Antarctica, the elusive White Continent—the most epic, extraordinary journey of a lifetime to the last pure wilderness on earth.
As years go by, things sure have changed a lot since the great Antarctic explorers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott (credited with discovering that Antarctica is a continent), Sir Ernest Shackleton (who has one of the greatest expedition stories of all time about their vessel the Endurance getting trapped in the ice), and Roald Admunsen (the first explorer to reach the South Pole) made their way there by boat and foot through treacherous weather and conditions. Things are slightly more comfortable nowadays.
There’s a few ways to experience Antarctica: Ultra luxe glamping with White Desert, luxury expedition ships, or small expedition ships without all the bells and whistles. There’s even flights over the continent if you’re not quite ready to touch down on the ice.
Although there are many ways to arrive, anyone traveling by expedition ship—even the most luxurious—still has to take part in a bit of adventure—crossing the Drake Passage to get to the peninsula. Here’s my experience…
Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced in Antarctica. The absolute solitude, yes, but even more so the strange and wonderful world that takes over on an expedition cruise to the Antarctic—all between the busy moments on the zodiac ice cruises, penguin sightings and whale blows. It’s hard to imagine there’s anything else but the deep blues and glaring whites; the sleeplessness and monumentality of it all. This place, untouched by mankind for the most part, yet still so impacted by our actions.
Every Antarctic-bound explorer is warned about the notoriously vindictive Drake Passage. Reputedly the roughest sea crossing in the world, the 500-mile-wide passage—between Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, and Livingston Island, the northernmost of the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Peninsula—has just two distinct states: ‘The Drake Lake’ or ‘The Drake Shake.’
As luck would have it, our expedition leader proudly announces that we’re going to be unusually fortunate with the weather over the next two days and that we’ll be sleeping, well, rocked gently by the slight sway of the ship. Admittedly, however, many of us are a tad disappointed that we won’t experience the wrath of the Drake that we’ve heard so much about. “Be careful what you wish for,” our expedition leader quickly reminds us of the frequently chaotic convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern currents. We slap on our anti sea-sickness patches, chew ginger candies or take single doses of medicine, just in case.
As we set sail from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, the sun is shining and it’s a notable 57.2°F—the warmest day the world’s southernmost city has seen all year. With the cocktail of the day, we toast our ‘luck’ with the weather and begin our 3,631-nautical mile journey.
I discover that the beauty of an Antarctic expedition cruise is in the unexpected. That no matter how prepared you are, how many layers of Gore-Tex and merino wool you pack, how many episodes of Frozen Planet you watch, or if you have a perfectly planned out itinerary, as our expedition leader says, “Tear it in half and throw it away, because it’s up to Mother Nature where we go now.” You could go on 20 Antarctic expedition cruises and never visit all the same places or have the same experience.
Over the next 12 days I learn that you come to Antarctica for the remoteness; for the rush of unrivalled fresh air into your lungs; for the deafening silence; for the full immersion into the sheer, uninhibited wilderness; for the solitude and opportunity to truly disconnect; and to realize how significantly insignificant our presence on earth can be. The choice is ours.
But first, spend some time at the ‘End of the World’
Every expedition to Antarctica begins in Torres Del Paine, Chile, or Ushuaia, Argentina—and we highly recommend spending a few days exploring Southern Patagonia before setting sail. My ship set sail from Ushuaia, a colorful little village that’s full of delicious food and great experiences.
With my first breath upon arrival to Ushuaia, everything felt lighter. The air is clear and crisp, just as you’d expect at the Fin Del Mundo (translation: End of the World, Ushuaia’s nickname) situated just 620 miles from the northernmost tip of Antarctica.
Head for the mountains and sub-Antarctic old-growth forests of Tierra del Fuego (translation: Land of Fire) National Park. Trails wind between forests filled with sprawling beech trees (with mostly hollow trunks due to the arid, nutrient-deprived soil) and along rocky coastline. Or, take 4×4’s along a rugged, dirt road to Lake Escondido, then along the beach to the otherwise inaccessible Lake Fagnano. After a short hike along the lake, we headed into the forest to shack up inside a small metal-and-wood cabin for lunch where our guide cooked up a traditional Argentinian asado (outdoor barbecue of choripan (chorizo on a bun with chimichurri sauce, an Argentinian staple) and a thick steak washed down with a couple glasses of local malbec (yes, vines grow here at the end of the world). A Patagonian fox made an appearance as he waits for leftovers, and the sun blazes through the windows and open doors of the cabin as we share stories about where we’ve all travelled from.
Despite the feast, at the end of the long day I was somehow ravenous again. The best place to indulge? Kaupé, a family-owned, candle-lit restaurant (that’s actually inside the owner’s home) overlooks the bay and port of Ushuaia. Ask chef Ernesto Vivian for the octopus—trust us, it’s a life-changing local secret that’s not on the menu. Later, grab a pint of the world’s Southernmost microbrew at Almacen Ramos Generales, a quirky, former general store turned café, frequented by locals (where beer is suitably served in a ceramic penguin).
Kayak amongst giants in the Southern Ocean
“We’re going to have a moment of silence—close your eyes, set down your paddles and just listen,” says our kayak instructor, Calle Schönning, who has led excursions in the polar regions for 12 years. It’s our first day of landings and our second 6km trip of the day. It’s a balmy (for Antarctic standards) 44.6°F. The sun glistens on the ocean, which is remarkably still at Portal Point, creating a mirror-like reflection of the towering, black, snow-clad mountains and brilliant white glaciers. As we slow our tandem kayaks, the near-frozen water ripples alongside in perfect lines and drips, slowly, off the edge of the paddle like honey.
Especially in this silence, the sheer remoteness of Antarctica is undeniable. The size of the icebergs and glaciers seem much greater from our sea-level vantage point than from the ship. Not that there’s any sign of the vessel now. Just mountains (the Antarctic Peninsula is an extension of the southern Andes, we’re told), wildlife, ice and sea as far as the horizon, apart from a single zodiac keeping watch about 200 metres behind us.
We’re encouraged to stroke in silence for a while, and as we begin to move again, the only sound is the dip of our paddles into the crystalline water. The occasional grey Weddell seal bobs its head above the water and pairs of Gentoo penguins leap out of the ocean next to our kayaks.
The next time we paddle out, an overcast sky at Paradise Bay casts a grey, glassy sheen on the ocean. We thread our way between turquoise icebergs with holes melted through and intricate patterns carved from a combination of salt water, sunlight and the undeniably warming climate (the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by three degrees in the past 50 years). There’s a natural urge to get as close to the tabular giants and glaciers as possible, but we’re reminded to use the three-finger rule to gauge how close we can get (hold three fingers at arm’s length in front of your eyes and if the ice is bigger than that, you’re too close), because they can flip or calve at any moment.
Then suddenly, we’re in the only challenging conditions encountered in four days of paddling. As the speed of the wind increases, so does the size of the swell. We quicken our pace as salt water furiously sprays into our eyes, burning them, making it hard to see what’s ahead.
We make a unanimous decision to load into the zodiacs and head for the Chilean base, González Videla. Once an active research base, in recent years it’s been operated by the Chilean Air Force as a summer-only base, with its sole purpose to maintain Chile’s ‘claim’ on Antarctica (though nobody actually ‘owns’ any part of the continent as per the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959—now with 53 member countries—dedicating the continent to peace and science, ensuring it will never be exploited or used for commercial gain).
With frozen hands and toes, we make our way inside, where we’re welcomed into the small, cozy kitchen by Captain Correa, who offers us a place to warm up with instant coffee and cookies. It feels more like a rustic family cabin, with photos of previous crew hung on the walls, old leather couches surrounding a TV playing a film of Chile’s history in the Antarctic, and a well-stocked liquor shelf. Correa reminds us that no women have worked at the station in 12 years, proudly pulling a photo off the wall to point her out.
What you must know:
If you’re fortunate enough to nab a kayaking spot, you’ll have the opportunity to be a part of an exclusive group. Be prepared to paddle three to four miles, once or twice a day, while the rest of the passengers make zodiac landings (you won’t miss out on anything, kayakers make landings with the rest of the group after paddling). Note that excursions are totally weather-dependent. Anything over 12 knots of wind means there are ice caps on the water—weather not suitable for kayaking.
While sea kayaking in Antarctica seems extreme, Schönning says the worst thing that’s ever happened on these trips is that someone needs to use the bathroom. As per IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) rules, you can’t relieve yourself while on the Antarctic continent, or in the ocean, so be prepared to limit your water intake and hold it until you’re back on the ship. (We do learn the dry suits aren’t that hard to rinse out in case of an emergency, but that sounds pretty darn uncomfortable.)
Camp on the Antarctic Continent
There’s nothing quite as confronting as the absolute, deafening silence of Antarctica. While you get an idea of how quiet it can be from the ship decks, heading onto the ice for the night is where you’ll experience the White Continent in its purest, most intimate form.
Camping in Antarctica goes as follows: We fuel up at dinner, limiting ourselves to one glass of wine and ensuring we drink enough water to hydrate ourselves for the next nine hours (ensuring we leave enough time to relieve ourselves, the aforementioned IAATO rules also apply here). We pack our things and load onto the zodiac, heading towards the base of our ‘campsite’ at Portal Point that’s considered part of the Antarctic Continent—our first continental landing.
As we approach the landing site by zodiac, Antarctic fur seals battle on the rocky shoreline, the distinct, blue-eyed shags fly overhead, and the pungent scent of a Gentoo penguin rookery engulfs us (a combination of regurgitated krill and poo). We wonder, momentarily, how we’re going to keep these creatures out of our camping holes. We’re quickly directed towards the top of the mountain, and follow a trail marked with flags by our expedition guides. With backpacks, bivy sacs, foam pads, sleeping bags and liners in tow, we head to the top, out of harm’s way from the wildlife.
We’re handed shovels and are left to our own devices to dig out our sleeping holes (casually referred to as our “graves” by the guides). We learn the deeper the hole, the sounder we’ll sleep, as the walls create a barrier from the Antarctic winds. Nearly an hour later, and a few layers lighter, we proudly lay down our foam pads and sleeping gear in our beds for the night. As the sun lowers in the sky, the ship pulls away into the vast ocean, and is soon out of sight, leaving no light pollution behind.
What to do when you can’t crack open a cold one, build a fire, or play music while camping? We decide the best course of action is to build a couch in the snow, kick back and watch the sun lower towards the horizon over the magnificent bay, with 360-degree views of glaciers, icebergs and the sea. Every once in a while, a roar of thunder echoes around us—a reminder of the reality of climate change—as a glacier calves.
The sun doesn’t actually set. Instead, we experience five hours of nautical twilight tonight (when the centre of the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon, making it only faintly visible, and possible to use the position of the stars in relation to the horizon to navigate at sea). Even today our first officer says he sometimes uses this to steer come nightfall.
We follow our ship-enforced designated quiet time that begins at 11pm, retreating into our holes for the night. After a few minutes of hearing fellow campers nestling into their bivy sacs and fiddling with their zippers, the silence sets in (I have to plug my nose to clear my ears a few times to convince myself that it is, in fact, this quiet and my hearing isn’t going).
Once the shock of the complete silence wears off, we’re left with just the open sky and our thoughts—the realization of how isolated we are, and that everyone and everything we know is thousands of miles away.
By 6am, most of us are sleepless. We shiver as we grudgingly move out of our beds to pack our things, fill our holes (to avoid any penguins falling in there later) and start the trek back down the mountain. Before we do, though, we’re reminded of the extraordinarily wild experience we’ve just had as a pod of humpback whales swim by, tails in the air, like they’re waving good morning.
What you must know:
In case you thought this might be some form of glamping, think again (there’s always White Desert if cozy heated tents, gourmet meals, and well, warmth is your thing). We spent nine hours off the ship, disembarking at 9pm, returning at 6am. You can’t bring anything to eat or drink, and you can only use the ‘toilet’ in the case of an emergency (and there’s no privacy if you choose to do so). Think twice before sneaking that bottle of wine into your backpack, you’ll regret it come morning.
Take a Dip in the Southern Ocean
A fog has descended on Wilhelmina Bay. There’s a colossal glacier in the distance and a few icebergs less than 100 metres away. Standing under a solid, dark sky, looking over the ocean from the back of the ship, I’m half-naked with locked knees, heart pulsing up to my throat. There’s just a faint trace of the horizon separating the grey sky from the grey sea. I’m frozen, not just because we spent the previous night camped out on the ice with bodies that are still yet to thaw; not just because of the glacial winds that are snapping across my bare skin from all angles like rubber bands (Antarctica is, in fact, the windiest place on earth); not just because I’m thinking about the zero-degree water we’re about to dive into, but frozen—paralyzed with wonder.
I’m not scared, per se, because it’s just the ocean, right? Albeit the Southern Ocean, in the Gerlache Strait where an hour earlier a pod of humpbacks were bubble-net feeding on krill, and slapping their tails against our zodiacs. I’m hooked up to a pulley system so the expedition team can reel me back, in case the current decides to take me away. To my right, our assistant expedition leader stands next to a defibrillator in case of emergency. The shock and temperature of the water could render a body rigid in seconds.
After much coaxing, and a few countdowns from the crowd of passengers and staff, I am the third passenger to take the plunge and star jump into the ocean. It hurts less than I expect, but that’s probably because I immediately can’t feel my body. Then, like a punch to the stomach, the wind is knocked out of me, and momentarily I think I can’t breathe. I manage a few quick strokes, then swim back towards the ship and manage to climb out of the water, dry off and slip into my housecoat before taking a celebratory shot of dulce de leche (a super-sweet Argentinian liqueur made from the condensed milk spread). That’s one sure way to make you feel alive!
What you must know:
There’s no guarantee of a polar plunge on an expedition cruise, but if the weather is right, take the opportunity when it arises. When else will you be able to say you swam in the Southern Ocean (and have a certificate signed by the captain to prove it)? We highly recommend choosing a ship with a hot tub to jump into immediately post-polar plunge, and a bartender nearby to bring you something to warm up with, fast.
Hike on the Antarctic Continent
During landings, we tread carefully past battling Antarctic fur seals at Hydrurga Rocks and hike through the world’s largest Gentoo penguin rookery at Cuverville Island, where fledgling chicks waddle and some inexperienced adolescent pairs are building nests and nurturing eggs too late in the season for them to survive. We march our way up glaciers and to various research bases, and walk among three- to five-ton Southern elephant seals at Bond Point while listening to the ocean pull back the rocks on the shore nearby. We discover leopard seals taking naps in ice floes. We slide down the mountain on our bums during our last landfall at Paradise Harbour and we look out across the bay at Neko Harbour.
The latter is among the most profound, memorable moments of my life. We’re surrounded by penguins and the sun is low on the horizon. A pair of fuzzy chicks huddle near our path to the top of the mountain, shivering, wet and covered in ‘mud.’ Our Dutch birding expert, Ab Steenvoorden, who’s always close by to answer our questions, explains that many chicks have been catching pneumonia in recent years on the peninsula because of the increased amount of rain due to the warming temperatures.
When we reach the top, we have a 360-degree unobstructed view of the craggy black mountains peeking out from the gigantic turquoise glaciers and hear the thunderous noise of them calving, echoing across the bay. As I look out across the vast ocean filled with all shapes and sizes of icebergs and sea ice, the ship looks like a small speck. I set my camera aside, sit in the snow and take it all in.
What you must know:
There’s a strong argument by scientists and the IAATO that the impact visitors to Antarctica have on the continent is far outweighed by the benefits of the awareness that the closely-regulated tourism creates. We stay five metres back from all wildlife, although our penguin friends have the right-of-way here on their self-constructed highways, and decidedly ignore these rules, completely unphased by our presence.
We ensure new species aren’t introduced by vacuuming the pockets and Velcro of every item of clothing we plan to take on landings while crossing the Drake. We clean our gear and boots in a special solution before and after every landing, and cover over every footstep we make in the snow on our way back to the zodiacs. Here’s sustainability and conservation are paramount.
Tonight, paper vomit bags are strategically tucked into the handrails that line each corridor. We’re reminded to secure our cabins and unplug all electrical devices to avoid a fire (forget a single pen in a drawer and you’ll be up all night long with the noise of it rolling back and fourth). The decorative cork coasters at the bar are cleverly replaced with rubber, non-slip ones.
As our expedition leader takes us through our regular evening briefing, something feels different, even slightly sombre. As he pulls up a map on the projector screen and shows us the impending storm, there’s a unanimous sigh of disappointment from the room. Nobody wants to return home from this icy paradise, yet.
“This Drake Passage meets the reputation of all the stories you have heard before, and if you’re looking for the opportunity to die, this is it… 836 shipwrecks have happened here,” he says presenting us with two options.
“Plan A: To cross the Drake as planned, but because we have to sail slowly it would require three, miserable sea days, conquering minimum 10-12 metre waves before hopefully reaching Ushuaia. “Plan B: Leave tonight, spend two days at sea, mostly beating the storm, enduring five metre waves, and then spend a day in the Beagle Channel, drinking cocktails and eating peanuts.”
Two people raise their hands for plan A. That night we say goodbye to the ice and head north towards the South Shetland Islands.
In the morning, a wandering albatross—a legendary protector of seafarers, known for their wing spans of over three metres—follows the ship and we spy Gentoo penguins leaping from the water for the last time. Soon our last sight of Antarctica fades in the distance. All we’re left with is the lingering feeling that we’ve just experienced something remarkable. On our final day, we enjoy a day of sunshine, Malbec and an al-fresco barbecue in the Beagle Channel.
Looking to plan your trip to the Antarctic? Reach out to our team of experts now, including our Antarctica specialist, Kim Green, today to start planning your trip of a lifetime.