Like most travellers, you usually only see a part of the world that caters to mainstream tourists. However, if you look beyond these famous touristy places, you will find that there are destinations out there filled with both beauty and adventure.
Take Antarctica, for example. If you are looking for an out-of-this-world adventure with a difference, Antarctica would be a perfect choice. It is truly the last largely unexplored frontier on Earth! Not a single person lives there, besides the crazy scientists who carry out their research at the offshore stations for about six months each year.
Antarctica is a photographers’ paradise, with its pristine and natural landscape home to some of the planet’s most awesome scenery. Its wildlife is also remarkably diverse and largely unique to the locale, such as the elegant Emperor Penguin. All in all, Antarctica’s beauty will take your breath away – from its exotic animals to its spectacular sunsets.
Surrounded by icebergs and glaciers all around
Why I visited Antarctica
There were several reasons for my sojourn to the last frontier on Earth. Having some free time (and being at the prime of my life), I had decided that it was time to satiate my wanderlust. After all, I have always loved plunging into the unknown and unexplored, and walking away with more interesting knowledge of the world. I could also finally claim that I have visited all seven continents! Lastly, I thought it was a good opportunity to educate my friends who mistakenly assumed that the Antarctica was at the North Pole (it is actually at the South Pole instead).
My journey to Antarctica starts at Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina (and also in the world). To get to Ushuaia, I took a flight from Singapore, and transited at various places in Europe and Argentina. The return flight home was largely similar: transits at other cities in Argentina and Europe before landing in Singapore.
The cruise to Antarctica
Being the nearest port of call to the tip of Antarctica, Ushuaia is the perfect place for a cruise to the southernmost continent. There are a number of such cruises available in the city in the summer, when part of the ice in the Southern Ocean has melted enough for ships to sail across. Remember that the seasons are reversed down in the Southern Hemisphere, so summer lasts from around November to March!
The amazing blueness of the icebergs, which the sun turns white on a sunny day
In Ushuaia, I managed to find a cruise, called the Ocean Diamond, that departed two days later. Our two-day sail through the Drake Passage was beset by choppy waters, with the ship constantly bobbing up and down. We had to hold on to the handrails, and make sure our belongings were secured! Unlike many of the passengers, I managed to survive the journey without falling seasick.
Despite the rough seas, I spent most of my time eating during the first two days. Not only was the food really good, but I also wanted to eat my money’s worth of food. After all, all meals are included in the cruise price. The quality of the meals on the cruise was surprisingly high, with the ship offering a buffet breakfast and lunch. There was also a three-course dinner with choices for soup, salad and main course. To top it off, the cruise also served afternoon tea with sandwiches, cookies and coffee/tea!
With no land in sight, there were talks by professionals and movie screenings on the cruise to keep us occupied. These talks included topics on geology, marine biology, and ornithology. We even learnt the names of different species of penguins and how to spot them based on their physical appearance! This actually proved useful when we started to spot penguins later on.
We first spotted penguins on Barrientos island, one of the smaller islands in the South Shetland islands. We managed to get close to a large flock of Gentoos penguins, and took numerous photographs of them.
A group of chinstrap penguins calling for their mates
Subsequently, we made stopovers at other places, such as Orne harbour, Paradise harbour, Neko harbour, and Cuverville island. In those places, we saw other species of penguins, including Chinstraps, which are my personal favourites. They look so adorable with a black line on their chin, which resembles a chinstrap!
When we finally reached Antarctica, I was instantly awestruck by the pristine landscape, which was unlike any other that I’ve ever seen in my life. Interestingly, only 100 visitors are allowed to step foot on the island at any time. This helped to preserve the pristine condition of the environment, something that I really appreciated. We thus rotated between cruising around the waters in zodiac boats and going ashore to explore the islands.
Our first step on Antarctica land with the cruise in the background
Besides hordes of penguins, we also saw waddle seals, terns, snow petrels, a lone Ross seal and a group of humpback whales in the open ocean.
Kayaking in the Antarctic (an optional activity)
The cruise also offers optional activities such as sea kayaking (US$950) or camping (US$250) on the Antarctic peninsula, which I unfortunately did not elect to try.
Doing the polar plunge in the frigid waters was truly memorable!
However, I did the polar plunge! This was an event held by the cruise, where you jump into the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. I was slightly apprehensive at first, as the temperature of the water was around 1–3°C. There were also pieces of ice floes floating around! I managed to gather my courage and enter the water, where I was quickly enveloped in numbness after a moment of shock. After getting out of the ocean as fast as I could, I was handed a towel and a cup of hot chocolate. I was actually relieved and proud that I survived the polar plunge. It was an experience that I would never forget!
Bringing a Singapore flag wherever I go
In total, my journey from Ushuaia to Antarctica took seven days, with two days crossing the Drake passage and five days out on the peninsula. We took two days returning back to Argentina via the Drake Passage as well.
Cost to go to Antarctica
In order to enjoy deep discounts of up to 50%, I recommend going to Ushuaia to look for last minute cruises instead of booking your trip online. There are several travel agencies in town selling the same packages, as the prices are controlled by the cruise companies.
Prices range from US$6000-10,000 for a 10-day cruise, depending on the cruise company and the places that they would be docking at. The prices include all meals on board and accommodation.
The average price that you will pay is US$4,000. You can get better deals if you are flexible and share a triple cabin with friends or random strangers. Deals typically range from US$4,000 to US$5,000, while suites cost at least US$6,000 to US$7,000. Prices quoted are not inclusive of flights to Ushuaia.
For those who do not like such spontaneity, you need to book your cruise around six months to one year in advance to enjoy the best prices.
Postcards from the British Antarctic post office, which also issues their special stamp
My takeaways from Antarctica
My cruise around the southernmost continent of the world was an immensely memorable one, and I learnt a lot about it during my journey. For example, 98% of the Antarctic continent remains totally frozen for the rest of the year. Antarctica is also the world’s largest desert! Despite its thick ice, Antarctica is actually classified as a desert because so little moisture falls from the sky. It was really interesting to know more about the only continent in the world that has not been regularly settled by humans.
My trip to Antarctica was definitely one that I will never forget! The long flights and freezing weather were daunting, but the view at the end was worth it.