The Last Great Wilderness

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January 21st 2006
Published: January 23rd 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Also known as the "Kodak gap".

"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised. It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than any monastery."

(The worst journey in the world; Apsley Cherry-Garrard)

The Antarctic is a land of extremes. It´s the highest continent, with an average elevation of 2250m. Its ice sheets hold 90% of the worlds ice which is up to 4775m thick and in places the huge weight depresses the landmass by 1600m. The lowest recorded temperature on the continent was -89C. Its an arid desert. And of course there is the Antarctic´s extreme isolated beauty.

It is the world´s last great wilderness. It should be kept that way.

I've just returned from a 10 day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. It can be a rough ride to the Antarctic across Drake´s Passage from Ushuaia. Drake´s Passage is one of the stormiest bits of water in the world. So, its still an adventure, although there´s no comparison with the hardships of the explorers of the ´heroic´ age.

Sea sickness

I traveled with Gap Adventures on the little red ship, Explorer. It is not cheap, but it was worth the money. The two day trip down was relatively smooth, we only had force 5 winds to contend with. The Captain of the ship also made the ride smoother by the direction he choose to sail, but was forced to change direction for the last few hours in order to make a break for the Antarctic mainland. So, we only had a few uncomfortable hours on the way down.

Not so on the way back to Argentina at the end of the trip. Then, on one night the winds hit force 9. I felt seriously uncomfortable for a day, as did most of the passengers. Although, not my room mate, it didn't seem to bother him. I didn't actually vomit, but I suspect that I turned green, and I felt queasy whenever I tried to stand up. So, I spent the best part of a day prone, in bed on the way back, despite taking anti-seasickness drugs. It was strange lying on the top bunk of my shared cabin in the short storm that we endured. I strapped myself into my bunk to stop myself falling out. It would have been a long way to fall. I fell in and out of sleep all day as the ship made strange noises in the storm, creaking and groaning as the waves tossed the little red boat. At some stages the ship appeared to be airborne as it fell from the top of a wave to the bottom. This created a strange weightless feeling in my stomach, like you sometimes feel in very fast lifts. There was also a noticeable thud as the ship hit the bottom of the wave.

The noises of the storm though did mask the usual background noise in the cabin. There was a constant noise that at first I thought was air conditioning, in fact it was the noise of ice scrapping along the side of the ship.

That´s all the negative stuff. Otherwise the trip was fantastic. On the positive side would have to be the wildlife, the food on board (you can´t forget your stomach) and the stunning scenery.

Late nights

One of the small pleasures on the trip, would be wandering out onto the deck of the ship at 11pm at night when it was still light to admire the pristine beauty of the Antarctic ice. The icebergs that drifted past the boat had been sculptured into many shapes by that great artist nature. With a little imagination they looked like buildings, whales, birds, a million different objects; and often within crevices the ice glowed bright blue.

The Antarctic´s beauty is fragile. A footprint on a moss bed will still be visible a couple of decades after the offending tourist has left. If you must go to the Ice ask yourself; would you be as happy going somewhere else? Every person that goes to the continent effects the environment. There´s no such thing as eco-tourism. At best there is responsible tourism. If you really want to be a deep green eco-warrior, don´t travel, stay at home.

To be fair, one of the few lectures on board the little red ship that was compulsory, was the lecture on our responsibilities as tourists. Visitors must ensure that no damage is done - Brits can even be imprisoned! Antarctica is not just ´another place´ for tourists to visit; it is a unique continent that needs high standards of behaviour.

Once we had crossed the Drake´s Passage, we managed 2 landings a day on the Peninsula, most days. Our visits included Brown Bluff, Devils Island, Livingstone Island, Deception Island Peterman Island and Lockroy Station.


On the first landing at Brown Bluff we were all very excited at seeing Penguins. But, by the end of the trip we had seen so many Penguins that we were becoming blase. The Penguins smell foul, their faeces stain the rocks and snow pink. The pink stain is a result of their diet, Krill.

Despite that, Penguins are endlessly fascinating to watch. They argue with each other; they beat each other up; they hit the chicks (call childline!); they all waddle along, following each other along Penguin highways to the shore line. At the waters edge they seem to hesitate and egg each other on to try the water. Maybe they are nervous that there is a Leopard Seal lurking around, looking for Penguins for lunch.

During our visits on shore we also saw a lot of other wildlife. The birds included Great Petrels, Skuas and Snowy Sheatbills. The seals we saw included Leopard Seals, Fur Seals, Crab Eater Seals and Elephant Seals.

The various species of Albatross we saw from the deck of the ship; skimming the waves, picking up up-draughts from the stormy seas to soar back up high. They are magnificent birds. The Wandering Albatross is huge, it has a wing span of 3.5m. But, it is in danger of extinction. It´s at risk of drowning by being caught by long-line fishing vessels for tuna and tooth-fish. So, check your next tin of tuna!

Whale watching

Of course, one of the highlights of the trip was the whale watching. We saw Humpback Whales in 2 different places and times. The first time was late at night on the 17th of January. The whales came very close to the ship as they were feeding on the Krill, diving repeatedly under our noses. It was a very special moment.

The second time we saw a group of Humpbacks was the next morning. We all went out at 8am for a Zodiac cruise for 2 hours. We saw the Humpbacks from the Zodiac. For those that don´t know, a Zodiac is an inflatable rubber dinghy powered by an outboard motor. It´s used for shore landings and cruises around the coastline.

"I love you. will you..."

Another highlight of the trip, at least for the couple involved, was that one of the male passengers proposed to
Pick up a PenguinPick up a PenguinPick up a Penguin

Penguins at Brown Bluff
his girlfriend. He got down on his knee on the ice. I think he was hoping for a quick reply, as I´m sure the ice felt cold against his knee. She put him out of his misery with a "Yes". There are still some Romantic people out there.

I´m now back in Ushuaia, waiting around for a few days to pick up a bus. Then I´ll be start my journey through Patagonia.

If you feel you must follow my example and go to the Antarctic, I urge you to heed this advice from the Lonely Planet Guidebook.

Every human presence in the Antarctic has an environmental impact. Depending on activity, the impact will be small or large, direct, secondary or cumulative. There are cases where the impact can be justified and cases where it cannot. If you´re visiting Antarctica, you have a responsibility to treat this subject seriously. Attitude plays an important role in safeguarding this special continent for future generations as well as for its own sake.

(Lonely Planet, Antarctica).

Additional photos below
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23rd January 2006

Hi, currently volunteering in Punta Arenas and watching the boats come in and go out to the Antartic from my apartment window. Wondering how much you paid for the cruise and would you recommend the company?
16th November 2006

Hey, good writing, can you let me know how much the tour was too, and the company who does it?
17th November 2006

The tour
The tour was on the little red ship with Gap Adventures. When I was talking to a woman in New York who was on the tour with me, she told me that Gap have bought another ship since I was on the tour but that the prices have gone up a lot. I paid about $US3000. Stuart

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