South Georgia & Antarctica: The Trip Of A Lifetime

Go on, give it a share!

Antarctica flag

The Antarctica flag flies on the prow of the Ocean Endeavour en route to South Georgia and Antarctica

Welcome to the first of my posts about my recent trip to South Georgia and Antarctica. In this one, I hope I’ve captured some of the essence of what the trip was like and what we did. If you’re after specific practical information, an account of our full itinerary is here, and I’ll be posting much more over the next few weeks and months, so please come back soon or post your questions in the comments below!

Penguins, Penguins Everywhere

The wind batters me with fierce, punchy gusts, flinging handfuls of sand into the air and rattling the little red route marker flags on their plastic poles. I battle to maintain my balance as it tugs at my coat and camera, playfully attempting to shove me over before suddenly relaxing, only to return a few moments later with renewed vigour. But I ignore it, because what’s in front of me is far too captivating to pay much attention to the impish molestations of the weather.

King Penguin chick: South Georgia

A king penguin chick is blasted by the wind

Flowing down over the hillside and across the beach below is a seething carpet of nearly half a million king penguins. Every available square foot is occupied: sleek adults in their elegant black, white and yellow uniforms shuffle around each other, pausing occasionally to throw back their heads and call out with a rhythmic siren sound, searching for their offspring. The chicks, fat brown fluffballs blown bouffant by the wind, huddle together and reply with a high-pitched whistle, demanding to be fed. I watch the drama in astonishment, and beside me camera shutters whirr like a thrilling drum roll.

King penguin colony, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King penguin colony, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

A king penguin chick demands to be fed, South Georgia

A king penguin chick demands to be fed, South Georgia

Challenges and Chances

Landing here at Saint Andrew’s Bay has been precarious. The island of South Georgia is slap in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1200 miles from Argentina. With no other landmass to shelter her, she’s pelted by whatever the ocean winds can drum up – and today, though certainly not the worst, is rather… shall we say… brisk. Possibly a little too brisk, in fact, to put 198 amateur seafarers carrying expensive camera gear out onto the water in tiny inflatable boats without risking some of them taking an unscheduled – and extremely chilly – swim.

Quark Expeditions zodiac cruise, South Georgia

Quark Expeditions zodiac cruise, South Georgia

So we are initially told it may be too rough to go ashore, and while we await further instructions our determined expedition leader, Canadian wilderness expert Solan Jensen, studies the forecast. Will the wind patterns and the swell play ball just enough to allow us to disembark and witness one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles on the planet?

Quark Expeditions leader Solan Jensen

South Georgia and Antarctica expedition leader Solan Jensen

After two hours of waiting, the ship’s tannoy bursts into life. “Goooood afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. The wind has dropped just enough, so we will begin disembarkation at Saint Andrew’s Bay in ten minutes. Albatross Group, please make your way to the mudroom.”

The rigid-hulled inflatable zodiacs are lowered onto the water, and we excitedly pull on our yellow expedition parkas, lifejackets and boots – the latter freshly scrubbed by order of South Georgia’s government to prevent us bringing non-native species onto its pristine shores. Then, in groups of 10, we descend to the launch platforms and carefully climb aboard the boat, bracing ourselves against the bumps as it bounces energetically on the lumpy sea and chill spray salts our faces.

Quark expeditions ship and zodiac, Antarctica

A passenger shelters from the wind on a zodiac, South Georgia

Read more: The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary

Exploring the Beach

Solan has sent an advance party, to mark out a safe route that won’t disturb the animals and help us navigate a safe landing onto the stony beach. Despite the wind and the swell, we manage without incident, and start to explore.

Quark Expeditions zodiac landing, South Georgia

Beach landing team, South Georgia

Just ten metres away, half a dozen elephant seals doze side-by-side like enormous 1-tonne sausages on a barbecue. One opens her eyes and observes lazily as these strange, puffy yellow creatures spread out across her territory. Two more squabble half-heartedly for space, head butting each other a handful of times before settling down again. A young fur seal bounds towards us like an eager puppy until one of the guides stops it in its tracks with a firm ‘GO AWAY’ and a Paddington stare. Fur seals may look cute, but their bites are nasty, and the nearest hospital is 1000 miles away in the Falklands.

Elephant seals, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Elephant seals, St Andrew’s Bay

Fur seal, South Georgia

A sleepy fur seal, South Georgia

As I head towards the main colony a small group of penguins waddles out of the sea; one approaches me curiously, peering at the mysterious invader with his beady eye and probing the air with his beak. The rules state that we must keep 5 metres away from the wildlife – but that’s easier said than done when they’re just as keen to inspect you as you are them. Soon he’s so close I could reach out and p-p-p-pick him up, but that’s not allowed, so I back away. I’m afraid I can’t tell you if he had a joke printed on him somewhere, but I suspect he wouldn’t have tasted as good as the other kind of penguin.

A curious king penguin poses for photos, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

A curious king penguin poses for photos, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

The Expedition Route

This magical wildlife paradise is just one destination on our 20-day, trip-of-a-lifetime adventure to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the biggest prize of all: Antarctica. It’s an epic voyage promising we lucky few the chance to witness some of the most stellar natural treasures on the planet: albatross and rockhopper penguin colonies in the Falklands, wildlife in such joyful abundance in South Georgia that we feel like aliens landing on a fantasy planet, icebergs bigger than hotels in every shade of white and blue, and of course the pristine beauty of the fabled seventh continent.

Antarctica landscape photography

Magical light in Antarctica

As we board the Quark Expeditions ship Ocean Endeavour in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, I’m excited but also a little nervous. Yes we have an unbelievable menu of highlights to look forward to, but we also have almost three weeks on a boat with all the potential for seasickness, cabin fever, and possibly annoying fellow passengers to deal with. What could possibly go wrong?

South Georgia and Antarctica cruise ship Ocean Endeavour, Quark Expeditions, Ushuaia

The Ocean Endeavour at dock in Ushuaia, Argentina

The Ocean Endeavour

Answer: a lot can, actually, but not this time. Although it’s described as an ‘expedition’, you can forget any notions of hardship. Banish all thoughts of Shackleton and Scott, battered by freezing storms and eating penguins and seals to survive. We travel in luxury, with cosy cabins that, while small, are warm and comfortable, with carpets and hot showers; hotel staff even leave a chocolate on my pillow every night. The ship has two lounges, a coffee bar, a gym, spa and sauna, and a restaurant serving enormous buffet breakfasts and lunches, and a four-course dinner with unlimited wine every night.

South Georgia and Antarctica cabin interior

Our triple cabin aboard the Ocean Endeavour

Yes, sometimes it’s rough, and yes you may get seasick, but the crew hand out medication, sick bags and candied ginger – and anyway, we get lucky. Apart from a few blustery days in South Georgia we are blessed with almost eerie levels of calm; even the notorious Drake Passage – the most famously horrific stretch of sea in the world – barely manages a twinge as we cross.

Read more: Visiting the Falkland Islands on an Expedition Cruise

South Georgia and Antarctica cruise ship interior

The library and Compass Lounge

Up Close Wildlife Encounters

We swiftly fall into a routine. Shore days begin with an early wake-up call – a cheery weather and schedule update from our leader Solan piped directly into our cabins – and after breakfast we have a landing and zodiac cruise. Most of the sites only allow 100 people at a time, so we are split: half of us land while the rest explore the shoreline in the zodiacs, and then we switch. Lunch is served on board while the Ocean Endeavour moves to the afternoon location, where we repeat the procedure. After dinner there’s a film or a talk, and then you can sit in the bar with your new friends or retire to your cabin to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures.

South Georgia and Antarctica zodiac cruise with crabeater seals in Antarctica

Passengers get close to crabeater seals on a zodiac cruise in Antarctica

The entire operation is run with expert precision – a machine so well-oiled it gleams like a classic Bentley. Service is exceptional; the expedition team the most enthusiastic, hard-working and helpful crew I’ve ever met. It’s a genuinely happy ship, where everyone clearly has a deep passion for their job and the region. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given where we are.

South Georgia and Antarctica guide on a zodiac

Marine biology guide Johann Rodas Ruiz explains about elephant seals

Rest and Relaxation at Sea

Our time at sea is more chilled out. It takes two full days to get from the Falklands to South Georgia and another two to get to Antarctica. We spend hours on deck watching for whales and petrels, or listening to lectures on Antarctic history, geology and marine biology from Quark’s team of experts. I worry about gaining weight from all the delicious food, and make a futile attempt to solve this by passing a lacklustre half hour in the gym (it doesn’t work – I put on half a stone). I also occupy myself by editing my photos, and getting to know some of my fellow guests.

Quark expeditions afternoon tea on the Ocean Endeavour

Afternoon tea is served on sea days

They’re a pleasant bunch, mainly from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK, with a handful of other Europeans and a strong Chinese contingent. About half seem to be retired couples, finally splurging their pensions on that bucket-list adventure, but there’s also a significant younger group, many of whom are, like me, solo travellers who’ve saved up for the trip and have opted to share a cabin with a stranger to lighten the eye-watering £10k-plus cost. Unsurprisingly on a voyage where wildlife is the main draw, there are a lot of photographers brandishing huge lenses – I quickly buddy up with a couple but soon find myself getting photo envy every time one of them captures a beautiful moment that I missed.

Photographers on the Falkland Islands

Photographers on the Falkland Islands

Read more: The Falkland Islands: Frequently Asked Questions

A Unique Experience

Because of course everyone on a trip like this has a different experience. The itinerary is only a goal, not a guarantee, and Quark are keen to stress that things can and do change because of the weather. We get exceptionally lucky and see almost everything we hoped for, but we hear tales where things don’t go so well: on one unfortunate voyage the wind prevents the ship from making any landings at all in South Georgia – instead they spend a frustrating four days bouncing around the coast looking for a safe harbour but finding not a single one. On another trip the Ocean Endeavour gets stuck in ice and is unable to move for nine days until it clears.

That’s the thing with this region: its wildness is its draw, but also its potential drawback.

Chinstrap penguins on an iceberg, Antarctica

Chinstrap penguins on an iceberg, Antarctica

But even when the going is good, we all see different things. Every zodiac cruise and every route we take around a site is unique. A group on a stand-up-paddleboard excursion gets investigated by some curious humpback whales that come within a few metres of them. One photographer is the only person to capture two skuas fighting over a dead penguin chick. I’m lucky enough to be one of eleven people in a zodiac when a humpback decides to breach – six times. It’s one of the most thrilling moments of the entire voyage.

A humpback whale breaches, Antarctica

A humpback whale breaches, Charlotte Bay

Of course there is one thing that we all get to experience – and that’s the untouched icy beauty of Antarctica.

Read more: 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips

Antarctica ice and icebergs, Errera Channel

Ice and icebergs, Errera Channel, Antarctica

First View of Antarctica

We arrive at the Antarctic peninsula overnight on the third of January, and are woken sharply the next morning by Solan’s warm Canadian tones ringing out in our cabin.

“Gooood morning ladies and gentlemen, good morning. The time is six fifteen a.m. on Saturday the 4th of January, and during the night the Ocean Endeavour made her way across the Bransfield Strait, into the northern Gerlache Strait, and we are just coming into position here in Charlotte Bay for our morning objective: landing on the continent of Antarctica.”

An expedition ship in Neko Harbour, Errera Channel, Antarctica

The Ocean Endeavour in Neko Harbour, Errera Channel, Antarctica

My cabin is in the cheap seats, right in the belly of the ship with no window, so I have to struggle awake in the darkness, get dressed, and climb two flights of stairs before I can step out onto the aft deck and see for myself. Even at 6.15 am it’s already bright – it’s January so there are more than 18 hours of daylight – and for a moment I’m forced to squint and cover my eyes before they gradually adjust, and I can start to take in the view.

And even though we crossed into Antarctic waters four days ago, and even though we have already experienced the drop in temperature to close to freezing and begun to see the occasional iceberg drifting by, nothing quite prepares you for your first view of the seventh continent.

Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

The icy stillness of Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

Ice Everywhere

The sky is heavy and grey, with not a breath of wind. The sea is mirror smooth. And in every direction, there is ice. Colossal, vivid blue chunks the size of tower blocks float silently in the bay, their edges sculpted into fantastical shapes: cathedrals and pipe organs, pitted golf balls and striated bamboo forests. Between them drift smaller white bergs calved from some distant parent, their faces reflected perfectly in the glassy surface. Ahead in the distance is the continent itself, its rocky outline draped in snow and capped with an immense ancient glacier.

Calm seas and icebergs in Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

Calm seas and icebergs in Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

It’s only when you go to Antarctica that you realise how ridiculous it is that we only have one word for ice. There is so much of it, in so many different colours and forms, that even though I know climate change is putting it under threat, out here you would never know. The place is immaculate.

A towering iceberg, Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

A towering iceberg, Charlotte Bay, Antarctica

Exploring the Seventh Continent

Stepping ashore on the continent is a magic moment. Some people squeal and throw themselves into the snow. We take turns to pose with the Antarctic flag. A few metres away a Weddell seal dozes, opening his eyes occasionally to observe us indifferently before going back to sleep. The spotless peace is broken only by the sporadic whirring of 100 camera shutters.

Antarctic flag, Antarctica

Posing with the Antarctic flag

Weddell seal, Portal Point, Antarctica

Weddell seal, Portal Point, Antarctica

We zodiac cruise around the bay. A sudden loud puff of air makes us jump as a humpback whale surfaces to breathe, before slowly slipping under again. A second follows, then a third. There are so many that one guide describes the bay as ‘whale soup’. I scan the surface, camera poised; two days ago I was thrilled just to see a dorsal fin in the distance, now I’m so spoiled I won’t press the shutter unless the whale is diving, fluke high in the air, close enough to fill the frame.

A humpback whale dives, Scotia Bay, Antarctica

A humpback whale dives, Antarctica

I’ve died and gone to photography heaven. I take thousands of photos: seals and penguins, whales and gulls, ice, ice and more ice (baby), more than I can ever possibly use. But that doesn’t matter. It’s exactly why I came here, and for me it’s perfect.

So why should you go to South Georgia and Antarctica? Why should you save up and splurge many thousands on a trip where things can go wrong, where the activities you’ve paid for are not guaranteed, where you will definitely be uncomfortable at times, where you might get sick? Well obviously this trip isn’t for everyone, and perhaps if you’re asking those questions it’s not for you. But for me the only real question is: how could you not? If you have the chance to travel to one of the last truly unspoiled, pristine places on earth, to see wildlife in all its glorious, chaotic abundance, undamaged by human destruction, where the raw power of nature grabs you and shakes you and leaves you dazed and bewildered by its beauty and its immensity… if you have the chance to see all of that once in your life, why wouldn’t you take it?

Quark expeditions trip to Antartica and South Georgia

Further Reading

To find out where we went and what we got up to, go to The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary

If you want to know more about the Falklands, read Visiting the Falkland Islands on an Expedition Cruise

Or you’re interested in photography, head over to 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips

This is the first of what will hopefully be loads of posts about my Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica trip, so please do sign up to updates by email to get notifications about new posts, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. And if there’s anything you’d like to know, please comment below so I can include it in the next post!

I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.

If you liked this, please share the love and Pin It!

South Georgia and Antarctica Pinterest Pin

South Georgia and Antarctica Pinterest Pin

Go on, give it a share!


  • Davida | Wonders of Wanders
    16th January 2020 at 6:40 pm

    What a spectacular trip this must have been. And your writing is just beautiful. I can’t wait to read more of what you have to say.

    • passportandpixels
      16th January 2020 at 8:29 pm

      That’s so kind of you to say, thank you so much for commenting! 🙂

  • thesmilingfoodjournal
    16th January 2020 at 11:37 pm

    Bella, this is a superb blog post. I desperately want to travel to Antarctica and you have inspired me even more to visit. Your writing style is so articulate and honest, great work.

    • passportandpixels
      17th January 2020 at 6:12 pm

      Thank you lovely lady! Comments like this mean so much! 🙂

  • Tom
    17th January 2020 at 11:14 am

    So great to read this and wonderful photos – just incredible!

    • passportandpixels
      17th January 2020 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Tom! I’m so pleased you liked it!

  • AnnaEverywhere
    19th January 2020 at 12:28 am

    I’ve done the same trip on the same ship in November, wish we were on the same boat! 🙂

    • passportandpixels
      19th January 2020 at 12:09 pm

      That would have been so cool! Wasn’t it amazing! How did yours go?

  • M Nordon
    20th January 2020 at 9:38 am

    The way in which you have communicated the experience is spot on as far as I’m concerned Bella. When anyone asks ( and everybody does) what it was like, I’ll send them a link ?…sorted! Keep writing please!

    • passportandpixels
      20th January 2020 at 9:43 am

      Thank you so much! And please do share away! 🙂

  • Sue Tyler
    20th January 2020 at 10:55 pm

    What an amazing experience you have had. Thank you for sharing your wonderful journey i really enjoyed reading all about your adventure. Looking forward to the fantastic photographic memories we will see in the coming weeks.

    • passportandpixels
      23rd January 2020 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks so much for reading Sue, and for your lovely comment! I hope you continue to enjoy the blog. More coming soon!

  • Jenia
    24th January 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Just stunning. Really a trip of a lifetime.

    • passportandpixels
      24th January 2020 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks Jenia! I really hope you get the chance to visit too someday.

  • Sarah Maria Klitgaard
    28th January 2020 at 9:46 pm

    Your photography is amazing!

    • passportandpixels
      28th January 2020 at 10:34 pm

      Thank you so much Sarah, I’m so pleased you like it!

  • Alex
    19th April 2020 at 9:03 am

    Oh. My. Goodness. I absolutely loved reading about this- what an experience! I normally prefer warmer climes but this post makes me seriously consider venturing further South.
    I’m used to living and working on ships so it’s also just interesting to hear about a passenger experience. Great photographs too!!

    • passportandpixels
      19th April 2020 at 12:55 pm

      Thank you so much Alex! I’m so pleased you liked it. Interesting that you live and work on ships – I absolutely loved this trip but I’m not sure I’d want to be aboard all the time.

  • Barry Till
    4th May 2020 at 9:20 pm

    Amazing photos, so creatively and beautifully taken. Antarctica is somewhere I would love to visit but with so many other places vying for a visit it may well be low on the list …one day ! Loved the content and your writing style too.

    • passportandpixels
      5th May 2020 at 11:28 pm

      How kind, thank you so much Barry! I’m so pleased you liked the post and thank you for taking the time to comment 🙂

  • Jeff Bullied
    20th February 2021 at 6:54 am

    Hi Bella,

    First, I was to congratulate you on the really terrific images you captured in South Georgia and Antartica. Thank you so much for the really excellent and newsy article.

    My wife ad I are definitely going to Antartica in Jan 2022. Question: is it highly worthwhile to add South Georgia as well? What did you see there that you would not see on, say, a 12 day trip from Ushuaia to Antartica return? Is it worth the added time and expense?

    Thanks in advanced and kudos to you again for your excellent article and images. I have started following you on Instagram!

    • passportandpixels
      20th February 2021 at 10:01 pm

      Hi Jeff, thanks so much for taking the trouble to comment and I’m so pleased you liked the post and the photos! I’m so excited for you that you’ll get to go to Antarctica.
      Yours is a very easy question to answer: if you have the time and money to be able to add on South Georgia to your trip, you absolutely MUST. No doubt in my mind at all! South Georgia is very different from Antarctica – where Antarctica is mostly covered in ice and snow, South Georgia is more temperate (but still chilly). You will see animals in Antarctica, but they’re only part of the attraction. South Georgia, on the other hand, is a wildlife paradise. During breeding season (when you would be there) it has more biodiversity than anywhere else on earth. The St Andrew’s Bay penguin colony has nearly half a million penguins! I honestly cannot rave about the place enough – and if I had the chance to go back to one or the other, I’d pick SG over Antarctica in a heartbeat.
      Of course with all these trips there is a risk that if the weather does not behave then you may not get to see as much as I did, but do have a read of some of my other South Georgia posts to find out more about what you could see.
      I hope you have an amazing trip!

  • Bob Cranwell
    9th April 2021 at 1:14 pm

    What a delight to read of your travels here, written with a genuine sense of wonder at the natural world, but also thoughtful to recognise the untiring work of the travel professionals who make such tours work in a seamless choreography of skills.

    • passportandpixels
      9th April 2021 at 5:11 pm

      Thanks Bob, what a lovely comment! I’m so pleased you liked the post. And yes, the team were amazing, worked so hard, showed so much knowledge and passion and really did make the trip what it was in every way!


Leave a Reply