We asked travel blogger Jenny McIver of RTWin30Days.com if she'd mind sharing some thoughts on her recent Antarctic voyage with Quark Expeditions. She came back with this enthusiastic, thorough and inspiring take on her expedition! Thanks Jenny!
“You're going where? Seriously, Jenny, have you really run out of places to go? What on earth is there to see in Antarctica, anyway? Isn't it just a bunch of icebergs and penguins?”
These were just a few of the milder expressions of disbelief I received from friends and family after I announced my intention to include Antarctica on Round the World #8. And to be honest, they were valid questions. In fact, I had some of the same questions myself. What on earth was there to see in Antarctica?
To me, an expedition to the white continent was mostly a badge of honor; a dividing line that separated the traveling public into tourists and adventurers. And if I'm being completely truthful, the ability to say I'd been to all 7 continents was a significant part of the allure. When it comes to true globetrotting, either you've been to Antarctica or you haven't. This would be the year I joined the distinguished former.
A Little Antarctic History
Known by many names - the frozen continent, the white continent and even the blue continent (I like to call it the last continent) - Antarctica serves primarily as the world's research station. It is the earth's 5th largest continent as well as its coldest and driest.
The territory is governed under the 1958 Antarctic Treaty which established the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone. The continent's only residents are the temporary occupants of some two dozen research stations ranging from 1,000 – 4,000 people depending on time of year. At each station, the laws of the nation operating it apply and the purpose is strictly scientific, there is no support for tourism. Loosely translated, that means when you venture into the Antarctic on a ship, that ship is your only means of support and your lifeline to civilization.
For most of the year, the continent is completely inaccessible due to sea ice, temperatures of -40° F and 24 hours of darkness. For tourists, Antarctica is only accessible during the summer months, from November to March, when the sea ice retreats enough to allow access for ice-strengthened vessels and there are 24 hours of daylight.
But travel to the Antarctic is not for the timid. Expeditions to the region require potentially rough sea crossings and have no set itinerary or even a guarantee of continental landings. Everything depends on weather conditions that are virtually impossible to predict. In my research I'd read to expect only a 60% success rate on landing attempts.
So why spend the equivalent of four traditional cruises on an unpredictable voyage through rough seas with no guarantee of even setting foot on the world's most inhospitable continent? Well, that's all part of the adventure now isn't it? If Antarctica were easy, everyone would go.
But how to get there?
Though travel to the Antarctic is an intense journey, there were a number of options available when I began my research. Just 30,000 intrepid travelers visited the continent last season; compare that with more than 1 million who visited Alaska by cruise ship. Ships venturing to the Antarctic must comply with the agreements of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a voluntary organization of tour operators which promotes safe and environmentally responsible tourism to the region. IAATO guidelines stipulate that no more than 100 people be on a landing site at any given time. Which means if you're on a ship with 200 passengers or more, your time on land will be limited. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not permitted to make landings at all.
After much research, I ultimately decided on a 10-day voyage out of Ushuaia, Argentina with Quark Expeditions on their luxurious all-suite ship, the Sea Spirit.
Setting Sail for the Antarctic
After spending one night in the charming town of Ushuaia, we boarded the Sea Spirit at 4:00pm the next day and within minutes everyone was escorted to their cabin to get settled in. I was blown away by my cabin (#417). It was enormous compared to any other cruise ship I've ever been on and even had a walk-in closet. Can you imagine? A walk-in closet on a cruise ship! But of course, the Sea Spirit is an all-suite “expedition” ship and Quark's most luxurious vessel so it doesn't exactly play by the rules of the traditional cruising industry.
I spent a few minutes unpacking and then joined the others in the lounge for a pre-departure briefing with our Expedition Leader, Cheli Larsen.
A New Zealand native who's been leading expeditionsAntar all over the world for the past 12 years, Cheli is also a PADI Master Dive Instructor, a Commercial Launch Master and the skipper of a Dive and Fishing Charter vessel on weekends. From the moment she first took to the microphone, Cheli commanded the room with an unflappable competence blended seamlessly with the kind of comedic timing that even Ellen Degeneres would envy. She made us laugh but most importantly she made us listen. We hung on her every word and within minutes I had no doubt Cheli was someone I could trust with my life. An especially crucial element when it comes to Antarctic travel.
During the briefing we were introduced to the rest of the expedition staff and crew. The expert staff included Natalie, a Canadian Marine Biologist with a special passion for whales; Colin, a Scotsman with a PhD in glaciology; Aussie Ornithologist, Adrian, who specializes in seabirds and served as the voyage's penguin expert (which made him quite popular) and historian and globetrotting photojournalist, John. Our experienced and very international staff was rounded out by the ship's doctor, Dr. Christy (USA); kayak guide, Val (Canada); logistics manager, Mette (Norway), guides Yuki (Japan), Karin (Sweden), Pam (South Africa) and Krystle (Australia) and shop manager, Nicola (Canada). This multi-talented bunch would lead lectures while we were at sea, captain zodiacs at each landing site and generally ensure our comfort and safety while on board and on shore. To a man (or in this case I should say, woman), they were exceptional.
Cheli's pre-departure briefing was followed by a safety drill before we set sail and then dinner. The dining room on the Sea Spirit is open seating so passengers are free to dine with whomever they like at each meal which gave me a great opportunity to start getting to know everyone.
Who Goes to Antarctica?
I had no idea what to expect of my fellow passengers but our briefing at the hotel the night before was my first opportunity to see all 114 of them in one room. I was surprised by how young the group was. Yes, there was a solid representation of the affluent, 55+ plus demographic, but at least 50% of the passengers were in their 20's, 30's or 40's blowing the curve for the retired jet-set and bringing the median age to a comfortable 40-ish. And though I was slightly concerned I'd be the only one, there were literally dozens of independent-minded, solo travelers like myself.
And it wasn't just the youth of the group that surprised me. As I met and dined with my fellow passengers over the first few days, I realized quickly what a well-traveled and accomplished bunch this was. At dinner the first night I sat with a lovely retired couple from Australia, a doctor from Germany and a round-the-world traveler from Israel. Both the husband from Australia and the German doctor had climbed to Everest base camp. How often do you sit down for a meal with two people who've climbed Everest? Remarkable.
And to a person, I would soon discover, they all had incredible travel stories. It was quite an accomplished group from top to bottom, both in travel and in life. I was happy to count myself among them and I reveled in their travel stories at each and every meal.
Days 1, 2 and 3 - Paying the Drake Tax
But before you can boast that you've landed on the white continent, there's the small matter of crossing the Drake Passage. Encompassing the area between the southern tip of South America and the Shetland Islands, the current-heavy waters of the Drake Passage are widely considered the world's roughest. Though I haven't been seasick since I was a child, I was nervous about the two-day crossing of the Drake (and based on the questions at both our pre-departure briefing and the first on-board briefing, I was not alone). I had a prescription for the seasickness patch and applied one the afternoon of departure just to be on the safe side.
Either it worked or the waters weren't really that rough but I was fine for both days. The ship's staff said we were very lucky with our crossing as they've certainly seen it much worse and you never really know what you're going to experience until you get out there. The boat definitely rocked a lot over the first two days, but I didn't mind it at all. There were a few people who were sick but most of us did just fine. Hopefully, we'll be as lucky on the trip back.
After dinner the first night we were issued our official Quark Expeditions bright yellow parkas which we would get to keep as souvenir of our journey. The waterproof parka was top quality and lined with a warm removable fleece that would keep me warm and dry throughout our entire adventure. We were also issued waterproof rubber boots (a loaner) for wet landings. These two items would become the staples for our daily round of gearing up for landings.
What do you do at sea?
Since there's a lot of time to kill in the open waters of the Drake, Quark staff focused on providing quality educational sessions to familiarize us with the type of birds, mammals and ice we would see on land and in the water. Adrian gave a presentation on sea birds, Colin on glaciers and icebergs and Natalie taught us about the types of whales and seals common in the Antarctic.
We also attended mandatory sessions to review important safety instructions for boarding the zodiacs and maneuvering wet landings and to review the biosecurity procedures that we would need to follow. There is a heavy emphasis on biosecurity to ensure that we leave the continent exactly as we found it and don't get too close to wildlife to disturb breeding patterns, etc.
Day 4 - First Stop: Half Moon Island
The scene set for our first landing of the voyage was straight out of Antarctic central casting. Snowflakes swirled around rugged white peaks as the coal-black zodiacs were gracefully lowered into the sea. When I walked out on deck, the absolute silence was deafening. There was a peace and a softness to the island staring back at me. And a quiet, yet blinding, white. Incredible.
But we weren't quite in Antarctica yet. Our first few landing attempts would be in the South Shetland Islands, 600 miles south of Tierra del Fuego (the southern tip of South America) and a chain of islands running parallel to the Antarctic peninsula. The South Shetlands are not administered by any one country but are also covered under the Antarctic treaty and are home to a number of research stations.
The first step in any landing is for the expedition leader, Cheli, and her staff to survey the landing site for any signs of trouble and ensure that the area is safe to visit. Once the landing area is established, it's time to load passengers into the zodiacs to head to shore.
Briefly, I'll walk you through the process we repeated three times a day for three days: The first step was sunscreen and a layer of silk or thermal long underwear. Then a pair of warm pants and a fleece or pullover. Next, waterproof pants, wool socks (two layers), gloves (two layers), giant yellow parka, life preserver, camera gear in waterproof bag, scarf, sunglasses and hat. Forget one step in the process and you're doomed to strip down and repeat it from the beginning until you get it right. A word of advice….get it right the first time.
Once your previously-assigned group was called to board, you waddled to Deck 3 to be swiped out with your cabin ID card. Then, it was down the stairs to step in the cleaning solution that would keep our boots from cross-contaminating any of the landing sites (we would repeat that process each time we returned to the ship) and finally onto the zodiac deck for boarding.
After a quick “man overboard” drill and a surprisingly comfortable zodiac ride to shore, Cheli greeted us as she would at each landing with instructions for our visit; what to see on which side of the island (for example, a Chinstrap penguin colony with chicks up the hill to the left or a Weddell seal lounging at 2 o'clock, whale bones at 3 o'clock, that sort of thing), what the rules were for our visit (walk here, don't walk there, etc.) and what time the last zodiac would head back to the ship. And then we were free to disembark the zodiac in the pre-instructed method (face to the sea) and explore the island at our own pace.
As I observed earlier from the ship, once on land I was again struck by the eerie silence of the Antarctic. Especially with fresh snow on the ground to quiet any ambient sound. It's simply serene. A bit like you've landed on another planet with the last group of survivors.
Breaking the silence, of course, is the ever-present sound of squawking penguins (a chatty little bunch) accompanied by the distinct “aroma” of penguin poo. It was a smell we would become intimately acquainted with over the next few days.
What makes penguins fun?
As it turns out, penguins are not at all equipped for walking on land with their stubby little non-legs. Yet they insist in trying. And they're nothing if not doggedly persistent. It's amazing that birds who are so lithe in the water with their spirited “porpoising” and bullet-like speed can be so awkward at walking down a simple snow-covered hill. Take the average penguin; add a steep incline covered in rocks and ice and grab a seat in the snow to watch the show. Trust me, hilarity ensues.
They look a bit like a tiny linebacker trying to walk down the street in a mermaid costume. Or a short woman in a really tight skirt trying to climb a flight of stairs. They stumble, they fall. They go careening down hills, beak over webbed feet before they can right themselves, like small, formally-attired bowling balls. And though (as Angela adroitly pointed out) they often look a little embarrassed when they slip and fall, they seem to take it all in stride and press on, collecting the little pebbles that are essential for building their nests. They are ridiculous and precious at the same time. The kind of adorable normally reserved for golden retriever puppies and panda bear cubs.
We all walked delicately around Half Moon Island, fascinated by the penguin colonies and generally just soaking in the experience. It was a perfect introduction to the Antarctic.
Day 4 - Second Stop: Whaler's Bay, Deception Island
After re-joining the Sea Spirit we had lunch while the captain navigated our ship to our second landing spot of the day, Deception Island. Home to the crumbling remains of a Norwegian whaling operation (which operated from 1910 to 1931), the shoreline contains thermal springs which make the water hot to the touch, thanks to nearby volcanic activity.
As we walked the beach examining the remains of shipwrecks and whale bones, Chinstrap penguins followed us around as if wondering what we were up to and whether we'd brought them any rocks for their nests. After determining we were useless, they waddled on.
Back on board, we discarded our gear and donned more comfortable clothes for our daily briefing in the lounge. Each evening before dinner, the expedition team would recap what we had seen on land that day and then Cheli would explain our “we hope to” plan for the next day including anticipated landing sites. Something like, “we hope to anchor here at 8am” and “we hope to go ashore there at 9am,” that sort of thing. Antarctic conditions always dictate “hope to” instead of “will.”
Day 5 – First stop: Cuverville Island
Day 5 was a big day. It was what we'd all come here for. The day we would attempt to land on the Antarctic Peninsula. Our first official “continental landing.” We “hoped” to come ashore sometime after lunch at Neko Harbour but first a morning visit to Cuverville Island to visit a Gentoo rookery with new baby chicks.
As part of our visit to Cuverville Island the next morning, we spent some time on land with the penguins and then took to the water in the zodiacs for a cruise around the gallery of icebergs and a little whale watching. Then it was time to re-board the Sea Spirit for lunch while we cruised down to our ultimate destination, the Antarctic Peninsula.
Day 5 – Stop 2: Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula
Just after lunch we caught our first glimpse of the continent. We hoped to begin disembarkation at 1:00pm but it came and went without a call for boarding. Finally, Cheli's voice came over the loudspeaker with an update that they were having an issue with brash ice at our hoped-for landing spot and the crew had taken to the zodiacs to pursue other options. It was the first (and only) time I feared we might not make it ashore.
But I shouldn't have doubted Cheli and her team because in less than 30 minutes they'd identified an alternate landing spot and the Chinstraps were called to the zodiac deck.
When my zodiac neared the shore at Neko Harbour, it wasn't hard to see why there had been an issue. Intimidating blocks of ice peppered the shoreline like giant puzzle pieces blocking the zodiac's approach to the beach. That was the wettest of our “wet landings” as we had to climb out of the zodiacs several feet from shore and navigate through the ice to reach land. Poetic, really. It's exactly how you might picture landing on the frozen continent. Seems only fitting to work for it a little.
But the crew had more than just a simple landing in store for us at Neko Harbour. Part of the game plan for this stop was a hike to the top of a very large hill and a steep slide back down it. After getting my first glimpse of the “hill,” I was iffy on this method of hillside dismount but ultimately, I decided to go for it.
While we were busy throwing ourselves down perfectly good hillsides, the weather – as it often does in the Antarctic - had taken a turn for the worse. We returned to the zodiac landing site to find the expedition team all hands on deck quickly loading passengers into pitching zodiacs. When we were safely aboard, Colin warned us to hold on tight, this would be the roughest zodiac ride we'd experienced yet. And it was certainly an adventure as the zodiac rose and fell with the crashing waves and seawater splashed angrily at our backs.
But it was exciting and within minutes we were approaching the ship and the zodiac was safely tethered to the landing platform by the crew. Once again, thanks to the expertise of the staff and crew, we never truly felt in any danger at all. They had a confident way about them that made us trust them completely. Like how Mette convinced me to throw myself down a hill.
Day 5 – Paradise Bay, Zodiac Cruise
To cap off our continental landing, Cheli and the crew had planned an extra treat for us later that night. After dinner, we all headed back to our cabins to gear up and then dutifully boarded our zodiacs for an hour-long cruise around spectacular Paradise Bay. The highlight of the cruise was a surprise stop at the “medical zodiac” in the middle of the bay where Cheli and Dr. Christy doled out cups of steaming hot, spiced mulled wine….doctor's orders. It was a brilliant end to a perfect day.
Day 6 – Petermann Island, Antarctic Peninsula
Our second day on the continent got off to a brutally early start with our first landing at 6:00am on Petermann Island, the farthest point south we would reach on the peninsula and home to an Adelie penguin rookery.
By this point we were completely dialed in with the zodiac boarding and landing procedures and were navigating each new landing spot with expert precision. We knew where to find the penguins, how to spot the chicks, where to walk and not to stop on a penguin highway. We were budding Antarctic locals.
After a nice stroll around Petermann and a visit with the Adelie chicks, I headed back to the Sea Spirit for breakfast while the captain navigated us to our next landing point.
Day 6 – Pleneau Island and the Iceberg Graveyard
The purpose of starting our day at 6am was to squeeze in an extra landing at Pleneau Island with a zodiac cruise through what's known as the “iceberg graveyard.” And I'm so glad we did because this turned out to be my favorite stop of the entire trip. We took to the zodiacs with Aussie, Krystle, as our guide and glided silently among artfully formed icebergs the size of city blocks. Each was a stunning work of art more impressive than the last. Krystle told us that Pleneau was always her favorite stop as the ice changed from week to week and you never knew what you were going to see.
There was also an element of danger to the area as it's always possible for an iceberg to calve at any given time without warning. Though our zodiacs would not get close enough to be hit by falling ice, a major calving could easily cause a tsunami that could be big trouble for a nearby zodiac so the guides have to be on alert at all times while cruising near ice.
While cruising through Pleneau, as if skyscraper, iridescent-blue, death-defying icebergs weren't visually dynamic enough, the humpback whales came out to play. The zodiacs were in radio communication so when one would spot a whale, the others would move to that location. We'd watch as the whale teased us above the surface before diving for up to 7 minutes and making us find him again when he surfaced on the other side of an iceberg. It was humpback-hide-and-seek at its finest and I could've played all day.
But the most dramatic moment came near the end of our cruise as a whale glided right next to our zodiac and just as he was about to show his flume (the money shot in whale photography) the iceberg next to us calved! The sound of the splintering ice breaking off and crashing into the water diverted everyone's attention (especially Krystle's) as we audibly gasped and hardly knew where to look it was all so exciting! Whales diving, icebergs calving, it's an Antarctic wonderland! This, I realized, was exactly what the Antarctic was all about. This is why people brave the elements to come here. This is why it's worth it. I was utterly spellbound.
Day 6 – Taking the Polar Plunge!
Back on board and de-layering for lunch, we'd been warned that at some point today (conditions permitting) we'd be invited to take part in the Antarctic rite of passage known as the “polar plunge.” This sadistic bit of nonsense involves stripping down to your skivvies in below freezing temperatures, having a harness tied around your waist (so you don't drown in case you go into shock) and throwing yourself off a perfectly sound, non-sinking ship into frigid Antarctic waters hovering at a balmy 2°C. Obviously, when said out loud, this sounds like an absurd proposition. Yet 59 of 114 Sea Spirit passengers (myself included) took part when Cheli sounded the alert just before lunch. (The sane among us watch from the deck above and took pictures.)
I still have no idea why I did it. Probably a similar logic to why I propelled myself unassisted down the side of a steep snowy embankment the day before. Complete lack of sanity and total disregard for all things logical and medically sound. Yet when my turn came and Colin looped that dripping wet and freezing cold safety harness around me, I stepped up to the platform and jumped in like an Arctic lemming.
As it turns out, the only positive thing about leaping into water famous mostly for providing an hospitable environment for icebergs is that while you do feel the initial shock of the cold water, you become instantly numb and it quickly deadens the pain of the remaining experience. Of course, then you have to swim back to the ladder and actually climb it to get back on the boat. This becomes increasingly challenging with every extra second you're submerged. I tried my best to jump as close to the ladder as possible yet, once in the water, the distance needed to reach it suddenly seemed akin to the distance from the start to the finish line of my last marathon.
But somehow I pulled myself out of the water, re-donned my robe and slippers and made a hasty exit for the hot shower in my cabin. I stayed there a while. Mission accomplished. Idiotic tendencies confirmed.
Day 6 – Antarctic Peninsula: Port Lockroy & Jougla Island
Still speechless from my experience in Pleneau and obviously death-defying polar plunge, we resumed normal activities with a BBQ lunch on the aft deck as we cruised through the postcard-scenic Lemaire Channel (known as "Kodak Gap" for good reason) on the way to our final stop, Port Lockroy and Jougla Island.
Secretly established by Churchill during World War II, the British station at Port Lockroy was originally intended to report enemy activity and provide weather reports. Today, the small rustic building is manned by three staff members each summer. They maintain the station as a living museum and monitor the effects of visitors on the penguin rookeries. It's also the only place we visited that sold authentic Antarctic souvenirs in a well-stocked gift shop. Port Lockroy is also home to a post office where you can get your passport stamped and mail.
Just across a narrow channel from Port Lockroy, Jougla Island impressed with still more penguins and a set of whale bones with a mouth so gigantic you could drive a zodiac through it. Marine Biologist, Natalie, stood by to wax poetic about what type of whales the bones had come from and how long they might have been there. It was truly an amazing sight.
We re-boarded the Sea Spirit that day with a touch of melancholy, realizing that we'd made our final landing and had only the contentious Drake looming ahead. But luckily, Antarctica was not quite done impressing us yet, just as we began to sail away from Port Lockroy, Natalie spotted orcas (the one thing we hadn't seen) swimming just off the port side of the ship. An announcement was made and everyone hit the decks with cameras in hand as we were escorted by a group of killer whales on our Antarctic departure.
Drake Passage – Part Deux
Though the crossing back through the Drake was significantly rougher than the outbound, I still found it to be quite comfortable and didn't have any issues with seasickness. Our journey back to Ushuaia was filled with days of lectures wrapping up what we'd seen on the continent. We had more time to spend with the crew and our superb expedition leader, Cheli. Her dedication to and enthusiasm for the continent (as well as that of the entire expedition team) was undeniably infectious.
In fact, I was thoroughly impressed with the entire Quark experience. From the luxurious comforts of the ship and elegant touches like warm hand towels awaiting you upon every return from land (especially appreciated after rough zodiac rides) to the mulled-wine-serving zodiac during our evening cruise through Paradise Bay and the conscientious service and delicious cuisine in the dining room. Almost without exception, Quark exceeded my expectations of what expedition travel could be and set a new standard for what it should be. It almost felt like cheating to be so warm, comfortable and well-fed the entire voyage.
To Clear Up a Few Common Antarctic Misconceptions...
Just to clear up any remaining questions…
How cold is it? Not nearly as cold as I thought it would be. Of course, keep in mind we were traveling in the height of the Antarctic summer (and as with anything in that part of the world, conditions can fluctuate greatly). The temperatures averaged a fairly mild 25 - 35° F.
How bad is the Drake Passage? Again, not nearly as bad as I expected. Though I have no doubt we were pretty lucky. I wore a seasickness patch the whole time and I had no issues, even on the roughest nights. I didn't hear of anyone else who was wearing the patch who became ill. I think if you prepare for the Drake and take proper medical precautions, chances are you'll be just fine.
Is there really anything to see? One of the great things about the Antarctic that I hadn't really considered pre-departure is the colorful history of the continent. Our ship's historian, John, regaled us with stories of adventurers like Shackleton who'd mounted expeditions to the continent with harrowing stories of survival and tragedy. Antarctica's history of exploration, whaling, military bases and research stations dates back hundreds of years and is simply fascinating.
In addition to the historical aspect, Antarctica is nirvana for penguins, whales, seabirds and all sorts of wildlife you'll rarely see anywhere else. Visiting the penguin rookeries was an absolute joy. We watched penguin chicks hatch and adults build their nests and feed their young. It's nature, in a tuxedo, at its formal finest.
And finally there's the ice. I never realized how dynamically gorgeous icebergs could be. Each one was like a unique work of art. And the glacier formations create a blinding blue and white landscape like nothing you've ever seen anywhere else in the world. When the ice calves or an avalanche thunders down a mountainside, it's a memorable experience to witness.
So yes, there's plenty to see in the Antarctic. More than you'd ever imagine.
Back in Ushuaia
Upon arrival back at the port in Ushuaia, we began the painful process of goodbyes. I don't know what it is about sharing an epic journey like this that turns total strangers from around the world into a family in just 9 days but that's exactly what happened. Over the coming weeks we'll share our photos with family and friends and we'll try our best to put into words what we've seen. But unfortunately, I suspect, only those who have been there will truly understand.
Perhaps it's the sense of danger, of knowing that we're alone in the Antarctic and have only each other and our ship to rely on. Perhaps it's that we've shared something together that so few have. Almost as if we've been let in on a secret that the rest of the world isn't privy to. We've set foot on the frozen continent. And we did it together.
I think Cheli summed the entire experience best on our last night aboard when she shared one of her favorite quotes in her heartfelt parting words to us,
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”
Make no mistake, Antarctica will do just that.
You can read all about Jenny McIver and her travels on her blog Rtwin30Days.com