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Inside: Reaching the 7th continent is a Bucket List item for many avid travelers. No, the journey to Antarctica isn’t easy. And it certainly isn’t cheap. But here’s why it’s the adventure of a lifetime.
“You’re going where? “
“Seriously, Jenny, have you really run out of places to go? What on earth is there to see in Antarctica, anyway? Isn’t it just a bunch of icebergs and penguins?”
These were just a few of the milder expressions of disbelief I received from friends and family after I announced my intention to include Antarctica on Round the World #8.
And to be honest, they were valid questions. In fact, I had some of the same questions myself.
What on earth was there to see in Antarctica?
To me, an expedition to the white continent was mostly a badge of honor. A dividing line that separates the traveling public into tourists and adventurers.
And if I’m being completely truthful, the ability to say I’ve been to all 7 continents was a significant part of the allure.
When it comes to true globetrotting, either you’ve been to Antarctica or you haven’t. This would be the year I join the distinguished former.
A Little Antarctic History & FAQs
Known by many names – the frozen continent, the white continent, and even the blue continent (I like to call it the last continent) – Antarctica serves primarily as the world’s research station.
It is the earth’s 5th largest continent as well as its coldest and driest.
The territory is governed under the 1958 Antarctic Treaty which established the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone.
Does anyone live in Antarctica?
The continent’s only residents are the temporary occupants of some two dozen research stations ranging from 1,000 – 4,000 people depending on the time of year.
At each station, the laws of the nation operating it apply and the purpose is strictly scientific.
Can I go to Antarctica? Or is travel to Antarctica banned?
Since no country owns Antarctica, you don’t need a visa to travel there. As long as you are a citizen of a country that is a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty, you are free to travel to Antarctica.
That said, once you get there, there are a LOT of rules that must be followed (more on that later).
What is the best month to go to Antarctica?
For most of the year, the continent is completely inaccessible due to sea ice, temperatures of -40° F and 24 hours of darkness.
For tourists, Antarctica is only accessible during the summer months, from November to March, when the sea ice retreats enough to allow access for ice-strengthened vessels. During that time of year, there are 24 hours of daylight which leaves lots of light for exploring.
Is going to Antarctica dangerous?
In Antarctica, there is no support for tourism.
Loosely translated, that means when you venture into the Antarctic on a ship, that ship is your only means of support and your lifeline to civilization.
So travel to the Antarctic is not for the timid. Expeditions to the region require potentially rough sea crossings and have no set itinerary or even a guarantee of continental landings. Everything depends on weather conditions that are virtually impossible to predict.
In my research, I read to expect only a 60% success rate with landing attempts.
So why spend the equivalent of four traditional cruises on an unpredictable voyage through rough seas with no guarantee of even setting foot on the world’s most inhospitable continent?
Well, that’s all part of the adventure isn’t it?
If Antarctica was easy, everyone would go.
How do you get to Antarctica?
The vast majority of travelers to Antarctica go from Ushuaia, Argentina which is considered the gateway to Antarctica. The most popular way to experience the continent is by expedition ship.
Can you fly to Antarctica?
Yes, but once you arrive you’ll still need to board an expedition vessel since there are no hotels in Antarctica. Flights are available from Punta Arenas, Chile and can be arranged by your Antarctic tour operator as part of your trip.
The only reason to fly to Antarctica is to avoid the 2-day journey through the Drake Passage. So, if you’re particularly sensitive so seasickness, this could be a good option.
Cruises to Antarctica
Cruising to the Antarctic is an intense journey limited to ice-strengthened vessels.
When I began my research, there were a number of options available. Most were voyages of 14 days or longer and all were exorbitantly expensive by typical cruising standards ($6,000 and up per person).
But travel to the white continent is no ordinary cruise. It is, quite literally, expedition travel.
It is oftentimes uncomfortable (see “Drake Passage”) and there is a very real element of danger. Especially considering you are potentially days away from a hospital in case of emergency. Not to mention you’re traveling to the wildest, harshest, and most remote continent on the planet.
Just 30,000 intrepid travelers visit the white continent in a typical cruising season. Compare that with more than 1 million who visit Alaska by cruise ship annually.
IAATO Rules & Why Size Matters
Ships venturing to the Antarctic must comply with the agreements of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a voluntary organization of tour operators which promotes safe and environmentally responsible tourism to the region.
IAATO guidelines stipulate that no more than 100 people can be on a landing site at any given time. This means if you’re on a ship with 200 passengers or more, your time on land will be limited.
And ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not permitted to make landings at all.
My choice…Quark Expeditions
After much research, I ultimately decided on a 10-day voyage out of Ushuaia, Argentina with Quark Expeditions on their luxurious all-suite ship, the Sea Spirit. 2020 Update: This particular ship is no longer part of the Quark fleet but they still have plenty of lovely ships to choose from.
Since 1991, Quark has been leading a variety of expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic and is widely considered the leader in polar expeditions. They have more vessels operating in the region than any other company and offer an expansive choice of itineraries.
One of the things I liked most about Quark was that they operate all of their own vessels. Many of the Antarctic companies I found were only selling berths on other ships. With Quark, I had confidence that the company would take more ownership of the experience since it was entirely their own.
Full disclosure: I contacted Quark in advance and was graciously offered a discount on my sailing in exchange for writing about my experience. Because I elected to have my own cabin instead of sharing with another solo traveler, this discount basically amounted to the waiving of the solo supplement fee.
Arrival in Ushuaia, Argentina
I arrived in Ushuaia with one full day to explore before departure. It’s a beautiful town to visit and lovingly referred to as the end of the world. It was a great day that ended with a pre-departure briefing for all passengers back at the hotel.
Read More: It’s the End of the World: Ushuaia Argentina
Tip: If you have more time than money, spend some time here between November and March and you’re likely to snag a last-minute deal on an Antarctic sailing (which is about the only way to get a discount).
Setting Sail for the Antarctic
The next day, I arrive at the port to board the Sea Spirit at 4:00pm. Within minutes I’m escorted to my cabin to settle in.
I’m blown away by my cabin (#417). It’s enormous compared to any other cruise ship I’ve ever been on. It even has a walk-in closet. Can you imagine? A walk-in closet on a cruise ship!
I spend a few minutes unpacking – excited to be in one place for nine whole nights – and then join the others in the lounge for a pre-departure briefing with our Expedition Leader, Cheli Larsen.
An Antarctic orientation
Cheli is a New Zealand native who’s been leading expeditions all over the world for the past 12 years. She’s also a PADI Master Dive Instructor, a Commercial Launch Master, and the skipper of a Dive and Fishing Charter vessel on weekends.
From the moment Cheli takes to the microphone, she commands the room. There’s an unflappable competence in her words that blend seamlessly with comedic timing even Ellen Degeneres would envy.
She makes us laugh, but most importantly she makes us listen. We hang on her every word and within minutes I have no doubt I can trust Cheli with my life. Which is good because I’m about to.
The expedition crew
During the briefing, we are introduced to the rest of the expedition staff and crew. The expert staff includes:
- Natalie – A Canadian Marine Biologist with a special passion for whales.
- Colin – A Scotsman with a PhD in glaciology.
- Adrian – An Aussie Ornithologist who specializes in seabirds and serves as the voyage’s penguin expert (which makes him quite popular).
- John – An historian and globetrotting photojournalist.
- Dr. Christy – The ship’s doctor, from the USA
- Val – Our kayak guide (from Canada)
- Mette – The logistics manager (from Norway)
- Guides Yuki (Japan), Karin (Sweden), Pam (South Africa), and Krystle (Australia)
- And finally, Nicola, the shop manager, Nicola (Canada).
This multi-talented (and very international) bunch will lead lectures while we’re at sea, captain zodiacs at each landing site and generally ensure our comfort and safety while on board and on shore.
Cheli’s pre-departure briefing is followed by the only muster drill I’ve ever actually paid attention to (life boat station, check).
After our safety drill, we set sail out of Ushuaia at 6pm and dinner service begins at 7:00pm. The dining room on the Sea Spirit is open seating so passengers are free to dine with whomever they like at each meal.
Since I’m traveling solo, this is the perfect opportunity to start getting to know my fellow passengers.
Who Goes to Antarctica?
I had no idea what to expect of my fellow adventurers. But our briefing at the hotel last night was my first opportunity to see all 114 of them in one room.
I’m surprised by how young the group is. Yes, there’s a solid representation of the affluent, 55+ plus demographic. But at least 50% of the passengers are in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s blowing the curve for the retired jet-set and bringing the median age to a comfortable 40-ish.
And though I was slightly concerned I’d be the only one, there are literally dozens of independent-minded, solo travelers like myself.
But it isn’t just the youth of the group that surprises me. As I meet and dine with other passengers over the first few days, I realize quickly that this is a well-traveled and accomplished group.
At dinner the first night I sit with a lovely retired couple from Australia (John and Aileen, who I would spend a great deal of time with during the voyage), a doctor from Germany, and a round-the-world traveler from Israel.
Both John from Australia and the German doctor had climbed to Everest base camp. How often do you sit down for a meal with two people who’ve climbed Everest? Remarkable.
A well-travelled group
And to a person, I soon discover, they all have incredible travel stories. There is a couple from North Carolina halfway through a year-long trip around the world. And Matt from Melbourne, Australia who’s traveling for a year around South America. I also meet Derek, Garry, and Mike from Ireland. They are part of a group of seven friends who plan a big trip together every year (just three managed the Antarctic adventure).
Also from Australia, the extremely well-traveled and delightful, Angela, who was the first person I met after our briefing at the hotel. We are two of many traveling solo and we bond right away over champagne and travel stories.
From Liverpool, England, there’s Chris, who’s been planning this trip for more than a year to meet a goal of visiting all seven continents before his 30th birthday. Chris convinced his father, Bill, to come along, and together their wit provided solid entertainment for our group over the days to come.
And I immediately become part of the family Madden, from Sydney, when we discover my cabin is sandwiched between their two on Deck 4 – Steven and Kate on one side and daughters Ella and Ruby on the other.
Over our nine days at sea, we all soon become a tight-knit little group.
And it’s quite an accomplished group from top to bottom, both in travel and in life. I’m happy to count myself among them and I revel in their travel stories at each and every meal.
I guess it’s logical that when you’ve been just about everywhere, Antarctica invariably shoots to the top of your list. That’s how I ended up here.
After all, when you’ve been all over the world…what’s left? The obvious answer is Antarctica.
Days 1, 2 and 3 – Paying the Drake Tax
But before I can boast that I’ve landed on the white continent, there’s the small matter of crossing the Drake Passage.
Encompassing the area between the southern tip of South America and the Shetland Islands, the current-heavy waters of the Drake Passage are widely considered to be the world’s roughest.
Though I haven’t been seasick since I was a child, I’m nervous about the two-day crossing of the Drake. And based on the questions at both our pre-departure briefing and the first on-board briefing, I’m not alone! I have a prescription for the seasickness patch and applied one the afternoon of departure just to be on the safe side.
Either it works or the waters aren’t really that rough, because I’m fine for both days. The ship’s staff says we were very lucky with our crossing and they’ve seen it much worse. You never really know what you’re going to experience until you get out there.
The boat definitely rocks a lot over the first two days, but I don’t mind it. There are a few people who get sick (you know who you are, England) but most of us do just fine. Hopefully, we’ll be as lucky on the trip back.
Getting our Antarctica gear
After dinner the first night we are issued our official Quark Expeditions bright yellow parkas (ostensibly so the crew can easily keep track of us on land). We get to keep the waterproof parka as a souvenir of our journey. It’s top-quality and lined with a warm removable fleece that keeps me warm and dry throughout our entire adventure.
We are also issued waterproof rubber boots (a loaner) for wet landings. These two items will become the staples for our daily round of gearing up for landing.
What do you do at sea?
There’s a lot of time to kill in the open waters of the Drake.
So the Quark staff provide a variety of educational sessions to familiarize us with the types of birds, mammals, and ice we’ll see on land and in the water. Adrian gives a presentation on sea birds, Colin on glaciers and icebergs. And Natalie teaches us about the types of whales and seals common in the Antarctic.
We also attend mandatory sessions to review important safety instructions for boarding the zodiacs and maneuvering wet landings. Then, we review the bio-security procedures that must be followed.
For example, you cannot bring any food onshore. And if you need to use the bathroom, you have to hop in a zodiac and return to the ship (that goes for the guys, too!).
There is a heavy emphasis on bio-security to make sure we leave the continent exactly as we found it. And to ensure we don’t get too close to wildlife to disturb breeding patterns, etc. The night before our first landing the crew goes cabin by cabin to inspect all of our cold-weather gear for debris or seeds that could cross-contaminate our landing sites.
First Sighting of Land
After dinner on night 3 crossing the Drake, we have our first sighting of land, the South Shetland Islands.
As we navigate through the islands to the spot where we will anchor for tomorrow’s landing, the captain pulls in the stabilizers that have kept our ride so smooth until now.
To say there is a small difference between the ship with stabilizers and without is like saying there’s a small difference between an ice cube and an iceberg. Almost immediately, the ship begins to sway with the waves.
Despite this, we all head to our cabins to gear up and brave the biting wind and rain on the shifting deck. We’re excited for that first glimpse of land and ready to celebrate surviving the Drake.
We take pictures and watch with mild concern when the Deck 5 jacuzzi empties most of its contents onto the deck as the ship pitches left, right, up, and down.
As the ship continues to lurch, the rocking (a novelty at first after the smooth Drake crossing) seems to wear on us. And one by one people head to the safety of their beds for the night. Walking around the ship becomes quite challenging and a number of passengers have their first bout with seasickness.
I’m happy to say I kind of enjoy the rocking since in my mind that’s all part of the Antarctica experience. I master a sort of “crab walk” to get around my cabin without killing myself and my attempt at brushing my teeth before bed definitely borders on comical.
Day 4 – First Stop: Half Moon Island
The scene set for our first landing of the voyage is straight out of Antarctic central casting.
Snowflakes swirl around rugged white peaks as the coal-black zodiacs are gracefully lowered into the sea. When I walk out on deck, the absolute silence is deafening. There’s a peace and a softness to the island staring back at me. And a quiet, yet blinding, white.
But we aren’t quite in Antarctica yet.
Our first few landing attempts will be in the South Shetland Islands. Located 600 miles south of Tierra del Fuego (the southern tip of South America), the chain of islands runs parallel to the Antarctic peninsula.
The South Shetlands are not administered by any one country, but are also covered under the Antarctic treaty and are home to a number of research stations.
The first step in any landing is for our expedition leader, Cheli, and her staff to survey the landing site for any signs of trouble and ensure that the area is safe to visit. Once the landing area is established, it’s time to load passengers into the zodiacs to head to shore.
Zodiac boarding groups
Yesterday, we each signed up for one of three groups to determine our zodiac boarding order each day. The groups are Gentoo, Adelie, or Chinstrap – the three types of penguins we’ll soon get very familiar with.
The efficient system rotates the groups with each landing, which means each will have the opportunity to go ashore first at least twice. And no one has to spend unnecessary time in the zodiac boarding area.
For example, if you’re a “Gentoo” and today’s boarding order is “Adelie, Gentoo, Chinstrap” then when the Adelies are called, that’s your sign. You proceed to your cabin and begin the tedious process of layering required to disembark the ship each day.
The daily process to leave the ship
Briefly, I’ll walk you through the process we repeat three times a day for three days.
The first step is sunscreen and a layer of silk or thermal long underwear. Then a pair of warm pants and a fleece or pullover. Next, waterproof pants, wool socks (two layers), gloves (two layers), giant yellow parka, life preserver, camera gear in a waterproof bag, scarf, sunglasses, and hat.
Forget one step in the process and you’re doomed to strip down and repeat it from the beginning until you get it right.
The “gearing up” process is not just awkward and time-consuming. It also results in a fashion statement that would make even Heidi Klum look like an overstuffed lemon. But in this case, function before fashion is the rule of the day and I must say we all look quite dashing in our yellow parkas.
Once your penguin group is called to board, you waddle to Deck 3 to swipe out with your cabin ID card. Then, it’s down the stairs to step in the cleaning solution that keeps our boots from cross-contaminating any of the landing sites (we also repeat that process each time we return to the ship) and finally onto the zodiac deck for boarding.
After a quick “man overboard” drill and a surprisingly comfortable zodiac ride to shore, Cheli greets us with today’s instructions for our visit.
She briefs us on what to see and where (for example, a Chinstrap penguin colony with chicks up the hill to the left or a Weddell seal lounging at 2 o’clock, whale bones at 3 o’clock, that sort of thing). Then she explains the rules (walk here, don’t walk there, etc.) and tells us what time the last zodiac will head back to the ship.
And then we’re free to disembark the zodiac in the pre-instructed method (face to the sea) and explore the island at our own pace.
The silence of Antarctica
Once on land, I am again struck by the eerie silence of the Antarctic. Especially with fresh snow on the ground to quiet any ambient sound. It’s simply serene. A bit like you’ve landed on another planet with the last group of survivors.
Breaking the silence, of course, is the ever-present sound of squawking penguins (a chatty little bunch) accompanied by the distinct “aroma” of penguin poo. It’s a smell we become intimately acquainted with over the next few days.
Last night, on deck during our celebration of land sighting, staff glaciologist, Colin, told me he could already smell the penguins as he took a deep breath of Antarctic air.
I thought he was kidding. I realize now that he was not.
Because once you get your first whiff of penguin poo, it’s absolutely a smell you could pick out of a line-up. But, lucky for the penguins, they’re cute enough to overlook the pink poo that provides the artwork in their colonies.
What makes penguins fun?
As it turns out, penguins are not at all equipped for walking on land with their stubby little non-legs. Yet they insist on trying. And they’re nothing if not doggedly persistent.
It’s amazing that birds who are so lithe in the water with their spirited “porpoising” and bullet-train speed can be so awkward at walking down a simple snow-covered hill. Take the average penguin; add a steep incline covered in rocks and ice and grab a seat in the snow to watch the show.
Trust me, hilarity ensues.
They look a bit like a tiny linebacker trying to walk down the street in a mermaid costume. Or a short woman in a really tight skirt trying to climb a flight of stairs. They stumble, they fall. They go careening down hills, beak over webbed feet before they can right themselves.
They are like small, formally-attired bowling balls.
And though (as Angela adroitly points out) they often look a little embarrassed when they slip and fall, they seem to take it all in stride. They press on, collecting the little pebbles that are essential for building their nests. They are ridiculous and precious at the same time. The kind of adorable normally reserved for golden retriever puppies and panda bear cubs.
We walk delicately around Half Moon Island, fascinated by the penguin colonies and generally just soaking in the experience. It’s a perfect introduction to the Antarctic.
Whaler’s Bay, Deception Island
Back on board, we have lunch while the captain navigates to our second landing spot of the day, Deception Island.
Home to the crumbling remains of a Norwegian whaling operation (which operated from 1910 to 1931), the shoreline contains thermal springs which make the water hot to the touch, thanks to nearby volcanic activity.
This is the spot where many Antarctic travelers cheat and take their dip in polar waters. But since Quark is all about the authentic polar adventure, we’ll be saving our polar plunge for less spa-like waters.
As our zodiac approaches the black volcanic beach, we are again welcomed by Cheli with our landing instructions. Then, we divide into small groups for a guided walk around the island.
The steam rising from the thermally-heated waters along the shore lends the island a spooky quality. It’s hard to imagine this island as a working whaling station in the early 1900’s. So remote and such harsh conditions, it must have been a challenging way of life.
As we walk the beach examining the remains of shipwrecks and whale bones, Chinstrap penguins follow us around. They seem to wonder what we’re up to and, more importantly, whether we’ve brought them any rocks for their nests.
After determining we are useless, they waddle on.
The daily “we hope to” briefing
Back on board, we discard our gear and don more comfortable clothes for our daily briefing in the lounge. Each evening before dinner, the expedition team recaps our day and then Cheli explains our “we hope to” plan for tomorrow including anticipated landing sites.
Something like, “we hope to anchor here at 8am” and “we hope to go ashore there at 9am,” that sort of thing.
Antarctic conditions always dictate “hope to” instead of “will.”
Day 5 – First stop: Cuverville Island
Day 5 is a big day. It’s what we’d all come here for.
Today we will attempt to land on the Antarctic Peninsula. Our first official “continental landing.”
We “hope” to come ashore sometime after lunch at Neko Harbour. But first, a morning visit to Cuverville Island to visit a Gentoo rookery with new baby chicks.
Late nights and 24-hour daylight
By Day 5, we’ve all got our sea legs. But the body-clock distortion of 24-hour daylight is beginning to take its toll. It just never seems to be time to go to bed. (To be fair, the open bar doesn’t help our cause.)
After dinner each night we all reconvene in the bar. Though it feels like 6 or 7:00pm, it’s actually 10 or 11:00pm.
Then we have cocktails, talk travel, and enthusiastically rehash what we saw that day. And before you know it, it’s 2:00am.
And then someone spots a whale outside and we all run out on deck and before you can say orca, it’s 4:00am. And still daylight.
Angela, Chris, and I spent last night just like that. We watched whale after whale from the deck and gazed in wonder as we passed huge icebergs all around us set against the pink sky of a sun that never quite set.
I think the excitement of our continental landing today somehow carried us through.
But enough about sleepless nights, back to Cuverville Island! We spend some quality time on land with the penguins and then take to the water in the zodiacs for a cruise around the gallery of icebergs and a little whale watching.
Then it’s time to re-board the Sea Spirit for lunch while we cruise down to our ultimate destination, the Antarctic Peninsula.
Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula
Just after lunch, we catch our first glimpse of Antarctica.
We hope to begin disembarkation at 1:00pm but it comes and goes without a call for boarding. Finally, Cheli’s voice comes over the loudspeaker with an update. There’s an issue with brash ice at our hoped-for landing spot and the crew has taken to the zodiacs to investigate other options.
It’s the first (and only) time I fear we might not make it ashore.
But I shouldn’t have doubted Cheli and her team. Within 30 minutes they identify an alternate landing spot and the Chinstraps are called to the zodiac deck.
When my zodiac nears the shore at Neko Harbour, it isn’t hard to see why there was an issue. Intimidating blocks of ice pepper the shoreline like giant puzzle pieces blocking the zodiac’s approach to the beach.
It’s the wettest of our “wet landings” as we climb out of the zodiacs several feet from shore and navigate through the ice to reach land.
Poetic, really. It’s exactly how you might envision landing on the frozen continent. Seems only fitting to work for it a little.
Antarctic adventures…down a very big hill
But the crew has more than just a simple landing in store for us at Neko Harbour.
Part of the game plan for this landing is a hike to the top of a very large hill. Followed by a steep slide back down it.
After getting our first glimpse of the “hill,” Angela and I are iffy on the expected method of dismount. It looks really steep. Steep enough that from the top, it’s impossible to see what happens to people after they drop off the edge of the cliff.
I need more information. We dutifully climb up the hill but are only loosely committed to throwing ourselves down it. After all, the nearest medical attention (aside from the dozen or so doctors on board the ship) is several days away.
Ultimately, we decide to go for it but I’m still not convinced it was a smart idea. We both manage to make it down smoothly (though with intermittent moments of terror) without flipping upside down in the snow. But once safely at the bottom, we watch several people after us who aren’t so lucky.
It’s a bit like watching a lemon-colored avalanche hurtling down the side of the mountain gathering snow as it rolls (you can thank me now for the video in the photo gallery below). I’m fairly certain no one was injured in this Antarctic rite of passage but the genius of this idea is questionable, at best.
A change in the weather
While we’re busy throwing ourselves down perfectly good hillsides, the weather – as it often does in Antarctica – has taken a turn for the worse. Angela and I return to the zodiac landing site to find the expedition team all hands on deck quickly loading passengers into pitching zodiacs.
When we’re safely aboard, Colin warns us to hold on tight, it’s going to be the roughest zodiac ride we’ve had yet.
And it was certainly an adventure as the zodiac rises and falls with the crashing waves and seawater splashes angrily at our backs. But it’s exciting and within minutes we are approaching the ship and the zodiac is safely tethered to the landing platform by the crew.
Once again, thanks to the expertise of the staff and crew, we never truly feel in any danger at all. They have a confident way about them that makes us trust them completely.
Like how Mette convinced me to throw myself down that hill.
Paradise Bay, Zodiac Cruise
To cap off our continental landing, Cheli and the crew have an extra treat for us later tonight. After dinner, we all head back to our cabins to gear up and then dutifully board our zodiacs for an hour-long cruise around spectacular Paradise Bay.
The highlight of the cruise is a surprise stop at the “medical zodiac” in the middle of the bay where Cheli and Dr. Christy dole out cups of steaming hot, spiced mulled wine….doctor’s orders.
It’s a brilliant end to a perfect day.
Day 6 – Petermann Island, Antarctic Peninsula
Our second day on the continent is off to a brutally early start with our first landing at 6:00am on Petermann Island. This is the farthest point south we’ll reach on the peninsula and home to an Adelie penguin rookery.
By this point, we are completely dialed in with the zodiac boarding and landing procedures and are navigating each new landing spot with expert precision. We know where to find the penguins, how to spot the chicks, where to walk, and not to stop on a penguin superhighway.
We are budding Antarctic locals.
After a nice stroll around Petermann and a visit with the Adelie chicks, Angela and I head back to the Sea Spirit for breakfast while the captain navigates to our next landing point.
Day 6 – Pleneau Island and the Iceberg Graveyard
The purpose of starting our day at 6am is to squeeze in an extra landing at Pleneau Island. This includes a zodiac cruise through what’s known as the “iceberg graveyard.”
And I’m so glad we did because this turns out to be my favorite stop of the entire trip.
We take to the zodiacs with Aussie, Krystle, as our guide and glide silently among artfully formed icebergs the size of city blocks. Each is a stunning work of art more impressive than the last. Krystle says Pleneau is always her favorite stop as the ice changes from week to week so you never know what you’re going to see.
There is also an element of danger to the area since it’s always possible an iceberg will calve without warning. Though our zodiacs won’t get close enough to be hit by falling ice, a major calving can cause a tsunami that would spell big trouble for a nearby zodiac. So the guides have to be on alert at all times while cruising near ice.
While cruising through Pleneau, as if skyscraper, iridescent-blue, death-defying icebergs aren’t visually dynamic enough, the humpback whales come out to play!
The zodiacs maintain radio communication so when one spots a whale, the others move to that location.
Playing with whales
We watch as the whale teases us above the surface before diving for up to 7 minutes. And then we have to find him again when he surfaces on the other side of an iceberg.
It’s humpback-hide-and-seek at its finest and I could play all day.
I watch in awe as a whale playfully arches above the waterline within a few feet of South African guide, Pam’s, zodiac containing the Irish lads, Mike, Garry, and Derek. When he dives again, Pam pulls alongside and jokes that it’s so annoying how the whale was, “breathing all over us and stuff.”
Whale humor…I love it!
But the most dramatic moment comes near the end of our cruise. A whale glides right next to our zodiac and just as he’s about to show his flume (the money shot in whale photography) the iceberg next to us calves!
The sound of the splintering ice breaking off and crashing into the water diverts everyone’s attention (especially Krystle’s) and we audibly gasp. It’s all so exciting I hardly know where to look!
Whales diving, icebergs calving, it’s an Antarctic wonderland!
This, I realize, is exactly what the Antarctic is all about. This is why people brave the elements to come here. This is why it’s worth it the expense. I’m left speechless (a true rarity for me).
The Antarctica Polar Plunge!
Back on board, we de-layer for lunch. We’ve been warned that at some point today (conditions permitting) we’ll be invited to take part in the Antarctic rite of passage known as the “polar plunge.”
This sadistic bit of nonsense involves stripping down to your skivvies in below-freezing temperatures. Then a harness is tied around your waist so you don’t drown in case you go into shock (doesn’t this sound fun?). And finally, throwing yourself off a perfectly sound, non-sinking ship into icy Antarctic waters hovering at a balmy 2°C.
Obviously, when said out loud, this sounds like an absurd proposition. Yet 59 of 114 Sea Spirit passengers (myself included) take part when Cheli sounds the alert just before lunch. (The sane among us watch from the deck above and take amusing pictures.)
I still have no idea why I did it. Probably a similar logic to why I propelled myself unassisted down the side of a steep snowy embankment yesterday. A complete lack of sanity and total disregard for all things logical and medically sound.
There is actually a picture of me in the final night slideshow, standing in said polar plunge line, wearing a robe, and looking like I actually realize this is a bad idea. Yet when my turn comes and Colin loops that dripping wet, freezing cold safety harness around me,
I step up to the platform and jump in like an Antarctic lemming.
As it turns out, there is only one positive thing about leaping into water famous mostly for providing an hospitable environment for icebergs. While I do feel the initial shock of the cold water, I also become instantly numb and it quickly deadens the pain of the remaining experience.
Of course, then I have to swim back to the ladder and actually climb it to get back on the boat. This becomes increasingly challenging with every extra second I’m submerged. I tried my best to jump as close to the ladder as possible. Yet, once in the water, the distance to reach it suddenly seems comparable to the distance of my last marathon.
But somehow I pull myself out of the water, re-don my robe and slippers, and made a hasty exit for the hot shower in my cabin. I stay there a while.
Mission accomplished. Idiotic tendencies confirmed. (And yes, there are after pictures in the photo gallery.)
Antarctic Peninsula: Port Lockroy & Jougla Island
Still speechless from my experience in Pleneau and equally astounding/obviously death-defying polar plunge, we resume normal activities with a BBQ lunch on the aft deck. As we eat, we cruise through the postcard-perfect Lemaire Channel (known as “Kodak Gap” for good reason) on the way to our final stop, Port Lockroy and Jougla Island.
Secretly established by Churchill during World War II, the British station at Port Lockroy was originally intended to report enemy activity and provide weather reports.
Today, the small rustic building is manned by three staff members each summer. They maintain the station as a living museum and monitor the effects of visitors on the penguin rookeries. It’s also the only place we visit that sells authentic Antarctica souvenirs in a well-stocked (considering their logistical challenges) gift shop.
Port Lockroy is also home to a post office where you can get your passport stamped and mail postcards. I mailed several…I haven’t the slightest idea how long these will take to arrive but if it’s less than a year I’ll be impressed.
Just across a narrow channel from Port Lockroy, Jougla Island is home to even more penguins.
But the island’s biggest attraction is a set of whale bones with a mouth so gigantic you could drive a zodiac through it. Marine Biologist, Natalie, stands by to wax poetic about the type of whale and how long it might have been there. It’s truly an amazing sight.
We re-board the Sea Spirit that afternoon with a touch of melancholy. Realizing we’ve made our final landing and have only the contentious Drake looming ahead.
On the plus side, by this point, we are all growing a bit weary of the gearing-up process (after all, I’ve barely seen my waist in days). But none of us have tired of the Antarctic.
A killer exit
And luckily, Antarctica is not quite done impressing us yet.
Just as we begin to sail away from Port Lockroy, Natalie spots orcas (the one thing we haven’t seen) swimming just off the port side of the ship.
An announcement brings everyone to the deck with cameras in hand as we’re escorted by a group of killer whales on our Antarctic departure.
That night Cheli hosts a farewell toast to Antarctica in the lounge before we gather for dinner to share our adventures from the day.
The kayakers have tales of a leopard seal darting beneath them in Pleneau and it seems everyone has a whale story to share.
We continue our revelry into the early morning hours, toasting the continent with glass after glass of champagne and building up a little liquid courage for the days ahead in the Drake.
Will we be as lucky the second time around?
Crossing the Drake Passage – Round Two
The crossing back through the Drake Passage is significantly rougher than the outbound. But it’s tolerable. And we realize just how lucky we are when we hear about the Silversea ship, the Silver Explorer.
On the first day we arrived in the South Shetlands, the Silver Explorer entered the Drake from Ushuaia bound for Antarctica. They hit a storm during their crossing and the ship was rocked by a 30-foot wave. The wave struck the bridge injuring four crew members including the captain.
The ship had to return to port and never made it to Antarctica. The next voyage (scheduled to depart two weeks later) is also canceled while the ship undergoes repairs.
Our much less dramatic journey back to Ushuaia is filled with days of lectures to wrap up everything we saw on the continent. Those are more sparsely attended than the crowded lectures on the way down as some passengers (myself included) elect to spend mornings trying to right their sleep schedule.
Cheers to our expedition leader
Since the expedition staff’s hard work is mostly behind them, we’re able to spend more time during our last few days getting to know them. It’s a close-knit group that genuinely enjoys working together. The adoration and respect for their leader, Cheli, is obvious and well deserved.
From the moment we awake each morning it’s Cheli’s cheerful voice over the loudspeaker announcing our plan for the day. At each landing site, she’s the first ashore, examining the landing conditions and overseeing the lowering of the zodiacs and disembarkation process.
She greets us at each and every landing site, welcoming us with her charismatic humor and making sure we see the best each site has to offer; safely and without running afoul of the IAATO. Her dedication to and enthusiasm for the continent are undeniably infectious.
In fact, I’m thoroughly impressed with the entire Quark experience. From the luxurious comforts of the ship and elegant touches like warm hand towels awaiting us upon every return from land (especially appreciated after rough zodiac rides) to the mulled-wine-serving zodiac and the delicious cuisine in the dining room.
Quark exceeded my expectations of what expedition travel could be. It almost feels like cheating to be so warm, comfortable, and well-fed during the entire voyage.
Even the bright yellow parkas are polar perfection. Mine kept me dry and warm the entire trip. In fact, I didn’t end up needing half of the clothes I brought. It’s truly been an exceptional experience from top to bottom and one that I will never forget.
The price of an Antarctic adventure
In our early days at sea, I often overhead passengers commenting on the exorbitant price of the trip. Wondering, I’m sure if it would live up to the extravagant cost.
But from the moment we made our first landing in the South Shetlands and were greeted by perfectly formed falling snowflakes and a colony of inquisitive chinstrap penguins, not another word was said about the cost.
There was an unspoken understanding that in exchange for our hard-earned dollars, we’ve been given an experience that is undeniably priceless.
I’ve received a lot of questions from friends and readers over the past few days. So I wanted to take a minute to clear up any remaining questions or misconceptions about traveling to Antarctica.
How cold is it in Antarctica?
Not nearly as cold as I thought it would be. Of course, keep in mind we traveled in January, the height of the Antarctic summer. And as with anything in that part of the world, conditions fluctuate greatly. The temperatures during our trip averaged a fairly mild 25 – 35° F.
To put that in perspective, I believe the current temperature in Minneapolis is somewhere near 11° F. So I suppose you could describe the weather in Antarctica as “balmy” by Minnesota standards.
How bad is the Drake Passage?
Again, not nearly as bad as I expected. Though I have no doubt we were pretty lucky. I wore a seasickness patch the whole time and I had no issues, even on the roughest nights. I didn’t hear of anyone else who was wearing the patch who became ill.
I think if you prepare for the Drake and take proper medical precautions, chances are you’ll be just fine. And if you really don’t want to risk, Quark offers several fly and cruise options as well. But in my opinion, the Drake is an important part of the Antarctic experience. A badge of seafaring honor, so to speak. I can now say I’ve crossed it twice and I didn’t puke. There’s got to be a t-shirt goldmine in that slogan somewhere.
How did you know what to pack for Antarctica?
When I first booked this trip, I had NO idea what to pack. Fortunately, Quark provides a very detailed packing list to cover every conceivable need during your voyage. It was a life saver.
Is an Antarctica Cruise expensive?
There’s no getting around it, an Antarctica cruise is expensive by typical vacation standards.
Expect to spend at least $5,000 per person with longer and more comfortable journeys ranging up to $15,000 per person. But shop around and watch for deals. Some companies offer a second person for 50% off or other deals to help offset the cost. And there are often last-minute deals available in Ushuaia (at least a dozen passengers on our ship had taken that route).
Of course, you have to be extremely flexible to take advantage of a deal like that and there’s no guarantee that anything will be available at the time you want to go. So yes, it’s expensive. But the cost of the trip will eventually fade from memory, the Antarctic never will. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Is there really anything to see in Antarctica?
One of the great things about the Antarctic is the colorful history of the continent.
I hadn’t really considered that pre-departure, but our ship’s historian, John, regaled us with stories of Antarctic adventurers. Like Shackleton who mounted expeditions to the continent with harrowing stories of survival and tragedy. Antarctica’s history of exploration, whaling, military bases, and research stations dates back hundreds of years and is simply fascinating.
Antarctica is nirvana for penguins, whales, seabirds, and all sorts of wildlife you’ll rarely see anywhere else. Visiting the penguin rookeries was an absolute joy (despite the acrid smell of penguin poo). We watched penguin chicks hatch and adults build their nests and feed their young. It’s nature, in a tuxedo, at its formal finest.
And finally, there’s the ice. I never realized how dynamically gorgeous icebergs can be. Each one is like a unique work of art. And the glacier formations create a blinding blue and white landscape like nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. When the ice calves or an avalanche thunders down a mountainside, it’s a memorable experience to witness.
And Antarctic sunsets (though it never actually gets dark) are pretty spectacular, too.
So yes, there’s plenty to see in the Antarctic. More than you’d ever imagine.
Our Final Days at Sea
During our remaining sea days, we are all asked to submit our best photos from the voyage. The ship’s photographer compiled them together on a DVD given free of charge to each passenger at the end of the voyage.
After dinner on our last night, we gather one final time as a group to watch the slide show (tirelessly compiled to perfection by Mette). As I watch the photos flash by and cheer the images of our first Antarctic landing alongside the people who’ve become so dear to me in just a short time, I’m awestruck by everything we’ve accomplished in the past 9 days.
It’s powerful in a way that I can’t compare to any other trip I’ve ever taken.
Upon arrival back at the port in Ushuaia, we begin the painful process of goodbyes. Some head straight to the airport, while others (like most of my new little family) are either staying in Ushuaia tonight or moving on to Calafate on a later flight.
Angela, Chris, Matt, John, Aileen, and I head straight for an internet café to reconnect with the world and begin sharing our incredible journey with loved ones. We connect with each other via Facebook to ease our separation anxiety. What a marvelous tool, Facebook. Keeping people connected like neighbors, regardless of the distance between them.
By the time we leave the café and head for the airport, we’ve spun a Facebook web connecting nearly half the ship.
I don’t know what it is about sharing an epic journey like this that turns total strangers from around the world into a family in just 9 days. But that’s exactly what happened.
Final thoughts on the trip of a lifetime
Over the coming weeks, we share our photos with family and friends and we try our best to put into words what we’ve seen. But unfortunately, I suspect only those who have been there will truly understand.
Perhaps it’s the sense of danger, of knowing that we’re alone in the Antarctic and have only each other and our ship to rely on.
Perhaps it’s that we’ve shared something together that so few have. Almost as if we’ve been let in on a secret that the rest of the world isn’t privy to. We’ve set foot on the frozen continent. And we did it together.
I think Cheli summed the entire experience best on our last night aboard when she shared one of her favorite quotes in heartfelt parting words,
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”
Make no mistake, Antarctica will do just that.
It’s not just one of my 30 most extraordinary travel experiences, it might just be my all-time favorite.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Next stop, Patagonia.