Antarctica: Exploring the Last Great Frontier
Every Antarctic-bound explorer is warned about the notoriously vindictive Drake Passage. Reputedly the roughest sea crossing in the world, the 800km-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, Jonathan Zaccaria, 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—even just taste—the wrath of the Drake that we’ve heard so much about. “Be careful what you wish for,” Zaccaria 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 (pronounced ooo-shoe-eye-ah), the sun is shining and it’s a notable 14°C—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 (6,725km) journey aboard the MV Sea Spirit, a 114-passenger, 90-metre, ice-hardened expedition ship with Chimu Adventures.
Passengers of all ages are aboard and everyone is here for a different reason. Gwenllian Batemen, a quirky, 23-year-old Welsh flight attendant who dreamt of visiting all seven continents and is sailing south in honour of her grandmother Beatrice. Sal and Anneka Shahidi, two thirty-something Australian dentists taking a six-month sabbatical to travel the world before opening their own practice. Joan Richards, a kind, adventurous New Zealander in her late sixties who is braving the Southern sea solo. Sophie Hardcastle, a charismatic, 23-year-old Australian author and artist commissioned to paint scenes of the Antarctic along the way for Chimu’s charity initiatives. Gary and Alison Flanagan, a spirited, retired couple from Perth who have always been fascinated by the ocean.
We discover that the beauty of an Antarctic expedition 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 Zaccaria 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 10 days we 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.
TREK AND 4X4 IN SOUTHERN PATAGONIA
With our first breath upon arrival to Ushuaia, everything feels 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 1,000km from the northernmost tip of Antarctica. We head for the mountains and sub-Antarctic old-growth forests in Tierra del Fuego (translation: Land of Fire) national park with Canal Fun. We’re guided along a path that winds between forest filled with sprawling beech trees (with mostly hollow trunks due to the arid, nutrient-deprived soil) and along rocky coastline. The weather turns from sunshine to wind and rain and back to sunshine within the hour.
We later take 4x4’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 make our way into the forest and shack up inside a small metal-and-wood cabin for lunch where our guide, Claudio Del Fabro, cooks 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 makes 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: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, U.S.A., and Canada.
Despite the feast, at the end of the long day we’re somehow ravenous again. Del Fabro recommends Kaupé, a family-owned, candle-lit restaurant (that’s actually inside the owner’s home) overlooking 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).
Need to know:
Most Antarctic expeditions start and finish in the small, colourful fishing village of Ushuaia, and while many people overlook spending time in the Patagonian city and think of it as just the gateway to the Antarctic, it’s not to be missed. The landscapes are vast and awe-inspiring, with colours and wildlife you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
What to wear:
No matter what anyone says, you need a sturdy pair of hiking boots if you plan to conquer any trails in Tierra del Fuego or surrounding areas. The paths are rugged, wet, and steep. We visit in January, the warmest month of the year, and still need a waterproof jacket, warm mid-layer, a base layer of merino wool on top and a pair of tights (anything you’d normally hike in). It’s a long way from most places in the world to Ushuaia and packing light is key. The Carry-On from AWAY is the perfect travel companion for long journeys, with a built-in USB charger in case you run out of charge between flights.
SEA KAYAK 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 been leading excursions in the polar regions for eight years. It’s our first day of landings and our second 6km trip of the day. It’s a balmy (for Antarctic standards) 7°C. The sun glistens onto the ocean, which is remarkably still at Portal Point (64°50'S, 62°32'W), 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 (64°49’S, 62°52’W) 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 Treatysigned 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.
Need to know:
If you’re fortunate enough to nab a spot in the sea kayak club, you’ll have the opportunity to be a part of an exclusive, 16-person group aboard the Sea Spirit. Be prepared to paddle three to six kilometres, 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.)
What to wear:
Picking the right number of layers, squeezing our heads through the neoprene seals of our dry suits, and loading the kayaks is almost as much of an adventure as paddling. Kayakers are fitted with all the necessary gear (dry suits, skirts, booties, life jackets and dry bags) while crossing the Drake. By day four, we nail what you actually need to wear for a mid-summer paddle on the Antarctic Peninsula; realizing that while the sun may be shining when you head out, it can quickly change to rain, snow or high-speed winds at any moment.
Our uniform becomes a base layer of merino wool on the top and bottom, a Polartec fleece, and two pairs of thin, wool or insulated socks. Some neoprene gloves are essential to keep your hands warm under the paddling gloves, as is a second set of dry gloves to change into so your hands are warm during the landing. Once you’re in the dry suit, there’s no peeling off layers until you make it to shore, so plan accordingly.
CAMP IN THE NAUTICAL TWILIGHT ON THE ICE
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 the captain’s dinner with a three-course meal of Patagonian octopus salad, line-caught arctic char, vanilla ice cream, and brownies—limiting ourselves to one glass of celebratory sparkling wine and making sure 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 the Sea Spirit’s first officer Anton Ralitnyy, who has worked on the ship for 14 years, 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 (this is where a strong meditation practice comes in seriously handy).
Five hours to go and we’re woken by dark rain clouds that have rolled in. Frantically, I squeeze my camera bag and backpack into the bottom of my bivy sac, pull in the drawstrings around my face to just allow enough space breathe out of, and try—without much success—to fall back asleep despite the downpour.
By 6am, most of us are sleepless, miserable because of our full bladders, near frozen and soaked from the condensation inside our bivy sacs. The thought of removing a single item of clothing to use the emergency toilet is worse than holding it until the zodiacs arrive to take us back to the ship. 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.
Need to know: In case you thought this might be some form of glamping, think again (there’s always White Desert if private jets and fibreglass igloos are your thing). We spend 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.
What to wear: Camping on the snow calls for at least two layers of merino wool, a fleece top, a water-resistant jacket, toque (that’s what we call a beanie up here in Canada), scarf and a technical pair of waterproof pants (these hard shell pants from polar outfitter, 66° North, did the trick).
TAKE A DIVE (OR RUN) INTO THE SOUTHERN OCEAN:
A fog has descended on Wilhelmina Bay (64°38'S, 62°10'W). 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 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 Natalie Swain (my only fellow Canadian on the ship) 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 and a couple of profanities, 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) we bought in Ushuaia for this very moment.
Need to 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 got lucky with two opportunities to dive in, the second time running in from the beach inside the caldera of an active volcano in Telefon Bay at Deception Island (62°56'S, 60°40'W). The Sea Spirit has a hot tub on the back deck (the best place to watch the sunset, it’s our usual choice of evening activity), and Sixto the bartender will be close by to bring you something that’ll warm you up fast.
What to wear:
You can wear anything you want for the polar plunge. We suggest a bathing suit with a high neck for coverage where you need it, or a pair of board shorts with a drawstring to keep things in place. But since it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most, it’s not out of the ordinary to spot penguin or seal onesies and eccentric accessories. You do you.
HIKE ON THE ANTARCTIC CONTINENT
During our five days of landings, we tread carefully past battling Antarctic fur seals at Hydrurga Rocks (64°08’S, 61°37’W) and hike through the world’s largest Gentoo penguin rookery at Cuverville Island (64°41’S, 62°38’W; landing me on my back covered in poo, requiring a full body hose down, almost forgetting that my life jacket automatically inflates when wet) 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 (62°40’S, 60°48’W) 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 (64°49’S, 62°52’W; not usually allowed—a perk of always being the last passenger to return to the ship) 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 Sea Spirit looks like a small speck. I set my camera aside, sit in the snow and take it all in.
Need to 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.
What to pack:
You need at least two sets of long, merino wool underwear, multiple pairs of wool or insulated socks, a couple fleece sweaters, a warm hat and a good pair of waterproof pants. We are each given a bright red, insulated, water- and windproof parka to keep, but it’s good to have a back up in case of mishaps (ahem, like falling into a penguin rookery).
Laundry is expensive, until a discount is announced on the last day aboard the ship, so bring two of everything. For footwear, a pair of insulated rubber boots is provided for the duration of the cruise (you can’t wear your own hiking boots during the landings).
TRY YOUR HAND AT THE SOUTHERNMOST WORKOUT:
If you can manage a pre-7am or mid-afternoon workout, head to the top deck to break a sweat. Beware that the social schedule doesn’t allow for much sleep, let alone an extra workout. There’s little downtime between the three meals, kayaking, two or more landings a day, photography workshops, knot-tying lessons, afternoon tea, lectures on past Antarctic explorers, birds, or pinnipeds and cetaceans of the South by resident marine biologist Eduardo Larrañaga, evening documentary screenings, and nightly festivities at the bar or in the hot tub. The one gym workout I squeeze in during the whole trip is a rocky one on the way back to Ushuaia, with the best view of all time as I watch the waves crash into the boat and onto the large window. Try your hand at landing in the same spot while doing jump squats or burpees on the Drake, we dare you.
Need to know:
The gym is tiny. There’s an exercise bike, two elliptical machines and some mats to practice yoga on the boat (some passengers also held impromptu classes on the back deck and in the hallways). No weights, obviously. Pack a portable speaker or your iPhone with a pre-loaded playlist and a tabata timer app (there’s no internet on the ship to download music or apps) and come prepped with a workout you can do anywhere.
What to pack:
A pair of trainers is essential (you’ll need some grip to avoid slipping), along with whatever you’d wear to your favourite class at home. To avoid overpacking, bring a pair of full-length tights you can also wear around the ship.
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 Zaccaria leads 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.
“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.
While we enjoy a day of sunshine, Malbec and an al-fresco barbecue in the Beagle Channel, we learn that passengers on a ship that left a day after us suffered multiple sprained limbs while many pieces of furniture were damaged. (We now understand why the chairs and tables are chained to the dining-room floors.)
Nothing could have prepared us for what we 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.
I travelled as a guest of Chimu Adventures. Check out their resource centre for a wealth of information on Antarctica. Want to go on an expedition of your own? Chimu offers trips to the White Continent sailing from Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Tasmania. (Psst… they’re the first to offer an exclusive sail and ski Antarctica trip this November, in case you’re interested in shredding untouched peaks.)