Just incase you didn’t figure it out, we were in Ushuaia – the world’s southernmost city – for a reason. The city is also the world’s most active gateway to Antarctica and the setting-off point for the Ocean Endeavour – the grand old lady that carries passengers around the Arctic in the northern summer season, and to Antarctica in the southern summer season.
The words once in a lifetime get thrown around a lot when people mention Antarctica. I kind of get it, but I kind of don’t. I mean, If you’ve already been and you really want to go back, you’d just save more money and go again, wouldn’t you?
So rather than this, our expedition to Antarctica being a once in a lifetime experience, I going to call it a “Holy shit, that was one of the most incredible things we’ve ever done.”
The Ocean Endeavour is fully equipped to carry 200 guests on her Quark Expeditions to both polar regions. There are nine cabin categories, a restaurant, three lounges, spa & gym, yoga lounge and a small gift shop. No cabaret shows or children’s creche areas, though, this is an expedition ship, not a cruise ship.
There’s plenty of outdoor deck space to watch an iceberg or two, spot a whale, orca, a penguin or two, dolphins and albatross – all while your face slowly freezes and your stomach roller coasters in the non-balmy Antarctic breeze.
Just kidding about the last part. You can always defrost in one of the saunas on Deck 8, and your stomach may only do backflips when the ship crosses the Drake Passage and you’re wishing you didn’t stuff your face so much at lunch.
Speaking of Deck 8, we were shacked up in cabin 8008, one of four Top Deck Twins that protrude from the ship. A very comfy bed, pillows I wanted to keep, a sofa, wardrobe, even a desk where I could sit and tap away on the laptop.
Many would regard this as a cruise, but it’s a little different to the controlled schedules and guest entertainment on a passenger ship that sticks to a route and stops at every port like clockwork. Rather than cruise directors, expedition ships like the Ocean Endeavour are led by an expedition team and their leader – yet ultimately the captain is charge.
The expedition team is made up of over 20 people with qualifications that include naturalists, guides, photographer, historian, ornithologist, mountaineer, geologist & glaciologist, and marine biologist. All these people interact with you – from daily lectures and presentations to joining you on your outings once you’re on that great white continent.
Speaking of the great white continent, this is our first encounter with land after the two day Drake Passage crossing from the Beagle Channel to the South Shetland Islands, which are located just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
As for the Drake, this is one of the wildest crossings on the planet. There are some horror stories (and horror footage) out there about how rough it gets, but lucky for us, ours didn’t quite shake us out of bed. Although, walking in a straight line as the ship bobbed around like a cork was impossible. Check my short time-lapse below and enjoy the 20 seconds of serenity.
Aside from the daily presentations by members of the expedition team, and once you’ve gone through a few “We’re in f@cking Antarctica!” outbursts, each day also involves Zodiac outings.
These little inflatable boats are winched onto the water when the ship anchors at a certain location, then each assigned group (all passengers are divided into 4 groups – Minke, Albatross, Gentoo & Leopard) heads down to the Mud Room, gets kitted up and jumps onto the Zodiac. Not all groups go at once, though, and are instead alternated during the day.
The bright yellow jacket is provided, one that you can keep, as are the boots and life vest. Can’t keep those. You just need to have waterproof pants, gloves and the warm clothes you wear beneath it all.
Our first landing was on Brown Bluff, a remarkable area on the southwest coast of the Antarctic Sound, which is a huge parking lot for giant icebergs. Brown Bluff is known for its wind-sculpted rocks, towering red tuff cliffs and about 40, 000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins.
Another Zodiac outing heads for Paulet Island, a 353 m high volcanic cone that juts out of the ocean. Here we circumnavigate the island and check out the home to about 125, 000 nesting pairs of Adélie’s, plus a sea lion, or five.
Ok, so with all the daily outings and burned-off calories from jumping in and out of Zodiacs and stomping through Antarctic snow, the body needs a little sustenance, right?
Well let me just tell you, aside from experiencing Antarctica and its wondrous sights, the other main activity onboard is eating. And eating.
Did I mention eating?
Each day, breakfast starts at 7.30 am in the Polaris Restaurant. If you’re up earlier and need something to nibble on, there’s even a continental breakfast going on at 6.30 am in the Compass Club.
The centre of the restaurant features a two-sided bain-marie buffet and cooking station so that guests don’t have to line up for too long to fill their plates. They have everything available – hot food like sausages, bacon, eggs, omelettes, hash browns etc, plus cheeses, smoked salmon, salads, breads, pastries, juices, fruit, yoghurt, preserves and spreads.
Coffee is of the drip variety, but if you want an espresso you can get one from the Compass Club bar and buy one for a few dollars. Tea, maté and hot chocolate is available all day and night.
When it comes to dinner, it’s served at 7.30 pm in the Polaris Restaurant, a la carte-syle. Menu example above. The tables in the restaurant are set up mainly for four or above, but there are a few coveted tables of two.
Bread is brought around, you’re offered a different red and white wine each night, and they top up your glass as often as you like, There’s a different menu each night, as well.
Just like breakfast, dinner and wine is included in the rate. And if you feel like being a real glutton, you can politely ask for an additional entrée, main or dessert. They don’t scrimp on this ship whatsoever.
Thanks to the weather being on our side pretty much the entire time we were in Antarctica, we got to see the sunset every night. When dinner is done and dusted there’s still plenty of time to head up on deck, if you want, to freeze your tits off and watch the sunset at 11 pm.
Alternatively, head over to the Nautilus Lounge and get drinking even more at the bar. These drinks you have to pay for. Truth be told, I was in bed before sunset most nights as each day’s activities kind of take it out of you.
Lunch is served in the Polaris Restaurant each day, buffet-style, just like breakfast. The spread is enormous, full of variety and comes with tea, coffee and non-alcoholic drinks.
Seeing wildlife is one of the highlights of hitting up Antarctica, and there’s no shortage of that. Penguins are the most prolific – the Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo being the most common – but if you’re lucky you may see an Emperor penguin. We only saw one, a little too far away to be photographed properly without a telescopic lens.
Other activities that Quark Expeditions offer on this trip can be purchased prior to disembarking. These include camping, cross-country skiing, mountaineering and stand-up paddle boarding – each attracting a different price.
Something that won’t cost you anything is this.
A polar plunge. Yes, you can get your kit off and jump into the freezing Antarctic water, just for the hell of it.
Did I do it? Um, no. Someone had to take a photo of Dean doing it, though!
Now, this is more my scene.
Anchoring at Cierva Cove in perfectly smooth water surrounded by snow-covered hills and mountains was one of my Antarctic highlights. The snow shimmered in the afternoon sun as we all gathered on the rear deck for an outdoor barbecue – white cloths on tables, free-flowing vino, your newfound friends and a sumptuous spread of food.
Admittedly the food went cold by the time you got from the barbecue to your table, but none of that matters when you’re surrounded by the sheer and utter beauty of the Antarctic.
Once again, a magical sunset that painted the sky and landscape in stunning colours. A sunset that lasts way longer thanks to being at the bottom of the planet.
No words can describe the feeling.
Back to the pre-purchased activities you can add to you Antarctic experience, we chose one.
I mean, how many people can say that they’ve camped in Antarctica?
After an early dinner on the Ocean Endeavour, we were all taken in Zodiacs to Rongé Island, rug sacks and sleeping bags in hand, where some of the team were already hard at work cutting up compressed snow into bricks. These were to build walls for toilets, where a barrel is placed to take waste back onto the ship.
Meanwhile, we all found our own little piece of the island, within a marked and very spacious perimeter, and dug a depression into the snow to fit the sleeping bag. The deeper you go, the less icy wind you have blowing over you when you’re all zipped up.
No tents here, either, unless you really want one. For the full Antarctic camping experience it’s just you in your sleeping bag, on a roll-out mat under the dim sky.
It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep I’ve had, not that I slept much, but it was warm in that bag and I loved every minute of it. One thing we did do, though, was take a pillow from our bed on the ship to stuff into bag. Scrunching up that yellow jacket, as we were suggested to do, just didn’t cut it for a pillow.
A little luxury when camping in Antarctica makes all the difference.
When everyone’s zipped up and everything goes quiet it feels like it’s just you and the spectacular landscape you’re lying on. Creaks and cracks can be occasionally heard, rocks tumble down the cliff, and then an avalanche that seems really close. No great concern, we were far enough away.
This can’t possibly be a once in a lifetime experience.
I want to do it again!
There are many companies that can get you to Antarctica on a variety of ships. We chose Freestyle Adventure Travel and were very happy with the way everything was handled and how helpful they were. As for Quark Expeditions, they were damn brilliant.
A very special thanks to Sarah Scott that works with Freestyle, for being so quick in responding to queries and for securing us the fabulous cabin we thoroughly enjoyed on the Ocean Endeavour.