After a very long, sleepless flight from Australia, we arrived in Buenos Aires on a wet afternoon, with only one agenda on our minds—Antarctica! Our dream to see every continent was getting closer and closer, but we still had 3,500 kilometers ahead of us to reach Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the jumping-off point to the driest continent on Earth.
Our journey to the tip of Argentina took us two weeks to hitchhike, camping along the way, and living off bread and peanuts—but, hey, we’re used to. Once arriving in Ushuaia, we finally found ourselves relishing the comforts of our en-suite cabin on a ship bound for Antarctica. After we showered off a week’s worth of dust, all 197 of us on board gathered for a briefing by the crew, went through an emergency drill, and signed up for zodiac teams. Let the journey begin!
Over the course of our 11-day expedition, we attended many presentations given by the crew, each possessing their own specialization. These informative sessions really added so much value to our Antarctic experience.
A marine biologist taught us about the wildlife we would see, their breeding habits, where they lived, how deep they can dive, and the food they eat. A geologist spoke about tectonic plates and how Antarctica was created, and a photographer gave us tips for taking the best pictures. We learned about the Antarctic Treaty, the history of the claims countries have made to this remote continent, as well as the whaling and sealing that took place on and offshore.
It took us almost three days to cross the Drake Passage, an area of water between South America and Antarctica that’s renown for some of the roughest seas in the world. And, boy, did it live up to its reputation! The rocking of the ship was far from a gentle sway and more like a ruthless toss in a washing machine.
Before going to bed on the first night, the ship’s doctor offered to drug us up with tablets to prevent sea sickness, so that we wouldn’t wake her up at ungodly hours in need of an injection to make us feel better. Her talk was so thorough that afterwards half of the passengers lined up to get those tablets.
By midnight, we were facing high waves and swells of up to 12 meters high on the second day. The ship’s decks were closed off to passengers, the captain ordered to proceed at full speed in an attempt to minimize time spent in this hot zone, and the doctor handed out more of her magic tablets. I’m not sure if it was due to my excitement or the rocking of the ship, but I got maybe one hour’s sleep on the first night.
We made it!
On the third day, we arrived in calmer waters and finally reached Antarctica. Our expedition leader told us that it was the hardest crossing they had experienced all season—but we made it! We ventured on deck to gaze at the land that drew nearer on the horizon, as well as spot icebergs, seals, and whales that appeared near the ship.
Presentations were replaced with zodiac rides and landings on the continent. Due to the Antarctic Treaty, no more than 100 people at a time can land on the continent in a given place. Therefore, the landing times—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—were split into shifts. While two groups landed on the continent to see a particular area, the other two groups zipped around offshore in zodiacs. After an hour or so, we switched places.
The first location we explored on Antarctica was Paradise Bay. The backdrop is full of glaciers, epic giants that seemed to have come out of the clouds to settle in the icy-blue sea. We walked to a lookout point and had a chance to explore an area around an Argentinian station, where a colony of penguins had taken refuge behind the walls. Older penguins appeared to be molting last season’s feathers, and young chicks—grey balls of fluff—waddled after their parents, begging to receive their next meal.
On our way to Niko Bay in the afternoon, where a Chilean station is located, we spotted a leopard seal devouring a crabeater seal. Our zodiac driver was so enthralled by this macabre scene that he didn’t want to leave; I think he was more interested in it than the other passengers.
That evening, we took a midnight swim in the hottest pool I had ever been in. It was filled with sea water for the first time, and many passengers made use of it. It also meant that half of us ended up smelling like guano (penguin poo) when we got out of the water.
Greetings from Antarctica!
On the morning of day two in Antarctica, we landed at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. This British station not only houses a museum showcasing what life was like on the island for some of the first scientists who were stationed here, but it also has the one and only post office on the whole continent.
Of course, everyone got busy writing postcards to send to their family and friends. The only thing is that the last boat of the season, which delivers the mail, had left a few days before we arrived. So, we’ll arrive home before the postcards will.
In the afternoon, we were on Danco Island and climbed up a hill for an amazing panorama. Luckily, we were there just in time to watch two avalanches cascade down adjacent glaciers. It was also our first sunny day since leaving Ushuaia, and we had clear views of where the glaciers came from.
Beautiful clear skies welcomed us on our third day. In the afternoon, we only had a zodiac cruise, a nice and long one around Pleaneau, which was full of icebergs. At one point, we were surrounded by flocks of penguins, all swimming together feeding on krill. They came in waves, jumping out of the water, hundreds at a time.
The animals of Antarctica fascinated me to no end, particularly their curiosity about us. They haven’t yet learnt to fear man, which meant that we were always being followed by animals that happened to be in the vicinity. Birds, whales, seals, or penguins, they all seemed intrigued by our presence.
A polar experience
In the morning of our fourth day, we cruised around Cierva Cove. Our zodiac driver was also the ship’s photographer, which was great because she always wanted to stay in the most photogenic spots the longest. Most of the frigid water was covered in what is called pancake ice, round pieces of ice that can measure up to three meters in diameter. We also spotted many humpback and minke whales, which swam quite close to the boat and hung around for as long as we did.
Once back on the ship, we had the chance to experience what is known as a polar plunge. One by one, each of us jumped into the frigid waters, then scampered back onto the ship. The polar plunge gave me a similar sensation of a brain freeze after drinking a frosty drink too fast, but in this case for the whole body!
In the afternoon we were in zodiacs around Spurt Island, an area similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam, where large, jagged karsts rise out of the water. Full of caves and passageways, we made our way through the maze of these rocky monuments.
All good things must come to an end
I was already dreading to leave on our fifth and final day in Antarctica. In the morning we had a zodiac cruise and landing at an active volcano called Deception Island. We got to see a couple of young elephant seals and lots of curious fur seals. The island was once home to a Norwegian whaling station, now abandoned and taken over by seals and the odd penguin.
It was entertaining to watch the fur seals, with one in particular going after anyone trying to pass near him. There was no other way to avoid him because we had to follow the tracks that led us to the point where he happened to be resting. The ship’s doctor, who was usually busy handing out sea-sickness pills, appointed herself as a sentry, standing between the seal and everyone else with only a flag as her weapon of choice.
After lunch, we headed towards Half Moon Island, our final magical stop on the continent. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, the island is absolutely gorgeous. While traveling around in our zodiacs, a few leopard seals swam up to us and started biting the zodiacs, perhaps thinking we could be lunch. Up to three meters in length and nearly 400 kilos, you don’t want to mess with these seals. One even took interest in the kayakers and tried to take a bite out of a kayak.
As our final day came to an end, I surely understood why people call a voyage to Antarctica the trip of a lifetime. It was truly an amazing experience to be surrounded by sheer wilderness, untouched beauty, clean air, curious animals, and picture-postcard views in every direction.
About the authors: Tania and Jirka started their round-the-world adventure with the aim to see every continent before settling down. From hiking the Everest Base Camp in Nepal to teaching English in China to volunteering in the Maasai Mara, they’ve hitchhiked their way across the globe, always in search of off-the-beaten-path destinations and supporting themselves financially by picking up work along the way. After setting out five years ago, they finally achieved their ultimate goal of crossing Antarctica off the list—an absolute highlight of their travels. You can read up on Tania and Jirka’s experiences around the world at: http://www.planbdidntwork.com
— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) May 19, 2017