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.
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.
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.
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?
After two hours of watching, Solan decides they will. The announcement is made, the rigid-hulled inflatable zodiacs are lowered onto the water, and we excitedly pull on our yellow expedition parkas, lifejackets and muck boots – the latter freshly scrubbed and rigorously inspected by order of South Georgia’s government to prevent us accidentally bringing non-native species onto its pristine shores. Then, in groups of 10, we descend to the launch platforms and carefully climb aboard the zodiac, bracing ourselves against the bumps as it bounces energetically on the lumpy sea and chill spray salts our faces.
Exploring the Beach
Solan has sent a team ahead of us, 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 immediately start to explore.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 decent 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, afternoon tea, and a four-course dinner with unlimited wine every night.
And 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.
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 or retire to your cabin to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures.
The entire operation is run with expert precision – a machine so well-oiled it gleams like a well-loved 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.
Rest and Relaxation at Sea
Our time spent 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 the time 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 spending a lazy half hour cycling in the gym (note: it doesn’t work – I put on half a stone). I also spend the days furiously editing my photos, and getting to know some of my fellow guests.
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 (for whom a dedicated translator is provided). About half seem to be retired couples, finally splurging their pensions on that bucket-list adventure, but there’s also a significant younger contingent, 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 keen 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 image or moment that I missed.
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.
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.
But of course there is one thing that we all get to experience – and that’s the untouched icy beauty of Antarctica.
First View of Antarctica
We arrive at the Antarctic peninsula overnight on the 3rd 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.”
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’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Obviously 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?
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.