The public address system breaks the silence with Bob, the exploration leader, making an announcement. Hello explorers, on your starboard side at three o’clock, there’s been a sighting of two humpback whales. All of us drop what we are doing – lunch, chatting with new friends, or relaxing in our staterooms – to dash out to the nearest balcony. There, just five feet from the boat, are two 40-foot humpback whales. The sound that you hear you will never forget is the five-second gush of air as this massive beast expels exhaust through its air hole. These majestic beasts of the sea are in full view until they gracefully dive below the surface and out of sight. They may appear again, or perhaps not. This is a typical day with the Antarctica21 eight-day adventure of a lifetime in the 7th continent.
Photo Rodrigo Moraga
Antarctica21 was formed in 2003 and today has a fleet of two ships whose sole purpose is to provide a boutique-style wilderness adventure exploring the Antarctic region. Their flagship is the Magellan Explorer which takes a maximum of 73 guests on a voyage through the Antarctica Peninsula.
Their most popular journey is the eight-day Classic Antarctica air cruise that sails between the South Shetland Islands and the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. During the adventure, guests venture away from their comfy home at sea to explore the rugged wilderness teeming with wildlife from whales, penguins, and seals. They’ll also be mesmerized by the endless ocean filled with nature’s abstract art masterpieces: icebergs. They’ll come back to the ship for all of the creature comforts in the posh accommodations while being catered to with exceptional meals, amenities, and service.
Antarctica is no easy place to visit. You can’t get much further away from there, a desolate landscape at the bottom of the Earth and as far from the northern hemisphere as one could travel. Its most daunting and, quite frankly, a miserable obstacle to getting there is the two-day gut-churning voyage at sea through the soaring waves of Drake’s Passage. Antarctica 21 was one of the pioneers of flight and sail which allows guests to avoid the Drake’s Passage and the worst part of the trip. Instead of two days of rocky sailing and inevitable sea sickness for most, it is replaced with a three-hour flight from Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile to Frei Island, an outlying island on the Antarctic peninsula. From there a short boat ride takes guests to the ship.
The reason to go to Antarctica is that it is like no other place on Earth. It is wild, pristine, and beautiful with wildlife that you will never encounter anywhere else on the planet. Its role in our ecosystem cannot be overestimated and accounts for 90 percent of Earth’s total ice volume and 70 percent of its fresh water. Explorers take the zodiac boats through the sea to explore the beautiful odd shapes and forms of icebergs as well as close-up encounters with massive whales. To be so close to hearing them exhale or to see their tail fin in full view before they dive below is something that one will never forget.
Photo by Sandra Walser
Once ashore explorers go on adventures through the wilderness, hiking to gorgeous lookouts, and exploring the abandoned whaling factories, as well as the cabins of the early explorers. One of the highlights is the chance to walk amongst penguins all types from Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap. You’ll explore their rookeries, some of the largest in the world with an estimated 700,000 birds. There you’ll see the young at various stages of their furry development as they aggressively chase their parents for food. The explorers get so close to the penguins that they can see, hear, and yes, smell them. Encountering the pungent smell of guano, which is their ammonia-odored poo, is not a delightfully fragrant experience. However, it is s conforming to know that it serves its purpose as food for the krill which is the foundation of ecosystems feeding wildlife from small fish to mammoth-sized whales.
Antarctica is an untamed icy wilderness but is also an unaccommodating place. The saying goes there is no bad weather, only bad gear so the intrepid explorers come prepared for the at times brutal weather conditions. Layers of coats, thermals, and most of all waterproof clothing are essential to brave the elements. But once prepared and in the environment, the wonders encountered are beyond imagination.
The cruise explores the islands, bays, and inlets of the Antarctic Peninsula. There are no ports of call there so forget the t-shirt shopping. However, destinations include Paulet Island, Hope Bay, Port Lockroy, Petermann Island, Paradise Bay, Deception Island, and the Lemaire Channel, all known for their beautiful landscapes, penguin and seal colonies, or historical significance.
Explorers on this expedition must be flexible and learn to go with the flow. Based on Anartica’s unpredictable weather and condition, plans for the day may change in an instant. A trip ashore may turn into sightseeing along the coast or one landing spot may be quickly replaced with another. It all just depends but the safety of the guests is always the first priority so decisions of where to go and what to do on a daily basis are made with that in mind.
During an entertaining conversation over dinner, we experience a loud thump, the sound and vibration, and the boat sways a bit. We are dining with one of the guides with seven years of experience in these waters. He nonchalantly shares, yes, we just hit an iceberg. Thoughts of the Titanic come to mind but alas, no damage was done as this ship is made for navigating these waters, and ramming a small iceberg is of little concern. With that, dinner goes back to normal.
The vessel is specially made for this area, with a reinforced hull, and a fleet of inflatable zodiacs. The bridge looks like a scene from a NASA control room with so many computers, screens, and high-tech monitors to count. Beyond functionality, the ship is simply beautiful. The navy blue exterior is broken up by a white geometric pattern in the shape of icebergs. Indoors is just as sleek and contemporary with natural wood finishes and neutral color patterns and plenty of large windows to take in the surrounding surreal landscapes.
The ship is much smaller than most other Arctic cruise ships. There are only 50 staterooms and the air cruise trips max out at 73 passengers. Exploring the Antarctic is complicated and highly regulated. Part of that regulation dictates that no more than 100 passengers alight the ship at the various sightseeing destinations to reduce the impact on wildlife. With a ship filled with only 73 passengers, this is never an issue while other larger ships need to rotate groups to meet the criteria.
The ship includes all of the creature comforts that guests would want during their adventure including a lounge and bar, a sauna a library with a collection of Antarctic-themed books, and of course plenty of open decks and observation areas. No need to discontinue your workout schedule, the ship includes a state-of-the-art fitness center built by the professionals at Anytime Fitness.
The staterooms are ideal for this Antarctica adventure and range in size and features from the port hole rooms to the two-bedroom 480 ft² Grand Suites. All are spacious, well-appointed, and tastefully decorated and include a comfortable sitting area, plush beds, and a private bathroom with a shower and heated floors. Included with the staterooms are snacks and a mini-bar with beer and wine which is replenished daily. Rooms do not have TVs but why would they with the mesmerizing views just beyond. Speaking of which, most of the rooms feature a private balcony for taking in the exquisite outdoor vista and offering close contact with the Antarctic environment.
Photo by Anais Afrika
The dining experience is as exceptional as the excursions. All meals are included as well as premium Chilean wines and beer. The service is genuine and friendly and the staff knows your name after the first day as well as where you like to sit and how you like your tea or coffee in the morning.
Sitting is open with romantic couples taking a table for two while others dine a the larger tables. The guest gets to know each other during the excursion and tend to come together over convivial dinners that last long into the evening with hearty conversation.
Breakfast and lunch provide an extensive buffet while dinner is served with a formal menu service. The top-notch gourmet meals are exquisite with dishes that range from Caribbean lobster to juicy Chilean steaks with meals that cater to all dietary requirements. During the trip, based on weather conditions, an alfresco bbq is served on the rear deck. It’s a party at sea with lively music and meats and chicken grilled and a full spread of side dishes and desserts.
Antarctica21 Cruise Manager Ragnhild Granfeldt
The Antarctic adventure is a holistic enrichment for the mind, body, and soul. The voyage is filled with intrepid travelers who want to not only see and experience the white continent but also understand it a bit more. There are interesting daily lectures, to feed the mind giving insights by their knowledgeable guides. The guides are experts, scientists, and academics who provide presentations covering a range of interesting topics from geography, wildlife, ice berges, and how climate change has impacted the region.
As far as interaction with other guests, the cruise starts out like the first day of summer camp. Guests start as strangers and with each excursion and encounter around the ship throughout the cruise, strangers transform into friends. Meal time in particular as well as time at bending the elbow at the bar, turn into long and often hilarious chats, especially with a glass or two of delicious Chilean wine added to the mix. All and all it’s a convivial gathering of kindred spirits and curious travelers sharing in one of the most amazing experiences on earth.
Few experiences have such a profound impact on the traveler. Antarctica21 offers more than a cruise. It is an Antarctic voyage sharing the most fascinating wildlife, ice formations, and adventures on Earth that guests will cherish for a lifetime.
Derek Oyen – Unsplash