Snow, serenity or survival: what's Antarctica really like?

Every traveller has a different sense of value, but I am confident that not a single one who has returned from Antarctica would ever question whether it was worth it. And what with it being the 100 year anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible feat of survival, there’s surely no better time to speak of the merits of this ice-laden land.

For many, the biggest obstacle to going to Antarctica is the cost. Expedition ships are not cheap to operate, so the average trip to Antarctica involves a greater financial outlay than most other destinations. Some find it affordable, and others who have been obsessed with the idea of polar travel all their lives will save hard until they can eventually take their trip of a lifetime.

For those waiting for their Antarctic opportunity, here’s an overview of how my last trip to Antarctica went, and a glimpse into what Antarctica's really like.

Icy impressions
Ushuaia may have a population of 60,000 but it still has a feeling of a small town at the end of the world. The dock from which the ships depart from Antarctica is directly opposite the main street, which runs parallel to the shoreline, so it’s relatively easy to get there by taxi from most hotels. I see the ship, my home for the next however many days, waiting for me as I alight at the dock, and the excitement builds as I climb the gangway and am welcomed by the smiling expedition staff.

"...occasionally we may go ashore when there is no obvious reason to do so other than just to explore and these visits can sometimes offer the greatest of surprises."

I soon feel a sense of movement and realise that the ship is pulling away from the dock. I rush outside, onto one of the many viewing decks, to watch as the skyline of Ushuaia recedes into the distance as we head down the still waters of the Beagle Channel. At dinner, the ship’s captain invites everyone to the bar, where a toast of welcome is made. Everyone is looking forward to the success of the trip and I talk with the many fellow passengers before ducking outside to enjoy the serenity of Beagle Channel as dusk falls.

Life on the ocean
A typical day at sea starts at 7am with a gentle wake-up call through the PA in my cabin. My first instinct is to look outside the window at the passing icebergs just to reassure myself that this is not a dream.

Breakfast is at 7.30, during which the Expedition Leader explains the ship’s position, the prevailing conditions and what we should be able to achieve on this day. The intention is to go ashore twice per day should the conditions allow it, and on some rare occasions it may be possible to go ashore three times. We step out of the zodiac onto a grey beach, surrounded by hundreds of Adelie penguins going to and fro, in and out of the water.

There are a few reasons to go ashore. Predominantly, it is to view wildlife; perhaps there is a known penguin colony nearby, or perhaps a landing site where the ship regularly encounters a herd of seals either sunbathing on the ice or on the shore, or swimming. Sometimes there is a research station to visit, and occasionally we may go ashore when there is no obvious reason to do so other than just to explore and to find out what’s there, and these visits can sometimes offer the greatest of surprises.

First landing
Today however, we’re off to visit a colony of some 10,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, a middling to large colony in this part of the world. The landing site is not far away, so after breakfast we have an hour to prepare. It only takes ten minutes to get dressed so this leaves time for a walk up to the bridge, which is the best place on the ship to hang out while the ship is cruising, and where we always find one of the expedition staff hanging out, on the lookout for wildlife.

"Invariably [the expedition crew] are from Cambridge and have long beards, the very image of a polar explorer."

Zodiacs are built to safely carry twelve passengers, but with everyone in slightly bulky dress and some splash bags, ten people per boat is more comfortable. We wait until the full compliment of passengers is in their respective zodiacs, and away we go in the direction of the shore. The ship has anchored about a seven-minute zodiac ride from shore, and on the way we keep our eyes peeled for seals and penguins in the water. We often see small groups of crabeater seals basking on the ice, and occasionally a leopard seal - the main predator of the Antarctic – prowling the waters.

We step out of the zodiac onto a grey beach, surrounded by hundreds of Adelie penguins going to and fro, in and out of the water. The expedition staff are on hand to explain all we need to know about a day in the life of a penguin, their behavioural traits and diet. It is an amazing feeling to be here on this isolated beach, surrounded by fascinating wildlife in what often feels like an open-air zoo; all too soon however, after a couple of hours and about 200 photos it’s time to go back to the ship, where lunch awaits.

The matinee show
Having changed back into our shipboard clothes, lunch is buffet-style and delicious. The Expedition Leader announces that we will cruise for a couple of hours before going ashore again, this time to inspect a British Antarctic Survey’s research station. Many people head back to the bridge to keep a look out for whales, some go to the library, some to the gym. There are so many things to do during the day, you don’t really spend much time in the cabin. A major attraction is the series of educational lectures given by the experts in our expedition staff.

"I feel the urge to pinch myself once again to reassure myself that I really am in Antarctica, and that it is not just an unbelievable dream."

We go ashore in the afternoon and visit the research station and a smaller penguin colony, this time Gentoo penguins. There are a couple of researchers awaiting us and they explain to us what their day-to-day lives are like, and the nature of their research, which is mostly climate-based. Invariably they are from Cambridge and have long beards, the very image of a polar explorer.

Evening events
We continue cruising and for some it’s time for a shower and to get dressed for dinner, but not before heading to the bar for a pre-dinner drink and to discuss the day’s events with fellow passengers. There are always a few of the expedition staff here to mingle with the passengers and it’s wonderful to get some sort of insight into their lives on board the ship throughout the summer.

Dinner is a la carte and our orders were placed at breakfast. The quality of the food is impressive, especially given the conditions the chefs occasionally must work under. After dinner the Expedition Leader gives a wrap-up of the day’s events and shows a map showing our current position, and discusses what we might hope to be able to do tomorrow given the prevailing conditions. After dinner there is a documentary showing in the lecture theatre on Shackleton’s epic tale of survival, his 1916 ‘Endurance’ expedition, which promises to be popular as we are all polar exploration buffs by now.

As exciting and busy as today has been, tomorrow promises to be even more so. After a short read I’m sure it won’t take long for sleep to come, but just before it does, I feel the urge to pinch myself once again to reassure myself that I really am in Antarctica, and that it is not just an unbelievable dream.

And to have visited Antarctica, to have seen the wilderness for oneself, makes the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s survival all the more incredible.

All photography c/o the extremely talented Peter Lemon.

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