Antarctica, or, Our Visit to the Moon

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Depart from Ushuaia, Argentina
  • Day 2: Crossing the Drake Passage
  • Day 3: Barrientos Island
  • Day 4: Half Moon Island & Whaler’s Bay
  • Day 5: Enterprise Island, Wilhelmina Bay and Cuverville Island
  • Day 6: Lemaire Channel, Peterman Island and Pleneau Island
  • Day 7: Paradise Bay/Almirante Brown and Neko Harbor
  • Day 8: Crossing the Drake Passage
  • Day 9: Return to Ushuaia

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: March 2-11, 2014

Our Odyssey:

Antarctica. I don’t know where to begin. By far it was the most magical, fascinating and otherworldly place we’ve ever been. Boarding the cruise ship, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was like stepping into another realm, and as the days go by the beauty and serenity of the surroundings slowly lull you into a sort of trance, held captive by the wildlife, and the wild, of the Antarctic. Thoughts of the “real” world disappear and it’s easy to believe that every day should and will be like this: beautiful, big, unpredictable, and spontaneous. And it’s only upon disembarkation and the sudden jolt back into civilization that you understand the spell you were under; and by then, the spell is broken.

The quote I posted below by Jon Krakauer best conveys the feelings I have about having spent time in this region of the world- “Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.”

So, you’re probably wondering what my time on the “moon” was like, why I wanted to go there to begin with, and how one even gets there. If you don’t care about the logistics (cost, tour company, ports of embarkation, etc.), and just want to know about the things we saw and did, go ahead and jump down a few paragraphs. You can come back to these next few paragraphs when you’re done and you too have decided you have to go to Antarctica and want to know how. 🙂

You could say our trip to Antarctica started about a year and a half ago when we had the idea to add this to our RTW itinerary. It all started with the documentary series “Frozen Planet”, which is basically the “Planet Earth” equivalent for the Arctic and Antarctic regions. For those who haven’t watched it, you really should, and for those who have, I’m sure a trip to the polar regions is on your bucket list too. The idea born, I then turned to doing what I’ve learned to do best over the past 4.5 years- project planning, starting with a little bit of, shall we say, “discovery.”

I began researching how to go to Antarctica. By and large, cruises were the front runner, and they left from a variety of ports: Buenos Aires, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, and even Australia. I read a travelogue written by a former coworker about her trip around the world that included an Antarctic cruise, and talked with another, then-current, coworker about his recent cruise there. The same themes emerged: going to Antarctica is beautiful, brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime…and pathetically expensive. Ranging from $3,000 on the very low end to more than $20,000 on the very high end, Antarctic cruises will really suck up nearly anyone’s travel budget, so we knew we needed to plan carefully if we wanted to incorporate this into our trip.

Last summer, in July, after several months of researching tour companies and costs, we decided to go with an 11 day itinerary offered by Quark Expeditions. I’d read that Quark was known for its high-quality, “budget-friendly” Antarctic tours, and the cruise fit what we had allocated to spend and what we wanted to do by going to Antarctica, as well as the timeframe we had to work with (http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/en/antarctic/expeditions/antarctic-explorer). At about $9,000 each, we booked a room aboard the Sea Spirit, embarking on March 2 and disembarking on March 11 in Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city in the world).

To get to Ushuaia, we took a 12 hour bus from Punta Arenas, Chile, which cost about $60 each, much more affordable than flying. We spent about a week in Ushuaia before the cruise, and just relaxed the entire time. We didn’t do a single touristy thing aside from eat crab- after 4 straight weeks of hiking and nontstop traveling, we were tired, and this sleepy city at the “end of the world” was the perfect spot to unwind before our cruise.

The Drake Passage Part 1:

Our first two days on the cruise were sea days crossing the Drake Passage, notorious as one of the roughest regions to sail through with waves up to 20-25 meters in a “Bad Drake”, and waves around 5-10 meters in an “Okay Drake”. Ours hung out around 6 meters, so not terrible, but certainly not comfortable. The crew lined the hallways with barf bags in case of urgent situations, and most people stayed in bed during those two days. Tim and I fared alright, with me just feeling a little quesy the morning of the second day but getting over it pretty quickly. In the afternoon we attended seminars taught by members of the expedition team on history and wildlife in the region of the Antarctic Peninsula we’d be visiting.

First Excursion:

On day 2 of the Drake passage, March 4, we were all largely surprised to learn that we would already be making our first landing that afternoon at Barrientos Island in the South Shetland Islands. The 1.5km island is home to steep cliffs up to 70m and, more excitingly, gentoo and chinstrap penguins! As a long-time penguin fan, I was thrilled to be on an island surrounded by penguins, many of them toddlers who still had their baby feathers. The gentoos in particular were very curious about us- in our bright yellow parkas, we were large puffy creatures walking around their home- and they approached us to inspect. Tim and I each enjoyed some memorable interactions with penguins. Mine was when one came up near me, about a foot from my feet, and tapped at my boots with his beak. Tim caught a great picture of the gentoo staring up at me, and me down at him. Tim’s experience is, frankly, the better story. We were sitting on the ground and 2 penguins came up quite close to us. Tim was admiring them and taking pictures when quite suddenly the one nearest to him threw up and then shook his head, spraying his vomit onto Tim. How many people can say they’ve been vommed on by a penguin?

In addition to the many Antarctic fur seals we also saw, we did see one other type of seal that day- a southern elephant seal which is a “true seal”, meaning it cannot extend its rear limbs under its body. The fur seals we saw so often is an example of an “eared seal”, meaning that it can put it’s rear limbs under its body and therefore walk around more. This was pretty fun stuff we loved learning about while on the trip!

That evening, with the excitement of our first landing and the relief of having crossed the Drake Passage, many people were finally out and about the ship socializing. Over the course of our expedition, Tim and I made many friends, notably two other couples- John & Wendy, and Wade & Suzie; and two girls around my age who won the cruise from the travel company they each work for- Sarah and Lisa. We met many others as well, but these 6 people were the ones we spent the most time with.

Second Excursion:

The next day was our first full day of landings. Our first in the morning was to Half Moon Island, shaped like a crescent and 2km long. Once again, we saw many gentoo and chinstrap penguins, as well as fur seals and a Weddell seal. The main distinguishing factor of this site from the one the day prior is that there seemed to be a lot more penguin poop on this island, identifiable by it’s pink color due to their krill diet (that’s right, even their poop is cute).

Third Excursion:

That afternoon we sailed through a straight called Neptune’s Bellows and made a landing at Deception Island. This was a fascinating stop, as it is one of the few places in Antarctica where you can see a bit of human history. The island used to be a Norwegian whaling station and later a British survey base, up until it was evacuated in 1967 when it erupted. Oh yeah, in the center of Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano. The caldera has been flooded by the sea to form a large bay, now called Port Foster. The bay has a narrow entrance, called Neptune’s Bellows. Just inside Neptune’s Bellows lies the cove Whalers Bay, which is bordered by a large black sand beach. This is where we landed. We first walked up a steep and windy hill to a view of mainland Antarctica through “Neptune’s Window” (just a gap in the rocks), but were unable to see anything due to the overcast weather. During that walk, though, we passed by a seal who started to approach me in a way that seemed a bit threatening- I thought for a moment I was being chased! I raised my arms up over my head to make myself seem bigger, as our guides had recommended in these cases, and sure enough the seal backed down.

After that brief hike, we walked to the other end of the beach to several structures that were still standing from the island’s history, as well as foundations for buildings that have since been destroyed by either the volcano or the weather in general. We got to see the buildings they lived in, and the storage barrels they held food supplies in, as well as the cemetary where a little over 30 men are buried (I say men here because they all were in those days, since women were scarcely “allowed” to travel to this region). All in all, it was an interesting historical stop.

That evening we enjoyed yet another delicious meal and the company of our new friends, playing games in the bar. Cheers govenor!

Fourth Excursion:

On the next day, a Thursday, the weather was not favorable to the itinerary originally planned for us (landing at Enterprise Island), and that landing was canceled. This is common on cruises to Antarctica where the weather dictates what we can and cannot do- part of the fun of this type of trip is that in some cases your itinerary changes on the fly and you can experience something unexpected. Tim and I took the opportunity to sleep in, and not even an hour later, the Quark team announced on the overhead speakers that they spotted some humpback whales around the ship. Still not fully dressed we hopped out of bed and watched from our window for a bit and were able to see a few whales while in the comfort of our cabin! The Quark team did a great job of identifying a back up plan and organized an excursion into the zodiac boats to cruise around Wilhelmina Bay looking for more humpback whales. And we saw plenty! Being in the zodiacs with just 10 other people provides a social yet intimate experience and allows us to get very close to the wildlife. Frequently, the humpback whales we saw were no more than 15 feet away from our boat, and at least once we saw a whale come up right in front of a neighboring zodiac, no more than 5 feet from their boat. It was pretty incredible.

We were also able to cruise up close to some of the mountainous islands, bring us near the sea ice that was forming (it’s late summer in Antarctica, so things will be freezing up soon) as well as some large ice bergs (that we didn’t realize until much later were actually very small compared to others we’d get to see).

Fifth Excursion:

That afternoon we stopped at Cuverville Island, home to the largest gentoo penguin colony in the region. This was a particularly fun and playful trip because, in addition to all of the penguins running about, it was snowing, and Tim decided to make “snow penguins”- a baby one and an adult one. We also hiked up a hill to get a view of some more penguins and seals, and once there, we decided the easiest way back down was sledding on our backs. It was the kind of snow day where you have the day off from school as a kid and play outside all day, only this time with a polar twist.

After our time on shore, we hopped back in the zodiacs for a cruise around the island. We came up to some icebergs, and saw a leopard seal (a bit of a rarity in and of itself) swimming with a gentoo penguin in his mouth- it was lunch time for this seal! When it comes to seals vs. penguins, I’m generally a penguin enthusiast, but I have to admit that watching nature in action- the predator and the prey- was pretty amazing. The scene only became more amazing when we realized that the penguin was actually still alive and that the two were in a bit of a cat and mouse chase. The leopard seal never let the penguin get too far away before snatching it up again. It was truly incredible to witness, and a highlight of the trip for me. Tim actually got a really good picture of this while it happened and shared it with all other guests on the ship.

That evening we ate dinner and drank wine with John and Wendy who let us in on a secret they’d been harboring since embarkation day – they were planning to get married on the ship, and wanted us to be there to help film the event! We were thrilled to be invited- and honored that this kind, fun couple we’d met wanted us to be a part of their big day. To make matters even more fun the day of the wedding was a surprise even to the bride and groom – the captain would give them 3 hours notice one of the upcoming days. Yikes!!

Sixth Excursion:

Our third full day of excursions began with a stop at Peterman Island, where we saw yet more gentoos, as well as crabeater seals. Tim and I played in the snow again, and Tim and Wade even started a snowball fight that eventually grew to two teams of about 10 people each!

Seventh Excursion:

That afternoon, we took a zodiac cruise through the waters around Pleneau Island, referred to be our expedition team as an “iceberg graveyard”. I thought of it more as an iceberg heaven, as the sights were just stunning. The shades of blue we saw were exquisite – it was a landscape of light teal, deep turqoise, gray, and white. And the size of the icebergs made us in our zodiacs seem small. Imagine the size of a large two story house. Turn it into ice in your mind. Plop it in the water. That’s the size of a smaller iceberg- and just what’s visible of it above the water. Aside from the size, their shapes were also striking. Some jagged, some smooth, each telling a story about the type of journey it’d been on to get to this point near Pleneau Island. One in particular looked like a sinking ship- like a ghost of the ships in the failed expeditions from the age of Antarctic discovery.

Eighth Excursion:

Our final day of excursions began with our first of two stops on the Antarctic continent itself (instead of on the islands)- Paradise Harbour at Almirante Brown Station, an Argentine base. It is one of only two harbors used by cruise ships for continental stops (the other is Neko Harbor, where we stopped at later in the day). At Paradise Bay we hiked up a steep hill to the top of a rocky cliff, overlooking icebergs all around. While here, Wendy and John told us that there wedding as going to be that afternoon at 4pm after the last excursion. We also got to see yet more gentoos – these even friendlier than the others we had met. This time one nibbled on my finger, and another came so close to Tim’s camera he was able to snap a perfect portrait. After the shore landing, we cruised in the zodiacs around Skontorp Cove, which gave us a view of the cliff we had climbed up- accentuating just how high up we were. During the cruise we saw a number of leopard seals resting on ice floes.

Ninth Excursion:

Our last excursion of the trip was to Neko Harbor in Andvord Bay. This landing was particularly magical as it offered views of a calving glacier and a hike up a hill that provided a view down on to the top of the glacier itself – a rare perspective to get so easily. Sitting at the top of this hill, you could hear the constact chatter of the penguins below and the occasional thunder of the ice calving from the glacier, producing a stream of snow tumbling from the side down into the bay below. Around 3pm we hiked back to the zodiacs so we could get back to the ship in time to change and make our way to the bridge for the wedding, but once in the zodiac, word got out that there were humpback whales just around the cove, so we ended up going on an unexpected whale watch, getting to see two large whales hovering just at the surface of the water and occasionally diving under.

We made it back to the ship just in time to catch “You may now kiss the bride”, and while Tim and I were a little frustrated that our zodiac couldn’t get back to the ship earlier, we were still happy to be celebrating with John and Wendy. Wade and Suzie captured pictures and video of the ceremony, and the crew brought a bottle of champagne to start the celebrations.

Shortly after, announcements came on the speakers saying that the “Polar Plunge” would be happening around 5pm. I hadn’t been planning to participate (the idea of jumping in Antarctic waters when it’s already cold enough just standing outside wasn’t the most appealing), but upon seeing the number of participants, several a bit elderly (the oldest to plunge was 77 years old) the subtle peer pressure coerced me into it. I ran back to our cabin to grab a robe and my swimsuit, finished my glass of champagne, and joined some of our friends in the line for the plunge. Tim took the camera and found a good viewing point on the deck above.

The best part of the plunge was just waiting in line and watching others’ reactions- all of which you can catch in the video slideshow posted below of the Polar Plunge. We had the option of swimming out to another zodiac or just climbing back out and up to the ship, and when it came my turn, I had decided I would decide how far to swim once I got in the water. It was piercingly cold, and as soon as my head was back above water I turned around, grabbed the rail and hopped out and ran immediately up to the hot tub to join several other polar plungers.

Dinner that night was a wedding reception, complete with a wedding cake topped by a penguin bride and groom. These were definitely the best wedding cake toppers I’ve ever seen. That night we enjoyed more champagne, but as we were about to enter back into the dreaded Drake Passage, many people headed to bed early, myself included.

The Drake Passage Part 2:

Our second crossing of the Drake was very close to a “Bad Drake”- waves reached near 10 meters and the boat was rocking pretty intensely. I didn’t get sick at all, but Tim and I spent most of the next day in bed since laying down was a lot easier than walking around. Plus, we were exhausted and constantly trying to sleep since the constant rocking made it very difficult to ever stay asleep for very long.

Eventually we made it through the rougher parts and were able to attend some final educational seminars. Our last day aboard the ship was bittersweet- exchanging contact information, making plans for future polar adventures (Arctic 2015!), and watching the video slideshow a Quark team member, Will, put together for us all to take home. The slideshow is a compilation of videos and photos taken by people on our cruise and is a wonderful souvenir of the best pictures and memories we had from our journey. There were definitely tears.

That night was all celebration, though, as our expedition team finally let loose and joined us all in the bar for a night of dancing. It was a wonderful way to enjoy the company of everyone we’d met for one last night.

The next day we disembarked in Ushuaia early in the morning. By 8am we were off the ship, snapped out of the ice-induced trance and back in the “real world”. Tim and I sat and tried to think of ways to end this post that do Antarctica the justice it deserves, but we simply can’t. Yes, we were back in the “real world”, but we both feel that the majesty of Antarctica is as real as it gets.

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