Day 4: November 17, 2018: Landfall
This was it. This was the day I would fulfill my 22-year childhood dream and set foot on Antarctica!
It may seem strange, but many Antarctica cruises do not actually visit the continent of Antarctica. Instead, they visit many of the nearby islands just off the coast. While those islands generally have more wildlife, they are not the continent. Many people including myself would not consider a trip to Antarctica complete or “official” without a continental landing.
Luckily, the anticipation wouldn’t have to wait- our very first excursion would be a continental landing. The plan was to visit a place called Portal Point at the end of the Reclus Peninsula.
At 7:30 AM, our expedition leader Solan informed us that Portal Point was iced in but we luckily had found another site nearby. Apparently in 27 years of operations, the cruise company had never landed at this particular site before, so it is possible but unlikely that human has never been here before. We started to load into the zodiacs at 9.
I walked over to the boarding zone, sipped our feet in a chemical solution and boarded the boat with about nine others. The weather was about 38 degrees, perfectly sunny with no wind. In Antarctic terms, this is the perfect day you dream of.
Our excursion started with a 45 minute cruise. We zipped around the icebergs in the bay. I was in awe of the shapes. You hear about it in articles but it is true that 90% of an iceberg is underwater. Below the crystal clear waters I could see that unmistakable blue plummeting deep down. Some of the icebergs were maybe 5,000 square feet.
Then we got the radio signal: it was time to go ashore. The zodiac plowed over the sea ice as we raced towards a large mountain covered in snow and ice.
There at the shore atop a small cornice of snow, we were greeted by Solan. “Welcome to Antarctica” he greeted us as we stepped up steps carved into the snow embankment and ashore.
Then emotions rushed through my mind. I thought of my childhood and the countless hours I spent looking at my globe wondering what the bottom of the world looked like. I thought about my 5 year old proudly proclaiming that I would one day travel to Antarctica. I thought about my 8 year old self obsessing over the 17 different species of penguins and their habitats. I thought about my 15 year old self who tried out for Teen Jeopardy whose fun fact was that he wanted to visit Antarctica. I hoped that those children would be proud of the 27-year old they eventually turned into,
All these memories and the immeasurable beauty of Charlotte Bay swirled in my head to produce an emotion so powerful that my knees buckled. I collapsed to the ground and started to cry. As the tears of joy flowed, I realized how rare and special this moment was because a childhood dream to actually come true. As children, the entire world of possibilities is still open and so we dream big. But as we grow older, those dreams often change or die as we learn more about the world and understand the reality of our limitations. But somehow despite puberty, college, a job, and the complexities of the 21st century, the dream stayed alive and on November 10, 2018 the dream was fulfilled. As crazy as it sounds, my life suddenly felt more complete after this moment.
The expedition staff set up a perimeter on the snow of about 100 by 400 meters where we could wander freely. I spent the next 90 minutes or so walking around and enjoying the stunning view of Charlotte Bay, the surrounding mountains and the oh so many glaciers. At the far end of the snowfield, there was exposed rock with a native grass growing! Yes there are plants that grow in Antarctica. A couple of penguins also swam by slowly searching for fish. Perhaps it’s not all lifeless.
One staff member had an Antarctica flag for people to pose with.
As the 90 minutes went on, the snow got softer and I started to posthole. At 12:30, it was time to go. We got back in the zodiacs and returned to the ship in time for lunch.
After lunch, we still had not left Charlotte Bay. A PA message from the bridge said we had hit a thick band of sea ice and had to slowly navigate through it. The ice went right up to the boat. At glacial speeds of no more than 2 mph, we broke through the ice while dodging the large icebergs. This must be what sea captains dream for.
The entire boat stood outside on the decks to watch the boat navigate the arduous and incredulous journey through the maze of ice. Around 3:30, the hot tubs in the back of the boat were operational and the kitchen staff held an ice cream social. I took my ice cream and a beer into the hot tub with the oh-so-rugged and snowy Antarctic Peninsula as the backdrop. Paired with Guyanese reggae music, the atmosphere was sublime.
Finally around 4:30, we broke through the last of the ice at which point the entire boat erupted in cheers.
At 6, we had reached our second stop of the day: Enterprise Island. This stop was a zodiac cruise only and would not include any landings. Luckily our zodiac driver Marla was a pro. She took us to a small iceberg where 5 penguins were hanging out. All of a sudden, the iceberg turned on its size and disintegrated into the sea. The penguins then took off and swam away. It was an unbelievable sight.
As we continued around the glacial snow covered island, we passed some beautiful icebergs.
We also reached a shipwreck from a 1915 Norwegian whaler called the Governoren. The crew miraculously survived but the ship is forever partially submerged in the frigid Antarctic waters covered in a coat of snow.
We sped back to the boat just in time for dinner. After dinner, Solan gave his usual speech recapping the events of the day and giving a preview of the next day. Instead of his usual slogan “Onward to Antarctica”, he said “Onward to Tomorrow” because we had indeed made it!