Antarctica- the word itself inspires wanderlust. Glaciers calving into the ocean. Icebergs with more shades of blue than you can count. Frolicking penguins, cute seals, abundance of whales and endemic birds. Glissading from the mountain to the ocean. Sumptuous meals cooked by 5 star chefs. A ship overflowing with chocolates and like-minded adventurous tourists. A journey that has been undertaken by less than 0.001% of human population. An Antarctica trip is the kind of journey that gave rise to the concept of bucket list.
I started planning a trip to Antarctica in 2010. I was a poor graduate student then, getting paid below minimum wage. Imagine my shock when I found out that the cheapest Antarctica cruises cost USD 8000-10000, more than half of my annual salary! Undaunted, I set aside money and researched methods of getting the cruises at a discount. Finally, in 2014, the sacrifices paid off and I mustered enough money and vacations to finally book the trip. And let me tell you, I would have gladly paid twice for the experience.
My 11-day trip was aboard the comfortable Sea Explorer, departing from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in world. As a sidenote, I was totally smitten by Ushuaia; it should be on your Antarctica itinerary even if you are not planning to visit Antarctica.
Day 1:Boarding, Beagle Channel
I could hear my palpitations as I boarded the ship. It was finally happening. Nearly a week ago, I had given up hope of spending Christmas in Antarctica as the “last minute” Antarctica cruise ship deals had dried up. When I finally booked the cruise, I had a challenge buying flight tickets to Ushuaia. The flights for two consecutive days were completely booked out. I had to devise a creative routing that involved a 35min connection at El Calafate! For those of you unaware of the pathetic reliability of Aerolineas Argentinas, the probability of the flights being on time and us making that connection was close to 1%. Fate seemed to be on our side as we barely made it to Ushuaia, though my tripod didn’t. I was happy; landing on Antarctica was more important than having a tripod.
I am more of a hostel/camping/couchsurfing kind of traveler. I am not used to luxury. Our ship however, could easily please the Donald Trumps of the world. Check out a 360 degree view of our suite here. If the ship was docked, it would easily be a highly rated 5-star all inclusive resort.
Our ship was supposed to depart at 6PM. However, strong winds delayed our departure to almost 9PM. I wanted to see the sunset in the Beagle channel and was somewhat bummed by the late departure. Nevertheless, the pristine beauty of Beagle channel is apparent even in twilight. It is the untouched “last frontier” that seems oblivious of the development in the last 200 years.
Day 2: The Drake
At the briefing on Day 1, we were advised to secure all belongings before heading into the infamous Drake Passage. We realized why, when we woke up the next morning to find glasses on the floor. The ship was gently tossing around. I ran out on the deck to find the ship navigating decent sized waves and searing albatrosses and giant petrels happily munching the krill and fish that the ship churned. I had read about albatrosses being large; however it is difficult to comprehend their size unless you see them in real life. I am pretty sure one of them could easily carry me with their talons.
Day 3: Drake, crossing into Southern Ocean
The waves had grown considerably in size on Day 2. Standing on the deck, it seemed as if the waves were big enough to engulf the ship. I can see why people hate the Drake Passage. I, on the other hand enjoyed the roller-coaster ride.
Around midday, our ship moved into the calmer and colder Southern Ocean. The water color changed to a lighter shade of blue. Interestingly, there were far fewer birds later in the day. I later read that this was due to the difference in water temperature between the Atlantic and Southern Oceans.
Day 4: Half Moon Bay, Deception Island
Our first landing in sub-Antarctic Islands was scheduled at Half Moon Island. I was obviously thrilled and planned to get up early for the sunrise; but felt really sick and tired when the alarms rang. My wife dropped the bad news: I had fever.
I have been sick twice in the last 8 years and it had to be during the 5 days I was in Antarctica! I probably exhausted my quota of I was shivering and dizzy; but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from stepping on Antarctica. I was scared of going to the ship doctor lest he order me to rest. So, I snagged a tylenol and braved it to the zodiac.
I witnessed mind-blowing scenery over the next five days. However, nothing can beat the excitement of landing on Antarctica for the first time. Snow-clad mountains rising from blue ocean, hundreds of cute penguins, weddell seals. What else does it take to get an adventurous spirit excited?
Our second landing was at Deception Pass, a semi-circular volcanic crater and an erstwhile whaling colony. The volcanic activity raises the temperature leading to warmer waters and melted snow, creating some of the most spectacular landscapes in Antarctica. The warmer waters have lead many ships like ours to schedule the “Antarctic dip” at Deception Island. Unfortunately, I had to miss out on this “bucket-list” item due to fever :(.
Day 5: Wilhelmina Bay, Neko Harbour
Our ship slowly moved towards the mainland Antarctica. The first stop was a zodiac ride around Wilhelmina Bay, where we encountered huge icebergs for the first time. A sunken ship, diving penguins and scores of Antarctic birds added a lot of character to the Bay on a gloomy day.
Later that evening we made our first mainland Antarctica landing at the sheltered bay of Neko Harbor. When we landed, I noticed something strange. It was cold and everything was covered in snow with the exception of a penguin colony on a large patch of rocks near the shore. A guide pointed to a massive glacier on the other side of the bay. It calves often and the large chunks of ice create mini tsunamis which wash the ice off the shore, exposing bare rocks.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of Neko Harbor with words; I’ll let the photos do the talking. Instead of rushing to explore around the area, I just sat near the shore appreciating the beauty of the white continent. (It was also due to the fact that my fever hadn’t abated and I was feeling slightly dizzy.) My wife mentioned that was feeling exhausted and it later turned out that she had fever too! Perfect example of how bad luck follows us around.
The post is already too long. To keep it to a readable length, I have split the post into two. If you have enjoyed reading this, stay tuned to read about the rest of our Antarctica landings and a close encounter with a whale.
More to follow in Part 2
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