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Voyage to Antarctica: Part I

The adventure of a lifetime

When Juliet booked in her Antarctic adventure through Bentours, she'd already spent a fair amount of time living in cold parts of the world. She'd read all the books, she'd done all the research, she'd bought all the gear - but nothing would prepare her for the amazing experience she was to have. From seeing eye to eye with a whale to toasting to adventure with fellow guests on board, Juliet's ten day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula onboard the Akademik Ioffe was the once-in-a-lifetime experience she had been dreaming of. We chatted with her about her most memorable experiences and asked any advice she might have for future travellers to the Great Frozen Continent.

BT: Why Antarctica? Has this been somewhere you have wanted to go for a while?

JS: Visiting Antarctica has been on my bucket list for a good 20 years – but in brackets, meaning it would be ideal to check it off but no shame should it not be possible. I used to think that the continent, historically, was pretty much a testing ground for men with frozen beards to see how easily they could kill themselves, so I was desperate to figure out the lure of Antarctica myself. Plus, I’ve always been drawn to cold remote places off the beaten track.

BT: What was the most exciting experience of your voyage?

JS: Without a doubt, coming face to face with a humpback whale. Down in the Antarctic Peninsula, you'll often see humpback, minke and killer whales. The plan was to sail to Wilhelmina Bay, an area where you will easily spot a lot of whales (or as I like to call it - Whalemina Bay!) However, on our way through the Gerlache Strait we came across a couple of humpbacks just snoozing so we grabbed our cameras, got suited and booted and boarded the Zodiacs to get a closer look.

The expedition team on the Ioffe are always cautious never to interfere with the wildlife, watching each whale for a maximum of 30 minutes before moving on and never following them - humpbacks are more likely to follow us anyway!

This day though, instead of us whale-watching, the whale decided to people-watch and investigate us! We quietly approached the big guy, careful not to surround him. He gently came up to each boat, sticking his head out of the water to check us out and blew bubbles at us. He swam between the boats, underneath them and rolled over onto his back with his white pectoral fins extended out.

Then he moved onto the next boat and did the same. Before I know it, with my GoPro dangling in the water, his face appears out of the water a foot away from my face, getting a good look at me. He was so curious and playful and my heart melted into the sea! The staff said they had rarely experienced this behaviour before so they were just as excited as the rest of us.

BT: Is there one thing that stood out as making this holiday different to any other? (Apart from curious whales!)

JS: It’s really a once in a lifetime trip. Antarctica is a destination very few people have experienced and that made it even more special. With no culture or people, the attraction and experiences are purely based on the environment itself which is quite rare. It’s a world stripped of clutter, people and culture. What made it for me though was how much I learnt along the way. Everyday there are talks onboard about Antarctic wildlife, polar history, photography tips and tricks amongst other topics. I learnt so much!

The expedition guides came ashore with us and taught us about the wildlife and nature we saw around us. We even had whale researchers hitching a ride with us, so we got to see first hand how they tag and track whales. Guests and expedition leaders would all sit together at meals and talk about the day's sightings. I had done a lot of reading up about the continent before the trip so it was great to pick the brains of experts and get that intimate knowledge. I felt like I was learning something new everyday and came away from the trip with a whole new appreciation for the planet and the incredible continent.

BT: The Drake Passage is known the world over for being a very rough body of water to cross - how did you find it? Do you have any advice for the crossing?

JS: Let’s just say there’s a reason they call it the ‘Drake Lake’ or the ‘Drake Shake’. With the often-violent convergence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and inherent unpredictability, it can be your worst nightmare or sometimes, if you’re lucky, it can be eerily calm. The vessel I was on, the Akademik Loffe and her sister ship the Akadmik Vavilov, were built for polar waters and are some of the most stable ships to be on for the Drake crossing so we were in safe hands. I’m not good on the water at all so I certainly anticipated some trouble with the Drake. But we got lucky - there and back again!

When we boarded the ship, the staff told us that they had just come through a horrendous storm the previous night with 30ft waves in the Drake. This made me feel apprehensive to say the least, but in reality it meant that we were treated to a calm crossing.

I took some prescribed Ondansetron but that didn’t seem to work for me. So the next 24 hours were spent lying down. I found as long as I maintained a horizontal position everything was ok. I got dressed lying down, brushed my teeth lying down and ate marmite toast lying down. When the staff noticed I wasn’t at meals they kindly brought crackers and ginger ale to the pity party I was throwing in my cabin. There’s a doctor onboard who I decided to pay a visit to. He gave me a patch and an injection and it worked a treat! Don't let that put you off - I get seasick, airsick and carsick,  and coupled with my fear of being out on the open ocean, I battled the war on sickness.

A calm Drake Passage (L); the Akademik Ioffe has an open bridge policy so you're allowed up there any time of the day or night (R)

There is no happier person than one who has been through seasickness hell and come back from the brink. My advice? Get seasickness medication prescribed by your doctor and take it BEFORE you hit the Drake. And travel on a ship built for these kinds of crossings with stablisers.

Click through to read the rest of Juliet's interview