Until recently, only scientists and researchers used the back door to get into Antarctica: not by ship, but by boarding a plane from South America or even Cape Town. Why sail across the Drake if, in just three hours, you can be standing with both feet on the Last Continent, safe and well? No greenish-yellow colour on your face, thanks to the often fifteen-metre-high waves that make the stretch of ocean between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula so notorious. Flying also means being completely ready and full of energy to discover this extreme part of Earth.
In 2001, a clever Chilean company, Antarctica XXI, came up with the idea of creating an air bridge during the summer months between Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in Chilean Patagonia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Not only for biologists, oceanologists and weather scientists, but also for the ordinary tourist. So imagine: no Drake Passage; no 21-day Antarctica sailing itinerary that only travellers with oceans of time can afford; no lost days at sea. This is Antarctica in a compact way – a fantastic, adrenaline-filled six days aboard a small expedition ship, without crossing the ferocious Drake.
We bet Shackleton and Amundsen would never have dreamed of this: a comfortable arrival in Punta Arenas at dusk, where dark, cloudy skies so typical of Patagonia welcome you. Or maybe warn you, who knows… Punta Arenas is one of those end-of-the-world towns where you often meet true adventurers – including those departing for Antarctica to work and live for long periods. “We crossed Chilean Patagonia in a 4×4 and we’re ending our trip with a week in Antarctica”, says Matthias, a TV producer from Germany, who turns out to be one of our fellow guests and who we meet during the welcome dinner in the hotel on the night before departure. “What will it be like flying to Antarctica? No idea? In any case, three hours in the air has to be better than three days of heavy seas”, he says. “With some luck we’ll fly to Antarctica tomorrow, just after midday. Be prepared to fly to the end of the world!”
Return ticket to Antarctica
But we do wonder, what does a plane that can land in Antarctica look like? To be honest, quite ordinary. The BAE-146, built in Britain by British Aerospace, looks pretty neutral, except that “Antarctica” is painted on its fuselage. A smooth three hours later we land on King George Island, where Chile’s Eduardo Frei base is situated. Not on ice but on an ordinary airstrip, which on the most extreme occasions is covered with dry snow. Technically, this is not the Antarctic Peninsula but the Southern Shetland Islands. In the distance floats our expedition ship for the next six days. A short Zodiac ride from King George and we’re in the observation lounge of the ship with a warming drink, a smiling, 12-strong expedition team and the prospect of seeing and doing things we’ve never experienced before. We’re joined by a couple of seasoned biologists, young naturalists, a historian, an ornithologist, an ocean specialist, a doctor and other crew members who have sailed Arctic and Antarctic waters for many years. Some worked on old Russian nuclear ice breakers and have plenty of stories to tell – the perfect entertainment.
Crossing the Bransfield Strait
One glance through the cabin porthole and we know enough: this is going to be a hell of a stunning day. A sunny, early morning overlooking Mikkelsen Harbour on Trinity Island, where we’ll soon make a landing. The strong rubber Zodiacs can take eight to ten passengers. Life jacket on, sunscreen and sunglasses and cameras at the ready. Several Weddell seals lie sunbathing in the snow and a leopard seal circles around the Zodiacs then disappears. “Dangerous animals”, smiles a biologist. “It’s known that they can bite straight through a Zodiac.” Further up, near the old whaling station, sit a flock of cackling Gentoo penguins. “Never block the way of a penguin”, Mariano, the expedition leader, explains. “Penguins always have right of way. No matter!” In the afternoon, after hours of sailing through a sensationally silent, white landscape and a hearty lunch, there’s a Zodiac trip between icebergs and ice floes in Cierva Cove. We glimpse the Argentine research station, Primavera, in the distance; while closer to our Zodiac we see crab-eater seals, penguins, and skua birds… While slaloming in the Zodiac between icebergs, the engine is cut so we can listen to almost supernatural sounds: the ice releasing millions-of-years-old air; in the far distance icebergs are breaking off glaciers and a little closer a piece of blue ice flips over. Beautiful, memorable sounds.
Through Kodak Alley
The Lemaire Channel on the way to Petermann Island is sometimes nicknamed Kodak Alley because it’s so photogenic. It might be baptised ‘Selfie Alley’ soon, who knows? Petermann Island is the perfect place to get close up with the Adelie and Gentoo penguins. Almost everyone stays as long as possible onshore before the ship continues its journey towards the Vernadsky Research Station, manned 365 days a year by tough Ukrainians. Besides weather measurements and other research, they spend their time here playing snooker in the bar upstairs, listening to old LPs and drinking strong spirits to stay warm. “A glass of vodka?” asks one of the researchers as he shuffles to the bar in thick socks. “Hey, don’t make yourselves too comfortable because we’re soon having a barbecue on deck”, mentions an expedition member when he sees a few passengers hanging at the bar. “Can we join?” asks the Ukrainians. Sure, why not? Hop on board! Overlooking a mirror-like sea floating with icebergs and seals and penguins bobbing past on ice floes under a slowly setting sun, we enjoy an authentic South American parilla on the top deck. The pisco sour flows generously and Antarctica treats us again to an unforgettable moment.
The icy paradise
During the short night, the ship sails into Paradise Bay. The night is cold and there’s a layer of frazil, or super thin ice, on the water’s surface. Glaciers along the walls of the bay now and then creak and crash – the sound is out of this world. We pass huge ice floes where seals lie dozing, and glide by icebergs with varied artistic forms. At the end of the trip, all the Zodiacs anchor together in the middle of the bay and hot chocolate with rum is served. Excellent for heating up hands and hearts. Next are the waters around Danco Island, a hotspot for humpback whales and mink whales. As proof, we watch the spectacle of feeding humpback whales just as everyone is enjoying an aperitivo on board; then it gets even more ‘wow’ as a number of killer whales pop up. The captain slows the ship and glides through the calm waters. “It’s hard to believe it can be so cold and so extreme here, while now it looks so soft and calm”, muses one fellow traveller when we are once again treated to a perfect night sky. It’s almost too idyllic, too perfect.
Just a small storm
The ship sails away from the Antarctic Peninsula in the direction of the Southern Shetland Islands. The GPS points to Whaler Bay and famous Deception Island. The last highlight of this trip is Yankee Harbour, between Glacier Bluff and Spit Point on the southwest side of Greenwich Island. Ten metres above the beach, 4,000 breeding pairs of Gentoos are nesting. It’s a bird lover’s paradise. Meanwhile, the weather worsens – we’re talking threatening grey skies, snow in the air and more serious waves. “This is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to Drake Passage”, smiles Mariano. “If you can’t deal with a wave of four to five metres, then you’re doomed on the Drake.” He says. While waves now and again crash over the ship, the captain and first officer sit quietly in their chairs on the bridge sipping cups of coffee and eating cake. A normal day in the office, right? “When does the plane leave tomorrow?” we ask. If all goes well, you’ll be back in Punta Arenas at Pisco sour time.” A final toast to enchanted Antarctica? Sure, but also to skipping that vicious and infamous Drake Passage, don’t you think?
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.