Margaret's Extraordinary Expedition Cruise to Antarctica | Miles Morgan Travel
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Margaret's Extraordinary Expedition Cruise to Antarctica

Mags intro

“Where? Antarctica … Really? Yes! Wow” …was all I could say to a fact finding trip, experiencing an expedition cruise to Antarctica, aboard HX Hurtigruten ship the Ms Fridtjof Nansen. Truly a unique destination, often referred to as the 7th continent and a recent addition to many people’s bucket list of places to experience. So of course, I welcomed the chance to explore this beautiful part of our planet and see for myself the mystery and attraction of a place so remote and unspoilt, and the efforts of a generation to protect this last true wilderness.

It’s worth mentioning the international community agreement, that all parties have agreed to protect and preserve the unique wildlife, limit the impact of tourism and provide the opportunity for scientists from all over the world to study all aspects of Antarctica - we had geologists, historians, marine biologists and ornithologists on board with us.

We travelled with British Airways to Buenos Aires and broke our journey there overnight at the centrally located Emperador hotel. We had a short tour of the city’s highlights - including La Boca quarter where the sights, sounds, colours and activity really make you feel like you are in the home of the Argentine tango.

Mags BuenosThe next morning, we had a super early and short flight down to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina to join our expedition vessel MS Fridtjof Nansen. We still had the opportunity for a short tour of the area, often referred to as Fin del mondo (end of the world). Our guide explained how the area of Tierra del Fuego is actually part of Patagonia. Also, that the spine of the Andes mountains together with the Beagle channel form a natural border between Argentina and Chile.

Mags Ush

We could not wait to board our ship, and home, for the next ten days - and it even began to snow to welcome us on board. (Top tip: Download the HX Hurtigruten app as soon as you get on board - it’s really useful and a practical way to find out what’s happening on board, covering things from excursions, menus for restaurants, itinerary changes, themed talks etc.)

So we set sail! We waited in anticipation of the famously rough Drakes Passage, as our first 4 hours were relatively calm. This body of water is notorious for either being the Drake “lake” or the Drake “shake “and it’s quite common to feel unwell. (Top tip: make sure you have your preferred sea sickness remedy with you - you can get a couple of pills from reception - or I found the wristbands with the pressure points very helpful indeed.)

As with any cruise, maritime law dictates that a cruise line is to carry out safety drills or a “muster”, ensuring passengers understand that Antarctica waters sailing is very different. We collected our personal HX red and yellow jackets and our rubber boots which are disinfected thoroughly and are the only footwear allowed when going ashore. They are scrubbed again when returning to the ship and then you step through foot trays with disinfectant. It cannot be made more abundantly clear how important it is that this last precious unspoilt piece of the earth is not to be invaded by any bugs, germs seeds or non-native species, however inadvertent. So much so that we were actually required to hoover out any of our protective wear pockets and any backpacks in case of any contamination.

Mags onboard

Our introductory welcome talks explained the excursion booking lottery system and your groupings. We were group “Gentoo penguins”. This is how you were called when the expedition team were ready to either take your group to shore, or for a scenic cruise of the ice fields, glaciers, penguin colonies or whale watching opportunities. Excursions specifically on offer at an extra price were sea kayaking, Antarctic camping, science boat cruising, photography cruising with an on board expert and also hiking. I chose sea kayaking and attended a briefing ensuring that you were fit enough to be able to take part. Now is a good time to mention that an expedition cruise can be quite physically demanding in order for you to get the best out of everything on offer. Before you sail you are required to either have a fit to travel letter from your doctor or you can pay for an online video appointment with one of the ships’ doctors which I did for a small cost.

Facilities on board include the main restaurant Aune (breakfast lunch and dinner), Fredheim the fast food style bistro restaurant (breakfast lunch, dinner and takeaway food), and the Lindstrom restaurant (open for suite guests at no extra cost or other cabin passengers can book for a cover charge of 25 euros per person). It’s advisable to book in advance via the app. There’s a small but perfectly acceptable gym and wellness centre, where spa treatments start at 65 euros for a neck and back massage. There’s an onboard shop for some basics and a range of outer wear or scarves etc that are ideal for the Antarctic conditions.

Mags accommodation

The science centre is manned by a team of experts in their field - from geologists to whale specialists, marine biologists, ornithologists and polar explorer historians. They give regular and informative presentations and guests can participate in going ashore or taking water samples to analyse the levels and health of the plankton and krill. Up on deck 10, there are two large hot tubs plus a small infinity pool and a sauna - perfect for warming up after a chilly ride on the zodiacs (small boats). Also on this deck is the Explorer bar offering panoramic views and low key occasional entertainment.

Mags zodiac

Down on deck 3 is the expedition deck where the zodiac boats are stored, where you debark from, plus kayak storage. We learned about the age of icebergs, explorers and their successes and disastrous missions with keys names like Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Charcot. We sailed through a garden of icebergs past Pleneau island. There was the occasional grumpy leopard seal staring at us from his frozen perch, making sure we kept on sailing as they are very territorial. We visited the penguin colony at Neko bay, full of Gentoo and Adelie penguins in various stages of development and we experienced the calving of a glacier here too (calving is when chunks of ice break off at the terminus, or end, of a glacier). This was very dramatic and a little scary too! In the afternoon we were lucky enough to have a close encounter with two curious humpback whales around the ship, a real privilege and quite an emotional sight.

Mags penguins

The next morning, we sailed silently (on hybrid power) through the Orne islands to Wilhelmina Bay. This is known as Whales Bay, as this is where currents meet and a huge mass of krill and plankton converge, making it a very popular feeding ground for humpbacks. We were treated to many sightings. Every itinerary is subject to possible last minute changes, as the weather can make boat trips or landings dangerous or sometimes simply too cold and windy, so they are altered or sometimes postponed.

Mags views

(Top tip: check your travel insurance covers activities like sea kayaking.) Briefings are streamed to the cabin too if you miss them. They provide details of the next day’s activities, locations to be visited, reinforcing the rules when setting foot on shore and safety when in the zodiacs. The expedition team also emphasise the importance of non-contamination, there are no toilets, nothing can be left or dropped and about keeping your distance from the wildlife.

Top tip: packing - key things to bring with you include:

  • Two sets of thermal underwear layers
  • Water repellent and waterproof trousers
  • Plenty of wool socks
  • Slippers or similar (to wear inside the ship)
  • Swimwear
  • Layers, rather than big thick jumpers
  • Snacks and sweets
  • Polarised sunglasses
  • 2 pairs of ski type gloves and liners (as they will get wet regularly)
  • Invest in a neck snood (which you can pull up over your face as the snow, rain and wind chill factor makes the zodiacs a very cold, but exciting, experience)
  • Charging cables & power banks for phones and tablets
  • Camera
  • Waterproof sealed bag with neck lanyard for taking pics and videos while on the zodiacs
  • Plus most important - don’t forget to pack your sense of adventure!!!

Mags sunset

We sailed through Neptune’s bellows (the mythic entrance to Deception Island) which is a former whaling station in the south Shetland islands. Weather conditions affected the landing here on this caldera (small crater) of a still active volcano. The battered wooden buildings and huge rusted red towers that once held whale oil were the remnants of this destinations’ history. Fur seals were present in fairly large numbers on the shoreline here, notoriously aggressive, we were given walking poles to use just in case they got too close.

Later in the day the ship repositioned in a slightly more sheltered spot. This allowed any guests brave enough to attempt the polar plunge for a quick dip into the icy Antarctic waters, by walking or running in from the beach. Our next two sea days took us back through the Drake passage again.

Mags iceberg

The ship does become eerily quiet after the last 6 days of activity and excitement. Even with a gentle swell (according to the captain), a lot of people were resting in their cabins as the ship sailed out of the ice flows and back towards Ushuaia. There were plenty of “sea day” activities including art classes, a scavenger hunt and meet the officers- we got to talk directly with the captain and his top team, and they explained the ships hybrid system and other factual info and fun facts; like 10000 eggs had been consumed so far! We had a tour of some of the other cabin types available on board and we made good use of the hot tubs and wellness centre. Our final journey homeward was a long connection via Buenos Aires and Madrid with BA; Iberia back to Heathrow.

In conclusion, it’s really difficult to describe the experience, adventure and emotional journey this trip to Antarctica has been. I would absolutely recommend that you come see for yourself and become a supporter of the positive impact tourism can have on a destination, to ensure it remains possible to visit this last wilderness for generations to come.

Mags outro

Travel Blog by Margaret Moulton

Katharine Harrison

Phone: 01749 671660

Email: [email protected]

Visit: 18 High Street, Wells, Somerset, BA5 2SG

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