Antarctica - the last frontier

“Icebergs ahead,” yells one of the passengers in the Crows Nest observatory lounge. The passengers had all been scanning the horizon on iceberg alert to see who could be the first to see these amazing blocks of floating ice.

Undertaking an Antarctica cruise, that includes South America, is a wonderful and unique experience, and I couldn’t imagine a better time than the one I enjoyed on Holland America Line. Holland America Line ships are known for graceful mid-sized ships with a generous amount of personal space.

With only 1,350 guests, the MS Veendam is truly ideal for cruising the waters of South America and Antarctica. Her many observation areas and the wrap-around teak decks offer plenty of places to witness the wonders of the wildlife and the many icebergs we sailed past.

Antarctica is a very large continent and we discovered just a small part of this amazing land. This highest, driest, and coldest continent was referred to in the 17th century as Terra Australis Incognita – unknown southern land. Although the continent is still largely a mystery, what is known is that Antarctica’s delicate ecosystem is in danger.

Scientists are studying environmental changes that have resulted in a vast decline in numbers of krill – tiny, shrimp-like creatures that are the backbone of the food chain in the surrounding seas. As Antarctica becomes less isolated, the challenge will be to protect these ecosystems, as well as the seals, penguins and whales that rely on them.

Hope Bay is an indented area on the north east tip of the actual continent of Antarctica. The scarlet chalets of Esperanza, an Argentine military and scientific station, stood in stark contrast to the white ice. The area is rich in wildlife with penguin rookeries scattered along the shoreline. This area is also known as Iceberg Alley.

On Paulet Island, several million Adélie penguins nested on every available beach, while at Elephant Island, ice-covered and mountainous, we heard the riveting account of Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition and the crew’s heroic daily struggle to survive. Don’t be deceived, Deception Island is really the crescent shaped caldera of a volcano, active enough to heat Antarctic waters to bathwater temperatures. We sailed right by the crater, where several colonies of Chinstrap penguins have made their home on the black sand beaches.

More surprises awaited us at Half Moon Island where whales are often seen patrolling the shores. Livingston Island is where we saw the huge elephant seals. ??We skirted jagged ice cliffs to Anvers Island, home of the US Biological Research Centre at Palmer Station where sometimes the scientists board the ship to share their findings.

The wide cobbled beaches of Cuverville Island are home to Antarctica’s extensive colony of Gentoo penguins and Petermann Island is where French explorer/scientist Dr. Jean-Baptiste Charcot studied a colony of Adélie penguins during the winter of 1909.

Penguins abound as they floated past the ship on the many icebergs – and icebergs are aplenty, in all different shapes and sizes. We had great fun imagining what their shapes depicted. Everyone had a different idea as to what their hulking shapes resembled. We spotted whales frolicking in the ocean around the peninsular, chasing the krill that is in abundance, in this area anyway. It was awe-inspiring watching as their tails rose out of the water as they glided silently along.

As we sailed past the land bases, home of scientific exploration in these parts, I was amazed at how large and expansive they are. ??Cape Horn marks the southernmost point of South America. The Cape’s steep and rocky cliffs rise up and extend into Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

We also got to experience the Chilean fjords, another area that is awe-inspiring and spectacular. As we cruised through the waters of Cockburn Channel, charted by Charles Darwin on his exploratory cruise in 1832, we enjoyed breathtaking views of Romanche, Alemania, Francia and Italia glaciers – absolutely amazing as they stretched down into the water from high above.

Witnessing and experiencing this region is something that I will always remember. In fact, it is one destination I’d consider worthwhile revisiting. A journey such as this flames the explorer within.

FACTS:?

Holland America line has two 17-night cruises commencing 20 December 2010 or 06 January 2011 onboard the beautiful Ms Veendam. Both cruises include the Antarctic Peninsula. Departure is either from Valparaiso, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina.?Grandly proportioned, the Ms Veendam offers an onboard experience defined by spacious comfort. Elegant dining rooms with wide vistas of the seas, wide teak decks for strolling and spacious staterooms – many with private verandahs – all lend an air of elegance and comfort. ??To book, simply contact your local cruise professional, or Francis Travel Marketing, the NZ representatives for Holland America line on 09 444 2298, e: enquiries@francistravelmarketing.co.nz