Antarctica, a remote, desolate and silent continent. A place untouched by humans, pure to the core, embellishing an environment clean like no other.
An experience of a lifetime which left me with dreams to date. I will never forget it. It was an ‘Am I still here’ moment over and over again. As I hiked across the thick compacted snow on the Antarctic Peninsula, I continued this surreal conversation with myself, endless rhetorical questions; Am I here? yes, Is this really Antarctica? yes, Am I actually in one of the remote places on the planet? Are those actual whale blows in the horizon amidst the 100 or so icebergs?
An epic adventure; each day greeted by iceberg castles outside the porthole window, each evening dinner accompanied by tail flukes from humpbacks and each beautiful day filled with zodiac cruising and treks amongst Earth’s precious wildlife.
So I guess you are wondering where, when and why? I had arrived at the end of the world, quite literally ‘fin del mundo’, the most southern part of planet Earth; Ushuaia, Argentina. It is a quiet town with a dramatic mountain landscape, snow capped peaks, and a unique little bar culture. Of course yes, there was an Irish bar, its claim to fame was that it was the most southern Irish pub in the world. I really liked this little town and I made an awesome friend, Oscar, who was my couch surfing host.
Oscar welcomed me with open arms and made me feel right at home. I spent about a week at his house before my expedition and we had some great discussions about culture, politics, cats and how I cooked very poor empanadas. He was such an amazing host and after 10 months of travel, it was so nice to have a cosy little apartment, a good friend, (who was also an amazing cook) and a friendly little cat called Colcho. It is such a treat when you travel that you can kind of adopt pets as you go, especially since mine were some 12000kms away. Colcho, to this day is still disappearing on his nightly adventures with his girlfriend. I spent my days studying in the apartment watching the mountain backdrop, taking runs in the wild and windy Patagonia, hiking in the nearby mountain trails and preparing myself for what would be a voyage of a lifetime.
The next step was the purchase of the ticket, this was the probably the most tricky part, as I wanted to be sure I would choose the correct voyage and length of time, after all it is once in a lifetime. And to answer why, why go to this bleak and nothingness of a continent ? Well it is in this very essence I wanted to go. I wanted to get away from all the noisy places, where all humans inhabit and go to a place, untouched, void of human interference with an absolute array of diverse flora and fauna. More than this though, my whole trip (total 14 months) was initially fuelled by my fears of climate change and what was happening to these precious places. In the end, I didn’t care about the money; yes I could have traveled for another 6 months to a year but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to see these pristine places that remain on our planet before any more human destruction.
So, back to the ticket and my choice of voyage, I decided to go for a 17 day voyage, stopping at the Great Wall Chinese Base Station, 3-4 days at the Antarctic Peninsula and a final 3-4 days in South Georgia & the Sandwich Islands, also known as the Galapagos of the Polar Region (you’ll see why later, it truly is). Our expedition ship was the Ocean Atlantic, an ice class rating of 1B, operated by Alabatross Expeditions. An amazing crew, a stylish ship, huge buffets with tasty deserts, sushi, homemade cakes each day, champagne celebration on entering the Antarctic circle; I couldn’t quite get the swing of this luxurious style. You see, I had been staying in hostels for 10 months and then landed on this sort of titanic feel of an atmosphere; lounges, dining rooms, piano bars, beautiful clear windows where one could watch the diversity of wildlife from their dinner table; it was all a bit too surreal to be honest. Also, we had a sauna, gym and a teatime with delicious scones each day at 4pm, oh and not to forget the surprise chocolates on the bed at night. It was so cosy to be wrapped up in blankets or a robe (as you prefer) in the midst of Antarctica eating handmade chocolates. As I think back, I am smiling, its just those moments you know, where you have to pinch yourself.
So, lets get into it, what went on? 17 days of pure adventure, the trip of a lifetime for any nature enthusiast, also as you can see, you have to be pretty apt for the weather systems down south, they are not so comfortable as you may think and can change at any second. The picture to the right was actually our first proper excursion and we landed for about 30mins before being rushed back to the ship due to stormy weather and swells. We were promptly moved off land into zodiacs to return to the mothership. Was a pretty cool outing though, apart from the weather, I was able to observe gentoo penguins, seals and many many icebergs.
The next missions, for the following 2 weeks, went according to plan. We had to attend briefings on rules and regulations before visiting Antarctica and have our gear and boots cleaned and checked each time we entered and exited the ship. It was very strict and rightly so, given the precious ecosystem that it is. We also had special ‘check-in’ cards which were exchanged for our passports that we scanned each time on exiting the ship. Each person was tracked until the end of the voyage, where we received our passports back in hand.
So, given that we had many Chinese on board, our captain decided to make a stop off at the Chinese Base station. This was quite interesting as we had the opportunity to see some scientific bases, gigantic four-wheel jeeps and a unique museum (in the middle of nowhere lol), probably the most remote I’ve ever visited.
One of the most memorable stops we made was at Mikklesen Harbour. We, not only observed huge colonies of penguins, humpback whales and ice shattering from the shelves, it was also the location of our deep dive polar swim. Yes you heard it! We actually dived into the water, a rope on waist and a vodka at the ready, 1,2,3 jump, well in my case, it was smile and then jump. The cold hits you like a piercing paralysing sting throughout your whole body. I mean the last time I had dived was in the Caribbean, what a shock to the system, 1ºc, I will never forget the numbing pain after entering, took me a good 3,4 seconds to wake up from the ‘sting’ and I could just hear the boys saying ‘Grab the rope if you need to’. Of course being stubborn, I’ll swim haha, a few strokes and back on board. Robe, shot of liquor, some snaps with my Antarctica mates and up into the hot shower before heading off to another night of Chinese karaoke entertainment.
So besides jumping into freezing cold iceberg water, we also visited a beautiful Penguin colony at Mikkelsen Harbour, where we observed many whales carcasses. Whale bones are a very typical find in Antarctica as there is a long history of whaling on the continent. Take a look at the graph below, from coolantarctica.com.
Quite scary actually, the statistics show a striking number of whales killed, over 30k in some years, that is frightening! We also visited the whaling stations at Grytviken in South Georgia. It was quite an eerie visit, you get to see all the machinery that has been closed off and rusted over, listen to the whaling stories; the brutal killings, the life of the workers and the adaptations of this precious mammal underwater to try and avoid being harpooned. Below, you see whale bones at Mikkelsen harbour along with the penguin colony that resides there. The following set of pictures are of the whaling station village at Grytviken, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.
When we arrived at the Antarctic Penninsula, it was a splendid day. We observed 8-10 humpbacks in the morning rising and blowing amidst the blue and white icebergs and finished off the day sliding, jumping and even giving a little kiss to the white snow on the Penninsula. I also took an escape for 20 minutes or so on a rock to do a meditation. Sometimes on the ship, there is so many people on board, things can get noisy and to sit back and appreciate your surroundings is a must. I mean you never know if you will ever get back there, I certainly don’t and I stayed on my little rock, legs crossed until they finally went numb. I did actually need to get up and stomp a little before feeling them, hiked a little more, mentally took in the most beautiful view of our ship from the peninsula and headed back for the mothership.
Following the peninsula, we stopped off at Point Wild before making our way to South Georgia. Point Wild is an Antarctic Historic Site (HSM 53) and contains the wreckage of a large wooden sailing vessel. It tells the story of the men who were trapped there for 4.5 months wondering whether Shackleton and his crew would return to save them. When the ship stopped here, we exited onto the deck but honestly, it was indescribable, the winds, greyness and bitter cold coming onto the deck meant staying up there didn’t last long. It was so dark as well, I just can’t think to imagine how these men survived, it honestly is remarkable, their sheer determination and spirit to stay alive for over 4 months in the stark Antarctic Wilderness.
If you would like an idea of how fierce it was, see some of the pictures below (coastmonkey.ie), it was an amazing feat the 22 men survived. I can only say the energy at this island was ferocious, imagine, I could only stay out on the deck a few minutes compared to these sailors who spent months here huddled up in makeshift shacks. Phenomenal !
Next up was South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. This location was unforgettable and I will never forget the sights as we entered the harbour at Grytviken. The sunrises, the whale blows, the huge glaciers hugging the surrounds of the island, the millions of seals that lined the beaches, the king penguins, the macaroni penguins, the chinstrap penguins, admittedly it was a wildlife enthusiast’s dream! I had read as a child; chapters upon chapters of explorers days in South Georgia, the whaling station and of course National Geographic’s articles featuring these precious and wild spots. I will always cherish my time on these islands, also know as, The Galapagos of the Polar Region.
This place was so surreal. I still cannot begin to explain it. It continues to bring an immense amount of emotion to me. It is indescribable. The pureness, sheer serenity, immensity of wildlife; their home and their environment untouched by man is an absolute pleasure to witness.
I believe the photos will have to bring the explanation to you. I feel speechless when I look at these. I look back with gratitude. I can still feel the overwhelming yet silencing nature.
So, to conclude, we sailed back for four days to reach Argentina. I still recall the last nights on board chatting about this memorable experience, eating vanilla ice-cream while watching the 6 metre swells of the southern ocean hit our dining room windows. The hilarious karaoke nights (we actually learned Chinese dance and song, very funny), yoga sessions and star gazing amidst the glistening galaxy during sauna breaks was out of this world. What a trip, will treasure it forever!
To anyone who goes to the Antarctic, there is a tremendous appeal, an unparalleled combination of grandeur, beauty, vastness, loneliness, and malevolence – all of which sound terribly melodramatic – but which truthfully convey the actual feeling of Antarctica. Where else in the world are all of these descriptors really true? – Captain T.L.M. Sunter