My 10 favorite Antarctic experiences
Since my return from the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions, the question I’ve gotten the most is:
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE THING?!
Well…I’ve managed to narrow it down to ten. I feel like that’s reasonable considering how many different things we did and how many amazing activities there are to pick from!
The first thing that comes to mind is the wildlife. If you’ve read my Africa blogs (you can find them here and here), you know how much I love seeing animals in their native habitats. Some exotic animals can be seen at the zoo, but there’s nothing like observing them in their natural habitat.
I remember reading another blog before taking this trip, and the writer was embarrassed because her response to “Why are you on this cruise?” was “I’M HERE FOR THE PENGUINS!!!”
Penguins. Whales. Seals. Breathtaking.
Although we were required to stay five meters (16 feet) away, the animals don’t follow the rules. If we were still enough and quiet enough…they would come to us.
Kayaking during an expedition cruise is a luxury not afforded to many people. My Quark trip advisor encouraged me to book my trip as soon as possible if I wanted to kayak and boy, am I glad I did. There are only enough spots for about 10% of the ship to sea kayak. That means out of our entire ship, there were only about 16 spots.
**Note: There are other opportunities for a single paddle in an inflatable kayak if you just want to try it without committing to the full package. I’m told the inflatables are (mostly :D) impossible to flip.
It feels a little like an exclusive club: we had our own gear, special meetings, and experiences many others missed.
Every evening after the recap, we would gather to discuss the plans for the next day. Our guides, Katrina and Michael, would tell us the weather, the possibility of getting out, and get a count of who was interested.
” It’s supposed to be really windy, so it’s unlikely.”
” If you get to kayak once in South Georgia, you’re lucky. If you go twice, buy a lottery ticket.”
“There’s less than a one percent chance we’ll get to kayak at the iceberg, but if we do, are you in?”
“There’s a minimal chance we may get to kayak tomorrow.”
” We haven’t been able to kayak at Paulet Island in three years, but we’ll see what the weather is like.”
Seven times! We got to kayak seven times during our expedition.
Three times in South Georgia. Twice in one day even!
A bonus kayak at the biggest iceberg in the world, A68-a (see more below). And also…at Paulet Island where we were almost able to circumnavigate the island.
Talk about luck.
#3 OUR LITTLE BUBBLE
Our world in 2020 is consumed with social media, cell phones, the internet, and now Coronavirus. But for 15 days, we all put our cell phones away, logged off, and immersed ourselves into the atmosphere of the ship. Instead of being glued to a screen, we spent time getting to know each other, playing games, learning, and being a part of nature.
It was nice not to be distracted from the outside world.
This was all thrown out the window on one of our last nights when we were told the boat needed to turn around early. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, Argentina was closing its borders and not allowing flights out, but until then, we were in a Corona-ignorant bliss.
It helped that we were at the end of the world—away from big cities and crowded tourist destinations.
#4 SOLO TRAVEL/MEETING FRIENDS
I’ve never made a solo trip until now. I’ve always wanted to, and I’ve often flown by myself but met up with friends at my destination. This trip was different.
I set off on my journey to Antarctica alone, but that didn’t last for long.
I met a fantastic friend in Argentina who became vital during what seemed like an impossible journey to get home.
After embarking, I was adopted into a new international “family.” I met many, more-seasoned solo travelers, including my roommates from Singapore, people who had been traveling for years. I also attempted to become one with the Norwegians (sometimes they forgot I only spoke English…win?).
Thanks to this trip, I now have new friends on every continent (whales and penguins count for Antarctic, right??). These are all brand new people who I expect to remain in contact with and travel with in the future. Maybe we’ll book an entire Arctic expedition?!
#5 STEPPING ONTO THE CONTINENT
Antarctica. The cold, desolate, seventh continent.
After sailing for nearly two weeks and the incredible experiences in both South Georgia and Falkland Islands, finally setting foot onto continental Antarctica was one of the most incredible moments. This is what we had traveled all this way for.
It is important to sit, quietly, in the silence of Antarctica and soak up everything that Antarctica is. The conditions are so harsh, and still, many species choose to live there. The mountains are vast, the glaciers immense, and yet, the real beauty is indescribable. Pictures cannot do it justice.
Click here to read more about our first continental landing.
“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.” — Andrew Denton
Although tourist travel to Antarctica has gotten more popular, many will never step foot in this beautiful place. For that reason alone, this trip is beyond comparison.
#6 SOUTH GEORGIA
When I originally planned this trip, I had no knowledge of South Georgia. The island, along with the South Sandwich Islands, is an overseas territory of Great Britain.
The mountainous landscape that comprises South Georgia was once a part of the Andes Mountains, which broke off millions of years ago.
The island is located between converging ocean currents making it rich in food sources. Because of this, the island is home to some of the most sizeable penguin, seal, and bird colonies on Earth—a wildlife lovers paradise! In St. Andrew’s bay alone, you can find 250,000+ mating pairs of King Penguins, a multitude of flight birds, fur and elephant seals.
Because of its location in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it has its very own incredibly rugged and unpredictable weather system. It wouldn’t be uncommon to arrive on a warm sunny day only to be suddenly swept away by harsh winds and snow.
We spent four full days exploring the shoreline of South Georgia. During that time, we were fortunate to disembark from the ship and explore SEVEN different areas. You can read more about them here.
We had one excursion canceled by the weather. We arrived at Gold Harbour on our first day to 60-70 knot winds and swells, which were several meters high. The guides were flooded in their zodiac when they were checking out the conditions.
Instead, the captain sailed us to Royal Bay, which wasn’t much better weather wise, but we were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the ship.
We were informed later that we were incredibly lucky as the trip before us was only able to disembark once from the ship during their time in South Georgia. GASP!
# 7 CONSERVATION EFFORTS AND BIOSECURITY
Unsurprisingly, climate change and conservation efforts were common topics during our expedition.
A recent study revealed that Antarctica has been losing approximately 118 gigatons of ice per year over the last 16 years. That’s a massive amount of ice!
Ice isn’t the only issue. We learned about the slaughtering of whales and seals for oil during the 1900s, invasion of plants and wildlife brought to these remote areas by humans, and the effects of tourism on the environment.
Despite all of these terrible events, there is a lot of good to reflect on as well.
We spent a significant amount of time doing biosecurity checks. That means that every seed, grain, or pebble had to be carefully removed from our gear. These checks were completed between each excursion, with extra care being taken on sea days between each country. In South Georgia, representatives even came aboard the ship to triple check. We were also required to walk through a boot cleaner before entering and exiting.
Rats are another colossal problem (but don’t say the “R” word on ships…it’s bad luck!). Rats were brought to South Georgia by vessels visiting the island. They managed to nearly cause the extinction of several bird species only found on South Georgia. Almost $13 million was spent on a massive project to eradicate them. The island is now rat-free and works hard to remain that way. They even have a rat sniffing dog who checks each ship before leaving the Falklands (shoutout to Samurai!).
Quark is also doing things to reduce their footprint. They aim to reduce waste by providing us with a reusable water bottle and working towards zero-waste. The World Explorer even has a special system that uses garbage to power the ship. Waste can be converted into biofuel reducing the carbon footprint and the consumption of fossil fuels.
On one of our last days, we had an auction with contributions (almost $4500!!) going to research and sustainability programs. Read more about efforts here.
#8 POLAR PLUNGE
Doing the Polar Plunge wasn’t even a question for me. I knew before I even left home that I was definitely doing it. For me, it was a rite of passage. When the day came, I threw on my bathing suit and robe and headed straight to the mudroom.
They strapped a rope around our waists in case we passed out or panicked and then they let us do our thing!
The water was 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and it even snowed!
Hitting the water was strange. I think my body just went into shock, and I didn’t even feel the cold. It was the moment when I thought it would be a good idea to swim a little that the cold hit. Nope, not happening.
I headed back to the stairs and hopped out. Now I was cold. 10-15 minutes later, the adrenaline kicked in, and my body suddenly became tingly and warm.
I couldn’t even feel the cold anymore as I headed to the top to cheer on my fellow plungers.
Including some of the staff, 64 of us did the polar plunge. As people noticed how much fun it was, they changed their minds from “definitely no” to “well, maybe…” and finally, “what the heck!”
I’d do it again in an instant. Our expedition leader, Woody, jumps EVERY time. What a champion!
#9 THE DRAKE PASSAGE
The Drake is a 600 mile stretch of ocean between South America and the Antarctic peninsula. Within this body of water, the convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans occurs. Because of this, and the complete lack of landmass, the Drake Passage experiences some of the most unpredictable and roughest waters in the world— enough to keep even the most experienced sailors in their beds.
At some point during an Antarctic expedition, you HAVE to cross the Drake Passage. If you skip the Falklands and South Georgia, you have to cross twice.
But will you experience the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake”?
(I had conflicting feels about crossing the Drake Passage. Motion sickness is a real problem for me. At some point in my 30 years, I could make myself motion sick while driving. Yeah…that bad. But, it’s gotten considerably better since, and I’ve had some success with Scopolamine patches in my travels. I wasn’t sure it would be enough.)
But if The Drake is a lake, did you really go to Antarctica?
So armed with Scopolamine, Dramamine, Sea-Bands, and a prayer, we left the peninsula.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, we had to leave suddenly. I didn’t have time for anything to kick in and spent the first evening nauseous as all get out. Between the rolling of the ship and trying to concentrate on my phone screen (everybody on the ship retreated to their rooms to figure out return plans), I could barely manage to stand up.
I woke up the next morning feeling like a whole new person. The drugs and Sea-Bands had kicked in, and I was feeling pretty good. However, the swells were unrelenting. For the next 24 hours, we felt the “Drake Shake.” We experienced 7 meter (21 foot) seas. Even some of the crew members were sick!
One of my Norwegian friends and I headed to the observation lounge to watch.
Turn your sound up enjoy.
After making it back safely, I learned a couple of things.
- These were the worst seas the entire 2019-2020 season.
- It was a good thing we left when we did because there was a massive storm coming through that would have made things waaaaaay worse.
- One of the stabilizers on the ship broke on our way back. See how stabilizers work below.
- The Drake Shake is no joke.
A big thanks to the captain and his crew for keeping us alive!
Last, but certainly not least…
A68-a is a massive 5800 square kilometer (3606 square miles) iceberg that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in 2017. That’s the size of Delaware! I was unaware that it existed before heading out on this journey.
Seeing A68-a probably shouldn’t have happened. Despite being enormous, it had to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right weather for us to enjoy its extravagance. I believe one other ship managed to see it.
We were able not only to see it, but to disembark from the ship and explore the waters around it. In the middle of the Scotia Sea. With whales. Gasp!
Since then, the massive piece of ice has continued to move north. It’s melting quickly in the warmer waters between the Falklands and South Georgia. Another chunk has calved off recently, and it now measures closer to 5100 square kilometers (3169 square miles). Most likely, it will move too far north, or melt before the next season. You can read more about it here.
This trip ended up being way more than I could have imagined. Despite a few problems here and there, everything mostly ran pretty smoothly. It has been challenging to choose only ten favorite things, but I think these provide a pretty good summary of the journey.
“We must always remember with gratitude and admiration the first sailors who steered their vessels through storms and mists, and increased our knowledge of the lands of ice in the South.” — Roald Amundsen