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Antarctica: In search of the Emperor penguin

15 days from £6958pp

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Antarctica: In search of the Emperor penguin:
Trip Dossier

Rather than just taking a cruise along oft-sailed routes, be part of a real expedition voyage. As a passenger on the sturdy ice-strengthened European cruise ship Ortelius, travel beyond the Antarctic Peninsula towards the Weddell Sea. An Emperor penguin rookery lies south of Snow Hill Island within the Weddell Sea off the peninsula’s east coast.

Ice conditions have prevented access to the Emperor Penguin rookery for the last few seasons, but the beauty and emptiness of the relatively unvisited Weddell Sea, with its striking tabular icebergs and abundant wildlife make this a memorable expedition. If the ship doesn't make it as far as Snow Hill island, it will position itself on the edge of the ice to try and spot lone Emperors - the largest and most striking of all the penguin species - heading out to open water, and there may be trips by helicopter to search for individual birds.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Buenos Aires. Transfer to your hotel in Recoleta.

Day 2

Guided walking tour of Recoleta and Retiro.

Day 3

Fly to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, transfer to your hotel.

Day 4

Transfer to the port to embark MV Ortelius and set sail.

Days 5-6

At sea en route to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Days 7-10

Reach the Weddell Sea, search for Emperor penguins.

Day 11

Visit Half-moon and Deception islands.

Days 12-13

At sea en route to Ushuaia.

Day 14

Disembark in Ushuaia and transfer to airport for flight to Buenos Aires.

Day 15

Transfer to the airport for your international flight.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Buenos Aires. Transfer to your hotel in Recoleta.
 

You will be met at the airport and escorted by one of our local representatives to your hotel in the chic residential district of Recoleta where the architecture is evocative of French belle époque and Italian influence.

Buenos Aires as a whole is an elegant, cultured and cosmopolitan city famed for its interesting museums and the fascinating port district of La Boca, with its cobbled streets and brightly painted houses. It was here that the tango was born, and Diego Maradona honed his footballing skills.

The centre of town is home to the colonial heartland, government buildings and churches, as well as chic shopping districts, which have a nostalgic Parisian feel. The bohemian quarter of San Telmo is full of quaint old houses interspersed with antiques shops, tango bars and classy restaurants.

Buenos Aires

Day 2

Guided walking tour of Recoleta and Retiro.
 

 Looking to the Old World for inspiration, leading families sought to replicate the graceful architecture of belle époque France, covering the upmarket residential areas of Retiro and Recoleta with palatial façades lining shady cobbled boulevards.

 This walking tour takes you to former palaces and mansions which now have much more practical functions; the Military Society, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Parks HQ. Retiro station, built according to British design and with British materials, was nevertheless inspired by the ornate French gares. Later, follow meandering Arroyo street with its art galleries, and finally stroll down super-smart Alvear Avenue.

To join your guide, make your own way to the statue of San Martín in the Plaza named in his honour. At the end of the tour, continue to explore independently or make your own way back to your hotel.

Buenos Aires

Day 3

Fly to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, transfer to your hotel.
 

Transfer to the airport and fly to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of the continent.  Depending on the number of intermediate stops, your flight takes 3-5 hours. 

The city has grown rapidly in recent years, partly as a result of government incentives to settlers, and its establishment as a Free Port, and partly a tourist centre - most Antarctic cruises, like yours, leave from the port here. The setting is spectacular; jagged mountains frame the town which clambers down steep streets to the shore of the Beagle Channel. 

Spend a night in a hotel here prior to embarking your expeditionary cruise vessel.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Day 4

Transfer to the port to embark MV Ortelius and set sail.
 

Board MV Ortelius in the afternoon. This expeditionary ship is operated by a Dutch company, and although she attracts guests of many nationalities the language of operation is English and the atmosphere European. 

The accent will be on enabling you to have as many experiences off-board as possible, but there are plenty of on-board presentations and low-key expedition-related entertainment to keep you busy.  

Depart and head towards the Drake Passage through the Beagle Channel, named after HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin travelled on his explorations around the South American continent. This serene waterway is dotted with rocky islets and fringed by the steep cliffs of forest-clad hills: it's the last you will see of trees for the rest of the voyage. 

Lighthouse in Ushuaia

Days 5-6

At sea en route to the Antarctic Peninsula.
 

Cross the Drake Passage, hundreds of kilometres of open water and the shortest crossing between Antarctica and the rest of the world. Pass the Atlantic Convergence where cold water wells up bringing nutrients to the surface from the sea bed, upon which a large number of seabirds feed, you will see an increase in the number of albatrosses and petrels accompanying the ship.

Very occasionally the crossing is gentle, but the odds are against it. Force 5/6 winds are considered normal conditions. Whales and dolphins can often be seen as well as an abundance of marine birds such as petrels, albatrosses and penguins. During this part of the voyage, there are briefings and presentations on the Antarctic ecosystem.

Grey Headed Albatross

Days 7-10

Reach the Weddell Sea, search for Emperor penguins.
 

The ship will arrive at the Weddell Sea on the eastern seaboard of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Weddell Sea, named after a British sealer, is a little-visited part of Antarctica owing to the prevalence of pack-ice which restricts the progress of ships. Ernest Shackleton’s vessel Endurance was crushed by the ice here. 

It will be the decision of your experienced Expedition Leader, in conjunction with the ship’s captain, as to how much progress towards the Emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill can be made. Historically, conditions have only permitted access to the island less than 50% of the time.

Should the ship make it to the Snow Island, the first two days will be spent at the Emperor penguin rookery itself, accessed by helicopter at a carefully pre-arranged landing place a 45min walk from the colony. This is a remarkable opportunity to be within a few metres of these stately creatures. (The visit and its duration are governed by the ice and weather conditions and may have to be curtailed or cancelled at any time).   

If the ship cannot reach Snow Island conditions may allow her to pass along the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula where you will view massive tabular icebergs and remote locations – such as Brown Bluff with its steep canyon walls, ice-cap backdrop and penguin colonies. Here, the helicopters may be able to land and from the air you will have the rare privilege of observing the untamed landscapes of jagged mountains, glaciers, lava flows and pack ice. If you are lucky, the giant Emperors, among other smaller penguin species, may be observed on the ice-floes.

On previous expeditions individual Emperors at least have always been located. 

Emperor Penguin

Day 11

Visit Half-moon and Deception islands.
 
Sail through the South Shetland Islands – most of which are permanently glaciated, with precipitous mountain peaks glistening in the sunlight. 

It is hoped that there will be landings on Half-moon Island (chinstrap and gentoo penguins; elephant seals) where there is a 2km walking track and Deception Island (chinstraps) with a visit to Pendulum Cove or Whalers Bay.

Deception Island, formed by the caldera of an active volcano, creates a natural harbour for ships: for this reason fur seal and whaling stations were established here.   Commercial whaling ended in 1931 and the sites are derelict but a number of scientific bases were established of which a couple are still in operation.  

Half Moon Island

Days 12-13

At sea en route to Ushuaia.
 

Return to Ushuaia, passing once again through Drake Passage, accompanied by a plethora of seabirds. There will be presentations, discussions and low-key entertainment such as a quiz or auction, and you can take the time or organise your photos using then onboard computers.

Bird

Day 14

Disembark in Ushuaia and transfer to airport for flight to Buenos Aires.
 

Pass along the Beagle Channel to reach Ushuaia in the morning and disembark after breakfast. Transfer to the airport for your flight to Buenos Aires.  

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Day 15

Transfer to the airport for your international flight.
 

Essential information

The nature of Antarctic travel

Once on board ship many factors play a role in shaping the expedition's progress - the prevailing wind, weather and ice conditions, for example. Ideally, depart the ship by zodiac to explore the peninsula with at least 2 excursions daily - on land, by zodiac or a combination of both, lasting anything between 2-4hrs.  There are no man-made jetties in Antarctica so landfalls are 'wet landings' where you scramble ashore from the zodiac in wellingtons and waterproofs. You are then free to explore on your own or in groups, before later being picked up again by zodiac. Evenings may be spent relaxing, reliving the days' events with a briefing or lecture, or out on the deck, keeping an eye on the dramatic, ever-changing scenery. Itineraries will vary from the original plan if conditions demand/permit. 

It’s a long time at sea, but the variety and intrinsic fascination of what can be seen is spell-binding.

What to see and when

The theatre of wildlife in Antarctica as a whole displays an ever changing narrative of birth, struggle, pleasure, fulfilment and death. You may witness the comedy of a waddling penguin building its nest, a mother bird feeding its young or reuniting with a returning mate; a wily seal escaping the clutches of a hunting whale.

A large variety of marine birds (includes 6 species of penguin - Emperor, King, macaroni, chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie) visit the White Continent. Mammals abound here: blue, orca, humpback, minke and southern right whales prowl the chilly ocean, while Weddell, Ross, crab-eater, leopard and elephant seals sprawl on the beaches. 

Plant life in Antarctica proper is restricted to lichen, mosses and algae but there are hundreds of colourful varieties of these. 

What to see as the season unfolds:
December – January:
  • Long days of summer light, milder temperatures.
  • Penguin chicks hatch in the Antarctic Peninsula.
  • Whale sightings increase.
February :
  • Excellent whale-watching opportunities.
  • Penguin chicks begin to fledge.
  • Fur seals increasingly numerous on the Antarctic Peninsula.
  • Colourful snow algae break the snow white domination of the landscape.
  • Spectacular sunrises and sunsets add a rosy glow to the ice.
Specific to your cruise:

South Shetland Islands:
Visitors include chinstrap, gentoo, macaroni and Adélie penguins; giant petrels, Wilson’s and black-bellied storm petrels, brown and south polar skuas, Cape pigeons, Antarctic terns, blue-eyed shags, Dominican gulls, elephant, fur, 
leopard and crab-eater seals; humpback, minke and orca (killer) whales offshore. 

Weddell Sea:
Emperor penguins


Transport

2 flights (longest 3-5); 11 day cruise.

Accommodation

The accommodation in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia is in good, practical mid-range options; the Buenos Aires hotel is a stylish, contemporary property. In Ushuaia you stay at a modern Patagonia-style hotel in a lofty location overlooking the city and Beagle Channel. MV Ortelius is an ice-strengthened, European-operated expeditionary cruise vessel with comfortable cabins, observation deck and presentation lounge. 

Meals

Breakfast daily; dinner day 4; full board days 5-13.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

  • City tour of Buenos Aires.
  • Shore excursions on the Antarctic cruise.

Summary of nights

15 days, 14 nights: Buenos Aires 2; Ushuaia 1; Antarctic cruise 10; Buenos Aires 1.

Included in the journey price

  • Services of our team of experts in our London office.
  • Services of Journey Latin America local representatives, local and cruise guides.
  • All land and domestic air transport; ocean cruise. 
  • Accommodation as specified.
  • Meals as specified.
  • Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and gratuities
• Meals other than specified.
• International flights to Latin America.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket
• Optional excursions.

Travelling alone

Cruise ships will accept individuals travelling alone who are willing to share a cabin with a person or persons of the same sex, they will be charged a price based on the rate per person according to the size of the cabin (twin, triple or quadruple). If you prefer not to share a cabin you can opt to pay a single cabin supplement.

Currency

The unit of currency in Argentina is the Argentine peso. The ship works with US dollars and accepts credit cards.

Daily spend

Meals and some drinks are included on board the Ortelius. You pay for your extras (in US dollars, Euros or by credit card - Mastercard, Visa or Diner's Club) at the end of the cruise. 

How to take it

Cash machines are available in Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, and so taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in most shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. 

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

On the cruise ship you can pay your bill for extras at the end of the cruise with a credit card (Visa or Mastercard), or in US dollars or Euros.

Tipping

Tips are expected and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. 

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have an allowance for cruise ship staff, hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants. On the cruise, a tip of $US 8-10 per person per day for the crew and guides is considered appropriate. 

Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Make sure your insurance covers you for the full amount if you have to cancel.

Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

The flight to and from Ushuaia is a regular departure operated by a national airline using a commercial jet 

The cruise:

Antarctica is very remote: once committed to your journey, you are at the mercy of the weather and ocean conditions, the melting and freezing of ice-packs, and the movement of icebergs. This is expeditionary cruising: you will be facing the same environmental challenges as the early explorers, albeit in much greater comfort, and with the assistance of modern technology and communications. 

You must be in good health generally and you should be able to walk over slippery and rocky terrain, although the expedition is ship-based and physically not very demanding. Although you spend as much time as possible ashore, you are welcome to remain aboard the ship if you like. To join most excursions, you must be able to get up and down the steep gangway from the ship to the water level to board the Zodiacs. Staff will assist you in and out of the boats. This will become progressively easier with practice. 

The helicopters accommodate 6 passengers per flight. The flight duration is about 15 minutes. Helicopters will only fly in good weather conditions.

There is a doctor on board but bear in mind that if you have a health issue while on the cruise or an accident it could be a long time and maybe an arduous journey before you return to a destination with good medical facilities, so bear this in mind if you have a pre-existing condition. 

Climate

Buenos Aires is hottest January-March with temperatures of 30-40°C with high humidity.

Tierra del Fuego will be visited in the summer (December-February) when days are long; temperatures can be and mild but snow flurries are not unknown.  March and November can be sunny and clear, but it can be windy. 

Antarctica is visited from late October to March, the southern hemisphere summer. Outside this period days are short and dark. The Peninsula has a typical maritime climate with average temperatures during the cruising season varying between 1°C and -15°C. Antarctica is a desert, so you won’t see much precipitation.

Clothing and special equipment

The southern hemisphere summer is hot in Buenos Aires so take loose-fitting light clothing for maximum comfort at this time. Spring and autumn are milder and less predictable.

South America is in general a relaxed continent and you won’t need clothes for formal dining but you may wish to take some smart casual wear for dining on the mainland. 

On the cruise: 
Protective clothing is the single most important way of ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable cruise and the key is to dress in layers. For Antarctic landings we recommend a breathable, thermal base layer to wick away perspiration; a warm mid-layer such as a fleece or down sweater and a wind and waterproof (but breathable) outer shell garment. Trousers should have a thermal lining (or wear a base layer of thermal leggings) and you will need waterproof trousers to wear over them. Plus of course warm socks, hat, scarf, gloves and sunglasses. Rubber boots are essential for Antarctic landings; these can be pre-ordered and are loaned on board free of charge.  Dress on board ship is informal and it’s sensible to bring a spare change of warm, dry clothing for wearing out on deck between landings.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements. 

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. Anyone with a different nationality should enquire with us or check with the relevant consulate.

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online.

This costs $14 per person. This must be done by you personally.
Passports must also be machine-readable (MRP). Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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