Antarctica has the capacity to humble like no other. It’s about twice the size of Australia and considered the coldest, driest and windiest place on the planet. With no permanent residents, it’s empty for all but a handful of research stations and animals that are able to survive there. By just being there you are in company with only ~35,000 other people from across the globe fortunate enough to visit each year. My 11 day trip there felt like a privilege and one of the best experiences of my life.
Before visiting the white continent myself, I had only known one person that had made the trip, and after seeing photos and hearing the stories when he returned I knew it was something that I wanted to do. After seeing the expected costs however it did take some deliberation before finally pulling the trigger. I booked the trip in January, at tiny ski resort in Japan where Hayden – presumably sick of me being indecisive – made the argument that at the end of the day it’s just money. Bank balances can be refilled when I get back home, but it’s not likely that I’ll find myself in South America at the end of world (where the ships depart) again in my lifetime. I paid the deposit that night.
At the end of February we departed from Ushuaia, the self proclaimed (but not entirely accurate) southern most city at the end of the world. Our ship, the Akademik Ioffe was full with 100 passengers, 20 staff and 40 crew and began slowly making its way through the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage. The Drake is known as one of the most dangerous ship passages in the world, and it would take us two days to cross it before reaching the Antarctic Peninsular. We got lucky with weather and the swells weren’t too bad, however I still had my moments of feeling seasick. The worst was definitely self induced when we decided to play a game of Bananagrams – but with a twist where after placing a tile each person had to rotate to the board on the right. Running around in circles on a ship going through big swells – dumb idea.
The demographic of passengers on this particular cruise was diverse, but our cruise had the apparently the ‘youngest’ of the season and I quickly formed a group with an amazing bunch of people who over the course of the trip would become close. Everyone came from broad and interesting backgrounds and we all shared in a sense of excitement as we filled the time crossing the Drake playing A LOT of cards (Shithead – best game ever), going to information sessions held by the various experts on board, eating an excessive amount of incredible food and strategising ways to beat the group of people who consistently made it first to the salad buffet every time.
We awoke on our third morning to ‘bergy bits’ (actually the technical name) and a couple of seals from the porthole window; the excitement on board was palpable. In a sign of how Antarctica can never get old, the grins on some of the crew were as wide as any of passengers, even after working for multiple seasons in the Antarctic. Our first excursion was to be at Pleneau Island – home to thousands upon thousands of Gentoo penguins.
The benefit of being part of a ‘smaller’ ship with around 100 passengers is that everyone gets to partake in each excursion. So after breakfast on that first of six days in the Peninsula everyone returned to their rooms to get layered up and put their foul weather gear on. Then we all made our way to the gangway and waited for the next free Zodiac (inflatable motorised boat) led by one of the staff who would take us to shore. All of the staff were fantastic, each with their own background, expertise and stories that they were more than happy to share. On that first morning we had Ben, a young Canadian who studied geology and would happily share his knowledge, or make something very plausible up when there was a curveball question.
There is nothing quite like the smell of thousands of penguins and their guano. The contrast from the clean, crisp air around the ship hit with force as soon as we stepped foot on shore.
March is late in the breeding season which meant that the Gentoo’s we were seeing were all in the process of moulting their fluffy down and replacing it with a slick new coat that they’ll be able to swim in. We were told that during the moulting they may be shy, and there are internationally agreed rules of keeping a 5m distance from the penguins. What we came to find however was that penguins haven’t yet learned to fear humans, with many being inquisitive and seemingly never getting the memo about the 5m rule.
Walking around the island for a few hours was a fantastic introduction to how much we would all come to love the Antarctic over the coming days. The wildlife, the unfathomable beauty in the landscapes and simply incredible icebergs. Each day we would do two excursions at two different locations with the ship relocating over lunch. Sometimes we would visit a research base, an old historical hut, whaling station or simply go for a cruise around the icebergs spotting wildlife.
Rather than continuing on with a day by day recap, I’ll use the rest of this post to share some photos and random highlights from the trip.
The Highlight Reel
My favourite excursion was to Cuverville Island where we just sat on the beach basking in the sun with a vista of incredible icebergs in front of us. Many of the penguins came and sat right next to me, pecked at my boots, pants and jacket and this one below tried to jump on to me.
Seals and whales. We saw a tonne of Crabeater seals who spend their days hanging out on bergy bits and living the good life. Seeing the power and speed with which they swim and around and throw themselves up onto the ice is an amazing contrast to how sluggish and docile they look. The fur seals we saw acted like oversized dogs, barking and chasing each other around. Quite a sight to behold. We saw a few humpback whales on the trip, with two or three of them putting on the most spectacular show right in front of the ship for over an hour. Jared the Whale Guy informed us that the science is still out on why they do it, and it’s rare for them to breach like that for so long, but humpbacks are believed to be quite emotional animals and it could be linked to that. Whatever the reason, it made for one of the most magical parts of the trip (I was too enamored to remember to get my camera out).
On our last day before sailing back to Ushuaia we spent the morning at Whalers Bay in Deception Island. The island is actually the caldera of an active volcano and Whalers Bay was once a whaling station that has since been largely destroyed due to volcanic activity. The site itself was incredible to walk around, but we also went on a polar plunge. It was surreal at first because the sand and waters edge were steaming hot, but a few metres in the temperatures were freezing!
One thing I’m continuing to learn is that the people you share experiences with are so important and have such a huge impact on how your perceive it. The people I spent time and became friends with on that cruise really were all fantastic. From the hilarious yet somber minute of silence for Jared the Whale Guy’s recent break up while on a zodiac tour to find whales to endless card table and hot chocolate laughs it helped make the whole trip incredible.
Laughs on the Zodiac. Photo Credit: Roger Pimenta
Icebergs are awesome. They may just be giant chunks of ice, but they cast a spell on you that leaves you awestruck. On this trip I took tonnes of photos of ice. None did them any justice, but a few came out ok.
We got to see a few different research bases which was fascinating. Each are owned and operated by various countries. The photo below is of the Ukranian base at Vernadsky Station which was bought from the British for 1 pound. If the British hadn’t sold it they would have had to pay the costs of removing all traces of the station from Antarctica to comply with Antarctic treaty regulations on ceasing station operations. It takes a certain kind of strength to be able to spend the winter in Antarctica when there is limited light, fresh food supplies or much space between you and the rest of the crew. All in the name of science.
Food: I didn’t have any expectations about the food going into this trip, but seriously it was just amazing. When the pastry chef gets a standing ovation during the thank-you’s at the end of the cruise you know that you’ve had some special desserts. For those of us who were ending the trip and continuing backpacking through South America (definitely not known for its cuisine) the 3 course lunch and dinners were something to be savoured.
I’m signing off with this photo of a Gentoo I watched waddle-fall-waddle for about 200m around a little bay next to the Argentinian research base. He took the long way around and persevered despite barely making it a few steps before falling over. The symbology spoke to me at the time and I think it’s one of my favourite photos from the trip.