In the Footsteps of Great Polar Explorers: Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula

In the Footsteps of Great Polar Explorers: Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula

Buzzing with excitement from all we had seen, we prepared for
our return voyage across the Drake Passage, back to Ushuaia. This
notorious passage has a reputation for big storms, but it was
tranquil for us. At times like these, seafarers call it Drake

As we approached the tip of South America, the sun shone and
Cape Horn came into sight. In no time people were stripping off
their cold weather layers for T-shirts and flip flops. It felt more
like a Caribbean cruise than an Antarctic expedition. Was this
confirmation of global warming?

Whether we were once-in-a-lifetimers or serial Antarctic
travelers, each of us took away a unique memory of a personal
adventure into our planet’s most remote and pristine location.

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Antarctic tundra is a monochrome world except for the flash
of a colourful beak or feather, or the ice-blue and turquoise
underbelly of a whale. Remote and desolate, it has a bracing

I was in a group of 69 exploring on board the Akademik Ioffe, a
Russian-built, ice-strengthened research vessel commissioned by One
Ocean Expeditions (OOE), specialists in small-group polar
exploration. Our 18-day voyage would take us to the Falkland
Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.

We set sail on a chilly October evening. The anchor clanked and
groaned as it was weighed in the little harbour of Ushuaia in
southernmost Argentina. This is summer in Antarctica, and with
temperatures between zero and five degrees it’s the best time of
year to see wildlife. There is 24-hour daylight, winter has ended
and animals return from months of feeding further north.

A ship’s pilot boarded the vessel to supervise our passage
through the Beagle Channel, and giant petrels and South American
terns followed in our wake as we slipped away from land.

It takes two days to reach the Falklands. At sea, some struggle
to get their sea legs, while others are up and about. To fill our
time at sea, we listen to nature lectures and watch Antarctic
themed films and documentaries, or we hang out on the ship’s bridge
with binoculars looking for wildlife. We’re told to leave one hand
free for the ship, holding onto railings when moving around. But
whatever happens, do not whistle! If you whistle on a Russian ship
it will bring high winds and storms.

We dine ensemble around large tables, filling our bellies with
high-energy meals suitable for the coming colder climes. I go out
on deck to look for whales and my perseverance is rewarded by a
mesmerising display of breeching humpback whales. Those who want to
kayak during the journey go through a few training sessions on what
to expect. Safety is a priority, conditions change so fast down
here and you need to listen to your guide.

Soon penguins are diving through the water – a definite sign we
are getting close to the Falklands. They live along the shore, and
they are a signal that land is close.

Falkland Islands

This British overseas territory is an underrated place to visit.
Apart from their complex history of war between Britain and
Argentina over the sovereignty of the islands, there is fabulous
scenery and a tremendous amount of wildlife, with whales, seals,
penguins, albatross and other birds galore.

Our first landing was at West Point Island (originally Albatross
Island), off the north-west tip of West Falkland, and home to the
black-browed albatross. We used Zodiacs – rigid inflatable boats
carrying around 10 passengers – for the swift but bumpy passage
from ship to shore.

That sunny morning, we were greeted by the island’s only two
human residents, who guided us across rolling hills of tall grass
to a large albatross colony, where we observed the massive birds
socialising with rockhopper penguins and imperial cormorants.

Our next stop was Stanley, the Falklands’ capital, where we
trekked along penguin-thronged beaches before hitting the local
pub. I was introduced to king penguins at Bluff Cove sheep farm,
near Stanley, where owners Hattie and Kevin Kilmartin took us to
their private beach to see around 15 adults and eight fluffy
chicks, with some gentoo penguins into the bargain. Getting to the
beach was an off-road adventure by Land Rover, through deep mud and
over boulders to the remote stretch of sand where Hattie serves tea
and cakes at her Sea Cabbage Café. King penguin chicks waddled
about the beach in their brown down coats, squawking loudly and
constantly for food. One chick screamed and screeched so much that
its parents walked off as if embarrassed by their toddler’s
outburst. I smiled at the familiarity of this scene.

South Georgia

From the Falkland Islands, we sailed south-west for two days to
South Georgia, passing Shag Rock, a volcano tip peeking through the
water, covered in the eponymous birds and their white guano. Once
there, we spent three days exploring various bays for wildlife. We
encountered thousands of penguins and seals, many of which had made
homes among the rusting relics of the whaling industry.

On most mornings, guests gathered in the Mud Room, where
wet-weather gear for Zodiac excursions was kept. We’d spend a few
hours exploring the shore, or cruising around the glaciers before
returning to the ship for lunch, and then heading back to the wilds
for an afternoon outing.

Veteran expedition leader David Begg kept things running
smoothly, his calm demeanour inspiring confidence. “I’m passionate
about Antarctica and South Georgia, and about sharing the place
with others”, he told me. “I’m happiest in a Zodiac, with whales
swimming around me”.

At Grytviken, the largest of the old whaling stations on South
Georgia, we visited the grave of explorer Ernest Shackleton, who
was buried here in 1922. We hiked three kilometres (in the rain)
along a marshy river bed to a waterfall that Shackleton had
descended on his arduous (and successful) footslog to seek help for
those of his crew who were stranded on Elephant Island when their
ship broke up.

Next, it was on to Gold Harbour, which turned out to be a
highlight of the trip. The beach was a cacophony of deeply scarred,
belching, grunting elephant seals. Roaring males breathed out
visible hot air clouds, and whenever two met they threw their
massive bodies about and clashed, fleshy pink mouths wide open,
biting each other, and stabbing with their huge tusks. At times, we
had to run to avoid being flattened.

At Sea

The further south we went, the windier and rougher it got. Thick
ice formed on ropes and decks, and we were confined to the living
quarters. Apart from socialising, we had master classes and
presentations about their work from documentary filmmakers Neil
Nightingale and Karen Bass, of BBC Natural History fame, who were
also on board.

We ate in the dining room, except for a deck barbecue in
Antarctica. Breakfast and lunch were either a hot or cold buffet,
with a vegetarian option, while in the evenings our attentive
Russian crew served dishes from a daily menu. It can’t be easy to
cook and serve in all weathers, but the ship’s staff pulled it off
every time – though some meals were better than others.

Leader David was often to be found whale-spotting from the
bridge, announcing every sighting over the ship’s speaker system.
We would all run outside onto the freezing deck, look for the whale
– which by then had gone – and then retreat back inside the warm
ship. A few minutes later he would spot another and we’d all rush
outside again. After a while some of us gave up, but those who
persevered were treated to mesmerising displays of humpbacks


Five days out of South Georgia we reached the waters of the
Antarctic Peninsula, where a choppy sea calmed down as we entered
the Gerlache Strait.

The next morning we woke to a bay filled with towering icebergs.
We landed at Portal Point, where we grabbed walking poles and hiked
through deep snow, avoiding hidden gaps in the ice. Later, we took
our Zodiacs around Wilhelmina Bay, dodging massive bergs, while
penguins “porpoised” through the water, as swift and smooth as
arrows, in contrast to their ungainliness on land.

I spotted three sleek-bodied whales. Their movement, low in the
water, the way they swam together as a unit, and their rounded
heads and beaked faces, all pointed to a rare sighting of Arnoux’s
Beaked Whale. Back on board, we confirmed the sighting in the
library by comparing my photos with the books.

It was minus eight degrees on our last day, as we headed to Half
Moon Bay, with its humpback whales, and icebergs like fortresses.
This was another spectacular highlight; the whole place shimmered
in the sunlight and the bay looked as if it were magically studded
with diamonds of light from the sea.

Observing the penguins on shore there was a joy. They constantly
steal stones from each other, for their nests. They also bustle up
hills on their little legs, using their claws as crampons and their
tails for balance, before belly-surfing down again. Without brakes,
they often bowl into other penguins, knocking them down like