Weeks after returning from Antarctica — my long-coveted seventh continent — I’m still at a loss to summarize the experience. Awe-inspiring? Magical? Unique? All true, but none seems to go quite far enough to explain just how special a place the White Continent is.
The experience is enhanced by the time and distance it takes to get there. Even from Ushuaia, the shortest jumping-off point in South America, the trip is two days and 600+ miles. It includes the Drake Passage, one of the world’s most notorious patches of sea. My journey aboard the maiden voyage of the 120-passenger Greg Mortimer was blessed with a “relatively calm” passage, which still left passengers staggering around the expedition ship as if they’d had a cocktail too many.
The excitement built as we spotted our first cue we were closing in on Antarctica: an iceberg upon which a small group of penguins hitched a ride. Within a few hours, that was outdone by our first landing. Stepping out of the Zodiac and onto Barrientos Island, the hilltops were dotted with adorable chinstrap and gentoo penguins. A few seals—Weddell, fur and leopard—were napping near the shore. They opened their eyes and craned their necks for a quick glimpse of us before quickly growing bored and returning to sleep.
Watching this scene proudly were the ship’s namesake, Greg Mortimer, and his wife, Margaret, who founded Aurora Expeditions nearly 30 years ago. Greg was the first Australian to summit Mount Everest and several other of the planet’s highest peaks—all without supplementary oxygen. Not one to rest on his laurels, he established new climbing routes in Antarctica and pioneered small-ship travel to the polar regions. Despite all this, he remains ridiculously humble, not entirely comfortable to have a ship named in his honor. But it’s a deserved honor, as the embrace of adventure and freedom he and Margaret so deeply treasure remain the hallmarks of Aurora.
Our early November departure, among the first of the season for any operator, coincided with spring, a spectacular time to visit Antarctica. With a few hours of darkness, we experienced stunning sunsets that drenched the sky in gorgeous shades of pink, blue and lavender, then transitioned to yellow, orange and red as the sun sank. The penguins also put on quite a show, their mating behavior on full display. They scoured patches where the snow had melted for the stones critical for nest-building, scooped up small rocks and waddled back to deliver them to their mates.
While the landscape’s copious snow cover challenged the penguins’ nest-building efforts, it provided the perfect base for the humans’ adventure activities. Once on shore, the groups scattered. The alpine touring folks trekked up a snowy peak from which they’d later ski down, while the snowshoers set off on their own climb. Photo buffs pointed their lenses at penguins, who seemed as curious about us as we were them. Others found a spot where they could sit and take in the sheer beauty of the scene. Still more gave in to the urge to make snow angels. Antarctica is a place that inspires that sort of joy.
As exhilarating as the landings were, water sports were also a thrill. Beneath blue sky and bright sunshine, stand-up paddleboarders cut through the calm, glassy waters of Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island. At Neko Harbour, numb-cheeked snorkelers clad in drysuits ducked below the surface of the frigid water for close-up views of icebergs, swimming penguins and one particularly curious Weddell seal.
Kayaking was a personal highlight. Breaking off in a smaller group of about 10 provided serenity, as we paddled off to secluded bays and felt for a brief time, we had Antarctica to ourselves. At times we glided in silence, the only sound our paddles striking through a thin layer of ice as a spoon might crack the crust of a crème brulee. Occasionally, we found a place to land, then tromped through snow—often sinking knee-deep—to a vantage point to spot seals, whales, and more penguins. During those outings, we became a close-knit group. I experienced the heartiest laughs and the biggest thrills while paddling. Of special note was a day when a raft of penguins swam under our kayaks in crystal clear water—few people get that perspective! For those who enjoy paddling and crave some solitude on their journey, kayaking is a wonderful option.
Our time back on the ship was delightful, as well. The Greg Mortimer features spacious cabins with lots of light and storage, plus thoughtful touches such as heated floors in the bathrooms. Many of the cabins have private balconies, an upgrade I highly recommend. The option to just step outside to snap a photo or to relax on my bed watching the world go by was fantastic. But even without a balcony, the ship boasts loads of places to score amazing views. There are several observation areas at the bow, a huge sundeck, two outdoor Jacuzzis and multiple indoor lounges with large windows. A unique feature was the vessel’s two hydraulic platforms, which provided unobstructed views from either side of the bow. These were first lowered on the Lemaire Channel, and it was a particular thrill to be suspended over the water and have a clear view as the ship cut through pack ice.
Some 900 words later, I still don’t feel I’ve done Antarctica justice. It’s the kind of place that leaves you at a loss for words in all the best ways.
View Brandye's Trip