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The Frozen Frontier: Antarctica

First we drove to the end of the world, then we sailed off the edge of it. We can now say, unequivocally, we have gone as far south as possible.

There are so many superlatives that could describe Antarctica but “otherworldly” seems to be the only one I can come up with. If the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Lagunas Route in Bolivia were the Moon and Mars, Antarctica is a frozen, icy, white star.

Throughout much of our time on the world’s most southern continent, John and I kept saying to each other, “I can’t believe we are here. We are in Antarctica”. Before we left home, we were hopeful we would make it here but we weren’t sure. There were so many unknowns between California and…this place. The Frozen Frontier. Nature at its most remote and uncompromising. We knew we would never be down here again in our lifetime. We had to make it happen.

A trip to Antarctica takes a fair amount of research and planning, especially if you want to get a deep discount on this very expensive destination, which can be done. The later you book the bigger the discount and we booked about a month out. Since we wanted a smaller ship of around 100 people (more landings and less waiting in general), and we wanted to go in late Nov./early Dec., I narrowed it down to just three trips that would work for us. After weeks of emails and stalking different websites, we got the best deal on the Sea Spirit - a Russian owned, all suites boat…and our home for the next 11 days.

Watching our boat come into harbor in Ushuaia on our departure day

Antarctica is a continent with no countries and no natives. There are no fences or permanent settlements. No one really owns it. It is an environmental preserve for scientific research, overseen jointly by 50 countries in relative harmony. For now at least. It is also one of the most protected environmental places one earth - before we could go ashore all our outer clothes, especially the velcro, had to be vacuumed and boots dipped into a disinfectant bath every time we left and entered the boat. To prepare for our landings, we started getting dressed at least 15 minutes before we had to be on deck. The required clothing consisted of so many layers and was so bulky we might as well have been doing lunar landings. It was a good system though, because temps stayed around freezing or below, but we were never cold. The food was good, our expedition crew was excellent, we had good company for dinner, and everything was well organized. We had lectures during the trip by various members of the crew who were experts in their field, from geology to history to ornithology, even a glaciologist - a Ph.D. we adored named Heidi.

Queuing up for a landing in our landing gear. Pretty sure we could have done the moon in that get up too.

Home sweet home!

We were allowed on the bridge most of the time which was pretty cool.

Every landing we did was “weather dependent. The weather is so unpredictable that for shore excursions the expedition team brought shelter, sleeping bags and provisions, just in case. We saw only two other boats the entire time we were down there. Every day the icebergs got bigger and bigger, until they were bigger than our ship. This is a place that will mess with your senses. This is as remote as it gets. It is surreal.

We sailed 1804 nautical miles and experienced a part of the world only a few people ever see. Our original itinerary had us going much father south than our final route. But the ice was too thick and moving too fast for our last few landings so we turned around a little early and made our way up around the Antarctic Sound. This proved to be a good thing because we saw some of the most striking icebergs in that area. Here's our actual route, and the play by play...

Day 1. We embarked onto the ship in the early evening and settled into our cabin. We had a safety briefing, then we were issued our boots, parkas and life vests. After a great dinner where we met some of our shipmates, we set sail. The ship moved into the Beagle Channel, through forest green fjords on relatively smooth seas. By midnight we approached the Drake Passage, crossing into the most treacherous seas in the world. The Drake Passage is the notorious 600 miles of ocean between the tip of South America and Antarctica. There, the Atlantic meets the Pacific, tropical water meets frigid water, and the weather is extreme and hard to predict. Many people hesitate to take the Antarctic trip solely because they fear the Drake. We took our seasickness pills, and waited to see what dawn would bring.

Day 2. By morning we were officially in the Drake Passage. We had a rolling, sleepless night and were a little groggy when we woke up. With 4 m (14 foot) seas, we thought it was more shake than lake but the crew said this was a mild crossing. We talked to lots of people who were were really sick but we were just sort of on the edge of really bad. Looking out our balcony, we saw nothing but Deep Rolling Blue Ocean. Stuff started sliding off the dresser and the drawers started opening. Between the seasickness pills and the big seas, we definitely wanted it to be over. If we stayed horizontal, it was tolerable. So that’s what we did…all day.

This was the position for the 18 hour Drake Passage. Lots of books and TV on the computer. Not so much eating...

As soon as the ship entered the Drake, these appeared on every railing of the boat. This wasn't the crew's first rodeo.

Day 3. By morning of the third day, we were out of the Drake and into the calmer waters around the South Shetland Islands. The sea turned glossy, gunmetal-grey-black and flecked with blossoms of floating ice. Icebergs bobbed in the water as we sailed by, and eventually we finally saw land. We had a landing that morning on Half Moon Island with calm conditions and even some sun. We saw three kinds of penguins. Gentoo, Chin Strap and one lone Emperor penguin at the beach. The Emperor is huge. It is the March of the Penguins movie penguin. As tall as a small child, it is majestic. It is also a very rare sight this far north. Even the expedition staff was amazed.

Zodiak ride to our first landing

Chin Strap Penguin

Penguin Highway

The majestic Emperor.

Here you can see the size difference between the Emporer and the gentoos. This guy was huge!

We were here during nesting season and the funny little birds were cruising up and down their Penguin Highway, leaving their nests to make the long journey to the water to feed, then return to their mate to take over egg duty. With no other option, they make their nests with rocks. As one sits duty on the egg, the other tries to steal rocks to shore up their nest. It goes on and on all day – sit, steal, walk, feed.

Locals at the remains of old whaler's boat.

Day 4. Our fourth morning was a landing at Mikkelson Harbor. More Gentoo penguins but on this island they were living much more compactly, which meant they were much more stinky. And dirty! The smell could be pretty overpowering and at times I needed to walk up wind of several bird neighborhoods, not able to stand it for long. Their collective sound is one I hope I never forget, though. The donkey-like honk of thousands of penguins in a colony makes for a very unique auditory experience.

Penguin Paparazzi

Thousands of rock nests. And a lot a penguin poo.

We also saw our first seals. These are Weddell Seals, taking a snooze after a night of fishing.

In the afternoon, we took a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove around the icebergs. It was then we truly felt like were on another planet. We cruised around giant, sculptural islands of ice - straight out of the Game of Thrones. Some looked like castles, other like wedding cakes. Some had deep phosphorescent blue centers and others had pale turquoise rings around them. Each one was sort of mesmerizing. I had no idea I loved icebergs but I do. They are like works of art. Each is different, like a snowflake or a finger print. They are sculptural and ancient - the ice is thousands of years old. Cruising around them felt like being in a science fiction movie.

Game of Thrones Castle.

The blue looked radio-active inside.

At one point, a mild mannered guy from Mumbai quietly said, “I think the rock on that iceberg just moved”. We all laughed, but then we looked into the distance where he was pointing. Sure enough, the rock moved. We cruised closer and then had our second seal sighting – this time a Crabeater Seal. Alone, floating on an iceberg, looking very much like a Labrador puppy in the middle of the dark, icy sea.

Crabeater Seal.

Once we were back on the boat, the crew announced if anyone was interested in a "polar plunge", they should report to the deck. I had absolutely no interest is such a masochistic activity but John (and about 30 others) got into their swimsuits and took the plunge. Crazy ass fools...

John psyches himself up for the polar plunge.

Day 5. CONTINENTAL LANDING!!!. On day 5 we landed at Orne Harbour, a beautiful cove surrounded by glaciers. The small but steep landing site showed us the way to hike to an amazing viewpoint. The wind was blowing a strong 20+ knots. This was our first time actually going onto the mainland of Antarctica. Our first Continental Landing! For me, it was also the first time stepping onto my 7th Continent - a goal I never really had until I realized it was a possibility on this trip. It was John’s 6th continent, which is still pretty exciting (he still needs Australia…maybe next year!).

Whoo HOO!

The view was pretty amazing.

My 7th Continent!

Day 6. Whalers Bay on Deception Island. This was a visit to an old whaling station, wiped out when the volcano on the island erupted in the 1930’s. The ruins of the station appeared gloomy and silent through the snow as the ship approached.

The ominous remains of the whaling station.

Since the early 19th century this island was a favored haven from storms for explorers, sealers and whalers. These industries were a huge reason, if not the main reason, for early explorers to venture down to Antarctica. Millions and millions of seals were slaughtered down here during this time, with greed destroying the breeding grounds. So began the extermination of the South Shetland Seals. Whalers came south too, to hunt the Southern Right Whale. The same whales we were so thrilled to paddle with up in the Península Valdés a few months ago.

Storage tanks for whale blubber

The tanks were huge. (photo by Neil Drake)

The beaches at Whalers Bay are still strewn with whalebones. The remains of the killing station created a somber mood for me. The energy here was unsettling and when someone told me the whalers threw live penguins into the incinerators when they ran out of wood, I was done. I left John to his photo taking, and wandered off on a pleasant hike to a viewpoint, then a walk along the beach past a seal sleeping peacefully among the bones of his fallen comrades.

Hike up on Deception Island. A crack in the crater allows boats into the island's center to duck in from the storms.

Day 7-9. The next few days we had several landings that got us up close and personal to the penguins. I captured incredible video of a group of them walking right up to John, taking a moment to look up at him realizing he was an obstacle, then just veering past him on all sides. We weren’t allowed to get within 5 m (15 ft.) of them, but if we stayed still they could approach us all they wanted. It was kind of thrilling to sit quietly, camera ready, and wait for the random penguin to approach. I know our presence has an impact on them and on their habitat, but for the most part they seemed pretty unperturbed by us.

This little guy was sunning himself on an iceberg as we approached the landing site. The tide must have went out while he was sleeping because he had a hard time figuring out how to get down. It was quite an operation.

He looks so etherial...

There is nothing sadder than a penguin mama with no egg.

On our last landing we also saw a colony of sea lions, with a few males duelling. Penguins were running around all them, dodging to get out of the way on trips to the water.

Last penguin shot. Ever. :(

Well, almost. We got photo bombed.

Day 10. On our way back, we cruised through the Antarctic Sound to see the stunning tabular icebergs. This was one of the most beautiful cruises we did on the trip. The tabular icebergs are enormous. So enormous, some are the size of Delaware. The Ross Ice Shelf, almost as large as France, once calved an iceberg the size of Jamaica. As we cruised past them, they seemed to be as tall as skyscrapers and it took us forever to get to the edge of one.

They are just massive.

These beautiful gigantic blocks of floating ice, however, tell a troubling story. The Antarctica ice sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. Around 90% of the world’s fresh water is held in the ice sheet. Ice shelves hold the ice sheet intact and prevent or slow glacier melt. Floating ice shelves act as a buttress to the glaciers flowing off the land behind them. In recent decades, a dozen major ice shelves have disintegrated, significantly retreated or lost substantial volume. Warming sea temperatures are attributed to the collapse of two important ice shelves recently, the Larson A and B. As the air and water warmed, those ice shelves started melting and then splintered into shards in 1995 and 2002. While we were on the continent the Larson C cracked. That crack, (estimated to be the size of the country of Wales) has continued to spread and now is set to spawn the largest iceberg ever recorded. Scientists all agree, climate change is now certainly impacting Antarctica.

Day 10-11. After the Antarctica Sound we started our journey back, entering the dreaded Drake Passage one more time. The day before we were set to enter, our crew told us of another boat waiting out a storm in the cove at Deception Island. The storm had caused 30 m (100 foot seas) in the Drake! They were predicting much calmer seas for us, but we didn’t know what to expect so we took our seasickness pills and loaded up on crackers for the room. We didn’t need to worry though. It was a real Drake Lake. By 2 a.m. we were rolling a little but by morning we could see we were blessed with calm seas that didn’t pitch us into walls or confine us to our bed. We even managed to get to dinner for our last meal with our shipmates. On our final morning, we packed up and were ready disembark as the buildings and port of Ushuaia came into view.

(We're down in front in the middle)

It truly was otherworldly to be down there. And incredibly special. We feel so lucky to have experienced this part of the world.

Here’s the OPB movie of our time on the frozen white star:

“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo.

And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.”

Oh, and by the way. Never ask about Polar Bears in Antarctica. They’re in the Arctic. Antarctica is for penguins.

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