Saturday, March 19, 2016

Journey to Antarctica

Polar travel is unlike any other kind of travel. The environment can be inhospitable, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. Yet, we’re excited to explore the unique landscape, to learn about Antarctica’s natural history, and to see wildlife that inhabits this harsh environment.
Colors, shapes, and textures vary greatly at Antarctica.
Antarctica is the most isolated continent in the world. The closest land is Argentina, 560 miles away.  It’s the largest wilderness area on earth, but it’s also incredibly, almost overwhelmingly, beautiful.  Going there is truly a “trip of a lifetime.”

Most Antarctic tours take two days for crossing the Drake Passage, a body of water between Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It often means two days of potentially excruciatingly rough water that may confine passengers to their cabins, even their beds, to prevent falls and other accidents.
Arriving by plane at King George Island, Antarctica
So we searched for a trip that would skip the Drake and found that Quark Expeditions offered a two-hour flight to King GeorgeIsland in Antarctica where we would then get on the ship Sea Adventurer. Knowing there would be limited availability on this uncommon voyage, we booked our cabin as soon as reservations opened—18 months prior to travel.

Getting there
We flew into Punta Arenas, Chile, our departure point for the adventure. Weather is the crucial determining factor for all activities in Antarctica, as we learned right away when told our flight would leave at 6 a.m. the next morning (necessitating meeting in the hotel lobby at 3:30 a.m.).Because the charter plane lands on a Chilean military base with just a simple airstrip, visibility is necessary. Fortunately the good-weather window stayed open, and we were able to fly on time.

Boarding Zodiacs to make our way to the ship.
Once on King George Island, we were required to walk from the airfield to the beach, about a mile and a half, where we boarded Zodiacs that would take us to the ship.
Getting acquainted with the land
Waterproof clothing is compulsory for every outing, and we were grateful for the “muck” boots Quark issued since we had many wet landings and often tromped on ice, snow, or mud. Terrain is often uneven, sometimes slushy and slippery, and we watched for crevices in the ice that could be dangerous. The calf-high rubber boots are disinfected after every trip onshore to avoid contamination in Antarctica. Regular shoes never set foot on Antarctic land.

Zodiacs took us to land for each excursion. We usually
walked through water, rocks, or snow when exiting the Zodiac.

The landscape isn’t all ice; freshwater lakes and streams are an important part of the ecosystem. But we’re cautioned not to walk on or destroy any part of the landscape. No food is allowed ashore, and we must avoid disturbing any artifacts that might be historically important. The guides marked boundaries designated where it was safe to walk; otherwise, we moved freely on the Antarctic surface. We took only photos and memories, leaving no evidence of our visit.
Icebergs surround the Sea Adventurer, our home
for this incredible adventure.
All species of animals are protected. Since this is their natural environment they are not afraid of humans, so we gave them right of way. Most are social, but we try to stay at least 15 feet from penguins, seals, and other wildlife—but some still wandered very near us.

The first day we departed from Maxwell Bay and went through Palmer Archipelago and Bransfield Strait. Our route took us beside the continent, winding in and around a variety of islands. That evening there was considerable wave movement, but seas calmed after midnight.
On deck, happy to be in Antarctica--and amazed by the landscape.
We awoke the next morning to the sight of beautiful glaciers outside our windows. A light wind was blowing, and with the temperature at 32 degrees F it was an exceptionally warm and sunny day—perfect for our first landing on the continent at Portal Point. It was the best possible introduction we could have to this peerless place.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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