Penguins, seals, reindeer & Having a whale of a time

‘Going to Antarctica is something only adventurous people do.’ That’s the impression my wife Jagruti and I got when we visited South America in 2009 and heard about cruises that take tourists from the tip of the continent to Antarctica. We realized it is doable at our age – I am 56 and my wife is 54 – only last year March when an acquaintance of ours showed me photographs and videos of his Antarctic cruise. We did our bookings directly with the operator in Argentina online and chose a 19-day cruise tour that would take us from Ushuaia in the tip of Argentina to the Falkland Islands, then to South Georgia and finally to Antarctica.

Rock solid: The pristine white beauty of Antarctica. pics courtesy/Mrugank Kapadia

Three times lucky
Our adventures began even before we left Mumbai. We were slated to take a flight to Buenos Aires via Dubai on the evening of November 17. Two hours before we were supposed to leave for the airport, we heard about Bal Thackeray’s death. We couldn’t get any taxi or autorickshaw to take us to the airport. Finally I managed to arrange a driver for my car. Luckily we reached on time. We stayed the night at Buenos Aires and were scheduled to fly at 8 am to Ushuaia (from where the cruise would set sail). That flight had technical difficulties and finally flew only at 6 pm. Many others stranded with us were booked on a cruise leaving that evening and were disappointed they missed it. We were booked on a cruise leaving the next afternoon so we only missed doing some local sightseeing. Perhaps the problem with the flights was the reason many passengers couldn’t make it to our cruise too. As a result, we got upgraded from bunk beds in a small cabin to a nice private cabin. We are Jains but didn’t have much trouble getting vegetarian food as we had informed the cruise operator of our preference earlier. We carried our own spices and rice was available, thanks to the large number of Chinese tourists. Legumes, rotis made from oats, fruits, salads, dry fruits, hot chocolate were also available on board.

Happy Feet: A Gentoo penguin – as distinguished by the wide white stripe across its head and its orange bill – feeds its two chicks at Falkland Islands

Falkland Islands
Our first destination was the Falkland Islands. We had been warned the previous night that the seas would be rough and puke bags had been installed all over the ship. There was a doctor on board who would give sea sickness pills on request. I didn’t take them out of over confidence and had a difficult time the second day of our voyage when we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I wisened up after that. My wife had no problem at all. We docked at Westpoint Island on the West Falklands. There are only two people living in that area, which is the size of Bandra. They hosted a high tea for us. Besides Gypsy Cove, we also docked at Port Stanley, which was quite different with souvenir shops and other tourist amenities. We got to see albatrosses, petrels and Gentoo penguins hatching eggs from a distance of five feet. Interestingly, Falkland Islands is a British territory even though Argentina has been trying to lay claim on it for several decades. The people there believe themselves to be British. I doubt if they even know Spanish.

Home or grave? A reindeer in South Georgia. There are plans to eliminate the species as there are fears that they are upsetting the local ecological balance 

South Georgia Islands
From Falkland Islands, we went to South Georgia. The entire population of this British territory is only 18! Till a few decades ago, it used to be 2,000 when the main activity was whaling. Ever since whaling was banned, the population has gone down. There are still quite a few abandoned whaling stations to be found in the area of Grytviken. Few humans, few whales but the largest King penguin colony (of about 2 million) in the world can still be found in South Georgia, at St Andrew’s Bay. It was amazing to witness 500,000 pairs of breeding penguins spread all over the ground till the eye could see at Salisbury Plain. We also spotted the elephant seal, called so because of its huge size and shape of its nose. South Georgia is also home to reindeer. They were brought from Norway about 100 years ago and have adjusted very well to South Georgia. However, the authorities now feel that they are disturbing the ecosystem by eating a lot of the grass and have plans to eliminate them.

Mighty beast: An elephant seal in South Georgia

Antarctica at last
From South Georgia, it took us three days to reach Elephant Island and Antarctic Sound in Antarctica. Our initial plan was to visit the east coast of the Peninsula but due to high floating ice in the sea, we had to change course and visit Neko Harbour and Orne Islands on the west side instead. That’s how it is in Antarctica. Weather conditions determine each day’s itinerary. We had planned to swim at Deception Island since hot water springs were next to cold ocean water. That’s why we had not taken a dip in the previous swimming spot and went to explore other aspects of Orne island instead. Unfortunately, that plan had to be cancelled due to thick ice. No regrets though, since we did see Chinstrap penguins and other wildlife. We walked through snow and saw many seals at Walker Bay at Livingstone Island before heading back to Ushuaia via Drake passage.

Brutal beauty: The stark landscape of Antarctica

Amazingly, Antarctic wildlife are not afraid of humans as they come in contact with very few of them as there are no locals. The tourists visit in the summer months between November and March. No one lives on Antarctica, other than a few scientists at their research stations.

Passion for travel: Mrugank and Jagruti Kapadia in Antarctica

The best part about the trip was witnessing the pristine beauty of Antarctica. It is a white continent, with ice and snow covering most of the land mass. Unlike Alaska, it is unspoilt. Going to Alaska is more of a leisure trip, this is more of an expedition. We were totally cut off — no mobile network, no internet. But it wasn’t scary. It was thrilling. There was so much to see that we never even thought that if something happened, we would be stuck. You cannot even airlift anyone in a medical emergency since there is no place for any aircraft to land.

Enjoying the view: Penguins soak in the sun in Antarctica

Close to nature
Other than its pristine beauty, what I liked about Antarctica and South Georgia is that I’ve never seen penguins this close, and in such large numbers. We saw penguins building their nests, baby seals being breast-fed by their mother and a few whales. One hungry baby seal even bit my trouser!

Learnt a lesson
I’ve travelled regularly since 1983 and I’ve realized that every place has something to teach us. In Antarctica, I learnt about penguins, seals and glaciers and the impact of the thinning of the ozone layer on Earth. I also learnt the importance of conserving nature. As Jains, we were always taught not to waste anything but this trip really brought it home to me. The tour operators are very careful not to let any non-biodegradable waste remain in the area. Once, near Falkland Islands, a strong gust of wind blew my plastic backpack cover into the ocean. Immediately, the cruise staff went to get it out. They are very concerned about the preservation of Antarctica and its surroundings. There was this one incident when some of the Chinese tourists threw stones at penguins to capture their reaction on video. When the expedition staff came to know about this, they made it very clear to the Chinese that if they did this again, they would not be allowed to disembark from the ship for the rest of the cruise.

I’ve been to 45 countries so far, flown on a winged bike in Jordan, ridden a hot air balloon, witnessed a cheetah hunting a deer in Kenya, driven in the Rann of Kutch but I must say, this was the best tour of my life.

Want to go on an Antarctic cruise? Here are a few tips:
>> Book early. This will give you a better choice of cruise operator, of cabins and an early bird discount. Flip side: the advance you pay is mostly non-refundable in case of cancellation.
>> Take warm clothes including thermal wear or hire them in Ushuaia. The average temperature in the summer is minus 2 degrees Celsius.
>> Being physically and mentally fit is important since you’ll have to tackle a lot of adverse conditions — rough seas, uneven and unpaved roads, and a different type of food. The conditions are not conducive to wheelchairs.
>> If you are a vegetarian or have other food preferences for health reasons, you can inform the cruise operators
in advance.

Fact file
>> Almost all cruises to Antarctica leave from Ushuaia. The best way to get there from Mumbai is to take an international flight to Buenos Aires and from there, a domestic flight to Ushuaia.
>> The Kapadias’ itinerary can cost an enthusiast about R8.5 lakh per person, including airfare (R1.5 lakh) and cruise cost (USD 12,500, approx. R7 lakh). The cruise cost of Ushuaia-Antarctica-Ushuaia is slightly cheaper.
>> Antarctica is not a country and you don’t need a visa to go there. Falkland Islands and South Georgia are officially British territories and you’ll need UK visas to go there, unless you are going with the cruise tour and won’t stay longer than the duration of the cruise stop. 

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