How to get to Antarctica by sea

If you’ve ever wondered how it is to reach Antarctica by the sea, here’s a story about it.

Giant flat iceberg and sea pack in Antarctica

If you are so lucky to have the possibility to visit Antarctica, the journey from your residence place to your Antarctic destination will be typically made of two distinct parts.
First you will reach a country in the southern hemisphere–like Argentina, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand–by commercial transportation.
Then you will fly or sail to Antarctica.

This article tells a story of how Antarctica is reached by the sea in the form of a navigation log. The source is first-hand, since I’ve written it myself during my first trip to Antarctica not long time ago.

This journey has started in Christchurch, New Zealand and has ended at Dumont D’Urville, Adelie Land, Antarctica.
Going from a civilized, temperate-climate region, to Antarctica is like traveling to another planet, especially if you don’t have any previous experience in a polar environment.
You see the world you are familiar with transforming into something else, something really, really different. That happens in the span of a few days.

Loading a helicopter on our icebraker before leaving to Antarctica

Loading a helicopter on our icebraker

First day.
It’s 10pm when we leave the banks of Christchurch harbor. It’s been a sunny summer day, although not too warm due to wind blowing constantly. The lights of the city in the night are the last sight of civilization we see. Some of us will next see an inhabited place in more than a year from now.

Second day.
Slight sea. This ship is very small and not very seaworthy. It rolls heavily. I couldn’t sleep all night. My Italian cabin mate is apparently unaffected instead: he snored all night long. The French guy doesn’t move but moans from time to time. I suspect he feels seasick.
It is very sunny and warm outside. Apart from ship’s disordered motion, the trip feels like a cruise. Definitely we are still on a temperate climate area.
Latitude: 46° degrees south.
Water Temperature: +16° C, or 60° F.

Navigation on temperate waters

Third day.
The weather changed for the worst. Pressure plummeted of 20 millibars in a few hours. Clouded sky, haze, low temperature.
Latitude: 48° degrees south.

[click to enlarge]

[click to enlarge]

Fourth day.
The sun is back, but the warm temperatures are not. It’s cold outside.
The ocean is incredibly beautiful: it has a cobalt-blue color that makes me watch it for hours like in a trance.
Albatrosses are constantly fishing around the ship. It is for me a mystery how they can fly without ever flapping their wings, as they were weightless. They fly on large turns over the water. When they feel the need to make a shorter turn, they touch a wing tip on the surface of the ocean, in order to pivot on water.
Some fellas spotted penguins. They were swimming in front of the ship, the same way sometimes dolphins do. According to a biologist, those probably weren’t Antarctic penguins.
Latitude: 55° degrees south.

Fifth day.
The French guy finally stopped puking and feeling sick. Such a sudden recovery surprised me until I noticed the small band-aid behind his ear. The wonders of scopolamine.
10.29 am: Antarctic petrels around the ship! They replaced the albatrosses in the span of minutes. This is so amazing!
In fact, we have just crossed the Antarctic Convergence. That has brought a reduction in water temperature and in turn a change in the ecosystem. These magnificent birds are there to prove it. Even if we didn’t have any GPS system, they would have told us we passed the Convergence. Mother Nature never lies.
Latitude: 59° degrees south.
Water temperature: +2° C, or 35° F.

Bird. Probably an Antarctic Petrel

Bird. Probably an Antarctic Petrel

One of the first icebergs [click to enlarge]

One of the first icebergs [click to enlarge]

Sixth day.
7am: An ICEBERG starboard! It was far away, on the horizon. It must have stayed locked in the pack all winter, before breaking free and proceeding its slow route northward, doomed to melt out in warmer waters sooner or later. It is alone, but we are going to spot many others soon.
In the afternoon we’ve spotted floating ice. When a compact block is in front of the ship, the helmsman moves a small lever in order to by-pass the autopilot and dodge sheets of ice. When he releases the lever, the autopilot steadily brings the ship on its original course (which is 190°).
At 5.30pm I’ve seen penguins. They were sitting on a drifting sheet of ice.
Latitude: 63° degrees south.
Water temperature: 0° C, or 32° F.

Floating ice around Antarctica

Floating ice [click to enlarge]

Seventh day.
We just spotted the continent! The white, boundless ice cap stretches just in front of the ship. The sky is completely clear. The chopper took off to unload goods. We are going to drop the anchor in a bay which is amazingly free of ice.
Latitude: 66° degrees south. Just on the Antarctic Polar Circle.
Water temperature: -2° C, or 28° F.

Finally - the continent [clik to enlarge]

Finally – the continent [click to enlarge]

Eight–and final–day.
We are sailing again, and this time there is ice all around, both sea pack and icebergs. Speed is no more than 3 knots. Sky is dark. The ship smashes onto pieces of ice cap with sinister sounds, but ultimately breaks them.

Navigation on ice, Antarctica
In front of us many icebergs. Some of them are small; others are apparently as big as a town. It’s really hard to tell how big they are.

[click to enlarge]

[click to enlarge]

This view is awe-inspiring. The combination of huge icebergs, sea pack and leaden sky is something that you have to see to understand what I’m talking about.
I can’t help thinking what came into the minds of XIX century sailors when they were the first humans to see such a terrifying view in history. I can’t imagine how terrifying would be the sound of the wooden keel caught in the grips by the ice.
And yet they somehow had the courage to proceed south and came back to tell the world that a new, unknown continent was lying down there.

Lone penguin, sea pack, and icebergs [click to enlarge]

Lone penguin, sea pack, and icebergs [click to enlarge]

We are stuck in the ice. The captain sent the chopper out to look around in order to find a channel we could go through.

[click to enlarge]

[click to enlarge]

The journey has come to an end. After proceeding for a further few miles, the captain gave up. Too much ice, and too thick. So we’ve been ordered to pack and be ready in 20 minutes. Then the chopper transported us on dry land in ten minutes. Once landed, I’ve unfastened my safety belt and jumped on ice that this time covered dry land.
I cannot believe it yet, but I’m in Antarctica.

And this is just the beginning, as tomorrow we are going to fly over the most beautiful place on Earth.

Adélie penguin walking on the ice [click to enlarge]

Adélie penguin walking on the ice at midnight [click to enlarge]


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8 Thoughts on “How to get to Antarctica by sea

  1. My favourite post of yours yet! Not just because you’ve travelled to the great unknown continent of the Antarctica, but because you really brought me into your once-in-a-lifetime experience. I love the diary format of this post, it really made me feel the sea sickness of the French man, the first sighting of an iceberg and the weightless wings of the Albatross.

    When I see a lone penguin I always think of this clip from Werner Herzog’s documentary:
    Shing recently posted..Why I Love ScandinaviaMy Profile

    • Thank you Shing! I’m happy I delivered the emotions. That was my intention.
      The penguin in the video is an Adélie penguin as well. The one you see in the photo was going back and forth.

  2. What a tough but fascinating trip. It’s easy for most of us to almost forget of this continents existence. The post is a fresh reminder of it. I’d be blown away by the natural setting and fauna there I’m sure.
    Mike | Earthdrifter recently posted..Miswak: Medicine for the MouthMy Profile

    • I’m sure either. There are few people who could remain unfazed in front of such sights, and those usually are not interested in going to Antarctica.
      A strong feeling I had since the beginning is that Antarctica itself is alive, like an organism.

  3. Maricela on May 30, 2013 at 8:10 am said:

    Wow! You really managed to transmit the awe you felt at the time you reached this amazing continent. I felt chills whilst I read the last part of your post.:)

  4. Wow! You are a real travel monster! :-) Wonderful trip, adventure literally. And the photos… they are super.
    Victor Tribunsky recently posted..Journey to Kingdom of Dead in Grotte dell’Angelo – Cave in ItalyMy Profile

    • Thank you Victor!
      I would like to be a travel monster, but I’m not.
      I’m just a very lucky person who had a chance to work in Antartica several times.
      Every breathless step on the ice at over 3,000 m asl, every sleepless night were worth it.

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