What images spring to mind when you hear the majestic word “Antarctica,” the rarely visited White Continent? Ancient? Awe-inspiring? Avalanches? All of these words inspired me to visit this pristine and exotic land. (And yes, I was lucky enough to experience a thundering, rumbling, avalanche!) But none of the videos, stories, or images in my mind prepared me for the magic and beauty that I experienced on Antarctica's frozen shores.
Rebecca Gilbert with the Penguins in Antarctica!
Antarctica appears to be a frozen continent, yet its summertime reveals a joyful spirit that is teaming with life. Penguins are hatching, whales and seals are greeting human visitors, and the sea is alive with krill, the main food source of the seals and whales.
There are no land animals living on Antarctica. All life revolves around the sea. Even the adorable, waddling penguins spend most of their lives in the sea, coming up on land only to breed. (Contrary to popular belief, there are no polar bears! Polar bears live in the Arctic.)
If you visit Antarctica, you will see lots of penguins. After my face-to-face encounters with the adorable tuxedo colored cuties, I am in love! And not just with the penguins. I was touched by the loving welcome and curiosity of the seals and the whales, too. Whales came right up to the Zodiac (a lightweight inflatable boat) to visit, penguins waddled over to greet me, and seals squiggled along towards me without any fear of my presence. Free of fear. Imagine. This was one of the most beautiful memories of my time in Antarctica.
Weddell Seal in Antarctica
3 Experiences from my Antarctic Expedition I'll Never Forget
1. The Penguins
The day I arrived on the western Antarctic peninsula, it seemed that the land herself welcomed us! Bright sunshine against a clear blue sky melded into a glistening white world. Groups of penguins were romping in the sea, playing on land, and eating snow. Several waddled down with their adorable unsteady penguin gait to see these strange yellow-jacketed creatures who had come to visit.
Penguins are majestic in the water, which makes sense because they spend most of their lives in the water. They swim elegantly and pop up effortlessly onto icebergs. Yet when on land, they topple, they waddle, they carefully hop, hop testing the surface with each “toe” of their webbed feet. Penguins move from rock to rock with arms outstretched and tilted, as if they're pushing against an imaginary wall to help support them. They are such delightful creatures! I could watch them for hours and never be bored.
Chinstrap Penguin Colony with Chicks
2. Zodiac Cruising
Imagine sitting in a raft and whirring around the Southern Ocean surrounded by the gleaming blue of icebergs! What an amazing experience! While we cruised and enjoyed the ice sculptures, a pair of Minke whales (the smallest of the Baleen whales) spotted our zodiac and came over to play. Whales can sense the Zodiacs from large distances; if they don't want to interact with tourists, they can stay well hidden. This playful pair swam over to about 5 feet away from the Zodiac. One waved a fin in greeting, spouted, and “called” in her deep, melodious song. She swam beside us with her partner for about 15 minutes before showing us her tail and then the two took a deep dive into the open Southern Ocean.
Zodiac Cruising in the Antarctic Peninsula
I camped in a bivy sack on the continent of Antarctica, accompanied by 59 other adventurers, two sea lions, a whale and cohort of curious penguins. My reward? I got to spend from 9 P.M. until 6 A.M. the next morning with the animals, the Southern Ocean, and the peaceful, beautiful mountains. (And this was a reward! Tourists in Antarctica live on a boat. There are no hotels or tourist accommodations on the continent. Research stations yes, hotels no. Only about 100 of us were ever on the land at one time and for less than two hours except the night we camped out.)
Camping in Antarctica!
During the summer in the southern hemisphere, we had 24 hours of sunlight! The sun dimmed a bit and then brightened; there was no sunset! I was able to take photos and video without a flash… at midnight. I slept on the snow with the penguins and sea lions, while being serenaded by the snap, crackle and pop sound of the melting summer ice. Of course, I didn't sleep much. I spent the night swapping stories with three new friends, crunching around in the snow, taking photos, patrolling for whales, and giggling like a teenager at an all-night slumber party.
It was a magical night. For the rest of my life, I will remember this experience. It was the perfect opportunity to enjoy the serenity and beauty of the continent.
This article was previously published on Yummy Plants by Rebecca Gilbert.
To learn more about the full itinerary of Rebecca's expedition, and others like it, click here.