Guest Blog: Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica
GUEST BLOG: Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica (November 2022)
WRITTEN BY PAUL CLAMMER
South Georgia must rank as one of the greatest wildlife destinations in the world. Where else can you see experience the sensory overload of colonies of king penguins numbering a quarter of a million birds, quietly peer through the tussock grass to spy on a wandering albatross on her nest, or play ‘excuse me’ with a hundred haughty fur seals as you make your up the beach? The scenery is no less spectacular either: sheer mountains rising like dragon’s teeth from the ocean, topped with snow like freshly whipped cream, or studded with icy blue glaciers.
It’s not possible to fly to South Georgia: the only option is to arrive by sea, which for most people means an expedition cruise ship. This is a significant investment in time, as trips offer up a visit to the Falkland Islands as a warm-up to South Georgia, then conclude with several days on the Antarctic Peninsula. Three week trips come as standard.
With this in mind, it’s important to know that you’re travelling with an experienced operator with the best ships and the best expedition guides. Polar Latitudes excels with both.
On my trip to South Georgia in November 2022 I sailed with Polar Latitudes on the MS Seaventure. A purpose-built expedition cruise ship with the highest ice class rating possible, Seaventure was the perfect home from home for the voyage. My favourite place to relax was in the lounge on deck 5, with its tremendous windows to take in the views, and quick access to the wraparound deck for when the call came out that wildlife or icebergs had been spotted on the horizon. I very quickly learned to carry my binoculars with me at all times.
A ship is only as good as the team on board, however. The captain worked constantly with the expedition leader (and the weather) to give us the best possible experiences – even stopping the ship at one point when we were cruising near Elephant Island so that we could enjoy the sight of a group of fin whales lying barely 20 metres off the bow. Seaventure’s small size meant that there was never the risk of missing out on possible landings or zodiac cruises that you can get with some larger vessels.
At a time when there is more and more choice for cruises to the polar regions, the depth of experience that the expedition guide team brought to the table was astonishing. After leading the toast to the explorer Shackleton at his grave in the old whaling station in Grytviken, our guide Hannah talked us through the season she had lived there working in the museum. Annette, the citizen science coordinator, could tell about her time tagging humpback whales to research their feeding habits. Many of the guides had spent more than a decade working in the region, and all were eager to pass on their enthusiasm for the region – as well as being quick to toast us all at the bar in the evening when we’d all completed our polar plunge.
Any worries that the large number of sea days on a trip like this proved completely unfounded. There was a packed programme of fascinating lectures, while Polar Latitudes’ commitment to citizen science meant there were plenty of projects to take part in, from seabird surveys to collecting cloud data for NASA (in South Georgia itself, we even got to help pilot some new projects, pulling our attention away from the penguins to focus on seaweed and invasive insects – a fascinating change of focus). When you wanted some fresh air, the keener birdwatchers were always on deck and eager to share their knowledge of exactly which albatross or petrel was soaring in the ship’s wake, and if you tired of that you could always retire to the ship’s polar library to pull out something unexpected to read.
More than anything however, the extended trip gave us time for passengers who had arrived in ones and twos to bond into a merry crew. People you sat next to on a zodiac cruise rapidly became dining companions and then friends. Each day brought so much to talk about, from the pocket-sized charms of the Falklands to the staggering intensity of South Georgia to the gentoo penguins in the snow and curious leopard seal who followed our kayaks on the Antarctic peninsula. I occasionally thought we even needed an extra day or two at sea just to be able to process everything we’d seen. We certainly needed the time to sort through our camera rolls.
At the end of the voyage in Ushuaia, the Argentinian port city that’s the gateway to Antarctica, Polar Latitudes had all the passengers booked into a hilltop hotel overlooking the city. As we gathered for dinner to swap contact details and share the last of our photos, we looked out at the dock below and saw Seaventure slowly pulling away on her next trip, carrying another group of passengers. She seemed tiny in the twilight, but we knew that her passengers were in good hands. It was a touching sight on which to end the trip, but I was already thinking of how I was going to arrange my next trip south. I suspect that I wasn’t alone.