Vernadsky Station is another common stop for expedition ship visitors to the Antarctic. These days, the station is a research station manned by a crew of irrepressible and cheery Ukrainians. The station was originally established and operated by the British starting in 1947, originally christened as "Wordie House" in honor of Sir James Wordie. Sir James was a member of the infamous Shackleton expedition, and he actually visited the station during its construction. Wordie House was in use until 1953, when a new station was built on the site of present-day "Veradsky" by the British. For years, both the old and new area were called both "Wordie" and "Station F" by the Brits until 1977, when it was renamed in honor of British Scientist Michael Faraday. (becoming Faraday Station). It remained an English post until 1996, when it was sold for the symbolic price of 1 pound sterling to Ukraine, who renamed it Akademik Station Vernadsky. The original "Wordie House" (across from the main Vernadsky station) is still around, and houses a small museum. (Please do see my separate "Wordie House" tip)
Visitors to Vernadsky today will get a nice tour of the main scientific areas from the resident Ukrainians, as well as an opportunity to sample the station's "homemade vodka". Here's the bit on the vodka...
The guys running the place have built a little bar area, catering to the tourists - and probably a good place for the guys to wind down during their time at Vernadsky. The only drink they have is vodka.... one member of our group asked them for a beer. And in a moment straight from a Saturday Night Live skit, one of the Ukrainians said "beer? no beer. only vodka". And it's not REAL vodka either, it's homemade. I asked for the recipe and could only get "ice water, sugar and yeast" from the bartender. They sell shots for $3 each, or they'll give one to a female visitor for free.... if she'll only remove and turn over her brassiere. Several women in our group were more than willing to shed the undies, but they said they'd want them back... an entirely economic choice. I mean really, how much would you have to drink before you'd be happy losing a $35 bra for a shot or two of homemade vodka? :) There were quite a few bras on display at the bar, including a HUGE one (I hope that lady got a double shot, she deserved it). Anyway, the vodka wasn't half bad and took the edge off the afternoon for several of us.
Vernadsky also has a small gift shop that they proudly proclaim as the "World's Southernmost Gift Shop". They also had a record player - yes a record player - for sharing music. I saw an ancient Madonna album in the queue for play, but while we were there, we were treated to some Eastern European hip-hop something or other. It had a decent beat, and I'm sure the homemade vodka made me like it more.
There is also a post office for mailing postcards... but do remember that they have to go by ship to Ukraine first and then they're mailed. It could take a while. Also, Vernadsky Station passport stamps are available and highly prized. A lovely addition to your passport page.
For cruise visitors to the Antarctic peninsula, the first sighting of land - after the infamous crossing of the Drake Passage - will be the South Shetland Islands. On our trip, we made excellent time crossing the Drake, and conditions were such that we were able to make an unscheduled/extra zodiac landings at Barrientos Island, South Shetlands. So technically, the first moment that I set foot onto land that could be deemed as Antarctica was at Barrientos on March 9, 2011. For the record, here were my words upon touching the seventh and final continent in our travels....
"That's one small step for Pete, one giant leap for Chamlis-kind".
The locals at Barrientos are very very friendly.... but kind of short. Huge colonies of both gentoo and chinstrap penguins are there to greet and entertain visitors. When you first land, the cruise operators warn you that you're "not to approach the penguins", etc. However, they also mention that IF the penguins come to you, it's fine to hold out your hand. WELL, if I had any doubt that penguins were friendly and amenable to human visitors, that was over quickly. They come right to you, and love to click at your outstretched gloves. Soooo very cute, they are.
Now, I'm told that you can sometimes find them less approachable when they have VERY young chicks in tow, but apparently that changes pretty quickly. We saw skads of young chicks and neither the little ones nor their parents seemed to be concerned with our visit.
The South Shetlands, unlike the major of the Antarctic continent itself, are NOT covered in ice and snow. The primary land features are rocky hills, dark and probably volcanic soil, and hues of green due to the native lichens and algae of Antarctica.
If you're lucky enough to land at Barrientos, you'll have a good time with the local penguins... and will have the first of many many many incredible photo opportunities.
Approximate location : 65°04'S, 64°02'W
The Lemaire is a narrow and deep channel running between the Antarctic peninsula and Booth Island. There are incredibly steep and mountainous shores on either side, covered with glaciers. Sunrise or sunset in the area is incredible. I have written a separate tip on the Lemaire, along with five photos, please do take a look.
As we got nearer to Booth Island, we dropped anchor at Port Charcot. We were treated to a zodiac expedition through an area known accurately as "Iceberg Alley". Anyone who feels the need to ask "why would you want to visit Antarctica" would have the question answered on this little excursion. Huge icebergs in the area shimmer in shades of blue, and they reflect magically on the mirror-like waters. Around almost every corner would be a new and more impressive ice formation or structure. Interspersed are the occasional group of crabeater seals sunning themselves. Being very quiet, we were able to get quite close to them.
Iceberg Alley really does sum up the sculptured natural beauty, majesty and solitude that is a trip to Antarctica. People ask "why go".... my response, at least to those who claim to be lovers of natural beauty is "why HAVEN'T you gone yet"? It's like nowhere else on earth.
Approximate location : 64°30'S, 61°46'W
While we'd technically touched Antarctica the day before when we landing on Barrientos Island/South Shetlands, our first steps onto the ACTUAL main continental land mass of Antarctica occurred on Thursday, Marcy 10th, 2011. We landed at Portal Point, a part of the Reclus Peninsula - on the Antarctic peninsula itself. It was a foggy day, and there were occasional flurries of snow... but any day that one sets foot ON Antarctica itself is one for the ages. :)
We boarded the zodiacs and went ashore. The area was covered in snow - in contrast to yesterday's rock, dirt and green lichen-covered scenery on the Shetlands. Large glaciers surrounded the area of our landing spot. We were welcomed ashore by a few noisy adolescent male fur seals. We kept our distance and since we had them outnumbered, they didn't challenge us. We hiked up a snowy slope for a nice bay and glacier view, and also posed for a series of "group photos". The skies were populated by both Giant Petrels and Antarctic Skuas. Skuas are a bird you do NOT want to battle with - they will literally defecate on you with a waste product that literally smell after any number of launderings.... kind of like flying skunks. We also saw several Antarctic Cormorants flying in the area.... sometimes these birds are called "Blue Eyed Shags". (one English kid on our trip waxed prophetically about a 'blue eyed shag' back home, whatever that meant )
We built snowmen, had snowball fights and just enjoyed our special moment. Getting back to the ship, we made a beeline for the hot coffee and tea stations in the bar.
Approximate location : 62°56'S, 60°40'W
Deception is a ring-shaped island, circling a huge caldera. Even now, Deception Island is classified as an active volcano. Its distinctive shape was formed when one side of the volcano caldera collapsed, allowing the sea to rush in and create a sheltered bay, known of as Port Foster. On our visit, we sailed into the caldera via "Neptune's Bellows", a narrow opening in the immense side of the caldera walls. Deception is the largest of three recent volcanic centers in the South Shetland Islands. (the other two are Penguin and Bridgeman Islands) The water in Port Foster is warmer than the surrounding sea because of the numerous active volcanic fumaroles. The most recent eruptions occurred in 1800, 1812, 1842, 1871, 1912, 1956 (the year I was born, perhaps I was destined to visit), 1967, 1969 and 1970. I couldn't help thinking that we were "about due" the whole time we were there, but we got in and out without incident.
From the edge of Neptune's Bellows, there is a wide beach with black ash-covered aprons sloping gently upward and inland for several hundred meters, up to the steep face of the cinder-covered glacier and a caldera from one of Deception's more recent eruptions.
We all hiked uphill to get incredible views of both the bay and the surrounding volcanic slopes. It was so different seeing so much black earth after days and days of heavy glacier coverage. Truly an awe-inspiring visit.
We went to Antarctica on a small "expedition" size ship. The M/V Ushuaia carried a total of 84 passengers and 42 crew. This is really the type of ship that you want to take on a trip to the White Continent. As of this writing, some of the larger cruise lines are still "going" to Antarctica... outfits like Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Lines, etc. They sail on ships carrying several hundred - if not more - passengers. Here's the bit....
The only way that you can really set FOOT on Antarctica is to go on a ship that can land you via zodiac (or similar craft). There is nowhere for a large mega-cruise ship to dock in the Antarctic. For that matter, there's not even a place that a small "ship" like the Ushuaia to actually dock - the only way to get passengers ashore is via "landings". And even IF a larger cruise ship has "some" zodiac craft, there is zero chance they could come close to landing even a small percentage of the cruise passengers. For the most part, most of the larger mega-ships just let you "see" Antarctica from the ship itself - from a substantial distance. Now mind you, crossing the Drake Passage on a much larger ship might be a little smoother, but think of what you lose in ability to actually set foot on the Shetlands/Antarctica.
So, be sure to pick a ship that can guarantee that everyone can make every landing made. FWIW, I am hearing that the international Antarctic treaty signees are either planning or have already planned to ban the presence of larger ships in Antarctic waters in the coming seasons.
One of our fellow passengers on the Ushuaia was Matt Gannan. Matt is the CEO and managing director for the adventure travel company TUCAN TRAVEL. Based in both the UK and Australia, Tucan offers "adventure travel" services all over the world. They were the 2009 British Travel Awards "Small Tour Operator of the Year" winners. Impressive credentials.
We did not travel with Tucan. In fact when I first met Matt, I had only just "heard" of his company and wasn't terribly familiar with its services. But, having spent a couple of weeks on the ship with my mate Matt, I can tell you this - I know his attitude, the cut of his jib so to speak. Any company that a guy like Matt manages and directs has got to be the kind of company that makes arrangements and travels my way. Informal and adventurous.
I am putting this here for anyone interested in South America, Antarctica or anywhere else in the adventure travel world.... you might want to at least look into Tucan Travel and their services, especially if you're not comfortable just working it out yourself. Perhaps you'd like to go somewhere very "off the beaten trail". I'm going to put general contact information down below, both for phone and website. Should you get to a point that you're seriously interested in Tucan and their travel arrangements, contact me. I'll be happy to put you directly in touch with my friend Matt. I'm positive that he'd be sure to get you well taken care of - the special touch of working with a friend. I know the guy that I drank a Quilmes or two with in the M/V Ushuaia's bar is the kind of guy who will help a VirtualTourist friend of mine. :)
The verbage below is from Tucan's website, a general description of their company history and mission.
Tucan Travel - Privately owned & passionate about adventure travel
Travel addicts Pip and Liliana Tyler founded one of the first ever South American adventure tour companies in 1987 and named their business Tucan Travel, after the famous South American bird with its traditional Spanish spelling. As their reputation for offering excellent adventurous public transport tours spread and demand increased, the Tylers decided to expand and joined forces with fellow tour operator Matt Gannan in 1997, and with his fleet of expedition vehicles the company started pioneering many of the first overlanding routes in South America.
The directors’ formidable combined knowledge and ongoing passion for adventure travel drove Tucan Travel’s expansion to worldwide destinations in the early 2000s and in 2003 Budget Expeditions was developed as an independent youth brand for 18 to 35s. In 2008 the youth brand was amalgamated back under the parent brand as a travel style. Tucan Travel now offers more than 470 adventures in 72 countries across 6 travel styles and is one of the most successful tour operators of its size in the world, with destinations including Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Asia and Russia, East and Southern Africa, Latin America and Antarctica.
We are proud to be independently owned by the original founders and staffed by equally enthusiastic adventure travellers at our offices in London, Sydney, and Cuzco, at our operations bases in Cape Town and Bangkok, as well as our tour leaders and drivers on the road. When you’re researching who to travel with and only the best will do, look no further than Tucan Travel!
We can proudly guarantee the high standard of our tours because in 95% of destinations we operate them ourselves and do not sub-contract to other operators. On occasions where we use local guides, they are trained and supported by us and are expected to adhere to the top quality service our clients have come to expect. Staffed by a team of avid travellers, the company shares and encourages its clients’ exploratory spirit and the desire to see the world in an authentic way.
Tucan Travel owns a fleet of comfortable, modern Mercedes Benz custom-built vehicles which comply with European emissions standards and are well equipped to deal with the demands of the varied terrain on tour. The company is committed to offering exciting and adventurous itineraries while encouraging responsible travel practices on the road and in its offices. We offer our clients the opportunity to offset the carbon emissions of our tours and pledge to reduce our company emissions by managing our energy efficiently and offsetting business travel. Overland adventure travel is comfortable, safe and exciting for people of all ages, cultures and fitness levels. Why not share the adventure with us?
Continuing on from my previous 'high clouds' tip, we next start looking for Noctilucent Clouds - the name means 'shining at night', and that's exactly what these clouds do. In fact, the only time you can realistically expect to see them is shortly after sunset, when the sun is between 6 and 16 degrees below the horizon. Then, should they be there, you can expect to see them glowing silvery blue after everything else is becoming dark. I was fortunate to see them at Mawson in 1966 and, although the film I was using was slow (25 ASA), with a long exposure I was able to get the photo with this tip.
Noctilucent clouds are seen only at relatively high latitudes, much as are the nacreous clouds in my previous tip. They are most frequent in the summer months, but because the sun must be below the horizon, you need either to be travelling at the shoulders of the tourist season for a chance to see them at the polar circles (north or south) or to be looking from slightly further from the pole. Probably the best chances for antarctic tourists to see these clouds would be as you commence or finish your trip (there have been numerous sightings from South America ).
Now, why do noctilucent clouds shine in the early night? Because they still are in the sunlight, which means they are very high indeed - typically about 80km! They still are surrounded by scientific mystery, but were first seen after the Krakatoa volcano exploded in 1885. There also are suggestions they may have a link to the hole in the ozone layer: maybe a special NASA satellite, due for launch late in 2006, will give some answers.
Bellingshausen this Russia Base is very easy to get to from President Frei its about 50 meters away in fact the building are mixed together. This place has about 40 people in the Summer and 20 or so that Winter over. They have a full time orthodox Priest which is I think the only one stationed in Antarctic year around and an Orthodox church. The priest said that prior to this assignment he had been in a really cold spot in Siberia and came down to Antarctica to warm up. The base has 14 or 15 building including you guessed it why else would I be there a “hospital”. One Russian Doctor two beds and the very basic stuff the doctor from Chile and Russia support each other I was glad to know.
This place is owned and operated by the
Russian Antarctic Expedition
The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute
38 Bering Street
199397 St Petersburg
We mainly saw two types of penguin on our trip, Gentoo and Chinstrap. The former are distinguished by what look like little white head-phones – or possibly ear-muffs, given the freezing temperatures ;) They also have long stiff tail feathers which stick out behind them as they walk, and bright orange bills.
Gentoos are found in many places on the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands, also South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. We saw them everywhere we went, but they were particularly numerous at Port Lockroy and Paradise Harbour. At the former in particular they seemed very happy to see their visitors, and certainly came much closer to us than we were supposed to go to them. I am convinced one of them at least was posing for photos – several of us lined the route that he and his companions were following to get to the sea, and as he drew level with each of us he would pause and look straight at the camera for just long enough before moving off to the next person!
Gentoos feed on Rock cod, Lantern fish, crustaceans (krill), amphipods and cephalopods (mainly squid). As with all penguins, this is a smelly diet and it results in very smelly colonies! Their nests are roughly circular in shape and found on rocky, uninhabited shores, built out of whatever supplies are at hand. Competition for nesting materials can be fierce and they will fight over stones or steal them from other birds' nests. However we learnt about one endearing characteristic – the males will often present a stone as a gift to their partner which I guess shows how valuable these nesting materials are.
Gentoos breed earlier in the year than Chinstraps and their chicks usually have their adult feathers by January and are able to head out on their own. However we saw quite a few still hanging around the nests, and indeed still with their juvenile plumage, in early February, which was great. My second photo shows some of these chicks burrowing into their parents for warmth.
One of the features of an Antarctic cruise is a strong emphasis, for those who want it, on learning about the environment in which you are travelling. Most trips, including ours, offer a series of informative lectures on board ship. These serve to pass the time between landings (though there were plenty of other distractions too aboard the Marco Polo) and help you get the most out of your on-shore experiences.
On our trip there were at least two lectures every day, all of which took place in the large lounge. The ones I went to were:
– Antarctic Penguins – a great introduction to these cute birds
- Landing procedures, clothing and Antarctic rules & regulations – where we learnt about the 5 metre rule and lots of other essential info (if you only get to one lecture it needs to be this one)
- Seabirds of the Southern Ocean – beautiful slides of albatross and others
- Life at Port Lockroy – probably the one I found most interesting, given by scientists visiting from the British base there and describing their life and research
- Exploring Antarctica – a film with amazing footage from Scott’s doomed expedition
Villa Las Estrellas
Well this is way off the beaten Path but for about $2,300 (one day) you can fly from Punta Arenes Chile fly to Villa Las Estrellas, President Frei Base on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. You see I was here looking at Medical support for a Trans Antarctica expedition and this was one way I got here. This is really on King George Island, just off the Peninsula, the little town that supports scientific researchers is Villa Las Estrellas it is one of only about 70 scientific posts built by 2 dozen different countries in Antarctica
Tours of President Frei Base and Fildes bays with it penguin rookery, and walks through Villa de Las Estrellas, the main population center in the area, are some of the activities that the VTers can do.
Only a few hours away from Punta Arenas down one day over night and back the next. Cool ya,
This place is unusual in that it is a rambling base scattered over quite a distance from the sea edge where there is the wharf up to the Aerodrome a distance away. It has 21 main buildings. Sometimes the base is also called "Teniente Rodolfo Marsh" Base although this name now seems to be applied exclusively to the Airport, while the main base buildings are usually referred to as "Eduardo Frei" Base. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Russian Bellinghausen base of 17 buildings is actually mixed in with the Eduardo Frei Base buildings.
Here is the story – “In early 2002, the Chief of the Russian Antarctic Expedition was received by the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexis II. During the discussion they decided to commemorate all the Russians who gave their lives for the sake of study and exploration of the Antarctic. So the Patriarch proposed to build a Russian orthodox church at one of the Russian Antarctic stations. This choice was in full conformity with the Russian historical traditions. The place for construction of the church was selected at Bellingshausen station on King George Island.
The Creative workshop of the architect Anisiforov designed the church.
On August 18, 2003, the Patriarch of Russia issued a decree on establishing a Patriarchy podvorie at the Orthodox Temple in Antarctica. The Temple was placed under the Confessor of the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra. The Bishop of Sergiev Posad, Deputy of the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra was requested to designate a priest who will be the father of the temple in the Antarctic.
So now you know -- and does the seal stand or kneel
Passports give an interesting record of places you have travelled beyond your own country.
When you are in Antarctica, if you visit one of the scientific stations, ask the postmaster to stamp your passport, to record your visit. These stamps were from the French station at Dumont d'Urville.
Located at Jougla point on Wiencke Island, Port Lockroy is a historic Antarctic research site. The area itself was "discovered" by the French in 1903, and after that it served as both a whaling and military station for Great Britain for the earlier half of the 20th century. Additionally, scientific researchers made Lockery their Antarctic headquarters for many years. During WWII, the area was the center for Operation Tabarin, an effort by the British to deny Nazi Germany the area as haven for ocean raiders and spies.
In the early 1960s, the station was abandoned, so to speak - ending its role in research. Some twenty years later, the UK Antarctic Heritage trust renovated the site to share both the history and past research mission of Port Lockroy with the few intrepid Antarctic tourists.
Today, the site is a common stop for expedition cruise ship visitors, featuring many historical exhibits and information about life in the Antarctic half a century earlier. It's also a place that one can get their passport stamped with "Port Lockroy, Antarctic Heritage Trust" - a rare entry on most travel documents. There's also a gift shop - probably the most extensive one you'll find on the Antarctic continent.
As for the proper locals, you'll find thousands of extra friendly gentoo penguins, and the occasional chinstrap. True to being proper Brits, they always wear their tuxedos to greet guests. :)