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Jacada Travel Journal: A Cruise to Antarctica

Our Expert Travel Designer Joyce tells us about her extraordinary experience of kayaking amongst glaciers and close encounters with humpback whales on her cruise to Antarctica.

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Our Interview with Joyce

M/V PLANCIUS CRUISE FROM USHUAIA, ARGENTINA

What was it like to cruise across the Drake Passage, known for its rough seas?

The horror stories about the notorious Drake Passage didn’t exactly materialize for me, or maybe I was lucky to get sea legs. The waves and swells were pretty bad at times and you could jump high in the air, if you picked the right beat.

Aside from seminars and briefings, people got to know each other, while others read their books. I spotted a lot of albatrosses, some penguins porpoising near the ship, and whales and seals from a distance. Everybody was thrilled when we saw our first Antarctic iceberg, which meant we weren’t far from the White Continent. Coming back across the Drake Passage after our amazing Antarctica adventure, my log noted: The swells and motions are not fun anymore.

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What was your first impression of Antarctica’s dramatic scenery?

Every time I go through my Antarctica photos, I’m surprised, and think: Wow, I’ve been there? We began our Antarctica exploration on a foggy day, paddling our kayaks through icebergs shrouded by mystical vapor. My very first encounter with Antarctica was like visiting a liquid nitrogen ice cream lab.

On a different day at Neko Harbour, it was sunny with blue skies, so I simply sat back, in awe of the mirrored crushed ice and mini icebergs on the glassy water’s surface. It was pristine.

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What activities and excursions did you do while you were there?

I signed up to do kayaking when I booked the trip. What that meant was, I could kayak when I wanted, or join the others going out on the Zodiacs.

March 15: The cruise set sail at 6pm. Onboard. Bon voyage excitement.

March 16: Onboard. Food, lecture, sleepy, meeting, food, sleepy, lecture, sleepy, food, sleepy. Sleeping. Less excitement.

March 17: More briefings.

March 18: Hooray, first time off the boat and into kayaks.

March 19: I kayaked most of the day, but since kayaks can’t land near penguin colonies, we took the zodiac to land there. Barbecue party onboard.

March 20: Kayak in the morning. Zodiac in the afternoon to visit the Ukrainian Vernasky Station and Wordie House.

March 21: Arriving Polar Circle by zodiac and visiting an abandoned hut.

March 22: Last kayaking in the morning, afternoon snowshoeing at Damoy Point.

March 23: Final zodiac tour to Melchoir Islands. Gradually sailing back to Drake Passage. Lecture.

March 24: Lecture. Updating my Antarctica log.

March 25: Lecture and the Drake Passage.

March 26: Back to reality after breakfast.

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And how was life onboard?

Life onboard was quite structured. The PA woke us every morning and meal times were regular unless disrupted by visiting animals. At one of our lunches, everybody rushed out to see a group of orcas as they were chasing a seal that was chasing some penguins.

Lectures took place when the cruise crossed the Drake Passage. The lectures before we reached Antarctica were more knowledge based, and the ones after we left were more reflective, such as how global warming seems to harm but also benefit certain wildlife. One of the more memorable lectures was on whaling history, given by an expedition leader whose great grandfather was involved in it. There were movies too.

Food certainly played a big part in our life onboard. It’s incredible how the kitchen constantly spoiled us with gourmet food. Dinners were probably the most sociable event of the day. Most people onboard were very well travelled; our conversations would always entail a funny travel anecdote or travel tips. There was a barbecue and dancing party in the middle of the trip, which was the only time we ate outside. It was such a privilege to dine against such an extraordinary backdrop.

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Did you try out any especially adventurous activities?

Kayaking in the Antarctica was absolutely magical. Our first kayak excursion was foggy and mystical, which reminded me of the boat scene in Phantom of the Opera. Not long after we got into the water, a seal started showing off by jumping from a rock into the water multiple times. Beside the seal, a group of penguins were porpoising by. Diving was an option too.

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Were you able to explore much on land?

As part of the kayaking group, I was on the water most of the time. I went on a hiking excursion to Baily Head on Deception Island, where there’s an abandoned whaling station and research base, and I remember being chased by seals. A fellow passenger was so close to being attacked by a feisty seal, the expedition leaders had to net it into the water. I had a shot of homemade vodka at the Ukrainian Vernasky Station and sent a postcard home.

At the penguin colonies, we were just amazed by how many penguins passed by. So much was going on around us; some were busy commuting, others were shouting at each other, some were almost meditating, or they were porpoising in the nearby water. Seeing penguins jumping, slipping, getting in and out of water, and porpoising, never ceased to entertain me.

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What wildlife were you able to see there?

Penguins: Adelie, chinstrap, gentoo and magellanic.

Albatross: Black-browed, sooty, wandering, and grey-headed.

Petrel: Antarctic, cape and southern giant.

Other birds: Antarctic tern, blue-eyed cormorant, south polar skua and Antarctic fulmar.

Seals: Weddell, Crabeater, leopard, Antarctic fur and blonde.

Whales: Orcas, minke and humpback.

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What were the highlights that stood out from the trip?

Everybody had just returned by zodiac for lunch. A mother whale and her calf must have been curious about our meal, as they were dancing around our boat, coming up multiple times, spraying mist. They must have stayed with us for a good 10 minutes.

We also encountered humpback whales at Cuverville when we were in our kayaks. Cuverville is very secluded and surrounded by beautiful glacial valleys. There were at least six humpback whales circling us. Our kayak instructor was just one metre away from a whale’s tail and she had whale mist on her sunnies.

At one point, the sun beamed through a crack in the cloudy sky, and we saw three of the whales sunbathing in the sunny spot. After this very intimate encounter from our kayaks, when we spotted whales 20-metres away from our Zodiac, they seemed too far away.

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And what was your most memorable moment?

Kayaking Pleneau and the neighbouring Peterman Island is like sailing through an iceberg alley or walking through a gallery of sculptures. Icebergs are in aesthetically abstract forms.

We contemplated going through a huge iceberg cave with our kayaks, but it’s a risk to go too close to these unpredictable icebergs. Although, at one location where seals congregated, our kayaks licked the iceberg where a white crabeater seal was napping. We went up close to at least five or six sleeping seals.

An emotional wildlife sighting I had was watching a penguin being eaten alive. I was mesmerised by the constant noise of a penguin colony, when the squawking suddenly got louder and the penguins started running towards us. A huge white petrel had appeared from nowhere and was chasing the penguins up the slope. I cheered for the penguins but they aren’t good walkers on land and eventually the slowest penguin was chosen.

Tears flowed, but what happened afterwards moved me even more; after the petrel left, the nearby penguins gathered around the dead penguin, almost like a moment of silence, and then, life went on again.

Post-Antarctic: The postcard I sent to my home in Hong Kong, from the Ukrainian Vernadsky research base, landed in my postbox a year and a half later. It brought back so many memories. What a privilege it was to have seen such a beautiful place.

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Joyce travelled on the M/V Plancius cruise from Ushuaia in Argentina. Find out more about Antarctic cruises here, and read our guide to travelling Antarctica.