wave blew out a number of stateroom windows with such force that, sadly, one person was killed and four others were injured. Viking notified us that our cruise was canceled the night before we were to fly to Buenos Aires to begin the trip. Fortunately, since we had been expecting the call, after hearing of the tragic accident, we had proactively worked with our travel agent to secure a spot on Polaris’ sister ship, the Octantis, in January, following our South America cruise. The cruise was nearly full so we were lucky to get a stateroom.
If interested, here is a link to an article in the BBC about the accident: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-63846157
The Drake Passage is named after Sir Francis Drake. While he never sailed the passage himself, one of his ships, back in 1578, identified the crucial waterway which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The first documented sailing through the Drake Passage wasn’t until 1616. The Passage was a very important part of international trade routes until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Crossing the passage was a very difficult and dangerous task for the old wooden ships. With modern ship designs, utilizing state-of-the-art sonar and advanced navigational systems, this journey is much less risky and noticeably smoother. However, as shown by the Polaris incident, there remains risk anytime you are at sea in a vessel. Rogue waves are unpredictable.
If you want to explore Antarctica then you must cross the famous Drake Passage. This takes roughly 36 hours by sea, from Ushuaia, Argentina. It is said that the Drake Passage has two states: the ‘Drake Lake’ and the ‘Drake Shake’. Obviously, ‘Drake Lake’ is the preferred state! However, the newer ships can handle the ‘Drake Shake’ conditions quite well.
If you are wondering why this Passage is the most treacherous waterway in the world it is because two oceans collide here. There is a massive convergence of waves, wind, and currents as the Atlantic Ocean meets up with the Pacific Ocean. Due to this convergence, the Drake Passage has a very unique climate. You have the cooler, more humid, and subpolar conditions of the Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, colliding with the more frigid and dry Antarctic conditions. This can result in turbulent weather conditions.
I’m happy to say that our sailing across the Drake Passage, in both directions, was relatively smooth. We had some noticeable swells for a period of time, but the ship handled them well and neither of us got seasick.
When we arrived in our stateroom we found our red Viking winter parkas on our bed. It is customary for cruise lines traveling to Antarctica to gift such jackets to the guests. We greatly appreciated them. It meant that we didn’t have to lug our big ski jackets from home and it also took away the risk of us arriving for the cruise without a jacket if our luggage was lost by the airlines, a situation in which so many people had to deal with during January of this year. It was not the finest moment for any of the airlines.
Our room, like all others on the ship, came with a huge picture window that was amazing. The top half can be lowered electronically, enabling you to have a perfectly clear viewing platform even if you are still in your pajamas. One early morning I looked out and saw two whales frolicking right below my window.
It took us about 40 hours to sail to our first destination in Antarctica. We spent our free time enjoying the ship. The Octantis is in its second year sailing Antarctica. It has a capacity of 378 passengers. We were told that our sailing was close to capacity, if not full. It never felt that way though. We love Viking and how the staff makes everyone feel like they are the most important people on the cruise. The food is wonderful too!
While sailing across the Drake Passage I took the opportunity to practice my bird photography. I was surprised at how many birds could be spotted in an area where there is no land. I hadn’t really thought about birds living at sea before. The largest of these birds is the Royal Albatross. As a matter of fact, the Royal Albatross is one of the world’s largest flying birds with wingspans reaching 12 feet.
Also spotted a Black-Browed Albatros.
And a Southern Fulmar, from the petrel family.
Time went by fairly quickly and before we knew it we were at Fournier Bay. Everybody was so excited to see the snow-covered landscape in the distance. It was amazing.
The staff celebrated our arrival with hot chocolate and Irish Coffees. Charlie and I enjoyed a drink on the ship’s bow.
We arrived in Fournier Bay early enough for the toys to come out. The toys include SOBs (Special Operation Boats), zodiacs, kayaks, and two 6-passenger submarines. The SOBs hold about 2 dozen passengers. They zoom around the water looking for wildlife and unique landscapes. The Zodiacs tour at a slower pace, closer to the ship, and are also used to transport passengers between the ship and shore.
From our stateroom window, I was able to capture a couple of zodiacs being welcomed to Antarctica by a humpback whale.
There were so many whales in this area. It was so much fun watching them in this environment.
The Antarctica landscape is breathtaking! This particular area looked like a huge oyster shell to me.
Below is a slideshow of some more landscape shots taken in Fournier Bay. Scroll to see them all.
I also loved all of the icebergs floating around. Many are enormous in size. Note that the sides of the icebergs which are smooth were previously underwater. Icebergs can flip over without much notice so you have to be careful and keep a good distance from them.
Slide through the slideshow below.
While we had very little wind on our first day, we were bombarded with it on our second day. We had up to 60-knot winds at Neko Harbour, and it was very cold. All expeditions were canceled. At times, we had snow blowing forcibly sideways. It was brutal. But, it was still gorgeous! And when the weather finally broke it was actually nice standing outside.
We found ourselves in Paradise Bay for our 3rd day. We had very light winds. It consistently snowed all day, but it was fluffy dry snow. As a side note, Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. The air is extremely dry! The temperature was about 30 degrees, and as the day progressed ice formed across the water’s surface. However, it didn’t feel very cold. We ended up removing layers in the afternoon and didn’t even need gloves.
This was probably our favorite destination for a number of reasons. First of all, we got to go kayaking through the ice and snow. It was so much fun. You wear a full body dry suit so if by some rare chance you fall into the water you will be ok.
We came upon a very photogenic iceberg!
We parked our kayaks and went ashore. This was a big deal, as it was our first landing on the 7th continent. Not all scheduled landings are on the continent, and depending on the weather during one’s Antarctica trip you may never get the experience. Charlie has visited all other 6 continents so being able to get on the 7th, and final, continent was an achievement for him. And he made it memorable, as after everyone had walked away from their kayaks our guide happened to see something shiny in the water. She bent down and pulled out an iPhone. Totally perplexed, wondering how and when it could have gotten there, she came to the realization that someone in the group must have dropped it. Turns out, it was Charlie. Good news was that it still worked!
We were welcomed to the 7th Continent by this cute penguin. He quickly became tired of us and laid down for a nap.
Later in the day, I captured this photo of another group of kayakers. It gives a broader view of the area, and the weather conditions we kayaked through.
After kayaking, we returned to the ship and then jumped on a zodiac for our shore landing at Brown Station. Brown Station is an Argentine Antarctic base and scientific research station. It was unmanned at the time, so we were able to tour the area.
We hiked up the hill for some nice views looking back at the ship.
The station is surrounded by Gentoo penguins.
This was my favorite little guy.
Back on the ship we watched the whales having a great time playing together. I could not believe how many whales we saw swimming right next to the ship. Unfortunately, the snow made it such that I couldn’t capture any great photos. But it sure was fun just watching them for hours and hours.
I spotted this ship in the distance and decided it was not the type of ship I wanted to cross the Drake Passage in. Nope. No thank you.
There were some interesting icebergs in the area.
This one was my favorite, as it looks like a jet ski.
One final photo from our visit to Paradise Bay, taken during a short moment of blue skies. The weather can change in an instant in Antarctica.
As we departed Paradise Bay the captain advised us that we were going to meet up with Viking’s Polaris ship (this is the one that was damaged by the rogue wave back in December). The Polaris left Ushuaia a day or so after our ship did and they had some packages for our crew.
We spent half of our 4th day at Damoy Point. We visited a well-preserved hut that was built in 1973 and was used for several years as a British summer air facility and transit station for scientific personnel. It was last occupied in 1993 and was due to be torn down in 2007. However, it was saved and preserved as a historic site. It takes its place as Historic Site and Monument No. 84 – one of only 33 buildings, and the sole transit facility, on the continent protected by the Antarctic Treaty.
The rooms are frozen in time, with displays of everyday paraphernalia.
After our shore excursion, we took a ride on an SOB. We spotted a seal taking a rest on an iceberg along the way.
We sailed past the Point Lockroy post office. This is considered to be the world’s most remote post office. It is affectionately known as the Penguin Post Office. This year 6,000 people applied for a position managing the post office. Four British women, who consider themselves very lucky, at least according to a USA Today article, were selected. They spent five months living in close quarters without a flushing toilet, or running water, limited communications with the outside world, and limited power. Part of me says I’d love to do this job, as the scenery is stunning. Then reality sets in and I realize that I’d be stuck on Point Lockroy stamping envelopes or postcards for 5 months. Not exactly my cup of tea. (no British pun intended)
Everyone on our ship was given a postcard to fill out and then a Viking representative took all of the cards to the post office to be processed and sent. It took just over a month before we received the postcard at home.
We saw another sailboat. This one looked quite old and shabby as if it was left here from the 16 or 1700s. I definitely wouldn’t want to sail across the Drake Passage on it.
We awoke to bright blue skies on day 5. I was ecstatic! By late afternoon the clouds crept in and covered Hidden Bay, but not before I got quite a few good photos taken.
Below is a slideshow of more landscape photos, after the blue skies faded away.
We also spotted another seal, while out on our zodiac cruise.
At the end of the day our captain treated us to a sail through the spectacular Lemaire Channel. The channel is exceptionally calm and beautifully photogenic. Oftentimes, the channel is blocked by large icebergs. We were fortunate in that we had clear passage. We had traversed the channel the day before, but it was too foggy to see anything so the captain decided to give it another shot.
The photo below was from the prior night. I didn’t even bother going out on the bow.
We found ourselves at Enterprise Island on day 6 of our cruise. There were no opportunities to go ashore, but we were scheduled for a Zodiac ride and a dive in the submarine. We were most excited about the submarine excursion, as it is such a rare opportunity. I mean, how many people do you know that have gone down in a true scientific submarine, and have gone down in the waters of Antarctica? Since diving in Antarctica is so new, the submarine captain never knows what you’ll see. As a matter of fact, folks on a January 2022 Viking submarine excursion spotted a rare giant phantom jellyfish. Only a handful of people have ever laid eyes on one. It is around 30 feet long, with four billowing arms and a domed head. It was larger than the submarine itself. We, on the other hand, got to see some much smaller creatures. It was an amazing experience. We were so fortunate to have had the opportunity.
Everybody is positioned in a particular seat based on weight. As it turned out, Charlie and I were seated on opposite sides of the sub. Once seated, the platform of seats rotates so everybody is facing directly outward.
Our Sub captain. You can’t be claustrophobic for this job.
The submarine was based not too far offshore. The depth to the sea floor in this area was just about 300 ft.
During our Zodiac ride we toured around the remains of the Gouvernoren, a shipwrecked whaling vessel. This Norwegian factory ship was deliberately run aground after catching fire in 1915. Everybody on board miraculously survived.
Below is a slideshow of photos from the area of Enterprise Island.
It was predicted that our final day in Antarctica would be extremely windy during the morning hours. So, the captain advised us that we would hunker down in a cove for the morning and then move over to Cuverville Island for afternoon excursions.
The cove gave us some pretty good coverage from the winds and I was able to get out on the deck and capture some great photos. My favorite shot was of this whale diving down in front of a fantastic iceberg.
I also enjoyed capturing these penguins swimming near the ship.
And the landscape was stunning.
Swipe through the slideshow below.
In the afternoon we went ashore Cuverville Island. There are a large number of Gentoo penguin colonies on the island. I spotted this one Chinstrap penguin amongst all of the Gentoos. He was ADORABLE!
Below is a slideshow of the Gentoo Penguins.
Oddly enough, there was a seal sleeping right by the penguins. Do they not realize that they could be the seal’s lunch?
A couple of photos from our hike on the island:
After being on the island for about 90 minutes we were advised that all excursions had been canceled and that we needed to evacuate the island post haste. We made our way back to the zodiacs and were on one of the last rides back to the ship. The winds had picked up significantly and were creating some noticeable swells. Although we drove back slowly, the waves were abusive and crashed over the hull and covered those sitting in the front couple of seats. I was using my jacket to cover my camera equipment and remained hunkered in the rear of the craft. We made it back safely and I thought it was the best ride ever! It was a lot of fun.
I was able to get a few final landscape shots of Antarctica before the captain started navigating us back across the Drake Passage, toward Ushuaia.
The map below shows where all of our stops were.
Our trip to Antarctica was everything we had hoped for. I would go back in a heartbeat. I’ve never seen anything like it. We are truly blessed to have had such an opportunity to see, and experience, this part of the world. I’ll end this post with some miscellaneous pictures.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post. I apologize for taking so long to get it posted. Stay tuned for my future posts on Portugal, including Madeira Island.