We would be two of 30,000. Thirty-thousand visitors is the maximum number allowed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators to the Antarctic annually. Our journey began in the self-proclaimed city at the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. The southernmost city on the continent of South America was the point of departure for our expedition to the Antarctic. We follow in some of the steps, of the world’s greatest explorers and adventurers, Shackelton, Amundsen, Nansen and Cook.
Why Antarctica? I could say, “Because its there,” but that would not be reason enough to travel several thousand miles at a cost of several thousand dollars. No, it was the lure of seeing something magnificently different. To be inspired with awe. Antarctica would do just that.
Unlike the explorers of the heroic age of polar exploration our journey would be in comfort and style. Our ship of choice was the Fram of Norway’s Hurtigruten line. Fram, which means “forward” in Norwegian, was the name of Fridjof Nansen’s ship that journeyed to both the Arctic and Antarctic, bearing both Nansen and later Amundsen on bold journeys to frozen lands.
Allow me to tell you a little about our choice of ship.The Fram has been purpose built for expedition cruising with an ice-rated hull. It is a part of the fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company. Hurtigruten means “coastal express” in Norwegian and for years this was the line operated.
The overall concept of the passenger areas of the ship have been designed with interaction and conviviality in mind, comfortable chairs arranged around low tables invite conversation. The decor is “Scandinavian” in design with pale colours and modern lines. The cabins were, compact, but comfortable, with well-designed bathrooms.
Throughout the ship are items of decor that reinforce the Norwegian tradition of polar exploration with busts of Nansen, photographs of Amundsen and others. Most of the public rooms and lecture halls are named in tribute to this tradition.
The dining room and meals were well-prepared and varied. The dining room had floor to ceiling windows so you never had to worry about missing a moment of wildlife action and there were many that occurred during meal times.
Departing from Ushuaia we would navigate the Beagle channel to the South Atlantic Ocean and sail northeast to the Falkland Islands.
Our first port of call in the Falkland Islands was West Point Island, a farm, owned by the Napier family since 1879 and the location of a colony of several thousand majestic Black Browed Albatross and several hundred rough and tumble Rock Hopper Penguins all happily nesting together in tall tussock grass. The gasp-inducing climb to the viewing area was well worth the effort. Our efforts were later rewarded with a sumptuous tea provided by the owners before returning to our ship. The first cruise vessel to come to the Falklands stopped at West Point in 1968 and the Napiers naturally invited everyone in to tea and have been doing so ever since.
Second stop in the Falkland Islands was the capitol city of Stanley, a colourful seaside town that is rightfully proud of its history and participation in two world wars and more recently the Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina. From Stanley we were driven by 4 wheel drive vehicles to Bluff Cove Lagoon to view the King Penguin Colony. Bluff Cove is part of a 35,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch , owned by Hattie and Kevin Kilmartin. The Kilmartins raise perendale sheep, a merino cross, as well as allowing tour groups access to the Lagoon area, home to over 1,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins, a growing colony of breeding King Penguins and a constant stream of visiting Magellanic Penguins. Somehow the Kilmartin’s have also found time to create a small, but highly informative museum devoted to the pioneering days of the Falkland Islands, a cafe and gift shop.
To stand among King Penguins and observe these magnificent birds stroll in a stately fashion was a delightful experience. Like young and unruly children the Gentoo penguins waddled and romped among their royal brethren with abandon. Along the shores of the lagoon we also spotted Upland Geese, Pied Oystercatchers and Kelp Gulls.
Departing the Falklands we sailed due east, entering the South Atlantic Ocean, a vast expanse of ocean with no comforting islands nearby. Our only companions were black-browed Albatross that flew in close formation to our ship constantly dipping and diving in their relentless quest for food. Cape Petrels joined our escort squadron of Albatross and would seemingly remain with us for our entire journey.
We would cross the Antarctic Convergence en route to Grytviken, South Georgia and encounter our first tabular iceberg. These towering bergs, that appear to be the size of Prince Edward Island are awe-inspiring These mammoth icebergs are pieces that have broken free of an ice shelf and roam the Southern Ocean like barges cut loose from their moorings, beautiful but dangerous.