Antarctica is the Earth’s most southernmost continent. We had to fly for over 30 hours from Kuala Lumpur to Ushuaia in Argentina, just to board our cruise ship and set sail for Antarctica.
Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and we were greeted with awesome glaciers and ice mountains when we arrived. But even with all that ice, the place is still a very dry place – drier than the Sahara Desert, in fact. No plants and land-based animals can live on it. In some valleys, like the Dry Valley, there has been no rainfall for two million years.
Antarctica is also home to the biggest mountain range on Earth – the 1,200km Gamburtsev Range.
It’s great to experience first-hand, everything we usually associate the place with, like the cold weather, the scenery, unspoilt nature and its inhabitants, chiefly the penguins, seals, whales, and birds which feed on the krill.
Antarctica belongs to “humanity”. An international treaty in 1959 ensures that the continent is only reserved for peaceful activities and science. It is a land with no permanent human settlement and claimed by eight nations including Australia and Norway.
Being unoccupied, the place has not changed since it was first discovered in 1820. These days, about 4,000 scientists live there in the summer to do research work but this number drops to a thousand in winter when the average temperature is -30°C.
Most of the scientists study the melting of glaciers and the changes in biodiversity, adding new knowledge about global warming and future climate changes.
In 2021, an iceberg (known as A-76) was named one of the largest icebergs in the world to dislodge from the Antarctic ice shelf. It was 40 times the size of the city of Paris, proving that there is indeed global warming.
“What is there to see?” I asked myself months prior before going on the trip. “It would be very cold and I am from a tropical country.”
Eventually, eight of us signed up for the journey. The next challenge was getting ready for the trip. After choosing a suitable date with reasonable weather conditions, the next big question was what to pack for the trip.
Basically, we needed stuff to protect us from the biting cold, the wind and solar radiation. The Drake Passage/Cape Horn at the tip of South America is a turbulent seaway that we need to cross. It happens due to the meeting of the cold currents from the South Pole with warmer waters from the equator.
It is one sea crossing feared by all before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.
We set out from the cruise ship in groups of 10 on a zodiac or small boat. Each boat had an English-speaking expedition leader. Our leader and his team of nature guides ensure the safety of guests during outings and disembarkation and activities like zodiac trips, kayaking and hiking. The guides are specialists in many areas like ornithology, marine biology, climatology, geology and glaciology.
The expedition team members are also trained in emergency medical evacuation situations.
The sheer isolation and lack of humans – except for the over 200 people in the cruise ship – turned us into a closely knit family for the duration of the cruise. Apart from the excursions, we also had many social activities on the cruise, and we dined on fine French fare. It was really an enjoyable trip.
Unlike the traditional bigger cruise ships which only visit the periphery of Antarctica, our ship was smaller, so we could venture deeper into the continent using zodiac. One of the places we visited was the still active volcano on Deception Island, where we walked up the slope to see the caldera. It last erupted in 1970, leading to the abandonment of the British and Chilean research stations.
We also stopped by Whalers Bay on the east side of Deception Island to visit the remains of a whaling station built by Norwegians in the early 20th century.
Paradise Bay, meanwhile, was stunning with its icebergs and reflections of mountains in its clear waters.
We were lucky to have good weather throughout our trip and did not miss a single outing unlike some previous expedition cruises.
The views expressed are entirely the reader's own.