Nowhere on the planet compares to the pristine beauty of Antarctica, the so-called ‘White Continent’ that is revered for its dramatic snowscapes, huge glaciers, sculptural icebergs, and truly amazing wildlife. The sheer size and scientific significance of what is technically a desert exceeds all expectations, and many find going on holiday to this ice-crowned wilderness with no permanent human habitation a truly soul-stirring experience.
Blog: Grant's bucket list dream come true
For our Latin America specialist Grant, visiting Antarctica was a real trip of a lifetime. Here, he explains why the ‘White Continent’ is so worth a visit and shares some of his favourite photos from his voyage of discovery…
"…The land looks like a fairy tale." Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer (1872-1928)
My seventh continent was finally about to be ticked off and a bucket list dream realised. As we sailed out through the Beagle Channel, our last sighting of land for the next couple of days, there was a definite buzz of excitement amongst everyone. The next 11 nights on board the luxury Hebridean Sky expedition ship were going to be a lot of fun… even more so if weather and sea conditions were favourable.
The first and last couple of days on the shorter Antarctic cruises typically involve crossing the infamous 1000km stretch of water known as the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans converge. Feared by sailors for centuries with reports of 30m high rogue waves capsizing ships, I was certainly hoping for the ‘Drake Lake’ rather than the ‘Drake Shake’, and fortunately luck was on our side. Cape petrels, as well as the larger species of albatross – sooty, light-mantled and wandering – circled off the stern of the ship allowing photographers to train their photographic eye.
There were also regular lectures covering everything from glaciology to polar history which were both informative and entertaining, and the chefs continuously provided top-notch fare out of an impossibly small galley. Thanks to the calm waters, by lunchtime on day three we had made it into the shelter of the South Shetlands Islands and rewarded with an earlier than planned first encounter with the penguin colonies on Barrientos Island.
Having been briefed during the Drake crossing on dressing appropriately, putting on your life jacket and getting in and out of the zodiacs, nothing can quite prepare you for the excitement of your first Antarctic landing. The aim is always to try for two landings per day (weather dependent) whilst in and around the peninsula. Sometimes this involves a dry landing on an island or on the peninsula itself, and other times you will be cruising in zodiacs up close to glaciers or through iceberg graveyards.
Whether you have glorious sunny skies with the mountains and glaciers reflecting in the crystal clear water, or are battling freezing blizzard conditions, you will enjoy every minute you spend outside the ship.
I cannot give you one favourite memory for there are so many – the incredible sunny day we had at Danko Island (and the painful sunburn which followed) where shorts and t-shirt would have been more appropriate attire; experiencing a massive glacier calving up close in Paradise Harbour and retreating swiftly from the subsequent tsunami rising out of the icy black depths; visiting the former British research station at Port Lockroy; and of course the penguins – friendly, inquisitive, protective, noisy, smelly… they really are the stars of the show.
It is impossible to travel to Antarctica without high expectations, after all it is expensive, requires advance planning, and you will have seen a lot of amazing photos and videos of what life is like down there by the time you finally get there. Whether it is the wildlife, polar history, or the pristine whiteness and sense of the unknown that first drew your attention, it is also likely to be something completely different that you take home with you as your most memorable moment.
Every hour, day, week and month brings such vast changes to the weather, landscapes and wildlife. This means you can come away with memories and experiences that are both similar and at times completely different to those of friends who have visited at different times of the year, or even your fellow passengers. It is this constant environmental change that makes every day unpredictable and exciting, and it is also for this reason that the most enthusiastic people on board are often the expedition team, despite the 100+ cruises they have done on the same route in the past decade or so.
For those thinking of visiting Antarctica, I have a few pieces of advice. Firstly, try not to leave it to be the last continent you tick off – it is one of the most incredible travel experiences I have ever had and youth works in your favour! Secondly, choose the right ship. Whether you are spending 5 nights or 20 nights on board, the voyage itineraries and excellent expedition guides are similar from ship to ship, but the level of on board comfort and quality of food can differ significantly. Thirdly, don’t worry about when is the best time to visit – the Antarctica season runs from November to March, and during this period every month is a good month. You may want to make the first footprints in the virgin snow in November, photograph penguin chicks in January or kayak amongst the whale populations in February and March. When you choose to go will impact your experience; you cannot have everything and as a result repeat trips to the ‘White Continent’ are increasingly popular. Finally, during one of your landings be sure to spend a few minutes alone and away from everyone else. It is so easy to get caught up in everything happening around you that you forget just how beautiful, peaceful and quiet Antarctica is.