Terreco Environmental‘s Louise Jupp recently undertook the trip of a lifetime to Antarctica.
In summary, what were the basic touch points of the trip, and what did it set out to provide in terms of experience?
The aim of the trip was to celebrate Ernest Shackleton’s voyage South for the Trans Antarctic Expedition in 1914-1917. The ship they were sailing on – The Endurance – was crushed in the ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915 and the men were forced to undertake an incredible journey and endure considerable hardship before they were rescued in 1916.
This involved dragging three open lifeboats across the ice on the Antarctic Peninsula before rowing them across open freezing seas to Elephant Island. The bulk of the men were left on this island while Shackleton and five others set off for South Georgia to raise the alarm at one of the whaling stations – the nearest human habitation.
The 1500km sea journey (in a 22 foot open boat) took them 16 days before they landed on the south side of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay. The Stromness Whaling Station was on the other side of the island. Leaving three behind, Shackleton and two others set off to climb over the central mountain range in order to get to the whaling station. No one had done this before and there were no maps. They left with food, a 50 foot rope and a carpenter’s adze only. It took them 36 hours before they arrived at the whaling station after having backtracked numerous times where glaciers and crevasses blocked their way. They made it and four months later the men on Elephant Isle were rescued after the ice cleared and a ship was secured. It is an incredible story and worth a read – try ‘Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage’ by Alfred Lansing.
A number of the passengers on our trip were descendants of Shackleton’s colleagues on the expedition and Shackleton’s granddaughter was also on board. We aimed to visit key locations associated with this expedition including King Haakon Bay, Stromness, Grytviken (where Shackleton was buried in 1922) and Elephant Island along with visiting the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula and continent. While there was obviously a strong historical context to the trip, it also set out to showcase the wildlife, landscape and seascapes associated with the Southern Seas and Antarctic. We were not disappointed.
Before you left, you told me that the boat ride was something you were a little anxious about. How did that element of the trip finally work out?
We actually had very good sailing conditions throughout our trip, although this doesn’t mean to say we had it easy! The first part of the journey to the Falkland Islands and then South Georgia was lumpy in part but not wholly unpleasant. It was the 2 1/2 day journey from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula – viz the eastern end of Drakes Passage, the Scotia Sea – that provided us with a more exciting experience.
The Southern Seas are renowned for their tempestuousness. We caught the tail end of a storm which was already moving away from our position. And yet we still experienced winds up to 10 on the Beaufort Scale (two short of the maximum) which equates to wind speeds in the range of 55 – 63mph or 88 – 101kmph.
. This had us pitching and rolling at a pretty steady rate for much of the journey to the Antarctic Peninsula.
I admit to succumbing to a bout of sea sickness on the first night of this section of the journey but the Ship’s Doctor – a South African – supplied me with some excellent tablets which had me back on my feet by the next day. She saw about 40% of the ship’s passengers during this part of the trip so I was in good company! Otherwise the sea journeys were fine.
When we left the Antarctic Peninsula to return to South America we passed through Drake’s Passage and had been advised by the crew that we could either encounter ‘Drake Shake’ or ‘Drake Lake’ depending on the weather and our luck. We had a ‘Drake Lake’ and the seas were unbelievably smooth so much so that we reached Cape Horn ahead of schedule and had to hover in position waiting for the tug to escort us back up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia.
Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed being on the ship. It was a great crowd of people and the Expedition crew (One Ocean) were excellent in looking after us and keeping us entertained. The food was also excellent and with all that was going on inside and outside the ship, there was never a dull moment – so much so that there was barely time to write diaries or sort the day’s photographs.
The Zodiac trips to and from the ship added an extra excitement depending on the sea conditions. One Ocean were very safety conscious and they operated the Zodiacs within tight conditions so if they felt the sea or winds were too lumpy then they would not allow us to leave the ship. However, when we were out in the lumpy seas it was quite fun. However, it was climbing into or off the Zodiacs from or to the ship that could present the greater challenge. The Zodiac would rise and fall away from the gantry making it important to time your step carefully.
Ok, let’s get to the parts of the experience that really moved you.
I am not sure I can summarise a response to this question. I can honestly say the whole expedition moved me.
Our first sighting of South Georgia with its sheer rock faces, pointed-ice-eroded mountains and thick glaciers coming out of the mist.
To fully appreciate the enormity of Shackleton’s achievement in sailing to South Georgia and the conditions his men must have endured will staying on Elephant Island.
Our first encounter with horde of half a million King Penguins was memorable.
My own private elephant seal encounter as per the Terreco blog.
The complete lack of fear of humans that any of the animals showed.
Paddling in the Antarctic Peninsula through ice covered water, watching snow land on the water and not melt and have whales glide passed us.
To stand on the Antarctic continent.
To appreciate the abundance of life that occurs in such an apparently barren and inhospitable place.
I could go on and on.
What are the toughest adjustments to “living” in those conditions? And what were the conditions like?
In all honesty, I was colder in the UK for the couple of days I spent there before returning South Africa than I was on the ship!
Ushuaia and the Falklands were chilly on the face and hands, especially when the wind blew, but we were given good outdoor clothing for all of our excursions – thick wind and water proof trousers and jackets. For paddling, we had an all-in-one dry suit. Once we crossed the ‘Convergence’ (± 50° S) the temperature and conditions changed dramatically. Ice and snow was significantly more prevalent and we started to see icebergs as well. The winds that would come off the glaciers in South Georgia were often strong and icy.
The ship was always warm and while we were on it there was always the chance to go back inside and warm up with a cup of hot chocolate before going back onto the Observation Deck. There was a constant stream of people moving in and out of the Observation Lounge with their cameras as they braved the conditions before coming back in to warm up. The funniest was when we’d receive notice of whale sightings over the ship’s intercom. There would be a stampede of 96 people out the door and onto the decks in whatever clothing people had on but cameras at the ready.
Keeping fingers warm were the main problem areas during our land excursions in particular – they were always needed to operate the cameras. But this was not too much of a problem.
Otherwise, the only ‘adjustment’ was having to gear up for the excursions via the Zodiacs or for the kayaking. There was always the need to put on multiple layers under the outdoor gear or the dry suits and then life jackets and then wash off boots before leaving and returning from site visits. The latter was needed to avoid carrying any foreign objects/biota onto the areas we were visiting. But this was not really a hindrance or cause for grumbling because we were about to experience something special.
The pitching and rolling of the ship added more of a difficulty moving about the ship than the cold weather we encountered. Moving about the dining room trying to get to a table or the buffet table for the breakfasts or salads was always entertaining. We would all time our sprints across the room to the next fixed feature before the ship would lurch and send us off in the opposite direction. There were always plenty of helping hands if you missed your mark! It was often great fun and there was always a comment about having drunk too much the night before as we staggered about the ship.
Climbing the stairs could also be challenging where it would be easy to climb as the ship rose up on the swell but then became harder to climb as the ship plunged into a trough. I am sure I grew inches on the way up and shrank a few inches on the way down!
You told us previously that this was something that anyone could and should have on their bucket list. Sell me on it .
If I haven’t already inspired you to want to see this region then I will say, you’ll never experience another environment like it on the planet.
Our senses were bombarded as everything was different and exceeded all expectations. We all felt the same. Mouths were permanently open in wonder and words to describe what we were seeing and how we felt regularly failed us. It is a unique experience. There are not many places on Earth where the word ‘awesome’ is not enough.
I had watched Frozen Planet several times to help set the mood and yet I was not prepared for what we saw, heard or smelt! You cannot begin to comprehend 500 000 penguins until you’re there next to them. The dramatic photogenic icy landscapes, the adventure on the seas, paddling on deep blue crystal clear waters with penguins and seals swimming alongside, the abundance of life – what more can I say, but go there.
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