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When I used to envision Antarctica, I’d picture the bleakest, coldest, dreariest place. After 11-days cruising through the continent, Antarctica is now the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Although it is freezing cold, Antarctica is anything but bleak and dreary. Its coasts are teeming with marine life and filled with vibrant blue colors and sunshine. The views are beyond spectacular – jagged snow covered mountains, bright blue waters that reflect the mountains like a mirror, and endless arrays of ice sculptures. I decided “iceberg” is not a fair name. These ice sculptures are true art. Each one is different and each seems more beautiful than the last. They are white and blue – as if they’ve been stained with blue raspberry kool-aid. The low concentration of air bubbles gives them the glowing bright blue color. The ice sculptures are surrounded by turquoise water that looks like it came from the Caribbean sea. The teal color is actually caused by the blue ocean water overlapping the white snow and ice. The amount of snow and ice in Antarctica is unfathomable! The land is covered with cliffs of snow and ice. I now understand why they say that Antarctica holds 70% of Earth’s Fresh Water. We tried our best to share the continent’s beauty through Bryan’s photos and my writing, but honestly, no words or pictures could ever capture this place. The grandeur and beauty of Antarctica just can’t be put into words or captured in photos. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Antarctica, just go for yourself. You won’t regret the large sum of money you’ll pay.
Bryan mentioned a few times before our trip that if we can get on a boat to Antarctica when we are in Ushuaia, we should go ahead and go. He said it would probably cost around $15K USD. I was indifferent about going to Antarctica. Not many people can say they’ve ventured to the World’s 7th Continent. But were those bragging rights worth that much money? I could think of a lot more practical things we could use that chunk of change for when we return to our lives in the U.S. For instance, a car for me . . . or a down payment on a house for us to live in.
While we were in the town of Alter do Chao (on the Amazon in Brazil) we met a new friend from Australia named Leesa who had a 2-week cruise to Antarctica booked. We stayed in touch with Leesa through Facebook. When she returned from Antarctica and posted her photos from the cruise, I knew we had to go. Her ship, Antarctic Dream, was the creme de la creme of the Antarctic cruises – gourmet meals, comfy cabins, and an impressive staff including Marine Biologists and other specialized scientists on board to educate the passengers. I didn’t even want to look much into her ship because I knew it would be way out of our budget.
Time was getting short. Cruises to Antarctica only run during their summer months (November to early March). Anything close to March would be a gamble as the ice starts to freeze. Bryan started putting feelers out. He found that Antarctic Dream was having a last-minute special and reserved two spots, but wasn’t required to pay for 3 more days. The next morning Bryan stumbled across an online forum with the name of a travel agency that supposedly had the best prices to Antarctica (Ushuaia Turismo). They offered the same cruise for even cheaper. After a lot of persistence, Bryan also found two plane tickets for a decent price from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina the day before the cruise departed. Our trip to Antarctica was becoming a reality!
We were fully prepared to spend the first two days of our cruise vomiting. We had heard horror stories about Drake’s Passage – the ocean water between the tip of South America and the islands and peninsula of Antarctica. It is said to be the roughest sea in the world. We met a married American couple in our hostel in Ushuaia named Justin and Ashley who had also quit their jobs to travel for an extended period of time. (We haven’t met many other traveling, married couples). We were thrilled they were on the same cruise ship as us and we became instant friends. Ashley had bags of over a hundred motion sickness pills of various types. She suffers from extreme motion sickness – even while rocking in hammocks, boating on a calm lake, and watching high action movie scenes. But the lure of Antarctica overcame her fear of seasickness. Much to our surprise, with a few Dramamine pills, the two days of Drake’s Passage were rocky but completely bearable. We didn’t get sick (not even Ashley) and we made it to all of the meals. On the Sea Force Scale from 1 – 12, the Drake Passage was only a 1 or 2 during our voyage. It was more of a “Drake Lake” than the infamous “Drake Shake.” Of course the boat rocked and we had to hold onto our beds and the bannisters in the dining room but that only added to the adventure. We slept a lot, ate a lot, and listened to some informative lectures from the crew about Antarctica during our 2-day passage. The only rough part was once we were out of Drake’s Passage and into the Bransfield Strait, we hit a pretty large storm. The seas wind and waves hit a Force 9 for a few hours. Many passengers were literally thrown out of their beds.
After such a smooth trip through the Drake on the way to Antarctica, we expected our trip home to be a rough one. It wasn’t bad at all though. It was a rocky trip but I don’t think anyone got too sick. The only time I started feeling bad was when I went too long in between taking pills. During dinner I started feeling hot and dizzy and left during the entree. After laying down and taking another pill I felt better and returned upstairs but had missed dessert. 🙁
This was our first real Cruise so we didn’t know what to expect. It was incredible! The staff were all extremely passionate about their jobs and Antarctica. They went out of their way to make sure we had as many landings as possible, and saw and learned as much as possible. The wait staff was always friendly and smiling even when they were balancing a huge tray of wine glasses or food while walking through the rocking dining room. There were several scientists and marine biologists who gave informative lectures about Antarctica and the marine life. They also walked along with us and shared their knowledge during the landings. Bryan spent a lot of time up with Captain Ernesto and his crew (I know this is scary for those of you who know what happened to our own boat a few years ago). 🙂 The Captain and his crew were always pleased to have visitors and answer questions. I really respect the entire crew’s hard work. They have only a few hours off every 11 days (while docked in Ushuaia in between cruises). So they rarely, if ever, see their family during the Cruise Season (November – March). We never heard them complain once though. They all seemed as excited as the passengers and told us how much they love their jobs.
There seemed to be two categories of fellow passengers on our ship. The first category were those people who had traveled to Ushuaia, Argentina specifically to cruise to Antarctica and were returning home afterwards. These people had all likely paid full price for their cabins. We fall into the second category (which many people did). These are the passengers that are backpacking South America (and beyond) for an extended period of time. The cruise was out of their budget but they had scored a last-minute deal and splurged on the adventure. Almost all these people were unemployed (like us).
We met a lovely English lady named Elizabeth onboard who is turning 90 years old in April. She has always wanted to go to Antarctica ever since she was a little girl. Ms. Elizabeth and her daughter Anne decided to go for it, despite the worries of their friends and family. We were all very impressed with Ms. Elizabeth’s toughness. She climbed right down the steep, slippery stairs and into the zodiac during almost every landing. She made her way up and down the several sets of stairs with little to no assistance, even when the boat was really rocking. Ms. Elizabeth did give her daughter Anne quite a scare one day when Anne walked in to find her lying face down on the floor of the cabin. Don’t worry, Ms. Elizabeth was just looking for a water bottle that had rolled under the bed! Anne gasped and Ms. Elizabeth sat up and said “Oh, Hello!” I hope I’m that awesome and adventurous when I’m 90!
One thing to remember when you are researching cruises to Antarctica is that only 100 people are allowed off of the ship at a time. Some ships with lots of passengers only cruise around and the passengers aren’t even able to set foot on Antarctica. Antarctic Dream carries a maximum of 80 passengers (we had 73 on our ship). They make as many landings as possible. Because the Drake was so calm, we arrived early and they even squeezed in an extra landing a day ahead of schedule. We eagerly piled on our multiple layers (I wore a thick parka, 2 fleece jackets, cotton shirt, long underwear, 2 pairs of cargo pants, waterproof pants, 4 pairs of socks, rubber boots, a fleece hat, and gloves). In total, we had 9 landings and 2 Zodiac Cruises during our cruise. We were pro’s at bundling up after a few days!
We visited several islands as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. During a landing, the ship anchors and the 6 or so Zodiac boats shuttled groups of 10 passengers to shore. The landings lasted for a few hours. Bryan was worried that such large groups of people would interfere with picture-taking but that never was a problem. Another special thing about Antarctic Dream is that every cruise itinerary is different. As the ice melts, different waterways become open to the ship. The locations we visit depend on the weather and the ice conditions. We visited some places that the ship was able to visit for the first time this season. We were incredibly fortunate to have such calm seas, great weather, and sunshine.
When I used to think about Antarctica, I’d picture a desolate, frozen, lifeless land mass. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of marine life! Enjoying gourmet meals and wine in the ship’s completely windowed dining room was like watching a fancy National Geographic dinner show firsthand. During a single meal we would often spot several seals, penguins, and whales. Life couldn’t get much better! On our second landing, we went to Trinity Island. I was shocked to see we were completely surrounded by several hundred penguins, a dozen fur seals & Weddell seals, and several types of sea birds. The animals in Antarctica aren’t afraid of humans. They are sometimes even curious. We had a Leopard Seal swim up to our Zodiac and swim back and forth trying to watch us. She even leaped into the air right beside the boat. She was the length of our zodiac boat! By the way, Leopard Seals aren’t sweet and cuddly like you might picture. They are tough predators with heads that were described as similar to a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “Bio Bob” (one of the ship’s Marine Biologists) told us a story about a woman Marine Biologist diving in Antarctica in 2003. A leopard seal drug her over 100 meters (300 ft.) underwater, drowned her, and drilled a hole in her skull. After hearing that story, Ashley and I started calling them Zombie Seals. On one zodiac cruise, we saw several different icebergs with enormous Zombie Seals sleeping. I thought we were going to be Zombie Seal chow for a few minutes. One of the cliffs nearby starting breaking off enormous icebergs and setting off a big wave our way. Our driver told us to sit down and hold on but the engine didn’t start. We braced ourselves for an icy tsunami but the engine finally started up after a few tries we took off towards the safety of our cruise ship.
Quick fact – penguins are only in the Southern Hemisphere and polar bears are only in the Northern Hemisphere. There are no land mammals in Antarctica. But, miraculously, we encountered a polar bear and a snow leopard during one of our landings! Well, kind of. Our hilarious new Japanese friend Akio brought out a toy Polar Bear during one of our landings. (Akio reminds us of a Japanese version of Bryan’s brother – Erik). A few minutes after posing his plastic polar bear, Akio said something about his “costume” and began stripping off his clothes in the snow. To our surprise, he was wearing a black, lacy lingerie outfit under his several layers. He put on a spandex snow leopard hat and began posing for everyone. With the language barrier we didn’t get the full story but apparently this was part of a bet with his friend. The lacy black cheetah outfit came out during a few other landings, as well as during the “Polar Plunge” on Deception Island. Akio bravely pranced into the freezing cold water in his lingerie, waving the red circle from the Japan flag that he made. My toes and fingers were already numb. 5 a.m. (or anytime for that matter) was not a good time to swim in the frigid waters of Antarctica. Kudos to Justin and Akio for surviving the early morning Polar Plunge!
Penguins were EVERYWHERE! I can’t even venture a guess of how many we saw; it seemed like millions. Another quick fact for you – penguins live almost entirely on the sea (even while sleeping). They only come to land for a couple of months to breed and molt. This isn’t surprising after you watch them on land and then watch them in the sea. On land they are clumsy and slow. In the water, penguins are one of the most graceful creatures. The way they swim is just like a dolphin and is called “porpoising.” They dive in and out of the water and can reach speeds of 15 to 20 kilometers per hour (9 – 12 mph). I never grew tired of watching the penguins porpoising through the mirror-like calm waters, beside the teal and white ice sculptures.
Penguins are also more pleasant to watch on the water because you miss out on the smell. Penguin poop has become one of my new least favorite smells. It’s still worth the stench to see them waddling up and down their “penguin highways.” They nest on the higher, rockier spots because the ice melts there first. Many penguins have a long, tedious trek to the ocean to find food for their chicks. The penguin parents take turns guarding the nest and fishing. The fishing parent returns and regurgitates its food for the chicks. By this time of the year, the chicks are older “teenagers” but still lay around and depend on their parents for food. We saw many squawking and running their parents out of the colony to go get them more food. They were always hungry, cranky, and rude to their parents – kind of sounds like human teenagers. In about ten days, the parents will return to sea for the winter and will leave their chicks forever. The chicks will finish molting and then also set out to sea. The parents are now trying to fatten up their chicks because they won’t be able to eat until they’ve finished molting. Some of the chicks were even bigger than the adults.
Our Captain and his crew were constantly on the look-out for marine life. As soon as they spotted something they would call down to the crew who would announce the sighting over the intercom. The Captain had excellent eyes. He spotted some sleeping Humpback whales way out in the distance (they just looked like tiny gray mounds). He steered the boat towards the whales and we all hurried on deck with our cameras.
These two humpbacks were as curious about us as we were about them. They stayed beside the boat for quite sometime and swam back and forth underneath us (as we all scurried to follow them). The water is so clear and clean that we could see their entire bodies even when they were far below the surface. After those two Humpbacks left, we encountered several other sets of curious Humpback whales. I think we saw about 20 that day alone but I lost track. Closer to South America during our return, we saw some friendly black and white Pale’s dolphins. They stayed along our ship, leaping and swimming, for several miles. I couldn’t believe how fast they were, with only a tiny flitter of their tails they danced and played together in the wake of our ship. Our only disappointment of the entire trip was that we didn’t see an Orca (Killer Whale). We learned quite a bit about them in our lectures and I can see how they get the name “Killer.” It made me wonder who decided to capture one, name him “Shamu,” and make a kids’ theme park?
Our final landing was bittersweet. We were all sad to leave but we were thrilled to encounter a new creature – the enormous Elephant Seal! The male elephant seals can weigh up to 6 tons, while the females weigh around 1 ton. The males have elephant-like trunks (hence the name). The males reach maturity around 6-8 years and then have to fight to secure themselves a harem of females for mating. The elephant seals we saw were mostly young males who were doing plenty of practice fighting. They must practice their fighting skills so that they can earn and protect the best group of females when mating season comes. We watched them for awhile, roaring and blowing their stinky, steamy breath as they sparred.
It’s probably no coincidence that this breathtaking place is the world’s most unpopulated continent (there are no permanent residents). I can only hope that the Antarctic Treaty stays strong and protects this incredible continent and its marine life. Humankind nearly destroyed the ecosystem during the Whaling and Sealing Eras. Decades of malicious killing almost caused the extinction of several species. 🙁 The last whaling station in Antarctica closed in 1966 on Deception Island (where they held the Polar Plunge). The species are only now beginning to recover but the impact can still be felt. The seas used to be full of whales. The world’s largest animal, the Blue Whale, used to be plentiful but is now difficult to find and study. Japan is the only country still killing whales around Antarctica. They say its for scientific research and they have a limit to the number of whales they can kill per year. I just don’t understand why they need to kill thousands of whales to study them. This struggle can be seen in the TV series “Whale Wars.”
I think everyone should have the pleasure of experiencing Antarctica firsthand. On the other hand, I pray that the place remains unspoiled and the populations replenish themselves. Hopefully, countries will continue to respect the Antarctic Treaty (renewed in 1991) and responsible tourism will be the norm.
I’m sad to leave the beauty of Antarctica and the adorable creatures behind. This cruise has by far been the highlight of our trip, and one of the highlights of my life. I’m curious after our two years of travel if we will encounter anywhere as beautiful as this final frozen frontier.
If you’re really interested in an in-depth log of our trip, we’ve attached a link below. We couldn’t have had better weather and wildlife viewing throughout our journey and it’s all documented in “Bio” Bob’s write-up below.