Early evening and the M/V Ushaia slips out of Ushuaia port. The 48 year-old vessel – once a US research ship but now converted to carry paying guests – offers few luxuries, but it’s passengers benefit from being only 88 in number, much better for…
…wait, let me take you back a bit, to better understand how we got here. A few months ago we contacted the excellent Freestyle Adventures travel agency in Ushaia. Specialists in Antarctic cruises, they added us to a WhatsApp group which would be kept informed of any last-minute bargains.
One such bargain arrived whilst we were away from the Internet and we missed out on a perfect voyage. We contacted the agency again and then, several hours later, they replied to say that the other people had turned down the bargain (fools!) and it was ours for the taking.
$5,000 per person and one month later, we find ourselves amongst that lucky 88 gliding through the Beagle Channel, heading south. The M/V Ushuaia is one of the smaller ships plying these cold waters, thus the few passengers it carries benefit from disembarking onto the ice much faster than those on considerably larger ships.
The disadvantage of this diminutive ship’s size is that, when the gale force winds appear, the Drake Passage becomes temporarily unavailable. We waited out the storm in the shelter of the Beagle Channel. When the worst of it has passed the Ushuaia slipped out into the maelstrom.
Ten-metre waves slammed into the vessel. We had been briefed to stow everything securely away, but still chairs were dislodged and life jackets hurled across the room. The waves were so large that they passed over the top decks of the ship and all inside were tossed about as the craft bobbed along through the storm.
There is one large lounge onboard which accommodates everyone. Here we watch the sea as well as films or documentaries about Antarctica. Here also the onboard lecturers inform us about the fauna, geology, history etc. of the icy continent. In addition to the lounge one large dining room serves up food three times a day to anyone able to keep it down.
Being such an intimate ship, we’re also allowed on the bridge for one of the best views out to sea. At the height of the storm I thought of the crew there, steering us between waves. The next morning the sea was a little calmer and it continued to calm throughout the day. At one point in the afternoon we passed into the outer realms of Antarctica, where cold waters meet even colder waters, thus spawning new aquatic critters as well as icebergs.
As we drew closer to the South Shetlands two icebergs appeared – ghostly white giants on the distant horizon. I wasn’t prepared for how immense they were, even this far away. We’ve now been briefed and equipped and, after three days at sea, were more than ready to disembark.
The South Shetlands are just off the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. As soon as we arrived in their blessedly calm waters we spotted humpback whales – at least five in total. Soon after this the anchor was dropped in the crescent bay of Half Moon Island. This is a somewhat colourless land; white mountains, grey rock and deep blue sea.
Zodiacs swiftly carried us to the shore where we were immediately greeted by Chinstrap penguins. A few colonies of these little cuties are dotted on the Eastern side of this small island. On the other side can be found an Argentinian research station, sitting squat in snow drifts.
Penguins are as entertaining in real life as they are on TV. They waddle to and fro, their little wings stuck out for balance and their webbed feet often slipping out from under them. We had almost three hours standing on the snow, watching in amusement as the birds squabbled, honked and wobbled. Providing a spectacular backdrop were ice- and snow-shrouded mountains at the edges of which thick glaciers spilled into the water.
6AM alarm. Outside the porthole white slopes and bluish white icebergs contrasted against the sea. After an early breakfast we were taken by Zodiac to a small island onto which I was one of the first to step and so, for a few blissful moments, I was able to enjoy the splendid isolation and vast silence of this empty continent.
Well, not strictly empty. Here once again were Chinstrap penguins, as well as a scattering of Gentoo penguins. On top of the thick snow with that awesome mountainous background we watched them play, flirt and frolic. One inquisitive little critter approached us and, no more than a metre apart, it stared at us and we stared back.
Cruising further south the sun appears and blue skies back those crisp white mountains. Epic peaks close in on both sides – the peacefulness and grandeur is magical.
Paradise Bay is aptly named. No sandy beaches or palm trees here of course, but rather a cul-de-sac of still sea, glaciers and icebergs in front of a huge mountain range, down which avalanches occasionally tumble. We stop at the Almirante Brown research station – still closed for the winter but all around are Gentoo penguins.
Walk up one slope and there’s an ice-crusted bay populated with a few Crabeater and Weddell seals. Walk up another slope and the view back along the channel we travelled is breathtaking. This is continental Antarctica. I can walk from here to the South Pole (I doubt it would be a fun walk). On this continent – 50 times the size of the UK – stand probably no more than 3,000 other people.
We return to the boat via a glacier and gaze up at its multi-storey columns of ice slowly tumbling into the sea. That evening at around 10pm Orca are spotted. Fortunately it’s still fairly light this far south and so watch what turns out to be one of my most incredible wildlife experiences.
Other Orca appear and I watch one as it glides swiftly through the clear water. Then; a humpback whale shows it immense back and flicks up its tail. It’s surrounded by the Orca which seem to be pursuing it. One of the guides explains that there is probably a penguin using the humpback to shield itself from those killer whales. Yet the humpback doesn’t realise this and pops out again and again, tormented by those aggressive Orca. They disappeared into the distance and so we didn’t find out how the drama ended.
The next day turned out to be our final in Antarctica. Unfortunately the expedition company – Antarpply – neglected to tell us that our visit here was going to be curtailed by yet another storm in the Drake Passage. We therefore landed on a little island unaware that we would have no more time with the penguins. But they put on a good show with their usual antics.
Travelling here in a group of just 88 passengers allowed for the occasional moment of solitude to reflect on the desolation of Antarctica. We were finally told about the need to hurry back to Ushuaia before the Drake Passage became dangerously rough. Instead of visiting Deception Island tomorrow the ship steamed over to this large island today.
A heavy sea mist descended. Deception is a huge extinct volcano into which the sea had poured, crenellated peaks looming vast and black out of the gloom. The M/V Ushuaia slipped through a small gap in the rim and anchored beside a snowy shore. Zodiacs took us one last time to the shore where an old whaling station slumped. The weather made this feel like a very bleak and monotone place, not helped by the tiny cemetery and decrepit wooden buildings.
Along the shore there was a scattering of krill which had succumbed to the boiling water found deep in the caldera. Unfortunately that boiling water didn’t come close to the surface and so, when I joined in with a very brief dip in Antarctic waters, it was a very brief affair.
Now it was time to hurry back to Ushuaia ahead of the worst of the storm. As we headed into open sea I happened to be outside and looking at a patch of water right next to the ship from which emerged three minke whales. Magnificent. We endured ten-foot waves overnight, which had only reduced to seven feet the next day.
On the way over someone had been thrown out of their chair and badly cut their head. On the way back the injuries included someone needing the tips if their fingers stitched back on after getting them caught in a slamming door. This is extreme weather.
After such a tempestuous crossing, sighting land was to be celebrated. Soon after we were in the calm waters of the Beagle Channel. On our penultimate day we watched as dolphins played at the bow of the ship – at least seven zooming through the clear water and occasionally leaping out.
Early on the last morning we arrived back into Ushuaia. Sadly the storms in the Drake Passage had cut short our time in Antarctica by a day. Looking back now, the time we did have there feels like a dream; an eerily peaceful yet immense white landscape populated by comical penguins and giants of the sea.
This is a large (but must-see!) video so be careful not to use up too much data: