Holy smokes - what a trip!
We knew Antartica was going to blow a massive hole in our travel budget. But we also knew we probably weren't going to be back in Argentina in the foreseeable future (at least with enough time on our hands) and had set aside some funds to do it provided we got a reasonable deal. Given we were travelling slowly, we could afford to be flexible with our timing in order to take advantage of some lower sale fares.
Why do Antarctica from South America?
You can visit Antarctica from a few different places, usually Hobart in Australia, Invercargill in New Zealand or Ushuaia in Argentina. The biggest difference is ocean travel time, which also feeds into travel costs. From Australia or New Zealand you'll be at sea for around a week before you reach the continent, whereas from Ushuaia you'll be at the Antarctic peninsula in 2 to 3 days. With a trip from Ushuaia, you can be on board for 10 or 11 days and spend 5 or 6 of those on and around the continent.
Keep in mind that from New Zealand or Australia you'll visit Macquarie Island and the Ross Ice Shelf, so you'll get much more of the Shackleton-Mawson-Scott-Amundsen history on one of these trips. There is plenty to see on and around the peninsula, but not as much of the legendary early history.
Last Minute Antarctica Deals and Sales
With the internet having well and truly arrived in Patagonia (except El Chalten, but thats another story), the requirement to spend time camping out in Ushuaia waiting for last-minute berths has diminished. You can still do that if you've got the time and inclination, but its not as necessary as it once was.
The best way to track down sale fares is to get on the mailing list of a few travel agents in the region. From our experience, we found the following agencies to be good (well informed, good supply of deals, timely communication, etc.):
We ultimately went with Antarctica Travel - their communication was fantastic, and their staff were incredibly hard working. That isn't to say the other options above weren't good (they were all great to be honest), just that the option we chose stood out a little more.
Once you're signed up to the lists, you'll receive regular offers as the season approaches. We were fortunate to sign on to these email lists just before Quark Expeditions had a 50% discount special on some of their November expeditions. One of the expeditions fit our timeframe and budget, so we locked it in. This was done in late September, approximately 6 or so weeks prior to departure.
This obviously won't work for everyone, and a lot of people plan and book these trips 12 to 18 months in advance in order to fit things around work and family commitments. You can also opt to take a berth in a twin, triple or quad share room if you're a single traveller. Plenty of people take this option to avoid excessive single supplement charges, or to avoid buying a double room for themselves.
We opted for a 10 day "Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent" expedition, which included a night in Buenos Aires and a charter flight to Ushuaia. Having been largely self-sufficient on our trip so far (except for our Galapagos tour), it felt a little different being part of an organised tour again. Much less stress, but you sometimes miss the feeling of flying by the seat of your pants.
Everyone refers to these trips as expeditions. It makes you feel far more adventurous, and to be honest the trip is much more action-packed than a P&O cruise (you could probably manage fall in the water from a zodiac on these expeditions if you really tried). But you're not suffering like Shackleton.
We booked a twin room on the Ocean Endeavour, a former Baltic ferry leased by Quark Expeditions. When you read the words "former Baltic ferry" you're not quite sure what to expect, but rest assured the vessel is excellent. Modern, large and safe, with a very competent captain and crew. Whilst the operational crew come with the ship lease, Quark Expeditions provides their own expedition team. We had a team of 26 (comprised predominantly of New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians), with specialists for kayaking, paddle-boarding and climbing, as well as a couple of photographers
The ship is marketed as a "wellness vessel" - anything marketed like this usually trips my BS detector. The boat had yoga classes on some mornings and a smoothie bar, but that was about the extent of the specific differences. The vessel itself was excellent - great lounge areas, plenty of deck space, a bar, great dining area.
Every expedition is different, and the timetable is subject to weather and sea-ice conditions. This is continually reinforced through the trip - some areas you just can't get to safely, some days the weather is too marginal to get the zodiacs in the water. All part of the fun and adventure of being in such a remote location. We lucked out and got 5 amazing days of weather near the peninsula, as well as calm seas across the Drake Passage. The only planned stop we couldn't make was in Neko Harbour, as the sea ice hadn't yet cleared out of the bay.
Our final itinerary ended up as:
- Days 1 - 3: Drake Passage crossing. We left in the late afternoon on Day 1 and arrived ahead of schedule in the early afternoon of Day 3
- Day 3: Aitcho Islands (PM)
- Day 4: Brown Bluff (AM) and Paulet Island (PM)
- Day 5: Mikkelsen Harbour (AM and PM)
- Day 6: Cuverville Island (AM) and Danco Island (PM)
- Day 7: Gerlache Strait (AM) and Spert Island (PM)
- Days 8, 9, and 10: Drake Passage crossing
- Day 10: disembark in Ushuaia (AM)
Most days we were out on the zodiacs for shore landings twice a day (if the weather held up). We were extremely lucky to get brilliant weather for the whole time we were around the peninsula. Some stops we couldn't make landfall at (especially the smaller islands in rougher waters), so we took longer zodiac cruises to check out little inlets and bays, and get right up close to some icebergs.
The expedition crew were excellent - very experienced, very knowledgable and very friendly.
What did we see?
Penguins (chin-strap, gentoo, Adelie and emperor), icebergs, seals and some more penguins. The landscape down here is other-worldly - as someone said, it looks as though you've lopped off the highest 1,000m of the Alps or the Himalaya and dropped them at sea level.
Here are a few highlights:
Check out the rest of the set over at my Antarctica portfolio!
What gear did I take?
Pretty standard kit - I took my Nikon D810 and my older D800e, one with a 24-70mm and one with a 70-200mm lens (both with polarisers attached). This covered pretty all my needs. There were times when I wished for more zoom (a 400mm would have been great for some of the wildlife), but it wasn't an option and it wasn't very limiting. I took my tripod out once (on the first landing), and never took it out again as the light was good enough to shoot handheld, and you're not ever on land for sunset or sunrise (unless you camp).
If we were doing a shore landing with a bit of walking I'd pack my gear into my F-Stop bag, but for the zodiac cruises I'd just stuff everything into a dry bag with a towel.
Pro tip: dial in a bit of positive exposure compensation when shooting bright ice. I usually had 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop dialled in to get a decent exposure.
Anything I'd do differently?
Not really, aside from not eat so much at the buffet every day. If I ever get back to this part of world I'd jump on an expedition that covered South Georgia Island and Deception Island if possible (and maybe the Falkland Islands). These were the only "big ticket" places we didn't hit on this itinerary.
Get out there and cross off your 7th continent!