Antarctica…the Not-So White Continent

Where do I start?!  How do I start?!  I’m not sure I have the words to properly describe Antarctica.   But here goes …. beautiful, peaceful, rugged, powerful, noisy, terrifying, overwhelming, inviting.    Antartica is a vast frozen wildness that is both exceptionally peaceful and exceptionally terrifying.     She is fruitful and barren, warm and cold.    An intoxicating mixture of opposites that clearly has a lasting effect on those who have been fortunate (or in some cases unfortunate) enough to have encountered her.

We boarded our ship in Ushuaia and were promptly shuttled off to life boat drills and safety talks.   Bit of a bummer way to start the adventure of a lifetime, but once we were in the Drake Passage, I was perfectly happy to have had safety routes drilled into my head.

The Drake Passage is the infamous strip of ocean directly south of South America where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans meet.   Makes for a washing machine of oceans and can be brutal on those attempting a crossing.

I am told our Drake was “moderate”.   Given I am prone to motion sickness in the backseat of a car, I was happy to have safety drills on repeat in my head.   I was fortunate enough to pray to the porcelain goddess (or more accurately, in this case, the plastic goddess) only once.  And to my credit, it was after our 1.5 hour kayak briefing in the sauna of a mud room.   Score one for the Desk Jockey.

After almost 48 hours at sea, we landed on the South Shetland Islands, the most northerly chain of islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.   High winds, heavy swell and plentiful wildlife on the beach thwarted our landing plans.   But it was a great introduction into loading onto a zodiac from the ship when the swell comes up to your thighs.    The transfer into a zodiac is all about timing.    Lesson learned.

After the South Shetlands we headed south along the Antarctic Peninsula and visited coves, bays and various interesting and historically relevant landing spots.

We camped at Damoy Point.  We sang songs, were mesmerized by penguins and were greeted the next morning by a leopard seal poking around our zodiacs.   A unique camping experience to say the very least.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to kayak along the Antarctic coast, through archipelagos of islands along the coast.   We encountered leopard seals munching on our kayaks, cormorants coming in for a better view, humpback whales breaching and many a seal at close range.     it was an exceptional experience without the whir of an outboard engine on a zodiac to be heard.   You could hear the sea ice and icebergs cracking and were on constant watch for icebergs calving.   There are no words to properly describe the co-mingling of exhilaration and complete peace.

At some point (the day of the week and the dates become meaningless at some point), we crossed the Antarctic Circle.   I was beyond thrilled, having been at the Equator and Arctic Circle and now the Antarctic Circle in a 12 month period.   And better yet, we kept heading south.

Stonington Island was our goal.   Station E of the British Antarctic Survey, originally set up in 1946, is now being restored.    Located at 68° 11′ South, it is in fact, the most southerly post office in the world.    Pretty damned amazing, if you ask me.   And the coolest part, they have their own stamps.

After that highlight, we made our way back up the coast, stopping at Horseshoe Bay, Detaille Island, Peterman Island and Deception Island.

Our captain and expedition leader are true explorers.   Not satisfied to take tourist on a cruise, we forged into bays no ships had been, through The Gullet (a narrow channel that    ships rarely traverse) and on the way home we rounded Cape Horn (which thankfully, was on a good day and we have very calm seas).

I am already dreaming of how I can get back here; what I can do to ensure we save this amazing place from krill fishing, whaling and glacier melts.   It is a place like no other.   Truly.    Ernest Shakleton sums it up best:  “Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilization.”

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