"I don’t think anything can prepare you for Antarctica - the sheer scale of the place, the extraordinary beauty of the landscapes, the height of the mountains, the colour of the skies or the variety and quantity of the wildlife. The documentaries can show wonderful footage of penguin colonies, but the sight and sound (and smell) of a King penguin colony conservatively estimated as numbering 250,000 breeding pairs is something that once experienced, will stay with you forever. A close encounter with a leopard seal checking out the small boat taking us ashore; sitting amidst a nesting colony of stately black browed albatross or watching a humpback whale breaching literally metres from the front of the ship are all experiences from which lifetime memories are made.
With an itinerary entitled ‘Celebrating Shackleton’ our Ultimate Travel group set off from Ushuaia, at the very tip of Argentina, and sailed to The Falkland Islands then onto South Georgia and, following another couple of days at sea, to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, via an emotional stop at Elephant Island. We were frequently told by our friendly and knowledgeable Canadian expedition crew that we were lucky. I’m sure they say that to all their guests, but in the eighteen days aboard the Akademik Ioffe we certainly experienced the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean at their most genial.
I think it’s important here to state that we were not on a cruise. Almost the first conversation we all had with our fellow passengers was to state that this was the first time we’d been on a trip like this. It was Martin Thompson who explained that if passengers got off the ship onto a quayside, it was a cruise. If passengers got off the ship onto Zodiacs, it was an expedition. This was definitely an expedition!
Personally one of my highlights of this particular expedition was visiting South Georgia. An island that has fascinated me for years, not least for its Shackleton connections, and finally seeing the glaciers, mountains and abundant wildlife exceeded all my expectations. We visited fur seal colonies, wandering albatross nesting sites, two magnificent King penguin colonies and in the middle of all this spent an afternoon at Grytviken, the whaling station in Cumberland Bay. After a short ceremony at Shackleton’s grave in the Grytviken cemetery, we wandered through the extraordinary, but surprisingly beautiful, rusting landscape of an industry that now seems barbaric and reprehensible, but was the lifeblood of human activity in the area for years.
Our next stop was Elephant Island, a bleak and desolate lump of rock and ice hidden in the sea mist, where Shackleton’s crew spent four miserable months, mid-winter, waiting for rescue. Despite the fog, a snowstorm and choppy seas, we did manage to disembark into the zodiacs and get close to Point Wild where the men lived under their upturned boats. A moving and emotional experience, made more so by the presence on our trip of the grandchildren of Shackleton’s expedition geologist.
Onto Antarctica, and as I stepped onto my seventh continent, I had time to pause and reflect how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to visit this vast icy expanse, which has to be the most inhospitable environment on our planet. I think everyone who has the opportunity to visit this pristine wilderness has to become a passionate advocate for environmental conservation - how can we possibly afford to lose this?
We completed our set of Southern Ocean penguins - Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic on the Falklands; King on South Georgia; Macaroni, Chinstrap, Adelie and more Gentoo on and around the Antarctic Peninsula; and one solitary but majestic Emperor penguin, which sailed past our port side early one morning on a small ice floe, much to the excitement of our on-board naturalist. He had only ever seen one other Emperor before.
Whether setting foot on land, exploring by zodiac or simply cruising past towering white icebergs, every day was memorable. We enjoyed some glorious weather whilst sailing through Iceberg Alley with its vast cities of glistening, tabular bergs, and again when on a zodiac expedition following humpback whales amidst the magnificent glaciers and icebergs of Wilhelmina Bay.
We were certainly Celebrating Shackleton, but also mourning Henry Worsley who so tragically lost his life having almost completed his, and Shackleton’s, ambition of crossing the Antarctic continent. Henry was due to have joined us as guest lecturer, and so it was with great poignancy that we held a short service for him on the Antarctic Peninsula, then with a certain ironic humour played the inaugural Henry Worsley Memorial Cricket Match in a snowy wind on Deception Island, before the more hardy of the team plunged into the freezing water.
Eighteen days aboard a scientific research vessel, which although comfortable was not luxurious, seemed a little daunting at first, but personally I found the days at sea between landings a welcome chance to inwardly digest and process the magnificent spectacles we had experienced. Without those quiet days, during which we enjoyed a range of presentations on Antarctica’s history and wildlife, I think we might have all suffered from sensory overload.
We very soon ran out of words. Spectacular, extraordinary, amazing, incredible... we’d used them all in the first few days. Then one of the staff commented that a particular day had been ‘epic’, but as a New Zealander it was actually ‘ipic’. And she was right. This trip was certainly ‘ipic’!"
Take a look at a video of Frances' trip>>
Frances Sutton travelled with The Ultimate Travel Company on this Escorted Tour in February 2016.