Friday, 30 December 2011

A little bit about Ushuaia...

The first stop on my Antarctic trip will be right on the tip of South America  in the  Argentinian settlement of Ushuaia, dubbed as ‘the most southerly city on earth’. With regular flights arriving from Buenos Aires, and Antarctic cruises departing from the port, summer will be particularly busy in this end of the world destination.

Street-life at the bottom of the world, by Luis Argerich
The capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is overlooked by the Marshal Mountain range and set beside the Beagle Channel. First settled by the Selk’nam Indians around 10,000 years ago, HMS Beagle reached Ushuaia in 1833, and British missionaries began settling here from 1869 onwards, living amongst the indigenous Y├ímana people. Today, Ushuaia is a well-established settlement with schools, hospitals and an efficient transport infrastructure in place.

Cruise boats waiting in the Beagle Channel, by Liam Quinn

The prison buildings
1873 saw the establishment of Ushuaia as a penal colony for notorious Argentinian criminals and re-offenders; the first prison opened and received inmates in 1896, with a second prison opening in 1906. The prisons were later combined, and life in Ushuaia in the early 20th century revolved around prison life and employment. They were closed in 1947 due to poor practice, and the buildings became a Spanish Naval base until the early 1990s. Today, the buildings house the well-respected, Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia.

A reminder of the city's former inhabitants, by Longhorndave

The southernmost city in the world?
There are settlements farther south, but Ushuaia is considered the most significant - the Chilean settlement of Puerto Williams is a close contender, though it lacks city status.

Temperatures in Ushuaia range from around 1.6 °C July to 10.4 °C in January, although lows of −25 °C and highs of 29 °C have been recorded in the past. Surprisingly humid, Ushuaia is subject to strong winds and snowfall.

Penguin spotting in Tierra del Fuego, by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo
Fishing, oil extraction, industry and sheep farming are all important occupations this far south, but in recent history, Ushuaia has firmly put itself on the map as a base for eco and adventure tourism. The Tierra del Fuego National Park is one of the main tourist highlights in the area, and visitors who come for hiking and wildlife watching often choose to access the park via the historic ‘End of the World Train’. Ushuaia’s more adventurous visitors might also try scuba diving or sea kayaking and, in winter, Ushuaia boasts the southern-most ski resort in the world, Cerro Castor. Though many come purely to appreciate the penguins and seal colonies that populate the Beagle Channel, enjoy bird watching and whale spotting, and soak up the atmosphere at the bottom of planet earth.

Photo by Leonora Enking

Thursday, 29 December 2011

January in Antarctica

Spending three weeks 'down south' this January, I'll be experiencing Antarctica in the height of summer, but it'll be a far cry from sunbeds and sandcastles...

Summer evenings in Antarctica, by Liam Quinn
January's Climate
Antarctica’s short summer is an important period of birth, growth and feeding in Antarctica, where long days and bright sunshine characterise the continent. December and January are the warmest months but climatic conditions and daylight will vary hugely, across this immense landmass, which can be divided into three distinct zones:

The Interior
The coldest area of the continent is characterised by extreme cold, blizzards, high winds, temperature inversions and light snowfall. The interior receives the least direct sunshine, has a high altitude, is plunged into darkness during the winter months and will be witness to the midnight sun in January. Its distance from the sea means that it received no warming effect from the water and January temperatures often peak at around -30°C.

Coastal Areas
With the tempering influence of the ocean, the coastal areas experience milder temperatures and more snow. January temperatures can reach 9°C. In January, northern coastal areas will experience bright sunshine, with stunning sunrises and sunsets.

Adele Penguin Creche, by Liam Quinn

The Peninsula
This is as far south as my trip will take me and, reaching much further north than the rest of the continent, the climate here will be warmer and wetter, with January temperatures above freezing. At times, fierce westerly winds and wild storms can also characterise the Antarctic Peninsula, which can bring icy winds and immense waves. Despite the bright sunshine, wind chill is a major factor throughout the year on the Peninsula, so I’ll be taking lots of layers and a windproof parka, as well as shades and sunscreen!

January’s wildlife
Following a month of warm weather in December, receding sea-ice in January will make navigation and shore landings easier, maximising our chances of getting up-close and personal with the Antarctic species.

Penguin Chicks, by Liam Quinn
With the sun remaining above the horizon for 24 hours a day at the south-pole, and the rest of the continent experiencing extended daylight hours, the continent will be making the most of the long, bright days, when phytoplankton grows rapidly to produce a vital food source for krill – the basis of the Antarctic food chain.

January is an exciting time for witnessing animal behaviour, when penguin chicks hatch; fur, crabeater and leopard seal pups can be seen feeding on squid and finfish; and whale sightings become increasingly prolific - summer is a core feeding time for humpbacks, and many other species.

Seal Pup, by Liam Quinn

To see the Antarctic summer in action, watch the third episode in the Attenborough's BBC polar series: Frozen Planet - Summer.

Photographer Liam Quinn joined the Spirit of Shackleton expedition in January 2011 - see more of his photos on his Flickr photostream

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Off to Antarctica - my trip to come

Photo by John E. Lester

As a prize for winning the Guardian's 2011 'Adventure' Travel Writing Competition, for my entry about the Amazon,  I'll be heading to Antarctica on the 10th of Jan, for a three week tour of the coldest, windiest place on earth, courtesy of G-adventures. I'm going to be blogging about my adventures before, during and after right here.

Let's kick off with an overview of the trip...

Flying from London to Ushusaia, via Amsterdam and Buenos Aires, my first adventure will be one heck of a plane ride, to get myself to the southern-most city in the world, where my G-adventures expedition begins.

Day 1 will be spent on the shores of the Beagle Channel: Ushuaia was originally inhabited by the Yamna people and was once a penal colony for political prisoners and hardened criminals. I'll be interested to see how tourism has shaped the modern-day town, which is now a hopping-off point for Antarctic cruises, as well as a magnet for skiers, hikers and nature lovers.

Photo by

Day 2 is the day we set sail. Embarking on our vessel - the M/S Expedition -  at 4pm, I'm looking forward to exploring the ship and meeting my fellow passengers.

Day 3 is a school day
En-route to the Falkland Islands, we'll begin our lecture and information sessions to start discovering all about the human and natural history of the Antarctic region.

Day 4-5 we set foot on The Falkland Islands 
Experiencing the biological diversity and scenery of the southern islands, I've been promised penguins, elephant seals, sea lions, king cormorants, black-browed albatross, skuas, night herons, giant petrels, striated caracaras, plenty of sheep, and some hardy local inhabitants.

Day 6-7 School time in the Southern Ocean
On course for South Georgia, we'll spend more time at school to prepare us for South Georgia, with the distraction of sea bird and whale-watching en-route.

Day 8-11 South Georgia - the true spirit of Shackleton
I can't wait to follow in Shackleton's steps, see his grave, walk through the former whaling stations and be bombarded by king penguins. If this doesn't mean much to you, then book yourself a few hours to watch this fantastic 4OD film about his South Georgia self-rescue.
                     Photo from

Apparently, there's around 300,000 elephant seals, 3 million fur seals, and 25 species of breeding birds, a king penguin rookery of 100,000 and around five million macaroni penguins - good job i got a new camera for Christmas.

Day 12-13 Shackleton's Scotia Sea voyage
Retracing Shackleton's epic sea voyage, we'll be sailing towards Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands, where the rest of his expedition team, awaited his return. The  rich nutrients of the Scotia Sea, make for an abundance of whales, seals, and seabirds.

Day 14-17 Setting foot on the white continent
Four days exploring the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula! The weather makes the rules down here but, if all goes to plan, we'll be standing next to penguins, sighting whales, watching seals in the  ice floes, seeing the wingspan of the albatross and visiting scientific research bases, all with a backdrop of  ice-choked waterways, glistening icebergs, immense glaciers and snow-capped mountains.

Day 18-19 back via the Drake Passage
Sailing north across the Drake Passage, there'll be two more days to absorb the epic scenery of the south before arriving back in Argentina.

Day 20 Goodbye Ushuaia 
Ending as we started, we arrive back in Ushuaia before the long flight home.