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Greetings from Ushuaia, the 'End of the World'! I have just returned from my 'Expedition Cruise' to Antarctica, and all I can think about is going back. It is too special to be a 'once in a lifetime' trip! All I can say is, book a trip and GO!
I have never taken a cruise before, and this one was perfect. My ship, the 'M/S Clipper Adventurer', is a very fine vessel. Big enough to be really comfortable, with an overall length of 100 meters and equipped with stabilizers, and yet small enough to feel really friendly. We were 110 passengers, 10 Expedition staff, and a crew of 66. The ship has beautiful lines, brass and teak details, and a real old style elegance.
The meals were simply outstanding. I did not expect to be dining in what felt like a five star restaurant. Fresh baked breads, rolls and pastries, wonderful fresh fruit, salads, and homemade soups, and a choice of three entrees at each lunch and dinner: lobster, salmon, rack of lamb, mahi mahi, prime rib, tuna steaks, beef tenderloin, tiger shrimps ... just to name a few! There were also fresh baked cookies at snack time and wonderful hors d'orves before dinner. And the desserts ... oh how I missed my bicycle! Seating was not assigned so meals were a great time to meet fellow passengers and the expedition staff. We hailed from twenty different countries, with the largest numbers from France and Poland.
I really enjoyed having the expedition staff on board, as they brought so much knowledge and experience to our trip. The team included a marine biologist, two ornithologists, a geologist/glaciologist, a historian, a doctor, an artist, and some well rounded Antarctica experts - our expedition leader was making her 141st trip to Antarctica! There were also several passengers with wonderful experience or expertise in different areas. It was a very well travelled group, and much more varied in age (and income bracket!) than I had expected.
The days were packed full of presentations by our expedition team, and I spent every free moment out on deck, keeping company with the Albatrosses. Watching a Wandering Albatross, with it's 4 meter wingspan, glide so effortlessly over and between the waves, is a joy and a privilege. When we crossed the Antarctic convergence we began to spot whales and icebergs, and then finally, the islands, mountains and ice of the Antarctic Peninsula..
"Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic..." (Ernest Shackleton)
Our five days exploring Antarctica flew by. We had two landings each day, which often also included a zodiac cruise before returning to the ship. We saw Gentoo penguins by the thousands, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins by the hundreds, and one King penguin and one Macaroni penguin. How many penguin pictures are enough? How many penguin pictures are too many?! The penguin chicks were nearing full size and most often moulting. They are wonderfully entertaining animals to watch, so curious and unafraid of us tourists that close encounters are inevitable. I had one little fellow adopt me and follow me everywhere - it broke my heart to leave him! We visited a number of Antarctic stations, both past and present (British, Chilean, Argentinean, and Ukrainian!), and some old whaling ports.
We saw lots of whales en route, and our captain thought nothing of detouring, stopping, or turning around for whale sightings. He was wonderful at manoeuvring his ship around and between icebergs, and would often circumnavigate some of the larger ones - on one iceberg circumnavigation we logged over 1.5 kms on the GPS! Meals were often delayed or interrupted for wildlife viewing or sunsets. We saw lots of whales, seals and seabirds.
The wildlife viewing was wonderful, but what really grabbed me were the landscapes. They were nothing short of magical: huge glaciers, ice shelves, snow domes, mountains, and those wonderful icebergs in every shape and size, whose colour varied greatly depending on the light.
"If Antarctica was music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater, the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it." (Andrew Denton)
Our last day was the most memorable. Our morning landing was at Deception Island, a spectacular caldera with a very narrow entrance, "Neptune's Bellows". It was from "Neptune's Window" that the continent of Antarctica was first spotted. For us, it was a chance to take the polar plunge - though the howling winds made the icy cold waters less than inviting, twenty-three of us were crazy enough to enjoy, or more accurately, endure a brief dip! (The staff supplied big towels and beach toys, and had zodiacs ready to whisk us back to the ship). Our afternoon landing was at Hannah Point, Livingston Island, and provided the most diverse wildlife viewing of the trip: Gentoo, Chinstrap, and one Macaroni penguin; Fur, Elephant, and Weddell seals, lot of seabirds, fossils and whale bones, and that rarest of Antarctica sights: some green lichens, mosses and grass! We were all very reluctant to leave, knowing that we had the Drake Passage to look forward to.
It was rougher than our trip south, but no where near as bad as it can be. The outside decks were officially closed for safety reasons, but I was granted special permission to man my post, port side of the bridge, and keep watch for Albatrosses. I had to duck a few times as the waves crashed over the bow and up to my fifth story vantage point, but it was worth it to keep company with the Albatrosses! Once we reached the Beagle Channel things quieted right down, and everyone was able to enjoy the Captain's Farewell dinner party. Antarctica will be very hard to top, but I am looking forward to some hiking and seeing more of Argentina.