Describing Antarctica’s other-worldly ice-covered landscapes is almost as difficult as explaining the time-span of millions of years, or outer space and the galaxies…

By: James Lowe

Through the stone, bronze and steel ages when humans were inventing tools, learning trades, and conquering nations, Antarctica seems untouched by humanity’s destructive hands.

Fabled stories of a land at the bottom of the planet, met with a lust for exploration and the prestige that accompanies discovery, led great explorers like Captain Cook and his men on their voyages.

Despite circumnavigating the continent, they were always met by impeding sea ice preventing them even from sighting the land.

What Cook didn’t know was that just roughly 600 nautical miles below South America lay the Antarctic Peninsula jutting out northwards from the Antarctic continent. This passage, first sailed by Sir Francis Drake, is now fearfully referenced as the Drake Passage.

A humpback whale breaches not far from our inflatable boat. Photo: James Lowe
A humpback whale breaches not far from our inflatable boat. Photo: James Lowe

The End Of The World

Ushuaia is the southernmost town in Argentina and is also the self-proclaimed ‘end of the world’. Surrounded by tall, white mountains with sharp peaks, the town of 150 000 people is a hub for ships that depart for Antarctica.

From November to March, there are at least four ships per day replenishing their stock, refuelling, and picking up guests to take on unforgettable adventures.

From Ushuaia we sail out into the Beagle Channel, a network of glacially carved fjords amongst the mountainous surrounds that make up the southern extent of the Andes. The contrast of the inevitable cloudy skies, snow-capped mountains, dense beech forests, and abundant marine wildlife is bewildering.

Leaving the protection of the channel, it’s time to face the infamous Drake Passage. Fierce gales from low-pressure westerly storms consistently thunder through the narrow stretch between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Even the strongest stomachs can succumb to the pitching and rolling as large waves bash the ship from the side.

Petermann Island Antarctica
Petermann Island Antarctica

The Drake Passage and The Days Of Our Lives

Despite the often foul conditions, cruising through the nutrient-rich Southern ocean offers a bounty of incredible wildlife sightings.

While the skies are often cluttered with sea birds – the massive wingspan of the wandering albatross (3.5m) to prions and storm petrels – the waters are home to a variety of whale species like fin, minke, sei, and if you are extremely lucky, beaked whales may pop up, too. Depending on the weather, the Drake Passage sail takes about two days.

Waking up, surrounded by the calm protection of the islands and fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula, a former volcanic mountain range carved by glaciers to form channels, bays, and islets that allow protection from the harsh weather, leaves me speechless.

Light filtering through the clouds scatters off the fresh snow on the hills while exposed ice in cracks or glacier fronts absorb most of the spectrum, leaving only deep dark blues reflected outwards. There are only a few ice-free beaches that are suitable to land on ­– spits of cobblestones that are almost all populated with penguin colonies.

The three penguin species that can be found on the Antarctic Peninsula are the small, charismatic Adélie, the chinstrap, and the stocky gentoo.

They are constantly on the go, mating, incubating eggs, or raising chicks before the end of summer while ice-free beaches are still accessible. Taking turns to incubate their eggs or keep a chick warm, the penguin pairs work in tandem to either babysit or fish.

Arriving ashore at one of these colonies allows us to witness all the drama unfold, like Days of our Lives: intimate relationships, penguins bickering as they steal one another’s rocks with which they build their nests, and defending their next generation against the ever-present, cunning skuas seabirds.

The penguins don’t react negatively to our presence, as long as we make sure we don’t block their ‘penguin highways’ and keep our distance. In fact, they can be incredibly curious and simply melt your heart as they go about their business.

A Gentoo penguin colony on an ice free beach in the Antarctic Peninsula
A Gentoo penguin colony on an ice free beach in the Antarctic Peninsula

Other-worldly Beauty 

Many of the human activities in Antarctica take place from a small inflatable boat. Cruising into large bays surrounded by glaciers as tall as ten-storey buildings, we navigate through thick ice. Once the engine is switched off, we can hear the snap and crackles of pressurised bubbles exploding as the ice melts.

A loud grunting blast can be a common sound as moisture sprays into the air. Whales! Hungry humpbacks are a frequent sighting in the peninsula region as they descend from their tropical breeding grounds to the cold, krill-infested waters to feed.

Watching a humpback curiously approach our boat makes my stomach churn with awe and excitement. It’s incredible to witness the success of conservation efforts with whale numbers increasing after being driven to the brink of extinction a while ago.

As the sun sinks slowly towards the horizon late in the evening, the ice tends to take on the colour of the sky as the landscape changes from white to hues of orange, purple, and blue.

I found myself at a loss for words when trying to fully capture the emotions that ran through my body when faced with the frozen continent’s massive walls of ice, descending from jagged mountain peaks and towering out around me in every direction.

This place is captivating, to say the least. It’s actually the first time I could imagine what it must feel like to land on another planet.

The Essentials

When to go: Summer (November-March)

Costs: Some operators provide all-inclusive packages whilst others might charge per activity for drinks. Tour operators to consider include Silversea Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Scenic Expeditions, G-Adventures, Ponant Hurtigruten, Oceanwide Expeditions, and Lindblad Expeditions

Currency: Credit and mastercards are accepted almost everywhere. Some of the curio shops accept US Dollars

Clothes: Waterproof clothing is mandatory

Temperature: The Antarctic Peninsula region is moderated by the ocean so temperatures normally range from +4 to -4 °C

Getting There 

SAA flies direct to São Paulo, Brazil daily. From there take a connecting flight to Ushuaia.

Words by James Lowe