In February 2005, I travelled to Antarctica on a 10-day cruise on board the doomed ship Explorer.

Here is a photo-essay that hopefully will help you understand why people pay thousands of dollars and cross the dreaded Drake Passage to get there. It is not a budget trip, but it truly is the trip of a lifetime!

Sailing away from Ushuaia

After dinner on the first day, as night falls and the ship slowly pulls away from the dock, passengers are clambering up on deck to photograph and videotape our departure. You can feel the excitement in the air. We are leaving Ushuaia (Argentina), the southernmost city in the world to go further south still, to the icy wilderness of Antarctica, a distance of nearly a thousand kilometres. This really feels like the beginning of an expedition!

Paradise Bay, Antarctica

We’re out in the zodiacs for a cruise in Paradise Bay. Fat snowflakes fall slowly around us, and huge glaciers tower above. Sea birds and seals are perched on chunks of sea ice floating all around us.

Petermann Island, Antarctica

The sun finally breaks through the clouds, and the temperature goes up to 15 degrees! The blue sky contrasts with the pure white snow and grey rocks of Petermann Island. We spend a few hours walking around the island, snow squishing underfoot, the air filled with bird sounds.

Gentoo penguins on Petermann Island, Antarctica

The orange-beaked Gentoo penguins are clambering over the rocky outcrops, singing in their raucous voices. Some run around in groups of three, stacked front to back, like a little train, sometime slipping and tumbling on top of each other.

Adelie penguins on Petermann Island, Antarctica

The stern-looking Adelie penguins, on the other hand sit still, or amble around in their unsteady gait. It’s so pleasant here, I could just spend the rest of the day watching the penguins’ antics.

Leopard seal on an ice floe, Antarctica

As our zodiac motors softly around its ice floe, a leopard seals lifts its head to look at us with mild interest before going back to its nap.

Mushroom-shaped iceberg, Antarctica

Our zodiac driver puts the boat in high gear and we speed up on the icy water, cold wind whipping our grinning faces, glaciers flying past on each side, until we spot the weirdest blue iceberg ever. It’s gigantic, three to five stories high, with a huge opening carved in the middle and a vaguely “mushroomy” shape. “It doesn’t get any better than that”, muses our driver.

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You can view whales in several places in the world, but how often do you see a humpback whale coming out of the water right next to you while sitting in an inflatable raft? Despite their size they move very fast in water, and trying to get a good picture proves a challenge, especially with eight other people in the boat trying to do the same thing!

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica

“Gooood morning”, chimes the cheerful voice of our expedition leader over the PA system, “it’s 6:45 and we’re just about to enter the Lemaire Channel…”. Fifteen minutes later I’m on the top deck, keeping my digital camera warm under my jacket between shots, as the ship glides along mirror-calm waters, down a waterway squeezed between steep cliffs and glaciers.

Giant icebergs, Lemaire Channel, Antarctica

We’re at at 65 degrees 14 minutes latitude South, the southernmost point of the trip. By the time breakfast rolls around, the waters are choked full of ice, while icebergs the size of cathedrals tower in the distance.

Top of the caldera, Deception Island, Antarctica

The soil is as black as coal, broken here and there by patches of snow. We’re getting some exercise climbing a cinder cone for a panoramic view of the volcanic island called Deception.

Geothermal beach, Deception Island, Antarctica

A dozen brave souls are down in the bay, soaking in geothermal waters in their bathing suits. From a distance they look like a strange new species of white seals!

Elephant seals on Livingston Island, Antarctica

Chinstrap penguins, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Darwin would have been impressed if he had landed on Livingston Island instead of the Galapagos. Gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins, elephant seals, giant petrels and other birds share the volcanic island which in places is covered in soft green moss. We have to be careful not to step on wildlife, so plentiful it is.

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At the far end of the beach, petrified tree trunks and fossil ferns attest to the tropical past of the island 30 millions years ago.

Want to know more?

This trip is called “Antarctica Classic” and is offered by G Adventures from November to March only. The cheaper cabins fill up fast. Plan on booking at least a year in advance!

For a better idea of what the trip was like, watch this 6-minute video.

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