My journey to Antarctica began 18 years ago when I first started daydreaming of the White Continent while working on expedition ships. Fellow travelers would always ask the inevitable question, "So, what was your favorite trip?" Hands down, the answer time and again would be, "I hope to say Antarctica one day." Listening to others recount their Antarctic tales, I’d often hear the question, "Oh, but did you go to South Georgia too?" Those who had visited South Georgia described this place as "heaven on earth" and "not to be missed." For years, visions of this vast white wilderness beckoned me. Until, in the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to go on an expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands.
My adventure started in vibrant Santiago, Chile. The excitement of the city matched mine and that of my fellow shipmates, as we gathered at the hotel to meet one another and our voyage leaders. We then flew to Stanley, Falkland Islands, (a charming town steeped in maritime history), to board our ship, the Clipper Adventurer. The following morning, we experienced the first of many penguin sightings – gentoo, magellanic and rock hopper penguins – on Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island in the East Falkland Islands.
Sailing into South Georgia, the Captain expertly navigated the ship as everyone eagerly waited up on deck. For the next three days, the promise of heaven on earth became a reality. It was at Salisbury Plain where my ultimate penguin experience took place. As the ship approached, my eyes could not believe what stood before me. However, my nose told a different story. There in front of us were hundreds of thousands of king penguins. Once on shore, I wandered to the middle of them and sat down, overwhelmed with gratitude.
During one of our excursions, we trudged up Prion Island; at times pulling ourselves up by the tussock grass, only to find hidden fur seals. We struggled in the mud, occasionally falling into sinkholes up to our knees, but all the time laughing in good fun. Finally, reaching our destination, there was a sigh of relief followed by awe as we came upon the noble wandering albatross. A few of us were fortunate enough to witness a pair mating.
At Grytviken, we visited whaler’s cemetery. The staff passed around rum and we shared a toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton. It was at Gold Harbor where I encountered my friend whom I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life – a weaner, a several hundred pound baby elephant seal. He waddled towards us and looked longingly at me. Its mother had returned to sea, and like many of the weaners, he was left on his own. I sat on the beach to observe them. We were instructed not to touch them, but if they came up to us, it would be all right. The weaner approached me, and to my amazement, crawled onto my legs – all 200 pounds – and looked me straight in the eyes. It nuzzled on my jacket, then gradually dozed off to sleep. I took a moment to look around and tried to absorb all that I saw: the magenta early morning sunrise, snorting fur seals, a pile of grunting adult elephant seals, and thousands of soldier-like king penguins marching about.
In between excursions, we enjoyed the comforts of the ship. The Clipper Adventurer is a handsome expedition ship with lovely varnished wood and brass. Her spacious decks allowed for wonderful viewing perches to spot wildlife, a favorite past time of mine. As she is equipped with stabilizers, she sailed open waters gracefully. We enjoyed the spacious bridge where all were welcome. The Captain always had a smile on his face, and it was obvious he was liked and admired by his staff.
Our German hotel director was most gracious and accommodating. She seemed to be everywhere at once, visiting with guests to ensure everything was to their satisfaction. The Filipino crew greeted us daily with warm smiles, and consistently remembered names and a favorite drink. The cuisine was very good, and many of us enjoyed the option of either the usual sit-down affair in the dining room or a light lunch offered in the lounge. The light lunch became very popular – the young American chef offered wonderful homemade soup, salads, sliced cheeses and meats.
The natural history staff lived up to its reputation of being the most knowledgeable in the industry. They always have a founding member of the shipping company onboard the voyage. And the staff even accompanied the group flights to make sure everything ran as smoothly as possible – great for those wanting that extra touch of personalized customer service.
Marathon lectures were offered on days at sea, which prepared us for upcoming adventures and quenched our thirst for knowledge. I never knew geology and glaciology could be so interesting and fun with homemade props. The ornithologist who hailed from England became everyone’s favorite on deck and on shore, as he identified and taught us about our pelagic friends. Our Cruise Director, Lynne Greig, who has worked for ExpeditionTrips.com, arranged all the logistics effortlessly and was just a delight with her bubbling personality and endless energy.
After discovering the magic of South Georgia, Antarctica called to us. En route, some passengers were fortunate to see Orca. I spent much of my time up on deck with my roommate, a naturalist from Florida, watching for whales, visiting the bridge, becoming friends with the mates and sitting on lounge chairs in the sun.
We stopped at the South Orkney Islands where the ship drop launched the Zodiacs for cruising along the glacier blue ice shelf. Here, we found leopard seals, the notorious penguin-eating seal.
We were also fortunate to land on Elephant Island where Shackleton and his men spent four unimaginable months. The statue in Shackleton’s honor stood surrounded by soldier-like nesting chinstrap penguins.
Antarctica was everything and more to me. The sheer experience of ice was unique. I have been in the Arctic many times. While beautiful in its own right, seeing the beauty of ice-covered land and glaciers is truly amazing. We made our first continental landing at Neko Harbor. It was an exciting moment for a number of my fellow shipmates as they set foot on their seventh continent!
When it was time to sail through the Lemaire Channel, everyone was on deck ready for the photo opportunities. The sun shone brightly and the water looked like glass. It was some of the most dramatic landscape of our voyage – massive icebergs, bergy bits, seals lounging on ice. Later, Zodiacs were launched at Plenaeau Island where a Minke whale appeared just off the starboard side of our Zodiac – within just a few feet from us. Then it dove back in the crystal clear glacier blue water. We squealed in delight over our gentle close encounter. We returned to the ship for a wonderful barbecue lunch on aft deck.
Our voyage was coming to an end. It was time to leave, head back to Argentina and cross the Drake Passage for the next 36 hours. We arrived in the quaint town of Ushuaia on December 19 and bid farewell to our ship and to Antarctica.
My dream came true and now I join the privileged few in this world who can say they’ve been to Antarctica, as well as the treasured South Georgia. Ask me now what my favorite trip is.
Betty Ingerheim Voiland has worked in the expedition travel industry for nearly 20 years, and currently works as Program Manager at Expedition Trips where she helps travelers plan adventures to far-off places like Antarctica, Galapagos, the Arctic and Alaska.