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Aurora Expeditions

Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions

Antarctica, the 7th and least-visited continent, is on many intrepid travellers' bucket list, ours included. Whenever we discussed it though the one thing that put us off was crossing the Drake Passage, so a voyage incorporating flying to Antarctica one way and sailing back seemed the perfect solution, giving us the opportunity to experience the Drake Passage without it affecting our outward journey.

We started our expedition in the lovely city of Punta Arenas in southern Chile with a two night stay in the Cabo De Hornos hotel in Punta Arenas, one of which was included in our Aurora Expedition package and the other booked independently to fit in with our flight schedule.

Cabo de Hornos hotel is probably the finest hotel in Punta Arenas and is perfectly positioned for a pre-cruise stay, being close to the airport and the seafront and having plenty of lovely rooms with views out to sea to watch the ships sailing in and out. Our extra night gave us just the right amount of time to explore this compact, friendly coastal city before checking in with the Aurora ground team and meeting our fellow passengers at our first expedition briefing. At the meeting we were all briefed on our flight out to King George Island where we would join Aurora Expeditions new x-bow designed ship, the 132 passenger MV Greg Mortimer, for an eight night voyage around Antarctica and back to Punta Arenas via the Chilean fjords.

Wildlife and Icebergs

At the airport the next morning the excitement levels were rising quickly and when our flight was announced a massive cheer went out from us all waiting at the boarding gate. Our ride for the 1 hour 45 minute flight was a BAe146 with unique chinstrap penguin livery and very spacious, comfortable seating and free flowing champagne. After a surprisingly smooth landing (given the gravel runway) we grabbed a pair of muck boots and started our 2km walk to the beach where the zodiacs were waiting to take us on the short ride to the awaiting Greg Mortimer. In Antarctica there are no harbours so every embarkation and disembarkation is done using the very sturdy and impressively comfortable zodiacs, accessed using a stairway from the mudroom to a doorway in the side of the ship. Arriving at the ship, our zodiac pulled up portside and using the sailors grip were helped off of the zodiac onto the ship by one of the crew before washing our muck boots in a disinfectant bath and heading into the mudroom, a locker room on deck three for storing outerwear and muck boots.

Antarctic Airways

Our first afternoon on board was action packed with a muster drill, briefings about our landings, the zodiacs and safety, introductions to our guides and a bio party to make sure our outerwear was free from contamination prior to our landings. We quickly got used to the ship-wide announcements telling us when to be where and soon became reliant on them, nearly missing lunch one day when no announcement was made! Though this is not normally something we would like on a cruise, an expedition cruise is very different and these types of announcements are part of the journey and even seemed to promote a sense of collectivism and shared experience with the guides and 45 fellow passengers who quickly became our friends.

Team selfie

Our first full day and we were up at the crack of dawn having woken up to the sight of icebergs from our patio doors. We were so excited we jumped out of bed, quickly donned our layers and headed up to the top deck to get the best view. Once there we realised that there were humpback whales swimming in the sea all around the ship, oftentimes the sound of them spouting drawing our attention to them.

Our first expedition was an action packed zodiac cruise off the coast of Enterprise island, starting with a shipwreck and a lone Emperor penguin before getting in the path of a rather amorous leopard seal who, much to our delight, took great joy in hugging our zodiac. Eventually we had to leave the leopard seal to romance the other zodiacs, heading out of the bay a little towards some humpback whales on the horizon in the open sea. The next half an hour turned out to be one of our favourite moments of the trip with Justine, our zodiac driver, turning off the engines as we watched three or four pairs of humpback whales close-by. After a while an eerie silence fell upon the whole zodiac as we sat in awe watching and listening to the noises they were making as they spouted, lurched, rolled and dived.

Enterprise Island

Though we hadn’t yet set foot on snow we didn’t have to wait long - that afternoon we landed at Portal Point in Charlotte Bay. It really is hard to describe the awe and excitement at setting foot on land that so few have visited, walking on deeper snow than we have ever seen and listening simply to the sounds of nature as the glaciers and snow creak and crack around us. On our way back to the ship we had our first close encounter with an iceberg, marvelling at the beautiful blue colour and magnificence of nature's floating sculptures.

There is no itinerary on an expedition cruise with the weather conditions and the guide's expertise dictating where we land and what we might do and by the time we woke up the next morning we were already on plan C! With driving snow and the coldest conditions yet, our zodiac cruise around Dallman Bay turned out to be the most challenging of all our excursions. Nonetheless it was worth it for the breathtaking scenery, playful fur seals and penguins swimming alongside us - and there was a well deserved hot chocolate waiting for us upon our return. The flexible schedule meant that the expedition leader and the Captain were able to ‘find’ better weather and our afternoon landing at Neko Harbour was a much pleasanter experience, especially because of the colony of Gentoo penguins that lived there. The sheltered bay we had anchored in also made the perfect spot for the polar plunge, a chance for the brave among us to jump off of the marina at the back of the ship into the icy cold waters of Antarctica!

Landing!

With awesome weather predicted for the following day our guides decided to cram two days worth of excursions into one starting with scenic sailing through the narrow Lemaire channel before a landing on Petermann island for our first sighting of Adélie penguins and a zodiac cruise around the bay peppered with large icebergs and sea ice, home to groups of lazing crabeater seals. Our afternoon landing at Wiencke Island involved sailing down the Peltier channel, again testing our magnificent Captains’ navigational skills as he negotiated not just the narrow passage but a large number of icebergs along the way. Safely reaching Damoy Point the ship lowered its anchor and we boarded the zodiacs and headed to Port Lockroy, the UK Antarctic base and home to a traditional British red post box, the only one in Antarctica. We posted our postcards then moved to our landing point on Wiencke Island for a hike and visit to a traditional expedition hut, now preserved for visitors to get a feel of what living in Antarctica would be like.

Rich and Helen in Antarctica

Little did we know at the time but that would be the last time we got off of the ship until we disembarked in Punta Arenas. Despite all the best efforts of the officers and the expedition team the weather was against us. But this didn’t stop us making the most of the rest of our time on board, with a deck BBQ (before the weather turned!); lots of interesting lectures and citizen science projects; some gorgeous scenic sailing (best viewed from inside the Observation lounge!); pre-dinner cocktails of the day; after dinner get togethers and quizzes; some humpback whales and a pod of dolphins; a photo competition and slideshow; and the infamous Drake Shake - which although not our favourite part of the journey, definitely wouldn’t put us off sailing to Antarctica again. Though we were sad to say goodbye to the MV Greg Mortimer and her amazing team, we still had more than a week left on our epic Chilean exploration, starting with five days in nearby Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, an ideal post-cruise adventure.

Greg Mortimer dining

Read Helen's full article here.

Call us on 0161 516 8202 to book your Antarctica Expedition with Aurora Expeditions.

Watch Rich & Helen's Antarctica Vlogs for more inspiration!

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