voyage to antarctica with the hesperides

A little over a year ago now, I was making my way to Antarctica. It’s a long trip by any account — it takes almost 7 days to get there, changing 3 modes of transportation and going through 4 countries — but perhaps the most interesting part of it was getting from South America to Antarctica on the BIO Hespérides, a Spanish polar research vessel that we hitched a ride with.

We spent almost 3 full days on it, firstly making our way from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina (offering some breathtaking views of Tierra del Fuego in the Strait of Magellan) and then through the Beagle Channel onto the Drake Passage to get to the Antarctic peninsula. Thankfully the Captain and the crew (Spanish Navy… these guys don’t mess around) were quite open to us regular folk roaming around and asking questions. So you really get to know the ship, in and out. Here’s how I saw it.


There it is in all its beauty, the Hespérides in the Punta Arenas port. With its 82.5m (271 feet) in length, a 14m (47 feet) beam, and displacement of 2,750t when full, it’s quite a powerful ship given it’s used for research purposes. It has 11 laboratories and can support around 30 scientists working on it simultaneously, supported by close to 60 crew members.


Embarkment day, around 6am.


Loading up all of our provisions, equipment, and luggage on board. Yes, it’s all stored in plastic barrels in case when disembarking they fall in the water… fun.


Bulgarian Antarctic expedition members hard at work.


The doors were quite heavy. You certainly feel well protected from the elements inside the ship 🙂


Final procedures before we sail off.


Time for non-crew briefing on life aboard, done in a mix between English and Spanish. Luckily I still remembered a few things from my Barcelona days.


Navigating the Strait of Magellan. Simply incredible! Especially with the dark overhanging clouds.


That was a massive tanker, at least several hundred meters in length. Loved the backdrop of the snow capped mountains around us.


I had heard stories of the wondrous beauty of Tierra del Fuego… they weren’t exaggerated.


Almost a full day of these views. It was cold and windy on the deck, but we didn’t really care much.


After the first few hours it was time for the formalities, in this case exchanging gifts and thanking the Captain for taking the Bulgarian expedition on board (for free, might I add) 😉


He was gracious enough to give us a tour of the ship as well, starting with the bridge.


I found it interesting that despite the modern navigational equipment, they still marked their position on paper maps. Have I mentioned I love maps? I must have spent a good 30 minutes examining the ones they had of the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego as a whole.


We even got access to the control room down below the deck.


You can only hope they never have to resort to these.


Vampire attack precautions? 😉


Cargo deck talk with the Captain.


Under normal circumstances, this would be a very off-limits zone I would imagine.


Before proceeding any further, headphones had to be put on.


And that’s why, the main engine room. It was loud! It has a 1,420 kW of installed power and can go up to 14.7 knots (27.2 km/h or 16.9 mph) in 0.5 m (1.6 ft) level ice.


One of the most important people on board, the chef! Jokes aside, he’s responsible for his staff feeding the close to 100 people on board 3 times a day in 2 sittings each — no easy task.


The following morning we were greeted with this great sunrise in the Beagle Channel around 6am.


The ominous clouds from the day before had given way to the blue skies for a couple of hours which prompted me to stay on deck for a while.


Outside of other people on board, your only other companions are these fellas.


Dolphins are so hard to capture above water!


In the late afternoon on the second day we say goodbye to South American main land and head to open waters and the Drake Passage.


Great purple-ish sky and last bits of land.


We were super lucky that the Passage was “calm” and the waves were no more than 2-3m in height (in previous crossings they’ve been over 10m at times… scary!) so it was an overall smooth ride. And yet, even then I will never forget the constant up and down movement of the ship and how after spending almost 3 days on it, it took me a full day on firm ground to regain my normal walk and for my head to stop feeling a little dizzy. I wasn’t mean to be a sailor 🙂


On the plus side, since we were so far down south at this point, sunsets lasted for hours.


Not much to do in open water beside eat and sleep. You get sleepy with all that rocking about 😀


On the morning of the 3rd day we were greeted by the icebergs floating around, a telltale we were close to Antarctica. The air also was different, cleaner for sure, but also with a certain chill to it.


A few hours later we reached our destination, Livingston Island where the Spanish also have a base, quite close to the Bulgarian one (hence the cooperation between the two nations and them often taking us aboard their vessels). This is another research ship of theirs, anchored close to their base.


And this is the Spanish Juan Carlos Antarctic research station. Still under construction, it will be one hell of a facility once complete.


It takes quite a few people to anchor the Hespérides.


Offloading our stuff in the incredible Zodiac boats. It’s crazy how much weight these things can carry.


Time for the wet suits, lovingly called the Teletubys, in case you fall in the freezing water. It’s hard to get in one of these, outside help is often required. Your also wrap in plastic bags all stuff that’s not already in a barrel to protect it in case it falls over.

Please note there are two suitcases on rollers in the photo. Someone actually decided that taking these to Antarctica made sense… 0_o


Part of the Bulgarian expedition members taking a photo with the Captain and the Segundo (on the left) before getting into the boat.


Last views of the Hespérides before we get to our base.


The Hespérides actually took a few of the expedition members, myself included, on the way back as well, some 12 days later. This is a shot of this amazing ship in Deception island, where we stopped for half a day. I should do a separate post just on that island because it’s a fascinating place 🙂


More stories coming soon… hopefully 😉


18 thoughts

  1. WOW. I can’t think of an adjective that does your adventure justice — or your extraordinary post! I hope you’ll consider submitting this to National Geographic Traveler or some other similar publication, because you deserve an even wider audience. Beautifully done!

    • That’s a very kind thing to say, but I don’t think I’m ready for the National Geographic 🙂 And even if I were to try, it would be such an effort to get through I think that the time investment is just too great at this stage.

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