Daniel Resnik takes us on a journey to the Antarctic Peninsula on board Ponant’s Le Soleal.
Crossing the world’s roughest seas
Antarctica is often described as the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth, and to get there leaving from the small town of Ushuaia in southern Argentina entails enduring two days of voyaging through the legendary Drake Passage.
Renowned as one of the roughest sea passages in the world, it’s here that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge and cause soaring currents and, at times, frightening seas.
The experience is simply extraordinary. As we cruise through an endless surge of swells framed by grey ominous skies, we’re escorted by a throng of seabirds, including albatross and cape petrels.
However, any queasiness is quickly forgotten once you arrive in the calm, sheltered waters of the Antarctica Peninsula. The metamorphosis is as dramatic as it is magical; the closer you get, the cooler the air becomes and more swathes of icebergs begin to appear, as do the occasional humpback whales heading back to feed after breeding in the warmer tropical waters of the Pacific.
A trip of a lifetime
What also makes our passage down to Antarctica such an unforgettable experience is Ponant’s Le Soleal, a luxurious French expedition ship with 192 passengers and 156 staff on this journey.
This expedition cruiser is skippered by 10-year polar veteran Captain David Marionneau, who has also sailed to some of the most remote destinations in the world.
Our onboard expedition leader on this adventure is veteran John Frick, who’s on his 113th polar trip and has been an expedition leader for 18 years. Frick hails from Pennsylvania and his enthusiasm for the Antarctica is still as infectious as his first exploration and he is assisted by a team of experts who will accompany us on a journey of a lifetime.
Seminars are available during the crossing of the Drake Passage, and it’s here we’re educated by our marine expedition experts on Antarctica etiquette and what wildlife we will hopefully encounter.
We’re just two days into the Antarctica Peninsula and already we’ve seen some of the most exceptional mountainous landscapes on the planet: ice-filled seas, icebergs the size of city blocks and wildlife that has left me gasping in excitement. Humpback and minke whales regularly appear, as do a family of orcas, so close you could touch them. We watch on in awe as the orcas chase a poor little penguin, who thankfully escapes on to a chunk of floating ice.
Beyond your imagination
As we cruise through the famous Lemaire Channel we are surrounded by huge snowy mountains on either side, making our ship look minuscule. Every moment and wherever we look – thanks to perfect weather – the tranquillity, remoteness and mirror-like reflections are mesmerising.
We’re here in mid-December – summer time in the south – so there’s light 24 hours a day. I don’t want to sleep for fear of missing out on something spectacular.
Zodiac tours take to the water twice a day and the diversity of the excursions is incredible – one day we are walking among 200,000 nesting Adelie penguins on Paulette Island, the next we’re strolling along Hannah Point eyeballing large packs of elephant seals belly flopping, grunting, butting, belching, snorting and snoring, while penguins casually waddle by.
High in the protective rocks above the beach and away from prying eyes there are southern giant petrels and blue-eyed shags. You don’t know where to look and what to photograph. It’s like we’ve walked into the The Chronicles of Narnia and landed in a magical world of snow, ice and wildlife.
Every moment on board during our 1,960-nautical-mile journey is enchanting. But it’s under a cloudless blue sky on our third day, while moored in Wilhelmina Bay having another superb lunch on the ship, that one of the most memorable wildlife sightings happens. Against a backdrop of the snowy mountains that form a natural amphitheatre in this 24-kilometre-wide bay, a humpback whale decides to put on a 40-minute Cirque du Soleil breaching spectacular that has every passenger and many of the staff gasping for superlatives.
The last two days go way too fast and there are moments where you can only slow down, breathe, look all around and try to take it all in. We finish with one last highlight as our captain takes us back to Ushuaia via Cape Horn.
My final thoughts are simple: Antarctica is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the most compellingly beautiful and untouched wilderness on Earth.