A small ship cruise to Antarctica was a dream of mine for decades. I finally got the opportunity to go this last November. Hurtigruten offered a voyage featuring their newest ship, the MS Roald Amundsen, round trip from Punta Arenas (including flights from Santiago). The 17-day itinerary proposed stops at Cape Horn and Stanley in the Falkland Islands, cruising through Patagonia, and five days in Antarctica.
1. Glacier Alley Giants
Our first morning dawned bright and clear as we cruised through the Beagle Channel. Giant tidewater glaciers -- shining white in the sun with hints of turquoise blue, and indications of what was to come-- crept down the mountains as we passed. We spent the day admiring the massive rivers of ice flowing down the mountains to the crystal clear waters of the Patagonian fjords. Pia, Holanda, Francia, Alemania, Espana -- the glaciers’ names were announced as we passed by. Soaking in the Jacuzzi on the stern, drink in hand, was a perfect start to a voyage tracing the path of the early Antarctic explorers -- Robert Scott, Fridtjof Nansen, Ernest Shackleton, and our ship’s namesake, Roald Amundsen.
2. The Wandering Albatross
The fine weather continued so we put in at Cape Horn. A sturdy wooden staircase led up the steep cliffs. We met Chilean navy captain Otaiza and his family. They’re assigned to tend to the lighthouse (and any tourists who stop by). They happily posed for photos and sold us souvenirs and cards we could send home. Wide wooden boardwalks led across the boggy landscape to the famous Albatross Monument dedicated to the 10,000 mostly forgotten sailors who’ve lost their lives battling ferocious storms while rounding the Horn.
We spent the next day enjoying the amenities aboard our splendid new ship as we “braved” the infamous Drake Passage. I spent time relaxing in the Explorer Lounge, meeting new friends over jigsaw puzzles, and steaming in the hot tub and sauna. I also really enjoyed the daily lectures on Antarctic wildlife and early explorers. I liked participating in the Polar Collective (a citizen science project). Becky -- the onboard ornithologist -- led the daily eBird survey. Katya taught us more about clouds while we collected data for NASA’s Cloud Observer program
3. Hiking On Half Moon Island
The fabulous weather allowed us to arrive early at Half Moon Island -- our first stop in Antarctica. We waited for our assigned boat groups to be announced. Dressed in our (ship supplied) muck boots, jackets, and life vests, we lined up in the ship’s “black box” to board the RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) that would ferry us to shore. The expedition crew had marked out the territory for our shore excursion. They kept a watchful eye out for anyone wandering off or getting too close to any wildlife. Strict rules of engagement (no closer than five meters) were enforced.
We located a group of chinstrap penguins huddling atop a rocky outcrop high on a ridge. Further on, the landscape opened up to overlook a huge glacier across the water. Another half mile trek led to a larger colony of gentoo penguins. Lowering clouds and darkening skies signaled it was time to return to the ship.
4. Orne Harbor
Every voyage is different. Weather conditions and other vessels in the area influence the captain’s decisions. This is expedition cruising (even if the ship is luxurious), and flexibility is key. Orne Harbor turned out to be our only landing on the Antarctic mainland.
I was so excited, just to be “On The Ice”! Sunny skies and clear, cool days allowed us to really savor it. Hiking over the next ridge, hoping to find a penguin colony. Scanning the waterline, looking for seals, whales, and icebergs to photograph. Kayaking through calm waters with rafts of penguins keeping pace. Silent but for the dip of your oars and the thumps and thuds of the nearby growlers and ’bergy bits. Camping overnight in the wilderness, thousands of miles from civilization. Nights so dark, you could see the stars in all their splendor. Just remember the practicalities -- no real bathroom, only the ice “throne” (toilet) made especially for us.
5. A Walk Onto The Pack Ice
We spent the next week exploring Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The MS Roald Amundsen is perfectly fitted for this type of voyage. With her hybrid propulsion system, she can sail silently on battery power (it also saves fuel and cuts down on emissions). Her ice-strengthened hull allows passage through the ice fields that most other ships must give a wide berth. Her computerized dynamic positioning system eliminates the need to anchor, so no noise to scare off the wildlife, and no damage to the sea bottom environment.
We saw just how valuable this all was one morning as our captain drove the ship right into the pack ice. Our wake made the only mark in the untouched sheets of ice overlaying the dark ocean. We eagerly watched from the rails as our crew tested the ice for safety (thickness). Then, group by group, we descended the gangway to frolic in the virgin snow. We tromped around the cordoned-off area, turning it to slush as we marveled at the miles of pristine wilderness just past the limits allowed us. Settling for selfies alongside the ship and snow angels on the ice, we rejoined the ship to admire the spectacular scenery scrolling past as we cruised through narrow Lemaire Channel with the sun slowly sinking behind the surrounding mountains.
6. Vernadsky’s World Famous Vodka
We were welcomed to tour Ukraine’s Vernadsky Station on Galindez Island. We saw the kitchen, radio room, workshops, laboratories, and rec rooms, including the copy-cat British pub where we played a game of pool. I liked looking at the faded photos lining the walls -- ships from 100 years ago bringing famous Antarctic explorers alongside more recent scientific soccer teams. The researchers were happy to show us around and share their homemade vodka. We could also shop in the “southernmost souvenir shop in the world” and send a postcard home.
7. The ‘Real’ Antarctica
I was thrilled to experience the “real” Antarctica and visit the largest known colony of gentoo penguins at Cuverville Island. We finally got hit with the expected freezing snow, ice, and howling winds. Before this, most days I was much too hot in my long underwear. On this day, the wind chilled, and I couldn’t keep the snow off my camera. Not allowed to approach the penguins, we huddled together waiting out the squall. Soon enough, it cleared and the sun appeared. Smiling, I soaked up the sun, sitting in the fresh snow. I delighted in watching the thousands of birds and their antics. Grunting and groaning at each other in their mating rituals. Stealing treasured pebbles from their neighbors’ nests. Surfing down the hills on their bellies, pushing themselves along with their stubby little wings. Climbing back up takes some serious effort, but they take it in stride, trucking uphill like tiny animated tanks in tuxedos.
8. Go Inside A Sleeping Volcano
Cruising through Telefon Bay, inside the volcanic crater of Deception Island, we passed an abandoned whaling station baking on the beach. Our RIBs deposited us on a pebbly black beach to meet a solitary crabeater seal. A few brave souls took advantage of the slightly warmer water due to the local volcanic action and took the polar plunge. Brrrr! I clambered up the steep path leading to a bare black moonscape with steaming fumaroles in the distance. We could hike to the rim of the caldera for fantastic views, but some would have liked to explore further. As we slipped through narrow Neptune’s Bellows late afternoon, leaving the island behind, we were escorted out to sea by a family of whales and rafts of porpoising penguins.
9. Another Day For The Birds
A cool and foggy morning found us hiking the sheep-shorn rolling green hills of West Point Island in search of a promised colony of rockhopper penguins with their fantastical yellow eyebrows. Albatross and rockhoppers shared the rookery atop steep seaside cliffs. Our guides managed the traffic so we wouldn’t stress the birds. We were only allowed to struggle along the slippery paths around the cliff tops among the nesting birds in small groups. I chose to accept a jeep back to a local farm where the table was laid for us. We had tea and our fill of a dozen delicious treats before heading back to the beach. To our great delight, pods of Commerson’s dolphins raced our RIBs to the ship.
The Ice Awaits
Those were just a few of the unforgettable experiences I had on this Hurtigruten cruise. It’s an amazing adventure and now possible to do it in comfort and style, unlike those early explorers. My ship was fairly accessible, with wide doors, passages, and elevators. Getting in and out of the RIBs may be hard for some people, and a couple of hikes had some steep spots. The crew helped all they could, but Antarctica is a very remote and extreme environment. Hurtigruten requires a doctor’s report and proof of insurance before boarding.
I’d recommend going later in the season (October to March). It was fantastic to see the pristine scenery, but November isn’t the best time to see wildlife. In December and January, the penguin chicks start to hatch and the seal pups are born. February should be prime time to see whales. It’s also when seals and fluffy penguin chicks start growing into their black and white adult plumage. Any time is worth it, just go!
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