Adventure Travel

Do You Have To Be Crazy To Visit Antarctica?

My wife thought I was crazy to visit Antarctica. And maybe I was….

By Stuart Dornfield

Let me be clear from the outset. My wife, Karyn, is not from the travelers’ tribe.

Don’t get me wrong: over the years I’ve been able to gently coerce her into cruises to China, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, New England (her favorite because it did not involve any flying), and other unforgettable trips to Paris, Capri, and a most memorable journey on the Orient Express from Venice to Switzerland. 

So you would think that with all these wonderful travel experiences under her belt, Karyn would be biting at the bit to explore the most uninhabited continent on earth that few humans ever get to see. An unknown world without permanent residents that even NASA knows less about than far away planets, and where now, almost two centuries after its discovery in the early 1800’s, fewer than 60,000 people a year get to experience each year.

No, my wife did not want to visit Antarctica. A vacation in freezing temperatures? No thanks! Especially after she heard from friends that crossing the Drake Passage, a famous body of water separating the Atlantic from the Pacific on route to the Antarctic Peninsula, is one of the roughest seas in the world. She wanted nothing to do with seeing Antarctic penguins, birds and seals in their natural habitat. Nothing to do with a remote tundra where gigantic glaciers and remarkable icebergs come in every shape and size imaginable.

Admittedly, my wife is not an eco-adventurer, a naturalist, nor an explorer. She is a realist who didn’t see the sense in spending 8 hours on a plane from Miami to Chile, then hopping onto another 3-hour plane ride to the end of the world (Ushuaia). She wanted nothing to do with bundling up in thermal underwear, waterproof pants and boots, and putting on a heavy windproof parka every morning and afternoon to witness the most remote environment on earth.

Not your common bucket list destination

Yet, my wife was not alone in her feelings. When I queried friends in the ten months prior to my departure, they too were perplexed by my decision to travel to the end of the world. They would ask “Why Antarctica?” “Really?” “Are you going to see polar bears?” (No folks, those are in the North Pole). “Well, I’m ready for an adventure…it’s on my bucket list,” I would reply. “Oh, that’s not on my bucket list,” many would say. 

Certainly, while the thought of wind, ice, and freezing temperatures are not what most people think of as an ideal vacation, neither is the dusty, dirty trails in the wilds of Africa. Or the poverty and filth of intensely populated urban centers of India and China. Taking an Antarctic cruise is anything but third world, especially on a luxury cruise line like Silversea where a one-to-one, crew-to-guest ratio and comfortable accommodations are nothing like what Shackleton and his crew had to endure during their daring exploits in Antarctica.

However, looking back at the charter jet landing in Ushuaia (pronounced Ooo-shwy-ahh), I can safely say that there was one point when my wife’s admonishment, “you’re crazy,” struck a chord.

For sure I’ve experienced hair-raising landings before, but in Ushuaia, you’re landing through a valley with huge mountain ranges on both sides, 40+mph wind gusts and air pockets tossing around a 150-passenger charter jet like some wooden toy plane. The pilot is throttling forward, swerving left, sinking down, throttling back, swerving right, rising up, sinking down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. What was probably a 15-minute descent and landing seemed like an eternity.

Yes, I would have lost my wife on this plane ride into Ushuaia with passengers verbally expressing their “whoops” and “whoahs” like kids on a Coney Island roller coaster in fear of crashing into snow-capped mountains, seemingly so close you could touch them.

Image: Carlos Ponte for Wikicommons

 

Natural companions

After a couple of days rocking and rolling through the Beagle Channel into the Drake Passage aboard the Silver Cloud, one of Silversea’s Expedition ships, we arrived at the South Shetland Islands. If you’re brave enough to stand on deck with 50 knot winds in your face, you can view the first impressive cluster of snow and ice cascading down from large and rocky land masses appearing on the starboard side of the ship.

The Antarctic Convergence, a natural boundary where cold polar water flows northward and warmer equatorial water moves southward, is within the Drake Passage. When these two currents meet, nutrients are pushed to the surface, attracting a multitude of seabirds and whales. The Black-Browed Albatross is just one of six different albatross species that spend more time at sea than any other birds. There were also Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels, that glide on the air currents alongside and in the wake of the ship, rarely ever flapping their wings. I later learn that an albatross can actually switch off half its brain and fly while sleeping. Not a bad skill to learn for my long car commute to the office every day!

My wife would also think I was crazy to swim laps in Antarctica. However, I own a resistance swimming device that belts around my waist with a thin cord tied to a fiberglass pole that clamps to the pool ladder, allowing me to swim laps in a small space. And since the ship had a small pool heated to 85-degrees, I was able to maintain my exercise regimen, albeit in 25-degree outdoor temperatures with a sizable wind chill for extra measure. Some of my newfound friends on the ship felt sorry for me and brought me hot chocolate after my first workout. A much appreciated gesture, to be sure!

Green rules

After lunch, we attended a briefing on the eco-friendly continent we were about to explore. Food and beverages on shore were strictly prohibited. Harassing, chasing, or raising your voice to the penguins, seals or other wildlife was also prohibited. In fact, we were instructed to give all penguins the right of way and stay at least 10-15 feet away from them and seals at all times.  Expedition team members—comprised of naturalists, marine biologists, anthropologists, geologists and wildlife scientists—were onshore at all times to enforce these rules. Furthermore, it was mandatory to disinfect our boots upon returning to the ship so that we would not bring any contagions onshore during the next excursion.

We received an invitation to join Expedition Team members on deck for bird watching and perhaps the sighting of whales (which occurred twice during our cruise), followed by a lecture about seabirds by expert Chris Harbard. We learned that there are 360 million seabirds in the Southern Ocean that spend most of their lives at sea, and only come to land to breed in spring and summer.

Penguins are flightless birds, and although they have wings, they don’t need to fly because all their food is in the water and their wings have become strong flippers. Water pollution is not such a big problem in Antarctica as it is in other oceans. Floating pollutants like plastics that sea mammals and birds ingest in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are diverted away by the strong currents surrounding the White Continent.

Ushuaia port – Image credit Wikipedia

Incredible sights

Spectacular tabular icebergs originating from the Larsen Ice Shelf, some spanning up to two miles long, begin appearing before lunch. Scientists have reported a staggering 3 trillion tons of ice have vanished from Antarctica in a 25-year study. About one-third of that ice disappeared all at once when an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf in July 2017, weighing an estimated 1 trillion tons. It was the largest iceberg in recorded history.

Yes, folks, this is what we came here for. Magnificent floating icebergs. Unique wildlife that has never seen humans. Twenty-five degree temperatures with wind and waves to match. And the same incredible views that the Antarctic whalers and explorers like Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton viewed centuries ago. But instead of the frostbite, disease and often death that they experienced, I ordered room service for a hot pot of coffee and a fresh fruit cup while viewing our arrival to this frozen continent from the comfort of my cabin.

At the kayaking briefing, we were informed that participants needed to be hardy souls willing to squeeze into a full-body wetsuit in case you capsize. You’d also need to be able to lift yourself in and out the side of a Zodiac into a kayak, zip up your cockpit skirt to keep water from entering the vessel, and be prepared to sit in a kayak for 3 hours with no stretching or bathroom breaks.

Having been accustomed to wearing a bathing suit and t-shirt and sitting on top of an open kayak in Florida or the Caribbean, I decided 3 hours without a bathroom was a bit too much adventure for me. So I opted for the Zodiac excursions, as did 95% of the other people in the briefing room.

The rollover

The reality of cruising in Antarctica is that all landings and shore excursions are at the mercy of Mother Nature. And on this voyage, high winds, rough seas, and rainy weather hampered several of our landings. So the Captain and Schalk, Expedition leader, spent a great deal of the days trying to navigate the ship to better environs and conditions.

One of the more memorable excursions occurred at Brown Bluff. We slowly cruised the bay in a 10-12 person Zodiac, visiting small floating icebergs populated with two dozen or so penguins resting on each of them, while the remainder of the colony, numbering in the thousands, are mating and laying their eggs on the striking Brown Bluff rocky slopes on the mainland, building their nests on mounds of pebbles and rocks that they are happy to steal from one another.

Miraculously, of the 12 zodiacs launched that day, we were the only ones to witness an iceberg rollover, a spectacular site that even the most experienced of Expedition guides have never seen. But there it was, right in front of our eyes. In slow motion, this small iceberg rolls over and panicked penguins sitting on top of the berg dive into the water in fear of their lives. Just one of the once-in-a-lifetime occurrences you can witness in this otherworldly continent.

Yet perhaps the greatest highlight of my vacation was Enterprise Island. Slowly cruising in our Zodiac past a snowy hillside with nesting Antarctic birds and a seal, we enter the promised land, the so-called “iceberg graveyard,” which is anything but a graveyard. It is a sublime, calm bay filled with dozens of icebergs in every size and shape, some with dramatic picture window circular holes in the center, others with the richest turquoise and aquamarine colors at the water line and below.

As a fine snow gently falls, we glide quietly on the calm waters with motor off, listening to the captivating silence. The serene surroundings are as intoxicatingly beautiful as they are utterly indescribable. You really can’t imagine that all this is real. This is the reason you come to Antarctica. And while my wife may call me crazy, I think even she would agree that this is a truly unique experience -as close to heaven on earth as you can imagine.

I’m sure that all the photos in the world cannot capture the feeling one gets in this fantasyland of colossal Styrofoam cutouts made by some mythical and magical creator that defies all logic. And just as you thought it couldn’t get any better, Schalk and two of his team members pull up alongside our Zodiac to serve us hot chocolate with a generous dose of Bailey’s Irish Cream for those so inclined. After 90 minutes of pure joy in this iceberg wonderland, we return to the ship totally numb by the idyllic experience of viewing Antarctica at its supernatural best. A wonderland etched in our memories forever. For sure, the highlight of the cruise that only 20 of us got to experience.

At the end of the trip, 30 brave passengers from our ship took part in the infamous “polar plunge” at the shoreline of Deception Island. My wife would think that stripping down to your bathing suit in 27-degree temperatures and running full speed into the bone-chilling water is as crazy as it gets. Yet, for bragging-rights collectors, the polar plunge is a chance to join an elite club…of crazies.

So perhaps in the end, my wife is right. You may just have to be a bit crazy to come to Antarctica.

STUART DORNFIELD is an award-winning Creative Director/Copywriter for leading advertising agencies and an avid traveler.

Copyright 2020 Stuart Dornfield, LLC

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