Santa Maria Australis in the Antarctic Peninsula
A year ago while we were planning our trip to Antarctica, our research uncovered that there are really only two options for touring the region. Since there is no accommodation for tourists on land and highly restricted access via air, your choices are to either go on a large cruise liner (ice-breaker), or alternatively you can sail on a smaller sailing yacht. The cruise liner is relatively safer and more comfortable. Sailing in on a yacht is considerably bumpier, more cramped and you are required to help out with many of the duties from sailing to cooking and cleaning. Despite what you might expect, the yacht option is no cheaper than the cruise liner. A year later, as we boarded our Qantas flight out of Sydney en route to Puerto Williams, Chile, where our boat awaited us, I struggled to understand what was going through our minds when we decided to go with the sailing yacht. I dreaded it may be a decision we would later regret…
My fascination with Antarctica sprouted a few years back after reading about Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expedition in 1914 on board The Endurance. Since then it has held a firm place at the top of my bucket list. Similarly for Christine, Antarctica represented a real adventure and the trip of a lifetime. Antarctica is the only continent uninhabited by humans and in many places on the continent, entirely uninhabitable by any flora or fauna. The vast majority of the continent is covered in ice all year round. Some areas have not had a drop of rain for more than 2 million years and the general lack of precipitation in Antarctica makes it the largest desert in the world. Although conditions are generally too harsh for land animals, it’s a different story for animals that thrive in the sea. Whales, seals, orcas are found in abundance. Deeper beneath the sea you can find fish with antifreeze in their blood as a natural adaptation to the ice cold waters. And then of course there are the continent’s most well known animals, those loveable penguins.
Although many countries have made claims on Antarctica, in 1959 a treaty was signed by these nations to establish Antarctica as a territory only to be used for scientific research that belongs to all mankind. This treaty protects Antarctica’s environment and prevents any commercial development on the continent, allowing it to remain in its untouched, pristine condition. The only exception to this is the handful of scientific bases scattered across the continent and even those operate in a way to ensure they leave no permanent mark. Science in the region is varied, from meteorology to oceanography to global warming to understanding whether life could exist in Antarctica deep below the ice. Some scientists compare the harsh conditions in Antarctica to those on Mars, and so the discovery of life forms could give hope to finding life in other environments beyond this world.
The Antarctic treaty is due to end in 2041. While many are trying to get this treaty extended there’s no guarantee how things will play out. So there may be a limited window to see Antarctica in its current, untouched form. And that’s why we were eager to go there now.
Chilling in Puerto Williams (the calm before the storm?)
Puerto Williams is the southern most town in South America. Originally little more than a fishing village, in recent years the population has spiked with the set up of a naval base, along with the increased tourism to Antarctica for which the town is well positioned to support. Puerto Williams along with Ushuaia on the Argentinian side are the two most popular ports of embarkation for Antarctica tours. That said, Puerto Williams is still little more than a village with fewer than 2000 inhabitants.
Puerto Williams made a great first impression upon us. Stepping out of the airport we saw sunshine, blue skies and a stunning view over the waters of the Beagle canal onto the picturesque town centre, just a few kilometres away. Seeing all the other passengers from our flight get into their private cars, it became evident that there wasn’t really any public transport or taxi infrastructure supporting the airport so Christine and I figured we would have to walk into town. Fortunately, a few hundred metres later, a friendly local asked us if we’d like a lift. His name was Nelson. Nelson didn’t speak much English but between his limited English and Christine’s limited Spanish, we were able to tell him the place we were staying, which he knew, as well as some details of our upcoming trip. To our delight, he told us he knew the skipper of our boat and described him as “muy bien”. Upon arrival at our Hostal, we tried to communicate to Nelson that we’d like to buy him a drink to thank him for giving us a lift. Unfortunately neither Nelson’s English nor Christine’s Spanish was up to the task, so we had to settle with just saying “muchas gracias” and then parted ways. Our Hostal was called Residencial Pusaki and owned by a lady named Patty. Patty was equally as warm and friendly as Nelson and made us feel very much at home at her place. Seemed everyone in Puerto Williams was incredibly friendly.
We had two days in Puerto Williams before we began our Antarctica expedition which turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore the small town. It gave us a chance to make a couple of short hikes, visit the local museum, stack up on some supplies and visit the 1 cafe, 3 restaurants and 2 bars on offer.
Cerro Bandera Puerto Williams
Hiking Puerto Williams
Biking Puerto Williams
Meeting the boat and crew (day 1)
After two days in Puerto Williams we headed down to the marina to join our boat, the Santa Maria Australis, where we met the captain and the rest of the group. A great first impression. Everyone seemed super friendly. People were already cracking jokes, playing off one another. Both Christine and I loved the intimacy of having such a small expedition group, something we would not have had going with the option of a cruise ship.
Our captain was Wolf Kloss, a German sailor who had been sailing to Antarctica more than 30 times since 1989. It was this depth of sailing experience in the region that convinced us to go with him and SIM Expeditions. I also took comfort in his German heritage since I tend to associate Germans with safety and doing things properly which seemed appropriate for the expedition at hand. Before meeting Wolf, I had pictured a burly German guy, who is serious, strict and has a sharp German accent. In reality, Wolf was nothing like this. He was relaxed, cheerful and incredibly friendly. While he ran a tight ship, he did it in a surprisingly positive and light hearted way. His crew were a young Austrian couple, Daniel and Beate, who grew up in a town only a stone throw away from the town Christine grew up in. Daniel even went to the same high-school as Christine’s brother. Small world! While young, they themselves were incredibly experienced sailors having sailed together on their own boat around the world for more than 6 years. Throughout our expedition I was to be constantly impressed about how smoothly they ran all the operations of the boat in such varied and trying conditions.
And if there wasn’t already enough combined sailing experience among the captain and crew, so too did we have a huge depth of sailing experience with the other 7 passengers on the boat. Turned out that Christine and I were the only ones without much experience. Our fellow passengers were: Roberto (owner of a boat building company) with his son Leandro (industrial engineer, entrepreneur) from Buenos Aires; Joerg (pipe organ builder) from Sipplingen, Germany; Heinrich (process consultant) from Soest, Germany; Michael (tax advisor) from Bammental, Germany; Werner (editor in chief) from Berlin; and Martina (physiotherapist) who was Daniel’s mother from Bad Hofgastein, Austria.
The first day was all about getting the boat ready and settling in. To our surprise, the yacht was quite spacious. High ceilings inside the saloon and cabins meant that no one would have to crouch. Our assigned room was close to the rear with bunk beds. That pleased us since we’d heard that the back of the boat rocks less at rough seas. After packing the boat with supplies we then covered our first round of safety instructions. Shortly thereafter, it was time for a round of pisco sours at the local bar (one of the only two bars in town) followed by a fun dinner. Our first impression was further solidified – this group is really fun. Everyone was interesting and seemed easygoing. A lighthearted group that was excited for this special trip! We spent our first night on the boat that day and slept surprisingly well.
The dreaded Drake (days 2 to 6)
To get from Puerto Williams to Antarctica requires crossing a stretch of open sea known as the Drake Passage, that connects Cape Horn with the Antarctic Peninsula. It is considered to be one of the most tempestuous straits in the world. Even on the large cruise liners, many people struggle with intense sea-sickness during the 2 day crossing. For our yacht, the passage was expected to take more than 4 days and be a somewhat bumpier journey. The crossing would be a good first test of whether we’d made the right decision to sail on a yacht.
We set sail south out of Puerto Williams down towards the Drake on a picture perfect day with blue skies and sunshine. This turned out to be a good omen for our crossing of the Drake Passage. In the end, the entire crossing was, for want of a better phrase, smooth sailing. Christine and I had no problems with sea sickness. May have helped that we took sea-sickness tablets and wore acupressure bracelets. Who knows? Wolf later remarked that it was one of the better crossings he’s experienced. I guess we got lucky.
Toast before we set sail
Learning the ropes
The day we set out was a Sunday. We learned that Sundays on the boat are good food days with treats like eggs for breakfast and freshly baked cakes for afternoon tea. Turns out Thursday are also a special day called “Seaman’s Sunday”, at least on German boats. So we would be getting cakes and elaborate meals twice a week. Nice. Impressive that Daniel and Beate found the time to pull this off with all the other things they had to do.
Ham and eggs
Pork, sauerkraut and mash
“Apple strudel” empanadas
Although we had no troubles with sickness, there were still some new things to get used to. First, was learning how to balance on a boat. Simple things like carrying your coffee to the table, or going to the toilet became feats of acrobatics. We would constantly hear Daniel yell out “one hand for the seaman!” to remind us to keep a hand free to balance when walking around the boat. Another thing to get used to was getting out of bed in the middle of the night for our nightwatch. Once on the Drake we had 4 days of continuous sailing which meant working in shifts of 2 hours on and 6 hours off. Although it was tough at times to pull yourself out of bed, I nonetheless took pleasure in the adventure of being at the helm in the middle of the night on the Drake Passage.
Our beds on board
Me at the helm
Wolf at the captains desk
Daniel reading during his break
For most of the crossing we saw nothing but sea to every point on the horizon. However, there were a few treats to break up the monotony. Just before we entered the Drake we stopped by Lennox Island and stumbled across a lone king penguin, unusual for the area. Such a majestic creature with the orange across its beak, neck and head.
Christine and king penguin
Later, on the Drake, a group of dolphins came racing along beside our boat, darting from side to side and at times jumping out of the water playfully.
Dolphins swimming with the boat
Others on the boat also had some brief whale sightings although none unfortunately on our watch. And then on day 6, we started seeing icebergs. First small ones, and later huge ones, 40m high and hundreds of meters long. It was a sign we were getting close. By the evening we finally reached our first stop in Antarctica, Deception Island. We cracked open beers to celebrate our arrival.
It’s an expedition, not a tour (day 7)
Early on during the trip, Wolf set expectations that our trip to Antarctica would be an expedition, not a tour. During a hike to a penguin colony on our first day in Antarctica, I started to understand what he meant. What I thought would be an easy walk over the hill to see penguins became a true 5-hour expedition, that included some seemingly never ending ascents of icy inclines so steep that our gumboots struggled to maintain grip. We started off from the shoreline covered in black volcanic stones (Deception Island itself is actually an active volcano and one of the biggest crater islands in the world), passed ice covered lakes, where the blue of the water shone through incredibly brightly, and then trudged our way up over the peak to where we could hear the chatter of the penguins through the mist down below us. The stretch between us and the penguins was a steep slope down, covered in snow and ice. The only way to get through was to slide on our bums. Lots of fun, but we dared not to think about having to go all the way back up.
Coming to shore at Deception Island
At the bottom of the ice peak we found ourselves among hundreds of Chinstrap penguins with their chicks. Despite how excited I was to see my first colony of penguins, I have to admit that the initial thing I noticed was their bad smell. And up close, I saw that they were pretty dirty too from the food they regurgitate to their young. Plus, their poo everywhere! Somehow the documentaries fail to show that side of penguins when they breed. That said, they were still incredibly adorable. Their waddle is just as cute in real life as on the documentaries. It was really funny to watch the younger chicks chase their parents around, seeking regurgitated food!
Chinstrap penguin colony
Chinstrap penguin colony
Chinstrap penguin colony
Chinstrap penguin colony
Chinstrap penguin colony
After spending the better part of an hour hanging out with the Chinstraps, we headed back to tackle the steep icy slope that we slid down to make our way back. Christine remarked “it’s like we’re climbing Mount Everest” seeing everyone slowly making their way up, at time losing their footing and stumbling. The only one in the group who seemed at all prepared for this was Heinrich who’d brought along clamp-on grips for his boots (“they only cost 3 Euro from Aldi” he proudly told us). The rest of us had to make do with just our gumboots. But we all made it out alive and felt very accomplished to have done it. I wouldn’t expect we would have had an experience like this had we gone with a cruise ship voyage.
Two penguins (TLP!)
Later in the afternoon I asked Wolf where would be a good place in Antarctica to go kayaking or to take a quick dip. Two things I was keen to include in our Antarctic expedition. He thought there would be better places later on to kayak but here would be as good as place as any to take a swim. So Christine and I took the plunge from the boat into 1 degree Celsius waters. It was so cold that we’re literally in and then out in less than 10 seconds. I was glad to be able to check that off he list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again”… or so I thought. Later on, Michael mentioned that he’d be up for swimming in Antarctica but would prefer to dive off an iceberg. I couldn’t resist and made a pact to jump in with him when we had the opportunity.
That evening, Roberto and Leandro volunteered to cook dinner. What followed was an impromptu Argentinian evening: Pastel de Papa, followed by Alfajores (cookies with chocolate and dulce de leche) and even some Tango dancing in the 2 square meter saloon. A fitting end to a great first day in Antarctica.
Leandro and Roberto preparing dinner
Whales! (days 8 to 9)
Besides penguins, the other creatures we were most excited to see in Antarctica were whales. Although our crew told us that there were no guarantees on seeing whales, we nonetheless got our hopes up. Fortunately, we were not let down. On day 8, while sailing south from Deception Island to our next anchorage on Enterprise Island, a huge group of more than 10 humpback whales came up to our boat to say hi. They swam around and under our boat, and at times their head would pop up less than 2 metres away from us. Just magical.
We thought that this experience would be hard to top, but were proven wrong. The following day, it happened again. Another large group of humpbacks came right up to our boat. This time the water was perfectly still and the sun was shining. It’s hard to describe how serene the moment was. Again, I thought that this experience would be hard to top. Again I was wrong. Just moments later Wolf asked, “do you want to try kayaking next to them?”. So Christine and I quickly threw the kayak in the water, jumped in and gave chase. As we were paddling out we saw the group go down under water. We knew this would mean they probably resurface in a minute or two in a different location. The key was to follow the bubbles. Once we spotted where the bubbles were we knew they’d resurface there. We started paddling full throttle to the bubbles. When we were about 5 metres away, Christine started getting nervous so we dared not go closer. And then they resurfaced right next to us. Breathtaking. Just a few metres of water and an inflatable kayak between us and these massive, majestic creatures. This experience is one of our absolute highlights for our Antarctica trip and probably for our entire travels to date.
Kayaking next to humpback whales
Kayaking next to humpback whales
We stayed out on the water and followed the whales around for a little while before returning to give some of the other guys a turn on the kayak. Afterwards, Roberto remarked “you wouldn’t get to do that on a cruise ship.” By now I was thoroughly convinced we made the right decision to go on a yacht rather than a cruise liner.
In the early afternoon on day 9 we arrived at our next anchorage, Cuverville. Cuverville is a popular spot for both its beautiful scenery and also large Gentoo penguin colony. To me, Gentoo’s look cuter than Chinstrap penguins with there bright red beaks, so I was very excited to go meet them.
Gentoo penguin tracks
Walking among the penguins we thought that this would be a good place for Christine to do her Antarctica hula-hooping video. It turned out OK, but I had a feeling that we could do better and made a note to be on the lookout for better locations for the next video.
Hula hooping with penguins
Later that day we enjoyed a feast. Not only was it a Sunday but also Martina’s birthday. Daniel and Beate went all out in baking a Malakov birthday cake accompanied by champagne, and cooking Martina’s favourite meal, lasagna. Delicious! An amazing day ended with interesting conversations and lots of laughter.
Scientific base visit (day 10)
As mentioned, the Antarctic Treaty declares Antarctica as a territory dedicated to science and research. So throughout Antarctica there are numerous scientific bases representing various countries. While we were fortunate enough to be taken on quick tours of the Spanish base at Deception Island (Gabriel de Castilla) and the Argentinian Base (Base Brown) near Skontorp Cove, our most substantial base tour was at the Chilean base, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. The base is right in the middle of a Gentoo penguin colony, in a cove called Paradise Bay. 13 members of the Chilean air force live here from November through February each year. They arrive in November and typically spend 3 weeks digging the base out of the accumulated snow. The air force has two objectives at the base. One is to support the scientists that work on their base from time to time. The second objective is to provide emergency support for anyone that needs it in the region. The colonel showed us around the base, including the living quarters for the crew. He was proud to announce that this year they’ve finally been able to hook up satellite television. A big boost for the crew’s morale. They also have internet access. Arriving into their dining room we’re surprised to be greeted with coffee and biscuits. As a thank you, we invited the colonel back to our boat that evening for whiskey and popcorn. In this environment he opened up and told us what it feels like to lead a team in one of the remotest places of the world. An interesting conversation.
Roberto with Spanish base leader
Spanish base team
Coffee and cookies in the Chilean base
Chilean colonel on board our boat
Iceberg graveyard (days 11 to 12)
The best weather we had during our whole trip was on day 11. Blue skies and sunshine the entire day. This happened to coincide with our sailing through one of the most beautiful channels along the Antarctica peninsula, the Lemaire Channel. Lemaire is an impressive narrow canal taking you between tall ice peaks on either side, and also through some of the most densely packed ice we’d seen to date.
Christine and I were steering at the helm through the Lemaire. Deeper into the canal the ice got denser and denser, until it became almost impossible to avoid them. At this point we handed the reigns back to the captain, and he decelerated the boat speed to barely a crawl. Slowly, we drifted through the packed ice. The quietness was occasionally broken by the sounds of ice fragments scraping the side of the boat.
After what seemed an eternity, we at last reached the end of the canal where the sea opened up again. Then we saw the most spectacular landscape to date: Port Pleneau. Nicknamed the “iceberg graveyard”, Port Pleneau is an area where huge icebergs accumulate together after they are blown into a bay. All around us were icebergs from 5m to 30m tall, each with unique shapes. Some looked like faces, others like sky scrapers. Looking across the landscape it felt like we were in another world. Spectacular.
Sailing through these impressive and imposing structures, it struck me that this would be an even better spot for Christine’s hula-hooping video. So after reaching our anchorage, Daniel sped Leandro, Christine and I on the zodiac to one of the icebergs, where Christine climbed out and we shot one of our favourite hula hooping videos yet. Leandro and I also took the chance to climb on the iceberg. It felt surreal standing on a floating piece of ice, swaying with the movement of the water.
Hula hooping on an iceberg
Standing on an iceberg
That evening, everyone was in high spirits after experiencing one of the most spectacular days of our expedition. Martina, Joerg and Werner cooked up a German/Austrian feast of smoked pork ribs with potato puree and Sauerkraut. We then witnessed a stunning, colourful sunset followed by the rising of a full moon. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Daniel, Beate and Martina
Moonrise at Port Pleneau
The next day was far from perfect. We awoke to almost the exact opposite weather conditions. Blasting winds, dense cloud cover and drizzling rain. Christine and I made a brave attempt to kayak over to a seal and penguin colony.
Battling the strong winds, we barely made it. When we later returned to our kayaks we saw that the wind had blown it metres away and in the process snapped one of the kayak paddles. Bummer. The whole group retreated to the yacht to wait out the storm. Unfortunately it didn’t die down the entire day so we had to abandon our visit to the Ukranian base, Vernadsky. No vodka shots with Ukranian scientists. Instead we had to settle for red wine and pisco sours (personally prepared by Captain Wolf) back on the boat. A worthy consolation.
Captain making pisco sours
Visiting the southernmost post office in the world (days 13 to 14)
After a full day of being stuck in Planeau we were relieved to see the winds subside so we could make our way to our penultimate anchorage in Antarctica, Port Lockroy, home to a British base. This base is one of the few bases in Antarctica not dedicated to science. Instead it is a heritage listed museum, where you get to see what it was like for the former British scientists that lived there from the 1944 until 1962. The museum is really well done. And it’s ably supported by a souvenir shop and post office (the most southern post office in the world) that appears to be an incredible money maker for the base.
Post box at Port Lockroy
Port Lockroy museum
Port Lockroy museum
Port Lockroy museum
I’d almost forgotten my pact with Michael to dive off an iceberg, but as our time in Antarctica was coming to an end, we realised that if we didn’t do it now we may not get the chance. And so again I headed off in a zodiac to climb an iceberg, this time with Michael accompanying me and both of us only wearing swimsuits. At first, things felt OK standing half naked on top of the iceberg. Then my feet started to feel like they were burning. The only way to give my feet relief was to dive off the iceberg into the freezing water that felt even colder the second time around. Once again, I was in the water for barely 10 seconds before returning to the zodiac and rushing back to the warmth of our yacht. Now I think I can safely say that I’ve checked it off the list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again.”
Michael and I standing on an iceberg
Me diving off an iceberg
The following day we headed a bit further north to make our final stop in Antarctica at Melchior Bay, and prepared for our return trip back across the Drake.
Return of the Drake (days 15 to 19)
While we had an easy crossing of the Drake the first time around, the same cannot be said of our second crossing. Most of the journey was through waves up to 5m high that would hit our boat in rapid succession from all angles. Christine and I both felt our stomachs churn early on in the crossing, but eventually our bodies adapted. Fortunately for us, we never really got hit with a full bout of sea sickness. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for some of our fellow passengers, who struggled throughout the four day crossing. During that time, Christine and I got into a routine of sleeping, waking up for our 2 hour shift at the helm, eating, and then sleeping again. We probably were sleeping (or at least in bed) for 14 hours of the day. It seems unreal but some combination of the boats rocking and our sea-sickness tablets was probably the cause of these marathon sleeping sessions.
A highlight on the way back was observing the albatrosses that loved to follow our boat for long stretches. I never knew how graceful these birds were. Daniel told me that they spend most of their lives out at sea, only coming back to land once every two years to breed. Amazing animals.
As we approached land, our initial plan was to make our first anchorage at Cape Horn. However, we got blown too far east and had to settle on Nueva Island, a little further north. When we finally set anchor I could feel the relief on the boat to finally be done with the Drake. To celebrate, we again cracked open beers this time accompanied by freshly roasted peanuts.
Return to Puerto Williams (days 20 to 21)
We used our last days to slowly make our way back up the Beagle Canal, and on the afternoon of day 21 we finally arrived back where it all began in Puerto Williams. That night, over dinner, we toasted a successful and incredible journey. And then made our way to the yacht club bar for a final drink (or in the case of some, many drinks!).
Our expedition group at the farewell dinner
All in all, the expedition to Antarctica rates as one of the best journeys we’ve ever made. The scenery was like nothing else. And to know that this landscape has remained largely untouched for millions of years makes it all that more special. The animals too were an absolute highlight. Both the adorable penguins and the majestic humpbacks that we got up close and personal with.
And as for the decision to do the sailing yacht rather than the cruise, we couldn’t be happier with our choice. It was truly special to go with such an intimate group, and we both really enjoyed the adventure of sailing across the Drake. One major advantage of a sailing yacht that I didn’t mention earlier, is that you get to do a lot more landings. There is a restriction in Antarctica that no more than 100 people from a boat can come ashore at any time, which massively limits how much time cruise passengers spend on land and where they get to go.
I also can’t speak more highly of Wolf Kloss and his crew from SIM Expeditions. Fantastic operators. Before we booked with Wolf we considered some other operators and found Wolf and his team to be the most professional and impressive of the lot. And during our trip it was clear to us how valuable Wolf’s experience was to handle the challenging, unpredictable and constantly changing conditions of Antarctica. So as you can imagine, we feel very fortunate to have chosen Wolf. And what’s more, the Santa Maria Australis is a very well equipped and comfortable boat too.
Thank you Wolf, Beate, Daniel and our fellow passengers for an incredible expedition!