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Antarctic Peninsula – Classic Air-Cruise

Tom Mountford

Expedition Ship
Ocean Nova (Air-Cruise)

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Antarctic Peninsula – Classic Air-Cruise

Tom Mountford

Flying to Antarctica

Since the earliest days of Antarctic tourism, visiting the White Continent has required crossing the Drake Passage, the notorious body of water separating Cape Horn from Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. Although modern cruise ships—with their sophisticated stabilization and navigation tools—have made navigating these waters an increasingly comfortable experience, pioneering companies are now offering direct flights from Patagonia to Antarctica, allowing travelers to skip the traditional ocean crossing and save up to two days each way.

Tom aboard the Ocean Nova

My adventure began in Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s Patagonian region and a popular departure point for excursions and Antarctic tours. At the hotel, I met my fellow travelers at a cocktail reception and dinner—altogether we represented 14 countries.

The next day, we boarded our penguin-themed plane for a two-hour flight to Frei Station, a research base on King George Island just north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our penguin themed plane

As we began our descent, the excitement onboard was palpable. Once clear of the runway, we were met by the expedition team and ferried to the waiting Ocean Nova. Known affectionately as the “mighty ship,” this small but capable vessel proved to be a wonderful base for our adventures.

The Ocean Nova in Antarctica

We awoke early the next morning when a pod of orcas was spotted alongside the ship and spent the hours before breakfast enthralled as an inquisitive youngster played alongside the bow.

An orca surfaces near our ship

After breakfast, we disembarked for the first of our twice-daily excursions; first to Mikkelsen Harbor, where we found an island teeming with nesting gentoo penguins and a large group of relaxing Weddell seals.

Gentoo penguins nesting

A Weddell seal relaxes on shore

After a few hours onshore, we explored stunning Cierva Cove by Zodiac, where crystal clear waters had sculpted massive icebergs into exquisite works of art.

Guests on a Zodiac explore Cierva Cove

Over the next several days, we explored the Antarctic Peninsula’s pristine wilderness, sailing past colossal snow-capped peaks, intensely blue icebergs and glaciers, calm bays, and inlets choked with ice.

Stunning ice-choked waters

Expedition leaders were quick to point out leopard seals resting among the ice-floes. On land, we marveled at the playful antics of multiple species of penguins.

After busy days of exploring, we relaxed and swapped stories over delicious meals prepared by the Ocean Nova’s attentive staff before retiring to the ship’s observation lounge (a comfortable space imbued with large windows) where we enjoyed wine or post-dinner cocktails while watching for breaching humpback whales.

As we cruised north towards the South Shetland Islands, we stopped at Deception Island, located in the caldera of an active volcano. Here, we found abandoned buildings and the rusting remains of a former whaling station.

Yet, among the debris, the island holds a remarkable secret.

Baily Head, a jutting headland on the eastern tip of the island, hosts an enormous colony of over 100,000 chinstrap penguins. The sheer number of birds, many with young chicks, was astonishing.

Baily Head penguin colony

The volcanic beach’s steep slopes and treacherous waves make visiting this particular colony a weather-dependent rarity. We had the skill of our expedition team to thank for this remarkable highlight of our voyage.

A chinstrap penguin feeds her chick

The Ocean Nova’s experienced crew and expedition team set a high bar throughout the entirety of our voyage. Whether sharing their knowledge through daily excursions or evening talks about everything from wildlife to surviving Antarctica’s long, dark winters, their unfailing enthusiasm left us with a deep appreciation and understanding of this fascinating region.

Visiting Antarctica by air—besides being a godsend for seasick or time-strapped travelers—was also a revelation. Finally, a week may be enough time to explore the world’s last great wilderness.

Tom in Antarctica

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