Our Travelife Magazine columnist recalls the exhilarating experience of sailingfrom Chile into the depths of the end of the world.
Exploring new ground has always had tremendous appeal to me. I realized I would never get to the moon or to the planet Mars. So instead I traveled over halfway around the world to the closest I can imagine to these.
Antarctica is the emptiest place on earth, the last continent to be discovered by explorers. It is the last place to get charted, examined, and understood, as well as to feel the footprint of humanity.
“Terra incognita” as they like to say.
NOTHING BUT ICE
Earth’s coldest continent is a frozen unspoiled wilderness at the bottom of the world. Ice has dominated this area far longer than humans have walked this planet. This frosty no-man’s land appears locked in a perpetual ice age – a colossal sheet covers almost every inch of it, and in some places the ice is so thick that it depresses the earth’s crust by almost half a mile.
Some people call this the freezer, but scientists refer to it simply as “the ice.” It is a giant laboratory – 1.5 times the size of the United States – with a rare ecosystem that scientists continue to pore over.
Yes, this is as far from civilization as one can possibly get, but, amazingly, anything that happens here affects the rest of the world. So despite being the most uninhabited place on earth, it is, ironically, the one most endangered by human activity.
The wellbeing of Antarctica affects us all. As the earth heats up and the climate is changing, what will happen to Antarctica? Will it melt, raising sea levels and endangering coastal towns and cities across the globe? What happens to the depletion of the ozone layer? What lies ahead for this majestic territory?
It is a great joy to be in a place of unearthly beauty, a place that feels borderline weird but breathtaking at the same time. Indeed it is such a special place, and yet it is so hard to get to.
One fine day in January, we set sail for Antarctica from the Chilean port of Valparaiso on board the Seabourn Quest. The Seabourn Quest was recently retrofitted with a hull strengthened to accommodate encounters of the ice variety.
This was a voyage of potential discovery but also of real danger. Just getting there taxes you, your companions and the crew as you brave the mighty southern ocean.
But the hardships are worth it, for Antarctica is a place few words can describe. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot recreate the sensation of truly being there. Nor can pictures capture its real personality. This voyage took me to a continent beyond imagination, a new world.
The cruise took us down the coast of Chile with stops in several memorable cities along the way, including scenic areas in Patagonia and Ushiaia, the most southerly city in the world. Then it was clear sailing across the dreaded Drake Passage to Antarctica, the highlight of the cruise.
On this voyage, our ship went further south into Antarctica than any previous voyage Seabourn had done, as we reached over 65 degrees south during close to a week of fairly deep polar cruising. The routes of Seabourn tend to be more adventurous, and their cruises are usually not just about visiting and touching the peninsula like many other cruise lines.
Quite simply, Antarctica is unlike any other cruise destination you will encounter, whether you are a cruise veteran or not. You won’t find hawkers, malls or duty free shopping here.
This isn’t like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean where itineraries are generally followed to the second. Here, weather conditions often dictate whether a scheduled stop is made, bypassed or postponed for somewhere with better landing conditions.
COST OF CRUISING TO ANTARCTICA
Don’t be shocked with prices either. And don’t scrimp and choose a line that does just a “fly by” but never allows for land exploration. That is like looking at a restaurant menu but not ordering and eating. Why go that far and not march with the penguins?
Ask anyone about the prospect of traveling to Antarctica and it generally evokes one of two responses: they either ask, “how do I get there?” or pose the rhetorical question, “why would I want to go there?” There is little room for ambivalence about it.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Today, Antarctica is a tourist destination, with several thousand visitors reaching its shores every year. Its interior remains largely abandoned with the exception of scientific bases scattered within the enormity of the continent. The very factors that draw people to Antarctica now are what have, until the 20th century, prevented it from human habitation: the cold, the inaccessibility, the ice, and the isolation.
I write with great passion about the experience of visiting Antarctica, and with genuine awestruck emotion. Like many people, I was familiar with beautiful photographs taken over the years, showing in detail the landscape and the interiors. But seeing the photographs and seeing Antarctica in person are two entirely different visual sensations.
The very name Antarctica evokes feelings of distance, fear of the elements and loneliness; but these feelings can actually be invigorating, more so when allied with a spirit of adventure. You really feel like you have reached the edge.
Before I set foot on Antarctica, my head was full of the usual romantic notions about the so-called heroic age of Antarctic exploration. I knew about some of the world’s great explorers who ventured south, including Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, but I never appreciated the horror of their ordeals until I actually found myself on this continent.
SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT
Prior to disembarking in Antarctica, the ship’s crew held what they fondly referred to as a “vacuum cleaning party,” which, in reality, was a biohazard briefing to prevent introductions of non-native plants and animals, including seeds and organisms. Our previously used outer gear was inspected and vacuum cleaned, while our boots were washed and disinfected before and after each landing.
We were not allowed to smoke or to bring food ashore – not even chewing gum. Plastic water bottles were prohibited, as well. So instead we brought flasks that had to be taken back onboard each time. The removal of objects from Antarctica, including rocks, bones or fossils, is also strictly prohibited. All we could do was take pictures and leave footprints.
All Antarctic species are protected. Visitors are not allowed to feed, touch or handle wildlife, and are asked to walk slowly and quietly. We were mingling with thousands of penguins on virtually each trip ashore, and we had to ensure we didn’t run or shout around them.
WEATHER CONDITIONS IN ANTARCTICA
Weather can change very rapidly in Antarctica and operations are halted when the wind hits 30 knots or more, as this makes it difficult to return back to the ship. Each party headed for shore carries over 100 kilos of equipment in case of emergency, as the conditions are extremely unpredictable.
There have been instances when passengers have been stranded for up to 18 hours ashore due to inclement weather. Emergency evacuation out of Antarctica can be difficult and may take days, so it is imperative to take care.
An Antarctica cruise is not a normal cruise. On the way over, we were fortunate to have beautiful, albeit unusual weather in the Drake Passage, as the Quest cruised effortlessly at 18 knots. But the anticipation and excitement on the way over was incredible.
ABOUT YANKEE HARBOUR
Yankee Harbour was our first taste of Antarctica. The place is so named because it was used in the 19th century by American sealers, who left their old cast iron pots used for recovering oil from the blubber of elephant seals right next to our landing site.
Snow was falling lightly when we made landfall on our zodiacs. Once ashore, we were nearly overwhelmed by the sight, sound and smell of 5000 pairs of nesting Gentoo penguins. These included the stench of penguin guano (that is poop, in layman’s terms).
Penguins nest in large groups known as colonies and their guano tends to be concentrated in those areas. They can be very smelly but you get used to it after a while.
EUPHORIA IN THE AIR
When you land you are consumed with feelings that make you want to high-five and hug people around you. You also start burning mega pixels on your camera, shooting everything that moves and doesn’t.
It was intoxicating, and the sheer adrenaline around my sense of accomplishment made me giddy. It was proof that I was still gutsy, fit, strong, slightly crazy, young, and – despite pushing 55 – still standing, albeit at the bottom of the world.
On this excursion, the sight of predatory birds, skuas and giant petrels that patrolled over the rookeries looking for the weak and disabled, is forever etched in my mind. In many ways, this was just like being on safari, albeit in a different setting with entirely new animals.
From the Zodiac, I spotted young male fur seals decked out on the beach, various Wedell seals and a lone leopard seal. It was a great day for our first outing to Antarctica, with no accidents, mishaps or untoward incidents.
Later in the evening, the captain attempted to take our ship into the sunken caldera of Deception Island. We reached the narrow entrance called Neptune’s Bellows, only for the wind to pick up and make it dangerous to proceed. So instead we happily sailed away and along the coast of Bally Head, home to 60,000 nesting pairs of chinstrap penguins, with the waters everywhere alive with penguins.
Every night, the expedition leader called a recap meeting at the grand salon for a briefing of that day’s activities and to discuss the schedule for the next day. These were very informative. We were advised we were going to attempt a landing on Half Moon Bay the next morning.
OUT OF NOWHERE
But this was not to be. We awoke the next day to heavy snow, swelled up seas and strong winds from the wrong direction. The exposed decks accumulated three inches of snow, and the crew quickly and happily built a snowman to the delight of the passengers. I even spotted a hardy couple enjoying a hot tub on deck 8.
The captain wisely decided to head for the calmer waters of the Gerlache Strait, and by afternoon the sun was attempting an appearance. This was also about the time that we encountered pods of humpback whales everywhere, making bubble rings to enclose the krill.
Meanwhile, others were fluking and some came incredibly close to the ship. The captain skillfully maneuvered the ship to keep up with them. I knew this was special because even the crew and expedition staff were firing away with their digital cameras.
In particular, the bubble net feeding, during which the whales corral krill into tight “bait balls” by blowing a circular ring of bubbles around the swarm, is considered a once in a lifetime event to watch, let alone to see it up close. We finished this exhilarating afternoon with a spectacular cruise through the Neumeyer Channel, in some spots just a mile wide.
SPLENDID ISOLATION AT WATERBOAT POINT
The next morning we landed at Waterboat Point in Paradise Bay, the site of a Chilean station named after Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. Gonzalez Videla was a former president of Chile and the first head of state to visit Antarctica, opening the station in 1951.
There were a dozen personnel from the Chilean Air Force and Navy plus about ten scientists doing various biological research. As you may imagine, being so isolated, they are always happy to see people.
They welcomed us inside their quarters, including an observation tower that provided wonderful vistas in all directions. Afterwards, we had them as lunch guests on the ship. Clearly, they were eager to partake of fruits and vegetables they hadn’t had in some time.
As usual, thousands of Gentoo penguins were everywhere, and it was impossible not to get up close and personal with them. We even spotted a leucistic penguin, similar to an albino, which occurs in one penguin out of 20,000.
In the evening, the Captain took us through Lemaire Channel to reach the most southerly position ever reached by a Seabourn vessel – 65 degrees, 7 minutes in amazingly calm conditions, with wildlife everywhere and ideal light.
A LAST HURRAH
The following day we headed for Cuverville Island, named after a French vice admiral. It was overcast but the seas were calm. And, as opposed to other days, operations began at a more civilized time of 10 AM.
Set against a backdrop of scenic mountains and glaciers, it is a pretty island that’s home to another large colony of Gentoo penguins. On landing, one of the first things I noticed was the scattering of old whalebones, a stark reminder of the slaughter that took place here in the last century.
Some staff and passengers, my sister included, climbed the mountain and took the easy route down, sitting and sliding down the slopes, and taking selfies and videos as they did.
When we finally returned to the Quest, we were treated to an epicurean event, complete with smoked salmon, a mountain of caviar and prosciutto ham served on deck, to cap an amazing day.
The next day at Neko Harbour began very early with a ride along the coast on our Zodiac. This was worth the early morning wake up call. as we zoomed by the rugged coastline and got intimate with large packs of floating ice called ice floes, and humpback and minke whales.
THE PERFECT STORM
By evening, as we commenced our trip across the Scotia Sea and the Drake Passage for our return to civilization, we encountered stark, spectacular weather.
Winds were howling in excess of 60 knots, waves were measured at 10 meters (33 feet) high and driving snow produced near zero visibility conditions. We were in the midst of a genuine arctic storm. I was not going to miss this for the world. I rushed to the observation room on deck 10 and saw how the wave splashes were reaching the top of the ship.
The Drake Passage was having her revenge after we came thundering down from Ushuaia with no incidents and traveled at full speed. This time, we paid the price. At one point we could travel no faster than two knots per hour, and the risk of encountering ice in the seas made it impossible to deploy the Quest’s stabilizers. There was little to do except head into the weather. Many staff members were seriously worried and nervous. The attendant in my mother’s cabin was in near tears.
This was an experience in itself, lasting about 12 hours. I have never heard so much shattering of plates during dinner service. The few who made it to dinner ended up hoping their food would be served on a plate rather than on their lap.
It was impossible for the staff to serve – many of them were also seasick – and it was even more dangerous to cook. I spent the night being thrown off my bed and got very little sleep. Marisa, my younger sister, was the smart one. She popped a pill and woke up the next day wondering what had transpired. The captain with all the instruments at his disposal never saw this storm coming and apologized profusely. It really felt like a rite of passage out of Antarctica.
ANTARCTICA ON MY MIND
At the end of it all, our expedition leader Robin West was correct. Antarctica cannot be captured in pictures; and, I might add, it is also impossible to describe the experience in words, hard as I have tried to do here.
I discovered something intangible – the magnificence, wonder and magic of Antarctica itself. It is a strange attraction, a feeling so powerful and lasting that when I returned home I instantly forgot about the length and difficulty of getting there and secretly began plotting my return (I haven’t told anybody yet).
Why was I so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so terrifying and empty? Was it the delight of the unknown? Or was I intoxicated by the effort required to get there and survive in that environment? Or was I motivated by a slightly perverted sense of pride in traveling somewhere most other people will only dream about?
Or was it the pleasure of being far removed from my normal life and existence? I suppose it is all of these but something else as well: the feeling of having my spirit lifted by seeing and feeling nature in all its tremendous power.
I didn’t figure out everything in Antarctica. Nor did I experience any magical epiphanies or find purpose and direction in the remaining years of my life. There was no time for that. And I didn’t experience the inevitable post-trip letdown either. But I was in a strange funk for a few weeks afterwards. It took me that long to get used to saying, “ I was in Antarctica,” in the past tense.