Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered – maps as recently as the 19th century displayed an empty sea over the South Pole. Its climate is so harsh that except for the few species that breed on its shoreline, no animals or wildlife live on it. Visits to the continent require two days to cross the Drake Passage – known as the roughest seas in the world – and are restricted to the summer months from November to March when the surrounding ice has sufficiently melted.
We were fortunate to gain passage aboard the Russian built “Akademik Vavilov”, built in the late 80s for scientific research (also suspected of doubling as a Soviet spy ship) on a 10 day expedition to the Antarctic peninsula. This ship had been retrofitted with a bar, sauna, library, cabins of all classes, and a large dining hall. With capacity for 110 people, the Vavilov was the goldilocks of ships: big enough to handle rough waters but small enough that all passengers could participate in every docking.
All of the other passengers were friendly, fit, and well traveled – when asked whether Antarctica would be their seventh continent nearly everyone’s hands went up. The trip was led by the staff of Quark Expeditions, a group of Canadian and Australian scientists and Antarctica experts who had each visited the continent dozens of times.
As we pulled away from Ushuaia and sailed out of the Beagle channel we were warned by the ship’s doctor about the Drake Passage. Although neither Sarah nor I have ever been seasick we preemptively knocked ourselves out with seasickness drugs just as the ship began to rock back and forth. But because the Drake was not as bad as usual (one staffer rated it a 3 out of 10) we stopped the medication and were able to deal with the seas with our newfound alertness.
The staff did their best to keep us occupied with lectures on history, geology and describing the different wildlife we were to see: penguins, albatrosses, seals, and whales. We got to know the ship’s other hundred passengers and were even permitted on the ship’s bridge to view the seas from the same vantage point as the captain and his crew.
Two days later the waves stopped as abruptly as they had started – we had crossed the Drake Passage and Antarctica was spotted ahead.
Twice a day for the next five days we would leave the Vavilov aboard rubber motorized boats known as zodiacs to cruise around the area or to land on shore. Because our route was dependent on sea and weather conditions the decision on where we docked was made only a few hours in advance.
Early the next morning after sailing through the Lemarie Chanel – a seven mile long, one mile across stretch bounded by large peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula and Booth Island – we found too much sea ice for the Vavilov to continue.
It was safe for the zodiacs though and they were each lowered to the sea by a crane. We all crowded into the mud room, donned our yellow parkas, waterproof boots and life jackets and descended onto the zodiacs via a staircase off the side of the boat. We were to cruise around the area in the morning, return to the ship for lunch, then again board the zodiacs to return through Lemarie Chanel in the afternoon.
We were expecting a bumpy ride as we zoomed away from the Vavilov, but the zodiacs were stable, fast, and turned on a dime.
Our guide navigated through the clear waters around the sea ice, pointing out a few pieces with mysterious footprints and trails. We eventually saw a penguin or two walking across the ice before jumping into the sea.
Mountains and glaciers at water level were far more impressive than from the top of the ship.
We spotted a few crabeater seals, but they refused to do anything interesting for us.
We passed our first of several hills where penguins were nesting. From afar we saw them climbing to their nests on top or sliding down to the water.
That night, the Vavilov sailed about thirty miles northeast to Cuverville Island, where we were to make our first onshore landing.
The zodiac took us from the ship onto the rocky beach where several thousand pairs of gentoo penguins were waiting for us. Gentoos are about two feet tall, have an orange beak, and are very unstable on their feet, waddling like a toddler that just learned to walk.
It was nesting time – some were building nests by meticulously retrieving one rock at a time from the shore while others stole rocks from neighbors.
The penguins that already built their nest sat atop an egg or with their baby chicks, occasionally throwing their head back and screeching.
And all of them stunk.
We were warned we would smell them before seeing them and we sure did. In fact, the staff was so worried of the guano smell contaminating the Vavilov that we were forced to scrub our boots with brushes before being permitted back.
The gentoos either didn’t notice or didn’t care about our presence, often walking right in front of us as we tried to give them their space.
Their biggest enemies were skuas – grey gull-like birds that would swoop down and steal eggs while the penguins could only watch helplessly.
We remained on shore for a few hours, never tiring of watching the gentoos.
That afternoon we landed at Neko Harbor where we had our first taste of what I had expected of Antarctica. As we climbed to the top of the hill wading through snow up to our knees, the fog rolled in and wind whipped the snow into our faces. We weren’t able to see much besides the yellow of each person’s parka in front of us.
Weather conditions were far better the following day at Paradise Harbor, home to the former Argentinean Palmer scientific base.
This time our climb was rewarded with views of the harbor and glaciers.
After having worked so hard in climbing to the top it was time to cool off – a few of us decided to go for a quick swim. We had been told of the opportunity, and I had even convinced Sarah to wear her swimsuit under her clothes, but when it came time for a dip she told me I was on my own.
Before I could change my mind, I quickly stripped down, walked to the edge, and jumped….
Holy fucking shit it was cold!
I don’t think I was fully in the water before I turned back to shore.
An hour later as I was regaining feeling in my toes, a fellow passenger showed me the video he had taken from his zodiac.
This is not sped up.
That afternoon we visited Danco Island, a former British base that had been decommissioned in 2004. We climbed to the top in the bright sunlight, sharing the path with gentoos.
The snow was lightly packed and a few people created snowmen. Sarah prefered to make a snow angel.
The gentoos here were still within reach of skuas – one pilfered an egg right as we were watching.
We, along with about twenty other people, opted to camp one night on land. (Spending every night on the boat wasn’t truly experiencing Antarctica!)
Our small group was dropped off on Ronge Island with our gear and then the zodiac disappeared for the night.
We didn’t have a tent – just a sleeping bag and a waterproof bevy. We had to stomp down the knee deep snow before unfurling them.
Four jokers from New Foundland (who kept telling us how warm Antarctica was compared to home) brought a flag and golf clubs. We all took turns putting a few balls before turning in.
A few penguins and one Weddell seal watched us from a distance but besides that the island was ours. It wasn’t that cold in the sleeping bag – but with the sun not setting all night I had trouble sleeping out in the open.
We returned to the Vavilov as legends the following morning. After eating breakfast we headed out for a landing at Orne Harbor for the most difficult, steep, and icy climb of our trip.
At the top was a colony of chinstrap penguins, named after the black line under their mouth.
They were slightly smaller than gentoos but were much steadier on their feet – we didn’t notice a single one lose his balance.
Antarctica was a main source of whaling before it became unfashionable and illegal in the 60s. Today remnants of the practice litter Wilhemina Bay including a ship that stands where it was run aground, moors for ships to dock, and abandoned wooden boats.
We didn’t have much luck whale watching – the few sighted afar were gone by the time I rushed to see them. So it was fitting that while cruising around Wilhemina Bay we saw a humpback whale.
After four days along Antarctica’s peninsula we sailed north to the South Shetland Islands. We covered the distance overnight and landed at Half Moon Island in the morning.
It was far warmer here and many of us ditched our jackets before walking along the beach. The island is home to the Argentinean scientific base Camara – as our group walked past the scientists came out and took notice.
We continued up to the top of the hill and for the first time were permitted to slide down. (Earlier requests were denied and accompanied by stern warnings that medical attention was at best a few days away.) No one was too successful though, only drifting a few feet before sinking into the snow.
We walked back past the Palmer base to see the scientists gathered around a card table with merchandise for sale. They were really excited to see us (apparently not getting many visitors), offering us coffee, postcards, patches, and knives. Unfortunately we were all unaware of the shopping opportunities and no one had thought to bring money.
That afternoon we landed at Aitcho Island, where gentoos and chinstrap colonies lived together in harmony.
It was much warmer here. All the eggs had hatched and now parents were dealing with their chicks – some of whom were almost their size. The chicks weren’t old enough to hunt on their own, and being completely dependent on their parents for nourishment, ran after them for food. Skuas that dared to approach were quickly chased away.
We knew this was our last stop of the trip so we took our time watching the penguins before boarding the last zodiac to return to the Vavilov.
Once everyone was back on board and the zodiacs were loaded we turned and began the journey back to Argentina. The Drake crossing was so calm that our expedition leader called it the “Drake Lake”.
When Sarah and I set off on this trip last spring with intentions of hitting seven continents we were never quite sure of reaching Antarctica. As we sailed back with Antarctica fading in the distance we felt extra accomplished that we did.