While in Punta Arenas, Chile, in southern Patagonia, we succeeded in last-minute booking of two berths on a 10-day Antarctica marine mammals cruise that left from Ushuaia 3 days later.
With hindsight, we think we scored the perfect trip for us. The ship was a no-frills, but very comfortable, former Soviet research vessel repurposed for tourism, still with a Russian crew. Equipped for 100 passengers, this end-of-season trip had only 56. The trip was run by OneOcean Expeditions, who we would recommend heartily.
They offered twice-daily kayak excursions (we got two of the 16 kayak slots available) which ended up far exceeding our expectations. We received educational presentations from expert staff that included marine mammal and marine bird biologists, a British historian who spent two years in Antarctica as a young man in the 1970s, a photographer, and a team of whale scientists that used a crossbow to collect skin biopsies and a net to collect whale poop for research.
Antarctica is a truly remarkable place. Completely inhospitable to humans, it is teeming with life. It was a privilege to glimpse it. Every day we saw whales, seals, and penguins in all directions. It was awesome to realize that the numbers of animals we saw were a tiny fraction of the pre-whaling numbers. After crossing the Drake Passage, which separates South America from the Antarctic continent, we passed through the “polar front” at about 60°S latitude, where the air and water temperatures suddenly dropped a few degrees. In these cold waters of the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic krill thrives and is the keystone species in the ocean’s ecosystem. The total biomass of krill is among the largest of any species in the world, and everything here depends on it, feeding in turn the rest of the world’s oceans. Presentations included a screening of Happy Feet 2, an animated musical in which krill play a big role (a OneOcean staff member provided technical consulting for the picture).
Land of ice
As we neared the shore of the Antarctic Peninsula, magnificent landscapes and icescapes came into view. The land was mountainous and covered with pure-white glaciers that came right to the sea. Black rock was visible protruding from the ice along parts of the shoreline and cliffs. Penguins breed on these rocks, and we often saw them climbing well-used trails over ice fields between the ocean shore and the rock outcroppings.
We saw ice in all shapes and sizes, from huge tabular icebergs, — flat-topped blocks of ice broken off of distant ice sheets, now afloat and migrating slowly with wind and current, to small, blue icebergs that had been beautifully sculpted by wind and water as they slowly melted and occasionally rolled, exposing their underside to the air.
It was in the kayaks that we had incredibly sensory, unforgettable experiences. We paddled numerous times amid huge humpback and small, elusive minke whales — the guides called these excursions “whale soup”. Sometimes, the humpbacks were “logging” in the distance — resting, floating, and breathing at long intervals. Other times, they were feeding — following swarms of krill right underneath and through our flotilla of kayaks. At one point, large air bubbles suddenly erupted on the water’s surface approaching, and then next to Clark’s kayak, followed shortly by the open jaws of a humpback whale scooping up a mouthful of krill that had just been corralled by the whales’ bubble net - amazing!
Groups of penguins darted like torpedoes under our boats then launched themselves out of the water at top speed for a breath of air. The ones still on-shore molting squawked raucously as they waddled around and picked feathers out of their mangy-looking coats, probably eager to join their kin in the water.
We paddled quietly past icebergs to discover seals sleeping on them. Our kayaks pushed through millimeters-thick newly formed sea ice, on which antarctic terns had alighted to rest. We heard our paddles against the slushy brash ice, the popping of air released from tiny bubbles in melting icebergs, the thunder of distant glaciers moving and calving, and the ever-present breath of the whales, often times invisible to us.
The 11-minute video below is a great summary of our kayaking experience on the trip. Thanks to Jaime Sharp, one of our kayak guides, for producing and sharing this video.
Human presence in Antarctica
Antarctica is protected as a scientific preserve by an international treaty under which nations do not enforce their territorial claims or perform military actions. Our ship stopped at Almirante Brown, an Argentine research station and brought their team on board to enjoy a meal of fresh, non-canned food. We picked up the staff of four from the historic British Port Lockroy (former WWII military base, now “post office” and museum) at the end of their season and brought them back to Ushuaia with us. We spotted remnants of an old whaling facility at a harbor inside a volcanic crater.
Back on open ocean heading toward Ushuaia, we were mesmerized by the albatross soaring, faster than the ship, just above the water, making s-turns over the waves and barely touching the tip of their outstretched wing to the water’s surface at the bottom of each arc of their seemly effortless flight.
Our Track My Tour entries for March 3-13 provide a very brief daily journal of our Antarctica experience, including the locations of each of the trip's excursions.
We are now in Salta, Argentina, and will blog soon about our time with Mom and Dad. As soon as we get our visas, we'll be hopping back on our bikes and riding north for Bolivia.
To find out where we are at any given moment, check our Track My Tour page, where we post a photo and blurb every day that we’re on the move. Also, you can get more up-to-the-minute, spontaneous updates if you follow Clark's accounts on Instagram and/or Facebook.