Day 1: Embarkation Day
It all started in a parking lot in Ushuaia, Argentina. At 3:15 pm, 120 guests met in an unassuming parking lot to begin the journey of a lifetime.
From my three days in Ushuaia, I met about 10 guests on the ship including my roommate Michael. My new friends and I huddled together in the 50 degree weather. Sure, Antarctica was going to be A LOT colder, but the cruise company Quark Expeditions hasn’t given me my parka yet so it was acceptable to be cold.
At 3:30 pm, we boarded buses for what turned out to be a comically short ride. The bus drove out of the parking lot, through the adjacent port authority checkpoint and 200 meters down the main pier to a 300-ft Yugoslavian icebreaker named the Ocean Adventurer. This large and sturdy-looking ship was going to be my home for the next few days.
We walked on board and mingled in the main lounge. There, our expedition leader, Solan Jensen, gave a boring but required presentation on safety. He also gave us the nerve-wracking weather report for our two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, the infamous stretch of water between South America and Antarctica that reportedly has the roughest seas in the world. The weather report looked so-so with 6 meter swells (20 ft.) for the first day and favorable 3-4 meter swells (9-12 ft.) for the second day. Considering that swells can reach 12 meters (40 ft.) high, we lucked out. Solan ended the talk with the epic line that he would recite every night: “Onward to Antarctica”. The passengers and crew responded with a resounding cheer. This was really happening!
After the presentation, we checked into our cabin. It was small, but more spacious than I was expecting for a small cruise ship (the technical term is expedition cruise ship). The cabin has two single beds, a closet and bathroom with a shower. On my bed was a map of Antarctica and a bright yellow parka.
While we were unpacking, the boat departed the Port of Ushuaia at 6pm. I didn’t even realize it until we were well on our way through the Beagle Channel en route to open ocean.
Dinner was served at 7:30 in the main dining room where we ate all of our meals. Breakfast and lunches are served buffet style, but dinner is a sit down meal. Service was top notch. There was one waiter for every three tables and they aggressively poured us wine. Michael and I sat down with four girls from New York. They are all only children and travel together as the self-described “Only Children’s Club”. Michael is also an only child.
After dinner, I took the Ambien pill in preparation for our tumultuous journey. The sun set at 9:30 while we were still in the protected waters of the Beagle Channel. Sometime around midnight we hit the open ocean, but I was fast asleep at that point.
Day 2: Open Ocean
Have you ever woken up on a roller coaster?
That’s what it felt like at 8am in the Drake Passage. We were amidst 20 foot swells that hit every 8-12 seconds.
I was thankful the Ambien worked because there was no way I would have been able to stay asleep without it in these conditions.
Michael braved the shower and said it was quite difficult. After hearing about his struggles, I decided to hold off the shower until the next day. Sorry Michael.
Walking up to breakfast, I caught my first glimpse of the surroundings. It was perfectly sunny out and there was ocean in all directions as far as the eye could see.
Breakfast was a huge buffet. Despite the rocking, the waiters managed to walk and pour coffee like nothing was happening. Probably half the tables were occupied, which meant that half the boat was seasick. As I got up to leave, I noticed that the chairs were all chained down to the ground. The Ocean Adventurer was definitely built for crazy storms.
I started to feel a little seasick too. Rather than take the Ambien, which could mess up my sleep patterns for the trip, I decided to lie down and watch a movie. The TV system had about 10 movies to choose from. Unfortunately, they were running on a loop so I had no idea at which point in the movie it was at. Rather than risk ruining a movie I wanted to see or being confused for an hour, I watched the one movie I had already seen: Kingman 2: The Golden Circle. The movie was like Austin Powers, but with action scenes and less gross humor. The ridiculousness of the plot and the action scenes helped get me through the long day at sea. As the morning wore on, I dazed in and out of consciousness while watching random scenes from the movie.
In the afternoon, the swell height dropped slightly from 20 feet to about 16 feet. This actually helped me feel a bit better. I still felt better lying in bed while watching another rerun of Kingsman 2.
Around 4 or 5pm, I went upstairs to hear a lecture on the history of early Antarctic expeditions. While I thought I was tough for braving 20 foot swells, the take home message is that these guys are TOUGH and I am weak for getting seasick.
The early explorers sailed south not knowing even knowing if they would hit land. They had no weather detection tools, no seasickness medication and no stabilizers on the boat. They would sail for months living off preserved foods. They also did not know where the sea ice would be.
While all the Antarctic explorers were badass, the baddest of them all was a guy named Ernest Shakelton. He had been to Antarctica twice before, but after Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole, he set his sights on being the first human to cross Antarctica. He posted the following ad in a London paper: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” 5,000 men applied and he chose 56.
Once in the Weddell Sea, the boat struggled to maneuver through the unusually thick sea ice. The boat became trapped in the ice and the crew was forced to stay in Antarctica for the winter. They survived off their stored food and seal meat. In October, after six months stuck in Antarctica, the sea ice squeezed the ship so hard that it cracked open.
Now that his chance of crossing the continent was gone, Shackleton now had to save the crew. They sailed north in the intact lifeboats to the end of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there, he and three men took a lifeboat across the Drake Passage to South Georgia. The journey took 15 days and they hit multiple storms. Miraculously they reached South Georgia, but they landed on the wrong side of the glaciated and mountainous island. In just 36 hours, the four men became the first to ever cross the island on foot. To put this achievement to scale, the best mountaineers in the world today can cross the island in 3 days while well-rested. After crossing the island, Shackleton arrived at the whaling station where he was able to charter a boat to rescue his crew still in Antarctica. Miraculously everyone survived.
So while my trip may appear adventurous, it’s cupcakes compared to this.
The lecture ended with a really insightful point. For most people, Antarctica is essentially an imaginary place. Most people not only have never been, but have never met anyone who has ever been. Antarctica exists in minds only by the stories they read or hear about it. We would be part of the privileged few to get to see and experience Antarctica. Our guides were excited to show us that Antarctica is real and that it is amazing.
By dinnertime, the sun was still high in the sky. The maps showed that we were at least 400 miles from any land. Michael and I sat next to a couple from St. Louis at dinner. Thus far, I have been very impressed by the other passengers on the ship. At least 80% had been to the other six continents, more than half had been to 40 countries, and everyone was exceedingly nice. I do suppose that this type of cruise self-selects. Normal people don’t wake and say “I want to go on a 10 day cruise to Antarctica.” You have to be adventurous, ambitious and a little crazy. Those are the people I like to surround myself with.
Day 3: Land Ho!
The seas calmed overnight and my seasickness dissipated. After breakfast, we were told to expect our first iceberg soon. There was a contest to see who could guess the time we spotted it. I guessed 9:44, but it turned out to be 10:25. Everyone rushed out onto the outer decks to take pictures. Our expedition leader, Solan, said not to get too excited because we will soon be seeing many many more icebergs.
In addition to watching Kingsman 2 again, I attended a lecture on potentially camping on Antarctica. It was full but I figured I would learn a bit about the logistics and maybe I could snag a last minute spot. For $800, Quark will let you camp for one night on Antarctica and would provide all the camping equipment you would need. The catch is that you can’t eat, drink or use the bathroom. The excursion would last for 8 hours. For me, this did not seem like a good use of funds considering I have camped many times on the ice before.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from all the expedition guides and crew. The decision to live and work on a ship to the Antarctic is not a “normal” one. Most of the guides and Quark staff are from cold places such as Canada, Sweden, Russia and Alaska and must love snow. While contracts vary, most of the staff works in Antarctica from November until March. They get April off while the ship sails north. Then they work from March until September in the Arctic (Greenland, Svalbard, Nunavut), etc.
Just after lunch, we spotted land! These were the South Shetland Islands, our first glimpse of the Antarctic. The snow-covered islands were beyond what I was expecting.
We could see towering mountains thousands of feet high covered with glaciers and snow hundreds of feet high. I took out my phone and played the song that I play in my car at the end of every single trip I’ve taken over the past 8 years: “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. I don’t know how it started, but it’s now a quirky tradition that mentally helps me transition from travel mode back into the real world. In this case, I felt that playing the song was appropriate for finally having reached Antarctica after a week of traveling and a lifetime of waiting.
The boat sailed through a narrow channel between two islands. Wow!! Just wow!
In the afternoon we had a mandatory meeting on landing in Antarctica. We reviewed the process to board the zodiac boats. We also were briefed on IAATO, the group that regulates Antarctic tour companies. IAATO regulates the size of ships, number of passengers who can disembark and protocols for keeping Antarctica pristine. One of those protocols is the biosecurity sweep (isn’t biosecurity a cool word?!). In order to ensure that we were not accidentally taking foreign plant or animal matters ashore, the staff vacuumed all our clothing and bags that we intended to bring ashore. It turned out that my backpack had some sunflower seeds in it.
Then I took a nap and decided to watch March of the Penguins plus a few scenes from Kingsman 2.
At dinner I sat down with a bunch of travel agents who actually got paid to be on the cruise. Quark and their employers felt it was advantageous to have them go on the cruise so they could then recommend the cruise to clients. I also met a retired 40-year old man Indian man living in Singapore. Three days before the boat left (aka when I was in Santiago), this guy booked the cruise and found a last-minute flight to Ushuaia. The flight from Singapore took 2 days and he made it just in time. He said it is his goal to visit extreme places on the planet. In January, he visited Oymyakon, Siberia, Russia, the coldest town on earth. It was -60 C (-75 F). Last year he visited the North Pole. He is hoping to visit the South Pole in February/March. He also somehow lived in Bhutan for 3 years. When I asked him what he did for a living, he stopped talking. Mysterious!
After dinner, we all walked outside for a beautiful, but chilly sunset. Most of the young people headed to the lounge to drink at the bar. I headed to bed around 10:45 before everyone else. The sun was still shining but I wanted to be well rested for the day I achieve my dream and finally set foot on Antarctica.