The bottom of the world – visiting Antarctica
The ultimate bucket list adventure visiting and exploring the the South Pole.
I love going to the unknown and learning about other cultures. That began when my parents and I moved to Japan — I blame them for giving me the travel bug. By the time I was 8, I was running around Tokyo, the way I own Boston now. I clapped twice before praying, had mastered chopsticks, and answered the phone with moshi moshi. Fast forward to the present, my passion for traveling is just a part of who I am, it’s my drug. I’m a travel junkie always looking for my next fix of culture and adventure.
So, why Antarctica? That’s a question I’ve been asked repeatedly. Honestly, at first, it was my initial quest for seven, to be able to check off that last continent, but once I was there I quickly realized that it was going to be so much more than that. It’s a place you can’t quite put into words, it’s a feeling, an emotion, complete solitude. Antarctica was pure and calming. A silent detox from familiarity. The foreign noises were us – the zipper from our bags, the click of our camera, the hum of the engine. It was almost like you shouldn’t be there, but you’d never believe it unless you were there to bear witness. It was nice to get away from technology and the hustle of Boston, and just be able to be, and to observe. And I found myself doing a lot of that — observing. I’m always someone who’s behind the camera to capture the moment whether for social media or to print and hang on my wall. But I found myself on this trip, soaking up everything that I could.
Day 1: The Drake
We started by leaving Ushuaia on Quark Expedition’s Ocean Diamond for our two-day trek across the Drake Passage which can be known as some of the stormiest seas in the world. “Who wants a rough Drake?” Shane our expedition leader asked in our first briefing. A handful of hands went up. Mine was somewhere in the middle, like when you’re in class and you think you know the answer, but you’re not so sure. When you’re doing your research before coming to Antarctica, you hear about the horror that can be the “Drake Shake” so part of me was curious to know what those waters could be like. But for us, it was more of a “Drake Lake” so calm in fact that we got to Antarctica a half-day early and added in an extra landing.
Day 2: Our First Landing
Our first stop was the small Barrientos Island, part of the South Shetland Aitcho Island chain. As we got closer to land we could smell Antarctica, the penguin guano that is. The island was quite bare, with mostly dirt and no sight of snow. “Five meters!” was something we began to hear. We had to keep away from the penguins by five meters, but there was a catch! Since the penguins rule the island, they could come as close to us as they wanted, and they were curious creatures. The penguins on this island were mostly Chinstrap penguins, because of their (literally) black line around their chin. We planned to sit and let these spastic birds waddle over to us and see what we were all about. And our plan worked. The penguins were attracted to our bright yellow Quark jackets so we soon became known as the “yellow penguins.” They would look and stare, and peck at your clothes. They were like little cats constantly biting at anything that dangled and moved. String and zippers especially.
The summer season is a time when the baby penguins are not yet old enough to swim and catch their own food, so they are still feeding from their mothers, and with this, the babies chased and chased the mamas for some food. They squawked and sprinted towards their mothers as fast as their little legs can carry them. We started captioning and translating them: “Ma! The meatloaf,” “Mom, mom, mamma, ma,” “But mom I’m hungrrryyyy!” The mother penguins would even bark back at their babies when they had enough food.
Day 3: The Whales
Day three was one of my favorite days of the whole trip. We started our morning with snow flurries and a morning zodiac excursion. We adventured around Foyn Harbour and saw an old shipwreck. The icebergs were getting larger and larger since we traveled more south from our initial landing. As it was snowing, we looked at the snow falling, very magical. I looked at a snowflake that had fallen on my pants, and it was perfect. No literally, it was a perfect snowflake shape, the one you try to create when making paper snowflakes. I called out for people to look at this snowflake, and they began to look at new falling ones that were landing on them. They were all perfect. It was so cold in the air, that they even last for a little before melting. They started piling up on my bag, these perfect little snowflakes. Pointed edges, dimensions, and depths within the snow. Of course, Antarctica would have flawless snow — as it should.
After zodiacing around the harbor, we were back on the ship traveling through Wilhelmina Bay on our way to Danco Island. Shane came on the ship’s speaker system and told us there were humpback whales off the starboard side of the ship. I looked and looked, and then said: “is it near that rock?” But the rock was the whale. It was the top of the whale’s back just barely peeking out of the water. I watched, but he/she was just chillin’. So we went and got lunch. During lunch, Shane came back with another announcement. More whales have come into the bay, and he had decided to change our day’s plans. We skipped Danco Island and were told to (quickly) eat our lunch, and (quickly) get our gear on so we could (quickly) get on the zodiacs and (quickly) get closer to the whales. So we did. We scarfed down our food, ran to our cabins yellowing “Go! Go! Go! This is not a drill!” threw on our coats, waterproof pants, gloves, scarves, and the rest of our cold-weather items, and jumped on a zodiac. Acacia was our driver. She was the ship’s professional photographer so immediately Nicole and I are both thinking “yesss!” because we knew we would get some great shots with her guidance. But Acacia said that she rarely takes pictures of whales because you have to be ready for that one perfect moment and it can sometimes take time, so she prefers just to keep these photos stored in her memory instead of seeing them through the lens. With that note, I made sure that I didn’t stay looking through my lens too long. I decided to mostly video on my phone so that I could hit record, and just hold my phone. It would be able to capture what I saw, and I wouldn’t need to pay too much attention.
We so left the ship and headed out. There were some humpbacks right near the boat, and now I was able to easily spot that floating “rock” so I knew what to look at. And now, to be honest, the rest of the whale watching was a blur in the best way. The whales were everywhere. “There are some over there!” “No look over there!” No matter where you looked, there were pods of whales swimming through the bay. It was the most genuine and natural thing to see. This is how they live, this is what they do. This was a normal afternoon for them. And they were loud, so loud. Between the deep sounds and the power from their blowhole shooting water upwards of five feet, it was something even on the best New England whale watch you would never see. They were hitting the water with their fins and were diving and being so playful. We were told the noises and hitting the water was their way of communicating. The louder the sound, the farther the sound can travel through the water. And the reason for their playfulness was that they were feeding. Mmmm, krill.
We moved throughout the bay to get the most whale time. Plus, everyone wanted that perfect shot of the whale tale diving into the water. And we had Acacia. “Tale,” she should say right before the whale would dive. She had done this before and could tell from their movements that the whale was going to dive. She was right. We all ended up with gorgeous pictures of the whales and their uniquely colored and patterned tails. Then over the expedition team’s radio, some news sparked Acacia’s interest. So we headed to another area, she wouldn’t tell us just yet what she had heard, but then we saw it — breaching whales. Breaching is when the whale jumps up out of the water, again for communication, but this was such an awe moment. All I could think about was the force and strength that these whales have to be able to power their bodies so far out of the water. Acacia pulled out her camera. We knew this was an incredible experience if the photographer, who just told us she never took pictures of whales, was grabbing her lens.
After the whale would dive, it left this puddle in the water, a footprint it was called. So this was another great resource to help us look around for whales because we knew where they just were. The best things come when you least expect them. Whoever said that was right. This is something that I could have never imagined, and something that I will probably never see again. It is one of those things that I am just going to have to say, you had to be there. But, I have Nicole and she was there. It was a sight that was breathtaking, it literally took my breath away, and when I think back to the library in my head of my life’s favorite memories, this is at the top. It has breached among the best (pun intended). Wilhelmina Bay turned into Whale-elmina Bay for us.
None of us were quiet at dinner that evening. Each of us telling our incredible stories of our whaleventures. One not over shining any of the other stories, but each adding to the incredible day. How could anything top this?
Day 4: 7 Dwarfs
The next morning we set out to Damoy Point for a landing and zodiac cruising. Before any landing, the expedition team would go scout the landing and mark off any hazardous areas or paths we should follow with red flags. When we got to Damoy Point, we saw flag paths going in two directions: one along the water to a penguin colony, the other up the glacier to a vantage point. So, up the hill we went. It didn’t look that tough when we started up, but quickly with the hill, walking in the snow, and the weight of our boots, we were getting winded, but as I’m sure you can imagine, the view was worth the hike. The panoramic view let you see the whole circular path of the bay and the beautiful peaks, referred to as the seven dwarfs you guessed it, because there were seven peaks. The top of the glacier turned into some scene out of Rocky, victory high-fives as we made it to the top, followed by sitting down to catch our breath. The hike warmed us up and we quickly took off some of our many layers and began to play like kids in the snow — making snow angels, taking jumping photos, and even throwing a few snowballs at each other. We had made it. This felt like Antarctica.
The weather we had in Antarctica was impeccable. The sun was shining, barely below 1°C or 33°F, and didn’t feel too much different than the cold of Boston. We were lucky. And today was no different, but there was this eerie mist and fog that was happening over the water which was just Antarctica showing us her many facades. And the mountains, they were perfect. You know when you’re in kindergarten and you draw mountains, symmetrical with that perfect v-shaped peak and two evenly more symmetrical smaller mountains balanced on either side. Right? Well, that is what this view was. Never could I have imagined something so literally, so textbook. We hiked down the mountain and visited some of the penguins in the colony- this time mostly Gentoo penguins. These were less frantic and hyper than the penguins we saw on Barrientos Island. It must have been siesta time for them. We put back on our layers and jumped into our zodiacs. The weather had turned even more beautiful. Birds flying, sun shining, and flawlessly clear water that gave off the most unreal reflections from the snow and mountains. Then all of a sudden we heard thunder – or so we thought. A loud boom you could hear in the distance. But the skies were clear….? Ice. It was the echoing of ice falling from the glaciers. We looked quickly and could see the splash, the ice cannonball falling into the water. That wasn’t the last time we would hear the thunder either.
Back on the ship, we had some lunch and got ready for the second half of the day – shopping! We were heading to Port Lockroy which was a secret British World War II military base and is now a research station for the Brits which has a souvenir shop and one of the only post offices on the continent. With a credit card in tow, we hopped back onto the zodiacs but before we landed at Port Lockroy, we zodiaced through Jougla Point where the mirrored reflections became normal, but still effortlessly breathtaking. And of course, more penguins.
The last stop of the day was time for sending postcards and getting in a little retail therapy. Nicole and I had taken time over the last two days to crank through writing out the many postcards that we decided to mail to friends and family. We might have gotten a little carried away with our over 50+ postcard combined, but how many times can you send a postcard from Antarctica. Yea, that’s what we thought, too. We visited the museum at Port Lockroy and shopped. Scarfs, blankets, sweatshirts, and stuffed penguins were at the top of our list.
That night the crew surprised us with a Leap Year Luau, since it was February 29, ironically serving island cocktails and playing the Beach Boys in the background.
Day 5: Thru the Ice & Into the Water
An early wake-up call around 6:45 a.m. had us slowly navigating through the Lemaire Channel. Because of its narrow width, the channel is filled with ice and lots of it. The ship slowly crept through with glaciers on either side of us. This was the iceberg graveyard. Stuck between glaciers. Because the wind would power through the channel, it created unique and ever-changing ice formations. Every zodiac partners up with another zodiac for safety. We were back on Acacia’s boat and smarty-pants partnered with Wolfgang, the ship’s geologist, and for this cruising, he was the one to have leading the way. He was in his element, giving us all the information about the ice, the formations, and why they are different shades of blue. So we did what no one else did, we went into the ice. Our little zodiacs powered through and soon we were surrounded by little and large pieces of floating ice.
Then we’re back on the ship for lunch and to head to the next spot (you get the drill). Petermann Island was the destination, for cruising and a landing. This was the most southern point of our voyage and for the first time, we got to see some of the snow algae – reds, oranges, and greens popped against the white snow. And we saw two Adelé penguins! These were the only two Adelés we saw during our trip because many had migrated onward.
We got back on the ship, and it was time. For those of us who were stupid enough to think jumping into the freezing cold water would be a fun experience, this was our moment. Nicole had seen videos of people doing the Antarctic polar plunge during our research for this trip, and this was something she had decided she wanted to do, so I decided to jump right alongside her. “If you have a heart condition, please see the doctor before jumping into the water.” (Well, duh). The water was 1°C. What were we thinking?! We went to our rooms and put on our bathing suits and bathrobes, but before heading down to Deck 3, we needed a little liquid courage from the bar.
Once down in line, we all were pumping each other up, cheering each other on as they ran through the doors and down the stairs. As soon as someone ran down, it was only a few seconds before someone ran out with a “holy Sh!t” look on their faces. The crew passed out a straight vodka shot to the plungers on their way back into the boat. You know, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Too many times in high school had I jumped from a hot tub into a “cold” pool, so that had been my training. We stayed on Deck 3 to cheer on our other friends, and when that line ended, hot showers for all!
Day 6: Our Continental Landing
While the whole time so far we had “been in Antarctica” we had never set foot onto the mainland continent until today, we had been on islands off the Peninsula. Gentoo penguins were there to welcome us to Neko Harbour, and we then hiked up another glacier. Someone brought a sign that said “Antarctica #7 [check],” which got passed around the group for those lucky enough to have officially stepped foot on their seventh continent. It was a little emotional. We zodiaced around the harbor and saw lots and lots of Crabeater seals hanging out and snoozing on the ice. Man can those guys snore!
Later, we continued zodiacing through Paradise Harbour where we got close to some of the birds of Antarctica, and then ended with a landing at Argentina’s Base Brown. This was the hill of all glaciers but I had to. Nicole opted this one out, so I grabbed my walking stick and left, right, left, right. It was foggy at the top, but 150m above Antarctica was pretty cool. Back down at the bottom, we had some extra time before the last zodiac left, so I wanted to get some penguin overdose En route back to the ship, we picked up some glacier ice for our drinks. There was certain ice, the glacier ice, that almost looks black in the water because it is so clear. This means it came from a glacier and was very pure and the best option for the bar. Throughout the excursions, we were always on the lookout but ice can be heavy, so we needed to wait for the right piece. We all ordered “The Drake Shake,” a custom drink on the Ocean Diamond, and requested it to be poured over our glacier ice.
Day 7: The Drake Part II
Our voyage sadly was coming to an end, and we headed back north. The day was pretty relaxing. We were sorting through pictures, shopping in the ship’s gift store, and sharing stories. We would be hitting the drake around 11 pm we were told. That night they hosted a charity auction where they auctioned off some items like a Neko Harbour penguin colony, glacier water, and the ship’s Antarctic flag that was flown during the voyage. The seas began to get progressively rough, and we all ended up in bed early that night partially from the waves, partially we were all crashing after our amazing journey.
Day 8: Birthday Celebrations
The last day at sea and the last night on the ship was also my 31st birthday. Nicole and I finally made it up to the bridge to see all the navigation equipment. I also asked how to turn the boat around… We spent the day exchanging emails and phone numbers with our new friends (because we couldn’t Facebook them with no internet). The kitchen made me a delish chocolate birthday cake, and I was given a card signed by the expedition team.
After dinner, it was party time. Not only for my birthday, but to hang out and celebrate with the expedition team, and all of the wanderlusters. By 10 pm we were back in port and cellphone service kicked in. I didn’t want to check my phone or emails but did connect to make sure I was Facebook official with all my new friends.
Day 9: Goodbye for Now
It was an early morning and time for debarkation. We collected our passports and searched through to find our newest stamp from Port Lockroy. I’m going to have to laminate that page or something to make sure that stamp is forever. Some headed right to the airport, and some, like me and Nicole had a few hours to kill. We found a little coffee shop in Ushuaia that had wifi, and we started getting back to the real world. Mostly just to begin posting photos.
Like I said in the beginning, I went on this trip to be able to say I have stepped foot on every continent. And I can. But Antarctica has this je ne sais quoi. I’m still trying to find another word other than indescribable but even the thesaurus doesn’t have an answer. What I can say is that Antarctica is the most natural, untouched place. You truly feel like a visitor. The experience of being on the bottom of the world and seeing nature in its purest form is… I’ll let you know when I have found the word.