Part 4: Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Voyager Getting My Feet Wet: An Introduction to Antarctica

Flexibility.

Flexibility.

Flexibility.

More than thermal base layers, waterproof pants, gloves and a nice warm hat, flexibility is the most important thing to pack for your expedition to Antarctica. This is not a sailing where a guest can feel entitled to launch a major hissy fit when they experience an unexpected change in itinerary.

In fact, there’s no itinerary at all.

Aboard the maiden voyage of Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Voyager, our itinerary stated that we’d sail from Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands, and that we did. From there, it was “Captain’s Choice,” dictated, of course, by the unpredictable weather and sea conditions that are so common in the region.

Like those of the Drake Passage.

“I HATE THE DRAKE”

This Seinfeld quote crossed my mind over and over prior to departing for my Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Voyager expedition. I’d heard the stories: Rampant seasickness, fear, and guests confined to their staterooms for days.

Shortly after sailing from Ushuaia, the Drake unleashed its fury with swells that hovered above window level, stemware and china shattering as it fell from shelves in the Madeira Restaurant and winds at one point reaching 115 mph, the highest winds our captain had seen in his 38 years at sea. As a precaution, I’d popped a Bonine before we entered the passage and felt well throughout, which is more than I can say for some of my shipmates who clutched, and often used, the sickness bags available throughout the ship.

But go figure: On the Drake crossing back to Ushuaia, the sea was smooth as glass. Rippled glass, perhaps, but glass.

Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Voyager offers guests a choice with regard to the Drake Passage: They may sail both ways, as we did, or fly one way, enabling them to “experience” the Drake, which many believe is part of the adventure—hell, I thought it was fun!–while cutting the chances of a rough passage in half.

PREP TIME!

A parka and boot fitting. A mandatory briefing outlining the regulations of Antarctica. Zodiac and safety briefings. And for those interested in participating in optional kayak or camping experiences, there are briefings on those, too.

The beauty of World Voyager’s educational program is that it drives home how very special Antarctica is and what a privilege it is to experience it. During our daily lectures and briefings, Jean-Roch de Susanne, Expedition Leader, and his team of polar experts decode the mysteries of the land, the wildlife and even the vital role that whale poop plays in the ecology of oceans! Even those whose only desire is to see the penguins are dazzled by tales of humpback whales, Antarctic volcanoes, icebergs, magnificent birds, prehistoric Antarctica and other topics unique to this fascinating region.

In order to conform to Antarctica’s visitor restrictions, aboard World Voyager, guests are divided into six groups of about 20 with only three groups permitted to land at one time. Groups A, B, and C may be the first to depart and, when they return, D, E and F follow. The order is changed each day so that all  groups have an opportunity to be the first to land.

But the first stop for all landings is The Mud Room where parkas and boots are stored. Guests suit up, head for the Zodiacs and soar across to the landing site where, more often than not, a colony of waddling penguins welcomes them!

AWE, BEAUTY, AND A WHOLE LOT OF PENGUINS

Gone are all signs of the rough Drake Passage as a Zodiac speeds us to a morning landing at Pendulum Cove on the volcanic Deception Island where we find sunshine, blue skies and about 40 degrees. I climb out of the Zodiac into about a foot of water lapping at the shore but wearing the warm and waterproof boots provided by the ship, I’d never know it. My base layer and sweater beneath the toasty warm Atlas Ocean Voyages parka feels cozy but as I hike up a steep snowy hill, I realize I’m perspiring. Ah, a rookie mistake! I’ve actually overdressed—yes, it’s possible to do that in Antarctica!

It is that afternoon and our landing at Whaler’s Bay when we first view penguins—multiple colonies of them! Gentoo and chinstrap, waddling comically and, it appears, checking us out as closely as we are them. Red and white cones have been strategically placed to remind World Voyager guests to keep the prescribed 15-foot distance from these amazing creatures and the penguins seem to be enforcing the rule—two of them stand guard, one on each side of the cone, like little formally-dressed bouncers.

Our early November expedition falls at penguin mating season so, unfortunately, we will not see the furry little penguin chicks that result, but we do see penguins courting, waddling around in twos, nuzzling and sometimes, just like humans, having a lover’s tiff or two.

According to Expedition Leader de Susanne, there’s another reason why early November might not be the optimum time to experience Antarctica. “There’s a greater chance for storms now, at the very beginning of what is the Antarctica spring,” he said. “Later, January and February, you’ll likely find smoother sailing, and fewer cancellations of landings.”

We learn what he means the following day when both our morning (Cierva Cove) and afternoon (Tower Island) landings are cancelled due to stormy conditions. As the snow piles up on deck, World Voyager’s guests enjoy an unexpected day at sea. In fact, some take the opportunity to build a snowman out on deck! Sadly, World Voyager’s optional kayaking and camping excursions, planned for today, have to be abandoned, Tower Island being one of only a handful of areas that permit the activities.

The following day makes up for the disappointment of the previous one with a morning landing at Chiriquano Bay where penguins overwhelm us and a few of them decide to invade the path designated specifically for World Voyager’s guests, creating a comic stand-off that had even the expedition team laughing!

I nearly skip the Zodiac cruise of the ice-filled Orne Harbor that afternoon. From the deck of the ship, I figure, I could absorb the beauty just as well as I could sailing through its icy waters. It seems as though the primary point of the Zodiac cruise is to simply sail close enough to the rocks to touch the continent with our fingertips, our previous landings all having been Antarctic islands. At the last moment, however, I join Group B for what, surprisingly, turns out to be my favorite excursion of the expedition.

The Zodiac fights against the chunky ice while blinding white snow competes with the Tiffany-blue shadows of the icebergs that surrounded us. A penguin colony watches from the hill above and a cormorant nest is perched on the cliff, a few of the birds spreading their massive wings. We wake an elephant seal sleeping lazily on an ice floe—he glances at us and goes back to sleep—and we sail on across this dreamlike backdrop to World Voyager, peeking out behind a magnificent glacier.

Oh yeah, I’m so glad I went.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Imagine donning a swimsuit and diving into the frigid, icy waters of Antarctica! This, ladies and gentlemen, is The Polar Plunge, an Antarctic tradition that delivers big, big bragging rights, a reported surge of energy and euphoria and the opportunity to buy a t-shirt that declares “I survived the polar plunge.”

I came close, really, close to being among the more than 80 World Voyager guests who participated. My swimsuit was on and, I, wrapped in the plush bathrobe from my stateroom, assembled with others waiting for my group to be called to the diving platform. As a member of the day’s final group, however, it was getting later and later; outside, colder and colder. I soon realized that, instead of diving into freezing water, I’d prefer to be somewhere warm and dry. Like a bar. I changed out of my swimsuit and headed to The Dome for a pre-dinner cocktail.

RULES AND RESTRICTIONS

Antarctica is a remote and delicate area and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators was established in 1966 to protect the land and its wildlife. Because of this, rigorous standards are applied to every vessel sailing its waters. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers, for example, are permitted as “cruise-only” experiences meaning you can forget about landings that will bring you up close and personal with the penguins. Even aboard smaller ships, a maximum of 100 people may land at one time. With World Voyager’s 198-guest capacity (and 176-guests during Antarctica sailings), she is the perfect choice to explore the White Continent.

A small number of cases of avian influenza have been detected in Antarctica and this has resulted in a number of restrictions ashore as well. Visitors are asked to remain a minimum of 15 feet from penguins and other wildlife and sitting, kneeling, lying down, or placing items like backpacks on the snow or ground is prohibited. It works in reverse, as well, with a walk through your ship’s boot-cleaning and disinfecting machine required prior to reboarding.

COMING SOON!:

Part 5: Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Voyager

Preparing for Your Expedition…What to Pack…What to Expect

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Cover photo: World Voyager ship, credit Atlas Ocean Voyages


Read more about this voyage with Judi Cuervo here:

Part 1 – Think Antarctica would leave you cold? Think again!

Part 2 – They Don’t Call It the “End of the World” for Nothing

Part 3 – The Right Ship for the White Continent


See cruises: World Voyager and all Atlas Ocean Voyages Cruises

 

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