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by Irene Butler
(For Travel Writers Tales)

[Photo #1]

A welcoming committee of penguins meet us at the shoreline dressed in their finest tuxes! Gentoo penguins flaunt showy orange beaks, while the Chinstrap proudly sport narrow strips of black feathers around their chins.

[Photo #2]

Up nearby hills the rookeries of both species are at the height of activity! Parents take turns sitting on rocky nests that hold soon-to-be-hatched eggs, while their mates waddle in single file down snowy paths to the sea to feed. Occasionally a few decide to veer off of these "penguin highways" and slide down the slope on their bellies; a clever short-cut.

[Photo #3]

It is December 24th and earlier this morning we had been whisked away by Zodiac from our ship, the Sea Spirit, to this South Shetland Island treasure.

[Photo #4]

Our afternoon delight is Port Lockroy; a 1944 British Naval Base turned museum. Gleefully we fill out postcards to be mailed from Antarctica, guaranteed to reach folks back home within a month. The rooms give insight into life back then; rough wool-blanketed bunks, hooks for the warmest gear of the day, walls muralled with beguiling ladies, a larder of canned goods with faded labels, a communications room equipped with instruments to scour for enemy ships. Antarctic Heritage Trust, dedicated to its preservation, is partly funded from souvenir sales, postcards and stamps.

Back on board the Sea Spirit, Christmas Eve is heralded in with the crew reading journal excerpts of dire Yuletide conditions experienced by early explorer greats, such as Sir Ernest Shackleton making us even more appreciative of our cozy surrounds, and our toasty red parkas and muck boots for excursions.

Group gusto is unleashed with the singing of Christmas carols. After a delectable supper, the clear evening beckons and we move to the deck for more dramatic Antarctic landscapes gargantuan glaciers, coal-black rock cliffs draped in snow and chameleon icebergs that shimmer aqua and turquoise under sombre skies and glare startling white in sunlight.

[Photo # 5]

Our island landings are all incredible, yet on Christmas Day our undertaking is stratospheric in significance. For the first time we step onto the Antarctic Mainland to tread upon this oft called "7th continent"! The snow is deep as we follow the long line of red parkas up a steep incline to spectacular mountain scenery from the top a once in a lifetime surreal moment!

Towards evening we clink celebratory glasses of Champagne, munch hors d'oeuvres, chuckle over a Santa visit, and indulge in yet another festive supper spread.

My mind swirls with facts gleaned on this voyage. Antarctica is the world's fifth largest continent. Including all islands and ice shelves it is about the size of the USA and Mexico combined, but the sea ice that builds around it in the southern winter increases its size by more than 50%. It is the driest, windiest and coldest continent on the planet the lowest temperature recorded was -89C (-129F). There are valleys that receive no precipitation whatsoever and are as dry as the Sahara Desert.

No humans live permanently in Antarctica, although there are always some people here, about 1000 in winter and 3500 in summer; mostly scientists and support staff. Another nonpareil aspect: No country owns Antarctica in a treaty signed in 1959, previously claimant nations agreed to freeze their claims indefinitely with stipulations that Antarctica be used for peaceful purposes only, and all scientific information shared.

[Photo #6]

Our list of wildlife encounters grows daily. Leopard and elephant seals lounge beside penguins on snowy slopes; in a bizarre quirk of nature these flightless birds are safe on land from the same animals for which they become a tasty meal when in the sea. Humpback whales seen from our ship's deck and wandering albatross soaring with 3-metre (9.8ft) wingspans leave us breathless.

[Photo #7]

Haunting relics of mankind remain in a wrecked 3433 ton ship which caught fire in 1915 and was run aground to save men and supplies, plus a former whaling factory established in 1906, which processed whale oil to be shipped around the world, until the species was almost extinct.

[Photo #8]

The nine days have seemingly evaporated since leaving the port of Ushuaia on the southern tip of South America. It's time to leave the Great White Continent for our two-day return voyage through the Drake Passage, known for some of the most turbulent waters on the planet. Fortunately, the Drake is equally kind to us as on the way out with only four-metre waves. Our smiles have never been broader - we have lived our dream! A Christmas like no other!


Poseidon Expeditions:

Polar Cruises, M/V Sea Spirit/Antarctic 114 passenger capacity, plus 14 expedition members, and 80 ship crew. Ship is equipped with a stabilizing rudder for rough seas. Cruises during Antarctic summers November through March

PHOTOS Credit: Rick Butler

1 Penguin Welcoming Committee

2 Gentoo and Chinstrap

3 Our Poseidon Sea Spirit vessel

4 Port Lockroy Naval Base

5 Antarctic Mainland trek

6 Seals and penguins cozy up

7 Ship wreck 8 Whaling factory

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