Southern star

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

You can travel to the Antarctic in affordable comfort - there is no need to rough it like Shackleton, writes LOUISE HEALY

Few places on Earth juxtapose as many conflicting images of beauty as the Antarctic. Icebergs towering over emerald-green waters, moss-covered headlands, black volcanic craters, pristine white glaciers, violet- and crimson-tinted horizons and gigantic ice blocks overpopulated by noisy penguins. Antarctica at its most spectacular is like a type of Narnia on ice. At the end of the Earth the water is immensely blue, dotted with dazzling white pillars that resemble massive ice sculptures reaching up to the sky.

Seeing it today it’s hard to believe that about 200 million years ago Antarctica was joined with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand in the supercontinent of Gondwana.

After geological changes that spanned more than 40 million years, Antarctica settled into its final polar position and cooled dramatically. So dramatically, in fact, that if tourists were to travel to Antarctica in winter they would surely freeze – the thermometer plummets to 80° below zero. At that temperature if you threw boiling water into the air it would freeze instantly and morph into a shower of snow and ice. Tourists are not allowed visit Antarctica in winter but, as it happens, their summer is the most rewarding time to go there.

The best route to the least-visited continent, and the one most travelled, is from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, which lies at the bottom tip of Argentina. Trips to Antarctica are nothing short of spectacular but the cost of getting there is equally amazing: cruises to the Antarctic peninsula range from €4,000 to €15,000 or more.

However, if you have time on your hands you can hit the white continent for just a fraction of the usual cost.

Ships can be fully booked months in advance so if you’re travelling solo or in a pair and want to go cheaply, plan ahead. I ventured to Argentina in January, which is peak season for Antarctic trips.

I went to Ushuaia a week early to check out the possibility of any last-minute cancellations from local tour operators. I found that if you’re willing to shop around and hang around you can get on an Antarctic tour at a day’s notice, or even a few hours’ notice, for as relatively little as €2,000.

However, while I had to wait only five days, I have heard of people waiting up to four weeks to get a cancellation on a trip.

It takes about two days’ sailing from the Argentinian mainland to reach the Antarctic peninsula. While the long and often tortuous voyage across the infamously rough Drake Passage is not for the faint-hearted (waves can reach 10m), if you’re going to be seasick you may as well be ill in fabulous surroundings.

In recent years trips to Antarctica have become more commonplace and, with most tour companies vying for customers, salubrious ships are now the norm for the voyages. Shackleton-style roughing it is not. Five-star rooms, on-board gym facilities and the finest cuisine served in plush surroundings make a modern-day trip to Antarctica unforgettable.

With just 60 passengers on board (some ships take up to 1,000 people) we set sail on the Antarctic Dream for an 11-day voyage through the Beagle Channel to the northwest coast of the Antarctic peninsula.

The time spent travelling there and back through ice-choked seas, with no land for miles, are packed with lectures about the evolution of the Antarctic, its geological make-up, its ornithology and the marine and terrestrial life of the continent.

The entertaining talks quickly enable you to distinguish sheathbills from albatrosses, Weddell seals from crabeaters, minke whales from humpbacks and Adélie penguins from chinstraps.

At 6am on our third day of travelling the ship’s intercom system informed us that we had arrived at the peninsula of the Antarctic continent.

Bleary-eyed, I opened the porthole in my cabin to a breathtaking, surreal sight. It was dreamlike architecture: towering sheets of ice bathing in a turquoise sea.

The sun sent dazzling rays across the seemingly limitless expanse of the ice plains. Penguins flipped in and out of the water, and sea lions perched on icebergs soaking up the sun.

Cape Petrels, the largest southern birds, swooped overhead while minke whales and Commerson’s dolphins slid harmoniously in and out of the water.

After gazing incredulously at the majestic sight, our first port of call was Discovery Bay, which houses a former Chilean research station along with scores of chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. Chinstraps are the second most abundant Subantarctic penguin (behind the Adélie), and hundreds dotted Discovery Bay.

The penguin is a wonderful creature, smart, resourceful and possessed of an ingenuity that belies its soft appearance. The Emperor, Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap breeds can dive up to 100m for food.

We were told we would be sick of the sight of penguins by day nine of the expedition but I never tired of watching them shuffling en masse over the ice; standing silently as we sat coyly among them; or scampering into the sea, away from watchful, hungry seals.

Antarctica teems with treats for the nature lover and, armed with knowledge from the lectures, you will be rattling off information about the continent’s flora and fauna quicker than David Attenborough.

Because the continent has no recent history of commercial hunting, animals are, it appears, usually not afraid of people. Instead they appear to relish the company of humans and seem intrigued by our presence.

Antarctica is the wildest, windiest and driest continent on Earth, technically a desert, receiving just two inches of precipitation a year, one inch more than the Sahara. While some 98 per cent of the continent is covered in ice, flora exist in parts in the form of mosses, lichens, algae and fungi.

We landed at Aitcho Island, which provided a glimpse of an Antarctica that I had never imagined before. With mossy headlands and beds of lichens and terns swooping above, the island has an eerie, surreal quality, like something out of a Salvador Dali painting.

The landscape is bleak and desolate, full of browns and murky greens and speckled with huge whale bones. As we scaled the hill away from yet another Gentoo colony, a putrid odour enveloped us. It took a while to realise it was the smell of huge Weddell elephant seals (they weigh up to 600kg) moulting.

It’s still hard to believe these obeselooking creatures can plummet to 600m diving for food, an amazing feat when all you see is a mass of blubber.

While whaling, developed commercially by the Norwegians and the British in early part of the last century, has been curbed, as has seal hunting, reminders of that era remain. Dilapidated whaling stations dot several islands, notably Deception Island, the caldera of an active volcano that damaged the local scientific stations in 1967 and 1969. The remains of a Norwegian whaling vessel remain, partly covered by lava.

Whale bones scatter the shoreline like fallen trees. The island seems to smoulder, and the clammy air reeks of sulphur, but the water at the steaming shoreline afforded us a tepid dip in an otherwise frigid Southern ocean.

After our first day on ice we headed back to the ship for a four-course feast served as we cruised through glaciers and rode alongside humpback whales. Afterwards we retired to our rooms to drift off to sleep watching meteorites burning through the atmosphere.

One of the highlights of any visit to the Antarctic is a trip around Paradise Bay en route to Neko harbour on the continent. Icebergs teem through sapphire-blue water beneath sparkling white glaciers that go on as far as the eye can see.

Paradise Bay is Antarctica at its best. The stunning whites, blues and greens of the gigantic icebergs rendered us almost speechless. Glaciers three to four times the height of our ship were terrifying yet humbling to behold.

Stepping on to the continent rooted the entire experience for us. As penguins shuffled curiously around us and we watched seals dip in and out of the water around our docked ship to the backdrop of minke whales’ enchanting song, it was hard to believe you are in Antarctica.

Even now, looking at the photographs, it doesn’t seem real. Our ship’s captain said that upon returning home to Argentina after each expedition he would dream every night of Antarctica and the beauty it holds. It’s easy to understand why.

ANTARCTICA . . . ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW:

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit Antarctica is between December and February, when you can catch the spectacular migration of the Emperor penguins. Tailor your trip to your individual needs and wants – November is its springtime, the ice shelves are breaking and penguins are meeting and mating. December and January are warmer, with longer hours of daylight (up to 20 hours a day) and penguins are hatching their eggs and feeding their chicks. Whale-watching is at its best in February.

WHO TO GO WITH

I travelled with Ashuana Viajes, a tour operator based in Buenos Aires with a local office in Ushuaia (tel: 0054-2901-436064). They were very helpful. Details on the ship are at antarcticdream.com.

A sure sign of a good operator is membership of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, a self-governed organisation which plays an important role in keeping operators in check, with strict guidelines and regulations about conduct of the ships and passengers. iaato.org

WHAT TO BRING

Waterproof rain gear and insulated, waterproof boots or, failing that, a pair of old-fashioned wellies. You will spend a lot of time getting on and off the ship, and good rain gear is essential for shore landings and walking through snow and penguin droppings, known as guano.

Warm thermals, hats, scarves, gloves and a torch for exploring old scientific huts are essential.

Bring a good pair of polarising sunglasses – it is unfathomably bright there.

Bring ginger (raw, sticks, sweets or supplements) or seasickness tablets – the former is highly recommended as the drowsiness induced by some seasickness medication can outweigh its usefulness.

Bring ample memory cards for your camera. The Antarctic is a photographer’s dream. You will take hundreds

of photos even if you’re not usually snap-happy.

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