Crawling down the hall, gripping the handrails, guests are between a cartwheel and a handstand as they make their way down to dinner. The boat is at full tilt, on its side. It’s an interesting start to an Antarctic cruise, though apparently this is unavoidable. Over the course of two days, every ship has to make its way through the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica. It can either be the uncommonly calm “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake”, which is where we are. This makes dinner interesting, with plates often flying across the room. Luckily we aren’t in flight ourselves, as our tables and chairs are bolted down.
One can just imagine what it was like for early Antarctic explorers. This Quark Expeditions voyage is but a glimpse into those journeys, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. At the time, both the North and South Poles had been reached, and Ernest had his sights set on being the first to cross Antarctica. The challenges he met there were insurmountable, and the expedition was never completed (though Ernest returned safely), but he remains one of the continent’s greatest explorers, his trek a testament to the expertise required to travel this region safely.
Since 1991, the seasoned team at Quark has been a leader in polar explorations, guiding travellers through the challenging waters and terrain of the Arctic and Antarctica. The company was founded by adventurers and friends Lars Wikander and Mike McDowell in 1990, and recently added Jonathan Shackleton (Ernest’s cousin) and Falcon Scott (the only grandson of famed English explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who led the Discovery Expedition through Antarctica between 1901 and 1904) to the team.
Jonathan and Falcon accompany two cruises per season with Quark; this journey, the Antarctic Explorer, which includes a landing on the continent, travel along the Antarctic coast, and highlights of the Antarctic Peninsula, is one of them. While the push off from Argentina’s Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, feels long since passed, time on-board is well spent. Quark has a highly-esteemed team on every expedition; all guides are also exceptional lecturers, providing rich and interesting insights throughout the dizzying trip.
After surviving the Drake, the cruise feels like it officially kicks off with the narrow, pristine passage of the Lemaire Channel, setting the tone for what’s to come: floating icebergs, granite mountains, and bright blue skies. Landings are weather-dependant, but include stops at Port Lockroy, Mickelson Harbour, the South Shetland Islands, and Deception Island, to name but a few. The schedule is not unlike a safari, with early morning and late afternoon excursions that require us to “kit up” each time in wet suit pants, boots, and bright yellow Quark jackets. We watch for an array of Antarctic wildlife, including four types of penguins: Chinstrap, Adélie, Rockhopper, and Gentoo. A lone male Emperor Penguin who seems to have lost his way makes an unlikely appearance, as do two elephant seals. Humpback whales also surface in Wilhelmina Bay. On one particular day, 55 whales are active in the bay, prompting the playful nickname “Whale-A-Mina-Bay”. Mothers swim with their babies, teen males one-up each other with dramatic breeches a few feet from the boat, an orca pod surrounds our tiny zodiac—sight after phenomenal sight.
From each landing guests hike up to scenic viewpoints via icy switchback trails. “Antarctica is the closest you can get to leaving the planet,” says one guide, and this is evident at the top of the ascents, where you are surrounded by 360 degrees of unrivalled icy blue beauty. “Antarctica is the most beautiful place in the world,” Falcon affirms.
Quark has a variety of excursions to the area, ranging from express eight-day trips to a full 25-day voyage to lesser-known parts of the continent. Each has adventure options, including sea kayaking or camping on an Antarctic island for a night, complete with nightcaps of stories served up by spirited guides, or Falcon and Jonathan themselves. In the time between ports, Jonathan weaves a good yarn or recites poetry. “One thing about Ernest’s character, obviously he was an outgoing and expressive person, he had a great interest in poetry,” he says. “I think that was part of his romantic character. He had vision and he had charm.”
It’s surreal to follow the footsteps of these adventurers, and an otherworldly experience to lie down on a bed of ice in a sleeping bag, with no tent, under a pink sky and a bright blanket of stars, the steely silence punctuated only by the sound of glaciers calving.
Photos courtesy of Quark Expeditions passengers.