Antarctica is the only continent without permanent human population and truly a bucket list destination.
How many chances do you have in your life to camp near calving glaciers and share your campsite with penguins?
I’ll be honest; a trip to Antarctica was my husband’s lifelong dream, not mine. I didn’t want to be cold, bored, seasick or unsafe. I was wrong on all counts.
I felt like I was living in a wildlife documentary. Every day was more extraordinary than the previous one. We started comparing this “once-in-a-lifetime” adventure with our African safari honeymoon. We experienced the same feeling of “awe” watching the wildlife and the “other-worldly- ness” of the icebergs.
There is a human need to find unspoiled sanctuary and to be silent in it.
We traveled to Antarctic in January which is “chick season,” so we were able to watch the cuddly little fur-balls huddle on their mothers’ feet for protection, and tap on their beaks for a meal. Slowly the moms complied and regurgitated red krill to feed their chicks.
But I was seduced by more than the penguins. It had something to do with the wildness of it all.
We were in one of the last wild places on earth. The frozen continent surprised me with a sense of space and remoteness that goes beyond Alaska or the Himalayas. Some icebergs look like delicate blown glass and others are raw, colossal and monstrous.
A human-free zone
The Antarctic is the only continent without permanent human population. It is truly unspoiled; there are no towns, no roads, no electrical lines, billboards, trash or pollution. The white continent is pristine and serene as well as majestic and magical.
We saw dozens, yes, dozens of albatross on the two-day sail from the tip of Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. We kayaked near orca and humpback whales, seals, sea lions and of course, hundreds of the world’s most curious birds; penguins. Our Quark Expeditions journey was a reminder of how magnificent and fragile nature is, and how critical it is that we protect it.
The rite of passage across the notorious Drakes Passage
The Drake crossing takes two days each way and crosses some of the roughest waters in the world. This 500-mile stretch of wild water between Cape Horn, southernmost tip of South America, and the northern most tip of Antarctica, can be either calm — Drakes Lake — or ferocious — Drakes Shake. Few are lucky enough to have it calm both ways. Luckily my husband isn’t prone to sea sickness and the medicine offered by the ship doctor worked well for me. We had calm seas on the trip down, and wild, exciting seas on the return. When it gets rough, you bounce off the walls of the hallway or slide off your bed. It’s simply part of the experience.
You can hear the mountains move
Weather and wind permitting, we donned dry suits every morning (for ten outings) to paddle through bays and along rock or snow outcroppings with rookeries of penguins. We booked the adventure option with some trepidation but our nervousness disappeared after numerous safety briefings and a successful first outing.
Without a motor to propel us or a guide in the boat with us, we felt small and vulnerable. It’s good to feel tiny and insignificant sometimes. Quietly we paddled up close to seals sleeping on an ice sheet, (not as close but close enough!) up to whales napping on the surface, and amid playful penguins jumping in the water beside us. We played “bumper car” with some of the smaller ice chunks, then we’d balance ourselves again and paddle away.
There is a human need to find unspoiled sanctuary and to be silent in it. Every day we stopped paddling and sat quietly for five minutes. The silence was loud and powerful. One day after the silence ended, Gary, my husband, whispered, “You can hear the mountains move.”
Occasionally a distant boom signaled an avalanche, or a slab of ice face crashed from glacier into the sea.
Who kayaks in Antarctica?
The twenty-six kayakers ranged in age from 24 to 67, and in experience from beginners to expert. We were accompanied by two guides as well as two Zodiacs, with two more guides who hovered — engines off—nearby. I never felt unsafe.
Camping on the ice
Camping in Antarctica?! Voluntarily? We did it, along with 60 other people of questionable sanity. Quark Expeditions provided the tent, sleeping bag, two mats, a privy, and experienced supervision. Just as we were ready to call it a night, we unzipped the tent door for one last peek outside, and we were greeted by a curious penguin nodding his head a few feet from us. We stayed warm, but the ice was uneven and hard. But how many chances do you have in your life to camp near calving glaciers and share your campsite with penguins?
The Polar Plunge
Our new South African friends cajoled us into joining them for a jump into the frigid water. Gary and I had purposefully not packed a bathing suit, because we were certain we would never do the famous Polar Plunge. However, peer pressure won out, and after a shot of Brandy in the bar, we joined 60 brave, or crazy, souls to await our turn to leap into the 33 DEGREE water. Adrenaline and excitement kept me warm until my entire body was submerged. Then I gasped and struggled to climb the ladder back onto the ship. The staff and on-lookers cheered from above, making us feel like heroes or nut cases. I shuddered with a smile; this was truly a “once in a lifetime” experience. Once was enough.
We selected a well-known leader in Polar explorations, Quark Expeditions. The company has a 30-years track record and reasonable prices for what you’re getting, starting at $5,595. Their ships are relatively are small (ours had 190 passengers) and trips focus on wildlife, adventure (OPTIONAL kayaking and camping), expeditions, on board education, and flexibility.
To help preserve the fragile Antarctic environment, select a tour company that not only talks about conservation, but demonstrates a commitment. For example, Quark Expeditions sponsored two Oxford University penguin scholars, who were guests on board. They installed, on land, two permanent video cameras that relay 24/7 real time information to Oxford University to monitor the life cycle of penguins and track weather changes.