Antarctica 1: Antarctica 21 Air Cruise Feb 2020

This is my 4th visit to Chile and the main reason for coming here is to do the Air-Cruise to Antarctica.  Most Antarctica cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina and involve crossing the rough seas of the Drake Passage which takes 2 days before arriving in Antarctica.  As I am prone to sea-sickness, I was so happy when I discovered that there is the option of flying down to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica and then boarding the cruise ship.  Instead of spending 2 days at sea each way and braving the violent storms of the infamous Drake Passage, the flight only takes 2 hours each way.  Antartica 21, the cruise company I’m going with, is the world’s first air-cruise to Antarctica and they operate small ships accommodating only 75 passengers.  This is great because the regulations in Antarctica dictate that there can be no more than 100 visitors at any location at the same time.  With the larger ships, passengers are usually divided into groups and must take turns for the landings.  In November 2019, Antartica 21 launched a new luxury ship, Magellan Explorer, which I took to Antarctica in February 2020.  The 38-cabin Magellan Explorer is supposedly the first ship ever custom designed and built as an Air-Cruise expedition boat.  The price of the 8 days Air-Cruise is quite pricey but definitely well worth it!  You save 4 days at sea and no sea-sickness whatsoever.  I booked 10 months ahead and was able to nab the last cabin with a balcony on the upper decks.

DSCF5404The 38-cabin Magellan Explorer

Prior to flying down to King George Island to board the ship, all passengers have to arrive at least a day ahead and check in at the Cabo de Hornos Hotel in Punta Arenas in southern Chile.  There is an afternoon briefing as well as the last minute purchase of gear and the fitting of insulated rubber boots which we are required to wear whenever we leave the ship to make landings or zodiac rides.  I was in Punta Arenas exactly 5 years ago to go to Patagonia.  And just like it was 5 years ago, the capital of Chile’s southernmost region, seemed entirely the same.  Punta Arenas was originally established as a penal colony by the Chilean government in 1848.  Attracted by the gold rush and sheep farming boom in the 1880s and 1900s, immigrants from Europe arrived.  Nowadays, Punta Arenas is logistically important in accessing Antarctica as well as Patagonia.  Cabo de Hornos Hotel is considered one of the nicer hotels just off the town square.  The rooms are a bit dated and services nothing to write home about.  

DSCF4564Cabo de Hornos Hotel in Punta Arenas

 

DSCF2162Sunrise in Punta Arenas

After the registration and other housekeeping issues, we met our fellow passengers at the welcome dinner at the nearby Palacio Sara Braun also known as Club de la Union.  Because of the unpredictable weather of the region, we eagerly waited at dinner for the announcement of our flight departure window the following day.  The staff told us that there have been times when the flight had to depart at 3am or even a couple days later, basically whenever the weather cooperated.  We all sighed with relief that we were granted a civilized hour for departure at 11am the next morning.  Early in the morning we were taken to the Punta Arenas airport where our BAE 146-200 aircraft was waiting to take us to King George Island which is the largest island of the South Shetland Archipelago.  This is a high-wing aircraft with short runway requirements which makes it particularly suited for this kind of destination.  The plane has a 3-3 seating configuration.  The flight was very smooth and comfortable other than the fact that we all had to dress in our full gear including thermal layers, ski pants, rubber boots, etc.  I was sweating quite a bit even after trying to remove as many layers as I could.  After a quick 2 hours, we landed on the gravel airstrip of King George Island which is also home to Chile’s Frei Station and Russia’s Bellingshausen Station.  From the airstrip it is about a half hour walk to the beach where our zodiacs were waiting to take us aboard our home, the Magellan Explorer, for the 5 days.

DSCF4858Landed on a dark and rainy King George Island

DSCF4859Quite windy today! I had my face entirely covered.

DSCF4863Safety briefing before taking the zodiacs to the ship

DSCF4865Our zodiacs were waiting for us near the shore with the Magellan Explorer anchored at sea.

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20200421_232938-01My keycard is not just for accessing my cabin, it is also for checking in and out of the ship during the daily excursions.  You basically wear this around your neck all day everyday.

 

DSCF2211Balcony of my cabin

 

DSCF2396Magellan Explorer has an open bridge policy where you can go up and hang out on the bridge and observe the navigation process.

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DSCF2390Bridge of the Magellan Explorer

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Antarctic travel normally takes place during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere which is from November through March.  Just hearing the word Antarctica conjures images of ice and snow and bitter cold.  So I came well prepared with all my polar gear.  To my surprise, it is really not as cold as I had imagined.  Most days it was around zero celsius and with the sun reflecting on the ice and snow, it is really quite warm.  However, the weather is really unpredictable.  It can be sunny one minute and then rainy and then windy and then sunny again all within half an hour.  Most days I wore my thermal base layer, a fleece, a light down layer, a Gore-tex shell, and ski pants.  Waterproof gloves, a warm hat, a fleece buff, and sunglasses are essential.  Sub-zero polar gear is not really necessary because when it is super windy or wet, they don’t let you off the ship at all.  I wore two pairs of socks most days, one pair that is wicking and the other pair thick wool.  The cruise provided us with thermal rubber boots which you are required to wear every time you leave the ship to go on excursions.  Other than that I had with me a waterproof backpack for all my camera gear.

With this adventure to the uncharted territory of the White Continent of Antarctica, I have now been to all 7 Continents in the world!  Yay!

In the next several posts, I will talk about the different places we visited along the Antarctic Peninsula on this cruise.  Stay tuned!

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