It never occurred to me that you could visit Antarctica. The Antarctic in my head was filled with science and research stations and relics of explorers past. On my long list of places to travel, Antarctica didn’t even make the cut. But, in 2013, I met a family while in Peru who regaled me with tales of the great white continent siting Antarctica as the best place they’d ever been. The idea had stuck with me ever since. Why was it so great?
In July 2014, I was laying in bed at night thinking about life and travel and suddenly, without warning, Antarctica popped into the forefront of my mind. I had to go. I had to take pictures of the ice. I had to see for myself. I was booked and paid-in-full a few weeks later. Friends often asked why I didn’t just go to Iceland or Alaska, or some place easier to get to. I didn’t have a good answer. Only that for whatever unwritten reason, it had to be Antarctica.
I started traveling December 4th and went from San Francisco to Panama City to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia in 27 hours. Four legs, without stopping, from one airport to the next. I felt my body unnaturally contorting to a seated position, head cocked and neck twisted. Each flight deepening that aching tiredness so common to prolonged air travel. Yes, it was long and necessary and a very small price to pay.
In Ushuaia, I was greeted with sunny skies and mountainous peaks. I had no expectations of the southernmost city in the world and was pleasantly surprised. Ushuaia is a cross between an up and coming ski town and a colorful tourist gateway. It’s a destination that leads elsewhere, but pretty all the same.
Travelers from all around the world were starting (or ending) their adventures here and many like me were making their way to Antarctica. I met a group of Antarctic revelers at a place called the Dublin and together we drank and laughed and imagined the stories we’d have when we returned. We were a boisterous bunch, exuberantly anxious about what the trip might bring, excited to embark on a journey unknown.
Embarking on the M/V Sea Adventurer
When it came time to greet the ship, I already had many new friends in tow and happy stories emblazoned on the pages of my journal.
“Is it really happening?”
All of the thoughtful planning and prep has lead me to this moment. My excitement was uncontrollable. My unadulterated bliss — palpable and obvious to anyone standing near. The pull of the Antarctic, so strong, that there was undeniably no other place in the world for me to be than right here, right now.
The ship’s lines were cast. We pull away. Ushuaia, disappearing into the gray, overcast sky. Soft, cold rain fell while the shoreline slowly disappeared, until nothing was left but sea.
And so it really began. We were on our way south to Antarctica. The cost of entry to our prized destination: The Drake Passage. The temperamental open waters between Argentina and Antarctica. The Antarctic Convergence. It can get very angry there. And we were headed straight for it.
We fit into two camps: those worried about the rolling, tumultuous swells of an unrestful, angry sea and those hoping for it. At one with this adventure and embracing whatever it sent, I fit comfortably in the latter group.
For those few days in open waters, I rode the rolls with joy and tumbled over with glee. At night, I hovered ever so slightly just above my bed as thunderous waves rolled by. The swells were big, though our experience was only a 4 out of 10, we’re told. It’s an average Drake.
It’s not this way for everyone as you’d imagine, and many fellow shipmates will tell a different tale. The sick bags placed liberally throughout the halls were used by many and often. The distant sound of flushing was prominent throughout the night. To be clear however, I had taken preventative measures in the form of Gravol, motion bands, and ginger chews.
During our passage, I’d become a late-night regular on the bridge, sleepily making my way up the ship at 2am. Marios and Alex were the only ones there, watching our course and keeping us safe. They shared their stories and their tea in between pointing out distant islands and penguins on icebergs amid the charcoal sky. I wasn’t sleeping very much, taking a shift approach to the night: two hours up, two hours asleep. The sky was always on. There was always something to see.
Before long and many educational lectures, safety briefings and Antarctic protection meetings later, the seas calmed leaving the open ocean behind us. After three days at sea, we had made it to the South Shetland Islands, passing by the island group en route to the Antarctic Sound. The water was adorned with massive tabular icebergs, a key characteristic of this region. By morning we’d reach our first stop on the north-east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We had arrived.
Exploring Antarctica Day by Day
Day to day life aboard the Sea Adventurer was filled with lectures and meetings, dining and lounging. We were always outside spotting whales, birds and bergs. There was always tea and coffee and cookies. There were always new friends to meet and new Antarctica stories to hear.
The real adventure, however, was outside the ship, and we took every opportunity to experience what the majestic Antarctic had to show us. Each day we visited two locations: one in the morning and one in the afternoon with zodiac cruising, exploring and hiking ashore and kayaking (if you’d signed up and paid extra) as activity options.
We were given bright yellow parkas to keep us warm and incredibly visible enabling us to roam around the snowy white surroundings. We were given big rubber muck boots to step about freely in the frozen landscape without fear of getting cold, wet or covered in penguin poo.
Though we were only exploring the Peninsula for five days, it felt like double the time, visiting one incredible location after the next — each spot feeling more awe-inspiring and amazing than the one before it. With each landing, everyone on the ship shared the same sentiment: “It can’t get any better than this!” — and yet somehow, it did. And so with each 7:00am wake up call, I was overwhelmed with excitement about what the day would bring.
Day 1(AM) - Paulet Island: Our first Antarctic experience, with spirits soaring! Paulet is a difficult landing given the amount of sea ice typical of early December. Expedition Leader Solan and Captain Alexey set an epic tone of our adventure by taking us here first. I sat on the edge of the shore, watching the Adélie penguins as they waddled, fell over and walked along their organized and narrow penguin highways.
Day 1(PM) - Brown Bluff: We didn’t make it! The weather went from relatively calm to near-blizzard conditions. The pressure dropped so far within an hour, causing 70 knot winds preventing us from getting to shore safely. Two zodiacs were already out when the weather changed, with a treacherous return to the ship. It was a true Antarctic moment! I loved it.
Day 2(AM) - Salvesen Cove: Day 2 in Antarctica and our first time out in the kayaks. When we arrived visibility was limited, with gray skies and soft falling snow. The experience was magical as the tip of our kayaks accumulated with bright white snow fall. Within a few hours, the skies cleared, giving way to a glacier cove, with bluish hues and crackling faces. I first noticed the quiet here. A distinct quiet that opened up the unique sounds of the Antarctic: distant snow crashing from mountains, glaciers breaking, penguins breaching or floating ice popping in the water nearby.
Day 2(PM) - Portal Point: The afternoon excursion was at Portal Point on Charlotte Bay. My group of intrepid kayakers paddled through enormous ice on a surprisingly bright, blue and warm sunny day - an incredible contrast to the surrounding frozn landscapes. We followed a few humpback whales in the distance before heading to shore to hike up to a vista point overlooking the bay. I cried here. A lot. The beauty of this place was truly overwhelming and the tears fell without warning.
Day 3(AM) - Orne Harbor: The kayakers were up and out early, having gotten into the swing of getting into gear each day. The weather turned for the worse while we were paddling and heavy swells caused dramatic waves. Deeming it unsafe, our kayaking guides Becs and Sean took us to shore instead where we hiked up a steep cliff to visit a nesting chinstrap penguin colony. In the middle of the night ,the sky lit up unlike anything I’d ever seen, with vibrant pink and purple hues painting everything in sight.
Day 3(PM) - Cuverville Island: Another sunny day out on the kayaks with remarkable, pristine conditions. We paddled alongside the ice, glaciers and mountains, spotting Gentoo penguins hiking up a steep cliffside and consequently sliding back down. We then cruised to shore, visiting larger Gentoo colonies shuffling about. Before long, we took another zodiac cruise around a massive garden of sculptural icebergs. We anchored overnight there, and those who signed up for camping slept ashore.
Day 4(AM) - Paradise Bay: For the first time, I skipped kayaking for a zodiac cruise, to get closer to glacier faces and the ice of Paradise Bay. Our driver Fede, historian and guide, took us exploring around the bay getting super close to the crazy shapes of the ice. Afterwards, we visited Almirante Brown, an abandoned Argentinian base where I soaked in the Antarctic summer sun (it was shockingly hot) and watched the wandering penguins yet again. It was here at Paradise Bay where a crazy group of us temporarily lost our good judgement and jumped into the icy Antarctic waters. It was a cool -1 degree Celsius and expedition team guides, Will and Liz captured the expressive glory from every one of our faces.
Day 4(PM) - Port Lockroy: The clouds at Port Lockroy matched the brash ice of the sea, at which point it was hard to tell what was up and was down. We paddled again around Jougla Point and Goudier Island when the skies cleared revealing astonishing blue skies reflected perfectly in the calm, mirror waters. On shore we visited the famous UK Base (now a museum and post office) surrounded by carefree gentoo penguins -- unfazed by the presence of humans. As we sailed away, we encountered 20 orca whales! Jimmy and Christian, expedition guides and marine biologists were in heaven. An epic ending to the day.
Day 5(AM) - Bailey Head: The most impressive landing we had was at Bailey Head on Deception Island. Kayaking was definitely too dangerous there. Bailey Head is completely exposed to the elements, and only in the most favorable conditions can anyone land there. This was a true testament to the extreme professionalism and skill of our expedition team. The reward was epic!!! 100,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins - the largest colony we'd seen.
Day 5(PM) - Fort Point: Our last excursion was at Fort Point, a dramatic mountain-scape jutting up from nowhere as if it were formed angrily, all at once. We kayaked around the point and landed on shore, observing seals, four different types of penguins: Gentoos, Adélie, Chinstraps and ONE vagrant Macaroni - he didn't belong there having traveled on his own, far away from home. Santi, expedition guide and ornithologist shared his theories on why the lone Macaroni was there, but ultimately he didn't really know.
My Antarctic experience was truly a sum of hundreds of immensely special micro-moments. Moments that I cried from the unimaginable remarkableness of the Antarctic wilderness. Moments of play, stories from other passengers, hugs from the expedition team, the ship’s crew — moments of wonder, moments of glee, moments of utter exhaustion, intense respect and unparalleled gratitude — moments of glory, extremes and everything in between.
Thankfully, we had another two full days of northbound sailing, back through the Drake Passage (a breeze) before heading back to reality. Those two days afforded me the necessary time to decompress (and stop crying) and to process the inexplicable experience before stepping foot back on South America. It also gave our ship of new friends plenty of time for late-night dance parties, boozy auctions, quizzes and toasts, speeches and slideshows and a few more nights of fine dining with the crew and our team.
Without the Drake (you can fly it), the trip would have come to a jarring conclusion, leaving me utterly heartbroken and abandoned at the port of Ushuaia. (Even though that’s kind of how I felt at the end anyway). I was one of the very last to get off our ship, soaking in every last morsel possible before I absolutely had to disembark. I hugged my friends and our expedition team vigorously.
The trip was over.
I’ve traveled to many places around the world. I’ve visited epic locations and experienced several journeys that taught me invaluable lessons about myself and how I fit into this world. Something was different about Antarctica. I can’t exactly describe why it was so profound. Why it was life-changing or what exact impact it had on me.
Since my return, there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by without thinking how to get back there - how to experience that same incredible high, that same need to make a difference, that same need to be there again. There’s not a single place in the world I’ve been to (yet) that’s given me the same feeling. And I’m not alone. Everyone who has been there shares this special bond that unites them into an I’ve been to Antarctica category. We all so emphatically believe that “Life will never be the same!” And so far it hasn’t been.
Now that I’m home, I have two big goals in mind: The first, going back -- it’s a must. The second, exploring ways to bring the spirit of Antarctica and travel and photography back to my everyday life.
And with that, I encourage you to visit this dream of a place to fully understand what I’m talking about. As soon as possible. Or perhaps you'll join me right here, the next time I go. When, "I've just returned from Antarctica" no longer applies and "I'm headed back!" is the state I'm in. And we can do this all over again as I plan and prep for a new adventure to the bottom of the world at the top of my heart.
For the full set of all my photos, visit Flickr.
Stay tuned for additional Antarctic posts, FAQs, experiences solo traveling and more!
PS: There's no way I could ever tell all the stories, there's so many and this post is already way too long. It's likely I will share some more of the more substantial mini-stories as separate posts like Noelle and Stephen's engagement, Solan's wakeup calls and Lucy's incredible impersonation of it, Rosemary's amazing speech, Christian's chart, Emily, Liz and Ali dancing through the Drake, Fede and Sarah dance the salsa, the Library party I happened upon at 1am, IVAN!, Jaegar Bombs at the Dublin (with a priceless reaction from Justin and Minh), Sarah almost being on the wrong ship, hiking Glacier Martial, hiking Tierra del Fuego, Alec stumbling upon me in losing it in happy tears, Captains Cocktails, Gigi and Ann taking care of me and so many, many more... It was TOO GOOD!!!
Special thanks to all of Quark's expedition team and crew who showed me the incredible and inspiring Antarctic Wilderness. It wouldn't have been the same without this exact group at these exact places.