The name alone creates visions of breaching whales, seals lying on ice floes and penguins belly sliding down snow banks into the deep, clear, blue water. Most cruises from South America depart from Ushuaia located on the southern tip of Argentina. Ushuaia is a thriving duty free port and is as sometime referred to as "El fin del mundo" the end of the world. The city has now geared itself up for the increase in summer of visitors. There is a wide choice of hotels and great restaurants to choose from, these restaurants specialize in seafood or Patagonian lamb. There are also some great national parks nearby and healthy streams and lakes that are alive with trout. For longer cruises other ships depart from Tasmania and New Zealand
The ships to Antarctica vary a great deal in what they offer. The smaller ships (50 - 100 passengers) have usually being purposefully built for polar and oceanographic research and have recently been refurbished for passenger use. Most larger ships (100+) are ice strengthened and are generally more spacious. The smaller ships allow for a more intimate and spontaneous expedition, they are ideal for the Antarctic Peninsula. The larger ships normally offer the extended voyages and also offer greater accommodation options.
The cruises from Ushuaia depart out through the Beagle Channel towards the Antarctic Peninsula or the South Shetland Islands. The evening departures from Ushuaia are special indeed, as there is the traditional welcoming cocktail party and meal and then its time to visit the deck where the combination of the sinking sun, Beagle channel and wildlife offer a tasty appetizer of what is to follow. Sleep the first night comes easy as the smooth the waters of channel and the excitement about what is to come lull you into heady dreams of the great white continent.
Drake's passage can be as varied as Mother Nature herself. The two terms at either end of the spectrum use to describe this section are "Drakes Shake" and "Drakes Lakes", what ever you experience here you will notice that the ship is being affected by a powerful force, she is moving in a more purposeful manner. The famous Drakes Passage a potent mixture of current and oceans that are crucial to other parts of the world, both ocean and weather wise.
The crossing of the Antarctic Convergence is also worth a mention; here the temperate waters from the north meet with the cool polar waters form the south. Here there is a sensational selection of bird life that gather to feed on the krill that get caught up in this thermal collision. Once this line is crossed it is not long before small icebergs will be spotted. Then, huge sculptured icebergs will appear on the horizon. Traditionally the ship captain offers a free bottle of champagne to the person who spots the first iceberg bigger than the ship.
Depending on your ships itinerary for the Antarctic Peninsula you can either head north to The South Shetland Islands or King George Islands, or alternately head south to Peterman Island and cruise up north. What ever your route there is always much excitement when land is first spotted, the bountiful wildlife always bring cameras into action. Often on small ships however, the spotting of land is delayed as usually whales are encountered and the Zodiacs launched to give an up close and intimate experience with these great creatures.
No matter your itinerary the approach to the Antarctic Peninsular is an unforgettable experience, gone is the image that every thing is cold and white. Everywhere you look there will be vibrant colours and contrasts that makes everything seem erringly surreal. The temperature also can be a pleasant surprise, the peninsula has a maritime climate and the dress outside can be no more than what would be worn on a winter's day back home. The waters of the peninsula also offers a friendly welcome the seas here are tranquil as the peninsular and the floating ice baffles the waters and every thing seems at peace.
For all cruises there will be plenty of time to explore the channels and bays in the sturdy Zodiacs (Inflatable Rubber Boats) these rapidly employed from the ships and are ideal for viewing the many whales, leopard Weddell and crab eater seals, penguins that will be encountered as you cruise the Antarctic waters.
A feature of the small ships is the many landings that will be on offer, vary from visiting rockeries containing tens of thousand of busy penguin pairs, sitting and watching young male seals play fighting to wandering through abandoned whaling stations or visiting a partly submerged volcano where it is possible to bath in the thermal waters. Research stations will also be visited here friendly locals (scientists, Dr, carpenters etc) will show you their work.
Whether you cruise north or south when meeting the peninsula there are some great locations that can be visited. Even though your ship will have an itinerary your final destination will be determined by weather etc.
Whatever your itinerary your next days will be spent as though living in a dream; each location offers different experiences and views. Some of the more popular sites include:
South Shetlands, including Elephant Island (where Shackleton's men found refuge during their epic journey). Places such as King George Island and Livingston Island support large numbers of nesting penguins, while sea birds nest in the cliffs and elephant seals wallow along the shores. Deception Island is still considered an active volcano and it is here one can swim in the thermally heated water.
The Antarctic Peninsula is not only the most accessible part of the "White Continent" but also contains some of the most rugged scenery and large variety of wild life. Among the places you may visit is the aptly named Paradise Harbour, where glaciers fill the calm waters with a vista of icebergs, sculptured by wind and weather. At Port Lockroy you will find thriving colonies of penguins and shags and a former British scientific station that now serves as a fascinating museum. Cuverville Island and Ronge Island with their dramatic location are the home to large colonies of Gentoo Penguins and other breeding birds. Many visitors find the Antarctic scenery as rewarding as the wildlife, you will be enchanted by such beautiful waterways as the Neumayer and Lemaire channel.
Low to medium level activities, some adventure orientated cruises offer optional adventure activities, including glacier walks and cross-country skiing and mountaineering. Often these activities are aimed at participants with no or minimal experience and offer a great opportunity to experience more intimately Antarctica.
Lectures, Ships also offer a variety of lectures, and open discussions these are normally very educational helping in understanding this great continent.
The return journey will be a melting pot of emotions, you will feel privileged as someone who has had the opportunity to visit this last great wilderness.
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