The ever elusive last continent. The place where every avid traveller wants to go but is often the hardest place to get to. This barren icy wilderness lying at bottom of the world is of course Antarctica.
It is Earth’s most southern continent which is about twice the size of Australia. It has ice and snow that covers 98% of the land and in some places to a depth of close to 2,000m. It is the coldest, windiest and driest place on Earth. The largest desert on Earth is a truly savage place.
Some people would be completely turned off the idea of stepping into this freezer while I was chomping at the bit to witness its splendor. Brimming with excitement knowing I would finally get the chance to see this place for myself.
So how the feck do you get to Antarctica?
1. If you have lots of money there are tour companies that offer cruises to different parts of the continent. The majority of the trips sail from Ushuaia to the Peninsula side while others can sail into the Ross Sea which is a much longer trip. These trips generally start at around $6,000 for the most basic and can exceed $30,000 and even $40, 000 for some of the Ross Sea trips. It is a tricky one for the regular backpacker.
2. Study hard, go to University to become a scientist and work at a Research Station
3. Become a world renowned Wildlife Photographer of Penguins and Seals
4. Just be very lucky and work on a ship that sails there 🙂
So I was lucky number 4. Working on a ship that was to sail into the very isolated Ross Sea. A dream come true.
We set sail from Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. It is a beautiful little city and was a great place to start our journey from. This cosy little city which is nestled among the foothills of Mt. Wellington reminded me a lot of the city of Wellington in New Zealand. It has a bustling harbour and lots of good places to go out for food and drink.
We stocked up on supplies and our last bit of civilisation and set sail in the early hours on 16th January. 22 days until we would arrive back in Lyttleton in New Zealand.
The beautiful coastline around Hobart and Port Arthur in the south of Tasmania providing a fond farewell
I was wrapped by an air of excitement I had not felt since many Christmas’s before. But first, to get to the Ross Sea we had to cross 1,700 nautical miles or 3,148 km into the notorious Southern Ocean passing through the roaring 40’s, furious 50’s and screaming 60’s. These lines of latitude didn’t present much hope for smooth seas ahead.
The first day we had to secure all loose items with some very rough seas but after this initial rollercoaster the sea started to settle and there was relative smooth sailing for the few days ahead. I would regularly go up on deck and check for any signs of ice.
We spotted the first iceberg on 20th January 4 days after leaving Hobart. This was at around 63° south. The first of many more.
21st January, The next morning the icebergs started to accumulate. At one point I could count close to 20 dotted all over the sea. This day we also started to approach the first landmass of the expedition, the Belleny Islands. These islands mark the entrance to the Ross Sea.
We passed the islands just after midnight on 21st January. The sun was hanging low creating a beautiful glow in the sky
Soon after the Belleny Islands we passed through the Antarctic Circle. From here on sightings of icebergs were fairly constant along with the never-ending sunlight. We had our final sunset of the trip on this night. There would be constant sun for the next 10 days until we came back this far north again.
On 22nd January we caught our first glimpse of mainland Antarctica at a place called Cape Adare. Captain Ross discovered Cape Adare in January 1841 and named it after his friend the Viscount Adare, (coming from the place Adare in the West of Ireland). Here also lies the first human structures ever built on the continent and are unbelievably still standing, built by Carsten Borchgrevink from Norway 1899.
A lot of history in the area but even more impressive than all of that is what lies there in this present day, the largest Adelie Penguin rookery in the world home to over 500,000 birds. As the ship was arriving into the area among the ice floes we could see hundreds of penguins swimming back to shore. It was amazing to see.
Adelie Penguins swimming through the ice at Cape Adare and the thousands of Penguins ashore.
The area was an awesome sight. We were unable to make landfall due to the amount of ice surrounding our beach landing spot but with such stunning views we couldn’t complain.
We were right in the thick of it all now. Surrounded by penguins, ice and mountains, I started to get a sense of the true scale of Antarctica.
We left Cape Adare in the evening of the 22nd and started to move further south into the Ross Sea along the western shore. As the ship slowly moved along it created small waves not to the liking of these Adelie Penguins chilling out on this iceberg.
Our next stopping point was Cape Hallet. This night we were treated to clear skies and the ever present low lying sun which created amazing colour along the coastline.
The following morning on the 23rd the ship was rocked by a thunderous sound. The captain went into ice-breaker mode as we set about making a direct route to Coulman Island. Smashing through the ice is up there with some of the coolest things I have seen with my own eyes. Along with Perito Merino Glacier in Patagonia and Iguacu Falls in Argentina/Brazil.
We passed through with relative ease pushing aside the bigger icebergs and smashing through some of the smaller ones, leaving a watery ice trail in our wake.
The first few days ended up being Scenic Cruising as there just wasn’t a viable place to get ashore along the treacherous coastline with so much ice around. The weather conditions this far south can change in a matter of minutes but the sun kept on shining for us making for some amazing views from the deck and outside the window. Penguins and seals were never too far from sight.
This Adelie penguin was trying its best to cross the ice flow. What they lack in style being out of the water they make up in comedic value. You could never get tired of watching them.
Another day of sailing south brought us to Terra Nova Bay and the Drygalski Ice Tongue. The Ice tongue stretches 70 km out to sea and ranges from 14-24 km wide. Fairly massive bit of ice by anyone’s standards.
We stayed in this region into the following day on the 25th and this day we made it ashore. We set the anchor down by an Italian Research Base called the Mario Zuchelli Station, sometimes known to as the Riviera as it often looks out over ice-free waters
Later in the day the ship moved just around the corner and I was able to have some fun in the snow. Hiking up a small hill , making snow angels and everything else you would want in this winter wonderland (except that it was full blown Summer)
It was a great day all round. Getting out onto land, the glorious scenery and sunshine and to top it off as we were going back to the ship in the Zodiac, another little Adelie penguin put on a show for us as it was chilling out by itself on an iceberg.
25th January was a day that would live long in the memory but the fun stuff kept on coming. The next day we arrived at Franklin Island, a small island 13 km long at 76° South and home to another rookery of thousands of Adelie Penguins and a few seals.
The penguins swam along the coastline bringing food to the fluffy little chicks that hung out on the land. It was a hive of activity with penguins coming and going all over the place and not caring one little bit about any of us looking on. Very few bears or people make it down to this region in any year so they had no reason to fear anyone. They would walk right up to you and carry on like we weren’t even there.
27th January. We made our way even further south. We came across a huge barrier of ice similar to the likes of The Wall keeping the Whitewalkers at bay in Game of Thrones. It was the Ross Sea Ice Shelf. It is the largest ice shelf of Antarctica (covering an area of roughly 487,000 km2 and about 800 km across: or about the size of France). This wall of ice which faces the open sea is more than 600 km long and in some place rises up to 50m high above the water surface.
We spent the day sailing along the world’s largest body of floating ice gradually making our way further and further south. The goal of the ship and the expertly skilled captain was to try and break the record to reach as far south as any ship has ever sailed before.
28th January. We made our way to the Bay of Whales (named by Shackelton in 1908 for the number of whales sighted as they approached the area), the most eastern edge of the Ross sea Ice Shelf. It was also from here that Roald Amundsen set off from to be the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911.
This region is forever changing. Huge pieces of ice calving from the ice shelf creating massive icebergs and the seawater freezing capturing more of the Ross Sea.
Luck was on our side this day. A route opened up to allow us entry through the ice. With the current level of Global Warming and through the expertise of the captain we made it as far south as any ship can possibly go, creating a new record in the process. Th GPS clocked S78°43.997′ W163°41.421′
It felt like another world.
To celebrate this feat we decided it was a good idea to jump in. A Polar Plunge at the most southern point of water in the world. (One of those crazy things you feel you have to do) The water was a temperature of -1, colder than the freezing point due to the salt content in the water. Best not to stay in too long.
29th January. The time had come. It was our final day. We had been treated to some awesome sights, rugged landscapes and amazing wildlife. Our final stop was the Bartlett Inlet.
We had been on the outlook for Emporer penguins (the tallest and heaviest of all the penguin species) throughout our voyage and on the last day we were provided with a real treat. Marching Emporer Penguins.
I even got a chance to get a little closer later on. I was trying to blend in as best I could.
The next week was spent at sea as we made our way back to land and to the port of Lyttleton (Christchurch) in New Zealand.
6th February, back in New Zealand again. Not a bad place to arrive back into.
So that was my Antarctic Adventure. The icy wonderland seemed like another world that needs to be seen to be believed. I am already looking forward to the day that I return again,