Why would this woman, from cold and snowy Pennsylvania, want to go to Antarctica….in February? I confess that more than one friend asked “why?” when told of my plans. During previous winters, I have purposely chosen warm escapes – Morocco, Thailand, Egypt. But Antarctica kept whispering in its cold, adventurous, pristine way….”come, you need to step foot on the icy continent at the bottom of the world.” As for the timing? Well, access to Antarctica is strictly managed by the Antarctic Treaty which limits the number of people who can step foot on it, where they can land, and when. Our winter is Antarctica’s summer and really the only safe time of year to visit.
We stand on shore as our expedition ship, the Ocean Diamond, glides into the harbor in Ushuaia, Argentina. This small ship can accommodate 200 passengers (small by cruise ship standards, but average for an expedition ship). Our tour company has limited its use to 150 passengers in order to comply with treaty requirements. The ship is similar to a cruise ship in some respects – there are nicely appointed individual staterooms, lots of great food, excellent service. You won’t see professional entertainment on an expedition ship. Some of the crew (engineers, waiters, housekeepers, managers) did, however, put on a hilarious talent show one night.
On other evenings there was a dance party, an ice breaker gift exchange, and movies. During the day, when we weren’t out on the zodiac boats or on deck, there were lecture and learning opportunities.
The Ocean Diamond expedition team was incredibly knowledgeable. These 14 men and women have degrees in marine biology, environmental science, geology, avian and mammal studies, and more. They also have years of experience leading expeditions, and clearly love Antarctica and its wildlife. We were lucky to have such a resource with us.
In order to get to Antarctica from Argentina, you must cross the legendary Drake Passage. Depending on the conditions, it has been referred to as the Drake Shake, or the Drake Lake. We had the shake on our way south, although it wasn’t terrible in my opinion. Yes, you had to hold onto something in order to remain upright when walking, items would roll off tables and bureaus, and cabinet doors would swing open and slam shut. The wait staff in the dining room could often be seen holding passengers upright as they navigated to their tables. And I might add, it takes two days to get through the Drake Passage. But the swaying and rocking became routine to me after the first ½ day, and I actually found it rocked me to sleep at night.
I did get sick with an upper respiratory infection on the second day, but the ship’s doctor was helpful and attentive. Elianna, the housekeeper, and my fellow group members checked on me during the day, the kitchen staff delivered meals, and the next day I was recovered enough to go on deck for our first sighting of Antarctica! We were very lucky during the four days we were there. The weather and ocean conditions cooperated so well that we were able to take the zodiacs and make eight landings on different parts of the continent and islands. This is not always the case. For example, the travelers on an expedition the week after us encountered such terrible conditions that they only managed one landing. The expedition companies make this possibility abundantly clear before you book, so I prepared myself for the worst, and was ecstatic at the actual outcome our group experienced.
Lots of preparations go into your first excursion. The crew inspected all of our gear – coats, ski pants, gloves, for foreign matter. A seed or blade of grass in a cuff or band of Velcro has the potential to introduce a non native species onto the continent. Before we boarded the zodiacs, we stepped our boots into a basin of disinfectant, and then we were off! Our first landings at Cuverville Island and Neko Harbor meant our first walk with penguins! The Gentoo Penguin rookery on the island is home to 4800 breeding pairs of these waddling birds. What is it about penguins that makes you smile so much at the sight of them? The Gentoos are a bit noisy. They make a loud throaty sort of yodel when they are calling to their mates and friends. And as penguins tend to do, when one starts yodeling, hundreds of others follow suit! Quite the concert!
Healthy adult penguins have no predators to fear on land. They lead a relatively carefree life in the snow. Their eggs and chicks, however, are in danger from Skuas, a gull like bird. For this reason, you will usually see the chicks tucked in close to one of their parents, shielded from the hovering skuas. In the water, where penguins go to feed and collect krill and small fish to feed their young, they are in danger from leopard seals and killer whales.
Speaking of whales, we saw many around our ship, mostly humpbacks. We observed seals of many types on the continent, but they could also be seen snoozing on a nearby iceberg.
From the ship and on land, we watched albatrosses soar across the sky, then dive to the ocean’s surface to pick up a snack. I realize not everyone is similarly enamored of wildlife , so as not to bore you with commentary on every type of bird and mammal we observed, I have attached a list of all of our sightings below. Please feel free to comment with any questions.
As exciting as it was to see the wildlife, it was equally so to lay eyes upon the icebergs, glaciers, and snow covered mountains….just breathtaking. Snow and ice, ten stories tall, tinted here and there in shades of baby blue and pink, are just something you must see to appreciate. As we motored back to our ship on a zodiac one afternoon, we heard the loud telltale crack of a calving glacier and watched as a huge slice of ice slid with an enormous splash into the water.
As for humans, we encountered a few. As the picture demonstrates, Antarctica is larger in area than the United States and yet it would be rare for more than 4000 people to be staying on the continent at any given time. None are permanent residents, but rather temporary researchers, scientists, and support staff. Where are they and why? There are numerous stations on the continent, mostly in coastal areas, some active and some abandoned. A British station that we visited during a landing at Port Lockroy includes a tiny museum of sorts. It is more a tourist attraction than a working research station now. Here they have maintained an assortment of rooms, furniture, fixtures, and artifacts from the actual 1950s working station. They even accept postcards for mailing. As I dropped my card in the mailbox, a clerk told me they expect their next pick up in a month or so. From Antarctica, the mail goes to England, then on to the addressees. Maybe it will make it to Pennsylvania on a warm Spring day and remind me of this icy adventure.
At this time of year, the sun sets after 9:30, and what a spectacular sight it is. I think this must be where the expression “fire and ice” originated. And the show is not just where the sun meets the horizon. The red/gold light shimmers softly onto adjacent snow peaks. Passengers often stood mesmerized on the bow of the ship, our faces illuuminated by the reflection.
There is so much more to the story of Antarctica, but I’m writing a blog post, not a book. So I will end with a word of advice. Should you venture to this pristine land of ice, water, and wild creatures, take some time to just be. Put the camera down, stand alone, absorb the beauty. The bottom of the world is like nothing else on earth.